It's always fascinating to learn about how writers and illustrators create the magical children's books we all love. But for author Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Maja Kastelic, there was a twist to their new book that makes things even more interesting: Anthony and the Gargoyle (Groundwood Books), is a wordless storybook. So their collaboration had to be much more direct and symbiotic than usual as Kastelic brought Bogart's story to life in images.
The end result is a stunning book about friendship and the difficulty of letting go, where we follow Anthony's story in Kastelic's artwork. He befriends a baby gargoyle who has accidentally ended up far from his family, who sit atop Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral.
When Anthony realizes his friend longs to be close to his parents, he knows he has to help the little gargoyle return home — even though it breaks his heart to give up his sweet and loyal friend.
Today we're introducing a new series called KidLit Convos, where co-creators of books talk not with us but with one another about what it was like to work together.
By asking questions of each other, they take us into the unique, behind the scenes experience of collaborating with another person to create great children's books. We couldn't ask for a more perfect pair to launch the series, as we listen to Jo Ellen and and Maja discuss how the story was first born on a quiet drive, how the story of a picture book can act as a "seed" for the illustrator to cultivate, and the importance of chocolate during the creative process.
Here, Maja starts things off with questions for Jo Ellen, after which Jo Ellen asks Maja about her experience, giving us a glimpse into all aspects of the creation of Anthony and the Gargoyle.
Jo Ellen, what was the strangest or most memorable part of creating this book for you?
Jo Ellen Bogart:
While I often get a flash of inspiration that leads to a book, the experience with Anthony and the Gargoyle was akin to the hatching of an egg. I say this because my fascination with gargoyles predated the concept for this book by many years. Of course, on a trip to Paris, I had to see the gargoyles of Notre Dame. I can't say for sure when the first inkling of the idea of a stone hatching to reveal a little gargoyle came to me. But the story itself came to me while driving home from a writers' meeting in Toronto. On that night, without my driving companion of many years, writer Jean Little, and without our usual constant conversation, my mind wandered here and there until it thought of the baby gargoyle. I began to tell myself the story, imagining the parents in Paris, bringing home the rock, the hatching and discovery, and pretty much the whole story.
Along the way, I decided that I wanted to have the book with many illustrations and no text. So it is that the strangest part of creating my part of the book was its birth on the highway. Back at home, I wrote down in a few words the progression of the story, picture by picture. No other book of mine has had this kind of birth, in thoughts only, at first. Of course, the fleshing out by illustrator Maja Kastelic was yet another kind of birth, as she created the tender relationship we see between the boy and the gargoyle. Maja suggested moving the setting of the story back to a time before the electronic and digital age. This was such a good change from my original idea of a more modern setting. She also created the loving home and parents. The city of Paris became almost another character, as she showed viewers the elegant beauty it contains.
Do you relate to any of the characters in the book? If so, who, and in what ways?
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I might not have thought of this without the question presented for this interview. If I relate strongly to any of the characters, it is to Anthony. Like him, I am rather quiet and enjoy quiet times with a good friend, and what a lovely friend he found in the little gargoyle. I was the first-born child in my family, an only child until I was five, so sometimes I might have wished for a lovely little companion. I did enjoy our flock of chickens and my dog. I still have a very friendly dog.
Anthony and the little gargoyle find things they like doing and enjoy a laugh together. Anthony is helpful toward his friend, exploring new things with him, sometimes attempting to explain the world. I also enjoy explaining things to children, as evidenced by my enjoyment of author visits to schools. I love the picture in which Maja shows them lying on the bed, looking out the window at the night sky. These illustrations are her inventions to show their friendship. I hope that I would be as kind and selfless as Anthony is in returning the little gargoyle to his parent. We see the parting of the two friends, first with almost solemn expressions that change into smiles. I think we might all relate to Anthony in that scene.
What are the best, and the toughest, parts of collaborating on books, in your opinion?
As an author, I understand that both the author and the illustrator have a part to play in the creation of a book. I understand not to have too many preconceived notions of what the art should look like, or at least to find the beauty in what the artist develops. I have been very fortunate in having some excellent illustrators over the years and in one case only did I ever have to ask for a few changes or even corrections in the art. That turned out well as the changes were made and the book was very nice. I appreciated having my concerns taken seriously.
In the book Anthony and the Gargoyle, the situation was different from any other book collaboration experiences in that there was no text to guide the illustrator. I had submitted a list of descriptions, page by page in some cases, of what I felt would tell the wordless story. The team made up of author, illustrator, editor and art director brought the book into existence. I felt wonderfully supported and consulted all along the way.
I was very pleased with Groundwood's choice of Maja Kastelic as illustrator and simply thrilled as I saw what was developing, as sketch by sketch appeared on my computer screen. Maja's task must have been daunting, as she invented characters and settings, moods and emotions for the book. The home environment for the family was calm and soothing and the relationship between father, mother, and son, and then the great aunt, was very endearing. As colour was added to the illustrations, I found the muted tones of the palette to be quiet and homey, a place in which I would be comfortable living.
The best part of the collaboration was the way in which Maja thought of better ways to handle the flow of the story. She moved the family photos from the albums that I had suggested to the wall near the entry way of the home, so the viewer would see them easily and more than once. The book ends with a new photo of Anthony and the little gargoyle, a perfect circle for the story.
A favourite part of the discussion about the development of the book was the puzzle of the stairway leading to the gargoyle terrace. I remembered that the stairway was counterclockwise, but how did that really work? My daughter Jill, with a degree in medieval history, was able to explain that cathedrals of the time were symmetrical so the stairway I took had a mirror image stairway on the other side. She also suggested that the window partway up would be a beautiful inclusion. It is.
Perhaps since this book was birthed in the time of a pandemic, one might have expected the situation to be more fraught with difficulties. The process took place via computers and people working at home. For me, it was very pleasant and exciting. I can only hope that the intense work for Maja was not a burden. I look at every drawing and see how much work and love went into it. So, as far as difficulties for me, I can't remember any, as I trusted the talents of the artist, the editor, and art director to keep everything working properly. I thank each one of them for their devotion to the book. [editor's note: here the co-creators swap their interviewer and subject roles]
Maja, how do you view the elements we each contributed as working with each other in the final version?
It was something new for me to work with an author of the story on a book that was going to be a silent, no text. When getting the text, I immediately felt the story to be moving and magical, and this is something I always appreciate and search for in works I choose to illustrate. I understood and felt your story right away but needed some thinking on its structure. The plot line was rich and intense, and there were many crucial moments, different settings and things needed to be shown, so I felt it outgrew the classical picture book layout and needed much more space and visual scenes to tell your endearing story. First, I made a written draft of what I had to present and what was expected of the final art, but then I also took much liberty to shape the visual narrative in my own way. I understand how risky and vulnerable it must feel to give your story to someone else to represent it, possibly change it and shape it into something different than you imagined but it's also this exact tension, the duality that can add to something more.
I believe in picture books it's all about the intertwining and complementing of both the told story and its visual display. The story is the seed, the soil on which the illustrations grow like flowers, and only together they make the scent, the experience of it. This is how I see the author's and the illustrator's work together. Regarding Anthony and the Gargoyle, I feel it has grown together into a very unified, merged piece of both your work and my own and this is something truly wonderful.
What was your workspace like while working on your part of the book? What do you need to make a work session successful (food, tools, music rituals, etc.)?
While working on the project I felt all the support and trust of the whole team I could ask for, and this is something I need and appreciate very much. It took much longer than I imagined since it was a time of pandemic and homeschooling which was why I couldn't work on it as focused and intense as I'd wished for, and I also changed my mind about the look and technique three times. I wished to visually tell the story in a sort of timeless way, comfortably nostalgic and in a way that would connect all the various settings and scenes - feeling of home, children's playing, travelling, Paris and Notre Dame views... I used numerous Google references, both photos and videos to construct the feeling of going to Paris and Notre Dame (which was impossible due to both the pandemic and the devastating fire, a reason to also feel this book to be the homage to beautiful Notre Dame).
My studio was just as messy as usual and when going there I always begin the working day with a cup of green tea or a coffee from an old porcelain cup. However, apart from being enthusiastic, devoted, and having a stack of chocolate somewhere near, there unfortunately is no general rule for making a session successful. :)
What do you hope young readers will take away from our book?
I hope the readers, especially the youngest, will be able to follow all the narrative and sense Anthony and the gargoyle's tender friendship and joy, understand the longing and sacrifice done in the name of love, get the feeling of magic we put into the book and the excitement of travelling we indicated. I hope some will look through it slowly and play with the story, imagining and reliving it in their own way, since the book is always like a vessel in which we put our worlds and presentations. Or maybe, for some, it will shape the presentation of their worlds which is everything and more a creator can hope for.
Jo Ellen Bogart was born in Houston, Texas, and received degrees in elementary education and psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She has written many children's books, including The White Cat and the Monk, illustrated by Sydney Smith, a Governor General's Award finalist and a USBBY Outstanding International Book. Her picture book Jeremiah Learns to Read, illustrated by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson won the Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award, and Gifts, illustrated by Barbara Reid, won the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award and was selected for IBBY's Honour List. Jo Ellen lives in Guelph, Ontario.
Maja Kastelic received a BA in painting from the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Fine Arts and Design and studied philosophy and theory of visual culture at the University of Primorska. She restored frescoes before becoming a children's book author and illustrator. Her wordless picture book A Boy and a House was selected for the Bologna Illustrators Exhibition, the White Ravens Catalogue, Kirkus Best Wordless Picture Books and the IBBY Honour List. She has received a BIB Plaque at the Biennial of Illustrations, Bratislava. Maja lives in Trebnje, Slovenia.