It has been a bit more than one year now, since June Perkins contacted me to illustrate Magic Fish Dreaming, a series of poems describing, with softness, mystery and humour, the beauty and richness of a region of Australia: the Far North Queensland.
This project immediately appealed to me for four reasons.
1. June’s approach suggested a rich and elegant personality which, I felt, I would have a lot of pleasure to work with.
2. I like poetry especially when it targets children. It is a wonderful way to tell things, and a book of poetry is full of stories to be read and listened to. Words play with sounds and images play with words.
3. I love Australia, a country I discovered 5 years ago. This is one of the few countries that still offers completely wild and pristine areas. A country in which we can be easily and daily connected to a splendid and amazing nature. June’s poems were for me a door opened to this world that I wanted to discover. But what a pleasure to enter this world through the eye of a poet such as June! Her poems are generous and full of strange and unique animals, plants, flowers and trees of this region of Australia.
By the way, do you know the Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo, the Herbert River Ringtail Possum, the mysterious Curtain Fig Tree, the Papilio Ulysses?
So many species I did not know. I discovered them all with a child’s eye, a brand new and amazed look.
4. Finally, June touched one of my heartstrings: she particularly insisted on the value of multiculturalism, which remains at the heart of her work.
She wanted this book to be enriched by the presence of children from all over the world. Moreover, it is by one of my illustrations “For our Children” that she had spotted my work.
That especially touched me, because I am convinced that difference and cultural diversity are always an enrichment. And it is our responsibility as parents, authors, illustrators, teachers, booksellers, publishers to educate our children this way. A book is one of the first wonderful contacts that our children have with the world, why not awaken them to these cultural treasures? This will help them to become open-minded adults, and to naturally welcome diversity.
So, I accepted this project and we worked closely together for more than a year.
While June was meticulously building the project, I read and reread and reread again her poems for my ideas to grow up, to become more refined, clearer, and richer.
I scribbled all my ideas in a small notebook and tried to familiarize myself with all these strange creatures described in the poems, rummaging in June’s beautiful photos, but also videos, to see how these creatures were moving and evolving. I would have definitely preferred to see them for real, but for some of them, I would have needed to spend a whole night in the forests of the Far North Queensland (this is one of my next projects).
Then, when I had an idea, I tried to set it in a balanced composition.
Sometimes, I had a few ideas and several compositions for the same poem. I counted nearly a hundred roughs for all the work.
Then with June, we chose those that could match up, always keeping in mind the dynamics, the rhythm, the flow of the entire book by changing the perspective, the choice of close ups, etc.
A long and demanding but so exciting hard work.
And finally, after consultation and agreement with the whole team (Matilda the editor, Heidi the designer and of course June), I worked on the colours.
We wanted the book to be rich in colour, always seeking to create a dynamic visual effect that would awaken not only the ear but also the eye.
June gave me a lot of freedom in the whole process while accompanying me faithfully, and together, we could build our ideas.
Also, it was fantastic to discover all the process of the book from the very beginning till its birth. June involved me in each step and I now know that the illustrative process represents only the visible part of the iceberg. There are so many tricky parts in the process of a book, including the editing (by the wonderful Matilda Elliot), the design (by Heidi Den Ronden who did an absolutely beautiful work), the proof and the printing by Fergies… I now can tell that a picture book is a real treasure.
Explanations of some illustrations
Choice of cover
The cover of a book always needs a lot of work and attention. We had to feel the poetry, the mystery, the dream and the beauty of a wild nature.
I started with the idea of a fish dreaming under the moon and June wisely suggested that I add some children from different backgrounds, once again to highlight the multiculturalism which is so present in Australia and so important in the book.
Hunting For a Poem
In this poem, we hear the melody of the wind and the waves, we feel the movement, so I imagined a child collecting in a net all sorts of sea treasures brought by the wind. This is the same net that we will be able to see a few times in the book. June loved the movement and energy of this young girl for this role.
(c) Helene Magisson, ‘Hunting for A Poem’
Two other options for this poem
June liked the energy of this little boy, but she preferred the little girl who reminded her of many of the little girls living in the Cassowary Coast. June felt she perfectly showcased the diversity theme of the book from the very first page.
This illustration had a sense of poetry, but not enough of movement of the wind and waves.
Beyond Caterpillar Days
We chose the portrait of this young girl with deep black eyes firstly because the close-up here brought a dynamic effect and we wanted to stay away from a blonde and blue eyes stereotype of beauty.
In this poem, June describes the beauty of a huge blue butterfly, delighted by the nectar of a flower. I wanted to avoid making a decorative illustration that would just repeat the words in the poem. I preferred to illustrate the metaphor that June wanted us to understand. Just like the chrysalis becomes a majestic butterfly, the little girl will become a beautiful woman.
Wishing For A Fish
This poem tells the impatience of a little girl fishing, but who cannot catch anything. She desperately waits for a fish to bite.
Rather than showing this little girl with her disappointment (I leave this to June, it is her part), I chose to show what was happening under the water. Why doesn’t this fish bite and will he probably never do so?
A way for me to accompany the text, and tell something else.
This is exactly what I love in the illustration process. It is like a dialogue between the text and the images.
Throughout the book, we meet small groups of children all with different backgrounds. In this poem at the end of the book, they are found all together, all watching a strong storm. But why does a child play guitar?
In one of her previous books After Yasi, June tells with optimism and humility the violence of the Yasi cyclone. All her family lived and survived the ravages of this violent cyclone. She tells the story through beautiful and poignant pictures.
I felt a special connection between the poem and the story of After Yasi. I was looking for a very specific inspiration for this poem and I came across this picture that really touched me: her son playing guitar to soothe his fear while watching the devastated nature. I wanted him to be here, in this poem with his music, his guitar and all the other children next to him.
And don’t miss this funny detail somewhere in the book, as a nod to the town Tully in the Far North Queensland.
The Golden Gumboot is a competition between the Far North Queensland towns of Tully, Innisfail, and Babinda for the wettest town of Australia. These towns are located in the Wet Tropics and on a land that was previously covered by rainforest. These areas experience some of the highest levels of rainfall in Australia through monsoonal rain and cyclones. Despite the fact that Babinda has had more rainfall than Tully in the last 40 years, The Golden Gumboot monument was erected in Tully.
For all the other poems, we’ll let you read, listen, watch, interpret what you feel.
And now, will you find the Green Tree frog hidden in the canes?
And the tail of a crocodile lurking underwater?
Will you tell why the fish will not bite the bait?
What message do you imagine in this bottle lost in the ocean…
Happy reading to those who have the soul of a poet.
This article was first published on Helene Magisson’s blog on the 31st of October, 2016.
For more about Helene Magisson