Margaret Mahy’s The Christmas Tree Tangle was originally published in 1994, and a newly illustrated edition was released by Puffin in November 2017. We asked illustrator Sarah Davis to talk about the process of re-illustrating an existing book, to which she said ‘You are very important and terrifying people, so I better do what you say, or else.’
Re-illustrating a well-loved classic
The most important thing about re-illustrating a book, especially a book that is a well-loved classic by an iconic author, is not to think too closely about the fact that you might be shattering someone’s fondest childhood memories by reimagining characters that they grew up with! Nothing will give you illustrator’s block faster than the thought of trampling on someone’s dreams. (Unless you’re Donald Trump and you like that kind of thing).
I was lucky enough to illustrate The Fierce Little Woman And The Wicked Pirate by Joy Cowley for Gecko Press when they republished it in 2010. It was originally published in 1984, and illustrated by Jo Davis. And this year, I had the enormous privilege of creating a brand new look for Margaret Mahy’s The Christmas Tree Tangle, originally released in 1994 and illustrated by Anthony Keirans, and given a new lease of life by Penguin.
Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy both gave me great joy as a shy, grubby fingered, library-haunting child. Margaret Mahy’s Mrs Discombobulous was one of the first books I took out of the library and read cover to cover on my own, when I was about 7, and it was, at that point, also the MOST BRILLIANT AND HILARIOUS book I had ever read. If someone with a crystal ball or a quantum powered time-travelling armchair had told 7-year-old me that I would one day grow up and illustrate a Margaret Mahy book, I may have short-circuited on the spot from excitement.
When approaching both of these texts, I tried not to look at the original books because I wanted to establish my own vision of the atmosphere and characters ‒ I didn’t want to rehash anyone else’s ideas, or disrespect the original artists by appropriating their work.
I thought The Fierce Little Woman would be easy to avoid, as I only had vague memories of reading it as a little’un, and it had been out of print for a while. But the Universe has a weird sense of humour, so of course just as I was launching into planning and sketching, my youngest brought it home as her school reader!
I had to hide it in a cupboard and avoid it until I was finished, and then it was quite interesting looking at the similarities and differences between my version and the original. I actually found a great comparison between Gecko’s version and the original, written by Bibliosection, and including comments from people who loved the original and think my illustrations ruined it!
We both gave her red frizzy hair because of clues in the text. She’s fierce, and plays the bagpipes, so we went for the terrible Scottish cultural stereotype of the feisty redhead. Mind you, we weren’t the only ones… Disney decided that Scottish redheads are feisty too, when they designed Merida for the movie Brave.
Christmas Tree Tangle
I had much more vivid memories of the original Christmas Tree Tangle book. It was released in 1994, when my son was two, and we frequently borrowed it from the library and had some snuggly times reading it on the couch.
It’s a great read-aloud story, with the sense of drama and peril at the beginning, the bounce and rhythm of the rhyme, and the accumulating chaos culminating in the tricksy kitten revealing her secret.
I didn’t need to do much to add to the visual storyline, as that worked really well in the original. The biggest changes I made were mostly in the palette, the character design, and the style, but I did alter the pacing a bit and break up the big blocks of text so that the story built nice and rhythmically.
‘But nobody told him dogs can’t climb. He’s having a terribly tumbly time… His nose is dry and his ears go flop. Help! Help! Or the dog will drop!’
‘But branches baffle her high heeled feet, And so the goat begins to bleat. She slips and slides. She starts to sprawl! Help! Help! Or the goat will fall!’
One big difference between my version and the original version is that the party at the end is very civilised in the original, with the table beautifully laid and the animals all very well-behaved.
I thought to myself, “Hmmm…. What would happen if a 6 year old actually invited a mob of farm animals home for Christmas afternoon tea?” I decided it wouldn’t look so pretty! So my version is much more jubilant and chaotic - I was actually quite restrained, though, and resisted the urge to add little piles of pig and goat poo all over the floor and furniture.
Maybe I should have… I might be experiencing Illustrator’s Regret about that now. I like the way this change in the action shifts the mood of the final line “Goodness gracious, can it be me??” away from pride to slightly sheepish guilt, because this makes the whole scenario more comic.
I also had fun working out what our little kitten was going to look like in the new version. A slight difficulty made itself felt early on, which is that I. Cannot. Draw. Kittens. If. My. Life. Depended. On. It!!! So we went through a couple of kittens who looked more like strange bear/fox/hamster hybrids. (series below)
Then I had to settle down and actually look at some pictures of kittens and work out how a kitten was put together. I was trying to convince my Significant Other that we should get a REAL kitten, because Serious Research, you know?
But he just sighed, looked around at our cat, two dogs, two mice, eleventy hundred fish, four rats, twelve quails and the parrot and uttered some strange garbled nonsense words that sounded like “Eeee nuffpetz.” Hah. Ridiculous. There’s no such thing as Eeee nuffpetz.
the christmas tree tangle
By Margaret Mahy
Illustrated by Sarah Davis
Published by Puffin