Arno and His Horse, written by Jane Godwin and illustrated by Felicita Sala (Scribble), is a warm, thoughtful story with much to discover. The reader is invited into an intriguing scene established in the opening pages to share in the dilemma about what has happened to Arno’s horse. Through this, they discover much about Arno and his family.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Jane and Felicita.
Where are you both based and what do you like about where you live?
(J) I am based in Melbourne, Australia. I like Melbourne because it’s home, really, and its various ‘villages’ are familiar to me. I like the fact that Melbourne is a city of literature, and a city of food, art, entertainment and culture. I also spend quite a lot of time in regional Victoria, namely the areas around Lorne and Daylesford, and this is something else I like about my home – it’s close to many beautiful natural places, both coastal and inland.
(F) I live in Rome, Italy. It’s been interesting to rediscover this ancient city completely empty of tourists during the pandemic. Most Romans don’t like to wonder around tourist spots and so we take them for granted a bit. But the history and ruins and old splendour are not my favourite thing about the city. I like its parks and tall pine trees, I like the small town feel you get by living here for a long time and getting to know everyone in the neighbourhood, I like the old people giving you cooking advice at the markets and bakeries.
Arno is an unusual name. What is its significance?
(J) It’s a German and Dutch name, meaning ‘eagle’. It’s also the name of the river that flows through Florence (a city to which I have never been but would love to see one day!). I’m always on the lookout for interesting names, and I met a young boy called Arno when I was working up in the Kimberley a few years ago. So the name came from various sources!
Arno and His Horse is an original boy-and-lost-toy story. What makes it so distinctive?
J) That’s a hard question for the author to answer! I hope the story is distinctive!
Looking at my body of work, I’ve realised that the theme of loss features strongly. So much so that this year I have promised myself that I must never write another book about a lost object ever again! Arno’s special toy isn’t soft and cuddly, but a small wooden horse. This object forms a symbolic connection with Arno’s beloved grandfather, who carved the horse for Arno. In some ways, the horse is an object of grief, but also of connection. In this story, I wanted to explore the way we maintain a sense of the people we love when they’re gone. I wrote this book shortly after the death of my father, and for the first few months after his death I dreamt about him often. They were happy, reassuring dreams, not of a man ruined by dementia, but of Dad when he was healthy, and happy and funny and strong. I found these dreams comforting; they felt like I was maintaining a connection with him. Interestingly, during this time both my children also mentioned dreaming of their grandfather. There were even a few mysterious moments that occurred in waking life where I felt a connection with him – what Jung would call synchronicity, or ‘meaningful coincidence’. At the time I was reading about other people’s experiences after the death of a loved one, and dreams seemed to feature a lot. Whether this is a mysterious but tangible connection or simply our imagination working to help us heal, I don’t think it really matters. What’s important is that the connection is felt. These ideas became part of Arno’s story, too. So possibly it’s the personal nature of the story that makes it feel authentic, or distinctive. I hope so.
Another aspect of loss that I was exploring was the idea that although childhood can be magical, fun, exciting and adventurous, it can also be a lonely place. All children experience loss – sometimes it’s loss that adults understand, like the death of a pet or a grandparent. Sometimes it’s not understood as loss by adults, and it might be overlooked. People say that children are resilient, they bounce back, and it’s true, they do, but they don’t feel loss any less keenly than adults do. Adults sometimes belittle the loss of a toy, which to the child can feel as real as a living, breathing person, often even forming part of the child’s sense of him/herself, or part of the constellation of his/her world.
Why is the loss of the horse so upsetting?
(J) In the story, the horse represents the loss of connection with a loved one.
Who is telling this story?
(J) Good question, Joy! Yes, the voice is quite fluid and morphs a little – something I don’t usually do when writing a picture book. The voice starts as one of the gang of kids, but we don’t really know which individual. But it’s someone who’s hanging around with Arno. Then it morphs into a more third person subjective voice, seen through Arno’s eyes as it were. I didn’t do this consciously when I was writing the early drafts, and then I tried to change it to one consistent voice during subsequent drafts, and eventually I went back to trying to make it work with a voice that sort of moves with the story. I wanted a sense of fluid, physical movement in this text. A little gang of free-form kids moving through a landscape.
Jane, I can’t recall you using rhyming text in your other books. If you have, please let us know which ones. If not, why have you used it here? What joys and difficulties did it bring?
(J) I have written quite a lot of books in rhyme: All Through the Year, The True Story of Mary, Today we Have No Plans, How Big is Too Small, Sing me the Summer, Red House, Blue House, Green House, Tree House, The Silver Sea and I’ll Always be Older than You. I love to write in rhyme, and often a picture book text will start with a musical beat or a rhyming couplet in my head. Many children love to read rhyming books, and it also gives the adult reader a kind of ‘road map’ of how to read the story out loud. The only difficulty rhyme ever brings me is the challenge of balancing telling the story effectively and organically with finding words and phrases that work with the rhyme. And also not having the rhyme feel forced or stale.
(Joy – of course these books are in rhyme – forgetful me!)
Jane, how were you able to compress a backstory of an enduring relationship with such sensitivity and depth into a short picture book text?
(J) Thank you, Joy. I hope I was successful in doing this! I suppose that is the challenge of any picture book which by nature is usually told economically in terms of words. It’s about capturing something deep and universal in a short and simple text. It’s not unlike writing poetry. I suppose I just think very carefully about every single word choice, and think about words that might be deceptively simple and might convey more than they initially suggest, and I also trust that the illustrator will also bring some of this to the work, as Felicita did so beautifully in this book, and that the words and illustrations together will suggest backstory, metaphor, themes and the symbolic nature of a work.
Jane, what is one of your favourite illustrations in the book by Felicita and why?
(J) I love them all, but one of my favourites would have to be the double page illustration of the little horse moving through the landscape in the night.
Felicita, how would you describe the main colour palette you have used and where and why do you diverge from this?
(F) The main palette is taken from the landscape colours of north western Australia, so bright sky blue and browns and ochres and reds and greens. For the dream sequence I used an opposing chromatic choice, cooler blues and purples and pinks, to set that sequence apart from the rest and give the idea we were entering another realm, that of dream and memory and the all-possible.
Felicita, you have used watercolour, gouache and coloured pencils in this work. Could you give an example of where you have used each of these, and why they are your choice of media in each case?
(F) I work primarily with watercolour and coloured pencils to create texture. This technique can be seen throughout the book. Gouache is used in background washes to intensify some of the colour where watercolour is not enough. For example in the night scenes, the sky is gouache, a lot of the darker trees throughout are a mixture of gouache and watercolour, as are the red rocks. Human figures are watercolour and pencils.
How did you collaborate – generally, and with regard to details such as the setting, the child characters and the appearance of the horse?
(J) Well, Felicita and I have never actually met! But we worked with Miri at Scribe, via email. Felicita sent through character sketches, storyboard and roughs, and the discussions were all long-distance. But from my point of view it all went smoothly! Hopefully Felicita and I will meet one day soon!
(F) I can’t wait to meet Jane in person! In the early phase of the development, the Editor sent me some photos of Jane’s from her time in the north west, so some of the characters and a lot of the setting is inspired by that. I’ve never been to the Kimberly region, but there is a fair amount of interesting bushland around the south west (in Perth, where I grew up), so some of the vegetation is taken from there too.
The child characters were difficult to develop. The horse is a simple wooden horse, the shape taken from Swedish folk horses.
What atmosphere and mood have you created in this book?
(F) I find it hard to describe my own work in terms of mood. I suppose I tried to render the effect of an outback adventure, and then slowly bring in the feeling of dream and memory though a colour change.
What comfort do you think Arno and His Horse will give young readers?
(J) I hope it will allow them to feel comforted in thinking about their own connections with a loved object, or a loved person.
(F) I love this story so much, I have to say it was a real honour to be illustrating such a great text by Jane. Immediately it spoke to my inner child. That is an important criteria for me when choosing to work with a particular text. It has to appeal to children, and I feel this book really does just that: Speaks to children in a profound way, takes their experiences seriously. How tragic it is to lose a favourite toy! And how great to find it again! And there is no speaking down, no over-sentimentalising of the experience of loss, I think it’s perfect. I hope the illustrations will be fun and wonderous enough to capture children’s imaginations too.
Could you both tell us about some of your other books/work?
(J) I write for all ages, from picture books for very young children through to novels for teenagers. I’ve been writing for over twenty-five years now, with just over thirty books published. I try to write one a year!
(F) I mainly illustrate other people’s stories. I’ve only written 2 books and those were recipe-picture books with simple storylines. Writing for children is the most under-rated, complicated kind of writing. Those who do it well are few and rare. I have great admiration for children’s book writers. I have to say Arno is one of my favourite texts I’ve ever worked on. Some other books I’ve made that I loved are Your Birthday was the best! written by Maggie Hutchings, about a cockroach, Ode to an Onion, by Alexandra Giardino, about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s famous poem, and Green on Green, by Dianne White, about the changing seasons. Another book I loved to make was The Hideout, written by my dear friend and prize winning author in Italy Susanna Mattiangeli.
What are you writing or working on now?
(J) I’m currently working on a new novel for 11 – 14 year olds, and several picture book texts. I always have a few picture book texts on the go. Some of them eventuate and some don’t.
(F) I’ve just finished a second book of recipes. It’s a book I made for a French publisher and wrote myself. It will come out in Australia later this year with Scribble books (A Year in Fleurville is the name). Now I’m working on another story by Dianne White, who also writes a lot in rhyme. It’s a story about the night time and it’ll be a real challenge for me as I rarely illustrate big light changes. I’m also going to be working on a second cockroach book soon, also written by Maggie Hutchings. Every book I make I learn something new.
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
(J) A picture book I would definitely recommend is another one illustrated by Felicita! That is Your Birthday was the Best, written by Maggie Hutchings. It’s such a funny and original book, and Felicita has managed to make the main character, a cockroach, both authentic and appealing! No mean feat! Another one I adore the look of but I don’t think it’s published yet in Australia is Be a Tree, illustrated by Felicita and written by Maria Gianferrari. I’ve also recently enjoyed Maybe, by Chris Haughton, and I Talk Like a River, by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith.
(F) Oh I love that book I talk like a River, it’s a masterpiece. My favourite books right now are by Swedish author/illustrator Emma Adbage. (one in particular- called ‘the hole’ in the Italian translation- is brilliant) She really represents children in a hilarious and truthful way. Unfortunately her books will unlikely be translated or brought to the English market, which has different sensibilities. It’s such a shame! Some books I’ve been reading and enjoying with my 7 year old daughter are The Children of Noisy Village, a series of chapter books written by Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstockings. The way she writes for me really captures what kids are about. Other books I really enjoyed recently were Finding François by Gus Gordon and Just Because by Mac Barnett and Isabelle Arsenault.
How can your readers contact you?
(J) My website is at janegodwin.com.au and I’m on Instagram at @janiegodwin
(F) On Instagram: @felicita.sala or though my website www.felicitasala.com
Arno and His Horse is an endearing and beautifully created and produced picture book. It will be savoured by children and the adults who share it with them.