Graeme (Rowland) Base (1958–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1958, in Amersham, England; immigrated to Australia, 1966; Australian citizen; Education: Swinburne Institute of Technology, diploma of art, 1978. Religion: Church of England (Anglican). Hobbies and other interests: Listening to and writing music.
Agent—c/o Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 487 Maroondah Highway, P.O. Box 257, Ringwood, Victoria 3134, Australia.
Worked in advertising at design studios, including The Art Producers, Stannard Patten Samuelson, and Paul Pantelis & Partners, 1979–80; keyboard player in band Riki-Tiki-Tavi, with wife, 1980–85; author and illustrator of books for children.
Australian Society of Book Illustrators.
Australian Children's Book Award Picture-Book Honor, Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book Honor, 1987, for Animalia, and Picture Book of the Year, 1989, for The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery; Book Design Award high commendation, Australian Book Publishers' Association, 1988, and Young Australian Best Book Award (YABBA), 1989, both for The Eleventh Hour; Kids Own Australia Literature awards (KOALA), 1988, for Animalia, 1989, for The Eleventh Hour, and 2004, for TruckDogs; the cover of Animalia was featured as an Australian stamp, 1996; Dromkeen Medal, 1998, for Animalia; Honour Medal, International Board on Books for Young People, 2000, for The Worst Band in the Universe; Young Australian Readers Award, 2001, for The Waterhole; YABBA, 2004, for TruckDogs.
SELF-ILLUSTRATED; FOR CHILDREN
My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, Nelson Australia, 1983, published in a pop-up version, Abrams (New York, NY), 1995, published as a play, Longman/Pearson (South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), 2003.
Animalia, Abrams (New York, NY), 1986.
The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery, Viking Kestrel (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia), 1988 Abrams (New York, NY), 1989.
The Sign of the Seahorse: A Tale of Greed and High Adventure, Abrams (New York, NY), 1992.
The Discovery of Dragons, Abrams (New York, NY), 1996.
The Water Hole, Abrams (New York, NY), 1999.
The Worst Band in the Universe, Abrams (New York, NY), 2001.
TruckDogs (chapter book), Viking (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia), 2003, Abrams (New York, NY), 2004.
Jungle Drums, Abrams (New York, NY), 2004.
Max Dann, Adventures with My Best Worst Friend, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Betty Greenhatch) Susan Burke, The Rottenest Bike Business, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.
Jan Anderson, The Days of the Dinosaurs, Nelson, 1984.
Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky: From "Through the Looking Glass," Macmillan (London, England), 1985, Abrams (New York, NY), 1987, published as Jabberwocky: A Book of Brillig Dioramas, Abrams, 1996.
Maureen Stewart, reteller, Creation Myths, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
Leone Peguero, Stop, Look, and Listen: Road Sense for Kids, Greenhouse, 1987.
Creator of "Animalia" wall frieze, Viking, 1987, and calendar "Dragons, Draaks, and Beasties." Also coauthor, with Craig Christie, of contemporary opera Tutankhamun, based on the death of an Egyptian king. Composer of instrumental music.
Animalia was adapted as a coloring book with drawings by Jo Wood, Penguin (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 2002.
Graeme Base is a transplanted Englishman living in Australia who is noted for his distinctive illustrations in such popular picture books for all ages as Animalia, The Eleventh Hour, and The Sign of the Sea Horse. His books, with text by the author, feature densely illustrated puzzles with a wealth of detail that stays with the reader long after the book is closed. As Bernard Ashley noted in a Books for Keeps review of Animalia, "The real point is that after looking through this book the world is seen through new eyes—of the closely observing kind." Base's alphabet book, Animalia, and his mystery-puzzle, The Eleventh Hour, both won numerous awards and readers around the world, the latter becoming something of a cult classic in Australia. In all his work, Base mixes a lightness of text—sometimes with alliterative tongue-twisters and sophisticated language—with linear, stylized illustrations full of humor and rich details that challenge readers' powers of observation. Animalia, for example, incorporates over 1,500 objects—such as food, musical instruments, and characters—in addition to the featured animal for each letter. Base also playfully inserted a self-portrait of himself as a youth in each of the pictures, an added treat for the observant eye.
As Base once told Something about the Author (SATA), much of what he uses in his illustrations is a result of his childhood. "Everyone is influenced by his childhood. The things I write about and illustrate come from a vast range of inputs, from the earliest impressions of a little child, others from things I saw yesterday, and still others from completely out of the blue, though no doubt they owe their arrival to some stimulus, albeit unconscious. I have a great love of wildlife, inherited from my parents, which shows through in my subject matter, though always with a view to the humorous—not as a reflective device but as a reflection of my own fairly happy nature."
Born in Amersham, England, Base moved with his family to Australia when he was eight years old. As he himself has noted, his first years in Australia were spent as an outsider, the foreigner in his school. His talent at art
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was one way to impress his peers, and he threw himself into that with a vengeance, early on deciding on a career in the visual arts. He also gained a love for the flora and fauna of his adopted land, much of which has gone on to grace the pages of his picture books. Attending the Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Base pursued a diploma course in graphic design that was geared toward advertising. "Out of college," he recalled in Reading Time, "with a Diploma of Art under my arm, I dutifully found myself a job in the wacky world of advertising, something that actually was on my list of things I meant to do. And I hated it…. In fact it turned out to be a most frustrating and creatively inhibiting experience, though I recognize it taught me a lot about deadlines and putting up with the tough slog where necessary."
His work in advertising design studios as well as his studies at Swinburne admirably prepared him for an unexpected career in children's literature. "I never meant to be an author," Base noted in Reading Time. "I never meant to make picture books either. What I always wanted to do was draw and paint and construct things that appealed to my sense of aesthetics and satisfied a strong desire to create." Slowly, as he spent his days at the advertising agencies, he began to fill up folios with fanciful illustrations. Indulging a youthful love for dragons, he began preparation of what he thought of as a "Field Guide to Dragons of the World." A couple of years later, feeling stifled with his advertising work, he took the initiative and showed this work to Bob Sessions, a publisher at Thomas Nelson. Though Sessions did not much care for his dragon illustrations, he did see talent in the young illustrator and told Base to try his hand at something more Australian in feel. In the meantime Base had also begun illustrating books for other writers, something that introduced him to children's books, but that was less than satisfying. He knew that he would need to both write and illustrate books if he were to get the perfect play between text and pictures.
Taking the publisher's suggestion to heart, Base wrote a poem—the first since his school years—about life in the outback of Australia for Grandma, a feisty woman who entertains all manner of wild beasts. Illustrating this with a myriad of the plants and animals to be found in Australia, Base went back to Sessions and the publisher agreed to take on his first picture book, My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, which appeared in Australia in 1983. A Publishers Weekly called it "one of the best introductions to the fauna of the Australian bush…. There is as much wit and humor in the rhyming text as there is mastery and opulence in the illustrations." Noting in School Library Journal the powerful effect of Base's tall tale of a kangaroo-riding grandmother who dines with emus, Jeanette Larson reported that the author-illustrator's "sepia-toned line drawings and richly colored, very detailed illustrations … burst the boundaries of oversized, double-page layouts."
As Base recalled in Reading Time, the book "sold reasonably well, encouraging the publishers to ask if I would like to do another one." This encouragement led to a three-year project on a very unlikely theme—an alphabet book. "Who needs another alphabet book?" Base questioned in Reading Time. "If I had stopped to think about it for fifteen seconds I would never have started, but it was what I wanted to do and that was sufficient." This knack for following his own instincts and pleasing himself paid off, and has become Base's pattern for all subsequent projects. Following his own vision, he created a labor of love: an assemblage of animals to illustrate the alphabet.
The illustrations were only part of the delight in working on Animalia; the alliterative text was the other. "Poetry is really a pleasurable experience," Base told Toss Gascoigne in a Magpies interview. "I'm very much into music, and in fact I'd much rather be a musician than an artist." Base composes instrumental music, and during the creation of Animalia was also performing with his wife in a band as a keyboard player. "The poetry is very rhythmic and quite strictly structure, as my music is," Base told Gascoigne. Base's love of language play came in handy for Animalia, with nonsense verse accompanying each illustration: "Eight Enormous Elephants Expertly Eating Easter Eggs," "Horrible Hairy Hogs Hurrying Homeward on Heavily Harnessed Horses," and "Two Tigers Taking the 10:20 Train to Timbuktu" are examples of his alliterative style and his desire not to write down to children. "I never talk down to children," Base told SATA, "for this is fatal. Much better to aim over their heads and allow some subtleties to go unnoticed than to earn their scorn by serving up 'kiddie fare'." This philosophy has the happy result of providing text that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
Accompanying the texts introductions to each letter of the alphabet is an illustration of the animal in question—all except for the letter X. In the background is a profusion of detail featuring all sorts of objects that also begin with the corresponding letter. In Australia a contest was ultimately held to see who could discover the most of the 1,500 embedded objects.
Publication of the book brought instant success—large sales and critical acclaim. Belle Alderman, reviewing the book in Reading Time, called it "a dazzling work of art" with its vividly colored illustrations in a combination of pencil, watercolor, colored inks, and air brush. Alderman concluded that "Animalia is a book for anyone who enjoys artistic virtuosity and countless hours of pleasure." A Publishers Weekly critic dubbed it "a visual feast … Base's monumental effort will not go unrewarded," while G. Bott, writing in Junior Bookshelf, observed that "Three years work by the artist has produced a book which combines beauty with inventiveness, talent with teasing, elegance with entertainment, richness with artistic virtuosity." Mary Rubio, writing in Canadian Children's Literature, also had high praise, writing that Base "outdoes Richard Scarry in filling pages with detail, and his artwork, unlike Scarry's, is truly artistic." Rubio concluded that "this book provides a 'double hook', one for the child and one for the parent." Animalia became popular in many countries around the world and set Base's career on firm ground.
Base traveled in Europe after the successful reception of Animalia, and the trip influenced his next picture book, The Eleventh Hour. The book was two years in the making, and Base once described it as an Agatha Christie-type mystery in pictures—without any murders. It is full of "codes and ciphers to be cracked, margins to be explored, red herrings to be identified, hidden objects to be discovered," according to Chris Powling in Books for Keeps. There are several ways for the reader to solve the mystery, which is to discover which of the guests is guilty for plundering the banquet celebrating Horace Elephant's eleventh birthday, held on November 11. There is a sailor pig, a rhino in plate armor, a musketeer mouse, and a tiger who has come attired as an Indian chief. It is the reader's job to follow the clues cleverly hidden in the pictures and text and find the culprit.
"Here is a book that delights several times over," Gernot Wieland noted in Canadian Literature. Visible in the lavish illustrations are inspirations from Base's year of traveling: the Uffizi in Florence, St. Peter's in Rome, the ballroom in Salzburg where Mozart once played. The riddle Base poses is in reach of readers of all levels; for those who give up there is a sealed pouch in the back with the solution. A reviewer for Five Owls felt that the book "offers readers a wonderful chance to exercise their powers of observation and deductive reasoning skills," while Wes Magee of Junior Bookshelf found the puzzle "totally consuming and captivating. There is a touch of magic, a dash of thrill, a slice of luck," to find the culprit. Corinne Camarata, writing in School Library Journal, noted especially the "intricate watercolor and acrylic paintings in vibrant colors," while Powling prophesied that the book "looks suspiciously like another Base triumph." That reviewer was right: The Eleventh Hour, like Animalia, sold nearly a million copies and garnered awards from many quarters.
Base, who oversees all stages of the production process of his unique illustrations, turned to undersea adventures for his next title, The Sign of the Seahorse, "an ambitious project" as David Lewis dubbed it in School Librarian. Lewis went on to describe the book as "a tale told in rhyming quatrains (over a hundred in all) framed in two acts and eight scenes between a prelude and an epilogue. Together with the large-scale, detailed pictures, this adds up to quite a substantial piece of work." Part tale of gang warfare under the sea, part
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Wild West story, and part ecological fable, The Sign of the Seahorse has a list of characters that includes the Catfish Gang; Pearl Trout, a waitress at the Seahorse Café; and evil businessman villain Gropmund G. Groper. Inspired again by travels he and his wife made—snorkeling off the Galapagos Islands and scubadiving off Martinique—the picture book focuses on the piscine inhabitants of a coral reef "the day the sea went dark" from an oil spill. Susan Toepfer, writing in People magazine, noted that there is nothing heavy-handed in Base's story: "Like his idol, Lewis Carroll, Base can cleverly conceal history and politics within the most delicate children's fantasy." Toepfer also thought that children will enjoy Base's creatures of the sea due to his illustrations, which are "nearly three-dimensional," and because of "the lure of his rhymes." Marcus Crouch, in Junior Bookshelf, observed that while Base is a "competent versifier he is a virtuoso artist," and concluded that the work is a "notable book, full of Antipodean energy." Books for Your Children reviewer J. Jarman picked The Sign of the Seahorse as a "Top Choice," noting that "it's all great fun" and that the artwork is "stunning, conveying action, atmosphere, and more humour."
For his fourth picture book, Base went back to an old passion: dragons. He had already done a calendar of dragons and other beasties; in 1996 he came out with The Discovery of Dragons, "a hoot," according to Booklist reviewer Sally Estes. Base adopted the persona of a fictional Victorian scientist named Rowland W. Greasebeam "to serve up this compendium of dragon lore and sheer inventive nonsense," according to a Publishers Weekly critic. Through the letters of three earlier, fictionalized dragon hunters, Base presents a ninth-century Norwegian, a thirteenth-century Chinese, and a nineteenth-century African account of hunting for dragons. John Peters, in School Library Journal, praised the book as a "browser's delight," while Estes found it to be a "visual and rib-tickling treat" featuring cartoon-like borders at the bottoms of the pages that follow the action and the tongue-in-cheek gags imbedded in many of the pictures. "There's much to enjoy here," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "and much to propel readers to seek out every last drop of humor."
The Worst Band in the Universe comes with its very own soundtrack. The story features alien musicians, all competing for the title of "Worst Band"—meaning they have the least traditional and most experimental music in the universe. Their type of music is against the law, as the leaders of the universe see new music as a challenge to the old, traditional style. The contest is actually a ploy, and all the competitors are arrested for their subversive music. Sprocc, a thirteen-year-old musician, is one among the contestants-turned-prisoners who helps to build a music-driven spaceship to escape their planet prison. Base explained on BookPage.com that the idea came to him "purely as a title. Now what preceded that was the desire to marry my two interests, my two passions: art and music." The soundtrack for the book features music from the groups competing in the "Worst Band" contest. John Peters, in Booklist, considered the music "frisky power pop" and noted that "Base displays a talent for versification…. His illustrations are just as clever." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that "Base's imaginative effort, roiling with hot colors and intergalactic weirdness, will baffle traditionalists even as it thrills budding iconoclasts."
With The Water Hole, Base created a counting counterpart to his alphabet book Animalia. Featuring animals at water holes across the world, Base begins with one animal drinking the water, and ends with ten animals going thirsty, because the water hole has shrunk. When a rain storm comes, it refills the water hole, but the ecological message in Base's text leaves readers wondering how long the natural resource will last. The water hole in the illustrations is a die-cut hole, which is smaller on each page as the book progresses toward the ending. "The story is slim, but the ideas are powerful," commented Gillian Engberg in her Booklist review. Commenting on Base's use of hidden pictures, a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, "Readers will find more to see the longer they linger." Beth Tegart, writing for School Library Journal, called "this numerical and ecological companion to Animalia … a visual treat." Zoë Johnstone Guha, writing for Resource Links noted: "Despite the book's serious theme, the minimal text is very lighthearted and creative," and addded that "Children will be fascinated by the rich illustrations." In AussieReviews.com, Magdalena Ball compared The Water Hole to the author's previous work. "Base's children's books are special," she wrote. "They are the sort you read and reread and save for your grandchildren." About The Water Hole specifically, Ball wrote: "This beautiful book is rich, powerful, and lots of fun."
Base's dog Molly earned co-writing credit for TruckDogs, the author's first chapter book. Set in a world where the dominant creatures are part dog and part truck—other creatures, such as sheep and bugs, are mixed with trucks as well—TruckDogs tells the story of the rebellious Mongrel Pack, a group of teen TruckDogs who are cast out of their home town. However, when the villains—called the RottWheelers—come to town, only the Mongrel Pack can save the community that rejected them. Critics noted that the Australian vocabulary might be difficult for American readers, and that the concept of the truck and dog hybrid challenges suspension of disbelief. However, "Once readers accept the far-flung premise, Base's latest maintains his well-deserved reputation for big, colorful characters and ideas," praised a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Discussing the moral of the story—that members of the community should work to bridge their communication gap—Laurie von Mehren commented in her School Library Journal review, "It's a great message, delivered in a captivating manner." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews called the story "surreal yet compelling," noting that "the charm of this bizarre tall tale shines through."
The animals of Africa are the focus of Jungle Drums. After writing The Water Hole, Base began looking for another opportunity to draw African animals. "When I went back a second time, I suddenly fell in love with warthogs," he explained in an article for Asia Africa Intelligence Wire. "They were so ill-favoured. Amongst all this wonder and majesty, they are the runts on the savanna." The original folk tale focuses on the troubles of the smallest warthog in all of Africa, Ngiri Mdogo. All of the animals make fun of the warthogs because they are so ugly; the other warthogs in turn make fun of Ngiri because he is so small. One night, Old Nyumbu the wildebeest, passes a small set of drums along to Ngiri. The drums are magic and will grant Ngiri three wishes. Wanting to be big, and wanting the other animals to stop making fun of the warthogs, Ngiri makes his wishes, but nothing turns out quite how he plans. The other animals are stripped of the things that make them unique, and all their spots, feathers, and decorations are given to the warthogs. Then, when Ngiri wishes the decorations to be returned to the other animals, the spots end up on zebras while leopards end up in stripes. It takes a third wish for Ngiri to restore things to normal—and to gain respect from members of the animal community. "Children will be drawn by the silly switcheroos and comical expressions of dismay among the animal cast," wrote a contributor to Kirkus Reviews. Linda Staskus, writing for School Library Journal, considered the book "a visual feast," while Francisca Gold-
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smith of Booklist praised Base's "hallmark art and witty text," noting that the combination will "engage both children and those who read to them." The contributor to Asia Africa Intelligence Wire noted of Base's books, "Base takes his readers a long way from their circumstances whilst simultaneously reminding them of their own lives." About Jungle Drums, the writer concluded: "In this, there may be a lesson for us all—no matter what age we are—especially when we feel a bit like warthogs."
Base continues to focus his imagination and talent on creating picture books for kids of all ages. "I am my own audience," Base explained in Reading Time. "If I am happy with a picture, a verse, a concept, that is enough." For Base, it is an "added bonus" if other people find that his works reflect their own ideas of fun, aesthetics, and style. "And that is the way I work," Base concluded. "I count myself incredibly lucky to be doing exactly what I want, and getting feedback from many other people for my efforts."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Base, Graeme, Animalia, Abrams (New York, NY), 1986.
Cummins, Julie, editor, Children's Book Illustration and Design, PBC International, 1992.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Base, Graeme, The Sign of the Seahorse, Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, January 6, 2005, "The Beat of a Base Drum."
Booklist, November 15, 1996, Sally Estes, review of The Discovery of Dragons, pp. 585-586; September 15, 1999, John Peters, review of The Worst Band in the Universe, p. 256; February 1, 2000, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Worst Band in the Universe, p. 1020; October 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of The Water Hole, p. 322; September 1, 2004, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Jungle Drums, p. 129.
Books for Keeps, November, 1988, Bernard Ashley, review of Animalia, p. 28; November, 1989, Chris Powling, "The Eleventh Hour of Graeme Base," p. 22.
Books for Your Children, spring, 1990, p. 22; spring, 1993, J. Jarman, review of The Sign of the Seahorse, p. 23.
Canadian Children's Literature, number 47, 1987, Mary Rubio, review of Animalia, p. 99.
Canadian Literature, winter, 1992, Gernot Wieland, "Brain over Brawn," pp. 189-190.
Five Owls, November-December, 1992, review of The Eleventh Hour, p. 28.
Growing Point, May, 1990, p. 5349.
Junior Bookshelf, April, 1983, Marcus Crouch, review of The Sign of the Seahorse, p. 73; February, 1988, G. Bott, review of Animalia, p. 17; April, 1990, Wes Magee, review of The Eleventh Hour, p. 70.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1987, p. 1729; October 15, 1996, p. 1528; September 15, 2001, review of The Water Hole, p. 1353; March 1, 2004, review of TruckDogs, p. 218; September 1, 2004, review of Jungle Drums, p. 860.
Magpies, September, 1989, Toss Gascoigne, "Know the Author: Graeme Base," pp. 20-22; September, 1992, p. 8; July, 1993, p. 32; March, 1997, p. 21.
New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1987, p. 54; January 24, 1993, p. 17.
People, January 18, 1993, Susan Toepfer, review of The Sign of the Seahorse, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1987, review of Animalia, p. 88; March 11, 1988, review of My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, p. 101; November 18, 1996, review of The Discovery of Dragons, p. 74; October 18, 1999, review of The Worst Band in the Universe, p. 80; October 22, 2001, review of The Water Hole, p. 76; February 16, 2004, review of TruckDogs, p. 172; August 23, 2004, review of Jungle Drums, pp. 53-54.
Reading Time, Volume 31, number 1, 1987, Belle Alderman, review of Animalia, pp. 23-25; Volume 34, number 1, 1990, Graeme Base, "Dragons, Draaks, and Beasties," pp. 8-9.
Resource Links, December, 2001, Zoë Johnstone Guha, review of The Water Hole, pp. 2-3.
School Librarian, February, 1993, David Lewis, review of The Sign of the Seahorse, p. 19.
School Library Journal, May, 1988, Jeanette Larson, review of My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, p. 76; February, 1990, Corinne Camarata, review of The Eleventh Hour, p. 88; November, 1996, John Peters, review of The Discovery of Dragons, p. 103; December, 2001, Beth Tegart, review of The Water Hole, p. 88; March, 2004, Laurie von Mehren, review of TruckDogs, p. 203; October, 2004, Linda Staskus, review of Jungle Drums, p. 108.
AussieReviews.com, http://www.aussiereviews.com/ (June 7, 2005), Magdalena Ball, review of The Water Hole.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (December, 1999), Jamie Whitfield, "Rockin' in a Free World."
DarkEcho.com, http://www.darkecho.com/ (number 36; June 7, 2005), Paula Guran, review of TruckDogs.