'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Guest Post: An Interview with Sue Whiting and Annie White

Writer and Editor Sue Whiting has teamed up with the greatly gifted illustrator Annie White to create the tangled, tantalising and mysterious picture book, Beware the Deep Dark Forest. Anastasia Gonis asks them both how their collaboration came about, plus other interesting questions on how the book was created.

Sue: What was the genesis of this new picture book and how did Annie White come to be chosen as illustrator?

I have always been intrigued with the fairytale motif of the deep dark forest, and one day – seven years ago to be exact – I was at a library doing a story time session when I noticed a young boy wearing a black cape walking up and down the stairs, saying in a very dramatic way: Beware the deep dark forest! Beware the deep dark forest! He was in his own wonderful imaginary world and I was intrigued to know what was going on in that imagination. What did he have to beware of? Within a day I had my first draft down – but it took another few years before the story really took shape.

I am so fortunate to have Annie as the illustrator for this text. And it is all thanks to art director and designer Donna Rawlins, who after much trawling through portfolios and websites etc. put Annie’s name enthusiastically forward as the woman for the job. I had always loved Annie’s work, but it wasn’t until I took a look at Annie’s website and saw some of her rich fantasy artworks that I too knew without doubt she was our gal. I was so relieved when she agreed to come on board!

Annie: What was your first reaction when you read the story? Do you imagine in pictures as you read? If not, can you tell us the process you used to bring the text to life?
When I first read Beware the Deep Dark Forest, I was captivated by the wonderful language and the images it stirred up. Quite often these early imaginings form the heart of the final illustrations, though there are numerous changes to the layouts and finer details added along the way before the book is finished. The story with all its powerful description left lovely spaces for illustration.

Sue Whiting
Sue: The main character is Rosie, a young girl who would normally obey the rules about staying out of the deep, dark forest, but breaks them when her dog Tinky runs away into the forbidden place. Unable to be dissuaded by her grandma and dad, she ventures forth to find her beloved dog.

Being a female leading character, is the book aimed specifically at girls?
Creating a female leading character was a very deliberate decision. I started out – early on – with a male character named Ronald (the story was after all inspired by a young boy) but then quite suddenly I thought: what am I doing? Why do the boys have to have all the fun? Here’s an opportunity here for some “girl power”!

I am a big believer in the importance of books with strong, resourceful and courageous female characters in lead roles. It is so important for girls to see that it is possible for girls to be the brave hero and it is just as important for boys to see girls as the brave hero. So, the book is absolutely for all kids – boys and girls.

Annie: You have created a lovable Rosie. Her exquisite features are eye-catching but she is almost foolhardy. Some would call her courageous. How did you visualize Rosie in your mind before you translated her onto the page?
I saw Rosie as a small, wiry, no-nonsense kind of girl full of determination, courage and flashes of wisdom. As she took shape on paper, Rosie emerged in warm colours which seemed to match her lovable and sometimes fiery personality. And on a practical level, despite her diminutive size, we could catch sight of her amongst the tall trees of the Deep Dark Forest.

Annie: The reappearing tangling thorny vines and giant trees are most effective in creating a sense of tension and scary; while simultaneously a sense of adventure and fearlessness. Was this your intention?
Yes. The forest, in all its depth and darkness, is as much a character in this story as Rosie and Tinky – it is ever present. By emphasising the contrast in size between Rosie and the vastness of the landscape she travels through, I hoped to show her indomitable nature and sense of optimism.

Sue: You have used alliteration, assonance and repetition throughout the book. This was definitely a conscious choice. What was the outcome you hoped for in using these techniques?
From the very beginning, I set out to write a robust story with a strong traditional narrative and rich language. The techniques of alliteration, assonance and repetition, and also the cumulative elements of the tale all contribute to the rhythm of the text, aid in developing a sense of suspense and also hopefully entice active participation – particularly in repeat readings. (Fingers crossed!)

Sue: Tangled vines with thorns, carnivorous plants and venomous snakes, may be confronting even frightening to younger readers of that early age group. Do you mind that there could be some questioning of the contents’ appropriateness for such young readers? How do you feel young children will handle these issues?
What a great question – thanks for asking! First off, it is worth mentioning that the age guide is just that, a guide, and we should trust parents and carers to know their charges well enough to make their own judgement call regarding content appropriateness. We should also trust our child readers. If they don’t like something, children will quickly tell you to stop reading or simply close the book.

Secondly, we shouldn’t underestimate those young readers either. Countless generations of children have been brought up on a literary diet of fairytales – sometimes quite dark, often quite scary, and filled with evil witches, bloodthirsty giants, angry bears and ferocious wolves. I have very deliberately used the traditions of the fairytales of old in this story, so when the reader enters the fairytale world of the deep dark forest, normal logic is suspended. The pages of a storybook are a wonderfully safe place for child readers to face fears, and even to feel a little afraid, especially when snuggled on a parent’s lap during the reading! It is also a safe place to experience life’s struggles and explore what it means to tackle obstacles head-on and to be truly courageous. This is what makes story so powerful.

To finish up, my favourite piece of feedback so far has been from a mum of a four-year-old who joyously commented that since reading the book it has been all “carnivorous plants and venomous snakes” in their household. That, I think, says it all.

Sue: Working in collaboration with another creator, how much input did you have if any, in the illustrative side of things?
Annie was a joy to work with. She is so professional and creative – a natural visual storyteller. We worked through our art director Donna Rawlins. I was able to comment, through Donna, at the various stages: character development, storyboard, roughs, finals. But there was very little to contribute because I loved Annie’s work from the get-go. We are working on another collaboration at the moment and this time we are working more closely together, which is a lot of fun and a real privilege. Stay tuned for that one!

Annie White
Annie: The illustrations are detailed and striking. The colours you have used are subtle rather than vivid or vibrant. The pictures perfectly reflect the theme of, in most cases we will do anything to save the thing we love. What medium did you use, and why that particular choice? I tried a few different mediums for this story, including oil on canvas, but in the end, I chose watercolour. This is a wonderful medium that allowed me to slowly build up the layers needed to show the depth of the forest, the age of the trees and the subtleties of Rosie’s expression. By building up different layers of colour I hoped to hint at the hidden danger and mystery of the forest.

Annie: How long did it take to complete the illustrations for Beware the Deep Dark Forest, and what are you currently working on?
It’s tricky to put an amount of time on a project as I’m usually working on more than one at a time, but I would say the storyboards and roughs took about 6 weeks and the finished illustrations about 5 months.

At the moment, I’m right in the middle of picture book illustrations for another of Sue’s great stories. And soon I’ll be starting a picture book set in Australia’s goldfields.

Sue: Missing was your last YA novel published. How easy/difficult was the transition from YA novel to children’s picture books?

I have always worked across the different age categories and in varying genres – I love the variety it creates. It’s really refreshing to break from working on an intense YA or middle grade novel and dabble with a shorter and less intense work. Though it must be said, they both have their challenges and while picture books have fewer words than novels, they are just as tricky!

Sue: Can you share what you are currently working on, and also tell us how different is your working life now that you are freelancing, to what it was before?

As well as working on a new picture book project with Annie, I am currently working on a novel for 10 -14 year olds that I hope will appeal to readers who enjoyed Missing. It has the working title of Chance and is the story of a girl who discovers she is not who she thinks she is.

I loved my job at Walker Books, but I love working from home and being my own boss even more. I especially enjoy the commute downstairs to my office! That beats three hours + each day on the train. I also like the variety freelancing provides. Funnily enough it is still a struggle to find enough time for my own writing – but this is something I am addressing, and I have declared 2019 as my Year of Putting Writing First. Let’s see how that goes!

Read our KBR review of Beware The Deep Dark Forest, here.