Niina Chebry and Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent by Maya Lee
This article covering the work of a Sharing Books Author/Illustrator, Niina Chebry, has been published in Dream Chasers magaazine, which can be previewed or purchased at: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/Issue/145426
Here I am on a cold rainy night wondering around an East Vancouver building full of artist studios looking for Niina Chebry. It isn’t too hard to find Nina, her door is wide open and a light and her luminosity shine into the hallway.
Niina is warm and girlish, friendly and open, and makes me feel I am someone she has known and loved all of her life. A sparkling eyed, magical woman, at a guess in her forties. Some impressive looking paintings of trees were propped up against the walls, work in progress. Niina is due to teach a class at her studio in an hour.
The conversation begins with Niina talking about the little mouse that use to visit her, which is how her character Mousieur Augsute RoDent was born. Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent, is the children’s book Niina has published online at sharing-books.com, which I am here to interview her about.
Niina describes her first meeting with the inspirational little being behind her story to me. “Painting is a very solitary thing, you just paint but everyone once in a while you see this little flicker and you think your eyes are playing tricks on you, you look and nothing’s there, and then the next time you look yes! And they get a little bold, this little mouse looked at me and I looked at it and I started calling it the RoDent. Then it become Monsieur RoDent, then after time I saw a play on words and started calling him Mousieur, and his name was Francois Rene something, something Auguste RoDent, because you know some French people have a lot of names. But then it seemed too much, so he just became Mousieur Auguste RoDent.”
Niina is a new writer and illustrator, although an accomplished artist and art teacher, (with paintings selected for exhibitions in Tokyo at both the Canadian Embassy and the Euno royal Museum of Art) Because of her status as a new writer Niina was unable as of yet to get her book with twenty four inspirational illustrations published in print. Not only are the illustrations rare and outstanding, but the entire story of .Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent is written in amusing, sharp, witty rhyme, which she recites very delightfully, and which has an uplifting originality and playfulness.
The maximum word count in children’s publishing for a picture book is one thousand, and Niina’s book has a word count of fourteen hundred. Niina also discovered currently rhyme is frowned upon in children’s publishing. Additionally the vocabulary of Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent was considered problematic because words like Bourgeoisie are not in the vocabulary of very young children.
We discuss the possibility that the rhyming of the words could be used as a tool to teach children new words and make it fun. Nina says, “I think with poetry you have to rise to the occasion, children are not going to understand everything at the beginning, but that’s okay. It’s nice if they get to learn it over time.”
Niina’s book not finding a place in the publishing world of print is how and why Sharing Books and Niina came to meet. An art dealer friend of Niina’s connected her with Sharing Books, who are the second largest online publishers of children’s books. New writers can publish children’s books on the site with a far broader range of artistic freedom. Currently all payments for books on the site are by donation. For each book a third of the donations go to Room to Read, a literacy charity that was set up and is run by John Wood, ex Micrcrosoft executive who decided to quit his job and change the world after a trip to Nepal where he was exposed to the severe lack of reading material for children. John Wood’s organization Room to Read build and fill libraries in developing countries, they also train library staff and are involved with teaching children literacy. Millions of children currently, thanks to this organization, who wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, are able to read and have access to substantial libraries. The remaining two thirds of revenue from books on the Sharing Books site is equally divided between the author and Sharing Books. Niina’s book Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent is currently available as a download at sharing-books.com
Niina speaks about liking the idea of animation for Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent , which fits well with the hopes and plans Sharing Books have to make this book into an interactive book. Niina sees the narration in an animated world staying as it is, in rhyme, but in addition the characters would speak.
She describes the way she hears the delivery of the rhyming narrative in Mousieur Auguste RoDent as “rap meets beat poetry, similar to the way Mike Myers performs beat poetry in the movie How I Married An Axe Murderer, ideally with the voice of Tom Waits or Nick Cave.” Niina goes on to say, “As much as I love the story and I’d like to see it in print. Maybe realistically it has to go into another form before it can go into print, and maybe when it does go into print maybe in a slightly altered form too”.
Together Niina and I leaf through the twenty four original paintings for Mousieur Auguste RoDent, discussing how Niina carefully created the illustrations in the style of the French painter Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Auguste Rodin’s contemporary. Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent takes place in Paris, and the illustrations in the style of Lautrec are very effective for the story. Niiina says, “ I tried to pair down the colors so there were basically seven or so, because that’s what I saw in Toulouse’s work and I thought in terms of a design it works very well.” She points out various other stylistic choices a la Lautrec as we continue to look through these vibrant, playful paintings.
Of course the name Auguste RoDent is a nod to Auguste Rodin, and in this story RoDent sculpts out of cheese some of Rodin’s famous works. Niina stops and discusses the originals of Rodin’s work, when we get to RoDent’s cheese versions of the same pieces, which are painted here by Niina in the style of Lautrec. This is fantastic stuff, and I am just amazed that this book was not snapped up for print. Niina explains to me that the words came to her in rhyme, as she rode her bike to and from her studio. They came to her very instantly and naturally. Channeled in the way many great artists describe the process behind some of their most loved work. Niina sent this book to an editor friend of hers, who laughed and enjoyed it all exactly as it was and recommended not changing a word. Niina appreciated this but it was not very useful for her word count issue…
At a later point in our interview Niina tells the story of who one of her characters in this book, Belle,is to her, and I see some connections with the story of Belle and the story of Niina’s book. Someone in children’s publishing was perhaps called upon to like Belle, think outside the box, and take a chance on something they believed, in. But the word count was over, the meter of the beat in the rhythm of the words, is ‘all over the place’, (as Niina says) and the language at times means young children would need to learn new words. No one came forward.
My question to Nina is; As a writer of children's books, do you have any simple yet profound messages that you would hope, through your work, to get across to children, or do you see your work as purely fun for kids? Nina replied, “Children can learn about art and the idea of persevering and thinking for themselves. You have to be so self -disciplined as an artist and in any field you want to do well. I like the idea of ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes.’ I feel often people rely too heavily on critic’s opinions without really thinking for themselves. Belle represented a character someone that could think outside the box that was able to think for herself really. She read the interview yet she was skeptical and went to see for herself, for her own eyes, and immediately she saw how brilliant he was and was not afraid to pursue it regardless of whatever could have come.”
Mousieur Brie, a famous critic, writes scathing reviews of RoDent’s work , because the cheese he sculpts from is not French. These reviews rob RoDent of all his success and Franc, he can no longer make a living and is evicted. Belle, a writer, is so curious after reading these scathing reviews that she visits the exhibition of RoDent’s work, is awed over and in the nick of time saves RoDent from poverty, and propels him to success once more by writing passionately and supportively of his work.
We discuss the possibilities of the interactive world of Mousieur Auguste RoDent. (I am working on managing the project development of Interactive books with Sharing Books). Niina would like children to learn about the actual artists and their work through her book. To connect the sculptures of cheese to the real work of Rodin, and the Toulouse Lautrec style of painting to the real Toulouse Lautrec paintings. The possibilities to do this in an interactive world make my eyes shine. Inspiration is running high in this studio tonight.
We discuss sequels for .Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent and Niina is abundant with ideas, they come to her throughout our interview. Some are taken from actual stories in the art world at the time of Rodin and Lautrec, which have the added value of also working as an educational tool for children to learn art history.
Niina has four other children’s books that have come to her in similarly inspired ways.They are not yet complete but very alive in her mind. Hearing Niina’s story outlines for each book is a captivating experience. Niina Chebry of Abundant Talent, such a pleasure.
You can visit Niina and her work at niinachebry.com and download .Mousieur Auguste Rodent, The Artist of Abundant Talent at sharing-books.com