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“Spider in the Well” Children’s book by author-illustrator Jess Hannigan: NPR

Spider in the Well, written and illustrated by Jess Hannigan

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

Spider in the Well, written and illustrated by Jess Hannigan

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

Once upon a time, in the folk town of Bad Göodsburg, probably in Germany, there lived an overworked newspaper vendor.

Not only did he bring people their daily news, but he also swept their chimneys, shined their shoes and brought them their milk.

He was overworked and underestimated.

So when the townspeople discover their wishing well is broken, the newspaper vendor sets out to repair it and get revenge. So begins the children’s tale about extortion, labor rights and justice.

Author and illustrator Jess Hannigan discussed her first picture book, Spider in the well, with NPR’s Tamara Keith. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.

Spider in the well

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan


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Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan


Spider in the well

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

Interview Highlights

TamaraKeith: How did you end up writing a book about a spider, when I understand that you are afraid of spiders?

Jess Hannigan: I am. I don’t care about them. But do I like the webs they weave? Yes. Do I like the spooky aesthetic? Of course. Basically the whole story came about because I really had an image of a well with a spider web, with a spider in it, and I thought that would look cool. And then I kind of wondered, “Is there a story here?” Why is he in there? What does he catch on the web? And it kind of wrote itself from there.

Keith: Is everyone in Bad Göodsburg a little bad and a little good? Or is everyone a little bad and a little good?

Hannigan: Well, it’s supposed to be, you know, real life. I really like when a character is in a gray area with good and bad because it’s realistic and relatable. And we have heroes and “villains,” but they are just like us. And thus, they are humanized. And you can just discuss whose side you are on, who you agree with.

Keith: How would you describe what this book is like?

Hannigan: I did everything completely digitally. I was sort of going for a sort of imperfect engraving effect because I like the look of block printing, but I don’t have the patience. So it was kind of a happy medium to get that kind of folky, old-world feel without any work.

Spider in the Well, written and illustrated by Jess Hannigan

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

Spider in the Well, written and illustrated by Jess Hannigan

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

Keith: Where did you get your inspiration for this art? The colors are not colors you traditionally see in a children’s book. It’s like black, warm orange and purple.

Hannigan: A lot of my inspiration for the type of shapes I use comes from Polish posters. They’re from the 60s and 70s. The design of the Polish posters was crazy and they had the wackiest shapes and colors, and I was introduced to them at university.

It was just the colors that obsessed me when I was making this book. They have these kind of sick, weird tones. And I used all those purples and greens for the “bad guys” because I guess it suited their vibe. But I’m actually very slightly colorblind. Everyone told me this book was such a beautiful shade of orange and I told everyone it was red.

Keith: What lesson do you want children who read this book – or who read it with their parents – what do you want them to take away?

Hannigan: I didn’t start writing this story with a lesson in mind. I know that moral books are important and they certainly have their place. But really, I just wanted to make people laugh. And go back and reread it and think, “What exactly was this guy doing?” Where did they learn to blackmail? Who taught them about extortion and labor rights and all that?

I love stories like this, which make you wonder more about them.

Spider in the Well, written and illustrated by Jess Hannigan

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

Spider in the Well, written and illustrated by Jess Hannigan

Illustrations © 2024 Jess Hannigan

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