We are delighted to welcome Fiona Barker, author of Setsuko and the Song of the Sea, to Story Snug. Beautifully illustrated by Howard Gray, Setsuko and the Song of the Sea encourages us to think about how we can keep our oceans clean and protect the wildlife in them.
The Story: Setsuko loves sea swimming. One day an enormous whale appears, he’s looking for his friends. Setsuko and the whale spend time together and when the whale leaves to continue his search he gifts Setsuko a song. Setsuko’s song reminds the people of the beauty of the sea and encourages them to work to preserve its natural state.
The whale’s song encourages Setsuko and her friends to clean up the ocean and restore its beauty and mystery and the beautifully illustrated double spreads complement Fiona’s simple, lyrical text.
The little details in the illustrations provide lots of scope for discussion about Setsuko’s actions and the heartwarming friendship that develops between her and the whale. The story can also stimulate children to think about ways that they can keep their own environment clean, not just the ocean.
Thank you so much for visiting Story Snug and answering our questions, Fiona. We find it fascinating talking to writers about their writing process and the inspiration behind their story ideas. How did you become a writer?
I think I’ve always been a bit of a writer. I used to write lots of poetry at school and I loved creative writing. But then science stole me away and that’s what I ended up doing for a living. But then about 15 years ago, I picked up a pen again after my daughter was born.
Having children has inspired so many picture book writers!
How / where did you get the inspiration for Setsuko and the Song of the Sea?
I wanted to write a story about the sea for Howard Gray to illustrate because I knew the artwork would be incredible. Then in 2017 I did the Marine Conservation Society Plastic Challenge and got really serious about addressing the amount of waste our family was producing. That gave me the idea of writing a story about people changing their behaviour to help the ocean and Setsuko was born.
You have told Setsuko’s story in very few words. How different is the final version of your story to the first draft?
This question made me go back to look at the first draft and actually it’s not that different in concept or word count. The main change was making the text more child-centred by making Setsuko much younger and toning down some of my more flowery phrases!
What’s the message that you want to convey to readers of the book?
Just like the villagers in the story who hear Setsuko’s song, I’d like people to read it and remember the beauty of the ocean and think about what they can do to protect it.
Can you tell us more about the Japanese influence on the story. What is the significance of the Japanese writing in the illustrations?
I wanted the story to be set somewhere with very strong links to the sea and I’d seen the Ama divers on television and did a bit of research about them and how they are fighting to preserve their unique culture. That really resonated with me and I felt it was perfect for the story. I’ve never been to Japan but I did lots of research and so did Howard for the artwork. The Japanese script was provided by Hideaki Matsuya. We sent the text to him in Japan and he worked to produce a precis of each spread in a single phrase. The presence of the text is a nod to traditional Japanese art which is often signed in this way. It was very important to Howard and I to have the input of someone from Japan. I’m learning Japanese too now and it’s fascinating.
Learning Japanese must be a challenge, especially learning a whole new alphabet too!
We think that Howard Gray’s illustrations are absolutely beautiful and we love the way that the swimming and diving is mirrored at the end of the story. Did you discuss your vision of the story with Howard or did he work independently?
Me, Howard and the team at Tiny Tree worked together previously on Danny and the Dream Dog so I guess he knows what we like! His first pencil roughs for Setsuko were amazing! The main thing we debated was whether to go for a landscape or portrait format for the book. In the end we decided landscape would allow more opportunity to show the size of the whale and the breadth of the beautiful coastal landscape.
The landscape format works really well and really helps to highlight the size of the ocean. We love the double spread illustration showing Setsuko playing with the whale.
Do you have a favourite illustration?
My favourite spread is where the whale first sings for Setsuko. I don’t imagine any illustrator relishes the task of drawing sound but Howard has done an incredible job. I also love the eel on the second to last spread. It just looks so happy!
This is such an awesome illustration!
Do you have a favourite location or environment to work in?
I can work pretty much anywhere. Snatched moments in the car, at my desk, in the kitchen, in the middle of the night! But I do love being by the sea or near a river.
We’re always interested to know what authors enjoy reading. Do you have a favourite picture book from your childhood?
From my own childhood it’s probably Whistle For Willy by Ezra Jack Keats or the Richard Scarry books.
We’ve not read this one but love The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and we’re huge Richard Scarry fans!
Are you able to tell us about any future titles or projects that you’re currently working on?
I’ve got two exciting projects coming up in 2022 and I’d love to work on something else with Howard. We’re plotting at the moment!
Plotting sounds fun! Thank you so much for answering our questions Fiona. Keeping our beach and oceans clean is so important to our wildlife, our children and generations to come. Setsuko and the Song of the Sea is a fabulous story to help children think about the contributions that they can make to keeping our environment pollution free.
Fiona Barker is positively potty about picture books. An author and founder of the hugely successful Picture Book Club in Windsor – a regular event that connects authors, illustrators, and their audiences – Fiona is constantly working on new ideas. Having self-published her first book Amelie and the Great Outdoors’ (2016), Fiona has since written ‘Danny and the Dream Dog’ (Tiny Tree, 2018) and ‘Setsuko and the Song of the Sea’ (2021).