The idea of Sylvia came to me one morning, well before dawn. I awoke with an image in my mind — a gleaming snail trail curling and looping across the cover of a book with the title, A Succulent Tale of Sylvia Snail and Her Shimmering Trail (later shortened to Sylvia, much easier to say).
Still lying in bed, I remembered my childhood fascination with the daily happenings and changes in our backyard garden; how I’d eagerly wake and venture outside to see dew cobwebs in the grass and subtle silver trails left by snails on the path. Children, I thought, perhaps because they are closer to the ground, perhaps because the world is new and everything is viewed with wonder, notice the little things. To the young, creatures like snails are cause for fascination, not simply garden pests. Snails have soft and slimy bodies with eyes on stalks, they live in spiral shells, and they leave behind a shimmering trail wherever they slide. They even have teeth!
Where, I thought, would a land snail most like to live? In an organic garden, of course, full of ripe, plump and juicy fruit and green, leafy vegetables. Somewhere a snail could happily feast upon the delicacies of the garden. But, therein lay the dilemma: to gardeners, particularly of the adult variety, snails are a nuisance; they eat the produce and leave bite holes as evidence. Even organic gardeners do their best to rid their gardens of snails and grubs, perhaps using garlic spray or simply squashing them underfoot.
Our snail, by now named ‘Sylvia’ in my mind’s eye, would need to convince her host, already named ‘Simon Green’, to allow her to stay in his garden. She would use her silver trail to write a love letter to Simon Green, listing the succulent fruit and vegetables as one would list the admirable qualities of someone they adored. But, what if, being a grown-up gardener, he simply didn’t see? And, what if, upon thinking of a bigger, bolder way she could declare her love, Sylvia was also able to save the day? Surely then, Simon Green would welcome Sylvia Snail into his garden. From these early-morning wonderings, Sylvia was born.
The writing of this book was delicious. I relished in thinking of the various vegetables and fruits we might find in Simon Green’s garden. A lover of alliteration, I also delighted in selecting suitably evocative adjectives to describe them.
I chose to illustrate the book in a fun, somewhat childlike style. I opted for a collage process: everything is painted by hand using gouache and ink pen, or drawn using coloured pencils. I then scanned each illustration component and assembled the collages in Photoshop. As well, I used brown paper to back the illustrations. To me, brown paper is reminiscent of all things handmade, simple and earthy, echoing the organic theme.
At home on Tamborine Mountain, we have a thriving kitchen garden, and I buy whatever fruit and vegetables we do not grow at the weekly local growers’ market. So, when I wanted to paint a particular vegetable, I often ducked outside or opened the refrigerator to study it.
As well as being a love story and a tale about grit and determination, Sylvia is, I hope, a gentle nudge towards gardening, particularly organic gardening, and buying local fare. In a world of large-scale commercial food-growing practices that are often unkind to our health and the health of the planet, growing at home or buying from the local growers’ market can promote wellbeing and create community, while taking care of the Earth. Gardening, digging the soil, planting a seed, watching it grow and harvesting fruit, vegetables or flowers, is also an exercise in happiness and good for the soul. I hope Sylvia encourages the young (and the not-so-young) to get out from behind the computer or the hand-held device and get their hands in the earth.