Historically, children's literature is full to the brim with wonderful writers and illustrators. However, it has also been lacking in diversity. So, as part of our Puffin Reimagined project this summer, we asked six artists to each choose a book from a list of Puffin classics and create new works that reimagine that story in their own style.
All artists involved in the project identify as a person of colour, LGBTQIA+, or as having a disability (or a combination of the above). The artists also all come from different places in their careers, some are more established while others have only recently graduated from university.
We've loved watching them bring their fresh takes on classic stories to life, and so we asked all the artists to talk us through their creations and the inspiration behind them.
Ricardo Bessa, Illustrator, The Little Mermaid
I always liked drawing as a child, but I really started taking a serious interest in digital art in my teens. From that, I realised I wanted to pursue art as a career – initially aiming to work in video games, but quickly realising that the narrative dimension of illustration was what I really liked!
The Little Mermaid was one of my favourite Disney movies as a child. I think the themes of feeling like a fish out of water (no pun intended) and yearning to see the wider world at large really resonated with my little gay self. When I found these gorgeous old editions of the original Hans Christian Andersen tales at my local Oxfam shop, I was thoroughly captivated by how different it was from the retelling everyone's familiar with, and how much darker it was. It's always been a favourite of mine.
When it came to illustrating for the project, I mostly re-read the tale and looked for sentences that jumped out at me as visually striking. In the end, this was the main inspiration for the composition I ended up with:
'The sun rose red and glowing out of the water and seemed to bring life to the Prince's cheeks, but his eyes were still shut. The mermaid kissed his fine high forehead and smoothed back his dripping hair. He was like the marble statue down in her little garden; she kissed him again and again and wished that he might live.'
There was definitely a journey when it came to colour as the piece ended up a lot brighter and cooler than I initially planned, but that tends to happen a lot with my process!
Olivia Daisy Coles, Illustrator, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
I have been drawing since I was very young and thankfully, I grew up in a family where my interests were encouraged and supported wholeheartedly. It took me a while to settle on the specific route I wanted to pursue as a career, however, and I only settled on illustration after seeing the work that an acquaintance was making on the degree I’d eventually undertake. In fact, I didn’t even know what 'illustration' was as a field until I started the course but thankfully things have worked out.
Despite not being a big reader when I was younger, I was for some reason drawn to take the time to sit down and read Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as opposed to simply watching the various adaptations as I did with most other things as a child. As someone that felt a slight disconnect to both myself and the world around me, the surreal nature of the story and Alice’s own bewilderment about what was happening both to her and the world around her meant that she was a character I related to on a level I couldn’t quite comprehend. My interest in the surreal has only grown as I’ve gotten older and returning to the book as an adult, I was delighted to find that I still felt that resonance with the story.
I wanted to keep the focus of my research for the project quite narrow, so I focussed primarily on the original text and illustrations for the designs of the characters whereas the furniture and other details were informed by my pre-existing interest in Victorian aesthetics.
I started sketching ideas at the same time as I began reading the book again for the first time since I was a teenager. Most of the first things I had in mind turned out to be from the sequel or adaptations and I was shocked to find how much of my understanding was informed by baggage the story acquired from outside of the original text and illustrations.
One thing I want to point out is the design of the cat on the back of Alice’s chair. Whilst it is an allusion to the Cheshire Cat, it is also a small dedication to my sister, whose favourite book is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and the design is based on her cat who sadly passed away several months ago.
Discover more of Olivia's work at: @oliviadaisycoles
Lucy Deering, Mixed Media Illustrator, A Wizard of Earthsea
I was always interested in pursuing art as a career, so it’s no great surprise where I ended up. I was lucky that throughout my education I was encouraged to explore a huge amount of processes and materials, but once I began working in 3D something clicked. It’s incredibly satisfying! Being able to hold something I’ve made in my hands adds another layer of excitement to the process. Telling stories with images is also a central drive to my work, which is why I decided to pursue the field of illustration. It took me a while to work out that I could use 3D techniques for illustration, so for a few years I fruitlessly laboured attempting to make 2D pieces that I was happy with. It felt very freeing when I began to combine the two!
Of all the books I’ve read, A Wizard of Earthsea has perhaps been the most impactful! In addition to Ursula Le Guin’s excellent storytelling, I think I stumbled across it at the right time. Although it’s aimed at younger audiences, I first read the book as an adult and felt incredibly understood at the point I was at in my life – afraid of something I couldn’t name. Stories like this help remind us that we are not alone. Other people have felt the same and have come out the other side, and facing our fears is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves. It’s a good one to revisit every now and then.
It would be hard to read any of Le Guin’s work and not be inspired, I think. Her writing is very evocative, gradually unfurling details and conjuring up vivid images in my head. The tricky bit is translating those images into real life. My visual style is inspired by a combination of stop-motion puppets and children’s toys, from Coraline to Barbie and everything in-between. As a kid, when I told stories with dolls, I spent a fair chunk of it tilting their heads to catch the light just so, or trying to have their clothes sit nicer with rudimentary adjustments. I had a huge preference for dolls with bendy arms and legs since there were so many more options for posing! What I do now feels like the natural extension of this, except now I have total control. Young me would be very jealous.
For the project, I first thought about reimagining a scene central to the story, one with an epic feel to it, but it didn’t come naturally when it came to developing those ideas. I instead chose a quiet scene, since the book often relies on those little moments to do a lot of talking. In terms of the making, I don’t yet have a fool-proof process for translating my sketches into 3D. It’s a bit of a journey of discovery, working out what works and what doesn’t as I go along. I like to mess around with new techniques and materials, each time building on work I’ve done in the past, so it can be hard to nail it on the first go. Because of this, it’s hard to recreate a sketch with total accuracy – instead, I refer back to the original drawing for the energy it gives off, the vibe. In that way, I’m quite pleased with how my little Ged turned out, in wonder of his new friend.
You'll be interested to know that this isn’t the first Ged model I’ve made! The first one was actually a big turning point for me, I hadn’t planned to lean so heavily into model-making, but I enjoyed it so much that I knew it was what I wanted to keep doing. Looking back now there are plenty of things I would do differently, and I’m sure I’ll look back at this model and question why I made certain decisions. But that’s the joy of making.
Em Mortimer, Mixed Media Illustrator, Anne of Green Gables
Art and being creative have always been so important to me and my expression from an early age. I have always found happiness in it. I never really saw it as a career option though so for a while I set myself on a medical path. However, when I was about six months into my A-Levels, I realised I missed making and studying art, and after a lot of research I found illustration was what I actually wanted to pursue. I studied illustration at the University for the Creative Arts and having graduated earlier this year, I'm looking forward to what the future holds for me!
I was sadly never much of a reader as a child but Anne of Green Gables was always a story of comfort to me. The world L. M. Montgomery has created is so vivid in its perceptions of nature and how hidden beauty provides so much joy. It taught me that there is so much importance in imagination. I wanted to take a world that felt like an escapist's dream and re-imagine one of the first things Anne found unseen wonderment in.
For this project, I found inspiration from my final major project at university where I learnt punch needling and utilised the process to communicate emotions through textures. I also looked at work from artists and illustrators, including Lucy Sparrow and Victoria Richards, who both explore textiles and embroidery in their practice. I also looked to the book itself, direct quotations, and images of the locations which inspired the scenes. All of these elements feed into my re-imagined outcome.
My end project didn't differ very far from my initial illustrations, keeping the re-imagining of the scenery within the confines of an embroidery hoop. As for the changed aspects, creating a section of the landscape to be on a gradient proved to be much more difficult than I had planned so keeping the piece as a flat scene was what I settled on.
Discover more of Em's work: @emily.mortimer.19
Camelia Pham, Illustrator, The Little Prince
I studied graphic design at university but quickly realised that I was not very good at it. I drew way more in class, rather than choosing typography and setting grids. My teacher advised me to check out illustration and I was hooked. I thought there were only designers and artists in the art world, but it turned out that illustration exists and I'm so grateful for it.
When I was a kid, everyone in Vietnam was obsessed with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince so my mum bought me a copy. I didn't really enjoy reading when I was little so I never finished it. But I still vividly remember that I was really impressed with the drawings and the creativity of the first few chapters, especially the boa eating an elephant and the sheep in the box.
Even though I didn't finish the book, at that point it was the most I'd ever read, so it still resonates with me more than others. I decided to try it once more as an adult – a book that I'd never been able to finish but felt so nostalgic about. I guess reading it as an adult hit me differently, but right after I finished it, I got this commission, so I considered it fate.
Currently, there's a trend in Vietnam involving lots of illustrators trying to bring Vietnamese culture into their art, redrawing things in Vietnamese traditional attire to bring it to the outside world. I've contributed some drawings to this movement, and it just seemed natural for me to draw the Little Prince in a Vietnamese outfit.
After finishing the main piece, I felt like there were way more elements in the story that I wanted to include but couldn't fit all of them in the drawing itself. I realized that they would make wonderful patterns on the outsides so I went for it. I'm happy with how it turned out. And I'm so glad to have been able to participate in this project. Thank you!
Xuetong Wang, Illustrator, The Wizard of Oz
My childhood was filled with picture books, comics, and Japanese animations. I was definitely influenced and became interested in drawing. It was only a hobby until my undergrad degree. I found my passion for art and illustration during that time, so I decided to pursue it as a career and head to the US to learn illustration.
As I mentioned before, I read a lot of picture books when I was a kid. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was one of them. I love this story and the characters are so interesting. The tin man without a heart, the cowardly lion, and a scarecrow without a brain. They are not fancy princes or princesses; they are normal people related to life and each of them grows up on this journey.
When it came to illustrating for this project I decided to read the book and watch the film again to take me back to my childhood and feel those emotions all over again.
Read the books behind the pieces
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