A conversation with Wendy Orr and Illustrator Jonathan Bean
Wendy, what inspired you to write Mokie and Bik?
From the ages of three to six, my dad and his twin sister lived on a boat in Vancouver Harbor -- with their rumrunner father, mother, and nanny, (not to mention the sheepdog, a French cart dog rescued from a French rumrunner on his way to prison in Mexico, and a tortoise). Despite the nanny, the twins appear to have had very little supervision, had some quite amazing adventures, and even spoke their own language until they were sent to school at the age of seven. I’ve always wanted to write their story but it’s taken me years to figure out how.
Wendy, originally you sent us two versions of Mokie and Bik. What was the difference between them, and how did you decide which one to keep?
I wanted to suggest that the story was written in the twins’ language, and I had a lot of fun playing with and making up words to get the exuberant tone I was looking for. However I wasn’t sure that a publisher would agree to something quite that crazy, so I lost my nerve and wrote a more conventional, toned down version as well. I’m eternally grateful that Henry Holt was brave enough to let me choose the unconventional “twin language” version.
Jonathan, what made you want to illustrate Mokie and Bik?
It sounded like fun. That sounds very simple, but the idea of getting to draw boats, piers, and harbor life was very appealing. Also, as I began the preliminary character and setting sketches they seemed to come very easily. Many of those initial visual thoughts remained unchanged and are still present in the final illustrations. Some of this has to do with the subject matter, but it also has to do with the wonderful way that Wendy was describing the world she had created. It made me want to describe the same world visually. Particularly, I remember first feeling the rhythm of the writing and thinking how lively it was and how I would bring that energy into the illustrations. When images begin to pop into my head then I know it’s a good idea to give it a go!
Jonathan, how did you approach the illustrations for this book?
The preliminary character sketches were the real starting point. I worked for a while without any reference, just drawing from my head. I think this was partially because I was lazy, but also because I was at a really sensitive point where I was beginning to get a feel for what this place would be like visually. I didn’t want to be pushed around by what I saw it should be or be too literal. It was also a good way of testing my memory. Of course at some point my memory or knowledge was insufficient so I began to look up images here or there and ordered several books. From that point on the images slowly became a sort of crazy quilt of imagined and referenced facts. I was able to find some great books on seaports of bygone eras. They were invaluable aids for soaking in and, I hope, conveying the grittiness and hubbub of a working harbor.
Wendy, how did your family react to seeing their story told in Mokie and Bik?
They were even more moved than I had hoped; truly thrilled.
Wendy, what were your favorite books when you were a kid?
Winnie the Pooh, The Borrowers, Swallows and Amazons, My Son in Law the Hippopotamus, The Queen’s Music -- and a bit later, everything by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
Jonathan, what were your favorite books as a kid, and who were your favorite artists?
I think I woke up as a reader reading The Chronicles of Narnia -- books that I still return to every now and then. I remember spending an entire rainy summer day with one of the books from that series. It was also for those books that I did my first conscious illustrations. Following that, some of my other reading joys were Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Rabbit Hill, and the Leatherstocking Tales, of which my favorite was The Last of the Mohicans.
It’s hard not to filter my childhood taste for illustration through my current taste, but a few illustrators have remained consistent favorites over the years. First off, anything by Virginia Lee Burton was and is exciting. As I child I loved that so many of her book’s characters were machines. Seeing Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel race the sun was exhilarating. Now, of course, as an illustrator I also appreciate the visual sophistication of her work. I was also a fan of Nate the Great because he seemed so clever and solving mysteries was endless fun. Recently, though, I have fallen in love again with the Frog and Toad books. My mother had a collection of books on record -- those small 38 RPM records that played on the Fisher-Price Record Player. She had a record of Arnold Lobel himself reading Frog and Toad Are Friends. I can still hear Mr. Lobel saying, “That is NOT my button!” I like the idea that the voice of someone so brilliant has been floating around in my head all this time!
Wendy, how will you expand upon Mokie and Bik’s story to create the next two books about these rambunctious twins?
With the exception of the swimming lesson, the stories in the first book were all based on truth, and there is at least one main true story that I’d like to use in the next two as a starting point. Mokie and Bik Go To Sea is based around an episode in which the twins steered the drifting boat safely to the fuel barge at the mouth of the harbour, and finally I might let them have a try at living in a house-on-the-ground. The real twins managed to have quite a lot of adventures even in this more conventional environment. However, Mokie and Bik have now taken on such a life of their own that stories seem to grow quite spontaneously from these points.
Wendy, what are the best responses you’ve gotten from kids who have read your books?
I’ve had very moving letters and contact with older kids who feel that my young adult novel Peeling the Onion has touched their lives in a way that helps them deal with their own traumas; I’m always truly humbled by responses like that. With the younger kids and younger books such as Ark in the Park or Nim’s Island, the most fantastic thing is the letter that says, “I’m just like Sophie,” or, “I want to be Nim.”
Wendy, were there any unexpected experiences in researching the background to the story?
After a wonderful family visit of hearing stories, finding old photos, and new facts, we stopped for lunch at a pub called The Rumrunner. Facing us as we walked in the door was a picture of my grandfather at the wheel of the “infamous” five masted schooner, The Malahat.