In 'Dragon Moon,'Aussie author tells a Chinese version of the Ugly Duckling

Li Shiyu China Plus Published: 2017-12-08 11:26:38
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Sweeping across generations and continents, the ABC Song has been one of the most popular methods of teaching toddlers the English alphabet. 

Yet in his graphical alliterative alphabet book "Animalia,"Australian author and illustrator Graeme Base has no intention to dumb down the vocabulary.

First published in 1986, over three million copies of the book have been sold worldwide; making it one of the most successful children's pictorial books of all time. 

Graeme Base's book, Animalia, is one of the world's bestselling alphabet books. [Cover:Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

Graeme Base's book, Animalia, is one of the world's bestselling alphabet books. [Cover: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

But Graeme hasn't stopped there. In his thirty-plus career years as an artist, he has also created many other widely loved works, such as "The Eleventh Hour" and "Uno's Garden."The lush, detailed illustrations and the cleverly hidden puns that are brimming in these works have elevated the author to international stardom. 

When asked what's the secret recipe behind his global success, he replied: "I guess I got something right and you know what that was. It's: don't talk down to kids."

During his China tour, Graeme Base (right) is introducing his brand new book, Dragon Moon, his first ever story that was inspired by his trips to China.[Photo: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

During his China tour, Graeme Base (right) is introducing his brand new book, Dragon Moon, his first ever story that was inspired by his trips to China. [Photo: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

Recently, this Melbourne-based artist came to China to promote his brand new Chinese publications, including Dragon Moon, his first ever story that was inspired by his trips to China. 

Our reporter Shiyu sat down with Graeme to talk about his creative career, his love for drawing animals and how he, as an Australian writer, utilizes illustration as global language to tell a Chinese story. 

Sketch by Graeme Base.[Picture: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

Sketch by Graeme Base. [Picture: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

Some highlights of the interview:

On how he became interested in creating children's picture books

I wanted to be an artist since I was about eight years old. I first came out from England to Australia at that age and it was a little bit of a tough moment in a young boy’s life. Suddenly I had no friends; and I didn't know the schoolyard games; and I spoke with a very strong British accent, which was not necessarily a good thing in an Australian primary school. But one thing even then that I was interested in and could do reasonably well was drawing. I went to college; did a graphic design course; entered the wonderful wacky world of advertising and hated it. I was just doing rubbish work because I had no interest. But I was keeping myself sane in the evening by doing pictures for myself. I had taken them around to publishers to get works, such as doing book jackets or maybe illustrating somebody’s stories. It was much better than advertising. But I realized that if I was to actually write one of these stories, then I could really draw what I want, what is in my head, in my imagination. So I wrote a story called "My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch," which focuses on Australian animals. The guy who had given me work liked it and published it. So suddenly I wasn't just an artist. I was an author and illustrator and I have been doing that for 35 years till now.  

Graeme Base draws for local students in Beijing during his China tour. [Photo:Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

Graeme Base draws for local students in Beijing during his China tour. [Photo: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

On what comes to him first when he creates a new story

It is almost always image that comes first. I have been lucky enough to travel widely through my writing career. Every time I go somewhere new, I know in advance that I am going to be inspired in some ways. I went to East Africa twice. The first time came up with "The Water Hole" and the second trip inspired a book called "Jingle Drums." I went to Cambodia and saw the ancient temple ruin called Angkor Wat. So here came the book called "The Last King of Angkor Wat." Most recently, I have been travelling in China. Initially I was invited to come to Beijing by the Australian Embassy to participate in the Australian Writers' Week. So I took the opportunity to look around and inspiration struck again. Once again, a book came out of that experience called "Dragon Moon."Every book seems to be initially speaking to me as an artist and then I think: "Wow, I would love to illustrate this!" And then I could concoct a story to allow me to do that.  

[Picture:Courtesy of Changjiang Children's Publishing Group]

This illustraion from "Dragon Moon" showcases a classic scenario in a classroom.  [Picture: Courtesy of Changjiang Children's Publishing Press]

On why most of his books feature wildlife and nature

I don't tend to be inspired quite so much by cities as I do by jungles. The use of animals is something that usually occurs in fables, especially those that are ages old, such as Aesop's Fables. They are not really about animals. These stories are about people. Although this school of thought is saying that anthropomorphism is giving human extra abuse to animals, to demean them. I don't think it does at all. I think it enables kids to make a connection with the wildlife in a really important way. Because if you make a connection and you begin to empathize, then you begin to care. 

On whether picture books should come with certain educational purpose

I think the demand is probably stronger in some cultures than others. I know in China, certainly it is a great focus understandably in education, in the way of children getting ahead in the world. I don't shy away from that at all. The thing is that I think the best way of teaching anyone anything is for them not even realize them being taught. I think that's the great value of picture books. It is exactly that way where they would enjoy trying to find the answers to something like "The Eleventh Hour” mystery, but along the way, they learn rational deduction, clear thinking, and observation skills, and maybe they also learn cooperation if they work as a team within a school environment. So this educational value can be found in many things.  

[Cover:Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

Released in November 2017, "Dragon Moon" is Graeme Base's first book that was initially published in an non-English language. [Cover: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

On the storyline of“Dragon Moon”

The transition of the character Moon Fish is like the Ugly Duckling. He's an orphan fish that is found in the weeds and grows bigger and weirder. His parents love him but all the other kids tease him. So he leaves. He returns, when his wandering of trying to discover where he belongs ends and realizes the answer is where people love him. So he heads back, just in time to save the village from an attack from herons. It is the moment when he leaps out of the water. As he does that, his scales fall away, his fins turn into claws and he emerges as a dragon. It's like a superhero thing going on, like the Monkey King or the Transformers. When he dives back into the water again after he scares away the herons, he changes back into the fish again, like Superman in his telephone booth. So there are a lot of stuff from the east and the west which come together. 

Inspired by his trips to China, Graeme Base depicts his version of an underway Chinese town in "Dragon Moon".[Picture]

Inspired by his trips to China, Graeme Base depicts his version of an underway Chinese town in "Dragon Moon".[Picture: Courtesy of Changjiang Children's Publishing Press]

On the illustrated details based on Chinese sceneries 

Virtually, the travel to China was what fuelled the imagery. I was stunned by the travels that I have been able to do in China. We only just skimmed the surface of the way that the old China and the new China live together. You could see this amazing street scene which feels like centuries old and behind it, there rises massive skyscrapers. So there is this version of my underwater China. It has a village feeling of fish in a market place going about their daily business and there are a few skyscrapers in my little underwater world. But there is something else, for instance, the Yangtze River Bridge in Wuhan, and right next to it is the Yellow Crane Tower. So this book is almost like a foreigner's travelogue in some ways. 

Many of Graeme's books contain imagines from Chinese symoblism and mythologgies, such as panda and dragon. [Photo:Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

In his previous books, such as "The Water Hole" and "The Discovery of Dragons", Graeme Base borrows some Chinese symbols and mystical creatures. [Photo: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to China]

On the potential reaction of his Australian readers to this China-themed story

I have no doubt at all that "Dragon Moon" will resonate for Australian readers. They won't understand some of the subtleties, but I think that's great. They can learn. They can also figure out maybe what the writing on the blackboard in a schoolroom in China means. That would be a lovely journey for them into another culture. We are sure that we are different. We speak different languages but there are so much more that are similar about everyone, especially about kids. We can celebrate those differences of course, but we also get to hold very closely to the similarities. That's the thing that strikes me the most: kids are kids and that goes everywhere. 

If you want to hear their complete conversation, you can download the podcast from iTunes, by searching the key words: Ink&Quill. In this extended version, you will hear Graeme voice his opinions on his book "Animalia" and why parents should read with their children.

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