Author-illustrator Lita Judge would like readers to know about the remarkable — and remarkably misunderstood — life of Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published two hundred years ago. In a departure from picture books for young readers, of which Lita has created fourteen thus far in her career, she tells Mary’s story in Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein, a fictionalized, heavily illustrated free-verse biography, using Mary’s voice to tell us the harrowing story of her grief-filled life. It is a compelling tale, powerfully told.
I talked with Lita via email about what it was like to create her first book for YA readers.
Jules: Tell me about deciding to write a long free-verse novel about Mary Shelley. What prompted it?
Lita: I wanted to write about Mary Shelley for over a decade after I learned that she was a pregnant teenage run-away when she wrote her novel, Frankenstein. That blew me away. Why did I not know more about her life when she should have been an incredible role model to young women? We’ve all heard the popular myth that Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night when the poet Lord Byron dared a small party of fellow expatriates to write ghost stories. But the myth strips away the identity of the brilliant young woman who wrote one of the most influential novels of the Romantic era and places credit for its inspiration in the hands of a man. Countless events in Mary’s life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel’s creation.
I knew immediately I wanted to create a book that honored Mary Shelley’s innovative spirit. She faced a lot of loss and abuse in her young life, but despite this, she persevered to create a new genre in literature (the industrial-age science fiction novel) and the most iconic monster ever created. I thought the best way to honor this was to create something that looked different from YA biographies we’ve seen before. By using free verse and full-bleed art, this is not just a novel in verse or a graphic novel. It is part biography, part visual fantasy, and part feminist allegory. I also wanted readers to emotionally connect with this remarkable young woman. I thought poems paired with art could accomplish this best.
Jules: What was your research like for learning Mary's story?
Lita: My research for writing and illustrating Mary’s Monster lasted several years. It began in 2006 after I had re-read an annotated version of the novel, Frankenstein. I wanted to know more and found a biography by Miranda Seymour. This biography is an incredibly valuable historical record of Mary Shelley’s life, but its dense text was rather disappointing to me in that it didn’t bring to life this remarkably radical and brilliant young woman.
But it led me to discover that Mary Shelley had kept a journal, starting at the time she ran away from home. Through a little online digging, I found that copies of the journals were extremely expensive and a hard to borrow, but I managed to find a set at a nearby college and arranged to borrow them over the summer. Reading her words led me to develop a bit of an obsession with Mary.
From there, I began reading the work of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, founder of the feminist movement and author. I read biographies and texts about the Romantic poets; the political, scientific, and artistic landscape of their times; and all of the works by her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. I also read poems by Lord Byron, Coleridge, and other authors in her life. Then I dove deeper into my research by traveling to the Bodleian library in Oxford, England, where the original journals—as well as many letters by Mary and Percy and the original rough draft of Frankenstein, which included notes in the margins—are all archived.
While in England, I researched places they traveled, I visited Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, I took visual photo references, and I completed sketches of these locations so that I could bring them to life in the illustrations. (For more information about the research, I have a timeline here that documents the six years of research, writing, and painting that went into the creation of this book.)
Jules: Tell me about the book's drawings. Are they charcoal or watercolors? Did you always know this would be illustrated?
Lita: Yes, I knew immediately this had to be illustrated. Illustrations have always been my means of storytelling. It is the medium where I feel most inspired and comfortable to reveal the naked truth of something — the joy, the loss, and the sadness my characters are feeling.
I felt I needed to reach beyond depicting Mary’s life in a purely historical way. I researched the clothing, architecture, and other elements of her life, so that I could get those elements right, but the art focuses on the expressions of my characters. Through a realistic style, the illustrations evoke the fear, sadness, and passion Mary experienced. The artwork is a combination of pencil, watercolor, ink, and digital. I kept it in black and white to give it the haunting feel the story needed.
I also needed to find a way to separate the realistic world in which Mary lived with the interior imaginative world of her own mind. I wanted to create rich, haunting images that portrayed her remarkable spirit to endure and create. I wanted to reveal the inner forces of her creative mind. I also thought illustrations were an opportunity to get back to the truth of her work. We have all seen Mary Shelley’s Creature portrayed in movies—for the most part, altered and distorted—but I wanted to get back to her original image of the creature. (For more discussion on how I created the art, I have a video here, The Making of Mary’s Monster.)
Jules: As the Kirkus review notes, you pull no punches in portraying the grimness of Mary's life. Isn't this your first book for YA readers? What was it like to switch audiences and write for older readers?
Lita: I never set out with a goal of creating a YA book. When starting a new work, I only think about finding a story that feels relevant to me. At the time I was exploring the life of Mary, I was facing personal challenges that made her life and strength resonate with me. The strength I found in her helped me to grapple with the challenges I was facing. Once I had learned about the details of her life, I knew I wanted to share it with YA readers, because I knew her story would feel relevant to them. Writing a YA book was a refreshing change for me. In nonfiction picture books, my work is to introduce a subject in very broad, simple terms. With YA, I could really dive straight into the truth and depth of a topic. It excited and challenged me as an artist, which was just what I needed creatively.
Mary Shelley was a girl brimming with ideas about politics, literature, and love. In a conservative world, this teenager radically refused to accept the social norms of her day, which denied women a chance at an education or a career. In movies about her life, she is often depicted as an aristocratic wife, but in reality she grew up incredibly poor, faced the constant threat of debtors’ prison, and lived next to the prison gallows and livestock slaughterhouses. She was also straddled with a cruel stepmother, who mistreated her. All of this led her to run away with her poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, at the age of 16! Pregnant and unable to go home, she survived and began writing her novel when she was only 19.
Sadly, teens today inherit a world with social injustice, a world where women are still fighting for full equality. But Mary’s life is an inspiration to us all about how to fight for what we believe and how to live by our convictions.
Jules: What, if anything, surprised you about Mary's life? What was something you didn't already know?
Lita: The thing that surprised me most was what a monster Percy Shelley was. I had grown up believing that life with her poet must have been romantic. But in doing my research I found he had treated her cruelly.
It was difficult to understand why she endured all the emotional abuse she suffered by Percy. I really had to understand her own times and the restrictions placed on her to understand why she chose to stay with him. Once I felt I had found those reasons, I struggled with how to best write them. I was also startled by the fact that Mary had to publish Frankenstein anonymously, because she was a woman. All of this led me to believe that I had to write the poems in first person, from her point of view, in hopes readers might emotionally connect to her and understand her decisions within the context of her times.
Jules: What's next for you? Working on anything now you're allowed to talk about?
Lita: I needed a break after working on such an intense project, so I returned to my first love, writing and illustrating picture books for very young readers. Penguin Flies Home will be out next year. And now I am also working on my second illustrated YA novel. I can’t say who it is about yet, but the subject is another courageous young woman, who contributed greatly to literature. Stay tuned for more!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
MARY'S MONSTER; LOVE, MADNESS, AND HOW MARY SHELLEY CREATED FRANKENSTEIN. Copyright © 2018 by Lita Judge. Published by Roaring Brook Press, New York. Illustrations reproduced by permission of Lita Judge.