Emerald and the Ocean Parade: An Interview with Harriet Muncaster
How did you choose which of Isadora’s friends to make the subject of a new series of stories?
After her appearances in Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble and Isadora Moon Goes to the Fair, I noticed that lots of Isadora Moon readers liked Mirabelle and I would see quite a few Mirabelle costumes around World Book Day and Halloween. She’s quite a different character, being more mischievous and chaotic than Isadora Moon, so I thought it would be fun to write a spin-off series featuring Mirabelle.
Luckily, this spin-off series seems to have been received quite well by Isadora Moon fans, so then my publishers and I started thinking about a potential second ‘World of Isadora Moon’ spin-off series. I think it was the Spanish publisher of Isadora Moon, Penguin Random House, who suggested that a series featuring Isadora’s mermaid friend Marina might be fun to do. I’ve always loved the idea of writing a mermaid series because I love being by the sea and I thought it would be really interesting to explore a whole new under-the-sea world as it would be so different from Isadora and Mirabelle’s world! However, I thought it might be better to develop a whole new character for this new series who would look a bit different from the ‘classic’ mermaids that had featured before. I liked the idea of a slightly more punky and gothic mermaid so this was where Emerald came from.
Once you had chosen Emerald as your character, did you have to do much mermaid research?
I think it can be a bit tricky doing research for fantastical characters because I worry that if I read too many other stories about mermaids, I’ll start to get influenced by them and some of those ideas might unconsciously creep in to my writing! Instead, I always start by imagining how I think my characters and their world should look. I sketch out the characters, and then build the stories from there.
All of your books are highly illustrated and have short chapters, making them perfect for a middle grade audience . Do you enjoy the challenge of making them suitable for this age group?
My own daughter is at the perfect age for books like Isadora Moon and Emerald now, and it’s such a lovely age! I love seeing her graduate from phonics books to young reader chapter books as she really begins to enjoy reading independently for pleasure. For me though, it’s just the level I feel comfortable at. I started out creating picture books, but I always wanted to create a bigger world with more developed characters and longer stories than it’s possible to do with picture books so I started developing the idea of Isadora Moon. However, my middle-grade series of books, Victoria Stitch, is for even older readers (9-12) and writing those turned out to be quite a challenge because they are so much longer and more detailed than Isadora Moon! I did love that challenge though, and I would love to write more Victoria Stitch books in the future. I personally don’t think I could write for an older age group than that though. So, for me, young reader books just feel right!
Where does your inspiration come from? You seem to be very prolific and must be coming up with new ideas all the time!
I think it’s important to surround yourself with things you love and do things that you enjoy. I feel very inspired when I’m out in nature, so I try to go for a walk on the hills near my house as many days in the week as I can. I’m also very inspired by miniature things, so I have a dolls’ house castle, I make little ‘mascot’ dolls to photograph in miniature scenes, and I collect miniature objects. I also love crystals and gems and jewels. Surrounding and immersing myself in these things is what helps me to feel inspired and be able to write lots! I am also very lucky in that my husband works with me now, taking on most of the ‘life’ stuff which gives me more time to create!
As both author and illustrator what comes first for you, the words or the pictures and does one have a considerable impact on the other?
I am a very visual person so I find that the pictures come first for me. I have to know exactly what a character looks like before I can feel inspired to start writing a story about them, so I will always draw the character first and then write their story!
How do you set your mind to writing about these imagined worlds which all seem to be so completely formed? For example, I love the fact that the characters drink seaberry smoothies and eat coral floss. These are not everyday ideas, but they are fabulous! Where do they come from?
Thank you! It depends on the type of book I’m writing. With my Victoria Stitch series, I spent literally years thinking about the world that Victoria Stitch lives in before I began writing the book that became Victoria Stitch: Bad and Glittering. All the rules about their society and their magical elements had to be in place and consistent before I could plot out the story.
With my ‘World of Isadora Moon’ books on the other hand, it’s a bit more ad hoc. I try to keep things like how fairy magic or witch magic works consistent, but in these books I think more about what would be fun things to include. For example, what child wouldn’t want their favourite cuddly toy to come to life or to swim down to a mermaid palace under the sea?
With the Emerald stories, there are lots more opportunities to think up fun under-the-sea equivalents to things we have on the surface. It’s a whole new challenge too though because I have to remember things like how mermaids wouldn’t have stairs in their houses because why would you need stairs when you can just float up to the second story? Also, it’s best not to think too hard about how they manage to keep their seaberry smoothies and other drinks in their cups when they’re underwater!
There are plently of activities included at the end of the book so that readers may immerse themselves further in Emerald's world, including instructions for food, a headdress, games and more besides. Did you have to try them all out first and did you have any testers to help you?
I’m afraid I can’t take any credit for all the wonderful activities that appear in the back pages of the Isadora Moon, Mirabelle and Emerald books, because these are all created by the fantastic team at Oxford University Press!
When you decide to start a new series do you have any idea in advance how many books will be in the series and which of the characters they will feature in a new adventure? Do you try to link the adventures from one book to another?
When I first started with Isadora Moon, I was contracted for four books. I always hoped she would be able to star in a whole series of books, but I had no idea that I would have the chance to write so many. I thought I’d be lucky to get six books in the series so I can’t believe that we are heading towards the twenty-book mark now! Mirabelle also already has seven books out, with plenty more to come, and the initial response to Emerald seems to have been quite positive, so I’m hoping we’ll see her in plenty more adventures too!
I do like to put in little references to previous stories, such as when Isadora Moon goes on the school trip to the castle, and mentions her earlier school trip to see the ballet. I think it’s really nice to just have little nods like this for readers who know the world well. But the books can be read in any order!
I do love to include characters across the series though, like when Isadora rings Mirabelle for advice in Isadora Moon Gets the Magic Pox, or when Isadora is at the Midsummer festival in Mirabelle Gets up to Mischief. Right now, I’m very excited to be working on Emerald book three, which will be the first book to include Emerald, Isadora and Mirabelle all in the same story together!
Do you find that you are able to write different books, maybe even parts of multiple series, at the same time? You are so prolific that I can only assume that you are able to write very quickly or you write concurrently.
Unfortunately not. I’m very one-track-minded and can only focus on one thing at a time. I wish I could though! I suppose if I have a very long project on (like a Victoria Stitch book which can take a whole year) then I do need to break from it now and then to write an Isadora Moon or Mirabelle book but my brain finds it very hard to do that and it takes a little while to ‘shift the gears.’ I’m more productive if I can see a project through to completion before moving onto the next.
All your stories are full of magic and plenty of fun, but Emerald has an underlying message about the importance of being yourself. Is it important to you to ensure there are strong themes underlying the story?
Yes, I really hope that Emerald can inspire children to feel comfortable and proud of being their authentic selves! I think children’s books are great for relaying messages in a (hopefully!) non-patronising way.
Can we expect more Emerald stories, or do you have something else in mind for your readers?
There will be more Emerald stories, as well as plenty more Isadora Moon and Mirabelle stories, but I also have some other ideas I’m looking forward to working on. I’m absolutely itching to get back to Victoria Stitch’s world in one form or another…