Bartholomew and the Morning Monsters – Ruan van Vliet interview

One of the picture books Longlisted for this year’s Klaus Flugge Prize (for the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration) is Bartholomew and the Morning Monsters illustrated by Ruan van Vliet and written by Sophie Berger. Published by Cicada Books, it’s a fun riff on a child’s fear of monsters in their bedroom flipped to have the monsters not terrifying, but fun to dance around with and a bit exhaustingly irritating when they constantly overstay their welcome once Bartholomew has got up.

The little boy has to contend with those pesky creature messing up his room and routines, making him always late in the mornings, so Dad has to step in to get him off to school in time.

Easy to see why the Klaus Flugge Prize judges thought Ruan’s illustrations made for a great first picture book, and we asked him about his approach to the artwork and how it felt to do his first picture book.

Ruan’s sketches for the monsters

How did you come up with your monsters for Bartholomew – any Hieronymus Bosch influences?

There was one very Boschy monster, a kind of four-headed black worm wearing ghost masks, that you can see in some early drafts, they didn’t make the final cut. The Muppets were a big influence too, particularly the Merdlidops, Zig and Zag, Michael Hurley, Fungus the Bogeyman. At the time of conception, a lot of my pals were getting a haircut called “the punk shag” and so that worked its way in. I wanted some classic monsters in there too, a troll, reptiles, the devil. And of course a lot of their attributes were suggested by the text, we needed one to weigh a tonne and so on.   

Was the humour important for you?

Of course! Humour is always central to my work, it’s my crutch. I love to laugh and know I’m onto a good thing when I’m laughing as I draw. So it’s lucky for me that the book was funny before I got to it, it’s got that screwball thing, with Batholomew as the straightman and everything that can go wrong does, ending in a wicked punchline. It has lots of classic “childish humour” elements too, toilets, bums, pee, stuff that’s all in my wheelhouse/up my alley/my bread and butter, whichever of those sounds least bad.   

Your artwork appears quite simple – how much do you refine your initial rough ideas?

It is simple, especially compared to, say, Hieronymus Bosch. I mean, a lot of work goes into each spread, but for me it’s often more about recapturing the spirit of the rough ideas rather than refining. At the same time, the book required me to deal with techniques I might shy away from in my personal work. In the end it was about finding balance, where I’m challenging myself but not getting carried away.   

I was intrigued that Dad had a moustache – what promoted that?!

Again there’s a multitude of reasons that only became clear to me as it went on. He had a moustache from the very first sketch, moustaches are quite funny. I have a moustache, I shaved it in for a role in a play, around the time I started the book. Then when my brother saw it for the first time he said “Oh you based the Dad on Dad”.   

Has it been a good experience doing your first picture book?

It’s been great, I feel very lucky that Ziggy from Cicada matched me up with Sophie’s story, I reckon it was a good match. And it’s a nice feeling to work on something for a number of months, when you’re used to spending a day or two on most projects, and to get so much out of doing the work. The only thing I’d change is, next time, not have a global pandemic happening, so I could actually go see it on the shelf. 

9th March 2021

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