Children’s book illustrator depicts the ship’s voyageWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
One might think that a children’s book on one of the greatest nautical disasters of all time is a somewhat awkward idea. But kids are often much more savvy and intelligent on such matters than adults give them credit for.
Artist Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen — “Mr. Nick” as his young readers call him — has drawn illustrations for more than 25 books on a wide variety of subjects both fanciful and historical. His latest, “T is for Titanic: A Titanic Alphabet,” examines the story of the legendary ocean liner in a way that curious young minds can relate to.
In an interview with Toledo Free Press, van Frankenhuyzen said he loves meeting with children to discuss the book, and that they frequently surprise him with the depth of their knowledge.
“For example, I told them, ‘Did you know that one of the smokestacks on the ship was not a real smokestack?’ And one little guy goes, ‘Yeah, but it still was used for ventilating the kitchen!’ And this is a second-grader. They know so much more than we think.”
A native of the Netherlands, van Frankenhuyzen gravitated toward art at a young age. “I was always painting and drawing, and I went to art school, but I could only go to art school if I learned a profession. I could not become a painter, my dad said, because I had to make a living. So, I went to art school and I studied graphic design.”
After a brief period working as a designer at an advertising firm in the Netherlands, he relocated to Michigan where he worked for the next 17 years, until the magazine he was employed at shut down.
“I took that time as a time to start painting for myself. And it worked — I was doing fine, I was doing work for museums, a little book illustration here and there — it kept me busy,” van Frankenhuyzen said.
“Then, in 1997, Sleeping Bear Press called me and wanted to know if I wanted to do their first children’s book. And I said, ‘You bet!’ That’s really what I always wanted to be, was an illustrator. It was just something that’s really tough to get into. And here was the publisher, calling me! So that was great.”
Sleeping Bear Press, at the time, worked exclusively in books for older readers — their foray into children’s work was supposed to be a one-time deal. But the book, “The Legend of Sleeping Bear,” was a phenomenal success, putting both Sleeping Bear and van Frankenhuyzen on the map.
He’s worked with the publisher ever since, illustrating a wide variety of works. “The Titanic book was book number 28,” van Frankenhuyzen said with pride.
“When I started doing books, I wasn’t quite sure if I had to adjust my paintings for kids to make them kid-friendly. But I didn’t — I paint them the same way I paint my
own stuff,” he noted. “I kept it all exactly the same, except I brightened my colors.”
That’s not to say that the artist’s work hasn’t evolved during his time working on the books. “I pay more attention now to the little things than I did at the beginning of the books. And with an alphabet book, you kind of have to. Especially with this Titanic book. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I couldn’t mess around with. That’s the way it looked, and that’s what I had to paint.”
He joined the “T is for Titanic” project unexpectedly one day, while visiting his publisher’s office. “I was at Sleeping Bear Press, delivering a book that I just finished. And as I walked in, one of the editors, the main woman, she was on the phone and she kind of waved at me coming in,” van Frankenhuyzen said.
“And all of a sudden, she calls from her office, and she says, with her hand on her phone, she pulled it away from her ear and she says, ‘Nick, if we’re doing a book on the Titanic, would you be willing to do it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, sure, why not?’ And she puts the phone back to her head and says, ‘He’s in! He’ll do it!’”
The staff of the Titanic Museum in Branson, Mo., had seen his work. When they approached Sleeping Bear Press with the idea to do a children’s book on the ship, they specifically asked for him. Van Frankenhuyzen was a little nervous at first about dealing with them, especially since they weren’t giving him any guidance on his portraits.
“When the whole book was done, she saw the proofs — the woman from the Titanic museum — I finally did get an email from her. And it just said, ‘Nick,’ and in all capital letters: ‘I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THE PAINTINGS!’ And that was it! They were very pleased.”
Therew is no rest for van Frankenhuyzen in the days to come. After all the exhausting research devoted to a subject on the ocean floor, his next project is going in the opposite direction — he’s illustrating a book about deserts.
“The deserts, there was not much hands-on, because I told Sleeping Bear, ‘Why don’t you send me to the Gobi or the Sahara for a while?’ And they, of course, wouldn’t do it. And they said, ‘Just Google it!’”