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The Emotional Link

[Adapted from a speech presented at the Internation Reading Association Annual Convention held in Toronto in May 1988]

I AFFECTIONATELY REFER to the winter of 1985 as the season I walked underneath the ice with a young Inuit girl named Eva Padlyat.

Eva arrived on my doorstep unceremoniously one afternoon during the previous summer in the form of a manuscript written by an Ottawa teacher, Jan Andrews. Clipped to the covering page was a note from my Canadian editor, Patsy Aldana, which simply stated, "Ian, I thought you might be interested in illustrating this story."

Little did I realize when I turned to read what was then a 250-line draft of a rite of passage tale that this story would take me on an adventure few people could have ever imagined. Eva Padlyat's miraculous circular journey would make extraordinary demands on my skills and plunge my art in directions even I had never anticipated.

My exposure to this race of people who live in a harsh northern landscape had been only through books and images that flashed across my television screen. My contact with Eva would teach me a deep abiding respect for our neighbors in the Land of the Purple Twilight. Long before I realized on a conscious level how powerful a spell this tale had cast over me, the story's hooks had caught me under the ribs and reeled me in. Very Last First Time captured my imagination, my heart, my soul and sent my spirit soaring.

With eager anticipation I read the opening paragraph of the manuscript:

Eva Padlyat lived in a village in Ungava Bay in Northern Canada. She was Inuit and for as long as she could remember she had walked with her mother on the bottom of the sea. It was something the people of her village did in winter when they wanted mussels to eat. Today something very special was going to happen. Today for the very first time in Eva's life she would walk on the bottom of the sea – alone.

My mind shuddered to a halt. Claustrophobic feelings engulfed me. I could barely comprehend what I had just read. Still my eyes retraced the line. "Today for the very first time in Eva's life she would walk on the bottom of the sea alone." At that moment I realized I had to illustrate this story. What distinguished it from other manuscripts I had received? The first paragraph had done what all good stories should do. It filled me with questions and made me eager to take the journey. Where would Eva Padlyat lead me on her quest for mussels? What would we discover underneath the ice when we arrived in that dark shadowy world? How does one physically walk on the ocean floor? How would Eva be changed by this experience?

A few paragraphs into that initial reading, I made the incredible journey with Eva as she walked on the bottom of the sea. My knees trembled, my heart beat rapidly. My creative journey had already begun.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Eva's story, let me share the secret with you now. Listen to Jan Andrew's carefully chosen words.

Down by the shore they met some friends and stopped for a quick greeting. They had come at the right time. The tide was out, pulling the sea water from the shore so there was room for them to climb down underneath the ice and walk about on the seabed.

Almost unbelievable. Incomprehensible. A place on earth existed where the tide goes out far enough to allow people to walk about on the ocean floor. Not only that, the ice remains suspended overhead, creating an under-ice world. The gaping cavity where water once was fills in with air. In reality, the tide in Ungava Bay is one of the highest tides in the world. And, at the age of 12, Inuit children who live in Sugluk, Ungava Bay, take this rite-of-passage walk alone under the winter ice to become adults.

Very Last First Time is a story dependent on its unique setting and, therefore, is one of my strongest portrayals of the Canadian landscape. It is also distinguishable as Canadian by the painting style, especially the color palette, which owes an enormous debt to the historic Canadian painters who have interpreted our landscape Maurice Cullen, J.W Morrice, Cornelius Kreighoff, and the Group of Seven.

For me, however, there is a more important place where the story belongs, not a setting per se but a place where an emotional link is made from the story to the reader. An elusive creature not found on a map, this emotional link almost never presents itself quickly but rather appears only after delving beneath the story's skin to its heart.

The emotional link is at the core of all book-making. Without it, the reader is left with an accumulation of words and a series of images. In the world of the picture book, the fundamental task of the author, and on occasion to a greater degree the illustrator, is to develop an emotional link between the book's characters and the reader, drawing out the reader's response not in a manipulative way but through a natural evolution. The author's and illustrator's touches must be so sure yet so devilishly light working in consort with one another that the reader does not notice their deliberate development.

A larger percentage of authors understand the emotional component in text than illustrators understand the effects of illustration. Far too often artistic techniques and visual gimmicks take precedence over thought and careful consideration of the appropriate means and media to evoke a story's sensibilities. This situation may have developed for a variety of reasons. First, the problem lies in art education where technique (form) is often more important than the intellectual and emotional communication (content) with the viewer. Second, one can argue from a broader perspective that we live in a society that views an artist as someone who can draw or paint, but not think or feel. Hence no demands are made on an illustrator other than to provide a beautiful and pleasing image. This fact is most disturbing; it implicitly points out that the reader is not attuned to "reading" anything other than the written word. On the other hand, our society accepts without question the fact that a writer arranges words to communicate a point of view, an idea, a story.

Lovers of children's literature are well aware of "the beautiful book" – the book resplendent with illustrations, so overwhelming with its singular beauty that we stand in awe of its technical brilliance. The text quite frequently becomes a minor character in the bid for the limelight. Fortunately, time, with its ability to yellow edges, affords the reader the chance to study, reflect, and analyze. This reader will ultimately realize that the emperor has no clothes." The flash appeal of form over content will vaporize under closer scrutiny. An emotional link has never been established, and the reader has been cheated out of an enriching experience. Readers have been subjected to many illustrated books to which they have enormous difficulty relating on any level of understanding other than simple visual pleasure. The lack of an emotional link lies at the root of the problem.

To discover the emotional link of a story, the illustrator must understand all levels on which the story functions: intellectual, physical, psychological, and spiritual. This link is then made by a variety of means: appropriate media, color, changing perspectives, shape of the illustrations, shape of the book, style of type, white space around the type and each of the drawings, and the position of each character in relation to one another. Nothing must be left to chance.

Illustration from Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance

In creating Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance, I employed color as the emotional barometer of the text. This color barometer conveyed to the reader the emotional link of the story, Chin Chiang's vulnerability and his lack of self-confidence. In addition, it permitted the reader to feel Chin Chiang's conflict change as the story progressed and his confidence grew,

This device was set within a format whose formal tone was dictated by the culture and elicited by the text, the design of the book, the dragon motif found in the border of each illustration, and the fine black ink line drawings. The color unfolds from the opening of the story to its conclusion and evolves over the course of the day, from the soft earth tones during the post-dawn hours, progressing to stronger ones as night falls over the city. As the emotional conflict builds in Chin Chiang, the color becomes more vivid, reaching its dramatic peak at the climax of the story when Chin Chiang and Pu Yee dance triumphantly through the gates of harmony under a brilliant red sky.

This emotional barometer is reinforced by the changing perspectives. At two key points, readers find themselves perched far above the protagonist, which amplifies Chin Chiang's vulnerability and increases the power of the dragon and the reader. In the spiral staircase drawing, Chin Chiang is portrayed as running away from his family and his responsibilities, but he is in fact running straight along the back of the dragon, step by step, scale by scale.

Each of my books has demanded a different style of illustration. The intricate detail ot Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance was inappropriate for Very Last First Time. The two cultures were completely different in character, history, and landscape. Thus, the style of illustration had to change to capture the different people and their story. From my perspective, the drawings for Very Last First Time had to conjure up distinct images that were truly Northern Canadian, hence the strong influence of our historical painters.

Very Last First Time presented a classic structure in children's literature of two worlds; therefore, I employed two dominant colors to reflect the distinct yet inseparable worlds entered by Eva Padlyat. The above-ground world is light, thus yellow (also the light from her candle), and the under-ice world is dark, thus purple. (Remember that the Inuit refer to the land in which they live as the Land of Purple Twilight.) This concept is recognized by the reader upon picking up the book. The world of light is captured within a squarish shape of the cover and contrasted sharply with the rectangular, claustrophobic world of dark, seen in the end papers.

A fascinating incident took place during the creation of the illustrations for Very Last First Time. I had been invited to visit a third grade class in Scarborough, Ontario. The teacher asked me to bring along my current project. I took the first nine images, including the illustration where Eva entered the under-ice world alone for the first time. I held that particular illustration up in front of those 32 students and said, "Hidden here is a wolf, a bear, and a seal sea monster." Sixty-four eyes focused on the haunting image before them. As they hunted for the rhree under-ice images, another far more intriguing and critical discovery took place.

Barely able to contain their excitement, five or six students called out, "And Eva's mother, too!" I uttered a quite audible giggle that betrayed my adult disbelief and said, "I beg your pardon." Again they exclaimed, "Eva's mother is there ... look ... and she's talking to the ice."

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I handed a student in the first row the illustration in question and asked her to hold it up for me to see. Those students were right. On the extreme right side of the illustration, staring out at me was the spirit image of Eva's mother, and she was definitely talking to the ice.

Illustration from Very Last First Time

Let me explain. When I draw and paint, my illustrations lie on a drafting table in front of me. What I had painted in the extreme top right corner of that illustration was a pool of water with rocks scattered about the pool and a wall of ice swooping down from the ice ceiling overhead to join the rocks at the far side of the pool.

When you look at the illustration from a distance of five feet or more, however, the three-dimensional pool flattens out to form a two-dimensional image of Eva's mother's face. The rocks in the water form her eyes and nose. The wall of ice behind takes the form of her hooded parka. Directly in front of the pool of water was a triangular shaped piece of ice that, when also viewed from the same distance, took on the shape of a spirit bird.

Without thinking, I asked, "How did you know that the image was Eva's mother?" My young charges looked at me incredulously and announced, Your mother is always with you." They thought me quite silly not to have known that. How could I be more than four times their age and not know that my mother would still be with me! And Eva's mother would be with her, too, they realized, if not physically then spiritually. My illustrations had created an emotional link between Eva's life and the lives of these children.

Research is essential during the process of creating books like Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance and Very Last First Time. Throughout the period of discovery in Eva's story, the significance of the spirit world to the everyday life of the Inuit came clearly into focus. I would have been shirking my responsibility as an illustrator, a storyteller in pictures, if I had overlooked this integral aspect of Inuit life.

At the end of my initial reading of Very Last First Time, the one line that haunted me above all others was, "Eva raised her candle high and there appeared in the shadows a wolf, a bear and a seal sea monster." After three months of research I accepted the significance of the spirit world to the Inuit and noted implicitly that these images had to be painted into the under-ice world. Only after lengthy soul-searching did I realize further that these three images had to be painted as if they had been painted by Eva Padlyat. She was the Inuit child, not me. And my perception of what a wolf, a bear, and a seal sea monster would look like would have been entirely different from Eva's vision of these spirit images.

To ensure Eva's vision, I hurried off to the reference library of the Art Gallery of Ontario where my research of Inuit drawings showed me the fine points of Inuit art. Artists of the Eastern Arctic draw and paint in a unique style when compared with the artists of the Western Arctic.

It was not a fluke that Eva's mother appeared in the rock pool. For the previous seven months I had been immersed in the relevance of the spirit world to the Inuit. It seems quite natural, then, that at some point my subconscious would take over and incorporate spirit images into the illustrations, in much the same way that when an Inuit sculptor sits down to carve a piece of bone or stone the sculptor waits for the spirit to emerge. The sculptor does not begin to carve before the spirit presents itself.

Those 32 third grade students had been able to see the spirit images that I had painted without conscious awareness. Their recognition and easy acceptance of the spirit world made me keenly aware of the vast gulf that often separates the state of childhood and the state of adulthood. Their acceptance of Eva's spirit world knew no borders. It was not a perception reserved for Canadian children. The under-ice spirits were not seen by boys exclusive of girls, nor did it fall to one race to the exclusion of any other.

This humbling experience set off a flashing light of logic. Of course, the spirit world so integral to the lives of our Inuit and native peoples could be housed in all of the illustrations of the under-ice world Eva entered. These images would be hidden in the rocks and in the ice formations, reflective mirrors of her own reality. Out of the mouths of babes!

As much as Eva's story could not have unfolded in any other physical landscape, it owes an enormous debt to the spiritual landscape that it had to follow.

In the fall of 1986 I had the privilege and pleasure of traveling to the North West Territories to celebrate Children's Book Festival Week in Canada. On this journey, my itinerary took me to Inuit communities north of the Arctic Circle and to Dene communities in the southern portion of the Territories. At the close of the reading to the students, teachers, and families in the tiny community of Lac La Marte, the Chief of the Band introduced himself to me. His words that follow are to the best of my recollection.

I read Very Last First Time two weeks ago. I told myself then that I had to come today to meet you because I couldn't believe that you were white even though your name sounded so. But you are! I wanted to thank you for understanding the spirit world of the Dene and Inuit. So few white people treat our spirit world with the respect you gave it.

No higher compliment could have been paid me from any other place or from any more distinguished voice. All the critical glowing reviews in the world, even if stacked to the point where they touched the sun, would never equal the humility and inner satisfaction I experienced at that moment.

In my work as an author I do not sit down to write stories, nor do I consciously choose stories to illustrate because they will be distinguished as being multicultural or Canadian or whatever flag one chooses to wave over them. I write or illustrate stories because first and foremost they are stories that will intrigue, inspire, and touch young readers. The characters who inhabit these tales are people who have earned my sympathy and are ones with whom I can empathize on a personal level. They are universal characters with universal emotions and universal experiences. They are characters whom I respect for their dignity of spirit and purpose in life, characters who struggle, who test limits, and who endure. Most important, they are characters who through the story go through some kind of change.

At the end of a good story, a reader comes away with the confidence that the protagonist has been touched inwardly by the experience, that the protagonist will never be the same and will treasure the memory. It is my hope that the reader of my books will never by the same either.

I firmly believe that an author's and an illustrator's foremost responsibility is not to themselves or to each other, not to the country of their birth, not to their editor or publisher, not even to the reader at home or across the border (although I do believe that the reader stands next in line). Our primary responsibility is to the story. This responsibility demands and deserves our best work, conceived after careful thought, born out of scrupulous research, and realized in words and pictures fundamental to the story. Finding the emotional link is the key, and its discovery will make the search a journey worth taking for both the creator and the reader.

Copyright © Ian Wallace