This autumn, Tamarind published Jamila Gavin’s Blackberry Blue: a collection of six magical fairytales featuring a diverse cast of multicultural heroes and heroines. It has got us thinking a lot about storytelling and the role it plays in preserving cultural heritage. We asked some of our authors to tell us about the stories they enjoyed as children . . . Here’s what Ann Cameron, author of the Julian and Huey series had to say.
My Swedish grandfather lived with my family from the time I was born. He saved my life when I was a baby. One night it rained and the roof of the house got a leak that soaked the heavy plaster of the ceiling over my bed. Suddenly, the ceiling fell right onto my bed, with enough weight to crush me to death. But luckily for me, I wasn’t in bed that night. For some reason my grandpa – who never got me up at night – had taken me downstairs to play. I don’t remember the day the ceiling fell in, but I know that I was safe, held in his arms.
My grandpa was a blacksmith and had a forge where he hammered all kinds of useful things out of red-hot iron. He had his blacksmith shop on our land and we called it the ‘monkey house’ because he monkeyed around there, inventing and making things. I loved to spend time with him in the monkey house, with its smell of tools and fire and its cabinet with many tiny drawers full of bolts and screws and different size nails. Because I was very young, I never understood why there were no monkeys in the monkey house. I kept hoping that one day the monkeys would show up.
My grandpa told me stories about trolls and also about gremlins. When things in our house went astray, he said that gremlins had taken them. I thought the gremlins had carried them away down under the grating of the heat vent into the mysterious dark place below it that led down to the coal furnace in the basement. I didn’t know how tall gremlins were, but I imagined them about a foot high, moving around our house in the night while we slept. It seemed that in our house the lost things, especially buttons, disappeared and were never to be found again – proof that gremlins were real. As I grew up, I rarely wondered where the lost things had gone, because I was quite certain they were never coming back. To this day when something disappears, I remember my grandpa, say to myself, ‘Oh, it’s the gremlins again!’ and wait a good while before I start to look for it.
Although I was born in the United States, I have spent many years living in Panajachel, Guatemala. Just like the tales of the Brothers Grimm, some of the stories from the Cakchiquel Mayan tradition can seem quite violent; there’s one like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ but instead of a witch, there’s a big tree in the mountains which takes compassion on them and opens up so they can hide inside it to escape a lion. Then the two siblings live together in the mountains for years where they grow their food and the brother makes friends with a dog. They meet strange people deeper in the mountains, some of whom plan to eat them! But then Gretel falls in love with one of the men of the place and turns on her brother; she wants to kill Hansel, because he doesn’t like her new boyfriend. Hansel’s dog saves him from poisoned food the strange people want to feed him. Hansel knows about the poison because the dog is his food tester – what the dog won’t touch, Hansel knows is poisoned and won’t eat. The story comes to a climax when at a dance, Gretel and her boyfriend want to push Hansel into a concealed deep pit with a fire at the bottom. Hansel notices the pit, and pushes his sister and the boyfriend into it, where they burn to death. Hansel cries because he had loved his sister. From there on, it’s happily ever after.
Another story concerns a two-headed eagle that carries away children and even adults who go to the fields to plant corn – and eats them. To escape it, one family carries a giant hollow gourd to the fields so they can hide in it when they heard the eagle’s cry. Every day, the eagle lands on the gourd and claws at it, but the gourd is so strong and smooth, the eagle can’t break it open. But one day the father of the family forgets the gourd – and the eagle flies away with them all to carry them to his nest and eat them. When it sets them down in its nest, the father takes out a small machete. With it, he fights the eagle and chops it to bits, and no one ever has to be afraid to plant their fields with corn after that.
By Jamie Smith
I feel very lucky to be illustrating Ann Cameron’s series; the stories are jam packed with special moments and the characters are so vividly drawn. This makes illustrating the books a lot of fun – and there are always lots of options for the cover illustration.
I grew up in a family of four with a younger brother and unruly dog, so I really relate to the stories. For this reason the Tiger Tells All cover is one of my favourite illustrations. I’ve spent many hours chasing dogs around a back garden, with cats fleeing up trees and discarded socks strewn across the lawn. I too would struggle to resist dipping my finger into a voluminous lemon pudding, such as the one found in The Julian Stories. I really enjoyed this cover and one day soon I will follow the recipe in the back of the book, and see if it’s possible for the pudding to see out an evening unscathed.
My path always seemed destined towards a career in illustration, from the moment my grandmother first stepped into my classroom as a substitute teacher and instructed us to draw something. My efforts were doubled; I surrounded myself with coloured crayons (no doubt a little pink tongue was protruding from the corner of my mouth!) and produced a colourful hamster. It actually looked like a hamster, and from that day forward a sketchbook was my constant companion, even on holiday. I would devour comics, studying the artwork of Leo Baxendale in the Beano and recreating his characters.
My working process today is constantly evolving, and sometimes it still involves coloured crayons. I started life as a watercolour, dip pen and ink artist, but the Ann Cameron books are created with an array of pencils and some splashes of paint, and are brought together on the computer.
John Burningham was the first illustrator of children’s books to demand my attention, and though my influences are numerous and change daily I always return to the likes of Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey. There are so many characters that I would have loved to create, but I do have serious beard envy when it comes to Quentin Blake’s Mr Twit.
I work in a little studio at the bottom of my garden, flanked by apple trees and in the company of a huge array of birds and hungry insects. I could do with a friend like Gloria, to point out when my backside is covered with ants!
Jamie Smith illustrates the Julian and Huey books by Ann Cameron. To see Jamie’s work in action, check out Tiger Tells All, The Julian Stories and Julian’s Glorious Summer!
I live part of the year in Guatemala, and part in Portland, Oregon, USA. One summer day in Portland I was walking in a park with two friends, Cati, who teaches seventh grade, and Dave, a doctor, who started telling me about their dog and cat. Their dog, Tiger, was very smart and very patient, and took care of the cat, who was a terrible risk-taker. The cat climbed up a tree and sat on a branch a man was sawing off the tree. The cat actually got stuck in the toilet while trying to drink the toilet water. And then, unnoticed, the cat jumped into the freezer with all the frozen food, and Cati didn’t notice and shut her inside. Could the wise dog save her from that? He did.
Tiger – what a hero! I wanted to write about him and her. I didn’t need to make anything up. The whole plot for the book had just fallen into my lap. All I needed to do to write it was to see things from Tiger’s point of view. I wrote Tiger Tells All in just three weeks, and it turned out really good and funny. Just as if Tiger was dictating it to me. Maybe he was!
Ann Cameron is the author of seventeen books, including the timeless series of stories featuring brothers Julian and Huey, and she has been a finalist for the U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Please visit anncameronbooks.com for further information about Ann and her books.