Pieter Gaudesaboos is a Belgian illustrator and writer of picture books. In his latest book, A Sea of Love, Penguin and Bear investigate what love is and what it means. ‘You could call me an illustrator,’ he says, ‘but really I’m someone who tells stories. They come out of me, whether I write them myself or work as an illustrator with other writers.’
‘Each picture book is completely different, yet instantly recognizable as a “Gaudesaboos”,’ you write on your website. What is that, a real Gaudesaboos?
I think it’s a combination of absurdist humour, a certain warmth and a particular use of colour. I like to do a lot of different things. It takes me six or seven months to create a book for infants and toddlers, and after that I’ll want to do something completely different, for example to make a book for older children and adults. So my books are very diverse, but they do have something in common. What exactly that is, I find hard to say.
A Sea of Love tells the story of Penguin, who is in love with Beer. What gave you the idea of writing about love?
I never thought I’d write a book about love until my daughter asked me what exactly love is. I told her love starts with falling in love, which is something you don’t have any control over. It happens to you and then you can decide for yourself what to do with the feeling. Two questions remained with me after that conversation: ‘Can you fall in love with someone who is utterly different from you?’ and ‘Can you fall in love with someone who is completely the same as you?’ The idea immediately struck me of telling a story about two characters who are utterly different but at the same time somehow completely the same, and about how they fall in love.
Why did you find it important to tell this story?
I wanted to show children that love is simple and can’t be judged based on sex, skin colour or sexuality. Love is simply about feeling good with someone. You know, I sometimes get annoyed by problem books. They contain inclusive and diverse characters, but they merely describe the problems those characters can face. That often means they’re read only by readers who find themselves confronted with similar difficulties. As a reaction, I wanted to tell a beautiful story that’s as open as possible and can strike a chord with lots of children.
What inspired you when you were composing the story?
As far as the form is concerned, I drew inspiration from books by Marianne Dubuc, a writer and illustrator who makes substantial children’s books in which you can see a clear progression. Most picture books are about 32 pages long, but because I wanted to portray the development of Penguin and Bear, who grow closer as the story goes on, it was important to make a book with more pages. That way you can gradually build up the story and allow the drawings to speak for themselves by omitting words altogether from time to time.
The reader slowly discovers that both Penguin and Bear are boys, even though that’s not mentioned explicitly anywhere. A deliberate choice?
For me it was natural to make the two characters boys. I didn’t want to conceal the fact, but neither did I want to mention it explicitly. While I was making the book, I played with using lots of image and little text. It was an attempt to show things without naming them, or to allow the drawings to take over the story for a while. Those are the elements I use to make clear that both Penguin and Bear are boys.
A Sea of Love is a love story that’s atypical of children’s books on the subject. Why did you write the story this way?
I believe there are a lot of soppy books about love, and many beautiful books on the subject too. But I wanted to avoid clichés. So you won’t find a heart anywhere in the book, that’s almost on principle [laughs]. Only right at the end is there a tiny heart hidden away. When I started the story I had an idea that felt concrete and realistic. I thought it was important to include in the story the difficult transition from friendship to a romantic relationship. I wanted the book to reflect real life.
What other inclusive children’s books would you recommend?
Hallo Teckel Tom! by Bette Westera. It’s an amusing and unprejudiced book about a dog whose owner has two fathers. That’s not explicitly dealt with or problematized anywhere in the book, it’s simply how things are.