A portrait of picture book artist Helme Heine


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2016)

Restraint and sensitivity are the trademarks of picture book artist Helme Heine. The 75-year-old is one of the true great artists of his trade. However, he not only creates illustrations, he also simultaneously invents the stories that go with them. These include such veritable children’s book classics as “Friends” featuring the three heroes Franz von Hahn, Johnny Mauser and fat Waldemar or the “Elefanteneinmaleins”. They have all led Heine to international acclaim; his success fundamentally goes down to the fact that he speaks a language that children understand. And: his stories are witty and frequently incorporate a certain amount of irony, but never more than his small readers are actually able to digest. Helme Heine always observes his surroundings with untamed inquisitiveness and quiet passion. It is probably for these reasons that he is so much loved by both big and small avid readers across the globe. 

Helme, when did you start writing and drawing? And where does this wonderful talent come from?

I only started writing in Africa, a continent that has a wonderful narrative tradition. You sit around a cosy fire in the evening, telling each other stories. In the 1960s, there was no television in Johannesburg and I therefore hosted an “open house” event every Thursday. Anybody was welcome to attend, but they had to bring a story with them as a gift, which they had to read out aloud. It could be fictional or about something they had experienced, but they could not read it from a sheet or book, they had to recite it in their own words. The story also had to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. And I started painting as a result of the theatre and the political-literary cabaret “Sauerkraut”. Somebody had to design the billboards and theatre programmes. So I sat down and sketched the images that were in my mind just waiting to be sketched. It came as a surprise to both me and many of my friends. 

You see yourself as a translator of complicated things. Why do you believe most people lose the ability to formulate things simply and honestly once they have become adults? 

We practice the art of narration and listening too seldom. Instead, we are being inundated with images and music – day and night. We are at risk of drowning and becoming speechless in this virtual tidal wave. 

Many of your books have been translated into 35 languages. What does a story require to have substance and simultaneously be fun to read? 

They must tell elementary stories in a clear and understandable language. If you are writing about love, then you shouldn’t forget to include death. And if you wish to pen a political children’s book, then bear in mind that kids are not interested in day-to-day world politics, which they know nothing about anyway. But everybody understands a tale about justice and injustice. 

How are you able to inspire both children and adults with your stories? 

I find it dreadful when books are created for specific age groups. This book is for three- to five-year-olds, the next one for children between the ages of seven and ten, that one is targeted at adolescents, the other is women’s literature and so on, and so forth. I am sure that Tania Blixen or Jane Austen would have been most unhappy at being pigeon-holed like that. Or just think about Tom Sawyer. Is it a children’s book or a book for young people? No, it’s world literature! We should be more demanding when it comes to topics and language and have greater faith in readers. 

In your view, how important is it in this day and age for children to still grow up surrounded by books? How invaluable is early engagement with the written word for their personal development?

500 years ago, Gutenberg gifted the world with the art of book printing, the ability to duplicate words. Today, we are experiencing a paradigm shift. The Internet is displacing the word. We are entering a world of images. We are becoming increasingly wordless. Add to this the fact that our world is becoming ever more uniform. Children are increasingly living in a standardised, virtual world. However, what they need is books. Books are individualists, demanding to be conquered. A thousand people can read the same book, but each and every one of them creates individual images and unique characters in their mind. 

What characteristics are essential to a children’s book author?

They must be able to write and paint. This is evidenced by the likes of Wilhelm Busch, Beatrice Potter, Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, for example. And this despite the fact that authors and painters have different temperaments. Authors need time to describe images, landscapes and people using lots of words and many pages. Pictures are spontaneous. You do not need to translate them into other languages. Just a glance at them and everything is clear. Add to this the fact that every author sees and describes the world with their own eyes and – when they see their work on film or illustrated – are usually disappointed because they visualised the characters in question in a completely different way. Authors and painters therefore appear to use completely different halves of the brain. So it seems it is better when both halves are at home in the same head.

Your work focusses on making small things great. What exactly do you mean by that?

It is conspicuous how most works of art – whether these are installations, sculptures or picture formats – are becoming larger and larger. You have the feeling that they are only being created for museums. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner praised the poem, claiming it to be the most perfect form of literature. It is shorter than a novel or short story, but nevertheless creates tremendous depth and interpretation. I love small picture books that are not books with pictures, but staged stories whose texts fit on a single page. 

Is there anybody whose work you would say has particularly inspired you? 

Wilhelm Busch. His drawings, and above all his language, have remained miraculously young and fresh. Busch was born in 1832, the same year that Goethe died. Busch seems timeless. In contrast, I truly value Egon Schiele as a painter. I very much admired Nelson Mandela as a politician.

You are not only a brilliant drawer, you are also extremely creative. How do you keep your mind sufficiently agile to constantly bring new ideas to life?

The spirit stays young if you use it every day. I challenge it by constantly learning poems off by heart – in addition to my own daily creative work. I could of course also buy volumes of poetry or download them onto my computer. But I want them with me in my head, to own them, so that I use them to hone my own language. 

What impulses do you need for your creative work?

Water inspires me, regardless of whether it is a lake, a river or an ocean. I have fulfilled my life’s dream in New Zealand, where I have lived for the past 25 years. My studio lies directly on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. I constructed it with the help of a boat builder because no construction company was willing or able to implement my undulating tent roof structure. And whenever I suffer from temporary writer’s block, I go sailing and catch myself a fish.

An end of your picture book career, as you yourself describe your life, is inconceivable to you. Have you ever left home without a pencil?

I don’t own a mobile phone. I need two free hands in order to hold a notepad in one and a pencil in the other. And it is with these two old-fashioned props that I conquer the world, jotting down sentences, ideas, faces, structures and landscapes. I also don’t own a camera. I have a visual memory and am able to save lots of things in my own “brain cloud”.

You have lived by the sea in New Zealand for 25 years now. In your free time, you love to conquer the Pacific Ocean and catch fish to eat. If you were to write your own life story, what would the title be?

Bon vivant. With the subtitle: The endeavour to constantly reinvent yourself.

Picture credits © 2012 Beltz & Gelberg in der Verlagsgruppe Beltz Weinheim Basel

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published