June 6, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #252: Inga Dagilė

I was completely blown away by The Pebble, written by Marius Marcinkevičius, illustrated by Inga Dagilė, and translated by Jura Avizienis. This tough story is set against a backdrop of the Holocaust, and it was an honor talking to Inga about how she carefully crafted the illustrations to be accessible and historically accurate. Please enjoy this peek at her process.

About the book:

"My name was Eitan and it was the summer of 1943. I was sitting on the rooftop with my best friend Rivka and the whole world was at my feet." 

This is the story of Eitan, a gifted violinist, and his best friend, Rivka, growing up where children laugh, dogs bark, and women chat. All of this would be beautiful and idyllic, if not for one big, dark "but"--no one can leave this town, and once you go through the gates, you never come back...

Let's talk Inga Dagilė!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of The Pebble? What personal connection do you have with Marius Marcinkevičius's text? What were the first images that popped into your mind?

IG: After each book I illustrated, it is not easy to find a new text. Maybe because of the pause I need after illustrating one story or maybe because I’m so deep in the last story, that each new story seems not interesting enough. After rejecting several stories one day I got a text from publishing house Tikra knyga. The creative director said to me: “I have an extraordinary story for you.” And she was right. This one story was very different from the others. It was  The Pebble written by Marius Marcinkevičius.

I had no experience with Holocaust events myself, nor did they exist in the history of my family. But I knew very good about Soviet deportation to Siberia. The deportations to Siberia and the Holocaust took place at a very similar time. Both of these historical periods are particularly brutal, painful and destroyed many families for a long long time. My relatives with more than 132,000 others Lithuanians were deported to harsh Siberia to do hard labor. Most of those people didn‘t come back. I felt a strong connection with the story The Pebble and I was sure I will do it from my whole heart and I will do it to honor all victims of Holocaust.

LTPB: This is a hard story to read. How did you create the illustrations so that they would be accessible to young children? What challenges did you encounter?

IG: The biggest challenge was to draw a very sad story without being too brutal. Illustrations must show real events very clearly, but not talk about it directly, violently. During the illustrating process I was always on the thin line.

The reward came after finishing the book. I’m always amazed watching the published book’s journey, how it touches the readers, how it goes abroad, how it turns to an audiobook or performance, how the workshop involves. It’s already not mine, it’s everybody’s.

I was a very hard story to start. I have waited for inspiration for so long. I am both the designer and illustrator for each of my books, so I make almost all the design decisions myself. I have a thinking stage every time before I illustrate a book. I think about the technique, which of it would be more suitable for the exact book, how the character could look like, I think about the entirety of the book, how big the book will be, how many pages, what colors will dominate and etc. It usually takes a week or two to think about it. But with this book I hit a record of thinking. I thought about it and looked for inspiration for half a year.

Why did I have such a hard time? It was not easy to illustrate topics this difficult, everything I came up with seemed pointless and not strong enough. I felt a big responsibility and I couldn‘t just draw not being sure. I live a totally different life now comparing with historical period of Holocaust. I realized, that to know about it‘s not enough. If I want to illustrate this story, I have to feel it. So, I started with books. The Covid quarantine started and I was able to reach only a little library of my town were I borrowed some books. Everybody knows Anne‘s Frank Diary. I was shocked by this story. The Diary of Ghetto of Vilnius is another heart-grabbing diary of young teenage boy Icchooko Rudoševsky. I read more books and reading I was watching the movies. Watching the films helped me to see how directors portrayed the Holocaust. After all, they also create a visual story, but just with moving images. While watching movies, I sketched the clothes of the heroes, I looked for the mood of the cities, I was listening to the sounds and the music. All this helped me to enter to a story of  The Pebble every time deeper and deeper.

Of course, it was very sad reading and watching about the Holocaust, seeing the horror of it and destroyed lives of innocent people. During the period of half a year, I wanted to call the publishing house's creative director twice and say that I can't illustrate, I can't find a way, it's too sad, too depressing. But... Then, the idea came.

Pinterest was the third source of information. Every day looking and searching for the photos of Ghettos of Lithuania, Poland and other Europe countries I came to brilliant idea. Finally I saw a full book in my head, I found a way of illustrating that made sense. I was finally confident in what I was going to create.

The idea that gave meaning to the illustrations was drawing the people who lived in the ghetto into characters. I used photos for it. This is Kewa. In honor of her I drew Rivka.

Eitan. I drew Eitan to memory this boy and all the little boys.

I also drew other characters from photos. It was important for me to stick to the historical details. I looked for people of various professions who are mentioned in the text of the story and who are not mentioned. Water carrier, carpenter, newspaper seller, teachers, musician... All of them are drawn in memory of people affected by the Holocaust.

I also drew the town looking at the photos, trying to transfer the feeling, the smell, the colors of the city of that period to the illustrations.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book?

IG: I used two techniques. Acrylic paints and a computer pencil with a tablet. I painted house stencils with acrylic paints using a roller. The softness of the forms and the uneven filling with color gave the illustrations an antiquity and natural look. Like in the old photos I found. I used darkened, pastel colors to move the reader to the coal fired, smoky city of the described period as much as possible.

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

IG: This is a time, when I’m on the pause of illustrating the books. I need this pause to let the last story and to empty space in my mind and my heart for a new one. In this period, I design books for other creators, and I do workshops for kids. One of the workshops I’m doing is according to the book The Pebble. I didn't want a simple workshop. Just like when I was creating the illustrations for the book, I was looking for meaning and depth when I was creating the workshop.

I came to the idea to create a city of freedom, to build new houses, to remember and honor those who lived in the ghetto. I decided to use the photographs if the windows, balconies and doors of the houses in the Ghetto as one of the materials. I went to Vilnius, defined the territory of the ghetto on a map and spent the whole day walking through the streets, yards and taking pictures.

Here are my photographs compiled and ready for the press.

The other materials are very simple: yellow paper for the background, smaller size craft paper for creating a shape of the housE and linen fabrics to decorate it. I wanted to use simple materials that a child living in the ghetto would find.

Materials presented for the workshop, especially photographs, connect the historical events and the present. The participant touches deeper the story and the past.

Here are two examples of the houses the kids build during the workshop. I give the children printed and cut-out book characters that they can place them in their new home.

After the workshop I take a photo of all the houses and combine them all into one big free city.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

IG: Jon Klassen! I’m in love with his illustrations from his first book I bought. His books inspire me, teach me and was there when I was not yet an illustrator. I like his way of illustrating so much: the colors, the composition, the details, the technique and the humor.

A big thank you to Inga for taking time to share her process for this important and meaningful book. The Pebble published in May from Thames & Hudson.

Special thanks to Inga and Owl Kids for use of these images!

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