My favorite thing about this picture book is the way it plays with expectations and perception and reversals, namely who is Alma and who is the beast. It might not be who you first assume! In fact, like the cover, this book turns what we expect from a fairy tale on its head. Plus, a shaggy forest containing a “plumpooshkie” butterfly—I mean, this world is as inventive and charming as a world can be.
If you’ve read Ooko, her first author-illustrator offering, you’ll know that Esmé Shapiro likes to experiment with perception, the unexpected, playfulness, hand-drawn type, and quirky yet gorgeous artwork where you can see the strokes and seep of watercolors and paint, all with a fantastical quality. (She also illustrated Yak and Dove by Kyo Maclear, whose picture book life I’ve featured.)
And now…the trailer! Made by Esmé Shapiro, followed by an interview with the author-illustrator and some behind the scenes photos.
This Picture Book Life: How did you conceive of ALMA AND THE BEAST?
Esmé Shapiro: I always have believed that ideas land on our heads like little clouds. They have a mind of their own and we never know when they are going to choose us. The idea for Alma and the Beast landed on my head about six years ago in the form of an image. The image was of a little girl being surprised by a hairy being in her garden. It was a striking idea, and I wanted to unfold the story around it.
TPBL: What were you thinking about when you got the idea and began the process of creating it?
ES: Once the image came to me, I wanted to understand it more. The big thing I wanted to explore was, what did hair mean to me? This little hairy girl in the garden – who was she? I have always been fascinated with the symbology of hair. To me, it represents the side of ourselves that is more connected with nature and to our instincts. In Alma and the Beast I used hair as a symbolic device for our inner wildness, our untamed and true selves.
Originally, the story was told from the point of view of the little girl, who was frightened to see a bluish grey hairy girl in her garden. Eventually I started to question why I was telling it from the perspective of the little girl. I suppose I related to her right off the bat because she looked more like me. I felt it was important to challenge that impulse, because the little hairy being would be just as frightened to see the little girl. That’s when I decided to flip the story on its head and tell the tale from the perspective of the hairy girl. That’s when the fun started. What would her world look like? And how would that change in perspective challenge our ideas about what we expect from a picture book and from other people?
TPBL: What did you want to achieve or get across to readers especially in terms of reversals and perception?
ES: Kids and adults alike are often wary of people they don’t understand, when really if we just took the time to get to know them, we would find we are much more alike than different. We all just need to feel safe and most importantly, be loved for who we are. In Alma and the Beast, I wanted to show that empathy is a powerful tool that can bring us closer together in understanding each other. I think the reversal in point of views from the beginning helps hit this message home. It was important to me to show that, at first, Alma was imperfect in how she reacted to this strange human creature in her backyard. She even refers to her as “a beast.” But a conversation with the “beast” leads Alma to understand that this creature is really just frightened and far away from home. Alma’s empathic moment brings these two girls together, and eventually leads her on an adventure into friendship and understanding.
TPBL: Where did you find inspiration for Alma’s “hairy world”?
ES: I drew a lot inspiration from nature, especially willow trees, who seem to always have the best hair styles. That’s why I wanted a willow tree to be the portal between the two worlds, because they seem like they could belong in either realm. I started to see grass as the earth’s hair, and I thought about fuzzy moss and the thin lines on bark, too. And, of course underwater plants, like lanky kelp and stringy seaweed. I imagined that in the hairy world, the plants and trees are always a little wiggly. I tried to channel Mary Blair, and the strength of her landscape design for early Disney animations. I wanted Alma’s world to seem like it could possibly exist if we just looked long enough through the forest – perhaps in a bog behind a log.
TPBL: Please tell us about the process of making the trailer, which is wonderful!
ES: Thank you so much for your kind words! I knew from the beginning that I wanted to send Alma and the Beast into the world with an animated book trailer. The world just begs to be explored through sound and movement. But there was only one small problem: I don’t know how to animate.
So I tried to teach myself – but, boy, was that difficult! My instinct was to imagine the story as if it were a play. So I made a stage out of paper cutouts and created little paper dolls of Alma and the Beast. Then I took photos of it at a photo studio in the back of my friend’s shop. I spent a few days slowly moving the paper dolls across the stage. It took a long time and many bowls of soup to get through it.Then I brought the footage home and thought it looked wonderful, but it was really missing the hair moving through the wind. I taught myself how to draw on top of the photos to create a sense of movement.
Once I was finished animating some hair flowing in the wind and tiny squishy bugs, I had my incredibly talented friend Allyson make the soundtrack. Allyson has been very supportive of this hairy tale from the beginning and feels very close to it. So when I asked her to make the music for the trailer, I barely had to give her any direction. She used sounds from a really old-fashioned sampling keyboard called a mellotron. The recorded sounds are from people playing instruments in the 1950s. It gives the sound a really interesting texture. The result is a song that is equal parts whimsy and bizarre. In my mind, it carries you away to another realm: Alma’s hairy world.
We’re giving away a pair of books in honor of Alma and the Beast‘s release! Hop on over to my Instagram account (@writesinLA) to enter a giveaway for both of Esmé Shapiro’s author-illustrated books, Ooko and Alma! Come see!