Category Archives: Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros

A Rhinoceros By Any Other Gender…

As many of you know, I have a new picture book coming out very soon.OUASR_CVR_HR-RGB

Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros will officially hit bookstores on 1 September. I’ve blogged previously about the inspiration for the book, and a little about the process of writing it. During that process, many things changed. Some were big – like the title. Others were small – a shift in phrasing that made a line sing, an ellipsis that opened up the ending.

And there was one that was both – tiny but enormous.

Here’s the last line as it appeared in one of the roughs:

Rough4

If you’ve read the book, you should be able to spot the difference. If you haven’t, then know this: across many, many drafts, and until quite late in the process, my small rhinoceros was male. And then at a certain point, I said huh?

Because my small rhinoceros was male for no good reason. For no reason at all except that I had unconsciously defaulted to that without a moment’s thought.

When I realised this, I was shocked. Being female, I have some skin in this particular game. I’m pretty damn enlightened, if enlightenment is even what’s required here. I have a PhD in feminist literary theory. I have taught women’s studies. And I had given this no thought whatsoever.

I said to my editor, Stop the presses!

And then I gave it some thought whatsoever. I turned my rhinoceros into a female, just to see how I liked it. To see if it changed things.

Reader, it changed everything. It gave the story new layers. It connected me with the story in a deeper way. It gave me the opportunity to use the phrase ‘rhinosplaining’ when talking about the way the older rhinos speak to the small rhinoceros.

OUASR_INT_6-7LoRes

I am so glad I changed it. Utterly chagrined that it very nearly wasn’t even a question.

And now the book is almost out, and being read by other people, and getting reviews, I’m something else. I’m stunned at how intransigent ‘he’ seems to be, despite the fact that it isn’t even there in the book.

People read the story – they read ‘she dreamed’, ‘she waved as she sailed around the bend’, ‘she trailed a hoof in the water’, and numerous other gender-specific lines. And then they sigh and hand it back to me and say, “Oh, gorgeous. I love the way he …”

And I say, STOP RIGHT THERE, MY FRIEND!

This book currently has two reviews on Goodreads and one of the reviewers, despite having presumably paid close attention to the book, refers to the rhinoceros as ‘he’.

I read the book to kids in schools and then ask for a show of hands as to whether the small rhinoceros is male or female. And without fail, at least 50% think she’s male.

I wonder whether it’s simply because she’s intrepid and adventurous. Because she does stuff and goes her own way. I’ve had boys tell me girls can’t use hammers, build boats – She isn’t strong enough to carry all that wood! She’d be too scared by herself! If  a girl built that boat it would definitely capsize!

I’ve had girls grin quietly and argue loudly. I’ve had fantastic discussions with kids of all ages, nudging them towards confronting their own unconscious biases.

I am loving the whole damn thing.

I am so glad I changed it. I am so glad I thought about it. And I solemnly vow never to not think about such things ever again.

Andshedreamed

Once Upon a Time …

… there was a small rhinoceros.

It hung on the wall of an art gallery in Subiaco, all the way back in 1997. It was part of an exhibition entitled Three Narrative Artists.

And it looked like this:

intrepid-journey220-x-160_edited-1[“Intrepid Journey” by Sue Templeton]

It was right near the entrance, and when I walked in on opening night, it stopped me in my tracks. There was something about the image I found intrinsically appealing.  Or perhaps it was the combination of image and title – the word “intrepid” together with the rhinoceros and the boat.

It stayed with me, as things sometimes do unexpectedly. That’s something I love – that you never quite know what’s going to catch the light for someone. It isn’t always what you’d expect. In this case, it was a small rhinoceros.

But here’s where it gets interesting, because many years passed. Many, many years. And I guess my memory isn’t as good as I thought it was. Because when I thought about the rhino, I saw it as a tiny thing in a tiny boat on a very very wide and vast blue ocean. And I  remembered the title as being simply “Intrepid”. I told myself it was the perfect marriage of that single-word title and the image that lent it appeal for me. Except that it wasn’t a single-word title and it also wasn’t a vast open ocean. In fact, looking at it now I’m not even sure it’s an ocean. Maybe it’s a desert. Maybe it’s a lava field. Maybe it’s the surface of the moon.

When I contacted the artist recently, and she kindly sent me a copy of the image, I was a little taken aback. I loved it still but it was quite different to how I’d remembered it. Somewhere along the way,  I had changed it. I had started to spin my own narrative around it, to transform it into something of my own.

At a certain point, I realised that that something was a picture book. A story began to form around the small rhinoceros, and while I was thinking and writing and letting things percolate, I came across a few interesting things. Like this:

fellini2

.. which is a still from a Fellini movie entitled “E la nave va” [“And the ship sails on”], which features a love-sick rhinoceros on a cruise liner, among other zany things.

And this:

wolfinboatcanada

… which is a sculpture of a wolf in a boat outside a museum in Canada. While I was tinkering with my rhino manuscript, author/illustrator Katherine Battersby posted a picture of this on Facebook. Which of course led me to immediately freak out and write faster because clearly she was about to become similarly inspired and write an identical book.

Because that is the level of paranoia that all writers share.

And then, right near the end of the writing process, when I was musing on all of these images, and wondering whether any of them were connected and if so who had been influenced by whom, I happened to glance up at my corkboard and see this:

samrhino[postcard by Samantha Hughes]

At which point, I realised that for some time, a small rhinoceros had been watching over me while I worked.

While I can’t be sure, it’s no big leap to say that this image probably has something to do with the fact that the rhinoceros finally pushed its way to the front of my creative mind after all this time.

You just never know what the light’s going to catch, and when it’s going to catch it. And it’s in that spirit that I’m so grateful to everyone who creates, who makes art and ideas and adds them to the well from which we all draw; I feel very privileged to be part of this community.

I can’t share much of my rhino yet, but here is a tiny sneak peek from the proofs, which in turn features an even tinier glimpse of my absolute favourite page.

leiliarhinoproofs[source: Leila Rudge Instagram]

I’ll have more to say about this book over the next few months, but for now it’s enough to announce that Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros will be sailing onto shelves in August this year. It’s illustrated by the always-marvellous Leila Rudge, and somewhere along the way it became a book of my heart. I can’t wait to hold the real thing in my hand and to see it making its way out into the world to readers.