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Three mums, six kids, and one award-winning self-published book: The story of Little Gems

In Tibet babies are named by a respected elder. In Borneo, turtles are kept out of the birthing room, and the Gusii women of East Africa paint their breasts with bitter herbs when they’re ready to wean. Thalia Kehoe Rowden learned all of this and more from a beautiful new book, Little Gems, produced by a trio of Kiwi mums. She tracked them down to find out how they managed such a feat.

Little Gems authors – Bridget Fogarty, Becky Ollivier and Jane Langley.

“An old Russian proverb claims that labour will go more smoothly if both parents-to-be confess the names of all their previous lovers. So all that screaming and yelling you hear in the delivery suite? It might not be pain related.”

That’s the first gem in this gorgeous new book, and there are plenty more to follow, taking us all around the world, from Thailand to Turkey.

Long-time friends Jane Langley and Bridget Fogarty researched and wrote the book, and teamed up with illustrator Becky Ollivier to bring the pages to life. They put the book together with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it’s gone on my list of fun, encouraging so-you’re-about-to-have-a-baby books to give to someone expecting their first baby.

It’s not advice, exactly (unless you count nuggets like the labour-room confessional above), just a sharing of a wide range of traditional folkore and wisdom, with a few reflections on modern parenting along the way.

Each gem gets its own page, on a world tour of pregnancy and birth customs, naming practices and a smattering of history and science. The writing is full of personality, and always kind and open-hearted.

Here’s ‘One Goat or Two?’:

“It’s an ancient Islamic tradition to sacrifice a healthy sheep to celebrate a birth, as a sign of gratitude to Allah that the child is healthy. This is known as Aqeeqah. The meat from the sacrifice is distributed among the family and also given to the poor.

Upon the birth of a baby girl in Indonesia, a goat is sacrificed to give thanks to the gods. If a baby boy is born, TWO goats are sacrificed. Needless to say, all the goats are praying for girls.”

I just about wanted footnotes to tease out some of the briefly-stated facts (like, since Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, who are the ‘gods’ the goats are sacrificed to?) but these are tantalising tidbits that new mums could no doubt research further while glued to a sofa cluster feeding a baby.

The most striking thing is that this book beautifully designed, illustrated, and produced with original art from Becky Ollivier, and indeed, it won Best Illustrated Book and Best Typography at the PANZ Book Design Awards 2016. It is a lovely book to hold in your hand, and every double-page spread is distinctive and arresting.

I asked the trio a few questions about their process and plans, and they were kind enough to share a bit more with us:

You have six children between you. What did you read about motherhood when you were first pregnant, and when you first had a baby in your arms? 

Bridget: I had the idea for this book when I had my first son, which was eight and a half years ago. I now have two sons aged five and eight. I didn’t actually read that much stuff when I had my first baby.

I read Gina Ford, who is very routine and regimented. But I ended up just sort of going with the flow because I had just come out of a very stressful job as a secondary teacher in a big north London comprehensive school, and found being at home with just one baby was actually more restful than the day job I left behind.

Jane: Oh yeah, I read Gina Ford too! Yikes. But as a pregnant first-timer, to me it seemed perfectly plausible that you could ‘create’ a compliant baby by following this precise routine. I was so fixated on following the plan that there was hardly any room for finding the joy in any it. And of course, when it doesn’t work out, there’s this whole feeling that you’re ‘failing’ the plan. Ugh. So when Bridget told me about her book idea, I was immediately hooked.

Tell me about how you got started on this idea: how did it go from a conversation to a real book in your hands? How long did that take?

Bridget: The short answer is: it took a really long time! Years. Jane and I first had a conversation about it back in 2012. We had been friends since the age of five, and we spent a lot of time together when we were both home with our second babies. The initial research and first draft stage took a couple of years, as we prioritised toddlers and babies and jobs that actually paid! We agreed from the start that it was important to enjoy the process as much as the outcome, especially when you’re working with friends.

Once we had the outline of the book, we initially hired a professional book designer and pitched the concept to publishers, but got no response. We still believed in the idea, so we decided to just go ahead and do it ourselves.

Jane: Becky Ollivier was suggested to us by our close friend Sara Zwart, so we sent her a draft manuscript and waited nervously to see if she was interested. She sent us some initial designs and we were blown away, and from that moment onwards we worked together closely as a team of three.

How did you find all these stories? What was your research process?

Bridget: You’ll laugh, but the research process was super old-school. I had a big black spiral-bound book of handwritten research notes, taken from good old Dr Google, as well as books and papers from the Auckland and National Libraries and conversations with representatives from different cultural groups in Auckland. I would deliver this big black book to Jane each week for wordsmithing – it became known as ‘The Bible’.

You funded the book through Kickstarter. Would you do that again? Would you recommend it to others? 

Bridget: Kickstarter is an amazing platform, in that it allows anyone with an idea to find support to make it happen. Mind you, funding is only one part of the process. Self-publishing is a long and winding road, and we had a lot to learn at every step of the way. But last year we won two national book awards, so that was rather lovely proof of the power of a kitchen table idea and a community of backers.

You close the book with a note encouraging modern mothers to slow down, allow other people to help out, and get some rest. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change about our social structures in Aotearoa to make this more possible for new mums?

Bridget: Maybe just the wider acknowledgement that we are all still part of a community.

New mums need support and they should be allowed to just be at home and rest and focus on the new baby. Providing meals for new parents, picking up older children from school, and all the other little things we can do to support a new life can really make a difference.

Current research shows how baby’s neural pathways are opened by loving interaction – and this sets them up for life – so I would love it if we could shift our focus from ‘the post-baby body’, to how much actual positive interaction and love we can all give to that little human.

The Russian proverb is probably my favourite in this book: what about you?

Jane: There are several concepts in the book that have really stayed with me: one in particular is the Chinese concept of ‘the sitting month’, where you stay at home with the baby while everyone else takes care of you for the first 30 days. I just think this makes so much sense, and I only wish more women had access to the level of support that could make this possible.

From a creative point of view, the most exciting part of the process for me was seeing the way Becky’s illustrations added an extra layer of meaning to the text. One pet favourite of mine is ‘helpful disguises for goats’ – it’s such a satisfying creative leap.

Becky, the design and illustrations are just gorgeous – whimsical, clever and memorable. What was your design process like? How long did it take to complete the book?

Becky: Everything stemmed from the manuscript text. I had heaps to work with for each ‘Gem’ so just experimented with ideas until something stuck.

The brief was for each page to be as different and interesting as each of the cultures and ideas written about. In my previous work as a graphic designer I tended to work mainly on a Mac, so what I really loved about this project was that it got me back to the hands-on process.

I rediscovered illustration, I learnt how to screenprint, and I played around with collage and handcutting techniques. Funnily enough, it took me nine months to complete the book – around three months of illustrating, three months of design and proofing, and three months for the printing – which timed perfectly with my second pregnancy.

I actually went into labour the day after the book launch party!

What’s next for each of you?

Becky: Definitely another book! Also, mixing more illustration into my design practice and doing a lot more print design, fabric patterns and letterpress printing.

We all have day jobs and busy families, but yes, there is actually another idea for a book project in the washing machine of our collective minds . . .

Little Gems: Marvels and Musings on Motherhood from Around the World, by Jane Langley, Bridget Fogarty and Becky Ollivier is available for purchase online and at bookshops, large and small, and you can also find art prints from the book at their online shop.

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at Sacraparental.com.

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