There’s nothing like being married to a doctor during a global pandemic to give a writer a healthy dose of humility. As the severity of the crisis became clear, I felt a sense of impotence and inadequacy as I watched medics and other key workers shoulder immense burdens on behalf of all of us.
When the UK went into strict lockdown, I thought of all the families facing the hourly challenge of entertaining and educating younger children, who’d been abruptly deprived of school and playtimes with their friends, and it struck me that there might be something meaningful I could do to help — not life-saving, unfortunately, but hopefully lockdown-improving.
I had the idea for The Ickabog more than a decade ago, while I was still writing the Harry Potter series. Having written a lot of the story, I read it to my two younger children at bedtime. They knew how the tale ended, because I told them the part I hadn’t yet written.
However, I decided against publishing a children’s book next, so The Ickabog went up into the attic, still unfinished. My youngest daughter said to me more than once, “I wish you’d finish it properly, that was my favourite story,” but for me the moment had passed. I came to think of The Ickabog as something that belonged only to our family. Yet over the ensuing years the family sometimes talked about the story, especially the various towns of Cornucopia. I’d feel a tug back towards the box in the attic, but I was busy with other projects, so I resisted.
One night in early lockdown I tentatively raised the idea of finishing the book, putting it online for free and asking children to illustrate it. My now teenagers were wholeheartedly in favour of the idea, so I got to work. As I neared writing the end of the book, I started reading chapters to the family again, which was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my writing life. I was amazed how much detail my children remembered from when they were very small, and I reinstated a couple of bits I’d cut because they liked them.
The reaction as the chapters went online, and especially to the illustration competition, was beyond my wildest imaginings. We received more than 18,000 entries from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and India, and more in concurrent competitions run in the US and Canada. The talent, inventiveness and sheer delight in paint and story were astounding. As readers predicted how the story would end and speculated on the true nature of the Ickabog, I felt the pure joy in storytelling that’s unique to writing for children.
I’ll be donating my royalties from the physically published book to help medical and frontline charities support vulnerable groups who have been particularly impacted by Covid-19, in the UK and internationally.
The 34 winning illustrations will be included in the book. I’m so grateful to the winners, and to everyone who submitted pictures, for lending their talent to this project. It couldn’t have happened without them.
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