Thursday, September 9, 2010

Author Focus: Jeannie Baker

About Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is an artist who began turning her hand to children's books many years ago. She was born in England but has lived in Sydney since the later 1970s. She has been making art from collage for at least 40 years. For the last 30 years many of these works have been created to use as illustrations for picture books. However, they can always stand separately as works of art. As a result Jeannie has exhibited her work regularly over the last 40 years, often in parallel to the release of her books. It is important for Jeannie that her art can stand alone, and it does, with distinction!

She is unique as a collage artist, illustrator and author. What puts Jeannie in a category of her own is the way she begins with an idea that always has a significance and a message that only a great collage artist could communicate in this medium. She creates her works with varied materials usually collected in the setting that then becomes the subject of her art.  I recall her saying many years ago that when she created 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' she went off and not only explored the Daintree Forest alone, she slept in it overnight under a plastic sheet to keep herself dry. It can take Jeannie years to produce a book. Her most recent work 'Mirror' took her five years. I review this work in detail below.

Once she has finished the collages she photographs them to create the page plates for her books. This usually leads to an exhibition of her art as well as a picture book. To see her collages as works of art is a great treat. I'd encourage anyone living in Sydney to take advantage of the exhibition of her art from 'Mirror' at the 'Museum of Sydney' that will be open until 10th October 2010. The exhibition will move to Melbourne in November, Adelaide in March and other galleries and museums throughout 2011 (details here).

Jeannie Baker's technique yields works of art that are stunningly beautiful (and quite small) which when put together into a book offer a visual experience for the 'reader' that keeps them coming back to the book. I never tire of reading Jeannie's books, or of reading them to children.  When I read 'Mirror' recently to my grandchildren my eldest grandchild Jacob reacted with delight and excitement as he kept seeing new details in each image. The illustrations lead children to touch and stroke images because they look so real. This is partly achieved by Jeannie Baker's fastidious use of materials that are from the real object. For example, she used sand and authentic fabrics from Morocco in 'Mirror'. If she creates a bird it will often have real feathers.

Internationally her work has gained critical and public acclaim and a stack of awards, including Australian Picture Book of the Year Honour Book, 2005, for "Belonging", Australian Children’s Book Council Picture Book of the Year Award, 1992, for "Window", Notable Book by the American Library Association, 1984, and short listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal, 1985, for "Home in the Sky" and a Boston Globe Horn Book Magazine Honour Book award, 1988, and International Board of Young People Honour Book Award, 1990, for "Where the Forest Meets the Sea".

You can read a full biography here.

A review of some of her work

'Mirror' (2010) Walker Books

Her latest work 'Mirror' is a wonderful place to start in considering Jeannie's work because I think it is her best work. The concept is brilliant, the quality of the images once again stunning, the book design groundbreaking and the wordless picture book created is, as usual, challenging at many levels. It is the concept and design that will first catch your attention. It is slightly more square in shape and it defies your efforts to open it in a conventional way. This picture book comprises two stories that are designed to be read simultaneously – one from the left, the other from the right (see below). As you pick up the book you try to open it from right to left only to have the book open at the middle to reveal two books, one that is read from left to right and begins in Arabic, and the other from right to left that begins with English. Page by page, we experience a day in the lives of two boys and their families - one from inner city Sydney, Australia and the other from a small, remote village in Morocco, North Africa.

Jeannie conceived the book while travelling alone in Morocco. It was while immersed in the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people and while experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the place, that she conceived the idea and knew she had to produce it even without approval from a publisher. As usual, it is Jeannie's passion for the idea of her work, and her skill as an artist in holding a 'mirror' to the world (pun intended) that produces a stunning and memorable work. I love this book.

While the two worlds portrayed couldn’t be further apart, she shows through the parallel lives of the two families, a simple and profound truth. While people live in vastly different places, and have different lives, we share much. While the families have different food, clothing and family practices, there is much that is the same. Family members love one another and depend on each other. A mother, father and children do different things each day than in Sydney, but they are more like us than we might imagine. And there is an additional truth - we are connected to them. With subtle use of images Jeannie is able to show connection, and the delight of the reader is to discover them. My grandson excitedly shouted as we read the book "Look, look, it's the same carpet. The carpet they were making (in Morocco) is the same carpet they bought (the people in Sydney)". Jeannie's message is that in many ways we are mirrors of one another even though different. This is a stunning book that will win many awards.

Update: 'Mirror' was awarded the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia award for best picture book (joint award). 

'Millicent' (1980) Scholastic

One of the earliest of Jeannie's books to catch my attention was 'Millicent' a delightfully simple tale of an old lady who Jeannie observed day after day in Hyde Park (Sydney) feeding the pigeons and talking to them.  As she watched the old lady she often wondered what she was thinking. Through her simple collages and language she speculates about the lady's thoughts as she feeds them. She tells a gentle story of how she feels needed as she visits sees the pigeons each day.

One Hungry Spider (1982) Deutsch

This delightful about a spider (an Orbweb Eriophora) is another excellent example of Jeannie's work. This counting book while teaching the reader to count from 1 to 10 also tells the story of the spider, its catch day by day and the impact on its web. Like Millicent, the collage art is much more simple than Jeannie's later works that have greater complexity as works of art. But it contains many of the same wonderful qualities, simplicity, colour, varied textures and wonderful detail.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' (1987) Julia MacRae Books

This wonderful book marked a new stage in the development of Jeannie Baker's work. Not only is it a more complex narrative account that makes a powerful statement about humanity and the natural world, it demonstrates a new complexity in the collages and clever use of overlaid photographic images to add a new way to portray time. Once again the story is simple, but it has many layers. A boy and his father go out in their boat to fish along the coast of the Daintree Forest in far North Queensland, a place where the tropical rainforest meets the sea. As the story unfolds the boy is confronted by echoes ('ghosts') of what this place was once like - an age of dinosaurs, a time when Indigenous people lived here and so on. It ends with an eerie look at the future.

'Window' (1991) Greenwillow Books

This book saw Jeannie move from the natural world to the man-made world as she showed once again how development can change the natural world. A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on, and as we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes from a country scene to dense settlement.  This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.

Jeannie Baker also wrote a wonderful short book 'Window: An Australian Outlook' (1991) published by the Royal Botanic Gardens to coincide with the release of the book and in association with the exhibition of the collages from which the book was made. 

'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) Greenwillow

In this wonderful book Baker continues her environmental themes making comment on the danger of introduced species of plants to the natural world. The story tells how one of the early settlers to a remote part of Australia builds a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction.

The book was produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).

'Belonging' (2004) Walker Books

In 'Belonging' we see Baker returning to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood and it has the same central characters Sam and Tracy. Each picture shows another year and new developments. This is in a sense 'Window' in reverse, as we go back through time and see the urban landscape slowly disappear to reveal the natural landscape that was once there. But whereas 'Window' focused on our negative impact on the environment, 'Belonging' shows how a community can work to improve the urban landscape rather than just trying to escape from it. The images are stunning and once again, her point is well made.  This book is sold under the title of 'Home' in the USA.

Complete List of her Books

Grandfather, Dutton (1977), revised edition, 1980.
Grandmother, Dutton (1978), revised edition, 1980.
Millicent, Dutton (1980).
One Hungry Spider, Deutsch (1982).
Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Greenwillow (1987).
Window, Greenwillow (1991).
The Story of Rosy Dock, Greenwillow (1995).
The Hidden Forest, Greenwillow (2000).
Home in the Sky, Greenwillow (2003).
Belonging, Walker Books (2004).
Mirror, Walker Books (2010).

Other related posts

'Visual Literacy' (HERE)

'Key Themes in Children's Literature: Environmental Issues' (HERE


shar said...

I am so excited about this new book. I love the layout and it will be particularly helpful for me in lookign at the differences between reading in English and Arabic as I am currently teaching in the middle east :) I must get my mum to send me a copy. :)

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Shar,

Thanks for your comment, I'm sure that you will find it helpful in looking at the differences between English and Arabic. While there isn't any text associated with the illustrations, the book format and the cover and cover page descriptions will give you enough Arabic and English script.

Nice to hear from you.


Juliet Robertson said...

I've been a long time fan of Jeannette Baker but didn't realise the breadth of her work.

I've just found your blog! Greetings from Scotland!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Juliette,

Nice to hear from a Scot (my Dad was from Glasgow). Glad you enjoyed the post and that you like Jeannie Baker's work.

Best wishes,


riki cody temata school nz. said...

we have just read where the forest meets the rain and belonging. We loved them. from riki and cody te mata school nz havelock north.

Trevor Cairney said...

I'm glad you liked the books Riki.