Sometimes fairy tales do come true

— Photo from Susan Thomas

Isla Besha and her mother, Susan Thomas, harvest grapes this fall at her grandparents’ vineyard in Guilderland. A fairy-tale book released by J.K. Rowling to entertain kids confined by the pandemic lured Isla to draw a picture that was chosen, in an international contest, to illustrate the book.

ALTAMONT — Since before Isla Besha was born, her mother, Susan Thomas, envisioned her as an artist.

Thomas herself is an artist. “That’s my passion. That’s how I express myself. It’s my joy,” she said.

This week, a book by J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series, was released. Chapter 14 of “The Ickabog” is illustrated by 12-year-old Isla.

Her name (pronounced I-la) “is the Spanish for island,” said Isla.

Over 42,000 drawings were entered into a contest run by Scholastic this summer and 34 were chosen to illustrate the book.

Rowling wrote the story more than a decade ago for her own children, according to Scholastic, and decided to release it now to entertain children and their parents confined at home because of the pandemic. Royalties from the book, released on Tuesday, are being donated to Rowling’s Volant Charitable Trust to help groups internationally who have been hurt by the pandemic.

At the same time, it was the pandemic that brought Isla to the contest.

In the midst of the shutdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, Isla and her 10-year-old sister, Lily, along with their mother and father, Jim Besha, were stuck in their Altamont home.

“My mom and I were going through a competition phase,” said Isla. “We were really bored over the summer.”

Isla and Lily, both love the Harry Potter books. “My little sister and I are mega fans. We have wands and capes. We take all the online quizzes,” said Isla.

“The Ickabog,” which is not related to Harry Potter, was released online in installments, which kids around the world took in. Isla said she liked thinking of other artists, her age, from all over experiencing the story together.

Isla describes Rowling’s story this way, “It’s set in this kingdom called Cornucopia ruled by a king that lets everyone else do his work for him. In the kingdom, different sections produce pastries, meat, wine, cheese — and then there are the marshlands. There’s a monster running about in the marshland called Ickabog who eats sheep.”

“J.K. Rowling and Scholastic put out one or two chapters at a time,” said Thomas. “Kids would illustrate whatever they wanted for each section. They were given prompts.”

The prompt provided for Chapter 14 was, “Draw King Fred in his nightclothes,” Isla recalled. “I don’t know why I put him in a purple beret.”

She drew the lines first and then colored it in, she said.

Her drawing shows the king in an ornate, carefully colored bedstead, emblazoned on the headboard and footboard with a cornucopia — for the name of the kingdom.

King Fred’s mustached face is peeking out above a wide expanse of white covers, his head set against more white space — a pillow.

“She has a really strong illustrative style,” said Thomas, noting “all of the white space is defined by strong black lines and interesting color.”

“I’ve liked art since I was a little kid,” said Isla. “My mom’s an artist. She and her friends taught me.”

“My dream was to have little babies to make art with,” said Thomas. “I ended up with one artist and one non-artist.”

As her first child, Thomas said, “Isla got the brunt of it.” She was exposed to art in utero, her mother said. “She went to the Albany Art Room before she could walk.”

Now, at 12, “She can make art out of anything in front of her …  She can paint and sew. She can make a sculpture out of a pile of junk.”

Isla has been a student at Woodland Hill Montessori School in North Greenbush for eight years. “I like to draw, write, read, and act,” Isla said.

“Isla’s first-grade teacher would let Isla write her poems on the window of the classroom with washable crayon,” said Thomas. “She’s won awards for her stories. This is the icing on the cake,” said Thomas of Isla’s illustration being chosen for Rowling’s book.

The prize is a copy of the book signed by J.K. Rowling and $650 in Scholastic materials for Isla’s school.

“It’s been exciting dealing with Scholastic,” said Thomas. “We’ve been part of a huge machine. They’re really efficient.”

Isla said she has known for a long time what she wants to be when she grows up. “I want to be a scientist,” she said. Specifically, she went on, “I want to be a marine biologist studying marine life off the coast of New England.”

This career choice was inspired by her family’s trips to Nantucket during the summer. “I read any book I can about the animals there,” she said.

On Tuesday, Isla got the link to the “Sizzle Reel,” showing young artists, ages 7 to 12, from around the world opening “The Ickabog” with their drawings in it. The artists hailed from across the United States and Canada, from India, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Britain.

Some of them screamed or shouted; others hugged the book or jumped up and down; Isla smiled widely and said, “Here I am” as she held up her book.


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