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11.05.2013

A Conversation with G. Brian Karas


G. Brian Karas
G. Brian Karas has been writing and illustrating children's picture books for over 25 years. The New York Times describes his work as, "...depicted in a childlike style that belies the sophistication of the drawings. Exquisite and moving in it subtlety."

I met him after I reviewed his most recent book, Young Zeus. I was very impressed by how true to the original myths his re-telling was, while still being able to appeal to children (my son loved it). I was happy to have the chance to talk with him about it, and to find out more about where his ideas come from.

In my review, I had mentioned the contrast between the front cover - which is fairly benign - with some of the interior artwork which is... perhaps less benign. Certainly much more interesting and involved than I would have at first suspected. Going back to look at some of your previous books - such as the High Rise Private Eyes series with Cynthia Rylant, the contrast seems greater still. Do you feel that Young Zeus marks a change for you as an illustrator?

I do feel like I've pushed the content further than I do with most books. Artistically, my work didn't change, only what I chose to show young readers.

One of the earliest images I worked on was the picture of Cronos eating one of his children. I remember seeing Goya's painting, Saturn Devouring his Son, when I was young and being changed by that image. I'm not looking to traumatize children, but also didn't want to alter this detail about how horrible Cronos was. Otherwise, there would be no story. That more or less shaped the tone of the whole book.


Cronos Devours His Children
Cronos Devours His Children

I usually think of Zeus as being the Greek stand-in for Yahweh. As in, Zeus is the Primary, most powerful god who ever existed, an unmoved-mover. In your book, you also tell the story of his father and his grandfather.

According to the Greeks and depending on which version you read, in the very beginning there was only Chaos. Not chaos like we know it, more like nothingness. From Chaos was born Erebus (night) and Gaia (earth). Somehow Gaia gave birth to Uranus, the sky, who in turn became her husband. Together they had twelve children, the Titans, including Cronos and Rhea, Zeus' parents. As far as I know, Zeus was the first god to have relations with humans and that's when the line between myth and history becomes blurred.

Young Zeus by G. Brian Karas

We imagine the Greek gods as being the most human of all deities - what with their jealousy and arrogance and lust.

It was exactly the humanity of the Greek gods that allowed me to play a little bit and imagine Zeus as a normal kid! I was intrigued by the question, "How did someone like Zeus get to be such a powerful god?" What was his childhood like? Was he godlike right from birth, or did he grow into it? There was nothing I could find written about the idea.

There is a sense in the story that we're really reading an origin story, the likes of which I associate with Superman... or perhaps Jesus? The same sense of a young child with amazing, godlike abilities, and how he came to understand them.

What goes into the making of greatness? Is it something you can see in a child's eyes or hear in their words? What were Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Martin Luther King or Jesus like before their genius was noticed and nurtured by adults? Or for that matter, what about monsters like Genghis Khan or Stalin?

The reminds me of a book about Hitler written several years ago. The cover was just an old, black and white photograph of this wide-eyed baby with its mouth hanging slightly ajar.

Well, I'm not planning on a Young Genghis book anytime soon. But imagine a young child who believes - no matter what their circumstances - that they can become someone who can literally change the world. I'll never forget a brief interview I saw with a young African-American child when Barack Obama had just been elected president. Up until that moment, he had never dreamed it could be possible for a black person to reach those heights. He started to say that it meant maybe, someday, even he might... and he trailed off, choking up, unable to finish saying what was before then unimaginable. Every child has the right to believe there is greatness within them.

You've mentioned before that you had wanted to work with mythology for a long time. Do you have other myth-themed books in the works? Young Prometheus? Lil' Hercules?

I have given thought to writing more "Young" books. Basically, whether or not I like working on sequels boils down to the story. If the story is solid and there's a good reason to say more, then they can be fun. I'm not being critical of artists or authors that make a career on one theme, but personally, that would be a slow death for me. That's one reason I like doing stories written by other authors. When I'm out of ideas, it's nice when one lands on my desk!

Speaking of which, I saw that you have a book coming out this year written by Norton Juster! For a lot of people, he's a pretty huge figure.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, and they plan to release Neville at the same time. Nice coattails to be riding on!

Neville by Norton Juster and G. Brian Karas


How important do you think picture books are - not just as an entertainment for children - but as an artistic medium?

The stories have evolved and resemble the real world more than their predecessors. There is still and always will be a place for books that are comforting and reassuring to children, but there are now more titles than can help children understand a more complex world that often doesn't have happy endings.

I recently heard Tomi Ungerer speak at the Eric Carle Museum about his vast body of work, most of which is banned in the US. His strong belief that children should be respected and not shielded from harsh realities is present in all of his work. That level of honesty is not only visible to children, but appreciated by them as well. Sadly, it is that presence in his work which keeps it from being published here..

I approach my work with the same belief and have authors and artists like Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl to thank for blazing that trail!

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

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