Mark Jannsen: My mission is to send ‘luck on paper’ into the world

Thank you for accepting our interview offer. Could you introduce yourself? Where do you

live? What is your daily routines? How does using your home as a homestudio and your

family affect your writing and drawing process?

I live in Valkenburg aan de Geul, a little town in the most southern part of The Netherlands, which is also the region where I was born and raised. In 1997 I graduated from the art academy and from that moment on I have been working as freelance illustrator. In the first years I also made editorial illustrations for newspapers and magazines besides tasks for educational publishers and children’s books publishers. After five years I started focusing more on children’s books, which is why the projects for newspapers slowly disappeared. I only worked by commission the last 17 years and in the last four years I also worked on picture book projects of my own. 

I do this from a home studio on the second floor of my house. Here I live with my wife, who is also a children’s book illustrator (Suzanne Diederen), and with my two children aged 15 and 20. Every day (except the weekend) I work on my projects in a very disciplined way. The reason I work from home is that I thrive when I can stay inside my own cocoon and when I can fully close myself off from the outside world. In other words, how can it be more personal than from your own house which you do not share with strangers.

How my family affects my work? Or working at home? I think it is negligible. I have worked a very long period of my career together with authors who already had written the story, so that is where I focused on. The picture books I wrote myself are also not based on situations from my home setting (for example my children), because I look for themes and archetypes in my work which will appeal all over the world. So no realistic stories based on personal experiences, but imaginative fairytale-like stories with strong unexpected pay-offs.

How and when did you start to draw and write? Which are the books, writers and illustrators that have influenced you since your childhood? I want to ask inspired by yours An Ordinary Day book, how did you spend a ordinary day in your childhood ? What has changed the children’s ordinary day if you compared between your childhood time and today?

I have always drawn since I was a child. As a child I used to draw hours and hours and I noticed that it kept me in my balance. If something exciting or moving happened, drawing made me calm again. Later on primary school I found out I was talented and drew much better than other children in my class. I did not read a lot of children’s books, but I liked reading large encyclopedic books about animals, nature, dinosaurs and prehistory. I seemed to really think in terms of images and enjoyed beautifully illustrated drawings in these books. I also was a fan of superhero comic strips. Superman, the Hulk, I found it all amazing.

I was a child in the 80’s and we all know that the world was different back then than it is now. There was no internet, no social media and only on Wednesday afternoon the television had shows for children on it. Days went by slower and the world was small. The theme that An Ordinary Day has is based on these days. You had to fill in a lot with your own imagination and there were days on which you were bored. You could go outside but it rains. You could read a book, but you do not feel like reading. Then you lie on the couch and in your head you make beautiful journeys. Sometimes nothing else than this was there to do!

I am convinced that children back in the days had to fill in a lot more themselves. Their brains are better developed to fill in gaps, make connections between two given things and to find creative solutions. These days everything can be seen on images and nothing is left to one’s own imagination, as we are overwhelmed by the most advanced and high-quality imaging techniques. Think 3D movies in the cinema, the high image density on social media, the success of Netflix and the enormous offer on the internet. The same goes for the offer for children, which is overwhelming and large. This is the reason why there is increasingly less need to think of something yourself: it is no longer necessary.

In An Ordinary Day I bring an ode to the imagination of children. The characters experience a very ordinary or even boring day, but in their head they have experienced the most beautiful and extraordinary things. The strength of the text is of course that I don’t let the children say this, which is also the power of the book. The reader will constantly be doubting what is really happening or not.

On high school the drawing moved a little to the background for me and I gained another hobby. I enjoyed making sportive cycling tours on the race bike through beautiful surroundings. I however also found out on high school that I also liked writing. Therefore I was in doubt whether I should do a study in journalism (because of the writing) or an artistic study at the art academy. At that point it was not my intention to become children’s book illustrator, as I actually wanted to become a graphic designer then. 

It turned out to be the art academy and there I met my future wife Suzanne in the second year. She did know for sure what she wanted to become: children’s book illustrator! It is because of her interest in this profession that all pieces fell in the right place for me; I decided to go for this too and a special note is that we were the only ones to graduate as (children’s book) illustrator from the art academy. 

In the period that I was studying at the art academy I had one important example as illustrator and I tried to decompose her work and copy it to learn from it. She, Austrian Lisbeth Zwerger, is for me the champion in painting with aquarelle. Her image language is enchanting, stilled and poetic. I still love her work, but I have luckily developed a style fully of my own which stands apart from her style. 

Four years ago I wrote my first own picture book, after having been just the illustrator (so only making the drawings) for children’s books of other authors for 18 years. I had the problem of luxury of getting a lot of work requests from Dutch and Belgian publishers, which meant that I had no time left to work on projects of my own, but because I wanted to guarantee income for my family I kept taking most of these requests. In total I have worked on 450 children’s and youth books, together with different authors.

However, as years went by the need increased to make work of my own. I wanted to illustrate more artistic books but I needed more time to do this. Therefore in 2015 I decided to take four months off from other tasks, so that I could work on my picture book debut An Ordinary Day.

I know Nijntje as children’s literature only from the Netherlands. What is the characteric of Dutch children’s literature, unlike other European countries? Could you tell about Dutch

children’s literature?

Nijntje is of course iconic and internationally well-known. Most illustrators will not achieve such notoriety. I do think Nijntje has elements that are representative for the Dutch style: it is very clear, powerful and simple. The level of children’s books in The Netherlands is very high. It is unfortunate that the language area of the Dutch language is so small, but relatively a lot of children’s books are sold per head of population. The Netherlands has a genuine culture of reading out loud for children and parents also see the importance of this in the first years of childhood.

Despite the fact that there is a decrease in the amount of reading done by the youth, there has been an increase in the sale of children’s books throughout the years. Parents still understand how important books, and reading them out loud to their children, are for the development of the child. In addition, books connect better to the target audience, there is a greater variety in themes and books are addressed to specific age groups. The sales figures show that even during the last economic crisis people barely saved on children’s books.

The popularity of youth literature is due to the high quality of the children’s books. Books look increasingly appealing and the attention for children’s literature is growing from within the publishers. Moreover, the influence of the numerous campaigns cannot be excluded.

In October of every year the Dutch Children’s Book Week takes place; a week with a lot of attention for the children’s book throughout the country, with media attention for the authors and the illustrators too. The creators travel through the country on request to give readings about their work and to stimulate reading. In the whole society actions are put up to get children to read and to stimulate fathers for example to read out loud to their children. The Netherlands takes a unique position in the world by having more than 30 children’s book exclusive stores. 

Dutch children’s books are also appreciated greatly outside of the Netherlands. As to my own An Ordinary Day, it has been translated in twelve languages. 

Your books have been translated into Turkish. These book’s message are people exploring

nature and being compatible with living things in nature. Day by day we consume the world and natural resources. Many people in the world live in crowded cities and disconnected from nature. Can books restablish our connection with nature? What is the common feedbacks your books?

No, I don’t think books can restore the connection between human and nature. I would of course love that it was possible, but the only thing I can do is show children and parents how beautiful Earth is and that we are part of it. A life in balance is the best; we have to work hard sometimes and to refill all shortages the best thing to do is to go into the nature. Breath the air and do not forget you are part of something much bigger. Children’s and picture books belong in the category of energy bringers instead of taking energy from you. It gives rest, pleasure and it brings people together. I am therefore happy to contribute to a better world, which does not always have to be with books about educational or world-enhancing themes. It can also just be about beauty, imagination, friendship or humour. This is powerful too and can change things.

While reading your Island book, I recognize that there is no mother character . I wonder

why the mother character isn’t ? We can think the turtle in the story as a metaphor for the world. Can we read the story as refugee story metaphorically?

Yes, you can indeed read the story as a metaphor for the refugee problem, but it was not my intention to include it on beforehand. It grows while working on the book and when it is finished, it can be in there. If you look at all my picture books, I do not want to be steering. Every reader is allowed to make their own story and can take out of it whatever he or she sees or feels in it. That is the power of the book simultaneously. Children see the friendship with the turtle as most important aspect of the story, but adults can take more distance and see the story of refugees in it. People who are challenged in their lives possibly see their agony in it with ups and downs and in the end the reward, if you keep believing and persisting. 

The mother has been left out from the story because I want to make it clear to the reader that this is the primitive reason so to say why father and daughter persevere as they do. They want to return to her! If the mother would be on the Island as well, then there would be moments in the illustrations in which they would maybe like to stay there forever and that there won’t be a reason to return to the land. That would stagnate my story.

Do you want to writing and drawing more about refugee, climate change and xenophobia in the future? Did you engage in refugee social responsibility activities? Or do you think to

establish a foundation to work on these issues? Because your books are beneficial to draw

attention these serious topics.

No, I don’t do this on purpose, because in theory I could very explicitly think of a new story about for example climate change or the plastic soup, but if I do so I would only really touch the people who are already frequently occupied with it. The people who are still not interested will not take in the message of the book or will not read it at all because it does not appeal to them. Hence, in my opinion you do not show the problems, but the wonderful world, the beauty of nature or the tolerance and love between all people of all races. You show the ideal image and reserve my comments about it. You cannot force people.

On a deeper level I do express myself about things like this: ‘Hey, look how beautiful nature is, let’s keep it like that’, ‘hey, look how these children with different skin colours are playing together and having fun’…

In my last picture book Stop! Monsters! I let two sisters with a darker skin colour tell my story. To my pleasure, The Netherlands has a multi-cultural society and I am always concerned with showing the whole spectrum of skin colours. And moreover, it looks gorgeous too!

When it comes to collaborating with a foundation to commit myself to achieve a better world, I do not think my mission lies there. My mission is to send ‘luck on paper’ into the world. I want to make beautiful work that appeals to people and by doing this send positive energy into the world. In other words, I address it in a much broader sense and in my own manner. However, I am ambassador for Foundation Thang, which is a foundation which is committed to stimulating reading of children’s books in Nepal. Poor children there remain unable to read beautiful children’s and picture books and are therefore shielded from stories and images which lie outside of the daily reality: imagination, fantasy and fairy tales. It could encourage them to do great things with their lives, to not only become teacher or doctor, but maybe writer, artist, musician or illustrator.

Every year I visit Nepal as a volunteer for a few weeks to do storytelling and give workshops in drawing. We do this in very isolated areas outside of capital Kathmandu, for example previous year in Jhapa and this year in Chitwan in the south of Nepal.

Children’s literature has become an industry from around the world. When a book prints somewhere of the world, it can translate many language and print all around the world. It is a great opportunity to get to know and explore different cultures, on the other hand, artistic and literary concerns are being replaced by commercial concerns. In your opinion, how can we protect the children literature from damaging of becoming industry ?

This can be achieved by keep seeing picture book illustrators as artists. Let them decide for themselves and carry out what they feel. They will come up with ideas and concepts, but will do that on their own pace. It will always take a certain amount of time to develop an idea, because in the head of an artist this idea will be sculpted and shaped until it is good enough to be carried out according to the artist.

If there is pressure from a commercial publisher to deliver the work too quickly, then the quality will decrease rapidly and the book will not feel as if it is finished. My publisher is a family business that gives me the time I need and is able to wait patiently until I come up with something new. If this happens, then the book is genuinely finished and ready to be published. I therefore doubt if I would be happy to work for the enormous English or American publishing concerns; these have a whole ‘machine’ behind them concerning promotion and so on, but I am convinced that a good book will find its way, also without being published by one of these large companies. 

Publishers who are in this business with passion and are personally involved with you and your work is probably more important than an extensive promotional team.

Finally, what are your recommendations to your readers? Do you want to add anything?

I am very grateful and fortunate to move people with my stories and my illustrations. I do nothing else than do my own thing. I do nothing else than when I was still a student at the art academy and I do nothing else than other illustrators. If your books still stand out among all other books, then you can only be thankful that that is possible. And even more will follow! Thanks! You can find my most recent work on Instagram.

Leave A Comment

E-posta adresiniz yayınlanmayacak. Gerekli alanlar * ile işaretlenmişlerdir