April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Q & A: Hervé Tullet on How He Works, Why He Got into Children’s Books, and His Mix It Up Tour

Herve Tullet photoAuthor and illustrator Hervé Tullet, who resides in Paris, rarely fails to impress. Innovative and original, his books include the recent Mix It Up (Chronicle, 2014), a fascinating look at color; the vibrant I Am Blop! (Phaidon, 2013); and Help! We Need a Title (Candlewick, 2014), Tullet’s deconstruction of the concept of the book. His titles not only entertain children for hours—they are also thought-provoking works of art that encourage kids and adults alike to reconsider their assumptions of what a picture book can be. To promote Mix It Up, Tullet has taken his genius to the road, and through painting presentations at schools and libraries all over the world, children create their own artwork at Tullet’s behest.

This past Sunday, on October 19, Tullet took part in a family painting event at New York City’s Brooklyn Public Library, as part of his Mix It Up tour, where the artist led a group mural painting for nearly 400 attendees and read aloud from his books. He recently caught up with SLJ, explaining how he works, what his thoughts are on his work with children, and what the future has in store.

You initially worked as an art director for several years. How did you first get into writing children’s books?

It was a combination of things. But most important was that I was going to be a father for the first time. I wanted my child to see me [in a new way], so I jumped into illustration. When I was [working on] children’s books [initially], it was during my free time—it wasn’t my work. Children’s books were always an experiment.

Brainhive_EH_140813_MixingColorsCan you talk about your creative process? What is your studio like?

My studio is my airplane when I’m traveling. My studio is my shower. My studio is my brain. Of course, I’ve got an [actual] studio in Paris…. It’s not so big. But I need it when I have to draw. I’m not obsessed with drawing everyday. [But] my studio is definitely my brain.

How do you approach your presentations with kids?

It’s the same in [a presentation] as it is with my books—everybody can come and play. Usually I’ve got a megaphone, and I give very simple prompts. I feel the audience, and I try to [set] a kind of rhythm with my voice. It turns into a kind of dance, because if I say, “Just do a dot,” you can see the gestures of the people, and it turns into something quite fun and interesting at the end.

Watch a demonstration of Tullet’s painting presentation with school children in Japan on YouTube:

On your “Mix It Up” tour, is it hard to work with kids from different countries?

It’s never hard. In each country, [there’s a different] kind of population—it could be wealthy or underprivileged—but what doesn’t change is that there are [people coming to me], because they want to do something. I’ve got very simple and basic material. I’m coming with my squiggles, I’m coming with my dots, I’m coming with my splotches and stains. I’m coming with basic materials that everyone can [use]. One of my favorite sentences is, “So now what do I do.” Because we are going to do something together. We find the way together. [At first, going into schools,] I didn’t want them to draw, because I thought it was filler. But I began to play when I was talking, [such as asking] a child to come and draw with me. [Now my workshop are] something very collective, and we share something, and it turns into an experience.

Your books seem so simple yet you’ve managed to really interact with readers. How do you do it?

It started with my first book, Comment Papa a recontré Maman (Seuil Jeunesse, 2002). I can explain all of my books through this one. When I created this book, I understood that [there were three elements]: the book, someone who can read it (an adult), and the child. The book will talk to [both] of them. I used to say that I create empty books, or books with blanks. I knew that everybody would be able to add something. What is interesting is what they will add, the child or the adult.

Original artwork from Tullet’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Were books a big part of your own childhood?

I discovered books quite late. I think I was saved by very good teachers. When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand the world around me. A teacher [turned me on to] surrealism, and I discovered art, cinema, and museums. So [my discovery of books] came really late, quite late, at [age] 16 or 17.

What’s next for you?

I’m working at the moment on a book [that] explains the way I’m leading my workshops [with kids]. It’s a way to convey what I did in so many places. And I’m working on the idea of living for some time in the United States. It’s quite a serious plan, I [am thinking for] August 2015. It could be New York.

An exhibition of Tullet’s works will be on display in the Grand Lobby of the Brooklyn Public Library until February 1, 2015.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.