Friday, November 4, 2022

Q&A with Bethan Woollvin





Bethan Woollvin is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Three Little Vikings. Her other books include Little Red. She lives in England.


Q: What inspired you to create Three Little Vikings, and why did you choose Vikings as your characters?


A: I suppose I’ve always been quite fascinated by history, and it’s often what inspires my storytelling. I’m always drawn to a good story, whether it’s mythology, fairytale, folklore, and even real historical events and people, and naturally these interests all find their way into my own stories.


I was first taught about the Vikings at school when I was about 5 or 6, and I remember thinking they had really cool swords. In fact, we re-created said swords out of cardboard, foil, and lots of glitter!


I intentionally introduced a little history into my books with Bo the Brave, which I had set in a medieval kingdom, and it focused on a little girl who ventures on a quest to catch herself a horrid beast. The aim was to create a modern story which felt like a fairytale, and I think Bo the Brave does just that.


Because I loved the process of framing a story around a historical era, I wanted to see if I could explore it further. Thinking back to some of the other important eras in British history, I remembered the very cool sword I made at school all those years ago, and thought that the Vikings would be a fantastic topic for my next book.


And so I got into geek-mode and began to research the Vikings. I don’t think I could tell you how many hours I spent reading about the Vikings. I wanted to absorb all the information I thought I’d need to create this book… including Viking architecture, geography, diets, clothing, weapons, ships, mythology, and folklore.


During my research I discovered that Vikings feared a particular unlikely creature and this became the focus for my story.


My favourite part of creating this book was illustrating my mighty little Viking trio, Helga, Ebba, and Wren. If you know my books, then you know that I love nothing more than to write stories about feisty girls, and this book was no exception.


For the era, Viking women were quite empowered and had far more freedom than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, and creating a book focused on a little sisterhood of kickass shield-maidens seemed like a great way to celebrate Viking history.


Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first, or both at the same time?

A: Generally, I work with both at the same time. I often feel like they inspire each other. Usually, I begin by making a brief plot for my story in bullet-point format, then I develop some early sketches and character designs. This will inspire more detailed text as my world unfolds and personalities form for my characters. I have quite a fluid process, and it’s rarely the same process from book to book!


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Though peppered with references to folklore, this fun tale is updated for modern sensibilities, with a resonant message about questioning authority.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: To be honest, I think that’s quite an accurate description of Three Little Vikings! When I first began creating Three Little Vikings, it became clear quite quickly that I had to be realistic with how much detail I could squeeze into the book.


I didn’t want the story to get lost among the complexities of Viking religion and mythology, instead it felt like the right direction to sprinkle in little references throughout the book to Viking culture.


This made space for me to thread my own message through the story for the reader, which is all about making sure your voice is heard. I wrote this book with the intention and message for children, that adults are not always right, and sometimes we need to bravely disobey to do the right thing.


Q: How did you first get interested in creating children's picture books?


A: My love for children’s books started in the most obvious place…in childhood! I was very lucky to have lots of adults in my childhood who were willing to spend time reading with me, so I guess you could say they’ve been part of my life for a long time.


Aside from that, I always tell people that I kind of fell into making children’s books, not really realising that it was a career path. I’m sure if I thought about it, I knew that it was a job some people must have, but I don’t think I considered it as a job personally.


Back in 2013, I went to study illustration at the Cambridge School of Art, as I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t want to paint canvasses or sculpt clay - so Illustration seemed like a good compromise.


I went to university with a willingness to give everything a go - editorial, surface design, printmaking, life drawing, animation and digital illustration.


At one point, our lecturers gave us students a very open-ended project to make a book within six weeks. Wanting to give my project a bit of structure, I searched for a live brief to focus the project on. I stumbled across the Macmillan Children’s Book Competition, and thought it’d be the perfect brief to frame my project. The only problem was, I’d never written a book and I’d never illustrated for children…


I didn’t really have a lot of time to worry about that though, I just had to get on with it. To save time, my lecturer suggested that I pick a pre-existing story, like a fairytale to work with. I decided upon Little Red Riding Hood, which upon re-reading as an adult and a feminist, didn’t really sit well with me. So I started changing parts of the story here and there, and before I knew it, I’d re-told my own version of the tale, woodcutter not included.


When it came to illustrating my tale, the artwork and designs came to me more naturally than in other projects I’d worked on previously. It felt for the first time, like I was able to have fun with my work! With time not on my side, I got to work painting the pages for my fairytale story. Six weeks came around and I had a semblance of a children’s book!


I submitted my retelling of Little Red Riding Hood to the Macmillan Children’s Book Competition in 2014, hoping for a little industry feedback and maybe a portfolio review (if I was lucky!). Luck was certainly on my side, as I ended up winning the competition, which still surprises me today.


On the back of winning the Macmillan Book Prize, my debut book Little Red was published in 2017, and it was followed by two more twisted fairytales: Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel. I then began working on my own tales, which include Bo the Brave, and Three Little Vikings. I’ve been working as a children’s book author and illustrator now for nearly eight years, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Oh my, I’m not sure I can say! I can say I have two books on the go at the moment. One fiction, one nonfiction. More will be revealed in 2023…


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I host virtual author visits for schools and libraries around the world, directly from my studio in Sheffield, UK. My sessions can be focused on any of my books, and include: a book reading, a tour of my studio, a peek at my original artwork and sketchbooks, a draw-a-long, finishing up with a Q&A at the end. For those interested, please get in touch via my website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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