Hans Christian Andersen has long been considered a treasure in the world of children's literature. His stories are classics and the most prestigious award in the world for children's books is named in his honor. So, a biography of the beloved creator seems a wonderful pick-me-up during these difficult times. Maja Kastelic created a lovely tribute to the storyteller, she dropped by all the way from Slovenia to tell us more about it.
e: I have long been a huge fan of Hans Christian Andersen. How did you feel taking on such an important project?
I love Hans Christian Andersen's work, in fact picture books with his fairy tales have been some of my earliest and also my most loved books when I was a child. My favourite was Thumbelina with beautiful and unusual illustrations by Slovenian artist Marlenka Stupica. Now, as a grown-up and a picture book artist myself I am highly aware of his exceptional merit and of the great literature heritage his works present. I appreciate how alongside being beautiful and poetic he also shows the sorrow and thus enables the reader to reflect on it with compassion and empathy. When offered this project, I immediately felt its importance and felt immensely honored and excited but of course also full of doubt whether I can do it justice with my work. I wished the book to be a tribute to restless, wonderful creative spirit and to the magic of storytelling and the power of imagination.
e: I think you pulled it off! What was your creative process/medium, can you walk us through it?
The work on the book took about a year. I first needed to research a lot; luckily there is a lot of online material and HCA himself wrote much about his life.

I knew some things about his life before, yet only after working on this project I realized how extensive his oeuvre really is and learned much more about how astonishingly brave and enthusiastic he was, already as a little kid.

In spite of all the difficulties he never gave up and kept a heart of a child throughout his life. I really admired his courage to stand out and the ability to sense fantastic worlds behind plain ordinary life and make it accessible for all of us.

Heinz Janisch's story was so sensible and the text so rich and dense, I was eager to put as much of it as possible in illustrations. So I drew out three narration levels from the text – there was a part about his life and the one about his fairy tales linked together with the traveling scene and a child's perspective.

I thought the interlacement of all three would be very special and in order to keep as much contents as possible I envisioned a picture book format with elements of a graphic novel. I first sketched all the scenes, watching out to keep to the reference when that was necessary (Andersen’s home, Odense cathedral, the look of Copenhagen and its opera house etc. or the fairy tales’ motifs). It worked well in sketches but it got really challenging when I began to work on illustrations. I needed to develop proper visual language for the book and, more importantly, find a way to visually separate different levels. It took some experimenting...
but at the end I liked the dreamy sense of watercolors, overflowing and little accidents, although I in fact used acrylics for illustrations.

It was obvious for the part of Andersen’s life to be monochromatic and tales vivid, but I had a problem of how to picture the intermediate, carriage scene. Finally, I decided to go for an old varnished look, a little bit as if we were watching an oil painting, to get the sense of the past but it felt warm at the same time and thus suitable for the affectionate conversation between the writer and the child.

The work on the book was full of trial and error and a journey for me as well, but in spite being a great challenge it has been even more - an enormous school and honor.

e: I can imagine! What was your path to publication?
We arranged a general meeting at Bologna with my soon to be wonderful editor at NordSüd in 2017 and shortly after that I received a mail offer with this great project. It took me some time to dive into it but when I proposed my idea we had another meeting in Zürich and then I began my year of search and work on it. My editors Herwig and Andrea were most supportive and nice; I appreciate that so much. After I finally done the illustrations they took over the production with great care. The publication was planned for spring, perfect timing relating to the Bologna book fair, Andersen’s birthday and the International Children's Book Day but unfortunately all that was canceled due to covid health crisis, so the publication went by quite silently. It is (at least to my knowledge) a first children's book about Andersen and about his fairy tales, and I hope we unveil a bit about how Andersen lived and what he faced and believed.
e: I hope this blog post helps remedy that a little ! Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Well, for the scene of the naked emperor I cut out a 2D model of the ruler and glued a torch on the chair shining toward it, so I was able to photograph it and use it for illustration. Also, while browsing through numerous Danish web pages, I really appreciated the browser ‘translate’ function otherwise I wouldn’t understand a thing.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
When you are passionate, of course you are always making that extra mile, over and over again, so it can be sensed the work is thorough and thought over. But wit and technical perfection alone wouldn’t be enough, and I think magic really happens when you feel such love and sincerity for what you do that can be felt through, it vibrates in the work as a special kind of an energy and resonates with readers.
e: How do you advertise yourself (or do you)?
Oh, very poorly but I’ve been lucky enough not to need it that much. I am using Facebook and Instagram and publish a post here and there. I used to have a blog but last years I don’t find time to manage it and I’m paying for an empty web domain for the last five years because I didn’t put up a proper webpage yet:).
      What was most important for me in terms of promoting or getting out there, was being selected for Bologna Children’s Book Fair exhibition and its catalogue, and having a post on Picturebookmakers blog about my picture book (CLICK HERE to see Maja's feature).

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
I love books, so the best part is working with them and even better, having the fantastic opportunity to create them yourself. I’m always struck by this notion. But most wonderful and special time is when sometimes (unfortunately not very often) you reach a point of relaxed concentration while working when it seems as if something was working through you and you can’t really explain it later, but what is done is in some sense perfect. Maybe that’s is what is called inspiration.
e: Yes! I call that "the zone." :) Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
I placed hints and parts of Andersen’s fairy tales (peas, swallows, little ducks, paper boats etc.) in illustrations, and also some hommages to other iconic work in children’s litereature and a few details from my own life. Because Andersen is explaining his tales to Elsa I also included them in every fairy-tale scene. Above all, I hope readers will take away wonderful messages he put in his fairy tales but even more the one he placed with his life.
e: I love that! What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Currently I’m working on a silent picturebook about Paris and another one about a circus. I love both of them, and what is waiting then is my own silent picurebook (long postponed A Girl and a Garden) and I’ll be working on wonderful children’s poems next year. I don’t have a particular dream project; I love all I choose to work on. Dream project would be the one that I would finally manage to do as wonderful as I imagined.
e: Wow - I can't wait to see them, and I hope to have you back on to share. Meanwhile, I love this promo video NorthSouth put together for Hans Christian Andersen. Click the image to watch on Youtube:

No comments: