This year’s family Christmas production at an art centre near us is an adaptation of the short story The Lost Happy Endings by Carol Ann Duffy (the UK’s poet laureate), originally illustrated by Jane Ray. After the success we had taking M and J to see When We Lived in Uncle’s Hat I thought we’d also get tickets for this magical tale. With our trip to the theatre now only a few days away The Lost Happy Endings has been our most-read book this week and definitely one I’d love to share with you today.
A young girl, Jub, lives in a dark forest. She has a terribly important job – every night she must take the sack full of Happy Endings, climb to the top a huge oak tree and then scatter the endings to the wind to ensure they find their way into homes all around the world where parents are telling bedtime stories to their children. She’s good at her job, and enjoys it, spending her days reading and visiting neighbours whilst the Happy Endings fly back to the forest to hang from the ancient silver birch, ready to be collected and distributed each night.
One evening, however, a wicked witch, with “fierce red eyes like poisonous berries” steals the girl’s sack. With no Happy Endings, children in bedrooms everywhere go to bed that night in tears. Cinderella’s foot is too big for the glass slipper. The Big Bad Wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood.
Jub is distraught. Her heart is “as sore as toothache“. Exhausted by despair, she eventually falls asleep and (appears to) dream of a Golden Pen which can write on the night sky itself. She takes the pen and uses it to re-write her own story, to create her own happy ending, ensuring the witch meets her comeuppance and once again the Happy Endings can find their way into your home, my home and every home where bedtime stories are told.
Duffy has created a fairy story par excellence – mysterious, slightly menacing, with one foot in our world and another in a rather more magical world, a magical world that you nevertheless want to believe in when you read this story. The tale is beautifully told, with so many phrases where each word seems perfectly chosen, where it is hard to imagine a simpler yet more evocative way of expressing a given emotion or situation; Duffy’s first calling, as a poet, really shines through.
Jane Ray’s illustrations couldn’t be a better match for such stunning prose. Rich, opulent colours fill many pages, and each spread is full of textures and details that reward those who linger over them. I shall be very interested to see if the theatre production makes any attempt to acknowledge the illustrations in this book – these images seem like an essential part of the story, a part every bit as lyrical and bewitching as the prose.
Charmed and beguiled by Jane Ray’s illustrations we tried our own hands at creating similarly atmospheric and magical pictures, taking key elements from Ray’s approach – dark, moody skies, bare black silhouettes of trees, sprinkled with highlights drawn with a golden pen.
First the girls did a graded watercolour wash on damp watercolour paper. They dipped their paintbrushes in their sky colour of choice and painted two or three strokes across their paper. Then they dipped their paintbrushes in water, without swirling them around, and made another couple of strokes across their piece of paper just touching the bottom of each preceding stroke.
They dipped their brushes in water again and once more painted several strokes across the card, gradually diluting the paint and creating a graded wash – darker at the top, and lighter at the bottom, just like the sky looks at dusk.
Once the wash was dry, the black tree silhouettes were created using ink – M sometimes use a pipette to draw the trees (a la Katie Cleminson) and sometimes used a straw to blow the ink into branch shapes.
After the ink had dried the girls used a pen with gold ink to embellish their pictures – the type of pen they used is one I fondly remember from my own childhood – with a type of pump action and capable of dropping globules of dazzling gold onto your paper. I was really pleased to see they enjoyed this type of special pen just as much as I used to!
Here are the end results…
I wonder what Jane Ray would make of them?!
The Lost Happy Endings: *** (3 stars)
Music we listened to whilst we painted included:
Other activities that would work well alongside reading The Lost Happy Endings include:
Are you going to any special family shows this Christmas? Do you have any particularly special memories of going to the theatre as a child?