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The Creative Process and Working Together

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Or, What James Mayhew Taught Me About Fairy Tales

A few years ago, I’m sure you remember, schools had to move to online learning. The impact is still being felt in children’s development. The isolation and lack of interaction with others was an eye-opener of how much of a social species we are. At any moment, technology allows us to be social with practically anyone in the world. But, not physically. And I don’t think any technology will ever be able to duplicate that. Even in the beginning of the AI era, the creative process and working together depends on people.

Anyway, I’m digressing slightly. The point is that places of learning are spaces where we are together. We learn together and share each other’s knowledge for mutual benefit. However, I do wonder why then most of the evidence/learning is individual. When planning the final project on my undergraduate degree – an epic poem for children – I was determined to have it illustrated. The university had an amazing art department with talented students, so I approached them.

This hadn’t happened before; the English and Art departments collaborating. Surely the point of these places is the creative process and working together? Anyway, I’m digressing yet again. I don’t think there is one industry where people don’t collaborate. Even those people may think of as individual professions can involve many people. For example, those involved in the whole process of producing a book isn’t just the name (or names) on the front cover – I know that’s obvious to us, but is it to children?

There are different types of collaboration in publishing, and it’s another way books can influence learning/thinking. In a world where school children are graded on individual knowledge, we can put their minds at ease that they don’t have to be experts in every subject. They will be able to draw on others as others can draw on them. We can point this out with books, not in themes or characters, but in the real world.

I wanted to get a first-hand opinion of a writer/illustrator. Someone who creates projects by themselves and with others. James Mayhew instantly sprang to mind, and I am so thankful he was able to answer some questions. James has made some “really good friendships” from collaborating. It’s wonderful that this was James’s first thought, as he admitted writing and illustrating can be “isolating and lonely.” In a world where people are more aware than ever about mental health, it’s not just creating amazing art, but healthy relationships and a happy life.

But James is “inspired by the creativity of others.” Writers who give him “such vivid images” that he just HAS to illustrate them. He points out Mrs Noah’s Pockets and Nen and the Lonely Fisherman by Jackie Morris and Ian Eagleton, respectively as two examples. James’s latest book is a “unique collaboration” with his husband. Unique in that James and Spanish artist, Toto BOTH wrote and illustrated it. Deciding who did which parts of The Frog’s Kiss (released May 2023), James explained, “was quite a challenge”. Although, “it taught us both to let go of things and let the other person in.”

Before James replied to my email, I planned this article would be on creation and learning. It is, but the social aspect that’s important to James has made me change tack slightly. We should cherish opportunities for interacting and being together.

Collaborating can come about in more ways than you think. James has painted live on stage while orchestras and musicians are performing. Again, James highlights the human aspect. His “admiration for these brilliant people” and sharing the music with an audience is so “fulfilling”.

Even when he does work on his own, he loves working with editors and agents. These relationships allow him to “push boundaries and experiment.” He admits “it’s easy to lose confidence in ideas,” so talking them through with experts is “valuable” (this is so similar to the classroom environment – or how it should be). But he also mentions a whole host of others who play their part. The designers, marketing, publicity, sales… and it doesn’t stop there. James lists librarians, teachers and parents, and of course, “the child who sits and reads your book”. “It’s a form of sharing thoughts and ideas.” The most important collaboration for James is perhaps working with children, “to be in their world and remember the freedom and creativity of young minds and what can be achieved together.”

It was serendipitous that James has a new book which also happens to be a collaboration. The title The Frog’s Kiss conjured fairy tale images of The Princess and the Frog. James’s talk of working with his husband and the links to this and healthy relationships/happy lives made me read it with these in mind. And WOW, did it add to my enjoyment and emotional state.

It’s a picture book from both their hearts, written and illustrated with the tenderness of its main theme. Love. It’s a retelling of the classic tale with a modern touch. But modern in terms of societal progression. The setting is still very much what you would expect in a fairy tale.

After a book falls into his pond, a frog reads a story of a princess kissing a frog “exactly like him!” And something “stirred in his heart.” It’s the moment we’ve all felt when everything changes. The frog then sets off in search of someone who will make his heart “skip a beat…” he finds his way to the gardens of a castle, where he experiences rejection in the form of cruel words by the very princesses he sought.

A painful emotion can sometimes take time to pass. You question whether you’re misguided and hopeless. After all, “only fools believe in fairy tales.” But there is someone who does want to kiss him, a prince. Asking for consent, the kiss takes place, and in the tradition of the fairy tale, it ends in harmony.

Love and celebrating love transcend the “trivialities” of gender. This collaboration is a celebration of the authors’ marriage and to everyone who has ever loved. Children can be easily embarrassed by this emotion, especially some boys, but discussing it means we can celebrate it instead of being shy. Children do experience their own emotions through relationships to their peers, which this book shows are normal.

Collaboration can take many forms, and James Mayhew is now the unofficial spokesperson. Characters working together is a good tool, but children know a story is just a story. Real examples of the creative process, working together, and real celebrations make hearts skip even faster. From the teams that put together finished products, to creative partnerships, to author/reader relationships, books bring people together in magical ways. They can be more than the wonderful stories they hold….

and sometimes, it takes a real-life fairy tale to create a book.