"Spider in the Well" Children's Book By Author Illustrator Jess Hannigan There's trouble in the town of Bad Göodsburg! A wishing well has stopped working! NPR's Tamara Keith talks with Jess Hannigan about her new children's book, "Spider in the Well."

Hold on to your wishes — there's a 'Spider in the Well'

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There's trouble in the town of Bad Goodsburg. The wishing well is broken. Wishes aren't coming true. That's the dramatic start of "Spider In The Well," the new picture book from first-time author and illustrator Jess Hannigan. What unfolds is a brightly colored tale of human frailty, and the wishes we make that we'd all prefer stay secret. Jess Hannigan joins us now. Hello.

JESS HANNIGAN: Hi. I'm so happy to be here and to talk to you.

KEITH: Thrilled to have you here. I have been reading this book extensively with my 6-year-old, and I have lots of questions. So "Spider In The Well" is told in three parts - the newsboy, the well and justice. No spoilers, but tell us what happens in this story.

HANNIGAN: Yes. Basically, there's this little town that's super idyllic, fairytale, folktale. And we start off with the little newsboy, who's the most gung ho, happy-go-lucky little kid who is actually forced to do, like, four different jobs. He's the milkman. He's the news boy. He's the shoe shiner - too many things. And one day when he's delivering the news, the townspeople discover that their wishing well, their beloved wishing well is no longer working, and they're not too pleased about it.

KEITH: And there is a spider in that well.

HANNIGAN: There is.

KEITH: How did you come to write a book about a spider when I understand that you are afraid of spiders?

HANNIGAN: I am. I don't care for them, but do I love the webs they spin? Yes. Do I love the spooky aesthetic? Of course. Basically, the whole story came about because I really just had the image of looking down a well with a web with a spider in it, and I thought that would look cool. And then I kind of asked myself, like, is there a story here? Why is he in there? What's he catching in the web? And it kind of just wrote itself from there.

KEITH: Can you read us a little bit of it?

HANNIGAN: For sure. Now, I do have a cat on my lap. I could banish him if he starts meowing, but we'll just give a shot.

KEITH: We'll go for it.


(Reading) The townspeople, who are usually very happy, were extremely upset that their wishes weren't going to come true anymore. The baker, the shopkeeper and the doctor were especially furious. Outrageous. Unbelievable. Positively horrible. Oh, no. You poor, poor townspeople. What did you wish for? Were they very important wishes?

KEITH: So is everyone in Bad Goodsburg a little bit bad and a little bit good? Or are all people a little bit bad and a little bit good?

HANNIGAN: I think everyone is. Yeah, that's kind of the vibe. Well, it's supposed to be, you know, real life. I really like when a character is in a gray area with some good and some bad because it's, like, realistic and relatable. And we have heroes. And we have, like, quote-unquote, "villains." But they're just like us. And that way, they're humanized, and you just get to kind of discuss who you side with, who you agree with.

KEITH: I want to ask you about the art. How would you describe what this book looks like?

HANNIGAN: So I did the whole thing completely digitally.


HANNIGAN: Yeah, I used my iPad to do, just in Procreate because it's what I'm used to, and I knew I could get my really lovely flat shapes with it very fast. I love working fast. I'm a very lazy artist. I was going for a sort of imperfect printmaking effect because I love the look of block printing, but I don't have the patience. Anyone who actually spends time to learn media methods I have a lot of respect for.

KEITH: Yeah, I truly thought you were doing, like, stamping.

HANNIGAN: Oh, good. That means it was really successful. I wasn't so sure about it, but that sounds great. I really only used about two different brushes for the whole thing.

KEITH: Or maybe I'm an unsavvy art critic. That's the other option.

HANNIGAN: No. I doubt it.

KEITH: So where did you draw your inspiration for the art? The colors are not colors that you traditionally see in a children's book. It's like, black and hot orange and purple. And it's a totally unique aesthetic.

HANNIGAN: Oh, thank you so much. A lot of my inspiration for the kind of shapes that I use comes from Polish posters. I don't know if you've ever seen these, but they're like, from the '60s and '70s. Polish poster design was crazy. They had the wackiest shapes and colors. And I was introduced to those back in college. And ever since, they always make their way into a mood board.

Really, these were just the colors that I had been obsessed with at the time that I happened to be making the book. But it worked out really well because they are, like, these kind of sickly, weird tones. And I used all those purples and greens for the, quote-unquote, "bad guys" because I guess it suited their vibe. But I'm actually color blind very slightly. So everyone's been telling me this book is such a lovely shade of orange, and I've been telling everyone it's red. So it's just been...

KEITH: (Laughter).

HANNIGAN: ...Awkward.

KEITH: That's amazing. So who are you rooting for in this story?

HANNIGAN: No one's asked me that before. I like to ask kids that. I like to ask who their favorite character is, and usually, they say the spider or the boy, which I then dive into - now, is the boy even the good guy? What do you think about that? - to get discussions going. But for me, I think I really like the baker because of his shape. I just had a good time drawing him.

KEITH: He looks a little bit like a hamburger.

HANNIGAN: He does. Yes. I kind of made them all into, like, food-like shapes. But for who I'm rooting for, I got to root for the spider, even though he totally is stealing gold. I love his attempts to lie very poorly, and I think I'm terrible liar, as well. I'm really the worst liar ever. So I think I relate to him in that way.

KEITH: I just can't lie. It's almost disabling. Like, my life would be easier if I could lie. So I guess I'm there with you. My 6-year-old son and I have been reading this book to prepare for the interview, and a couple of nights ago, I asked him what he thinks is going on. And with great confidence, he said, oh, the spider is lying. And I'm like, well, what is the spider lying about? He's like, oh, the spider is lying about their wishes, which is not a hot take I was expecting.

So what lesson do you want the kids who are reading this book or who are reading it with their parents - what do you want them to take away from it? And do you think there are different messages for the littles and their parents?

HANNIGAN: I love that. I can't believe that's a new, fresh take I haven't heard before.

KEITH: He comes at things from a unique angle all his own.

HANNIGAN: Yes, and I love that. Really, I didn't go into making this story with, like, a lesson in mind. I know books with morals are important, and they have a place for sure. But really, I just wanted to make people laugh. And to go back and read it again and think, what the heck was this guy even doing? Like, why is this child - where did they learn how to do blackmail? Who taught them about extortion and labor rights and things?

Basically, I just wanted people to have a discussion about it, not, like, for any particular benefit, but I thought it would be entertaining, exactly like what you said your son said, just to come up with their own conclusion as to what people's motives are because I love stories like that that just make you wonder more about them.

KEITH: Author and Illustrator Jess Hannigan - her debut children's book is "Spider In the Well." Thank you so much.

HANNIGAN: Thank you so much for having me.


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