A Feather of Fenist the Falcon–my modern fairy tale in TEXT

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin for Fenist the Falcon.

I’m delighted to announce that my modern fairy tale, A Feather of Fenist the Falcon has just been published, with its accompanying research statement, in a special issue of the prestigious journal TEXT(Special Issues series, Vol 43). Titled Into the Bush: Australasian Fairy Tales, the special issue focusses on the particular take of Australian writers on fairy tales and features both creative and analytical pieces.

A Feather of Fenist the Falcon is inspired of course by the wonderful Russian fairy tale, Fenist(or Finist) the Falcon, which I’ve loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, in a Soviet-era reprint of a classic version superbly illustrated by the great Ivan Bilibin. With its echoes of Beauty and the Beast and Psyche and Cupid, the tale has a haunting beauty, romantic power and great storytelling verve. My story transposes the setting to contemporary Australia, within a wealthy Russian immigrant family, but also keeps within the timeless dimensions of the original tale by not overtly stating place or time, It’s told from the point of view of the youngest daughter, focussing on the very beginning of the tale, up till the moment when the feather brings the shapeshifter, Fenist to her window. I loved creating this rich, disorienting and resonant contemporary fairy tale world.

My story is here, and you can also read a version of the original fairy tale from which it’s inspired, here. (Note by the way there are several versions of this tale!)

And have a read of all the other wonderful stories and articles in the special issue, here.

 

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The Magic Carpet revisited

And for the third and final(for the moment anyway) of my revisited original tales inspited by fairytale/folktale elements, here’s The Magic Carpet, which was published in The School Magazine and was inspired by my childhood love of The Arabian Nights.

THE MAGIC CARPET

by Sophie Masson

Once upon a time, a boy called Hamid lived with his uncle and aunt in the very middle of a great city. Hamid’s uncle and aunt kept the best-known carpet shop in that great city, and people came from near and far, just for a chance to look at their marvellous carpets.

Hamid’s uncle, who was as thin as a stick of cinammon, and his aunt, who was as round as a honey cake, greeted everyone at the door with a bow, and a smile, and a flash of gold teeth. They dressed in fine, silken clothes, and Hamid’s uncle wore a tall dark-blue silk turban, and his aunt a gauzy, spangled scarf.

But poor Hamid had no silken clothes, and no dark blue turban, and he was hardly ever allowed in the shop, only occasionally at night, when no-one was about. His uncle and aunt said he was very lucky, for they had taken him in when his parents had died. Hamid had to spend his days in the kitchen, cooking the nine different dishes his uncle and aunt demanded each evening.

Every afternoon, Hamid went to the market to buy the food for the next day. This was at the time when his uncle and aunt closed their shop and slept in their grand, silken-hung bedroom. But Hamid was never allowed to sleep or rest in the day. When he wasn’t cooking, he had to take bundles of laundry to the washer girl, or polish silver till his arms ached, or beat carpets until his face was covered in dust.

Yet Hamid loved the carpets. He would have stayed all day in the shop, if he had been allowed, fingering the rich stuff of the carpets and dreaming of the places from where they came. Sometimes, when he did this, there were pictures in his mind of another time, another place when he had been happy, when gentle arms had held him, and soft voices whispered to him. But the pictures were like shadows, or dreams; unable to be grasped. And if his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon or his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake saw him dreaming, they would shout, and order him back to the kitchen.

One afternoon, as he made his way back from the market, a figure came walking up the street towards him, with a parcel under its arm. As the figure came closer, Hamid saw that it was a woman, a young, lovely woman, though he could see only her eyes, and her hands. She was dressed all in dusty grey, and her eyes above her veil were of a most surprising colour, almost as blue as the lapis lazuli necklace owned by Hamid’s aunt. She stopped in front of Hamid. She did not say anything, but her eyes looked both sad and smiling, all at once.

Hamid’s heart fluttered a little as he looked at her; for he thought that somewhere, sometime, he had seen her. He said, “What is it you want? Are you a beggar? For I have no money. ” Still, the young woman said nothing, but she touched Hamid lightly on the arm, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Are you ill?” he said. She shook her head. She held out the parcel she was carrying.

“This is not mine,” he said, and he tried to give it back to her, but she shook her head, and put her finger to her lips. Then she stroked him–very, very gently–on the hair, and vanished, completely.

Hamid stood on the road, his heart thumping even louder. The touch of her hand had remined him of those dreams he had, those dreams of a happier time, when he was loved. As if in a dream, he walked back to his uncle’s and aunt’s place.

Alas! When he got back to his house, his uncle and aunt were both awake, and as bad-tempered as usual, only more so, because their midday sleeps made them feel hot and sticky. Hamid had no time to hide the parcel, and they ripped the covering off it, only to reveal an extremely old, faded, dirty carpet whose pattern could no longer be distinguished.

Hamid’s aunt boxed his ears, then, and his uncle called him sixteen different kinds of idiot. When they were out of breath, they told Hamid he was to stay in his room until the next day; they would go out to eat in a restaurant. And they tossed the old carpet out the back door, where it landed with a soft plop on top of a pile of compost.

Now normally, Hamid was a cheerful boy. But today, his cheer seemed to have deserted him. He lay on his straw bed and thought about his life, and how he wished…

Suddenly, he jumped off the bed and went outside to the back courtyard. Gently, he lifted the old carpet off the compost pile. Even though it was so old, and worn, it was the very first thing he had ever been given for himself. Perhaps, if he cleaned it well, it would look better?

And so, he fetched buckets of water, and soap, and a hard brush, and kneeling on the cobblestones of the courtyard, he began to scrub at the carpet. Scrub, scrub, scrub, he went, and soon he began to see a pattern emerging. “Oh,” said Hamid to himself. There was a curly golden pattern on a bed of deepest blue, and at the sides, something else, a red creature with a horn of purest white. Hamid kelt on the wet carpet and scrubbed gently at it, watching, absorbed, the colours, the patterns emerging from the old grime and dust. Why, he thought as he scrubbed, it was beautiful! He got a sponge, and tenderly began wiping away the soap from the other parts of the carpet.

He was so absorbed that he did not hear his aunt and uncle returning. They had gone into restaurant after restaurant and found fault with each, till at last the exasperated owners told them to go. So, dinnerless and more bad-tempered than ever, they had come home, intending to force Hamid to make something for them. What was their surprise and anger to find him not in his mean room, but out in the courtyard, wasting good soap and water on an old bit of rubbish! Hamid’s uncle reached over to pull his hair, and his aunt opened her mouth to call him twenty different kinds of rude names, till all of a sudden they saw the carpet properly for the first time.

Their mouths closed; their arms dropped. They stared at the carpet, and at Hamid, who did not even look frightened. He stroked the carpet, and said, “It is strange, it is almost as if I know this carpet, already. . ”

“Don’t be stupid!” said his uncle, fetching him a stinging blow on the ear. “Don’t be absurd!” said his aunt, pulling at his hair. Hamid, looking up in pain and surprise, saw that his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake had gone white as salt. He wiped a tear from his eye and stood up, sad but no longer afraid.

“You will put this old bit of rubbish on the fire!” his aunt commanded, her three chins wobbling like almond jelly.

“At once!” added his uncle, his eyes as round as if he’d seen a ghost.

But Hamid shook his head. “No,” he said, “it is mine. ”

His uncle and aunt goggled at him. “But,” said the uncle, with a cunning, cruel smile, “You are our servant. ”

“It is therefore ours,” agreed his wife, her cold eyes snapping.

“Give it to us,” said the uncle-as-thin-as-a-cinammon-stick, advancing on Hamid. “Yes, give it here,” said the aunt-as-round-as-a-honey-cake, clawing towards Hamid. But Hamid grabbed the carpet and held it tight.

And then came a voice from the back door. A tired, used-to-commanding voice. “Is there no one to help a customer, in this place?”

Instantly, the uncle’s and aunt’s faces changed. From being white-mean, tight-cruel, they smoothed out into smiling brown masks. “Oh, Your Highness,” simpered the uncle. “Your Gracious Lordliness,” wheedled the aunt. “It is only this silly boy of ours, who will not drop his bit of old rubbish. Come, Hamid,” she said in a silky voice.

The man at the door frowned. Hamid saw a short, grey-haired man, wearing splendid clothes and a vast white turban. There were lines on his face, of crossness and something else, something deeper and sadder. The man looked back at Hamid. He blinked, wiped his hand across his forehead, and said, “I came. . to buy a carpet. If this is the way you treat your. . ” but then he stopped. He said,still looking at Hamid, “Strange. . oh, you remind me so much of. . but no, it isn’t possible. . . ”

“Oh sir,” said Hamid, feeling a curious sort of emotion, which filled his eyes and his chest, but to which he cpuld not put a name. “Sir, it is only that I wish to keep this most beautiful carpet. . ” And before his startled aunt and uncle could stop him, he had unrolled it, almost at the man’s feet.

The man started violently. He looked at the carpet, at Hamid, at the uncle and aunt, and then he did the strangest thing. He burst into tears! Then he took Hamid in his arms, still crying, and said, “My son, oh my son. . ”

Hamid, clutched in the man’s arms, full of a warm, surging wonder, said, as if he were trying the words out, “Father. . is it really you, Father?”

They went on in this way for quite some time, but at last they thought of the uncle, as thin as a stick of cinammon, and the aunt, as round as a honey cake. And do you know, those two had simply disappeared, leaving everything in their shop, their money, their fine clothes, everything except what they had on them!

And then the man told Hamid that his son had been kidnapped as a small child. Although a huge ransom had been paid, the boy had never been seen again. His wife had died of grief, and he himself had become sad and empty and impatient of life. “And now, my son,” he said, weeping, hugging Hamid-who–was–his son, “here you are, and there is the carpet, the very carpet on which you had been lying, when you were taken!” And from the big pocket of his robe, he had taken out a miniature of a young woman, and shown it to Hamid–a young woman with a soft, round face, and amazing lapis lazuli eyes that seemed to smile right into Hamid. And then Hamid recognised her, and knew why his heart had been thumping, in the street, that afternoon. In his mind, came a picture of her–not sad anymore, but smiling, her sky-eyes sparkling as a spring morning. And in his mind, she held out her hand to him, and whispered, “My son. My son. My dearest son. ”

And when Hamid and the man-who-was-his father were back in the prince’s(for he was a prince, you see) marvellous marble-and-filigree palace, they talked long into the night of the wonderful and terrible things that had happened. And so long as they lived, the old carpet had pride of place in the most beautiful hall of the palace, under the portrait of the princess, Hamid’s mother, with her lapis lazuli eyes…

But as to the uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and the aunt-as-round as-a-honeycake, why, nothing was heard from them again, at least not in that country. But I have heard it whispered that in a cold and dusty and forgotten corner of a far-distant land, there is a greasy restaurant with a dirty kitchen where, day after day, a bent man as dry as a stick of thin grass and a woman as squashed as a melting cake stand in front of a vast pile of dishes, and wash, and wash, their arms up to the elbows in scummy suds.

 

The Old Woman and the Imp revisited

The Old Woman and the Imp is another of my original stories with fairytale/folktale elements, and like The Clever Thief, it was published both in The School Magazine and Cricket. It is a subversive riff on the story of Rumpelstiltskin, and I had a lot of fun with it!

The Old Woman and the Imp

by Sophie Masson

There was once an old woman, a rather hasty and clever old woman, who lived all alone in a small cottage.

Now this old woman had another important thing about her; for she was a champion spinner, as good as any you’d find on a long day’s walk; but ‘pon my word, she was a terrible cook!

That wouldn’t have mattered, normally, except for this small fact–that the old woman had just landed a job as a cook in the town, not far away.

I’m afraid to say that the old woman had been less than truthful when she’d been to ask for the job; she’d told the innkeeper that she’d cooked for the king, in her time, and as she could spin words as skilfully as she spun wool, she soon had him believing her.

When she arrived,on the appointed day, to take up her new duties,the innkeeper greeted her with a rather anxious face, and said, ” Oh, and it’s glad I am that you came! We are expecting several fine gentlemen to dinner tomorrow night, and you must start cooking the food at once!”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said the old woman, not to be flustered. “Show me to my quarters first, then I’ll start greasing your pans!”

Well, the old woman was taken to her room–the best in the house, with a large high feather bed, and soft carpet, and a mirror, for the old woman had let the innkeeper know, ever so softly, that the person who cooked food fit for a king must have quarters to match. .

Once there, and the door closed, she threw herself back on the bed, and dozed a little, without worrying overmuch about how she was going to cook this food, for all those fine gentlemen. Then she got up and started spinning; a-whir, whir, whir, and turn; a whir whir whir, and turn, and as she spun, she sang.

Suddenly, as she sat there singing and spinning, she heard the bedroom window creaking, ever so slightly, and the next minute, a strange creature had hopped through and was standing on the floor, grinning at her.

It was the size of a small cat, though not half as fat,and shaped more or less like a person–as if it had tried to follow a person-pattern, with not much luck!

And its grin was so large it seemed to split the creature’s face, so that its sharp yellow teeth winked, a one two three, a one two three!

The old woman looked at it for a moment,then calmly closed the window, went to the dressing table and began to unpin her hair.

“I’ve come to help you,” the little thing said, its grin fading just a bit, as the old woman kept ignoring it.

“Oh yes?” said she, and began combing her long grey hair, making smoochy faces at herself in the mirror. She was a clever old woman, as I’ve already told you; and she had a shrewd suspicion as to just who this little man-thing might be. But she was much too sharp to say so!

“I’m an imp,” the little thing said, trying hard to get the old woman to look at it. I”ve come to help you cook,” it continued, sounding a bit desperate. “For the fine gentlemen. “#”Oh, ah?” the old woman said, politely, but the imp was sure it had caught a twinkle in her eye.

It grew quite sulky. “If you don’t cook for these fine gentlemen, then you’ll be. . without a home,” it finished quickly. It had nearly said, “The king will have your head off,” before realising that was the wrong story.

The old woman turned around and looked properly at him. “I suppose you’re right,” she said at last.

“Well, then,” the imp said, rather put out.

“I can offer you a deal. I’ll cook for you for a year,invisibly, so it’ll look as if it’s you, doing it–and after that time, I will return and you will have to ask me three riddles. If I can guess all of them, you will come back with me to be my slave. If I can’t guess them all–even if it’s only one–you will be free. How’s that for a bargain?”#It grinned, and twirled around.

“Done!” the old woman said briskly. The imp looked surprised. “Are you sure?” it said. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!” she said.

 

So, the next day, the innkeeper came into the kitchen to be met with an army of lovely smells: of wine and cream and onion and mushroom; of vanilla and cinnamon and chocolate. He opened cupboards and found pies, smoking delicately;dishes of fried chicken, of creamed potatoes and chocolate puddings, of butterscotch pancakes and pears in red wine. He was overcome, and sat down at the kitchen table, his legs wobbly from hunger and pride.

“Oh, my goodness gracious,” he said to the old woman, “You ARE a cook fit for a king! You will make my fortune!”#”I think I’ll make my own,” the old woman snapped, and he murmured, “Quite, quite,” because everyone knows that good cooks are like glass, and must be handled carefully.

Invisible, at the old woman’s elbow, the imp stirred and mixed and whispered recipes, tricks, fancies. All the old woman had to do was to pretend to look busy–and she didn’t even need to pretend that, when the innkeeper wasn’t in the room. She had brought her spinning wheel into the kitchen, and in quiet moments could sit and spin: a whir, whir whir and turn; a whir whir whir, and turn.

Well, the fine gentlemen came, and they ate. How they ate! Their fine white shirts were splashed with gravy, and their red and blue waistcoats were stained with cream, and their belts had to be loosened several times. They praised the innkeeper and his wonderful cook, and showered them with gold.

Things went on in this way for some time. Word of the wonderful cook at the inn was soon spread far and wide. The innkeeper’s moustache grew daily more bright, his hands rubbed together with joy, and he watched the old woman tenderly, yet cautiously. He’d got it into his mind that she would make a fine wife–and, faith, she didn’t disagree!#

But time must march on, and soon the year was up. One day, the imp’s voice squeaked into the old woman’s ear,”Tomorrow is the day! Tomorrow is the day!”

The old woman looked at the calendar. Sure enough, it was the last day of the year, and tomorrow would be the first day of the new one!”Remember our bargain,” the imp said, and it laughed.

That night, the imp disappeared on business of its own, and the old woman was left alone in her fine room, thinking gloomily about her bargain, and what on earth she was going to ask the imp. She racked her brains for all the riddles she’d ever known, and finally came up with two. But the third eluded her. She tapped her foot impatiently, thinking of being that little imp’s slave, and how he’d likely make her spin mountains of straw into gold.  Her eye fell on her own spinning wheel lying silent in one corner, and she went to it, and began spinning, just to calm her nerves.  A whir whir whir, and turn! A whir whir whir and turn! Suddenly, as she sat there, spinning, an idea came to her, and she laughed out loud.

 

The next morning, bright and early, the imp was there, grinning and twirling round and round.

“Well?” it said impatiently. “well?”

The old woman looked at the imp. She smoothed her dress. She stroked her shining silver hair. Then she said, “I lie in halls of ivory, I am all of gold and snow, but no good am I to anyone until I am cracked and done. ”

“Oh, that’s easy!” said the imp, jumping up and down and grinning. “It’s an egg, an egg!”

“Well, then,” said the old woman, and I must confess her heart felt a little fluttery,”I am so strong and mighty, I can tear down hall and town; and yet my strength will never take me up, for I can only go down. . what am I?”#The imp looked at the old woman in astonishment. “I learnt that when I was but a tiny imp!” it said scornfully. “It’s water, of course!”

“And now,” it said, grinning wildly, “Now for the last one, and you’ll be mine, my slave, for ever!” It chuckled, and rolled on the ground, laughing.

Not so fast, my dear, thought the old woman. She said, “Well, imp, tell me, then–why am I always spinning?”

The imp stopped its laughing. It stopped twirling. It stood still and stared at the old woman.

“Why you are always spinning?” it repeated. “Why?” It looked deesperately at the old woman’s spinning wheel, where neither straw nor gold was to be seen. The light in its eyes faded.

“Well, of course everyone knows. . ” the imp began. Its more or less ear-shaped ears drooped. “Well, of course that’s easy,” it said defiantly. “Of course. ”

The old woman smiled, and waited.

“Oh, I’m not answering such a stupid riddle,” the imp said haughtily, and, clicking its fingers, it jumped out of the window and disappeared, never to be seen again.

 

Although the innkeeper was a little disappointed when his new wife proved not to want to cook, he wasn’t too disappointed. For in that long year, he’d watched her as she moved from stove to table, from table to stove, and he had picked up enough recipes and tricks and fancies to become a good cook himself. Soon the fame of his cooking spread far and wide, and crowds of people filled the tables. Whenever guests came, they would notice the old woman, sitting in a corner of the grand dining room, spinning, and spinning, her wheel whirring and turning with a most soothing sound. And if they asked what she was making, she would smile, and put a finger to her lips, and whisper, “Who knows?”

Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!

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Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.

Cover reveal of Once Upon An ABC!

I am thrilled today to be able to reveal the spectacular front cover of Once Upon An ABC, the first of my two picture book titles to come out next year with Little Hare. It’s illustrated by the fantastic Chris Nielsen, whose gorgeous style, bursting with verve and vivid colour, is simply irresistible!

Here’s what the blurb will say: A romp through both the alphabet and the world of folklore..Sophie Masson’s lively verse gathers together a dazzling range of folklore, made vividly contemporary with Chris Nielsen’s striking artwork.

The book will be out in April 2017.

once-upon-an-abc-cover-final

The power of fairy tales: an interview with Katherine Langrish

katherine langrishToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Langrish, author of a number of wonderful fantasy novels for older children, who has just released her new book–a collection of essays on fairy tale.

Your new book, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, has just been published by Greystones Press, and unlike your other books, it’s a work of non-fiction: but like your other books, it shares a common element–a fascination with fairy tale and folklore. Why are you so interested in them?

Quite simply, I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore ever since I was a child.  I’ve never understood why some people feel it’s a taste adults ought to grow out of, unless perhaps the only fairy tales they’ve encountered have been the simplest versions retold for very little children.  Fairy tales can be profound and as inexplicable as poetry. As I discuss in the book, a story like the Grimms’ tale ‘The Juniper Tree’ deals with enormous themes – murder, jealousy and abuse as well as birth, resurrection, and joyful communion with the natural world.  It will ‘mean’ something slightly different to everyone who reads or hears it, because it elicits from each person their own emotional and spiritual response.  In fact, this story was probably rewritten by a German romantic poet, but that’s the other fascination of fairy tales.  They don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they’re anonymous, so they adapt to the voice of whoever’s telling the story. And they’re so old!  People have been telling stories like these for centuries.

It’s such a large topic–did you try to pursue a particular line of inquiry or reflection in the book, or is it more organic? And what challenges and pleasures did you find in putting together the collection?

Many of the essays in the book began life on my blog (see below), although for this collection they were massively rewritten and extended. I did not think I had chosen any specific line of enquiry, but to my own fascination I found as I went through the rewrites that a theme was in fact emerging: that of ‘authenticity’. What does, what can that mean in terms of traditional tales?  Is the ‘earliest’ version of a Seven Miles of Steel Thistlesparticular tale ‘more authentic’ than a later one?  My conclusion was, repeatedly, that while it can be fascinating to trace the history and analogues of a tale, it renews itself on the lips of the latest storyteller.

Did any particular fairy tale or folklore scholars influence you in terms of interpretation and reflection?

There are so many wonderful fairy tale and folklore scholars, an embarrassment of riches, but I have to mention the great Katherine Briggs, whose four volume ‘Dictionary of British Folk-Tales’ is a Bible in the field, and whose other books of fairy lore I love – such as ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ and ‘The Vanishing People’. I like her insistence on the primacy of narrative.  I also love Max Lüthi’s ‘The European Folk Tale’ which so clearly illuminates the form and content of the classic European fairy tale.  Most of the interpretations and reflections in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ are my own, however – if only because I read the stories long before I read any of the scholars.

You’ve maintained a blog with the same name as the book, over several years. It’s a wonderful title. Where does it come from, and was the blog a bit of a testing-ground for the book?

The title of both the book and the blog comes from an old Irish fairy tale, ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. In it, the hero has to ride ‘over seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea’.  I love it as a metaphor for overcoming life’s difficulties, including the sometimes endless-seeming struggle to write well.  I suppose the blog has become a testing-ground for the book, though I never expected a book to come of it. I began the blog simply as a place where I could write about the things I love – children’s literature, fantasy, fairy tales and folk-lore – and where I could talk with others who love them too.  Does it sound too fey a comparison, if I say that the blog turned into a fairy garden and the book has grown up out of it like a tree?

Do you have particular favourites in terms of fairy tales? If so, which–and why?

I do – and I’ve written about some of them in the book.  I’ve already mentioned ‘The Juniper Tree’, and I also love ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Jorinda and Joringel’.  But the story I love best to tell aloud is the English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’, a very old version of Bluebeard with a far more intelligent and courageous heroine.

What are your favourite folkloric creatures?

My absolute favourites are the household fairies – the brownies, nisses, tomtes and domovoys which live with human beings and help (and sometimes hinder) them. I’ve written about then in several of my books for children: they’re an independent, mischievous, yet devoted race. They offer their services freely and will stay for so long as they are treated with respect and a dish of cream or oatmeal is left out for them on the hearth.  I love the way stories about them mingle Otherness with domesticity.  And I think they’re very, very old – as old as the story of Rachel in Genesis, who steals the household gods from her father Laban.

Your novels and short stories borrow from several different cultural traditions–can you tell us a little about that?

I began with Scandinavian folk-tales about trolls.  I’d been trying to write a story about a young Viking boy which involved him encountering some of the Norse gods. The story just went completely dead on me – I couldn’t find the way forward at all.  If a god befriends your character, why shouldn’t everything go smoothly for him or her? It seemed to me I was having to find complicated explanations for my hero’s predicaments. Then I began reading folk tales about trolls, and realised the book ought to be about them.  I got rid of the gods entirely as an unwanted extra supernatural level, and the book – ‘Troll Fell’ – worked much better as a fairy tale rather than a fantasy.troll fell

When I came to write the third book in the trilogy, I wanted to take my characters over the sea to ‘Vinland’ – North America – something we know Norse men, and probably Norse women too, actually did.  And there my characters would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was that or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet it seemed to me important – was to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. I thought long and hard about it and spent months of research, trying my best to respect and faithfully represent the culture I described. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say. The one thing I was sure about was that there would be no ‘white saviour’ in the book.  My Norse hero owes his life to the Native American characters he meets, not the other way around.  I wrote at length about this issue in an essay called ‘Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour’, and though the discussion has moved on over the last few years, I still cautiously hold to what I said there.  Here’s the link:

http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/cultural-appropriation-and-white.html

In books such as Dark Angels and the Troll trilogy you explore the worlds of what might be called ‘the hidden people’ and their interactions with humans. The idea of a ‘hidden people’ with a wide range of magical powers (from large to small) and alien intelligence but with many similarities to humans and who appear to be drawn to us–if only to exploit us at times–is part of the traditional folklore and stories of many cultures right across the world. Why do you think this is such a universal notion?

Wow, that’s a huge question… and yet maybe it’s a small one too.  Haven’t we all had the experience of laying something down and then minutes later not being able to find it?  It’s so, so frustrating: ‘It has to be there! I know perfectly well I put it there, just before the phone rang!  And now I’ve looked everywhere – and it’s gone!’  The temptation is to blame borrowers, or gremlins, which we know is a joke – but it still makes us feel better to be able to focus the frustration on some invisible, tricksy thing that’s sitting there laughing at us. Maybe it’s a human trait to imagine the universe as personal rather than impersonal. We can deal with the personal, we can understand it and negotiate with it – we humans are very good at that.  Such feelings must have been far, far stronger in the past, before science began coming up with ‘rational’ explanations for everything.dark angels

Incidentally, just where have I put my keys?

You have been a storyteller as well as a writer. How does that influence your fiction?

I began story-telling years ago when I lived in France and our children were small.  I joined a a weekly English-language story session at the Bibliotheque de Fontainebleau for children aged three years and up. It can be quite hard to keep the attention of a group of fifteen to twenty little ones when reading from a picture book: you’re facing them, and you have to keep stopping and turning the book around so they can see the pictures, and that interrupts the flow.  An inspirational friend suggested that we all tried telling stories ‘from the heart’ instead of reading aloud. I loved it. I found you could keep the children’s attention better and they make the pictures in their heads. I continued to tell stories to older groups of children for many years, and learned a lot about pacing a story, about narrative structure, and about the kinds of things children enjoyed – what got them excited, what made them laugh. So yes, I think it really did help my writing, which loosened up and at the same time became more confident. I just – love telling stories.