Marianna Shek and Leila Honari have joined forces to create a new style of young adult fiction – a 48 page, full colour, picture book, called The Stolen Button. It’s an evolvement of an original story written by Marianna, and has won second place in the 2016 Children’s and Young Adult Writers and Illustrators Conference (Aspiring Picture Book Category).
Marianna, a lecturer and tutor in business, producing, transmedia, storytelling, and arts based research, has published fiction for children and young readers before, including Donald Doing’s House of Verbs and Choose Your Own Death.
She explains The Stolen Button has been a labour of love, a work of many years, progressing through different phases. It started out with characters set in the ‘Victorian Steam Punk’ style, but were later reshaped to match Marianna’s own Chinese heritage, with the story set in ancient times, along the Old Silk Road.
During the story’s development, Marianna explains she was unsure about format, but after attending one of Leila’s water-colour art exhibitions, she was inspired to produce it as a picture book, with Leila as the illustrator.
Leila is an artist, musician, and character and environment design lecturer for animation and games students. She’s originally from Persia (Iran), where she first honed her artistry under old masters of traditional rug design, learning the old techniques of the fading craft. She explains contemporary tools are now incorporated into rug design. Tools like Photoshop. But there’s an art to this too – each pixel represents a single rug strand in an overall design. Old methodology, combined with new technology.
Leila’s illustrations for The Stolen Button were also produced from a combination of traditional and contemporary methods. Her inspiration came from themes and elements within the story, such as caravans, gypsies, and the bizarre/marketplace. She began sketching drafts of the characters, and selected her favourites, refining further in water colour, before adding final details in Photoshop.
She explains that Persian painting has been inspired by Chinese painting, and that she has applied these techniques to her work for The Stolen Button. An interesting aspect, given the connection between Persia and China is said to have been originally made through the routes of the old Silk Road itself; The Han Dynasty of China, in 130BC, officiated the road as a commerce link between the East and West of ancient times (it was, more accurately, a route incorporating a series of roads through the Middle East, Asia, and Africa). Prior to that, one of its main arteries was maintained by the Achaemenid Empire(500-330 BC) of Persia. This section was known as the Persian Royal Road.
Throughout its history, the Silk Road offered a means of trade – it was named after the luxurious and sought after fabric, but silk was not the only merchandise bartered on the routes. Other items included paper, gunpowder, and spices. In Marianna’s story, even a belly button was of value to some.
The Stolen Button‘s mystical tale unfolds in a marketplace, at an oasis on the road. Mei Ling, the main character, had convinced her mother to take her to circus there. But she soon catches the attention of Fei Feng, a jealous orphan, who traps Mei Ling in a maze of mirrors, offering her safe a passage home – only in exchange for her naval.
The story was written for an audience over twelve years old – it’s a longer book which contains some dark themes. These were aspects that deterred traditional publishers from producing it as a picture book, arguing the story’s length and themes do not match the traditional style, normally reserved for younger children.
But the book has received outstanding praise from writer’s awards, and Marianna and Leila have persevered, determined to offer a full coloured, illustrated book, which can be engaged by an audience of various levels of English fluency. They’ve created a campaign to help fund the book’s first publishing, where supporters can receive numerous rewards, including a copy of The Stolen Button, from the earliest print run.