A world of wonder and whimsy

Ian Daniel’s kids used to laugh at him as he worked. The illustrator of a vast array of children’s books smiles at the memory. “I’d be sitting there drawing, and whatever or whomever I was creating, I’d have the exact expression on my face. You become, in a sense, what you’re drawing – scowling, laughing, grinning.”

Notes wife and co-illustrator Lea: “Alan’s in a good humour when he draws, but almost always in a bad humour when he paints. Men are very temperamental creatures,” she teases.

Their creative partnership began over 26 years ago, and although they’ve produced illustrations for Readers’ Digest, designed posters for Sport Canada, created material for historic sites and advertising for insurance companies, their first love has always been children’s books.

Grandparents who enjoy sharing book time with their grandchildren will recognize many of the titles: Bunnicula, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Escapes, all by James Howe (Atheneum). And then there’s Robert Munsch’s Good Families Don’t (Doubleday Canada), a book that caused a stink when some people realized it was about the unmentionable – a fart.

The Kitchener, Ont. artists agreehere’s no typical “Daniel style,” preferring to let their reaction to the writing determine technique and medium. Down by the Bay, one of 22 titles done for The Song Box series published by the U.S.-based Wright Group, is a combination of drawing and collage, carefully lit and photographed to emphasize the three-dimensional effect.

Sometimes a book is full of wonderfully silly characters, like the Canadian-produced Sody Salleratus, retold by Aubrey Davis for Kids Can Press.

“There was a little tension over how fierce the grouchy bear in it should be,” admits Alan.

 “His claws were too long,” Lea explains, while Alan protests the bear eats people, falls out of a tree, explodes and thereby frees his victims. “He couldn’t be cuddly . . . but we toned it back just a touch,” he admits. “And we’re really pleased, because this one got us a couple of nominations for pretty big awards – the Governor General’s and a Mr. Christie award.”

One informative book took almost five years to complete: The Story of Canada, written by Christopher Moore and Janet Lunn (Key Porter Books), included 65 or more of the Daniels’ paintings. The research involved in such a volume is surprisingly detailed. “Every buckle, every button – everything has to be right, so it just takes ages,” notes Alan.

“It was a tour de force for all involved,” he says with justifiable pride. “We did something that rarely happens. We were actually on the regular bestseller list, not the children’s. That’s a real thrill.”

The book is a survey of Canadian history, from early human habitation to 1996. Written in short, self-contained units, for ages approximately 12 to 14, it’s as fascinating for adults as for its intended market. And the Daniel’s then five-year-old grandson who enjoyed bedtime readings from the book has developed an ongoing interest in history.

“Now he wants to go to forts,” explains Lea. “He understands soldiers and politics and it started with The Story of Canada. So it’s quite satisfying to see a project affect your own family.”

Lea and Alan are particularly happy with a series, written with Jim Penner, for the Wright Group. Voyages in Time uses historical fiction centred on yesterday’s children to make the past come alive in the Grade Five classroom. Eventually the series will cover both North and South America, but the Daniels are pleased the first title, Cloak of the Wind, has a Canadian connection. It’s the tale of Erik, a Viking lad who comes to Newfoundland almost a thousand years ago. To make sure the details were accurate, the artists travelled to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and to a Viking site in England.

Letters from the Sea is perhaps their favourite of the series. Set in Maine, it’s the story of Eliza, an orphan who moves in with relatives, only to have her cousin and best friend, Sam, set off to sail around the Horn to San Francisco. Dyslexic, Eliza must learn to read the increasingly worrisome letters from Sam, as his voyage becomes more hazardous.

“We went to Maine three times,” says Lea, “and spent a long time working in the archives and different museums and chatting with the locals.”

Gold!, is a look at the goldrush in Nome, Alaska that followed the Klondike goldrush. Then there’s Meet Me at Midnight, set in New Amsterdam (now New York); To Oregon tells of the trek to that part of the early west. The spirit in The Ghost of St. Augustine helps a captive boy come to terms with his two identities as a native living as part of a white family in early Florida. Another collaboration with Robert Munsch, Get Out of Bed! (Scholastic) will also be on the shelves this season.

Alan’s true art education began when he met Lea’s father, J. Merle Smith, one of the few artists to have made a living from book illustrations in the 1950s and ’60s. His studio in Brampton, Ont., was home to several freelance artists, including a Hungarian watercolourist, and an English woman who did lovely line drawings. “When I broke in,” says Alan, “there was plenty of work around – massive readers, all heavily illustrated.

“The first thing Merle said to me was ‘Take off your shoes,'” Alan recalls. “Then he said ‘Now draw them.’ And I began to realize how difficult it is to capture all the various curves. It was his way of saying ‘It’s not as easy as you think.’

“Working there was very practical, ” Alan notes. “You had to learn what would reproduce and what would fit on the page properly – all the design elements. I was lucky.”

And as luck would have it he met Lea. “I would get asked to the Smith home in the evenings and so forth, and we fell in love and got married. Before long I needed help when deadlines came along and Lea just started pitching in. Now about 90 per cent of what we do, we do together.”

An artist in her own right, Lea usually does the painting, adding the colour to Alan’s drawings.

Lea had planned a career in the school system, graduating with a degree in psychology from McMaster University. She did a lot of English as a second language (ESL) teaching, using little drawings to make a point.

“I’ve only started to realize,” muses Lea, “especially with these history things, that I love the story-telling, but I also appreciate the fact that there’s content. When I did my degree I did a lot of learning theory and educational psychology . . . now it’s all come together.”

And their talents are always in demand. “We’re getting a little more cautious about the offers we’re taking,” says Alan, “because now we’re getting booked for projects in 2001. The Voyages in Time series was the development of a dream, but we have other dreams we’d like to pursue as well.”

It would be easy for the Daniels to busy themselves in their studios, shut off from the rest of the world, but they prefer to stay connected to their community and the children in their lives, the neighbourhood kids, and three special grandsons – Joe, 9, Kieran, 6 and Ethan, 4. “I’m a grandma to my core,” laughs Lea.

“It’s easy to feel connected to your own childhood or your children’s youth,” Alan points out, “but it’s a different world for the grandkids.”

Part of that world appears in Kids Can Press release, The Dream Collector. “I put myself in it, slightly disguised, as the dream collector,” says Alan. “Our grandson Joe is the boy.” For Alan and Lea Daniel, it’s a work of art – and love.

“Art has been our passion rivalled only by our love of books,” say both the Daniels. “How lucky we have been that throughout our working lives, we could combine the two in illustration.”