Small but beautiful: the myriad possibilities of folk and fairy tales

Today I thought I’d republish an updated piece that  I originally wrote for a presentation a couple of years ago, and which focusses on my love of folk and fairy tales, as a child reader, an adult writer, and a new small publisher!

Small but Beautiful: The Myriad Possibilities of Folk and Fairy Tale

By Sophie Masson

Three is a powerful number in fairy tale and folklore. And so in this piece I’m using it as a motif, to speak to you in three guises: as a young reader, an adult writer and a new publisher.

Once upon a time…

As a child, at my grandmother’s Toulouse apartment.

I dearly loved fairy and folk tales as a child. I was very lucky in that my very first literary mentors were oral, in fact, the very tradition fairy tale comes from: for I was told stories from a very early age. First by my paternal grandmother in Toulouse: as a baby, after I got very sick in Indonesia, where I was born and my parents were working, my parents took me back to France and left me with Mamizou(Marie-Louise), my glamorous, kind grandmother, and my two lovely, and lively, aunts, dark-haired Betty and blond Genevieve.  In that fairytale setting of the ancient city of Toulouse, surrounded by stories held in its very stones, I was nurtured on tales of fairies and witches, monsters and heroes, tricksters and innocents. The tales of Perrault and those of Grimm jostled those from local folklore and those from far away: from the beginning, fairy and folk tales from around the world featured in my imagination. Then, after I’d left my grandmother’s home at five years old, with my parents and siblings and we arrived in Australia, the fairy tale tradition continued, for we had so many illustrated books based around tales from across the world, and my father used to make some up for us too, and give his own(sometimes scary!) retellings of famous ones. Our mother also took us to see Disney animations such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and I still love those Disney films–they are made with such delicate, sparkling artistry, they are little gems in themselves. But of course, given my deep background in the original fairy tale, they were never the be-all and end-all for me, just another way of entering into that enchanted world. And the very first book I read by myself in English, at the age of six or so, was a beautifully illustrated Little Golden Book called The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, which included Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and Toads and Diamonds. I found a copy of that book in a garage sale a few years ago—and as soon as I clapped eyes on it, I was instantly transported back to that childhood reading experience! I knew the stories already, having heard them; but to decipher them for myself, in a language that wasn’t my native tongue, added an extra dimension of magic…Later still, I read more collections of fairy and folk tales from all over the world, both in English and French, in gorgeous illustrated editions. I couldn’t get enough of those sorts of stories. They were both consolation and escape; helped me to disappear into enchanted realms when frequent family melodramas made life difficult and painful; but also helped me to make sense of the world on my return. I loved myth and legend too, but in a different way.

Fairy and folk tales are less grand than myth, and less ‘serious’ than legend, but they are, in a way, more approachable. More human. And yet more magical. More geared towards not the great ones of this world, but the little people. They privilege the world of the village, the cottage, the everyday, transformed by luck, wit, kindness, courage…Most of all, they offer possibility: of escape, of justice, of hope. And of course of adventure. People say sometimes that it’s a pity fairy and folk tales are ‘only’ seen these days as suitable for children. While I understand what they mean, I think that it’s a patronising mistake to imply that something ‘only’ for children has no intrinsic value, in itself. Children understand folk and fairy tales, instinctively, without analysis. They understand without articulating it what it is that is so rich and nourishing in these ancient tales. Going from light to dark and all shades in between, managing all emotions from love to hatred, joy to sorrow, dread to excitement, laughter to grief, they are humble yet powerful, full of meaning yet full of adventure, and all in one concise and distilled package, for the tight framework of folk and fairy tale allows the imagination to run free. They also impart extraordinary and complex truths about human life and human nature in ways that are much more potent than if they were expressed baldly. You understand them with your subconscious, with your imagination, well before you are able to articulate them.

Turning the page, to adulthood…

I’ve never lost that love, that instinctive attraction to fairy tales–to me they are both intoxicating and refreshing, they lodge in your bones and your blood and in your dreams. And for a novelist, they are just a gift! As a writer, I love taking fairy tales and myths from around the world and playing around with them, re-inventing them to create fresh and lively new stories which whilst staying true to their essential core. I’ve explored quite a few fairy tales in my books: Aschenputtel(German form of Cinderella) in Moonlight and Ashes; The Scarlet Flower(Russian form of Beauty and the Beast) in Scarlet in the Snow; Rapunzel in The Crystal Heart; Snow White in Hunter’s Moon; Sleeping Beauty in Clementine; Puss in Boots in Carabas; (Tattercoats(English version of Cinderella) in Cold Iron; Breton fairy tales and the Arthurian fairytale of Dame Ragnell in In Hollow Lands; Celtic stories of underwater realms in The Green Prince; and the Russian story, the Tale of Prince Ivan and the firebird in my novel, The Firebird, as well as the Arabian Nights in my four-volume El Jisal series: Snow, Fire, Sword; The Curse of Zohreh; The Tyrant’s Nephew and The Maharajah’s Ghost. I chose each of those tales as inspiration because I felt they each had wonderful paths to explore, characters I could embroider on, magical backgrounds that were enticing…And so it proved to be!

What to me makes traditional fairytales particularly suitable as a basis for modern fantasy fiction is that in themselves they mix both enchantment and pragmatism, the world of the everyday and a realm of pure magic. And it’s all done in such a matter of fact yet also profound way. You can never get to the end of the meanings of fairytale; and the fairytales of a people reveal their essence, their soul, if you like, in a moving yet also funny and beautiful way.

And it’s not just the folk-based fairytales such as the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s collections and Perrault’s that are so inspirational. Original fairytales can also work this way: think of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, a story which has inspired countless writers, including me with Scarlet in the Snow!

The biggest challenges of basing your original work on such well-known tales is that, of course, people have certain assumptions about the characters and the way the story goes. But though in my fairytale novels,  I keep to the basic inspiration of the tale, it’s my story I’m creating and I make it  very much my vision of the central character, the story arc etc. In fact the challenges are what makes I think the story so good to write as you are constantly open to the unexpected that will transform familiar territory into surprising discovery. In the classic fairytales of course, things just happen–because they do, and that’s the meaning of them in the tale if you like–but in a novel of course you do need to ask, why? who? what if? And so on. And that is exciting. It’s like following a detective trail, burrowing deeper into the heart of the tale, and finding your own new meanings within them.

And finally:

My love for these traditional tales has led me recently into a wonderful new adventure.

In January 2013, working in partnership with two other creator friends in my home town of Armidale in northern NSW, illustrator David Allan and author/artist/designer/dollmaker Fiona McDonald, I became one of the founders of Christmas Press, a new children’s publishing house. Why did we do that? Well, we all love the gorgeous classic picture books that we grew up with, the kind which featured retold traditional stories and beautiful illustrations, opening children–and their families–to a wealth of wonderful tales from around the world, and we felt that such books were now difficult to find. But rather than complain about it, we decided to do something about it–and so Christmas Press was born! And why Christmas Press as a name? Well, we all remembered the special excitement of getting those beautiful books under the Christmas tree. But our founding motto, ‘Books to cherish every day’, also tells you that these books are certainly not just for special occasions!

Though our first title Two Trickster Tales from Russia featured my retelling of two fabulous Russian folktales, David’s illustrations and Fiona’s design, we only started with our own work as we knew we were taking a risk dipping a toe into the publishing water at all, and it was better to take that risk with our own work than gamble with someone else’s!  The first book was certainly a lot of work and a very steep learning curve. But it was great to work through the process, first of concept, then layout, then design, over many lively working meetings. The printing costs for the first print run were partly funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which received fantastic support from fellow authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, readers, booksellers—and even other publishers!

Since then, we have published seven other books in the ‘Two Tales’ series. The wonderful authors who have worked with us to create these retellings of classic stories include Ursula Dubosarsky, Kate Forsyth, Duncan Ball, John Heffernan, Adele Geras, Margrete Lamond, and Gabrielle Wang. We were thrilled that they enjoyed working with us, and that they didn’t mind that as a tiny press, our advances are very small—though we pay standard royalties. The opportunity to work in an area they really love but find difficult to interest big publishers in, was often mentioned as a great drawcard by authors. A big plus for us in attracting such talented and well-known creators!

Though most of our illustrations for the Two Tales series were done inhouse by David or Fiona, we also worked with other emerging illustrators: Kate Durack, whose powerful work illustrates John Heffernan’s magisterial retellings of Mesopotamian tales; and Ingrid Kallick, whose magical pictures illustrate Margrete Lamond’s engaging retellings of Norwegian tales.

In just five short years, Christmas Press has acquired a reputation for beauty, fun and high quality, with excellent reviews in national publications, shortlistings for awards, international sales, and even a mention for one of our titles, Kate Forsyth and Fiona McDonald’s beautiful Two Selkie Stories from Scotland, in the most recent edition of the very prestigious Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.

Christmas Press also publishes anthologies of original Christmas-themed stories, poems and illustrations, and in 2016 we debuted two new imprints: Second Look, for republications in print on demand form of out of print titles by well-known Australian children’s author; and Eagle Books, which concentrates on adventure fiction for readers 11 and up, whose launch title, also in 2016, was the first translation in over a hundred years of Jules Verne’s great classic adventure novel, Mikhail Strogoff, and was followed by, to date, two other fabulous adventure novels by contemporary authors, with more to come.

But although, after eight titles published in the Two Tales series, we have decided to concentrate on other types of books, we are immensely proud to have helped to bring these small but beautiful tales to a new generation of readers. That is truly something to celebrate!

www.christmaspresspicturebooks.com

 

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Such fun in poetry creation workshops for children!

Recently I ran two poetry workshops for children 6-12 years old in my hometown public library. They were sequential workshops: in the first one, I talked about writing poetry, based on the gorgeous book A Boat of Stars, in which I have 7 poems–and talked about how  ideas from poetry can come from anywhere, then we orally created a (rather silly!) poem together, and then everyone chose their own subject and wrote their own poem. In the second workshop, I talked about how you can illustrate and decorate a poem to create an artwork out of it in all kinds of ways(again, that was inspired by A Boat of Stars!) And then the kids set to and created their own poem artwork, based on the poem they had written the previous week. The library had provided lots of coloured pencils and pens, stickers, magazine pictures to cut out, coloured shapes and paper and more. Everyone had a lot of fun and there were some amazing creations–have a look at the photo gallery!

 

 

A ghost story for Halloween

Today, as it’s Halloween, I thought I’d republish one of my ghost stories, Restless. Inspired by a creepy dream, it was first published in Aurealis magazine in June 2013.  As it’s quite long, there’s a ‘Read More’ for you to read beyond the line. Enjoy!

Restless

by Sophie Masson

The worst nightmares aren’t of blood and monsters and darkness. The worst are the ones that creep up on you, that start so quietly and lull you into a false sense of security, and then..

It was that kind of a dream. Oh, I’d had it only once, and months ago at that. And you could say nothing really had happened to account for the chilling sense of dread I’d woken up with. It went like this: I was in a house I did not recognise. A smallish house, a cottage, really. It was quiet. Sunny. Sparsely furnished with rather shabby furniture. But there seemed to be no one there. I walked into the next room. There were dishes on a table, untouched. Chairs pushed back, as if the people had just left. But still no sign of anyone. And then I came to the back room. It was dim in there. But I could see someone, sitting facing away from me, in a high-backed armchair. Male or female, I couldn’t tell, for all that could be seen above the chair back was a gleam of blond hair under a dark-coloured beret. The person didn’t move. He or she just sat, silently staring at the opposite wall.

That was it. But somehow I knew that I must not make a sound or move a muscle or else the figure would turn around. And if they did, then I was lost.

I had no idea why. I just knew deep in my dream-self that it was so. That the person sitting there so quietly was pure evil. And that if they discovered I was there, I was done for. I had to get away. But how?

I managed to wake myself up then. Switching on the light, I lay there while my heartbeat returned to normal and my skin no longer puckered with gooseflesh. Sometimes, after waking from a really bad dream, I’ve tried to think up a happy ending for it, so that its power to scare me is taken away. Sometimes, I’ve tried to understand what it was trying to tell me. And sometimes, I’ve just tried to airbrush it from my mind.

That’s what I did with this one. Airbrush it away, I mean, because the other options meant that somehow or other that figure in the chair had to turn around and that was just unthinkable. And though that first day I felt as though the nagging memory would never leave me, and hardly dared to close my eyes that night in case the dream returned, little by little the dread left me. Partly of course that was because the dream never returned. Partly because I told no-one about it. Not my parents, not my twin brother Jamie, and not my friends. Not even my diary.

But whatever the reason, soon I had just about forgotten about it. Until that Saturday three weeks ago..

 

When Jamie and I were little, we used to be very close. We aren’t identical twins, because I’m a girl and he’s a boy, and when we went to school we still hung around together a lot. It wasn’t until mid-primary that being a twin became less important than being girl or boy. We began to move in different circles and to like very different sorts of things. I read a lot, Jamie never. Jamie’s brilliant at art, I’m hopeless. I had lots of on-and-off friends, Jamie only a couple of long-standing close ones. In high school it was even more that way. It was only this last year, our last year of school, that we were slowly drifting back to our old closeness, and to enjoy being in each other’s company again.

That was why that rainy Saturday morning, Jamie had persuaded me to go with him to the big art museum in the city. He couldn’t spend the morning painting in his studio as he usually did, for he had an important assignment to do, about how and why people react to art. I was to be an interview subject. Now, normally art galleries aren’t my thing. It’s not that I don’t like art: it’s just that when there’s a lot of it together and you have to trudge kilometres across hard floors and you can’t talk except under your breath because if you do people frown at you as though you were chatting through a film, it gets to be a bit of an ordeal. And I hate how you’re meant to stand in front of the artworks, especially those by famous artists, and pretend you’re thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of it all. Plus normally the kinds of paintings I like—the kind with people in them, the sort that tell a story—are not Jamie’s thing. He prefers abstracts and landscapes, which I find mostly boring.

However, to my pleased surprise, Jamie took me not to the modern art section but to a dimly-lit exhibition hall full of ancient African and Central American sculptures. They were actually pretty cool: weird and even sinister at times but powerful and interesting. We sat on a padded bench in front of one of the display cases, where spooky masks with wide open mouths and blank eyes stared sightlessly at us, and Jamie asked me questions, and typed what I said into his Ipad.

After a while I ran out of things to say and left Jamie to finish entering it all in while I went in search of the toilet. It was a bit of a trek. Then I had to find my way back. I must have taken a wrong turn or something because suddenly I had no idea where I was, and I couldn’t even call Jamie because I’d left my phone at home.

I couldn’t see any maps. Still I kept going. Down one corridor, up another, round a corner into another. That’s how I found myself in an annexe which was a rather newer part of the gallery than the grand exhibition halls. Here it was all white plasterboard walls and recessed ceiling lights and impersonal corridors like those in hospitals. There were doors up and down them but they were  locked, with ‘No Access to Public’ written on them. It struck me how empty this annexe was. No guards. No guides. No art lovers. No tourist groups. No bored kids trailing behind parents. No random people sheltering from the weather.

Nobody at all. Except me.

Even then, I wasn’t scared. Not even uneasy. Only a bit puzzled and fed-up. But then I saw an open door down the end of the corridor, and light coming from it. And so I headed for it and straight into my nightmare.. Continue reading

The creation of Building Site zoo, part two: the illustrations

In Part Two, here’s Laura Wood’s great post about how she went about creating the visual world of Building Site Zoo. And  it includes samples of her roughs, storyboard, and work as it developed–thanks so much for sharing them with us, Laura!

Creating the illustrations for Building Site Zoo, by Laura Wood

The first time I read Sophie’s manuscript, I thought it was one of the most original picture books I was ever asked to illustrate.

I knew it would have been a fun text to bring to life but also quite challenging… which is always a good thing! I knew it would be hard for me to draw all those buildings and machines, since it’s not something I’m very used to!

Anyway, it didn’t take me long to decide to accept the challenge.

The first things publishers want to see are always the main characters of the story, so I started from there. The story doesn’t say explicitly who the characters are, which I personally love, since it gives me a lot of freedom to play around. I decided to go for brother, sister and grandpa.

After that, I started doing lot of research about cityscapes, buildings and machines before sketching ideas for the storyboard. I knew I needed to becoming familiar with the shapes of the machinery before getting the ideas out.

The idea I finally came out with was to approach the whole book, as a dual reality kind of thing: basically having two very similar spreads, the first one with the animal – the world made up by the kids – and the second one with the corresponding machine – the real world. This way, I thought the reader could make a connection easily between the text, the animals and the machinery in action. Mmm… I think written down sounds more complicated than it is, anyway here are some early storyboard sketches.

 

 

Some more storyboard sketches. As you can see, spreads developed and changed.

 

 

Once all the spreads have been approved by the publisher, I work on the final lines. For this book in particular, since there were a lot of overlapping elements on each spread, I preferred to draw some of the elements separately (background, animals, machines, characters, etc…) and put everything together in the computer.

I then proceed to colour everything. Once the internal spreads are coloured, the cover is always the last thing that gets done.

There were lots of different elements I wanted to fit in this particular cover, so I tried a few ideas but it took me quite a while to get the composition working…

 

 

Another lovely review for Two Rainbows

I was delighted to read another lovely and perceptive review of Two Rainbows this morning. It’s on The Bottom Shelf blog.

Here’s an extract:

This story is a marriage of text and illustration, each interdependent as they should be in quality picture books.  At first the little girl sees only the rainbow, even though there are other spots of colour around her, as she thinks nostalgically of the colours of the country but as she starts to see more of her environment, so too the colours in the pictures increase although the city remains grey and the country bathed in light. And as her thoughts slowly attune to the city environment she begins to see more objects, different from the farm but perhaps with something to offer as she peers over the blue fence and sees a treehouse with a rope ladder and maybe a friend.

You can read the whole review here. 

Babushka and the Star–a story for Christmas

babushka-largeA story for Christmas–based on a beautiful Russian folktale which I retold and which was first published in  Once Upon A Christmas. The gorgeous illustration is by David Allan. Enjoy–and merry Christmas to everyone!

Babushka and the Star

a traditional Russian Christmas legend, retold by Sophie Masson

A long, long time ago, there lived an old woman whom everyone called Babushka, which means ‘Grandmother’ in Russian. Now Babushka was a widow who lived alone, and she was so house-proud that she spent nearly her whole time cleaning and sweeping, dusting and polishing, scrubbing and washing. Day and night, it was all the same to her, and she was so busy that she hardly had time to say good morning to her neighbours in the village, or to watch the sunset, or to hear the song of birds, or to delight in the play of children, or to smell the first roses of summer or the first fall of snow in winter. Her house was the cleanest and freshest and cosiest in all of the village, but though Babushka was kind and hospitable, and sometimes invited people in for a glass of tea, they would soon feel uncomfortable, for she would fuss with dishcloth and broom the moment they sat down.

One bright winter’s morning, Babushka was scrubbing her doorstep when out came the next door neighbour from her house. ‘Wasn’t it a beautiful star last night?’ she said.

‘What star?’ said Babushka. ‘I saw no star.’

The neighbour stared at her and said, ‘Oh! You must have seen it! It was so beautiful your heart might break just looking at it.’

Babushka shook her head. ‘I saw no star,’ she said, and having finished her doorstep, she started to dust her shutters. Soon, who should come by but the baker’s boy with his cart. Handing a loaf of bread to Babushka, he said, ‘What did you think of the star, Babushka?’

Again, Babushka said, ‘What star? I saw no star.’

The baker’s boy stared at her and said, ‘But it was big as this!’ and he spread his arms wide to show how much. ‘Big as the village! Big as the world!’

‘I saw no star,’ said Babushka, stubbornly. ‘And if you don’t mind, I’m busy.’

So off went the baker’s boy, shaking his head. Now Babushka finished dusting her shutters, and started work on polishing the brass door-knob. Soon, along came a little girl bouncing a ball.  ‘That knob is almost as bright as the star last night!’she said.

Once more, Babushka said,  ‘What star? I saw no star.’

‘Oh, but you must have done!’ said the little girl, staring. ‘It sparkled like the shiniest diamond in the world! What do you think it means?’

‘Nothing,’ said Babushka, crossly, ‘only that too many people don’t have enough to do with their time if they must stare at stars which you can see in the sky any night of the year!’

‘Oh but no!’ cried the little girl. ‘This star was not like the others! Nobody has ever seen it before, and..’

But she was talking to thin air, for Babushka had gone into her house and slammed the door.

How silly people are! Babushka thought to herself as she went about her cleaning and polishing indoors. So much work to be done, and they waste time staring at the night sky as though they’d never seen it before! Of course she could hardly remember the last time she’d looked at the night sky. But she was too busy for that.

Night had almost fallen by the time Babushka decided it was time to start cooking her dinner. She had just made a pot of mushroom soup when there came a knock on the door. She went to open it and stared in amazement for there on her well-scrubbed doorstep stood a tall black man dressed in fine golden robes, with a golden turban on his head. Behind him stood two other men, one round and blond with a bushy beard, fur-lined robes and a gold-trimmed fur hat, the other small and dark-haired and almond-eyed, with dark blue silk robes and a hat of the same colour with golden silk tassels hanging down. And behind them were three odd creatures Babushka had never set eyes on  before, tall and yellow-brown, with haughty faces and humps on their backs. Each of the beasts was richly saddled and bridled, and each of the men carried a small chest, inlaid with ivory and gold. Babushka had never seen such a sight. Why, they looked like three kings, she thought. And here they were on her very own doorstep!

‘Good evening,’ said the tall black man, very politely. ‘Is this the house of the lady Babushka?’

‘Why—why, yes,’ said Babushka. ‘And what may I do for you fine gentlemen?’

‘We are following the star,’ said the round blond man. Babushka sighed. Not the star again! She was about to say she knew nothing about it, when the dark-haired man chimed in, saying, ‘But we need a meal, and a rest, just for a few hours, just till the star comes out again.’

‘And your house is the best in the village, lady Babushka,’ said the tall black man, very politely indeed. ‘So we thought that maybe..’

Babushka beamed. She really was a kind and hospitable soul. ‘Of course! Of course!’ she said. ‘Welcome to my humble house, Your Majesties, and please make yourselves at home!’ She eyed the creatures outside. ‘And as to your—er—your animals, they can go in the cow-shed. It is warm there, and there is hay, if they do not mind sharing with the cow and the calf.’

The tall black man smiled. ‘I am sure the camels will not mind at all,’ he said.

No sooner said than done, and soon the three kings were settled in Babushka’s little kitchen, eating mushroom soup and good fresh bread and honey cakes to follow, with as much tea as they wanted. As they ate and drank, they talked, and Babushka listened in wonder. They had come from so far away, and travelled for such a long time, and all to follow that star! ‘But why?’ she asked. ‘Why did you do that?’

‘Because it heralds the birth of a great king,’ said the tall black man.

‘And we want to give the royal baby gifts,’ said the round blond man.

‘Gold and frankincense and myrrh,’ said the small dark-haired man.

‘Those are beautiful perfumes,’ said the tall black man, seeing she looked puzzled.

‘Gifts fit for a king,’ said the round blond man.

‘But aren’t you kings yourselves?’ asked Babushka, curiously.

‘Beside this child Jesus, ‘ said the dark-haired man, ‘we are just servants.’

‘Then he must be a mighty king indeed,’ said Babushka. ‘Yet he is only a baby.’

‘Yes,’ said the tall black man. ‘It is a mystery.’ He looked at Babushka and said, ‘Like the star.’

‘Oh, the star!’ said Babushka, shrugging.

‘Look,’ said the round blond man, pointing at the window. And now Babushka could see it, a star brighter than bright, shining in like the shiniest diamond, so beautiful your heart might break, seeming to get bigger even as she looked at it.  And she wondered how on earth she’d missed it before.

Now the tall black man rose to his feet and said, ‘We must leave now, lady Babushka, and follow the star, but we would like to ask you to come with us.’

Babushka looked at him and shook her head and said, ‘It is very kind of you, sire, but I really have too much work to go anywhere so soon. Maybe after tomorrow.’

‘We must go now,’ said the round blond man, ‘or else we will be too late.’

‘Oh no surely it will wait another day,’ said Babushka, ‘or maybe two, because if I am to go on a long journey, I must clean the house from top to bottom.’

‘We cannot wait two days or even one,’ said the dark-haired man. ‘We must go this very hour.’

‘Then I will follow later,’ said Babushka. ‘I will follow, with gifts of my own.’

‘Very well, as you wish,’ said the tall black man, rather sadly. ‘Make sure then to follow the star.’ And now the three kings thanked her, very politely, and left, riding on their camels just as though they were horses. How strange the world is, thought Babushka as she waved goodbye. And then she went back inside and shut her door.

But she could not sleep. So she scrubbed and cleaned. But her mind kept slipping from her work. Once, a long time ago, she’d had a baby of her own. But the child had become sick and died in his third winter. Babushka had not thought of the child in years and years. Now she could not stop. ‘I had some little toys for him,’ she thought. ‘A top, a ball, a drum, a little wooden soldier. Maybe I can bring those for the royal baby when I go to visit him. ‘ She went to the chest where they were kept. Oh! They were dusty and a little stained. They wouldn’t do. Not at all. Not in this state.

For hours, she worked on those toys. But she was so tired she fell asleep. When she awoke, it was early morning, and the star had gone. A strange feeling seized her. She could not wait. Not any longer. She had to follow those kings. She had to catch them up! So quickly she pulled on her warmest coat and hat and gloves, put all the money she had in her purse, packed all the toys in a basket and set off along the road the kings had taken.

She walked and walked and walked, for hours and hours and hours. She stopped in villages and towns to ask if they had seen the kings, and every time, people said, ‘Oh yes, they’ve only just passed, they’ve taken this road,’ and so, stopping only to buy a little food, and another toy to put in her basket, she would take the road they said, and hurry, hurry, trying to catch the three kings up. But always, they seemed to have just passed by, and she could not catch sight of them at all. When night fell, she waited for the star to come out, and sure enough it did. But it seemed fainter now, further away. Still Babushka kept walking.

Eventually she got to a place called Bethlehem. And there a man told her that only a few nights ago, the three kings had been there. They had come to give gifts to a baby, he said. Ah yes, nodded Babushka. ‘Where is the palace? I have gifts for the royal child.’

‘A palace? Oh no, this baby was born in a stable,’ said the man.

Babushka remembered what the tall black man had said, about it being a mystery. ‘Did the star shine above the stable?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes,’ said the man. ‘And there were angels. And shepherds too,’ he added.

‘And the three kings,’ said Babushka.

‘Them too,’ said the man. He looked at her. ‘And who are you?’

‘Babushka,’ she said, ‘I am just Babushka. I have come a long way to bring gifts for the child. Can you tell me where he is?’

‘He is gone,’ said the man. ‘With his parents, Mary and Joseph. They had to flee to Egypt. Because of King Herod. The three kings were to show them the way.’

‘Egypt,’ said Babushka, not listening to the rest. ‘Then Egypt is where I’ll go. Can you point out the road to me?’ And she set off again, walking, walking, walking.

She is still going, with her basket of toys on her arm. One day, maybe you might see her, trudging along the road, following a star that only she can see. She might stop in your town, and ask everyone if they have seen the three kings. And then, quietly, she will leave toys behind for all the children, to lighten her basket for the long road ahead. She will never give up. For she will never stop looking for the little child born under the miraculous star.

Visual writing or the joys of calligraphy, by Peter Taylor

Today I’m featuring an absolutely fabulous guest post by writer Peter Taylor, who’s also well-known as a calligrapher and artist-book constructor on how we can encourage children to create multi-faceted and unusual word magic. Enjoy!

Visual writing or the joys of calligraphy

Picture books are written to provide young children with a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Similarly, we plot a journey for the older reader, leaving spaces in the text so that they can use their imagination to see themselves beside the characters, but it’s by the way we tell the stories that we cause each reader to feel the characters’ pain, doubts and passion. In music, a simple change in key, harmony, melody or rhythm can shift a listener’s joy to deep despair (or the reverse) in a second, but it’s not so easy for a writer.  Perhaps it really is true that writers, who agonise over choosing perfect words, all wish they were musicians able to express themselves directly through their playing.

Calligrapher Ann Hechle has described how verbal orchestration in poetry also manipulates the depth of our feeling so that our mind, imagination and almost every part of us is engaged. The flow of Latinate words like ‘consider’ and ‘recognise’ contrasting with the thump in the guts Anglo-Saxon ‘gripe’, ‘groan’ and ‘grunt’; long and short vowels; tempo and stress; volume and density; onomatopoeia where sound shades into meaning–these are felt as physical sensations, stirring our brain’s deeper interpretation.

In such a world of feeling, it’s therefore surprising to me that children of all ages are not encouraged more often to interpret words visually, un-restrained by a standard size of letters and a requirement of regimented rows of words. Isn’t it natural to want to write about crashing waves by using letters and words that heave and tumble on …well …wave shaped lines, and in appropriate colours? And why not sometimes use larger and bolder letters for those words emphasised most in speech, as pioneered by Hechle in the 1960s? Such freedom may foster creative writing by children and adults alike, or engender an artistic response to any favourite text.

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Text from Relearning the Alphabet by Denise Levertov

In the beginning was delight. A depth

stirred as one stirs fire unthinking.

Dark  dark  dark. And the blaze illumines dream.

Vision sets out

journeying somewhere,

walking the dreamwaters.

Designing the layout for words as an outward spiral may be appropriate for stories that unwind, such as: ‘Will you walk a little faster,’ said the whiting to a snail, ‘there’s a porpoise just behind us and he’s treading on my tail.’ Conversely, some stories wind up and can be written as an inward spiral, for example: ‘This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that lay in the house that Jack built.’ And as you will see, I have used this spiral technique and others in my combination of biblical passages.

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Not all children get hooked on reading and writing by initially listening to or reading stories. Some may arrive at the endpoint by predominantly first developing a love of words and of books as objects. When I stage a ‘Hands-on History of Books and Writing over 4000 Years’ experience in schools, even reluctant readers seem to enjoy handling a 2000 BC cuneiform clay sales docket, holding a hand-written vellum page from a 13th century medieval book without using white gloves, a page from one of the world’s first dictionaries printed in the 1480s, peeping inside Victorian picture books and deciphering a description of New York published in the 1679 that says that it has ‘…above 500 well-built houses’ amongst other treasures (and most then want to read more about early New York).

 

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Some children may come to enjoy words and reading after calligraphic exploration. From playing with the word ‘rain’…taylor-4

…research could next find a poem that is fitting for similar presentation, with reading undertaken in the process enjoyed more than expected:

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Poem: This Land by Ian Mudie

Designing calligraphic letter shapes can influence and add joy to creative writing, too. Letters with triangular serifs like webbed feet, for example, can give impetus to write about frogs, ducks or sea-gulls.

Verse by Peter Taylor, illustration by Anil Tortop

Verse by Peter Taylor, illustration by Anil Tortop

Sea fever, by John Masefield

Sea fever, by John Masefield

We can arouse young children’s interest in books with colour and quirkiness. But what sort of books are teens excited by? What kinds of bindings and book structures do they explore? I taught ‘Book Cover Design’ workshops to children aged 7 to 17 at the Queensland State Library. Participants used pens, scissors, paste and coloured and decorative papers to produce dust-jackets for Reference books of their choice (that were later re-shelved in their new covers). The children created the most eye-catching bold designs, but I wonder what they would have produced if they had been offered a wider range of materials and allowed more time, especially to read the books thoroughly. Would they have created a quilt cover for a book of poems titled On Going to Bed or placed hamburger recipes in a container shaped and covered to resemble a Big Mac?

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Would they have modelled or sculpted mountain ranges to sit on top of the pages of Lord of the Rings, as famed designer-bookbinder Philip Smith has done?

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Or designed a ‘Book Stack’, as Mike Stilkey does?

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Maybe the children would have produced something even more original.

How many books do teens smell? Are they encouraged to write, design and bind their own books?

Is it possible that first creating a book with a special structure can provide the stimulus for writing a story to fit inside it? Or will a story provide ideas for a unique and satisfying way to display the text?

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I hope children of all ages (and adults) are encouraged to explore the totality of the world of words, of language, writing, calligraphy, exciting layout designs and books of every form and structure until these become a rich, integral and important part of their lives. Sustenance for their creativity and creative thought. Let us give them experiences to savour and help them to respond with joy in their own way …to the extent that they want to bungee-jump into, read and devour our offerings of all genres with relish.

Peter Taylor’s first book was published in 1987 and he writes wacky verses, fiction and non-fiction for all ages. His picture book, ‘Once a Creepy Crocodile’ illustrated by Nina Rycroft and pub. The Five Mile Press was shortlisted for the 2015 Book of the Year award by Speech Pathology Australia. Peter is also an internationally respected calligrapher and artist’s book constructor, has been the Queensland Newsletter Editor for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Co-ordinator of SCBWI Queensland and judge of the Dorothy Shaw Writing Competition for the deaf. He delights in sharing his extensive historical book and document collection and encouraging children and adults to love books, read, write and be creative. Peter offers workshops, talks and performances to libraries, schools and festivals. 

 

www.writing-for-children.com

http://brisbaneillustrators.com/peter-taylor.html

www.ptcalligraphy.com