Author and illustrator Marcia Williams is best known for bringing classic stories recalled from her own childhood to life for young children. These stories from all ages and cultures take another guise in her often hilarious yet always considered retellings. From Ancient Greece and exotic India to classic Shakespeare, her unique approach utilises comic-strip art to illustrate in a way that reflects the world and perspective of these places. Her rendering of Indian myths not only tells the tale but also uses folk-art visuals, her Egyptian stories use the visual language of hieroglyphic panels, while her war stories are often made to look like scrapbooks created by the character telling the story.
Williams’ unique use and understanding of sequential narrative not only tells an individual story but also creates an incredible world of layered stories. Comic strip is ideal for dual narrative, and she pushes this potential to new heights. For example, Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays: Seven Plays Presented by Marcia Williams takes the reader inside the Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames in Elizabethan London. In addition to the story laid out in richly decorated central panels, we have a running commentary from the audience in the borders. Everyone, from hawkers selling nuts and musicians to Queen Elizabeth herself, comments on the story as it unfolds. All these immersive details keep drawing young readers back to discover new things and layers to the story.
When you are writing and illustrating, which comes first? Do you write a structure then visualise it? Does it change when you come to visualise it?
When I started at Walker Books as a complete novice, I had never done a book – I had never been to art college. But I had a really good editor and learned from her that you need a solid structure, and that if you haven’t got that then you haven’t got anything. I always start with the story, but then it always changes because so much goes into the pictures. It’s a whole: everything matters, the font and placement, everything. And I’m lucky to work with a team of people who also really care about that.
While you were growing up, were there books around? Was reading important?
When I was young, my mother wanted me to be educated in the classics and I had to read them. But they were adult versions, Don Quixote and things like that, and afterwards she would send me questionnaires to fill in and return. And then she sent me a list of all the spelling mistakes I’d made! So at that time I hated books. It wasn’t until later when I was at secondary school, when I had a scary teacher called Miss Duncan who used to read to us on rainy days, that I was introduced to Dickens. Then books really made sense. When it came to me having my own children, I wanted to create books that they would enjoy and that I would enjoy reading to them, with lots of pictures that would bring these classics to life for them.
In these classic tales, such as Ancient Egypt: Tales of Gods and Pharaohs and The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India, why did you choose to utilise the folk art of these cultures?
I feel I’m creating a world, as well as creating a story. Right from the time you look at the cover, I want you to know that you are entering that world. I’ve got a wonderful art editor that I work with at Walker Books who helps me create this world visually, so that nothing jars.
How do you find working with an art editor?
It’s an important process. For instance on My Secret War Diary by Flossie Albright, we created a special font and I designed the whole thing as an exercise book. There were lots of stick-ins and she made sure everything was there, in the right place, and it was fantastic. You can’t do something like that unless you have an understanding art editor.
‘I love the way comic strips work and how you can interrelate things on several levels’
You often have dual and triple narratives occurring in your books, which is one of the advantages of sequential narrative. In the Ancient Egypt book, you had the main story, starting with Ra, and then his cat Rami had his own story as he leapt out of the main panel. How do you structure something like that?
I love the way comic strips work and how you can interrelate things on several levels. My editor is very firm about these things (quite rightly!). They have to be clear – and if they are, it can work very effectively. I first started using the borders to that extent with Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays. I wanted to create the feeling of a play so I had the audience around the edge. You just realise how much information it can give. It’s important because you can put random jokes in that lift low moments. In the case of the Egyptian book, the cat gives a whole different level of information. If you take the information out and give it a life of its own, it doesn’t harm the story in any way. For those not ready for the main story, they can concentrate on that first and then go back to the main story.
It’s obviously very important to you that children read and have fun doing it.
Yes, doing the classic retellings, I want to get children to the real thing. I don’t want children to be put off by a difficult read, and I hope my work makes them want to read the real thing. It’s a way in.
Ebooks – what do you think of them? Are there versions of your stories as ebooks?
I don’t think there are any versions of my work as ebooks and I’m not sure how it would work. I don’t want to read them, they’re not books. But it’s progress and if it gets people and children reading, then great.
Are there any other classic stories that you would like to retell?
Yes, there are always stories! There are more Indian tales I would like to explore as well as Chinese myths, the Vikings, and then there’s a whole other level like the works of Jane Austen, which could be very interesting. EB