ON FAIRYTALES The O’Hara Sisters

Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings, or twisted and fractured mash-ups – fairytales never lose their appeal. In the first of a new series, Deputy Editor Françoise Price talks to Natalia and Lauren O’Hara.


Sisters Natalia (top) and Lauren O'Hara

Natalia and Lauren O'Hara are the author and illustrator respectively of the magical fairytale-esque picture books, Hortense and the Shadow and Frindleswylde.

FP: Hello Natalia and Lauren and welcome to Words & Pictures! You describe Hortense and the Shadow (published 2017) as "a dark fairy tale, inspired by the stories our Polish grandma told on snowy nights". What tales was she telling, and were they retellings or made up? How did the spark for the story appear?


NO'H: Our grandma told gorgeous stories about her childhood – picnics in the forest, fancy-dress parties and skating on frozen lakes. But there was this unsettling, unspoken menace in the stories, which all happened in and around Warsaw in the last years before World War Two. Our story didn't come from our grandma, Hortense and the Shadow is a little psychological fable I made up, but the atmosphere and landscape is all her.


FP: Frindleswylde (published 2021) has "echoes of Russian fairytales and Hans Christian Andersen". Which fairytales inspired you in the making of this book?


NO'H: Our villain, Frindleswylde, has some things in common with Vodník, a sinister little man in Czech folklore who lives at the bottom of a fishpond collecting the souls of drowned children and singing merrily as he sews new shoes. And I think of Cora as a little sister to those Russian fairytale princesses who go on adventures to rescue their beloved. As children we loved a Naomi Lewis/Errol le Cain retelling of The Snow Queen, and there are echoes of that book too.


Front covers of Hortense and the Shadow

and Frindleswylde

FP: Both books have an Eastern European feel. They’re icy and snowy and perfect for cosy winter reads. Apart from your Polish grandmother, are there other east European connections that influenced you?


LO'H: Yes, we were raised here and our dad is English, but we're Czech and Polish on our mum's side, I’ve lived in Prague and we have family there. Something that really made a big impact on us is that as children we had a small dog-eared collection of Eastern European mid-century picture books from our mum’s childhood. And that was really a golden era – Jiří Trnka, Mirko Hanák, Zdeněk Miler etc. Those books were an enormous influence on us.


FP: The language and illustrations have a wonderful folkloric quality – you’re both clearly in love with the genre. What were your favourite folk and fairytales as children and growing up?


NO'H: As children we loved Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde and Alexander Afansyev, and we had some nice anthologies of folklore and mythology. We do love fairytales, partly because of the kind of stories it lets you tell. Emily Dickinson said "tell all the truth but tell it slant", and that's a fairytale isn’t it? So you can be dark and honest and weird in a fairytale, and still get published.



Wintry scenes from Hortense and the Shadow
FP: You live hundreds of miles apart, and yet you seem to work closely together. Do you do a lot of Zooms and messaging? How do you preserve that magical, timeless quality that is evident in your stories, particularly in this digital age? 


LO'H: We’ve been told we work more like "an author-illustrator" than an author and an illustrator. Although I don’t write and Natalia doesn’t draw, the process is a real collaboration and both the words and picture develop in tandem. At the beginning of every project we make a joint board on Pinterest where we pin tons of visual references – a mix of reference photos for locations, old paintings, costume references, the work of other illustrators: anything that helps us establish a mood and sense of the book really. That’s how we find a shared vision for the books.


FP: Lauren: what technique and materials did you use for creating your lovely icy, snowy landscapes? How did the textual framework influence your artwork?


LO'H: I work using traditional media – inks and gouache with some digital finishing. I knew I wanted Frindleswylde to have a frosty feel and I started playing with the colour palette. The obvious choice was blue tones. The funny thing about blue though is that it can be quite an oddly warm colour – so I ended up switching to a lot of greens which gave a weird, icy, magical feel. I also used more digital manipulation for this book than I normally do – tweaking the colours and layering elements to get a slightly unreal feel. That’s how I created the slightly odd, mystical feel of Frindleswylde’s world. We wanted the world of Cora and Granny to feel like the opposite of that, so I used a lot of warm earthy browns and reds to show the warmth at the heart of their story.

Icy, magical illustrations from Frindleswylde

FP: Frindleswylde is a "longer" picture book. The usual advice to new and aspiring picture book writers is: stick to 12 spreads and keep it to under 800 words. Is it easier to bend the rules with a fairytale?

NO'H: That's good advice for your first book. The publisher is already taking a financial risk on a new artist so they probably don't want to spend more money on extra pages. I'm not sure it's easier to get more words and pages for fairytales... I suspect it's easier for a gift book (something lavishly illustrated, hardback, nostalgic), especially one that can be released at Christmas time. 

Our first book, Hortense and the Shadow, is only 300 words. Follow the rules until they let you in. Then find out where the rules bend.

Shadow child: illustration from Hortense and the Shadow

FP: What’s next? What are you working on (or is it a secret?!).


NO'H: I’m working on a book back at our first publisher, Puffin, with a fantastic illustrator whose work I’ve admired for years. It's not been announced yet so I can't say more, but I think it's going to be fun and surprising and delightful and it’s out this year.


LO'H: I have a book out in Autumn with Walker Books, and I’m also back at Penguin Random House working on a non-fiction which is slated for release in 2024. But they’re still top secret at the moment!

Thank you Natalia and Lauren!


Natalia O'Hara teaches at Goldsmiths (MA Children's Book Illustration).

Lauren O'Hara has mentored with Picture Hooks

Read more about the sisters here.


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscwbi.org.


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