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Cozy Classics creators find “the Force” with Star Wars books

Three years after introducing their highly successful and innovative board-book series, Cozy Classics (Simply Read Books), Vancouver-born twin brothers Holman and Jack Wang are setting their sights on a galaxy far, far away with a new series launching in April called Star Wars Epic Yarns (Chronicle Books/Raincoast).

Holman (a former lawyer) and Jack (a writing professor at Ithaca College in New York, currently serving as the David T.K. Wong Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.) put their spin on the original Star Wars films (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) in the first three board books, which features the same detailed, needle-felted art introduced in Cozy Classics. Each storyline is distilled into 12 baby-friendly words, as the brothers did in their previous series with such literary greats as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Q&Q asked Jack and Holman about the new series, and their approach to bringing beloved stories to the rattle-and-drool set.

How did the Star Wars project come about?

Jack: In 2013, Holman and I were at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, where our work was on display in the Illustrators Exhibition. We met a rep from Chronicle Books who was kind enough to take a few Cozy Classics back to San Francisco to show the head of their children’s division. When Chronicle asked us what other ideas we had for abridging classics, Star Wars was our first answer. We were huge fans growing up.

Holman and Jack Wang, lifelong Star Wars fans.

Holman and Jack Wang, and a Lightsaber

How did Disney/Lucasfilm come on board?

Holman: Chronicle loved the idea and pitched Disney/Lucasfilm on our behalf. We knew that getting a licensing deal wouldn’t be easy, since Disney/Lucasfilm is very discerning. So when we got the nod, we were ecstatic.

It’s a pretty big leap from classic literature to Star Wars. What made you think your concept would work for both?

J: It’s not as big a leap as it might appear. Our concept has always allowed adults to introduce stories they love to children of any age. We were just going from the most popular form of storytelling in the 18th and 19th centuries to its successor in the 20th and 21st. That said, it was a pretty big leap to go from needle-felting period costumes to needle-felting science fiction, but we were eager to expand our range.

How long does it take you to create a scene? What’s the process?

H: It’s hard to say how long it takes, since a lot of elements go into any one scene. In the case of Star Wars Epic Yarns, the first five months of the project were devoted exclusively to felting, and each figure took anywhere from 20 to 60 hours to complete. Only after most of the figures were made did we start photography. If a scene required a studio set, it generally took two to four days to build. If a scene required an outdoor location shoot, it took anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the weather and the travel involved. Overall, the image-making process was labour-intensive and time-consuming.

J: Speaking of travel, Holman and I even went to Arizona and California for location shoots. That’s real desert in the shots of Tatooine. In fact, we went to the Imperial Sand Dunes in California where George Lucas shot scenes for Return of the Jedi.

How did you get into felting in the first place?

H: We taught ourselves to needle felt for the purpose of creating Cozy Classics. We wanted to illustrate our series in a way that was fresh. We both loved art growing up, but neither of us were trained illustrators, so we had to think outside the box. I came up with the idea of creating felt figures and photographing them with scale model sets or on location. When our Google Doodle in honour of Laura Ingalls Wilder came out few weeks ago, many people told us they recognized our work right away. It’s nice to think that we’ve come up with something of a signature style.

What’s your approach to selecting the words that appear in the books?

J: Our goal has always been to enliven word books with a sense of narrative, so we always start with the story. Of course, when you only have 12 words, you can only trace the main storyline, but we strive for as much narrative continuity as possible. We always use child-friendly words that can be clearly illustrated, and we think about how the illustrations can help create narrative continuity as well. And whenever we can introduce age-appropriate concepts, such as opposites – for example, “sink” and “float” in Moby-Dick and “friend” and “foe” in The Empire Strikes Back – we work them in.

How did you select which scenes to include, given the abundance of iconic imagery in the Star Wars movies?

J: As I say, story for us is key, so it wasn’t just about lining up the 12 coolest scenes from each movie, because that wouldn’t necessarily make much narrative sense. For example, our first words for A New Hope are “princess” and “trouble.” These are kid-friendly words that capture the essence of the story: a princess needs help. The next words are “boy” and “learn.” These words capture the essence of Episodes IV-VI: Luke Skywalker learns the ways of the Force. R2-D2 appears in the images for both “princess” and “boy,” which creates continuity between the two storylines, and so on. That’s the process by which we arrived at words and scenes.