For her first picture book Flavia Z. Drago has won the 2021 Klaus Flugge Prize with Gustavo the Shy Ghost (Walker Books)
The Prize awards the most promising and exciting newcomers to picture book illustration, and this year’s shortlist was full of strong picture books of great quality.
Gustavo the Shy Ghost is a sweet story about a little ghost who is stuggling to make friends with the other mini monsters in his town – he’s so shy he’s virtually invisible. Packed with amusing incidental details in the artwork, the book repays repeat readings, embracing the creator’s Mexican background through objects, scenes and events. Gustavo searches for ways to get the attention of the others, but to no avail – what’s a music loving ghost to do if he’s too shy to make friends? His musical solution is a great way of showing how it’s worth using all your skills to find ways to get where you want to be, and to embrace what you love to do even if it seems no-one is paying attention.
We talked to Flavia about Gustavo, the Day of the Dead, cool 80s bands and how she composed her images and put the story together.
You have quite a few influences running through the artwork of Gustavo. Was the Day of the Dead the first influence that you took to inform your story and artwork?
Actually, the story is based on my own experiences as a little girl. When I was in kindergarten, I remember all the children playing and talking to each other in the playground while I sat by myself near a wall and looked at them in awe, it was a mystery how easily it seemed for them to interact. Later on, I discovered – just like Gustavo – that through making art I could connect with others more easily.
Having a ghost as the main character, was just the perfect excuse to incorporate the Day of the Dead motifs in the artwork. I also loved and grew up celebrating Halloween so, in my mind, both worlds can happily coexist. I also used old family pictures, a house in my neighbourhood (Azcapotzalco), Oaxaca, the artwork of José Guadalupe Posada, some Classic Universal Monsters and horror films as references.
Gustavo loves music, and we see Indie 80s album covers in one of the illustrations. Did Gustavo get his good taste in music from you?!
Hehehehe! I do love indie music from the 80’s. One of my favourite songs is ‘Ask’ by the Smiths, it seemed fitting that Gustavo liked it too – he has a cassette tape with it on his desk. Because, as Morrissey would sing ‘Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you, from doing all the things in life that you’d like to…’
Apparently, he also likes The Cure, David Bowie, The Beatles and Camille Saint-Saënz – a French Composer who made a piece called ‘La Danse Macabre’ about Death gathering all of us as we dance, if you know what I mean.
Do you get pleasure from including all the incidental details in your artwork (such as the skull butterflies, old-school tech and the floating, pouting teapot)?
I did! For me, a lot of the fun from drawing comes from the fact of taking things that I like and finding ways to include them in the artwork. I think that part of the fun for those who will read the book more than once is to find some of the details and references too.
I love the spread with Gustavo on the see-saw all alone – it’s got strong impact. How did you think about composition for the book?
When I was making the book, I realised that this was the turning point in which Gustavo needed to change his behaviour, or else things would stay the same. I liked the idea of Gustavo sitting on a see-saw, that necessarily needs a pal to work, as the sun was setting. The intention was to make the scene more nostalgic, and to give us the idea that as day the was shifting into night, Gustavo’s behaviour was about to change too. It had to be a quiet moment.
And of course, how does it feel to have won the Klaus Flugge Prize?
I am very happy! Getting your first picturebook published can be pretty hard, there are lots of insanely talented people waiting to get their opportunity in a rather small world, for me, that journey took about ten years and lots of ups and downs. Among the shortlist and the longlist, I saw the names of many illustrators whose work I really admire, I am a bit surprised too!
And of course, I am very grateful to Klaus Flugge for having created a prize that promotes and supports the work of newly published illustrators. I just hope that I will get the privilege to keep making illustrated books for many more years to come!
The 2021 the panel of judges was made up of award-winning illustrator Posy Simmonds; Eva Eland, 2020 Klaus Flugge Prize winner; Darryl Clifton, Illustration Programme Director at Camberwell College of Arts; Fleur Sinclair, owner of Sevenoaks Bookshop; and Mat Tobin of Oxford Brookes University.
Of Gustavo they said the book is ‘A visual treat and the text and illustrations work very well together; it’s full of detail but never cluttered; pace is cleverly controlled; just the right balance of fun and fright!’