The Daily Heller: This is the Season of the Beards

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Klaas Verplancke's most recent picture book (the previous being Magritte's Apple in 15 translations!), The King's Golden Beard (Mineditionsus), is a fairy tale for our unusual times. Verplancke hopes the book will help children (and their respective parents) understand the danger of absolute power, narcissism, selfishness and ignorance of science and knowledge.

This is an unusual book for the American market. There is some discomfort about the harsh end. But it is Verplancke's intention that this uncomfortable feeling should lead to a public debate "about how to deal with our reality." Here, the author/illustrator talks about his political and artistic motivations.

What was the inspiration for this book?

I’m essentially a conceptual image designer/illustrator. I combine book-making with a lot of editorial and visual communication assignments (e.g., for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Pentagram and MoMA). Each of my books I have written and illustrated so far starts from that daily visual thinking—as an image I have dreamed of, or as a never-used draft I made for my other assignments; stars that become fireflies (for the picture book Jot), a book that first becomes a floating roof and then a hat for a giant (for the picture books Nelly and Giant) or a house growing on the branch of a tree (for Applesauce). Each story first develops into images. Words are added later. They connect the illustrations into a whole. Sometimes no words are needed and I let the images speak. In this way every reading becomes unique.

I wrote the first version of The King’s Golden Beard years ago. Here, too, a visual concept was the starting point of my story—in my imagination I saw a beard growing and growing, so long that it grows around the world. I felt there was a story in it and I wrote it down in my sketchbook. In the beginning my intention was to write a funny story about the fact that the earth was round and to invent crazy situations based on that knowledge. But it was also the era where the impact of social media in the public debate led to increasing polarization, political movements embracing populism, the election of dictatorial leaders in the U.S., Brazil, Philippines … kings with an imaginary golden beard. This inspired me for the setting and decorum of my story.

It is a fairy tale and an allegory. What is your intention? What do you want readers to take away?

I don’t want to be too pretentious, but I sincerely hope that this book can help readers around the world understand the danger of absolute power, ignorance of science and knowledge, narcism, selfishness, especially in these dangerous times of polarization, fascism, racism and extreme nationalism. A contemporary fairy tale that creates a smile on the face and a light in the mind of the children and their parents! So yes, there is a social and political intention in my story.

As always, the challenge is to transform a complex concept like this into an appealing and unique balance between relaxation and effort. This is the point where I rely on my creativity, my imagination and the power of visual and verbal language. But the additional, specific challenge here was the "unsympathetic" protagonist and the ending, of which I don't want to give away too much right now. Normally, as a writer, you try to create an affective bond between your main character and the reader. Here it is the other way around, and you give the reader satisfaction in a different way: through justice. In that sense you can compare the King with the golden beard with the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, with Rapunzel and of course with the fooled animals in Aesop’s fables. I don't want to sound pretentious, but taking in account the more universal scale of my story, I notice also parallels with classic Greek myths (think of Prometheus or Orpheus), biblical tales and Shakespearean dramas where denial, pride, abuse of power and challenging of the truth and reality are also settled. What goes around, comes around, and that is literally what happens in this story.

I am very fond of what you've done with the protagonist's beard, filling up all the pages, being raked by soldiers and so on. How did you develop your character? What was the model?

From the beginning I knew that I didn’t want to show the King himself, only his beard. I want to leave the interpretation of the king to the imagination of the reader. Because all of us occasionally feel a little bit king, better or smarter than someone else; and all of us occasionally think the same thing about someone else. The King is constantly admiring himself in the mirror, but essentially this book is also a mirror to our thoughts.

As I drew the storyboard, I realized that this fairy tale offered a unique opportunity to enhance the reading experience and make the physical book itself part of the story. With the book as a steering wheel, the reader literally travels around the world, back and forth. This gave me also more possibilities to play with repetition and to enlarge the absurdity.

The attentive viewer will also notice that there is a clear formal contrast between the winding, curly beard that is present on almost every spread, and the more geometric figures and scenes. The same with regard to the use of color. In this way I wanted to create a distinction between the egocentric King and the rest of the world around him and his beard. All illustrations are executed in a combination of (hairy!) hand drawings on paper and digital finishing.

This is perhaps, other than Santa Claus, the first time I've seen a beard as the main character in a story. Have you seen others?

There are some well-known stories where body parts play an essential role. Think about Samson’s hair or Gogol’s “The Nose”—but [I] don’t have any knowledge about beard stories.

How did Maria Russo, former Kids book editor of
The New York Times Book Review, find the dummy and manuscript?

I first met publisher Maria Russo in person in 2017 at the Bologna Book Fair. At the time she was still editor of children's books at The New York Times, and she moderated a debate on art books for children. One of the titles discussed in that presentation was Magritte's Apple, my book about Rene Magritte that was commissioned by MoMA. After that debate, I had another personal conversation with Maria in the corridors about the very first version of The King's Golden Beard. I presented her with my dummy and sketches of that story, assuming and hoping that she could help me in my quest to introduce it to the American market. At that time, D. Trump was already in power, and he was the perfect personification of the King in my story. Hence my interest in publishing this picture book in the American book market. Maria praised and [was] enthused about my concept and offered to do some initial text editing. In the years that followed, I stayed in personal contact with her, mainly during my prospecting trips to New York. For several years I approached various U.S. publishers with the first version of The King's Golden Beard, but without any luck or results. Until early March 2020—out of the blue I got an email from Maria saying she was going to leave the Times to become an editor of picture books at the new publishing house minedition US. Apparently, she never forgot about my manuscript and wanted this as her first publication.

Were there any changes made prior to publication?

We did mostly text edits. … Also, we worked largely on the ending. I wanted the punishment to be confrontational (life is sometimes hard and harsh, it is), but I also attach great importance to suggestion and subtlety, because that is what art should give us: images and words to compensate and soften our reality. That's why we carefully weighed each word on the last page.

Who is your preferred audience?

I recently re-shared a NYT opinion piece on my timeline written by Pamela Paul. The title says it all: "Your Kids Aren’t Too Old for Picture Books, and Neither Are You. These are the Real Wizards of the Literary World." I totally support this idea. My books are for all ages.

I always get nervous when in a conversation people start discussing the suitability of a story for children. Where does a child start and end? Where does an adult begin? We never discuss the suitability for adults, because we assume that every adult is unique and that not all adults will love or understand each book. Why don’t we think the same about children?

I know, the same old story: iIt is the question of understanding. But there are different kinds of understanding, and we "learn" a lifetime long, even as adults. I always have this quote by the Dutch writer Guus Kuiper in my mind: "The issue is this: Everything, even walking, biking or driving, is elitist if you are not willing to learn."