Graeme Base is one of Australia and the world’s foremost picture book creators, renowned for Animalia and The Waterhole, amongst other treasures.
His new book, The Tree (Puffin Books) is a fable. It begins timelessly, “This is the story of …” The tale is perfectly formed and elegantly illustrated to show the tree as a symbol of the planet. It is a home that provides shelter, sustenance and safety. The Tree is set in the natural world but it also invites us into a fantastic, fantasy world with a seamless flow between nature and the imagined.
We first see the tree from a distance. We appreciate its life and significance, and then metaphorically join its inhabitants in the tree to experience some of what these creatures feel.
The story is accessible for young children through the antics and idiosyncrasies of the animal protagonists. They mirror human frailties and kindnesses: acting in ignorance and fear but learning from their mistakes. Humour permeates the story.
Cow looks up into the tree to see delicious mooberries while Duck spies mushquacks in the roots. “Cow built herself a castle in the sky. She climbed in and hauled up the drawbridge. Duck dug himself a secret hideout with a secret entrance. He locked it with a secret key.” Cow and Duck fortify their spaces and their food. They then forget about each other because they can’t see each other from their bunkers. This reflects a common trait of humanity: ‘Out of sight, out of mind’.
After the tree bends in the storm, “Cow looked out and saw a stranger. ‘What are you doing in my tree?’” Duck is combative in return. Their xenophobic blindness and intolerance lead them to assume that the other will steal their food. Like a military crusade, they defend their territory from attack.
This book will help children recognise the consequences of unwarranted mistrustful responses and the effect of jumping to conclusions. They will see how some destroy what is good to prevent others from having it. They will vicariously experience the pathos and displacement of loss of a home. However, they will also know the joy of sharing, working together and inclusiveness.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords about your wonderful picture book The Tree, Graeme.
Why have you chosen a Cow and Duck as your characters?
I chose these two characters because they were the most unlikely animals you would find up a tree or digging amongst the roots – importantly, it served to add instant humour, which I’ve always found a good way to hook young readers from page 1!
The mooberries and mushquacks are a great idea, they are not just food staples, but depicted as being so, so tempting. Could you tell us more about how you developed their names and concept?
The names of the two delicacies flowed immediately and naturally from the choice of characters – after all, what else do cows dream of than baskets full of mooberries? – and of course everyone knows a duck can’t resist a nice crisp mushquack.
How have you used humour in the book?
Humour is very important, both in pictures and words, especially when the underlying message of the book is as serious as it is in The Tree. I think there would be a real danger of coming across as worthy or preachy – a deadly sin when talking to kids – if it were not for the whimsy with which the message is leavened.
How have you shown the grandeur and provision of the tree and how do you bring us intimately into the tree?
My favourite image in The Tree is the dark night scene with the tree being buffeted by the first storm – it feels like a galleon at sea – built to withstand the fierce battering of the elements but still capable of foundering if pushed beyond its limits. The tree is simultaneously impressive and vulnerable. The way the branches morph into the stonework of Cow’s castle and the roots flow just so, creating Duck’s cavern feels magical, as if the tree were welcoming its two inhabitants – rather like the way our Earth feels like a perfect fit for us humans. It is only when you look a little closer that the other creatures who share the tree begin to appear. I very much enjoy this ‘slow burn’ approach to page design – letting the reader discover details and in so doing realise the fuller meaning of the text.
How would you describe your art style in this book?
I have always been a bit overly concerned with detail in my work – it is only in more recent years that I have learnt to allow more open space to exist, realising this often serves to deepen the emotional scope of the image – again, the dark night picture is a good example – very little in the way of detail but full of emotion.
How have you balanced realism and fantasy in the artwork?
I have always worked in the realm of fantasy – it is only the detail in things like fur or foliage that make things look ‘real’. When I was young I adored the surrealists, but also the stories of Rudyard Kipling (esp the Just So stories) – I am sure this is what led me to my particular type of imagery and storytelling.
How have you used borders and frame breaking?
Breaking out of the borders is something I simply cannot help doing. I went to design school when I was young and learnt a bit about spatial dynamics and how to make something leap out of the page. I reckon there would be less than 10% of my pictures that don’t break out of the border at some point – it just makes them ‘pop’!
To what effect and purpose have you used light sources?
I’m pretty bad at lighting – I take huge liberties with light sources and where shadows fall – and I am very predictable: my shadows almost always fall to the bottom right. I used to feel a bit lacking in this until someone pointed out that Caravaggio did the same thing! haha.
What media, tools and process have you used in The Tree? How has this evolved from your prior books?
About 10 years ago I was having terrible trouble with RSI in my wrist. At the same time my eyes were beginning to go (in the way they often do as you get older). For a while I thought I might have to retire early but a friend who works in digital animation put me onto the latest screen-based technology – I found to my delight that the brain-to-hand coordination that had served me well in my ‘analogue’ art was immediately transferable to the digital domain. I still sketch and design by hand but then bring it into the computer to realise the full colour art.
What scale are your initial works before being condensed into book illustrations?
Traditionally my artworks have been created about 50% up from what you see on the page. Now that I work on screen the scale is not really relevant – it’s just a case of working in high enough res to make sure it works in the printed book.
How do you maintain the breadth as well as the detail in your illustrations?
It all comes down to design. I never begin a piece of final art until I am satisfied the overall design works, providing an immediate impression before guiding the eye to the relevant key elements and then on to the less important details.
What happens to your original art works?
For a long time I hoarded my artworks. When I found myself opening cupboards and having paintings fall out on me I realised I needed to let go of my ‘babies’. The resultant exhibition was cathartic and, in the end, very enjoyable. I still have many originals which I just could not bear to part with but at least now we can get other stuff into the cupboards.
Where have you been most surprised to come across one of your books?
China. For almost all my career my focus has been Australia and USA, but about five years ago a publisher in Wuhan (of all places!) took The Waterhole and translated it into Mandarin – it was so successful they are in the process of publishing everything I’ve ever done. It never occurred to me that this vast country might end up being my major market!
What are you working on now or next?
At the moment I am playing at being retired. I don’t think I have quite convinced myself of this yet, but the new veggie garden is looking good and I’ve had fun recently building a couple of decks on the hilly property we have north of Melbourne. I may yet find myself compelled to do another book but right now I am content.
You have reached the pinnacle in your field of book illustration. Looking back, how different are your achievements from what you expected to do with your life in your youth?
When I was very young I was sure I would be an artist when I grew up. I got sidetracked by music for a number of years, playing the Melbourne pub/club circuit through the 1980s, but when Animalia took off in 1986/87 it was nothing but colouring-in for the next 35 years. I count myself incredibly lucky that what I love doing became my career – pretty close to the Secret of Happiness I suspect.
Thank you for your legacy of quality picture books, Graeme, as well as for your insightful responses here.
The Tree is another classic from you and will be universally acclaimed and treasured by children and older readers.