Written by CK Smouha Illustrated by Stephen Smith aka Neasden Control Centre
Published by Cicada ISBN 978-1-908714-53-4
Review by Peter Allen
Cicada Books was started in 2009 by Ziggy Hanaor, whose approach to book making has been decidedly illustrator-led, books whose content and form are combined in such a way to best convey the personality of each artist. With time this has developed into a diverse catalogue of non-fiction and fiction titles, for children and adults alike, that consistently reflects the underlying principle of a strong visual identity, original ideas and beautiful packaging.
Born Bad is Cicada’s first picture book and marks a recent, important shift in editorial choice that that as from now leans towards predominantly children’s books; as Ziggy explains “…picture books are a lot of fun and open up the potential of working with illustrators that I always thought of as off limits before. Non-fiction and activity books lend themselves to a specific type of illustration, and I’m really excited at the prospect of widening our scope.”
Born Bad is also the first children’s book commission to be undertaken by illustrator and artist Stephen Smith (Neasden Control Centre), a project that has been a few years in the preparation. An initial meeting with Ziggy led to an exchange of several various book ideas until she introduced him to the author CK Smouha who had developed a story about identity. It became the starting point for Born Bad: “Wolf wasn’t happy being Wolf. When he looked in the mirror he looked BAD. And when he looked bad, he felt bad, and when he felt bad, he acted bad. Wolf wants to change but he’s not sure how to. He goes on a journey, meeting members of the animal kingdom that experience change; a caterpillar, chameleon, salamander and seal, to name a few. With their help he undergoes a magnificent transformation.”
A lengthy making period ensued during which every detail of the book was analysed and obsessed over until all involved, Stephen, Ziggy and designers April Studio, were happy with the result. Stephen’s main focus was “to translate the story into illustrations which children would love and respond to. My image making process involves integrating abstracted motifs with figuration and vice versa, so I wanted to exercise this way of working as much as possible. I did this by simplifying the characters without losing their identity and making background environments where abstraction could take place. The limited colour palette I have chosen are really important to this approach as they create a language on their own”.
As undertaking a book project demands a substantial amount of an artist’s time and effort it often raises many questions about the suitability of one’s general approach to image making, that might be more typically geared towards the production of one-off images. Getting things right from the start meant that a lot of preliminary drawings, collages and experimental work were made that didn’t make it into the book. Character development was an important stage and surprisingly, given the flat nature of his collaged pictures, Stephen made several clay models of the wolf in different positions to gain a better understanding of his character. “I developed paper collages that later became digital and likewise for all the surfaces and textures. My whole approach got pulled apart and reassembled for this book and I’m really happy with how it turned out”.
The fruit of such an intensive collaboration is immediately obvious in the final result, Born Bad both feels and looks generous. The paper and print quality serve to present Stephen’s images at their best, the colours are deep and exciting, the shapes and textures as crisp and clear as the paper-cut originals. The book format allows the designs to make full impact, where the force of the colours is intensified by the simplicity of the forms they adorn. Equally, the contrast between bold and subtle, graphic and detailed creates a dazzling series of panels, in which the shallow, up-front picture space functions like a theatre, like a Punch & Judy, fireworks of a show.
Steven is currently working on an illustrated installation for the children’s ward at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford – there will be some animals involved there too!