Welcome to our guest column series "Drawn from Memory: Reflections on the Art of Illustration."
JJ Books has invited well known writers to recall images that have inspired their work, from Brahma to Beardsley and beyond.
Award winning children's writer, Uma Krishnaswami, describes the challenge of turning art by the late Iranian illustrator, Nasrin Khosravi, into words for her latest picture book.
Writing is a perilous journey, a bit like walking along the edge of a cliff. There’s darkness below, and a sheer drop. I can’t see where I’m putting my feet. Sometimes I wonder why I’m foolish enough to try to tread the path at all. I’m a fake, pretending to be a writer. And this story—why did I think I was capable of writing it? Always on the verge of falling off, I make my way inch by inch.
Writing text in response to Nasrin Khosravi’s beautiful illustrations for 'The Girl of the Wish Garden' felt especially risky. It seemed as if I needed to be accountable to the artist in some way, as if my own words not only had to tell the story but also had to measure up to these glorious pictures. Nasrin had passed away a couple of years before. Her children had graciously given my publisher permission to use these pictures in an English version of 'Thumbelina.' See the stakes rising?
This picture proved to be the moment on the trail when the light came on in my mind, when the project suddenly began to make sense. Maybe that’s because the palette in this image is so different from everything that’s gone before. The pictures before this are warmer in tone, the reds enriched with green and gold, the images filled with floral motifs and trailing vines. Most of all, the figure of the girl fills those pages, so that the eye is drawn to her swirling skirts and to her movement through various settings.
In this forest scene, the weather changes from warm to cold. The girl's face is off to one side. She looks trapped. It is a low point in the story, when Lina’s efforts seem pointless.
There was something about the artist’s use of colour and form in this scene that sent words spiralling up inside me. I couldn’t have explained how or why at the time, but looking back now, it makes perfect sense. The visual shift pauses the story so that my text is forced to take on the responsibility of setting it in motion again. The only way my words could do that was by reaching inside the character.
Several revisions later, here’s what I wrote:
All summer, Lina lived in that forest.
She chased small ghost creatures
that skittered through the undergrowth.
She wove a bed of wild grasses
and found nectar and pollen for food
and dewdrops to quench her thirst.
But soon the seasons shifted and the cold closed in upon her,
and she yearned for the warmth of another living soul.
By the time I’d finished writing and rewriting these few words, I was exhausted. I put the computer to sleep and went for a long walk. I felt light-headed and exhilarated, and I was no longer afraid. Art has a way of doing that. Art can set you free.
View all the illustrations in this series on the JJ Books Pinterest page.