Interview with Fulvio Testa


Interview on November 11 2012 at the Waldorf Astoria NYC

Introduction to “Pinocchio” by Umberto Eco, “…it’s not even a fairy tale, since it lacks the fairy tale’s indifference to everyday reality and doesn’t limit itself to one simple basic moral, but rather deals with many.” 


       On Veteran’s Day a couple weeks ago, the internationally acclaimed children’s book illustrator Fulvio Testa sat down with me over tea in the Peacock Bar at the Waldorf Astoria to talk about his ground-breaking work for Geoffrey Bock’s new translation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.  The wide-ranging conversation inevitably led to a discussion of his artistic philosophy regarding children’s book illustration in general, and how he can’t get New York out of his mind.  

Focus and Rhythm

         For this project, Testa told me how he created a special storyboard that allowed him to keep constant track of the visual and literary levels he was trying to maintain. During the process, he constantly asked himself, “How can I get readers to understand the story simply by creating an image? There are two ways that I might create an image, either one image with two stories, or one large edited image.” To choose the right scenes for Pinocchio, Testa outlined places where he felt the images would best compliment the text, and read the book repeatedly in order to completely grasp the flow of action.  Perhaps equally important to the actual artwork itself, he added, is the pacing and the precise location of where an image is placed in a printed book. “There are fifty-two images in this book, and they are relatively close together. I try to create a rhythm to the illustrations,” meaning that each picture represents a pivotal moment in the story, and in Pinocchio most chapters either end or begin with an illustration. The flowing imagery allows the reader to maintain a steady pace, while creating pauses in the storyline and breaking the text into manageable parts. 

Action and movement

         At first glance the art for Pinocchio appears lighthearted and buoyant, however Testa’s work is in reality quite dynamic.  To show where the action lies in what appears to be a passive image, Testa pointed to an illustration in the book. In it, Pinocchio stands at Geppetto’s worktable and argues with the Cricket. “Some images are deceptive. They look approachable and friendly, but an older reader will see some of the darker aspects at work here. Look at the table. Pinocchio’s hand is very close to the mallet, which he will pick up shortly and throw at the Cricket, killing him. This is a triangle of violence here.”  This  is not simply a picture of a quarrel, but a violent avant scène, and yet is still an image that is appropriate for children.  “Children need action to convey a story of experience through repetition,” which may be why, in Pinocchio,Testa has filled the pages with the scurrilous puppet in all manner of situations, from skipping school to facing a fearsome serpent. Testa also believes that in order to be successful at his craft, a part of him must retain a childlike understanding and appreciation for the world.  “To illustrate, an illustrator needs to have a part of himself that hasn’t grown up yet,” Testa explained. “I have to be willing to re-experience pain, rejection, joy, and other emotions, as if for the first time.”


         Just as parents once used Pinocchio as a way to teach social and moral values, fables are equally important today in constructing a moral compass for children. Testa illustrated an edition of Aesop’s Fables, and finds their universal qualities a captivating way to educate young minds. “Through these stories there is a possibility to acquire a social sensibility.” He views his illustrations as an educational tool because they show how to deal with society from a children’s point of view, which is often more effective than an adult telling a child what is right and what is wrong. There is historical precedent to this approach going back to the nineteenth century, when < em>Pinocchio was first published.  Before there was mandatory schooling, children’s books were crucial teaching tools. Carlo Collodi originally published Pinocchio in installments and he initially intended to end the book with the death of the unfortunate puppet.  Indeed, the illustration that closes chapter fifteen shows Pinocchio strung up and hanging from a large oak tree.  The puppet survives the hanging, and continues on his adventures. 


Early Biography

         Born in 1947 in Verona, Italy, Fulvio Testa grew up believing he would become  an architect.  In 1968 he went to Florence, where he enrolled as an architecture student. Testa began traveling extensively throughout Europe in 1970.

         Eventually Testa met Štěpán Zavřel, a Czechoslovakian refugee and children’s book illustrator who in 1959 had escaped communism and fled to Italy.  Zavrel became Testa’s mentor and advised him to illustrate children’s books. Testa took his advice and discovered that he had a gift for creating images that speak directly to children. In 1971 Testa presented his first work, illustrations for H.C. Andersen’s The Nightingale to a Japanese publisher. The publisher rejected it only because the illustrations were in black ink. The book was published three years later – with colored illustrations. “I have cultivated my reputation [as a children’s book illustrator] since the beginning,” he said. In 1982 he began working with Dial Press, then branched out to other publishing houses. Since the 1970’s Testa has illustrated dozens of books and authored many of his own. 

New York

            Since 1981 Testa has divided his time between New York City and Verona in six-month intervals. The winter months are spent in his Uptown studio where he works on watercolors and etchings. His time in Italy is devoted to oil painting. “Watercolors require resolute design perspective,” he said, and like many artists, he finds the rhythm of the city to be an excellent inspiration no matter what the subject matter.  Oil paintings, like the suite of landscapes he showed recently at the Jill Newhouse Gallery in Manhattan, demand a distinctive focus.  “Oil is a different medium. It requires a longer drying process.” Sometimes Testa has ten oils in process simultaneously. Although he paints his dreamy abstract oils in Verona, Testa believes he would never be able to create them if he didn’t live in New York and absorb firsthand the vibrancy of the city that never sleeps. 


@nyrb-classics @Finebooks @WaldorfAstoria @DeptVetAffairs

Today’s throwback hails from Veteran’s Day 2012, to our interview with the charming, internationally acclaimed children’s picture book illustrator Fulvio Testa, which took place over tea at the Waldorf Astoria. (The story also ran on the Fine Books Blog.)


image©2011 Karina Schaapman, photo by Ton Bouwer. Reproduced with permission from Dial Books.

The Mouse Mansion, written and created by Karina Schaapman, photographed by Ton Bouwer; Dial Books, $18.99, 60 pages ages 5-8.

Usually when there’s a mouse in the house, the human inhabitants run for the hills. Here, debut children’s book author Karina Schaapman created a home just for those furry creatures. Her six foot wide, ten feet tall, hundred-room mouse mansion is made of cardboard boxes and paper mâché, and each room is filled with to the brim with all the trappings one would expect in a home – diapers and formula in the nursery, armoires overflowing with tiny undergarments, bookshelves bursting with miniature versions of Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh. The carefully shot photographs are by Ton Bouwer, and the folio-size pages allow for careful examination of each object.

This mansion isn’t for ritzy city murines; it gives off a warm, nubby, cozy feel, and the accoutrements appear pulled from a romp through an attic that hasn’t been touched since 1970. Families of gray and white cloth mice live here, and two young friends, Sam and Julia, scamper from room to room in search of adventure and fun.  There’s laundry to sort, a bakery to visit, and even a Friday night Sabbath to attend, complete with a tiny table covered by challah, candles and wine.  Schaapman’s detailed artwork is accompanied by thoughtful and informative text, and though the book clocks in at 60 pages, each chapter can easily be read as a unique tale. Pouring over the abundant detail on each page will captivate readers of all ages, and makes an excellent reading choice for snuggling up and spending a wintry afternoon with little readers.


This week’s Throwback is from 2011, with Karina Schaapaman’s magical Mouse Mansion.

I Am Henry Finch


I am Henry Finch, by Alexis Deacon, illustrations by Viviane Schwarz; Candlewick Press, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 3-6.

Henry Finch knows he’s destined for greatness, but until now, all he’s done in life is flutter from tree to tree, outwitting the hungry beast who prowls below. One day Henry has enough of the lubmering creature eating his friends, and realizes this is his chance to be great. Well, Henry ends up in the belly of the beast, but what he does there is a charming ode to courage and resilience. Author Alexis Deacon (llustrator of Russell Hoban’s Soonchild) confirms with wit and humor that heroes can appear from the least likely of places. The birds are rendered as red thumbprints and stick figure illustration (courtesy of There Are Cats In This Book author-illustrator Viviane Schwarz), a reminder that we are all unique and capable of soaring high.

@Candlewick #TBThursday goes to the birds.


 Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey, by Nick Bertozzi; First Second Books, $16.99, 128 pages, ages 12-18. (Publication date: June 17, 2014)

Amateur and professional explorers worldwide will mark the centennial of Ernest Shackelton’s ill-fated yet miraculous voyage to the Antarctic this year. Entire documentaries and symposiums are devoted to understanding how the entire crew survived in polar conditions after their ship became trapped and ultimately crushed in pack ice. There’s even a cruise called the Shackelton 100 that will recreate the route of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 

For adventurers staying close to home, Nick Bertozzi’s graphic novel replicates the voyage through a riveting and wholly original approach to telling this story of survival. Historians have meticulously documented the expedition, but in this account Bertozzi changes the point of view by inviting the reader onto the Endurance alongside the captain and his crew.  Each panel illustrates the minutiae of life aboard a sea vessel – from chronicling Mr. Orde-Lee riding a bicycle across the ice, to a chapter called “Last Dog” which delicately handles the issue of starvation and self-preservation. 

Bertozzi’s black and white illustrations overflow with visual detail while creating a solid and engaging story.  Ships, men and various polar creatures are at once grand and familiar. While the author is quite deft depicting each man in the story, Shackelton stands out from his crew; a tall, dark-haired commander determined to bring  all twenty-eight crewmen home after almost two years lost at sea.

Writing and illustrating stories of great explorers seems second-nature to Bertozzi, whose previous work includes Lewis and Clark, an equally inventive examination of two great explorers. Could Amelia Earhart or Thor Heyerdahl be next?  

@01FirstSecond For #TBThursday, Nick Bertozzi’s stunning graphic novel on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated voyage gets a second look.


Daylight Starlight Wildlife, by Wendell Minor; Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99, ages 3-6.

Summer is the perfect time to get children acquainted with nature, so be sure to bring this book along on your journeys. Wendell Minor has spent a lifetime painting the great outdoors, and his art has graced the covers of work by Jean Craighead George, Jack London, Alice Shertle, and David McCullough. Here, his vibrant gouache and watercolor portraits of various common critters introduce young readers to the variety of fauna that surround us. In addition to learning about animal behavior, adults may pick up a new word too – crepuscular, which refers to those animals most active at twilight. (Bats, frogs, rabbits and snails are a few.) A handy resource guide makes this a perfect accompaniment for outdoor adventures.


@nancyrosep For #TBThursday, I offer this charming nature exploration by Wendell Minor.

Missing Fred Marcellino

 @FredMarcellino @harpercollinschildrens

I’m reading The Wainscott Weasel to my daughter at bedtime. Tor Seidler’s rhythmic storytelling and Fred Marcellino’s graceful illustrations are so totally in tune with each other, it’s worth taking off the shelf if you haven’t read it in a while.
Stellar pacing and expressive illustration, this is a prime example of words and art in perfect harmony.

Published in 1993 by HarperCollins and reissued in 2014, this was the second collaboration for Seidler and Marcellino (A Rat’s Tale, about a

Manhattan rodent, appeared in 1986), and the combination is electric. The story follows love-struck weasels, striped bass, and a predatory osprey all living on the South Fork of Long Island. There are daring acts of heroism, dancing, and dashes of philosophical musings on a weasel’s rightful place in the world. Big concepts, yes, but skillfully and simply articulated for young readers. Up and coming children’s book creators would learn much about their craft by reading this book.


Siedler continues to write–Mean Margaret (1997) was named
Notable Children’s Book by the American Library Association, and his most recent book, Firstborn, was published in 2015. Marcellino designed book jackets for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and others before entering and revolutionizing the world of children’s picture book art. He died of colon cancer in July 2001.


Toad Weather, by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez; Peachtree Publishers, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 4-7.

Sometimes it rains cats and dogs. In Philadelphia, it rains toads. Actually, the wet weather brings about the annual vernal toad migration, and on one particularly rainy March day little Ally and her family head out into the streets to see something spectacular – for a few weeks each spring, millions of toads across the country head to water in order to find mates and lay eggs, and the Roxborough neighborhood in Philadelphia is the real-life setting for this migration – there are even volunteers who set up ‘Toad Detours’ to ensure that the amphibians make it across the busy roads. (Toads flood the streets en route to nearby the ponds and reservoir.) Award-winning veteran author Sandra Markle has written over two hundred books for children, and each one is a treat – Toad Weather’s text is a lyrical sing-songy ode to a city transformed by rain, and to the everyday magic that takes place right at our feet. Gonzalez’s luminous pastel and watercolor images of wet toads and earthworms evoke the sense of wonder when we find magic in our everyday surroundings.  Don’t skip the informative author’s notes that explain how dedicated groups ensure the life cycle continues for these little croakers.  

@PeachtreePub It’s spring, and my addition to #TBThursday is this review from March 2015–Toad Weather, by Sandra Markle, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez.