Saturday, August 11, 2018

My love for Japanese children's book illustration and my disdain for sentimentality

So much children’s book illustration I see is cutesy or overly sweet.  I’ve always had an aversion to sentimentality and excess emotion. The Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines “sentimental” as “weakly emotional; mawkish.” In my mind this over-feeling clouds the truth of whatever is being expressed. 

This opinion also applies to illustration style. I prefer children that are represented as physical creatures, that are fully embodied, rather than stick figures with ambiguous body parts. To me drawings that accurately and expertly represent physical creatures are another form of truth.

This sensibility is one of the reasons why I love so much of Japanese children’s book illustration. The Japanese aesthetic is reductive, minimal – nothing in excess, nothing overstated. The drawing style is sophisticated and embodied, rather than some fey imagining of what a child looks like.

One well-loved Japanese artist and illustrator is Chihiro Iwasaki, who was born in 1918 and died in 1974. She created expressive illustrations of children and flowers using line and watercolor.

Masamitsu Saito is an illustrator of two of the books in Enchanted Lion Books’ “Being in the World” series. In “Into the Snow,” he uses oil pastels, gouache, acrylics, and colored pencil to convey the immediacy of a child playing in the snow.

Komako Sakai is a children’s book writer and illustrator. Her incredibly tender – but not saccharine sweet – mixed-media work can be found in such books as “Emily’s Balloon,” in which a very small child makes friends with a balloon.

Each of these illustrators conveys emotion without turning maudlin. The drawing style may be loose and expressive, yet the children look like they belong in real life. Children reading these books will see themselves in the story because the illustrations look like them and the emotion rings true.