Author Archives: Birlinn

Wee Bird Was Watching

Karine Polwart and Kate Leiper discuss collaborating on A Wee Bird Was Watching

A Wee Bird Was Watching, our new children’s book written by Karine Polwart and illustrated by Kate Leiper is a fascinating collaboration between two artists each specialising in different mediums. It is a re-imagination of a traditional folk tale telling the story of how the robin got its red breast, with the words of award-winning songwriter Karine accompanied by Kate’s vividly realised illustrations. We wanted to discover how this process works to combine their talents and create such a beautiful and lyrical book.

Explaining how they first met, Kate says, ‘I had known Karine’s name for many years but couldn’t see her perform because I was always ushering at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre in the evenings and weekends. In 2016 I wasn’t ushering and saw the poster for Wind Resistance outside the Usher Hall. I decided on impulse to get a ticket and was blown away by the show.’ Karine also knew of Kate’s work as an illustrator, saying, ‘I knew and loved Kate’s work from her books with Theresa Breslin (Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales and Scottish Mythical Creatures). I used to read them to my kids when they were smaller.’ Karine and Kate had also previously worked with writer James Robertson on separate projects, including BC Books’ The Book of the Howlat a bird fable retold for young readers (2016).

Karine and Kate first worked separately on the different elements of the book, then came together to combine words with illustrations. A story of 1200 words was cut down to just 400, giving space for the imagination to take flight. Karine’s unadorned descriptions allowed Kate to exercise her imagination in creating the characters of Anna and her mother, who stop to rest in the woods after a long day’s walking. ‘I love how Karine doesn’t explain where Anna and her mum have come from, it could be any time. When we were working on the book there were so many heartbreaking images in the news of the Syrian people fleeing the war. When coming up with Anna and her mother I had these images in my head, but I also looked at old photos of traveller folk and also of people displaced and transported during WW2. I didn’t want to fix the book in a particular time, but make it timeless.’ Karine agrees about the universality of travel and displacement, seeing folk traditions coming to life in tales of travel. For Karine it was essential, too, that the writing respected the intelligence of its readers, explaining, ‘It was important to me that the tale included some details that connected it to Scotland (like the brambles) but that it had a universal and timeless resonance. Kids are capable of making connections of their own without having everything spelt out.’

wee birdKate says, ‘Call and response is a well known feature in folk songs and perhaps there was an echo of this going on while we were working on A Wee Bird. On each page Karine gave me a snippet of text and I would answer with a scene which I hope adds to the story while still remaining faithful to Karine’s words.’ Kate’s illustrations also allude to music in more tangible ways, as she explains, ‘You’ll notice that Anna’s mum carries a fiddle in amongst her worldly possessions; a wink to Karine and her own musical background as well as an opportunity for me to add my own sound to the story.’

Kate talked to us to explain more about her process illustrating Karine’s writing, discussing her attempts to retain the musicality of Karine’s words in her drawings. ‘When illustrating I’m always on the look out for ways to stimulate senses other than sight. From first reading the story, I was very aware of sound through the rhythmic and onomatopoeic words used to describe the woods that Anna and her mother find themselves in. I’m sure that this is no surprise given Karine’s musical background.’ The woods at evening contain noises, ‘Whoops and whistles. Creaks and rustles.’ Kate continues, ‘This led me to draw all the woodland creatures and critters who I thought must be responsible for making these strange sounds, though Karine makes no mention of them in her story.’ A litter of fox cubs appear on the page, playing a supporting role in the robin’s story.

wee bird2Robins, whose mythology is about protection, have featured in Karine’s music for years. One story features in her show Wind Resistance and there is a track called ‘Robin’ in her new album Laws of Motion. She’ll also be working with friend and colleague Pippa Murphy on a version of the story for performance with Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Celtic Connections in January 2019

We found it fascinating to discover more about the collaborative process between authors and illustrators, and are delighted by the finished book which we think perfectly showcases the talents of Karine and Kate.

Our friends at Toppsta are hosting a giveaway of A Wee Bird Was Watching, just in time for Christmas. It’s a great website where you can find reviews of children’s books for all different reading levels and preferences. Click on the link here to enter the giveaway.

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Celebrating 20 years of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

It has been a lovely summer so far, so we thought we’d carry on giving you some sunshine with our latest episode of our Hitchhiker’s Guide to Scottish Literature podcast! Kristian and I are doing something a little different this time round, with our episode dedicated to a full-length interview with one of the world’s best-loved authors, Alexander McCall Smith. If you didn’t know, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the international phenomenon that is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the series that brought us the wonderful Precious Ramotswe and her gentle wisdom. The eighteen volumes published so far have become one of the world’s most successful series, with over twenty million copies sold in the English language alone with translations into forty-six languages.

‘Tolerance and humanity underpin the whole of this wonderful, hilarious, totally addictive series’ – Daily Mail

‘The beauty of the land, the people, the colours and smells leap off the page with such warm-hearted liveliness that you find yourself laughing and crying instead of, as so often, hardening your heart against the seeming hopelessness of an entire continent. For an author to entertain and instruct with such effortless simplicity is one thing, but to achieve this effect upon readers is remarkable. I can think of no author save Dickens who has achieved it, and no author now writing currently more deserving of an enormous audience’ – New Statesman

‘Enchanting . . . An inspiration to us all . . . The sweet, chuckling voice of Precious Ramotswe falls gentle on the ear’ – The New York Times Book Review

Gathering, AWe talk to Sandy about the inspiration behind the character of Precious Ramotswe, his enduring love for Botswana, and how he feels about the huge success of the series. We also chat about his love for Scottish poetry ahead of the publication of A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems, a brilliant collection of his favourite Scottish Poems due to be released in September.

So, let’s all raise a cup of redbush tea to Precious and the gang, and hope for another 20 years of delightful adventures.

Vikki Reilly,
July 2018

You can read more titles by Alexander McCall Smith, find out below:

A Time of Love and Tartan
The Good Pilot, Peter Woodhouse
The Race to Kangaroo Cliff

And you can catch up on all the episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Scottish Literature on iTunes and on Soundcloud and listen below.

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‘The Sound of My Voice’ on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Scottish Literature podcast

Spring has finally sprung, and it’s the perfect time to get outside with a good book! To inspire your choice, Kristian and I bring you the latest episode of our podcast The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Scottish Literature, where we will be celebrating one of Scotland’s finest contemporary writers, Ron Butlin. We have just published a new edition of Ron’s brilliant debut, The Sound of My Voice, a definite cult classic – famous fans include Irvine Welsh, James Robertson and Ian Rankin – and a novel that really deserves a place on your bookshelf! We’ll be talking to Ron Butlin later on in the podcast about his debut and his varied and prolific output. We round off the podcast with Ron performing a couple of his poems from The Magicians of Scotland.

Sound of My Voice, TheThe Sound of My Voice is a gem of book that looks at how we choose to live – or not – when the reality of our lives does not meet expectations. Its protagonist, Morris Magellan, has a well-paid job, a smart house and garden, a loving wife and two kids, and a raging alcohol problem. In beautifully-crafted, pin-point prose, we delve into the inner turmoil of Morris, confused about his past, particularly his relationship with his father, and unable to look forward, unless it’s to his next drink. Though the book revolves around a serious subject matter, it is full of great humour and empathy, whether we are with Morris at work in the biscuit factory or feeling every nuanced moment between him and his wife, Mary.

It’s had amazing reviews, with Butlin being compared to Saul Bellow, Franz Kafka and James Kelman, and those who have read the novel really, really love it:

‘Playful, haunting and moving, this is writing of the highest quality . . . One of the most inventive and daring novels ever to have come out of Scotland’ – Ian Rankin

‘One of the classic post-war Scottish novels. It’s simply a roaring success on all levels; it’s a genius piece of fiction’ – Irvine Welsh

‘A profound and beautifully written study of human fragility in the face of the brutalism of modern life’ – James Robertson

‘Artistic, insightful, philosophical, psychological. Above all it is human and compassionate. At its core is a kindness and an attempt at understanding the worst of times with the belief that only then can we appreciate the best of times. Few writers have the ability, and indeed, the desire to examine and understand what it means to do more than simply exist as Ron Butlin does’ – Scots Whay Hae

So, we think it’s time you should read the best Scottish novel you’ve never heard of, now that you’ve heard of it!

Vikki Reilly, May 2018

Books also mentioned in the podcast were The Magicians of Edinburgh, and Steve and Frandan Take on the World

You can listen to this episode, and catch up on previous episodes, on iTunes and on SoundCloud: