Peeling Back the Layers of Sara Fanelli’s New Book

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The illustrator Sara Fanelli has a new book that “will disappear” once it is read. The Onion’s Great Escape (Phaidon Press) is about a young onion who is trapped in the book. As you make your way through the gloriously drawn and scribbled pages, you tear along the perforations and the onion pops out. By the end, the onion can be freed from bondage (or binding).

Children's book illustrations by Sara Fanelli

The cover of Sara Fanelli's new book, "The Onion's Great Escape"

It’s an ingenious work by a persistently imaginative artist who has created more than ten children’s books, as well as a book of drawings and writings for no particular age group, titled Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am. On the occasion of her latest, here is an excerpt from an interview I did with her back in 2007, in which she discusses Dante and Beckett, logic and wolves, and other quirky things.

Your work seems to derive from a mix of the Dadaists, Futurists, Cubists, Paul Klee, and, well, am I forgetting anything? Your list is correct. I look at photography and film – Bauhaus, Russian Constructivist, Surrealist, 1960s – and I also find inspiration from popular art and primitive art.

Much of your visible work has been for children’s books that are at once friendly to kids, but also go beyond the usual conventions. Why did you choose this genre as your métier, or did it choose you? I love books. I love the book format, and the challenge to use it and expand it as much as possible according to the project. The books I enjoy working on most are picture books, where the page is mainly occupied by pictures and punctuated by the parallel voice of type. I would love to be working on illustrated books for adults as well, but this is a rare format nowadays. There is also a part of me that directly relates to the magic in children’s books, looking for new worlds do go to, with their own, different characters, colors and logic. This is the side that naturally guides my children’s book output.

What do you mean by “logic?” Do you really mean “illogic,” weird juxtapositions, silly worlds? Can you explain how logic enters into your work? Generally logic enters into my work mostly to be put to shame. I love Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. The worlds one creates in books have their own rules and logic. In my book Wolf (1997), wolves and humans interact, and wolves wear boots. In It’s Dreamtime (1999), you can be flown to Mars by the Moon. And in Dear Diary (2000), chairs and spiders keep a diary, and foxes throw masquerade parties. I also really enjoy and admire Lewis Carroll’s approach to logic in his books.

Who is your favourite character in your work, and why? When I think of my books I see them less as collections of different characters and more as samples of different worlds, realities. But to answer the question, maybe the Wolf character is the one I am most fond of. It appears as well in the guise of a dog sometimes. I also enjoy giving life to inanimate objects very much.

I’ve gotta know, what exactly does the wolf, or dog, mean to you? Is it some demon or loved one or wishful fantasy person? There is a very liberating element in being an animal and being able to be wild! And it can be scary as well and dangerous, both of which are rather appealing aspects, to a certain degree. Also there is sheer enjoyment in making the graphic gestures and movements to draw that kind of dog. With their spiky hair and ears and noses, they are almost like deformed creatures with illnesses that maybe we can all end up with.

Do the children’s books satisfy all your creative urges? I know this sounds a little pretentious, but as an artist do you get as much from this line of your work as from other areas where you are not telling such regimented linear stories? I like both. But I wouldn’t like to be doing only one thing. Everything is fed by personal research both in materials and ideas. The ideas most of the time come from marrying events and emotions in my life with texts I come across in my reading. This is the core of all the work and it feeds the general illustration commissions as well as the books.

So, what do you like to read? Do you prefer heavy literature or light reading – or word-a-day calendars? As an Italo Calvino fanatic, I value playfulness and lightness of spirit, though in the context of great literature. I like to read books that either make me see or think things in a different way, or make me enter wonderful worlds. I really dislike over-sentimentality. My great love is Calvino (his early stories as much as the later work), and I also really enjoy Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago, Vladimir Nabokov, Laurence Sterne, Flann O’Brien and many more.

Would you say you lean towards Surrealism in your work? Are you trying to hide something? Or is it the way your mind processes visual information? To me the world is surreal and I find its absurdities and surprises make it worth coping with all the rest. There is also an element of playfulness in the surreal side of things that is equally fundamental, for me, in order to live.

“Coping with the rest” is a curious reason for making art. Are you depressed or happy or somewhere in between? And would you call your artwork happy? Difficult question. I think that I am by nature a happy person but often find everyday life quite demanding and at times overwhelming. Sometimes my work is less happy than people want to think; on the other hand sometimes people find it more scary than I think it is.

I’m not sure I would apply the word “happy” to your work, but nor is it sad, either. Some of your characterizations have a slightly demonic edge, yet most of your work does not push the emotional edges. If this is a fair interpretation? How would you describe what you “put into” your artwork? For the personal visual journey – the body of work that is not commissioned but feeds commissions eventually – I often end up choosing texts that are relevant to emotions or events in my life at the time. But it tends to be a way of understanding or trying to understand some emotion rather than pouring the emotion into the work. It is a way of looking at something from several perspectives and trying to do-it and un-do-it in an attempt to make a little more sense of it.

One of my favorite of all your books is My Map Book. This seems so un-child-like. But it’s perfect for children. Were you making a break here? Was this a cry from you to go into un-chartered territory? I worked on My Map Book while I was still at college. I have always been fascinated by old maps and their mysterious narratives and I was looking at them at the time. One day I decided to test my memory of certain places back home in Italy, and I did this by drawing map-style sketches. I was also looking at Jean Michel Basquiat’s work and so these three eleme
nts came together in the book.

Given all your inventive books, why Pinocchio? Hasn’t this been done to death? This is the only book I was commissioned to do, as opposed to me taking an idea to the publishers. At first I wasn’t sure. I didn’t particularly like the story when I was little – too much moralistic talk and guilt-ridden logic. But when I read the original again I was surprised by the striking, fabulous escapades of the puppet. Also the large number of characters and events. The publisher, Walker Books, wanted to commission a new translation, so when I met with the translator, Emma Rose, we talked about how the text should be a faithful translation but at the same time should mute the moral tone. I think she did this very well. I liked the challenge of making a picture book which looked contemporary, but still retained the spirit of the traditional story.

I decided that it was very important to maintain the connection with the rural landscape of the story – the Tuscan hills and the surrounding countryside. Once this connection was in place I was free to take the images where I wanted. So the book starts with a sequence of images leading the reader into the world of Pinocchio’s countryside, even before the story begins. I thought of those films in which the title sequence follows, instead of precedes, the beginning of the narrative.

If you were to step out of Sara Fanelli and describe who you are as an artist, would you describe yourself as a children’s book illustrator? Just an illustrator? I think I would describe myself as an illustrator. But in the context of contemporary illustration which gives personal interpretations and visual comments to texts rather than merely literal descriptions.

Children's book illustration by Sara Fanelli

A spread from Sara Fanelli's new book of children's illustrations, "The Onion's Great Escape"

Innovative children's book design by Sara Fanelli
Innovative children's book design by Sara Fanelli
Innovative children's book design by Sara Fanelli
Innovative children's book design by Sara Fanelli