Child at heart
Her creatively woven illustrations never fail to leave juvenile
hearts in wonder. The magical exuberance in her fabled stories is an
exhilarating treat to their hearts. Filled with magic and fantasy, the
stories always deliver an enthralling thrill ride that leaves them in
absolute awe. The stories are filled with a sense absurdity only child’s
mind could grasp.
Children should be allowed to do mischievous
things. Children don’t like to be told, how to live and how to do
things.They hate being told to be good. The parents are telling them to
be good; teachers are telling them the same thing, they don’t like that.
Let them enjoy their childhood. I say, let them live their lives as bad
“By some mysterious magic, I have a child in my heart. I am like a
child when I write and illustrate books. If you don’t want to grow old,
nurture a child in your heart. The child is very much alive within me,”
Sybil Wettasinghe, the legendary Sri Lankan illustrator has won
hearts of many children through her creative skills. Not a known fact,
her creative prowess stretches across boundaries and has even earned her
a place among the top sixty children’s illustrators in the world. Her
timeless collection consists with memorable stories such as The Umbrella
Thief, The Runaway Beard and How the Devil Ran Away. The winner of
Gratiaen Prize and the State Literary Award, Sybil’s work has been
translated into many languages across the world. Still pretty much a
child in heart, Sybil joined Daily News Artscope’s ‘Encounter of the
Q: Your Gratiean Award winning book Child in Me speaks a lot
about your fascinating childhood. How much did your childhood
experiences inspire you in your creations?
A: I grew up in Ginthota Galle. My childhood was like a dream.
I had a very close association with my grandmother. She could not write
or read well. She used to narrate me folk tales and folk poems. She knew
a wonderful set of folk tales. We used to go to the forest behind our
house and play. After I returned from school, we used to run to the
forest, dip in the stream and bathe. And there were porcupines,
squirrels and monkeys in the forest and I used to talk with them. When I
first went to the village school, the first thing that struck me was a
nice big bamboo groove. I felt like bamboo trees were speaking to me. I
felt everything had life. Those memories still linger within me.
Q: Children are no longer allowed to cherish their childhood
in such a playful manner. Share your thoughts on the problem.
A: If a child gets an idea to do something, no one can stop
him from doing it. Children should be allowed to do mischievous things.
I used to play with animals when little, but now children are not even
allowed to touch their pet-dog. Everybody has to enjoy childhood.
Children should be allowed to do mischievous stuff. Parents should learn
to enjoy childhood mischief. The childhood comes only once in a life
Q: You spoke of childhood mischief being a good thing, but
don’t you try to give a moral message through your stories?
A: I do in a way. The moral has to be built into the story
without their knowledge. The story should not pin point and say that
this is the moral that you should to follow. Children don’t like to be
told how to live and how to do things. For instance, once I asked my
granddaughter to come and watch a popular children’s movie with me. She
said she can’t, because the film is about a good kid. They hate being
told to be good. The parents are telling them to be good; teachers are
telling them the same thing. I say, let them live their lives as bad
Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a book that hurts feelings of all elders. The
book is all about mischievous things that Matilda does. It won the best
book in England. If someone wrote something like that here, the author
would have been banned. The parents and teachers should not forget their
own childhood. Everyone should remember their own childhood.
Q: Do you think that children are shying away from books with
the advent of technology and other computer gimmicks?
A: I don’t think all children are like that. I still get
letters and calls from children who read my stories. Our fantasy world
is different from today’s children’s fantasy world. These days,
children’s fantasy world is filled with stories about Spiderman, Batman
and Harry Potter. Our childhood stories were filled with fairy tales.
But things have changed with time. But you can’t restrict children from
being addicted to them. It is the present times.
Q: Being an adult, how challenging it is to understand the
child psychology in order to cater to their tastes?
A: For me, it is not challenging at all. By some mysterious
magic, I have a child in my heart. I am like a child when I write and
The moment I go and talk with children, I am a child. I believe, if
you don’t want to grow old, nurture a child in your heart. I am a friend
to myself. The child is very much alive within me. So when I try to
weave a story, I don’t have to go very far. They want a very fantastic,
Q: Have you ever thought of catering to adult readers?
A: In fact I have written two successful books called
Kusumalatha and Rasavathi for adult readers. In a sense they are about
my version of women in Colombo. Some incidents were written from
personal experience. I love to be called a ‘godaya’. In my heart I am a
Q: Most times when children have talents for arts and other
creative work, parents don’t encourage them to pursue their talents.
A: Even my own mother was like that, she wanted me to be an
architect. Those days the architect had to play the role of Quantity
Surveyor as well. I didn’t like arithmetic at all, so I didn’t want to
be an architect.
They thought that following a profession in Art would make you a poor
person. When I was a teenager, Ananda Samarakone had an exhibition. I
kept on talking about one of the paintings and he said I had a beautiful
voice and that I should come to his music classes. I told this to my
mother, she burst out in rage saying, “I bought you to Colombo not to
learn how to sing or dance, take that out of your mind at once.” I liked
dancing, but she did not allow me to follow dancing either. I guess it
is the general attitude towards art that needs to be changed.
Q: Do you think that creative talents can be learned through
A: Maestro Kemadasa once told me, if you went to university,
we would have never had a Sybil Weththasinghe. Even Edwin Ariyadasa said
the same thing. I am a born artiste. I didn’t learn art anywhere. I
didn’t take any lessons. I draw pictures my way.
Sometimes people used to criticize my drawings. If you are born with
a talent, you can enhance it with little technical things, but you can
never learn your style. That is why I discourage parents for sending
their children to art classes. Children bring out their expressions
through art. No teacher can teach them how to do that.I refuse to go
with the people from the academic of art to judge art competitions. They
see children’s art from a different perspective. I look at it from the
child’s point of view. I am familiar with child’s art. I really learned
how to illustrate books through child art. It is a different language
Q: Have the responses always been positive about your work?
A: When I wrote my second story Runaway Beard, I got blasted by the
local publishers. One publisher said: “What is this nonsense you have
written? These kinds of stories violate children’s minds. Write
something productive, write something which revolves around science for
I was very upset. I went and showed my story to Mrs Wickeremasinghe,
the director of Lakehouse. Then I sent the same book to Japan and that
publisher replied saying, “this is a wonderful story, we want more books
like this.” See the difference in attitudes. Our people said, this is a
stupid story, “a gon kathavak”. We need to publish factual stories for
elderly children. People don’t know how to differentiate fantasy and