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Four Czech Chicks
by Gillian O'Reilly

Veronika Martenova Charles, Vladyana Langer Krykorka, Jirina Marton, Ludmila Zelman

Appropriate to a nation of immigrants, Canadian children's books in the last two decades have been enriched by the talents of four dynamic illustrators from the Czech Republic (formerly part of Czechoslovakia). Perhaps their birthplace is not so surprising, however, given that the first children's picture book (an illustrated encyclopedia) was written by a Czech educator and bishop in 1658. In the books they have published here, Vladyana Langer Krykorka, Veronika Martenova Charles, Jirina Marton and Ludmila Zeman have brought to life stories from all over the world: Sindbad the Sailor, Czech fairy tales, Japanese legends, North and South American stories, Inuit tales, and stories of contemporary children.

Growing up in Czechoslovakia, these four women knew both the beauty and culture of old European cities and the restrictions of totalitarian rule. Created as a country in 1919 from a portion of the Hapsburg Empire, Czechoslovakia enjoyed independence until the Nazi occupation and subsequent Soviet control. A brief flirtation with reform in 1968 ("The Prague Spring") was crushed by the Soviets and the country remained under Communist rule until 1989.

Vladyana Langer Krykorka came to Canada in 1968. An only child, she grew up in Prague. Her mother was a teacher and "wonderful craftswoman" and her father was an opera enthusiast with "a thousand hobbies." She herself is a warm and enthusiastic personality with a lively sense of humour. She and her then husband were honeymooning in Italy when the Soviet forces moved into Czechoslovakia. Making the heart-wrenching decision not to return, they came to Canada where she continued her studies and worked as a designer before embarking on an illustrating career.

Kyrkorka's distinctive style is known to the readers of Inuit writer Michael Kusugak's Arctic stories but she has recently illustrated the European legend Dear as Salt and The Twelve Months, a well-known Czech fairy tale. She is currently creating the illustrations for a project she herself devised: a retelling of the stories from three operas by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Her son Ian, a Czech and English literature scholar, is writing the text. Tentatively titled Silver Moon, the book is due in fall 2002.

Jirina Marton's slightly austere elegance is belied by her gentle manner and quiet humour. At the age of five, she wanted to be a ballerina; then her career aspirations turned to opera singer, violinist, doctor, actor, Indian, teacher. Eventually she opted for "artist" and, like Krykorka, attended the School of Applied Art in Prague. She escaped Czechoslovakia in 1979 and lived in Paris for six years before coming to Canada. While working as a book designer, she also began illustrating for French and Japanese publishing companies. Marton recalls the first book she wrote, published in France. "I wrote it in Czech and then asked someone to translate it into French and I watched him work. I saw that it was difficult, but it was not so difficult." She has continued to write (in English now) and illustrate and has an active career in Canada and Japan. She has written a number of stories of contemporary children but her 1997 book Lady Kaguya's Secret was a stunning adaptation of a tenth-century Japanese legend and was a book that "changed my life." She is currently writing and illustrating an Inuit story for her Japanese publisher.

Ludmila Zeman, known for her Gilgamesh and Sindbad series, is a filmmaker, author and illustrator. She grew up in Zlin (home of the Bata Shoe empire) where her father Karel Zeman, a noted animator, worked for a time in Bata's own film studio. After a long career as an animator in Czechoslovakia, she and her family escaped to Canada in 1984. In person, she has a slightly hesitant manner but there is no mistaking the passion with which she approaches her work. The illustrations for her three books retelling the epic of Gilgamesh (the world's ear-liest recorded literary work) were recently purchased by the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collection of rare children's books at the Toronto Public Library and she is currently working on a film version of the trilogy. Her newest book is the second in her Sindbad trilogy: Sinbad in the Land of the Giants.

Veronika Martenova Charles grew up in Prague where she enjoyed a career as a teen rock star. In 1970, at the age of 19, she was returning to Czechoslovakia from Cuba where her group had been performing. She defected when the plane refuelled in Gander (equipped with only a comb, a shark's tooth from a Cuban beach and an English dictionary). Now she considers English almost her first language ("I dream in English."). Her sense of adventure and roving intelligence has led her down many new paths. She has illustrated both her own and other writers' books and has written books illustrated by other artists. Her most recent projects are the Easy-to-Read Spooky Tales series of early readers (Don't Open the Door!, Don't Go Into the Forest!) and she has also written and illustrated Maiden of the Mist: A Legend of Niagara Falls.

For all four, books, art and music formed a large part of their childhoods. Charles says, "Almost every family I can think of had bookshelves in their houses and pictures on the walls." Krykorka adds, "The history of bookmaking and illustration is there. We lived with beautiful books and they were always there."

When new books came out, Charles explains, people would line up for hours to get one. She points to her childhood copy of a picture book by noted Czech illustrator, author and filmmaker Ji f Trnka. It is one of 40,000, printed for the fortieth edition of the book!

Zeman explains, "There were libraries but they were not well equipped and they were open only during working hours. But also people were very isolated under the Communist system. They were seeking knowledge which could only be acquired from books. There was no television. Our parents were very angry about what was being talked about in the school system. They tried to give their children education through books."

All four illustrators talk about fairy tales as part of their lives¨both Czech ones and those of other countries, like Hans Christian Andersen's works, or the Arabian Nights. Pointing to the Czech stories that were the bases of Krykorka's The Twelve Months or Charles' Stretch, Swallow and Stare, Zeman adds, "Every child of my generation knew all those fairy tales." She further notes that there was an enormous amount of classic literature in translation, from authors like Victor Hugo or Walter Scott. "We couldn't read modern books, but there were good translations of lots of classics."

Music (and often opera) was a common part of their lives. Zeman remembers that, at school, they were taken to concerts "almost every two weeks. It was amazing. I appreciate it more today than as a child. Then we were just happy to skip classes. But such exposure influences your mind and feelings."

Marton, whose mother was an opera singer, remembers being five years old and watching performances while sitting on the knees of the fireman backstage. Krykorka says that her father would buy them opera tickets in the top balcony where they had to stand. At intermission, they would move down to empty seats they could see below, but she says that for Wagner operas, the standing was "really difficult!" Charles comments that her mother, not being able to afford tickets, would sneak the two of them in to the theatre at intermission¨with the result that she was familiar with only the second parts of many operas!

While Krykorka, Marton and Zeman all attended art school (and Zeman had considerable training in her father's studio), Veronika Martenova Charles pursued a music career. Her grandmother had cancelled her art classes earlier, shocked that her granddaughter was expected to sketch nudes. It was only after she came to Toronto that she returned to art studies.

The profession of artist was a respected one, Krykorka recalls. People trained as she was could list "academic artist" after their names. Children's books, like animated works and films, were well supported by the government and offered lots of opportunity for talented artists. Under the Communist regime, Zeman adds, artists working on children's material had more freedom than they would have tackling adult subjects.

After her father's death, unable to return to Czechoslovakia, Zeman turned to the epic of Gilgamesh that he had always loved and began to feel, as she read, that she must retell this story. She created what she could from her research and used her imagination for certain el ments¨ and was delighted when a Mesopotamian expert at the British Museum thoroughly approved of the book.

Zeman creates her art in layers: first the pencil drawings, then a layer of transparent fixative, then watercolour (she and Krykorka both use the extraordinarily vivid Czech watercolours) and finally highlights in coloured pencil. While many artists paint their works larger than they will actually appear in the book, hers are smaller than the final book¨a method that seems extremely demanding when one looks at the detail in both the paintings and their intricate borders. This practice came about with her first book when the publisher, on seeing the finished works, decided to opt for a larger sized book than originally planned. When the illustrations were enlarged, she liked the effect produced and has continued to do the same with every book.

Her books contains much realistic detail portrayed in intense colours. For Gilgamesh, to enhance the feeling that this was a dynamic story¨almost like a film¨ she ran richly detailed borders along the top and bottom of each picture. For the Sindbad books, similarly intricate borders appear on four sides, echoing the art of Persian miniatures. She came to the Sindbad stories as a result of school tours to promote the Gilgamesh books. She would talk to the kids about stories she grew up with and discovered that, although they knew Aladdin, they were familiar with no other stories from The Arabian Nights. She set out to give them the Sindbad stories as well as information about the story and the culture around it.

Over the years, Jirina Marton has worked with a diversity of materials, depending both on the treatment the book demands and the time allowed by the publisher. The luminous illustrations of Lady Kaguya's Secret were achieved by using oil pastels diluted with turpentine. At a certain point, Marton explains, the pastels start to get "mushy." Before she reached that point, she would stop and cover the illustration with reworkable lacquer. Once that lacquer had dried, she could continue where she left off. The resulting illustrations have the depth and richness of oil painting as well as a smoothness that echoes the flat planes of colour used in the great 16th century Japanese prints that we are so familiar with today.

Marton first heard Lady Kaguya's story from her translator on her first trip to Japan in 1995. By the time she left nine days later, she was already planning the book. She wrote several times to her translator for more information on the story but had never heard back from her. She had to develop the text from her own research. When Marton sent the woman the published book, the translator wrote back saying that she had not responded previously because she had wanted Marton to find her own way into the story.

Her illustrations developed in a similar way. Marton began by making many sketches based on Japanese paintings. "Then I saw that suddenly it wasn't Japanese art or European art, it was just dead copies." She decided that she would have to approach it her way, respecting the traditions of Japan, but making it her own. The result is eminently satisfying.

Much of Vladyana Langer Krykorka's work is done in watercolours, but she has also used tempera or collages or even scratchboard. Watercolour is much less forgiving than other media¨it can't be painted over. She works out the black and white sketches first and then applies the colour. The elegant calligraphy found on the cover and in the picture captions of The Twelve Months is hers also. Sometimes her dog Myshka finds his way into her pictures and designs and he has a surprise role in The Twelve Months.

Krykorka is known for the distinctive rich "Czech" blue that appears in many of her books, particularly in her Arctic books, where the tones of the snow demand that colour. Her most recent books, however, show experimentation with a wide range of colours while keeping the richness of detail. Even a northern story like The Polar Bear's Gift (with its large format) uses rich pinks to complement the necessary blues and broad fields of colour. The Twelve Months contains warm browns, golds and finally red (evoking fields and harvests, firelight and cosy hearth) that complement the blues, greens and greys of the outdoors to provide the spectrum of the seasons.

Veronika Martenova Charles has been retelling legends and stories since she was very young. Czech radio would broadcast stories for children. Sitting with her mother, who sewed costumes for theatres, she would play on the floor with scraps of fabric and buttons. The buttons would become characters from the story she had just heard and the fabric would be the world they inhabited but always, "I wouldn't do the same story. I would use it as a stepping stone and go where I wanted. I like the idea that the story is anchored in the reality of something."

Since embarking on her career, she has explored legends and myths from many parts of the world including her daring reworking of a famous Czech fairy tale into Stretch, Swallow and Stare. In the Easy to Read Spooky Tales series, she has collected cautionary legends from different cultures and challenged children to write their own endings to one of the three tales in each collection.

With Maiden of the Mist, she was drawn to the fairy tale quality of the Native Canadian legend, known mostly from the 19th century British version (familiar to those who have visited Niagara Falls) which had a more helpless heroine drowning in the cataract. She looked at the original Iroquois tale which told of a young woman who takes her destiny into her hands and, as a result, is able to help her people get rid of a monster snake in a battle of good and evil that results in the shape of today's Niagara Falls. Charles' story is more faithful to the original Iroquois legend¨as can be seen in the cover illustration where the young woman seems to leap into the fall rather than being passively swept away.

She works in acrylics when she paints, often reworking to achieve the images planned out in her head ("I'm not a good sketcher, I do a lot of work on the actual paintings."). She sometimes tries posing in positions her characters would adopt and has her family take Polaroids of her. When she has the right pose and knows how it feels to be in that pose, she can paint the emotion of the character more easily. She says painting the illustrations is like walking through a dark house. "After I start the book, after doing it all in my mind, it's like walking through a dark house. I know where things are, but I couldn't describe them; I recognize them when they emerge on the page."

In telling these stories, she says, "I wanted to keep these alive. There is so much magic and wisdom in these st ries. And I want to make them so that kids can get som thing out of them and be taken on a journey. I want to amaze them and amuse them."

Gillian O'Reilly is a writer and editor in Toronto. Portions of this article appeared in "Where I'm Coming From: The Czech Connection" in the ,Spring 2001 issue of Children's Book News.

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