A Spooky Treat - A conversation with Joseph & Freya
With the Writer Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for Black girls to refer to, by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with many writers, to get to know more about them and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas the author and illustrator of Zombierella and Frankenstiltskin.
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Frankenstiltskin is your latest collaboration. What was the inspiration behind this story and illustration?
J: My starting point for all the fairytales gone bad is the title. I've always liked the story of Rumpelstiltskin, which is about a young girl who gets taken by a king to spin hay into gold. And so I was thinking about that story. And I love monster stories like Frankenstein and Dracula. By putting all these distinct elements together, the title Frankenstiltskin came to mind. Instead of spinning hay into gold, she's a taxidermist, who stuffs animal skins, and the king wants her to bring animals back to life. Once I had that sort of kernel of an idea, it just kind of ran away and the entire world sort of built up from there.
F: For every book I work on, I make a Pinterest board of inspirational imagery that reflects the tone and atmosphere I want to emanate in the illustrations. For Frankenstiltskin I started by gathering lots of old pictures of dusty museums, taxidermy displays and drawings of creepy little goblins by Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud, as these were some of the main visual themes in the story. I read over the text a few times and try to get a feeling for what the characters and their world look like in my head, then I sketch it out in my sketchbook and everything else builds from there!
Why is poetry so important?
J: I think poetry is so important because it translates the soul. It puts into words what we're thinking and what we're feeling inside. And it's very hard to communicate how we feel and to communicate experiences. Poetry plays with language, and finds similarities between things, uses lots of different poetic devices like similes and metaphors to make us think about things in different ways. I think it's very effective at helping others understand how we feel.
I believe strongly that everyone is a poet, and you write a poem, you're a poet, and poetry is for everyone. And it's a great tool for putting down on paper what's going on inside. So if I feel angry, I might write an angry poem. But if I feel sad, I might write a little sad poem. If I feel happy, I might read a happy poem. But it's all there to help me process what's going on in my head and in my heart, and to help share that with others. So that's why it's so important.
What inspired you to be a poet/illustrator?
J: When I was young, I didn’t realise I could be a poet. I never really saw anyone who looked like me having a job as a poet or as an author. No one in my family was a writer or poet. I knew I enjoyed stories and writing. In school, it took me a while to catch up with everyone else during literacy lessons. It was during sixth form, when we had a visit from the poet Jean Binta Breeze. She read a poem about the softest touch. I remember her sitting on our school stage reading this poem, that’s the first time I realised that this could be a job. The visit from Jean would always stay with me. Michael Rosen and John Hegley are poets. I enjoy their work, including Jacob Sam -La Rose, who is a wonderful educational poet. I've been lucky to meet lots of fantastic poets who have been an inspiration to me over the years.
F: I’ve always had an uncontrollable urge to draw ever since I could hold a pencil! Probably inherited from my dad (Leo Hartas) and my grandpa (John Vernon Lord) who are both illustrators too. I used to stay up late into the night drawing pictures of mice families living in little underground homes and writing stories for them. It felt like the natural way of things that later in life I would carry on my love of drawing and storytelling by becoming a children’s book illustrator.
What mediums do you create your work in?
F: For my picture book illustration, I create the line and texture in traditional pencil, then scan and colour digitally. In my sketchbook, I experiment with all different media for fun. My favourite mediums for doodling at the moment are black fineliner pen and watercolour paints.
How did you develop your own poetic/illustration style?
J: I started out in poetry as a performance poet. Went to university to study Archaeology. I was studying and physically digging up skeletons in Peru for a while, but I was writing poems and was too shy to share them with anyone. I shared my first poem at the poetry society in Covent Garden. Getting up on the stage at the time was really scary, and I was really nervous. After a few performances, I was feeling more confident. The more poems I performed, the more I kind of discovered my voice. So I found the poems that I liked to write, the poems that were getting friendly responses from audiences. And it's through writing and honing your skill that you discover your voice and that you get better and stronger and stronger.
F: I didn’t really consciously develop a style, it sort of emerged on its own from lots and lots of drawing! My style is constantly growing as I discover new favourite themes in my work and different ways of working. I’m sure in a few years from now it will have developed even more and I’m excited to see what it’s going to look like!What advice can you give to young aspiring poets?
J: My advice would be to always carry a notebook wherever you go, because you never know when an idea is going to hit. Notebooks always come at the nice convenient times. You might have an idea in the middle of the night and you can write it down in your notebook beside you. I always have a notebook with me, which has lots of brief notes inside. I have a system where I index pages, with fresh ideas. Once I'm ready to write a new picture book or a new poetry collection, I go to my notebook and check through my ideas.
The illustration details featured in Zombierella are outstanding! We are fans of Zombierella and her (nasty sisters) hairstyles. What was the inspiration behind the illustrations?
F: Thank you so much! I had such a brilliant time illustrating Zombierella. I’m glad it shows in the illustrations! The ‘fake’ sisters and nasty stepmother were my favourite characters in the book, especially coming up with their wonderful hairstyles! Behind the inspiration were: pop stars like Nicki Minaj and the 90s band TLC to give them that ‘larger than life’, modern edge which contrasts so nicely with the old, gothic mansion they live in and with their poor step sister Cinderella whose clothes are very drab in comparison (before she becomes Zombierella and gains that spectacular leafy gown!). I wanted the sister’s hairstyles to reflect their unique personalities. Alhora, the meanest sister, it made sense for her to have locks. Storm, the ‘smelliest’ sister, has long cornrows that sweep past her feet. Hebina has short hair tied up into little buns so she can have her ‘large and beautiful’ ears on show at all times.
Quick Fire Round
You have one superpower. What would it be?
J: Invisible flight. Like an invisible file, so I could make things around me invisible as wellF: I think that would have to be the power to turn into animals! I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to be a sparrow or a fox! Or perhaps if I felt like taking a lazy day off, I could become a cat to just lounge in the sun all day.
J: I really like autumn, I enjoy gardening and seeing all the crops coming in. I live near the sea now and in summer I get to go swimming a lot. I guess summer would be my favourite season now.F: I love late summer and early autumn when everything is golden and just warm enough to sit outside in the evenings. Favourite holiday has to be Halloween though!
Any hidden talents?
J: I can almost speak Spanish.
F: Not sure if someone would really consider this a talent, but I can make a really loud ‘TOCK’ sound with my tongue which always makes my boyfriend jump in surprise, ha!
Zombierella By Joseph Coelho illustrated by Freya Hartas
Frankenstiltskin By Jospeh Coelho illustrated by Freya Hartas
Available from bookshop.org
About the author
Joseph Coelho lives in Kent by the sea where he enjoys digging up fossils, running along the beach, and reading scary stories, the creepier the better.
About the illustrator
Freya Hartas loves fairies and fantastical fairy tales. She lives in Bristol with her cat called Katsu.