This is the story of a story. More specifically, it is the story of my children’s book, The Winter Garden. I thought I would share this story, partly because it is nearly Christmas and this little book is full of wintry, magical Christmas cheer … and partly because of what this book represents. This book is proof that all of us are capable of things we never thought possible. It is a reminder that we should never listen to those people in our lives who tell us we are not good enough or not capable or not talented enough.
I first wrote The Winter Garden four years ago. I didn’t have any big plans for it; I just wanted to write a light-hearted, wintry tale to give to my daughter for Christmas. She was four at the time and had been doing a lot of stomping around in the rain with her coat hanging off her shoulders, grumbling about how there was no snow. So, I thought I would write a story about her for Christmas.
In true Sarah fashion, once I’d had the idea, I had to act on it … immediately! Never mind that it was already half-way through November, I had a small baby who never slept, and about a thousand other things to do – I had decided to make my daughter a Christmas book, and make it I would! It would be fun and relatable and, like all good Christmas stories, it would have a healthy dose of magic to bring it to life.
Thus was born The Winter Garden, a story about a stroppy little girl, snow, wishes, books and magic. I wrote the story in a rush, not worrying about whether or not it was perfect, and then began to think about making it into a hand-made book. But, of course, children prefer books with pictures in them and I wasn’t an illustrator. Not even close! In fact, it had been made very clear to me at school that art wasn’t really my thing. My sisters and my mum were the arty ones, not me. This is the story I had been told about myself at school and, over time, it had become just another one of those truths I knew about myself: my name is Sarah, I like to read and write, I am good at dancing, I am bad at art.
But, well, I had written this story and I wanted my daughter to enjoy it, so I thought I might as well have a go at illustrating it too. I started to draw little cartoonish characters. They were extremely basic and each one took me ages to get right, but I LOVED creating them. I hadn’t tried anything like this for years, so I hadn’t realised just how much I would enjoy it. When I was finished, my sister (a real, proper illustrator) helped me to lay-up the book, and then she printed and bound it for me, and, as geeky as it sounds, I couldn’t have been prouder! The illustrations were rough … extremely rough … but my four-year-old daughter – art connoisseur that she was – thought they were amazing.
To cut a long story short, that was the start of my illustration journey. I still didn’t have much faith in my abilities (to be fair, they are still pretty basic) but I had discovered the joy of art again, and over the next few years, I continued to practice. It did not become an obsession but I kept doodling and sketching and making little books for my girls, and when, a few years later, I wrote Can-do Kat, I decided I would turn it into a fully illustrated book – you know, just to see if I could! Can-do Kat was the biggest ‘art’ project I had ever undertaken. It was a steep learning curve and it took me a looooooooong time to get it to the stage it is at today, but I enjoyed every single moment of making it.
Which brings us back to The Winter Garden. With my 2020 writing plans well and truly turned upside down by home-schooling, I continued to focus on illustrating rather than writing. (I find illustrating with children around so much easier than writing with children around.) With a few more years of practice under my belt, I came back to The Winter Garden and … well, look how far I’ve come:
I am still at the beginning of this journey, I still have a lot to learn and I am sure that, if I come back to this book in another four years, I will have improved again.
Which is exactly the point I’m trying to make, and the main reason for writing this piece! It is never too late to learn new things.
Whether you are five or fifty … or one hundred and fifty, you still have so much untapped potential. So go out there, try things and, like Kat in Can-do Kat, never believe people when they say you aren’t good enough.
I might not be rich or famous or signed to the biggest publisher in the world (yet!) but I’ve still created something that, four years ago, I would never have thought I was capable of, and that is something worth celebrating. So, if you have Can-do Kat or The Winter Garden (or even if you don’t), please share this story of a story with your little ones (or show them the video above). Remind them to believe in themselves, to follow their dreams, and to never be afraid to try new things. And whilst you are reminding them, remind yourself the same thing!
Merry Christmas and warmest wishes for the new year!