2012 is proving to be quite a fishy year. Not only am I working on my first novel for 10+ year olds which seems to involve a lot of sea battles and creatures from the deep, but my first two publications of the year both feature fishermen and sea-going vessels.
Both books are part of ‘Big Cat Progress’, an exciting reading scheme from Harpercollins. I’d only done a couple of educational books before these but I’d enjoyed the experience so when I was approached by the commissioning editor at HC I said yes right away. My first task was to draw up a list of stories that might fit the series and two were chosen. Both turned out to be sea-stories.
The first was The Dolphin King, a French folk tale from Provence. I’d been wanting to do my own version of this mostly unknown story for many years. Looking back through my notes, I note I’d suggested the idea to a publisher in 1985 but they weren’t at all taken by the ecological message in it. I guess I was slightly ahead of my time there. I remember having the same problem with pirate stories. They’re old hat, I was told. Of course, the Pirates Of The Caribbean film franchise changed all that.
Over the years, I had a few opportunities to include The Dolphin King in various anthologies but I refrained as I thought it was strong enough to be a standalone project. The story is about a young fisherman who rashly injures a dolphin with his spear. The dolphin turns out to be the king of the sea and the fisherman has to embark on a dangerous mission if he is to avert a calamitous storm whipped up the sea creatures’ wrath.
Harpercollins commissioned the Italian artist Fausto Bianchi to Illustrate. He has an edgy style reminiscent of Il Corto Maltese comics and it was felt that this would give the story a fresh, contemporary feel. I think he did us proud, using bold colours, dark colours throughout and investing Jean, the main character, with a buffed-up, almost louche Left-Bank look.
One of the secondary characters in the story is a ghostly knight of the sea, who rises to the surface of the ocean in search of Jean. While writing the text, I imagined him a skeleton in armour, draped heavily in dark seaweed. This idea didn’t work in practice, mostly because the knight is always seen surrounded by water or darkness and the colours of the skeleton and seaweed made him blend in too much with the background. In the end, we opted for a pale ghostly figure that suggests sea mist and foam.
The tale also features a sea-horse, not one of those cute three-inch creatures you find staring back at you while snorkelling, but a magic steed who lives in the depths. Greek and Etruscan mythologies feature powerful sea-horses, called hippocampi, who are half equine and half fish. Poseidon was said to ride one of them, sometimes harnessing four or six of them to draw his underwater chariot. I wanted our horse to look like a magic creature a god might want to ride, but not to be an exact copy of a hippocamp.
Fausto created a dark, brooding mare that seems to be formed of ocean waves. Her eyes are jet-black and the only hint of colour in the creature is a fire-red glow around the seashells that hold her harness in place. I’m hoping it will add to the allure of this age-old story, and perhaps to inspire readers into finding out more about sea-legends, sea-creatures and how we need to preserve the world’s marine heritage.