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What better way to reuse the cardboard boxes from grocery deliveries than upcycling them as platforms for storytelling?

Retired primary school teacher and artist Corinne Massetti did just that: she turned her paper bin contents into illustrations for her dainty and dandy children’s book They Clapped.

“The first lockdown was a strange and eerie time,” she reminisces, “a time of uncertainty and concern. We stayed home, and had essentials delivered to our door. Soon, the cardboard boxes were stacked in my kitchen, and I wondered what to do with it all, how to recycle it. It seemed a shame to let it go to waste, to dispose of it after one single use. So, I turned them into my alternative sketchpad.”

She found herself reaching for the window quite often to watch the world from behind the glass. She marvelled at the quiet outside; nobody scurrying about, no sounds but the birds, and the smell of gasoline was replaced by the aroma of baking.

One day, she spotted a seagull on the rooftop opposite, and she wondered what the seagulls, and indeed all animals in Gibraltar and on Earth, might have made of the sudden change in their world, truly theirs again, now that humans were out of the picture. 

Corinne also thought of what the children would make of the evening clapping: “Perhaps they thought people were clapping for kids? For each other?”

“So, I turned them into my alternative sketchpad.”

These ideas slithered in her subconscious and led her to jot down a series of doodles, unrelated at first, simple charcoal sketches in which the likeness of a creature took shape.

“I don’t know what creature it is, I don’t know if it is a he or a she, and I don’t know his or her name,” Corinne says, showing me the picture of a pointy-faced, beady-eyed critter, possibly a mouse or a gerbil, complete with stringy tail and an inquisitive, bemused, and cheeky countenance.

She wrote the story in first person, with no clues about names or whereabouts, to make the creature the absolute protagonist of this unique experience – the same one that Corinne was experiencing in first person too – the world as he/she knows it suddenly becoming his/her playground to express him/herself freely.

The creature is portrayed in various moments of its adventure, while roaming silent streets and deserted gardens, sniffing heavenly whiffs of cake, and dancing to the music streamed out of cracked windows. “In my estate, there used to be someone playing the bugle, to herald clapping time at eight in the evening. It was moving.” Corinne continues, “So, of course, the creature picks up on that, as well as on the handmade rainbows displayed at the windows.”

With her collection of cardboard pictures growing, Corinne realised they were developing into a nice story, so she wrote a caption for each drawing, ending with the idyllic view of the creature strutting amidst flowers and enveloped by rainbow arc, confident and satisfied that those invisible presences around him are clapping for his/her graceful performance.

Hence the title They Clapped featured as the very last sentence, where some healthy egocentrism bestows this cute innocent creature with fresh charm – and its creator with the ingenuity and originality of a bubbly story for children to be shown the silver lining to the storm they have witnessed gather and dispel around their young existence. 

The book was a happy accident, according to its illustrator and writer – yes, in that order, Corinne points out, because the illustrations were born first, flowing freely, turning a negative experience into a constructive one. And when she finally decided to approach the publishers, she requested for the cardboard feel to be preserved in print, so much that not just its brown colour, but its folds, corrugations and cracks are also visible in the final cut.

It is a tribute to her best friend Paulette’s father, the late Mario Finlayson, who introduced Corinne to fine arts. Paulette gave Corinne some art materials from her dad’s studio, charcoal and soft pastels to experiment with, to add to her array of acrylics and glittery pens, foil snippets and Chinese brush pens.

“Perhaps they thought people were clapping for kids? For each other?”

Proceeds from sales of this booklet, aimed at children aged 4 to 8, (and adults who are young at heart) are being donated to the EV Foundation, in aid of families in need in Gibraltar and nearby Spain.

Corinne was a schoolteacher in primary education, and she knows about the struggle to make ends meet for some families. “Kids with jam sandwiches in their lunchboxes day in day out, because they couldn’t afford anything more varied or nutritious”, she recalls. 

That saddened her deeply, in a society that usually boasts opulence, she is well aware that poverty exists. It seemed to her that the best way to give back to society was to donate to Nicole Jones’s foundation, and joined her at a cake sale before Christmas.

“My sister, also called Paulette, baked a cake and decorated it with a picture of the creature. The cake was raffled and raised a nice sum for the cause.”

To keep up the good work, Corinne will be visiting schoolchildren to read them her story on World Book Day this March, and, who knows? Maybe she will bump into another congenial critter enjoying the ‘new normal’.

“They Clapped” is available for £5 from the Arts Centre on Prince Edward Road, or by contacting Corinne via her Facebook page.

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