Talking to Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner about The Girl Who Became a Tree

I’ve been wanting to talk ‘poetry plus’ with poet, playwright and creative literacy practitioner Joseph Coelho ever since his first collection was published back in 2014. Werewolf Club Rules went on to win the CLiPPA Poetry Award and more than a dozen books have followed, including the Luna Loves picturebooks, an activity book called How to Write Poems and Zombierella, the first in a trilogy of ‘twisted fairytales’ in verse, but it was his genre-busting The Girl Who Became a Tree that finally brought us together. Published by Otter-Barry Books, this story told in poems is illustrated throughout with black-and-white line drawings by Kate Milner, and has been nominated for this year’s Carnegie Medal. 

Kate’s illustrations add something special to the experience of reading Joe’s absorbing and affecting poems, so I was excited when both Kate and Joe were able to join me for an interview, Lockdown-style. I hope you’ll enjoy their insights into the creation of this book as much as I did.
A story of a girl with a hurt she can’t express…Let’s start by taking a look at The Girl Who Became a Tree. The dust-jacket shows a teenage girl holding a game controller, and one glance is enough to know that something’s wrong. Her hair streams up, as though electrified, and the wash of colour adds a sense of threat. It’s an arresting image: one that propels us straight into the book, where a hundred or so poems are waiting to draw us further in. Direct, accessible and immensely evocative, these poems (and accompanying artwork) are individually intriguing. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to resist their narrative energy and the ideas they unleash.

According to classical mythology, the girl who became a tree was a nymph escaping from an overly-attentive god, but you don’t need to recognize the allusion to enjoy this book. The girl in the story – also called Daphne - is a contemporary teenager struggling with loss, and her tale of grief and renewal feels raw and immediate. Since her father’s death, Daphne has been feeling unbearably adrift. Waiting for her mum one evening in the local library, Daphne reaches for her mobile phone, but it’s missing. Unable to block out the world, Daphne is forced to react, and strange forces begin to exert their influence. 

Artwork copyright Kate Milner for Otter-Barry Books

Kids like Daphne don’t have many choices about where to go, so the setting for this book is significant. Libraries are warm and safe and welcoming, and have treasures waiting on their shelves. Those who’ve discovered stories at an early age can acquire a taste for books that never really goes away, and so it is with Daphne. She used to be a reader and knows, deep down, that she needs help. The disappearance of her phone has finally cracked her shell, and when the librarian delivers a message – “A creature took your phone. Follow the nuts…” – Daphne responds to the challenge.

A trail on the library floor leads to a hole in a bookcase. “Grub-like,” Daphne wriggles through into another world: a forest, bisected by a path littered with computer consoles, sweets and other temptations. A girl who knows her fairytales ought to take more care, but Daphne’s been growing a scab-like skin, and safety has become irrelevant. “There are times / when what should scare us / should pop our lungs / and pierce our hearts / has no power,” as the poem entitled Real Fears observes. 

Daphne follows the path and discovers a hut. Inside this “misshaped thing / fitting and out of place. / Wrong and absolutely right” is every games console she has ever imagined, together with a beanbag exactly moulded to her back. When a creature called Hoc appears, Daphne’s “hit by the smell” and “thumped by the sight,” but it’s not enough to pierce her barriers. She wants to bury herself in the videogame that she played with her father. She wants to halt the clock and refuse change. Hoc knows “the right buttons to press / To stop this girl thinking” - and as her story unfolds, we learn the fate he’s planned for Daphne, and glimpse the parallels between her story and that of her Greek namesake.

‘Our’ Daphne’s escape from Hoc’s forest is woven into an exploration of the guilt and anger she feels about her father’s death. Strong emotions run through this book like rings through a tree, but its fundamental message is one of hope. When Daphne is able to accept her metamorphosis, she discovers “something true spilling out” of her wooden heart. And with honesty and insight, she frees herself from Hoc’s corrosive grip. 

The Girl Who Became a Tree is told entirely in poetry, and many traditional forms are explored

“I adore verse novels,” observed Joe in a blog for The Children’s Poetry Summit. “The way they take a reader and invite them to ride a story through a roller-coaster of free verse… but for this book I wanted to keep hold of a core of poetry so that the themes of death, mourning, magic and rebirth could be given space to grow and transform.”

From traditional forms including ballads, rondels, villanelles, pantoums and triolets, to more fluid formats - acrostics, shape poems and free verse - this book offers a dizzying breadth of mood and pace. There’s a playfulness about the approach: for every poetic form that’s closely followed, another will be stretched to accommodate something new, and pushing the creative boundaries in this way delivers a lightning strike of energy. 

The sense of an undercurrent in these poems, of allusive hints and a ‘fast forward’ to big ideas, is reinforced and extended by Kate Milner’s line drawings. These are grown-up illustrations with bite and edge that extend and deepen the impact of the text. In suggesting so much more than they show, they entice and provoke in equal measure – we want to know, and we have to ask. 

With all this going on, The Girl Who Became a Tree could have become the sort of book that young readers label ‘difficult’, but happily it steers a different course. As a performer and facilitator, Joe is used to receiving direct and honest feedback, and his approach to writing for a YA audience reflects this. He knows how to travel to the core of an idea without carrying unnecessary baggage, and although his language may evoke complex ideas and images, it’s always accessible. Joe’s poetry is anchored in the here-and-now of kids who don’t know who they are or what they’re going to be; who are waiting for someone to notice them, and care.  


"The offspring,

who are here because:

they have to be,

no one is home,

nowhere else is safe….

…The ones who depend 

on the security of books."

 

Artwork copyright Kate Milner for Otter-Barry Books

Of course, it isn’t only teenagers who bury their feelings, or find themselves unable to engage. This book has something universal to say, so it’s worth exploring how and why it cuts so quickly to the heart.

As Joe is the first to acknowledge, The Girl Who Became a Tree is powered by archetypal themes of a kind we recognize instinctively. Dark forests and abandoned dwelling places, heroic feats and challenges, temptations and false promises – these things remind us of the tales we’ve always shared. We respond to them because we know they matter, and always have something new to say. This sense of timelessness is underscored by the story of the mythical Daphne woven into the text. Five poems printed on black backgrounds and illustrated with white line drawings explore the parallels and invite us to connect. 

Intriguingly, Joe says he became aware of the links between Daphne-in-the-library and nymph-Daphne quite late into the process of creating this book. “When I started out, I wasn’t thinking about the Daphne myth. It was after getting these poems down that I became more aware of it, and things started to come together, which meant I could pull those threads out more clearly and anchor the collection in the myth and the narrative.” 

Kate was excited by the possibilities at an early stage. She’d been reading contemporary retellings of Greek myths - books like Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller’s Circe - and recognised the power in Joe’s text. “There are these huge stories that we all know, but they’re modern, too. Joe’s text felt real, and that excited me.”

Joe agrees that this is important in his work. “I do believe in this idea of archetypal stories and characters, which is why I think the classics and fairytales strike a chord because they allow us to enter a space that’s very real. It’s like Joseph Campbell talking about The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are only so many basic stories, and I really do believe that. I do feel like the more you unearth, the closer you get to these archetypal narratives in some shape or form.”

And it’s worth remembering that archetypal tales advise as well as warn: how to avoid entrapment, how to escape a curse…. Change can be feared or embraced, and stories do so much more than simply entertain. “Who knows what’s possible in a forest where the trees scrape at heaven?”

"You have one saved message..."
Let’s take a closer look at the emotions driving Daphne. We know she’s been hurt; it’s the first thing we’re told. And as we soon discover, her pain is caused by grief. Daphne is grieving so deeply that she can barely function. Her refusal to visit the hospital has led to an “endless winter of never saying goodbye” and the guilt she feels is making things worse. Confined within “the frost of regret, unable to thaw” she wanders the mazelike structures of her memory, and this incarceration is reflected by Hoc’s gruesome hut. As the poem entitled In a Wood Near You points out, “Take a walk in any forest ….and you’ll find a structure like this one.” 

Fear is also a driver in this book, particularly fear of change. As a teenager, you don’t have to be experiencing the loss of a parent to feel the bite of anxiety in this regard. Change is happening whether you welcome it or not, and change can be acutely painful. As Daphne’s father says, “I wish some things didn’t change / but all things do…. / And change can hurt.” 

Nymph-Daphne finds the prospect of change unbearable. “I wish never to grow, I wish everything to stop…” she says, appealing to her river-god father, Peneus, to turn her into a tree. But stopping the world is not an option. When Dad was in hospital, Daphne’s mother “left the wounds open…. / She felt each cut to the core…” but Daphne reacts differently. “My sap was used up / in those monsoon months. / I healed over thick and harsh.” And as Daphne discovers, creating a shell comes at a cost. We must live our lives, whatever is thrown at us, and change must be experienced for growth to follow. 


Illustrating the poems

Things that lived here / when trees dreamed of inked leaves...Poems are slippery things. They capture the essence of a moment - an idea, an emotion - but a single word or phrase can open doors into a universe so large it’s hard to comprehend. Poems have a habit of remaining fluid, even when you think you’ve got them fixed - they shift and change depending on who’s reading them, and where, and how, and why. 

It’s no wonder, then, that handing a richly-loaded poem to an illustrator willing to connect with it in an intuitive and inventive way produces another kind of magic. Kate Milner’s drawings suggest and invite, rather than telling us exactly what to think. They are fuelled by the ideas and imagery in the poetry, but do so much more than simply represent the words. 

Take, for example, our first sight of Daphne: head down and eyes fixed on her phone as her hair swirls away from her, suggesting – what? Fragmenting thoughts being swept elsewhere by the energy pouring from her screen? The flow of a river? The beginning of her transformation into bark and trunk? 

Artwork for 'Hearing He Was Ill'     copyright Kate Milner for Otter-Barry Books



The illustration accompanying Hearing He Was Ill is loaded with information about family relationships, anxiety and denial, and our visual introduction to Hoc is similarly powerful – just his hindquarters are visible, suggesting a dog whose colossal legs are very much at odds with the bow in his tail. 

“I was able to bring things to this book that might have been out of place in a picturebook,” Kate says. “It was an intense and liberating thing to do, and allowed me to be more adventurous. It’s funny, because you could say that black and white would be more limiting, but it wasn’t. I was able to use bits of drawing, photography or prints as a collage, and they work together in a way they wouldn’t in a picturebook.” 

Artwork copyright Kate Milner for Otter-Barry Books

And as we know from My Name is Not Refugee and It’s a No-Money Day, Kate has more than a passing interest in addressing complex subjects via picture books. As she observes, “picture books are wonderful, because they allow you to explore things you think would be impossible. They are such benign things, with that quality of being simple and unthreatening. But you can actually smuggle some quite difficult stuff into a nice, safe environment for children to explore at their own speed.” 

As a writer addressing tough themes for a teenage audience, Joe takes a similar approach. “It’s about creating a balance of truth, and it’s important to speak honestly. Young people really appreciate that. They’re hungry to get hold of something that deals with the darker side of things, and books are the safest space to do that - far safer than video games or TV.”

Joe and Kate did not collaborate on this book. As Joe notes, “it was more a case of having our individual time of genesis,” so this interview was an opportunity for them to share reactions to each other’s work, to find similarities and resonances, and to discuss creative process.    

“What I love about Kate’s style,” Joe said, “is that her illustrations are like poems in themselves; they complement the writing but they also exist within their own space. The more I look at these pictures, the more I understand. Some of them are evoking a feeling as a response to meaning and to character. In a really positive way, it’s a style you have to work at, take your time on and come back to, and I think that’s often not seen or appreciated for this age group.”

Kate agrees that it’s important to go after the essence of the text. “If you simply try to reproduce in visual terms what the text is telling you, you’re not doing as much as you can. You ought to be responding to the text, obviously, but it ought to add something different, so that it’s not just one repeating the other. The two together should have more meaning than each of them individually. I’m trying to show through the pictures in my books not just the appearance of an object, but how someone is feeling about it, and why.”

Giving Kate the opportunity to create this kind of artwork to sit alongside Joe’s poetry was a bold move from Otter-Barry Books, but one that has paid off. Despite this story’s other-worldly setting, it matters whether Daphne finds her way out of the forest. We care. 

Talking about creative process

So how were the poems and illustrations in The Girl Who Became a Tree created? 

As Joe and Kate talked, it became clear that this book grew slowly, like a sapling, until it was ready to be shared. Actively pulling the material together took Joe about eighteen months, but he’d spent years exploring its themes and landscapes. 

Here’s Joe describing his process.

“When I’m working, I tend to dip in and out of other things, to cogitate and allow space for ideas to come in. I find I have to work in ten-minute blocks - writing for ten minutes, then doing something else totally disconnected for ten minutes. Maybe I’ll build something from Lego, or go for a walk. I find it’s the times when you’re doing something else that ideas come most naturally, but it took me ages to learn that. I spent many years sitting for eight hours in front of the computer, trying to force stuff. And you will get something out, but nine out of ten times it isn’t very good.”

Kate’s experience is similar. 

“I take myself off somewhere quiet to read the material a couple of times and try to get myself really immersed in it,” she says. “Then I start drawing in an unfocused kind of way, or maybe I’ll do the hoovering or some other job like that. And while I’m doing that, I’ll be thinking about what I’ve read, and images will come to me. It’s when I’m half-thinking about something else, the rest of my brain is working away on it, and things come out of that. Getting ideas this way works better for me than just trying to sit down with a pencil and waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s a way of responding to the words instinctively, because there’s no right or wrong answer; there’s just how it appears to me, and the images that creates.” 

Apollo and Daphne, painted by Piero del Pollaiuolo c.1470

Ideas come from many sources, and may not announce themselves with clarity. They work to their own timetable, and may have to be coaxed out of the forest, or spotted lurking in the undergrowth, like Joe’s mythical Daphne. I asked him about the other creative streams flowing into his book. 

“Libraries have always been very dear to me, and in my head I had a very clear image of the place where this book was set: West Hill Library in Wandsworth, which was a wood-panelled library where I did all my homework. I would go there with groups of friends and ended up getting a job there, so it was kind of honouring that place. Plus I’ve always been interested in transformation and physical transformation in things like sci-fi and horror. I guess I like transformation as a metaphor for what’s going on inside, so when I started exploring the idea of this girl finding a hidden forest, it felt right that she transforms. I’ve always been obsessed with anything Narnia-like; of being able to walk through a wardrobe and enter into another world. I watched the Narnia films back to back as a kid, and read the books continuously. But I grew up in a block of flats and we didn’t have a big wooden wardrobe. The magic felt like something I longed for but that was out of reach, so I’ve always been very keen to try and create it in spaces that I recognize, like the local library. The setting in this book is part of a wider universe I have, of other stories where these characters pop up. Like Hoc – I have him in my inner world as a character with a wider narrative. And I’ve always had an obsession with trees. I once wrote a play for adults which featured a tree surgeon, so I’d done tons of research for that. I always have to stop when I see tree surgeons up in the branches! And it came off the back of years of writing plays for children and touring them round libraries, so I guess the library as a stage for something bigger just worked for me. It felt right, it was like all these puzzle pieces coming together and settling into place.”

Working in this fluid and responsive way may not sound demanding, but complex skills are required, alongside honesty, tenacity and a willingness to tolerate the discomfort of the process. The ability to pay attention to what surfaces, or make connections; the ability to see whether something fits, or speaks more loudly because it is being viewed through a different lens; the ability to take diversions, or wait for something to declare itself important; the ability to change direction completely…. all these things take time, and not every path will be fruitful. Ideas that looked interesting at the outset will not be so: or at least, not now. The route to meaningful outcomes is littered with discarded tryouts, but the act of having considered them will affect the work in unseen ways. 

As we listen to Joe talking about this process, it comes into sharper focus.

“I have tons of notebooks. I don’t even know what’s in half of them. Sometimes I flip through them and go, oh! There’s a whole draft of something I don’t even remember writing. And then there’s all the thinking time, and trying things out, and dreaming time. And reading, of course  – I’ve got so many books on trees that I’ve been reading for years, that I didn’t realise were heading towards this book. I find that I get very obsessed about different things at different times. Last year it was gardening, before that it was photography. At the moment it’s Lego. In the next six months there will be something else I have to obsess over. But then they find their ways into things, and it’s totally unquantifiable how much they contribute, but it’s important. Thinking time and digesting time are so key, and it makes a difference between sitting down and scratching your head, and something just coming out in a beautiful process, like an exhalation of art.”

‘Mistakes’, of course, have little meaning in this context. As Joe says, “I don’t think you can make mistakes in a process that is itself exploratory.” Constraints - such as fixed poetic forms - represent opportunities for exploration and creative innovation. As Joe said in a recent blog, “there’s form poetry and there’s free verse, but the more interesting stuff is in the spaces in between, and I like to play with both. Poetry should be fun, it is after all a tool for us to play with language.” 

The value of creative play for anyone over the age of five is so misrepresented in some quarters that it almost looks as though we are afraid of what it can unleash. But the ability to explore, reflect and innovate has never been more necessary. We need to seek truth, express ourselves with honesty and clarity, connect with each other and find better ways of moving forward.  And that is exactly what The Girl Who Became a Tree encourages us to do.

So what’s next? 

I couldn’t finish without asking Joe and Kate about next steps, and they are pleasingly diverse. 

Kate has been working on a picturebook for Tiny Owl called Sorry Mrs Cake, which she describes as “quite different from the others I’ve done, and much more colourful.” And her picturebook about a child whose family is homeless will be published by Barrington Stoke to join the award-winning My Name is Not Refugee and It’s a No Money Day.

Joe has just finished his second Fairytales Gone Bad title for Walker, and is working on another middle-grade book. Intriguingly, he’s also making the most of spare time to “do stuff that I want to write, which isn’t necessarily led by other things.”

Whatever it is will be worth the wait!

A big thank you to Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner for their time, enthusiasm and generosity (especially when the Zoom call died…) 

And a shout-out, too, for Nicky Potter at Otter Barry Books for bringing us together!


Books and resources

Joseph Coelho   

Werewolf Club Rules! and other poems by Joseph Coelho, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2014

Overheard in a Tower Block by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Kate Milner, Otter-Barry Books 2017 

Poems Aloud! An anthology of poems to read aloud by Joseph Coelho and Daniel Gray-Barnett, Wide Eyed 2020

How to Write Poems by Joseph Coelho and Matt Robertson, Bloomsbury 2017

A Year of Nature Poems by Joseph Coelho and Kelly Louise Judd, Wide Eyed 2019

Zombierella : Fairy Tales Gone Bad by Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas, Walker 2020

The Hairdo that Got Away by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers, Andersen Press 2019

Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers, Andersen Press 2017

Luna Loves Art by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers, Andersen Press 2020

Luna Loves Dance by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers, Andersen Press, coming in September 2021

No Longer Alone by Joseph Coelho and Robyn Wilson-Owen, Egmont 2019

If All the World Were… by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys, Frances Lincoln Children's Books 2019 

 

Kate Milner

My Name is not Refugee by Kate Milner, Barrington Stoke 2017

It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner, Barrington Stoke 2019

Duncan Versus the Googleys by Kate Milner, Pushkin Press 2020

Sorry Mrs Cake! by Kate Milner, Tiny Owl, coming in June 2021

Other sources of information

Click here for the excellent BBC 'Class Clips' videos on Understanding Poetry with Joseph Coelho (for KS1 and KS2)

Click here to read The Form of a Poem: a blog about The Girl Who Became a Tree for the Children's Poetry Summit by Joseph Coelho

Explore Joseph Coelho's website here (there's lots to discover!) 

And here is Joseph talking about The Girl Who Became a Tree as part of the Scottish Virtual Children's Book Tour in May 2020 (and teaching viewers how to write a Rondel...)

 

 

 

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