By Michelle Pauli
Remember the childhood game ‘the floor is lava’? The one where you have to try to stay off the ground or else be swallowed by molten rock? It might seem like a far reach from that to one of the most inventive adventure fantasies of recent years but it was exactly author/illustrator Jamie Littler’s starting point for his Frostheart trilogy.
As he walked to work one day, wondering what story ideas might appeal to children, ‘that concept of not being able to touch the floor suddenly started making my mind spiral into loads of different ideas like, why can’t they touch the floor, maybe it’s monsters underneath ice and how would this civilization exist, maybe they’ve got huge sleighs? And ideas just started pouring in,’ he explains.
The result is his lavishly illustrated middle grade series set in an intricately built world in which different tribes – pathfinders, fire people, yetis – live in strongholds above a snow sea teeming with Leviathans, the monsters feared by all. All that is, except Songweavers, the shunned tribe who can communicate not only with Leviathans but with the underlying ‘weave of the world’, through song.
Frostheart is captivating not only for its fascinating world building and thrilling plotlines but also because the snow sea universe is peopled with the most glorious characters. When we first meet Ash he’s a timid boy, about to be exiled from the Fira stronghold and on a quest to find his parents and his true self as a Songweaver. Luckily, alongside him he has the fierce and loyal crew of the Frostheart sleigh, including his best friend Lunah, a feisty navigator, the delightful Captain Nuk and her sidekick Master Podd, and Tobu, his stern yeti-of-few-words guardian.
In fact these powerful bonds of friendship, what Littler calls ‘found family’, are at the heart of the story, even if it took him some time to realise that there was more to Frostheart than a ‘riproaring adventure’.
‘When I started writing Frostheart I had a relationship breakup and I had to move out of a flat where I was really comfortable, so my life
changed quite dramatically. I took a huge amount of comfort from my friends and family – all those people who care for you and you feel at home with,’ he explains. ‘I’ve heard from a few authors you sometimes don’t know until you’ve actually written the book what it’s about. And by the time you finished, you’re like, ok, I think I know what this story is about now. People losing family and then being able to find others who can care for them and love them became a really strong theme that I wanted to follow and push throughout the series.’
It also ties in with his desire to capture that sense of being part of the gang that the best adventure stories conjure up so brilliantly, whether it’s the Famous Five or the example he gives of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Co: ‘they’re a company of ghost hunters with a cosy base in Lockwood’s home and they all hang out together and have their funny quirks. Every time I opened the book, I just got excited because I loved being with those characters and I knew I was going to be one of the gang again and feel that sense of belonging.’
If this is all starting to sound a little too cosy, fear not. The Frostheart trilogy is also filled with humour and a startling amount of energy. Littler attributes the buzz to the fact that, after years of writing stories which never quite worked, he knew that this was the story he simply had to write and realised that ‘I need to get this on paper as fast as I can, ride that energy’.
Although Littler quickly established a career and reputation as an illustrator after graduating with an illustration degree from the Arts Institute in Bournemouth in 2008 – his work includes the Hamish series, Witch School series and Wilf the Mighty Worrier – it wasn’t enough. ‘I was illustrating, which I loved, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of really wanting to write so that I could illustrate a world I’ve created and characters I’ve made up myself,’ he explains.
With Frostheart he had the best of both worlds, to the extent that he had to hand over decisions about which parts of the book to illustrate to his art director ‘I just wanted to illustrate every bit!’ The result is books that are wonderfully accessible for younger readers – and also to share by reading aloud – with Littler’s comic-book style depictions of characters and scenes woven throughout the pages.
Littler would sketch and write in a synergistic way, doodling as he made notes of the main story beats, emotional moments and character arcs. The act of drawing fed into his story building in sometimes unexpected ways.
‘I would sometimes discover something about a character in my drawing that I hadn’t put in the book, like the way they hold themselves or an expression,’ he explains. ‘Or maybe they’re wearing some item of clothing that I suddenly find interesting and all of these other ideas would appear. I remember I drew Lunah with stars around her to give her some kind of distinctive symbol. And I thought, why is she wearing stars? And that brought this idea of, oh, but her people are navigators and they follow the stars and before I knew it, her whole stronghold tribe started taking form in my head.’
Having realised his dream of writing and illustrating his own story and steering the Frostheart crew through three books, Littler found the very satisfying conclusion of the story in Frostheart: Rise of the World Eater to be a bittersweet moment.
‘A huge part of me is insanely proud but I also feel a bit of a loss because it’s been such a huge part of my life for about five years. It’s been surprisingly emotional to say goodbye to the characters and the world,’ he admits.
Many Frostheart fans will be feeling the same way. However, Littler says he is currently ‘concocting something’ with Puffin so watch out for more of Littler’s wildly imaginative blend of words and pictures in due course.
Michelle Pauli is a freelance writer and editor specialising in books and education. She created and edited the Guardian children’s books site.
The Frostheart books are published by Puffin, £7.99pbk