Wee Donkey, Big Personality

This week, author Erika McGann and illustrator Gerry Daly tell us all about their latest picture book, Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt, particularly, how this mischievous and cheeky donkey came to life and how her adventure developed.

Erika McGann

When I began working on my first picture book, I was very tempted to write it in rhyme. I grew up loving Each Peach Pear Plum and everything Dr. Seuss, and there really isn’t anything as musical or joyful as a well-written story for children in verse. But as it was my first attempt at writing a book for that age group, the added pressure of doing it in rhyme was too intimidating. I had to consider language level, structure, and content for an audience that was new to me, not to mention jamming a full and fun story into such a tiny word count. I could see myself getting close to the deadline, sweating, frantically searching for something to rhyme with ‘orange’. Although my first drafts had occasional, accidental rhyming phrases (which gave me a silly amount of glee), I knew I should wait until I had a little more experience with the age level to do it properly.

A couple of years later I was finishing up a series for older kids and looking to submit a new project to O’Brien Press. I was dying to do something just for the fun of it, and it finally seemed time to give the rhyming children’s book a go. I’d recently worked on Where Are You, Puffling? with Ger, and I thought another adorable animal protagonist would be great craic to write. I searched images of cute animals for a bit of inspiration and came across a brilliant photo of a wide-smiling wee donkey with her nose pressed up against the camera lens. She made me laugh, and I figured I’d found the right character to work with – cheeky, loveable, and great for a giggle.

My first couple of story ideas for Wee Donkey were set on a farm or donkey sanctuary, where she kept close to her grandad. In one draft Grandad talked about the wonderful places he had been, which made me think he probably missed having adventures – and wouldn’t Wee Donkey love to have some of her own? I pictured her travelling to lots of gorgeous spots in Ireland, picking up a stick of rock or a novelty cap for Grandad in each place. But Wee Donkey is too cheeky for that – I decided that if she was going to collect a few souvenirs, she’d go big. So, the final draft had Wee Donkey making off with the Book of Kells, the Blarney Stone kisses, a giant from the Giant’s Causeway, and other national treasures.

Writing in rhyme was as much fun as I thought it would be; so much so that my second to last draft was far too long and I had to cut the text by more than a third. I argued with myself to keep every verse, but some just worked better than others for the story and for the illustration. Having varied scenes and landscapes in each spread was going to be much more fun for the reader (and for the illustrator!), and I stopped feeling sorry about those lost verses as soon as Ger’s first roughs started coming in. They were so full of energy and pace, and each illustration had funny little extras hidden in the details (including a few familiar faces among all those shocked onlookers).

This book has been such a joy to work on at every stage, and now that I’ve finally tried the rhyming thing I can’t wait to work on another.

Gerry Daly

Illustrating Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt was a lot of fun. As we travelled all around the country, there was ample opportunity to populate each spread with many fascinated and bewildered onlookers.

When I first read the rhyming story, I laughed at the sheer cheek of Wee Donkey. I love her determination to simply bring some of our national treasures home to her grandad so he could enjoy them too. The fun kicks in when we see how more and more outlandish it gets with all the treasures just about balancing on her tiny cart.

After a first read through, I straight away grab a pencil and basically any paper that’s handy so I can get down the first images that seem to fit a scene. I’ll also be trying to see the main character, and try sketch her into life through various positions and expressions. I hadn’t drawn a donkey before but I remembered Neddie the donkey in a field across from my Nana’s house, always friendly and looking for a pet.

I’m also thinking of the page turns and how one scene flows to the next, so composition and points of view are top of my mind as I try various ways to convey Wee Donkey’s adventure.

Erika included a great variety of settings. So we move from Wee Donkey’s field straight into Dublin docklands, to Glendalough, to Blarney Castle, to the Giant’s Causeway within the first few spreads. I’ve tried to enhance that pace and energy with composition, and sense of motion as we turn the pages.

Including so many people was a lot of fun. There are close to 200 throughout the book! The grown ups are usually shocked and not too happy with Wee Donkey basically nicking national treasures, but the children are delighted. In Where Are You, Puffling?, our first book together, we had just one human, the boatman, who I based on my uncle Seán. This time there were so many I knew it would be more fun for me to include some real people among the made up ones. So there are some friends and relatives of both myself and Erika throughout. Puffling also makes a little cameo.

Sometimes it was challenging to fit in everything needed within a scene, including of course the ever-growing pile on Wee Donkey’s little cart. Like we see on the book’s cover, or this scene here when she has returned back to grandad.

The arrival of the Gardaí is the turning point in the story, suddenly we have a super fast tour around the country.

In the spread where that starts, I tried to have a good sense of forward motion kick in, to quicken the pace, and keep it up until the end. The mountains I imagine as a kind of roller coaster shape in the background adding to that motion. These are the stages of the spread from rough to finished:

There were a couple of small changes after chatting with Erika and our editor Helen. The fairy looks to be enjoying herself more when she’s hanging from the ship’s bunting at the back, it’s funnier too. Also the basking shark’s expression updated from simply smiling about finally heading back home, to something more like sheer terror as he struggles to hold onto the Blarney Stone and the Book of Kells.

The final page reflects the opening where Wee Donkey is back home on her hill with grandad. I like that they act like two bookends for all the adventures within.

Erika McGann and Gerry Daly, November 2020

Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt and Where Are You, Puffling? are both available to order from your local bookshop (online, over the phone or via email) or on the O’Brien Press website.