WINNIE THE WITCH
Oxford University Press
OUP is celebrating 25 years of Winnie the Witch and her cat Wilbur by revisiting the original Winnie the Witch story and re-publishing it with a new cover and end papers designed by children.
As part of the celebrations, Australian author Valerie Thomas is paying a visit to the UK and she spoke to ReadingZone about Winnie and Wilbur and how their adventures had developed.
Thomas admitted that Winnie the Witch was something of an accidental success. "I had been given 500 words by a publisher to write a story as part of a reading scheme for OUP and it included words like 'witch' and all the colours, so I wrote the story but it wasn't published at first," she explains. "It was only some time later that it was accepted for by OUP for another reading scheme."
Even then, things didn't go according to plan - a little like one of Winnie's own spells. The editor, Ron Heapy, gave the story to an illustrator called Korky Paul who decided that Winnie the Witch deserved more. He lavished attention on the images and returned to the publisher with not two small images, as asked for, but four picture book size illustrations. Happily, the publisher agreed to make it into a picture book and Winnie the Witch went on to win awards and to sell in great quantities.
Some 13 books later, Winnie has won a place in our hearts as our favourite witch - when children draw a witch these days, they will often given them yellow and orange socks, just like Winnie. But what has made the slightly incompetent witch such a cherished character?
Thomas believes this affection for the character is because Winnie is nice, rather than nasty - she is more likely to eat pumpkin or cabbages than 'eye of newt'. "She doesn't do anything awful or mean, and when it has been suggested that we write a storyline where she does something bad, I have said 'no' because that's not what she's like. Winnie always means well and even if things go wrong, she manages to get it right at the end."
Coping with these small disasters is, she adds, what it means to be human and that's why we can relate to her. "Children especially would experience that, trying to do something and it doesn't work out the way they want."
Thomas adds that the children enjoy the stories because they are funny. "I get letters from children saying they liked it when Winnie fell down the stairs or into the rose bushes, that kinds of slapstick comedy appeals to them, so I try to include that."
Her educational background (she was a teacher and used to write about learning to spell) may also have helped in terms of understanding how the stories should be paced and what kind of vocabulary to use, Thomas says. "I like to add in new words for children but also want them to not be put off reading the stories for themselves so I do try to keep them at a certain level."
While the first Winnie the Witch story came out in 1987, it was another nine years before Korky Paul agreed to illustrate the next story; now the duo create a new story every year.
The next new book will be out in the autumn and is called Winnie's Dinosaur Day. Thomas is sent a lot of plot ideas and suggestions by children, although this book came about when a child told her that he had 'enjoyed the one with the dinosaurs' although she hadn't yet written such a book (she had written one about a dragon). It seemed like a good idea to do a dinosaur story, she says. Pirates may also be on the cards for a future story - something suggested by the illustrator, Korky Paul.
Looking back over Winnie's career, Thomas remains most fond of the initial story, Winnie the Witch, that has just been republished. "I love its simplicity and the illustrations; the black house is magnificent. It's a very simple story but moves from one event to the next at exactly the right pace. I also really enjoyed Winnie Under the Sea. Korky has put in wonderful touches, like the Botecelli's Venus, with Winnie coming in on the shell."
Winnie the Witch has now also been developed into early readers and while a different author is writing these - Thomas didn't feel she wanted to take on the project - she is happy to see Winnie taken into other adventures.
Thomas is currently visiting the south east of England ahead of a stay in the Scilly Isles - somewhere she has planned to go since 1964. Among her favourite journeys were those to the Antartica and the Galapagos Islands, and travelling along the trans-Siberian railway. There are many more places she still wants to go to, she adds: "The world seems so big and so beautiful to me."