Maja Dusikova's THE LITTLE BELL

I have a special Christmas story to share with you this year - a real treasure from NorthSouth Books called The Little Bell, written by Heike Conradi and illustrated by Maja Dusikova, who is visiting all the way from Florence, Italy. Her answers are translated by her daughter.
e: Welcome Maja! What was your creative process/medium for The Little Bell, can you walk us through it?
The first thing I usually do with a new book project is to prepare a storyboard. I divide the text into smaller sections depending on the number of illustrations needed for the book and I decide which scene of the story I want to illustrate. Then I prepare pencil sketches for the storyboard drawing the scenes and characters I had envisioned while reading the text for the first time. In The Little Bell, the bells are speaking, so initially I experimented with giving them eyes and mouths, but I soon realized this wasn’t really my style – it was too Disneyesque. My editor at NordSud Verlag, Andrea Naasan, also agreed that it would be best not to give the bells human-like features, but rather leave it to the little readers to use their imagination. Another important decision to be made was about where to place the little bell in relation to the two big bells. I really wanted to give the little one a place of honor on the tower, since it is, after all, the main character of the story, but none of the solutions seemed good enough both technically and aesthetically. Eventually, I involved my daughter Katarina in the decision making process and she found the perfect spot for the little bell, which is the one you can now see in the book.
Once I am satisfied with the storyboard, I send it to my editor and my publisher, Herwig Bitsche, for review and once they approve it I can start working on the actual illustrations. The way I like to create is to do a lot of research both online and offline. Unlike a painter, who can freely choose their subject, an illustrator must stick to the text of the book and be rather accurate! For The Little Bell, I primarily researched pictures and videos of bells, their different shapes, how they work and what a bell tower looks like from the inside. It was quite the technical feat for a Christmas illustration!

Afterwards, once all the reference material is gathered for every illustration, I proceed to draw the subject on watercolor paper using pen and raw Sienna ink. The last step is adding watercolour to my drawings.
      The cover and title page are very important illustrations as they present the book to potential readers, so I made separate sketches for them. There were different options for the cover, but after discussing it with my editor, we eventually decided to go for the one you can see now as it offered the most comprehensive view of the story at first glance.

When all the illustrations were ready, I sent them to my publisher and the excellent editorial, design, and production departments did a wonderful job at turning them into a lovely book.

e: What was your path to publication?
I was born during the 1940s in former Czechoslovakia. I started drawing when I was still a little girl. It all started with my father, really: he was very good at drawing and I still remember how he would sketch little things for me, especially animals, and teach me how to do it myself. A rabbit, a little mouse, a rooster, a piglet… he drew them all, but my favourite among dad’s drawings was always a Christmas tree!
      When I grew older, I went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava, where I specialized in book illustration and etching. This allowed me to start a career in children’s book illustration afterwards. This way, I could keep drawing animals, flowers, children and especially Christmas trees as much as I wished, and to do it professionally!
      Unfortunately, after 1968 the political climate in Czechoslovakia became worse and worse. My husband (an artist himself) and I were under constant police surveillance and I felt a lack of freedom in my creative work, so in the early 80s we decided to flee the country and seek asylum in Italy. We packed a few suitcases and, together with our three children and a caged budgie, we drove our car to Italy. That is about all we could take with us back then, but it didn’t matter: I had my artwork and creative ideas securely stored in my mind anyway.
Santa Claus and the Christmas Surprise was one of the first books I illustrated in Italy for NordSud Verlag. Every year, a Children’s Book Fair takes place in the city of Bologna, Italy. The Fair also includes an illustrators’ exhibition featuring works selected by an international committee. One year, my illustrations for a book of English fairy tales, that was published the previous year by a publisher in Bratislava, were selected. I was very pleased to hear that the international committee had chosen my illustrations for the exhibition, but I was even more excited when Mrs Brigitte Hanhart Sidjanski, chief editor of the Swiss publisher NordSud Verlag, offered me a collaboration for a Christmas book. I had been a long-time admirer of the books published by this publisher and I was always keen on visiting their booth at the Book Fair. I never imagined that one day I would work for such an amazing publisher! The beautiful Christmas story I was offered to illustrate perfectly resonated with me and I could finally pour my love of Christmas into an actual book.
      In addition to that first Christmas story, I illustrated many more Christmas-themed books. With NordSud Verlag alone, I published Silent Night, Holy Night (1999), The Advent Storybook (2004, written by Antonie Schneider), and What the Shepherd Saw (2014, written by Selma Lagerlöf).
e: Wow, that is quite the story! Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of The Little Bell?
Yes, there is! When I was researching pictures and videos of bells and bell towers, I couldn’t find a good enough view of the inside of a real bell tower. So, a friend of mine offered to take me on a special visit up on the bell tower of the Old Palace (Palazzo Vecchio in Italian) here in my city, Florence, which is 92 meters high. In the uppermost section of the tower, in order to get to the very top where the bells are, one has to walk up a very old, steep, spiral staircase, which is positioned in a way that you climb almost on the external side of the building and has a rather low metal railing. You could see all the red roofs and the tiny cars from up there and as much as it was a fascinatingly unique view of Florence, it was also very scary! I was too afraid of falling down to take any pictures, but I did have a very good look at the bells once we got up there and the memory of such an exciting experience will stay with me forever.
e: No wonder you're an illustrator, you are full of good stories! 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?
I believe that art, especially children’s illustration, must first and foremost provide an emotional accompaniment to the words of the text. So, although technique is of course important, being able to really pour emotion onto my work plays a much greater role in doing a good job in illustration, in my opinion. I am most happy when readers write me saying that they were deeply touched by the warm, almost nostalgic atmosphere of my art as they read the stories. That is the best compliment I can ever receive.

e: How do you advertise yourself (or do you)?
I am not very good at promoting myself, to be honest. I do have an Instagram account (@majadusikova) and a Facebook page (Maja Dusikova Artist), though, where I like to share my art and new releases from time to time. Other than that, I am sometimes called to conduct workshops for children where they learn how an illustrated book is made from the artist’s point of view and where they can create their own little book model. For me, this is the best kind of promotion as it addresses directly the little readers. I love their enthusiasm, after I have read the story out loud for them, as they create their own illustrated little books. Last year, I used The Little Bell during one such workshop held at a school in Florence. The children had a great time drawing the bell tower and the bells, while some chose to focus on the bakery featured in the book, depicting all kinds of yummy cakes and pastries!
Sometimes I am also invited to speak at events geared more towards adults, with a book presentation and a Q&A session.

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
For me, the hardest part in the creative process is to achieve a good quality drawing. I need a long time for this first step, before I feel satisfied with my drawing. This is also the time I stress-eat quite a bit, especially chocolate! The best part is when I finally prepare the illustration with ink and then I can fully focus on adding color and and an emotional quality to my work. This is the phase when I feel the highest degree of creative freedom as I strive to give life to my cosy or nostalgia-infused atmospheres.

e: Is there something in particular about The Little Bell you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
I hope that readers will take away and keep in their heart two things especially. The first is the power of friendship, which can truly make miracles happen in terms of helping someone in need. The second is the message of the Peace Light of Bethlehem that scout groups from all over the world carry and hand over to other groups before Christmas every year, spreading a message of peace for all nations and all peoples.

e: That's lovely! What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I am finishing another Christmas story at the moment for Bohem press, a book written by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, “Rock Crystal”. Illustrating this title has been a dream of mine for the longest time, ever since I first read the story and fell in love with it. It is a beautiful story about two neighbouring villages in the Alps, separated by mountains and discord. But when, on the night of Christmas eve, two children living in one of the villages, on their way back from visiting their grandparents who live in the other one, get lost after a snowstorm in the forests and glaciers separating the two villages, both their inhabitants decide to join forces and set to search for them together. It is a wonderful tale of reconciliation and overcoming.
e: I can't wait to see it, Maja! I hope you'll stop by again. Until then, Merry Christmas!

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