This month we catch up with Nicola Colton. She tells the story behind the creation of her critically acclaimed picture book, A Dublin Fairytale:
A Dublin Fairytale began as a daydream on the bus; I imagined archetypal fairytale characters inhabiting famous landmarks and places in Dublin. The idea’s first application came in the form of a ‘promotional pack’ comprised of five postcards featuring characters like a troll at the ‘Ha’penny Bridge’ and a dragon at the ‘Spire’. I also created an illustrated map of the city, featuring famous landmarks like Trinity College, which became ‘Trinity College of Sorcery’ and different characters like mermaids inhabiting the River Liffey. I sent the promotional pack off to prospective clients and Emma, the art director from The O’Brien Press, saw potential in the idea as a picture book.
I began to look at bringing the characters together to form a story. I wanted the narrative to follow a fairytale-type structure and also allow the reader to explore Dublin. I worked out a route for Fiona, the main character, to take and began the story from there. Helen, my editor, was very helpful and encouraging during this process. I was really excited to feature Dublin in a picture book and to illustrate places that were familiar to me and to bring them to life in a magical way. I didn’t grow up in Dublin, but I lived there for eleven years and it’s a second home to me. I always found it to be a very vibrant city and no matter how long I’d lived there, there was always something new to discover. I wanted that sense of discovery and enchantment that I felt about Dublin to come through in the book.
Shortly after I signed the contract to write and illustrate the book I moved to Bristol. I began work on the book in a new city; which was strange at first. In hindsight I think it was a good thing as I was really missing Dublin and I put a lot of extra love into the illustrations as it was a way for me to revisit the city. Being away from Dublin meant it now held a sense of nostalgia for me and I reflected this in the muted and dreamy colour tones I used throughout the artwork in A Dublin Fairytale.
I’ve always loved fairytales and Red Riding Hood was a particular favourite as my granny
gave me a storytelling doll based on it when I was six. My granny died shortly after; so reading fairytales always made me feel close to her. It was nice to feature a Red Riding Hood-type character in the book – the main character Fiona, who sets off on the fourth page in her favourite red raincoat. As Fiona is on a journey through the city to her granny’s house via the Witches’ Market on Moore Street. it was also a way for me to visit my granny again through the story. Creating this book was an opportunity to combine my love of fairytales with a city that I love.
I felt a responsibility to reflect Dublin and its beautiful buildings and landmarks to the best of my ability so I wanted the artwork in the book to be very detailed and carefully executed. I spent a long time working on the ‘Trinity College’ spread, in particular, as it such an impressive and iconic building and I wanted to get the details right. I enjoyed adding my own fairytale tweaks like turning the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith into a wizard and witch to reflect the sorcery theme. I also liked adding lots of things happening in the background like a ‘spell cloud’ billowing from one of the chimneys and some sorcery students chatting in the background.
I spent a long time on the Witches’ Market spread as well as I wanted to add lots of little details for children to pore over. I loved Halloween as a kid (I still do!) and one of my favourite things around that time was to draw witches with lots of potions and bottles of curious things in the background. My dad used to collect old apothecary glass bottles and they always held a fascination for me and looked like something a practitioner of magic would use. I really enjoyed designing bottles and coming up with silly ingredients and labels for the spread. As Moore Street is full of colourful characters and is Dublin’s oldest food market it seemed like the perfect setting for a Witches’ Market.
The spread where Fiona is walking through St Stephen’s Green Forest and mistakes the giant’s legs for trees is based on the perspective I had as a three- to five-year-old. I was very shy back then and remember hiding behind my dad’s legs any time I was introduced to a grown up I didn’t know. I remember thinking they were like trees and feeling very small, but safe behind them.
It’s been really exciting and surreal to see the book published and out on the shelves in bookshops. When I received my first copies in the post I was very impressed with the printing; the uncoated offset paper really works with the soft colour palette and textures I chose.
I was also excited that it’s a hardback book, which makes it that little bit extra special.
The O’Brien Press team did a fantastic job on the production and design. The book launch in Dubray Books was fantastic and little touches like cookies featuring characters from the book (baked by The Cake Café) really made the event. Geraldine and Ruth in the Marketing Department did an amazing job organizing the launch.
Another highlight was being asked to paint a scene from the book in Dublin’s iconic Hodges Figgis bookshop window. It was a wonderful experience and also afforded me the opportunity to meet people who bought the book and to hear their feedback. I was pleasantly surprised that about half the people buying the book that day were tourists. It really made me happy that people from outside of Dublin and Ireland are interested in the book too.
The most important thing for me, though, has been the response from children. I’m really thrilled when parents tell me that the book is now part of their bedtime routine and when I hear about children’s favourite characters or parts of the book. I created the book with young children in mind so it’s wonderful to hear when it resonates with them.
Nicola Colton is an illustrator based in Dublin. Her style is playful and colourful and very much influenced by folktales/folk art, scenes in nature and children’s picture books.