In the opening sequence of The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, a childless king and queen go to an inventor and a witch for help, and the two children of the title are the result. The robot looks like a small, walking wooden television set, while the princess turns back into a log at night; she must be awakened with the magic words “Awake, little log, awake.” A case of mistaken identity strands the two in the frozen North, and only a wonderful jumble of circumstances and the help of kindly strangers can restore them to their parents. The book is Tom Gauld’s first for children, but not his first foray into publishing. He’s a seasoned comic artist, based in London, who draws weekly strips for the Guardian and New Scientist, contributes covers to the New Yorker, and is the creator of two graphic novels and several collections of comics (one of which, The Department of Mind-Blowing Theories, was nominated for an Eisner award this year). We spoke with Gauld about the world of fairy tales, how to write warmly without being too cloying, and whether sausages belong in the frozen North.
Where did the story come from?
I have two daughters, and it started as an improvised tale for the girls. The younger daughter was such a heavy sleeper, she slept so thoroughly, that it was like a magical thing, and we called her “The Log.” I made up a story about it. I got it wrong, and it was too scary. I kept having the log almost set on fire, and it was too much. I made it up again a few nights later and never mentioned the possibility of the log being burned, and they enjoyed it more. I worked on the story for a couple of years, pottering around, reading it to the girls and to my wife, and it was their influence that helped me realize what worked best.
Can you talk about creating a fairy tale?
I love fairy tales. What I like is that it’s not as if there’s only one magical thing happening in the world of the fairy tale; it’s overflowing, like an enchanted forest teeming with life.
Is this related to the lists of adventures that the Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess have on the way home (“The Old Lady in a Bottle”; “The Baby in a Rosebush”)? The titles sound so real.
Yes! I wanted the unwritten adventures, like the map spread, to be suggestive of a whole magical world that my book is just a little portion of. The titles are an extra homage to wonderfully straightforward but evocative titles that fairy tales often have. “The Mouse, the Bird, and The Sausage” is one of my favorite Brothers Grimm titles. “The Family of Robbers” was inspired by Tomi Ungerer’s book The Three Robbers, which my family and I all love.
Did the writing go smoothly, or was it more of a struggle?
The basic premise flowed out of me. The first draft was 3,000 words. I showed it to someone and they said, “You can do a weird book, but nobody’s going to do this as a bedtime story because it’s too long.” I spent a long time hacking it back.
Did you write the whole text before you did the artwork?
Really everything starts in my sketchbook. While I was writing the story I was making little doodles in the book. When I started as a comic artist I was self-publishing, and I realized that I wanted to make a maquette [dummy] as early as possible. I made mini versions of the book early on to feel how the words and pictures worked together on the page. Then I would bring them home to show my children.
Are the illustrations more elaborate than work you’ve done before?
No, not really. For New Scientist I’ve done illustration work that has been very complicated. When I realized I was going to write my own fairy tale I thought, since I’m in charge here, I’ll draw all the things I want to draw. I have these memories of poring over picture books and loving the idea that, having been read the story, you can go back five years later and look at it again. I wanted shelves covered in lots of things. I wanted a map.
The color seems more elaborate, too.
Color is one of the things that was new in this book. Mostly my colors are quite restrained, quite muted. But my daughters said, “You can’t do this book in your usual colors. You need to brighten things up.” I didn’t want to go to crazy rainbow colors, so I thought I’d make the colors richer rather than brighter—the colors I naturally go toward, but richer. I’m quite colorblind, so I have to be careful that people don’t have lime-colored skin. It’s possible to check the CYMK values [the color process used in the printing industry], so I can mathematically check my color palette. I’ve taken every page in the book home. We talked about the problems and then I took it back and reworked it.
That’s a rare thing, isn’t it, to have worked so closely with your family?
It’s not my usual instinct, it’s not very comfortable, but I’m used to the three of them. It’s made me better at collaborating, and more willing to do it with my other work.
How did you find an agent?
Well, Steven Malk approached me 10 or more years ago and said, “If you ever feel like doing a children’s book, get in touch.” I said thank you and then, to be honest, completely forgot about it. When I started working on this, I went to [Canadian graphic novel publisher] Drawn and Quarterly [the publisher of Gauld’s graphic novels]. I wanted to say to them, “I’m doing a kids’ book. It won’t be a comic book, and so I’ll look for different representation.” They said they understood totally, and that Jillian Tamaki [another Drawn and Quarterly artist], who also does work for children, was represented by Steven Malk. When they said that, I realized that it was the guy who had got in touch with me 10 years ago and I contacted him. He was immediately enthusiastic.
To have found Steve and then Neal [Porter, his editor], to have had such amazing enthusiasm and support from the beginning, it’s a dream. I’ve reached a certain level with comics and I feel like I know what I’m doing there, but I don’t want to be embarrassed with this book. My hope was that the reaction I’d get from a publisher would not just be politely positive, but would be to say, “Yes! We want this book!”
What kinds of changes did they suggest?
In my first draft, the Log Princess was woken with a kiss, and both Neal and Steven said that might have been fine in the 1800s, but that things were different now, so I switched to the magic words.
Was there anything from the 3,000-word version that got cut that you miss?
Very little was lost, actually—I don’t know what I was rambling on about. There was one scene in the first version with the Little Robot when he is left in the frozen North. Some trolls give him a cup of tea and a hot sausage. The trolls and the hot sausage are not in the final story, and my younger daughter has never forgiven me.
Some contemporary children’s books lean toward sentimentality, while others are a little snarkier. How did you walk that line?
There were moments when I felt overwhelmed by having to make a children’s story, trying to get the warmth in there without feeling that I was throwing a bucket of icing sugar over the top. I want warmth, but it’s supposed to be felt rather than told. I knew I couldn’t be as restrained as I am when I make comics for adults, and at points I felt I was outside my wheelhouse.
The little wooden robot makes this small error of forgetting that his sister needs to be awakened with certain words. Unfortunately, things go very badly, and he probably should have asked for help. But after that, everybody’s trying to help. It’s a nicer way for a child to look at the world—to see that people are generally willing to help and to be kind to you. Some kids’ books have ironic stuff for the parents, but I imagined everyone enjoying the same things at the same time.
You have to steer between understated humor and obviousness, right?
That’s the thing, that was the riddle—how to keep what’s good about what I do, but add the things that this new genre needs. The robot in my first draft didn’t have a face but a blank screen, as it might have had in one of my comics. Once I realized that it wouldn’t work and he needed a smiley face, and I gave him one, it was like finding out that it was part of the language of children’s books.
Did your daughters help there, too?
They were helpful, and so were all those years reading to them almost every night, sometimes multiple stories, and having a real respect for great children’s books. Also, how lovely it is reading a book that makes you a better actor—even through the way it’s punctuated.
A better actor in what way?
The narrator is the parent, or the caregiver, and you’re writing a script for a performance by a tired and possibly not very good actor—which you’re not doing with a graphic novel or a cartoon. Before I had children I wouldn’t have known that.
Who was an inspiration there?
Oh, well, a real genius—Allan Ahlberg. As a kid we loved his stories; I loved Burglar Bill. And then as an adult, reading the The Runaway Dinner aloud—it’s a light, silly story, but it’s so perfectly written to be read aloud, it’s a delight. His writing style inspired me to do better as a scriptwriter.
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld. Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, $18.99 Aug. 24 ISBN 978-0-8234-4698-0