Stephen Hall

The 'illustrator who likes to write' brings his ugly duckling to the Belfast Book Festival. Click Play Audio for podcast poems 'Magic Dog' and 'Absurd', and the song 'Outsider Tree'

The DuckIn his version of The Ugly Duckling Stephen Hall asks the reader to apply the familiar moral of this childhood story to the process of reading the story itself – look deeper, as there is more there than first meets the eye.

‘In one sense, The Duck is just a wee book with pictures,' Hall comments. 'But if you start to strip it down like an engine, then you see that nothing has appeared in these little rectangles of paper by accident.’

The layers of meaning that are imbued in every image are part of Hall’s aim to tell a story through his illustrations. His images - colourful, vibrant and expressive - offer an alternative version of the same tale, rather than a rigid pictorial representation of the text.  

‘This goes back to before a time when I could read,' explains Hall, 'when I would be sucked into the drawing while the words where sitting on the outside of the page like some sort of interesting pattern. So when I create a picture you can look at it as a whole [in the context of the entire story] but then you can look at it as an individual tableau. I'm using the illustration to say extra things.’

Image from 'The Duck'Hall’s retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale is full of these ‘extra things’. Aspects of Irish culture that have been incorporated into the Danish story, such as the contemporary Ballycastle and north Antrim coast setting, the traditional celtic seasons and the themes of The Children of Lir.

The characters are ‘colourful’ in more ways than one, with Hell’s Angels and Rastafarian-wannabe ducks featuring. The duck of the title experiences the highs and lows of modern-day living – unfortunately for him, the highs are digital TV and take-aways, the lows are living on the street and signing on the dole. 

Confronting the realities of modern life in his translation of the tale was important to Hall as a means of engaging with his audience, both young and old.

‘It’s easier to tell this type of story if you can relate it to your own experience,' he adds. 'An adult comes to the story with all these life experiences. They know what it’s like to feel rejection, to not have enough money. It may look like a children’s book, but it's as much for adults as children – maybe even more so at times, such as with the dual language aspect.’

The book evolved from a series of sketches for a drawing workshop with Ballycastle Surestart. An experienced workshop facilitator, Hall will be conducting a schools’ workshop as part of the Belfast Book Festival.

Image from 'The Duck'‘I’ll be reading from The Duck, but also using poetry and some music. My workshops are interactive, where people can get involved. They’re more like a series of small events that make up a story-telling session. A story doesn’t have to be a traditional story. 

'I like to encourage both adults and children to get involved, by writing or drawing or making their own music. We all have the potential to do that.’

Stephen Hall will be reading from The Duck as part of 'Little Words, Big Voices', a schools’ workshop at the Belfast Book Festival. 

Interested teachers should contact Falls Road Library directly on 028 9050 9212. For more information on Stephen Hall’s work, check out

Hilary Copeland