There are some children’s books that are just love at first sight.
When I spotted a copy of Bethan Woollvin’s Rapunzel in a bookshop last year, with its bold black, white and yellow cover, there was a cool and confident air about it that was hard to ignore.
What was inside the dust jacket was even better – a 21st century twist to the tale, with our flaxen-haired maiden recast as a kick-ass witch slayer with a natty hair-do. It was the sort of book I wanted to look at and to share with my son.
Rapunzel was the follow-up to this talented young author-illustrator’s award-winning debut Little Red, and last week Bethan published her latest fairytale for the future. This time the witch is the heroine in a witty take on Hansel & Gretel, who is pushed to take revenge of a pair of spoilt siblings.
We spoke to Bethan to find out more about her new book, her inspirations and creating female characters with attitude…
Tell us why fairytales are so appealing to you as an author-illustrator?
“There are many reasons that I enjoy working with fairytales, but the main reason I am so drawn to them is because of how dark they can be in nature, which is more uncommon in contemporary picture books. Not only that, but some of the characters and places within these tales are so visually striking, which makes them so inspiring to transform into illustrations.”
How did your first fairytale reinterpretation, Little Red, come about?
“I was in the second year of my illustration degree and our class was given six weeks to create a book. I wanted to focus my book on a live brief and after researching various competitions and submissions, I stumbled across the Macmillan Children’s Book Competition. Having never illustrated for children, or written a story – I thought I’d give it a go.
“With limited time to create the book, my lecturer advised me to choose a fairytale or another pre-existing text and adapt it, instead of writing an entirely new story. I chose Little Red Riding Hood, but reading the tale again I realised how much the story annoyed me as a child. I’d always found Little Red Riding Hood so naive.
“So instead of just illustrating the classic text of Little Red Riding Hood, I began to re-write the entire story until I had written and illustrated my own world with a protagonist I could relate to as a child. At this point, I realised just how much I enjoy adapting stories and fairytales, and this has led me to write more, including Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel.”
The book won the Macmillan Prize – how did they feel?
“It came as a complete shock, actually. I was so pleased to have my work appreciated, it really was a special moment. Though when it actually came to transforming my book into a publishable book, I felt like a real amateur, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing most of the time!
“Luckily, the whole Macmillan team are absolutely brilliant, and they really took me under their wing while I was creating my own books. I’ve loved every minute of book making, and I will always feel incredibly grateful for having the job that I have.”
You come from a large family – has that inspired your storytelling?
“Absolutely, my siblings are the main source of inspiration for my tales! Some of my brothers and sisters are quite young still, and they really enjoy seeing the early stages of my books, giving me ideas, and proposing hilarious characters for my stories.”
Your colour palettes are incredible bold and distinctive. Was it a conscious decision to create a unique and recognisable style for your children’s books?
“I think that the restrictive colour palette in my work was something that developed over time while I was at university. We often had the opportunity to experiment with printmaking, which due to the processes, meant you only had a limited amount of colours to print your illustrations in.
“And as time went on, I became more and more used to illustrating in just two or three colours. It might seem like I have illustrated in this way for my children’s books, but it’s actually just the way that I illustrate in general!”
Hansel & Gretel is your third fairy tale reinterpretation – do you have more planned?
“Hansel & Gretel was a lot of fun to make, and I’m so excited for it’s release! As far as making more fairytale books, I have no plans to create any others at this point, but it might be something I return to in the future.”
What is the process of developing your new versions of these classic tales?
“When I start working on a new project or book, I always start with ideas. I think this is the most important part, and also the most fun. Once I have my idea, I play around with it inside my sketchbook, developing the characters and the world they live in. Sometimes it takes a while, but when I start developing a recognisable character I then work them into the compositions for the story. By this point, I might start working on larger paper so I can experiment more with different materials and colours.
“I then move onto refining the experimental artwork into more final artwork, which is then scanned and edited in Photoshop. One of the last things I do when creating my book is writing it! Throughout the process I might jot down some loose text notes (which must drive Two Hoots crazy!) and then I’ll see how much of the text I can replace with illustrations, and at the end I’ll then properly write the text to fill in the gaps that the illustrations can’t do.”
Your books are very empowering for young girls – was that a conscious decision or something that came naturally?
“It makes me so happy that my books are empowering for young girls, though I must admit it wasn’t a conscious decision. It really did all happen a lot more naturally than that! All that was going through my mind when I was creating Little Red, was that I wanted to make Little Red a character I would have enjoyed reading about when I was a child. And with the help of my head-strong little sisters, we started to create this feisty little girl, who wasn’t going to let a big bad wolf get the better of her.”
Are there any non-fairytales that you would like to reinvent?
“I’ve always wanted to work on The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, it’s just such a brilliant story.”
Hansel & Gretel by Bethan Woollvin is out now. £11.99 (hardback), Two Hoots. Read about Bethan’s favourite five fairytale books here
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