So far, you have written and illustrated the picture books “Star child” (2018), ” The Girl and the Bear” (2019) and “The Girl and City” (2020), all three for the publisher Ars Lamina. These are three picture books in three years and with each new one you set a higher standard. How do you manage it?
I think it is a natural process, like when a small child learns to walk. At the beginning, it is shaky and clumsy, but it slowly gets better and better. When you know where you want to go it’s not too difficult to move forward. But at the same time, I am fully aware that as soon as you are on the move, there is a risk of slipping.
What was crucial for you to start creating picture books in addition to painting, and not only to illustrate, but also to write?
It was the fact that I became a father, and my daughter loved to read to her. We started buying picture books and then I actually realized that the offer for quality children’s literature in the Macedonian language is very modest. I was especially shocked by the new visual aesthetics that dominated children’s literature – flashy colors, ready-made, so-called “stock – illustrations” from the internet, bad translations, cheap paper, etc.
When I was a child and read those same books, they were illustrated by top Macedonian artists, such as Dimitar Kondovski, Spase Kunovski, Ivan Velkov and many others. I felt a duty towards the older, and also towards the generation of my children, to give my contribution in children’s literature. And the fact that I started writing myself, it’s because I had to, I just couldn’t find the text that inspired me.
It happened that my son Maxim, while playing in his room with the stars on the wall, invented a story about him fixing the stars – that’s how I started to develop the story of the “Star Child”. For the second picture book (“The Girl and the Bear”), I wanted it to be about my daughter Avi and her teddy bear. We lived that story many years ago, and the teddy bear has become another member of our family, she goes everywhere with us. So it was with the great help of my children when I started writing.
Since it is not easy to be a good writer and a good illustrator at the same time, explain to us your process of creating a picture book?
It’s like going on a road where there are no signposts and you don’t know where or what the place you need to get looks like. You just go and turn left. After a few days of driving, you realize that you made a mistake, so you have to go back to the beginning and try to the right, and end up in a dead end… It is chaotic, but when you finally reach your destination, the feeling is indescribable.
How do you recognize the moment that the picture book is ready for sending to the editor?
You just know you’ve arrived at your destination.
What is it in the houses and the starry sky that gives you tireless inspiration?
Houses are our islands on earth, our shelters, our safe places. And the starry sky is everything that is unknown, a little bit scary, and so captivating. I like that human duality – to be grounded, and at the same time to dream about the stars.
Which painters, classical or modern, left the strongest impression on you?
When I started painting I would daydream by looking at paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
How would you describe the picture book market in Macedonia? And what is it like compared to other countries of the former Yugoslavia?
I can happily say that the market has been livelier in the last few years, picture books with artistic and literary value are being published, and some quality foreign authors have also been translated. In addition, Litera – the International Festival of Children’s Literature and Illustration – has been held in Skopje for several years now, which is a big step forward.
Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to be a participant in several picture book festivals in Serbia and Croatia, so I can conclude that we are lagging behind when it comes to production, quality of children’s literature and illustrations compared to the mentioned countries. Our country is small, print run is small, writers and publishers cannot do much on their own, so this issue should be included in the national strategy of the Ministry of Culture.
How simple or complicated is it to live exclusively from art in Macedonia? Do you have time to paint now that you are both a writer and an illustrator? In case someone wants to get your pictures, tell us how they can find them!
It is very difficult to live exclusively from art! And not just from the arts. Macedonia has the lowest average salary of all the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Surviving a month with such a salary is an art in itself.
Working on a book for children with a serious approach and great dedication means that I have little time to paint. However, I do not feel unfulfilled in that field, because there is an almost invisible difference between my paintings and illustrations for books.
The paintings are available in my studio in Strumica, and thanks to my website kosturanov.com, they adorn homes all over the world!
Congratulations on being selected for The White Ravens 2019 catalog for the picture book “The Girl and Bear”! It is one of the most prestigious awards given by the International Youth Library in Munich, which makes a selection of books from all over the world every year. This is the first time that a book from North Macedonia has won that title, isn’t it?
– Thanks! Yes, so they say, that I am the first author from North Macedonia, whose book was chosen to be part of that catalog. I am very pleased with this recognition and it gives me additional motivation to continue working on picture books and illustrations!
This interview was adapted from Lonac Slikovnica, originally published in February 2020.