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