The Song of the Sea Demon: A Handmade Letterpress Pop-Up Book of Dark Stories for Kids

I wrote, illustrated, and designed a handmade, letterpressed edition of provocative folktale that challenges young readers. The work includes an original story, popups, edible pages, and puzzles. Inspired by the stories that children make up for themselves (like old school yard tales), I sourced the imaginarium of folktale directly from its audience: synthesizing and reinterpreting children’s self-generated narratives—collecting and curating a new kind of story.

(Re)Constructing the Book, Fairytale, and Childhood

I publish artifacts of this process throughout the artist’s book, destabilizing how one defines the parameters of children’s literature and troubling the hierarchy of the child-adult, adult-child. This hand-bound edition of artists’ books employs analog versions ofinteractivity and creation: variable illustrations, puzzles, pop-ups, and pockets. Children pull, twist, peel, and eat – physically deconstructing and reconstructing the book as well as the story. This interactive decision-making, combined with dark and challenging themes gleaned from the minds of children themselves, helps readers confront harsh truths about our world within the safe world of folk and magic. This narrative is abstracted from over 60 child-generated stories, and physical reconstruction of the book object to invent multiple meanings. Scary stories written by children, to be read by children, taken apart by children, and put back together by children.

Hands-on, dark folktales can serve as catalysts to introduce challenging concepts into discussions between children, peers, and adults. As Lev Manovich describes in The Language of New Media, old media (such as static books) are fixed in their presentation, the interactivity and play that happens with an interactive artists’ book/object promotes the user/interactor into an active, semi-creative role in the meaning-making. My work helps children navigate difficult themes while helping young readers accept that bad things happen to everyone. 

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For this work, I have visited Good Shepherd Montessori School and Stanley Clark Elementary School in South Bend, IN. For two weeks, I held creative writing workshops specific to dark fairytale, working with 7-11 year olds, plus a small sample of eight 12-15 year olds. I provide source imagery of art historical fairytale precedents, such as: the engravings of Gustave Doré from the Italian fabulous epic Orlando Furioso, the contemporary collage work of Dan Hillier, ink illustrations by John Tennial for Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the progressive photography by Dan Estabrooke, and others. The imagery is whimsical, but carries an undertone of traditional, Grimm-like spookiness. This opens a visual dialogue for the children with fairytale old and new. They then respond in writing to self-selected imagery and generate a couple pages of original – but inspired – dark fairytale.