Helen had a head of hair
piled high as it would go.
She held it with some
and tied it with a bow.
Perhaps you are one of the kids or parents who have spent hours staring and re-staring at Dianna Bonder’s children’s books. Admiring the weird and whimsical details in her colourful illustrations. Reciting her rhyme, just one more time.
Bonder has been illustrating kid’s books for more than 17 years. “I really struggled with the world of formal art. I didn’t know where my place was. Children’s illustration was a great fit for me.”
As a child, Bonder was fascinated with the artwork in her favourite books. “Where The Wild Things Are. I love that book because the monsters were slightly terrifying, but silly. I’ve always been attracted to that cute, scary thing. Alice in Wonderland. Edward Gory. It’s a bit creepy edgy.”
Bonder’s mother was a teacher who always wanted to be a writer. “She never wrote a book. She never accomplished that dream.” When her Mum fell ill and life piled on, Dianna dove into her own book dreams. That first book was A Pacific Alphabet, with Bonder creating the illustrations and Margriet Ruurs, the text.
“Unfortunately, my Mum passed away three weeks after it came out. It was a weird time for me. She got to see the sketches, but not the actual book.” A Pacific Alphabet went on to sell 60,000 copies in BC. It was a bittersweet success for the grieving Dianna, but a new career was born.
Bonder lived in Vancouver for 14 years, but now does her book, and some commercial, illustration from Gabriola Island. “It’s a great place to raise my girls. It’s a great place to be an artist. It’s beautiful. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. I can walk the dog on the beach at 2 pm in the afternoon.”
Pedro the Pirate, Black and White Blanche, Three Royal Tales, Digging Canadian Dinosaurs…. Since that first success, Bonder has partnered with a long list of authors, marrying her illustrations to their words.
She has been both writer and illustrator on some projects. High-haired Helen and the Toad with Tepid Tea come from her Accidental Alphabet book. She also did all the creative for Dogabet. “The writing process for me is really difficult. It’s not my first love; I’d much rather be drawing. I require really good editors, but it’s a fun, if somewhat lonely process.”
Bonder’s most recent solo project was her 2013 A. B. Sea – A Deep Sea Symphony. “It’s an underwater alphabet musical adventure. You learn about musical instruments and definitions.”
Soon to come out is Polly Parrot’s Pirate Poems, written by Tiffany Stone. ”She’s a children’s poet. An award winning, brilliant writer from Maple Ridge. We’ve been friends for a long time. It’s a beautiful story about a parrot who wants to be a pirate. It’s been in the works for 8 years.”
Both children and adults enjoy Bonder’s illustrations. “Children appreciate the kooky and the weird. They are impressed by well-drawn pictures.” Adults enjoy the layered meanings and underlying messages. Many adults will commission Bonder to create paintings that reflect their childhood and grown-up dreams.
Bonder understands the appeal of children’s books. “I have close to 1000 on my book shelf.” She will share her treasured collection with her own children and consult the well-kept books for reference. “Kid’s books have so many great, great artists. Like Mo Willems. He is a brilliant artist and creator.”
Dianna’s illustrations have found another home on her arm. “I like tattoos. My good friend is a tattoo artist.” Winding up her left arm is a beanstalk. “It’s symbolic of storytelling.” Interwoven around the beanstalk are characters from her books – Pedro the Pirate, the Frog Prince, Leon – and her favourite phrase: ‘Dreaming is Believing.’
What advice does Bonder offer to artists who are working to build their careers?
1. “Commit yourself to it
2. Work really hard
A lot of people who are really talented artists get distracted by how difficult the industry is. I see a lot of really talented people fall by the wayside because they don’t follow through. It’s 50% talent, 50% perseverance.
3. Stick to it
There are lots of ups and downs. It can be difficult.
4. Make it a priority
Make time to produce the art. Even if you have a 9 to 5 job, don’t forget about being an artist. Commit and follow through.”
Toad sat on the toadstool
drinking tepid tea,
And as a treat
With tea that day,
He sprinkled in some flea.
Written by Elizabeth Newton