June 6, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #109: Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus

Originally published in Norway as "Sinna Mann" in 2003, Angry Man published here in the United States in March. You can read more about the inception of the book below, but the book was designed to be a tool used by culture centers and therapists to address the topic of domestic violence with their patrons and patients. I had a chance to talk to the wife-husband team behind the book, poet Gro Dahle and artist Svein Nyhus, who generously took time to talk about what is essentially a 16-year-old book by now. You should take a look at all of the foreign language editions here after you read the interview – it's pretty impressive with them all laid out! But for now, here's my conversation with Gro and Svein.


About the book:
Boj’s father can be very angry and violent. Boj calls this side of his father’s personality “Angryman.” When Angryman comes no one is safe. Until something powerful happens...

The book features an important message to children who experience the same things as Boj: You are not alone. It’s not your fault. You must tell someone you trust. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Let's talk Gro Dahle and Svein Nyhus.

LTPB: Gro, what was your inspiration for creating Angry Man

GD: I didn’t take the initiative myself for doing this story. A therapist/social worker at the organization There Are Alternatives to Violence named Öivind Aschjem had the idea for a book like this, a picture book to read for groups of all ages – groups of grown men and grown women, teenagers, children, group therapy, individual counseling and sessions with families. He had earlier used our picture book Bak Mumme bor Moni (Behind Mumme lives Moni), a book about aggression and anger management and taking control in uncontrollable situations. He used this picture book in therapy and counseling with grown men and families, and it was very effective. The story was a “third point,” a psychological concept for speaking about something neutral in a difficult conversation. The book becomes neutral ground, and the story and the main characters become replacements for one’s own situation and role in the group. It’s easier to talk about a character in a picture book than to talk about oneself and the family and the troubles at home. But the story about Mumme and Moni was not so focused on domestic violence, it was more about one’s own feelings of frustration and anger. Öivind Aschjem needed something more focused on the family situation. So he called us. Svein said yes right away, I was more reluctant. Coming from a small and very conflict-shy family I didn’t know if I had the experience needed for this kind of text. But Svein talked me into it, saying I could use my own anxiety for loud voices. After all, Svein said, it is just a story about “Sinna Mann” (“Angry Man”) which is a Norwegian idiom. This triggered my inspiration, and I said yes. I did a lot of research, though, and Öivind Aschjem also gave me quotes of what children said in therapy: their own words for their experience living in a family of violence. Physical, bodily statements like: 

“When dad comes home, my back tightens"
"When mom and dad begins to quarrel, I get this pain in my arms”
“Dad goes all quiet, closing windows in his face”
“When dad is quiet, I go up to my room and under the covers”
"When dad starts throwing things, I hide in the closet”
“It’s not dad, it’s angry man” etc.



LTPB: Who did you see as the audience for this story
GD: Not a young audience – artistic picture books in Norway are for all ages: youths, teenagers, young adults, adults, grown ups too. All ages. The picture book, in other words, isn’t just for kindergarten. That’s the challenge: to make a story that will be interesting for young ones as well as teens and adults. To do this I have to make an artistic, poetic choice of words and metaphors, and Svein has to make the style of the book artistic as well, expressive and poetic in its picture world. This choice makes them art galleries: the picture book is a work of art and an artifact in itself. 


Another interesting distinction is that the picture book isn’t just an illustrated book, it is a medium of its own. Like graphic novels and comics, the pictures are just as important as the text. The pictures being the visual storytelling and the text being the verbal storytelling, two parallel stories cooperating in order to make the story whole! I like this view of the picture book. The text is at a minimum, having a poetic concentration, not telling the things the visual storytelling can tell. Not the visual details, but telling the inner voice, letting the verbal storytelling follow the eye of the child.


In Norway, picture books are bought by a stately cultural committee in large numbers (1500+) for all the libraries, making it possible to write, publish and make the artwork without having to be commercial. It makes the picture book a wonderfully apt vehicle for telling difficult stories, like stories of taboos and family difficulties, like domestic violence, abuse, incest, child neglect, porn, high conflict divorces, psychologically ill parents, child as caretaker... topics we have made picture books about as well.



LTPB: Svein, how did you approach the illustrations, especially given the tough topic of domestic violence? Did you do a lot of research? What challenges did you encounter?

SN: As always I made a lot of sketches, trying different characters, techniques and so on. But I didn't do any research. The written text is my leading star– and Gro, of course. So is my own interpretation, my own adaptation. This particular text is quite long, full of metaphors and poetic language. I stripped the illustrations for details, leaving more room for the rich text. And in line with the tone of the story, I made the drawings more symbolic and stylized than realistic.


At first, I hesitated when drawing the dramatic scenes. I didn't want to frighten anybody. But Gro pushed my limits and inspired me to make the illustrations almost as unpleasant and disturbing as the experience of actual witnessing domestic violence.


The book was neither commercial nor educational nor therapeutic. It was partly funded by financial support from the government, and it was regarded as fiction, not some kind of self help tool or whatever. This allowed us to experiment artistically without paying too much attention to the audience. We tried to combine different goals in a freely told story. The content or the form was not as important as the publishing itself; releasing a picture book, mainly for young children, about domestic violence was in itself seen as something new and radical back in 2002. So, independent of the quality of the text or the illustrations, or lack thereof, this book was a success in that it started a public debate on the topic here in Norway and raised awareness of the problem.


The characters are easily recognizable and "child friendly," with doll-like round heads and dot eyes, almost as in a normal children's book. But the colours are dull and dark, sending out a signal of this being something serious. The rough, expressive pencil lines have the same function; the readers will immediately know that this book is no sweet or pleasing good night story; rather than being a sleeping pill making small eyes close, the book is an eye opener. The "grown up" aesthetics and art style of the drawings, may also appeal to older readers; this book aims more at school children and teenagers than toddlers.

LTPB: Svein, how did you create the illustrations in this book? Is this your normal process?

SN: I almost always make detailed line sketches for all the spreads in a book before I make any ORIGINAL art work. This way both the author and the publisher can check my plans beforehand. I also get a dramaturgical overview that gives me more control of where and when to put in details, where to repeat something, how to make the illustrations different from each other, making variations, contrasts, surprises ("drama of the turning of the page"), etc. 


But such a tight "architectural plan" may also limit and lock the possibilities and stop further visual development of the book. The publishing house regarded Angry Man to be "small and narrow," not aimed at a mass market, and we already had most of the expenses covered by money from governmental funds, etc. This way the publishers had no need for detailed design sketches showing what and how I planned to draw. I could therefore work with the illustrations more freely, experimenting in a more organic, natural way, trying and testing as the work went along, without having to follow an approved plan. I became slightly more playful, and braver, than in previous books. I used pencil on colored paper, and made cut-outs that I could move around in the illustrations before I glued them onto the finished collage. And I got the courage to make "ugly" pictures to an "ugly" story.


LTPB: Generally speaking, Gro, where do you find inspiration for your stories?

GD: I want to use my language as a lantern, as a flashlight to reveal the dark corners, the dark basements, the closed rooms and locked closets of childhood. I want to use my stories to help; maybe these stories can help someone out, help families open up, help children to tell about their difficulties at home, set closed and locked doors ajar, inviting children and grown ups to talk about it, to open up, to tell their own stories to someone.

But if that isn’t possible – if there is no way of telling, no way out, no opening of any doors – I want these books to be available, to exist for children to stumble upon, for children to seek out, for grown ups to find and give to their children, for libraries to have so children can read about this and see their own childhood reflected, see the main character living their kind of life, see this person’s background and hear this persons story. And maybe that is enough, and maybe the book can become a friend, sharing secrets that are too difficult to tell, sharing secret childhoods, knowing each others' painful and dark stories. I believe books can have this effect. I believe books can become friends and share secrets like friends, and that this makes the burdens not so heavy to carry on their own, sharing the weight and burden of secrets and sadness and anxiety.


I don’t think all books or picture books should be like this. I think it is a rich culture to have a wide spectrum of stories and picture books, some for fun, for entertainment, action, crime, jokes, nonsense, humour, spin-off products – as well as artistic picture books and picture books about difficult childhood experiences and painful stories. I find it important to have a large variety of picture books happy and sad, fun and serious. My job in this area is doing this job I am doing: revealing the dark secrets of childhood. Because not all childhoods are happy, a lot of childhood experiences are sad and painful and frightening and traumatic. And these childhoods exist, these children exist, and I want to take these childhoods seriously too, seeing these children, not neglecting them, not trying to avert my gaze, but trying to hold my eyes on their pain, giving it notice, because pain is part of childhood and part of the world as well.


I myself – and my two girls – loved sad and painful and frightening stories as children, even though we had happy childhoods ourselves. Children are different, just as grown ups are different and have preferences for different kinds of stories. They're not only interested in action and fun. For some – and especially for girls – suffering is interesting. Scary and dark topics and stories are fascinating. I thought so. I loved to be scared, and I loved to have a good cry. Think about Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Their books are all about difficult childhood experiences, and I think this is important to show, that some childhoods are also painful. There are unhappy children, and these children need to be seen!


LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can tell / show us?

GD: I am working on two books: one is a collection of poetry about home, and one is a picture book with my oldest daughter Kaia about not wanting to go to school, becoming a badger and digging oneself down deep.

SN: Right now I'm trying to decorate three walls in the so-called Fairy Tale Room at our local public library. Painting with acrylics in large scale on structured walls is a new experience for me. I try to decorate the room with big animals drawn in both an ornamental and a whimsical style. I use just two colours and try to make rough and sketchy brush strokes. It's quite challenging; I don't know how to control the technique, I have to learn as I work. And the number of possibilities are of course endless. I have problems with making decisions. My goal is to completely fill the walls with strange creatures, both recognizable and stylistic untraditional, thus giving the room an atmosphere of its own; I will try to raise emotions, and perhaps some thoughts, by giving the visitors the experience of well drawn paintings with an exceptional rough and smudged finish. It is essential to me to make the art work different from traditional, decorative design with bright colours, precise lines and clean surfaces. I also try avoiding "graffiti style" wall decorations.


LTPB: For both: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

GD: My daughter Kaia! Or my daughter Ninni! They are both artists – and they know our strange family and our family workshop where work and family life, vacation and literature, stories and dogs and art are totally interwoven.

SN: I have to say our daughter Kaia Dahle Nyhus (b. 1990). Kaia has illustrated five children's books written by Gro, and five books with her own text. Her illustrations are populated with strange and funny characters drawn in a naive, graphic style. And Kaiahe has first hand information about the topic: Me. I could also ask our son Simon Dahle Nyhus (b. 1989). Simon is currently working as a concept artist for an animated children's film. He has also worked with computer graphics, and his drawings are more three dimensional than Kaia's, with light and shadow effects and a more traditional character design. 

I could also ask a fourth person; my twin brother Egil Nyhus! He has illustrated a lot of children's books with colourful, elaborate, humorous, and skillfully detailed drawings. He is also an editorial cartoonist with weekly caricatures of Norwegian and foreign politicians. And my brother knows me very well, at least my childhood.

A huge thank you to Gro, Svein, and the team at NorthSouth for helping me post this interview. Angry Man published from NorthSouth Books in March.

Special thanks to Gro, Svein, and NorthSouth Books for use of these images.




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