Interviewed by Cheryl Rainfield
The Boy from the Sun
by Duncan Weller
Simply Read Books (January 2007)
ISBN-10: 1894965337, ISBN-13: 978-1894965330
The Boy From the Sun is an inspiring, feel-good story about the power of imagination, of individuality, of the environment. The Boy from the Sun starts out on a grey day, where three children sit on the sidewalk, each alone in their own world. Then a boy with a yellow shining head floats down from the sky, and takes them on a magical journey that helps the children see the world through new eyes.
Q. Why did you write The Boy From The Sun?
A. I couldn’t help it. The story wrote itself. I woke up one morning, the sun hit me in the face, and the title, “The Boy from the Sun” popped into my head. Without any effort, images followed. I jumped out of bed, sketched out the story, then jumped back into bed and went to sleep. Later, looking at my quick sketches I was overwhelmed with confidence that this story was worth fleshing out. I also recall being fully aware of having bizarre dreams that morning, just before the sun hit me. The dreams involved traveling within fantastical landscapes, with an undercurrent of foreboding about the future tagging along. The story may have been an intuitive affirmation of life in the face of possible global thermonuclear war. It was the late 1980s when I came up with the story idea.
Q. The Boy From The Sun has such a wonderful flight of imagination and fantasy. Do you enjoy fantasy? Do you think imagination is useful?
A. I’m not overwhelmed by fantasy. I like science-fiction more, but stopped reading this genre. I guess I’ve had my fill. I’m more interested, when reading, in the adult world of the here and now. This doesn’t stop me from loving fantasy/ Sci-Fi films. I’m a big fan of these. I like the Hollywood Blockbusters, and more esoteric films, but not the superhero movies. I’m looking forward to James Cameron’s film, Battle Angel.
A. Imagination is the spark in life. Without it we’d be pretty boring as a species. Everything is dependent on it – religion, art, science, etc. – even a general belief in hope for the future. I’m all about allegory and layering my works with meaning using a blend of imagination with reality. I can’t commit to all out fantasy. I see the value in it, but I like to have the earth and its layers beneath my feet from which strange fruit can grow.
Q. I love the way you move the story and illustrations from bleakness into vibrant color, activity, and hope. Did you first see that as an illustration, or think that as the storyline?
A. The visuals for this story came to me all at once, unlike my other stories. I didn’t question the juxtaposition or the progression of the story from black and white into colour. To me it seemed quite natural. The visuals progressing this way are like representations of learning stages in the mental life of children, exploring and trying to make sense of their world. The illustrations didn’t have to make literal sense to be valuable for me. I trusted my senses that they were right.
|image “Three Hills” from The Boy From the Sun|
Q. How did you decide to use two very different artistic styles in the same book?
A. I realized years after I started the story that I’d intuitively drawn both what children at an early age are capable of drawing combined with what they hope to achieve when they draw. Children draw ideographically – what’s important to them they draw bigger than other objects. Children draw on a baseline in a two dimensional world using pictures instead of words, which is why when children learn to write, they generally give up drawing, and why drawing in three dimensions is not important. In my full colour paintings the animals are not to scale because scale in this story is not important. Children at a young age are not concerned with scale. Older children and adults might be critical of the paintings because they seem bizarre in this way, but young children don’t have a problem with it. Actually, so far, no one has. As adults we acknowledge that all the rules in art have been broken, but people who read this book might not realize that there’s reasoning behind my madness. Also, ideographically speaking, the factory in the background is not a factory. It looks like one, but it’s actually something else. A few children have been able to figure it out.
Q. What mediums did you work in to do the illustrations?
A. For this book I used watercolours primarily. I used my Rapidograph pens for the thick black lines and Pigma Pens for some of the wiry detail in the trees and for some of the sketching of the people and animals. Corrections were made with acrylics.
Q. Is there any artist that you draw inspiration from? Any writer?
A. My inspiration for visual art comes from all over the map – historical arts, popular arts, contemporary arts – High, Low, and Fine Art. The list is too long. As for writing, I thoroughly enjoyed reading work from the Romantic Period of English Literature and of the Harlem Renaissance. William Blake’s poetry inspired the style of writing in The Boy from the Sun. I get most of my inspiration for stories from works of historical, political, and social or cultural criticism. Authors such as Alan Gowans, James Howard Kunstler, George Woodcock, I.F. Stone, Carl Sagan, Jacques Barzun, Richard Stivers, Jeremy Rifkin, and others have directly influenced me.
Q. What was the hardest thing for you to write in this book? Why?
A. What I call the “End Poem” was the hardest to write. I battled it out with an editor. The editor made a few good suggestions, but I stuck to my guns and demanded certain words and phrases stay. Both my publisher and the editor suggested I consider getting rid of the text altogether and having a wordless picture book. I didn’t entertain that idea for a second. I fought and struggled with myself to make sure the End Poem made sense, not so much to a child, because I believe, if the book is good enough, children will come back to it and see more in it as they get older. I like to think they’ll keep the book around for years, but I was really hoping adults would get the message too – especially in Canada where the arts have been cut dramatically in the public school system. There’s a real tragedy unfolding. Children are growing up without culture, a culture that as Canadians we might want children to have – to be inspired by – to take part in. We’re raising automatons for basic service and manufacturing jobs. Fewer people are developing interesting hobbies.
Q. What was the hardest thing for you to illustrate in this book? Why?
A. None of the illustrations were particularly hard. It’s difficult to paint faces that are very small – in a single square centimeter – but overall I thoroughly enjoyed working on the illustrations. The length of time was irrelevant. I don’t relate time to money. I don’t clock myself, although I’ll end up working ten to fourteen hours a day for weeks on end. Three of the illustrations for this book took a month and a half each. Some required a bit of research. Only a few I had to ditch and create anew.
Q. If there’s an idea or message you hope your readers take away from your book, what is it?
A. Absolutely! There are messages in all my books, layers of them, but I work with the belief that it is far more valuable to listen than to talk. If I’ve done a good job then what people tell me – or how they react to the book – will be an indication that the messages have risen up through the words and pictures and have hit their mark. I learn so much more about my art listening to what other people say about it than what I tell others. It’s too easy to convince people of value in a work when there might be none. We get too impressed by an artist’s charisma and their use of language, knowledge of history, etc., which may not necessarily reflect the value of the art they produce. For The Boy from the Sun I made general positive statements on my web site, and in a previous interview, about the value of nature and the power of the imagination, but there’s a lot more going on that I hope people will find.
Q. What are some of your favourite picture books or children’s books?
A. I was always a fan of Where the Wild Things Are. I liked Harry the Dirty Dog, Goggles, Snowy Day, The Cat Who Thought He Was A Tiger, Mr. Benn-Red Knight, The Story About Ping, Madeline, The House on East 88th Street, Curious George. I wish that I had been introduced to Raoul Dahl as a child. I know I would have loved his work.
Q. Is there anything you would like to tell readers?
A. Keep reading.
Thank you, Duncan.
If you haven’t read The Boy From the Sun, you’ll want to pick up a copy; the illustrations alone are stunning and inspiring. See my review here.
Duncan Weller recently won the top Canadian illustration prize, the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, Illustration. He both writes and illustrates his children’s picture books. His adult paintings combine traditional working methods with new technologies culminating in DVD/CD projects enlisting the help of animators and musicians. A retrospective of his work will be held at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery from April 4 to May 18, 2008. Duncan now spends equal time writing adult works, poetry, short stories, and is currently working on a screenplay for a low budget film to be shot in Thunder Bay. For more information please visit his website at www.duncanweller.com.