Solomon Macaroni by Ashleigh Barton

Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe by Ashleigh Barton

Ashleigh Barton’s picture book What do you call your Grandma? (illustrated by Martina Heiduczek) is a 2022 CBCA shortlisted book.

Her new book, Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe (University of Queensland Press) is the first in a children’s series. Here she explains the genesis of her new character, little vampire Solomon Macaroni and his fears, his world and his venture into the Wildwood for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords.

Ashleigh Barton writes:

Two and a half decades ago, give or take, I drew a picture of a character in one of my school notebooks. He was smiling happily, his shiny dark hair in a pointed V, and was dressed neatly in a black cape. He was hanging out with his spider friend and his name was Solomon Macaroni.

Don’t ask me why, but I’ve never forgotten this little vampire and over the years I thought a lot about writing about Solomon. Every now and then I’d pick up his story, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago after signing with my agent that I really focused my attention on bringing Solomon to life. After reading a fairly early version, the amazing team at University of Queensland Press (UQP) saw the potential and they helped turn Solomon from just a character lingering in my memory into a character in an actual, real book that actual, real children can now read. The immensely talented Sarah Davis brought him to life even further with illustrations that capture the characters so perfectly it was like she’d taken a trip inside my head – and even back in time to my eight-year-old self’s notebook.

The very first incarnation of Solomon was not dissimilar to the Solomon that ended up on the pages of Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe. He was always very friendly, impeccably mannered and slightly timid. I’ve always imagined him to be a vampire, but not exactly. He looks and dresses like an archetypal vampire, lives indefinitely like an archetypal vampire, and is the nephew of the world’s most famous vampire, Count Dracula. But I didn’t see him as the blood-sucking type, nor someone with incredible strength or super speed or the ability to fly, read minds or turn into a bat. When it came to writing his story, this posed a bit of a problem. It wasn’t enough to ignore these missing traits, and rewriting Solomon as a human boy didn’t feel quite right either. So to make it all make sense, I built a world around Solomon where magic no longer exists in its full capacity.

In Solomon’s world, magic has almost completely disappeared, leaving magical creatures with just one or two traits from the “Old Magic” days. For vampires, this means living indefinitely – though they can die in all the ways humans can, and they age, albeit very, very slowly. No one knows why magic has all but vanished, though some suspect it was because magic was overused causing supply to deplete irrevocably, perhaps similarly to the way some of our own natural resources too are depleting. Most agree that the world is better off, because magic brings out the worst in people. And so, for the most part, Solomon and his family are happy living indefinitely in a world where magic is absent, unless you know where to find it.

Partway through the story, Solomon’s five prankster cousins venture into a local forest, known colloquially as the Wildwood. This is a place feared by Solomon, due to the scary things said to happen there, and even just living in close proximity to the forest is almost too much for Solomon to handle. But, like any fearful protagonist, Solomon finds himself thrust from his comfort zone when he reluctantly agrees to help Lucy rescue his cousins from the depths of the Wildwood. Here, Solomon’s character is put to the test as he is faced with both physical and emotional challenges.

Whilst Solomon’s character has stayed the same from the very beginning, his story is one that has changed quite significantly. I have kept two main elements the same in every version – Solomon’s parents sending him to stay with Uncle Dracula and his cousins while they went on a one-hundred-year holiday, and this forest that Solomon ventures into. I’d come across the Hoia Baciu Forest when researching several years ago – a real forest in Romania known for all sorts of spooky happenings – and thought it would be the perfect setting for a story about a vampire who is not quite a vampire. The reasons Solomon entered this forest and his cousins’ motivations for venturing into the forest themselves, however, are what changed the most. I toyed around with motivations such as boredom and seeking out adventure, and then historical rumours of hidden treasures that the cousins set their sights on. Eventually I realised that the thing that mattered the most to these characters was their lost mother and, in the end, the real reason Solomon’s cousins venture into the Wildwood revolves around her. This key change added a layer of depth to the story, and made way for some more emotional moments and a message of the importance of family.

Despite this, I’ve stayed true to my original vision for the story: something fun and light, with plenty of humour and heart. I wanted to write something that kids would have fun reading and equally adults would have fun reading out loud. It feels like there’s always something to worry about in the wider world at the moment in addition to our everyday worries, so what I truly hoped to write was a story that kids can escape into and leave with a smile on their faces.

Ashleigh Barton (UQP website)

Some extra questions from Joy:

Please tell us more about your wonderful characters Fred and Arrubakook.

Fred is Solomon’s spider friend from back home who snuck into his suitcase, and Arrubakook is Uncle Dracula’s ‘wayfinding kookaburra’ who is able to direct you anywhere you want to go. Neither of these characters can speak so it was a fun challenge finding ways for them to communicate. Fred loves napping more than anything and is strong-willed and loyal, while Arrubakook is gruff and impatient but with a heart in the right place. Both of these characters are instrumental in helping Solomon rescue his cousins.

Solomon’s Uncle Dracula is an inventor and writer. His writing process seems easy, with the story almost writing itself. How is this similar or different to your own experience of writing?

Every day is different! Some days it feels like things fall into place on their own, and others require a lot more conscious thought. Either way, there’s always a lot of editing to do. I have a system where I put an ‘XX’ in place of a word or even part of a scene when it doesn’t come to me fast enough so that I can carry on without losing momentum.  

It sounds as though Solomon Macaroni has been launched with a fanfare. Please tell us something about the launch.

Yes, it was a lot of fun! We launched Solomon with plenty of themed food and decorations at the wonderful Gleebooks. A good friend of mine was so generous with her time, making Solomon bunting and framing some of the internal illustrations to look like family portraits. Rachel Robson from Gleebooks was absolutely amazing – she went above and beyond to make it a special event, and I had the extremely talented Mick Elliott, author of The Turners and Squidge Dibley, run a fantastic Q&A.

Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe at UQP

Ashleigh Barton’s website

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