Author Interview: David Cundy

Intern Amy asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Animals Spell Love teaches readers of all ages how to express the word “love” in sixteen languages from around the globe, using critters made of letters. With its vivid colors, striking design, and positive message, it’s an especially good read during this holiday season. As an enthusiastic, lifelong lover of children’s books, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn more about the process of creating them. Having also studied literary translation and foreign languages in college (though sadly I know only one other language, not sixteen!), I’m always intrigued to learn more about how language can translate to image, and vice versa. I was thrilled to interview author and designer David Cundy about the creation of Animals Spell Love, his debut children’s book and to hear more about his design and life philosophies.

I’m interested in how you came to write Animals Spell Love. Is this a project you’ve been thinking about for a long time, or was there some event that sparked the idea?

Animals Spell Love was six years in the making. It came from serendipity: I composed the Czech lovebirds to illustrate a poem I’d written, and was greeted by the necessary book.

You’ve been working in art and design for most of your adult life—how/why did you decide to translate those skills to a book?

You mean books plural! Planning ahead about a decade ago, I knew I’d want to engage in fulfilling work in my “Third Age” – the stage of life after youth, employment and family raising. Writing, the recoalescence of my early-career aspirations to be an artist and poet, was the natural path. And because books endure, authors are able to create cultural memory, and to influence the future. The inspiration behind Animals Spell Love was the opportunity to “accentuate the positive,” to demonstrate the universality and diversity of love throughout the world, to educate children and to remind adults. I’m well into the sequel, so stay tuned!

You mention that your “linguistic explorations” have included French, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Spanish. What inspired these explorations? Where and how did you study these languages?

The first source of inspiration would be my middle school Latin teacher, who showed us how so many English words are classically derived. By then, I was immersed in mythology, which is subliminal storytelling. Latin led to Greek, which is more difficult because you need to learn a new alphabet, and Greek to Sanskrit, the hat-trick Indo-European language, which inspired Animals Spell Love’s blue monkey – Hanuman, the Monkey King from the Ramayana.

How did you decide which languages to include in the book? Some of them are commonly understood (Spanish, French) but others, like Amharic, are specific to one country or region of the world. What kind of tools did you use to research languages you were not as familiar with?

I selected the sixteen languages in Animals Spell Love to represent as many people as possible, and to cover the widest geographic territory. Over three billion people speak the languages used in Animals Spell Love! Chinese, for example, is spoken by almost a billion people, Hindi and Spanish by around 500 million each, and Amharic and Thai by over 20 million each.

What was your creative/design process for Animals Spell Love?

The process was – using type as my palette – to evaluate what I had to work with, and then to experiment, to look for happy accidents. And to vary the illustrations stylistically to communicate diversity visually in the same way the languages and letterforms literally did.


The images were sometimes homages – the crickets to Kazue Mizumura’s If I Were a Cricket, and the ducks to Marjorie Flack’s and Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping. The ducks themselves were modeled on a pair of Qing dynasty boxes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s image collection, and the illustration itself (a shaped poem inspired by Apollinaire’s calligrams) is literally a Spring poem by Du Fu, which tenderly closes, “two ducks are napping on warm sand.”

What were some of the challenges you faced in creating Animals Spell Love (i.e. working with unfamiliar languages/alphabets, creating recognizable creatures from letters)?

Besides pronunciation, the most difficult linguistic challenge came down to the fact that in some languages, “I love you” takes a different form for masculine, feminine, platonic, romantic and honorific. For example, in Amharic, the form is different if you are addressing an elder; in Chinese and Japanese, the literal sentiment would be considered too personal, so it’s replaced by something like, “I like you.” Structurally, Arabic was most difficult to compose because its letters have initial, medial and final (as well as isolated) forms, and because, like Hebrew, it reads from right to left.

Illustrating Animals Spell Love, on the other hand, was pure fun. Constructing the animals from letterform and ideogram building blocks was like playing a game or solving a puzzle, and when the images materialized, it was like seeing magic tricks performed! And foreign languages are inherently mysterious – like hieroglyphs or secret messages.

What authors or illustrators have influenced and inspired you the most?

Growing up with great children’s books in an era of great children’s book illustrations, I came to admire many author/illustrators and illustrators. Inspirations included the icons – Tenniel, Potter, Rey, McCloskey, Lawson and Seuss, and lesser-knowns like Wanda Gág (Millions of Cats) and Nicolas Mordvinoff (Finders Keepers). Artists who inspired illustrations in the book include Durer, Hiroshige and Peter Max. Graphic designer Bradbury Thompson’s typographic face for Westvaco, a paper company, is a direct antecedent of the illustrations in Animals Spell Love.

Animals Spell Love is ostensibly a children’s book, but it’s complex enough for adults to enjoy as well. Did you intentionally design the book to appeal to a broader audience? Who do you hope will read this book?

The artistic, cultural and literary allusions are entirely intentional – there’s something for everyone! I’m hoping the book will appeal to readers from 5 to 95: that it will be enjoyed by parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren, since love is experienced when sharing a book; that it will inspire children to appreciate and learn languages, which are instrumental in kids’ development of empathy; and that teachers will use it as a springboard tool. Because I’m a bit of a romantic, I’m also hoping that lovers of all ages will fall in love with Animals Spell Love and share it as a gift.

You talk about how Animals Spell Love represents your life philosophy. Are there any specific events, interactions, or memories that led you to that philosophy, the idea that we “owe it to ourselves to make each other’s lives better”? How does Animals Spell Love represent that philosophy?

My mother was a saint and teacher who gave me an optimistic temperament and a lifelong love for books. Parents endeavor to make their children’s lives better; as an author, I guess I’m transmitting my mother’s meme – that the way to live is to be loving and kind. I hope that Animals Spell Love conveys that helpful message to people today – and in the future.

What’s your favorite image or animal in Animals Spell Love, and why?

While I haven’t chosen any favorites, I look forward to hearing from readers about theirs! Actually, some of my favorite things in Animals Spell Love are its secret pleasures, like the foil stamped LOVE lunette hidden under the dust jacket, and Tchaikovsky’s “Gentle Stars” song in the Russian vignette. To notice these things, you’ve got to C#! And the book closes with an elfin pair of tangram mice sharing cheese, the animal metaphor for my approach and message, which are to persuade with subtlety and humor, and to convey the still revolutionary idea that, to paraphrase the Beatles, “all we need is love.”