Immortalising beautiful characters: How Emma Shoard illustrated Mal Peet's The Family Tree

Published on: 04 June 2018 Author: Emma Shoard

Mal Peet's novels are utterly captivating - but how do you find the images to match the words? Emma Shoard tells us how she went about illustrating The Family Tree...

Emma Shoard and The Family Tree

Photo credit: Nicki Drab

I'm Emma, and I've been given the opportunity to illustrate two very different short stories by the incredibly talented and much admired writer, Mal Peet, for the publishers Barrington Stoke. The Family Tree is the first.

The story is formed from the memories of a young man as he looks back at a time in his childhood when his father builds him a treehouse in an ancient beech in their garden.

It all takes place within this familiar, enclosed environment so I wanted my illustrations to give the reader a strong sense of place. It felt important for me to know the layout of the house and where the light would come in through the windows at sunrise and sunset for it to feel real - so there is a little map of the house and garden stuck on my studio wall.

The Family Tree

I used a limited palette of natural greens, golden yellow and shadowy blue in traditional watercolours. This seemed appropriate for a story about family, home, nature, but it was also the perfect medium for creating the fogginess of memory. Some of my illustrations are quite detailed while some are more suggestive, just as some memories are sharp and others blurred or filled with holes.

The relationship between the three characters – the father, mother and son – is really interesting. Mal's writing is very spare, but there is a lot of tension, sadness and love in those nice big spaces between the lines. In the scenes I illustrated, I loved thinking about their body language - where is each character's attention and who is present, who is missing?

The Family Tree

Often the characters' feelings are at odds with one another, but there is a quite perfect moment where father and son are reading together in the treehouse by candlelight:

'Me and Dad spent evenings in the nest lighting candles against the dark... He read me The Wind in the Willows and Tom's Midnight Garden. I loved it all so much.'

It is one of my favourite illustrations, his happy memory in sharp focus with Dad happy and well, his inner child coming through with his too-small T-shirt, and warm blankets on the wooden floor.

It is made more interesting, though, by the absence of Mum, save for her cardigan on a third hook on the wall. The illustration on the following page showing her separate and alone is intended to contrast with the cosy treehouse.

It's wonderful to see this story out in the world. As with so many good short stories, it contains ambiguity and I think that it will speak to a lot of people. My illustrations, I hope, will help to immortalise Mal Peet's beautiful characters in readers' hearts.

Topics: Features

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