Sybil at 90 | Sunday Observer

Sybil at 90

Aunt Sybil Wettasinghe is a person whom every child loves. She is an artist, writer, creator of several iconic books that have defined the shape and form of children’s literature in Sri Lanka. She will step into the 90th year of her life on October 31, 2017. Wettasinghe was born in 1928, and completes 89 years, 70 of which she has spent continuously working as an artist and a writer.

To celebrate the start of her 90th year, Adith Publishers, the main publisher of Sybil’s books, operated by her younger son Vinod, will host an exhibition of illustrations from Sybil’s latest creations, The Magic Silver Tree and the Story of Siddhartha. The illustrations capture the magical quality of a make-believe world and the reality of everyday life, an ingenious blend that is so characteristic of Sybil’s art.

The exhibition will be an opportunity for the young and the old who have enjoyed Sybil’s books, critiqued her art, and shared experiences of work with her, and her friends and well-wishers to come together to celebrate the start of the 90th year of the artist-writer grandma in whose heart, as she says, lives a child.

Sybil started school, at the age of four, attending the village school in Gintota, now known as Gintota Maha Vidyalaya. Sybil’s parents migrated to Colombo, mainly to provide an ‘English education’ to the children. Sybil left the village when she was 6 years. Her stay in the village was brief but her memories are many, revolving around the various interesting characters of the village, and the environment that fascinated her. These continue to inspire her writing and her illustrations.

Sybil began to make a name for herself as an artist while in school. The cartoons and caricatures she drew of her schoolmates and teachers soon brought her into limelight in school, but not before she was initially punished for doodling in the class, during lessons.

Once, a teacher, Eileen Dissanayake, had made Sybil paint a series of pictures for the poem Lochinvar and hung it on the classroom wall like a mural. This established Sybil’s name in the school as an artist.

Sybil’s career as a children’s writer is closely linked with her romance and marriage. The young chief sub-editor of Janatha, Dharmapala Wettasinghe, encouraged her to write her first story, when the regular story writer was absent one day.

He had long been admiring Sybil’s work. The story she wrote, Kuda Hora (Umbrella Thief), was instantly popular, paving the way for Sybil to continue writing stories regularly to the children’s page. Sybil, of course illustrated her stories. Thus, she established herself as a writer and illustrator for children.

Kuda Hora, with a set of charming black and white illustrations was published as a book in 1956, as a Navamaga supplementary reader. The story’s appeal continues to date, and has spread beyond the country. In 1983, Sybil took an opportunity to re-illustrate Kuda Hora in colour, and with a translation,

The Umbrella Thief, sent the illustrations to the Noma Concours Picture Book Illustrations Competition, held in Japan. Sybil won the third prize for her illustrations! This lead to Fukutake Publishing Company of Japan translating Kuda Hora into Japanese and publishing it in Japan, which was soon followed by the book being translated and published in several countries including Korea, China, Sweden, and New Zealand. Editions of Kuda Hora, in Sinhala and English, in colour and in black and white are published in Sri Lanka by Adith Publishers (Pvt) Ltd. The book has been in publication for 65 years, making it an icon in modern Sri Lankan children’s literature. Since Kuda Hora, Sybil has written and illustrated hundreds of stories to the newspapers and produced over 250 children’s books.

She has also illustrated a few hundred books for other authors, but has lost track of how many. Six of Sybil’s books have been published in Japan, the latest being, the Magic Silver Tree, due to be launched in Japan and in Sri Lanka, soon. Sybil writes in both Sinhala and English, and many of her books are translated into Tamil.

Sybil has won recognition and awards, in the country, region and internationally. At 90, Sybil is busy, daily at her desk, writing and illustrating, but takes longer breaks in between to rest her eyes; to chat with her friends, young and old, who often call her, and to regularly listen to dhamma talks which is a new interest in her life. 

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