Monday, December 28, 2009


I AM DIFFERENT began as an idea about the fact that many people are made to feel bad about being different to others. And yet, there are SO MANY WAYS of being different that in one sense every single person, animal, plant and thing is absolutely unique and different to every other person, animal, plant or thing. While thinking about the issue of being different versus being the same, I made a few funny drawings in which I drew a crowd of creatures, amongst which one was different to all the rest. 

I wanted to explore the idea that being different can also mean being funnier, or prettier or cleverer. Or just differenter. Anyway, the drawings were just funny, rather than clever or pretty. For instance, I had one drawing with fifty identical black and white penguins, but amongst there was one which was pink and yellow, wearing sun-glasses and grinning. In my way of thinking, by doing this, I was celebrating difference, rather than punishing it.

This was probably ten years ago. In 2006 I had an exhibition in Madras during which I displayed a series of small paintings in bright colours, using acrylic paint to outline the shapes. Radhika Menon of Tulika came to see this show. She said she liked these funny little paintings with the bold outlines and she wondered out loud whether they would be an interesting way of illustrating a book.

DING! The idea from long ago about celebrating differences, came together with the style of paintings at my show and together, they turned into a collection of puzzle drawings for a book! As with all picture books, the first part of the effort was to get a clear idea about the whole book. Whenever I start work on picture books, I use a single sheet of paper on which I draw little rectangular boxes, each box representing a pair of open pages. This way, I can "see" the whole book in front of me, like a map. I add one single page at the beginning and one single page at the end, so that I remember that the first and last pages of the book will be singles, not doubles. This kind of map is called a LAYOUT. The first few versions of this map is called a rough layout. That's because it isn't meant to be the final version of the book, but is only the simplest of first sketches, just to see if an idea is good enough to print.

While thinking about I AM DIFFERENT, I decided early on that I would use sheets of coloured hand-made paper as the foundation of the pictures. So aside from making a layout, I also began thinking about how I would make the drawings. I asked Tulika to tell me what page-size they would like for their book. Based on the size, I would know how much paper I would need in order to cut out the shapes I wanted to use for the "drawings" – which would really be more like a cutting and glueing project than a painting project!
There are some shops that specialize in selling hand-made paper in all kinds of amazing colours and textures. So even before I completed my layout, I ran off to buy the paper. I LOVE buying paper. I came home with a HUGE roll of many coloured sheets. Then I cut small strips from each sheet so that I could keep them in front of me while I made the layout. It was like keeping a box of paints open in front of me, so that I could plan the colours I would use. 

While working on the layout – which I drew several times over – I made a list of objects to use as the "crowd" of similar elements out of which one would be DIFFERENT. It was at this stage that I realized there were many ways of being different! Colour and shape are the most obvious, but there's also orientation and left-or-rightness, and open-or-shutness, and bigness-or-smallness. And so on. I also realized that even in the same picture there might be more than one way of "being different". So even though we provided answers at the back of the book, in one sense, every object really is different to every other object on the page. The puzzle is about looking for a special kind of difference that sets one thing apart from everything else but sometimes the right answer isn't the only answer. I think the page on which this is most true is the one with the keys. Many of the keys are quite irregular, so even though there's only one that's facing the "other" way, there are several that are different to all the others in terms of shape. 

While creating my layout, I tried to match the colours of facing pages so that they would balance each other reasonably well. I also made patches of contrasting colour on which the text would appear and I planned the pages so that the patches would be sort of mirrored on facing pages – if the left hand page had a strip down the outer edge, then the right hand page would have a similar strip on its outer edge and so on. To some extent, this helped decide which shapes would go on which pages.

After cutting and sticking the background colours into place on a backing sheet of white paper, I had a lot of fun cutting dozens of smaller shapes representing all the different objects I had chosen to use as my "groups". I used double-sided sticky tape on the reverse of the paper so that once I had cut out a particular shape, I could position it on the page, then remove the backing from the tape and stick it on. The most difficult shapes were the lizards and after them the cats! The easiest shapes were the leaves and the little coloured squares. After sticking the shapes down, I outlined them with the acrylic paint to create the thick wavy edge which gives the drawings their distinctive blocky appearance. This was fun to do too, but it was also the time of maximum tension. There was no second chance with that paint. Once it was on the paper, I could not take it off or correct a mistake. Once I'd finished all the outlines, I added dots and squiggles just for a bit of fun on the page.

I think the only picture I changed after sticking together the shapes, was the lizards. It wasn't because I had made a mistake but because the first time I made that page, the lizards were all identical except for one which had three feet instead of four. However, after completing the page, I began to think this was a bit unfair to that poor creature! I had decided right from the beginning that I didn't want to define "difference" to mean "deformed" or "damaged" and in the case of the lizard I had clearly broken my own rule. So I gave the lizard its fourth little foot and then I added a design onto the backs of all-except-one of critters so that the puzzle was complete. Fortunately, it was easy to stick the extra foot into place without having to re-do the whole page.

All the while I was planning, designing, drawing, cutting and sticking together the pictures, I was also worrying about the text. It may seem hard to believe, but deciding the exact wording of the text took almost as long as creating all the pictures! I have forgotten exactly how and when the idea of using different languages on every page came along. All I remember is the extremely enthusiastic response everyone had to the idea. The initial formula was a statement, "I AM DIFFERENT", followed by the question "CAN YOU FIND ME?" The plan was to translate this formula into 16 different languages and to provide a pronunciation guide. The decision wasn't made in isolation, but in consultation with the editors of Tulika. At the time, we had no idea how complex the task would turn out to be.

To begin with, the word "different" does not translate easily into other languages. For example, the equivalent word in Hindi means "strange" or "weird" rather than "different". Eventually it was decided to use only the second part of the formula, the question. But even so, there were all kinds of odd little problems! For instance, in Urdu the script runs from right-to-left: should the pronunciation guide in English also run from right-to-left? Or back-to-front? Should the pronunciations be provided in all languages, not just English? Or at least in Hindi and Tamil? And if only in English, should we use accents and special characters to represent the sounds that are not available in English for other languages? Once we began asking questions, there seemed to be no end to them.

In the end we decided to choose the simple option, whatever it was, rather than anything complicated. We figured that most of our readers are smart enough to work everything out for themselves … and they are! Or so we've heard.
- Manjula Padmanabhan, Author