Over the past four decades, Canada has become something of a hotbed of children’s books produced by Canadians. We owe much of this interest to the imaginative works of author Robert Munsch and his long-time illustrator, Michael Martchenko, who resides right here in Leaside and is often inspired by what he sees from his window.
Michael emigrated from France to Canada with his family when he was seven. Before long his artistic abilities emerged, as he responded to the bright artwork in comic books and cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger. He started copying comic book covers to study the artists’ techniques, and by Grade 9 was creating sets for school plays, producing cartoons for the school paper, and planning to take illustration at the Ontario College of Art.
After graduating, he worked for a few different advertising agencies before becoming the creative director at TDF Artists in the late 1970s. While organizing a graphic arts exhibit there, he put his own drawing of pigeons equipped with landing gear in an empty space. When Robert Munsch and Rick Wilkes from Annick Press saw that drawing, they approached Michael because his “playful imagination” was perfect for children’s books.
And thus was born a fruitful partnership that launched with the publication of the now classic The Paper Bag Princess in 1980. Since then, Martchenko and Munsch have produced close to 50 books together to the delight of their many fans.
While Michael and Robert still publish a book a year – the most recent The Enormous Suitcase coming this fall – he has worked with several other authors too, such as Allen Morgan, Loris Lesynski and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. He has also published his own stories, including Birdfeeder Banquet and Ma, I’m a Farmer, for a total of more than 90 books.
Michael begins his process of illustrating a book by creating a storyboard, then making pencil sketches, followed by a meeting at the publisher’s office to discuss the work. Then the cover is produced and he does a final copy with water colours.
He has refined his style over time and enjoys putting some “surprises” into his illustrations because, as he says, “I want kids to laugh at my pictures.” For example, in the last several Munsch books, he added a small pterodactyl somewhere in the story, as well as other whimsical touches such as a palm tree, pelicans and a lobster trap around a house set in a forest in the book Moose.
Michael is also passionate about paintings dealing with aviation and his love of history. In fact, he has won two awards for his aviation art, in addition to several for his illustrations. Two of the most noteworthy awards are the Children’s Illustrator of the Year Award from the Canadian Booksellers Assoc-iation in 2006 and the TD Bank Grade One Book Giveaway Tour in 2013, which involved a cross-Canada book-signing trip.
While these awards are obvious highlights of Michael’s career, a more personal one occurred when his mother and sister attended a presentation of the book From Far Away at Scarborough Town Centre and witnessed the enormous crowd and lineup for autographs. “My mother finally saw what I do, a moment that was really important to me,” he says.
He also thrives on the children’s reactions to his artistic embellishments, which add even more humour to the already funny tales. He loves it when his audiences laugh, and children write to him calling him “the best illustrator ever” and asking to appear as characters in the stories.
Michael says living in Leaside inspires him by making him “happy in winter and summer” and adds that “when you feel good, you do good work.” He enjoys Leaside’s beautiful tree-lined streets, the shops on Bayview, good neighbours and the “village” feeling. In one book, Stephanie’s Ponytail, he based the school scenes on Rolph Road. Michael is so content with life here that he asks, like many of us, “Why would we go anywhere else?”