Welcome to the … aughhhhh

Sometimes a book takes its own sweet time. I’ve talked before about the long journeys some of my work has travelled from the initial spark to the published story.

There was Bella and the Wandering House, which took 14 years, and which I wrote about here.

There was Let Me Sleep, Sheep!, which was 13 years, and which I wrote about here.

There was How to Make a Bird (17 years, here.)

And Ella and the Useless Day (17 years, here.)

There are many reasons why so much time can elapse from pen-on-paper to publication. Sometimes it’s about the idea percolating and sometimes it’s about the writer procrastinating … or perhaps pondering. Sometimes it’s about the publishing world needing to catch up to the concept.

For the most part, this slowness has served me well. If How to Make a Bird had been embraced by publishers when I was first sending it out, it wouldn’t have ended up in the hands of Matt Ottley. It would be nothing like the beautiful art object it is today. If Ella and the Useless Day had been published in its original form, I would always have felt as if I’d somehow missed the point, not quite got to the heart of what I was trying to say. And I could never have collaborated with Karen Blair, who has brought much more to it than I could ever have imagined.

I say “for the most part” because there have been downsides – sleeping projects I’ve had to shelve because someone came out with something that was just too similar. Still, though, the hits have been relatively benign. Like most writers, I’m sure, I have a whole storehouse of fragments and snippets, endless beginnings of maybe-possible future things. Some have a little more momentum than others, have gathered more thoughts around them, begun to take on a somewhat recognisable shape. But even so, they’re still just beginnings, formative, not too hard to be philosophical about when I’ve had to let go.

Until now, that is.

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The Uncanny Magic of Illustrators

There are so many things I love about working with illustrators.

Firstly, and entirely self-servingly, having a co-creator gives me an easy way to accept praise about the book without resorting to my usual impulse to shrink away muttering, Oh, it’s nothing. It could have been better. Eh, it’s just a thing I did. Having an illustrator, and their inevitably glorious work, to deflect compliments onto makes my life a great deal easier.

That reason comes first only in this idiosyncratically ordered list though, because really it’s the least important of all the things I love about working with an illustrator.

One of the questions I’m often asked about picture books is, “But what happens if the illustrations aren’t how you imagined them in your head?” For the longest time I answered this in a kind of bewildered, half-stumbling way, without really understanding where the questioner was coming from. Because the thing is: I don’t imagine the illustrations in my head, or anywhere else for that matter. I don’t think visually, and I don’t ‘see’ the world or characters while I’m writing (or when I’m reading, for that matter; it doesn’t matter how elaborately the setting or a character or an anything is described, I can’t see it. What I’m doing instead is skimming those descriptive passages, grumbling about how pointlessly wordy they are, because who cares what it LOOKS LIKE?). These days, that’s how I answer that question, though it does lead to some bewildered, half-stumbling responses from the visually inclined questioner.

Something I’ve come to realise, though, is that even though I never have any idea of what I want things to look like, I always know how I want things to feel, how I want them to make the reader feel. I couldn’t begin to suggest how you might get there visually; I just know it when I see it. I’m not sure whether this makes me extremely annoying to work with – I don’t know… I just want it to feel less noisy, or lighter or … just airier? You know that feeling you get when bubbles pop on your tongue? Like that, except different – or whether it’s par for the course in the author–illustrator relationship, but in any case, it’s all I have.

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Ella Emerges from the Rubble

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.

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On Creativity, Crap, and the Clearing Away of Childhood

Firstly, thank you: for your kind and enthusiastic and kindly enthusiastic responses to my last post. I am particularly heartened that people seem to like my scribbled poetry notes. These little fragments are where I feel most at home creatively and I look forward to rambling about them at length in the future.

For now, though, I’ve been thinking about the long, slow process of cleaning out my childhood home, which took place over the last couple of years – firstly in a big, focused burst, and then in dribs and drabs and trickles and whimpers. It was full of sadness and joy and reminiscence and teeth-grinding and head-shaking and many more things besides. We moved around a lot in the first few years of my life and I have blurry memories of that time, but the year I turned five, my parents bought the one and only house they would ever own, and proceeded, over the next 50-some years, to fill it with kids and memories and obscure family sayings and stuff. So much stuff.

I’m sure they threw plenty of things away over that time. They were sensible people, after all. A little quirky, sure, but then again, aren’t we all? They made conscious choices about what to keep – things that were useful, or might be some day, even if in some as-yet unimaginable way; things that had once been useful but were now broken but might be fixed at some future point or repurposed, possibly in some as-yet unimaginable way; things that had sentimental value or might have one day, depending on what events transpired in your life or the kind of person you turned into or a million and one other variables. Things that sparked joy or rage or indifference or even just a raised eyebrow and a mischievous line of thought: Hmmm, I don’t know what this is for and the kids won’t either. I will attach a label to it that says “MYSTERY OBJECT” and use it to bamboozle people.

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Getting the Blog Back Together

Hey. Hello. It’s been a while.

Three years, to be exact-ish. I do love a good ish.

Despite my silence, many things have happened. Writing things. Non-writing things. Big things. Small things. Hard things. Harder things.

In fact, when I look at the date of my last post – 3 May, 2019 – it’s immediately obvious to me why the silence began. It was exactly a week later that my father died, bringing with it the many things that loss does. And then, as my breath was starting to return, almost exactly a year later that my mother died, bringing with it the many things, compounded now and layered, and in the midst of it all I flew back-and-forth across the country multiple times, sorting and sifting through emotions and things and people and feelings, and walking and walking through the bush behind my childhood home, the clay of Bendigo feeling, as it always does, so firm beneath my feet. The metaphor that has struck me so many times over the years returning to me again, even as I wondered whether all that is now changed, whether I’ll keep coming back to this place, whether I’ll ever return to those scribbled notes, write that poem that’s been sleeping in the back of my mind for so long.

The thing is – one thing is – I talk too much and say too little. I ramble. I endlessly circle and get lost in metaphor. I start and don’t finish, can’t find a structure, resist it. Words have been difficult the last few years. Plot has been impossible. I don’t know yet if that’s going to change but I’m taking little steps. I don’t think we need the firmness of clay; I think we can learn to stay steady on sand, to soften ourselves as the surface shifts beneath our feet.

I’ve returned to this space several times since my last post, stared at the wall of white and the silence and wondered what to do with it. Who even blogs anymore anyway? Isn’t all this stuff on Twitter and Instagram and ye olde Facebook, served up in banter and small palatable bites?

The truth is that I quite like banter and palatable things. I’m even fond of a little biting. But I also like talking too much and saying too little. I like rambling and endlessly circling and getting lost in metaphor and forgetting all about structure and throwing words out into the white silence. I have things to say and thoughts to ponder and so I’ve decided to return to this little room of my own – sporadically, self-indulgently, possibly sometimes nonsensically. When I think about it, those three ‘ly’s sum up some really important things about my creative life. Random notes and scribbles, moments scooped up and stored, then set aside. Maybe they become something or maybe they’re already what they’re going to be, in all their mess and formlessness. Anyway. It doesn’t seem like a bad place to begin again.

Twice Upon A Small Rhinoceros

No, it’s not a sequel. This isn’t a new book but a new lease of life for an old one.

I can’t believe it’s nearly two years since Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros set sail, but since it is, that means it’s time for a paperback edition!

PaperRhino

I’ve had the loveliest time introducing my little rhino to readers in schools and libraries far and wide. We’ve talked about courage and resourcefulness and feeling the fear and doing it anyway. About the beauty in encountering ‘strange’ things and the opportunities in letting yourself be lost. We’ve talked over and over about why it might be that so.many.readers can read the whole book and still think my glorious girl is a ‘he’.

Sometimes we’ve just curled up on the carpet and let the waves rock us to sleep. One little boy entered so completely into that space he said he felt seasick afterwards!

AtNight

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. Kids have pointed out things in the illustrations I’ve never noticed. My rhinoceros-drawing skills have improved, or changed, or something. I overcame my terror of public humiliation and drew a rhinoceros on butcher paper in front of a hall full of kids, upon which a small boy raised his hand and said he liked the way I had displayed a growth mindset. Kids today, I tell ya!

Rhinowonky   Rhinodrawing

One of my absolute favourite things about being a writer is seeing my work spark creativity in others, and it’s been such a joy to get feedback from teachers and students who have used Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros in the classroom.

With one group, I talked to kids about why the rhinoceros might wear her lifejacket before and during her journey, even when she’s on dry land. And why, in one particular illustration towards the end, she leaves it completely undone. We spoke about the idea of nightlights and security blankets, cuddly toys – things that make you feel safe independent of any practical function they might have.

A week or so later, a teacher sent me these wonderful pictures of an activity her class had done back at school. She had built on this idea, personalising it, challenging the kids to think about how this idea could relate to them. What were their worries and fears? And what could they use as a personal ‘lifejacket’ be in those situations?

On another occasion, I received a wonderful package from a Year 2 teacher in Sydney. Her class had compiled their own illustrated stories of the adventures the ‘even smaller rhinoceros’ might go on were the book to continue.

Last year, a mentor in the 12 Buckets program who had been sharing the book with one of her students had a 3D model of the rhinoceros printed so she could accompany her on holiday, and share her travels with the student.

(Small rhinoceros also visited Mark Greenwood‘s spa, but that is a whole other story …)

RhinospaMark

And recently, I received the following from a Year 2 teacher in Swanbourne:

In 2018 Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros became our most celebrated text in my Year 2 class.  Children delighted over this little but intrepid character and we compared her braveness, determination and independence to qualities we would need to face the new year ahead.  We allowed ourselves to dream big just like the little rhinoceros and set ourselves our own goals to strive for.

This is the stuff that absolutely makes my heart sing. These little glimpses from the reading frontlines remind me that these things I make up in my head go on to have a life outside me and themselves, that they ripple and ripple and sometimes really matter.

I’m so thrilled that my small rhinoceros is setting sail again. I hope she finds her way into the hearts of many more readers in the years to come.

MegwithrhinoLakeMaggioreKites

 

The Sheep Have Landed!

Amidst all the brouhaha about Catch A Falling Star and Skylab and things that fall from the sky, something else has happened.

A new picture book has landed! Some sheep have landed – with heavy thuds on the floor of a little boy’s bedroom.

FinalcovermedresLet Me Sleep, Sheep hit shelves on 1 March, the same day Catch A Falling Star was published and just after DUCK! was named a Notable book in the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards, at which point I suddenly realised I’ve written three books in a row about things unexpectedly falling from the sky-ish.

No, wait. Not written. Published. Because the truth is I wrote Let Me Sleep, Sheep a long time ago. A very long time ago. The story of this book begins in 2006 when I had the initial idea. I don’t know where this one came from. It’s just one of those quirky little things that appeared out of somewhere, and which I threw into my ‘random picture book ideas’ file alongside many many others.

OriginalSheepThoughts

My initial notes from 2006

I’d written about twelve picture books at that point, most of them pretty awful and none of them published. But this one was better, I thought. And moreover, my first novel had just been accepted for publication. By the time I had a submittable draft of Let Me Sleep, Sheep!, it was December 2006 and I was just three months away from being an actual real published author.

Then I stumbled across a book called The 108th Sheep, which was launching on exactly the same day as my debut novel, with a premise alarmingly similar to Let Me Sleep, Sheep! There was no way I could submit mine now, I thought. I told no one about it, tucked it away in the metaphorical bottom drawer.

A year later, when I saw a book called  The Eleventh Sheep come out, I thought, hmm, maybe there’s room for more materialising sheep books after all and pulled the manuscript again to tweak it for submission. When the following month, I saw a review of It’s Time To Sleep, You Crazy Sheep, I put my head down very firmly on the desk. I’d really missed the boat this time. Surely we’d reached critical mass for “materialising sheep” books in the picture book market, at least for now. Maybe if I waited a few more years?

Instasheep

I waited a few more years. I published a few more books, even some picture books. I had more credibility now! I had a publisher! Some other publishers knew my name!

I sent it off. I got rejections. It was fun but too difficult to illustrate. The problem, you see, was that all the action was taking place in one location.

But but but what about all those other counting sheep books? I wondered. I wanted to say. I did not say. I tucked it back in the metaphorical drawer, the third one down this time, where all the junk lives. I got on with other ideas, other books, other things.

And then, in late 2016, I signed with an agent. And I didn’t have anything new to send her so I went back to the Drawers of Rejection, to see if there was anything salvageable. The sheep made me laugh. I thought hey, I reckon this is actually okay. I did a quick google for new counting sheep books. I couldn’t find any. Clearly, this was my moment! I sent it off.

Three weeks later, I was offered a contract. Shortly after, the glorious Leila Rudge went to work, effortlessly breezing past the ‘single location’ problem. And in June 2018, approximately five days after we sent Let Me Sleep, Sheep! to the printer, a book called Go To Sleep, Sheep! was published and I DID NOT CARE AT ALL. And in March 2019, one of the very first reviews on Goodreads said this …

GRReview2

… and I laughed so hard I almost cried.

 

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Sea Monkeys, Sunny Boys & Skylab: Writing the 1970s

Just the title of this post makes me all kinds of nostalgic. This is because I was a childCoverfinalmedRES in the 1970s, which is when my new book, Catch A Falling Star, is set.

1979, to be specific. May-July 1979 to be specific-er.

And exactly that specific because it’s set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, the uncontrolled loss of orbit and eventual crashing to earth of Skylab, one of the world’s first space stations.

I’m told that the 1970s is long enough ago for Catch A Falling Star to be considered historical fiction. Luckily for me, though, having direct experience of that period, I didn’t need to do the kind of research this genre normally calls for. I grew up then! I remember stuff like sea monkeys and Sunny Boys and yelling SunnyBoyout “Spunk!” and lying on the warm concrete at the pool all day because skin cancer hadn’t been invented yet. The only things I needed to research were Skylab facts and figures – the exact timeline, direct quotes from newspapers, that sort of thing.

That’s what I thought, in the beginning.

Hahahaha.

Excuse me while I beat my head gently against this wall.

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Speaking Youth to Power

Many moons ago when I was teaching at UWA, I heard a creative writing lecturer talk about how writers often find themselves ‘worrying at a particular knot’. Maybe they’re writing all kinds of different things, but somewhere in the midst of each of them, if you look deeply enough, or from the right angle, you’ll find some version of this one theme or concern.

The writer, of course, doesn’t always know this. Slightly fewer moons ago, when I was easing out of teaching at UWA, I had a student say to me, “It’s interesting how so many of your poems are sort of about containment.”

And I said Huh?

And she said, “You know … how you’re always talking about borders and margins, inside and outside, about edges and stuff like that.”

And I said, No I’m not … am I?

And then she showed me. And lo and behold, I was. And still am. At least in my poetry.

poetry2 Poetryimage1

There are similar knots in my work for young people, one of which I became aware of recently because it features in both The Penguins Are Coming! and DUCK! Continue reading

Two Birds, One Stone

… would be the name of my book launch, if I was having one. Which I’m not, even though Frané Lessac is standing by to dress up as anything I so choose.

Despite the allure of Frané in a duck costume or a penguin outfit, or possibly both in rapid succession like the quick-change artist she definitely is, I won’t be having an actual launch event this time, but two books will nonetheless be launched onto an unsuspecting picture-book-reading public.

One book about a duck. The other about penguins.

I told you a bit about the first one recently. I told you a bit about the second eight years ago, at which time I was also launching-but-not-launching my very first duck book. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun. Continue reading