In 2011, writer-illustrator Alexandra Wallner collaborated with her husband, artist John Wallner, on J.R.R. Tolkien, a picture-book biography of the magesterial fantasty author. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with the Wallners about their encounters with Tolkien and their own creative process.
Kidsbiographer: What prompted you to create a children’s biography of JRR Tolkien?
The Wallners: We both have enjoyed reading THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS and also enjoyed the movies, so it seemed the next step for us would be to investigate the author himself and present that to children. John was really looking forward to playing with images that such a picture book biography would allow.
Kidsbiographer: Have you read his fiction differently since you started researching his life?
The Wallners: We knew that his writing was amongst a group of writers that were moved and changed by WW I and knew that would be part of the picture book biography we wanted to share with children.
Kidsbiographer: Alexandra, I particularly liked how JRR Tolkien introduces young readers to his creative process – how images and words inspired characters and then narratives, how his fascination with other languages helped him create his own languages and worlds. What about Tolkien’s genius or writing process most intrigued or surprised you?
Alexandra: As a writer myself, I admire how he took every day examples of communication – like Morse Code, the signal corps, etc. – and turned that into a new fantasy realm with his own personal vocabulary and sounds.
Kidsbiographer: John, I enjoyed the book’s gameboard motif, especially how it connects Tolkien’s personal journey with the quests his characters undertake. You’ve made Tolkien’s world as magical as the ones he created. How did you choose this theme, and what illustration-specific research did you do to depict Tolkien’s life?
John: First, thank you for the kind words. I wanted to illustrate something other than events and the game board idea appealed to me first off as a simple game that children enjoy, and it also gave me the opportunity to employ game cards to illustrate what Tolkien might have been thinking. In other words, I wanted to go beyond the text. As far as research, Alex provided me with archival photos of Tolkien’s relatives, homes, etc.
Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process as a married couple and writer-illustrator team? How did you approach this project together?
The Wallners: Alex is the writer and is the first part of the process in that she supplies the platform from which John gets to work. We do encourage each other. John reads and edits Alex’s story and Alex suggests ideas for his illustrations. In some ways, the project becomes the product of a “third person.”
Kidsbiographers: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about JRR Tolkien?
The Wallners: The kids enjoy the game board which was, in truth, a last minute idea for enriching the story.
Kidsbiographer: Would either of you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
The Wallners: John is taking time for personal investigation into drawing and abstract paintings. Alex is currently writing a novel.