Today’s post is dedicated to Stephen Michael King, one of the 3 authors/illustrators whose books captivated my child during his toddler years and whom I credit for kick-starting his love of reading (see who the other 2 author/illustrators were in this post).
Stephen Michael King is one of Australia’s most loved and successful children’s books authors/illustrators. His books are published in over 20 countries and frequently win awards. He has illustrated over a hundred children’s books and written about twenty of his own – The Man Who Loved Boxes, Patricia, Milli Jack and the Dancing Cat, A Bear and a Tree, Emily Loves to Bounce, Mutt Dog, You, Leaf – to name a few. Here are some books that live in our library (watch out for the upcoming individual reviews).
I met Stephen at Pinerolo children’s books cottage last month (read more about Pinerolo here) having the privilege of hearing him talk about his life, work and art. This post is an account of what that interaction revealed about the man, the artist that he is and his work practices.
A shy child, he suffered from impaired hearing, which was misunderstood till he was in the eighth grade. His world was silent and introverted for a while. As a result, writing and drawing have become his trusted forms of communication. He speaks of leaving school somewhat depressed, trying various jobs, including working in a vegetable shop, as a bicycle courier, then at the local library where he read stories to children. He loved making books, however, and knew that he wanted to be an artist not a librarian. He went to study art but hated it, dropping out of the art school. He then engaged into an animation course, couldn’t stand it and dropped out of it too. At some point he worked as an apprentice at Walt Disney, then as a freelance animator but did not enjoy this either. His desire to create books stayed strong all the while. “If I couldn’t publish books I would have done chalk drawings on the street”, said Stephen. His first engagement with an Australian publisher was to design and illustrate an animal cartooning book. It ended up being so successful that it sold over 80 thousand copies. “I fudged my way through it”, says Stephen (too humble a man to credit his talent and passion for the success of this first engagement :). He kept persevering and eventually his career as an illustrator took off.
Stephen’s artistic style is recognisable in an instant. Staying true to his style and with his own way of tapping into his creativity he dislikes being given instructions for illustrating books. Of his process he says:
“I read something [that is about to be illustrated] and try not to think about it, letting the right side of the brain do the work while I’m sleeping or gardening…”
His ideas germinate, sometimes slowly. He loves to sketch, brainstorm and design characters, the least favorite part of the process for him is the final painting. I was surprised to hear that after the book is finished he usually comes up with “a thousand other ideas of what it could have been” and never thinks of the finished book as perfect…Seriously? For what it’s worth, dear Stephen, we love your work, regardless of how ‘imperfect’ from your point of view!
“I didn’t want to be a grown-up when I grew up! I knew how free-spirited bare-feet, long grass and standing on my head felt. I was well aware that adults mostly wore shoes”, says Stephen. His characters are often bare-foot, they don’t buy things, rather making things of paper and sticks and strings.
These down-to-earth qualities and free-spirit of his characters is a direct reflection of his own attitude to life and work. To an interview question of “What would your ten-year-old self say to you now?” Stephen responds: “You’ll move to the country and discover it’s full of creative people: farmers who can make anything from a piece of wire; painters living near waterfalls; sculptors living in sheds; and people who make beautiful jams and cakes… you’ll never forget or give up the simple things. Money and status won’t seduce you as much as sharing a cup of tea on the back step, your father telling you he was proud, eating a cumquat straight off the tree, walking barefoot everywhere, listening to your wife sing and watching your children being children”.
At present, Stephen’s family and their rescue dogs live on a small island off the east coast of NSW Australia, in a mud-brick house with a garden and an orchard separating it from Stephen’s studio… If that is not nice I don’t know what is…
Here he is free sketching at “Pinerolo” open day (2 drawings below are for me and my friend to keep – happy-happy days!)
And here is Stephen talking at the picture books workshop. What a delight it was to see the originals of his art – published works, working illustrations, sketches and drawings.
Humble as he is Stephen told us that he was usually shy telling people about his life (art school and classes drop outs and all). I think that life-stories like his are the ones to be proud of and the ones we need to hear more often as they inspire perseverance with staying on one’s chosen path. Stephen’s journey shows that staying true to yourself pays off in the end, success and true happiness from doing what you absolutely love becoming inevitable. Whilst some of us adults have already settled for less than “absolute love” in pursuit of conventional, safer way to success, our kids could certainly still make a different choice. I am definitely speaking to my son about Stephen and his journey and hope to inspire some blog readers to do the same with their children. Stephen talks to school kids, if you’re a teacher refer to his website for more information about booking his visit: www.stephenmichaelking.com
 “12 Curly Questions with author/illustrator Stephen Michael King”, 24 /09/2013, <http://www.kids-bookreview.com/2013/09/12-curly-questions-with.html>.