Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Behind the scenes with the author of Snowboy and the Last Standing Tree

Glimmering with power and hope, two acclaimed picture book makers come together to tell the story of what happens when a boy is brave enough to stand up for what he feels is right.

Snowboy and the Last Standing Tree is a poignant eco-conscious story, and a vivid portrayal of a child's imaginative play. Greedy Greenbackboy’s got an idea for a game. He wants Snowboy to help him cut down all the trees in the forest and catch all the fish in the deep and ever-moving ocean. But Snowboy recognizes the importance of life in the natural world around him and, in this evocatively told tale, has to trust his instinct to protect, rather than destroy…

We’re excited to welcome Hiawyn Oram to the Picture Book Party blog for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Snowboy and the Last Standing Tree


I was inspired to write SNOWBOY when I came across what is apparently a saying from a Midwestern Native American tribe called the Osages.  It goes, ‘When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that we cannot eat money.’  It seemed to me to say something beyond the general, once-removed panic about global warming and climate change and directly connect our living, breathing future with the way we treat the natural world around us. It hit me as truly down-to-earth; a poignant, wise and heartfelt observation from personal experience and it caught my attention in such a way that I couldn’t leave it alone.  I had to make it into a picture book story for children that might sew a few seeds for thought and also contain some interesting layers for the adults who might be reading it to or with them.

Having had the inspiration and idea, I sat down and began to write – and write and write.    It came as easily as breathing which isn’t always the way with a new idea but is always the best way because it means the idea has arrived in a form that I call ‘whole’. Even the name for the main character came easily and naturally -  Snowboy - to imply his innocence and purity.  By the same token, the antagonist needed a name that symbolised what he stood for  – greed for money!  I called him Greenbackboy despite knowing that ‘green back’ is very old-fashioned slang for the American dollar.  I knew today’s kids would probably never have heard of it but that was OK;  it was strange, veiled and uncomfortable enough to fit.  My enthusiasm for the story knew no bounds and so did the writing.  However, a picture book story has to be controlled; it has to work with its illustrations in a certain format with a designated number of pages. It cannot be any old length the writer feels like.  Even so I submitted the long, enthusiastic version to my editor at Walker Books and together we gradually worked and honed until we had a text that was short and tight enough to leave a lot of space for the illustrations to play their crucial part in bringing the ideas and ultimately the book to life.

When it came to an illustrator, I was extremely lucky.  My editor offered the text to Birgitta Sif - a most talented artist and an author too – and to my absolute delight she wanted to do it.    Her early, rough, black and white sketches immediately enchanted and she had some very original interpretations, uniquely her own, that I would never have imagined in a million years.  For example, she depicts Snowboy’s Ice Troopers who, along with the Polar Bear King are part of his team, as burden-bearing, forever-loyal, little pigs.   For me, this is the magical process of making a picture book when the pictures contribute visual elements that speak their own language, adding to the story in ways words can’t or don’t and ultimately make the book more than the sum of its parts. 

Here are more of Birgitta’s irresistible, early sketches:

For me, Snowboy is a rare hero. He isn’t big, strong and full of ZAP, SPLAT and POW. He’s small, innocent and thoughtful. But, innocent and trusting as he is, he understands when something must be wrong and quietly stands up for what his instinct tells him must be right. In this way, in this story, he saves the world from the danger and destructiveness of Greenbackboy’s game – the Fantasy of Ka-Ching.  I have been wondering about what small but heroic actions each of us, in our own ways, can take to help save the world from damage.  Here are a few thoughts from me. It would great to hear your ideas too. 

1.   Eat good, natural food that’s farmed, grown, fished or produced without pesticides, chemicals and preservatives, anti-biotics and steroids. All of these ‘nasties’ are poisoning us and our earth. 

2.   Grow our own food and/or encourage grown-ups to do it.

3.   Stop using plastic bags and/or ask parents to stop!  They go into land-fills deep in the ground when they’re thrown out and take about 1,000 years to decompose. What is that doing to the earth we depend on?

4.   SAVE OUR SEAS.  Never, ever, ever leave a plastic bag or any plastic items like plastic cups and bottles on or near a beach. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped, arrives or is blown into our oceans every year. This is killing sea-life. For example, sea-turtles, amongst other sea species, mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, eat them and die. The huge sea birds called Albatrosses dive down and catch them, thinking they’re edible food, and then take them back to their nests to feed their babies with!  See

5.   Respect and preserve nature wherever and whenever we can. Left alone, nature works its own miracles and will keep us and the earth living and breathing.

6.   Think and talk about the idea that making money at the expense of others and the future of our earth isn’t that clever.  Could it be short-sighted and plain GREEDY?

Finally, in this blog, let’s think about story telling. Walker Books, the publisher of SNOWBOY asked me if I have any advice for aspiring young authors and illustrators.  Well, I’m sure you all have your own strong ideas about this but what I always say is… write or draw about something you know or something you feel strongly about or something that fires your imagination and takes you and your readers and viewers beyond the ordinary.  Why not? Why not throw ideas and stories into the world that are different, uniquely you, whether completely true or completely imaginary? I suspect that anything any of us can imagine will, sooner or later, become possible. Even if I’m wrong, story-telling is the oldest of the arts and it keeps our minds and hearts alive and connected. We always need to hear what others think, feel and experience.  So never stop telling your own stories, whatever they are, in any form you like and as freely as they come to you... any time, any day.

Pick up a copy of Snowboy and the Last Standing Tree in your local bookshop and come back to the Picture Book Party tomorrow for a guest post from the illustrator Birgitta Sif! 


We have three copies of Snowboy and the Last Standing Tree to give away! To enter, just email us your idea for a small but heroic action we can all take to help save the world from damage. Direct emails to with ‘Snowboy' in the subject line. We'll pick our five favourite ideas and post them to Twitter, if your idea is picked you win a copy of the book! 

Competition closes on 15th December 2017. Terms and conditions apply.

Hiawyn Oram has been writing children's books for more than 20 years and has more than 90 books published to date, including the picture books Angry Arthur, The Good Mood Hunt and Filbert, the Good Little Fiend,illustrated by Jimmy Liao. She has won the Japanese Picture Book Award and the Prix du Livre Culturel. She lives in West London. Find her on Twitter as @hiawynoram.