Actually, this was the first book I illustrated while working for Childrens Press in Chicago.
I posted a picture of a spider back around Halloween time. This is Anansi, a character with as much or more literary history than Charlotte of "the Web' and Brer Rabbit to whom he is related. Stories about Anansi, the trickster, come from West Africa. Clever Anansi who usually appears as a spider often has his trick backfire in some comical way.
I illustrated one of the Anansi stories for Childrens Press as part of the Adventures in Storytelling series. The cover art shown above has all the characters who appear in the story, the Sky God, a snake, a hornet, a leopard, and the spider.
The Storyteller is essential to this traditional type of tale, telling the story that has been passed on for generations. I used a photo reference of the professional storyteller who recorded on a tape that came with the published book. I picture her with children I imagined listening by firelight in a far-away African village.
I actually used my own children as models for this pose. They are not of African descent, but happily understood that Momma just needs them as general models. This is a part of their unique childhood memory, Momma drawing them!
The opening spread from my children's book "How Anansi Obtained the Sky God's Stories" published by Childrens Press, Chicago.
This is one of my favorite spreads. I took great delight in drawing that tree, it has a personality all by itself.
I imagined a village nestled under a huge baobob tree, in my research I had come across some fascinating images. These trees provide shelter, wood, shade,medicine, and fruit. They are deciduous which explains why I kept finding images with no leaves in what I thought was a tropical country.
And I imagined the storyteller with an audience around a village fire in the early evening, the sun just down and a full moon is above.
Details of the storyteller's face and each of the children from my illustrations for "How Anansi Obtained the Sky God's Stories" an African Folktale from the Ashanti, published by Childrens Press of Chicago.
What type of media? Watercolor,pastels, acrylic,pencils or oil? This is a question I have often wrestled with. At that time I didn't feel like I had a strong style. And I had training at The Art Center College in so many types of media and styles that I spent some time after school wondering what felt best for me. I have now realized that this question really doesn't suddenly answer itself, you pick something, work as hard as you can with it, eventually a personal style emerges after much time and many hours.
I spent a great deal of time researching images and information about Ghana and the Ashanti people for this book. I also looked at lots of award-winning children's illustration, the styles and media used.
I decided to work with Prismacolor pencils with a very heavy, blended application. I wanted to get the colors as dense and rich as possible. One reason for this is the color scheme that I imagined for the African folktale. And the other reason was that I had been looking, at the library and at bookstores, at too many children's books illustrated with very light pencil or ink lines and light pastel toned washes. I wanted my work to stand apart from that type of look.
I researched for the creation of the Sky god by visiting museums in my own area.The DuSable Museum of African American History, and The Art Institute of Chicago exhibit African masks and other artifacts. Here are some sketches from my observations.
The Storybag was an invention from my imagination made of Kente cloth designs, and more colorful images I collected at museums. I have not had an opportunity to visit Africa, I certainly hope to go someday.
Storytelling is best done with lots of hand movement. I focused on the hands on both the character of the Storyteller and of the Sky god. I used the art of the hands to express the emotions and energy in the story.
Some things are difficult to illustrate and to inject with personality. Either they just are not cute or visually appealing (as with the South American Condor in my Girl from the Sky book) or they are very tiny, like the spider here and changing the normal dimensions of the creature can turn into a horror scene.
So Anansi who actually does not have features, like a pair of cute eyes to give expression or a mouth to talk with must indeed be animated. He is the main character and he is a trickster. I guess what I did to solve the problem was to use his "hands" all eight of them to tell the story. I really did study the actions of spiders to figure this out.
There are many Anansi the Spider stories. All have the common theme of Anansi trying to trick somone out of something and getting tricked himself in the end. In this story Anansi wants whatever the Sky god has in his bag, which is supposed to be all the stories in the world. The Sky god says he can have it if Anansi can capture and bring to the sky The Hornet, The Snake , and The Leopard.
Anansi has to trick and capture the hornet and deliver to the Sky god. He concocts a scheme involving a gourd filled with water.
For the gourd art I used a real decorated gourd that was brought from Ghana by friends. It is just a souvenir and a tourist item, but it was interesting as art itself.
In order to trick The Leopard and tie him up for delivery to the sky, Anansi first digs a deep hole and sets a trap. Just try, I ask you, to think about how to show a spider with his eight tiny arms holding a device with which to dig a huge hole. Suspension of disbelief is called for when telling and illustrating these stories.
Tricking a huge Snake was easy, Anansi simply appealed to vanity. He challenged the Snake to prove that it was longer than the longest piece of bamboo in the forest. Snake complied and Anansi quickly tied him to the bamboo pole.
This art is all rendered with prismacolor pencils, layered and burnished. Lots and lots of pencils!
I ended the storybook with a full-spread illustration that repeated my opening scene of the Storyteller and the three children. I fear that some people thought I had just repeated my first spread but, it is a completely different illustration with different expressions to show the reactions at the end of the story.
Here is the last spread, I had to split it in half to scan it. I especially love the laughing appreciative expression on the children's faces. And the sly sideways look out of the picture on the girl on the far left.
This little girl is definitely thinking her own trickster ideas.