Publication Date: 3 November 2022
Every Christmas Eve, a lonely woodcutter named Kai carves statues for anyone who might pass by. But one magical night his loneliness is soothed by a visit from the snow prince. Feared by many, Kai sees hope in the prince’s eyes, but as the prince freezes once more, imprisoned in his ice-palace, can Kai break the curse?
After loving Nen and The Lonely Fisherman, I eagerly awaited Ian’s second picture book and what a feast for the soul it is! Tenderly told and lovingly illustrated, this is a stunning story that shimmers with Christmas magic. Love and loneliness lie at the heart of this retelling of two stories, skilfully woven together into a story all of their own.
Ian is a master at evoking deep emotion and he had me right at the start of the book with the words, “But this year he was alone.” Christmas is always advertised as family gatherings and loved ones together, so that simple imagery of someone alone, without the person they traditionally spent Christmas stopped me in my tracks.
From there, we are taken on the adventure of a new friendship, with vivid imagery of the wintery world drawing us in to Kai’s world and journey with the Prince. Kai’s fight for his new-found friend is stunning and his determination to free the Prince shows the power of love in action and how the warmth of a gentle, loving touch can break down barriers, heal pain, and bring us closer together.
The fact that there has been so much hate directed at Ian for his dedication to writing inclusive books for everyone to enjoy shows just how much we need LGBTQ+ books to create a kind, inclusive generation of readers where every child gets to see themselves and their families reflected in books on shelves at home, in schools, libraries and bookshops.
And if that wasn’t enough, just check out THE MAP! With destinations named after BIG emotions, this page alone offers up bags of discussion.
The Q&A with Ian Eagleton
Your first inclusive fairy tale was a huge hit – were you surprised at the reception to Nen and the Lonely Fisherman? And to see it shortlisted for a British Book Award?
I have to admit that we were TERRIFIED about releasing this book! The LGBTQ+ community is taking an absolute beating at the moment – it’s genuinely a scary time to be gay. There’s been a shocking increase in hate crimes aimed at LGBTQ+ people and the media seemed obsessed with targeting trans and non-binary people and making their lives a misery. So, to have such a positive, welcoming, joyous response to Nen and the Lonely Fisherman was amazing. The whole team behind the book were blown away! Young readers and adults have really embraced the book’s message of inclusivity and hope and we’ve heard so many lovely, uplifting stories from teachers about how important the book has become in their classrooms for teaching children about diverse relationships and acting as a catalyst for important conversations. To see it shortlisted for a British Book Award was wonderful – I couldn’t believe it! For a debut book to be so popular and so critically acclaimed has been a dream come true and we really do appreciate everyone’s support.
How did you settle upon a retelling of The Snow Queen for this second fairy tale?
Well, actually The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince is only very superficially based on The Snow Queen. I suppose it links to the story in that the main character is called Kai, there’s a wicked Snow Prince and the setting is very wintry and magical. But the actual story is quite different to The Snow Queen and was inspired by a German fairy tale called “Jorinda and Joringel”.
In the story, there’s an evil witch who turns young maidens into birds and captures them and keeps them in cages in her castle. She transforms any young men she meets into statues. The story is quite dark and strange, and it got me thinking about why the witch was like this. What was it about these young, heterosexual couples that she hated so much? Could she even control her powers? Was she misunderstood in any way?
When I sent the story to Sam at Owlet Press, there was something missing, however. The setting didn’t quite work and wasn’t quite magical enough and I couldn’t quite get to grips with the witch and her motivation. Sam suggested setting the story at Christmas time and I immediately thought of a Snow Prince. I was still interested in rumours and the stories we tell each other so wanted there to be all these terrifying myths and tales about this supposedly wicked prince. Once I had hit on the idea that there might be more to his story and that he could be saved, the rest of the tale came together!
Was it easy to write this new story? Did you feel pressured because of the success of Nen?
Oh yes! I actually wrote about three different sequels and wanted to explore Nen and Ernest’s relationship further. A Christmas story about Nen and Ernest also inspired The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince. When I reflected upon why I was still writing stories about Nen and Ernest, it was perhaps a reluctance on my part to let them go. They are such important and special characters to me! But, Sam gently pointed out that they had been left in a really happy, hopeful place and that perhaps their story was over. So, I wrote and wrote and started to get much more confident in my writing abilities and didn’t feel the need to just ‘retell’ a fairy tale this time. It was quite difficult to write because I thought that I’d never be able to replicate Nen and the Lonely Fisherman again. When I realised that I didn’t have to and that there was the opportunity to explore new worlds and characters, I felt much better. I just hope that young readers love the story and can appreciate the similarities and difference between the two books.
As with Nen, there are strong themes of loneliness and friendship, finding acceptance for who you are – what draws you to this type of narrative?
I think this is what we all strive for, isn’t it? Connection, acceptance and understanding. As a gay kid and teenager, I constantly felt out of place, excluded and ‘less than’ everyone else. I never got to read about any queer characters, never got to see them go on adventures or fall in love, so this is my way of rectifying that! I felt lonely for a long time because I experienced quite traumatic and scary homophobic bullying and had no one to turn to. I was so ashamed of myself that I just couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. So, my personal experiences definitely drive my story writing, but I do think the best stories deal with a whole range of emotions and are often tinged with sadness, grief and loneliness.
This story has it all – adventure, peril, tenderness, magic… how did you balance all of these elements to create that classic fairy tale feel?
In my first draft of The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince, I wrote that Kai and the prince would fall in love underneath the Northern Lights but one of the editors felt that it happened too quickly and that there wasn’t enough peril and danger. So, I thought about the idea of Kai really having to fight for his prince, really having to take himself out of his comfort zone, away from everything he knows and loves, in order to save the prince and break the curse. I was really inspired by all those fantasy adventures like The Hobbit, where a character has to embark on an epic journey and face all sorts of scary and exciting things. We actually decided that it was best to keep my description of Kai’s adventure to a minimum so that Davide Ortu’s beautiful illustrations could really be given the space they deserve. Davide has created such a magical, strange, beautiful world and I love all the dragons, the mysterious creatures in the forest, the shadows lurking and so on. It just makes the stakes even higher – Kai really does have to battle not only his own demons, but actual monsters, in order to find love.
How did you feel when you first saw Davide’s illustrations for the book?
I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now! I’m probably very biased, but aren’t they BEAUTIFUL?! I know Davide really put his heart and soul into this book and I think it shows. The illustrations seem to sparkle and shimmer, and the colour palette is so magical and wintry. There are moments when I feel like I could reach in and touch one of the delicate snowflakes or when I feel like I can smell the spices and cosy warmth in Kai’s cottage. It’s definitely one of those books that needs to be read wrapped up in a blanket, with a hot chocolate, by a crackling fire. Every time I think I’ve settled on a favourite illustration, I change my mind!
And let’s not forget the end papers either – it’s always been a dream to create a picture book with maps and I love Davide’s representation of the setting. How lucky am I to have been able to collaborate with both James Mayhew and Davide Ortu to imagine and create new, gay-inclusive fairy tales!
What are you working on now (if you’re allowed to say!)?
Lots! As well as being a dad, working as an education resource writer and generally trying to eat healthily, go to the gym and not fall apart at how scary the world is right now, I’m also working on some new picture books. I can’t say too much about them, but one involves a little girl, some cute dogs and adventures with her daddies and the other is a celebration of a two-dad family and the great outdoors.
I also have my debut middle grade book Glitter Boy, which is being published by Scholastic, coming out in February 2023. It’s a joyful, hopeful story that tackles the effects of homophobic bullying and how damaging it can be. It also explores LGBTQ+ pride and history, the power of friendship, poetry and dance, and the need to call upon our friends, neighbours, family and community when times are tough. It’s a real celebration of being true to yourself!
Apart from all those exciting projects, I’m also working with my agent on some new picture books, so it’s a busy time. However, I feel very lucky to be able to write LGBTQ+ inclusive books for children which will hopefully spark a desire in them to make the world a happier, fairer place when everyone gets to see themselves in the books they read.
The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by Davide Ortu, is published by Owlet Press.
Out now, £7.99 paperback. http://www.owletpress.com
Huge thanks to Ian for this amazing Q&A, and to Owlet Press for inviting me to take part in the Blog Tour. Do make sure you check out all of the other stops.