The Silver Sea
Published March 2018, Affirm Press
My friend Alison Lester and I volunteer each month at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. During 2017, we made this book with the young patients at the hospital. Alison and I wrote the text, and all the kids painted the artworks, then Alison and I put them together. We had a great time making the book, and it was lots of fun working with all the kids at the hospital. Here’s an interview we did about the process.
Where did the inspiration for this collaborative project originate?
We’d been visiting the Royal Children’s Hospital for a while, doing workshops and making art with the kids. The hospital had published some great books themselves, and we discussed the idea of creating a bigger book to go out into the world. The kids always made such beautiful artwork and we thought it would be lovely to have a vehicle to celebrate it.
Initially we were keen for the kids to write the story, but this became too hard because our visits were a bit irregular and the kids came and went. Some kids we saw several times over the two years we created the book, and some only once. In the end, we decided to write the text ourselves. We wanted a story that would take the kids out of the world of the hospital, into the dreamy world of the ocean. Whenever we talked with kids about their lives outside of the hospital, they seemed to really enjoy this opportunity to remember and look forward to things that they loved – and for most Australian children, the beach is such a symbol of joy, holidays, sunshine and freedom.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of creating this book with the children at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, and their teachers – was it a very structured and planned process, or did the interactions with the children help determine the way you went about creating the text and images for the book?
Once we had the idea of creating a sea journey, we knew what we wanted the book to look like in general. The kids would paint the elements on each spread, and Alison would do the backgrounds and the two characters, a brother and sister. Each month when we visited, we explored a different technique with the kids and teachers - like stencilling, water colour, wax crayon resist etc. The teachers were very supportive, and early in the process Alison made each of them a little dummy of the book so they could use it in other ways with the kids if they wanted to.
We tended to adapt the text to images that the kids came up with, or particularly enjoyed painting. Turtles were popular, as were hammerhead sharks - but nautilus and nudibranch were very hard to draw, so they may be hard to spot in the book!
During the process of making the book, Alison’s granddaughter was born and spent three months in the Royal Children’s Hospital. If you look closely, you might find Francesca’s tiny footprint amongst the illustrations!
We made sure that we always provided good quality art supplies. No matter where we are – whether it’s the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne or a remote community in the Kimberley, as soon as we give kids beautiful art supplies, they make beautiful art.
What was the most challenging aspect of working with the young artists? (Given the glorious array of images in the book, I suspect finding space for all the vibrant creations was one of the hardest tasks!)
One challenging aspect was the fact that we were working on a very big scale. Each page of collaged artwork is actually really huge. Like one metre wide! We had to put together each spread on Alison’s dining-room table. Maybe we should have given the kids smaller pieces of paper! But at the same time, we think the quality of the work is partly because the kids could paint their images as big or as small as they liked. Some of them were so big that we had to shrink them down in post-production.
And yes, another challenge was to find space in the book for all the beautiful artworks. Many fabulous illustrations didn’t end up on the pages, but we plan to make another artwork with them.
Sometimes it was tough emotionally. Your heart goes out to these kids and their families facing life’s most difficult challenges. There have been times when we’ve felt grateful that the two of us are sharing the experience, and we can debrief afterwards. The teachers were also very supportive and understanding.
A lot of making the book was not just painting the art, but talking with the kids and their parents and families. Often the parents or family members are so happy to chat to someone about things other than the health challenges facing their children.
You’ve both worked collaboratively on many books before (including some with community engagement, like this one), and no doubt this can shape your expectations of how such a book might turn out. What is something that you learned or found surprising during the creation of this book?
One thing we learned was that even if a child had significant and serious health issues, once that child had a paintbrush in their hand, it was quite a transformative experience as they entered the world of their painting, and their illness took a back seat just for that time. Often, parents were surprised and delighted by what their child created. The children were also very proud of their work, and they really enjoyed the sessions. This was extremely rewarding for us.
It’s not always easy to blend an adult artist’s work with work done by kids. Alison had used this technique very successfully with her book Sophie Scott Goes South. We weren’t exactly sure how the styles would blend together, so we were relieved and delighted once we’d put together the first spread, because the balance felt right, and the elements worked as a whole.
You’ve both written and illustrated your own work, as well as writing or illustrating with others. How would you describe the relationship between language and imagery in children’s books? Do you find that you can communicate very different ideas through each, or are they simply two modes of expression for your creative material?
Note: Jane hasn’t written and illustrated her own work, as she is not an illustrator, although she did draw quite a few birds for this book!
A picture book is always a dance between imagery and language. The pictures shouldn’t just echo the text, but give the reader a chance to expand the story for themselves. In The Silver Sea, the process was a bit different from other picture books, as it was always our aim to make the text quite spare and general, so that it could be a vehicle for the kids’ artworks. We also wanted the text to suggest the idea of an adventure for the child characters, perhaps taking in some elements of darkness or the unknown, but emerging triumphant as the sun rises.
We’re good friends and we’ve worked together in many different ways. This was a new process for us, as we wrote the text together, and Alison art-directed the kids with Jane as assistant art director!
If you could be a sea creature, what would you be, and why?
Jane – I think I’d be a seal. They look so joyous as they dive and roll in the water. Even though they’re big, ungainly creatures on land, in the sea they look so graceful, as if they’re really enjoying their lives.
Alison – I’d be a whale shark. They’re big, peaceful, slow – and very beautiful.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Alison – The One-in-a-Million Boy, by Monica Wood
Jane - Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo, and Wild Things, by Bruce Handy