ABD Vol.27 No.2

First Picture Books for Children
Sybil Wettasinghe


A Creative Writer's Dream
Childhood is a wonder world of magic and fantasy, starting from the cradle itself. By three months, the infant is ready to discern at least some things, certainly his parents and maybe others who are around him. This is the age of discovery, when he finds that everything around him is alive and every sound and movement, every little gesture made directly to him and the bright colours around, deight[sic.] him. Everything entertains him and he smiles most of the time, contentedly and joyously. Watch the changing moods of a baby spending his morning in the garden. There will be expressions of fascination and joy on his face as the flowers and leaves dance in the wind, at the sunlight that dapples the world. He will knit his little brows when he hears the bird calls and the chirping of squirrels. He wonders from where these come, and he becomes, as he gets a little order, a little explorer of nature. These observations are the source of inspiration - the most vital raw material in the creation of children 's picture books. Harking back to our own childhood we remember how we used to think of everything in nature as alive, how we talked to the trees, the sun and the moon, the stars and very often, to ourselves! This animated world is a creative writer's dream. If the writer is an illustrator too, then the magic of this world is truly boundless. Here is a wealth of enchanting material to work on and keep dreaming of, for sources that never seem to dry up. I believe that most successful writers and illustrators of children's first picture books are dreamers who have not left their childhood behind. They lose themselves in the children's fantasy world and writing becomes a pleasurable pastime. Their own enjoyment of their work is the true test of the excellence of the work they produce. For myself, I let the child in me dream and create stories and images, imagining the most unusal[sic.] pictures that will illustrate the story I am about to paint in word. This serves as a form of meditation for me, and has been so for many years. I first plan my books with a series of mental pictures. These pictures keep fitting across m I am about to paint in word. This serves as a form of meditation for me, and has been so for many years. I first plan my books with a series of mental pictures. These pictures keep fitting across m mind for months, at times. Their colour, the characterisation, the correct sequence the story will ultimately take, and how I will lay out the words and the pictures, keep me busy and alive. Often, my family sees me smiling to myself, and then know that my mental "film roll" has really reached perfection. Now it is ready to be transferred on to paper. All the stories that have been born in my mind are not made into picture books at first. I sometimes use them for relating stories, through which I get an excellent feedback, and an opportunity to make subsequent alterations suitable to children's own way of thinking. Using the child as a "consultant" in this way, in the fine art of picture book making, is indeed an important aspect, before a book is finally produced.

What Makes a Child Love a Book?
Young children treasure beautiful books. They are never too young to seek the aesthetic appeal in a book. This usually happens to hem unconsciously. The popularity of a children's book rests on a few noteworthy points. For example, a preface or an introduction, the photograph of the author, a list of books by the same author - these are totally unnecessary in children's first picture books. Children forge friendly bonds and attachments to books that captivate their imagination, as they would with those whom they love. On a visit to the United Kingdom, in 1992, I met my three-year-old granddaughter for the first time. She had been told earlier, by her parents, that I make children's picture books. On the day after my arrival in their home, the little girl brought out a whole series of Beatrix Potter mini-story books, and excitedly shie began telling me all about Peter Rabbit, Mopsy, Flopsy and Cotton Tail and Jemima Puddle-Duck. She presumed that I knew nothing of these characters and stories. Whishing to experience more of her childlike ecstasy, I made no comment to show that I did know about them. One day, when we visited the Beatrix Potter Museum, the little girl ran helter skelter introducing me to Beatrix Potter characters which were life sizes figure. "Look, Grandma, look", she called out. "This is my favourite one. She is Jemima Puddle-Duck. I love her. I love the clothes she is dressed in!" I noted with interest that all this enthusiasm started with children's picture books so delightfully appealing to children. Her immense happiness was contagious and I found myself in a magnificent world of childhood splendour.

Imagination through Black and White Pictures
In our own country, with our economic problems it is difficult to produce such beautiful picture books for children. But within our limited means, children find their own satisfaction in books with simple black and white illustrations. As far back as 1956, I wrote and illustrated a picture book for children with only black and white illustrations. Forty years ago, it was a tremendous success. There had never been such profusely illustrated children's books before that. The story was a miniature detective story, and was based entirely on our own rural background. The expressive illustrations caught the fancy of children to such an extent that, now grown up and with their own children, my young readers of that time, still remember that book! Forty years ago, their enjoyment of that book had been memorable. Some of them tell me that they are touched to see how fond their children are of this book. That story is my perennial children's story, The Umbrella Thief. One rainy day, I was walking down the street in our little bazaar holding an umbrella over my head. A little boy and his father had been standing in front of a shop, down the same street. Suddenly, the boy had shouted, "Father, father, there goes the umbrellas thief" The boy had not known my name, but he knew me as the author of the well-known my name, but he knew me as the author of the well-known my name, but he knew me as the author of the well-known book. The forty year old Umbrella Thief is even today a best seller among my other books. When the full colourd illustrations of my reprinted Umbrella Thief won a prize in 1982 Noma Concours for Picture Book illustrations by ACCU it was published in Japan and won the Special Prize for the Best Foreign Book published in Japan (Ehon Nippon Sho) that year. It also won the Library Association Prize voted by children, as the most popular book for that year, also in Japan, I understand that some Japanese primary schools use this book as a supplementary reader. The Umbrella Thief has travelled still further. It was published in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the United States and China. All this goes to prove that when a book earns the total appeal of children, it certainly can go a long way.

Simple Structure, Attractive Illustrations
These first picture books for children should not be too complicated in their story structure. One central character woven around a very simple idea is the accepted norm. Children love humour and plenty of animation in book illustrations. Their primary concern in books Is the picture. The pictures should tell the story independently . Such books are especially attractive to children who are yet unable to read. Modern children, everywhere, are fond of television. Some are addicted to the screen for all their entertainment. This poses problems for some parents. They say that this diminishes the reading habit. But I wouldn't worry. The two mediums should be handled separately, in a way children will understand. It is natural that children will be attracted to the fast-moving, fun-filled cartoon films. This is a visual experience of high quality which undoubtedly captivates their mental faculties. But a picture book has many other virtues for children. First, if a child is enthralled by a story, she/he will read it over and over again. There is also the individual possession and sharing of books with their little friends, and the joy of making a collection of Books which they love. Reading aloud is an excellent form of speech training. Play acting is another interesting and certainly an instructive feature of reading books. Children love to identify themselves with the characters in the picture books they love. Let me tell you about my own childhood attitudes to the first picture books that I received.

My Joyful Experiences in First Books
I lived in a remote village, in the southernmost part of my country, so rural that it was seldom a motor car passed on the main highway. The general mode of transport, at the time, was usually a cart drawn by a bull. Otherwise, the people walked. My father, who worked in the city, came home only once in a while. On his rare visits home, he brought me picture books from the city. He had a novel way of presenting them to me, bundled up with surprises! He usually arrived late at night, when the family were asleep. In the morning he announced that his good little girl had a surprise under her pillow. From under my pillow I would grab exquisitely colourful picture gooks. My encounter with them was a heartwarming experience! Those books contained pictures of alien places and children building sand castles on the beach, where boats with red sails were at sea. Some books had strange-looking gardens with equally strange-looking flowers. Some had pretty little children with their transparent wings. My father said they were fairies who flew about like butterflies. All this was so new to me, and everything was so beautiful. I loved the newness of those books and went on kissing them over and over again. When I recall this experience, I am confident that the popular theory, that children do not enjoy what they do not know anything about, is a misconception. I used to be intrigued and curious, to see pictures of snow, charmed at the magnificently white snow and thinking how beautiful the snow-covered scenery must be. For years I cherished a dream of , some day, seeing this beautiful sight of white snow on the world. It was about thirty-five years later, to be exact, that I had snow falling down on me, while on a visit to England. Promptly, my mind flashed back to the distant past, to my childhood days, when I first saw snow in my story books. It was dream come true. Santa Claus was yet another extraordinary phenomenon I found in my first picture books, and I longed for the day I would see him face to face. This was an enchanting dream which, sadly, was never realised! I remember drawing pictures of Santa Claus, snow-covered houses, gardens and children dressed in snug warm clothes. I also drew pictures of Christmas trees laden with toys and decorated with stars and balloons. These were all copied from my story books and, these far-off people and places came alive in my little rustic village, where such people, places and things have never been seen. This experience convinces me that early picture books for children can influence their creativity and imagination to a great extent. They nurture a child's whole well-being visually and creatively. Creativity, we know, is as important to the all-round growth of a child, as is nutritious food for his physical growth.

"You Are as Young as I Think"
In keeping with the concept that a very young child's world is fully alive, I created a story called the Runaway Beard, about thirty years ago. The first publisher I presented it to, rejected it out of hand, and said that I should use my talents to write more practical and science-based stories for today's children. "This is absolutely old'-fashioned. We do not want to sponsor fairy stories any more!" he declared. As a young and up-and -coming author, I was almost reduced to tears at this reception. I walked away with the manuscript tucked under my arm, telling myself that the publisher, I am sure, would never have had a childhood. Maybe, he has forgotten that once, he too was a little child and imagined all kinds of unusual things. About five years later, I was lucky, and had the Runaway Beard published. The story is about a grandfather's beard which grew to swallow a whole village and its people and the commotion that followed. Today, I find children and adults both amused by this simple little story which, according to them, is most unusual. Runaway Beard was published in Japanese, in 1988. Recently, I had a story-telling session, to over a thousand little children. After the event, I received a letter from a child who had been there. She wrote, "Dear Aunt Sybil. It was good to have listened to your story and thank you for the lovely opportunity to draw pictures. I expected to find wallow a whole village and its people and the commotion that followed. Today, I find children and adults both amused by this simple little story which, according to them, is most unusual. Runaway Beard was published in Japanese, in 1988. Recently, I had a story-telling session, to over a thousand little children. After the event, I received a letter from a child who had been there. She wrote, "Dear Aunt Sybil. It was good to have listened to your story and thank you for the lovely opportunity to draw pictures. I expected to find you a younger person, but you are not old for me. You are as young as I think." It is the child in me that his little girl saw, it was with that child in me that she forged this lovely bond. Authors and illustrators of children's books should allow the child in them to dream and weave storied, and think up the pictures to illustrate them. The grownup is only the professional creator of these masterpieces that delight children everywhere.

Sybil Wettasinghe (Ms.)
Born in 1928. She joined a newspaper company at the age of 17 as an illustrator and worked for the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. For about 20 years as a journalist and editor. She wrote and illustrated popular columns in a children's paper and in a women's weekly and wrote books for children in both Sinhala and English. Her works are highly appreciated not only in Asian countries but elsewhere as well, and have also been published in Japan, US and Denmark. Sybil Wettasinghe (Ms.) 4 Dias Place, Pepiliyana Road, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka