So much work, thought and creativity go in to making a book. This autumn we are publishing an illustrated edition of the Children of Lir written in verse. Laura Ruth Maher submitted her wonderful rhyming version of everyone’s favourite Irish myth. Once accepted, Emma, our designer, set out to commission an illustrator. Three weeks ago, our wonderful illustrator, Conor Busuttil flew from his home in the UK to hand-deliver the stunning art work. I spoke with Laura, Conor and Emma about the exciting process of making a book.
While working as a Montessori teacher I have always tried hard to incorporate Irish myths and legends into the curriculum; they’ve always been a favourite of mine. From a young age they sparked a love for all things magical and enchanted, something I have always tried to instil in the children in my care whether through storytelling or art, the development of imagination, wonder and curiosity knows no bounds. Our lovely myths and legends, however, can be quite difficult to simplify for pre-school children, especially when the only books available have few illustrations to accompany a text that has beautiful big Irish words such as Tuatha de Danann, Emain Macha and Mochaomhóg.
While researching the importance of storytelling for the dissertation of my degree in early education, I was reminded of how crucial rhyming stories are for the development of literacy skills in children. Rhyme gives children the confidence to participate in the storytelling process, as well as the ability to predict what might come next. I had a pure lightbulb moment of how a rhyming version of the Children of Lir might just hold their attention and interest as their favourite rhyming books have done over the years.
The Children of Lir felt like a perfect story to begin with as it tells how love and bravery can give you the determination to keep going no matter how hard things get – a little lesson that you are never too young to learn. So, you can imagine my excitement when O’Brien Press felt the same and accepted my submission for publication.
I was slightly apprehensive when I was told that the illustrator would be chosen by O’Brien Press as through the whole process of writing, I knew where the characters lived, their faces and what the magic looked like around them so it was important to me that the illustrator chosen would be able to see the same. When I was sent Conor Busuttil’s work as a prospective illustrator for the book I was overwhelmed by his imagination and talent. I knew instantly that he would work wonders on the illustrations for this book and he has surpassed all my expectations and then some! He has such a wonderful style of drawing which has managed to capture the love, fear, panic and magic throughout the entire story, truly making it come alive.
The Children of Lir is one of my favourite legends and I couldn’t be happier to know that this early introduction into the magical world of Irish myths and legends is keeping our traditional stories alive for children of all ages to love and retell!
From the mention of this project I was excited to get started. It was after pulling out books I have had since a was little based on the old Celtic myths and legend, rummaging through my dad’s (keen metal detectorist) history books on jewellery and buildings to the point I was told to go get my own, to going out in the ﬁeld and drawing bits ﬁrst that I slowly started to compose the basis for the proper direction I wanted to go.
From the get go, I felt I wanted Fionnuala to be the natural leader of the group. Being the eldest and the mother ﬁgure to her brothers, in a few scenes I have tried to make her the focus of the others’ attentions. In terms of how the children looked as human, I did try and give them individual personalities through their mannerisms, but the ideas for how they looked came from watching nieces/nephews and a few sketch attempts. While reading Laura’s script I had my sketch book beside me and drew whatever popped into my head. I think the ﬁrst image was the children grouped together as swans. Fionnuala standing stern while the brothers nervously huddle around her looking for direction as they look out at this new version of their lives and the challenges they might face.
I think the main challenge was with it being a naturally sad tale: these children have been bewitched for hundreds of years, but I needed to keep the images child friendly. So there was a little back and forth with ideas on that, but just as important were the colours. We naturally associate certain colours with certain characteristics, like a bold dark red as danger or a light washy blue as healing and soft. Just choosing the colour of the magic on the cover took a few attempts; hopefully the reader will get that warm, happy welcome when picking up the book.
I read this tale as a child, I grew up loving stories of the great myths and legends and took a keen interest especially in those of old Ireland. Names such as Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the great Cúchulainn always set my imagination spinning with their stories of grand adventures. The thing with mythology for me as an illustrator is that, although there may be some elements of truth, it isn’t as easy to see fairy folk running about anymore. This leaves the look and feel of these characters very much open to the imagination of the reader, giving me the perfect opportunity to play around with ideas and produce my own interpretations. To be working on this brilliantly reworded version with Laura and seeing how she has given it this lovely rhythm all the way through has made it even more of a pleasure to be a part of. It feels like she has opened the doors of these stories to a younger audience.
My illustrative process is traditional; I think that is probably the best word describe my style. I love the old processes of working, how traditional these were I wasn’t really aware until I worked on this project and it was pointed out. My main sets of medium usual include my old trusty watercolour set, sheets of watercolour paper with my images ﬁrst pencilled (to mark everything out) followed by penning everything in with my ﬁne tipped black pens.
Before all this I like to get a good feel of the subject, in this case swans were a main feature and wildlife/nature has always been a passion of mine. This gave me the perfect excuse to go out and sketch them ﬁrsthand over at my local RSPB site, you can get some great research online and in libraries, but nothing beats sitting in the elements, on a misty river surrounded by reeds brushing against each other in the slow-moving wind ﬁrst thing in the morning. Just submerging yourself into the moment while you sketch the swans in the ﬂesh, just seeing how they move and react deﬁnitely gives you a great advantage in transferring that to the characters in the book. Saying all this, once the subject realises you aren’t going to bribe them with bread and treats, they can soon make their excuses and be oﬀ.
I love it working this way. I see all the beneﬁts that working digitally has and envy the skill that fellow illustrators have doing so but for me it’s the touch and the feel of the paper under my hand and the way you can sometimes see the directions and movements I have made with the watercolour just comes more natural for me. I get more pleasure this way. There is always the fear of making an irreversible mistake, but I try and stay positive and not think about that. Working in a mix of my watercolour set, my little jars of concentrate watercolour, and occasionally ink, gives me joy; I genuinely look forward to getting up and tucking back into my sketchbook. The ink is great for the solid strong sections of colour, and a lot of the time stay permanently, while the watercolour gives those lovely washes that can moved right over the inks without causing any bleed.
Who was my favourite character to draw? Now this question is a bit tough, there were so many aspects of the book I enjoyed creating images for. Coming up with the diﬀerent variations of personality for each child and their reactions to the diﬀerent challenges that befall them was a great experience. I think designing Aoife as the air spirit was quite fun. From the start I liked the idea of the children being the white gracious swans, and like the yang to the ying the opposite would be a mysterious less gracious-looking bird. So I liked the idea of using a raven as a symbol of Aoife. You will notice I designed her staﬀ in the shape of a raven’s head, so it was only ﬁtting that when she became an air spirit that she took on raven-like features. I could have a little play around with this and I’m quite pleased with the ﬁnal image.
When this manuscript came across my desk, I was very excited by the prospect of commissioning illustration for such a great and well known story. It would be a real challenge to give a fresh look to something which had so much interpretation.
The publishing house wanted something that was commercial, but still had a nod to tradition and fine drawing. It was then I thought of Conor Busuttil. I remember his work from a workshop that I did in Belfast some years ago, ‘I am illustrator’, which showcased forthcoming artists and illustrators from Queens University Belfast. It was organised by Conor, and it was exciting to see such talent emerging from the city.
Conor hadn’t worked on a book of this scale before, so it’s always a bit risky when I am presenting a new illustrator in house, and ‘selling’ him to the team. But everyone seemed to get his work, and felt he would deliver.
I was struck by his detailed linework, and it reminded me a little of Chris Riddell, but with more emotion. The work I saw had great pathos, emotion and humour. I made a mental note to keep him in mind for future projects. The Children of Lir is quite a sad story, but there is redemption at the end, so I knew I would need to work with someone who could carry great emotion in there work. Someone also who could give individual characters to the various people, and animals. No mean feat! I knew Conor would apply himself and come up with clever ways to get character across, and he delivered – especially with each swan’s jewellery.
I then showed Conor’s artwork to Laura, hoping she would agree with our choice. It can, quite understandably, be a very daunting prospect for an author to have someone interpret what’s in their head, but it can also be exciting and hugely rewarding, and it’s important that everyone is happy.
We started the process, by putting the text on pages, and I worked with Helen Carr, the editor, and Laura, to see where we might break the text and so on. Once this was done I set about art directing, suggesting approaches to Conor. We then went to ‘scamps’ or first stage roughs, to plot what the general approach might be like.
This gave a good idea of the shape and how I might fit the text around pages. We also suggested changes to Conor at this stage. We then went to first stage line, to see the detail in the drawing.
It was very really great to see it develop. Conor works quite traditionally, I knew we would have to get the artwork scanned – something we don’t really do a lot of anymore. Once the scamps and then line were approved, and everyone had seen them, and Laura was happy, we gave Conor the go ahead to proceed to colour. Whilst he was working on this we made arrangements in house to source an A2 scanner and prepare for the arrival of beautiful paintings!
Then in early June, Conor flew across the Irish sea (putting me in mind of the Children of Lir flying across the Sea of Moyle …) and hand-delivered said paintings.
Conor very kindly also brought along his sketchbook and it was really interesting to see how he developed the characters and his development of the cover. I think the whole experience was one of growth and enjoyment for all of us. And I can happily report that the finished product is beautiful.
Cover reveal coming soon!
The Children of Lir will be published in September 2019 and will be available in all good bookshops and on www.obrien.ie.
Laura Ruth Maher, Conor Busuttil and Emma Byrne June 2019