Since its inception in 2011, the Open Book Festival has become something of a literary highlight in the Cape Town calendar year and with each year that passes, it grows in both stature and in popularity.
This year marks its four-year anniversary and the festival runs from the 17th to the 21st of September, during which time more than a 100 authors will be sharing their works and knowledge with those fortunate enough to attend these events.
For me personally the festival kicked-off at 14:00 pm at the Book Lounge when Verushka Louw sat down to chat with Japanese internationally-aclaimed children’s book author and illustrator, Satoshi Kitamura in an event entitled Meet With Satoshi Kitamura.
For those who are unfamiliar with Mr Kitamura’s individual and collaborative works, he is the winner of a number of awards, with one of his more notable awards being the Mother Goose Award for the ‘Most Exciting Newcomer to British Illustration’, which he won in 1983 for his very first illustrative work, Angry Arthur, which was penned by South Africa’s very own, Hiawyn Oram.
Since then, he has published more than 20 books. His most recent is a collaboration with British author and journalist, Sarah Bee, on a children’s book entitled The Yes, which was published in April of this year.
Today his work has a huge global fan-base – which is not limited to any set age group, although his target market is undoubtedly aimed at those a few years shy of the ten-years-old mark – and has been praised the world over for its quirkiness, vibrant colouring and fine attention to detail.
However, the tale of Mr Kitamura’s illustrious career in children’s picture-book illustration (and lately, also in its writing) is one that offers hope for future aspirants of any kind, for he is a man that chose to pursue his passion rather than a life of academia.
For many – as it was to me – it might be surprising to learn that Mr Kitamura did not even complete his schooling and so really had nothing more than natural raw talent to shape his career around – which he has done with the greatest of success during the course of thirty patient years.
And yet this is a man who easily confessed to us, “I’m not good at education… academically, I’m hopeless. I left school when I was about 17 because I was really bored in school… so one day I just stopped going.”
Even then, he understood the implications this decision would have on his life and explains how he nearly went on to become a potter instead, “Because I had no qualification, I thought maybe I should do something like become a craftsman and then I got interested in pottery… and in Japan, it’s quite a big thing, pottery, so there are lots of traditional pottery places.”
However, when faced with the prospect of spending a minimum of five years doing his apprenticeship in some remote town, nestled in the heart of the mountains, the then 19-year-old Kitamura decided that this was not his calling… at least, not yet.
Although the professed ‘city-slicker’ admitted he would one day like to reside in the country and do pottery as a hobby.
Whilst Kitamura, who had always loved drawing and who used to read comics as a child, was unsure of wherein his future lay, one of his friends was more sure of himself and as he was working as a graphic designer and knew of his friend’s drawing abilities, he offered Kitamura a job in ads and magazine illustration.
After that, Kitamura became very busy for a time and spent a few years working very hard, during which time he accumulated enough money to travel to England.
And so it was that in 1979, Kitamura set out for England with the thought in mind that, if he didn’t like it there, he would tour Europe or even visit the States instead – but it suited his fancy after all and he was happy to stay.
He then spent the next year or so doing a lot of drawing (as well as possibly working on the greeting cards which he at one time used to illustrate) and “just out of curiosity” decided to visit some local publishers. His artwork received a number of favourable responses before he finally was introduced to Anderson Press, who gave him Hiawyn Oram’s Angry Arthur book to illustrate.
After he completed the book, his visa expired and he headed back to his home city of Tokyo where he again took up advertising.
The publishers kept sending him text and he quickly realised he had to decide between advertising or illustrating.
Fortunately, around this time Angry Arthur won him his first award and the decision was made that much easier by this unexpected victory.
He has resided in England for nearly thirty years until roughly five years ago when he moved back to Japan yet again – this time to help his brother take care of their ailing mother.
He also admitted to being a bit bored of England, as he explained with a faint degree of melancholy, “Publishing has changed so much. It is not as good as it used to be.”
Although he still works for Anderson Press (which is a great deal bigger today than the three-person firm he initially encountered all those years ago) and sometimes Walker Books, which is considered to be the world’s leading independent children’s book publisher, and added the following: “So it’s not finished yet but I guess when I started in (the) early eighties, nineties, (was) probably a much better time in publishing.”
He finds fresh hope in Latin America, which he has visited regularly in the last 6-7 years and said it reminds him of England and Japan’s style of publishing from thirty years ago, “They’re more energetic… much younger.”
He explained what he believes to be the root cause for this problem in England nowadays: ” It’s that marketing or sales side. So when you talk to an editor, they always say, ‘I’ll show it to the sales manager'”, whereas in the past, editors could decide everything and the industry was not so commercially-inclined, which Mr Kitamura says he finds to be “a bit difficult and also limiting… what I can do is limited.”
He explained the process, which most publishing companies, especially the bigger ones, use as follows: “If you’re an artist, you can only talk to the art director – not the editor, which is very frustrating because then the problem, this is obviously incurable… and an art director becomes like a messenger and it’s really frustrating.”
Although his publishing firm, Anderson Press, is “much better” and the boss Klaus Flugge is still at the helm, despite the company’s expansion.
Kitamura told us how in the olden days, illustrators like himself could just finish their artwork and an editor like Klaus would briefly look at it before sending it to the printer and even invite him out to lunch.
Thus it appears that not only have the more recent years, with their technological advances and slicker ways, changed the core process behind the publishing of books – in especial children’s storybooks – but they have taken away a certain human element and camaraderie as well.
However, Kitamura does not appear to feel as if he has had to change his style or art in order to conform to society’s modern day views, although certain aspects of his work – such as the cigarette depicted in the earlier editions of Angry Arthur – have had to fall away.
Mr Kitamura also highlighted the challenges facing many new illustrators and young artists by contrasting them with the somewhat lesser issues facing the authors of today if they encourage rejection or don’t hit it big with their first work by saying ,”For authors, they can just go on writing… If they have a day job, they can go on writing for ten years and they get better – but if the artist has to work and (use) only weekends as an artist, it’s not enough… So if the artist is talented, someone should give (them) a chance for a couple of years to develop. Often publishers don’t give talented artists another chance. If the first book doesn’t sell, then that’s it.”
Mr Kitamura also described his work method and key sketching instrument: a glass pen – which is popular in offices because it’s durable and yet it can also draw sharp lines – with a broken nib that he accidentally damaged one day and as a result, discovered it could draw more interesting lines.
He draws on paper and only uses a computer to scan his work, which I found remarkably refreshing.
He told us how he starts out by scribbling ideas in a sketchbook before slowly introducing his writing after which time the story “usually gets shorter and shorter because pictures take over, pictures actually decide (what I use).”
It is a process of trial-and-error but it helps him to get the image just as he desires it to be eventually.
He is an immensely talented illustrator and writer but above all, a down-to-earth and humourous man, whom I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and listening to.