Illustrative Symbolism Behind ‘Year of the Dragon’ for Sydney Jewish Museum

I recently completed the illustrations for ‘Year of the Dragon’; a children’s book aimed at young readers, telling the story of Holocaust survivor Ilse Charny.

It proved a challenging but beautiful journey as an illustrator, to convey such an emotional story with whimsical illustration. It was the vision of writer Nicky Gluch to apply whimsy and symbolism rather than historically accurate illustration; softening the harshness of the truth for young readers.

Illustrative Symbolism

For my illustrative concept process, Nicky’s words (based on Ilse Charny’s testimony) and understanding of the emotion behind the main character’s experiences were pivotal in bringing about my initial concept visions.

Ilse’s and the Toy Boat

The very first illustration was of a girl sitting on flowers, holding a toy boat. She sits on a bed of flowers that symbolise happiness and the comfort currently surrounding her and her life; the boat symbolic of her journey to come. The flowers and flowing bow on her dress become a constant symbol in the book – of joy, or the lack of joy from Ilse’s life. In small moments of happiness you will see the presence of flowers, and the bow on her dress is floating and full.

Ilse Peeling Potatoes

There was a part of the story in which Ilse is sad and frustrated to be made to peel potatoes all day, and I immediately saw in my mind a picture of a young girl sitting on top of a large pile of potatoes. For children, emotions are still hard to navigate, so I felt that capturing emotion through exaggerated visuals was of high importance to show how Ilse felt. Maintaining symbolism of the bow and flowers, we see a sunflower crushed beneath the potatoes, and her bow is limp and without life to reflect her feelings and experience.

Alice in Wonderland Inspiration

The story of Alice in Wonderland also played a major inspiration to me; the idea of a little girl, lost in a land that she must learn to navigate and understand. The illustration showing Ilse lost in languages, is a prime example of this idea. Carrying on the bow symbolism, her bow is tangled to symbolise her own tangled emotions.

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s challenges also lead to strength, discovery, and sometimes even small pockets of joy or adventure. I saw elements of this in Ilse’s journey and these pockets of joy became vital for me to capture as part of her emotional survival journey. The idea of finding joy in small moments, adventure in new friendships, and Ilse’s excitement in discovery of the arts felt like an important emotional story to convey. In fact, it felt like a powerful life lesson in emotional resilience to all of us. The illustrated dance scene is hence such a meaningful part of the story to me, and I know it also became a favourite of Nicky’s.

Dragon Symbolism

It was Nicky who suggested the idea of the Dragon as a symbol of the evil that existed, and as a metaphor or symbol for the soldiers. In my illustrations, I carried this concept on throughout the story as a symbol of Ilse’s experiences, but also Ilse’s emotions too. I transition from a fire-breathing dragon (German soldiers) to a less fearful dragon, and finally a beautiful Chinese dragon. Author Nicky Gluch had discovered a beautiful tie-in with Ilse being born in the Year of the Dragon, so I represented Ilse’s freedom at the end of the book by showing her riding a dragon; free and in control of her destiny.

Cover Illustration

It was lovely to have the opportunity to present one of my illustrations in colour for the cover. I created a new artwork concept for this piece. The illustration in essence ties the story together by bringing illustrative elements from various parts of the story into one piece. Ilse is shown sitting below a tree, reading; she is essentially reflecting on her own story. Surrounding her, and coming out of the book, are illustrative segments from different illustrations in ‘Year of the Dragon’ to hint at the story to come.

In the image above you will see the original hand painted illustration, then on the right is the designer’s adapted version to create a more vintage feel to further the concept of a historical tale being told.

Illustration Time Lapse

Share the Story

Keeping these stories alive to educate the next generation is so important.
Whether you are a parent or teacher at a primary school, I’d strongly suggest sharing stories like this with your children.

Please get in touch with Sydney Jewish Museum for more information.

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