In my last post, I referred to “the glorious rubble” that was the process of excavating and clearing out my childhood home. And that, on account of me being me, that rubble fed inevitably into the creative well, setting all sorts of things in motion.
Today, I want to talk about the first of those things, which has turned into a gorgeous little picture book called Ella and the Useless Day. As is the case for a lot of my work, this is something I started working on many years ago, which has had a long and bumpy ride to publication. When I first wrote Ella, back in 2005, it was the story of a little girl and her father who have a big cleanout and take all the useless things they don’t want any more to the local tip. There, where the bulk of the story’s action takes place, they unload everything gleefully and toss it onto the piles of already-discarded items. In the background, however, out of sight to everyone but Ella, another little girl – the daughter of the tip gatekeeper – is equally gleefully purloining many of their ‘useless’ items for herself.
As we pull back further, we see the little on-site house where they live, which is partly constructed by and decorated with all sorts of salvaged things. As Ella and Dad drive away, congratulating themselves on having disposed of all those useless things, the little girl sets to work to repurpose them. At the very end, I imagined a wordless spread which would show the various interesting uses to which she had put them.
Pretty fun, right? I liked it. But no one else did. Or at least not enough to publish it. Across Australia and the US, it was form rejections all round, and so I set it aside, another failed project for the bottom drawer.
Then, in May 2019, it fell to me and my siblings to clear out our old family home. And as I said earlier, in the midst of that process it felt important to me to find new homes, new life, for as much as we could, to not throw up our hands and simply toss things out. And at some point, while I was running around taking old blankets to the vet, and half-finished balls of wool to the nursing home, and pulling the embossed covers off antiquarian books (whose pages were unreadably damaged but surely someone would want the covers for craft purposes …??), I remembered Ella. I thought about how the zeitgeist had moved on, that here we were actively trying to avoid even going to the tip. I thought about the lovely, heartwarming conversations I was having with people who were so grateful to receive these things, so keen to tell me about their plans for them, and all at once Ella had a different ending. No more focus on the tip as the site of the action; no more gatekeeper’s daughter or quirky little house. Instead, the action would take place on the way to the tip, bringing in the idea of community and connection. Instead of one creative soul, one quirky house, there would be many. Most importantly, instead of Ella and her father driving away unchanged, they too would be inspired – to think about the many creative and practical ways in which the life of things can be extended – if not by us then by someone else nearby – and the satisfying ripple effects that act of sharing can bring into our lives.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier. I am, after all, my parents’ daughter. My parents who raised four children on a single income and who never met a dollar – or an item – they couldn’t stretch or repurpose within an inch of its life. In the process of sorting through the house we found so many examples of this.
I was also, without thinking, doing something very similar myself. I was saving my father’s old dressing gown (whose life he had already extended by adding leather elbow-patches), to turn into a cushion cover. If I used it for my office chair, it meant Dad would always have my back. I was purloining interesting rocks Mum had saved from their many travels, to use as paperweights, or simply place here and there in my herb garden. I was picking ‘grapes’ from a framed wall-hanging I’d always found ugly but now felt extremely sentimental about, wondering if I could use them in a mosaic or something. (Spoiler: I could!)
From the midst of all this, a new Ella emerged. By July, I had a new draft. A few months later, Walker Books nodded vigorously and my recycled/upcycled manuscript was finally on its way. And now, after a healthy dollop of Karen Blair‘s illustratory genius, my 17-year-old idea is an actual book. All I need now is for someone to cut up the pages for a collage project and the circle of life will be complete!
And yes, I know I said earlier that *two* picture books had emerged from the cleaning out process. Ella is the first, but the second is a little way off yet, currently in the wizard hands of illustrator Leila Rudge. All going smoothly, it will be out sometime in 2023. For now, I’ll just say that it’s called Always, Never, Always and was inspired by another discovery in the old house: an ice-cream bucket from which spilled a baffling assortment of keys…