Revitalising The Boy with Two Shadows – Sarah Greig

It’s no secret that we’re big Margaret Mahy fans around these parts. Between our Mahy questionnaire, and being, well, living and breathing humans who love children’s books and live in Aotearoa, it’s kind of a foregone conclusion.

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An exciting Mahy-related development in the last couple of years has been the establishment of the Margaret Mahy Illustration Prize. This year I was on the judging panel that selected Lily Emo’s beautiful work for The Boy Who Made Things Up, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

A snippet from one of Lily Emo’s illustrations that lead to her win in the 2020 Margaret Mahy Illustration Prize – appropriately shadowy to match with the book we’re looking at in more detail!

We featured an article of last year’s winner, Sarah Greig, shortly after her win – and we’ve checked back in with her again because now she’s progressed from competition winner to published picture book illustrator.

The brand new iteration of The Boy With Two Shadows is out next month, and Sarah’s winning spreads have been cranked up to eleven for the final product. Fresh and fun character design intersects with luscious watercolour technique, resulting in a book that has all the whimsy that Margaret Mahy’s words require. There’s a magical kind of quality to watercolours and their layers of saturation that really lend themselves to a story about shadowy things.

The competition doesn’t come with a guarantee of book publication, but the team at Hachette obviously knew they were onto something special. ‘Pretty soon after the prize was announced I was asked if I’d like to be the illustrator for the new edition of The Boy with Two Shadows,‘ Sarah told me. ‘Of course I said yes!’

A spread from ‘The Boy With Two Shadows’

One of the elements required for submissions to last year’s competition was a storyboard for the whole book. But while the bones were there from the outset, it didn’t guarantee a clear path ahead. ‘We used my storyboard as a base for the final book but there was a lot of tweaking and editing before it was ready for the final paintings.

‘I have really learned a lot from the process, especially about how much time and effort you need to put in before the final illustrations. I feel extremely lucky to have had such amazing people working with me on the project.’

I feel extremely lucky to have had such amazing people working with me on the project.

As she explained in her article for us last year, Sarah’s days involve juggling between being a mum of two under-fives and working on freelance work as a designer and illustrator. Combine that with the peculiarities of the year that we’ve had, and it wasn’t an easy task. ‘The final illustrations were made towards the end of lockdown so it wasn’t your typical situation. I set up a desk in my bedroom so that I could lock myself away from the kids after my husband got home from work each day.

‘It was a very solitary process, spending anywhere from 8-12 hours a day at my desk but it was good to be busy. The colouring in by hand was my favourite part- watching the spreads come to life on the page.’

A solitary process needs a breath of fresh air to break things up, and Sarah’s go to is often takes that very literally, with an inclination towards getting out into the natural world.

‘Doing something completely unrelated to drawing always refreshes my mind, although I always come home with photos of new leaves, clouds, blossoms, tree trunks, shadows ready for my next painting project.

I always come home with photos of new leaves, clouds, blossoms, tree trunks, shadows ready for my next painting project

‘A trip to the library never disappoints. I love finding new books and seeing what images draw my kids in.’ Sarah never disappoints the library either – just this week she was in at Tūranga decorating the windows with chalk-pen creations that cast cunning shadows across the Christchurch library’s floor and walls.

When I was judging this year’s submissions, it was clear to those of us on the judging panel that a lot of people had gone hard on the Mahy ‘Easter eggs’, whether it was witches in cherry trees, jars of plum jam or rogue lions. Sarah included a few sneaky ones of her own, which I thoroughly enjoyed spotting as I read through my copy of the book. Unsurprisingly, Sarah had fun putting them in too.

‘My favourite to draw were the kids dressed up as Margaret Mahy’s characters on the back page but the sneakiest might be the shark swimming in the lake at the beginning of the story!’

Sarah’s book dress up day kids.

While Sarah’s work has always been creative, the publication of The Boy With Two Shadows is a major goal ticked off. ‘I have always wanted to illustrate books but work and life took me in different directions until now,’ she said. ‘The Margaret Mahy illustration prize has been the catalyst for this to become a reality.’ The doors opened by this opportunity have started paving the way to further big dreams. ‘I’d love to write too, one day, but the illustrating thing is keeping me very busy for now!’

The Margaret Mahy illustration prize has been the catalyst for this to become a reality.

Those ‘different directions’ of life that Sarah mentioned have largely involved the design space, which in turn helps out her work as an illustrator. ‘It helps me to look at a scene from different angles and try to find the best way to tell the story.’

A spread from ‘The Boy With Two Shadows’

A multi-angled approach extends beyond just the scenes she’s working on, however. ‘I love the look of watercolours for my final spreads but I have started working digitally for the storyboard layouts. You can’t beat the copy/paste/resize/delete/undo tools when you are editing spreads.’

When I quizzed Sarah on some of her favourite illustrators – and the cruel question of what she’d like to re-illustrate, if given the chance – she picked some amazing figures from Aotearoa and beyond. ‘Quentin Blake, Gavin Bishop, Katie Wilson, Sarah Wilkins to name a few… there are so many amazing illustrators to choose from. I’d love to illustrate something like George’s Marvellous Medicine but I don’t think I could improve upon Quentin Blake’s illustrations!’

While I can see how those top picks may have influenced Sarah’s work – Gavin’s exquisite use of watercolour, Quentin Blake’s whimsy – there’s no denying that this new face on the scene has her own voice. And I can’t wait to see what she brings to the table next.

The Boy With Two Shadows

by Margaret Mahy

illustrated by Sarah GreigMoaRRP: $19.99

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Briar Lawry is an English teacher and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She worked in bookshops for years, most notably Little Unity, and judged the NZCYA Awards in 2020. She was also one of the editors of The Sapling between 2019 and 2023.