A is for Australian Reefs by Frané Lessac
Inside the CBCA Shortlist
Inside the 2023 CBCA Shortlist
A is for Australian Reefs by Frané Lessac (published Walker Books Australia)
A is for Australian Reefs is the latest in Frané Lessac’s impressive body of picture books. Her books are distinctive for their colour, vibrancy and child-friendly style. Some I particularly enjoyed are A is for Australia and A is for Australian Animals (both also alphabet books, part of the ‘a factastic tour’ series and ideal companions for A is for Australian Reefs), Australia Under the Sea 123, Under the Southern Cross; and Midnight, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash and Simpson and His Donkey, the latter three written by Mark Greenwood and illustrated by Frané Lessac.
Frané’s work is always very well researched, with the information shared at exactly the right level for the reader through her illustrations and words.
Author/Illustrator Interview with Frané Lessac:
Thank you for speaking about A is for Australian Reefs and your other books with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Frané.
Congratulations, not only on being shortlisted for the 2023 CBCA Eve Pownwall award for A is for Australian Reefs, but also for your exceptional body of work over many years.
Where are you based and how does place influence your art?
I live within walking distance of the enchanting port town of Fremantle, one of the best-preserved 19th-century seaports in the world. Travelling is a continuous source of inspiration for my work. My first book, My Little Island, began with a series of paintings I created while living on a small island in the Caribbean. When asked to illustrate a book set in another country, I try and immerse myself in the place. Whether it’s to the battlefields of Gallipoli, visiting a wildlife sanctuary in India, meeting members of the Cherokee Nation, or taking a journey down the Mississippi River. Accurate details in an illustration create an overall sense of cultural authenticity.
To create A is for Australian Reefs I swam on most of the reefs in the book, including some of the more obscure ones. I travelled to the Ningaloo Reef and the Great Barrier Reef and visited AQWA, the aquarium of Western Australia. Besides visiting natural habitats, I watched documentaries and immersed myself in an enormous range of research books and online resources. Most importantly, I was in touch with the world’s experts for the various creatures to verify some of the more bizarre facts.
Do you have a favourite reef? If so, which and why?
Ningaloo Reef is one of the longest fringing coral reefs in the world and is only a short plane ride from where I live. The reef is teeming with hundreds of fish species, sea turtles, rays, and shy reef sharks. It’s a favourite because of the accessibility to snorkel on this undersea wonderland, just a few swim strokes from the shore! Importantly, Ningaloo offers the unique opportunity to swim alongside the world’s biggest fish – the gentle whale shark.
You have produced so many high-quality books over the years. What is your work ethos and process that facilitates this?
Curiosity to learn and discover new ideas and impart that wonderment to children is what drives me to produce books. I choose topics I’m passionate about and hope my enthusiasm will come across in the finished creation. At the same time, there is always a bit of apprehension for every book I commit to. Being published before doesn’t make creating the next book any easier. Good enough is never an option. I’m compelled to try my best to make each book better than the last.
Why do you use picture book form to express and share information?
My aim is to impart visual information through text and art that appeals to children and readers of all ages. Non-fiction picture books can inspire children to discover more and open possibilities of new knowledge that expand their world. Books take them to places they never imagined. It’s exciting that picture books for older readers can deal with complex issues never explored in an illustrated format. If my picture books can capture a child’s attention and engage, enrich and empower their minds, that is truly gratifying.
Please tell us about a book from your backlist that has exceeded expectations through acclamation or sales. What do you think is this book’s x-factor?
Charlesbridge Publishers approached me to work with debut author Traci Sorell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Traci’s manuscript, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, was plucked from their unsolicited submissions pile and has since won numerous awards in the US and has been reprinted 14 times. The book focuses on modern Native American life through the year and being grateful for the blessings and challenges that each season brings. The book helps children reflect on gratitude and being part of something bigger than themselves. Charlesbridge has a long history of publishing books by diverse authors, and they were aware that I’ve been creating books focusing on diversity for over forty years. Traci chose me to illustrate her debut book because she knew of my respect for preserving culture and meticulous research. The x-factor simply was there weren’t enough books presenting this information. It was timely.
You have many collaborations, particularly with Mark Greenwood. What is one pro and one con about collaborating, and what do you like about writing and illustrating your own books?
The art of a picture book is a dance between words and art. The aim is to weave them together to become one.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with many different authors and many have become lifelong friends. Hopefully, the author will have forged the way and gathered visual information they can share. When Mark and I work together, he keeps my art in mind while writing. He knows I will complement his words and paint in detail and instinctively knows what to leave out to give me the space to fill in the details.
(I can’t think of any collaboration cons…)
When creating picture books, the normal process is that words come first. When writing and illustrating, I know what I’d like to paint and have set images in mind. It then influences what I write.
The biggest con when writing is that I need to concentrate, which means I cannot listen to podcasts and audiobooks!
Why do you think A is for Australian Reefs has been a CBCA Notable and Shortlisted book in 2023? What impact has this had on you or the book?
The Eve Pownall Award recognises information books intended for an audience from birth to 18 years old. A is for Australian Reefs covers the entire range and is accessible to readers of different ages and abilities. The colourful gouache paintings are just right to emphasise the colours, patterns, the varieties of coral reefs and sea creatures. It’s engaging for middle-grade readers and perfect as a read-aloud for parents with younger readers.
Receiving a shortlisting means the world to me and I shed happy tears when I heard the news. I create books to inspire children and getting a CBCA accoladeis a bonus! Over my career, I’ve created many Notables. Simpson and His Donkey was a CBCA Honour book in 2008, so it’s been a long time. It’s hard to ignore the countdown, but I was preoccupied with projects and family this year and only remembered the announcement the day before. I know the anxiety of waiting, the euphoria and disappointment after numerous computer refreshes. Luckily, we have a close community of children’s book authors and illustrators in West Australia, and we support one another to be optimistic during the award season.
How has your style of illustrating picture books changed over time?
My art style has remained the same, but my process has changed over time. I started creating picture books before home computers, digital illustration programs and the internet. The onset of this technology has changed how I research, prepare ‘sloppy copies’ (preliminary sketches) and share my progress with publishers. First, I draw a series of thumbnails to see what design works best, select one and then sketch it in Procreate on my iPad. This has been a tremendous tool for moving images around and resizing the composition. Once the sketches are approved, I will print a copy as a guide. I use gouache, an opaque watercolour, and various size brushes to paint the final illustrations. Posting the art, whether it be to America, the UK, or across Australia, is always nerve-racking and I hold my breath until it arrives safely to the destination publisher.
How would you describe your style in A is for Australian Reefs? Please tell us more about your media and process here.
My art has been called naïve, primitive, folk art, a style created by someone who lacks formal training. It’s often characterised by a childlike simplicity that ignores the traditional rules of perspective and dimension.
As in all my books, I used gouache paint on watercolour paper in A is for Australian Reefs. I prefer the denseness of colour and the ability to paint on top of the background. Painting bright characters and settings on solid backgrounds is my signature style. I place opposite colours next to one another in a complementary manner. Although appearing two-dimensional, the compositions are choreographed. Every fish and piece of coral has its place. The combination of colour and form leaps out rhythmically to make the art pop.
Colour is always a recognisable feature of your books and is a vibrant element in A is for Australian Reefs. Your texture here is awe-inspiring. Could you please select a double-page spread that highlights your excellent use of colour and texture?
‘C – Coral Reefs‘ is a spread I’m proud of. Creating details in the picture makes the reader slow down and notice the small things, the pattern on the fish and coral and the ability to spot tiny schools of fish. Allowing viewers to explore and discover in their own time is the gift I wanted to impart.
What is so important about your double-page: ‘B Biodiversity’?
The ‘B – Biodiversity’ spread was a vital inclusion. The challenge was explaining what biodiversity is in simple language. If children are more aware of the fragility and threats to our coral reef systems and the delicate balance of how sea creatures live and depend on each other to survive, they are more likely to help protect them in the future.
Which reef creature did you find particularly fascinating?
‘P – Parrotfish’ contains many weird and wonderful facts about this colourful fish. Did you know some parrotfish like to snuggle into a cocoon made with their own mucus? Parrotfish have about 1000 teeth joined together in a beak-like shape that it uses to crunch up coral and later poop it out as beach sand. Imagine, next time you walk along a beautiful beach, you’re most likely stepping on parrotfish poop.
It’s usually difficult to find an example for the letter ‘x’ in an alphabet book. Please tell us what you’ve chosen.
‘X’ is always the trickiest letter in alphabet books, especially when considering finding creatures endemic to Australia.
In A is for Australian Animals, I used the crusader bug, which has a clear X marked on its back to take the spot! Unlike most other species in A is for Australian Reefs, I used Xanthid crabs found in other parts of the world. However, they are still the most prominent crab family in terms of species richness and the most diverse family of crabs in Australia.
How do you read A is for Australian Reefs to children? Do you read the whole book straight through? Or use other visual aids or techniques, such as your ‘Spot the Fish’ game at the end of the book?
The book is a treasure trove of information. I tend to dip in and out by sharing a few bizarre facts from each spread, saying, “Did you know…?” Each fact on its own seems to spur conversation. Readers become intrigued, and the text and art encourages them to explore further. Children do not even realise they are learning as they absorb these factastic facts about coral reefs and our unique sea creatures.
What is a child’s response to A is for Australian Reefs that have delighted you or made you feel, “Yes, they’ve got it!”?
It’s an exciting time in the non-fiction children’s book world. Teachers and young readers are seeking more of it. Parents have told me how their children flip through the book again and again. I get the biggest buzz when I visit a school and children want to share a fact they’ve discovered in the book.
I love how you have illustrated inside each letter of the alphabet (like the letters in an illuminated mediaeval manuscript) with reef creatures in your own style to introduce each double-page (or occasional one page) about a reef feature. Children will enjoy adapting your format by selecting a letter of the alphabet (and ‘illuminating’ it in their own style), researching, writing, and drawing about a different reef creature or feature beginning with that letter. If you know of a great idea of how a teacher or someone else is using this book with children, could you please share it?
Make a fun and informative class or individual alphabet book of their own. In class, I encourage each student to select a letter and create one spread with a poem, photos, or art. I suggest they include lots of cool facts and show the most exciting features of their sea creature. Put the pages together into a class book. Older students can make alphabet books for younger students or as a gift for a brother, sister, or relative.
How can your readers contact you?
I’m happy for readers to contact me through my website: http://www.franelessac.com
A is for Australian Reefs at Walker Books Australia
Thanks to Frané Lessac for providing images from A is for Australian Reefs (and elsewhere)
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