Books in the Big World: Matt Ottley
Eerdlings is introducing new guest post categories! We love hearing from our authors and illustrators — and we know you do too! — so we’re giving them more ways to share their stories, advice, and work in progress.
Books in the Big World posts invite authors and illustrators to explore the connections between their book and an issue in the world they find important.
Today Matt Ottley, illustrator of Parachute, writes about blending the dark and light sides of life in his work.
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Many of my books can be read at different levels. At one level they are simply stories that entertain and take the reader on flights of fantasy or adventure, and if that is all readers take away from them, I am perfectly happy. But there is often another layer, which comes from aspects of contemporary life that either trouble or perplex me, or that I find joyous and life affirming and that I would like readers to think about. I produced a book some years ago, for example, called Requiem for a Beast, which is a book and musical work for adults and young adults, and is partly about the plight of those indigenous Australians who were taken away from their families as children during a particularly disturbing period of Australia’s recent history. The book is also about the issues faced by boys as they are growing into young men.
There is another book, a picture book called Home and Away, which I made in collaboration with author John Marsden, which is about refugees. It’s a role-reversal story, so it depicts what it would be like for a family living in a currently stable country, like Australia (or indeed the USA), if a war came to that country and the family had to flee to a safer place. Although Home and Away has as its themes the darker side of life, it also reflects family relationships in a beautiful way.
Another book of mine, called Mrs Millie’s Painting, is about the extraordinary power of creativity and about accepting and tolerating those who are different from us. A more recent book, with author Rebecca Young, is called Teacup, and although it has the theme of being a refugee, is quite a lovely, gentle story about a sense of belonging.
When I collaborate with an author, and I’m the illustrator of a book, I like to discuss with the author how we can best work together to express the deeper themes of the book. While working on Parachute Danny Parker and I had many discussions about what we wanted to “say” through the images and the text. For Danny Parachute is about the safety net of parental love — how the love of a parent can make a child resilient and strong so that eventually she or he can face the world confidently on his or her own. We decided that when Toby is rescuing his cat Henry, he could use his parachute — a symbol of his parent’s love for him — to provide safety for his beloved cat. If we are taught to be confident and caring by our parents, we in turn will express that love to others.
Parachute is a book that reflects on love and the lovely side of life, even though there are scenes in which fear is the dominant emotion. I feel that darkness must always be balanced by light. I also like to express difficult themes, like war or loss, in an artistically beautiful way as that engages the reader (or viewer) at a deeply emotional level, which I feel brings greater empathy and understanding.
Some of the books I’ve made have dark themes and some are about the light of life, but all, I hope, will leave readers with a sense of the beauty and the amazing potential of all human beings.
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Matt Ottley has been illustrating picture books since 1983 and is one of Australia’s most popular children’s illustrators. Learn more about Ottley in his Five Questions post on Eerdlings, and order his new book, Parachute, today!