Bethan Woollvin chats to us about her new book and her subervise fairy tales
Learn how Bethan Woollvin's distinctive style developed and what she hopes children will take from her books. Take a look at some of the sketches and art for her stories and read her advice for aspiring authors and illustrators. Find out why Bethan loves a good villain, how she conquered her fear of public speaking and what she would take with her in an emergency!
Three Little Vikings is a fantastic, feminist fairy tale that teaches children to believe in themselves, question authority and make their voices heard. It's also deliciously wicked and deliriously funny with striking illustrations (read our review). We were delighted to speak to Bethan all about this wonderful new book and lsome of her earlier works. Learn more about the background to this story and Bethan's previous fairy tales, as well as her creative process…
How woud you describe Three Little Vikings?
It's a VERY exciting story and I first started working on it back in early 2020, so it’s technically a pandemic book! It’s got not just one feisty female protagonist, but THREE. What more could you want?
Here’s a little synopsis for you: Once upon a time in a Viking village, everything seems to be going wrong. Chickens are disappearing, trees are falling down, and there’s lots of crashing and bashing! The silly chieftain won’t listen to the three little Vikings, but can they work together to solve the mystery and save the day? Three Little Vikings is all about cooperation, bravery and making your voice heard!
What inspired this story? The very first ideas came together early last year, after doing some fascinating research into Viking history and folklore. The plan was to create another original story centred around an era in history, just the same as my previous tale, I Can Catch a Monster, which is set in a medieval kingdom. While researching, I discovered that many Vikings believed in, feared and protected themselves against all kinds of mythical creatures!
Finding this absolutely fascinating, I steadily began to develop my story to include a horrid forest dwelling creature who lived within this Viking world. But the Viking village had no chance of defeating this huge and destructive creature, not without three feisty shield maidens! That’s where my Viking trio began…and I named them Helga, Ebba and Wren.
But my heroic Viking trio are faced with a bit of a problem. They discover that something or someone is causing chaos in the village, and despite raising the alarm and telling the chieftain, they simply cannot get their voices heard. Having your voice disregarded or overlooked is a familiar feeling amongst women and young girls, and this book gave me the perfect opportunity to explore this further.
I love how, despite all the “chieftainsplaining” and dismissal of their concerns, the three little Vikings trust their instincts and believe in their own abilities. Is this the message you are hoping children will take from the story?
I love the term ‘chieftainsplaining’ - I might have to steal that! Within Three Little Vikings, I’ve threaded several messages throughout the book that I have strong feelings about. I definitely didn’t set out to deliver them together in one book, but they came together naturally and complemented one another well.
Firstly, a message that we should all consider is that children should feel their voice has value among adults, and that adults are listening to them. If you aren’t listening, you might become bait for a horrid forest creature, and that will be your own fault!
Another issue I was keen to address, was the frustration women and girls often feel when their voices aren’t heard by men, and the lengths they go to in order to be taken seriously. In Three Little Vikings, Helga, Ebba and Wren attempt to tell the chieftain many times about the dangerous creature they’ve spotted in the forest, and he simply doesn’t believe them. I hope this book encourages readers to not dismiss the voices of others, as you never know… they might have something important to say!
Lastly, when making this book, I found a lot of joy in developing the friendship and sisterhood between Helga, Ebba and Wren. The Viking trio embrace each other’s strengths and differences, all while combatting a horrid forest creature. They are also able to trust in each other’s knowledge and bravery to defeat this creature themselves, even when no one else believes them.
I hope that Three Little Vikings encourages young readers to challenge authority, question the world around them, and to stand up and do something - even when their voice isn’t being heard.
There are two villains in the story and it’s so funny to see them encounter each other. Were you always planning for them to interact or did this idea develop along with the story?
Playing around with dynamics between heroes, villains, good and evil is something I do a lot in my books. Within Three Little Vikings, I actually decided to include two different types of villain: the chieftain and the horrid forest creature. Where they both land on the villain scale is open to opinion, but it was really interesting to work with a different character setup for the story.
In the early stages, the storyline of both the troll and chieftain were a little more unconnected. Over time, I developed the story more, and felt like they had a role to play in each other’s stories. There was something really funny to me about making both my villains play a part in their own comeuppance - maybe it’s because I’m a bit wicked! But either way, without any spoilers, I’m glad to say that both the horrid forest creature, and the chieftain get just what they deserve.
I love how cosy and atmospheric this book is with all the snow, the tall shadows the trees cast through the little Vikings’ window, the starlit skies and the blazing fires. Are you a fan of the Scandinavian aesthetic and way of life?
Isn’t everyone? Exploring the Scandinavian aesthetic was something I really enjoyed working with in this book. One of my favourite aspects of creating books is the ‘world building’ where I put myself in the location and visually map out what it would look like. I’ve actually had the pleasure of visiting Stockholm in Sweden before, during the winter season, and that’s exactly how it was for me: starlit skies, blazing fires and snowy landscapes. I’m sure that some of my memories of Stockholm must have made their way into my illustrations somehow!
For the illustrations, I did have to do a fair bit of visual research into Viking culture. I spent a lot of time researching the clothes that Vikings wore, what their homes looked like inside and out, and what their surroundings might have been. For the Viking hall within my book, I found a few different Viking museums across Scandinavia which had either original or replica Viking longhouses as part of their collections. I looked at a lot of photos of these longhouses which were a great help and inspiration throughout the book.
It’s brilliant how books help to save the day (especially spooky ones!). Which book would you take with you in an emergency? Wow, now that puts me on the spot! I think in an emergency, I’d probably need a good laugh to keep my mind at ease. One of my favourite books that makes me roar with laughter is Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton.
You’ve worked on books set in space, under water and in fairy tale worlds. Are there any other settings you’re dying to explore?
Good question! There are so many possibilities, but I’d love to try something totally imaginary, like a kingdom in the clouds!
Have you always wanted to write and illustrate children’s books? Is being the eldest of a large family an influence on your chosen career - were you always entertaining your younger siblings with stories you invented when you were younger?
The honest answer is… no. But only because I didn’t grow up really knowing that it was a career option. I knew that people wrote and illustrated books, but I never considered that I could be one of them. When I went to study illustration at university, our class was introduced to all of the different industries within illustration, such as editorial, advertisement or even scientific illustration. I discovered that my talents lied with character and narrative illustration, so my lecturers recommended that I explore children’s publishing and illustration. I think this was probably the time that I began considering it as a career path.
Being the big sister to nine siblings has been a real benefit to my career, even if just to use them as guinea pigs for my latest book ideas (insert evil cackle here…)! In my experience, purely being around children keeps you young at heart, and more in tune with the things that children enjoy. Not only that, but being immersed in a childlike world can be very inspiring, with all of the imaginative playing, films, books, toys and all the exciting adventures to go with them.
I think there must be something in our blood, because my siblings and I have always been really creative. We would spend hours after school drawing together! We loved to create hilarious characters, and make little backstories for them. My brothers and sisters have definitely helped me come up with a few good ideas in the past, and still do! But, they’re all growing up (and fast!) so I need to tap into all of that fantastic imagination while I still can!
Did the success of your first book, Little Red, take you by surprise? It was originally a project for university - did you expect it to get published so quickly and go on to win so many prestigious awards?
Yeah! It really did! I entered my book idea for Little Red into the Macmillan Book Prize back in 2014, really hoping, if anything, for some feedback on my portfolio. Well, all of the moons and stars must have aligned, as my incredibly rough idea somehow ended up winning the competition.
It felt like such a huge honour to have won the prize, and when Macmillan told me that they wanted to publish Little Red, I knew I had to give this opportunity my all. It’s not often that such opportunities come along!
Before the book was published, there was a fair amount of refining we needed to do of both the illustrations and the text. We essentially treated the artwork I had submitted into the prize as rough artwork, and developed it from there. I remember feeling like I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’d get emails from my designers and editors with all of this alien publishing terminology, and I was having to google each term like it was a foreign language! As well as working the hardest I’d ever worked to have my first book published, I was also doing a full-time illustration degree. It was an incredibly stressful period of time, but obviously, entirely worth it! Even if Little Red was the only book I ever had published, the professional direction I received from the editors and designers at Macmillan was invaluable, and has helped me become a far better creator. It’s been a totally unexpected, wild ride so far… but I absolutely adore my job, and I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else!
How did you develop your distinct style? Was it there right from the beginning, did it evolve naturally, or was it something you cultivated?
My style evolved quite naturally while I was at university. We were encouraged to find our own influences, and let them inspire our work. I found lots of ways to inspire myself, such as visiting museums, libraries, galleries, taking myself on drawing trips, and experimenting with new art materials and processes. I found that what I loved making the most, was bold, colourful artwork with lots of brush strokes and texture.
But something that really honed in my illustration style was printmaking. I was very taken by all the different types of printmaking processes during my time at university, and I found it fascinating to learn the intricate steps that went into each type of print. I fell in love with screen printing the most, but due to the process - using lots of colours was tricky, so you had to find a way to create artwork in just a few colours. I loved seeing my artwork in such a limited colour palette, it felt like my artistic identity was coming together. Even when I wasn’t able to do as much printmaking, the limited colour palette stayed attached to my artwork, and has done ever since!
Your limited colour palettes are really striking and interesting, how do you decide on which colours to include?
When creating my fairytale series, Little Red, Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel, I decided along with my publisher, Two Hoots, that we should use a limited colour palette as a sort of ‘theme’ for the books. I used an identifying colour for each, plus grey and black, and that was repeated across all three books. We used red for Little Red, obviously, and golden yellow for Rapunzel and her golden hair. However, for Hansel & Gretel, I had originally planned to use blue. That is, until I discovered how difficult it was going to be to convincingly illustrate a gingerbread house in blue. We switched from blue to orange, and now I can’t even picture the artwork in blue! So, for the most part, the colour palette is directed by the items, characters or environments, and whether they need to be a certain colour to be recognised.
When writing and illustrating your own work, what comes to you first, the text or the visuals, or do they appear in your head simultaneously?
Even at the very first stages of making a book, I’m working on the text and the illustrations simultaneously. A lot of creating books comes down to problem solving and having a good relationship between the pictures and the text. So, to me, it makes sense to work on them in tandem. Luckily, I’m a visual person, and this really helps me when I’m creating books. I can storyboard narratives in my head and experiment with different compositions - finding the best way to convey a piece of the story. I find that working on both the imagery and the text together also means I can iron out any issues early on, for example - whether the story will actually fit across the 32 pages of a picture book.
Do you go through many drafts when illustrating a project or do you have a strong sense of how you want it to look before you begin?
Of course! I spend a really long time working and re-working spreads to nail the delivery of each spread. It can take me months to get a strong storyboard put together! I often have a solid idea of what I plan to create for each spread, but it takes me quite a while to bring my vision into reality. The hardest part for me isn’t dreaming up the ideas for each spread, it’s getting my brain to communicate that visual onto paper. It doesn’t happen as clearly as some might assume, and most frustratingly, sometimes your idea looks better in your head!
The ending of Hansel and Gretel is hilarious and perhaps one of the funniest I’ve seen. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone by mentioning what it is, but it’s such a memorable image. I was fascinated to discover that this ending came from your three-year-old sibling! Has your family influenced or inspired any other stories? Is there anything else that helps when you are struggling with a story?
Thank you! I love hearing that my books are making readers laugh, even if they are a little wicked! So far, I think Hansel & Gretel has been the only book where one of my siblings has contributed in a distinct way to the plot of the story (which was made all the more better for it!). However, my books are constantly inspired by not only my brothers and sisters, but my whole family. I’m always looking to my family and childhood for inspiration for my characters appearances, personality traits or phrases they might say. For example, in I Can Catch a Monster, my protagonist, Bo, is on a quest to catch herself a monster. Once she lays eyes on one, she shouts ‘I’m Bo the Brave, get ready to be got!’ The phrase ‘get ready to be got’ was something me and my siblings would shout to one another during games of hide and seek.
A lot of inspiration for my illustrations come from my family, too. For any interiors I illustrate, like kitchens and bedrooms, I usually draw upon objects and trinkets you might find in my family home - like soft toys, furniture and ornaments.
When you are illustrating a book, do you do create the scenes in chronological order? Or are you drawn to particular scenes more than others and do those first? Or do you just work on them randomly?
Generally, I’m a bit of a bore and illustrate in chronological order - just for clarity on where I am on a project. But sometimes, the publisher might request certain spreads or even the cover to be prioritised first in order to promote the book to other territories while I’m still working on it.
I love how the endpapers and cover flaps of your books continue the stories and help set the scene and tone. Are they as important to you as the plot and do you know what they’ll look like from the start? Or do you ideas for them emerge as you work?
Though I do create the extra little illustrations for the book flaps, the majority of the creativity that goes into them is down to the brilliant designers over at Two Hoots! When I’m working on the illustrations for a book, I’m keeping my mind open to ideas I could use for the flaps. Sometimes the flaps are inspired by something on one of the inside spreads, and I’ll often note that idea down for later. At first, I’m focused on creating all the artwork needed for the hardback edition of the book (which doesn’t have flaps!), and then once I’ve completed that, I move onto the additional illustrations required for the paperback edition. This could include illustrations to accompany the ‘this book belongs to…’ page, extra endpapers and of course - the book flaps!
Sometimes the flaps are purely decorative, and other times I might use them to enrich the story. Along with the endpapers, I use the flaps as being similar to post-credit scenes you get with films. The main story is over, but here’s an extra little Easter egg or tidbit!
It’s amazing how much agency your female characters have, especially typically passive protagonists like Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. It’s hard to believe that no-one had the idea of subverting these classics sooner! I read that you were frustrated by Red Riding Hood’s naivety as a child yourself. Did you feel the same way about Rapunzel and/or how did you get the idea for her wreaking her revenge?
I definitely wasn’t the first person to subvert fairy tales, but it’s been great fun reimagining these fairytale worlds and creating more assertive female protagonists to exist within them. As a child, I felt frustrated and conflicted with the majority of fairy tales. On the one hand, I adored the rich environments the tales were set in, those of deep, dark forests and enchanted castles. But on the other hand, the female characters were dull, uninspiring and without any of their own autonomy. I think I just expected more from these tales.
Unsurprisingly, in the traditional tale of Rapunzel, the young maiden is portrayed as completely passive and naive. So naturally, I welcomed the opportunity to subvert the tale! To begin with, I put myself in Rapunzel’s shoes, and thought about how I might deal with the situation. I came to the conclusion that I’d create some sort of secret prison-break plan, busting out of that tower ASAP! As Rapunzel, I also thought that I’d probably have a massive vendetta against that horrid witch, and I’d probably want to put a stop to these evil-doing witches for good (*spoiler alert!*). That’s why Rapunzel becoming a witch hunter after she’s finally free, felt like a hilarious and natural path to take with the story.
I find the conical cloaks the witches and wizards wear in Hansel & Gretel and Rapunzel hilarious and absolutely perfect. How did these come to you? Is this just how you visualise them naturally or did something inspire you one day?
I had been working on the design for the witch in Rapunzel, and I’d drawn hundreds of triangular witch cloaks, and hundreds of triangular witch hats, getting nowhere with a design I was happy with. Then, I had a real lightbulb moment, and thought that I could simplify my whole witch character, if I just merged the witch’s hat and body into one big cone shape. She looks so hilarious and weird; she still makes me laugh when I look at her!
I love how in Hansel and Gretel and I Can Catch a Monster, you reframe and restore the reputations of figures from literature and our cultural imaginations. Are you always on the side of the underdog and will we see a different side to more famous fictional figures in future works?
No, not at all! If anything, I love myself a good villain. Villains enrich stories just as much as heroes do! In fact, I really enjoy blurring the lines between who is good, and who is bad. In Hansel & Gretel (*Spoiler alert*) I experimented with the characteristics of Hansel & Gretel, and the witch, flipping them entirely. Within my retelling, we know Willow to be ‘a good witch’ and Hansel & Gretel are the unsavoury characters. But at the end of the tale, we discover that Willow isn’t always a good witch.
I have some really great discussions with children when I read Hansel & Gretel at book events. I often ask the children if they think Willow was still a good witch or not, and whether Hansel & Gretel deserved their comeuppance. We also talk about Hansel & Gretel being children, and whether that made them more or less bad. Opening up that conversation with children about how we aren’t all 100% good or 100% bad, and that life isn’t black and white. Even good people mess up sometimes, and that’s ok.
Readers are so often rooting for the underdog in a story, which is natural. But when I’m creating stories, I like to take both my heroes and my villains on their own journeys, and really get as much out of each type of character as I can. Unfortunately, I haven’t’ got any more subverted fairy tales in the pipeline at the moment, but you know - never say never!
What’s the funniest, strangest or most unusual thing that’s happened to you during your children’s book career (apart from a pandemic)?
After reading this question, I’ve had one of those moments where you totally blank every notable moment that’s ever happened to me…uh oh! Something that does stick out to me as being particularly memorable, is when I went over and did a book tour in the US in 2018 to celebrate the release of Rapunzel. Around this time, I still had some major imposter syndrome in the world of children’s books, and I remember feeling like an absolute bundle of nerves inside. My US publishers had organised an action-packed tour, and I couldn’t believe that there were so many schools and events who were interested in me visiting!
I was mainly attending schools and doing book readings and crafty activities with small groups of children. Maybe 35-40 kids in each. That was, until we got to one particular school. There had been a bit of a communication mishap with how many children would be attending the session. I thought there would be about 40 children, and when I turned up, there were a couple of hundred at least. I was absolutely terrified, but I stumbled through the event, and lived to tell the tale.
Though I was terrified at the time, I’m actually really thankful that it happened. It immediately got me over my fear of public speaking and big events. Sometimes throwing yourself into the deep end is the only way to conquer a fear. Now I do all sorts of events with both children and adults, and believe it or not, I enjoy them!
What’s the best review you have ever gotten from a child about your work?
I can’t think of an individual review off the top of my head, because children say hilarious things to me all the time about my books. But I do have a memory that I’m really fond of from a school event I did a few years back...
I’m standing at the front of an assembly hall full of kids, and we’re doing an event centred around Little Red. I announced that I was going to read Little Red, and I was faced with screams of joy from the girls, and some grumbles and groans from the boys. In fact, a lot of the boys looked bored out of their minds before I’d even started.
Anyway, I’m reading the book (*spoiler alert*), and by the time Grandma has been gobbled up by the big bad wolf, I notice that some of the boys seem to be engaging a little more… And when Little Red spies the large red axe, I see the boys looking at each other with wide eyes and open mouths. You should have seen their faces when I read the last page!
At the end of the story, I often like to ask the audience about the differences between the traditional version of Little Red Riding Hood, and my version, Little Red. I also like to encourage them to think of good describing words for all of the characters. When I asked for describing words for Little Red, a few girls gave me some good answers ‘clever’, and ‘brave’. When I asked a few of the boys, the words they gave me were ‘powerful’, and ‘heroic’. I went home that day knowing that I’d changed the perceptions of a female protagonist for not only girls, but boys too.
What were your favourite books when you were younger? Are there any authors and/or illustrators who have had a particular influence on you?
It’s no secret that I’m inspired by Tove Jansson and her Moomin empire. I had a copy of Tales from Moominvalley when I was younger that I really loved. I also enjoyed a lot of popular family favourites, like Each Peach Pear Plum, and Funnybones, both by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.
One of my favourites was Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, which I have very fond memories of my grandad reading to me! When I was a little older, my siblings and I discovered The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Stories by Lane Smith & Jon Scieszka. As the eldest, it was my job to read this book to my siblings, and we’d be howling with laughter at the ridiculous stories in this book. The way Smith & Scieszka adapted these fairy tales was just brilliant, and definitely influenced me to create my own fairy tales.
Do you have any advice for aspiring picture book authors and illustrators?
I think it’s important to remember that no matter what stage in your illustration career you are, you should always keep experimenting with your work and trying new things! This is so important in order to keep your ideas fresh and exciting. I like to visit exhibitions and museums, experimenting with new art processes and materials, or just meeting new and interesting people! I find this is the best way to keep the ugly creative-block-monster at bay!
Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob - is there anything you're snobby about?
Oh definitely, I’m really snobby about coffee! I’m just like Goldilocks with coffee. Not too milky, not too strong. I like it just right!
Thanks so much Bethan for a fascinating insight into your work and for sharing your beautiful photos! Thanks also to Two Hoots for having us on this tour and for sending us a gift of this beautiful book (all opinions expressed are our own). Don't forget to visit all the other fantastic stops and brilliant blogs on this tour to find out even more about Three Little Vikings: