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The Garden of Hope Blog Tour: Q&A with Isabel Otter and Katie Rewse

[photo credit: @katierewse]

It is a huge privilege to be the last stop of Little Tiger’s blog tour to celebrate the release of The Garden of Hope! This is the heartwarming story of Maya, Dad and Pip as they come to terms with the loss of Mum, and watch their garden bloom in her memory. We’ve been lucky enough to interview author Isabel Otter and illustrator Katie Rewse to find out about how the book came to be!

Congratulations on the publication of the beautiful The Garden of Hope! What inspired the story?

Isabel: The mental health charity Place2Be published a report last year revealing that two thirds of children “worry all the time.” This report made me feel very sad, but also encouraged me to write a story that explored moments of anxiety or sadness.

I’ve always believed strongly in the therapeutic power of nature and gardening, so the marriage of these elements in a story felt very natural. I think that the act of planting and growing is such a lovely metaphor for hope and rejuvenation. I was very keen to feature a single dad too, as lone-parent families make up nearly a quarter of all families in the UK, and I don’t think that dads are celebrated enough in picture books!

Katie’s illustrations really bring the heart-warming words to life. How did you come to work together, and how is the story built? Do the words or pictures come first?

Isabel: The story was written first, and we knew we needed to find someone very special to illustrate it. We were looking for an illustrator who was able to convey a lot of feeling and expression through their characters, and of course, someone who could bring the garden to life!

Katie’s agent emailed my editor to let her know that they had a new, exciting illustrator on their books. The timing was very fortuitous – as soon as we saw Katie’s portfolio we fell in love with her style and knew we wanted her for The Garden of Hope. Luckily for us, she accepted!

Katie: Thank you so much! It was this time last year that I received an exciting email from my agent with the project brief for The Garden of Hope. For my first picture book, I couldn’t have been happier to be given the opportunity to illustrate such a beautiful and uplifting story. I received a copy of the text and some guidance about what to include on each page, as well as a few details about how the characters could look. Isabel was happy for me to have lots of creative freedom though.

Staying with illustrations, how did [Katie] get into illustration and how have you honed your art style over time?

Katie: After graduating from a BA in Illustration in 2012, I was mostly making decorative work for greetings cards and prints. However, I really wanted to get into making work for children’s books, so in 2015 I began a part-time MA in Illustration, which would allow me to refocus and develop my portfolio for this market. Towards the end of my MA, after entering a competition, I was fortunate to be approached by my now agent Jodie Hodges. After signing up with her, she introduced my work to the team at Caterpillar, which amazingly resulted in me making the illustrations for The Garden of Hope.

I’ve always tried not to reflect too heavily on style. Whilst I was studying, I was given good advice that through making the work that you enjoy, and lots of hours of practice then your own style will naturally develop. When I see things in my work I do not like, I push myself to try again, or to try something new. I’m hoping that my work will keep improving because of this.

Lots of picture books use rhyme to help the story flow, was it a conscious choice to not use it in The Garden of Hope?

Isabel: I love rhyming text, and I think it can be a wonderful tool in aiding language development and understanding. However, it does impose a few limitations on the writer, and I felt more able to express the narrative of this story in prose.

What draws you both to writing for a younger audience and is there anything particularly rewarding about it?

Isabel: When I was a child, picture books provided my first encounters with the wider world outside my own home, and I imagine that this must still be the case for a lot of young children. This is a huge privilege, but comes with some responsibility. It is extremely rewarding as a writer to think that one of your books might allow a child to broaden their understanding; or help another to see themselves in the story and feel less alone.

Katie: It feels like such a privilege to be able to illustrate children’s picture books. Whilst reading with my young niece I love how she absorbs the images and memorises the words even though she cannot yet read them. A picture book is a powerful platform which can help young readers make sense of the things that are going on around them, which I think is indeed incredibly rewarding.

With the book focusing on grief and the hope that comes after, can you recommend any other children’s books with similar themes?

Isabel: There are lots of beautiful books that deal with these themes, but here are some of my favourites:

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake) is a stunningly illustrated, poignant account of Rosen’s personal journey in coping with the death of his son. He has to learn how to live again, and the book ends on a hopeful note.

If All the World Were… (by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Alison Colpoys) is a lyrical, uplifting story about a little girl coming to terms with the death of her granddad. She writes and draws her memories of him in a notebook he made for her, as a way of keeping his spirit alive.

The Memory Tree (written and illustrated by Britta Teckentrup) uses animals to explore the themes of grief and hope. When Fox goes to sleep forever, the other woodland animals share their stories about him. As they do so, a tree begins to grow. This is a lovely tale, and a gentle way to bring up the subject of death.

Katie: One of my MA projects was a book with an underlying theme of bereavement, so I became aware then of many amazing books tackling this tricky subject. I would definitely recommend Missing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb, which is a beautiful but very emotional book, and Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies, which deals with the theme in a more subtle way.

Thanks so much to Isabel, Katie and everyone at Little Tiger for gifting us The Garden of Hope and letting us pick your brains! If you want to find out more about Isabel and Katie, check out their websites here and here.

Lucy 

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