Illustrator Interview: Greta Cencetti

Liam and Greta

By Angela Cerrito

Greta Cencetti is a children’s book illustrator whose work has been published in Italian, English, German and Chinese. Her artwork has been exhibited Germany, the U.K. and China.

Most recently, her series of illustrations
Migrant Children featuring children during depression era U.S.A. were exhibited at the GALATA Museum in Genoa, Italy. This project was supported by the U.S. consulate in Genoa. In addition to illustrating, Greta is also a writer, singer and music aficionado.

Your creative work (in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books) includes costume design, scenery, figurines and even glass windows. How did you get your start in children’s books?

I began as a painter and painting pictures is still an important part of my work. I started illustrating books because many years ago I fell in love with The Sandman, a short novel by E. T. A. Hoffmann, the romantic German writer. I felt compelled to paint this story. When I started, I had so much pleasure in doing it that I needed to continue. It’s wonderful to imagine locations and characters while you read a book that is capturing your mind and imagination.

I tried to publish my illustrated version of The Sandman. I started with a publisher in Italy, but I didn’t succeed. However, some English publishers expressed interest in my work; but they were more enthusiastic about my illustrations than the text. My first books were published by Nardini, an Italian publisher from Florence. Over time, I have had many books published, but not The Sandman.

The most important event for me to fine illustration work is the Bologna Children’s Book Fair: there I can meet publishers from all over the world and very interesting people.

You’re published in multiple languages (German, Italian, English, Chinese) how did this come about?

This is a direct result of going to the book fairs. First of all the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and, secondly, the Frankfurt Book Fair. At these events, I meet many publishers from all over the world.

It is very important to have keen curiosity about works of other people; illustrating is not only a job, it is a way to communicate with others. I think this is the most important thing: to be curious about and to continue to discover new things. This is something that helps me as an illustrator.

I notice that many of your books have a musical theme (the World of Composers Series from Brighter Child and Play Me a Story, published by Barefoot Books). Is music a special interest of yours?

Music is one of the most important things in my life. I can’t remember a day in my life without music. When I was very young, I was already listening to jazz music in my father’s arms and, when I was just a little older, I started listening to Mozart’s symphonies.

I love any kind of music! I sing in a choir as a soprano and I dedicate every Wednesday to music.

I’m sure the series about the composers (Bach, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Beethoven, Handel and Mozart) must have involved a lot of research. Did you run into any interesting surprises while illustrating these books?

Oh, yes, many interesting surprise! I loved learning about Chopin’s life. He was a very good person, gentle and generous and benevolent. As soon as I finished my book, I went to Poland with a little car… it was a very long journey!

I visited Chopin’s birthplace and the Holy Cross Church where they keep the heart of the composer. He wanted his heart returned from France to Poland, his beloved country.

Copyright Greta Cencetti; used with permission.

Bach was very interesting as well. He had 15 sons and many of them became composers, too. In the evenings, the Bach family used to gather and play as an orchestra …very convenient!

Here’s a funny story I learned about Handel’s escape from Lubeck. He was offered a job there to succeed the famous organist Buxtehude. Handel was young and handsome and shocked to discover that the job agreement required he marry Buxtheude’s daughter. Unfortunately, she was neither young nor beautiful. So Handel abandoned the job and ran away from Lubeck.

Handel had immense success in London and Dublin. Theatres were so crowded that women in attendance were forbidden to wear petticoats so there would be more space!

I spent many years working on the assignments about music composers. It was one of the most important experiences I had while illustrating children books.

You’ve recently illustrated Wunderschöne Märchenwelt (Beautiful Fairy Tale World) for F. X. Schmid, an imprint of Ravensburger in Germany. The illustrations are bold and in primary colors (a very different illustration style from the pastel watercolors of the folk tales and composer books.) How do you decide on the style for each project?

Beautiful Fairy Tale World is a more commercial book than the other books I have illustrated. So I used colors that customers would expect. I have to adapt my style to the publisher’s requirements.

Your work has been exhibited in galleries in Italy, Germany, Great Britain and China, how did these gallery exhibitions come about?

It depends on the country. When Barefoot Books published Play me a Story, they invited me to exhibit the illustrations in a London gallery; I was very glad to agree. It was Christmastime, the gallery was full of children and a storyteller told fairy tales; it was a very emotional experience.

In China, my illustrations for the first edition of Fantasy of Musicians (a series about composers for Ta-Chien publisher in Taiwan) were exhibited by the publisher throughout China and Taiwan.

I exhibited in different places in Germany, including a collective exhibition at the International Youth Library, which is housed in a castle in Munich.

Italy is my home country, so I often exhibit in museums or art galleries here. My last exhibition was two months ago at the Galata Museum in Genoa. This museum is dedicated to sea life and migration. My exhibit “Migrant Children” was displayed.

How did you become interested in the subject of children during the depression in the U.S.A.?

First of all, I’m very interested in the American art of the 20th
century. I particularly love works of American photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Russel Lee. When I read The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, I was impressed and I thought to myself “I must do some work about these people”.

Copyright Greta Cencetti; used with permission.

I chose to depict children because I was particularly moved by the deep, melancholy eyes of these little migrant children during the time of the Great Depression. I saw them as proud, beautiful, little heroes going through the adversities of life.

I made use of a wide range of bright colors. In the background, I included very high and colourful skies. It was a way to give those children of the past some joy, some kind of happiness, some hope for a better future.

I’ve been living with the children in this project for three years, always thinking of them. It was a very important and emotional work for me.

I really enjoy the page of your website La grenouille ivre (the drunken frog) where you share your thoughts for new books and stories. Is this a collection of works that are in progress or finished projects?

It depends. I finished the Gretika project. It is a series of short stories about two children and a dog who have special powers; they can detect problems connected with nature. I’ve fully finished two short stories, but I still have many ideas about Gretika!

The Dog and the Baby is also finished. I wrote the text and painted some illustrations. The content is a tribute to my beloved dog, while the style is a tribute to the American magazine Camera Work which was issued at the beginning of the last century.

The others works are still in progress….ideas, beloved things, an ideal world, anything comes to my mind when I think about something connected to children… and while I’m waiting for a suitable publisher for each idea also!

Considering that you are both a writer and an illustrator, how do stories first come to your mind, as text or images? How do you dig deeper into your stories, by writing or illustrating?

First of all, I get an idea… it is very strange the way it comes to me…sometimes it starts with a situation or a landscape, or a person’s expression, even the expression of an animal…other times a piece of music or memories occupy my thoughts; all those things, I visualize as images and the initial idea takes shape in my imagination.

I write and I sketch, I always have a little notebook and a pencil with me, and the idea sometimes remains for a long time on the pages, before it becomes something that I try to develop as a project. Illustrations and texts go together!

What is a typical work day like for you?

I have a little studio in my home. In front of it there is a terrace filled with many different types of plants. Before I start to work, I spend time with my plants…I always listen to music, always.

Very rarely I am working on a project that requires silence; otherwise I’m always listening to music. Music is food for my soul and imagination. While working I take the phone off the hook and switch the mobile off. I need to be left alone.
I like to work in the evening. I’m often work until I am oblivious of the time, including mealtimes!

Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?

It is wonderful and very difficult work. It is not really a work, it is a necessity. Every time one meets difficulties, there is still the desire to continue, therefore, illustrating is a necessity.

It is important to have the necessary preparation. I suggest drawing as often as possible in the open air, trying to master any technique and never being afraid of changing.

Changing always improves one’s spiritual life and art. One must be aware that, at any time, there are things to learn from history, art history, music, literature. All these are wonderful treasures, they are food for one’s creativity and imagination.

Cynsational Notes

More on Angela Cerrito

Angela Cerrito writes by night and is a pediatric therapist by day. Her debut novel,  The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011), was named to VOYA’s top of the top shelf, a YALSA quick pick and a Winchester Fiction Honor Book.

Her forthcoming novel A Bright Flame (Holiday House, Fall 2015) is based
on her research in Warsaw Poland including interviewing Irena Sendler, a
mastermind spy and member of the Polish resistance, who helped over
2,500 children escape the Warsaw ghetto.

Angela volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is the
co-organizer of SCBWI events at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Angela contributes news and interviews from the children’s-YA creative,
literature and publishing community in Europe and beyond.