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Drawing inspiration: how Montreal became a hotbed for children’s illustration

Fanny Britt’s Jane, the Fox and Me, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Consider Isabelle Arsenault’s studio a visual metaphor for her kids’ book illustrations. Tucked away in an isolated row of warehouses in Montreal’s Mile End, the workspace is a reminder of the trendy neighbourhood’s gritty industrial past. But inside, the studio’s design is clean and modern. Sunlight from the large windows bounces off polished hardwood floors, its glare diffused by a small field of trees behind the building. It’s a contemplative, calming view.

A similar duality exists in Arsenault’s illustrative work for picture books, such as Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf, published in 2012 by Kids Can Press, and her latest, Jean E. Pendziwol’s Once Upon a Northern Night, which came out in August with Groundwood Books. Arsenault possesses a rare ability to capture the innocence and imagination of childhood, while acknowledging the darker fears and insecurities that lurk in the shadows.

Like many artists of varying disciplines, Arsenault’s creative work is influenced by her surroundings. In addition to her studio and Mile End ““ one of Canada’s densest artistic communities, according to census data ““ the city of Montreal and its eclectic urban landscape has left its imprint on the Governor General’s Literary Award winner.

“Montreal is this weird city where you can find a nice building just next to another one that’s ugly. Everything is mixed up,” says Arsenault. “For me, it’s inspiring, and allows liberty to see things your own way. I think it shows in the work and is reflected in its creators.”

Over the past 30 years, La Belle Ville has become an unofficial hub for prize-winning children’s book illustrators ““ not just Arsenault, but also Stéphane Jorisch (Oma’s Quilt), Marie-Louise Gay (the Stella series), Mireille Levert (Eddie Longpants), Geneviève Côté (Mr. King’s Things), François Thisdale (The Stamp Collector), and Philippe Béha (My Friend Henry).

My Friend Henry by Philippe Béha

Perhaps the seeds were planted in 1967, when Montreal’s May Cutler launched Tundra Books, one of the first Canadian presses dedicated to children’s literature. In 1982, Tundra would acquire the English-language translation of Roch Carrier’s classic, The Hockey Sweater. But back in 1976, when Philippe Béha moved to Montreal from Strasbourg, France, there were only a handful of notable artists who shared his line of work. Editorial illustrations in magazines and advertising were years away from becoming trendy, and children’s books comprised an even smaller subset of the industry.

Béha, who just illustrated his 176th children’s title, is nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, arguably the most prestigious prize in international children’s publishing, presented biannually to an artist whose work has made a lasting contribution to the genre. (Canadian YA novelist Kenneth Oppel is nominated in the authors’ category.) Along with his formidable body of work, in 1983, Béha co-founded Illustration Québec, a non-profit organization that supports the province’s illustrators through promotional and professional-­development programs. According to Béha, Illustration Québec started with approximately 12 members; today there are more than 500 artists involved.

Arsenault says Illustration Québec played a role in her own creative development as she moved into kids’ books from editorial illustrations. “The older, famous illustrators teach the younger ones. That was great for my beginning,” she says. Arsenault considers her former L’Université du Québec à Montréal instructors, such as internationally recognized artist Gérard DuBois, as mentors who became friends. “Now I feel like I am more independent. I’m very inspired by other people’s work ““­ I go to a lot of shows and book launches ““ but for work, I’m on my own.”

Adam Lehrhaupt’s Warning: Do Not Open This Book!, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe

Until recently, Arsenault shared her studio with Matthew Forsythe, best known as the illustrator for Annika Dunklee’s picture book My Name Is Elizabeth! (Kids Can) and his own critically acclaimed comic collections, Ojingogo and Jinchalo (Drawn & Quarterly). Forsythe now works in Los Angeles as a design supervisor for the Cartoon Network’s animated television series Adventure Time, but still gets excited talking about Montreal ““ his “favourite city.”

Forsythe, who grew up in Welland, Ontario, travelled around the world before settling for seven years in Montreal, working a day job at the National Film Board while cartooning in his off hours. Despite the demands of the animation industry, he hasn’t given up on kids’ illustration, having just completed Warning: Do Not Open This Book!, the first in a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. Forsythe’s cheeky watercolour drawings feature a gang of marauding primates who provide the visual punchline to Adam Lehrhaupt’s minimal text.

Like Arsenault, Forsythe doesn’t dumb down his drawing style for younger readers, an approach that can be partly attributed to his exposure to European children’s books and comics, which don’t shy away from being aesthetically challenging. While living in Montreal, Forsythe got a regular fix of imported picture books, Franco-Belgian strip comics (known traditionally as bandes dessinées), and French editions of Japanese and Korean titles, found at indie bookstores such as Le port de tête, Librairie L’écume des jours, and Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (which Forsythe refers to as the “centre of the solar system” for Montreal illustrators).

“I think [Montreal] is probably the only place in North America where an Anglo guy can walk in and have access to all this stuff,” says Forsythe. “All these amazing comics and children’s books, I read them all in French before they were translated to English.”

Frédéric Gauthier, co-founder of the French-language comics publisher Éditions de La Pastèque, believes the availability of international titles has encouraged young Montrealers’ dreams of pursuing artistic careers. “When young kids see European and French books and comic books, the possibilities seem that you can work in Quebec, or in the U.S., or in France,” he says.

Gauthier (who is Arsenault’s husband and studio mate) started La Pastèque with Martin Brault in 1998, and is passionate about supporting contemporary bandes dessinées that give artists creative control to tell personal stories. It’s a sensibility that he shares with other young Montreal publishers, such as Antoine Tanguay at Éditions Alto, and that he sees reflected in the city’s vibrant comics and zine culture.

La Pastèque’s creator-first approach helped spawn a resurgence in the Quebec comics industry, which had been on shaky financial ground. As acknowledgement for its contributions, La Pastèque won the 2010 Joe Schuster Award for outstanding publisher, and to celebrate its 15th anniversary this winter, the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal is hosting an exhibition of its artists.

Two years ago, La Pastèque launched a children’s book imprint, avoiding the usual “educational, politically correct approach” to storytelling, says Gauthier, who acquired French-language rights to two Kids Can books by Kyo Maclear, Virginia Wolf and Spork (also illustrated by Arsenault). Last year, La Pastèque released Jane, le Renard et Moi (Jane, the Fox and Me), an original collaboration between Arsenault and Montreal author Fanny Britt. The middle-­grade graphic novel, about a bullied girl who escapes into the pages of Jane Eyre, won Quebec’s Bédéis Causa award, with English-language rights sold to Groundwood. “This was one of the first books I did in French,” says Arsenault. “It was very personal. I felt very close to the story.”

Thanks to a grant from Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Arsenault was able to set aside close to a year to work full-time on Jane, le Renard et Moi, an experience she hopes to repeat. She has already begun research for a second title to be published by La Pastèque.

Even though she feels very close to Kids Can collaborators such as Maclear and Tara Walker ““ “we were very connected, like a team,” she says ““ Arsenault experienced a particular thrill working in her native tongue. “This was the first time I felt that way when I worked on a book,” she says.

This story appeared in the October 2013 issue of Q&Q.