INTERVIEW: Alison Child and illustrator Shanni Collins on their new collaboration

July 5, 2024

Scene arts reviewer Eric chats with local author Alison Child and artist and illustrator Shanni Collins on the story behind the story of their new book Gwen & Norah, Stoll & Moss: A Story of Music and Love.

What drew you to the story of Norah and Gwen, two 1920s music hall sensations living discreet lives as lesbians? 

A: I discovered Gwen and Norah in 2014 while researching early 20th-century performers. I found footage of two animated women enjoying each other’s company. When I met Shanni in Lesbos, we discussed a children’s book about these performers’ not-so secret love affair, which immediately intrigued me!

S: With my background in theatre design, combining art, theatre, and lesbians was irresistible. It felt like a perfect project.

Why is it important to share their story with a new generation? 

A: Gwen and Norah’s story has been obscured from history. Sharing it celebrates their musicianship and camaraderie, providing role models for younger audiences. I wish I’d known about them growing up when I had no lesbian role models.

S: Love is love, and it’s essential to share these stories. Their love had to be hidden and bringing it to life again is important.

How did you represent Norah and Gwen’s relationship appropriately for children? 

A: Shanni’s illustrations are key. The story includes four other characters: two dogs, Stoll and Moss, which helps keep it age appropriate. The dogs and musical instruments form a group dynamic that’s supportive and resilient.

S: The book teaches that practice makes perfect and challenges can be overcome. It’s about the simple joy of friendship turning into love, making it relatable for children.

What challenges did you face incorporating LGBTQ themes into a children’s book? 

A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t challenging. We used a familiar fairy tale formula where Gwen and Norah meet, face challenges, and build a life together. It feels natural and effortless.

S: It was an honour to create the characters, particularly the dogs, and make the love story engaging for children.

Why is it important for children to learn about historical LGBTQ figures like Norah and Gwen? 

A: We need to honour and celebrate diverse groups and individuals who defied the status quo. It’s about making a compassionate and inclusive future.

S: It’s vital to share different kinds of love throughout history. Being part of a project that shines a light on their lives feels essential.

A: We aim to show the joy and creativity in supportive queer partnerships, fostering a loving, inclusive environment. We want children to see various loving relationships positively and feel reassured to be themselves. More inclusive books can only benefit the world.

How did you two bring ‘Gwen & Norah’ to life together? 

A: It was quite the journey! I was in Greece for most of the production. We only met once before, but we clicked immediately. I sent Shanni black and white photos of Gwen and Norah, and we’d swap dog pictures. I wrote the rhyming verses early on, which gave us a storyline. Shanni’s illustrations added such vitality and humour. Plus, Sarah, our graphic designer, was a genius. It’s been an incredible partnership!

S: We had countless Zoom chats, sharing drawings and sound clips. Alison’s extensive research really helped. I drew and painted stacks of preliminary sketches to get to know the characters. I even stopped a couple in Hove Park to sketch their Bassett Hound for inspiration! I wanted to keep my abstract style consistent throughout. I’m thrilled with the outcome.

How does the 1920s setting of Norah and Gwen’s story resonate with modern LGBTQ experiences? 

A: The 1920s, with its rebellious spirit and sophistication, was both thrilling and challenging. Norah, from a modest background, worked hard to seize opportunities, unlike today’s digital distractions. Their love story might echo contemporary stars like Sue Perkins or Tig Notaro. It’s a reminder of the progress we’ve made and the freedoms we continue to fight for.

Any challenges telling an LGBTQ story set in a less accepting era? 

A: Surprisingly, none. We focused on the love story without delving into the era’s prejudices.

What’s next for you two? 

A: We’re planning an adventure where Gwen & Norah, along with Stoll & Moss, sail to New York, star on Broadway, and party with legends like Gladys Bentley and Josephine Baker. How about it, Shanni?

S: I’m excited to highlight more queer trailblazers from the 1920s and 30s. Shining a light on these amazing figures in another adventure sounds perfect!

Out Now and on Amazon 

Hardback £14.99 ; Paperback £8.99

For more info or to order the book see the publisher’s website here  

Alison Child has also written a fascinating 2019 biography of the pair, Tell Me I’m Forgiven: The Story of Forgotten Stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, you can read Scene’s review of it here: