Interview with Stella Gurney, who retells ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, illustrated by Lorna Freytag

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz‘, retold by Stella Gurney, illustrated by Lorna Freytag (published by Carlton Kids)

IMG_4927We were lucky enough to be sent this book recently and it’s been an absolute treat to share with the boys.  The story was new to them, though I explained that the book we were reading was based on both a book and film (yet more Charades training – yay!) and we had quite an interesting chat about this.  Despite their love of all things Fireman Sam – including the books and the television series (you can read my previous posts about this subject here and here) – C found it very hard to grasp that a book wasn’t always the original source of a story, hence his reluctance to see why I’ve questioned his request to dress up as Fireman Sam for World Book Day.

Anyway, we were able to get past this reasonably quickly as ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ clearly is based on a story that started out in a book – one which has now reached almost fairytale-like status.  This retelling is pretty faithful to the original, though is shorter.  It’s still too long a book to share with C (let alone H) in one sitting, but they did enjoy hearing it in ‘chapters’.  I’ve been thinking more about whether C might like to start listening to chapter books as well as devouring all the picture books he enjoys on a daily basis, so this actually proved a great way in.  It’s a much longer story than we’d usually read, but Lorna Freytag’s gorgeous photographic illustrations make it very visually stimulating and there are some lovely interactive features that both boys loved.

A 3D tornado - awesome!

A 3D tornado – awesome!

Clever little flap features to tell the stories of some of key characters.

Clever little flap features tell the stories of some of the key characters.

Beautiful patchwork hot air balloon that flies!

Beautiful patchwork hot air balloon that flies!

I’m sure that younger fans of the Oz will love this book and it would be a great way to introduce the story to children in advance of the new Oz film that’s out next month.  ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’, is a sequel to the original Oz story and you can watch a video trailer here.  While we’re on the subject, the musical ‘Wicked‘ is a prequel to the original Oz story and is one of my favourite musicals EVER.  (One of my mum’s former pupils, Gina Beck, is currently playing ‘Glinda’ in it so I now have even more of an attachment to it!)

Anyway, one of the interesting things about this book for me is the process by which it has been created and I’m therefore very pleased to be featuring an interview with Stella Gurney, who retells this story.  Her experience in the publishing industry both as an editor and an author means she offers a valuable insight into the development of children’s books and I am very excited about her upcoming project, Let’s Talk About… (see the end of this post for details).

Questions from me:

Q.  What was the most interesting aspect of tackling such a well known story?

A.  Great question! I think it was probably adopting the style of Baum, which I so admired – it was so unstuffy and timeless considering when the book was written. Wherever possible, I tried to preserve his exact words, and to recreate his tone and spirit in places where I had to rewrite or summarise..  Also it was interesting having to decide which parts to (very reluctantly) edit out to fit the shortened retelling; to establish which elements actually moved the story forward and which parts, however magical and memorable, could be skipped over. I have such a strong memory of reading about the field of poppies as a child and visually it’s such a strong scene. But sadly it had to go!

Q.  Did you find the film or L. Frank Baum’s book more useful when retelling the story?

A.  The retelling was closely based on the book only, but it was really interesting unpicking my own memories of the book and the film and  seeing how the two had merged.

Q.  What is your favourite part of the collaborative process required to create a book such as this?

A.  I remember being so surprised when I first started working in publishing that the author and illustrator often don’t even meet one another or have any contact at all! The editor and designer will curate a project and pull together the ideas and vision of author and illustrator to create something beyond what either of them could have achieved individually or probably even together.  Of course you occasionally get great partnerships where author and illustrator collaborate, but it’s not the norm. I loved working with Barry Timms, my wonderful editor on this book, and several others in this series – he’s a really excellent editor and a joy to work with.

Q.  You’ve already had a very impressive career (we love the Abney and Teal books that you’ve worked on, as well as the ‘Boris’ books).  Do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline?

A.  Thank you, and yes, I’m in the middle of working on an unusual new First Experience series for pre-school children with a photographer friend who’s also a mum like me. The series is called ‘Let’s Talk About…’ and  features real kids in real environments, rather than the studio shots and models usually used for books of this kind, They show familiar things that children see about them every day, but rarely see in books, so in Let’s Talk About… My New Baby, there’s breastfeeding and smelly nappies and baby sick and feeling ambivalent about the new arrival. We also want to tackle subjects that affect children of this age but that publishers are often nervous about broaching, like death, living between two homes, conflict…. The first two books, Let’s Talk About.. My New Baby and Big Beds and Bedtime, came out on Feb 14th, with …Pants and Potties and ..Why We Say “No!” out later this year. I’m really proud of them – I absolutely believe in their ethos and am glad to give children a really early message that life doesn’t need to be photo-shopped!

Questions from C and H:

Q.  Did you like watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when you were little?

A.  Yes, do you? I loved it – all of it, the colours and songs and all the magical characters. I remember finding it a bit scary but Dorothy is so brave and can rely on her friends whatever happens and that made me feel safe.

Q.  Who is your favourite character?

A.  I think it would have to be Dorothy – she is such a strong, determined girl and I really admire her for rising to the challenge and taking the Land of Oz and all the weird things that happen there in her stride, even when she’s frightened.

Q.  Where did you find real flying monkeys?

A.  We’d have to ask the illustrator, Lorna Freytag, since she produced all the pictures. Maybe they live at the bottom of her garden – wouldn’t that be brilliant?

Q.  Do you have a favourite word?

A.  I have lots of favourite words but my current one is ‘insouciant’. It has a lovely sound to it, and it means carefree and without worry, which is a great way to approach life!

Thanks you SO much to Stella for answering all our questions so thoughtfully and in such detail, it was really interesting reading about how you work.  We’re now off to search for monkeys at the bottom of our garden!


N.B.  You can find out more about Stella’s new project here – and after my recent post on potty training books (which provoked a lot of discussion both here and on Twitter) I am personally very keen to see the book about pants and potties.


Disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher. I was not asked to write this post, nor was I given any money for doing so, and the review represents my own honest opinion.

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