Picture Book Snob
A wee chat with the Little Album team
The talented team behind the Little Album series, Juliette Saumande and Tarsila Krüse, stopped by the blog recently. It was fascinating to learn more about their award-winning books, their creative process, their favourite stories, what they love most about this country and their amazing work with Children's Books Ireland...
You were working on this book during the pandemic. How did this impact your creative process and did it shape how the book turned out in any way?
Juliette: I wrote My Little Album of Ireland during the first few weeks of the first lockdown. It was a great way to focus on something positive, something concrete (I love ticking things off my to-do list!) and it was a comfort to know that amidst all the uncertainty this book was happening and this team had my back!
Tarsila: Personally there were very difficult moments during the first months of lockdown and I realised I needed to re-evaluate my work process. I love illustrating but with so much gloom and anxiety I had to find ways to make the process more fun and in turn, I believe it made the book richer. Especially in the details.
In My Little Album of Dublin, we looked for a dog and its bone in every scene. In this one, we must find a squirrel and their missing acorn! Why did you choose a squirrel this time?
Tarsila: Juliette chose the squirrel and it simply made sense! Plus I love drawing woodland creatures…
Juliette: My Little Album of Dublin simply had to have a dog as Tarsila is our resident dog lover. For this one, as we were going to go further afield and explore lots of different landscapes, the squirrel was perfect: at home both in the country and in town. Plus, squirrels have tons of attitude and this particular one is a prime example of that. Keen-eyed readers will also notice more cats in My Little Album of Ireland. Cat people unite!
It’s incredible how much diversity and gender equality there is in the book – it feels like every individual is represented. It’s clear that this was a driving factor behind the book. Can you talk about the significance of making the book so inclusive and why this was so important to you?
Juliette: We knew from reading My Little Album of Dublin in schools and libraries that many kids will find ways to find themselves in a book: ‘She has my hair!’ ‘I play basketball too!’ ‘It’s like my mam’s Leap card!’ ‘I’d love to have a dog like them!’ With My Little Album of Ireland, we wanted to make it even easier for them to identify with kids who look like them, do the same things they do, and so on.
Tarsila: It is a mix of personal values and desires. We believe and hope for a more inclusive world, one in which every person can feel seen and feel like they are important and belong everywhere, including in a book! People are multifaceted and everyone is unique. I am sure we didn’t cover ALL representations, though we did some pretty good research in the hopes of at least providing a glimpse that most people could relate to in some capacity.
Juliette: We tried our best and we’re always ready to learn more! Obviously, all diversity can’t be represented visually, but it’s a good place to start. As a reader of any age, if you don’t see yourself in a book, there is a strong chance you’ll decide that books are not about you and therefore not for you. And for us, that’s a very sad thing!
There is so much of Ireland’s historical and mythological heritage in the book. Did you have to do much research or were you already familiar with these subjects?
Tarsila: I used to have a blog about Ireland for Brazilians so I guess a lot of research had already been done…
Juliette: It was a mix of personal memories (I did the French-tourist-in-Ireland thing a lot with my family in my teens!), online research and expert advice from the locals. We were lucky as well to work with Helen Carr, our editor at The O’Brien Press, who was very thorough in her fact-checking and could call on her own experts (thanks, Ger Siggins, for all the rugby positions!)
Tarsila: And we are both not originally from Ireland! But there are always more things to discover and marvel in!
We were delighted to spot the characters from the first book and their dog too. There must be lots of visual clues that only the two of you and those close to you will recognise. Was it lots of fun to incorporate these?
Tarsila: Ha! Adding those little Easter Eggs is something that started in the first book but got bigger in this one. Visiting the previous characters is a little gift to those who are familiar with My Little Album of Dublin, but just like in the first book I added a bunch of friends and family members, as well as some unexpected references, like a couple of main characters from my favourite movie ever… The Labyrinth.
Juliette: I loved trying to spot familiar faces whenever Tarsila sent in her illustrations! There are really lots in this one, including some family pets! There’s always something in the picture (clothes, hairstyle, body language…) that makes it unmistakably like the model, it’s brilliant. As for discovering how I was pictured in the Halloween pages, that was fun too!
There is someone reading in every scene! And not only reading but totally absorbed in a book. There are so many bookshops in the background too! Was this deliberate or unconscious?
Juliette: Well spotted! This was Tarsila’s idea in the first place.
Tarsila: We are book nerds, book reviewers, book lovers and bookmakers (not the betting kind).
Juliette: We tried to give a nod to the many bookshops we know and love around the country as well as to readers in general (and librarians!). Go, team bookworms!
How important have books been in your own lives – besides having careers involving them?
Tarsila: I grew up surrounded by walls that were literally covered in books (my father still has a collection of over 10,000 books in his living room). Books have always been a part of my life, bringing comfort, ideas, learning, growth, curiosity and bonding moments.
Juliette: Same here. Tons of books of all kinds everywhere and thousands of hours spent reading them, not always at the most appropriate moment! I feel like everyone should have one thing in their lives that helps both focus and expand their mind. For me, it’s books!
The ploughing championships are so uniquely Irish. I was delighted to see them and Michael D. featured. Have either of you ever been?
Juliette: Unfortunately, no! But I’ll get there!
Tarsila: Not yet! During the research stage, I had friends who attended send me lots of videos from their experiences and I took detailed notes of the atmosphere and overall energy. In Brazil, we have similar events, not with ploughing but with bull riding, and for some reason, in my mind, I connected the two experiences and aimed to convey a similar feeling.
How did you choose which parts of Ireland to feature?
Tarsila: Juliette was in charge of the MASTERPLAN! She is a master planner!
Juliette: Ha! Well, I won’t lie, I do love a plan. And a list. And in this case, a map! We wanted to make sure to cover all geographical quarters, different kinds of landscapes, different kinds of topics and events. We also wanted a mix of real places and what we called ‘mish mash’ ones. So, we have Cork’s English Market on the shopping page and for the Gaeltacht, it’s a Burren/Sligo/Donegal combo. That allowed us to include more counties while giving a real sense of atmosphere.
How did you decide on which words in the Irish vocabulary to include?
Tarsila: That was also part of the master plan, but we revisited some words after the images were done to make sure that they weren’t too obvious or close together in the images.
Juliette: That’s probably what there was the most discussion about and it was a team effort, between Helen and the two of us. Sometimes we chose words because it was unthinkable not to include them (think ‘tractor/tarracóir’ in the ploughing page); sometimes we chose them because they were pure fun (like flip flops, muddy puddles or gherkins!).
Do you have a favourite Irish word and if so, what is it?
Tarsila: I will always love “cacá mílis” because it was the very first word I learned in Irish but these days “tarraingteach” has my heart. It means “captivating” and is derived from the verb “tarraing”, which means to draw. It basically summarises what I aim to do with my work in one word - captivating drawings.
Juliette: That is such a brilliant word! My Irish (unlike Tarsila’s) doesn’t extend much beyond what I’ve learned working with our brilliant Gaeilge expert Sadhbh Delvin on the books. Some favourites include seanchaí (storyteller), spideog (robin) and bosca lón (lunchbox)!
Do you have a favourite Irish place and if so, where is it?
Tarsila: Newgrange is my favourite place on the island and it takes my breath away. I may have visited it too many times…
Juliette: It’s a hard choice to make, but I love the Wicklow mountains and seeing all their colours throughout the seasons.
I know Juliette despises "Crunchie" chocolate bars, but do either of you have a favourite Irish food?
Juliette: Boo, Crunchies! I love brown soda bread, I could eat it all day!
Tarsila: I’ll stick with my favourite overall fruit (and I come from a country that has fruit aplenty!). Irish strawberries are the best; there’s nothing quite like them.
I expect this will be a difficult (or perhaps even impossible) question to answer but do you have a favourite Irish book?
Tarsila: Can I say all of my books? I’m very biased because I love them all! But I also love plenty of Irish Children’s books including the work of Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle; Chris Haughton’s A Bit Lost; As Gaeilge, my heart is set on Geansaí Ottó by Sadhbh Devlin and Róisín Hahessy and Míp by Máire Zepf and Paddy Donnelly.
Juliette: How long do you have? It’s very tricky, but just looking at my shelves of picture books from here, I already have Chris Haughton jumping at me (I have read A Bit Lost approximately a million times and am not sick of it yet). Paddy Donnelly’s The Vanishing Lake and Take Off Your Brave by Nadim and Yasmeen Ismail also stand out. What all these have in common is their healthy respect for the voice of the child; much to admire!
Neither of you is originally from Ireland yet you’ve both become integral to the Irish literary landscape. How did this happen?
Juliette: What a lovely thing to say, thanks! I’ve been here for over 15 years and I’m hard to get rid of, is the short answer! The longer one is that the Irish children’s books community is so welcoming, so inclusive and so super, that it takes very little for anyone to feel at home. I have spent the last fifteen years exploring my love of books through many avenues (writing, translating, editing, reviewing, creating teachers’ notes, recommending books and running events and workshops) and it’s all been made possible by the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, such as Tarsila, and the gang at Children’s Books Ireland.
Tarsila: I felt a deep sense of belonging when I arrived in Ireland and slowly it grew more and more on me. As I explored and learned about the Irish culture, habits, history and places the more I fell in love. Ireland is the country that opened new opportunities for me, embraced me with so much care and tenderness, all I did was love it back and we’ve been in this multicultural love affair ever since.
Can you talk about the work you do with Children’s Books Ireland?
Tarsila: Children’s Books Ireland is a registered charity that aims to make “Every child a
reader” on the island of Ireland. They have numerous projects and programmes that push forward their vision and I have had the honour to work with them on multiple occasions, as a Doodle Doctor, workshop facilitator for Book Bag, and a book reviewer for Inis Magazine. I created artwork for their mental health reading guide, "Mind Yourself" amongst other fabulous projects. Currently, I’m working along with them on the reading communities project working as a champion of reading for the St. Joseph’s NS in Dundalk, supporting and fostering a love of books and stories across the school and in their community.
Juliette: At the moment, I’m a book doctor with Children’s Books Ireland, recommending books to kids and families during ‘Book Clinics’. I also review books for Inis magazine and other publications, and create resources to make books come to life at home or in the classroom, such as the Any Book Book Club pack, for example. I’m also a champion of reading which involves doing fun creative workshops with kids of all ages.
Has the Irish culture influenced how you write and illustrate your books?
Tarsila: I think it has. It’s nearly impossible not to be influenced by my surroundings especially because so much of what I create is inspired by my everyday life but I believe my colour palette is essentially Irish - a bit toned out with grey, yet warm and welcoming. Just like the Irish.
Juliette: Definitely. I’m a bit of a sponge when it comes to language, words and accents, and I find the Irish sense of humour close enough to my own. That comes through in my more ‘wordy’ books, such as Chop-Chop, Mad Cap! published by Little Island, which even contains the word ‘eejit’, to the horrified delight of primary school kids!
Have either of you had a funny experience since arriving here that you feel could only have happened in Ireland?
Tarsila: Probably too many to fit here…
Juliette: For me, living in Ireland means bumping into someone you know every time you leave the house, no matter how far you go. Including, very randomly, catching a glimpse of local café owners while crossing a street between two trains… in Munich!
Tarsila: Understanding Hiberno English, not the accent, but the structure and word usage was probably the thing that caused most of the funniest moments. I did not know what yer man or yer one were as I kept thinking people were referring to YOUR man and how odd it was that people would refer to my husband in that way… your man!
Are you working on any projects at the moment and if so, can you talk about them?
Tarsila: I am currently working on a couple of poetry and musical books "as Gaeilge" which are due to be launched later this year. There's also a very special project called Little Love Lessons which stem from my experience with postnatal depression and a series of illustrations I created a few years ago that helped me get through it.
Juliette: Writing-wise, I have two books coming out in France this year, a heavily illustrated novel and a comic, both for readers aged 6-10, and I’m working on a middle-grade fantasy novel in English. I’m also working in lots of schools on various creative writing projects and it’s fabulous to be back in the classroom!
Have you any events or festivals coming up?
Tarsila: We will be working together on a very special project for Cruinniú na NÓg this summer…
Juliette: Yes indeed, keep your eyes peeled and turned in the general direction of Meath! Thanks so much to Juliette and Tarsila for taking the time to answer all of these questions! My Little Album of Dublin and My Little Album of Ireland are published by O'Brien Press and available everywhere books are sold.
Read our review of My Little Album of Ireland Read our review of My Little Album of Dublin Read about our logos which were designed by Tarsila
Find more reviews of books illustrated and/or written by Tarsila