Last year at this time, Bari Horn, 11, was a fairly average Grade 6 student at Wildrose Elementary School. She was a budding visual artist, collected Harry Potter books, and played soccer and alto sax. What a difference a year makes.
Horn is one of 34 winners across North America selected to illustrate J.K. Rowling’s new children’s fairytale, The Ickabog. In an online competition sponsored by Scholastic, more than 42,000 entries from across Canada and the United States were submitted from children seven to 12 years old. Just nine entries from Canada were accepted.
The competition ran as part of a free online serialization of The Ickabog, a personal family favourite Rowling wrote more than a decade ago as a bedtime story for her two youngest children. When the COVID pandemic hit, she decided to help entertain all children compelled to stay home.
Eager to have children involved as the story unfolded chapter by chapter on the internet, the author encouraged them to illustrate her story and discover inspiration in the vibrant characters and enticing plot.
“This is amazing. She’s one of my favourite writers. It’s amazing I even got the chance to do it. It’s not like this could happen at any time. To me, it’s quite special I could get in the book or even get the chance,” Horn said.
The Ickabog is a whimsical, warm and fast-paced tale of a fearsome monster, a couple of ruthless villains and the thrilling adventure undertaken by two children to find the truth. It’s a fun ride for children, but in true Rowling style, it is layered with nuances of intrigue that appeal to adults.
The story is set in Cornucopia, a tiny kingdom rich in every aspect. But in this happy kingdom ruled by a vain king, a monster rears its head. Legend says it breathes fire, spits poison and roars through the mists as it snatches up sheep and unruly children.
As the myth grows, a dark shadow falls over the golden kingdom. However, two children, Bert and Daisy, embark on a quest to hunt for the real monster.
Although Rowling was not part of the judging process, she released a statement expressing her thoughts on the submissions.
“I’d like to thank every single child who submitted pictures for The Ickabog illustration competition. Looking through the artwork online has been a joy and I know I’m far from alone in marvelling at the talent on display. I’d love to think The Ickabog gave some future artists and illustrators their first public exposure. For me, the most exciting part of publishing The Ickabog has been seeing all the wonderful illustrations coming in. Although I didn’t judge the illustration competition, I’d probably have put them all in the book if I could!”
Now a Grade 7 student at Sir George Simpson Junior High School, Horn first heard of the competition through Ted Heyworth, her Grade 6 teacher at Wild Rose.
“It was during COVID and we were at home. We were told to read the story for classwork. My teacher knew I loved art and he told me about the challenge. When the assignment was done, I stayed with it,” said Horn.
As each installment was revealed one by one, Scholastic provided prompts and themes the illustrators used for inspiration. Horn submitted 26 drawings for the 34 chapters.
One was accepted: an illustration of Mr. Dovetail in the dungeon before his escape. To create the shaggy-bearded man wearing torn clothes standing in a bleak grey stone dungeon, Horn used pencil, pen and markers as well as a hefty dose of imagination and talent.
Dana Cote, Horn’s mother, made it clear the artwork was chosen based on themes.
“It was not purely on skill. Did the children read the novel? Did they pick out details from the themes? Did they have fun doing it? That's what they were looking for,” Cote said.
Horn excitedly admitted fantasy is her favourite genre and had a sparkle in her eyes describing Rowling’s Potter series.
“I love the imagination of going in a different dimension or world. I love the way she writes stories, the way she describes character and plot. It takes a lot of imagination to create Hogwarts and magic.”
Despite the inspiration from Rowling, Horn candidly admitted to moments of artist’s block. The ideas simply stalled.
“Sometimes I didn’t know what to draw. Sometimes I’d look at other people’s art or other styles of art for inspiration.”
The competition closed July 17 but families were prohibited from publicly disclosing any information until the end of August.
Horn was asleep in bed when her mother brought in the email revealing one of her daughter’s illustrations was accepted.
“Oh, my God, I won,” was Horn’s immediate reaction.
“I was so surprised and grateful it happened.”
Since sushi is one of Horn’s favourite dishes, that night her family celebrated by ordering a take-out platter layered with sushi, sashimi, tempura, octopus and eel from Sushi Park on St. Anne Street.
In seeing how her daughter has blossomed, Cote is sending a sincere thank-you to the Scholastic team for their support throughout the process.
Turning to her daughter, Cote said, “You’re so humble and gracious. You want to make me live up to that. We’re so proud and amazed at your dedication. There’s no words.”
The winning illustrations can be viewed online at theickabog.com/en-us/competition/.