August 31, 2021

The story behind The Goblin and the Empty Chair

Illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

This book, like many of my other books, took seven years from start to finish, but I love the end product, mostly because the illustrations are so perfect.

I didn’t choose Leo and Diane Dillon, my USA editor did that, but I was blown over by their agreeing to do the book.  I totally knew they were royalty among children’s picture book illustrators, twice winners of the Caldecott Medal.

I didn’t really communicate with them except to say it was OK to change my boy in the book to the girl that they wanted. My effusive thanks to them was delivered via my editor.

In my head, a grandparent had died, which is why the chair was empty and had been all winter, and that’s why the family was so disturbed and sad. However, in a portrait of the family on the wall, early on in the book, there are two children, so for the Dillons I think one of the children had died, which is even more tragic that I had intended.  I didn’t see the portrait on the wall until my observant husband pointed it out.

How did the book happen? I was writing a book called Be Gone! Be Gone!, which was going nowhere after two years. It was didactic. I was trying to write a sort of fairy-story sermon about loving libraries and the adventures to be found in books. So even though I had been attempting to adopt a fairy tale style and language, I had failed spectacularly to write a good book. Children, I notice, loathe being preached at, a fact most wannabe picture book authors forget.  Alas, I had been paid a large advance for Be Gone! Be Gone! so I had to pay back the money or write another story. AAARGH! The money was gone!

So my editor asked what kind of story I had wanted to write in the first place.  I said I’d wanted to write a Bruno Bettelheim kind of fairy tale; that I’d wanted to be Hans Christian Andersen for a moment, or one of the Brothers Grimm; to write a tale of darkness and woe with a happy ending but lots of puzzlement, a story that each child would relate to in their own way, according to their individual needs at the time.  (Bruno Bettleheim was the famous child psychologist who said that fairy stories were essential for the proper psychological development of all children. He died in 1990. His work: The Uses of Enchantment, had a profound effect on me.)

So I wrote, over many years, The Goblin and the Empty Chair. You might like to see me read it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCV0pj7dK9c&NR=1