The Curiosities by Zana Fraillon, illustrated by Phil Lesnie, published Lothian Children’s Books
Author & Illustrator Interview
“Miro could swim with the stars and tickle the songs from the earth. He could whisper up waves and weave clouds to make stories for the wind.” (The Curiosities)
Perfect confluence of words and illustrations makes The Curiosities an exceptional picture book. It will reward multiple readings and encourage contemplation of creative, thoughtful and deep ideas.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Zana and Phil.
I’ve been on judging panels for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards when you’ve both had books shortlisted. Congratulations on that honour, as well as for the other commendations that your books have received. I know it’s not an easy question but what do you think makes an award-winning book?
Awards are such tricky beasts! So often, wonderful books don’t make the cut, and I am often stumped as to why. Having also been a judge for various awards though, the first test for me is whether or not a story connects. And this connection, this resonance relies so much on personal experience and preference. I love books with unusual voices. I love when authors play with language. I love when illustrations tell the unwritten parts of the story. I also love a good dose of magic, but for another reader, any or all of those attributes might be a negative.
As an author I love having a book listed for an award. It is a thrill and an honour and invariably leads to more readers, but I would love to see an award that stops at the longlist – ‘Here are the eight books we loved most this year’. Any prize money could be split among the authors, the public gets an immediate TBR pile, and stories – in all their forms – could be celebrated. I would also love the idea of a prize in which the authors/illustrators remained anonymous. Imagine if books were judged pre-publication, pre-reviews, pre-marketing and publicity, with no author/illustrator/publisher details and just in manuscript form! How amazing would that be?!
Oh god, I had to lie down in a cool dark place after seeing this question! I think sometimes the purpose of book awards is to celebrate art that moves the lines marking the outer limits of their medium, and other times to celebrate books that have coloured very beautifully inside of them. Honestly, I try not to think about it, except that I do, every day, while listening to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” on repeat. The only times I feel like book awards are fulfilling their function in a culture is when they give them to me.
What does your picture book The Curiosities mean to you?
When my child was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, I spent hours looking for books that could help others understand what my child was experiencing. There was very little that I could find, and what I found tended to focus on the negatives, the hardships and the potential issues that lay ahead. So I knew I wanted to write something that filled that space, but that wasn’t didactic. I didn’t want it to be read only in this specific situation, but as a beautiful story in its own right, that could be read and enjoyed by everyone. But I was also writing the story for myself – as a way to understand this thing which had so unexpectedly entered our lives. I remember my child crying and clutching their neck, the tics jerking their head back again and again and again, and as their eyes rolled back in their head, they asked me when the tics would go away. I had no idea how to convey to a five year old that Tourette’s was a chronic condition, and was not ever going away. I needed something that could show the positives of the disability, without discounting the difficulties.
So this was my starting point. But as I began to write the story, I realised what a universal story it really is. It became less about Tourette’s specifically, and more about diversity and difference in all its forms. It became more about connections and understanding and knowing that you are never really alone, even when it feels that you are.
So much; everything. I don’t want to take up space I’m not entitled to, the story of The Curiosities isn’t my story at all, but at the same time this is by far the most personal book I’ve worked on. I’ve longed to paint the Philippines since I began illustrating books for children, and I have a brother who, like Miro, perceives the world very differently. I’m estranged from that side of my family but I think about him often.
Who is your protagonist Miro?
Miro is a curious child, who sees the world as the enchanting place that it is, full of wonder and full of possibilities. He is all children really, before they reach a certain age at least. I love the excitement that a young child takes from the simplest things, the endless questions about the world and the hours of imaginative play that kids can immerse themselves in. I wish we could all access that sense of wonder again! Perhaps we can…
This question for sure belongs to Zana and Mani! I will say only that, drawing him, I was thinking deeply, regularly and with great nostalgia of Rufio from Hook.
It is a great achievement to create an abstract concept such as ‘Curiosities’ in words and pictures. What was your key to unlocking their identity?
For me, the Curiosities themselves were the easiest thing to write. I have always had a fascination with magical creatures in folklore – in particular the creatures which don’t care much about people but are wholly themselves. Sometimes making wonderful things happen, and sometimes wreaking havoc. So writing the curiosities as these imp-like creatures felt as natural as writing about any creature. It helped also that my child was drawing pictures of their tics, and that the drawings were these curious creatures. Sometimes angry, sometimes happy, sometimes playful and kind, and they were an assortment of fantastical beasts. So I guess for me, the curiosities didn’t feel abstract at all, but very very real.
For my part, I knew almost from the beginning that I wanted to portray the Curiosities visually as Aswang from Philippine folklore. I was fascinated by the paradoxical way some Filipinos talk about Aswang – that of course they’re not real, and of course I’ve seen one. I was in love with the idea that Miro’s Curiosities aren’t imagined, but instead an accepted part of the world that some can see and interact with and others can’t. I felt it was a concept that danced in really beautiful time with the themes of Zana’s writing.
What technical challenge of creating the Curiosities – in written and visual images did you both face?
It was very important to me that the words didn’t tell the whole story. I love picture books and collaborating with another artist so that the story we create together is more than the sum of its parts. So the hardest thing for me was to show the illustrator through my words what needed to be seen, without dictating the scene or overtelling. At first, I used ‘illustration notes’ but it was pointed out to me by an author friend who had kindly agreed to look over the first draft that I needed to cut the annotations and let the reader bring their own imagination into play. Finding the right balance, so that first readers could see what it could become, was difficult. At first it was just confusing to read – I had a different ending which added an extra layer to Miro’s story but complicated things, and realising that cutting back and losing that thread was necessary was difficult, but ultimately made it cleaner and a better story.
I know I just said it was clear to me from the beginning that they would be based on Aswang, but howto accomplish this was a question we were tinkering with even up until the very final months of drawing the book. Initially, some Curiosities were drawn out of milky light, while others, like the towering Tikbalang and other more wild and threatening Curiosities were drawn as having a tangible and solid form. I wanted it to be unclear which were Miro’s Curiosities and which were just a part of the landscape. But later the feedback on this decision was that yes, you’ve succeeded. It really is very, very unclear. It took a great many revisions before they assumed their final forms.
How have you shown light, dark and shadows?
I try to do this with all my work. With characters, with situations, with setting. Because that is life really, isn’t it? I think it is so important to acknowledge the dark, especially in books for young people, because by doing so it shows that there is also light. Things may go wrong, but there will be a way through.
It was the deciding factor in the shift to drawing in Procreate – the story called for levels of contrast that I didn’t have the skill to accomplish with the watercolours I’d been using for years. In practice, I would put the darkest values down on the page first so I could see the full tonal range right from the beginning – in watercolour I generally work in the opposite direction and build from light to dark, it took a lot of relearning! Something I really enjoyed about Procreate was that it let me build colour palettes directly from photos I took in the Philippines a few years back. I really wanted to get the light just right, and using those photos made me feel strongly connected to a few images in particular – I’d sat in the very same light as Miro!
How did you work together to further the story?
Quite often illustrators and authors are kept apart – I’m not sure why this is! So Phil and I didn’t talk for quite some time. But then he got in touch and asked me all about my child and about Tourette’s which he didn’t need to do, but was such a beautiful response to the story. We talked for a while and kept in contact over email, and Phil asked if there was a way he could make aspects of the story particular for my child – if they had a favourite animal or if there was some other way they could be represented in the book. He even made the beautiful little owl-like Curiosities specifically for my child, as one of their first tics was this gentle, quiet ‘hoot’.
But without question, Phil’s use of the folklore of the Philippines added so much more to the story than I could ever have imagined possible. It opened up the story and pushed it to being something so much more multilayered and wonderous than my initial offering. This is why I love collaborating!
It’s pretty common for authors and illustrators to never meet or speak – I think we’re generally kept apart in accordance with Timecop principles, if we touch each other we explode. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet Zana on the phone before I began drawing, and to pick her brain over hers and Mani’s personal connection to the story – I took frantic notes, I just loved that call! But much later, the book was massively restructured and re-edited, and though the process was stressful it also meant that for the first time in my career, we were truly working collaboratively. So challenging, a real creative pressure cooker, but also a unique privilege.
Zana, your writing is so beautifully honed we can appreciate why some picture book texts take an age to write. Could you please choose an extract from the book and show us how you wrote it originally, and possibly also some of the stages in between?
Interestingly enough, The Curiosities was written quite quickly! Sometimes this happens – the words just pour out, and all you can do is transcribe. In fact, I just went back to find my oldest draft to answer this question, and it is surprisingly similar to the final one. The ending I cut out which I referred to earlier wasn’t there yet! The biggest changes I made was having Miro build things out of the snippets and possibles, which I thought was a theme that had been there from the beginning, but it looks like I put it in, then chopped it out.
(* Zana’s drafts for this section can be read at the end of the post.)
Zana, how did Phil’s illustrations set distinctively in the Philippines surprise you?
They did surprise me, but in all the right ways! They made me see this book which I had imagined so strongly in my mind, in a completely new light, and it was a wonderful feeling. Initially I had imagined the illustrations to be like The Journey by Aaron Becker, full of strange steam punk contraptions castles on hills. But I absolutely love the folkloric feel that Phil brought to this, and I love that it encourages the reader to delve more into mythology and folk characters and that it gives it that true sense of reaching across time.
Zana, what similarity does this book have with your other excellent picture book, Wisp.
I guess they are both looking at specific situations that address universal issues. Wisp was more specific in that it is centred in a refugee camp, but I have seen so many schools use this as a starting point for looking not only at the refugee crisis, but at memories we hold dear, at intergenerational storytelling, at hopes and desires and what we wish for of the future. In the same way, The Curiosities can be used to look at disability, diversity, neurodiversity, feelings of being different or alone, anxiety, fears, intrusive thoughts, thoughts, emotion, the importance of community, and finding wonder in the world around us. I think that since Covid, I have been more and more enchanted by the small moments of wonder that are all around us. Slowing down, noticing more, paying attention to the little things, allowing your imagination to take you places! I would love to see people read The Curiosities then go off to find wonders and possibles of their own. In fact, the last change I made to the text was on the final page, where instead of talking about Miro and his world, I changed the text to directly address the reader, and ask them if they could see the wonders and possibles in their world. This change was made pretty close to publication, and I think really reflects what the book represents now as well. It is a book for and about everyone.
Phil, the layers and depths of your illustrations draw the reader into every page. How have you achieved this?
Haha thank you that’s so nice! Mostly, I achieved this by taking way too much time, and a lot of noodling. To Zana, and to my editors past and present – I’m sorry I’m like this. If any of this is working, I suspect it’s because I have been blessed by a career characterised by figures moving through many grassy fields. I think I draw the heck out of a grassy field, and The Curiosities is full of them, it’s a very pleasurable coincidence. Is anything in all this world more verdant with feelings and secret longings than a grassy field? If Miro were ever called indoors, I wouldn’t know what to do.
Phil, why do your endpapers change between the beginning and end of the book?
Mostly because I found it irresistibly cute. I love those little guys. I love their little butts. They ride a ghost pig from left to right across the tropical beaches of my mind.
Phil, what media and process did you use to create the illustrations?
All of the art in The Curiosities was made on an iPad Pro in Procreate. I’ve used Procreate to create roughs and plan out paintings in the past, but I’d never made finished art with anything other than watercolour before – it was quite a learning curve! I’m definitely not the first to notice, but it’s pretty wild that it’s possible to paint an entire book with an Apple Pencil and a $15 app – what an accessible and versatile tool. I imposed a lot of arbitrary limits so that it still felt like painting, and so that my hand was still making all of the gestures – I mainly used a set of three brushes for the physical world, and a separate brush unseen elsewhere for the ghostly curiosities themselves, trying to draw them in as few marks as I could manage.
Of what are you most proud in The Curiosities?
That it is a book that lends itself to multiple interpretations, and enables readers (I hope!) to recognise the curiosities in their own lives.
The closing image, Miro under the night sky. It’s so simple, it came so easily, and it just delights me.
Zana, what do you hope young readers understand or remember from this book?
I think that depends a lot on the lens people are reading with. But here is what I would love for people of all ages to take from The Curiosities:
- That the amazingly brilliant thing about the world is that everyone is different.
- The world is full of oddments and snippets and wonders and possibles that exist in our own lives, and that others – other people, other creatures, other more than humans – can help us see them.
- That people are disabled not by their disability, but by the barriers in society. And this is something we can change.
Zana, could you tell us about your other book launched during lockdown?
The Curiosities is the second book of mine that will be launched during lockdown. My other book, The Lost Soul Atlas was published last year and I have had little chance to see it out in the world. The Lost Soul Atlas is the book I poured more of myself into than any other book. It is set both in the Afterlife and the ‘real world’ and allowed me to address issues of homelessness and corruption as well as playing with full on fantasy elements. It also has an afterlife guardian who is a skeleton raven and may just be my favourite of all the characters I have written. One reviewer wrote that there was ‘Terry Pratchett within these pages’ and I could not be happier!
Zana, what have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
Peter Van Den Ende’s The Wanderer is a brilliant and wonderful picture book that I can not recommend more highly. It is a book that can be poured over, page by page, that begs for multiple readings, and that gives you something new to discover every time.
Nonstop, by Tomi Ungerer. A perfect picture book in every way.
How can readers contact you?
@phillesnie on Instagram. Feel free to say hi!
Thank you for your very generous responses, Zana and Phil. They reflect your accomplishment in The Curiosities. It is exemplary children’s literature and deserves a wide readership.
* Draft extracts from The Curiosities by Zana Fraillon
But sometimes, the Curiosities were so loud and strange and bright and brilliant and prickly and tingly that they would wash over the boy, flapping and hissing and screeching and hurting. When that happened, the boy felt lost and alone.
(Illustration: The boy crumpled on the ground, the Curiosities in a frenzied outbreak are swarming over him, and ideas, dull and dark are crashing around him. The environment still has bits of colour, but the boy is oblivious to it.)
‘I know you…’
(Illustration: Then the Old Other the boy helped across the road is bending down over him. She is smiling, and reaching out to the boy. She knows him. The thread of spider’s web can be seen curled back around to the boy, connecting them both.)
(Illustrations: The boy and the Old Other walking through the landscape together. They are getting to know more Others. More webs are connecting the boy to the Others. And now, when the boy is feeling lost, he pulls on the spider web connections and they help him shed the darkness).
The darkness wrapped itself around him, deep black and wet. Miro was lost and alone. He pulled his hood tight around him, and buried his hands deep inside his pockets. He wanted to close.
And from deep down inside his pocket, a sharpness scraped against his fingertips. The snippet, collected from the shadows, waiting to be drawn into a new existence. Miro wondered at its brilliance, pondered at its form, his imaginings reaching for what the snippet could become.
The Curiosities gathered, cheering and clapping and stomping and yowling. Miro demanded quiet. He pleaded for peace. But the Curiosities would not be tamed.
And then Miro heard it, the whispered call of a voice, dancing in his memory. Miro stretched out his fingers, calling for the light. For the quiet, for the calm.
And there it was. A thin, sticky thread, almost invisible to his fingers, but there. Miro pulled, gently, carefully.
Even Later Draft:
The Curiosities roared and howled. They washed over Miro, loud and strange and bright and brilliant and prickly and tingly; flapping and hissing and screeching and hurting. The darkness wrapped itself around him, deep black and wet.
But then Miro saw it. A possible, waiting in the shadows. He wondered at its brilliance, pondered at its form, his imaginings growing, reaching for what it could become.
The Curiosities gathered, cheering and clapping and stomping and yowling. Miro demanded quiet. He pleaded for peace. But the Curiosities would not be tamed.
Miro howled into the dark. And across the wind came just a whisper of a voice, dancing in his memory. Miro stretched out his fingers, calling for the light. There it was. A thin, sticky thread, almost invisible to his fingers, but there. Miro pulled, gently, carefully.
They shrieked and roared. They washed over Miro, loud and strange and bright and brilliant and prickly and tingly; flapping and hissing and screeching and hurtling. The darkness wrapped itself around him, deep, black and wet. Miro howled.
He felt the ground vanish beneath him, and the sounds of the earth fade, until all around him was deep silence.
Miro kept his eyes closed. And then he heard it. A whisper of a voice. Just a snippet of a world-wrinkled story, dancing on the wind. Miro uncurled. He opened his eyes.
He reached for the thread, thin and fragile, almost invisible to his fingers, but there. Gently, carefully, Miro pulled.
And when the elder appeared, the ground grew again under Miro’s feet, and the sounds of the earth broke through the hissed whispers of the Curiosities.