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.’
Kate 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.
Robins, 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.