Roehampton Readers: Tinder by Sally Gardner, drawings by David Roberts

Review: Tinder by Sally Gardner, drawings by David Roberts

A Shimmer of Wolves

By Clare Walters

In his video recording on the Carnegie Shadowing website, David Roberts explains how he created the wolves on the cover of Tinder by drawing them first in black pastel, then reversing the image out into white. He says that, by flipping it into negative, the image suddenly glowed and had a vibrancy. It shimmered.

This technique not only helps to create the steely, other-worldly luminosity of the wolves described in the

text, but also reflects the nature of the story – a dark ‘reversed out’ fairy tale (of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Tinder Box’) in which the negatives of war are revealed in a way that has particular meaning for a modern audience.

In her video recording on the Shadowing site, the author Sally Gardner says, ‘True fairy tale-telling is like playing with the piano – you have to know where to put the very heavy notes in and when you put the very light notes in. A good fairy tale is a mix of both, but this fairy tale is definitely more down on the dark.’

Roberts’ method of drawing the wolves directly reflects this theme of dark and light, and highlights the interconnectedness of the two states. By using monochromatic imagery, with a single spot colour of red, the illustrator, like the author, requires us to view this tale in terms of complementary opposites. This is an example of a close synergy between the text and illustrations – a Greenaway criterion – and there are others. The use of scale, for instance. We first see the protagonist on p29 as a diminished figure relegated to the bottom third of an empty pale gray page, as befits a young soldier bewildered by the death and destruction that surrounds him; while the silver man, who wields awesome power, cannot be fully contained within the page on p187. Another highly effective example of this synergy is the use of white text on smudged black for the dream sequences.

Roberts’ use of spot red is dramatic. He uses it for the spikey, sparky hand-drawn lettering of the title to suggest both fire and danger. He uses it to direct the reader’s focus on small details, such as an unnatural eye or a fiery jewel. And of course he uses to draw attention to the blood with which this book is soaked – and which in one instance saturates an entire opening page of a chapter. Red is also used for the cloak that is worn by both Safire and the dead girl/Lady of the Nail. This image of a red cloak, together with poor soldiers, beautiful maidens, castles and fearsome wolves, carries a weight of meaning for Western readers, suggesting as it does centuries of didactic fairy tales warning of danger and urging wariness. Even shoes have magical significance.

Roberts cites nineteenth century illustrator Gustave Doré (1832-1883) as an influence, commenting on how he was struck by the way the artist used white space to help form his drawing. But other illustration traditions can also be detected in Tinder. For example, there is a direct reference on p132 to seventeenth century chapbooks, as well as echoes of Arthur Rackham’s nineteenth century animated trees. Charles Keeping’s twentieth century illustrations for The Highwayman (1981) and Beowulf (1982) are also brought to mind. For instance, the image of an injured hand with a hole through it in Beowulf, or the broken-toothed sinister men in The Highwayman – or indeed the reversed-out imagery towards the end of that book, especially the final image of a double-fronted wooden door with light spilling out from behind. Dave McKean’s disembodied hand and nails for Coraline (2002) are recalled on p170, while Jim Kay’s more recent energetic high-contrast, white-splattered illustrations for Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls (2011) are also evoked. Although Roberts’ work is distinctly different from all these other artists, there is a visual continuity at play here that enrichs the aesthetic quality of the book, adding resonance and depth. And this enables the book to work on various levels for a range of readers – another Greenaway criterion.

Roberts is working within a tradition of dark tales that speak of danger, threat, death and the unknown. Yet he manages to introduce the occasional element of humour too. For example the tailor dressing the soldier in his cloak on p144-5 has an obsequious yet cunning air; the eyes of the maid on p161 are clearly lustful; and the creatures of the forest dressed in their finery on p238-9 are both comical and surreal. As well as contributing to the theme of light and shade, this humour also allows the reader to take an emotional ‘breath’ before returning to the dark centre of the story. And Roberts’ attention to detail is impressive. The fly on the far right of the food spread on p62-63 reminds the reader of the hoard of bluebottles that accompany the Lady of the Nail; the face of Death, first seen in Chapter One, is reflected in Otto’s eyes in the final image.

The design of the book is also pleasing. The cover image not only suggests the fairy-tale nature of the story but also, with its depiction of seventeenth century Germanic buildings, unusually roots this particular tale in a specific past and place. The endpapers feature a mesh of cobwebs similar to the one that later enshrouds the Duke, while the title pages feature the shadowy figures of the dead – an uncompromising warning of what is to come. The images are sometimes full-bleed, sometimes bordered, sometimes cut-outs. Occasionally they form a background to the text, or edge the page. All this adds visual variety to the book.

Tinder is a gripping, lilting, scary, even angry, read that is exceptionally well complemented by its illustrations. Together, text and image create an integrated whole that is likely to linger in the mind of teenage readers. And, should those readers return to the book as adults, it is likely they will discover even greater depths from each element of this dark and prescient modern fairly tale. For me, that makes this book a worthy winner of both the Carnegie and the Greenaway medals.


Picture References

  • Arthur Rackham trees – selection available via Google Images on the internet.
  • The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Keeping. OUP paperback edition, 1981. (See pp13, 28-29, 32 to compare with pp119, 134, 185 and 198 of Tinder)
  • Beowulf retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Charles Keeping. OUP paperback edition, 1982. (See pp21 and 35, to compare to p176-7 and 93 of Tinder.)
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean. Bloomsbury paperback edition, 2003. (See p170, to compare with p98 of Tinder.)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay. Walker Books, 2011. (See p186-7, to compare with p20 of Tinder; plus p192 to the cover splatters of Tinder.)


Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 


About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California ·

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