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Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

One of the things I enjoy about Tumblr is that you never know what surprising new thing will cross your path. One day on my dash, amid all the posts about incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, people being thrilled by Yuri on Ice (it’s charming; I loved it) and The Science Side of Tumblr, a post about Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses artwork came past putting some vapour-brain who claimed no woman of colour ever invented a thing or amounted to much.

Following the links I discovered that Jason Porath had once worked as an animator for Dreamworks. The idea for his series of the women of history and legend who deserve to be better known came from Jason and his fellow animators discussing the questions: Who is the least likely candidate for an animated princess movie? (Hence the ‘Rejected’ in front of ‘Princesses’ in the title.)

Porath kept suggesting women he’d learned about that the rest of the crew had never heard of.  “I thought that should change,” he says in the forward.

The result is a book of nearly 100 women of history and legend (some smudging that line) who were powerful, cunning, determined, inventive, deadly, ambitious, righteous, and altogether superbly badass.

Each entry is illustrated with a portrait in an animated-princess style, though the subject matter isn’t necessarily Disneyesque. Each is coded with markers to note how graphic the content will be, from a nice good defeats evil green to warning for violence, abuse, rape and self harm, so that readers can better choose what to share with their kids.

Sounds grim at times, but Porath has a flair for storytelling and a sassy wit, in the footnotes as well as the text. His breeziness doesn’t ignore the more troubling parts of these women’s fates (or sometimes very stabby behaviour). They’re not all good women, but they are women of note who should be better known.

Of course, some of them are well known to me, like Ada Lovelace and (thanks to Netflix’s Marco Polo series) Khutulan, but most were new to me.

One reviewer questioned the historical accuracy of some entries, but Porath provides a bibliography and I look forward to investigating more about these women, now I know who they are.

I read my copy on my Kindle app on the iPad so I could better enjoy the colourful art.


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Review: Draculiza by Bianca Bagatourian (story) and Seitu Hayden (art)

Draculiza cover“Why…why…why can’t I be a princess?” asked Draculiza quietly.

“Because…my dear, you don’t have rosy cheeks or long golden hair. And I’m afraid you are entirely too short to be a princess,” said Draculiza’s mother gently.

“Pointy ears! Pointy ears!” added the wise Spike.


Cedar Grove Books is a new US press producing children’s and Young Adult books, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mysteries and even some graphic novels. They’ve got some cool looking stuff out already, and more on the way – including this entertaining little gem, Draculiza.

For starters, I loved the idea of a little vampire who wants to be a princess, and then is told she can’t be one because she doesn’t look right for the part. She determines to apply to the Fairy Tale Association anyway, puts on a disguise and sets about doing what she can to become a princess. (“This is not right. Everybody has a little princess inside them, and mine wants to come out now.”)

Draculiza bedtimeThe most fun is had with Draculiza in her disguises getting into all the fairytales and making a mess of them – I admit I wish there was more of that – but of course, fairy tales have strict rules and things really aren’t working out. After spreading havoc far and wide – and being cheered up by her faithful little bat Spike – she has an epiphany of sorts. (At least for now.)

It’s a simple idea and a sweet story, with charming art, about knowing who you are and being really good at that.

The book is available as an ebook and as a hardcover.

Draculiza and SpikeBuy Draculiza

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Melbourne Literary: Word and Way

Melbourne’s City Council has been promoting laneway art projects for many years. In 2002, artist Evangelos Sakaris created Word and Way in Heffernan Lane, a small street linking the ‘Little Greece’ of Lonsdale Street to Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown.

Word and Way features quotes from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and Greek philosopher Heraclitus depicted as street signs.

The signs, affixed to bricks or jutting out from the walls, have become battered over the years but remain a fascinating excuse to pause and consider their meaning. Sayings like “I have searched myself” sit at the same height as shop signs and an advertisement for beer, while others sit side by side with real road signs.

Every time I walk past this little lane, I see the signs there. Some of them have weathered, and some have been spray-painted over, and therefore become part of the wider and more populist approach to street art and self-expression.

The koans and phrases still resonate for me though. It’s still a good excuse to stop in the middle of the busy city to ponder and contemplate aspects of life and how we approach it.

Sakaris has also created another text-based piece of art at the Speakers Corner in Birrarung Marr, the park beside the Yarra River.

A few years ago, I created the Melbourne Literary and Melbourne Peculiar apps in celebration of Melbourne’s standing as a UNESCO City of Literature, as well as some of the daggy, weird and downright peculiar things I love about my city. I thought I’d share the occasional entry from the apps. They are still available on both iTunes and Android, though they are no longer updated.

Review: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

nutshellI first saw Corinne May Botz’s book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York.  It is a collection of art photos taken of Frances Glessner Lee’s dollhouse recreations of murder scenes.

The dioramas were not merely macabre toys put together by a fan of true crime. Lee painstakingly created  the scenarios in the 1940s and 50s for a very serious purpose: training investigating police on the correct scientific methods of approaching crime scenes, observing all details which may bear on the case.

At the time, medical law was still very much a work in progress – murders often passed undetected or badly investigated. Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress, founded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine and built these gruesome displays of domestic murder, mishap and accidental death to train police in observation. The models are still in use today by the Baltimore Police.

IMG_9741An astonishing level of detail went into their creation. Lee sometimes wore clothes for a year past their effective use-by date so they’d have the correct wear for the tiny figures in their boxes. She ordered parts, she disassembled and reworked and reconstructed them. She had pieces made from scratch. There are tiny calendars and books (including The Sign of the Four), miniature tools and household implements, medically accurate colouring (bright red skin for victims of carbon monoxide poisoning) and domestic details recreated to scale. Many of the scenarios were based on real cases, altered and expanded slightly to fit their purpose as training materials.

IMG_9747The Studies taught generations of investigative officers how to keep their eyes open, to look for corroborating evidence and to seek out contradictory clues.

The Nutshell Studies – so named for the old saying that the role of forensics is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell” – have multiple aspects to them.

IMG_9749There is the story of an intelligent, strong-willed woman who was denied a university education because that was not appropriate for women (according to her father) but forged a valuable role for herself anyway. There is the story of policing and detective work. There is a wealthy woman’s philanthropic role in promoting the ways in which the law and medicine interacted (in early years, coroners didn’t have to have medical expertise at all – some were elected to the position and were pretty much useless for the purpose of autopsies and crime solving). There is one photographer’s growing obsession with the dollhouses not only as social and investigative artefacts, but as artistic ones too.

Botz’s book is an artistic interpretation of the training tableaus, beginning with observations on Lee’s life and how it influenced her work in an artistic and social rather than strictly crime-solving sense. A biography of Lee criss-crosses the social, feminist, investigative and artisan elements of the work before the rest of the book highlights some of the studies.

IMG_9745The point of this book is not a whodunnit for the reader to solve – most of the scenarios remain unexplained because they’re still in use – but the biography and the photographs together provide an insight for the crime writer, as well as the reader who is fascinated by the strange and macabre and by the history of detective work.

They are also strangely, brutally beautiful in the way they capture the hard lives and everyday tragedy of death, and the remarkable detail that went into making them.

I can’t help thinking that Sherlock Holmes would approve of them.

Buy The Nutshell Studies from

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“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” – a happy ending

babyshoesThere’s a story that does the rounds that Ernest Hemingway once wrote the shortest, saddest story every told, for a $10 bet.

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

I first heard that six word story when Mary Borsellino told of how she had found it so terribly sad that her friend, artist Audrey Fox, decided to subvert the gloominess of it. Since they both enjoyed monster stories, Audrey used that as an inspiration to illustrate the story in a way that gave it a happy ending (a version of which you can see here – Audrey redrew the picture for my blog!).

Of the picture, Audrey says, “I was really just using my imagination and thinking about what else the story could mean that wasn’t ‘sad baby tragedy’.”

That story, and the story of Audrey’s illustration, made it into one of Mary Borsellino‘s Wolf House books, from memory, but I’ve always loved that whole story-in-a-story

Now, the saddest part of this whole thing is that the Hemingway part of it isn’t true. Ernest Hemingway’s writing of the tragic six-word novel is an urban legend.

A very similar story actually dates at least to Hemingway’s own childhood, when a newspaper classifieds section titled Terse Tales of the Town published the item, “For sale, baby carriage, never been used” in 1906. Similarly worded stories popped up again every few years in newspapers.

Whether the bet with Hemingway ever happened (and if it did, whether Hemingway quoted this story deliberately) is unclear – but that version of the story is ascribed to literary agent, Peter Miller, who first told it in 1974 – after Hemingway’s death – and then published it in a 1991 book. It was just the latest in a long line of stories about that story, but it’s the one that stuck.

The idea of writing something so perfectly pithy over lunch is an appealing legend, but the perfection and pithiness of the six word ‘novel’ remains, whatever its origin.

I don’t think it spoils the tale to note that Hemingway didn’t create it. I love the fact that this little notion first popped up in 1906 (if not earlier) and proceeded to grow, little by little, acquiring embellishments as it rolled down the years, until it grew to the story of a dinner party and a bet and a writer of terse words.

Or until it grew to the story of terse words, a sad friend, and an artist who decided to turn the whole thing on its head.

It’s a great reminder that many stories never stop being told, and never stop growing in the telling. It’s a reminder that stories can mean different things to different generations and that sometimes, if you look at an old story in a new way, it can grow into a whole new meaning.

Sometimes with tentacles.

You can find some of Audrey’s art, and other art that she likes, on her Tumblr.


It Means What It Is

From ‘Van Gogh, les parodies et les geeks’ at La boite verte.

I’ll always be grateful for Matthew Collings’ 1999 TV series This is Modern Art. It taught me a lot about modern art, for a start, but more importantly it taught me that enjoying a piece of art is very subjective: and so is loathing one, or having no reaction to it at all.

I mean, either I respond to a piece or I don’t; and if I respond, it may be positive or negative – but in the end, I just feel how I feel. Maybe I can articulate the reasons for my reaction, maybe I can’t, but how I feel is no indicator of whether a piece is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All I can say is how I respond to something, and then try to understand why I respond that way.

Once I let go of any idea of what kind of art I was supposed to think good or bad, I could just get on with either liking it or not as I saw fit.

And apparently, what I see fit to like (or not) in art revolves around humour and an appreciation of layers of meaning.

This appreciation of my own art appreciation came home to me as I visited MONA in Hobart on 21 February.

I first visited MONA in 2011. I love that gallery. I love the way it uses technology to make viewing art easy and more interesting. I love how texts on its O device help to break down those barriers of how art ‘should be’ received and instead opens visitors up the the excellent notion that all responses are valid.

This visit, my layers of appreciation revolved around:

  • thinking about artworks I was seeing for the first time.
  • enjoying rediscovering pieces I’d seen an loved in other exhibitions and didn’t know I’d find, like Zizi the Affectionate Couch and Korean video artist Junebum Park’s 3 Crossing.
  • rediscovering pieces that I enjoyed the first time around at MONA, like the two live goldfish swimming in a deep plate of water around a chopping knife, and the Pulse Room.
  • amusing myself with the way certain pieces and moments made me think of other things in pop culture.

That’s one of the fun things about seeing lots of art as well as seeing lots of pop culture that may mention art. Everything you see accumulates layers of meaning.

One evocative piece had two speakers in a darkened room, each emitting the voice of the artist singing two versions of a folk song.

The song is the story about two sisters in love with the same man. One sister pushes the other into the river so she can have the man to herself. The drowned sister dies, is washed ashore, and her bones and hair are made into a fiddle that will only play a lament.

One speaker is the song of the sister who pushed; the other is the song of the sister who drowned.

It’s a wonderful piece of sound sculpture, with two simple speakers standing in for those tragic sisters. It also is the latest layer in my relationship with that story, which I’ve heard in different folk songs and in different forms. One of my favourite versions is Loreena McKennitt’s The Bonny Swans, which adds another sister and incorporates at least two versions of the story in a single song.

Not all of my pop culture associations were so elegant. At various times I was reminded of Rimmer admiring Legion’s light switch [at 1:50], or John Cleese and Eleanor Bron admiring the TARDIS in Doctor Who’s City of Death, or Ben Miller’s crusty old historian saying ‘It is, of course, absolutely priceless’ just before he manages to destroy whatever fabulous historical artefact he’s looking at in the Miller and Armstrong sketch show.

So it may be that no-one else but Tim knew what I was giggling about at some of those exhibits, but it’s liberating to know that it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thought about either the art or my giggling.

I love the layers of perception I experience, without regard for ‘high’ or ‘low’ art. Art is just art. Creativity is just creativity. And whether I like it and the ways in which I do (or not), matter only to me. It’s enough to have an opportunity to see other people’s imaginations splashed out for the world to see, and to feel however I feel about it, and try to work out why I react the way I do.

That way, I don’t just learn about art. I learn about myself.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at

Invasion at Warrnambool!

INvasion BorgMuseums and pop culture – especially SFnal pop culture – never used to occupy the same space. They still don’t, on the whole, but in Warrnambool, a country town in western Victoria, that juxtaposition is on offer until 28 January.

The Warrnambool Art Gallery’s Invasion exhibition is housing the touring British exhibition of SF costumes, props, promotional figures and replicas for the duration.It’s an eclectic mix of material from TV shows and films, including Red Dwarf, various Star Trek series, the Alien and Predator films, Dr Who, Metropolis, theDune series, Lost in Space, The Chronicles of Riddick and The Black Hole.

It’s always fascinating to see the make-believe up close, to see what it looks like before celluloid, clever lighting and post-production turn cloth and rubber into facsimiles of a more real-looking world. There’s artistry not only in the original design, then, but in imagining how these things will transform through another medium (film and the screen) to look different again. That’s two layers of creative vision right there.

Museum staff said that some locals found it all a bit odd – what’s a costume from a TV show doing in an art gallery? But staff also said that the exhibition attracted all manner of visitors: not just the expected SF geeks, but people interested in design, fashion, craftwork and models.

Is it because this form of art and design is commercial that it gets so little respect from the average punter? Is it because this form of art and design is used to entertain instead of being ‘serious art’?

Invasion red dwarfTo me, these costumes and models being made for entertainment doesn’t make the skill and imagination behind them less admirable. The gorgeous and enduring art deco design of the robot from Metropolis is an amazing piece of work, no matter its origins. The reflective, padded suit from Red Dwarf’s holoship is both ridiculously shiny and completly evocative of that too-shiny, too-perfect concept of a ship. The Dalek pepperpot is simple and almost mundane but also evocative of fascist uniforms (and uniformity) and has been an enduring symbol of evil for TV viewers since the 60s. That’s not just script – that’s excellent design work.

One particularly cool thing about the Warrnambool exhibition is that visitors can get up close to the displays and see the fine detail on how these things were made: the warp and weft of the material; the paintwork on the models; the shortness of some of the molded outfits that indicate Patrick Stewart and Matt leBlanc are both much more petite than I would have thought!

Invasion Dalek sealWarrnambool has other pleasures on offer, by the way, including a lovely bay beach, an old cinema and some very nice cafes, so if you have some time and an inclination to indulge either your geek interests or passion for craft, art and design, it’s a lovely time of year to visit the coast.

Full disclosure: I travelled to Warrnambool courtesy of V-Line and visited the gallery as a guest of the Warrnambool Art Gallery.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at

A few wishes for the new year

How To: Make A Paperback Christmas Tree by Kayla Aimee

If you are one of those people for whom books repurposed as art gives you hives, look away now.

For the rest of us, here are some instructions onhow to turn a damaged or unwanted paperback into a little Xmas tree.

Which brings me to the season: and whether it is hot or cold where you reside, whether you celebrate Xmas as a Christian, on your own terms or not at all, I hope the end of 2012 is going smoothly for you, and that 2013 promises good things to you and yours.

If your year was rough, may there be smoother times ahead.

If your year was full of brilliance, may you count your blessings.

May you find ways to express your creativity, whatever they are, and even if you think you’re no good at it. Nobody ever got better at their passion by refusing to practise because it wasn’t perfect the first time.

May you be kind to those who need kindness, even if they don’t necessarily deserve it, and may the world in turn be kind to you. Certainly, may you be kind to yourself. We so often are harsher on ourselves than others would be, and that’s not healthy or productive.

May you learn more about yourself so that you can understand what will bring you contentment, fulfillment and satisfation, and then find ways to do those things instead of the things that make you frustrated and sad.

May the coming year bring you growth, surprises, enough challenge to be good for you and enough rest to keep you well.

See you in 2013!

Sculpted books: extended storytelling or mere vandalism?

As a booklover, you’d think I would be horrified when people take books and cut them up to make art.

You’d be wrong.

As always, though, that response is tempered with some ground rules.

Essentially, if an artist has taken an book (or even a new one!) and carved its pages to make new art, I don’t really find that offensive at all. In fact, I often find it magical or charming.

A book is a twofold thing, you see. It’s the object itself, and it’s the story it contains. When an artist takes the object and creates new art with it, in a sense I feel like it is taking both object and story and extending them jointly into a new form of story telling. I found a picture recently of an old Sherlock Holmes book, with a page cut to create a silhouette of the Great Detective, deerstalker, pipe and all. Light thrown onto that open page cast the detective’s shadow onto a page of His Last Bow. It’s a simple and evocative use of paper and light to emphasise the story by using the object. I think it’s pretty cool, especially since the story is by no means lost to us with this act of creative vandalism.

At the recent Clunes Back to Booktown Festival, I saw multiple volumes of old maths textbooks, way out of date nonfiction tomes on chemistry and the like, pierced through and threaded together to make flag stands. It’s a shame the content of those books was clearly past their use-by date, and I hope the material is available somewhere for historical interest and researchers. It made me a little uncomfortable, I guess, but in a way it was nice to see a book that might otherwise simply be trashed as useless repurposed to sign post the way to second hand and antiquarian booksellers.

And then there was the city hotel I recently visited. The bookshelves in its bar were lines with blue books, by which I mean all the covers were blue. Hardcovers stripped of dust jackets, mainly. I went to take one of the books from the shelf, idly attracted by the title and wanting to flick through the pages: only to find the whole row of books had been skewered and affixed in place on the shelf.

Four shelves of skewered books. Two bookshelves. Eight rows of stories that no-one could read. Eight rows of objects fastened, ugly, like butterflies under glass. Instead of being transformed from one kind of story telling to another, it felt like all of those books had just been killed and pinned down for the much less edifying purpose of mere decoration. Because they were blue. Honestly, if they’d been blue but you could still read them, it would have been interactive, at least. The books would still be alive to interpretation, as objects and as stories. It was having them transfixed by a metal pole that made it feel so awful to me.

Maybe it’s a fine line. Maybe one person’s shallow decorative choices are another person’s artistic expression. Maybe one person’s artistic expression is another person’s brutish vandalism. But if someone came to me with one of my books that they had made into a work of art which expressed something about what the story meant to them, I think I’d be pretty chuffed. It wouldn’t demean the object or the story, surely, to be transformed into a new expression?

Let me know what you think.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at

Interview: Les Petersen – Cover Artist

I was lucky enough to win a competition recently. The prize: a cover for an ebook created by artist and writer, Les Petersen. I’m in the process of compiling a special edition of my Witch Honour and Witch Faith novels, complete with extra material. To your right you’ll see the magnificent cover Les created for the book.

I’m delighted with the result, and particularly with the different elements of the two novels he’s managed to weave into the cover without clutter. The picture has a lovely balance and he’s captured those two characters very well.

Les had created cover art for a lot of Australian writers, including Ian Irvine, Karen Miller, Trudy Canavan, Isobelle Carmody, Tony Shillitoe and Jennifer Fallon, so I feel especially chuffed to have my own Les Petersen cover!

Cover art is a specialist skill, of course. We’ve all been won over by lovely covers, or been disappointed by covers we didn’t think captured the essence of a favourite novel. I decided to ask Les about the process of creating good covers, and some other things about his own work.

Les has a special offer for people who need cover art either for their ebooks or their published-on-paper books. More about that at the end, though.

Les's cover of The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody from her Obernewtyn series. (Design by Cathy Larsen of the Penguin Group)

You captured the essence of my two Witch books very impressively for the cover of The Witches of Tyne. How do you go about absorbing and synthesising someone’s novel to achieve that?

It’s a kind of magic. 😀 I suppose synthesising someone’s novel is like capturing the images that form in your mind when you read books. You hear the writer’s voice and it creates a texture of a story: best described as the internal movie that plays in your daydreaming mind. Then it becomes a purely mechanical action of putting together an image that gets as close to that movie as you can.

All illustrators have a personal visual repertoire and style/language they use, an arrangement of symbols and parts of symbols that go up to make the whole image, which they feel more than see in the beginning. So, it’s taking that personal repertoire, challenging your skill in using it, using a few references to help make sense of the vague ideas you have, and making the image work as best it can to fit the story.

Or, if you prefer a simpler explanation – “it’s magic!”

A lot of your cover art seems to be for fantasy or SF books. Do you prefer to create art for those genres? What other genres do you work in? Is there a genre you’d like to do art for – crime, westerns or romance for example, that you haven’t done yet?

I’ve been lucky to work in the fantasy genre, with a smattering of sci-fi as well – and they tend to be the kinds of commissions that come my way.

I’d work in any genre, except maybe overtly romantic images with bare-chested men and frocked women. That doesn’t challenge the image creation enough when you are restricted to a very narrow visual language. Horror also doesn’t interest me that much though I have done a few. My preferred direction would be to do more relaxed, “childish” images, like the cover I did for Ford Street. James Roy’s The Gimlet Eye.

You’re a writer as well as an artist. Has that influenced your approach to designing covers?

What an interesting question! At first I was willing to say the act of writing hasn’t really influenced the style of image I create, but on reflection, as we all know, both writing and image making are ways of telling stories. All images have narratives, or should, IMHO, so I suppose the construction of an image includes beats or suggestions of the story you are illustrating.

You should be able to look into the image and see details that suggest plot points. Insufficient image details make it all feel slick, I suppose – and maybe that’s the difference between design and illustration. Both look interesting, but one tells you more. Or maybe I’m getting to wrapped up in answering the question…let’s move on.

What do you think is the essence of a good cover?

Ok, I’ve spoken about the narrative of a cover, and that’s important. Also, there are the craft-based requirements: composition, colour harmony, style etc. And all publishing houses have their own ‘livery’ (for want of a word), but the difference between a good cover and a bad cover probably is ‘intrigue’. The art of being able to draw a reader into picking up the book off the shelf. If the marketing team have done their job well, the customer will buy the book. How do you create intrigue in a design. Ummmm. My, doesn’t the sky look wonderful today!

I know you are interested in animation. Who would be your favourite animation houses?

Les's Firebug, from his portfolio work.

It’s hard to go past the work coming out of Pixar, which have great story lines and wonderful character designs, but the ones that I am continually drawn to are Studio Ghibli’s collection – magical to look at and wonderful stories.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is also superb (I’ve watched that over and over again) and as he’s a gob-smacking amazing illustrator, I’d almost say he’s the top.

However, if I was to choose just one animator to wave the flag for, it would be Jonathan Nix and his inspiringly beautiful work, with evocatively whimsical music. I recommend his The Missing Key.

For the tech-heads – what are your favoured tools for creating cover art?

Photoshop. Smith Micro’s Poser for figure marquettes, Vue. And a Wacom Tablet to draw with. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY pencil and paper. Without using those, for me the rest is distracting and I end up with rubbish.

Les's cover for the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild's anthology, Outcast. (2006)


Les has very kindly offered a special rate to readers of my blog who need cover art for their e-book or print book.

Until the end of June 2012, you can commission Les for an e-book cover for $300. If you want the full works with e-book, high res and small images suitable for print as well as digital, he’s offering the special price of $1200.

If you are interested in taking Les up on this generous offer (the prices are significantly less than his usual charges) email me on with the subject line Les Petersen and I’ll get you two beautiful kids together.

See more of Les’s work at his website.