The New Gothic: Childhood’s Beautiful Nightmares, Nicoletta Ceccoli
The New Gothic? The leading figure in European children’s books, Nicoletta Ceccoli creates dark and eerie children’s books. But are they really for kids? Or has she created a new thing: picture books for adolescents and post-adolescents? My profile of this daring young Italian artist.
Winner of the Andersen Prize in 2001 as best illustrator of the year, Nicoletta Ceccoli is one of the most popular artists in Europe today. In Italy, entire bookstore windows are devoted to her children’s books. She has been featured in “Mademoiselle” and honored with gallery shows all over the globe (including exhibits in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles). Cutting-edge, she has inspired hundreds of wannabes and upcoming artists.
We met at International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna in 2013 where more than 1200 children’s publishers from 75 countries were displaying their juvenile wares. We were surrounded, in other words, by hundreds of pastel bunnies and stories about endangered polar bears. In a few corners, however, customers thronged booths where a handful of publishers were showcasing the work of young illustrators following in Ceccoli’s footsteps. As if raised on a diet of Tim Burton and the Adams Family, these artists eschewed bunnies and offered freaks, disproportionate heads, monsters, babies in jars, stacks of prosthetic legs, and distortions of all kinds. “Call it ‘Surrealism’ or ‘the New Gothic,’” publisher Lina Vergara suggested to me.
Ceccioli specializes in the Surreal: the creepy, the weird, the dark. She has clearly been inspired by classic surrealists like Magritte and Dalí, but she also acknowledges the influence of Americans–especially Edward Gorey and Mark Ryden. Even so, Ceccoli’s world is her own and populated by girls with widely-spaced and glossy eyes, and childhood “treasures” like old wind-up toys, buttons, and marbles. It sometimes seems a world of hurt (full of tears and pins, stabbing and bees) and sometimes a comic realm of youthful memories (with floating cookies and dancing cupcakes). Taken altogether, her pictures make you feel as if you have stumbled into the childhood dreams of Franz Kafka.
While Europe is full of her devotees, Ceccoli’s work is not so well known on this side of the Atlantic. “American publishers,” she laments, “do not like the dark and disturbing. They love the mainstream.” As a result, her illustrated children’s books for American publishers seem less challenging: employing a light palette and offering only hints of her genius with the weird. One exception is “The Girl in the Castle in the Museum,” her book with Kate Bernheimer, which gave the illustrator “the chance to show what I can do.”
It may be that American publishers have mistakenly pigeonholed her as an artist for the elementary school set. Instead, Ceccoli has a special kind of appeal. One European publishers described her audience to me as “girls 18-40.“ That phrase may have been more an English-language mistake than a sexist slip. Still, it is an oddly accurate description of her special demographic.
Recently, American publishers have identified a new reader category called “New-Adult Fiction,” which are basically young-adult novels marketed to “post-adolescents” (ages 18 to 30). The classic example is “The Hunger Games” trilogy; supposedly intended for teens, more than half (55%) of these books, according to Publishers’ Weekly, have actually been bought by women in the twenties and thirties. If there is a new and older demographic for y.a. novels, maybe there is a new and older demographic for children’s picture books and Ceccoli is their guiding light.
Ceccoli laughed when I told her how the publisher had described her audience as “girls 18-40.” “Maybe they are like me,” she suggested, “isolated, adults who do not like to grow up, who are afraid of people. The women in my pictures are fragile. Still, they also have a strength, and at times they are even cruel.” Then this shy woman sighed, “I know I’m popular at the moment, but I do these pictures for myself. They reflect my own feelings.”
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The two best collections of Nicoletta Ceccoli’s dark and surreal pictures are “Beautiful Nightmares” and “Sogni di bambine” [“The Dreams of Little Girls”]. Her website is fascinating as well: http://www.nicolettaceccoli.com/
Some of the children’s books she has illustrated are:
“The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum” (by Kate Bernheimer)
“A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts” (by Jacqueline K. Ogburn)
“Cinderella” (retold by Sarah L. Thompson)
“Horns and Wrinkles” (by Joseph Helgerson)
“The Tear Thief” (by Carol Ann Duffy)
“Oscar and the Mooncats” (by Lynda Gene Rymond)
“The Village of Basketeers” (by Lynda Gene Rymond)
“The Boo! Book” (by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer)