Author-illustrator Hervé Tullet, born in France but now living in the U.S., knows a thing or two about making entertaining, interactive books for children. Press Here, for one, still sits to this day on the New York Times children’s bestsellers list – and it’s lived there for 229 (non-consecutive) weeks since its release in April of 2011. In that, and many of his other sparsely-illustrated picture books for children, Tullet welcomes readers to be a part of the story and to play with the book as the physical object it is – to poke, shake, and turn it.
In his newest book, Let’s Play!, readers meet a yellow dot, directly asking the child to engage in an adventure of color, movement, lines, and scribbles. Readers guide the dot with their fingers; it speaks to them, providing spirited commentary (such as, “EEEEK!” when they enter a dark void). With frequent exclamations like “wow!” and “bravo!”---these moments actively encourage child readers---it makes for a rousing experience.
I talked to the so-called Prince of Preschool Books via email to ask him about this new book and his life now in the U.S.
I love the moments in this new book where the dot enters some darker spaces -- the tunnel with the eye-shaped creatures and then the scribbly "POW! YUCK!" spread. Can you talk about deciding to make that a part of the dot's adventure?
After Press Here, which was almost mathematical with its 15 dots going in all directions, and Mix It Up!, which was tactile, I made the dots with my bare hands. In this new experience, my goal was to go back to a kind of illustration as a way to suggest the dot’s feelings and sensations from the beginning to the end of the book. The tunnel, the dark, the fear. Going in, going out, the murmuring, on tip toe. It creates a rhythm -- and adventures that could happen to a dot, and its readers, throughout the book.
I like how the dot in this one ends up on the reader's very head. Have you shared this book with children yet and had a chance to see them react to that?
Yes, I did! My very first idea for the book, my very first goal, was how to go out, jump out of a book -- how to come and say hello straight to the readers.
When I read it for the first time, I was a bit nervous. I’d read it many times to myself, but I never test a book before it comes out, so … It went well, very well! The play, the eyes, and the complicity -- everything was there! I was able to play. The trick was working. (You can’t see something that is on your head -- that’s the trick!)
So, as expected, it was more than reading the text of the book. I was happy, because I knew each reading would be different because of the play. I just hope now that readers other than me will play too!
Do you work with designers at all, or are you given free rein on those artistic decisions, especially given your background?
Maybe because I was previously an art director in advertising, I’ve learned how to work with people. I do love to work with people, the feeling of being a team, like I do when I’m working with a teacher or a librarian – I feel like a partner.
For a very long time now, I’ve had a kind of team -- my publisher, Isabelle, and my art director, Sandrine, who work on almost all of my books. It’s a long partnership. It is give-and-take, trust, and confidence. No worries, no meetings -- but a friendship.
You recently moved to New York. How has it been treating you? Are you making lots of art?
I’ve discovered that the word “energy” when describing New York is not just a legend. Every day I see stuff: art, the city, the walls, the people, and the music. I connect, I dream. I meet people. I want to connect with people who share my vision and want to build something. I paint. I draw. I find more ideas to get ready when something big, strong, and meaningful will happen. What? I don’t know what yet, but I’m ready. I didn’t get this kind of energy in Paris.
Whose art inspires you? Whose picture books do you love?
When I think “inspiration,” I do not go straight to the book, to children’s books. I feel that inspiration is everywhere. You just have to find it. To look, observe -- the streets, the walls, the pavement, the windows, the traffic jams, and so on. And, of course, there’s a lot of inspiration in the museums where some artists, the ones I love, help us to see the world differently, open us up in a new way to look and understand our world.
I feel that everybody is ready for this experience, including children. There’s a real connection between art and children. Children don’t know anything, and they are open to understanding everything. That’s their strength. That’s why I feel books can bring children to amazing places.
What's inspiring you this very week?
Some days ago, I received a video dreamed up by a school. (It’s here on my website.) I usually receive a lot of letters, videos, and messages. People know more and more how to use my work, how to start something by themselves from my books. I feel I give the energy and inspiration. I’m very proud of this. It is what I’d always hoped my books could be. So, I would say that the inspirations I receive inspire me, encourage me to go on finding new ideas.
What's next on your plate?
Sounds! A kind of noisy, experimental, funny book. Sound is a language, a universal language. I can read my books everywhere in the word [using] only sounds, which speak straight to children without translators. Sounds express a lot of feelings. This is this kind of experience that I’m going to express in my next book. It’s my next challenge!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
LET'S PLAY! Text and illustration copyright © 2016 by Bayard Éditions. Translation copyright © 2016 by Chronicle Books LLC. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.