An eclectic cast of eccentric animal characters populates the pages of Cress Watercress, a middle-grade novel written by Gregory Maguire and illustrated by David Litchfield, due from Candlewick on March 29, 2022. A whiz at spinning adventure fare, Maguire penned the four-volume Wicked Years series, which kicked off with 1995’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the inspiration for the blockbuster Broadway musical. In Cress Watercress, the novel’s eponymous young rabbit heroine accompanies her mother and baby brother on a quest to find Papa, who went missing during a nocturnal hunt for ginger root and honey to sweeten Mama’s tea. Featuring Litchfield’s digital art and designed by assistant art director Amy Berniker, the novel’s cover is showcased here for the first time. Maguire and Litchfield spoke with PW about the challenges and joys of bringing the Watercress clan and their woodland environs to life.

Adolescence is not easy for intrepid Cress, who fluctuates between hope and despair as she grapples with the vicissitudes of growing up, grieves the loss of her Papa, and explores the meaning of home and community. Gregory, how did you conceive of this deep-thinking character and her fraught personal journey?

Maguire: I knew a child who, lost in emotional distress, must have felt the experience both endless and insurmountable. I knew the feeling would dissipate in time—and perhaps return. I began to wonder why we have so much literature for children and young adults about the validity of the emotional life but not about its patterns and schedules. Love and grief, irritability and loneliness—these are not sequential milestones like birth, puberty, maturity—they are cyclical. Tidal. Cress Watercress cropped up as a way to present this simple but invisible truth to children who haven’t yet lived long enough to register these cycles.

Still, once Cress popped her whiskered nose up in my mind, the job of carrying a single thesis was eclipsed by my snoopy need to follow her about and see who she was, and how her life was rolling along. Characters in fiction nearly always decide they have other agendas than those of their authors. I respect that. Anyway, who can train a rabbit to dance a waltz on command? My rule in writing is this: follow the rabbit whither she hoppeth.

David, what was your initial reaction to reading Cress Watercress? Did you know straight away that you wanted to illustrate the novel, and could you immediately envision Cress and her woodland habitat?

Litchfield: When I learned that I may have a chance of illustrating a book for Gregory Maguire, I jumped at the chance and said yes to it way before I had read one word of his manuscript. His books are amazing, and it was a real honor just to be considered. When I did read the book, I fell in love with Cress and the characters that she meets throughout the story. Also, I love drawing woodlands and a lot of my books are set in forests, so it felt like a really good fit.

It did actually take me a few attempts at getting Cress to look right. Initially I went for a very “otherworldly” version of a rabbit. It was like something from The Dark Crystal or something, and it just didn’t feel right. After talking to the editor, Liz Bicknell, we decided that the animals should feel a lot more realistic—albeit wearing very dapper clothing. I then started to look at the classic The Wind in the Willows books illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I loved how those characters are based on human traits, but they are very much animals first and foremost. Once that all clicked into place, the artwork started flowing quite quickly.

Gregory, how do you hope that Cress’s divergent light-hearted adventures and gloomy moods will help young readers experiencing similarly unpredictable, coming-of-age emotions?

Maguire: Cress’s mother points out that the phases of the moon imitate the movement of memory and grief. We think about something, we forget about it, it comes back again to challenge or to console us. I hope children pick up this idea of “pulse,” even if only subconsciously. Just as pulse ordains the shapes of fiction, it is also the timepiece for the life of feeling, too.

David, was it difficult to incorporate these very different sensibilities—light and dark–into your pictures?

Litchfield: I think the forest setting naturally helped in visually conveying a lot of the emotion that Cress and her family are feeling in the story. Within the forest, the light and the darkness co-exist all the time. There can be blazing sunshine coming through those trees but much of the forest stays dark and in the shadows. On the surface the forest is a beautiful and happy place, but just look a little bit deeper and there are great dangers behind every tree or shrubbery. Cress is brave and bold on the outside but deep down she is hurting and frightened. I think those dual characteristics are reflected well in the light and dark that naturally exists in a forest setting.

Gregory, how is it a different challenge to create a novel with all-new characters and plot lines rather than those inspired by the work of other writers—like The Wicked Years and After Alice—and which type of story do you find more rewarding to write?

Maguire: A singularly complicated question and I shall try to address it in as brief terms as I can—not known for brevity, me! A writer building on the bones of an existing story tries to make readers glad with recognition and startled with surprise. But the surprises must follow the rubrics or risk being an annihilation of the original author’s intent—something I don’t want to do and wouldn’t dare. I try to be a companion to those authors I cherish, not competition. I fancy that much of my life’s work is homage to those writers for children who saved my young life by writing brilliantly, giving me courage and vision and succor.

I also remember how kids play with found materials—this stick is a boat, that leaf is an island, this upholstered chair is the castle where the plastic figure of the Little Mermaid is being held captive by this stuffed walrus, and the like. Much of my adult writing life is just horsing around with the story worlds that still haunt my imagination. Working with totally original material, on the other hand, is more liberating and more terrifying. The work proceeds in deference to truths observed without the scrim curtain of someone else’s imagination. I try to pour all of my available self into every story I write, but I find the wholly original story, if not more rewarding, then more challenging.

Analogously, David, you have illustrated children’s books that you also wrote, including the Bear and the Piano series, as well as those written by other authors—Rain Before Rainbows by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and War Is Over by David Almond. Do you find these very different endeavors?

Litchfield: There is a different kind of pressure when you are illustrating someone else’s story. It’s obviously a world that they have created, and they will have their own idea on how it should look and feel. Cress Watercress is such a big story set in a big and dense forest with lots of great characters with such unique personalities. Capturing that magic visually was a challenge, but one that I had the best time trying to achieve.

I think that there is a special moment in the relationship of an author and illustrator where your ideas and their ideas meet somewhere in the middle and a thing happens that maybe neither of you had previously thought about. With Cress Watercress there were a few moments like that where I would sketch out my idea, Gregory would see it and offer a few notes on what I had done, and then the drawing would go off in a completely new direction that we hadn’t anticipated. As much as I love writing and illustrating my own stories, I do very much enjoy the creative buzz of collaborating with an author.

Since readers are getting their first glimpse of the book’s cover here, what do you hope they will take away from the image?

Litchfield: Even though there is some darkness around the edges of this cover, I think that overall it is a very hopeful image. I wanted to keep Cress fairly small in the image—dwarfed by the big tree and plants—but she is still following the beams of light through the vastness of the forest. And she looks happy. I really love her expression on the cover—she has a very knowing smile. It’s that stubborn personality coming through again in the face of big giant hurdles. So yes, I hope that’s what people read into the cover. That this is a story with some dark edges but ultimately the light and warmth shines through.

Maguire: David Litchfield! My new hero. His colorwork refracts the light of Cress’s woodland world. It seems part stained-glass, part Matisse cutout—translucent, evanescent, impermanent, entrancing. Just like us. Just like life. Just like what Cress Watercress is all about.

Cress Watercress by Gregory Maguire, illus. by David Litchfield. Candlewick, $19.99 Mar. 29, 2022 ISBN 978-1-5362-1100-9