Profile on Isabelle Arsenault: IBBY Canada Nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration

IBBY Canada’s nomination for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration is the well-loved and well-respected illustrator of 17 books, Isabelle Arsenault.

A graduate of the Fine Arts and Graphic Design program at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Arsenault has gained an international reputation with illustrations of books by writers from Canada, the US, and France. She has won many awards and earned many distinctions, including being a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature (Le cœur de monsieur Gauguin, 2004; Virginia Wolf, 2012; Jane, le renard & moi, 2012). Both Migrant (2011) and Jane, the Fox & Me (2013), the English translation of Jane, le renard & moi, were on The New York Times “Ten Best Illustrated Books” for their respective years. Jane, le renard & moi was recommended by the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Jury as one of 15 outstanding works that merit translation everywhere. Cloth Lullaby won the Bologna Ragazzi Award for art books in 2017.

In a New York Times review (April 8, 2016) of Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (2016), Maria Popova declares that Arsenault is “a master of expressive subtlety and one of the most exceptional illustrators of our time.” Popova repeats this praise when listing Cloth Lullaby as one of “the best children’s books of 2016”: “Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.” Popova identifies what is most noteworthy about Arsenault’s illustrations: how she tackles and humanizes tough and complex subject matter with a distinctive and evocative style.

Arsenault’s diverse output is a result of her creative process. As she says in a blog post for Picturebook Makers, “I approach each of my books in a different way. Each text invokes a particular universe, and I endeavour to grasp it by adapting my techniques, my renderings and my graphical approach to each project.” Her flexibility as an illustrator of diverse publications has garnered her a wide-ranging audience. She has recently moved into writing with Colette’s Lost Pet, although as she said in an interview with Sandra O’Brien of Canadian Children’s Book News, she enjoys being “inspired by the words of others, since they bring me to new places, to worlds other than mine.” Her illustrations, while immediately accessible, leave a lasting impression achieved through their subtle undercurrents. She has that uncanny ability to tap into her childhood dreams and imaginings and into the minds of her subjects, from artists living on the edge of society — such as Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, Virginia Woolf, and Louise Bourgeois — to the hybrid Spork, the Mexican migrant Anna, and displaced children like Rosalie, Hélène, and Jane Eyre. She then renders her characters’ inner landscapes with the skills of a consummate artist so that they elicit a strong empathic response from young and old alike.

The full nomination dossier for Isabelle Arsenault can be seen here.

— Lesley Clement, Co-Chair, Hans Christian Andersen Award Nominating Committee

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