Interview with Bridget Strevens-Marzo

The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) France, interviewed illustrator, author and SCBWI international illustrator coordinator, Bridget Strevens-Marzo in 2003

1. Can you recall the first picture you did that you were really pleased with?
In my dreams!

2. What were your formative influences as a maker of children's books? Were there any images or illustrations which marked your own childhood that you'd like to talk about?
I used to draw and paint in my dad's studio and pour over his collection of illustrated books: Edmond Dulac, W. Heath Robinson, Rackham and others. After our trip to the States, I treasured a collection called "Storyland, 48 best loved stories for the very young" published by the Golden Press Inc. from 1942 to 1960. I remember reading aloud for the first time from Ruth Krauss's "I can fly" - it was Mary Blair's decorative illustrations that attracted me to the words. There were more realistic illustrations in it too; the paintings of Eloise Wilkin had details in them that I'd want to pick up and hold, or live inside. There was Garth Williams and Rojanovsky (whose endpapers are a visual patchwork résumé of all the stories). The images set my imagination going; postman sorting mail on a night train, a house being built, a merry-go-round with 'real' animals on it, a New York traffic jam, a toy boat sailing out to sea, a pillow fight, a wooden doll on a south sea island... As for English illustrators - aside from the old Rupert Bear Annuals, I liked E.H. Shepard's line drawings so much I copied them in the book themselves. Ardizzone irritated me (I liked him much later) because I didn't like 'fuzzy' lines when I was young. The Puffin club magazine with Fritz Wegner's illustrations was an inspiration for every lucky child who discovered it in the UK in the 1960s – ‘70s.

3. How did you get started illustrating children's books?

When I was small I told everyone that I wanted to write and illustrate children's books when I grew up. It took a very long time to find my way back where I had started from. At Cambridge I drew caricatures for the student press, and even illustrated the first issue of the later famous Granta magazine with some weird abstracts late one night. I also illustrated slim volumes of poetry. Then for years, I did all kinds of other jobs to earn a living in particular translating art history books into English. After my son was born I began to focus on what I really enjoyed doing. I came up with 'Toto in Paris' about a small boy sharing an adventure with a French friend and a runaway dog. When I'd travelled to other countries as a child, I'd remembered the strangeness of small things - peculiar breakfasts, odd coins, different sweets - and I wanted to include these things in the story. It was beginners' luck, finding a publisher so quickly that first time round. My editor encouraged me to expand this idea into adventure stories set in different countries - Toto in Paris, Italy and Spain were published.

4. How would you describe your current illustration style? How has it changed since you first began working?
I've always liked experimenting with styles but have only had the courage to admit it as my ‘voice’ has got stronger. I now work in flat simplified colours or in more textured painterly mode, depending on the purpose of the illustrations. When I started, I worked in what I took to be the standard illustration technique - pen & ink with watercolour washes. French publishers told me later they saw this spontaneous linear technique as an 'English' style. It worked well for movement and descriptive detail. I like line drawing but when the subject demands it, I love painting directly in colour with broad brushes, getting the colour planned out first, within the composition and gradually refining shapes by painting into them and 'finding' the contour between two forms rather than using outline. I can do this in oil or gouache but nowadays, my stylus pen provides many brushes to splash about with, despite the 'hard' material of the computer. I also use an eraser on overlays to reveal underlying colours as in scraperboard, and I can paint with textures too. I never use computer filters or 'effects' - I like being responsible for everything, including colour calibration and I check and print out a lot

5. What do have up on the walls of your studio?
One wall is papered with a series of monochrome posters I did for Popi magazine, to remind me to bold – there are some unusual colour combinations I refer to. Small dummies for concept book ideas, a few drawings by my children and photos of them too. Postcards of a Matisse interior, a Braque & an Ardizzone, some patterned Japanese paper, a calendar by Kamegata and some work by illustrator friends.

6. Which of your most recent projects presented the biggest challenge to you and why?
Risking a cliché but the book I'm working on is the biggest challenge. It has to be better than anything I've done before and different!

7. Are there any characters you've created that won't leave you alone? Who are they, how do they come back and why?
I have a pig family who nearly got into print but didn't so they keep haranguing me! Also there are two good names that may end up animals or human characters. In their own good time!

8. Do you specialize in working for children's books, or do you also work for other markets, children's magazines, and adult magazines. Why?
Monthly French children’s' magazines take up half my time. Turnover is fast and it's heartening to have regular feedback - as long as you don't mind working within constraints. I approached Bayard Presse after more than 2 years of work on a novelty book series which I wrote and illustrated for another big French kid's book publisher. For packaging reasons the books weren't published. I needed to appear somewhere in print fast! As David McKee says, working for magazines is great for developing a repertoire.
However I also enjoy the slower development of characters in a book and inventing a world to go with them. It's the difference between whistling a new tune and composing a whole opera!

9. How easy is it to find work in the country you currently live in? How easy is it to find work in other countries? Do you have any tactics you'd like to share?

I doubt if I'd be working for kid’s magazines so much - certainly not in the UK where the few magazines there are, seem to be dominated by TV and merchandizing. I guess I'd do more editorial work or more books if I found the right publisher. But the quality and range of illustrators in French kid's press, is remarkable - they use a lot of illustrators from Britain and Spain in particular and are always looking for new talent.
The Paris book fairs (Salnd du Livre de Jeunesse at Montreuil in early December and the Salon du Livre in March) showcase an incredible variety of French kid’s books, some of which are so experimental (visually, at least) that they'd be unlikely to sell in more market-driven economies. I'd recommend a visit to anyone interested in daring formats and experimentation. One reason why French publishers can afford to produce costly books is that public libraries have a decent budget.

10. How, if at all, has your relationship with the publishers you've worked with influenced your work over the years?
Everyone dreams of an encouraging but exacting publisher who senses what you're capable of. In the past, I sometimes felt that turnover and meeting a Bologna or Frankfurt deadline took priority over quality. My current editor gives me the time and feedback I need to push my work to its best. We have an excellent, trusting email relationship – until this Bologna we've never met in person! I try not to bother him too much but he's always quick to respond and happy to be a 'fresh eye' when needed. Despite working in committees I've found French magazine editors and art directors to be clear and efficient - more so perhaps than some book publishers. They've encouraged me to be bold when necessary. Paradoxically, because of the constraints we work within, I’ve experimented and tried things I wouldn't have tackled on my own.

11. In your experience, how does the relationship between the publisher and the illustrator change in different countries?
I wonder if the size of the publishing house doesn't affect relationships much more than nationality these days. An editor with the power to make things happen, wherever they are, is all that’s needed!

12. Can I add an " I wish I'd written" outburst of enthusiasm?

One hundred and five people get dressed and go to work. What a refreshing subject for a picture book! That's the basic theme of Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont's 'The Philharmonic gets dressed'. The ending says it all: "...their work is to play. Beautifully."