by Prakriti Kandel and Priya Pradhan
The author of the world-renowned children’s book The Rainbow Fish, Marcus Pfister, was born in Berne, Switzerland in 1960. Although he began his career as a graphic artist working in advertising, he decided to pursue writing children’s books in 1983; writing and illustrating his first book The Sleepy Owl in 1986. His book The Rainbow Fish took the world by storm, having been translated into over 80 languages and sold over 30 million copies, and has now become a series with several editions and even an animated TV show.
At this year’s Bal Sahitya Mahotsav, we were lucky to make Mr.Pfister’s acquaintance as he attended the event as our chief guest and keynote speaker. His inaugural address encompassed the importance of books and reading. He believes that “stories are the bread for our brains, the water for our souls; books are just the food for us”. We had a few moments to speak with Mr.Pfister.
PK and PP: What inspired you to be a children's literature author?
MP: Originally, I come from illustration and am a graphic artist. And I worked for publicity agency where you can only illustrate certain things. As an illustrator, I thought about what I could do for more illustration. And I also always loved telling stories so a picture book was perfect to bring these two talents together. So, I tried and finished my first book and I sent it to five editors in Switzerland.
PK and PP: Why do you value stories so much?
MP: I started to write stories before I had kids but when I having my own kids, the stories and their content started changing. Before, I always cared about the characters and illustrations and then about the story, but when I had my kids, the story became more important. The kids came home and told me stories about their day and their little problems and these are the kind of stories you read in the rainbow fish books. I loved to tell stories to the kids in the evening for 15-20 minutes to sit together and read stories and the kids asked questions about the story and we were together in a very intimate way. And I think it is a very nice. One day if you have your own kids, it would be very nice to tell them stories.
PK and PP: How do you think telling stories affects children and why is it important to tell stories to them?
MP: It's not that important what story you are telling: you may tell religious stories or stories about nature and science and even comics or a manga. I guess what is important is to know your kids in a different way; during the day maybe you won't have time to play or stay with them, but it is important to take the time to stay with your kids without any disturbance for 15-20 minutes to do something that calms you down. For me this relationship of parents and their children is important. More than the story, if a book is able to bring parents and children together, then that is a very nice thing.
PK and PP: What do you think of the Children's Literature Festival that Rato Bangala is organizing?
MP: First of all I enjoyed all the decorations on the trees and everything which brings about a feeling of joy and happiness. I guess this event is important because it opens your mind to another world and this is the aim of this festival.
PK and PP: What do you think it is about stories, especially children's stories, which make them loved and read in so many different countries and languages regardless of what language it is originally composed in, even taking your book as an example?
MP: Often people ask why a certain book is so renowned and the other one not? If we had an answer to this question, then anybody could write bestsellers and this is not possible. So it is luck but also it is about writing a certain story in the right time. Perhaps the rainbow fish published today wouldn't be a success it was twenty five years ago. I did a lot of books that I personally liked more that the rainbow fish but they were not such a success.
So, of course, for me it is also easier because I am only telling stories about animals. If you have an animal such as a fish or a penguin, then it is much more relatable. If a character is say, a Chinese kid, then kids in other parts of the world would feel that it is a Chinese kid, not me. But with the rainbow fish and the things it is doing, it could be anyone: you or me. It is not Chinese or Japanese or European so I think it is much more easier to have success with animals than with human beings. The story of the Rainbow Fish is a very simple one to touch people.
PK and PP: In your story, The Rainbow Fish, a major value the story talks about is sharing and making friends, so when writing stories how do you choose which values you want to put in the characters?
MP: It is actually completely different. Sometimes, I start with an idea where I want to tell a story with a certain value. Other times, since I am an illustrator, I have certain ideas for colors and illustrations and how characters should be like. And then, the story comes afterwards. So I have a lot of inspirations and it is not always the story first or the value first. I also write to entertain the kids. It is not necessary that the book always has to teach something.
PK and PP: Since you have said that you are primarily an illustrator, how did you start illustration?
MP: I enjoyed doing illustrations but when you are good in drawing in Switzerland, it does not mean very much. So my first step was to give exams to the art school and to know that I now want to pursue this.
PK and PP: In your speech, you mentioned that you read all the seven Harry Potter books to your children. So how did you get the idea of reading stories to your kids?
MP: First of all, small kids cannot read on their own so you have to read aloud to them. And second, the kids enjoyed the 15 minutes I spent reading with them. After reading the first book of Harry Potter, I asked them if they then wanted to read on their own or wanted me to read to them. They insisted on me reading so I continued doing this.
PK and PP: What advice would you have for children our age who want to be authors and illustrators?
MP: I don't know how it is here, but in Switzerland it is very difficult to write a picture book and to find an editor. But the thing is you have to try and you have to do it. When I was young, there was a lot of graphic artist there were a lot of people who wanted to go into graphics and write picture books but they never actually did it. So you have to take the time and be inspired to try it and you'll find an editor but you have to try and start.
PK and PP: In writing and illustrating and publishing children's books, have you faced anything difficult?
MP: When I started I sent my book to five editors in Switzerland and the fifth one finally agreed after waiting for six to nine months. But I said to myself that if it does not work in Switzerland, I would go to search for other editors in Germany. Maybe I would have tried something else since I have a lot of interests like sculptures, photography. It worked with the first book and it was possible to go on.
Priya Pradhan and Prakriti Kandel are writers and A Level students at Rato Bangala School.