Catherine’s Work

FairyCatherine and I have known each other since our graduate school days in Toronto. But it wasn’t until I made a trip there for my 50th – a first draft of In Mr. Handsome’s Garden emerging – that I learned she could draw so much as a straight line.

(I know she doesn’t want her photo on this site, so I’ll use the Fairy she illustrated as her avatar.)

I was staying with my friend Peter Finney and his partner Ron. I showed Peter the draft, and he was enthusiastic. So was Catherine when I told her about it over lunch at her house.

peter-rabbit

When I said the stories needed to be illustrated, she said she might be able to help and produced some renderings of Beatrix Potter she’d done years before. I’d have taken them for originals, and that’s how our collaboration began.

Catherine is a PhD in Canadian lit who has always had an interest in children’s books. Our early conversations about the book – mostly over the phone – were fascinating to me. Catherine sketched out the evolution children’s book illustration from the 19th century to present. She discussed the various styles she could envision for the book. Eventually she suggested a naive style – something like the illustrations in The Little Prince – and we were done.

One look at any of Catherine’s illustrations will give you a sense of how delighted – more like amazed – I was when she started sending me her work. The cat, the goat, the antelopes and the stick & worm were first. And her illustrations only got better, including the mysterious face of Mr. Handsome.

As an English PhD, she also had lots of advice about the writing itself. For the 18 months it took to develop the book, we had an interplay of ideas, intuitions and inspirations that was effortless, fluid, fun and exciting. There were times when I asked her to change a particular sketch. At other times, I revised the text to capture an idea from her work. It is fair to say that In Mr. Handsome’s Garden would not exist without Catherine. Peter was part of the magic throughout.

I must also thank Catherine’s son Philip for his contribution to the scientific accuracy of the book. It’s a funny story.

In the first draft, I had a story called “Whales and Sea Moss.” In that version, the sea moss grew so plentifully that it was a blessing for whales to chomp off its overgrown branches. The moss would grow during the day, and the whales would nibble on the branches overnight, as both settled down into the ocean. Nice symbiosis, right?

But Philip, nine at the time, pointed out that whales eat krill, not sea moss (which, to be honest, I’d invented). The story was in trouble. My vote was to kill it entirely, but Catherine had already drawn the whales, and Peter said the illustration was too beautiful to ditch. So, thanks to Philip, I wrote something that may be better and I’ve revised every story to ensure, to the best of my ability, that it is scientifically accurate – or at least plausible. Thanks, Philip!

7 thoughts on “Catherine’s Work

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