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Atanu Roy

Atanu Roy – Adding Colour to Children’s Books

Illustrator Atanu Roy at his work

Adding Colour to Children’s Books 

While still in College of Art, where I was pursuing a graduate course in applied art, I illustrated my first picture book for children. I can still feel the thrill and excitement I experienced when I was doing it. It was a black and white book about the history of transportation. I was paid a small amount as a sort of acceptance fee for my work. But the book was not published eventually as the production and distribution costs were not found to be economical - even for a single-colour line-illustration book for young readers! That was in the early seventies. 

More than three decades later, I still illustrate picture books. It has been a fairly long innings with over a hundred books on the scoreboard! I am, indeed, very privileged to have worked with a variety of publishers in educational, commercial and social sectors. Over the last few years I have also had the opportunity to work as a resource person for curriculum development programs, beginning with primary classes, in various states of the country. This, coupled with a variety of workshops, seminars, lecture-demonstrations and interactions with children across the country, has been a great learning experience. It has helped me get a unique insight into the world of literature and educational materials for young children.

My first real picture book was a book on ‘Tails’, which I did for the National Book Trust (NBT). The book did well and for the books that followed I opted for royalties as an illustrator. My main motivation in asking for royalty was to give out my best to make the book sell. I also made an attempt to create illustrations according to the story and the target audience. In many cases a child could be reading a picture book for the first time. It meant one style and technique were not going to be the norm for all books I illustrated. Also, my cartooning talent could be used effectively as it was happily accepted by children. Since the books were printed on low grade paper by different printers, and would be translated into several languages, I adopted a bold, black-outline style with strong colors, leaving adequate blank space for the language texts, to avoid overlaps with illustration. I do try and add a lot of allied detail to my illustrations and be as region- specific as possible. Today, with upgraded technology, especially in the pre-press area, there is a lot more freedom allowing me to do a finer rendition and use a lot of background color tints under the text. With improved printing the NBT has started using glossy paper as well.

NBT is a state run organization publishing a variety of literature for readers of all age groups, especially children. Most of the NBT picture books are not more than twenty-four pages and are centre stitched. The paper is not of premium grade but the books are very affordable and are sold all over the country. Usually the better books are translated into almost twenty regional languages, thus increasing their reach.

I have done a large number of books and associated educational aids for pre-school children, including games and puzzles, with various publishers. These include best- selling series of animal stories, ‘Little Friends’ which has titles like Squiggly Goes to School and Lippo Goes to the Park among others, published by Frank Educational Aids. I have also tried to design and illustrate multi-level textbooks in innovative styles, with appropriate humour and colour-visuals, to make them more child-friendly. I did almost all of these on a one-time fee basis.

Last week, I completed my biggest assignment to date. The book is titled Magical Indian Myths. The publisher is Penguin/Puffin. It has fifty stories from our mythology. Retold by a well-known author, it runs into two hundred and odd pages, and has about a hundred and fifty illustrations. It was my first assignment on royalty with a private publisher. Since it is a big book and will be priced accordingly I decided to put in that extra effort in it. When the book was offered to me five years ago I simply jumped at it. I had never done mythology before and the stories were superbly written with loads of visual possibilities. Not being a very religious type, I attempted to do away with stereotypes wherever possible, and multi-layered the illustrations for a range of readers - read-to, young adult and adult. It was also a challenge to create and sustain a style with various levels of abstraction for such a large number of stories. Besides, one had to understand that our myths are differently interpreted across the country.

I chose a sort of realistic drawing and a pointillism style of watercolor. Very slow, very difficult, deliberate and a fairly risk free style. One of the major problems we illustrators experience in our country is that due to constraints, mainly monetary, one has to create all the art in the same size. This means that detailing often becomes a casualty. For this book, reproduction was going to be excellent as it was to be printed with very high production values—at par with the best in the world. Also doing the illustrations was like preparing a portfolio of work for an exhibition. My idea was to make the book essentially Indian so I tried to use mostly earthy colours and occasionally demonstrate the influence of our painting traditions. Wherever possible, I have added the native fauna too. 

My major attempt was to create paintings rather than mere illustrations for this book. I believe that illustration is also an art form and there should be compatibility with the text, both at the craft and intellectual level. The aim should be to create a harmonious blend of the written word and the visuals. 

The fact is, picture book publishing in India is still in its infancy. Most publishers prefer to bring out textbooks. In a vast, developing country like India, textbooks are a priority and often the only literature the child is exposed to. Besides, the school curriculum is normally geared to single level rote learning rather than being discovery oriented. The system has yet to accept the concept of supplementary reading to enhance creative thinking and develop sensitivity, which means there is a limited market for such books. 

Thus publishing picture books is a relatively new and commercially risky area for Indian publishers. For this reason most of them prefer to stick to our popular folk tales and myths. No doubt we possess a rich variety of such tales. However, this practice has not helped to encourage original creative writing for children. Also, since publishing a picture book is very capital intensive, there is never any advertising budget. At best there are trade catalogues. Competition from cheaper remaindered foreign books complicates matters further, denying children access to books closer to them in culture and lifestyle.

It is imperative that children’s literature be taken up far more seriously than it is today. It is also necessary to make certain the text author and the visual author / illustrator, are in sync. It also makes a great difference if the story- teller can think visually too. Both should work together to bring out a single fused product – the book. It is certainly not an easy task to create a book good enough to grab the child’s attention today. The total package must include a good story; visuals, good production, aggressive publicity as well as marketing that can actually sell a book. Any break in this process can virtually kill the book. 

Recently I attended a workshop in Kolkata - maybe the first of its kind - where well-known writers for children and established illustrators worked at par to create a set of books. The idea was to simply visualize the books in a dummy form together. Once the author and illustrator together agreed on the completed dummy with rough sketches and text areas marked out, the illustrator was given a time frame to finish the art. It was a fairly successful attempt and hopefully it will become a regular event with more publishers. 

I strongly believe that one of the great pleasures of illustrating for children is that you can set your ego aside. The child does not respond to your name but to the work. We have no dearth of talent in this country, both in the area of writing as well as illustration. It is important that we work towards making this a more rewarding and organized vocation. At present there are no awards at the state or private level for children’s literature, which adds to the lack of recognition at home.

Also we are not visually literate, especially in the publishing business. Most people here are text-centric. The text is always looked at carefully, proof read several times and is always grammatically correct. But this does not happen when it comes to the visuals. It is rather strange considering that the publisher is actually using most of his budget for printing the visuals rather than the text. He should give far more priority to this area. Visuals have a grammar also. One does not learn by reading alone but by seeing as well. The visuals are mostly the domain of the text editor who may have a very low level of appreciation of art. There is no concept of an art editor therefore many illustrations are not visually accurate or correct. Usually the illustrator is approached when the story text has been accepted and in a lot of cases, ready for printing. The editorial department is rarely able to assess if the story has scope for good illustration at all. Also, they need to understand that illustration is a slow process; therefore the timeframes should be realistic. It is common for the marketing staff to dictate schedules rather than the editors. Where textbooks are concerned, it is double whammy as they are mostly written by academics without any direct class-room interaction. Visuals are just bunged in, only if necessary and if space permits, in the most unimaginative way possible. Established illustrators stay away from textbooks as they do not find any scope for creativity and the artist’s signature in them. 

But there is a perceptible change now, however slow. With the opening up of the economy, bigger and more enlightened publishers are, I hope, bringing out series of picture books as well as single story ones. Innovative programs are offering books directly to children through book clubs and regular campaigns in schools. There are more and more author/illustrator workshops taking place and interaction with children in schools and book fairs. This practice has caught on fairly well in the cities and the bigger towns but the vast majority of children in the rural areas are yet to be reached. It is a beginning nonetheless and must continue to grow. Some publishers are offering royalties for illustrators and the assignment fees are slowly growing. Those of us who have remained in this field have done so because we are passionate about it. There is enough scope for many more to join in.

I get along very well with children and find them my best critics. They are not as corrupted or influenced by art, per se, as I am with all my art education. However, even in the best of times, illustration has not been a financially remunerative occupation for me. To sustain myself, I have had to do a great deal of more paying graphic design on the side for the corporate sector. 

Now, with better deals with royalties, I do fewer books but try and do them as well as I possibly can. This is perhaps the main reason that the first thing that flies out of my studio window is the delivery schedule!


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