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Hope for Outsiders - Frieda Wishinsky speaks with Robin Muller
by Frieda Wishinsky

The noted author and illustrator Robin Muller isn't content to rest on his laurels. Muller, who has won numerous awards for his work, including the 1989 Governor General's award for his picture-book, The Magic Paintbrush (Doubleday), is now a student in the Classical Animation course at Sheridan College (in Oakville, Ontario). And he's devoting his characteristic intensity and attention to detail to this new undertaking. "I was attracted to animation," he explains, "because I have a fascination with how you make pictures move. Animation can take you places that live action can't."

After a year of immersion in animation, Muller feels that it has helped him with breaking a story into scenes or storyboarding, a technique that book illustrators use to define and structure their art for a book.

Muller's excitement with conveying a story through art and words began early. "I always drew," he says. At sixteen, he had a summer job in Scholastic's warehouse: "That was my first exposure to picture-books, and I was quite enchanted."

Despite his love of art, Muller did not train professionally. "That's probably why, more than in many people's work, you see a real transition in mine," he says. "My first three books were a process of discovery. I was trying to figure out how to draw a character who looks the same in twenty illustrations. A trick I learned from my first book, Mollie Whuppie & the Giant [Scholastic Canada], is to put the characters in very distinctive clothing. In all my books to this day, my characters are distinctively dressed. I also try to make sure that my characters' facial constructions are all radically different. "

Muller uses strong, luminous colour and sharp lines in his illustrations. There is a dramatic quality to all his scenes and characters that mirrors the drama of the stories.

Another signature aspect of his work is his fascination with retelling and reinterpreting folk-tales and fairy-tales. "For one thing," he explains, "I have a deep love of history. When you write a new story, it begins and ends with you. With these old tales, I feel like I'm participating in something that's been going on for centuries. It's like meeting your ancestors. I like to refashion the old stories for a new era. If it works, the new flavour you add carries the story on further."

As Muller points out, not only do these tales have universal themes, but they also have cross-generational appeal. "These stories weren't written for kids," he says. "They were cautionary tales for adults. That's what keeps them potent in our lives."

Before he begins to illustrate, he "nails the whole text down." Only then can he figure out the page breaks, where each picture should go and what each picture should look like. Once he starts working on the art, he can take up to a month on one scene. Looking at the detail and fine-tuning in his illustrations, it's not surprising that each drawing requires so much intense work and time.

As for subject-matter, Muller notes that he's attracted to the story of the misfit, the outsider. "Even in something light like Row Row Row Your Boat [Scholastic Canada], my animal character is unhappy with the way he lives and tries to pursue something that is against his nature."

But despite the outsider's difficulties and anguish, Muller's characters always triumph over obstacles and vanquish the evil personalities who try to destroy their life and dreams. His tales always have a happy end. Muller feels that hope and the promise of a better tomorrow are vital to impart to children. He articulates that idea toward the end of his latest book, The Angel Tree: "This sapling will grow and, from its fruit, other trees will grow, for life renewed is the silver thread of hope in the darkness. There is no greater gift in heaven or earth than that."

In The Angel Tree, the themes of an outsider facing ridicule and hardship are revisited but, as always in Muller's books, with a different twist and in a new setting. This time, it's a Western setting, replete with horses, blacksmiths, and a travelling magician. The Angel Tree is about Kit, an apprentice blacksmith, whose master, Grimshaw, has tyrannized over him for seven years. Kit's only relief from his arduous days is in sitting beneath an ancient tree. One day, he hears a sparrow singing in the tree and soon, to his joy and surprise, discovers an angel there. When Grimshaw threatens to destroy the tree, the angel enlists Kit's assistance in saving it.

Muller was intrigued with the idea of presenting an angel who seeks human help. But originally, The Angel Tree began as a completely different story called The Wishing Hat. "But I reached a certain critical point in that story," says Muller, "and I couldn't go further." So he took the story in an entirely new direction.

Seeking new directions is something Muller embraces. Not only has he embarked on the Sheridan animation course, but in recent years, he has produced a series of segments for the CBC, presenting Canadian children's books. It's Muller's way of introducing the public, through a popular medium like television, to the richness of Canadian children's writers' and illustrators' work.

As for the future, Muller is ready to tackle writing and illustrating projects on a variety of fronts. And as he does, he continues to link the old and the new. He is exploring new mediums like animation to present old stories. "I am a romantic," he says. "One of my teachers said that I'm not of this era."

Yet, looking at his range of interest and mastery of new techniques, Muller seems to be very much a part of this era-and of past eras too. 

Frieda Wishinsky's latest books are Crazy for Chocolate and Oonga Boonga (Scholastic Canada).


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