Successful Czech illustrator says children’s books not ‘child’s play’

Photo: Walker Books

Illustrator Petr Horáček was born in Prague, but he is much better known in England, where he settled with his British wife and where he started to produce books for children. To this day, Petr Horáček has released over two dozen books for the prestigious Walker Books publishing house, winning a number of awards.

Petr Horáček, photo: archive of Petr Horáček
When I met with Petr Horáček during his short visit to Prague before Christmas, I first asked him whether he had always wanted to become an illustrator:

“I had no idea. What I actually wanted to do was painting. As a student I wanted to do design and advertising posters and stuff like that. But when I moved over to England, I didn’t know anybody and I wanted to start from the scratch.

“I was asked by a friend of mine if I would like to illustrate her story. I have never done it before but I thought I could give it a try. The story wasn’t very good and my illustrations weren’t very good either but I enjoyed it and I thought that I could start some writing and that’s how it all started.

And then, in 2001, you wrote your first book, Strawberries Are Red. Did you already have a publisher?

“Well, it’s true that I published my first book, Strawberries are Red, in 2001. But before, I wrote a couple of books, made the mock-ups and sent them around hoping that some publisher would say: that’s great, come to see us.

“Walker Books, my publisher back in England, was the first one who actually called me and said: we like your pictures, we like the colours, come to see us. The first story that I actually tried to publish was about a fly.

“The fly was playing funny games in the books. She would sit in a fruit bowl and because of the scale, all she could see was the colour, and had to guess what fruit it was. And every time you turned the page, they were shorter and shorter and they were built up into a colour spectrum.

“And the publisher liked the drawing and said: this is great, we would like to publish the book, but we don’t like the fly. Nobody will like a book about a fly. Let’s do a book only about colours and fruit. So we did it and I published it together with another book, What Is Black and White, for which I received Books for Children Newcomer Award.”

“I grew up copying the pictures of Josef Lada. At first I just wanted to please my grandfather but then I really started to enjoy it.”

Did this award help you in establishing your career?

“Of course it did help me. But my publisher must have thought that I had some potential because the first books often get unnoticed. But that doesn’t mean that I automatically get a new contract.”

How important is the quality of books for the youngest readers? Do kids appreciate the quality of your books?

“I did about 15 of the so-called board books, for the very young age, and I am always taking them very seriously. I think a book like this is probably the first time that a child is confronted with fine art.

“I think this is the way children can learn how to like books and like art and of course colours as well. I studied fine arts, so for me colours and the artwork are really important.

“And I think it is not true that little children are silly and don’t deserve more than just pictures. They deserve story and a little bit more. So I always try quite hard. And being published by Walker Book, it’s probably one of the best publishers in England, they really do care and they spend time on it and they do a great job.”

Did you as a kid enjoy reading?

“I don’t know about reading, I am still a very slow reader, but I always spent hours and hours looking at pictures and doing drawings.”

What are your favourite books from childhood?

“Well we all grew up on Vojtěch Kubašta’s books, kind of pop-up books with beautiful pictures. You could pull them out and play with them forever. So I remember his books.

“And I really like Josef Lada, not as much his books as his paintings. My grandfather, whenever he came to see us, he would bring a postcard, maybe it was a Christmas card, with snowy landscape and asked me to do a copy.

Photo: Walker Books
“So I grew up copying the pictures of Josef Lada. At first I just wanted to please my grandfather but then I really started to enjoy it. So Josef Lada was really important for me, when I was a little boy.”

When you create your board books, what comes first, the picture or the text?

“It is always the pictures. I get the idea what the story will be about and I can see how I want to do the artwork and maybe I do one picture and the text is always the last thing. I don’t consider myself to be exactly a writer. I do write the story but I work with editors.

“People sometimes think that picture books are easy to write, especially in the format that is published in England- there is very little text – but it takes very long time.

“For instance my latest book, called Blue Penguin, it has about fifteen versions, and the first one if very different from the final one. We have been working on the text for maybe a year before we decided on the final version and before I got the permission to do the final art work.”

As you said, you are both writing and illustrating your books. Are you also interested in illustrating other people’s books?

“That was something I was asking for some time. I asked my publisher to give me some good book to illustrate. I like to try something new and I thought it would be great to see if I would be able to illustrate somebody’s book. I have already done that before but I wanted something that I would relay enjoy.

“Then I realised there was a very good writer, she is a biologist and her name is Nicola Davies. I like her work and she always wanted to do a book with me, which is brilliant.

“I think a book like this is probably the first time that a child is confronted with fine art.”

“So they matched us together and this book will be published next November. It is called A First Book of Animals and for me it was a dream work. I enjoyed every minute of it. I have been working on it for exactly a year and I just finished last week.”

Was it a challenge? Did you learn anything new about biology?

“Definitely. The book has about 60 double spreads, it is quite big and there is very little text for each animal. The way we did the book, I could paint anything I wanted and I could use any material I wanted, so I had complete freedom. In fact she even told me that if I didn’t like any of the animals, we could replace it with one that I like. So I was never bored, and it was a really nice year for me.”

What kind of material and media do you actually use for your books?

“Well, I use collage. I like to be quite messy and using collage helps me to keep the pictures tidy. So I usually use acrylics, wax crayons, water colours, in fact any material I often get inspired material. So I use anything which is lying around.

“And I also print. I make monotypes. For instance if there is lots of leaves I print them out separately and then I collage them into the pictures.

“Another thing children might find inspiring is that whenever I draw something and then I cut it out, you can see the pencil line, and then I cut over it, so children can see how I did it. And I leave these things there. I think it is part of the artwork.”

And apart from material, what else is a source of inspiration for you?

“It could be anything, an exhibition, an abstract painting, or a good combination of colours. I get inspired by somebody else’s works as well. I love for example looking at Jiří Šalamoun’s work. He is an absolute hero of mine. My work doesn’t look anything like his, but I find him incredibly inspiring.”

You have just finished The First Book of Animals. What are you going to work on now?

Photo: Walker Books
“This year I did another book, which will be published next spring. It is called The Greedy Goat. I don’t have a contract for another book and I am enjoying that so much, but my publisher already wants me to show them new ideas.

“So I will have to do that. I already have some ideas. I have an idea about a tiger and I already have some sketches, but I didn’t show it to anybody yet because I don’t want them to tell me: Ok, so when will you finish? I just wasn’t to have a nice couple of weeks, maybe a month, without work and then show them new ideas and see what will happen.”