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  • Tanja Nathanael

An Interview with Albertine, 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner


Albertine Zullo

Albertine Zullo, known professionally as Albertine, has been granted the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration in 2020. The Hans Christian Andersen Awards are presented biennially to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. Albertine’s most recent collaboration, Mon tout petit (My Little One) written by Germano Zullo and translated from the French by Katie Kitamura, will be available in English through Archipelago Books: Elsewhere Editions on October 27th, 2020.

Mon tout petit (My Little One) relates the story of a mother and son. The mother expresses her desire to tell her son “everything,” but their “epic story” is told in images more than words. Deceptively simple in design, the story is conveyed through spare grey pencil lines against a white background. The loving mother-son relationship moves seamlessly from moment to moment as mother and son perform a kind of dance from page to page. As their story progresses, the son grows and the mother shrinks until finally the son stands alone—a grown man. Mon tout petit (My Little One) tells a poignant tale of unconditional love and the inevitable passage of time. Mon tout petit (My Little One) won the 2016 Bologna Ragazzi Award for Fiction.

TN: Why did you become an illustrator? What challenges and rewards have you encountered in the pursuit of your profession?

A: I have been drawing since childhood and I consider my drawing as a real language. It is possible that I developed it in reaction to a family where speech was king. When you talk a lot and with passion, it is not always easy to listen...

I feel more like a drawer than an illustrator. The illustrator is the one who comes to pick up a text. The illustrator, on the other hand, has much more freedom. He is a true author and in this, he dialogues with the text. I became aware of this thanks to Germano.

I studied art and then things followed naturally. Our meeting with Francine Bouchet, from the publisher of La Joie de lire, was of course fundamental.

My challenge is to continue to progress. I can't bear the idea of constantly repeating what I already know how to do. As for the rewards, we have been lucky enough to be regularly rewarded. The Hans Christian Andersen prize, received last May, brings us international recognition. But what is most important to us is to be able to continue to pass on our knowledge.

Mon tout petit (My Little One)

TN: Notably, you collaborate with your partner, author Germano Zullo, in the creation of many children’s books. Tell me about this process. Which comes first? The text or the illustrations? Did something specific spark the idea of My Little One?

A: When an idea appears, we set up a dialogue with Germano. Depending on the project, this phase can be more or less long. Some ideas can take many years to develop. Usually Germano starts the work. He gives structure and meaning to the story. He then gives me a very detailed script, even for books without text. I then take over and, based on the script, develop an illustrated narrative. It is always very important for me to find the style that is most useful to the story.

For Mon tout petit, Germano tried to convey what he felt as he watched his father grow older. He observed the way in which his father, little by little, literally came to rest in him. Germano found himself moving, talking and reacting like his father. It is a very simple and, I think, very universal book about this love, sometimes imperceptible, that unites people.

TN: Let’s talk about style. In My Little One, the characterization of the

Mon tout petit (My Little One)

mother and child is expressed in elongated exaggerated bodies drawn in spare clean lines. What decisions went into the design of the mother and child, and why?

A: Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve and it took me several months to find this very clean style. I tried to be as accurate as possible with the script and the words of Germano. I had to get to the point. I made many attempts, first with gouache and colour, then with a black brush and finally with a grey pencil. A light technique, without superfluous, like a somewhat improved sketch. This lightness adapted wonderfully to the purpose and the different snapshots that make up this true round of life. The colour tended to overwhelm the narration. I then worked on a light table to stage the dance, while maintaining the play of proportions.

I wanted a mother who was warm, reassuring, amazed by life and filled with love. The child is in reception and builds up little by little thanks to this love.

TN: My Little One is the story of a mother and child without explicitly telling the story. Rather, their “epic story” is revealed through pictures, keeping a tight focus on the mother and son relationship. In fact, I discovered that if one flips through the pages rapidly, the characters appear to dance with each other. I was wondering if this “flip book dance” was deliberate?

A: No, we were not considering this possibility at all. In fact, the publication itself was not designed with this in mind. However, many readers pointed out to us that the book could indeed be read in this way and some noticed that it could also be flipped upside down. Why not, but it is indeed a classic reading that allows us to understand what is really going on between the two characters.

Mon tout petit (My Little One)

TN: With its timeless themes of love and loss, the book seems poised to reach adults as well as children. Although My Little One never uses the words “birth” or “death,” do you think that your book will inspire conversations about such topics between parents and their children?

A: Yes, of course! That's what books are for, and maybe that's what they're good for. They can be confronted with reality and reality can be confronted with books. Questioning and thinking must be cultivated as much as possible.

TN: What are favorite childhood books that inspired you? Which particular authors and/or artists do you look to for enjoyment or inspiration now?

A: I am lucky to come from a family of artists. There were many books at home and my favourites were the tales illustrated by Edmond Dulac. I regularly quote artists like David Hockney, Saul Steinberg or Paul Cox. I also discover with great interest the works of Jockum Nordström, Yann Kebbi or Tim Eitel. Pinterest also constitutes an exciting library of images in which I regularly immerse myself.

TN: Why do you believe that international children’s books are important? As our respective societies become increasingly divided, what can international children’s literature do to bridge that gap? What do you hope your books will do?

A: For us, it is essential that each individual is able to think for themselves. And respect for the thoughts of others rejects violence. So we hope that our books can be used to produce intelligence. Translations should enable a healthy and constructive exchange of information. Too often, alas, here or elsewhere, morality, politics and ideology take over creation. There is a tendency, for example, to put a lot of pressure on education and different pedagogical models. Childhood is not a playground for power struggles between adults.

TN: What languages have your books been translated into? What languages, cultures, or countries would you like to see your books reach?

A: We have been translated into 22 languages and are thus present on all continents. Once again, we have no particular ambitions. We simply try to give the best of what we have to give.

TN: Of your own books, which one is your personal favorite and why?

A: I would say Mon tout petit for all the reasons already mentioned.

TN: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with us?

A: I am preparing two major exhibitions for 2021. With Germano, we are finishing an animated short film and working on four new books: two new albums, a third volume of the adventures of Roberto & Gelatine, and a science-fiction comic book.

TN: I would like to extend my thanks to Albertine for her participation in this interview and to the editors at Archipelago Books: Elsewhere Editions for making this interview possible.

Albertine

ABOUT ALBERTINE: Albertine was born in a Swiss village in 1967. In 1990 she opened a screen printing workshop and since then has exhibited drawings, screen prints, and more in Geneva and around the world. She married and began her long artistic relationship with Germano Zullo in 1996. Their collaborations have received the Golden Apple of Bratislava (1999), a New York Times Best Illustrated Book (2012), and a Bologna Ragazzi Award for Fiction (2016). In 2020 Albertine won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration. Author website: http://www.albertine.ch/

Selected Bibliography:

  • Marta and the Bicycle (won the Bratislava Golden Apple as Marta et la bicyclette in 1999)

  • Little Bird (originally published as Les oiseaux by La Joie de lire in 2010)

  • Sky High (originally published as Les gratte-ciel by La Joie de lire in 2010)

  • Line 135 (originally published as Ligne 135 by La Joie de lire in 2012)

  • Jumping Jack (originally published as Dada by La Joie de lire in 2013)

  • Bimbi (La Joie de lire editions, 2014)

  • My Little One (forthcoming in October 2020 by Archipelago/Elsewhere Editions; originally published as Mon tout petit by La Joie de lire in 2015)

Tanja Nathanael

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Tanja Nathanael is currently a lecturer at San Jose State University and teaches Children’s Literature and Fantasy & Science Fiction Literature online. She received her doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2019. Her research interests include Northern spaces in nineteenth-century British literature and borders and peripheries in international children’s literature. She formerly served on the ChLA international committee (2015-2018) and continues to support its goals as co-editor of the blog to encourage interest in international children’s literature.

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©2018 Created by Olivia Bushardt and Tanja Nathanael for the ChLA International Committee.

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