Inside Bright Minds: Meet Illustrator Vinayak Varma

Author-illustrator Vinayak Varma’s wildly imaginative and whimsical illustrations are bound to delight young readers, even if they are not keen readers. His illustrations appear in books such as ‘Up Down’ (Tulika), ‘The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu’ (Puffin) and ‘Phiss Phuss Boom’ (Duckbill). Below is a short interview we conducted with this talented illustrator, in which he talks about thinking in images, his favourite children’s books and also offers great advice to budding illustrators.

1. You have done wonderful illustrations for many children’s books. What inspires you to draw for children?

You’re far too kind! I got to read and own some beautiful and thrilling books as a child, which I’ll always be grateful for. Some part of me probably draws and writes children’s content as a way of passing on that valuable childhood experience. (Another part of me is mildly narcissistic and enjoys seeing my name in print!) Mostly, though, I’m just happy to do my part to get kids to read – a continual and increasingly difficult challenge.

2. Tell us about a book that you loved as a child and that you revisit even today.

All the Tintin books. The first thing I did, when my earnings afforded me a bit more than my basic necessities, was to go buy the entire Tintin collection. There’s lots in there that’s controversial by today’s PC standards, of course, but Herge’s stories remain compellingly plotted, very funny and gorgeously illustrated. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Herge are Uderzo and Goscinny and their wonderful Asterix books. I love them equally, for making history so accessible, and for teaching me that nobody is above being ridiculed – not even the consul of the mighty Roman Empire!

3. Name three contemporary illustrators whose work you admire and feel that children will love and enjoy.

Oh, this is a tough one. Picking three would be tantamount to privileging those three over many others that I admire, and I admire all my favourite illustrators equally. I can’t do it, I’m sorry!

4. Which are five books that every school library must own?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland + Through the Looking Glass, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Psmith Omnibus (if there is one) / the Jeeves Omnibus (there must be one), and the entire Asterix collection. If I could pick two more, I’d also throw in the Harry Potter series and The Adventures of Amir Hamza.

5. While exploring books with children, we often tend to focus more on the text while not tapping fully into the potential of pictures. What are ways in which we can explore the visual narrative with children more effectively?

6. What advice would you give an aspiring illustrator?

I’m going to combine my answers to your fifth and sixth questions, as they’re both connected.

Unfortunately, most adults forget how to think in images after a certain age, largely due to our overly text-reliant system of education. Children naturally think in images, though, and they’re great at it. This is where the dissonance you mention creeps in – you’re both looking at different things that should ideally function as one. At one level, there’s nothing to be done for it but to train yourself to read images as well. Reading more comics, for instance, might help acclimatise you to visual narratives.

However, I am also firmly of the belief that the best picture books are those in which the writer and illustrator carry equal weight as authors, where they are both actively and equally engaged in the storytelling process. For such a harmony to be achieved, the pictures must not only illustrate what the text is saying, but must go beyond it and add an extra dimension to the narrative – enriching it through interesting visual details that the text alone may not have supplied.

Books that have succeeded in doing this are naturally easy to read, both textually and visually. Their art takes you to worlds that their words can only hint at (and vice versa – there must be a constant, natural give and take between the two).

And my advice to an aspiring illustrator simply draws on this – even if your editor doesn’t explicitly ask you to take risks with your artwork, please do so anyway. Go above and beyond what the text alone tells you to do, because you, too, are an author. You’re already a part of the storytelling process, so exercise that privilege. Take pride in it. Experiment at will, layer on some interesting details. This will make the book you’re working on a much better experience for the reader, and in the larger scheme of things the writer and your editor will thank you for the liberties you took.

7. If you could become any book character for a day, who would you choose to be?

Professor Branestawm. Or Willy Wonka. Can I be both?

You can see more of Vinayak Varma’s work at

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