Reaching the Edge of Imagination

Reaching the Edge of Imagination

Authors reveal the secrets to fantasy novel success.

An author of a book describes the main character as having straight blond hair hanging to the shoulders, but the illustrations always depict that character as a redhead with short curls.

How does a disconnect, like the example above, occur? Paul Stewart has the answer, and it is dismayingly obvious.

"Illustrators don’t read the book properly" before they start drawing, he said.

Stewart is the author of "The Edge Chronicles," the series of children’s books (its seventh volume, "Freeglader," was published in the U.S. in 2004) that is on the New York Times's List of Best-Selling Children’s Series.

Stewart and Chris Riddell, the illustrator for the series, have avoided this pitfall by reorganizing the standard procedure, constantly interacting with and inspiring one another. This interaction is represented on the cover of all of their books, which say simply "Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell," without differentiating between author and illustrator.

"When Paul and I got together, it was an opportunity to mix it all up," said Riddell, who was in town with Stewart last Friday to speak for an assembly at Waynewood Elementary.

Fifteen years ago, the two men, both British, were already well-established in children’s literature. Their collaboration began through chance. Their sons attended the same kindergarten, and they discovered in conversation that they worked in the same field.

The partnership began in a traditional manner. Stewart wrote a book about rabbits and hedgehogs, Riddell received the manuscript and illustrated it.

The current form, and the theme, of their collaboration began to take shape after Riddell reversed the traditional process. He gave Stewart a map he had drawn and labeled — a map depicting an imaginary world called "The Edge" with physical features such as "The Deep Woods," "Undertown," and the eponymous landmark, a jutting cliff with only sky beyond. The river and the sewage pipes of Undertown pour cascading water into the clouds that float below.

Riddell described the day he asked Stewart to imagine what happens in the world he envisioned, "But," Stewart interjected, "Chris wouldn’t keep his nose out of it." So the two began working together to chronicle three generations of life at the Edge.

THE PRODUCT of this collaboration is a series of books with a carefully organized format of interlocking illustrations and text on nearly every other page. The words and pictures create a cohesive world rich with imaginary flora and fauna and filled with plots pushed along not by elemental conflicts of good and evil but by communities that alternately conflict or cooperate based on shifting circumstances. Librarians and their defenders — the librarian knights — sky pirates, citizens of Undertown, and the Goblin Nations interact in ways that will seem familiar to anyone following world politics.

"It’s fascinating to be on a book tour in the U.S. right now," said Riddell, "'Freeglader' is a book about why different tribes or societies come into conflict."

Stewart added, "Once you create a fantasy world it’s what you do within that world" that matters. "We wanted to create societies and see how they interacted. They’re not really good or bad."

"There isn’t this good vs. evil thing. We thought that was a bit simplistic," said Riddell.

Violence and even torture are major elements of the plot of Freeglader.

"We wanted it to be a very harsh world," said Stewart.

"When you are reading fantasy you’ve got to feel that [bad] things can happen… There’s got to be that uncertainty," Riddell added.

"But no child has ever told us that are books are too violent," Stewart said. "And we don’t put things in there that are gratuitous." If a child is disturbed by the violence, "that’s good. When the violence doesn’t disturb, that’s when you know it is gratuitous."

Although the creatures are fantastical, the creators of "The Edge" purposefully excluded magic from their world.

"We didn’t want magic in it," said Stewart, "we felt it was too convenient."

But with story elements such as stones that allow the sky pirate ships to take flight, the argument can be made that magic must play a role on the Edge. The distinction, the authors said, is in the semantics, as well as the way in which properties that could be interpreted as "magical" are treated.

READERS MUST recognize, Riddell said, that "technology would seem like magic to people in the past."

Stewart describes the tone of the imagined world as "Victorian industrialism meets Medieval sensibilities."

One of the most important technologies in the series is one that was revolutionized in the Middle Ages, when expensive hand-written manuscripts began to be replaced by machine printed material subsequent to the invention of the printing press.

Information technology, represented by the innumerable and priceless barkwood scrolls that fill the great library, fuels many of the plots in the series.

"The library is a repository for all sorts of study," said Riddell. "People die for it. It matters."

There is a theme of redemption through scholarship and study," he added.

"Our librarians are swashbuckling," Stewart said with satisfaction.

The two believe the most meaningful aspect of their work is the encouragement it gives to kids, especially boys, to keep reading.

"It gets them reading," said Riddell when asked about the importance of fantasy books. "The Edge Chronicles" are "breakthrough books for kids who aren’t quite sure they want to become readers."

They are "boy-friendly," said Stewart, "fast, full of action and blood."

"When you meet kids that are passionate, you know you are getting through," said Riddell, citing the conversations he has with young fans that can last half an hour and never stray beyond the world of the books.

Rather than starting boys reading, Stewart said, the importance of these books is that they "stop them stopping reading. This is an age [starting around fourth or fifth grade] when kids are discovering other distractions. We see ourselves as a bridge between kid and adult books."

The danger for children that stop reading, Riddell said, is that "they lose the fantastic possibility to entertain themselves."

"Watching TV is passive," Stewart said, "but when you’re reading, you’re in it."

CHARACTERS LIKE QUINT, Twig, and Root have had adventures in regions across their world: the Stone Garden, Sanctaphranx, the Twilight Woods, the Mire, but there is still one blank spot on the map. In the three books left in the proposed 10- book series, will anyone ever go over The Edge?

Riddell smiled. His response is uncharacteristically brief: "Well, there it is."