Australian author-illustrator and filmmaker Jeannie Baker has created many award-winning picture books over the years but is perhaps best-known here in the States for Mirror, released in 2010 to a starred Kirkus review. Thanks, once again, to Candlewick Press, U.S. readers now have the chance to experience Baker’s newest picture book, Circle, released in May. Circle traces the path of one bar-tailed godwit, who sports white wing patches, on his journey north – and then back home again. Baker frames the story with a young boy: He is in a wheelchair when the book opens, but at the close, he’s walking along the shore with the aid of crutches. He never stops dreaming of flying as the shorebirds do.
Godwits follow, Baker writes, “an ancient invisible pathway … until they know they need to stop.” Readers take every step of the journey with the white-winged godwit, who along the way finds a mate who hatches chicks. A hungry fox finds the chicks’ nest, but one chick survives. Baker seamlessly infuses into the bird’s journey a tremendous reverence for the natural world, adding in a closing author’s note the challenges we humans now face – “how to live without destroying the places that are crucial to shorebirds’ age-old, wondrous circle of life.”
All of this is rendered via Baker’s distinctive and textured collages, which I learned today in our email chat are the same size as they appear in the book. I asked her about her detailed, intricate creations and what, in particular, inspired this story of migration.
I'm struck by your beautiful collages. Can you talk about the materials you typically use and how long it takes to create the illustrations for one book? Are you involved in the photography part of the process (when your collage constructions are photographed in the end)?
Whenever I can, I like to use the actual materials and textures I’m trying to portray in my work. For example, if I am wanting to portray a bird, I will often use bits of feathers, and I’ll layer them in a similar way to those of a real bird’s feathers. Then I’ll paint the feathers, so I have control of their colours and patterns. My collages are mostly the same size as reproduced in my books, which means that, working in this way, the textures I use often look exaggerated because of the miniature scale in which I work, but I like this exaggerated sense of texture.
Not all materials I want to depict can be used in this way, so then I have to search for an alternative that will work. This often involves a lot of playing and experimenting with new materials and their textures, something I enjoy. Each book provides new collage challenges. In Circle, the big challenge was how to depict ice, snow, and clouds.
My technique is painstakingly slow, and some of my projects have involved four to five years’ intense work, but this also incorporates working on developing a travelling exhibition of the artwork and, in two of my projects, an animated film.
My original collages are carefully photographed for reproduction, and I become very involved in this process. Depending on its lighting, my work will come across very differently. It can be lit to appear totally flat, lit to bring out its textural qualities, or lit to look three-dimensional. My work is shallow relief and so, depending on its lighting, shadows are created. For example, a tree might create shadows across the sky, but I often don’t mind this, particularly as some people assume my work is simply a photograph – and shadows in odd places can make the viewer question this.
Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind Circle? What, in particular, made you want to tell this story of godwits and their migration?
I liked the idea of visually following an Australian migratory shorebird. I researched the various possibilities, and the bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica baueri) spoke to me the most. I love the fact that this tiny bird flies from one side of the world to the other (from Alaska to Australia or New Zealand) without even stopping to rest. It takes this tiny bird nine nights and nine days. This is the longest unbroken migration of any creature in the world, even further than any commercial plane can fly without stopping. This filled me with wonder.
But many people aren’t even aware of their existence. Just in the last five years, there has been a loss of 65% of shorebird feeding habitat along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, particularly around the Yellow Sea (an essential feeding and resting point for many shorebirds, including the bar-tailed godwit). Unless we take more responsibility for them, the world is in imminent danger of losing this wondrous bird and many other shorebird species.
How does your film work inform your picture book work, if at all?
With the two films I’ve made, the picture book came first, though from the beginning of each project I had in mind the idea of developing it into an animation. Hence, I designed the double page spread of the picture book to the same format as the wide screen in cinema. When I storyboarded the film, I looked at the story afresh, as film is a very different medium and we needed to create additional artwork.
When filming, we used my original artwork as backgrounds to animate into. So we then had the advantage of having half of the collage backgrounds (comprising the book) already created.
When the project was launched, the picture book, travelling exhibition, and animated film were launched simultaneously – and each fed the other.
What inspires you? Also, whose picture book work (past or present) inspires you?
My picture books start with strong imagery, strong feelings, and intuition. I’m following my instinct, one that I have learnt is worth taking seriously.
My projects often start with strong feelings for a place and then spending time in the place (which is often wilderness), trying to understand it in as many ways as I can. Gradually, slowly, a storyline emerges.
I was lucky enough to have Raymond Briggs as one of my tutors at Art College. I think he has inspired me more than anyone. As a tutor, he was always very positive and encouraging. Initially, I had a very small and clichéd idea of what a children’s picture book should be. Raymond’s work made me realize the potential of a picture book – that its boundaries and possibilities are wide and exciting and, mostly, that I’m only limited by my imagination.
What's next for you?
I’ve learnt it’s not a good idea to talk about my works-in-progress, but what I will say is the project I am currently contemplating, researching, and playing with is set in your part of the world.
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.
CIRCLE. Copyright © 2016 by Jeannie Baker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.