Discover why we love this book, learn how Úna Woods creates her artwork, see her favourite creepy places, and find out how you could win a signed book AND a limited edition print...
If you're not from Ireland, you may not be aware that we take credit for inventing Halloween, or Oíche Shamhna to use its original Celtic name. The first jack-o-lanterns were not actually pumpkins, but turnips! Yet, until Úna Woods' delightful debut Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire? was published, I don't think there were any Irish picture books celebrating this ancient festival.
Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire? was the most popular review on Picture Book Snob in 2020. If you've been following the blog for a while, you're probably already familiar with this gorgeous book, but if not, you can read a review here. We absolutely love this story which takes readers on a tour of Dublin. We were so excited when we heard about its follow-up, A Spooktacular Place to Be which sees the vampire leave his familiar haunts to explore different parts of Ireland.
We visit this country's creepiest places, picking up new passengers along the way. A map at the start outlines the journey (always a brilliant inclusion in children's books) and a ghost bus transports us to each destination. We're introduced to eerie figures from Irish mythology, the banshee and the púca (who inspired Puck from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), and visit lots of attractions. Although the vampire's adventures take place at night, the images are bright and cheerful throughout.
One of the most wonderful things about Úna's books is how they portray contemporary Ireland as a vibrant and attractive place. Even though her artwork is remarkably colourful, green doesn't feature strongly. There are no shillelaghs, Irish dancers or leprechauns, and while some shamrocks are present, they're not prominent. What you see is the 'real' Ireland which Irish children will recognise, rather than the twee, touristy version. The latter unfortunately dominated the illustrated children's books that were around when I was young, that is if Ireland featured in them at all.
It's fantastic to have stories that reflect modern Ireland accurately. Úna's creations are incredibly diverse and inclusive, with different ethnicities and children in wheelchairs represented too. We need more books with characters with which all readers can identify.
As attractive as Úna's artwork is, she writes just as beautifully. Her lively rhyming text is a joy to read aloud. There are lots of evocative sound words like 'crash', 'rattle', 'swish' and 'achoo'. The question, 'Is there a more spooktacular place to be?', is repeated throughout the story. This gives the text a comforting quality that appeals to little readers. As with all the best picture books, the images add even more to the narrative.
There's an extraordinary amount of detail on every page which enriches the story and makes it more interesting. From the moment the tour departs, there is so much happening on the bus. Children pull faces, a baby presses their nose against the glass and a gigantic orb of bubblegum is about to pop. Úna has created a dynamic setting in which even the pigeons are full of personality (and sailor's-hat-wearing seagulls play poker).
As we travel around, we meet mummies who cuddle teddy bears and steal hats, and there are mummified mice too. Little ghosts are pegged on clotheslines while larger ones guard castles and stately homes, sometimes enforcing a strict 'no pets' policy. Witches wail, pirates roar, and megalithic skeletons wear brooches, cloaks and kilts. The human characters are just as eye-catching, with their chic clothes, animal-print cars and buggies, bat-shaped babygros and batman-themed wheelchairs, and stuffed bats.
The intricate illustrations allow for subplots involving the animals in the background. A cat and a mouse become pals and we watch their friendship develop, with the cat saving the mouse from a watery fate at Skelling Michael. Later on, the mouse goes fishing, possibly for a reward for the cat. Meanwhile, a new creature boards the bus at every stop, with hilarious results. The vehicle gradually becomes occupied by badgers, puffins, seals, sheep, foxes, owls, bats, rabbits, otters, crabs and rodents, and some pumpkins stow away too.
While the humans are generally oblivious to the supernatural activity of Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire?, they seem more observant in this book. Perhaps this is because they are far from the distractions of a big city. Like the reader, they are caught up in the excitement of Ireland's impressive landscape and legendary figures, as well as Úna Woods' enormous talent. Despite being ideal for Halloween, A Spooktacular Place to Be can be enjoyed at any time of the year. This STUNNING book would make a fabulous gift. Get a copy for yourself as well as any Irish people you know living abroad.
It was such a treat to chat to author-illustrator Úna Woods all about her work and discover her favourite spooky places and books. Read our interview and find out how you could win an exclusive, limited edition print...
How did you decide on all the locations for A Spooktacular Place to Be? It was quite hard to pick the locations throughout the book, as there are so many great spooky places throughout Ireland that I wanted to include, and of course, I couldn’t include everywhere. I thought about the spooky characters I would like to use in my story and where they might live. I picked locations that I thought seemed quite spooky and eerie but most importantly would be good fun to draw. One of my favourite spooky locations is Newgrange, I always get a spooky feeling when I am there!
Do you have a favourite part of Ireland?
I love so many different places around Ireland but I guess I am a bit like the Dublin Vampire and the place I like most is close to home. I am very lucky and live very close to St. Anne's Park and also the sea. I love spending lots of time there.
How does it feel to see the finished copies of your books for the first time?
It is so exciting to get to hold the book for the first time. I hadn’t realised that A Spooktacular Place to Be would have a foil title so this was such a lovely surprise. I think the most amazing thing is when you get to see your book on a shelf in a bookshop.
Do you have a favourite spread from A Spooktacular Place to Be?
My favourite spread is the pumpkin spread. One of my favourite things about Halloween are pumpkins. I loved the idea of having a big field full of brightly coloured pumpkins with different fun faces. This was such a lovely scene to draw.
Which scene from Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire do you like best?
My favourite spread from Have You Seen The Dublin Vampire? is the Long Room library in Trinity College. I loved drawing all the books and adding details from the Book of Kells. This was probably the spread I spent the most time trying to get right. The spreads I like most are usually the ones I most enjoy drawing.
You famously became a picture book author after pitching your story to O’Brien Press during Culture Night! How did it feel to get your pitch accepted? Was it a surprise? Had you been working on the book for long before then? I was so nervous when I went to the O'Brien Press Pitch Perfect event on Culture Night. I didn't really know what to expect and I couldn’t believe it when they liked the idea for my story. This was such an exciting moment for me. I had been working on the character of the Dublin Vampire, and ideas for a story, before I had gone to the event not really ever thinking that my book would be published. I think Pitch Perfect is such an amazing experience especially for anyone trying to get their first book published.
Have you always wanted to write and illustrate your own books? Yes, I have always loved stories and picture books. From a very young age, I dreamt of making books but I wasn’t quite sure how to become a picture book maker as there were no courses here in Ireland for picture book illustration when I left school. I worked in animation for quite a few years and I also illustrated a lot of different projects for children including games, websites and educational books. I learned so much by reading picture books and attending picture book events over the years. This gave me the confidence to attend Pitch Perfect where I got my first picture book contract.
What inspired you to create the character of the Dublin Vampire and are you as fond of bats and all things spooky as he is? I grew up down the road from Marino Crescent where Bram Stoker was born so I was always fascinated by Vampires. This is how I came up with the idea for the character. I thought it would be fun to have a character called the Dublin Vampire as the most famous vampire, Dracula, was created in Dublin. I love Halloween and all the spooky characters but I don’t like anything too scary. What are your own favourite spooky stories? I love Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies. I just love looking at the illustrations in this book! I guess it is quite a dark book but the illustrations are so cute.
How do you create your art? I always start by sketching. I do lots of drawings on paper first to evolve and get to know my characters. I also sketch up how I would like the scenes on each page to look. After lots of sketching and polishing my rough drawings, I begin working digitally with Adobe Illustrator. I redraw everything again, using clean lines and simple shapes. I also design the patterns I want to use throughout. I love flowers, polka dots and funky animal prints, so I create lots of these. I also have lots of fun deciding what colours I want to use.
I love characters' clothes! Do you like to wear bright patterns just like them? Yes definitely, I love wearing printed clothes with bright colours and especially animal prints. There are quite a lot of outfits the characters in my books wear that I would definitely wear too.
It’s fantastic how diverse and inclusive your books are. Is this something that’s very important to you?
I think it's very important to be diverse and inclusive in books as people are all so different. I love the idea that someone might see themself as a little character in my book!
What have you enjoyed the most about being an author-illustrator so far?
I think my favourite thing so far was taking part in events for Irish Book Week this year. I felt very honoured to be asked to take part as I am such a new author-illustrator. I got to create art in two bookshop windows, Hodges and Figgis and Books Upstairs. It was such an exciting thing to do!
What’s the best feedback that you’ve received from a child about your books?
I have gotten such lovely feedback from both children and parents about my book. I have had a few children send me photos of them going on their little trip with their family in search of The Dublin Vampire at the different locations throughout my book. I love the idea that they are out there hoping to spot him too!
You were one of the illustrators who recently represented Ireland at the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava exhibition. That must have been a proud moment! Can you tell us anything about your trip? The trip to Bratislava was so inspiring. I was very lucky to be selected amongst I was very lucky to be selected, amongst other illustrators from Illustrators Ireland, to represent the best of Irish illustration for children. The exhibition took place in the magnificent Bratislava Castle. All the work from Ireland looked amazing especially as the standard of work from all the countries participating was so high. I felt very proud of all the work from Ireland. We are very lucky to have so many amazing Irish Illustrators. I also got to attend the BIB 2021 opening and awards ceremony which was such a lovely event.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or illustrators?
Listen to the stories of other authors and illustrators, and how they got their work published. I feel I learned so much from other people. There are so many great events now like Proper Book where you get so much advice from people working in the industry. Events like this are definitely worth attending.
Finally, I consider myself a Picture Book Snob – is there anything you’re snobby about? I am a bit of a drawing pencil and paper snob! I am very selective about the pencils I use, I can only use 4B or 5B, there are also certain papers that I only like to draw on. I love using layout paper but it has to be the right one. Thanks so much to Úna for kindly answering all our questions and sending us a signed copy of her spooktacular new book. Úna has also generously donated another signed copy and an exclusive limited edition print as a prize for readers of the blog. Just fill out this form to be in with a chance of winning. You can see more of Úna’s work here and she also has an amazing Etsy store where prints can be purchased.