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Graeme Base: Biography & Books

Instructor: Colleen Bramucci

Colleen has taught secondary school and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you will learn about Graeme Base, a unique and talented artist and writer whose picture books for children are enjoyed by people of all ages. You will learn a bit about his background, his most famous books, and the style that makes him instantly recognized and much loved by his readers.

Something For Everyone

The Muppets. Robin Williams' lamp genie in Aladdin. The Lego Movie. All marketed as children's entertainment, but still highly enjoyable for parents. In all of these examples, some details and nuances fly right over the heads of the children, but the adults catch the references, jokes, and double meanings; meanwhile, the children are still delighted by quality entertainment, presented to them on their level. Everyone wins. In a similar way, everyone wins with a Graeme Base picture book, an experience which is certain to require repeated readings and may even result in some good, old-fashion family bonding.

Down Under

Graeme Base was born in 1958 in England and moved to Australia with his family when he was eight-years-old. He's lived there ever since. As a child, drawing was always his favorite hobby, and he was constantly drawing, doodling, and sketching. Base himself even suggests that his drawings were perhaps a way to win over his peers when his family first moved to Australia.

Although Base attended Swinburne College of Technology to study graphic design, he found his first job in advertising to be terribly boring, and never returned to the field. During his schooling and his brief time in advertising, Base continued to draw constantly. He was hired as a freelance illustrator for a publishing company to illustrate other people's writings. Not long into this work, he decided to try writing stories himself.

His first solo piece, a long poem called My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, was published in 1983 and received well by critics, many of whom praised the Australian culture captured in the sweet and silly story of a feisty, Australian grandma. Unlike many artists and writers who face years of rejection, Base was able to find mild success with his first publication. But it was his second book that would catapult him to instant fame.

The Success of Animalia

The concept for Base's second book, Animalia, is simple enough: an alphabet book with alliterative text. That is, each letter of the alphabet has a page, or sometimes a two-page spread, devoted to it in the book, with an accompanying tongue-twister verse. Numerous images, representing their designated letter, populate each page. Base actually thought the concept might be too boring, or overdone, wondering perhaps, who wants to see another alphabet book on the market? But his clever, witty text combined with stunning, colorful, and complex illustrations made the book an immediate success after publication in 1987.

Base's background as a musician is evident in the musicality and rhythm of the alliteration; for example, the spread for the letter P reads, 'Proud peacocks preening perfect plumage' and is accompanied by gorgeous peacocks, a panda, a penguin, several people, a parade, and countless additional 'P' images. Even more notable, the intricate level of detail in Animalia is so sophisticated that it is easy to see how readers can miss the majority of objects Base has included in each spread. An Australian contest revealed that there are more than 1500 objects within the pages of Animalia. Base has also disclosed that there is a small illustration of himself as a boy hidden somewhere on each letter page. Such interactive elements require repeated readings, and with something so unique and complex, it easily becomes an enjoyable, whole-family activity.

Unique Style

One common characteristic of Base's work is his use of animals and wildlife as characters. The animals in Animalia (as in his other books) may look realistic, but Base has sought a more anthropomorphic quality in his wildlife, giving them human qualities (for example, long eyelashes). He wants to use animals to tell human stories, sometimes including messages about saving the environment. The Waterhole (2001) is a counting book (each page has a number and corresponding amount of animals) that combines his love of animals and his love of games, depicting more and more animals finding a waterhole, while each page shows the waterhole becoming smaller and smaller (perhaps teaching a lesson about overpopulation along the way). Uno's Garden (2006), which includes arithmetic and number games, addresses the growth of villages and towns, while wildlife is threatened with extinction.

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