The Star Whale

Nicola Davies and Petr Horacek join Nikki Gamble to discuss their creative collaboration on The Star Whale, a collection of poems inspired by Petr’s sketchbooks.

Transcript

An Evening with Nicola Davies and Petr Horacek to celebrate the publication of The Star Whale

Nikki Gamble

Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for another evening event. This time, we’re with Nicola Davies and Petr Horacek, and we’re celebrating the launch of what is one of my top books of the entire year. It’s called The Star Whale, and when you see inside this book, if you haven’t already, you will know exactly what I mean.

Our event will start with Janetta Otter-Barry from Otter-Barry Books, who has published this book. She will say a few words, and then I will invite Petr and Nicola to join me.

Janetta Otter-Barry:

Hello everybody. Thank you so much for coming. It’s the first time we’ve published Nicola Davies on the Otter-Barry Books list.

I’ve known Nicola for a long time and have been longing to have her on the list. And here she is. I am very excited that she’s teamed up with Petr Horacek, who’s one of our top picture book illustrators and authors.  Author of The Last Tiger and the Perfect Present, highly acclaimed on many award shortlists.

This is a really special book for us I think you’ll love it. It’s full of joy and wonder and humour and not afraid to address big issues about our planet.

And it just looks completely delectable. So I can’t wait to hear what Peter and Nicola will say about it.

Thank you, as always, to wonderful Nikki Gamble for hosting us this evening.

Nikki Gamble:

Oh, Nicola and Petr, when I first saw this book, my heart sang. It’s a joyful book, but a book of many moods and many colours. Janetta described it as a gift book. That has a particular meaning, and I would use ‘gif’t’ in a different way.

This book is a gift to a reader, without a doubt.

 I think, to begin with, we want to hear a little bit about how it came about.

Nicola Davies:

We have worked together before. We worked on a book called First Book of Animals for Walker. And had the loveliest time working together. And we did lots of events. We do good events together. I chat, and Petr does fantastic pictures behind me.

They’re good for us and the audience. And while we were travelling doing these events, I looked at Petr’s exquisite little sketchbooks.

He does these beautiful little sketches, and he sketches every day. And they are beautiful, varied, and quite bonkers sometimes, which I really love.

I was looking at these pictures, and they were… inspiring, immediately setting off ideas for poems and stories and conversations and all sorts of things. And so, I asked Petr, ‘Can I write things to go with these?’ And that’s how it began.

The special thing about this book, aside from the fact that it’s been the most joyful, creative experience of my entire career by a long way, is that we did it the other way around. Usually, the words come first and then the pictures, but this time, the pictures came first, before the words.

Nikki Gamble:

Petr, this is a personal sketchbook; you never expect to be picked up and a writer to create based on those images. So, did you have any reservations, or were you just really excited about it?

Petr Horacek

At first, I didn’t take Nicola seriously. When she said let’s turn it into a book. I just thought it would never happen. But then, later on, Nicola asked me if I could send her the folders with the images. So, I sent her well over 300 pictures then.

I sometimes have no idea what some of the pictures are about. I keep these sketchbooks on my working table, and when I’m illustrating a book, and I have had enough and I feel like I want to do something different, I make a quick drawing. And that’s how these pictures happen. And sometimes I think about them. Sometimes, I don’t know what they are about, and I expect that if I look at them again, maybe I will understand them better, or if I show them to somebody, maybe they will make their own stories about them. They are poems without words, really.

What was really exciting was when Nicola started writing poems about these sketches. Suddenly, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, actually, that’s what it is about.’. And there was some interesting exchange between us. She made me understand my own sketches. And that’s what was so exciting about the process of working with Nicola.

Nikki Gamble:

When we say sketchbook, do you mean a book you take with you and draw from life? Or is it more of an imaginary experience?

Petr Horacek:

I’ve got some of them here. And I draw anything which comes into my head without much thinking; they just really are just notes like this. I have them on the table next to my drawing, But they’re not a sketchbook that I would draw sitting outside. I take them with me only if I know that I’m somewhere for a longer.

Nicola Davies:

I can see that one of the images you’ve got next was among the first images that I wrote to. That was the inspiration for a poem that is called Mandrill in the Mirror that I wrote which was my impression from that image.

And then Petr did a final image to go with my finished poem.

sketch by ©️Petr Horacek

Petr Horacek:

Actually, the process was a real conversation of us integrating our work.

Nicola Davies:

An awful lot of the picture books that I’ve done have been nonfiction. Although I can think creatively, obviously, and I come up with a narrative to string the facts together, and that’s a creative process.

However, this was so liberating because I didn’t have to put any factual material in here. Although most of the images feature animals in some way, they’re also more broadly about relationships between animals, between humans and the natural world, and about our relationship with ourselves and about interior worlds and dreams and fantasy.

So, it was just fantastic to be able to dive into that and play.

Nikki Gamble:

Shall we have a look at some of the sketches that you did, Petr?

Petr Horacek:

sketch by ©️Petr Horacek

That was one of the pictures which Nicola may have seen as well as the one before, it’s rather sad, this one really, isn’t it?

Sometimes, if I like the drawing in the sketchbook, I make a picture for myself, a picture like this. It ended up in the cupboard then. Nicola probably hasn’t seen this picture. She’s only seen the sketchbook.

art by by ©️Petr Horacek

Nicola Davies:

But I feel like I’ve seen it, though. I think maybe what happened when I was looking through the sketchbooks is that there was one image that I would focus on, but probably having absorbed information and ideas from images that seemed to me to be related to that image. So, I think maybe I was pulling out a psychological thread that was running through the sketchbooks.

Nikki Gamble:

When did the mirror come into it?

Nicola Davies:

Oh, I was looking at that picture that you saw earlier of the boy and the mandrill and thinking about identity and how we differentiate ourselves from other animals and humans. We are very keen to draw lines between ourselves and other species and to say, we are special. We have opposable thumbs. We make tools.  We do this – we do that – we do the other.

And as we look at the animal world more and more, we find that line is steadily being rubbed out. And one of the things that I feel really strongly is this idea that we’re all one family of life, and we’re certainly one family with other primates, like a mandrill, even though the mandrill looks so different.

As soon as I started thinking about Mandrills, I was thinking about the sound of words and mandrill in the mirror just popped into my head, and then I had a whole story about this person in the mirror and seeing for the first time something entirely different.

“The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nikki Gamble:

The thing that strikes me from the image is how Petr has shown the mandrill looking behind. Normally, you look forward into the mirror, but you know that it’s gazing behind it, and the boy is looking at the Mandrill; that gaze that’s created between the two is significant. But also the mirroring, I think, of the pyjamas and the mandrill’s face, that’s really connecting them.

Petr Horacek:

Well-spotted.

Nicola Davies:

There is loads going on, and loads of different ways of interpreting it. That’s one of the things that I feel strongly about is that reading is a circuit between the authors, the book and the reader.

The authors in the book are the same in every instance, but the thing that’s unique every time is the reader. So, every time the circuit of the book is completed, it’s different because it has a different reader. And what I think we’ve done with these images and poems is create something that is beautifully open-ended and inclusive, that invites readers in to imagine and fantasise and make their own stories.

Because none of these poems or images is a fixed, certain, clear, single point, it could be lots and lots of different things.

Petr Horacek:

I put into the folder a couple of sketches. This one I put together with another one, which was about the lion, and there was also the head of the lion and the sketch of the girl.

sketches by ©️Petr Horacek

I think all these sitting beasts and looking at the moon and the shape of the moon appearing. I’m only guessing, but I’m thinking maybe Nicola was thinking about it when she saw them, and this is a kind of sketch for the final picture in the book.

Nicola Davies:

Last night I visited a lion.

This is the opening poem in the book. And in fact, it’s the very first poem I did. Not because it’s the first one in the book, but because it is one I felt very strongly about for the message in the poem as well.

 It just hit me, and I wanted to do it.

Petr Horacek:

And another thing, I’m not always very comfortable drawing children or people. Animals are more my world. I thought this would be the first picture in the book. So, what you saw before, there were the sketches in my sketchbook, and this is the final picture.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nikki Gamble:

There’s such a tenderness in the way that you’ve drawn that child and the humility of that child in the face of that very noble lion, which has, antecedents in literature too, if you think about Lucy and Aslan – whether you like that story or not – the child and the big lion. But I think it meant something special to you as well, Nicola.

Nicola Davies:

 It was the way that Petr had placed the child and the lion in one of his sketches.

There was a tension between them. A tension that suggested to me a conversation, and perhaps quite a difficult conversation. You can see the lion is looking so intently at that child. He’s not looking fiercely. He’s not about to eat her. He’s not about to attack her. But he’s giving her a hard stare, actually. And, as you say, she’s looking down in enormous humility.

I know we’re not supposed to be reading now, but can I read this?

Nikki Gamble:

Of course, it’s your book; you can do whatever you want.

Nicola Davies:

Last Night I visited a lion.

He wasn’t expecting guests, he said,

yet he was still polite.

We sat. not close together.

(he was a lion, after all)

and spoke about the hardships of his life:

the constant need for roaring:

the way wildebeest will not stand still:

how hyenas stand around laughing.

But most of all, about the way the rains don’t come

as they used to:

How the dry ground cracks open,

and his cubs starve.

Tell them, he said, tell the humans

how it is for me.

So here I am to tell you about the suffering of lions

and how we need to change.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Now, for me, that is the most difficult poem to read without breaking down in this collection, because that is what my professional life has been.

I am there, sitting before this reproachful gaze from the natural world, and my job is to tell you about the suffering of lions, and how we need to change. And that’s how I’ve spent, the last 40-odd years,

Nikki Gamble:

But I think you can look back on your career, knowing that you have told so many people. You’ve been able to communicate that message and you’ve had a big impact on young people and how they view these things.

Nicola Davies:

I hope so. What I tell myself is what my mother told me, which is little drops of water, little grains of sand make the mighty ocean and the promised land. I turned that into another poem in a different collection. And I added to that and I said, We are but drops of water. We of sand. But together, we’re an ocean. And we can make a promised land. I’m a grain of sand. But if I can activate a few other grains of sand. And a few other little grains of sand after that. And maybe some drops of water. Then, we all do what we can do. Hopefully, it makes a mosaic that does something useful, Activating imagination in other people, activating thought and engagement and ideas, that is the beginning of change.

I believe that to the roots of my soul. And, that’s what we’re trying to do with this book, to get children to use their imagination and to use their minds and to take delight in that.

Nikki Gamble:

Petr, the connection is not only over your sketchbooks, but your work. There’s a sensitivity, an empathy for. animals in the natural world. That’s a running theme through your work. So I’m guessing that it’s not just looking at some sketches that Nicola liked, but connecting at that soulful level.

Petr Horacek:

I’m so glad that Nicola read the poem because after you heard Nicola reading the poem, I think you understand, what this book is about. There is lots of fun in the book as well. There are silly poems, but this one had to be in the front. I honestly spent so much time with this picture. If I am happy about something in the book, it’s the girl and how she looks. I think this picture works well. And there is a respect between them, the distance there. I think this poem is the most important one in the book.


sketches by ©️Petr Horacek

Petr Horacek:

It’s called ‘girl and the shadow dog and otherwise nothing happened‘. That’s what I’ve written there in Czech. , I sometimes do pictures just because I want to write something like that. So I put these sketches there because they were leading towards, if you put the next one, please.

sketch by ©️Petr Horacek

Yeah, that’s right. So this is the one which inspired Nicola to write a poem, which perhaps Nicola will tell us what the poem is about, because, again, I thought it was brilliant at the time when she was writing it.

Okay, so I did this picture because I like it in the sketchbook, so I did a picture for myself.

art by ©️Petr Horacek

I did a couple of times this one in different versions. And for the book, as you can see, I pretty much copied the original sketch. But maybe Nicola would like to talk about this text.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nicola Davies: I think I was saying to you the other day, Peter, that I wish I’d kept a diary of what I wrote and when.

Because I wrote. a lot of the poems in one big block, but then I wrote other little ones at other times. But I think this was one of the first ones that I wrote. And I wrote it when we were either still in lockdown, or lockdown was still that enveloping experience, and we still hadn’t quite stepped out of it. So it’s about lockdown. But if you look at the expression on the girl’s face, in this final version, but also in the first sketch that I wrote the poem to, she’s quite calm. She’s not afraid or struggling; she’s just lying there in a holding pattern. And for me, that said so many things about what lockdown was like for us all. Yes, there were some people for whom lockdown was just an unremittingly hideous experience. But for many of us, I think it was mixed. And actually, the enforced withdrawal from the world, in some ways, was a relief. There was a whole load of things that we no longer needed to worry about. What was difficult about that was that it was enforced, but I hope maybe we’ve learned that we can choose to withdraw sometimes. We can choose to take a step back and take a breath. And be away from all the things that stress us and do our heads in and make life feel like an endless washing machine cycle. And take a moment of calm. And that’s what the poem is about

Nikki Gamble:

I’m about to ask a really silly question whether it’s a blood moon or a sun. It can be either, can’t it? What a silly question.

Nicola Davies:

Wow, I never even thought of that. What would you say, Petr?

Petr Horacek:

I don’t know. Is it the sun? I think about these paintings, same as my sketchbook, as abstract. It’s not relevant to the poem. In the picture, it’s just an accent which corresponds with the colour of the girl. I think about it as sun, but if you think it’s the moon…

Nicola Davies:

But isn’t that great? The questions I love from readers, best of all, about books, are the ones where my answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know, what do you think? Because that’s the absolute nub of what we’re trying to do: get readers to take possession of these and use them as their own internal landscape and inspiration for their own internal stories.

Petr Horacek:

I could afford this in a book of poetry like this. Obviously, I mostly write and illustrate my picture books. I wouldn’t do that there. It’s a slightly different thing. But poems give me this freedom.

Nicola Davies:

Oh, I see. It’s alright to just put any old moon in my pictures!!

Petr Horacek:

Sorry about that.

Nikki Gamble:

Read us the poem, Nicola, before somebody gets in trouble.

Nicola Davies:

Inside the wolf, life was simpler.

I didn’t have to worry if my socks matched

or what to eat for lunch.

There were no annoying relatives

or demanding friends.

It was dark and warm and the sounds of the forest came to me

like music from another room.

Sometimes, when I miss being inside the wolf,

I sit in a cupboard

to remind myself of how good it feels to choose

to open the door

and step into the light.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble:

I can see a connection between this and the lion. There’s a protectiveness suggested by the images of these big beasts that a lot of people are frightened of them. We often respond, or we have historically responded to them things out of fear. And yet, here they’re being shown in this protective way, which I find quite interesting.

Nicola Davies:

Do you know, one of the things I think we really need psychologically (and sadly, of course, we are losing day-by-day) is the feeling that there is what I call ‘big wild’? Around the edges of our consciousness, just at the edge of our psychological peripheral vision, there is wildness. Wildness that we cannot control, and that doesn’t care about us. And actually, I think that frame, is really important for human beings. And I think in a funny way – ghastly, terrifying, potentially apocalyptic, though climate change is – it is a big reminder that we’re not in control. That we’ve done something and put a system out of control. And put ourselves in peril. And that ‘big wild’ is doing its thing.

Nikki Gamble:

Let’s have a bit of humour then. I absolutely adore these pictures. This image isn’t in the book, but we’re going to see a similar one that is. This is a tapir. I love the image of the girl walking behind with an umbrella….

sketch by ©️Petr Horacek”
sketch by ©️Petr Horacek”

Petr Horacek:

I talked about these pictures. with Nicola and I said, I love how you combined these two pictures. That means you really know my sketchbook. And she said it was purely by accident because she thought it’s a girl with a hippo, but it doesn’t really matter.

That’s, this is the final this is illustration for the poem.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nicola Davies:

I was absolutely convinced that the umbrella was in the picture with the hippo, not the tapir. I had misremembered it. But then, I suppose I had combined it because my brain had edited it. Because my brain’s quite functionally wired, I guess I thought, I can see a reason for going for a walk with a hippo with an umbrella, but maybe not a tapir.

Nikki Gamble:

What’s interesting is Petr didn’t send me the image that is on the next page, Which will explain the umbrella!

Petr Horacek:

No, I didn’t, no,

Nikki Gamble:

People are going to have to get the book to see that, but it all becomes clear as to why you must us an umbrella when you take a hippo for a walk.

Nicola Davies

Anybody who knows anything about hippo biology will perhaps guess why it is. But it’s it’s a classic. little kids delight in the yucky.

Nikki Gamble

.And I love the fact that, in that image, the one that we can’t see, is that Peta’s put a king there, and his crown is flying off. It’s almost like Emperor’s New Clothes in as much as the child’s got it right, and the king… the hierarchy has got it wrong.

Petr Horacek

But we didn’t have a king when I was illustrating it, I must say in my defence.

Nicola Davies

Oh, that’s true. I wrote king in the poem deliberately, so I didn’t offend anybody who’s a great monarchist. I thought, I’ll put the king in because then readers would know it’s a fantasy world. And then, of course, by the time the book comes out. We haven’t got a queen anymore; we’ve got a king.


sketch by ©️Petr Horacek”

Nikki Gamble

This is the title poem. And what strikes me here, Petr, is that this could be a constellation, or it could be the ocean. It’s both of those things at once. It’s the sky, and for me, it connects space and the deep ocean.

Petr Horacek:

when I was Looking through this sketchbook to send you some of the images, I actually realized that this star whale has been haunting me for a very long time. You may remember the book I did, Blue Penguin. There is the symbol of a white whale in the sky appearing in the picture book, and the white whale then comes and rescues the penguin or tries to take him to another place. But it appeared in a very similar way in the sky, and then I did the sketches later on,

Nikki Gamble:

These are obviously in your imagination; are they in your dreams too?

Petr Horacek:

Oh no. That would be too much now. I used to write down my dreams and then remember them, but then I stopped. It’s probably saved me. I can now sleep without working.

Nikki Gamble:

Have we got some more of the star whale? Let’s have a look. Oh, wow. I love that tiny little human. Is that a man there, isn’t it?

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nicola Davies:

That’s just so lovely. One of the things I love most about Petr’s illustrations is the backgrounds and the landscapes and how just wonderfully patterned and rich and gorgeous and abstract they are.

And I think as a little kid, I would totally have loved them.

Nikki Gamble:

What strikes me here, though, is I said it’s a man. But actually, it’s almost like a creature of the water as well. And I guess we came from water. So it’s almost a man, but it’s not a man; it’s almost gone back to the water.

Petr Horacek:

He seems very comfortable there, doesn’t he?

Nicola Davies:

Yeah, I’ve actually been that close to a sperm whale. They are very lovely.

Oh, it’s so gorgeous, that picture. Do you see what I mean about the abstract nature of those galaxies and stars…


Oh, it’s so gorgeous, that picture.

I so love it. Do you see what I mean about the kind of beautiful, abstract nature of those planets and galaxies and stars.

Nikki Gamble:

That’s a good link to looking at the, at this spread. This is a double-page spread that has no words on it. It comes across as quite unexpected. You expect a poem on every page, but then we have this.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Petr Horacek:

There is a poem which follows and it’s is about planets and it’s abstract.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Yes, that’s it. The text is printed in the space but I chose the one without the text.

So, the previous picture is right in the middle of the book. Janetta told us that we have an extra spread and we can do something with it. We decided not to put in an extra poem. We thought, the book needed a breathing space and having this kind of universe there would give a pause.

But is it a universe? Because Nikki, you made a really interesting point yesterday; you said it could be plankton or something in the water, and it could be anything.

I could obviously paint the planets, to look like planets, but I just simply show the collage and the material to inspire children that it’s actually done on paper. So it is creative work as well as the universe as well as planktonton or whatever. I quite like the freedom of expression of these of these illustrations.

Nicola Davies:

I think people are very reluctant to present children, young children, particularly with anything that’s abstract, that’s not figurative. But actually, if you think of your own childhood, think of the times you lay underneath a tree and watched the pattern of light coming between the leaves and watched the clouds. When I was little, I used to sleep opposite a pair of crushed velvet green curtains. And I would look at the patterns in those curtains and see battles, animals, humans. Even if children don’t have the language to express it, it doesn’t mean to say the imagination is not there. And that’s what beautiful abstract stuff does – could be this, or it could be that, or it could be whatever. I would have adored that centre spread when I was little.

Petr Horacek:

This is so interesting that we all have the same memories. We all remember looking at the ceiling in our bed or the detail on the wall and seeing things. We all remember taking a glass marble and looking through it to see the whole universe. We’ve all done it. And still, there will be people who will say, Oh, children wouldn’t understand abstract. That’s complete nonsense. We don’t have to present them with tidy, beautiful, computer-generated illustrations with big googly eyes, we can show them art. We can show them the way, tell them… this is how you can paint. This is what is possible.

And so what I’m saying is that children understand the abstract more than anybody else.

Nicola Davies:

More than adults. They respond to it.

Nikki Gamble:

In our conversation yesterday, we were talking about memories. In the 1960s, I remember there was more abstract art in children’s books. But I also looked at a lot of my dad’s books that were about painting. And I enjoyed looking at those as much as picture books. In one of my first childhood homes, I lived in it up to the age of five (so, therefore, this memory must come from when I was younger than five). There were two prints that I remember really clearly. One was Paul Klee, which was the cityscape with the sun. And that was in my bedroom. The other was Guernica, by Picasso. And I spent hours and hours looking at those strange beasts and, what was going on in that picture. And that memory of those two images is so strong. I agree with you, entirely.

Petr Horacek:

I wanted also to say how happy it makes me, and it happens quite often, that a child will come to me and say, I know how you did it.

You use wax crayons and watercolours. You print it from polystyrene because they do it sometimes in better schools, where the teacher is a bit adventurous and looks at the art and shows children how to print from polystyrenes, how to use wax crayons and watercolours, and how to print leaves from the garden.

And children can see that. And it makes me very happy when the child comes to me and says, I know how you did that. It’s really lovely.

Nicola Davies:

Yeah. Because then they can go away and. Start to do their own.

Nikki Gamble:

Let;s hear some of the other poems from the collection.

And we’re going to start with a kingfisher. tell us the story behind that

sketches by ©️Petr Horacek

Petr Horacek:

I walk a lot by the river and we have Kingfishers. You often can hear them before you see them. It’s a very high-pitched noise, and you know it’s somewhere there. And sometimes I hear it and never see it.

I was walking with a friend and suddenly I saw a flash above the water – very quick – a beautiful turquoise colour with the reflection in the water, just so beautiful and then it disappeared.

It’s like lying in the garden in the summer, looking at the starry skies, waiting for a shooting star. But this is even better because it’s full colour. And I’ve seen it a couple of times, especially during the lockdowns. I used to work very early in the morning so I did lots of pictures of kingfishers, and I talked with Nicola, about Kingfishers, and we both had a very similar feeling about it.

Nikki Gamble:

We have the phrase Halcyon Days, which is taken from the name of the Kingfisher. Just looking at that colour, there’s something about that Kingfisher blue and orange hat is incredibly uplifting as a colour combination. That combination actually occurs quite a lot in your images

Nicola Davies

But you know it wasn’t just your picture, Peta, that made me write the poem that I wrote. It was the way you described being out for a walk and seeing this kingfisher and you were with a friend and talking to you. And how you described it was that their voice just melted into the background. And the only thing you could see was this extraordinary flash of neon turquoise. They do really look like they’re interiorly lit. And your pictures enabled me to write a poem so that your picture and my words just capture, I hope, this very fleeting moment of absolutely transcendent delight in something in the world around you. I think a few times in this book we’ve captured those moments of utter and complete transporting joy when you don’t think about anything. You almost cease to be anything but your senses. and you just experience this beauty that’s available to us in the natural world.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nikki Gamble

Are you going to read this one to us, Nicola?

Nicola Davies

Yeah, sure. It’s very short.

Kingfisher

A strike of turquoise lightning

Swallowed by its own reflection

A flash of neon in the shadows underneath the bank

A moment when your heart’s on hold

And nothing matters in the world

But this small glint of wonder.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble

Wonder is one of the themes that runs through the book. I thought we might move from the kingfisher to the hedgehog a creature that is as a little bit more. commonplace, or at least you would hope could find one in your garden…

I loved how you’ve drawn in different names for the hedgehog for instance the medieval urchin, I realized after I’d read it that’s why we have sea urchins because they’re named after hedgehogs, the urchins. And there’s the Welsh and west country names too.

Nicola Davies:

They were such a feature of my childhood. I can remember one of the places I lived was near what’s now the M25. So very suburban. But there were loads of hedgehogs. I live in a very rural part of Wales and I’ve seen one hedgehog since we moved here, and this is our fourth summer. You never see them. They are now so vanishingly rare. And they’re not part of every child’s experience in the way that they used to be.

So I think it’s really important to remember them and remember the words for them. Because if we haven’t got the words and we haven’t got the memory. If the awareness drops out of our language and our hearts, then we’ve no chance to bring them back. But if we remember, and remember the words, and we remember the experience and share it, then there’s a chance that hedgehogs can once again be commonplace and part of everybody’s nightly landscape in the summer.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nikki Gamble: I love doing leaf prints on this page.

It’s just perfect and perfect for this time of year.

Nicola Davies:

Hedgehog

I used to see you, Furze Piig,

tootling through the summer dusk

at the edge of the lane,

at the bottom of the garden,

almost out of sight.

Mostly you were quiet, urchin.

A tiny, busy shadow, searching

for worms and slugs and beetle grubs.

Once I heard you

snorting to your squealing hoglets

in a tangled hedgerow.

You snuffled through my childhood, Hotchi Witchi.

You stood on tiptoe

at the edge of all my summer nights.

But now, at the bottom of the garden, you have faded, faded,

almost out of sight.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble:

What is it that’s threatening the hedgehogs? Did we kill them off by feeding them milk and bread?

Nicola Davies:

No, we kill them off by killing off what they eat. By tidiness, pesticides slug killer and the consequent drop in invertebrate populations. So their food has gone, and the untidy corners of gardens and parks and liminal places that they once loved.


Nikki Gamble:

Let’s have Maybe a Planet next.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nicola Davies:

This picture made me think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. And this picture has that same spiritual, reflective quality.

Maybe there’s a Planet

Maybe somewhere there’s a planet, where hairs grow as big as houses

and ant-sized people live in bottle tops.

Maybe somewhere there’s a planet entirely made of cheese or chocolate

where people dress in woven starlight. and only get out of bed on Tuesdays.

Maybe somewhere there’s a planet where everything is backwards

and time doesn’t go in a straight line at all.

I don’t know. Anything is possible.

What I do know is that on our planet, hares run in the moonlight.

Sunlight sparkles on the long grass

and birds sing.

Maybe we could keep it that way.

I don’t know, but anything is possible.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble:

This is one that I chose and Petr said that I had to read it, so I’m glad it’s really short. The reason that I chose this poem is because, as Nicola knows, I am a true arachnophobic, but one who tries very hard. to see the beauty in spiders and to try and overcome that fear. I’ve just never quite been able to do it. So when I see something as beautiful as this image, I make myself look at this creature as a weaver, of something so beautiful as a spider’s web. Susumu Shingu is a Japanese illustrator who made a wordless book about the creation of the spider’s web. I can see the beauty in it. I hope that one day, if a spider comes into my room, I won’t be. frightened of it. I love the fact here as well that Petr didn’t just, do a literal spider web but gave us the movement.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Anyway, Petter, I’m going to read it.

Spider and Wind

Spider made a silken finger for the wind to kiss.

and holding it, wind carried her away.

But Wind grew fierce, and Spider fled.

Now Spider weaves a silver harp.

forever hoping Wind will pluck its strings.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nicola Davies

The first step towards getting to like spiders.

Nikki Gamble

I love the rhythms throughout the book, Petr. Have you got the thumbnails there that you can show us?

Petr Horacek: .

We really cared for the book to have a rhythm, like a picture book. So, we shifted the poems around based on the visual impression of the book really.

Nicola Davies:

Almost all the decisions about the ordering of poems were entirely visually led, which was brilliant. I think we did some tweaking so we didn’t get two rhyming poems together. But really, the primary driving force of the ordering was visual. And it’s been the right decision, absolutely the right decision.

Nikki Gamble:

So, Granny has a blackbird on her shoulder?

Nicola Davies:

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

She does.

My Granny has a Blackbird on her Shoulder

My Granny’s boots are shiny red.

She keeps a leopard by the bed.

She’s skinny as a runner bean.

And paints her toenails neon green.

and she always has a blackbird on her shoulder.

My Granny’s house is shocking pink.

With tadpoles living in the sink.

She takes me surfing in the sea

And gives me chocolate bars for tea.

and she always has a blackbird on her shoulder.

My Granny’s not like other Grans

who tell you, ‘shush’, and ‘wash your hands’.

My Granny’s brave and wild and free.

When I grow up, that’s what I’ll be.

And I’ll always have a blackbird on my shoulder.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble:

Fabulous. I want to be that Granny.

Nicola Davies:

Yeah, I want to be that Granny, too.


The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Nicola Davies:

I think Zebra’s Dream is so spiritual. I love that picture you did of the zebras. It seems so dreamlike and wonderful.

The Zebra’s Dream

The sun’s eye burns the sky white

and heat haze melds the herd

into a single bonkers barcode.

But the zebra’s minds are cool,

drenched in the same dream

of mountains, moonlight, and a summit

where a single scarlet flower blossoms

just for them.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble

Wow. We love it. We love that picture so much. There are so many that you want to pause and reflect on afterwards. There’s a visual movement through the collection, but also this a constant changing of mood and emotion. We’ve got one more poem to share which is Goldfinch.

Petr Horacek:

I will tell you about the Goldfinch. As we said previously, we were putting pictures into order visually, but this poem was the last one in the book, and I think Nicola put it there on purpose because she knew what , it’s means for me. I love the bird. I saw the bird when cycling, he was flying in front of my bike. They fly very fast but not for long. And I talked to my dad about the goldfinch and it was one of the very last conversations I had with my him before he died. Nicola then wrote this beautiful poem.

art by ©️Petr Horacek”

sketch by ©️Petr Horacek”

Nicola Davies:

It’s the last picture in the book and I’m glad it is. Goldfinches are very special. Very special.

The Star Whale” published by ©️Otter-Barry Books 2023

Goldfinch

Such a small thing.

a puff of feathers, light as breath

and the tinkling that bluebells would make,

if they rang. But those colours!

Crimson, like a rose heart, or an ember,

a glowing fragment of volcano.

Gold – real gold – gilded butter,

or sunshine and gorse flowers, twice distilled.

Such a small thing,

but easily enough to bless a day

and set the heart free and flying.

©Nicola Davies 2023, from the Star Whale, published by Otter-Barry Books. 

Nikki Gamble:

Petr, Nicola, thank you so much for sharing this glorious book and your thoughts with us. It’s always an education and deep pleasure speaking with both of you.