Link to Stories Connect film: and happy New Year!

I’ve put a new page on my blog for videos (of interviews and other things) and the first thing I’ve put up  is a link to the beautiful Stories Connect film, about a unique project which I was proud to have co-ordinated for the New England Writers’ Centre. Have a look at it here.

And while I’m here, I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy, healthy and inspiring new year!

 

A Christmas story to enjoy: Barney Brown and the Christmas Cake

It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to feature on Christmas Eve on this blog one of my Christmas stories, and this year I’d like to feature one which was published in the fabulous anthology A Christmas Menagerie(edited by Beattie Alvarez, Christmas Press, 2017) and illustrated by the wonderful Ingrid Kallick. It’s called Barney Brown and the Christmas Cake. The gorgeous illustration featured here is from the published story in the anthology, and you can also get it as a poster, card, print, Tshirt, phone case and lots of other things at Ingrid’s Redbubble store. (By the way, the story is also available–without illustrations–at that fabulous site Read Me A Story, Ink.)

So here it is, my story of a young bear unexpectedly waking up to a surprise Christmas…Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas, happy New Year, and wonderful, peaceful holidays to all of you, and many thanks for visiting Feathers of the Firebird in 2019!

Barney Brown and the Christmas Cake

By Sophie Masson

Barney Brown woke up suddenly. The sun shone through the windows of his den and he thought it was spring. So up he got and looked out.

‘Oh my goodness,’ said Barney Brown. It didn’t look like spring out there. Yes, the sun was shining but the ground was all snowy and so were the fir trees. It was still winter!

‘Dearie me,’ said Barney Brown, and he was about to go back to bed when all at once he spotted something bright, at the corner of the glade. It was a tree, a small tree, but not covered in snow, like the others. This tree sparkled in the sun with what looked like red and green and silver berries. And under the tree was a little table, with a little man in a pointy cap standing behind it. On the table was a tray of round dark things.

‘What’s that?’ said Barney Brown, wrinkling his nose, for just then, a smell came to him. A rich, wonderful smell! A smell that made his stomach rumble and his mouth water.

Out stepped Barney Brown, into the winter snow. He’d never gone outside in the winter before and it felt funny, though of course he had a fur coat on so he wasn’t cold at all.

Pad, pad he went, making big paw-shaped patterns in the soft snow.

‘Mmm, mmm,’ said Barney Brown, as he got closer and closer to the sparkly tree, and the little table, and the glorious smell. Oh, the glorious SMELL!

‘Hello,’ said Barney Brown, politely, to the little man in the pointy cap. Now any other person might have run away, seeing a big brown bear come lumbering up, but not this person. Oh no! He was a Christmas elf, and they are not scared of anything.

‘Hello back,’ said the elf. ‘Have you come for one of my Christmas cakes?’

‘I think I have,’ said Barney Brown, happily, looking down at the table.

‘Good.’ The elf picked up a cake. ‘That will be one silver coin,’ he said.

‘I don’t have any money,’ Barney Brown said, sadly.

‘Then take a cake with my compliments,’ said the elf. ‘After all, it’s not every day a bear wakes up in winter.’

Barney Brown didn’t wait to be told twice. The cake tasted as delicious as it smelled and he licked his lips to catch the last crumb. Then he looked longingly at the rest of the cakes. He could easily have eaten them all!

‘Sorry,’ said the elf, ‘but that’s it. It’s Christmas Eve and all my other customers will be coming to pick up their Christmas cakes. Besides, they might be a bit scared if they see a bear out and about in winter.’

‘I see,’ said Barney Brown, even more sadly. But as he turned to plod off, the elf said, ‘Wait!’

Barney Brown thought he had changed his mind. But no, the elf just handed him a leaflet. ‘Christmas cake recipe’ it read.

‘Oh. Thank you,’ said Barney Brown, doubtfully.

‘Now you can make your own, with this magic recipe,’ said the elf. ‘Merry Christmas!’

Back home, Barney Brown looked at the recipe.

‘Flour, butter, sugar, eggs, dried fruit, nuts,’ he read out loud. ‘And some honey,’ he added. ‘It doesn’t say honey in the recipe, but I’m sure that’s a mistake. All cakes must have honey.’

He opened his cupboards. There was plenty of honey. Jars and jars of it. And some flour and sugar. Even frozen butter he’d forgotten in the back pantry. But no eggs. No dried fruits. No nuts.

The elf had said the recipe was magic. But how?

Barney Brown waved the recipe about. ‘I need eggs, fruit and nuts,’ he told it. Nothing happened. ‘Abracadabra, eggs, fruit, nuts!’ he tried again. Nothing happened.

‘Oh dear,’ said Barney Brown. ‘I think the elf made a mistake. The recipe isn’t magic at all. Now let me think. If it was spring, I could go into the forest and find birds’ eggs. If it was summer, I could find berries. If it was autumn, I could find nuts. But it’s winter, and I don’t know what I can find. Maybe I have to get someone to help me. Someone who is usually awake in the winter.’

He went out again. The table was gone, and the cakes, and the elf. But the sparkly tree was still there. And a fox was sitting under it. A fox with a beautiful white coat.

‘Hello,’ said Barney Brown.

‘Hello back,’ said the fox, a little surprised to see a bear out and about.

‘I wonder if you can help me,’ said Barney Brown. ‘I’m making a Christmas cake, and I don’t have any eggs or fruit or nuts.’

‘Well,’ said the fox, ‘There are some hens I know. They’ll give me eggs.’

‘Really?’ said Barney Brown, politely. ‘That is very kind of them.’

‘I will bring you back a basket full,’ said the fox, and she trotted off.

How nice people are, thought Barney Brown and he was about to plod off again when a voice said, ‘Has Belladonna gone?’

‘Er—maybe. Only I don’t know who Belladonna is,’ said Barney Brown, looking around for the person who had spoken.

‘That fox,’ said the voice. A lump of snow moved. Only it wasn’t a lump of snow, it was a hare, with pure white fur.

‘Hello,’ said Barney Brown.

‘Hello back,’ said the hare. ‘Why aren’t you sleeping? Bears always sleep in the winter.’

‘Yes. Only today I woke up. Because I smelled a smell,’ said Barney Brown. ‘Christmas cake smell! And now I’m going to make my own. Only I haven’t got any fruit, or nuts.’

‘I’ve got some fruit,’ said the hare, at once. ‘Blackberries in a jar. Will that do?’

‘Oh yes!’ said Barney Brown. ‘That will do very well.’

‘Then I’ll fetch it,’ said the hare, and off he bounded.

People are really very nice, thought Barney Brown, just as a squirrel hopped down from a branch of the sparkly tree. She had been hiding behind a red bauble almost the same colour as her fur.

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Hello back,’ said Barney Brown.

‘I heard everything,’ said the squirrel.

‘Oh,’ said Barney Brown. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you.’

‘Not at all,’ said the squirrel. ‘Now then. Snowy has blackberries, and Belladonna has eggs. Guess what I have?’

‘Nuts?’ asked Barney Brown.

The squirrel looked a little disappointed that he’d guessed so easily, but she nodded. ‘Yes. I have nuts! Lots of nuts! A pantry full of them! How many do you need?’

‘I think a few,’ said Barney Brown, cautiously.

‘Very well. I’ll bring lots!’ said the squirrel. ‘Never let it be said that Hazel Conker is stingy!’ And off she scampered.

People are very very nice indeed, thought Barney Brown, as he went padded off. Now I can make my Christmas cake.

Back home, he took out a bowl, and put in the flour and the sugar. He melted the butter. Just then there was a knock on the door. It was Belladonna, with six eggs. Two brown eggs and two white eggs and two speckled eggs.

‘Thank you,’ said Barney Brown. ‘And please stay,’ he added politely.

Now came another knock on the door. It was Snowy the hare, with a jar of blackberries. ‘Thank you,’ said Barney Brown. ‘And please stay.’

Snowy looked at Belladonna warming herself by the stove. ‘It’s all right. We are all friends here,’ said Barney Brown. ‘Isn’t that right, Belladonna?’

‘Of course,’ grinned the fox.

Just then came the third knock on the door. And there was Hazel Conker, with a bag of nuts that was almost as big as she was.

‘Thank you,’ said Barney Brown. ‘And please stay.’

While his new friends watched, Barney Brown chopped and mixed and beat and stirred. In went the nuts and the fruit and the eggs, joining the butter and the sugar and the flour. ‘And last but certainly not least,’ said Barney Brown, ‘in goes the honey.’

‘It looks wonderful,’ said Hazel and Snowy and Belladonna, crowding around to look.

‘But the smell,’ said Barney Brown, anxiously. ‘What about the smell?’

‘You have to wait,’ Belladonna said.

‘For the cake to cook,’ said Snowy.

‘Put it in the oven,’ said Hazel.

So Barney Brown did. While they waited for that cake to cook, they played cards and drank pine tea and talked. When night fell and the stars came out, it was time for Barney Brown to open the oven. All his new friends crowded around, sniffing the air.

‘That smell!’ said Belladonna, as Barney Brown lifted the cake tin out.

‘That amazing smell!’ said Snowy, as Barney Brown put it on the table.

‘That is the best smell ever!’ said Hazel Conker.

But Barney Brown could not speak. That glorious smell was filling his nostrils and he had new friends around him to share the delicious cake they had made together. And it seemed to him he could hear an elf’s voice on the air: I told you it was a magic recipe. Merry Christmas, Barney Brown!

Conferences, exhibitions, launches: a very busy few weeks coming up!

Later this month and into next month, I am going to be having a very busy and very interesting literary time!

First up is the wonderful Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference, which this year is being held at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, Sydney, from October 25 to 27. The biennial HNSA conference is one of my favourite literary events: there’s always really interesting speakers, a fabulous program, and a warm, collegial atmosphere. This year’s certainly no exception, and I’m privileged to be involved with the Conference in several ways: as a speaker, a workshop presenter, judge of the HNSA short story contest, and, a great honour, being the Conference Patron as well. Looking forward so much to it! Tickets are still available for this fantastic event, so check out the program here.

Next up is the Artstate Festival, to be held in Tamworth, October 31 to November 3. I’m involved in this in several ways, as an author, a small-press publisher, and a contributor to an anthology and an exhibition, both of which will be launched in Tamworth during that time. On October 31, wearing my Christmas Press hat, I’ll be participating, with my Christmas Press partners as well as  fellow local publishing house Little Pink Dog Books, in the Creative Hot Spot Publisher Pitch Day, which will give children’s writers and illustrators an opportunity to pitch work to one or both publishing houses.

That evening, I’ll don my author hat again, as a contributor to the fabulous anthology Dark Sky Dreamings: An Inland Skywriters Anthology, which is themed around people’s relationship with the sky in all its aspects, and which will be launched at a great astronomy-themed event, in conjunction with the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club, at Bicentennial Park in Tamworth at 8.30 pm: telescopes and stars will be a feature of this unusual launch!

Then on November 1, I’m speaking at an Artstate/Arts North West event called Authors’ Cafe, where authors chat with readers and other interested people about their work. That the evening, I’ll be attending the opening of an exhibition called Art Word Place, which is an Arts North West project, where New England-based writers were paired with New England-based visual artists to create joint works. I’m one of the writers, and I had the good fortune to be paired with the fantastic painter Angus Nivison. His visual response to my poem is just extraordinary! If you’re in the region, come check it and all the other works out, the opening is on at the Tamworth Regional Art Gallery at 5.15 pm on November 1, but the exhibition itself is on till December 8.

There will be other events later in November that I’m a part of, in Armidale, Sydney and Melbourne, but I will write about them later, in a separate blog post. It is certainly a very busy time!

 

Creating There’s A Tiger Out There

Today is the official publication date of my picture book with Ruth Waters, There’s A Tiger Out There(Little Hare) and to celebrate Ruth and I have written pieces on the creation of the book. Enjoy!

Creation of the text, by Sophie Masson

There’s a Tiger Out There began in a dream. In the dream, I was in my house, looking out at the garden, when I glimpsed her: silent stripes gliding through our garden, yellow eyes shining. And with a grip of the heart that was half thrill and half fear, I knew there was a tiger out there and that if I went out—who knew what would happen? Now, it’s not an uncommon occurrence for me to have big cats—lions and tigers, especially—suddenly appear in my dreams, but in this case, it felt different. It felt like this tiger was different, her eyes fixed on me, and when I woke up, I knew why. It was because she wanted to be in a story!

So I began work on transposing her from the realm of dream to the realm of imagination. The first words came quickly, and the first draft was quite simple—just pretty much recounting that dream glimpse and that mix of feelings on seeing her savage, elemental splendour in the midst of our humble familiar garden. ‘There’s a tiger watching me with eyes as bright as sunrise/’ I wrote, ‘There’s a tiger sleek as shadow/stripes of midnight on her fur.’  After I showed the text to my agent Margaret Connolly, who loved it and sent it to Margrete Lamond, who was then the publisher at Little Hare and also loved it, that first draft went through many changes, in collaboration first with Margrete and then, when she left, with Alyson O’Brien, who also loved it and helped me bring the text to its final form. Early on, the draft had transformed from a simple ‘I’ eye-view to the point of view of two siblings, one older and bolder, one younger and more timid, who see a tiger ‘out there’ and react in their different ways—with a twist at the end, of course! It was a story, I realised, about sibling relations, about imagination, about love and adventure and mystery—and the thrill of a good scare!

When I first saw Ruth Waters’ gorgeous collage images, I was so excited! She had completely understood the spirit of my text and created a richly-imagined, warm and distinctive visual world, where the tiger as much as the siblings was completely at home. It was as if that was how I had always seen the world of my story: not only a perfect fit, but extending and expanding it in the most satisfying way.

And of course I just adore the finished book, with Hannah Janzen’s gorgeous design!

Creation of the illustrations, by Ruth Waters

I remember the day I received the email from Alyson from Little Hare Books. I had to re-read it several times. You want me to illustrate a picture book? Me? I had previously written and illustrated my own story but had been waiting for the opportunity to work on someone else’s tale. That said, I opened the manuscript with some trepidation – what if I can’t connect with the story?  I needn’t have worried. As I read each line, I instantly pictured who the characters were, how they looked and what kind of personality they had. A little bit bossy, know-it-all, older sister. A younger brother who adores and does anything she tells him.

The first stage of the making process was to create a series of character sketches in pencil.  Since I work in collage, I also created a collage version to give Alyson a better idea of how they would finally look. I sent these off and waited for her comments. We went back and forth until we were both happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Character Sketches

The next stage was to figure out how the text should be split across 32-or-so pages and come up with a rough idea of how each page would look. I had already made the decision that the ‘real’ tiger should only appear on the last double page spread. This way, not only the children in the story but the reader would not be entirely sure whether there really is a tiger. Another idea was to give the little boy a cuddly toy tiger – this would act as a visual tool to help the reader conjure up the idea that there is a tiger out there. Another idea, inspired by the line ‘cross my heart’ – which appears throughout the story – was to place a hidden heart-shape on every page. Sometimes the heart shape is made from a blade of grass or appears as a ripple in the water.  I also spent quite a bit of time making sure there was enough variety in terms of perspectives – wide shots verses close-up, double page spreads verses one page of illustration.  At this point I also decided on the colour palette – I decided we should go bright – to match the vibrant orange of the tiger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Storyboard and colour palette

 

 

The storyboard was then sent to Little Hare and over a few weeks we made little tweaks. Once I got the thumbs up – I made the final sketches to scale and then got to work prepping the paper.

Final sketch and prepping the paper!

 

To create the collages, I first roll acrylic paint on to a variety of textured paper. Then, working with the final sketches, I trace, cut and stick! All of my illustrations are made entirely by hand. It is labour intensive but I much prefer it to using a computer. The other plus about collage is it’s flexibility as I can keep moving the pieces around until I am happy and, only then, glue them down.

Every time I finished a double page spread, I would scan and send it to Little Hare for their thoughts. To me this proved to be an efficient way of working as it allowed me to make tweaks as I went along, rather making lots of changes at the end – when time is tight.

Watch videos of the making process:

 

 

 

 

 

Overall the entire project took about 3-4 months. Much quicker than usual due to my own time constraints (normally I would allocate 6 months). I then packaged it all up and hand delivered it to Little Hare’s production office!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole project was a joy to work on from start to finish. And I learnt so much along the way.

Ruth Waters | http://www.ruth-waters.com | https://www.instagram.com/ruthpwaters/

Creating On My Way

Today is the official publication day of On My Way, my picture book with Simon Howe(Scholastic Australia), and to celebrate Simon and I have written about what it was like to create the world of the book. Enjoy!

Creating the text, by Sophie Masson

It was just an ordinary drive to town, on an ordinary day. I was in the car when the first line of On My Way unexpectedly popped into my head for no apparent reason and as soon as it did I could hear this little voice excitedly telling ‘Mumma’ all the extraordinary things that could be seen on the way to school and the shops and so on: rather like my own kids used to do when they were small!

Normally, when I think of a good idea for a story, I put it down in my notebook–but I was driving, and couldn’t stop. Yet the little voice was so insistent on telling the story RIGHT NOW I knew I couldn’t wait either 😀

So all along the 15 kms between home and our local town, I was trying out lines aloud to myself, repeating them over and over so they’d stick in my head until I could write them down and start working on them properly!

Right from that unexpected start, this has been such a fun text to work on, as the child tells what seem to be wilder and wilder stories about more and more unusual things and yet the patient, busy mother doesn’t appear to be surprised by any of it… Even in the car, repeating those first few lines, I knew there would be a big twist–and that was such an enjoyable thing to create!

I was so delighted when I first saw Simon’s storyboard and then as time went on viewed more developments of the magical visual world he’d created for my characters. And I just loved the clever and wonderful way in which he’d revealed the twist. That excited little voice I’d first heard on a boringly ordinary drive to town, had really come to life and that was just so exciting!

Creating the illustrations, by Simon Howe

The manuscript for On My Way was an invitation to participate in a story far more than many book texts. The writing gave me a relationship between two characters, but left who they are, where they are and what they’re doing entirely up to me. The world of the story could have been a thousand things – a thrilling proposition for an illustrator.

Rather than getting bogged down in the possibilities of the world, I came to a decision fairly quickly. The mother’s dialogue in the text is warm, but also dismissive. I imagined her preoccupied with an activity and only half-listening to her child, who in turn is only half-helping, and mostly getting in the way. I was gardening quite a bit at the time, and thought I’d have the mother in the story doing the same. So I had my setting – a garden. I wanted the book to be full of warm greens, so this environment was perfect. It also allowed me to easily place hints to the final twist!

Like an increasing number of book illustrators, I chose to create everything digitally, using Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq display. The textures and subtleties available to digital artists today are astounding, and while you can usually still spot the digital from the traditional, it’s certainly becoming harder. Regarding process, I’m a drawer rather than a painter, so I almost always start with lines. I use two brushes that mimic the look of pencil, and scratch out the picture fairly roughly. When refining the lines, I like to leave some of that roughness.

I then use a brush that mimics the look of watercolour, and I build up the colours over several passes. The last step is to use a pencil brushed again to add highlights where needed. That all sounds very traditional, but the benefit of digital is that it’s all done in layers, and it’s very easy to correct and adjust things at any stage of the process.

There was a little back and forth with the publisher over some details, but the original vision remained largely unchanged from the first roughs, through a second draft and finally into the finished art. After all the pages were finished, the publication was delayed for a significant amount of time. Somewhere along the way, I decided to tweak some of the artwork. Then things got a bit out of control and I ended up re-drawing and colouring the entire book! I should really have left it alone, but I was happy with the small improvements I made.

It was a thoroughly pleasurable book to illustrate, and I’m grateful to both Sophie and Scholastic for trusting me to wrap a world of my own around such a clever and funny piece of writing.

 

 

Celebrating our home town in a new picture book

I am delighted to announce today a project that’s had to be kept under wraps till now: the picture book Join the Armidale Parade, text written by me, gorgeous illustrations by talented local illustrator Kathy Creamer, and published by local publisher Little Pink Dog Books. Look at the gorgeous cover! Commissioned by Armidale Regional Council, Join the Armidale Parade is a fun picture book for children and families, celebrating the beauty, diversity, colour and vibrancy of our hometown of Armidale, in northern New South Wales.  My story, told in bouncy verse, is focussed around a little girl whose family has recently moved to Armidale, and who takes part in its colourful annual parade, held in the autumn. And Kathy’s created the most fabulous illustrations, full of fun, humour, joy and plenty of Armidale landmarks and references:-) It’s a book that can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors, and even those who may not know Armidale but can appreciate the fun and warmth of a festival parade. It’s, I think, the first time that a picture book for children has been set here.

Although I was brought up in both France and Sydney, and my husband David in the UK, we have lived in this region for a long time now, built a house and brought up three children here. Although I’d had a few short pieces published before I came to this region, my writing career properly took off here, and all my books have been written here. I’m delighted to have been able to collaborate with Kathy, Little Pink Dog Books and Armidale Regional Council in Join the Armidale Parade, a book that pays tribute to a beautiful, creative and friendly town.

The book will be published on May 1.

 

An amazing honour!

(This post is for the readers of my blog who haven’t seen this on social media yet. Apologies if you have already seen it)

Amazing news! I have been awarded an AM (General Division) in the Order of Australia, announced in the 2019 Australia Day Honours ListMy citation reads: ‘For significant service to literature as an author and publisher, and through roles with literary organisations’. I couldn’t be more delighted, honoured, and grateful. Thank you so much to the lovely people who nominated me, to my dear family and friends who have always encouraged and supported me, to the many great people I’ve worked with in the literary and publishing communities–and to the wonderful country which has given me so much since I first set foot here as a wide-eyed non-English-speaking kid many years ago.
You can read more about it here