Art of the Fairy Tale

"The Black Bull of Norroway" | Courtesy of Chronicle Books

"The Black Bull of Norroway" | Courtesy of Chronicle Books


Art of the Fairy Tale

A Conversation with UK Illustrator Kate Forrester

By Virginia Archer


Confronting the notion that the fairy tale genre encouraged unhealthy amounts of escapism in children, C.S. Lewis wrote in a prominent essay that a child "does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all woods a little more enchanted".

Those of us who've come to love the fantasy genre have faced the same questions regarding its usefulness in our lives. Surely the temptation exists for each reader to mistake the inner, imaginative realm as more beautiful than the real. But an essential task of any reader of fantasy- or of any genre for that matter- is to find their way back home at the end of the story. And, in the case of the fairy tale, to perhaps return, if the reader is lucky, with a new-found sense of inspiration, wonder and even a bit of heroism.

Indeed, for many a reader, the fairy tale's main teaching is the hero’s journey, as mythologist Joseph Campbell calls it. The path that every protagonist must take. Full of trials, guardians, guides, hidden powers and fears to conquer. Through the story of the hero, the reader encounters the universal structures of the quest and is reminded of the transformative effects of traveling our own life paths with bravery and wisdom.

Whether we consider the genre to be applicable to our lives in some way or purely entertaining, there's no denying the timeless appeal of the fairy story, as Tolkien called it. For those of you looking to get a little more fairy tale in your reading life, Chronicle Book’s Celtic Tales is a great place to start. This collection of Irish, Scottish and British fairy lore is illustrated by the talented Kate Forrester, whose use of silhouette and symmetry recalls the aesthetic of woodblock printing. This spring, Story Lab talked shop with Forrester as she reflected on the power of fairy tale and the joys of illustrating this book of enchanted stories.

"The Basin of Gold and the Diamond Lance" | Courtesy of Chronicle Books

"The Basin of Gold and the Diamond Lance" | Courtesy of Chronicle Books

VA: What made you decide to go into illustration, and to use that skill in the literary world?

KF: From a very young age, I always knew that I wanted to pursue art as a career. I really couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. Then at college we had an introduction to book illustration for Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and I was sold! I knew I could never be a fine artist and only make things based on my own thoughts and ideas. I love the collaborative nature of illustration, taking someone else’s words and putting my spin on them!

VA: Do you have any advice for young storytellers about how to take up the art of illustration? Are there any guides, tools or videos that you recommend?

KF: I found reading to be the best introduction and inspiration. At university, I used to redesign covers for my favorite books if I didn’t feel the existing cover did them justice. So that could be a place to start.

I would suggest being open minded about learning Photoshop and/or Illustrator. Courses are expensive so if you can get someone to teach you the basics, that will go a long way in helping you progress your work. For specific online tutorials, Skillshare has some great classes. But you don’t need to be over dependent on technology – all you really need are a few ideas and a pen to get started!

VA: Do you have any advice for parents who see that their child has a gift or love for drawing?

KF: I guess just to encourage them as much as possible. Kids don’t need access to fancy equipment or courses. I remember that my mum always kept paper and pencils in her handbag for me when I was little and we were out and about. Any quiet moment or opportunity I got, I would draw.

VA: Do you feel a special connection to Irish, Scottish and British folklore? The world of magic, witches and shapeshifting?

KF: I have always loved fairy tales – who doesn’t?! I particularly like the darkness and the mischief in these tales. The landscapes described are very familiar and for this reason, perhaps, the stories are all the more haunting.

VA: What was your favorite tale from the compilation? Which was your favorite story to illustrate?

KF: Definitely Assipattle – the sea monster was such a perfect creature to draw. I could see it perfectly in my mind the first time I read it.

"Assipattle and the Mester Stoorworm" | Courtesy of Chronicle Books

"Assipattle and the Mester Stoorworm" | Courtesy of Chronicle Books

VA: Okay, I have to ask..what is your favorite fairytale?

KF: The snow child by Eowyn Ivey is the best grown-up fairy tale I have ever read. It is just enchanting.

VA: I saw in your biography that you have children. As a mother, do you feel that illustration is especially important for young readers?

KF: Absolutely. I have read books to my kids since they were way too young to understand what the words mean. But even very young children can get so much from the colours and images and, as they get older, it helps them engage with the story and learn visually in a way that would be very dull otherwise.

VA: Who are some of your favorite illustrators? Do you have any favorite picture books?

KF: I adore Carson Ellis’ work. Her latest book, Du Iz Tak has really struck a chord with my boys and I. We all find it hilarious – a book with an invented language but which is so easy to decipher, even for a 3 year-old.

But I have so many favorites. Reading children’s books is a really big part of my life right now, as I have small boys who love to be read to. We love John Burningham - Courtney, Janet and Allen Ahlberg, practically everything written and illustrated by Quentin Blake, Dr. Seussthe Lorax is such a wonderful tale! The list goes on!

You can snag your own copy of this beautiful collection of illustrated Irish tales here. But before you go, we'd love to hear about your favorite fairy tale in the comments section below.