Searching for a happy ending…

posted in: Carol Ann Duffy, Jane Ray | 10

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.

Photo: daskerst

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.

Photo: ((brian))

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:

  • Happy Ending by Elvis Presley (any excuse to listen to the King!)
  • Fairytale of New York by The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl (well, it is nearly that time of year again)
  • Fairytale Lullaby by Bombay Bicycle Club

  • Other activities that would work well alongside reading The Lost Happy Endings include:

  • Exploring a wood near you and finding a tree to climb. If you’re UK based do take a look at the Give it some Welly for Woodland project that’s just been launched by the Woodland Trust.
  • Collect twigs and create your own magical (fairy) houses, the sort of place Jub might live in – here are some ideas to get you going from Disney Family Fun and some more ideas from Can’t Stop Making Things.
  • Make a Happy Jar to remind you of all the happy endings you and your kids have had over the year – Bring the Family has the full details.

  • 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?

    10 Responses

    1. Katie Fries

      Wow! What gorgeous pictures–both the illustrations in the book and the ones your girls created. By the way, I wanted to let you know we received our copy of Meg Goes to Bed last week. Thanks again!

    2. Zoe

      Hi Katie, So glad Meg Goes to Bed arrived safely – Meg is a very different sort of witch to the one in the Lost Happy Endings!

    3. Choxbox

      Wow. What an awesome book! Will keep an eye out!

      And wanted to tell you that I checked our copy of The Button Box (that I picked up at the fair for 20 rupees) properly yesterday and found that it is autographed by the author!

      • Zoe

        That’s so exciting Choxbox – I wonder what story lies behind the book eventually making it in to your hands – who previously owned it and loved it, and what buttons were played with along the way!

    4. Susan Stephenson, the Book Chook

      My godmother took me to see The Nutcracker ballet when I was six. They tell me I was entranced, and I do remember planning to be a ballerina when I grew up. Alas, chooks can’t dance.

      More recently, I went to see a stage version of I am Jack, a wonderful novel by Australian author, Susanne Gervay. I couldn’t quite see how the multiple characters could be portrayed by one actor, but he did a brilliant job. Judging by the hush from hundreds of school kids – they thought so too.

    5. Zoe

      Hi Susan – ahha – The Nutcracker – I’m just gearing up for a post about that, so hopefully I’ll be able to transport you back when that goes live! And (I won’t tell anyone) you can put the music on in the kitchen and have a dance 🙂

      Am I right in thinking I am Jack has an anti bullying theme? Theater is such a great way to explore issues which can be difficult to talk about.

    6. Choxbox

      Another unrelated comment – also got a copy of Robert Sabuda’s 12 Days of Christmas – totally fab. we listened to the carol on youtube while reading it.
      Have you come across any of his books? They are all amazingly crafted.
      Also it triggered a discussion between my older child and her friend – when Kindle becomes popular, what will happen to pop-up books?!

    7. Zoe

      I know of Sabuda’s work, Choxbox, but pop up stuff isn’t great through the library system as it doesn’t last long in working condition and I haven’t yet succumbed to buying anything new. That said, all of his work that i’ve seen images of looks wonderful.

    8. Kristine

      What beautiful paintings by the girls. I wouldn’t have thought to use such an “uncontrollable’ medium as ink but it turned out stunning.

    9. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Kristine, Yes the uncontrollable nature of ink is part of its joy – Katie Cleminson said something like the fact that it is uncontrollable really frees her up when she is illustrating with it and creates a much nicer line because of the lack of tension or controllability.

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