‘Searching for Cicadas’: Narrative Non-Fiction
Narrative non-fiction titles are one of the best ways I know to introduce young children to the joys of information books – they are a fabulous ‘smash up’ of story with true information. In my opinion the series that does this best is the ‘Nature Storybooks’ series from Walker Books Australia. The latest title in the series is ‘Searching for Cicadas’ and (shhhhhhhhh), I think it might be my favourite to date. Lesley Gibbes is an accomplished writer and the story of a grandfather and grandchild going cicada watching is a beautiful portrayal of grandparent/grandchild relationships and the wonder of nature. The illustrations by Judy Watson are captivating and could/should be hanging in an art gallery. The layers and layers of illustration are fascinating to explore, with so many little ‘hidden’ details and interesting perspectives. All books in the series (see below for more) have fiction and non-fiction texts, with different fonts used to distinguish each genre – such a simple thing but so *genius*! With the very young grades at school I sometimes read the narrative first and will come back to the non-fiction text later. On a second or third reading we’ll read the entire text; these are books to be read and re-read and are for both recreational reading and for research use with the young.
Illustrator Judy Watson will be well known to many of you and I’ve asked her a little about the process of illustrating ‘Searching for Cicadas’ . Her other titles include, ‘Leonard doesn’t Dance’, ‘Thunderstorm Dancing’ and ‘Goodnight, Mice’ and she is well worth following on social media to see the ‘story behind the story’
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‘Searching for Cicadas’
by Lesley Gibbes & Judy Watson
1. The representation of nature in the book is incredibly beautiful but also feels very real. Was it important to you to accurately depict the scenery and how did you go about ensuring accuracy?
My husband Scott is a horticulturalist with a special interest in Australian plants, and a master’s in landscape architecture. In short, he’s a plant nerd. We met working in revegetation and education around LandCare practices, so Australian plants are a thing for us.
Walker Books didn’t want scientific accuracy. They have a groove happening with this series, that’s about friendly illustrations and welcoming texts that open the door to non-fiction in a non-threatening way. They’ve had all kinds of illustrators interpret texts in all kinds of ways, but you don’t see anything stiff or formal here.
This is all fine with me! Most of my work is loose and expressive. But when I first read the text, it was only natural for me to note the references to plants like She-oaks and the ‘old grey gum’ and to ponder what the landscape might be like in this story. Cicadas are everywhere, but I like my picture books to have a distinctive setting. So I asked Scott what would be the eucalypt species that Lesley meant by ‘grey gum’.
It turns out grey gum is a common name that’s applied to lots of eucalypt species. But the discussion continued between us, and Scott pleaded for the story to be in Sydney so that I could put flannel flowers into it. Actinotus helianthi He looooves flannel flowers! You can see them on page 10 and 11 amongst all the grasses. So this made our grey gum a Eucalyptus punctata, found in the Sydney Basin. After that, I was able to research the shape of the trunk, and the style of the bark. And yes, I did my best to make the bark reminiscent of the real tree, (with salmon pink patches where the bark falls away) while keeping the style loose and scratchy.
There are various species of Wallaby grasses and Stipa grasses in the illustrations as well. But some of the grasses are just good old scribble!
2. Likewise, the cicada illustrations are also scientifically accurate – did you visit museums? Find images online? Go cicada watching yourself?!
I did have a cicada nymph shell sitting on my work desk the whole way through the illustration process. But I didn’t have access to any living cicadas, so I took a lot of reference material from the web.
It was a bit of a maze… and it was sometimes hard to get a clear photo of the thing I most wanted to see… in particular, a cicada shedding its nymph exoskeleton. Even though I didn’t want hard-edged accuracy to be the style of illustration, I needed to understand what I was drawing pretty clearly in order to come up with something that wasn’t a random collection of legs, eyeballs and wings.
I had to practise drawing the veins in the wings many times in order to become familiar enough with the pattern to draw it ‘shorthand’, so to speak. I imagine it was a bit like learning a japanese character. You’d have to learn how to draw the character accurately before you could whizz it off loosely in your own handwriting… I’m hypothesising here. Ahem.
I also popped in a few identifiable animals here and there. The magpie of course. I love magpies. A Superb fairywren, a Monarch butterfly and a Swallowtail butterfly, but I can’t remember which species.
Other books by Judy Watson
3. The illustrations have incredible depth to them – they feel layered and I wondered if you could tell us about how you created them?
Thanks Megan! The layered look is partly because of the process that I used, and partly because I wanted to capture the feel of the Australian summer landscape using criss-crossing fine textures that are dappled by bright sunlight and deep shadows.
In most cases the general shape of the composition was captured in black acrylic or ink using broad brush-strokes or even scraped on to the paper with a sponge or crumpled paper. The figures and other elements were drawn in black pencil and given tone using ink or watercolour wash.
Some of the plants were drawn in pencil or conté, some were printed using a monotype technique, some were handpainted watercolours. I had a table full of plants and fallen leaves from the garden and the street that I used for reference. I took prints directly from a few gum leaves too.
All of these were scanned and brought into PhotoShop where I combined them and added the hand-printed textures. The solid colours were applied directly in PhotoShop on a tablet. The PhotoShop files were ridiculously large and had many layers.
Atmosphere was paramount to me. I can’t leave the illustration alone, until it feels familiar to my imagination or memory. And a lot of that is to do with the balance of light and shadow. Perhaps it’s something to do with the grandfather in the story, but this book sparks memories for me, and other people have said the same. It reminds people of their childhood, and represents good things. Human contact, holding hands, connecting with nature in person, the feel of dirt and scratchy grasses under bare feet. The smell of a rubber airbed. A flask of hot tea and the deafening buzz of cicadas. Australian summer.
Page 20 showing some of the 174 layers which make up this illustration
4. My personal favourite illustration is the double page spread on page 25, which depicts the grandfather and grandchild lying on the grass looking up. You have played with perspective throughout the book, was this intentional?
Yes, I did try to play around with different viewing angles, to make it visually interesting and because the focus is on different subjects on different pages. Sometimes the subject is small, and sometimes large. So they required different treatments.
The alternative idea for the lying in the grass spread, was to be the exact opposite: looking upwards at the sky and tree canopy. But the Walker team preferred the aerial view, and their decision was right. It was better to include the Grandpa and child lying there in companionable contemplation. I did think afterwards, that I drew Grandpa looking rather more straight and young than I should have done on that page. In reality he would probably have been saying ‘Ouch!’ Perhaps I brought the looseness to my interpretation in more ways than one!
Other pages needed to focus on the small stuff, so we got down low. And pages eight and nine play with perspective in a way that allowed me to evoke a leisurely walk along a road with long afternoon shadows. I needed to suggest a bit of distance along the road, but also to show a bit of Pa’s face, so that we can see the warmth of the relationship. They couldn’t be drawn completely from behind.
‘Nature Storybooks’ series
by Claire Saxby & Graham Byrne
‘Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda Lake Eyre’
by Pamela Freeman & Liz Anelli
by Vivian French. Illustrated by Catherine Rayner
‘Flight of the Honey Bee’
by Raymond Huber. Illustrated by Brian Lovelock.
by Claire Saxby & Tannya Harricks.
‘Big Red Kangaroo’
by Claire Saxby. Illustrated by Graham Byrne.
by Sue Whiting & Mark Jackson
by Christopher Cheng & Mark Jackson