My latest post on Writer Unboxed looks at my love of graphic novels/comic books (or BD, as we call them in French), and how I began creating my own. Hope you enjoy–and consider posting comments of your own on the Writer Unboxed site!
My latest post on Writer Unboxed looks at my love of graphic novels/comic books (or BD, as we call them in French), and how I began creating my own. Hope you enjoy–and consider posting comments of your own on the Writer Unboxed site!
Delighted to announce that I’ve got a new page on this blog featuring links to stories of mine that you can read and/or listen to at the fabulous site, Read Me A Story, Ink, a great, free resource for parents, teachers and children, created and run by booklover, bookseller and reader Robert Topp.
At Read Me A Story, Ink, you can find searchable lists of short stories for children by hundreds of authors, with the full text available for download and print out, and some stories also provided as appealing audio readings by Bob himself. A guide to reading age is also given, along with the name of the publication the story first appeared in, and all authors have given their full consent for stories to appear on the site.
Eight of my stories appear on the site. Have a look at my page where you’ll find links to all of them.
Over at Read Me A Story Ink, the wonderful site run by booklover, bookseller and reader Robert Topp, there’s a whole searchable treasure-house of short stories for children, each carefully chosen for their quality and readability. The stories are available as printable PDFs, and some also as audio files(all with the full consent of the authors, of course). And I’m very happy to say several of my stories are available there, including a couple which are available both as PDFs and audios featuring Bob’s warm and lively readings. The latest of these is The Neptune Clock, one of my favourite stories, first published quite some years ago in ‘Tales of the Deep’ edited by Paul Collins and Meredith Costain, and since published another couple of times. And now you can listen to it at Read Me A Story Ink! Catch it here.
Last year, at this festive time, I republished a piece I’d written in English and French for a magazine, about my childhood Christmasses. This year, as a favourite Christmas memory, I thought I’d offer instead a magical Christmas story, The Dolls’ First Christmas, which was published in the Random House Australia anthology, Stories for Seven Year Olds(, edited by Linsay Knight, 2014). It was inspired by my very talented friend Fiona McDonald giving me a beautiful handmade doll she’d created–and who I immediately named Esmeralda, after one of my favourite characters in a favourite childhood book of mine, Le Capitaine Fracasse, by Theophile Gautier..
Hope you enjoy–and the very best of wishes to you all for the festive season!
The Dolls’ First Christmas
by Sophie Masson
Christmas Eve in the toyshop. In Miss Jeffries’ toy-shop, the last delivery had just arrived. Teddy-bears and tin toys. Puppets and pull-alongs. Rocking-horses and doll’s houses. And Esmeralda.
She arrived in an ordinary box, like the other dolls:
Gloria, haughty queen of the dolls in Miss Jeffries’ toy shop, sat on her glittering throne in the window. Everyone gasped when they saw Gloria and said how beautiful she was. But no-one had bought her yet. She was too special. She cost too much.
Esmeralda was beautiful too, but in a different way. Her hair wasn’t golden, like Gloria’s, but black, in great long curls. Her skin wasn’t peaches and cream, like Gloria’s, but honey and tea. Her eyes weren’t sky blue, but nut-brown. Her stripy dress was splendid—but she did not have elegant satin slippers, like Gloria. Her feet were bare.
Miss Jeffries smiled as she set Esmeralda up on green velvet. ‘There, now, ‘ she said. ‘We’ll have two Queens. A snow queen. And a sun queen. You’ll be friends.’
But can two queens really be friends? Gloria didn’t think so. Esmeralda didn’t think so. Each thought she was better. Each sat in her splendour and looked haughtily away and thought she would be the first to go.
It was a long busy day. Sarah and Clara and Laura and Donna left and two boy dolls and six tin toys and eight teddy-bears and three puppets and two fairy dolls and a mermaid doll and two clowns and four baby dolls, plus a brace of Barbies. But not Gloria. And not Esmeralda, either.
At last, and very late, Miss Jeffries was about to close up. A man rushed in, shouting, ‘I work for Mr Darling, the millionaire. He sent me to buy a Christmas gift for his daughter Cherie. Her mother’s dead and her father has no time. I need your best doll. Your very best doll.’
‘There are two,’ said Miss Jeffries, calmly. ‘Esmeralda, and Gloria. Which one would Cherie like best? Sun queen or snow queen?’
The man stared. ‘Oh! I have no idea. But I know she’ll have a tantrum if she doesn’t like what I choose. She’s always having tantrums. Blow it. I’ll take the two.’
‘Good choice,’ beamed Miss Jeffries, ‘they belong together, no question.’ She put them in their boxes and tied a pretty ribbon around them and waved a cheerful goodbye as the man hurried out, muttering to himself, ‘After all, if that brat doesn’t like one of them, she can always give it to someone else. Or throw it away. They’re only dolls, after all.’
Poor Gloria and Esmeralda! They had been made with such care. Their dresses were hand-stitched, their hair hand-knotted, their faces hand-painted. They’d been made to be loved. And now here was someone saying they might just be thrown away, like some cheap, broken factory toy.
Dolls may not talk in words and their red satin hearts may not beat but they have other ways of communicating. Gloria and Esmeralda sensed each other’s fear. At first, each thought it didn’t matter. Whichever doll Cherie liked best would be safe. But then– what if Cherie got sick of her? She might be worse off, then. While the other one might have gone to a good home. To a little girl who loved her.
Most dolls are airheads, the space under their pretty china or plastic skulls quite hollow. But Gloria and Esmeralda had cloth faces, pulled tightly over wads of stuffing. In the middle of the stuffing, each had a long, bright pin, left in by mistake. So their thoughts were sharp and they each thought the same thing at the same moment. They were queens. Snow queen, sun queen. They might not be friends, but sometimes queens put rivalry aside for the good of all. They would do something together, not apart. But how?
At the Darling mansion, the man gave the boxes to the housekeeper. She took them to a room where a tall, twinkling Christmas tree stood, with piles of presents under it. The housekeeper shook her head, sadly. ‘More things going to waste on that spoilt child,’ she said.
The dolls lay under the tree for hours. No clever ideas came to them. Soon, they knew, it would be too late.
And then, just after midnight, there was a clatter of hooves on the roof above. Moments later a deep voice grumbled, ‘Why do I come? She has so much already!’
Now all toys, no matter how new, know what happens Christmas night. So Esmeralda and Gloria knew the grumbler wasn’t Mr Darling, or any of his staff. It was that jolly visitor, come from a magical world, whose job is to give every child in the world a present. The humans call him Santa Claus.
The dolls’ red satin hearts swelled and the sharp pin in their heads glittered as they tried to struggle out and beg for his help. They only made a tiny rustle, but Santa Claus’ sharp ears pricked up. And his kind eyes, that see into the heart of every child everywhere, saw right into those two red satin hearts. With a little chuckle, he opened the boxes. He gazed in at Esmeralda and Gloria. ‘A Christmas gift for you, little ones?’ he said. He touched each of them, very gently. A warm, golden stream of light seemed to flow from his fingers, into the dolls’ painted eyes. ‘Very well, then. I give you the power of love. And a very merry Christmas to you both.’
And with that, he was gone. The dolls heard the clatter of his reindeer’s hooves on the roof, then nothing. They waited in the warm piney darkness, filled with hope now.
Soon, it was morning. The dolls heard a man’s voice, trying to be jolly. ‘Well, Cherie, aren’t you going to open your lovely presents? Start with those two boxes.’
‘Yes, Daddy.’ A thin, flat, voice. Gloria and Esmeralda were afraid again. This child would not love them, no matter what Santa Claus said. All was lost.
Next thing, the wrapping-paper was roughly ripped, the lids of the boxes pulled off, so quickly that the dolls flipped helplessly out, onto their faces.
Mr Darling cried, ‘Really, Cherie, be careful! Look how beautiful they are! ‘
‘I don’t like dolls,’ shouted Cherie. ‘They stare and stare and they’re stupid! Stupid!’
‘Oh, nothing’s good enough for you, I’m tired of it, tired, do you hear!’ yelled her father. And he went out, slamming the door.
Cherie glared at the dolls. She picked them up, roughly. Gloria and Esmeralda thought their last hour had come. They would be torn limb from limb, their bodies shredded, their heads wrenched off. But as they helplessly looked up they suddenly saw in the child’s eyes, under the anger, a sadness that made their red satin hearts clench and their sharp minds ache. In that instant, something warm and golden and loving flowed from the dolls to the child, seeping into Cherie’s unhappy, lonely eyes.
She stared at them. Her lip trembled. She said, faintly, ‘I don’t like dolls..’ Shyly, she touched Esmeralda’s hair, then Gloria’s. She stroked their clothes. She held a doll in the crook of each arm. She whispered, ‘Most dolls are stupid,’ but then added, ‘not you,’ softly.
That is how Mr Darling found them when he came back, ashamed of shouting at his daughter on Christmas Day, wishing that he’d chosen her present himself, telling himself that he must try and understand, even if she made it hard.
But she smiled at him and said, ‘Daddy, do you know what their names are? Gloria and Esmeralda. I think they must be good friends, don’t you? Oh, Daddy, I love them already.’
And as Mr Darling sat happily with his daughter, Gloria and Esmeralda lay happily in her arms. Can two queens really be good friends? Why not? Anything was possible, on this beautiful Christmas morning.
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…
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.
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!
I am thrilled to be able to reveal today the full cover of War and Resistance, my historical novel for older readers, which will be published by Scholastic Australia in February 2019. That year will mark 80 years since the outbreak of World War Two, and my novel is mostly set in the early years of the war, from early 1939 to late 1941, with an epilogue in 1950, and spans the globe, with sections set in New Zealand, Australia, France and Germany. (You can read a short blurb of the novel on the pic) .And one of the things I’ve loved about writing this novel–a novel that means a great deal to me–is that with it I was also given the opportunity to revisit characters from an earlier novel of mine, also set in wartime, only the war before that one–1914(Scholastic Australia, 2014), which was told from the viewpoint of Louis Jullian, a teenager at the time. And now, in this new one, his daughter Sasha is trying to follow in his footsteps…Looking forward so much to the publication of this book!
Jean Kent writes about her 2017 book discovery today.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is my rediscovered gem for 2017. For some time this book has been near the top of the tottering pile beside my bed, waiting for that mysterious moment that the best books have, when it would become just the right one for me to reach for.
I love the gentle wisdom and wit of this story of a pilot who has had to land his damaged plane in the desert and his encounter with a ‘little prince’ who has also fallen from the sky – from a very small asteroid, where he usually lives alone, with one rose for company and the possibility of watching forty-four sunsets in one day for consolation.
Although it has the lovely, simple clarity of a children’s story, there is so much poignant adult experience here as well. I wasn’t very far into the book when I came across a friend whose wife had recently died, sitting beside Lake Macquarie, taking a photo of the sunset. Every day, he said, he did this now. I went home, read a little further and found the little prince saying: ‘You know, when a person is very, very sad, they like sunsets.’
This edition also has all the qualities that make a printed book more special to me than a digital version. It is just slightly larger than my hand, which makes it a pleasure to hold. The paper is silky and white, and the print and line drawings are so crisp it is as if the ink has just dried. The cover, too, with its delicate painting of the wistful, golden-haired boy-prince, is irresistible.
I bought my copy at the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop in the Marais, Paris. So even though this is an English translation, that connection immediately makes me feel as though I’m partly in France while I’m reading. Which, of course, adds to the joy …
Jean Kent has published eight books of poetry. Her most recent book is Paris in my Pocket (Pitt Street Poetry), a selection of poems written during a residency at the Literature Board’s Keesing Studio, Paris. She lives at Lake Macquarie, NSW. She also posts poems and occasional Jottings at http://jeankent.net/