Hello, Marino!

© Róisín White

Hello to the students and staff of Marino Institute of Education. Let me introduce myself. My name is Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and I am your children’s writer-in-residence for 2017/18. I am a writer/illustrator and I’ve been making books for children since 1988. Here are some of my books:

Since 2006 I’ve also been writing novels for older kids:

My main interest as a picturebook creator is in charting the personal journeys we make in early childhood, the small events which change us, the little battles and triumphs as we grow up. I’m told that Izzy and Skunk has been used with children by psychiatrists and There is used in classrooms to introduce kids to philosophy. My novels are rooted in myth and legend but ultimately they are concerned (as so many stories are) with how we each twist and turn and struggle (and laugh and dance) towards adulthood.

Over my career I’ve worked with Irish, UK and US publishers and my books are in many languages. The Sleeping Giant has been my Irish bestseller; Izzy and Skunk, I’m a Tiger Too and There are probably my most widely read worldwide. Izzy even made it into Farsi. There has been popular in Japan and I was privileged to have the poet and philosopher Shozo Kajima translate – and write an introduction to – the Japanese edition.

My work has won many awards, including four overall Bisto/CBI Book of the Year Awards and six honours. There was an Eric Carle Museum Best Picturebooks of 2009 choice and The Long March is a Smithsonian Notable Book. My most recent book, Owl Bat Bat Owl, has just been designated a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2017 in the US.

Owl Bat Bat Owl is a wordless picturebook and I look forward to sharing it with you. I’ll speak about where the idea came from and how it developed, and also about how wordless books work with children and how much they can learn from them. For those of you who’ve met me already and heard me speak about Owl Bat Bat Owl, I will be designing a new talk for you. Any suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

I will also be writing a series of blogs during my residency especially directed towards you, student teachers in Marino. If you have any questions about my work, about one of my books, about children’s books in general, about writing and illustrating, please send them my way. You can contact me via Ciara Ní Bhroin. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Marino Institute of Education (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin. MIE offers courses across the continuum of teacher education and prepares specialist education practitioners at early years, primary and further education levels.  This is my third year as writer-in-residence.

Photo of me at work © Róisín White

Kids Say the Darndest Things…

Reading a picturebook to an audience of adults can be nerve-wracking. Adults are often intimidated by the form, worried that they aren’t going to ‘get’ it, scared they’ll laugh in the wrong place, so they tense up. Reading a SILENT book with adults is even more daunting. Reading picture books with kids is a doddle, but what happens when the book has no words?

The first time I attempted reading Owl Bat Bat Owl was with 70 kids in Limerick Library and I have to admit to wondering how exactly it was going to work. I needn’t have worried. I’ve read it many times now, in many places, and kids always nail it!

Kids: ‘It’s daytime, the bats should be asleep.’

Me: ‘Why do you think they’re out, flying around?’

‘Something bad has happened.’

Me: ‘Like what?’

‘They’ve lost their home.’ ‘Their tree has fallen down.’  A girl in Dun Laoghaire said, ‘Someone dropped a bomb on their cave.’

Only a couple of reviewers have made the link between the story and the refugee crisis; kids don’t use that term but those suggestions tell me they’re making the connection.

Me: ‘What’s happening now?’

‘I think they’re practising segregation.’ 9 year old, Limerick library. Pole-axed me and the other adults in the room – that he used the term and obviously completely understood it.

Hoots of laughter.

Me: ‘What do you think the mammies are saying?

‘Get back up here, right this minute!’ Delivered with cross faces, hands on hips and Angry-Irish-Mammy voice.

‘Oh, oh! I think something bad is going to happen and then they’ll make friends.’ 3 year old, Moncton, Canada. Wow – what anticipation, and from a tot! Then she farted loudly, exploded into giggles and rolled around on the floor, to general hilarity.

‘They’ve got the wrong babies!’

Me: ‘What do you think will happen next?’

‘They’ll all be friends.’

‘Let me tell, let me tell! And the two mammies had a nice cup of tea and a chat, while their babies played in the light of the moon.’ 8 year old Nigerian girl, Limerick.

And there be spiders:

Adults hardly ever notice them, but kids spot them very quickly and realise there’s another story to explore.

Owl Bat Bat Owl Walker Books/Candlewick

Titles in Translation

If a wordless book gets picked up by a foreign publisher there’s nothing to translate, right? Nope! There’s the title. The chosen title may sound strange or awkward or just plain dull when translated directly, so books can end up with completely different titles in different countries.

I love the sound of Owl Bat Bat Owl – the roundness of ‘owl’ and the abruptness of ‘bat’ fit the story perfectly, and the lack of punctuation helps to keep the emphasis even and flowing. As a title it encapsulates the beginning of the book when the bats are refugees ‘invading’ the owls’ perch, and the end, when they are friends and intermingling.

I love the look of it too – two three-letter words repeated in reverse: Owl Bat/Bat Owl. The word shapes look pleasing together and I was delighted when the designer at Walker Books stacked the words like so:

dscf7538

But the very elements which please the ear and eye in English may get lost in translation so each publisher will make a decision to keep the original title or change it to something which works better in their language.

The Danish publisher chose to translate directly, and you can see how visually different it looks, though it still sounds good (to my ear). The type size has been reduced quite a bit to accommodate ‘flagermus’ and it was set in upper and lower case with some wave action on the words to keep the effect soft.

dscf7544

In the Taiwanese edition the title is Owl Bat without the repeat – the two words take up all the available space. The Taiwanese publishers also requested a change to the cover to allow some text on the left, so I moved the owls over to the right for them.

dscf7537

The Dutch publisher also used this version of the cover and changed the title completely to My Branch! My Branch! Those exclamation marks add vehemence. Much to my delight they flipped the second ‘My Branch’ upside-down. Publishers are usually resistant to flipping text in a title – I know, I’ve tried to get them to do it a few times!

dscf7543

The Italian title reverse translates to something like ‘head up, upside down’, which sounds clumsy in English but looks good and sounds melodic in Italian. When I told my Italian-speaking sister the Italian version was called ‘something su, something gu’ she correctly guessed, ‘Testa in Su, Testa in Giu,’ immediately.

dscf7542

I don’t know what the Japanese title translates as but it’s obviously not direct:

dscf7536

I wonder what it says?*

*Thanks to Mio Debnam and Kris Tsang I now know this translates as ‘Owl Family, Family Bat’.

 

Painting with Pixels

Like all my picturebook ideas Owl Bat Bat Owl began super-rough…

1

…before progressing to more coherent roughs, coherent enough for a publisher to decide they wanted it. Actually, I didn’t think this version was ready to be seen but I was visiting Walker Books to talk over an idea and Michael insisted I bring Owl Bat with me too.

Once Walker took the book I had to decide how I was going to make the final art. Because Owl Bat is a silent/wordless story the art needs to be very easy to read and the characters need to be front and centre of all images, their faces and eyes communicating a huge amount of story. I basically designed the images so the branch the owls and bats are on is a stage and the reader’s visual POV never changes. I wanted to use a very simple style and have easy control of the palette so I decided I would colour the art digitally – the first time ever. I did initially think I’d create the line by hand so I tried a few different things, beginning with scraperboard, then trying ink, then pencil:

In the end none worked. With my back against the wall and time ticking I began messing about on the computer, having a go at ‘painting’ the way I paint in acrylics, laying down a rough ground, then over-painting. I used a ‘brush’ that gave me a nice textured look and wielded it in my normal way, using quick slap-dash strokes, and suddenly it all began to work and feel like it was mine.

I also realised I could create a digital palette by referencing images from my previous books, which was a relief as I am a compulsive colour mixer, never using paint as it comes from the tube, always adding at least a smidge of something else to achieve the shade I want. It took a couple of weeks to get used to using an Intuos pad and pen while looking at the screen, then I was away.

11

The art took as long as it would have to paint on paper but I had much more control. Digitally it’s so easy to redo details without messing up the whole piece, easy to change a single colour, to lighten/darken single elements, and for these illustrations (because of the way I designed the images) that control was really important. Ultimately I think I’d have had to paint the images very large to have the same control on paper and many many images would have hit the bin along the way.

12

There were some heart-stopping moments when I thought it had all gone wrong and I wondered what the hell I was thinking trying to learn to make digital art ‘on the job’, but I got there, with some hand-holding from Audrey, Maria and Andrea in Walker Books. Will I be painting with pixels again? Absolutely!

Owl Bat Bat Owl is published by Walker Books tomorrow. Happy Birthday, little book!

Same Old Story?

The spark for my new picturebook Owl Bat Bat Owl came from this Christmas card Michael made for me:

dscf7522

One day as I looked at it I thought, ‘bet it would really horrify those owls if another creature moved in on their branch,’ and the idea was born.

As soon as I began sketching my little owls and bats I realised I was riffing on a familiar theme, one I’d explored before in The Long March (1998) and also in I am I (2006), and I was directly referencing this Native American symbol I had come across when making The Long March:

dscf7533

For the Choctaw this is a river symbol*. Gary Whitedeer explained to me that the Choctaw say that just as you cannot stand on both banks of a river at once, you cannot belong to two cultures, but sometimes the river narrows, the banks come closer together and you can reach across and touch someone on the other side.

This idea really resonated with the story I was writing in The Long March.The Choctaw had been through the awful trauma of displacement, which had resulted in huge loss of life through hunger and disease. In 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine, they sent aid to Ireland, reaching across an ocean to help another people going through what they had experienced.

dscf7530

When I came up with the idea for I am I (2006) I quickly realised that I was referencing that river symbol again. The two boys in the story are divided by a river, each yelling about who owns their valley, each full of ego and pride and hate, but when they see the damage their words have done they ‘reach across’ to each other in empathy.

obbo-6-blogsize

In Owl Bat Bat Owl the river is replaced by a branch. The resident owls are horrified when a family of homeless bats turn up seeking refuge in their tree, but then the wind blows up a storm and the two families experience near catastrophe…

I told the story of The Long March with several thousand words and detailed realistic illustrations. I only used a few hundred words in I am I but those words morphed and twisted into barbed wire, a dragon, birds, making it very much a story told visually. With Owl Bat Bat Owl I have dispensed with words completely and the whole story unfolds through images alone.

It is my first wordless book, my first all-animal book and the first time I’ve illustrated a book entirely with digital art, but for all its difference and newness it is indeed ‘the same old story’. I am writing again about displacement, difference, empathy, friendship. The river symbol which Gary Whitedeer showed me in 1996 has run through my work, gifting me story after story, or the same story reimagined. The three books look very different but that river runs through them all.

Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker Books) will be available on October 6th.

*some Native American tribes see this as a snake symbol.