Picture this: An interview with illustrator Giuseppe Poli

Giuseppe Poli is a leading illustrator in his field. His latest children’s book Baby Band (words by Diane Jackson Hill) was released this year. Giuseppe lives in Queensland and we had a chat with him about his insights into the world of illustrating…

Hi Giuseppe. Hey, before we start – do we pronounce it Giuseppe or Giuseppe?

Ok great. Oh wait, this is a written interview. Never mind. So Giuseppe – tell us about your new book!
“Baby Band is a fun, loud book that kids will love singing out the words and actions as the baby brings mayhem and unexpected joy to an apartment block. At its heart is a story about music bringing us together. Baby Band is written by the Children's Book Council of Australia 2017 notable and wonderful author, Diane Jackson Hill, published by New Frontier Publishing. It's my fifth book and my third book with New Frontier.”

So, from an illustrator’s point of view, tell us how you approached the book.
“I poured a whole lot of love into the art for this book and really stretched myself as an artist. I wanted to create a visually beautiful book that did two things; firstly capture the life and energy of Diane’s great text and secondly create a deep visual narrative that extended the world of the characters and the heart of the story. Looking at the final finished product, I believe I’ve done that. I’m so proud of this book.

“Kids will love finding new things in the pictures and I’ve packed in heaps of goodies for them. I’ve also extended the story in the hardback version. Starting from the moment you open the book, the story preludes on the front endpaper, continues all the way through the book, ending in a grand finale in the back endpapers!”

Wow, sounds like a treat for little and big readers alike!
“Teachers, librarians and visual arts educators will find lots to share with their students. There is a real depth to the theme in the book and I wanted to create art that was more sophisticated, making a richer visual literacy that older kids could explore and interpret whilst also being beautiful and fun for younger kids. Rigid forms versus free flowing colour, shapes, white spaces and many other details reinforce the story.

“Furthermore, music and drama teachers will love the rhythm notation at the back of the book which the kids can use to act out the story, and there are many musical and theatrical references to find in the art as well.”

It sounds wonderful! Now let’s talk about your craft in more detail. When you receive a manuscript, what's your creative process after that to determine what kind of illustrations you want to provide?
“The first thing I do is try to find the heart of the story. This might take a while because I don’t just want to draw pictures that convey the text – I want to create a feeling around the story that is harmonious with its heart. A book is an emotional experience and I need to lock down the emotional experience that I want to create for the readers. Once this is done, everything from pacing, colour, staging and design must work towards that emotional goal. This is tricky and requires a lot of revision, drafts, ideas and ego-less reflection.

“As soon as I can, I make a dummy book to try to experience the book in it’s more complete form. Creating a book is a collaborative process. I’ll send a series of work to the publisher, starting with a storyboard and then colour versions as we progress so that they don’t get any surprises when it comes to delivering final versions of artwork.”

It seems like quite an exhausting process…
“My secret weapon and saving grace is love. I just keep pouring love into it and towards myself when it feels like I’m struggling. I try to love the reader, the parent, the teacher/librarian, the publisher, the author and myself as an artist. When you approach it from this angle you try to see the book and the process from all the different perspectives, seeking to provide things that others value. It’s about striving and reaching for a win-win-win.  It’s arduous and maybe a little too deep, but that’s just me and I find aiming for the stars forces you to do things you didn’t think you could. If you hit it, you win! If you miss it, you get an opportunity to learn, which is a win as well.

“My secret mantra – no negative self talk. When it’s not working out (and so much of the time it feels like that) the only self talk I allow myself to say is “It’s going to be great.”  And you know what? It seems to work out.”

What's the most challenging thing about interpreting the author's words?
“The search for the heart of the story and the emotional experience that I want to create can be long, wayward and full of doubt. Sometimes I get lost in this search. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do it. That searching is the most challenging thing for me, but it’s also the most important. I’m getting better at this though and I think it’s because I am feeling more confident in myself as an artist and in my process of creating wonderful books.

“Another challenge is finding the win-win between what the story is and the art I want to create. It’s not about ego, but you do have to be truthful to yourself. Sometimes that restriction of a win-win leads you to create better results then you could have first imagined.”

Have you been tempted to write your own book?
“Oh yes I’ve been tempted so much so that… I am writing my own books! Firstly, I love creating experiences for my kids. I just can’t help it. I’m the silly, zany dad that all the kids are following around at a party. I used to make my own board games and in high school my best friend and I made a role-playing game that our friends loved playing. I just love that feeling, watching people enjoy something that I’ve loved making. It’s just a wonderful feeling.

“Secondly, I just can’t find an answer to the question, ‘Why can’t I?’ I just love stories, movies and games … and I know that fundamentally it’s a whole lot of craft. So if I have to spend a chunk of time learning a new craft and if I love the end results, why not just do the work and make it happen. Sure it’s going to take some time, and sure the first lot of books aren’t going to be great but I can improve and I’m willing to learn. So the aim of the game for me is to just keep making books, as quickly as I can.

“I’ve witnessed my kids respond to books and not respond to others and I’ve learnt that great characters are key so I’m focusing on character driven narratives.”

How far along in the “getting published as a writer/illustrator” journey are you?
“I’m comfortable to say I’m a writer. I’ve started and am learning by making. I’ve got lots of stories in various forms of finish and some of them in dummy picture books. Actually … I’ve got some pretty exciting news that I’ll share sometime soon … so stay tuned!”

You have a day job in IT – how do you combine this with the seemingly opposite role as an illustrator?
“It’s quite different to making children’s picture books and I feel sometimes I have two brains operating in one day! Curiously though, they are both driven from the one heart and I’m finding my children’s picture book night time work providing a significant advantage in my IT day job.

“Our world is being driven by consumer experiences now. Children’s picture books are consumer experiences. Both worlds focus on the value to the end user. I approach them in the same way, with emphasis on time management and planning, using a design thinking approach, focusing on simplicity, reflecting and learning quickly, problem solving and collaborating with others. These two worlds are also connected at a deeper level for me. I believe in the importance of imagination, creativity and compassion.The world needs people who can create and learn, discern truth and work with others.”

How do you think picture books play an important role in development?
“In kindergarten and other places where young children play together, I believe children’s picture books play a significant role. We perceive our world from our own perspectives. A child could have one set of experiences during a day but with picture books, they can have a multitude of experiences, creating a diversity of understanding, all in a safe environment, in the nurturing arms of their parents and guardians. A children’s picture book is a wondrous adventure into imagination and compassion.

“With a children's picture book I can create joy and wonder, and ignite a passion for imagination and creativity  for the child they are now, and for the child they will become when they grow up.”

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