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The phenomenon called Lila Prap

June 2010

“Why do zebras have stripes?” “Because they can’t decide whether they want to be black or white,” writes Lila Prap in her delightful picture book Why? Whether it’s a salamander, a panda or a penguin, an elephant or a chicken – the cute animal figures of Slovenian author and illustrator Lila Prap have found their way into many people’s hearts. Especially among the youngest readers, who are helped by her picture books to learn the alphabet and discover interesting responses to the endless question Why? In a particularly incisive way, she has found a path to children’s hearts. So it is no surprise that her books have been translated into more than thirty languages around the world. Her books also feature in the school curricula of some countries.

Who is Lila Prap?

Lila Prap with some of her popular picture books. Photo: Iztok Dimc

This is the pen name of Lilijana Praprotnik Zupančič, a freelance artist working in the areas of fine art and literature. After graduating from the Ljubljana Academy of Architecture and Civil Engineering, she worked on the graphic design for a variety of printed material for various Slovenian and international organisations, also providing illustrations for them. She collaborated on a number of different projects, including designs for a children’s hospital in Wiesbaden. She has continuously published illustrations and literary work, as well as a variety of brain-teasers for children.

Her first book, which she wrote and illustrated entirely, was Animal Lullabies. This was followed by the book Why?, which has even been incorporated into the school curriculum in Germany, France and Australia. Lila Prap’s work has earned her the international recognition of the IBBY honour list, and she has been nominated several times for the Andersen Prize and the Astrid Lindgren Prize, while in Slovenia she has been rewarded with the Levstik Prize, the Most Beautiful Book Prize and the Original Slovenian Picture Book Prize.

Although in recent years she has focused mainly on producing original children’s picture books, she has also written several children’s plays for theatre, dance performance and radio. The translations of her work are ranked among the most popular children’s reading material. And her illustrations have been exhibited at prestigious galleries in Slovenia and around the world.

Why?

What is undoubtedly Lila Prap’s currently most popular picture book bears the simple title “Why?”, and has been reprinted six times in Germany, while Japan has sold out all of its 70,000 copies. And why is it such a success? Perhaps because it responds to the endless questions why. For instance: why does a zebra have stripes? Why does a crocodile have a serrated tail? Why doesn’t a snake have legs? Why does a lion have a mane? Curious youngsters get fun and colourful answers to endless questions about animals.

And why animals? As Lila Prap responds, you can only make one type of person, then you get into repetition. With animals, you can keep rediscovering forms and dimensions. “You sketch out a person, and you have one face and there are no more opportunities for additional artistic impressions. With animals there are always new challenges here, depicting animals is always something new, although the motif is the same.” And why is she drawn to children’s picture books? “I started out doing jokes for adults, then I started doing jokes for children,” she says. “Later I started adding alongside slightly longer texts, and the picture books were born. After all, we always do something to suit people.”

She always chooses the most typical characters. Now, when she is working on a book about dogs, she has chosen the most typical breeds, which people easily recognise. She also selects wild animals in such a way that everyone recognises them. Of the Slovenian animals she has depicted the proteus salamander and chickens, which, as she says, are important, since they are direct descendants of dinosaurs. This is scientifically proven.

Creative momentum

Lila Prat at work. Photo: Iztok Dimc

At the moment Lila Prap is working on a new book and here and there running into some minor block. Creating one little book takes a long time. “When you’re working, you’re always on edge, like a sprinter at the start. When you create art, you devote your whole life to it. You’re always racking your brains. And in doing so you forget about entirely everyday things,” explains Lila.

She produces picture books with crayons, and more rarely acrylic and water colour. When she draws them, they are extremely sensitive, since they can smudge. So she puts them through a special process. She is not producing anything else, since at the moment she is too taken up with picture books.

Japanese fame

Lila Prap is a big hit in Japan: Japanese national television station NHK has decided to make a series of 26 short animated films based on her picture books. Plus you can find Lila Prap figures in Japan in a special Lila Prap department, where alongside the world-famous Disney characters and Hello Kitty, there are products from underwear to cutlery, towels, pendants and anything that reminds you of the fascinating figures.

Text by Polona Prešeren, Sinfo June 2010