Monday, 29 October 2012

Interview with Kerstin Schoene, author and illustrator of Monsters aren't real

Q: Let us start with the obvious question.  How did you start to illustrate
children's books?

A: I have always had a passion for creativity and drawing, which led me to study Communication Design at university, with an emphasis on Illustration. One of my professors was Wolf Erlbruch, the well-known children`s book illustrator and I owe a lot to him. It was while I was doing my studies that I developed a wish to create a children’s picture book of my own, and so “Monster gibt es nicht…” (Monsters aren’t real) was born. I was lucky to find a publisher almost immediately, and since then, I have decided to dedicate myself to illustrating children’s books.

Q: How is doing this kind of work different from your other illustration
work? Are there things you feel you need to keep in mind when you illustrate children's books?

A: All my drawings are intended to be beautiful but also captivating.
I want the illustrations in my children’s books to ‘live’ and to communicate a happy feeling not only to kids but also to grownups. Humor seemed to be the best way to do so. I also relish incorporating exciting details that are waiting to be discovered.

Q: Monsters aren't real is the first book completely written and illustrated by you and it is clear that you are quite attached to your monster.  How did you create this character? Did it begin with an idea, a visual?

A: When I started to think about creating a children’s picture book, I quickly had the idea of making the main character a monster. You are absolutely free in the creation of a monster- there are no rules you have to follow or any particular anatomy you have to stick to. I could creatively ‘rave’.  I created a number of different characters: tall, small, fat, thin, with horn, without a nose, with teeth or dotted… the choice was almost endless. But it was only the character you see in the final version that I felt fit in with the story which I was developing simultaneously at the time.  While I was working on the book, my monster was constantly in my mind, and I took him everywhere.  Together, we went to bed, and together we woke up in the morning.  At my graduation, I was "the one with the monster".

Q: Why did you decide to make your monster face the dilemma that he does, which has been described by one reviewer as 'an existential crisis'?

A: Oh yes the “existential crisis” – Once I decided that a monster would be the main character, I started to think about the plot of the story. Many stories start with a problem that needs to be solved. We all have problems, why shouldn’t a monster also have a problem, but what problem could it be? For sure, a monster wouldn’t be too concerned about how much it weighs, whether it stinks or not, its hairstyle, or the price of gasoline… Ultimately, a monster does not exist and that exactly must be its problem.

Q: How do you feel about the existence of an Arabic monster?

A: I am very happy. Of course I love my monster, and I am happy every time it learns a new language. At the moment, he speaks German, Danish, English and French.  When I tell people about the Arabic monster, they raise their eyebrows in disbelief. I am really looking forward to seeing the Arabic copy. Not being able to read or understand the language, I like the beautifully curved characters.

Q: Are you working on anything new?

A: Currently, a new book-project is in its final stages.  It is the second book fully created (written and illustrated) by me. This time, the main character is a small penguin, so now it is the penguin who is going
to bed with me in the evening and getting up with me in the morning.

Q: Do you conduct activities with children around this book? What are their reactions to the book and the monster?

A: After the book was published, I did some activities with children and we had a kind of “picture book cinema” in which the kids could take part actively.  During the activity, I would let a small monster sign appear at appropriate scenes. For the kids, this was their cue to shout at the top of their voices: “There are monsters!” In this way, they were supporting the poor monster. They really were enjoying themselves, and most importantly, they were not afraid of the monster but loved it immediately.

Q: As you were preparing this book, how did you make the choice about the role of the text and illustrations in the construction of this story?
Would you have been prepared to dispense with the text entirely if you
could have done so?

This book was created in the framework of an illustration course I was taking, so the drawings were the main part. The story line was carried mainly by the images and especially by the emotional and facial expressions of the monster. The text was an accompanying support, but one I would not want to have left out entirely.

Kerstin Schoene studied communication design at the University of Wuppertal - with an emphasis on Illustration. She likes to draw using pencil, chalk, and watercolor, but currently, her best friend is the graphics tablet. The monster in Monsters aren’t real was completely digitally created. Since her graduation, she has been working as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. She has collaborated with several publishers, and she writes and illustrates her own children's books. She lives in Haan, Germany, under the observation of a little ball of fur.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Monsters aren't real by Kerstin Schoene

While this blog will mainly be about Arabic non-translated children’s book, I will be making an exception this time (and maybe at other times in the future, who knows?).

This month, I will review Monsters aren’t real, written and illustrated by Kerstin Schoene  from Germany.  The original German version was published by BajazzoVerlag in Zurich, Switzerland, and the story was later translated into Arabic and published by Asala Publishers in Beirut, Lebanon with support from the Spotlight on Rights programme.  There is also an English version available from Kane/Miller publishers.

The story begins like this:

This causes our monster to start to doubt his own existence, so he sets out to convince the world that monsters are actually real, contrary to what everyone else seems to think. 

He starts a bit of a visibility campaign:

and performs many feats of strength such as this one:

All this to no avail: nobody pays him any mind, and he fails to scare anybody, even the youngest children. 

Toward the end of the story, our monster gets discouraged, so he decides to give up and acknowledge that everyone else was right. He starts to repeat to himself, "Monsters aren’t real". While he is doing so, another monster appears out of nowhere to object to this statement. The monsters, happy to find each other, set out together to convince the world that monsters do actually exist:

I have a reason for using so many illustrations* in this summary.  Monsters aren’t real is a story told primarily through its illustrations with a scant but judicious use of the written text.  As a result, I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the book - it wouldn’t have felt right otherwise.

The illustrations play a leading role in narrating the events of the story; in fact, it is only through the illustrations that we find out what originally triggers the monster to set out on his quest (a graffiti on the wall denying the existence of monsters) and the different things he does to try to convince people that monsters do exist.

Schoene uses text sparsely, mostly for conveying dialogue, both the internal dialogue of the monster and his conversation with the monster that appears at the end of the story. Out of forty pages, the book contains ten spreads or twenty pages that contain no text but only images- I have used a few of these images above.  Schoene does not go as far as making this a wordless book- a wise decision as I don’t think that this book would have worked quite as well without Schoene’s carefully used text which carries conveys a lot of humour and serves to drive the story forward.

It is for this reason that this book is very interesting to me, as it highlights the role of the illustrator as co-writer and the importance of involving illustrators in the construction of a picture book story. When we read picture books, we often count on the illustrations as our primary source for a lot of information, such as the physical appearance of the characters, their social milieu and their physical environment. 

The larger-than-usual role played by the illustrations in this story is very easily explained by the fact that the author is herself the illustrator. Usually, illustrators enter the process of producing a picture book at a second stage after the text has been written and edited.  Any illustrator wishing to be creative or leave his/her distinctive mark has to be so in the empty spaces left for them (whether deliberately or not) by the author.

However, I would like to think that a book like this would not otherwise have been impossible (i.e. in cases where the author and the illustrator are different people) if the author and the illustrator work collaboratively instead of separately, or if the illustrator ‘gets’ the text and is allowed the space to roam free to express himself/herself and his/her style and philosophy.

I have another reason to show so many illustrations, and that is to give you a taster of the skillful illustrations in this very funny book. Once we see the illustrations, it comes as no surprise to us that the monster is not really able to scare anyone, and Schoene portrays people’s indifference to the monster to great comic effect. On the more technical level, the illustrator uses soft and broken colours in her images with a predominance of soft browns, beige and green, and her backgrounds are clear and uncluttered. To the credit of the publisher of the Arabic version of the book, the book has that nice smell of good quality and thick paper, and the end result is an attractive book.

You might ask yourself about the message of a story, which basically says that, contrary to what your parents tell you, monsters do exist.  Well, where else would fantastic creatures live and unexpected things happen apart from a book such as this? God knows, these things don’t happen enough in real life.

When I recall the stories that I, and many other children, used to love as a child, they were stories full of pixies, fairies, giants, witches, flying objects and portals to another world that existed where we least expected them.  I think the reason that I loved these stories was the boredom I felt as a child in my daily life.  These books were a comfort and held out hope that somewhere there was a world more beautiful and exciting.

In addition, believe it or not, Monsters aren’t real is full of some very astute social observations, such as, that sometimes the majority can believe something very strongly (such as monsters not being real) but it can be wrong and still somehow have the power to make you believe that you are the one who is wrong. The book also contains positive messages about not giving up when you are fighting for what you know is true and the relief one feels to finally find like-minded friends and accomplices.

Maybe, you didn’t get any of that.  At least Monsters aren’t real is a very enjoyable story and a skillfully executed book, and that alone makes it worth reading.

*The illustrations used are taken from the Arabic version of the book; they are reproduced with the kind permission of Asala Publishers.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

الوحوش ليس لها وجود لكرستن شون

بالرغم من أن هذه المدونة تتناول بشكل أساسي كتب الأطفال العربية وغير المترجمة، فأنني أخرج عن القاعدة هذه المرة (وربما مرات أخرى في المستقبل-من يعلم؟).

فهذه المقالة تتناول قصة مترجمة بعنوان الوحوش ليس لها لا وجود، من تأليف ورسم كرستن شون* وهي صادرة في نسختها الأصلية عن دار باجازو في زوريخ، سويسرا. القصة المترجمة عن اللغة الألمانية الى العربية، نشرتها دار أصالة في بيروت بدعم من برنامج "أضواء على حقوق النشر" كما أنه يوجد نسخة إنجليزية مترجمة من دار كاين ملر.

القصة تبدأ بهذا الشكل:

عندها، يبدأ الوحش بالشك في وجوده لذا يقرر أن يقنع العالم أن الوحوش فعلاً موجوده، عكس ما يظنه الجميع.
فيقوم بإطلاق ما يمكن إعتباره حملة أعلانية للترويج لفكرة وجود الوحوش:

كما يقوم بإستعراض قوته:

كل ذلك دون فائدة حيث يتجاهله الجميع ولا ينجح في إخافة أحد، حتى الأطفال الصغار.
في النهاية، يشعر وحشنا بالإحباط فيقرر الاستسلام والاعتراف بأن الجميع  كان على حق. فيبدأ باقناع نفسه أن الوحوش غير موجودة. وبينما يكرر مع نفسه الفكرة، يظهر وحشاً أخراً فجأة ليعترض هو الأخر بشده على جملة "الوحوش ليس لها وجود"
وينطلق الوحشان، كل منهما سعيداً بالعثور على الأخر، في محاولة جديدة منهما لإقناع العالم أن الوحوش حقاً موجودة:

هنالك سبب وجيه لإستخدامي هذا العدد الكبير من الرسومات** في تقديم وتلخيص القصة وهو أن الوحوش ليس لها وجود قصة تعتمد في قوامها على النص المرسوم، مع حضور بسيط وموظف بشكل عميق للنص المكتوب. لذا فقد كان من الضروري الالتزام  بروح القصة حتى في حالة نقلها أو تلخيصها، وإلا سيبدو الملخص منقوصاً نوعاً ما.  إذ تلعب الرسومات دوراً أساسياً في سرد أحداث القصة. فعن طريق الرسومات فقط نتعرف على دافع الوحش للشروع في مهتمه وهو رسم يرمز إلى عدم وجود الوحوش على أحد الجدران، كما ويقودنا الرسم أيضا في رحلة الاقناع هذه عبر محاولات الوحش العديدة، ليثبت للعالم حقيقة وجود الوحوش. تقتصد شون بإستخدام النص، الذي يقتصر بشكل أساسي على الحوار الداخلي للوحش وحواره مع الوحش الثاني الذي في نهاية القصة. من أصل 40 صفحة، نجد 20 صفحة خالية من النص تماماً لكنها غنية بالرسوم المعبرة - لقد قمت بعرض البعض منها أعلاه- قد لا تصل شون الى درجة جعل الكتاب خالياً كلياً من النص وأظن أنها أصابت في إختيارها إذ أنني مقتنعة أن الكتاب لم يكن لينجح لو كان خالياً من ذلك النص الرشيق والذي لا يخلو من حس الفكاهة خادماً فكرة القصة ومبتغاها.

لهذا سبب، أجد هذا الكتاب جدير بالإهتمام والمناقشة، كونه نموذجاً واضحاً لأهمية دور الرسام في تأليف قصص الأطفال، وأهمية مشاركتهم في عملية التأليف، فالصورة في هذه القصة جاءت كعماد أساسي بنيت عليه رواية الأحداث. فعندما نقرأ أي قصة مصورة للأطفال، نعتمد بشكل كبير على الرسومات كمصدر مهم للكثير من المعلومات، خاصةً تلك المعلومات المتعلقة بالمظهر الخارجي للشخصيات، وخلفيتها الاجتماعية والبيئة المحيطة بها. وقد تكون المسألة مغايرة في عملية تأليف هذا الكتاب، ف" شون" هي مؤلفة هذه القصة ومن رسمها أيضاً مما جعل الصورة تؤدي وظيفتها بشكل أكبر، وقام بتحرير النص المكتوب توماس منسن.

وعادة ما يدخل الرسامون في المرحلة الثانية من عملية صناعة القصة المصورة، أي المرحلة التي تلي كتابة وتحرير النص، مستفيدين من الفراغات الموجودة في القصة (لا يهم إن تركها الكاتب في النص عن عمد أو لا) كمساحة خلاقة لهم أو مساحة مثلى لترك بصمتهم.  

بالطبع يمكننا تفسير الحيز الكبير للرسومات في هذه القصة بأن المؤلفة هي نفسها الرسامة. لكنني أحب أن أصدق أن إنتاج مثل هذه قصة مثل غير مستحيل حتى عندما يكون المؤلف مختلفاً عن الرسام في حالة تمكن المؤلف والرسام من العمل كفريق واحد، وليس بشكل منفصل كما جرت العادة، وعندما يتبنى الرسام فكرة النص ويحملها وتتاح له الفرصة ليعبر عن ذاته وفلفسته وأسلوبه.

وهناك سبب آخر لعرض هذا العدد من الرسومات وذلك لإطلاعكم على عينة من الرسومات المتقنة لهذه القصة المضحكة. فعندما نرى الرسومات، لا نفاجىء عندما يفشل بطل قصتها في إخافة أحد كما أن الرسامة تمثل بهزلية كبيرة عدم إكتراث الناس بالوحش ومحاولاته للتأثير بهم.  من الناحية التقنية للرسوم، تستخدم الرسامة ألوان ناعمة مخلوطة يغلب عليها البني والأخضر والبيج كما أنها تستخدم خلفيات "نظيفة" خالية من التفاصيل والضجيج البصري. كما نثني على الناشر العربي، أصالة حسن إختياره نوعية الورق (ورق سميك ذو نوعية فاخرة) فكانت النتيجة كتاب جذاب.

ربما تتساءلون عن رسالة هذه القصة التي تؤكد أن الوحوش فعلاً موجودة، عكس ما يقوله الكثير من الأهل لأطفالهم.  سأجبيكم بسؤال: إن لم نجد المخلوقات الخيالية والأحداث غير المتوقعة أو المستحيلة في الأدب، فأين سنجدها إذا؟  بالرغم من بعض الإستثناءات القليلة،  فإننا لا نصادف الأحداث غير المتوقعة بشكل كاف في حياتنا اليومية.

عندما أتذكر القصص التي كنت كنت أعشقها كطفلة (كما أحبها الكثير من الأطفال غيري) والتي كانت مليئة بكائنات غير واقعية وليس لا وجود مثل العمالقة والجنيات والساحرات وأشياء تطير وأبواب لعوالم أخرى نجدها حيث لا نتوقع، أظن أن سبب إنجذابي لهذا النوع من القصص  كان الملل الذي كنت أشعر به في الحياة اليومية . فكانت هذه القصص تطمئنني وتعطيني أملا بوجود مكان ما أكثر إثارة وأجمل.  

كما أنه، صدقوا أو لا تصدقوا، تحتوي القصة على الكثير من الملاحظات الإجتماعية الذكية: مثال أن في بعض الأوقات قد تؤمن الأغلبية بشيء ما ولكنها تكون مخطئة وبالرغم من كونها على خطأ تنجح بإقناعك بعكس ما تعرفه. كما يتضمن الكتاب رسالة إيجابية عن أهمية عدم الإستسلام عندما تحارب لإثبات ما تعرفه أنه حقيقي كما تعبر عن الراحة التي نشعر بها عندما نجد، أخيراً، صديق ورفيق يشبهنا ويفهمنا.

ربما لم تستنتجوا كل هذا. على الأقل، فإن الوحوش ليس لها وجود قصة مسلية ومبنية بشكل جيد فهي لهذا السبب على الأقل تستحق عناء القراءة.  

* توماس منسن هو محرر النص الأصلي المكتوب باللغة الألمانية وليس المؤلف كما هو مذكور على غلاف النسخة العربية من القصة.
** الرسوم المعروضة في المقالة مأخودة من النسخة العربية وبإذن من دار أصالة.

أحب أن أتوجه بشكر خاص للصديق محمد النابلسي الذي قام بمراجعة وتصحيح النسخة العربية من هذه المقالة.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Interview with Ahlam Bisharat

When I contacted Ahlam Bisharat, the author of My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly, to ask her to answer some questions about her career as a writer and My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly, she referred me to an interview she had given to Tayf magazine, a magazine about Palestinian children’s literature published twice a year by the Resource Centre of Tamer Institute for Community Education in Ramallah, Palestine. 

In the fifteenth edition of Tayf magazine, there was a special dossier dedicated to My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly, which included an interview with Bisharat, press articles about the banning of the novel in Tobas, and opinion pieces about the book.  The rest of the issue included articles about other topics of relevance to children’s books in Palestine.

I have reproduced below a section of this rich interview, with the kind permission of Tamer Institute.  The interview was available originally in Arabic, and I have translated the excerpts below into English.  If you are interested to read the entire interview in Arabic or get a digital copy of this edition of Tayf magazine, please contact me at:  

Q: Ahlam Bisharat, you are a Palestinian writer and storyteller.  How did you start writing for children? What was the beginning?

A: A few days before, I ran into Foufou as she was walking in the street in the morning.  She had her hair tied in pretty little pigtails, and she was carrying a piece of paper in her hand.  In the beginning, I thought that she had written on the paper a question to ask her classmates in kindergarten as her brother Majd does. Every day, Majd would write a question on a piece of paper to ask his classmates as they were lining up to go to class in the morning.  Foufou’s paper, on the other hand, did not contain a question.  She handed me the paper with full confidence, as if the writing on the paper said, “Foufou is the princess of the kindergarten.” Instead, I read there, “There is a little girl who hits Foufou every day, so Foufou cries every morning and says, ‘I don’t want to go to school.’”
Out of curiosity, I asked Foufou, “Who is this girl?”
She answered proudly, “Batoul.”
This is how I got into this very seductive predicament (of writing for children) as I would have conversations of this kind every morning with Foufou.

Q: Writing for young people, with all the challenges involved, is a bit of an adventure, in my opinion, especially in a Palestinian society which has yet to provide this age group with the necessary attention, whether socially or in literature.  Given this reality, how did Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha, your first novel, get to see the light of day?

A: The world of children and adolescents is overwhelming - it is full of questions, movement and adventure.  Due to the way we raise children in Palestinian society and the Arab world, this world has been submerged inside a shell.  It is not easy to penetrate this shell, especially as it has its guardians who use education, socialization, guardianship and the need to hold on to religion, societal values, norms and traditions as pretexts to prevent any hand from reaching out and simply touching this shell.  We need to completely transform our way of dealing with these traditional notions, so that we may get close enough, both socially and when we write for children, to speak directly to the pearl that is concealed within this shell without being accused of trying to distort, harm or maybe steal this pearl for personal reasons.

In such a reality, the birth of my butterfly was far from easy, and I became aware of how difficult it was during the birthing of this butterfly, which was similar to a process of labour and during which the wings of the butterfly would beat against the walls of its cocoon and make a loud noise.  Its wings were weak at the beginning, and then they became more solid.  I observed this transformation, and I made it happen because I fell in love with the creature that was hidden within this cocoon.

Q: Why did your heroine choose to hide her questions in a bag instead of sharing them with others? Does this have anything to do with the lack of confidence that young people have in other people at this stage of their lives? Or is it related to the fact that these are questions posed by an adolescent girl and that either these questions have no real answers or that these questions will not be considered acceptable in a Palestinian society that has girls under siege?

A: The heroine of Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha is an intelligent and adventurous girl, and she hides her questions because she feels that somehow they belong to her special world, especially as she does not find any convincing answers or people available to answer her questions.  The butterfly wanted to take refuge in this process of searching for and discovering questions, especially since the mission of discovering a question is more dangerous and inspiring than the act of finding an answer for it.  Answers create limits, while questions open up horizons of expectations.  At this age in particular, the space of expectation is the only real place because it is a space of dreams and wishes that we as adult wish to regain but fail to do so.  So we go back to search for the children inside of us, so that they may help us in this quest.

Q: In your novel, there is a focus on the heroine’s relationship with her father who works in an Israeli settlement, and this relationship causes the girl to voice certain questions.  This is a situation that raises many questions in our society which rejects these settlements and considers their presence illegal and illegitimate. In your opinion, what is the role of your young adult novel in clarifying or justifying this thorny relationship between people’s rejection of these settlements and their (economic) need to work there? Did you introduce this element on purpose in order to reach a particular conclusion or communicate a particular message?

A: The butterfly and I share a question that might seem a bit naïve: “How can we be liberated from this occupation if we are shackled by the bonds of economic dependency?” Every day, we are deprived by the occupiers of a span of land*and a wish, but what I most afraid will be stolen from us is our wish to be free of this occupation.  And this is what is happening at the moment. The occupation is letting us forget what we really want, and it is transforming us into creatures that live in a new reality that does not provoke any anger.  As a writer, I have the responsibility to expose this great social deception that we are going towards, like lambs going to the slaughter as if they were merely going on an unpleasant trip.  We have chanted many slogans and have raised many calls: No to Israeli products, No to working for the occupier, No to the Judaization of Jerusalem, No, No and No.  We repeat all these no’s, but things go on as before, as if we have memorized these no’s by heart to the point where the heart no longer understands what our tongues are saying.  You might ask, “But what have you done about this?” What I wanted to do is to regain this path that connects the heart to the tongue, or perhaps to liberate this space, the space of the heart.  I want to take back this desire to be free and grant it to the coming generation, upon whom I insist on betting.  

(*shibr in Arabic, a distance measured by a human hand from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger)

Ahlam Bisharat is a Palestinian writer and storyteller born in Tammoon village, Jenin in 1975. She holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Literature from the Faculty of Arts at An-Najah National University in Nablus. She began as a short story writer and won several awards for her work in this field.  She has also published three picture books for children as well as the young adult novel, Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha (My Nom de Guerre is Butterfly). She is the recipient of several awards, including the Al-Awda Award for children’s literature given by the Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refuge for the picture book Shubbak Al-Zinko (The Corrugated Iron Window). Ismi Al-Haraki Farasha was included in the IBBY Honor List for 2012, a biennial selection of outstanding, recently published books from more than seventy countries.