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An Interview with Satoshi Kitamura

Posted By Jacob Hope, 31 July 2020
Updated: 31 July 2020
We are very excited to welcome Satoshi Kitamura to the blog to talk about illustration and his books.  Satoshi was awarded the most exciting newcomer with the 1993 Mother Goose award for Angry Arthur.  He has been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal with Millie's Marvellous Hats.  It's a real pleasure to welcome him to the blog!

Can you tell us a little about your career?

I wrote and illustrated my first story when I was 19 years old. I showed it to some publishers but nothing happened. About the same time I started to work as a commercial illustrator for magazines and advertising.

Since I was a child I always wanted to go abroad and see the world outside my country.  So when I turned 23 I quit my job and decided to leave Japan for UK with the money I save in the last couple of years.  I really liked London and spent so much time walking about to get to know the different areas.  At the same time I was in search of what I wanted to do with my life.

One day while getting bored lying in my bed I came up with an idea for a story. I wrote it down and drew some illustrations. I made photocopies of it and sent them to ten publishers.  Most of them told me that they were interested and invited me to their offices. Two of them were quite keen and tried to publish my story but in the end it didn’t work out. Then I met Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press. He wasn’t too impressed by my story but liked my drawing and gave me the text of Angry Arthur written by Hiawyn Oram.  It became my first book to be published in 1982 and everything started from there.

I am most grateful to Klaus who has published so many books of mine since and Hiawyn who wrote such brilliant stories for me in my early years.


Where do you work?

I had a good size studio for my book works but because sometimes I do other things like sculptures in wood, I needed to have a bigger space. I have lots of carpentry tools and timbers and my studio got too cramp. Recently a flat downstairs became available so I rented it for the work I do that isn't on books.

The photo is the table where I work. There’s a scroll of paper spread over it. I buy a big roll of water colour paper and use it as it is. There’s a roll holder that I made on the right end of the table.  When I finish a drawing I it out and pull the paper onto the left and start a new one.

The other photo shows my kamishibai theatres and other objects I made.

Can you talk us through your approach to creating picture books?

It may start with doodles in my sketch book. An interesting phrase or sentence in a conversation I overhear in a café might become a starting point. Something quite ordinary can be an inspiration. If you see something common like a pencil as if you see it in the first time in your life, it suddenly looks so interesting that you would like to write a story about it ( as a matter of fact I have a pencil story that I’m writing at the moment. It’s nearly there but need few more ingredients to make it work).



You have worked on signage for sites like Eureka in Halifax and Seven Stories in Newcastle.  Do you think we make enough of illustration?

Many signages we see in streets or towns are very useful but sometimes if they had more characters and humours, not an obviously funny houmour but something subtle and witty like Ampelmannchen, the traffic light figures used in East Germany, our daily life becomes a little nicer.


You've worked with some incredible authors and poets, what are the differences between illustrating other people's work and your own?

I am very lucky that I started my career illustrating Hiawyn Oram’s text.  
Angry Arthur is one of the greatest picture book texts. I learnt so much from illustrating Hiawyn’s writings.

I illustrated Roger McGough’s Sky in the Pie and it was a very interesting experience because I hardly knew anything about English poetry before then. Again, it was fortunate for me that my first poetry teacher was such a distinguished poet. The book taught me the joy of reading poetry and illustrating them.

John Agard and I come from very different background but we get along so well artistically as well as friends.

I love illustrating his books and at the moment am working on his picture book text.


Comic Adventures of Boots was, as the name suggests, told in comic strip form - as well as being comedic! - what differences are there working in this form, is it something you'd consider returning to?

Putting it simply, a picture book is a little like visual poetry while comics is theatre; you have to tell a story in dialogue like a play or film script.

It’s a very different approach from a picture book. Recently I have done some comics for literary magazines for adult readers. I’m beginning to understand how to write and illustrate comics and I like it even more. I’d love to do another comic book for children some day.

Which illustrators and what style of art do you admire?

The 1960’s graphic design and illustration from Japan, US and Europe were huge influence for me. Also, I have seen all kinds of paintings and sculptures from all over the world. There are so many artists I admire but if I chose one or two. . .

Paul Klee and Enku, Japanese Buddhist sculptor in 17th centry.


The idea of expression and emotions run through many of your books and feature heavily in The Smile Shop, please can you introduce us to the book?

I have been to Mexico and other Latin American countries many times. I tried to learn Spanish at one point. A word for smile is ‘sonrisa’ in Spanish and I made up a word ‘sonrisaria’ the shop that sells smile. I liked the idea and made a rough sketch in very simple Spanish with pencil drawings about 20 pages. I thought of publishing it in Mexico because ‘sonrisaria’ sounded better than ‘smile shop’ to me. But I’m so much familiar with English publishing I showed my translation from Spanish to English to Scallywag Press. Sarah Pakenham, the publisher and Janice Thomson, the editor liked it, so I started to work on it in English.

While I was working on the book Brexit happened and that made me so sad. I left UK in 2009 for good after living there for 30 years, so it’s none of my business perhaps but I felt as if the country that I lived and had loved had become a different place. The Smile Shop is a tribute to London that had been a part of my life for so long. After finishing the book I realized both ‘Millie’s Marvellous Hat’ and ‘The Smile Shop’ are stories about someone getting something nice because they didn’t have money.



You've run workshops around Kamishibai storytelling, can you tell us a bit about this?

I’ve done workshops in Japan, UK, Latin America, Korea, India, South East Asia, Dubai and South Africa.

I enjoy meeting children. One thing I learnt having met so many children in different countries is that they are not different. Their sense of joy and fun are same. They speak different languages and their parents’ politics might be poles apart but people are same when they smile and laugh.

To see Satoshi performing a Kamishibai version of Hat Tricks (highly recommended!), please click here 


What are the differences between how children's book illustration is created and considered in Japan and in England?

There may be some differences between the cultures but I always try to find something in common.



Are you able to tell us what is next for you?

Apart from a book with John Agard, I have quite few ideas for the next book but haven’t decided to pick which one to start working on it. I’m busy preparing a show of paintings and sculptures in a gallery in Kobe in October at the moment.


A big thank you to Satoshi Kitamura for his time and insights and to Scallywag Press for the opportunity.



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Tags:  Diversity  Illustration  Raising Voices  Reading  Reading for Pleasure  Visual Literacy 

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