Interview with artist Kazuo Iwamura
With his books about the squirrel siblings, Mick, Mack, and Molly, Kazuo Iwamura has created adventure-loving characters who for more than forty years have been exploring the forest together. A few years ago, NordSüd Verlag publisher Herwig Bitsche visited the famous Japanese artist in Japan and conducted this interview with him. It has been translated by David Henry Wilson.
For forty years, children all over the world have loved the squirrel siblings—Mick, Mack, and Molly. Do you sometimes feel surprised?
I’m simply delighted by this lasting success. Obviously children all over the world are responsive to tales like these.
In your books you show nature in every detail. How did you come to develop this special focus?
When I was a child, I often played out in the countryside. This love of nature is still deep inside me. When I was young, I went to art school and learned the basics of how to draw and how to express character. And today I still study plants and animals very closely, and try to sense and then depict the inner “life” which one can’t see from the outside.
Three bushy squirrel tails fill the pages of your “Hooray for” series about the seasons. How long does it take you to finish a new volume?
The seasons play an important role in many of my books. And so it would be nice if I could spend one season developing ideas, sketching them during the next season, and then finalizing the illustrations in the following season. But in actual fact, I work on several books at the same time. When I did the illustrations for Samui Fuyu (Hooray for Snow!), it was at the height of a hot summer. While I was drawing and painting, I stuck my feet in a bucket of water, because I didn’t have air conditioning in my studio, and so I kept saying to myself: “It’s cold! It’s cold!”
You have your own museum, Picture Book Hill. It’s not just an art gallery; it also offers a chance for people to observe nature. How did you think of this idea?
I was in my mid-thirties when I created my first picture book, and I was living in the midst of a grove in a small town. Later, nature continued to be a major source of inspiration for me, and I thought that it would also be important for my young readers to experience nature directly. When you learn how nature works, you can learn a lot—that’s important for your own life. And so I decided to design a place where, thanks to my family and friends, people could enjoy not just the world of picture books but also that of nature itself. I’m convinced that it’s really essential for children not only to have top class picture books but also to become familiar with the real world of nature.
it’s really essential for children not only to have top class picture books but also to become familiar with the real world of nature.Kazuo Iwamura
Which artists do you admire and which ones have influenced your own work?
When I was considering a career as a picture book author, my strongest influences were Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, Marie Hall Ets’s Play With Me, and the work by Swiss author Felix Hoffmann. I was charmed by books in which it was pictures and not words that told the stories. At the time, such books didn’t exist in Japan. And of course the quality of the pictures was also vital for me. I love Hoffmann’s lithographies, and I also greatly admire Beatrix Potter—the details in her books show her very close observation of nature.
What would you like to hand down to the next generation of young readers?
The earth is a planet on which people of different origins live different ways of life. But it’s also a planet on which different plants and animals also live: trees, grass, fungi, mice, squirrels, bears, cows, swallows, penguins, praying mantises, dragonflies, spiders, snakes, frogs, earthworms, tuna, sardines, whales, and many, many more. The earth belongs to every living creature.
Can we look forward to more books about the squirrel siblings, Mick, Mack, and Molly?
That’s a difficult question. I’m over 80 now, and I’m struggling with all kinds of problems that come with old age. And so things are a bit uncertain at the moment.
Thank you for this lovely conversation!