Drawing, playing, making, and exploring: listening to Pam Smy talk about the creation of Thornhill

Jen Aggleton is a third year PhD candidate at the Centre for Children’s Literature Research at the University of Cambridge. Her PhD research uses a participatory, empirical approach to explore the medium of illustrated novels. Jen currently spends her days writing up her thesis and would like to thank her cat Mogget for reminding her when it is time to take a break.

Pam Smy. Photo Credit Angus Whitby.


A common theme across several papers at the Synergy and Contradiction conference was that of definition: what should we define as a picturebook, an illustrated novel, a visual novel, a hybrid text, a non-fiction picturebook? For the purposes of scholarly enquiry, definitions can be extremely helpful, not least in allowing us to communicate clearly with our audiences about what books and features of books we are actually talking about. However, creators of books often flagrantly create art which refuses these narrow frameworks generated by scholars, ignoring our careful analyses in favour of innovative techniques which serve the story they are writing rather than the scholarship which surrounds it. The result is the creation of books which simply do not fit our existing ideas, requiring us to revisit, reconsider, and redefine our narrow categories, or make us question the value of having categories in the first place.

Thornhill. Photo credit Nic Hilton.


Such is the case with Pam Smy’s Thornhill, a book which might variously be called an illustrated novel, or a hybrid novel, or a visual novel, or some new term which has yet to be coined. It tells two stories, across two time periods, in one place, in two different media. The story of Ella, in the present, is told purely through images, whilst the story of Mary, set in 1982, is told through written diary entries. I won’t go into detail about the story here for fear of spoilers, as this is definitely a book you will want to experience for yourselves. I will say, however, that regardless of what category you wish to place it within, this is one book that packs a serious atmospheric and emotional punch. It is a work of art, and its power stands regardless of whether we try to put it into a definitional box or choose to view it as an individual work which resists categorisation.


Pam Smy’s sketch books. Photo Credit Angus Whitby.


One of the great pleasures of the Synergy and Contradiction conference was that it brought together the voices not only of scholars, but also of authors, illustrators, publishers, and in a few cases child readers, allowing us to view these books from perspectives that we might not usually consider. Whilst Barthesian advocates might be discomfited by having so many dead authors inconveniently wandering around and giving their opinions, in listening to Pam Smy talk about the creation of Thornhill, I was struck by the similarities between her process of creating Thornhill, and the processes I undertake in my research. Pam talked about beginning by engaging in periods of observational drawing to bring a sense of realism and grounding to her illustrations, much in the way that I began my PhD with a literature review, observing the thoughts of scholars before me. From these observational drawings, she then went on to play with them imaginatively, trying out new ideas and seeing what would fit. My research involved a lot of playing, trying out ideas, methods, structures. At this point, near the end of my PhD, I have probably discarded as many words as I have written, but each action of playing has brought me closer to a stronger, more coherent piece of work. From playing, Pam went on to discuss making, building models of her locations and making dolls in the same way her characters do to find out how they worked. For me, the making process was one of the hardest, trying to pull together all of my findings, comparing them to the existing scholarship, and building something new from what I had found. The last process Pam talked about was that of exploring, of going out into real locations to see what she could find which would inspire her work. My fieldwork was also very much an exploration, allowing my participants to lead me down new paths of enquiry, and stumbling upon new ideas I would never have considered without their input.

Photo Credit Angus Whitby.

For Pam, these processes took place throughout her work creating Thornhill, and she often moved between different processes, or undertook activities which involved more than one process at the same time. The same is true of my research process, and as I finish writing up, I still find myself observing, playing, making, and exploring. If my finished thesis is half as successful as Thornhill, I will be very pleased. So here is to more opportunities for interactions between creators and scholars, to creators creating more works which inspire us to reconsider our definitions and push our scholarship further, and for all of us to continue drawing, playing, making and exploring.

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