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It's the book birthday of Coyote's Soundbite: A Poem for Our Planet, a rip-roaring poem by a master poet inspired by Earth Day. To celebrate, the book's brilliant illustrator, Piet Grobler, writes about how he brought John Agard's story to life. Read on to get a glimpse into what it takes to be an award-winning illustrator! Plus, enjoy a video with an electric reading from John and a wonderful illustration tutorial from Piet!
Picture-book illustrators are often asked in articles for whom they illustrate. Many say they think of themselves as five-year olds and illustrate for that child. Others say they illustrate for themselves as they are now. I am not too convinced by either answer. As adults, we have lost our innocence and considering all our knowledge and experiences, it is not really possible to ‘become’ the little reader any more. If illustrating only for oneself, on the other hand, why not do it in a sketchbook or become a fine artist?
I’d rather answer that I (try to) illustrate for the narrative. No fool-proof answer though, as my understanding of the story at hand may not be similar to that of the next illustrator … or the next. But I’m trying to say illustrations should aim to honour the atmosphere and the spirit of the story.
To simply ask the author what the ‘meaning’ of the story is and how it should be illustrated wouldn’t work either. Few authors claim to ‘own’ the meaning of a text. Even though they certainly have something in mind, they’d rather tell their story and invite readers to interpret it, knowing well that each of us understands pretty much everything ever so slightly (or very!) differently from the other. Some authors are simply not ‘visual’ people and do not necessarily ‘see’ their story clearly beforehand and others may even have poor judgement when it comes to visual matters. The odd ones try to dictate how every picture should be done.
Most publishers, therefore, wisely do the pairing of author and illustrator and liaise with each separately. In some cases, the writer and illustrator know each other well and the picture book may be a joint creation, evolving as each aspect of the book feeds upon the other.
I think it is different with poems. Most poems can stand on their own, not needing illustrations in order for the idea or the narrative to be conveyed. Illustrations would, of course, extend the poem's meaning and could confirm or accentuate some of the ideas.
I do not think that Coyote’s Soundbite needs illustrations to make its point. But I am very thankful and fortunate that John Agard and Alice Curry of Lantana thought it was a good idea to make a picture book of the poem … and that I was on board too.
Illustrating Coyote's Soundbite: A Poem for Our Planet: Meaning & Sustainability
So, what was to be done with this poem, I wondered. What I got from it (having read it about twenty times before I sat down with paper and paint) was:
All these observations did not make it easy to decide on technique and medium. I have illustrated coyote-ish characters (foxes and jackals, to be honest) before. They were all caricatures of a folky nature, suitable to the stories that I often illustrate.
Coyote’s Soundbite is also not asking for realism. Humorous yes, but no mainstream caricature. My first attempts, I executed merrily enough in gouache, then dumped into a drawer to simmer for a few days, then revisited and then abandoned. Too generic and lacking the poem’s quirk.
All along, I hoped that I could also choose materials that could reflect the eco-awareness of the narrative. I remembered my box-full of paper scraps collected when cleaning print-making rollers and brushes and salvaged from my old sketchbooks and dummies. Cost-effective, eco-friendly and beautiful. Using paper ‘soiled’ or ‘spoiled’ with marks and smears often result in more spontaneous and surprising illustrations. The ‘history’ from previous stories suggest that events and narratives are interconnected and I think even confirms the layered and multi-faceted nature of the poem. It started to fall into place: I would create all the animals through direct, unplanned ink drawings to reflect their energy, honesty and abundance. The plants will be collaged from recycled paper. Full circle.
Creating the goddesses was probably the most difficult part. The aim was to portray mythical beings from various ‘indigenous’ cultures (for lack of a better word) with respect, as well as acknowledge the general quirky tone of the poem. These women are all rather serious as their plights are no laughing matter. I consciously had to source well-known visual representations of different cultures, fashions and ethnicities with due recognition of their origins. I could not simply string them together in a generic manner, but had to try and reinterpret them for this specific story. The goddesses had to be confident and each dressed in her own eccentric fashion.
The subject matter being serious and the tone being whimsical, I needed the Coyotes to be funny, but not sleek. They should not remind any young reader of existing coyote caricatures and cartoons that subconsciously linger in the memory. Line drawing can so easily become manicured, clever or stylized, so I decided to cut them rather – not with the control of a small pair of scissors or the precision of a scalpel – but with a paper cutter.
The slight untidiness and crudeness got my Coyote where I wanted him: cheeky and chatty, but even so, awkward and clumsy in the dress and shoes that were clearly a size or so too small. Discomfort. Perhaps that is what I want from the pictures. I want them to please in multi-colour, but also tease with the ridiculous pink and blue for her and for him. I want to entertain with the crisp, rickety flocks and swarms trotting through the forest but also annoy with black printmaking-ink leaving sooty stains on every sunflower, shade and fern. And may the warm, happy squiggles in the merry sunshine uncomfortably remind us of the squiggly billows of smoke from chimneys, boats and forest fires.
Discomfort is about right for Coyote, I think. Because the tone of this tale may be funny, but the subject matter is certainly not.
Now, tune in to the Lantana Book Club with Sherish Osman! Listen as John Agard introduces each of the Earth goddesses. Then, learn how to draw a beautiful forest with Piet.
Excitement spreads like bushfire through the jungle. Earth-goddesses are planning a conference! From Australia to Antarctica, the Amazon to Africa, goddesses will debate the burning environmental issues of our times...and bushy-tailed, smooth-talking Coyote wants in on the action! Can this infamous trickster come up with a plan to infiltrate the conference and leave a lasting legacy for our planet?
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Piet Grobler is a South African illustrator who has published over 85 books. He has won numerous national and international prizes including a Golden Apple at the Biennale for Illustration, Bratislava (Slovakia), the Children's Africana Book award (USA), and two Silver medals (1997 and 2003) in the Noma Concours (Japan). Visit pietgrobler.com to see more of his stunning work or follow him on Instagram.
About the author of Coyote's Soundbite:
John Agard, born in Guyana, is a world-renowned poet and performer. He has won numerous awards including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the Smarties Award, the Paul Hamlyn Award and the Casa de las Americas Poetry Award.