Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch, by Julia Jarman: When Natasha moves to a new house in the countryside she finds a fairy turned to stone, an angry witch and a fairy-ring growing through the carpet – and a strange boy, who says that unless she goes to Fairy Land and rescues the witch’s child, something awful will happen to her baby brother.
Lob, by Linda Newbery: You have to be a special person to see Lob; that’s what Grandpa Will says, and Lucy longs to be one of them. When Grandpa dies suddenly, the elusive green man becomes even more important. Back at home in London, Lucy watches and waits, hoping she’ll see him again. Meanwhile, Lob walks the roads …
LN: Julia Jarman is a great friend of mine. We like and admire each other’s books, and both write for a big range of ages, from picture books to young adult novels and for all ages in between, Julia’s work ranging from her very successful Big Red Bath to the harsh realism of Inside, her latest young adult novel, and mine from my one and only picture book Posy to the Victorian mystery Set in Stone, which has been published in both teenage and adult editions.
We’re going to talk about our latest publications. Julia’s enchanting Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch and my Lob, are both (as far as anyone knows) for the 7-9 age group; both are set in the real world but include fantasy elements.
JJ: Firstly, how did you decide on Lob’s name?
LN: Lob is the title of a poem by Edmund Thomas, in which he describes an old man he meets walking in the countryside; Thomas links him to archetypal figures such as Herne the Hunter, Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Hedge. Lob also appears in folklore as Lob-lie-by-the-fire, a house hob who does odd jobs around the place when no one’s looking. My Lob is part helpful hob, part Green Man. And you? How did you come to name your character Pillywiggins?
JJ: Aha! And you saw - or met? - an old man walking in the countryside – and thought of Lob! And – I saw ‘his’ book in the glove box of your car - you’re hoping to meet him again.
LN: Yes, I used to see an old man trudging along the A43 quite regularly, and I soon associated him with the Lob poem. He seemed to be a tramp, and was always on the same stretch of road, taking no notice of the passing traffic. I've only seen him two or three times over the last year or so, but he has a habit of appearing at significant times, e.g the day after I told David Fickling about my idea for the story. I hope he's still around.
And you? How did you come to name your character Pillywiggins?
JJ: I came across the name when I was researching the folklore of fairy rings, the seed of my story. When I was a girl I used to play in a fairy ring at the back of my grandma’s cottage. The cottage was demolished and houses were built on the land, including the fairy ring. You can see why I identify with your Lucy! For many years I’ve had an image in my head of the fairy ring growing through the carpet in one of the houses.
Back to Pilywiggins. I loved the sound of the word, learned it was an old name for a fairy and thought it suited an exquisite figure my mum had given me. It made her think of the bogle in Ollie and the Bogle, my second book. I can see why, but it’s different.
LN: I love that idea of fairy rings retaining their potency even when built over and carpeted! The danger and seductiveness of your fairies, and the stealing of human babies, are well-rooted in folklore. In your story, the Tree Witch threatens to turn Charlie Baby into a beetle, if she doesn't get her own Green Boy back - it was a clever touch to have Charlie's fingernails starting to turn beetle-black. I assume that's your own invention, rather than something you found in your folklore research?
JJ: Yes, and your Lob fights back too and bites! I think the beetle-black fingernail is my own invention. Hope so!
LN: In Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch, there’s a Green Lady and a Green Boy – your own takes on the Green Man figure, or have you come across them elsewhere?
JJ: Green Boy is my own creation I think, but I’m not confident about saying this. There’s nothing new under the sun etc. I’ve always been fascinated by Green Men and used to know a pub of that name as a child. There was a topiary green man outside which I loved. I remember storyteller, Mike Dunstan, telling a story about three green ladies, trees that turned into witches. Mike gave me a book with it in and I wanted to recap but couldn’t find the book, so I pressed on with my story making it up as I went along. I wrote my book very fast – I don’t usually write fast - as escapism when my husband Peter was ill but busy in his workshop. It came out much longer than Andersen wanted, more than double the length so I had to slice it.
I know you struggled to get Lob right but it doesn’t feel like that, not at all. It feels organic, as if you grew it – from a seed or a cutting perhaps! Nor does it feel like an experiment or new venture. Lots of
people have commented on its timeless quality – the word ‘classic’ comes to mind – and I think the nature-mystical element has allowed you to give your poetic self full rein. The psychology is spot-on as always, the language precise as always but with a new lyricism. I LOVE the language of Lob, book and character, especially the poetic interludes, which aren’t interludes at all but Lob’s thoughts, it seems to me. You’re writing about deep important things, but the structure of the book makes them accessible to a young reader. Every detail contributes to this including font and illustrations. How much say did you have in the form of the book?
LN: Thanks, Julia! Yes, I had quite a bit of say, and more than one meeting, at first with David Fickling and Bella Pearson, my editors, looking at possible illustrators, and later with Ness Wood, the designer, and Pam Smy. As soon as I saw Pam Smy’s work I knew she was the perfect illustrator for Lob – better than I could have hoped for! She so exactly captures the atmosphere and feeling of the story. I love the way she’s evoked Grandpa’s garden and the rural setting, and also busy scenes like the motorway services and the London streets. We talked, too, about the size and shape of the book, the print size and how to distinguish Lob’s “thoughts”. It was my suggestion – though I think everyone agreed – that Lob should never be directly shown. Lucy herself never gets more than an impression of mossy barky leafiness, or bright eyes, and I wanted the reader to be able to form her or his own impression of what Lob might look like and how he might be glimpsed.
That’s odd about Pillywiggins being twice the length and needing to be cut, because exactly the same thing happened with Lob. My first draft was too long, too wordy, and somehow too knowing. David Fickling saw that at once, and when I went back to the story I knew he was right. I started again, more simply, and at once it felt more true and more sure.
Were you anxious about finding the right illustrator for Pillywiggins? Did Alex Bitskoff base her on the figure given to you by your mother? It's certainly a most appealing cover, with the contrasting of the two figures, and of the light and dark.
JJ: Oh yes! I sent him (Alex) a photograph. I wanted to take her on school visits and did before publication – and lost her! I love the cover.
LN: There are a great many stories and series about fairies around at the moment for this younger age-group – many of them pink and sparkly, as acknowledged by Jamie in your story. Was part of your motivation to counter this wash of twinkly gauziness?
JJ Very definitely yes! Pillywiggins, like Lob, is green and brown. I wanted to write a strong story for my granddaughters aged 6 to 8. I must admit I’d given Maya the full set of Rainbow Magic for her 7th birthday – she asked!
What would you like young readers to get from reading Pillywiggins?
JJ: I think I’d like to leave readers with the sense that there’s more to life than meets the eye - and maybe I wrote it to convince myself.
LN: There’s a lovely thread of ancient wisdom in your story, personified by Jamie’s grandmother and her Romany roots. And you subvert the idea of witches at the end, with the transformation into Green Lady – a return to the pagan fertility figure.
JJ: Mmm. We both have this pagan thread. You make a clear distinction between believers and non-believers in Lob, and the believers like Lucy or Alison sometimes choose not to believe. Do you think belief is a matter of choice?
LN: I think by "belief" I would mean an openness to the wonders of the natural world. That's what I'd most like readers to see in the story - or, for many, an affirmation of something they already feel. That's why I wanted Lucy's home life to be in London, and the story to end with Cornelius and the allotments - I wouldn't want to suggest that delighting in nature is only for those people lucky enough to live in the countryside, like Lucy’s Grandpa.
When I've talked about Lob in schools, I usually ask the children if they like gardening, or helping with gardening - many of them do! It might be helping parents or grandparents in a garden or on an allotment, or growing beans in a jam-jar, and many primary schools now have small plots where the children can grow flowers and vegetables. Children usually seem to know what I mean by "garden magic". And not only children! You and I are both strongly affected by garden magic, I know.
JJ I feel the pull more and more as I grow older …