Art from Ashes, a guest post by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston
We met fourteen years ago at Cambridge University, when Kiran was a first-year student and Tom was artist-in-residence. Ever since, we’ve known we wanted to create a children’s book together, but were determined to wait for an idea that truly wowed us, that took us by the hearts and would not let go. A decade later, Kiran had written over half a dozen books and Tom had exhibited widely, but we still hadn’t found the idea – until a fire ripped through Tom’s studio while he was still inside. He managed to escape, but hundreds of his artworks were destroyed in a matter of hours.
Wading through the foot of water left by the fire service’s efforts, Tom painstakingly sorted, categorised, and bagged the detritus of a life’s work. Scorched frames, melted paint-pots, scraps of canvas and sodden ashes were stored like artifacts in boxes and bin liners. We moved house, unable to face the burnt out shell of the studio at the bottom of the garden, and these remains came with us, kept in the eerily abandoned bungalow next door to our new home.
We have both experienced our share of darkness. At Cambridge, Kiran was clinically depressed, and Tom struggled with anxiety after the death of his father. But the fire was cataclysmic. It haunted our dreams and in our waking moments, we struggled not to dwell on what was lost, and what could have happened to Tom. Unable to paint, Tom began writing a book that eventually was published, but without a place to make art, a part of him was suffocating.
Six months later, with progress on Tom’s new studio halted by the pandemic, Kiran was scrolling through the BBC website when she came across an article about a Greenland Shark. These rare creatures glide through the deepest, coldest oceans, blind and omnivorous, seldom sighted. Scientists had always known they could live for astonishing lengths of time, but the latest research had found a four hundred year old animal, and suggested that they could live for up to eight hundred years, older than most trees. These facts struck a deep chord in Kiran with their beauty and strangeness, and when she looked at the photograph of the ancient shark, its gnarled and algaed skin reminded her of the surfaces of Tom’s paintings. She sent him the article – is this our story?
A few days after, as sometimes happens, a girl walked into Kiran’s head and began talking to her. She said, There are more secrets in the ocean than in the sky. This girl was Julia, and her mother was on a quest to find the elusive Greenland shark. Kiran and Tom agreed – this was it. The idea. A tale that could be told by images as much as words.
Kiran began work, essentially channelling the voice that spoke its story, while Tom thought through the puzzle of how to make art without materials or a studio. He tried working digitally, as many illustrators do, but he missed the tactility, the happy accidents enabled by making with physical matter. Julia’s story was taking shape, the plot centring around a curious girl and her brilliant but mentally unwell mother, but it needed the depths accessed by the images, and the project stalled.
One day, the absent owner of the decrepit bungalow next door asked Tom to secure some of the broken windows, and he cut ply to nail in the asbestos laden wooden rooms of the once-charming home. The house had fallen into disrepair over several decades, and before we moved in next door, was the site of an arson attack. Looking at the remains of his burnt life’s work in this burnt house, Tom felt not despair, but inspiration. He picked up one of the bags of ash, and, to Kiran’s dismay, carried it into our living room. Look, he insisted, and mixed a handful of the black powder with some water, and spread it out over thick paper. Working it with his fingers, he smoothed it into a shape. Kiran gasped. The shark.
Just as Kiran drew on her experience of mental illness to create Julia’s mum’s story, Tom drew with the remnants of what had been his most traumatic experience to conjure Julia’s inner world. Using ashes to stain paper, cutting shapes from destroyed canvases, he depicted her wonder, her worries, the shark that sweeps her and her mother on the most extraordinary and dangerous adventure. As the world slowly emerged from lockdown, our book emerged too, finding its form, an absolute collaboration from beginning to end, words and images working together and taking over from each other.
Tom bought a tube of yellow paint, and the touches of this – in the form of a lighthouse beam, a rubber coat – became our symbol of hope throughout the story, a bright thread that weaves through even the darkest of moments in the book. It reflects the way creativity can turn the bleakest of situations into light, just as Kiran made Mum’s story from her own pain, and Tom created the shark’s watery world from ashes. Julia and the Shark is an adventure, a love story between a scientist and her subject, a daughter and her mother, a letter of adoration for nature and its bizarre, miraculous creatures: not least a shark older than trees. A story of hope, rising always from darkness.
Meet the authors
Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston met in 2009, when Kiran was a student and Tom was artist-in-residence at Cambridge University. They have been a couple and collaborators ever since, but Julia and the Shark is their first novel. Kiran is the award-winning, bestselling author of stories including The Girl of Ink & Stars, The Way Past Winter, and The Deathless Girls, and Tom is making his illustrative debut, having worked as an acclaimed artist for many years.
Author Website: https://www.kiranmillwoodhargrave.com/
Author Instagram: @Kiran_MH
Author Twitter: @Kiran_MH
Illustrator Website: https://www.tomdefreston.co.uk/
Illustrator Instagram: @TomDeFrestonArt
Union Square Website: https://www.unionsquareandco.com/
Union Square Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/unionsqandco/
Union Square Twitter: https://twitter.com/UnionSquareKids
About Julia and the Shark
There are more secrets in the ocean than in the sky…
Ten-year-old Julia loves the mysteries of the ocean and marine biology, just like her scientist mother. Her family is spending the summer on a remote island where her mom is searching for the elusive Greenland shark, a creature that might be older than the trees, and so rare that it’s only been seen a few times.
But the ocean is reluctant to give up its secrets, and Julia tries not to worry as her mother returns disappointed at the end of each day.
Determined to prove that the shark is real, Julia sets off on a quest to find it herself, armed with a set of coordinates, a compass, and her trusty rain jacket.
She soon realizes that there are some journeys you shouldn’t go on alone. As Julia comes face to face with the dark and wondrous truths of the sea, she finds the strength to leave the shark in the depths and kick up towards the light.
Through a unique blend of poetic prose and stunning illustrations, Julia and the Shark tells an unforgettable story full of dark depths and starry skies, courage and hope.
This lyrical, deeply moving middle grade novel about one family’s fierce love and resilience is perfect for starting conversations about mental health and how it’s okay to not be okay.
Publisher: Union Square Kids
Publication date: 03/28/2023
Age Range: 10 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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