Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meet the Author & Illustrator: Mark Greenwood & Frané Lessac

This is the second post in my new series on Authors and Illustrators. In each post I provide some background information, look at some of their work and then interview them.  In this post I interview husband and wife team Mark Greenwood (author) and Frané Lessac (illustrator) who have worked together on a number of popular children's picture books in recent years.

Both are unique talents and have worked independently of one another. Frané has worked with a wide range of authors of books for younger children. In the early part of her career she was both author and illustrator of a number of picture books. However, in the last 20+ years she has generally worked as an illustrator with other authors.  She is of course an accomplished artist. At one stage wanted to make films.  Like many creative people she has travelled much, enjoyed observing and living with people of many cultures and has been enriched by the experience.

Mark Greenwood has worked with Frané on seven of his nine books, but he illustrated one himself and also worked with Mark Wilson on one title. His first three books 'Magic Boomerang', 'Outback Adventure' and 'Our Big Island' were prompted by an interest in multicultural literature. In his more recent work he has turned to writing historical narratives for younger children. But Mark has another side to his creative life, for he is an outstanding musician as well. For many years he toured, recording and performing with some of the world's foremost musicians. Now he enjoys working with students of all ages, inspiring and developing their natural curiosity about books, writing and rhythm. He sums up his varied interests this way:
“My task as a writer is to fossick stories that ‘sparkle’ and make us want to read, hear and understand."

Mark Greenwood

Mark is a musician and award-winning children’s author. His books aim to foster a greater appreciation and understanding of Australian myths and legends. Mark enjoys working with students of all ages, inspiring and developing their natural curiosity about books and writing. He has twice won the Western Australian Premier’s Award for children’s books and 'Simpson and His Donkey' was Honour Book in 2009 at the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. It also received a US Board on Books for Young People Outstanding International award in the same year. Mark’s latest book is 'Ned Kelly and the Green Sash'.  He is married to Frané Lessac and they live with their two children in Western Australia. For more information consult his website.

Frané Lessac

Frané is originally from New Jersey and is an artist of international renown having exhibited in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and the Caribbean. Residing in Western Australia, Frané now has over 30 children's books published throughout the world. Her work has won Australian and international awards and has been translated into numerous languages. In 2010 she was awarded the Muriel Barwell Award for Distinguished Service to Children's literature. More information about her work can be found on her website.

Examples of their Joint Work

Ned Kelly and the Green Sash

Mark Greenwood has the ability to take history and turn it into accessible narrative for children that is very powerful. His care with the historical record is evident in his work, but he always seems to be looking for a new angle that might just shed light on a previous telling. This latest book by Mark demonstrates his skill. The story of Ned Kelly has been told so many times, and yet he manages to look at it a new way and centre it in a childhood experience to which many children will be able to relate.  He doesn't seek to glorify Kelly, just give us another view.  It begins with words spoken by Kelly in the Condemned Cell at Pentridge Gaol:
'I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life, or that one fault justified another, but the public, judging a case like mine, should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way'.
The bloodstained sash that Kelly wore at Glenrowan
The narrative centres on the little known story of a green sash given to Kelly as a boy. The book includes brief biographies and fact files on the Kelly Gang along with the true story behind the green sash. The green sash was one of Ned Kelly’s most treasured possessions, given to him when he was eleven years old by Esau Shelton of Avenel, as a reward for rescuing his son from drowning. The public recognition for his bravery was pivotal in Ned’s early days. The sash was to assume poignant significance later in Ned Kelly’s short life when it was last worn beneath Ned’s famous suit of armour, on the day when all his courage was needed. The bloodstained sash was souvenired from the outlaw’s bullet-riddled body after the siege at Glenrowan in 1880. The Green Sash is used to offer a window into the character of a poor barefoot boy who grew up to be the most famous of Australian Bushrangers.

Lessac's wonderful illustrations, painted in bold greens, reds and oranges for the Australian bush, and subdued tones for the goals, greatly adds to the reader's understanding of the times. She brings to life the poverty of the Irish family, struggling to stay alive through drought.  The mark of the best illustrators is that they have their own style, born of unique creative experiences and a confidence to add to depth to a story not simply mimic it. In the interview later in the post Frané shares how she was fortunate not to be forced into an unfamiliar style; instead, she was allowed to pursue her own "primitive/naive painting as a legitimate art form".  As well as the vitality of her illustrations, she uses a full pallet of colours that children find captivating. The strong contrasts and simple style draw the eye to the key details.

This is a wonderful picture book.

Simpson and his Donkey

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACS). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight month siege of this isolated beachhead a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Once again, Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have a strength of colour that are not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.

The Legend of Moondyne Joe

The motivation for this story was a visit by the author to the Fremantle Gaol near Perth Western Australia and the cell that was built especially for a bushranger who was difficult to keep incarcerated. Moondyne Joe was not known for gunfights or holding up stagecoaches in the early days of the colony. It was the convict bushranger's ability to escape each time he was placed behind bars.  The early settlers admired him as he roamed the wooded valleys and winding creeks of the Moondyne Hills, wearing a kangaroo-skin cape and possum-skin slippers.

It is difficult to judge from historical records whether Joe was a hardened criminal, or a 'lad' who pushed the boundaries of 'fair' play as he sought freedom. Mark Greenwood does not condemn him, nor defend his actions, yet as a reader, you find yourself willing this young man to freedom.

The simple story is superbly illustrated by the paintings of Frané Lessac.  Having visited the Fremantle Gaol I can attest that the pictures are very accurate.  The use of varied earth colours also capture the beauty of the West Australian landscape.

As with many of Greenwood's books he adds a glossary of terms and some notes on the convict era that increase the depth of the reader's experience of the book.  This is another wonderful book that engages and teaches.

Interview with Mark & Frané

The following brief interview provides an interesting insight into the work of writer and illustrator. To simplify the interview I have framed some of the questions with the book 'The Legend of Moondyke Joe'.  If you have any questions of your own please ask them of Mark and Frané and hopefully they will respond.

a) Questions for Mark  

1. Could you tell me a little about the inspiration for the book?

I live in a city that is surrounded by what was once regarded as the birth stain of a convict past. I’d often thought about creating a story about our convict past - a fun story, accurate in detail, about the strength of spirit that was nurtured by life in the new colony. 

On a trip to the old Fremantle Jail I came upon an unusual, ‘escape proof’ prison cell. That cold, dark, confined space - walls lined with thick timber pegged in with iron spikes, an extra steel plate placed over the barred window - was the spark for the book. Immediately I was drawn to the story of an amazing convict who became a legendary bushranger. Moondyne Joe appealed to me because he had many friends and admirers and won his notoriety for his remarkable escapes from custody.

The aim of the book was to bring to life a legend from convict history, subtly explore the frontier qualities of the Australian bush, and provide children an insight into the early years of settlement. The underlying theme of freedom, independence and determination forms the basis of the historical origins of the Australian legend, and has a universal appeal.

Fremantle Gaol Entrance Today

2. You seem to have done a great job in balancing the 'facts' of Moondyne Joe's life as we know them, the romanticised tellings of his escapades, and your own sense of who he was. How hard was this and how did you arrive at your sense of who Moondyne Joe was?

To get close to Joe’s character and invite readers into his emotions, I imagined the tone of his voice, the way he thought and the way others thought about him. Through research I imagined the bleak windswept shores that greeted convicts in 1853 - and the strength of spirit that was nurtured by life in a sometimes cruel convict colony. Using my ability to dwell in possibility, I tried to conceive what it would be like to meet the bold bushranger face to face. What would he really be like? Defiant, brave, kind or cheeky, innocent or guilty...Moondyne Joe came to life because he was motivated by a goal. The story developed by discovering where the journey took him and what challenges Joe faced.

To do that, I owe special gratitude many people, but particularly Walter Chitty, whose father took food out to Moondyne Joe when he was on the run from the authorities. Walter is an elderly gentleman with a wonderful memory. He was an outstanding source of first hand knowledge of Moondyne Joe.

Through convict stories we get an understanding of daring, wit and opportunism. The ability to keep your nerve, the courage to endure when everything is against you. Laughter in the form of cheek became a Joe’s defence. Humour, laced with bravado, a defining Australian characteristic - the ability to laugh at ourselves – these were qualities that drew me to him.

3. How much interaction did you have with Frané Lessac in producing the final book?

Working with Frané is always a surprise. Although I think I know how she will paint a particular scene when I compose the language, I am always amazed when she brings my characters to life through her art.

We constantly talked about our idea for Moondyne Joe from the beginning of the project so we could visualize the concept together and see it through to the finished book.

Story always comes first. Frané came with me on many of my research trips. Once my text was close to a final version, (after hundreds of rewrites) I handed it over.  Frané took the text quite literally and then added the background details not mentioned, details that invite speculation and discussion and give readers a sense of atmosphere and excitement – details that words alone cannot portray. Frané’s work is so detailed that after she’d completed the artwork for Moondyne Joe I was able to give the text a final snip. We’ve found that taking a loss on the words and letting the art tell certain parts of the story always improves a picture book, where visual literacy carries a substantial part of the historical interpretation.

4. How did your interest in historical fiction develop? Were there influential books, people or experiences that motivated or 'nudged' your journey as a writer down this path?

Our past is full of adventures and curious, larger-than-life characters. It is a vibrant and rich vein of material for writers and readers but I wouldn’t have discovered my passion for history if it hadn’t been for a boy who once asked me, “What is Lasseter’s Reef?”  Unravelling the story of Lasseter’s treasure of gold took ten years and was the catalyst for an obsession for research that has consumed me ever since.

Now I’m hooked on history. I’m compulsively drawn to foraging through rare bookshops, libraries, curiosity stores, searching for old newspapers and antique maps.  I’m curious about the past and have developed a real passion for sifting through research like a detective, analyzing clues, data and evidence. I particularly enjoy going to the places where my stories take place. This helps me to balance creative interpretation with historical authenticity. Finding the remains of Moondyne Joe’s old horse traps hidden deep in the bush, his grave, his escape proof cell, the scene of many of his escapes, was a highlight of the research of this book.

I enjoy the process that comes with discovery. The success of historical fiction depends on the sense of authority an author conveys. Mastering the content is as essential as mastering writing technique. To get to know characters through research is like excavating an archaeological site. You need to brush away layers of time. To reconstruct the life and times of a character requires patience.  But without imagination, passion and enthusiasm even a well-documented story can leave readers cold. Writing needs to be accurate but research details should not just be tacked on for effect.

An early image of a dig in search of Lasseter's Reef
Questions for Frané

1. Could you tell the readers of this blog why you became an illustrator of children's books? Was there a special motivation or someone who inspired you to do it?

As a child, being an artist and illustrator seemed a romantic notion. When I moved to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, I immediately fell in love with the people and the place.  I began painting the scenery, flora and fauna of the island.  I started to exhibit my work and decided the best way to share Montserrat, would be to write a book about the island for children. That was my very first book, My Little Island and I’m happy to say that it’s still in print thirty years later.

2. What have been the greatest influences on your very distinctive style?

I've always loved painting, but never thought I was good enough to be a real artist. Luckily, my art teacher in high school thought I was completely hopeless when he couldn’t teach me perspective, so he left me alone.  My school wasn't progressive enough to recognize primitive/naive painting as a legitimate art form. 

I spent many weekends in New York City, where I grew up, exploring the finest galleries in the world. I fell in love with artists such as Rousseau, Gauguin and Matisse.  Little did I know then how much influence they’d have on my art though out my life with their colour and composition.

3. How much research is required as an illustrator to produce such wonderful images that work so well with the text?

When asked to illustrate a book, I try and visit the place and immerse myself in that environment. If I can’t go, or even if I do, I talk to as many people as possible, visit museums, libraries, see films and read many books on the subject. Sometimes I have to go to dreadful Tahiti or Morocco or Italy.

5. Are there any children's illustrators that you particularly admire? 

I admire so many...The genius of Shaun Tan, the humour of Alison Lester, and the craft of Jeannie Baker.

Both Mark & Frané

What has been your favourite response to any of your books?

We were extremely moved when we met a young girl at the Perth Writer’s festival who had stitched together a beautiful cuddly Duffy the Donkey (from Simpson and his Donkey). It was her most treasured possession.

What is your next project? 

Our next book is 'The Greatest Liar On Earth – A ‘true’ story.....' published by Walker Books

Books by Mark Greenwood (newest to oldest)

Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Simpson and his Donkey
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, The Legend of Moondyne Joe 

Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Mark Wilson, Fortuyn's Ghost
Mark Greenwood (author & illustrator), The Legend of Lasseter's Reef
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Magic Boomerang

Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Our Big Island
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Outback Adventure 
Mark Greenwood (author), illustrated by Frané Lessac, Caribbean Alphabet

Books by Frané Lessac (newest to oldest)

a) Illustrated

Mark Greenwood (author), Ned Kelly and the Green Sash
Laura Krauss Melmed (author), Heart of Texas
Patricia Zelver (author), The Wonderful Towers of Watts

Barbara Ker Wilson (author), The Turtle and the Island
Mark Greenwood (author), The Legend of Moondyne Joe
Aleph Kamal (author), The Bird Who Was an Elephant
Rita Golden Gelman (author), Queen Esther Saves Her People
Barbara Ker Wilson (author), The Day of the Elephant
Eric Maddern (author), The Fire Children: A West African Creation Tale
Isaac Olaleye (author), The Distant Talking Drum
Charlotte Pomerantz (author), The Chalk Doll
Mark Greenwood (author), Simpson and his Donkey
Marilyn Singer (author), On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World's Weather
Mark Greenwood (author), Our Big Island
Mark Greenwood (author), Outback Adventure
Vashanti Rahaman (author), O Christmas Tree
Monica Gunning (author), Not a Copper Penny in Me House: Poems from the Caribbean
Marilyn Singer (author), Nine O'Clock Lullaby
Laura Melmed (author), New York, New York! The Big Apple from A to Z
Marilyn Singer (author), Monday on the Mississippi
Barbara Ker Wilson (author), Maui and the Big Fish
Jan Wahl (author), Little Gray One
Mark Greenwood (author), Magic Boomerang
Jan Jackson (author), Dragon of Rendonda 
Anne Rockwell (author), Clouds
Mark Greenwood (author), Caribbean Alphabet
Lee Bennett Hopkins (author), Good Rhymes, Good Times: Original Poems
Irving Burgle (author), compiler, Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies
Laura Krauss Melmed (author), Capital! Washington D.C. from A to Z

b) Written and Illustrated

Island Counting 1 2 3
Good Rhymes, Good Times
My Little Island 
Caribbean Canvas
Camp Granada

Other Related Posts

Meet the Author Series (HERE)
Author Focus Series (HERE)

3 comments: said...

Thank you for such a passionate and in-depth look into our books. Cheers Frané & Mark

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Frané & Mark, Glad you liked the post - love your work! I appreciated your excellent answers to my questions which gave additional insight into what drives you both. Look forward to seeing your next book. Best wishes, Trevor

msarcher said...

We just read Magic Boomerang this morning and we LOVED it! I have Miss 8 and Mr 6 and we home school in Tanzania (but are from Australia). We bought 3 books online and there was a special so the books were written in by Mark and Frane - well the kids couldn't have been more astounded that the writer and illustrator of the book we were reading had written their very names in it! Pretty special - thanks!