Austrian illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger was originally discouraged from even pursuing a career in drawing children’s books — decades later, she’s thrilled that she was able to follow her heart.
Zwerger’s work is currently on display at the Eric Carle Museum, 125 W. Bay Road, through Sept. 26.
Zwerger has worked as a children’s illustrator for over three decades. Over the years, Zwerger has leant her illustrative interpretations to stories like “Aesop’s Fables,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Little Mermaid” and many others. She received the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1990.
Zwerger prefers illustrating classic tales for reasons of creative practicality, as well as personal taste. She prefers fairy tales, particularly romantic ones, and that is what she drifts toward in her books. She also finds one working advantage to that preference is that she never gets into quarrels with authors. She’s open to modern stories, but with the exception of her current project, an adaptation of “The Lion, The Unicorn and Me: The Donkey’s Christmas Story” by British novelist Jeanette Winterson, she seldom finds new works that interest her.
“I feel that the old stories have fantasy and imagination, and to me the new stories that I have come across are more educational and I don’t really like all that,” Zwerger said. “The ones I have come across are about how to win a friend or how to clean your teeth, things like that.”
The Winterson book is a rare opportunity for Zwerger and an unusual event in that she was approached by a publisher to do the project, which Zwerger says hardly ever happens. The specifics of the project also play into the way she likes to work — since the story has already been released in England, Zwerger will not be collaborating with the author on this German version.
“It’s the Christmas story of the birth of Christ, but done from a different viewpoint,” said Zwerger. “I cried when I read the story, so I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The challenge of creating visuals for well-known tales is sometimes heightened when tackling stories that are ingrained in people’s minds visually, as with her 1996 version of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” which she was able to separate herself from in a way that an American illustrator is probably incapable of.
“With ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ I’m lucky to be a foreigner. In Austria, we don’t get the movie showing all that much,” Zwerger said. “I had only seen little clips from the movie at the time when I illustrated the book. Of course, I knew those strong images from posters and pictures all over the place, but if you really read the story and just concentrate on the text, you just have to try and make up new characters.”
Zwerger’s challenge as an illustrator is to not overstep her boundaries — to know her audience even if her personal experience might give her a different perspective. Re-presenting the classics means offering surprise and comfort all at the same time — originality and tradition.
“The difficult thing is you don’t want to disappoint people by making up totally new creatures that nobody could relate to,” she said. “As with other stories that are very famous, I just concentrate on the text and try to come up not with the very first idea that pops into the head, because that’s often a cliché. I just try and entertainment myself that way and also entertain other people.”
Zwerger’s career started after initial discouragement in art school. She failed to connect with her lessons, though she acknowledges that she perhaps might have benefited from the experience with a little more curiosity about the fine arts and an closer engagement of her teachers with that pursuit. It didn’t help that the artwork that captured her heart was an isolated pursuit in that setting, and one that was frowned upon.
“I was not very happy at art college,” said Zwerger. “I was very young at that time. I just tried to do illustration and nobody else did in my class. It’s always difficult because they were more after modern art than illustration, people tended to look down on illustration at the arts universities and art colleges.”
Zwerger says that her youth was an impediment for creating an artistic career without the guidance of her teachers and she relied on the kindness of family to ease her into a career.
“I was very lucky because the people who surrounded me really supported me,” she said, “first of all my parents and particularly my mother, who sent out my illustrations to all sorts of people — publishers mainly said no, but there was eventually somebody who said yes. It was all done for me because I was very immature, so my mother did it for me.”
Zwerger ended up with a publisher and her first book, a version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Strange Child,” came out in 1977.
“I was just very lucky to meet my perfect publisher,” she said. “He was an old man who helped so-called young talent along and he was just choosing only for what he liked and not for commercial success, so right from the beginning he was not interested as long as the quality was there — he let me choose.”
Zwerger now works for her original publisher’s son and has an equally good relationship, allowing her to do as she pleases creatively. On occasion, Zwerger does get guidance, as when her American publisher suggested she do a 1982 version of O. Henry’s ‘Gift of the Magi,’ — the book came out 20 years ago and the experience is one that Zwerger holds as proof that she can still be surprised.
“I never knew that story,” she said. “I couldn’t really imagine doing this story, but then I really enjoyed doing it and it’s a perfect story, such a clever story, so it was a really good decision made for me.”
Zwerger admits that it’s gotten harder to find new projects that engage her. After 30 years on the job, her dream projects become fewer, but that doesn’t stop her from searching for further outlets to express her passion.
“Unfortunately, my list has run out and it’s always a struggle to find a good new idea for a book,” Zwerger said. “I think one can only be good if you can put your heart into the pictures, and you can only put your heart into the pictures if you like the story, so I was very lucky to nearly always be able to do the stories I wanted to do.”