Our most popular holidays exist not only as days of celebration and commemoration, but also as well-known brands. Their colors and shapes are ingrained in most of us by the time we've arrived at speech. Halloween is orange and black, cats and pumpkins. Valentine's Day? Cupids and hearts, red and pink.
In the US and the UK, Christmas might be the strongest holiday brand of all. Illustrating a Christmas book, an artist faces two questions: How to visually interpret the author's story, and how to riff on a brand that's been in play since the Victorians elevated the holiday to its current carnival status. Artist Chris Mould took on these challenges when illustrating Matt Haig's "A Boy Called Christmas."
"The issue for me was, how close do we come to the Christmas we know and/or how far do we push away from that, if at all," Mould told Spine. Haig made the task easy, creating a tale that weaves new threads onto a familiar background. "Matt uses those traditional elements as a launch pad, and here and there he diverts into his own very original and believable detail.
"For example, we have trolls and truth pixies and I loved tapping into these characters and seeing what they looked like when I began to draw," Mould said. "Matt is very good at creating a world without being overly visually descriptive, so that allowed me to create the world from my own thoughts while sticking with the story." And while sticking with a recognizable version of Christmas. "I stayed close to the Christmas we know in many ways because I think people approach a Christmas book, as a reader, with a familiar place in mind."
Mould's 25-year career has included a variety of genres and mediums, including his own "Pocket Pirates" children's series, which he sums up as "tiny pirates living in a ship in a bottle in an old junk shop. … Good fun." But he'd never worked on a Christmas book and he'd never met Haig, though he'd read the author's darkly funny adult novel "The Humans." When he got the call about Haig's new spin on St. Nick, "I excitedly said yes."
Haig and the team at Canongate proved perfect complements for Mould's working style. "[They were] great at just letting me breathe and do my own thing, which is what I think always works best." As he worked, as his sketchbook filled with tiny paintings of Nikolas growing up into his Santa coat, a cover concept took hold. "We all felt this summed up the whole book, Nikolas growing into his role as an adult and as Father Christmas." While the red of Nikolas' coat and the Christmas-style hand-drawn font of the title are on-brand for Christmas, the cover is mostly blue, an idea inspired by the Northern Lights, which appear in the story. (The U.S. publisher kept the blue, but chose an image of Nikolas riding a reindeer for the U.S. cover.)
The Mould-Haig-Canongate triumvirate proved so successful — the book was a 2015 holiday smash hit and has been nominated for a Carnegie Medal — that the team again convened to bring more Christmas to the reading world. This year, fans will dive into Victorian London with "The Girl Who Saved Christmas."
Tackling the second title, Mould's challenges grew from two to three: How to interpret the story, how to riff on Christmas, and how to create a brand-new world that connects, in some way, to the original book? Mould turned to 19th century French artist Gustave Doré, who trolled London streets high and low to produce "London: A Pilgrimage," an illustrated record of that great city as it then existed. "They're not a 'chocolate box' view of a Victorian London," Mould explained. "That was a good reference point for me because both myself and Matt have an element of darkness to our work."
Though he'd avoided the expected red for the cover of "The Boy …", Mould and the publishers embraced it for "The Girl Who Saved Christmas," pairing it with the same holiday font for the title. "I love looking at the two covers together because they work so well side by side," Mould said.
In the not-too-distant future, after Mould celebrates the real Christmas with his wife and two daughters, he'll get to work on … more Christmas. "Just signed the deal," he said. "Ready to start thinking about the festive season again."
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.