Rachel Piercey & Freya Hartas | 'We wanted the seasons to be accurately represented'

Rachel Piercey & Freya Hartas | 'We wanted the seasons to be accurately represented'

Poetry and woodland creatures, along with a dose of nostalgia and a nod to Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books, all feature in the big search-and-find spring release from the new independent publisher Magic Cat, which brought together poet Rachel Piercey (above right) and illustrator Freya Hartas (above left) to create a magical world around Bear and his animal chums.

If You Go Down to the Woods Today... (More Than 100 Things to Find) opens with an introduction from Bear, who invites the reader to come and see his home in “the world inside the wood”. Each double-page spread is dedicated to key events or rites of passage in a child’s life—a birthday party, for example, or putting on a play—and, as well as enjoying Piercey’s poems, the reader is invited to spot 16 things in Hartas’ sumptuously illustrated landscapes.

The book opens in spring, a “natural starting place because of the sense of things waking up, characters coming out of hibernation”, says Piercey. “We wanted the seasons to be accurately represented and for there to be a real sense of what goes on during those changes; what happens to the animals, the weather, the trees, the plants.”

The poems were created before the illustrations, and Piercey settled on the ballad metre, which she describes as “timeless” and “musical”, for her work. She adds: “[Once] I settled on that form, I worked out what information I needed to get across in each section, then just played around with it and tried to keep it specific enough (because poems need to be anchored in specifics), but open enough too, so that I wasn’t being too prescriptive about what should be in the illustrations. Sometimes I was introducing characters, sometimes introducing the weather, atmosphere, and trying to get some more traditional poetic devices in there. I love alliteration and onomatopoeia.”

Finding the look

The poems, along with a draft of the “what to spot” section, were then sent to Hartas, whose job it was to create the visual narratives. “I started each piece by roughly blocking out the main components of the composition, particularly where the big trees or habitats would be,” Hartas says. “I’d then pin the ‘What to find’ list to the side of my drawing board and add those characters in one by one, making sure they were evenly spaced out over the spread. Then I would fill in the empty spaces with all the other woodland animals going about their business... This was always my favourite part, as I loved coming up with their cheeky characters and thinking up funny ways they could be interacting with each other.”

The roughs (drawn in pencil) were sent back to the team and once everyone was happy, Hartas coloured the images in digitally, her least favourite part of the process. “[The scenes were] so busy that it would just look quite bad until right at the last minute, when everything suddenly came together.” Each spread took 10 days to two weeks to finish, she says.

The same group of characters appear in each scene, and the author and illustrator wanted to convey different personalities within the ecosystem of the wood. “We wanted a sense of them all working together and everyone having something to contribute,” said Piercey. “There are the loud ones and the storytellers, then the shyer animals and the ones that like to help. Just a lot of variety and diversity coming together in the ecosystem in the wood.”

Finding the look

Hartas had already worked with Magic Cat (on Slow Down) and bonded with publisher Rachel Williams over their shared love for Molly Brett, a 20th-century illustrator known for her anthropomorphic artwork. She says she has always drawn (her father is Leo Hartas and her grandfather John Vernon Lord, both illustrators), and she illustrated her first book for Dutch publisher Lemniscaat. Piercey, on the other hand, got involved with the project after Williams saw a video of her reading her poetry on the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals website. She has worked with The Emma Press on editing poetry anthologies and single-author poetry pamphlets, as well as a children’s anthology, but If You Go Down to the Woods Today is her first book for the picture book readership.

The book has already sold in 10 overseas territories, and Magic Cat has had a “very positive response” from Waterstones. The publisher is hoping to be able to decorate some bookshop windows if Covid-19 is on the wane come spring, and has plans for a parent-to-parent marketing campaign via Instagram. There will also be a second title starring Bear, introducing the idea of climate change.

When asked why books about nature are so popular at the moment, Piercey says: “There is a growing awareness about the preciousness of nature and what we could lose... When I go into primary schools, kids are so aware of climate change and they are passionate about saving things.” Hartas adds: “Lots of us are living in cities and everything is fast-paced. Many children are living in an urban space. It’s nice to let them notice there is nature around them.”