The Witchling's Wish: Review + Interview with Lu Fraser & Sarah Massini
It was so exciting to chat with the author and illustrator of one of the most beautiful books we've ever seen! Read a review, learn what inspired the story, discover how Sarah creates her artwork, and find a clue about Lu's next project with Bloomsbury...
What's it about?
A lonely Witchling attempts to cast a spell to find a companion but lacks a vital ingredient: a hair from a one-eyed bear. The little witch's search for this elusive component leads her to the home of a girl named Lily. Has the Witchling finally found what she was missing all along?
What can we learn? There's nothing quite as magical as friendship, and kindness is the most powerful force of all.
What makes this stand out? This is a totally different type of witch story. Its primary focus is the relationship between the characters rather than any magical elements (although they are present and add to its charm). Author Lu Fraser is a gifted writer who manages to create the most endearing characters, and stories that elicit a strong emotional connection, without ever being mawkish or mushy. Lu's text is incredibly lyrical while illustrator Sarah Massini's enchanting artwork could be described as a kind of visual poetry.
About those illustrations...
Just look at them! The artwork is so spectacular and the Witchling's world is so inviting, I'd love to climb inside this book! Although you notice more and more on each reading, you're immediately struck by how beautiful and elaborate each image is. Even though much of the book is set in a deep, dark cave, there is a radiance to all of the images. Vibrant pinks and oranges recalling sunsets appear as backdrops when the Witchling prepares her spell, and again in Lily's house. Colourful plumes of smoke emanate from the Witchling's broomstick like a trail of sherbet across a petrol-blue sky.
There is an extraordinary amount of detail on every page. We see panoramic views of the Witchling's world as she travels by broom. Vines climb the wall of Lily's house, there are tiny spider threads in the backgrounds of many scenes, and the Witchling's home is exquisite. My children enjoy the vignette showing Lily growing up with her teddy and are particularly fond of looking at the Witchling's cave. Stockings, flowers and herbs dangle above a cauldron as they dry, cobwebs decorate rooftops and archways, while mushrooms and plants sprout from various places. Bats snooze upside down in the shadows, and spiders and beetles wander around, with one even tucked up cosily in the Witchling's bed! We love looking at her delicately patterned china, the bat-motif tableware and softly glowing oil lanterns. There's a collection of glass jars containing curious items: one appears to hold a rainbow, another a group of adders, while a delectable cupcake can be seen in a third. Jellyfish float in a goldfish bowl, a star shines brightly from beneath a bell jar, and a luminous crystal ball keeps a lizard warm. My kids have taken to using the book as a backdrop for the adventures of their Playmobil figures, who spend a lot of time in the Witchling's kitchen too!
Why we love it...
This is the type of book I would have adored myself when I was younger and it's wonderful to see my kids enjoying it so much. I love how atmospheric this is right from the beginning. Lu Fraser writes the most evocative and eloquent opening lines, and Sarah Massini's intricate artwork creates a mysterious and bewitching setting. It would be difficult to find a more perfect pairing of author and illustrator and their combined talent creates an effect that is its own sorcery.
Why you need it...
The Witchling's Witch is an excellent story for encouraging empathy in young people and demonstrating the importance of compassion. This is emphatically not a book that's just for Halloween. Yes, there's a witch, which makes it ideal for this time of year, but it's not a spooky tale and its timeless message is suitable for every season.
A Q&A with author Lu Fraser
Were you excited when you heard Sarah would be illustrating your book? How did it feel to see her illustrations for the first time? Do you have a favourite spread?
The first time I saw a piece of artwork by Sarah Massini, I remember thinking, ‘Woah! I want to work with HER!’ But I never expected it to come true! Some months later, I was sat in my first publisher meeting when a piece of paper was slid across the table accompanied by the words, ‘What do you think?’ It was an image of the Witchling, done in sepia, by Sarah… and that was it! I knew instantly that I would never see the Witchling any other way. Every spread Sarah has done is glorious but, yes – I do have a favourite! It’s Spread 2 - the inside of the Witchling’s home; it’s packed with the finest detail, painstakingly executed in miniature, endlessly fascinating, overwhelmingly beautiful and filled with lots of little hidden things that are personal to Sarah and me!
How did you get the idea for this book? Was it inspired by anyone or anything in particular? What do you hope children will take from the story?
I grew up in Somerset and Wookey Hole was one of my favourite places – I was fascinated by the legend of its witch (and every other witch story I could get my hands on!). I adored Jill Murphy, Ursula Moray Williams, Barbara Sleigh and, of course, later on, Donaldson’s Room on the Broom. I was always going to write a story about a witch (and I suspect there will be more witches at some point!). At the end of the day, though, being a witch is not as important as the choices the Witchling makes. That’s what I’d like children to take away from this story – that choosing to be kind to others is a wonderful, magical thing.
'Well, I think your heart is bigger than I thought a heart could be,' is such a brilliant line. Did this come to you early on in the writing process?
Thank you! These were actually the first lines I wrote - I based the whole story around them! I never ever write from start to finish – I never plot things out either; I just write! I start with the heart-lines of the story and, once I’ve got those sorted, everything else builds around them. I write the bits that I want to write on the days that I feel like writing them so, for instance, if I wake up and think ‘I feel like writing an action spread’ that’s what I do. Sometimes I don’t sew the whole book together until the very final stages (although it usually means I write way too much and have to start chopping!).
I love how friendship is the most magical thing in this story and how it subtly demonstrates what this word really means. Was this something you set out to do from the start or did this emerge as the story developed?
Friendship was always at the very heart of this story, but I also wanted this book to be about so much more than ‘making friends’. I wanted to show the generosity of friendship, to touch on the kindness of friendship and, above all else, to highlight how a true friend will put your needs above their own. I wanted the Witchling to have a gentle, dawning realisation of the magnitude of Lily’s offer. I wanted her to have empathy and I wanted her to make a selfless choice without ever thinking about self-gain. That’s quite hard to do in a few hundred words but, between us all, I think we managed it!
What are your own favourite books and/or films about friendship?
I absolutely love books where there’s a new or uneasy friendship – a friendship that needs to be tested and then emerges victorious! (Or does it?!?! I love a twist in the tale, too! Stephanie Garber, Sarah J. Mass, Leigh Bardugo and Holly Black are all outstanding at this!).
I also love stories where you find friendship in unexpected places (Otherland by Louie Stowell is a gem, as is Kirsty Applebaum’s Troofriend). Friendship against adversity (Maria Kuzniar and the phenomenal Dashe Roberts) and friendship for the lonely (Princess BMX, Marie Basting) – all of these are on my bookshelves! Most of all, though, I love the type of friendship or connection that lasts for all time, which seems to transcend the here-and-now. Maybe there is a bit of that in my next Bloomsbury project – watch this space…!
A Q&A with illustrator Sarah Massini
What did it feel like to read the story for the first time? Were you instantly inspired? Well, Lu’s ability with words is phenomenal. Her rhymes roll with ease and with great humour and heart. And the Little Witchling is such a strong character, and you really empathise with her and her sense of loneliness at the start of the story. So I loved both Witchling and her story after my first read-through. When you love a story – i.e. the start of your journey with it – you’re full of excitement at all the possibilities; about all the images that the words have already conjured in your head.
Do you have a favourite spread? Which scenes did you most enjoy working on? I really enjoyed the title page and the very last page too. They’re both quite simple and graphic and the colours are strong. They’re not really tied too much to words either, which allowed me the freedom to illustrate pretty much what I wanted.
The colour palette is gorgeous and different to that of a traditional witch-themed book – how did you decide on it? Thank you so much. From the start, I wanted Witchling to have her own distinct look, and her green clothes were part of that decision-making. The other colours are complementary foils, and allow Witchling to always stands out. In terms of the whole scope of the book, I wanted Witchling’s home to look gloomy and grey (brightened by pops of colour), whilst Lily’s home is very warm, bright and inviting. So in some ways, it’s a book of two halves.
How do you illustrate a book – do you come up with sketches first? Do you do a storyboard? Do you work in chronological order? Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? It’s a looooooong process. I’ll bullet-point it if that’s OK? • Character studies are always the starting point. So I’ll ‘find’ the characters first. • Then I have a super-scribbly mental splurge in a notebook. It’s the stage that’s full of questions: What’s the best way to visually show what’s happening in the text? What’s the best composition I can come up with? Are the characters going to be engaging enough? Are there particular art techniques I can use to great effect? How will the text flow within the composition, and across the spread? Is the visual pace flowing from spread to spread successfully? • I then produce a set of thumbnail sketches. These will get batted to and fro with the publisher until everyone is happy. • Next comes the detailed rough stage. My rough lines end up in my final art too. I try hard to retain the vitality of the thumbnails in these, whilst also paying really close attention to continuity - your characters have got to look like they are the same people from spread to spread! • Finally, it’s full-colour art time - about three months of working very intensively. I work fairly haphazardly. I usually start on the spread I’m most excited about, or one that’s quite simple, so I can launch myself into the project gently. It’s easy to get bogged down by a very detailed spread or just one that’s not going very well, so it’s best to leave it alone for a spell and come back to it again later. It’s a creative process and an emotional journey, so personally, I can’t really approach it logically or in a particularly organised way.
What materials do you use to create your illustrations? My pencil is my best friend. Firstly, I’ll scan my detailed pencil roughs, and then in Photoshop, I add more layers of pencil and watercolour, and other odd bits of mixed media: pattern, acrylic or paper textures, photographs, etc. Everything is tweaked, visually distorted and colourised in Photoshop. So basically, I use a laborious mix of traditional and digital techniques.
How did you become a children’s book illustrator? To be honest, it’s an obsession! I think most illustrators will tell you that they couldn’t be doing anything else. I came to it in a roundabout way, however. I’d wanted to study illustration at art college but was persuaded to do graphic design, so I’d be able to get a ‘proper’ job. After ten years working as a designer, I reached a big life crossroads after, a) I was made redundant, and b) my son was born - both of which happened at around the same time. My husband said to me, ‘Illustration is what you’ve always wanted to do. If you don’t do it now, you never will.’ So I did it with Peter’s encouragement and support, whilst looking after Mathew, and with us being somewhat penniless for quite a while!
Are there any artists or books that have influenced you or has anything else shaped or informed your style? Other illustrators working today influence me all the time, but in terms of early influencers it has to be the meticulous perfection of Maurice Sendak contrasted with the anarchic spontaneity of Gerald Rose - the heyday of both was probably the 1960s. I’m not as accomplished as either artist (not remotely!) but I like to think my style sits somewhere in the middle. Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators? Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known when starting out? Gosh, that would be a long list. I’ll confine it to three things: 1. Be influenced and inspired, but don’t copy. Find your own style. Hone it and own it. 2. Social media is awash with brilliant talent, but don’t be overwhelmed by that. Social media is also your friend, because every creative director is out there watching and looking for the next big talent, which of course could be you. 3. This is a gloomy one I’m afraid… but, in true kidlit style, it has a happy ending! It can be hard and quite lonely, and you won’t get rich (or at least, you are very unlikely to, sorry to say). So, you need to find pleasure in the positives of seeing your work in print and in many languages and enriching young lives on a global scale. Basically… the riches in this business are not monetary (for most of us), but they are unique and very special.
Thanks so much to Lu and Sarah for answering all of our questions and to Bloomsbury for sharing this stunning book with us. All opinions expressed are our own.
The Witchling's Witch was published by Bloomsbury on 16th September - see this book on the publisher's website Find reviews of more books written by Lu Fraser Read our review of The Viking who Liked Icing by Lu Fraser and Mark McKinley