Behind Setsuko and the Song of the Sea: An interview with the creators


Setsuko and the Song of the Sea by Fiona Barker, illustrated by Howard Gray and created in collaboration with Hideaki Matsuya, is hitting the shelves this Spring. So, Sarah Broadley found the ideal opportunity to intereview the three creators behind it. The result is a FASCINATING read.

Grab a cuppa, and delve in…

Depicting marine conversation in picture books can be difficult to get the message across in an informative and positive way, how did you come up with the idea to write about this underwater world, Fiona?

Fiona-BarkerFIONA BARKER: I wanted to write a story set in the ocean for Howard as I’d seen some illustrations he’d done for one of his own stories (about pirates!) that he’d brought along to the SCBWI conference in 2016. I knew he’d be awesome at depicting life underwater. Then, in 2017, I signed up for the Marine Conservation Society #plasticchallenge and throughout July set about changing some of my plastic-y habits. That gave me the idea for an undersea story. I’ve known about the Ama divers in Japan (and their equivalents in Korea and Taiwan) for a long time. They harvest shellfish and seaweed by hand, diving without breathing equipment and are the closest thing we have to real mermaids. The respect these fiercely independent strong women have for the sea is incredible. The ocean is in trouble because of plastic and so is the Ama culture with people losing their bonds to the sea. I wanted to bring those strands together in one story.

What challenges did it give you to get both the underwater scenes and above water scenes as realistic as possible, Howard? Are there techniques for illustrating water that you can share with us? What characters were you keen to include?

H_GRAYHOWARD GRAY: Fiona’s story absolutely called for a degree of ‘realism’, I felt, and I suppose my style has leant a little in that direction recently – but it’s constantly evolving, and even now is bending towards more stylised characters, which I also enjoy! I study a lot of reference material to produce my artwork. For Setsuko, I looked at how light and colour work underwater (for example, red colours are lost quickly as you descend). Another thing I noticed was how beautifully turquoise underwater white colours looked when viewed above water. Caustic light, as it shines through overhead waves onto objects underwater, always makes my head scratch too. But my absolute favourite artistic challenge was illustrating whale song!

Research is key, with the wonderful Hideaki Matsuya involved in this amazing project, can you tell us about the collaboration on the story and the Japanese influences mentioned throughout?

FIONA: Japan isn’t specifically mentioned in our story and the ocean is a universal setting but we wanted to pay respect to the Ama women and the culture they come from. We looked at ancient and contemporary Japanese art, trying to pull together influences from well-known artists like Hokusai and Kawase Hasui as well as the more recent enthusiasm for all things manga. The Japanese text on each spread is a reference to the way pictures were often signed, and we had to change some things to be picture book friendly. Hideaki’s contribution allowed us to include this text and getting it right was so important to us. The Ama dive these days in full wetsuits and wear eye masks but Setsuko is depicted a bit more naturally so the reader can see her better. The material of her shorts is traditional though. And the older Ama ladies feature in the beach scenes in the book.

You’re advocates for a safer environment and climate change awareness, what message does this book give that will encourage others to consider their involvement in their local area to conserve and consider?

FIONA: I hope this story will remind people that we all have a connection with the ocean, no matter where we live. I’m an active campaigner against single-use plastic and litter and I hope the story will inspire other people to make changes in their lifestyle that will ultimately benefit us all. I’d also like readers to think about and value traditional cultures. Many of them are just as endangered as the natural world.

HOWARD: Like Fiona says, this story follows a (based-on-real-life) human character who’s deeply connected to the sea. This provides a real-life connection to the reader and, with that, an urgency to the problems she faces. Her problems, however, aren’t spelled out for us and it is that gradual realisation of what’s happening in the ocean, an acquired consciousness, that I think gives this story great appeal. If we, and our children, can all be a little more conscious of our connection with the world around us, even if only on a very local level, things can surely only get better.

Out of all the underwater creatures in this book, what are your favourites and why?

FIONA: My favourite is the eel on the second to last spread. I love the expression on its face!

HOWARD: Mine has to be the humpback whale. Having worked with a team studying these animals in the Arabian Sea, I have a real soft spot for them!

What’s next for Fiona, Howard and Hideaki?

FIONA: We would love to work together again. I’m in total awe of Howard’s skill as an illustrator and it would be a dream to work on something new with him. But in the meantime, I’ve got two new picture book projects coming in 2022 which I’m very excited about.

HOWARD: Likewise, I would love to work on something with Fiona again – and of course Hideaki too if there’s an opportunity to do so. Fiona’s stories are sophisticated and can be read on a number of levels. Although I know Fiona worked Setsuko’s story to appeal to my strengths and interests, working with her and Tiny Tree have been some of the most fun illustration projects I have worked on! While I have my fingers crossed for something new from Fiona, I have been working on some non-fiction that I can’t wait to share with everyone!

The Japanese script is beautiful. How did you go about translating Fiona’s phrases? What was your process?

HideakiMatsuyaHIDEAKI MATSUYA: Unless it is academic or technical translation, my ultimate goal of translation is to convey the ambience of the original words or phrases to the readers, rather than making word-by-word translation. To express the same thing, different languages use different words, often not matching what you find in a dictionary. So, as I read Fiona’s phrases for the first time, I tried to imagine that I was at the sea and I was with Setsuko and the whale. Howard’s illustrations helped me a lot to “be” there! I read the entire English passages, not just the part I was asked to translate, in order to feel what these phrases are, and ultimately what the book is trying to convey. Then, imagining that I was at the sea, I tried to put what I felt into Japanese words with the mind of a Japanese person, so not really translating the words in its literal sense. Well, it might sound all too fantastic, but the process comes to me naturally. I guess it is because I like literature, and especially this time I like what this book is trying to convey to the readers with its phrases and illustrations!

Have you translated other works? If not, is this something you would like to do more of?

HIDEAKI: I have done a lot of translation in my career. I am not a translator by profession, but my job (international finance) required me to translate research documents, contracts, reports, financial statements and so on. Recently I translated an English book into Japanese, a psychology book, written by an American psychotherapist. Although the book was rather academic at times, it was written for the general readership. I enjoyed translating it. The literature and languages have always fascinated me since childhood, and I would like to continue translating. Translating Fiona’s book with Howard’s illustration was “fun”, and, yes, I would like to do similar translation, if I have an opportunity.

What did you think of the book? Do you think it could be well-received in Japan?

HIDEAKI: The book is very timely and its message is very clear without being overwhelming. It was just a year ago that the Japanese government introduced an official ban on free plastic shopping bags at shops. A few days ago, there was a report about a high school students’ team finding a huge pile of plastic waste at the sea bottom off the Japan coast. I think the book or similar writings would be well received in Japan.

Read Sarah’s review of Setsuko and The Song of the Sea.


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