“It’s a strange story,” said Jess Bosworth Smith, referring to how she was inspired to write The Straw Giant and The Crow – a children’s book which publishers found too sad to print.
The strange story behind the book’s inspiration began with a National Geographic photo essay.
“The photographer had gone to small European villages and taken photos of people dressed in pagan outfits,” Jess said.
One of the photographs was of a man wearing a haystack. “I was so taken with these photos that I started sketching them over and over and the straw giant character started building in my mind.”
Over time Jess built a story around the giant, a sad and lonely story, strongly reminiscent of The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde.
She finished it while completing her Honours in Illustration at Stellenbosch University in 2016.
“I really wanted it to be text light so that people can spend time looking at the pictures, to show but not tell.”
But no one wanted to print it. Jess was disheartened when several publishers said they didn’t think it was suitable for children. The ending especially was considered too “bleak”.
Jess put the project aside for a time until a friend gave her fresh hope. “She told me Imagnary House had called for submissions,” Jess said.
Imagnary House (yes that’s how they spell it), is a Cape Town-based publisher which prides itself on printing off-beat children’s and young adult books.
She submitted The Straw Giant and The Crow and few months later – by which time she had already forgotten about her submission – she heard back from them. They were interested in publishing the book – but they too felt the ending was too sad.
“I was asked to tone down the bleak,” Jess said. “They said it was quite a hard ending.”
By this time Jess had started having similar ideas and had already started working on an alternate ending. The new version, with an only slightly brighter ending, was launched from the Book Lounge in the Cape Town CBD earlier in the month to mostly positive responses, Jess said.
“Some parents said, ‘It’s so sad, but it is really nice.”
The Straw Giant and The Crow is Jess’s first picture story book but she doesn’t consider it her first book. An artist by trade, Jess sells most of her work in printed book format and one of her art books, Those Who Eat the Tail, was selected for the Absa * ’Atelier competition 2017.
The Oranjezicht resident works from a studio in Woodstock. She grew up in KwaZulu-Natal but moved around a lot during her adult years – working as an au pair, or teaching English in Istanbul, where she also picked up a postgraduate qualification in education.
Earlier in the year she completed a month-long artist residency at the Arteles Creative Centre in Finland. The fruits of that trip was an “experimental free-form comic book” which has yet to be published.
Jess settled in Cape Town in 2016 and it was during this time that The Straw Giant and The Crow started to take real shape and was completed. Now, two years later, as a finally published author, the writing bug has bit and Jess is compiling her next book, which she is tight-lipped about.
“I have so many ideas. I like to keep busy with lots of projects.”
Jess is grateful to have had good support from her family in following her whims where they lead her.
“People don’t really place much importance on the creative arts. It’s seen as a ‘nice to have’ but then you must go in the world and get a real job. There are alternatives to the normal career paths. If you are passionate about something it can be done. It might not be easy and it may take a long time but it is achievable.”
The Straw Giant and The Crow
Jess Bosworth Smith
Review: Lauren O’Connor-May
It took me a while to pluck up the courage to take this book home to my children. When I first read it I had to put it aside for a while to digest.
The story is quite sad and somewhat intense and I wasn’t sure if I should to expose my children to it.
The book is about a very grumpy monster made of straw. His less than charming personality drives the other critters in the area away until a rather wise crow comes and stays. The crow manages to strike up a strange and distant friendship with the giant but when tragedy strikes, the monster makes a scary and shocking decision.
The story is very sad and lonely and while there are a great many writers who tackle less than pleasant subjects in children’s stories, they usually add a good serving of silver linings and touches of humour to lighten the blows.
This book breaks that mould. The ratio of dark to cheery is heavily in favour of the dreary.
Eventually, I braved taking it home to my children. My 12-year-old eldest snatched it up and read it to her sisters.
“I like this book,” she announced, to my astonishment.
Her eight- and six-year-old sisters gave less than convincing ascents but could not tell me why.
“What did you think of the ending?” I tentatively asked. “It’s nice but sad,” she said.
“What happens in the end?” I asked clutching a last hope that maybe she didn’t understand it, after all, the book is told mostly through pictures and a lot is implied but not stated.
She confidently replied: “The giant sacrifices himself to save the crow.”