Dawn Casey and Amanda Hall’s creative author /illustrator collaboration is, once more, bearing fruit, with the publication of Little Bear, Wisdom Tales and the republication of Babushka, Lion Children’s Books. As it happens, both Little Bear and Babushka are children’s books about kindness and empathy. Coincidence? In this article, the author and the illustrator give us an insight into how the two picture books came to be.
Before we interview them, here is a short description of each book:
The story for Little Bear is a folktale from Greenland, in the Arctic. It tells of an old woman who, unlike the other women in her small community, has no children. She finds a tiny polar bear cub all alone on the ice and takes him home to look after him. The story is about their relationship as he grows and what happens at a moment of crisis, and the decision the old woman is then faced with.
Babushka is a popular folktale from Russia, though the tale’s roots come from the folklore of Italy. It tells the story of the nativity from a fresh perspective. Babushka is visited by three wise men, following a star. They ask Babushka if they can shelter for the night. The story the wise men share, of a baby born to bring love, touches Babushka’s heart, and changes her life forever.
Our guests for this blog are:
Dawn Casey – an award-winning author of beautiful books for children; she specialises in re-telling traditional tales and stories that celebrate the natural world.
Amanda Hall – an award-winning illustrator: she is particularly renowned for her wonderfully decorative and colourful children’s book illustrations in Britain, America and beyond.
Q – Dawn, how did you come to choose the two kindness stories, first Babushka, then Little Bear?
Babushka has been a favourite festive tale in my family since my children were little. We even had a Babushka song we used to sing at Christmas-time, complete with floor-sweeping, door-knocking, baby-cradling actions! It is a heart-warming sight to watch little ones, wearing lengths of old cloth from the dressing up basket as shawls and head-scarves, singing and sweeping with imaginary brooms: ‘Ba-bushka, Ba-bushka, you sweep and sweep all day…’ (I also found it a great song to encourage children to help with advent home-tending!)
As a woman, I also love the fact that Babushka embodies the spirit of Christmas in feminine form.
I think the seed of Little Bear, our second picture book about kindness, was planted when Amanda and I first met, and were discussing the possibility of working on a story together. We discovered then that we both shared a love of polar bears.
Q – When did you first come across each story?
The story of Babushka has been part of our winter celebrations for many years! The tale has roots in Italian folklore, in the figure of Befana, who traditionally delivers gifts for children at Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas). Epiphany is known in our family as ‘three kings day’ – according to tradition, it is the day the three wise men arrived bearing gifts. One of the ways we celebrate this day is by sharing the story of Babushka, and making a ‘three kings cake’, topped with marzipan figures of the three kings, Babushka and, inspired by Amanda’s illustrations, Babushka’s cat! A coin is baked inside the cake, and whoever finds it in their slice is crowned king or queen, and gets to choose the family activity for the evening. I’ve found it a lovely way to close the Christmas festivities for the season.
I first came across the folktale Little Bear in the collection, The Dancing Fox, Arctic Folktales edited by John Bierhorst. The book has a good section on sources for the tales, which is very important to me. When I re-tell a folktale, authenticity is one of my guiding principles – I like to find the earliest known version of a story and begin there.
Q – The picture books about kindness that you co-created are both inspired by folktales. Do you think kindness is a timeless theme in stories? And to what extent do you see traditional tales as relevant for today’s children?
Folktales are a rich source of powerful, timeless themes, and yes, kindness is one of the themes often central to traditional stories. These tales have gained strength over the years, with each retelling for a new generation, so it’s not at all surprising that they inspire many of the children’s books written today and are among the books that have fundamental human values at their core. The two picture books about kindness we are discussing today are examples of that trend.
Dawn’s writing brings to life the powerful emotions inherent in acts of kindness, and it helps the reader identify with her central characters. Whose heart wouldn’t melt reading the words in this spread above? The text says, ‘He looked so small, all alone in the white.’ The old woman shows such empathy when she sees this little creature alone and vulnerable on the ice. Then, when she takes him home, the text tells us, ‘She held the bear cub close until he was warm’.
Well, I specialise in re-telling traditional tales for today’s children, so my answer to the question about relevance is a resounding YES! Traditional tales offer us a direct connection back to our ancestors. They contain the collective wisdom of whole peoples, passed down through generations. Because of this they are often far more resonant than a new tale, written by a single author, can ever be. These old stories are like diamonds – they have many facets, and each reader can receive a different treasure from the same tale, depending on their own point of view. The same story can also offer one child (or one adult!) different wisdom as they grow, because different parts of the tale will resonate with each new life experience.
Also, these old tales come from a time in human history when people lived closer to the earth, and to each other. For decades, modern consumer culture has normalised disconnection from nature, disconnection from other people and disconnection from ourselves – our bodies, our senses, our feelings, our instincts… At this pivotal time, these tales offer us stories of journeying to healthy alternatives, which I believe are vital. I believe we need a vision of what we do want; the more beautiful world we want to create together.
Q – Amanda, what were your reactions on first reading the two kindness stories that Dawn wrote?
It was soon clear to me that both these stories had great potential. In each, the central character goes on a life-changing, emotional journey. Dawn’s writing is so moving and profound that it reaches right inside to touch your heart. Illustration is an emotional process and these images flowed out of me in response when I began work.
Q – Dawn, what were the qualities in each story that stood out for you, inspiring you to develop them both as picture books?
Off the top of my head, I’d say warmth – warm-heartedness. And the lovely contrast of that with the beautiful snow-cold landscapes.
Q – Tell us a bit about how the two books developed.
I do a lot of research and reading when working on folktales. I start with the oldest-known version, and read every available variant, alongside carefully researching the culture and landscape of the story. I am deeply grateful to Kelly Berthelsen, the Inuit writer, translator and politician, for checking the text of Little Bear to ensure that the details are accurate and that the book aligns with my intention to work in a way that is respectful to the cultural traditions and the indigenous peoples of Greenland.
I always knew Amanda’s illustrations for both Babushka and Little Bear would be beautiful. I love the clean, graceful shapes of Amanda’s artwork – the way she creates space for the archetypal images to shine, which is balm for the soul in this busy, cluttered modern-life of ours. I also adore the radiant luminosity of Amanda’s art! Whenever I do book stalls, people are always drawn like moths to a candle to Amanda’s shining cover art! Seeing that combination of clarity and radiance in Amanda’s artwork, as the books progressed, has been a complete joy.
Q – How are the themes of kindness and empathy developed in the stories?
I think the themes of kindness and empathy were already at the heart of these old stories – that’s exactly what I mean when I say these old tales express the wisdom of our ancestors. The qualities that I see shining in these stories – loving, caring, gift-giving, community, connection – are all very much related to kindness and empathy.
The main characters of Babushka and Little Bear both choose ways forward that put into action their care for others.
Q – Amanda, give us an insight into how you developed the visual narrative in the Little Bear story?
And in the Babushka story?
About Little Bear, as Dawn said, the idea for a story about a polar bear was in the air when we first met – this was back in 2012. I’m so pleased that it has now come to fruition!
Although the old woman in the story has food and warmth to survive, she is quietly lonely at the start, when we see her at a distance from other people. The bear cub comes into her life and the illustrations show the old woman’s community, and particularly the children, coming closer to her. In the spread above, recognising her love for him, the villagers take him to their hearts too and are sorrowful when he is injured, where I show them clustered around the drama. Dawn’s text says, ’The children wept to see their friend hurt’.
Perhaps the greatest act of kindness and selflessness in the story is at this point, when the text says, “Little Bear,” she put her arms around his neck and her tears ran into his fur. “Bears belong in the wild. Go. Be free …” Dawn has created an essential message about recognising when it’s time to let go, not to restrict a creature’s, or a child’s, growth. I have shown the old woman tearfully trying to make him understand that he needs to leave.
At this point, the old woman’s community reaches out to her, to offer her comfort when she has experienced such loss. Again, her people come close and show their empathy. The story concludes with a joyful denouement, made all the more poignant by the sadness that precedes it – it is wonderful storytelling.
I will answer the same question for Babushka. First, I’d like to say: Dawn, thank you! In your text for Babushka, you gave me a tremendous gift as an illustrator – the character of Babushka. She simply can’t stop being busy – and it’s something I recognise and find very affecting as a result. I really loved the delicate way something shifts within Babushka as the story unfolds and she starts to let in the silence and maybe the sadness she’s been keeping at bay with all her activity. That emotional shift begins to happen with the arrival of the three wise men. In the spread below, Babushka is shown top and middle left, always on the move. She starts to slow down and engage when the wise men tell her their great news in the third illustration and on the right, illustrating the text, ‘Babushka was quiet then, thinking of her own children, all grown and gone, and of her grandchildren who lived so far away.’
Babushka lets her feelings in more as she communes with the star. The text says, ‘Babushka looked up at the star. The star looked down at Babushka.’ I gave Babushka a cat, who is there throughout, to soften her isolation a little.
The sense of Babushka being lost and empty is beautifully captured in Dawn’s text, ‘Babushka stood, all alone in the cold. She didn’t know which way to go.’ I felt we needed to see her in a wide landscape, looking up to the sky for guidance, for the star.
The double page spread above sets up the space Babushka needs to let in her feelings and her need for love, compassion and kindness. This happens when she is able to give a lovely warm shawl to the little girl she meets, who has been shivering with cold. The text tells us, ‘The girl flung her arms around Babushka and hugged her tight. Babushka laughed. And even though her toes were cold, she felt warm inside.’
Q – Amanda, one might imagine that picture books about kindness will feature warm colours. Did you find it challenging to ‘marry’ the kindness theme with polar landscape illustrations?
That’s a good question. The cold, snowy landscapes, maybe counter-intuitively, made wonderful canvases for me to be able to express the emotions of separation and connectedness, kindness and empathy within both these stories.
Colour is always so important for me in my work and Dawn’s tender and poetic texts inspired me to use soft, glowing colours. In Babushka, I decided to colour the snow in different ways on different pages. I used a pinky-lilac hue to suggest the presence of the nativity star – to show that something magical and extraordinary is happening. When the star isn’t visible, when Babushka is lost, the colours are cooler and we see the vastness of the winter landscape that emphasises how alone Babushka feels at that moment. Vibrant colour returns though, in the bright shawl wrapped around the little girl. I found myself, unconsciously, wearing a favourite Russian shawl I have while working on this book!
Babushka’s world is filled with a beautiful glowing sunset in the final spread and the light glowing from her lantern creates a focal point for Dawn’s text, ‘Her heart is shining with the Light of Love, like a bright star in midwinter.’
In Little Bear, the traditional winter clothes people wear are made of neutral-coloured skins. In this book I used the sun to colour the sky and snow as an opportunity to change my palette, depending on the atmosphere I wanted to convey in each of my illustrations. I saved the aurora borealis for the final spread in the book – nature’s fireworks!
Q – Dawn and Amanda, do you feel that the theme of kindness resonates more with readers these days? Are parents especially looking for children’s books on empathy?
As a parent myself, I always sought-out books for my own children that celebrated the values I hold dear. Children, especially young children, learn through imitation. Wholesome stories offer them role models worth imitating.
It’s not surprising, is it, that children’s picture books about kindness and empathy are big themes in literature for children currently? It is so important to create children’s books with benign, loving messages to counter some of the harsher aspects of life that children are worryingly exposed to at a younger and younger age.
I believe that parents are searching for books with positive messages at their core and this is reflected in the numbers of books being created and sold with kindness as the central theme.
Q – Dawn, I imagine you have shared these stories with your own children when they were preschool and at Kindergarten, so would you like to say which special moments they have enjoyed in each book?
I asked my eldest daughter for her fond memories. She shared how much she loved snuggling by the fire together to share Babushka. There’s a lovely winter magic in being warm and snug by the fire whilst journeying in the imagination to snowy lands!
Amanda, my daughter also told me how much she loved the glowing star in Babushka. It reminds her of the bright paper stars she makes as decorations and gifts every Christmas. Sometimes, when I’ve shared the story of Babushka with groups of young children, I’ve taught them how to make paper stars too, which they very much enjoy – a good bit of sticking and gluing! Then they get to take their hand-made gifts home to give away as Christmas presents – just like Babushka.
As Little Bear will be published this January, I very much look forward to many special moments sharing the book with children!
Dawn, the paper stars sound really magical, it’s so lovely to hear about that!
Q – When you have been out to schools, giving readings from Little Bear and Babushka, which have been the most emotionally resonant points in each story for the children you have read to? Have kindness and empathy been themes that have been picked up on?
Sometimes, I share the story of Babushka with children as a puppet show, using handmade figures made from wool and velvet and gold brocade. I adore the comfortable rounded shape of Amanda’s characters, and my own handmade figures echo that appealing Russian doll shape. I love to see children wide-eyed with wonder as the tale unfolds. I think children can relate to hand-making and giving presents at Christmas – it chimes with their own experiences of baking gingerbread, or painting Christmas cards, or making little gifts for friends and family. Giving is an expression of love, I think. Both these stories have love at their heart, and I hope that resonates in reader’s own hearts.
I also think that desire to help others is a natural instinct in children, who see and hear so much that busy adults might miss. In my experience, for example, children do notice and want to help a homeless person on the street – or even a tiny injured insect – rather than just walking past as an adult might do. I have shared the story of Little Bear orally with children. In my experience, children love bears! Perhaps it’s because they love their own teddy bears so well? In Little Bear, when the bear is hurt, children do feel sad, and respond with compassion. I agree with environmentalist Joanna Macy’s ideas about the importance of feeling our emotions – even though they may be uncomfortable, or even painful, our emotions are part of a feedback-loop that prompts us to take appropriate action for change. Children today have a keen understanding of the plight of the polar bear, and want to do what they can to help. I have been heartened to witness children I know finding wonderful ways to raise money for charities, to protect the animals they love.
Q – Do you think the stories contain themes of significance for older readers too?
Absolutely. Traditional folk stories were originally shared with listeners of every age, not just young children – these old tales offer something for all ages. I’m amazed how many adults have shared with me parts of Babushka that resonated with their own lives. As you say, Amanda, many of us can relate to Babushka’s busyness! Like Babushka, we all have gifts to share with the world – our qualities and passions. Like Babushka we have all experienced situations where life offers us a different path to the one we set out to walk.
In Little Bear, I think that the old woman’s experience with the bear cub is one adults as well as children of all ages can relate to. Parenting, for example, is a continuous journey of loving and letting go!
Dawn and Amanda hope that these books will make a positive contribution to the growing number of uplifting preschool books about kindness, as well as books about kindness for Kindergarten and beyond. Because of their snowy, wintery text and imagery, both books make lovely Christmas gifts for children.
- Illustrator-signed copies of Little Bear and Babushka are now available from Amanda’s website.
- If you would like to be notified when Little Bear becomes available to purchase on Amanda Hall’s website, please fill in the contact form
Although the Little Bear story originated at an earlier time in earth’s history, the climate crisis in Greenland is of course very visible now. The sea ice is melting, leaving less and less frozen terrain for polar bears to thrive and for traditional life to continue. Dawn and Amanda were acutely aware of this fact while working on the book and will both be donating a percentage of their royalties to Polar Bears International to help in a small way with preservation of the species.
For more information about polar bear conservation, please go to Polar Bears International and find out how to get involved. Amanda Hall Illustration is not affiliated in any manner with Polar Bears International or any of its programs, projects or websites.