Here at the University of Edinburgh College of Art, I have the distinct pleasure of being mentored by Vivian French. Vivian is the award-winning author of over 270 children’s book titles including her latest picture book, THE MOST WONDERFUL THING IN THE WORLD, illustrated by Angela Barrett (Candlewick Press). Here’s the blurb:
Once upon a time, a king and a queen promise to marry their daughter to the young man who can show them the most wonderful thing in the world. Suitors arrive at the palace, one after the other, with elaborate gifts of jewels, inventions, and even mythical beasts, but nothing feels quite right to the overwhelmed majesties. It is only when a shy young man, who isn’t a suitor at all, steps forward that the king and queen finally understand what the most wonderful thing in the world actually is. Vivian French’s touching fairy tale is made all the more enchanting by the many subtle surprises included in Angela Barrett’s exquisite illustrations.Since I have such lovely access to Vivian, I wanted to ask her some questions to share with all of you…
Vivian, how did the idea for THE MOST WONDERFUL THING IN THE WORLD come to you?
The story of TMWT is based on a traditional story that Angela Barrett loved as a child. She brought it into Walker Books and we had a look at it together - and I thought I could develop it, and have fun with it. In the original the King and queen are besieged by suitors, but there's not much mention of what they bring; Angela thought this would give her a lot of scope for inventive illustration, and I loved the idea of changing the story so that it had a new life. There's a lot about gardens in the original; I preferred the idea of Lucia and Salvatore exploring the city together, and gradually falling in love without knowing too much about each other.
It was much too long to begin with. I had to do a good deal of slicing and cutting, especially once Angela's amazing pictures starting arriving. I had to change the text to fit; she often drew something entirely different from the gifts that I'd described. Also the design required the text to be shaped on certain pages so it didn't argue with the curves of the illustration; I spent a lot of time counting letters and spaces!
In our workshop, you talk about coming up with a beginning and an ending first, before coming up with the middle of a story. Can you talk about that a little?
I like to have a clear idea in my head about where the story is going to go ... rather like knowing which country you're going to end up in when you travel. (Even though you don't know the exact location.) I also think it's important to know what emotions are going to be called upon - both in the characters, and in the reader.
I'm not sure what this question means. Stories unravel in my head ... I'm never aware of chasing them down.
What was your writing journey like when you were starting out? How did you sell your first book?
A friend who was a published children's author told me to try and write ... I'd been a story teller and an actor (children's theatre) for a long time. She sent my first attempts to her publisher and they said no, but Walker Books were in the same building, and they said yes. Something of a surprise, as I'd never really considered writing children's books. I'd written plays, though.
You’ve been working with me on creating “Heart Illustrations.” Can you explain what that means?
I think I was trying to explain the need to touch in to deep emotions. The characters in a story have to speak to the heart of the reader, to connect, to make them feel something they didn't feel when they looked at the first page - and the emotions have to feel true and not contrived or forced. A book is a journey that the characters and the reader take together. Some books, of course, are little more than a visual joke (and very funny they are too! I wouldn't be without them) but I'm talking about the books that children look at/read over and over again because there's an essential truth within them.
Lucy Juckes and I felt there was an uncomfortable void between leaving art college and going out into the world; we wanted to help prepare emerging talent so they could feel confident of their work, their portfolio, and know something about what was on offer. We arrange for five illustrators (not necessarily straight out of college; some have been around a little longer, but for various reasons need support and a refresh) to be mentored for a year by five professional illustrators with substantial experience. We're very careful how we put the mentor/mentee together; it has to be a mutually comfortable fit. And, at the end of the year, there's an exhibition in the National Gallery of Scotland - lucky us! Last time we had over 90,000 visitors. We're hoping to do even better this time ... the exhibition is on until the end of February.
There's lots more information on www.picturehooks.org.uk. We're incredibly fortunate to have the support of the illustration department at ECA, and the National Gallery of Scotland. And, of course, Creative Scotland.
What are you working on now?
A short novel for junior readers, a couple of early readers, a non-fiction story or two ... and there's a play that is REALLY late on delivery dates!
I asked Vivian to share a photo of her fave writing spot and she said...
It's the train. Any train. Or a long haul flight ...