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Find more Top of the List Interview
We were blown away by this year’s Top of the List Picture Book, Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein (Tundra), written by esteemed children’s author Linda Bailey and stunningly illustrated by Júlia Sardà. Appearing just in time for the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel, this account of Shelley’s life and how she dreamed up her now-famous story will captivate young readers. Here the creators of this unforgettable biography talk with Booklist about their research, inspiration, and craft.
SMITH: The book opens with the words, “How does a story begin? Sometimes it begins with a dream.” Linda, how did you decide to present Mary’s life within the context of dreams and storytelling? How did this impact both of your approaches to your subject?
BAILEY: I opened the book that way because the story I was talking about was Frankenstein, and that story literally did begin as a dream—or, more accurately, a daydream. Mary Shelley, in her 1831 author’s introduction to Frankenstein, described how the idea came to her one night in a series of frightening images, just as she was on the verge of sleep. That moment of inspiration became a celebrated one in literature, but in fact, Mary had been daydreaming all her life. As a child and adolescent, she had an active fantasy life and spent long hours building what she called “castles in the air.” Personally, I found Mary’s “dreamy child“ background fascinating. I saw it as an example of the imaginative potential in “dreamy” children in general, whose daydreaming may not always be recognized as useful or productive.
SARDÀ: I think it was a great way to bring us into the story. As an illustrator, this opening also opened thousands of doors in my head. Starting this way allowed us to work on different layers of meaning, mix metaphor with the literal, and make everything richer. I used the opening as a tool to draw things beyond what the text said: I had the freedom to interpret Mary’s dreams, drawing figures fighting in the sky, hidden faces in the fire, and lots of other small hints—besides, obviously, drawing the Frankenstein character by her side while she writes.
SMITH: A lot of beautiful picture-book biographies pass through our office, but it’s rare that the artwork and writing are equally strong and so complementary. How closely did the two of you work together?
BAILEY: The truth is, Júlia and I have never met. I hope we do one day—I’m in awe! But as is normal in picture-book creation, we each worked alone and at different times—first me writing the manuscript, and later, Júlia illustrating. The way we worked “together” was through our amazing editor, Tara Walker. Tara’s role was first to say yes to the manuscript and then to choose, out of all the illustrators on the planet, the most perfect artist I could ever imagine for Mary: Júlia Sardà. Then later, as the book developed, Tara became a kind of inspirational “bridge” between art and text, communicating with the greatest of sensitivity with both Júlia and me to end up with a single vision.
SARDÀ: It was amazing to collaborate with Linda. Her knowledge (and Tara Walker’s) of Mary Shelley was extremely helpful. They also gave me plenty of freedom to approach the characters. All the information they provided was an excellent guide to keep the artwork coherent and logical, but it never felt restrictive. Just the opposite. It was really inspiring to work hand-in-hand with two people who loved and admired Mary Shelley so much. As I was in Barcelona and they were in Canada, the communication was always by email and not as fluid as it could have been if we were in the same city. Nevertheless, I do think that communicating by email has its benefits, especially during the artistic process, when it’s always positive to think twice before communicating your thoughts.
SMITH: Linda’s author’s note describes her research process in fascinating detail. I’m curious, Júlia; what sort of research did you do?
SARDÀ: My research is a bit more intuitive. I just read the story and focus on how I feel about details, such as the clouds of ash, and I try to imagine what kind of light there would be. Or I just try to imagine what sort of mood Mary Shelley would have had at a particular point, keeping in mind her background. This leads me to a particular palette, or reminds me of a movie or song or color, connecting it all to my own experiences and sense memories.
I have to admit that Felix Vallotton was an amazing inspiration for this book. His powerful views of nature and the elements were exactly what I wanted to portray. For me, this story is about a volcano on the other side of the world—grey clouds of ash, thunderstorms and lightning, howling wind, and feeling far away from home. I also read Emmanuel Carrere’s Bravura and found many ideas there that helped develop my approach.
SMITH: Frankenstein’s monster is such an iconic figure in our culture that even little kids recognize him. What was the biggest challenge (or joy!) you encountered when bringing the story of his creator to such a young audience? How did both of you decide which details of Mary Shelley’s life, work, or personality to integrate into the book?
BAILEY: Yes, the Frankenstein monster is iconic, and I thought the story of how a teenage girl created that character would be a natural for kids. As I did my research, I looked for two things: Which experiences in Mary’s life led to the writing of Frankenstein? And which experiences in Mary’s life would pique the interest of kids? Knowing that young readers would identify with Mary’s childhood, I looked especially closely at her early years. I also wanted to keep the focus very firmly on Mary, herself. She spent her life surrounded by famous figures in British literature, and I worked hard to keep those giants in their place as “background” so that Mary would stay front and center throughout.
SARDÀ: I had so much fun drawing Frankenstein’s monster. I only wish I could have portrayed him more! It’s always tricky to approach a classic. We stuck to the description of the creature in the book and tried to keep out the filmic references.
I tried to show the way Mary must have felt in her private life, her darkest thoughts, and her body language and expressions. Linda also provided a great list of Mary’s literary references, including the first books she read as a child, and other beautiful details, like the fact she learned to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s grave.
SMITH: Júlia, your illustrations are so wonderfully detailed. Can you briefly describe your artistic process?
SARDÀ: In this case, it was exhausting. I really wanted to fill the book with detail and to paint every inch of the paper. I have to admit that I started strong, giving my all, but by the end, I was too tired to finish the details as nicely as I wanted. There were just too many inspiring landscapes and environments! In this book, I started painting with watercolor. It’s a technique that I adore but slows me down—not to mention the time spent scanning artwork and adjusting levels with digital media.
SMITH: What was the most surprising thing each of you learned while working on this project?
BAILEY: I learned that the old saw is true—sometimes life really is stranger than fiction. Mary’s life story required no embellishments. Her story was so rich, in fact, that I had to leave out favorite bits—the comet that flew over London just before her birth; the grim London neighborhood of her preteen years, filled with slaughterhouses, prisons, and public hangings; and the 1816 “year without a summer” in Europe, in which bad weather sent Mary and her friends indoors to read frightening stories . . . and then, fatefully, to write them!
SARDÀ: I think that it was Mary’s background: the story of her private life; the kind of life she chose to live; and all the things she had to renounce to just be free and live honestly. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for such a young girl—to be so brave and fight against society’s restrictions in that era. I find it difficult myself nowadays, and I do feel lonely sometimes. When I read about all the bonds she had to cut and how far from home she had to travel to be herself, I’m moved and impressed. I think she is an example of bravery.
Not to mention the fact that she translated all this anxiety and fear into art. Somehow I think that she must have been even greater. I read somewhere that her story—at least, the way we know it—could have been “Victorianized” by her son. Maybe I’m wrong, but there’s something more powerful underlying her story. It would have been great to meet her.
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