Jean Jullien: how I adapted my approach to art for a children's picture book, Hoot Owl

The French illustrator tells us about creating artworks for his first children's picture book, Hoot Owl for Walker Books.

I've been spending time with Jean Jullien's simple but subversive artworks recently. I pass his illustrations in the current Eurostar ad campaign at Kings Cross/St Pancras station on the way to and from the Digital Arts offices. The French artist's Je Suis Charlie artwork, produced in reaction to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and the murder of its staff, is still the desktop wallpaper on my laptop. And his soon-to-be-released first children's book, Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise, is my four-year-old daughter's currently favourite bedtime read.

Hoot Owl is written by Sean Taylor, with Jean creating the artwork. It's a silly story of the titular Hoot Owl, who attempts to trap a series of prey using some masterful disguises - though failing every time until he finally finds a target that can't escape him. The book has a harder edge that you don't find in most picture books aimed at younger children - something it has in common with some of my favourite children's book from Hoot Owl's publisher Walker Books, such as Anthony Browne's Gorilla and Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back. These books don't show a saccharine safe and secure world where the worst that can happen is a favourite toy goes missing for a bit - but draw on darker traditions such as fairytales, where good prevails but Grandmother still gets eaten first.

Read on for the full interview, and to see more of the book.

However, Hoot Owl is lighter in tone and less complex than many of Jean's artworks for adults - which juxtapose his endearingly simple brushwork and compositions with social commentary and the harsh realities of the world. Here, his artwork's naivety works to make the Hoot Owl character a slightly ridiculous figure who we rather like, even if we're pleased he doesn't actually eat anything alive.  

I caught up with Jean to discuss why he wanted to work on a children's book, how he adapted his style for the book and why he felt compelled to create his Je Suis Charlie artwork last month.

NB: What was your favourite picture book as a child?

JJ: "Where The Wild Things Are. I loved the details of the illustration and how scary the monsters were. Growing up and nerding up, I was fascinated to see the amount of work that Maurice Sendak had put into it, starting with the many tiny mockups."

NB: How did you collaborate to work with Sean Taylor?

JJ: "Sean wrote the text first and Deirdre [from Walker Books] introduced me to it, telling me more about Sean's work. So I arrived at the end of the process in a way but that was a perfect introduction to this world for me."

NB: Tell us a bit about the character design of Hoot Owl.

JJ: "I originally designed a much more adult and intimidating character but Deirdre (the art director) and Maria (the editor) helped me turn him into this cute, child-like character with rather a large interior life which fits Sean's vision much more.

"I am fascinated by the legion of fantastically graphic and entertaining Japanese logos of all kinds so I took a bit of inspiration from that. I love the fact that these logos are designed to be extremely legible, iconic and seductive: the perfect match for a character destined to be loved by children. The main difference is that logos often try to sell something, while we're just trying to tell a story."

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NB: How was drawing for an audience of children different from creating your usual personal and commercial work for adults?

JJ: "That was my main misgiving about doing a children's book: my work is naturally naive looking. I use this to create images that are appealing and easy on the eye, to grab people's attention so that I can then deliver a deeper message with humour. So in my work, the naivety has a role – it is almost deceiving.

"For a children's book like Hoot Owl, the naivety is there for the same reasons (to be easy on the eye and loveable) but doesn't have a hidden message to deliver. So that's something I had to get used to. That being said, I grew up reading Sendak and Ungerer who both used their books to speak to children about deeper and possibly adult themes. so for me, It's not about the audience, it's about what you tell them and how you do it. I love the result and really want to pursue the exercise with many more books."

NB: Your work often includes elements of narrative, but how did you find working with a longer story?

JJ: "It was new for me. Fortunately my editors helped me with the sequencing but that's something I'd love to pursue. I'm not great at it but I think I could improve! It's very different from one image where you leave hints to read the image and then let the viewer make up his mind.

"With a story like that you have to do the journey with him, you have to accompany him. Which means you don't have to say as much in each image, you can work more on a simple action, and giving life to your character. Which is always more difficult in a single image."
NB: What's your favourite part of Hoot Owl and why?

JJ: "I like the page where he gets out of the restaurant and rid of his costume. He looks very proud there. "

NB: Your Je Suis Charlie artwork was very widely shared on social media last month. Were you surprised by how much it resonated with artists and the wider public?

JJ: "I was very surprised. I reacted graphically as I often do, as it is my way of expressing myself. But I did not anticipate how viral it went. Lots of people used it and I am very happy about it, as I envision these visual commentaries as tools of discussions. I was a bit wary that it [might] end in the wrong hands – as this debate as generated pretty intense conversations – but I think people know where I stood.

NB: Why did you want to contribute to the shared message of Je Suis Charlie?

JJ: "Because I firmly believe in freedom of speech. I understand that people can be upset, but we live in a civilised world and there are many civilised ways to deal with this. Murder is barbaric."

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NB: Any plans to do more children's books? And what else is next for you?

JJ: "Yes! I am working on a second book with Sean Taylor and Deirdre and Maria. I'm very excited about it but won't spoil the surprise.

"I also have a show in Los Angeles in March, one in Amsterdam in May and one in Paris in June. I'm also finishing the pilot for an animated series I've created with my brother Nicolas and I am doing a lot of commercial jobs that you will hopefully see very soon."

Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise is out on March 5 through Walker Books.