AUCKLAND, New Zealand—For nearly 4o years, children’s book illustrator and oral storyteller Lyn Kriegler has worked with some of New Zealand’s most celebrated children’s authors, illustrating 155 children’s books to date. As a keen writer, Kriegler has also been published in books and magazines.
Born in upstate New York, Kriegler comes from a creative family. Her mother is a gifted embroiderer and seamstress, and her father is a retired watchmaker, a jewelry designer, a diamond inlayer, and a highly skilled engraver of precious metals. He was gifted at drawing, but it was always on pewter, gold, or silver, she said.
Kriegler graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and fashion illustration. She has been an illustrator for Mademoiselle and The Washington Post. A stint working on “The Dick Cavett Show” sparked her interest in puppets, which she now uses in her oral storytelling.
Here, she shares poignant moments in her life: how she began drawing, how she had her big break in London, and how children’s literature has changed. Her story is peppered with characters who are just as animated as those she illustrates.
The Epoch Times: What are your earliest memories of art in your life?
Lyn Kriegler: I began drawing with my crayons on chairs, floors, and walls when I was quite small. When I was reprimanded for that, I was really incensed because I felt the house I lived in was very dull, and it needed decorating.
It was a typical bungalow in a very small town called Hopewell, Virginia, which stank to high heaven because it was a chemical town where they made rocket fuel, Dupont paints, and aluminum, so all those companies seemed to dump just about everything into the river.
I remember going over those rivers or streams in the car, and I could see all the colors on top of the water making rainbow colors, but it was actually all the chemicals. I was fascinated by these colors. Of course the smell precluded going near this rainbow slick that was probably highly toxic. But that’s probably one of my first memories of seeing colors.
By the time I got into first grade, I could draw most things.
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about when you first arrived in New Zealand.
Mrs. Kriegler: It was absolutely surreal because I lived in a converted boat bunker at the end of Cheltenham Beach in Auckland, and I woke up and looked out of the window, and there was the water. There were big piles of seashells that the tide would pull in and out, and they made the most beautiful tinkling sound like wind chimes. It was enchanting. And I thought, I’m staying. This is paradise.
I thought the best thing for me to acclimatize was to draw all the new flowers, trees, plants, and birds; and that’s what I did. Those drawings became my first book, “The Legend of the Kiwi,” which was presented to Prince Charles and Princess Diana for Prince William by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, which is funny because it’s about a kiwi who can’t fly. So my first book ended up in Buckingham Palace, which was lovely.
For a time, I worked for an advertising agency. I was penned in with a lot of artists who became notable New Zealand artists, and some rogues! I didn’t thrive in that environment.
I was doing children’s illustrations on my lunch hour. I didn’t know how I was going to break into it. It’s a closed world unless you get a toe in. Then I met, by chance, a representative of Collins books. An Englishman, in a tweed suit with a briefcase, called John Hall, and he wanted to represent me as a children’s book illustrator.
He said I should be doing children’s books and that I should go and see the children’s writer Dorothy Butler.
It took me two years to get up the courage to go and see Dorothy, who reigned like a queen in her huge children’s bookstore in Glenfield, on Auckland’s North Shore. The store had classical music playing all the time.
At the time, everyone who was anyone was trying to write and coming through Dorothy’s bookstore. And writers and illustrators were all passing through from England because Dorothy’s bookstore was one of the must-calls if you were Down Under.
Dorothy had a huge office, with books and boxes everywhere. One of the boxes had her little dog Gretel in it; another one was full of bananas, because she ate bananas to give her strength. She had a big executive desk with stacks of books on it. The first time I saw her was just these two little eyes looking through these piles of books.
She was no-nonsense and straight to the point. She hit one of the boxes and she said, “Pick up that manuscript and read that. I think this girl is going to be rather good.” It was Margaret Mahy’s “A Lion in the Meadow.”
New Zealand publishers had passed it over for publication. Dorothy said, “I’m sending this to England. This woman is brilliant.” Because in those days, Margaret was a solo mother slaving away as a librarian and she only had time to write at midnight, tapping out all these wonderful stories on her typewriter.
After going through my artwork, she banged her fist on the desk and said, “Lyn, you must leave advertising. You must do children’s books.” I asked her how. She said firmly, “I am working on a book for Kestrel in London. You can illustrate it.” That was “The Magpies Said: Stories and Poems from New Zealand.” I had to produce all the illustrations beforehand with no advance.
Then Dorothy said to me one day, “I was asked to open the Puffin Book Fair in London. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll have some fun. We’ll try and sell them some books.”
The opening for the Puffin Book Fair in London is quite an event. This was 1980. Roald Dahl was there wearing a sweater with fuzz balls all over it. He was signing autographs for queues and queues of little boys with Harry Potter glasses, pudding-bowl haircuts, and little round faces. It was the most extraordinary event.
And Dorothy said, “Now we’re going to see Patrick Hardy,” who was a legendary editor in England. I sat in the waiting room to see him with Dorothy’s book “The Magpies Said: Stories and Poems from New Zealand” that I illustrated. Patrick had sort of insinuated they might publish it, but they had to meet me.
They had us on tenterhooks over this book, because if you were in New Zealand and you got your work published in England, you’d made it. Because England in those days was home.
I think writing in New Zealand has now come of age. You don’t have to be published in England first.
Patrick took us out to lunch. Not a word was said about the book. I was nearly in tears, thinking this is it: I’m not good enough. I’d prepared some drawings, which were in a folder by his foot, his beautiful patent-leather-encased foot. It was just the most beautiful shoe.
We had this gorgeous meal, and then he and Dorothy had these wonderful chats about all these famous people they knew. I just felt so small; I didn’t know anybody.
At the very end of the meal, I saw a Daimler convertible outside with beautiful men with elegant Emperors Crown flowers on stalks. They were waiting for Patrick. I thought what a life! If only I could go with them.
As he was leaving, Patrick touched my portfolio with this foot and took my arm and said, “Oh, by the way, we’ve decided to go ahead with this.”
From then on, I didn’t look back. When I came home to New Zealand, Dorothy introduced me to other writers.
We did 18 picture books, Dorothy and I.
The Epoch Times: J.R.R. Tolkien believed that children’s stories shouldn’t be sugary and insipid. They should address the same issues as adults literature, but the language should be adapted. What are your thoughts on this?
Mrs. Kriegler: A child’s childhood should be full of joy. There’s time enough to face up to difficult situations when they are older. Children’s literature should reflect a world that is a bridge between them and life: The book becomes a bridge between the child and the world. That then gives them life skills, gives them coping skills, and gives them the self-confidence to apply their own solutions to a problem rather than having to run to mommy or daddy. That is not present in a lot of today’s children’s literature. I shouldn’t make such a blanket statement, but I can because I’ve looked at so many books.
Dorothy always said that there’s a big difference between literature and sensational stories. The overall progression of children’s books today—it’s a step backward, in my opinion—is that publishers have gone for the more sensational stories. That’s not literature. The language is not supportive. It’s almost like slang or street talk.
In her last days, I said to Dorothy, what are you reading to your grandchildren? Because she was an emphatical fan of reading to children aloud at night.
When I stayed with her, I could hear her reading to the grandchildren in the next room. She would read to them for hours and hours. Her grandchildren would go around parroting Shakespeare, and it was marvelous. I said, what are you reading to them now? And she said Dickens: “That’s the only language worth hearing these days.”
She was a great fan of beautiful language. If you can understand beautiful language, you can express yourself well, you can communicate, and you can solve problems.
I’m always hearing stories from employers who’d hired kids with no communication skills. They can tap out an email, they can whip out a message in code, and on WhatsApp, but in terms of having an actual conversation where they express their innermost feelings, desires, and goals, the language has been compromised. A wise teacher I know said that the speed of communication equals a decline in human values.
Technology is great; don’t get me wrong. But there will always be a place for a printed book with good, strong, powerful, rich language and illustrations that support it.
A book artist or illustrator has to support and extend the words; that’s our job. We don’t work like painters, painting something that comes from the heart. We are constantly supporting and extending someone else’s words, unless we have written the story ourselves. Then we are free to do what we want.
I was asked several times: Why don’t you take some courses in computer artwork? I said, “I’ve spent a lifetime developing hand skills. I like the look of hand-done work. If you want me to do that kind of work, then go find someone else.”
My dad taught me that, because of his hand skills; everything was done by hand. He taught me engraving, and he taught me the difference between digging into pewter and gold and what kind of pressure you’ve got to use. He was very good at calligraphy lettering, and he taught me that too—how to draw beautiful letters, illuminated manuscripts, Old English writing—and how to set type on a slug, too. Or he’d say, just for fun, let’s copy Chinese, Japanese, or Cyrillic script, and we’d spend hours with him coaching me, and me practicing all this calligraphy. All of those things have stayed with me lifelong.
A lot of children give up too easily now when it comes to developing anything that takes craftsmanship. It takes time, it takes patience, and you can’t be disheartened by a letter of rejection or someone walking past and laughing at what you’re doing. You’ve got to have the dedication.
To find out more about children’s book illustrator Lyn Kriegler, visit BookCouncil.org.nz