Pawel Pawlak and Oscar and Wishes and Teeth

I was lucky enough to read Oscar Seeks a Friend a little while ago and I was absolutely blown away. Regular readers/followers will know that I try my best to shout as loudly as I can about books I love and authors I admire but I don’t often find enough time to do it here. When I read Oscar Seeks a Friend – a delightful picture book – I contacted Lantana, who publish it (and many, many other exciting things – honestly, what they’re doing is simply wonderful and exciting and they are, right now, my favourite publishing house), the very same day and I’m thrilled that its author and illustrator, Pawel Pawlak has taken to the time to stop by here, all the way from Poland, to talk about it. For me, it’s the perfect marriage of beautiful art and a beautiful story, and it’s been translated gloriously by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It does what all good books do: it feels like magic. And it’s out on October 10th [edited toad: 17th! It’s the 17th which means there’s even more time to pre-order!), just in time for Halloween…

  1. Pawel, welcome to the blog! It’s a real pleasure to have you here – and it was a real pleasure reading Oscar Seeks A Friend. So, let’s start off nice and simple… who is the book for?

Hello, Nik! Thank you for featuring me on your blog. Your first questions may be simple, but you might find my answer surprising. Just as with my other author-illustrator projects, in the first place I produced “Oscar” for myself, for my own amusement. I think the joy I derive from the creative process is reflected in the book, which then passes it on to its readers. Their enjoyment of the book, and all the positive reactions they feel on reading it, are an extremely important reward for me, but it’s an extra one, a bonus. Oscar has been around for long enough by now for me to know that he’s a success, who speaks to children of about 5 or 6, especially the ones who need stories about friendship, acceptance, and good relationships, children who feel that maybe they’re not terribly good-looking, or are worse than others in some way. Not just because they’ve lost a tooth. 

2. I’m always super-curious to know where we get our ideas from and I was wondering where the idea for Oscar came from. I love the idea of wishing on buried milk teeth – is that something I should have done when I was younger?

It all began with a commission I carried out in 2010 for a French children’s magazine called Toupie. A little skeleton in oversized shorts was one of the scary things that appeared in the illustrations for a children’s poem about a train full of ghosts and phantoms. I fell so much in love with the character that I decided to produce a book about him. It took me months to find an idea for the story and a structure for it, and I was helped by my friend, the French writer Gérard Moncomble, and by my wife, Ewa Kozyra-Pawlak, who is also a children’s author and illustrator. It was Ewa’s idea to have a tooth as the detail that frames the story, the object that brings the skeleton boy and the little girl together. There’s a bit of a reference here to stories about the tooth fairy who gives children coins in exchange for the milk teeth they leave under their pillows, and also an allusion to the one part of our bodies that we come across every day of the week and that’s like a bone, so it’s also like Oscar. The idea of burying the tooth in the ground came up in one of the early versions of the book’s graphic design, in which Oscar’s world was underground, and a small hole dug in it was the point of contact for the two realities, the place where the skeleton’s hand and the little girl’s hand first touched. You haven’t got any of your milk teeth left, have you, Nik? That’s a pity, or you’d be able to bury one now to make a wish come true!

3. What dreams or secrets would you give to someone reading the book?

I’d like them to look at the world and at others without letting themselves be misled by the outer appearance of people, objects and phenomena, I’d like them to look deeper, and to be open to otherness, because we can find love and friendship in the most unexpected places. But I’m also spreading my own personal “propaganda”, which is that the pictures are very important to any book, and can convey content that’s meaningful and different from what’s in the written text; they can harmonise with and supplement it, so it’s worth learning how to read the pictures too.

4. I adore the illustrations and art work – they reminded me of the best bits of Tim Burton’s work and Funny Bones. Where did the inspiration for them come from? And how did you make them?

I hadn’t heard of Funny Bones until now. It’s not familiar in Poland, or at least I’ve never come across it before. Of course I know the images from Tim Burton’s films, and perhaps their popularity provides a sort of confirmation that a skeleton can be the hero of a children’s book. I’ve already talked about the origins of Oscar, and that his prototype first appeared in my illustrations for a French children’s magazine. I think I may also have been inspired by an installation by the Korean artist Lee Hyung-koo, which I saw at the Venice Biennale in 2007. It was called “Animatus”, and it featured the main characters from the Tom and Jerry cartoons – a cat chasing a mouse, except that both of them were in the form of realistically produced skeletons. In fact I think I’ve had a fondness for skeletons since I was very small; one of my favourite books in childhood was an album of naive art, which included a whole chapter about the work of the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, who drew very lively skeleton people and animals.

Once the story was ready, and the book had reached the stage of a detailed paste-up with black-and-white sketches, all that remained was to complete the illustrations. I wanted them to be made in the form of a spatial collage made of paper. My aim was for the pictures to look real and physical, but at the same time fragile and ephemeral. Like paper, like life… The first stage was to prepare the paper (either by painting it or by looking for ready-made paper to suit my purpose), then I used it to paste up the backgrounds for the illustrations, on which I went on to place each of the figures and additional elements, mainly made out of thick cardboard. Once the complete illustrations had been assembled, I scanned them and “embroidered” them a little on the computer. When the final pictures were ready and I’d added them to a mock-up of the book, I could hone the text to make it short and simple, and also to be the perfect supplement to the illustrations. 

5. In terms of process, which comes first: the image and illustration or the story?

I’ve already said something about what happened with Oscar – first the main character appeared, and the world he lives in (the other characters, their activities, and the details of the space they’re in), and only then the actual story. I think of myself as a graphic artist and illustrator, and for me a book is above all an object built out of several creative elements: pictures, rhythms and compositions. I see it like that from the very start of the thinking process that goes into producing each book: my author-illustrator projects have their sources in the scenes and situations described by the pictures. It’s only around them, using them as a frame, that I build my stories. 

6. Other than Oscar, what picture book would you recommend?

I’m going to carry on in the same direction as in my previous answer, and I’m going to be mildly provocative. I hope as a writer you won’t be offended 🙂 but I’d like to recommend silent books, where the idea or the story is told without any text at all, but only pictures, visual metaphors, so the atmosphere is created through graphics alone. I’m extremely impressed by the silent books produced by the Belgian illustrator Anne Brouillard, which I first saw in France some years ago and which have continued to fascinate me. These include two books with no words at all, “Promenade au bord de l’eau” (“A Walk by the Water”) and “L’Orage” (“The Storm”), as well as “Rêve de lune” (“Moon Dream”), which does have some text, but kept to the minimum, by Elisabeth Brami.

7. Is that your favourite?

Yes, they still mean a lot to me. Especially the first one, “Promenade au bord de l’eau”. The way the visual narrative is handled and the metaphors produced by artistic means (which would be hard to convey in words) were and continue to be a source of inspiration for me, and an incentive to try something similar. I have produced one book of this kind, “Czarostatki i parodzieje” (“Magiships and Steamicians”). I didn’t manage to do away with the text entirely, which may be why I still have others ideas of this kind going round in my head. 

8. How does it feel seeing your words in another language? And how did you and Antonia work together in translating the book (you’ve clearly done an amazing job!).

It’s a wonderful feeling! It’s exciting to know that my story, both the words and the illustrations, are reaching children from other cultures. I’m very curious to know how English-language readers will respond to it. The book has appeared in four foreign editions now – before the English one it came out in Czech, Romanian and Korean – but the English-language publication is special for me, partly because of the huge audience it might reach, but mostly because of the talent and involvement of the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who has not only translated my text with sensitivity (by carefully examining the illustrations, which tell their own parallel story, and to which the written text needs to be faithful), but who is also acting as an ambassador for the book in the United Kingdom. 

I had no comments on Antonia’s translation. But it took a few conversations, mainly with the publisher, to find an English equivalent for the main character’s name. Here’s how Antonia tells the story: “In Polish, the skeleton boy is called Ignatek, the diminutive form of the name Ignacy, which corresponds to Ignatius, but is still a not unusual boys’ name in Poland, without sounding particularly old-fashioned. But ‘gnat’ means a bone, so Ignatek includes a pun, as well as being a perfectly reasonable name for a nice little boy. I suggested calling him Scully, or Boniface (which, like Ignacy, is a Catholic name), but the editors at Lantana Publishing didn’t think either of those would work. At first they suggested Iggy, but I wasn’t sure about that – it had no ‘bone’ pun, and it made me (being middle-aged) think of Iggy Pop, who is scary but not sweet. Then the editors had a great idea. In the rough translation the Polish publisher had provided, the character was called ‘Ossie’, picking up on the bone connection, and that made them think of Oscar. I agreed that it’s a very good name for our hero.”

9. Any advice for picture book writers out there?

I don’t think I’m entirely qualified to give general advice to writers (or any kind of “book creator”, as I think illustrators can count as authors too), because I probably haven’t produced enough of them myself yet. I think it’s important to avoid trends and calculation, but instead of that, to base your books on your most personal inspirations, your deepest, almost intimate feelings that you feel you can forge into stories that are universal.  

Speaking as an illustrator, my advice for writers, using words for their creative purposes, would be to leave enough room for the illustrations, to allow the pictures to tell the message for themselves, and to think about the book as a combination of two complementary narratives: verbal and pictorial. My best experiences have involved projects where the writer and I worked on the story or idea for the book together, and jointly established which elements should be presented in words and which in the illustrations. 

10. What’s next for you?

Apart from book and illustration commissions (I am an illustrator “for hire”, and most of my work involves illustrating other people’s texts) I do have plans for more books of my own. The most far-advanced of them is about fear and how to overcome it, and the main visual motif involves shadows and how they stir the imagination. The main characters in the next book I’ve been thinking about as I fall asleep will be children’s toys, and then there’s a third one I’ve had on my mind lately, inspired by my own childhood drawings, which I found this year in my parents’ house. I’d like this last book to be a silent book, without words.

Thanks, so much Pawel, Antonia, all at Lantana and BookMonsters who gave me that first sneak peek. Wishing everyone involved all good things.

Here’s some behind the scenes things…

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