Sarah Davis: Re-drawing our classic books

December 19, 2017

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.'

 

 Sarah Davis

 

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!

 The Fierce Little Woman Whose Mother was a Pirate, illustrated by Jo Davis (Shortland Productions, 1984)
 

 The Fierce Little Woman Whose Mother was a Pirate, illustrated by Sarah Davis (Gecko Press, 2010)
 

 

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.

Illustration from The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Anthony Kierans

 

'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!'
 

Illustration from The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Sarah Davis (Puffin, 2017) Used with permission, all rights reserved.
 

Illustration from The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Anthony Kierans

 

'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!'
 

Illustration from The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Sarah Davis (Puffin, 2017) Used with permission, all rights reserved.

 

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.

 

Illustration from The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Anthony Kierans
 

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.​

 

Last page of The Christmas Tree Tangle (Puffin). Illustration by Sarah Davis, used with permission, all rights reserved.
 

​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.​ ​​

Final spread of The Christmas Tree Tangle (Puffin). Illustration by Sarah Davis, used with permission, all rights reserved.

 

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) 

 

 

 Illustration by Sarah Davis, used with permission, all rights reserved.

 Illustration by Sarah Davis, used with permission, all rights reserved.

 

 Illustration by Sarah Davis, used with permission, all rights reserved.

 The Final version! Illustration by Sarah Davis, used with permission, all rights reserved.
 

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.

Dogs - note the rat snuggled up in the top one!

 Quail and a parrot called Adventure

 

 

the christmas tree tangle

By Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Sarah Davis

Published by Puffin

RRP: $19.99

 

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