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North Melbourne Books: Last birthday Henry Bear made a wish, one he regrets. He wished his parents were more fun. As a result Mama Bear and Papa Bear now encourage him to eat cake for dinner and stay up late watching TV. Mama Bear scoffs that school is boring. As a result, Henry Bear is always late with his homework and is falling behind. When Henry Bear meets new girl Marjani at school, he tells her his troubles. She has an idea. With another birthday coming up, why not make a new wish?
Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a delightfully told cautionary tale about the perils of getting what you want. What made you want to create this particular bear story? Are you very fond of bears yourself?
Liam Francis Walsh: I wouldn't say I'm unusually fond of bears - especially when I'm all alone in a deep forest trying to peacefully enjoy a blueberry pie. I may be more fond of them, now, than when I started; they're fun to draw! I'm a great fan of Richard Scarry, so getting to draw any animals wearing clothes is always a treat.
That said, in the book's earliest incarnation the bears, who live in a charming bear cottage and are referred to as Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Little Bear, were kind of satirical, kind of a send-up of a very cliched, twee type of picture book. The book itself was a sort of meta-story about a harried children's book author trying to finish the hackneyed bear story as the reader is reading it. In other words, the real story was the story of the tardy author, and the bears were kind of circumstantial. When I showed that story to my editor he saw more promise in the adorable bears than in the balding author (clearly this man knows nothing about kids), and encouraged me to explore that part of the story more fully. He was right, and I love seeing how the story came together.
One of my favorite authors in any genre, Alan Moore, said about writing that (and I paraphrase) you can start with an idea, or a character, or a scene, or a plot, or a line of dialogue, or a world, but no matter where you start you still have to do all the rest of the work. Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a perfect example of how a story is often grown, more than it is conceived.
Finished artwork from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: The story has a lot of humour. It's hilarious how Mama Bear urges Henry to eat lollies and chocolate cake for dinner. Does your work as a cartoonist sometimes influence your children's books?
LFW: Absolutely. And in many different ways: from finding the right composition and the right gesture, to timing a joke, to trying to predict and control the reader's expectations in order to subvert them to humorous effect, and on and on.
My wonderful literary agent, Dan Lazar, encouraged me early on to try to think of each page or spread as a cartoon, in order to make sure that each one could stand on its own, and to avoid having any boring beats (like characters just going from one place to another), or wasted space. I don't separate cartoon ideas and story ideas; they all go in the same notebook and then I see what they develop into when I start playing around with them. Humor never stops being fascinating and slippery.
Original sketch from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: Henry Bear's new friend, Marjani, is an interesting character. She appears to be wearing a hijab. Did you make a conscious decision to add some cultural diversity to the story or did Marjani simply appear on her own, a more spontaneous creation?
LFW: I've been consciously trying to create diverse worlds in my cartoons and stories for some time, now. When I lived in New York City I used to be able to duck the question by saying that was just the world I saw around me, but now that I live in rural Switzerland, which is quite homogeneous, I'm regularly reminded how easy it is for people to fear the unfamiliar, and that makes it feel more imperative than ever that I use my soapbox (be it ever so small) to take a stand for tolerance.
When I was writing the book, in 2016, the refugee crisis in Europe was headlining the news, and some of the neighborhood kids told me refugee children from Africa were beginning to appear in their classrooms. Now, I'm not someone who pretends that migration is an uncomplicated problem with obvious solutions, and I have little use for religion, but (having been the outsider arriving at a new school several times in my life) I really hoped the children in the Swiss schools would be welcoming.
That's how the line, "Henry knew you should always be extra friendly to new students," got in the book, and stayed in, in spite of my editor's occasional hints that it might be a little clunky. To me, it's the heart of the book. If Henry hadn't been kind and welcoming to Marjani, in spite of her other-ness, he'd still be facing a revoltingly huge slice of chocolate cake every morning for breakfast. So, that's a round-about way of saying Marjani was originally just a new kid, but she became more interesting and poignant to me when she put on her hijab.
Original sketch from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: The township where the bears live looks wonderfully inviting, with its gorgeous townhouses, cobblestoned roads and sumptuous cake shops. It looks like a very nice place to live! Is the bear town based on any real place?
LFW: Four years ago I moved with my wife to the canton of Ticino, in Switzerland, where she's originally from. Ticino is located at the southernmost tip of Switzerland, and is surrounded on three sides by Italy. Both geographically and culturally it's more Italian than Swiss, and the official language is Italian. It's absolutely lovely, and I delighted in sourcing elements of the bears' world from scenes and details I've seen on my frequent long walks. The cobbles, the bakeries, the arches and tiled roofs: they're all here, but of course I tossed them up and elaborated on them and rearranged them to suit me.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
LFW: I was just at my parents' home in Wisconsin (USA) and started rereading the Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel, which were my favorite books as a beginning reader. Boy, are they wonderful! Little, funny gems, each and every one. I had a fun time reading Philip Stead and Matthew Cordell's Special Delivery (2015) aloud to my 5 and 7-year-old nephews (I can't think of it without wanting to shout, "Chugga-chugga-chugga! Beans-beans-beans!"), and the three of us had a ball going over every detail on every page of Full Moon Soup, by Alastair Graham. That book is just jaw-dropping. In my grown-up time, I'm enjoying the Delilah Dirk series of graphic novels, by Tony Cliff, and the wonderfully moody supernatural detective thrillers of John Connolly.
Make a Wish, Henry Bear, by Liam Francis Walsh. Published by Roaring Brook Press. $26.99