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BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

Events are back, baby!

9 March 2022

Yeeeeeees! How great is it that we’re getting out and about again — seeing our fellow literary peeps and drinking champagne and talking books. Oh, how I have missed it.

If you’re in need of a good literary dose, I’ve got events coming up for both adults and kids. I’ll be talking ‘Adulting and Other Catastrophes’ with Lucy Neave and Nigel Featherstone, and I’m certain this one is going to be heaps of fun.

Then I’m off on a trio of launches for my new picture book, Seree’s Story, illustrated by the incredible Wayne Harris. I’ll be in Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney, dishing out elephantine-sized fun. At all three there’ll be a book reading, craft activity, cupcakes and an awesome prize for the best elephant costume! Find details on my Events page.

 

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Then in May, I’m excited to be appearing at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival. (Thank goodness Perth has finally opened its borders!) It will be my first time in Western Australia, and I’ve been hearing great things about this festival, so I can’t wait. Plus I’m going to be recording a series of episodes for my Secrets from the Green Room podcast, so look out for those.

And because I haven’t posted here for months I want to highlight a couple of past events that deserve a mention. I was thrilled to be in conversation with Omar Musa for his new book of poetry and wood cuts, Killernova. The event had everything, including both laughter and tears, and Omar’s artwork surrounding us, making it a truly memorable event. The book itself is a thing of beauty, and worth your dollars!

 

I also attended fellow publishing stablemate Michael Burge’s launch for Tank Water. He was in-conversation with Nigel Featherstone and it was a fascinating evening. The book is an absolute cracker and held me to the end. It’s rural crime fiction like I haven’t read before, set against the backdrop of gay hate crimes. Definitely also worth your dollars!

Oh, and one final lovely piece of news. It’s not an event but My latest picture book, Where the Heart Is, has just been released across South America. I cannot explain the thrill of seeing your book in another language. I’m not entirely sure why it’s so happy-making but let’s just say this is a definite highlight of my career to date. Plus it means that now our story can be read in the country that inspired it (Brazil). ¿Qué Bonito! (Perhaps this calls for an event in Brazil?!)

Here’s to lots more lovely events to bring us all together. And here’s to seeing you at one of them!

Zooming through lockdown

10 September 2021

Like half the country, the ACT is back in lockdown and this means that a bunch of my IRL bookish happenings shifted to Zoom. But one that was always intended for Zoom was F*CK COVID: An Online Literary Affair, organised by the dynamic team at the ACT Writers Centre.

 

When the event was first proposed I remember thinking that online probably wasn’t necessary. Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra weren’t in lockdown — oh, how those days seem like a distant dream! But clearly the organisers are fortune tellers and this event ended up being the highlight of my locked-down weekend. Plus every time I typed ‘F*CK COVID’ it was like a fist punch of defiance.

 

The event sold out in three days. Then more tickets were released, and it quickly sold out again. I was on a panel with Mark Brandi, moderated by Nigel Featherstone, called ‘Hard truths; Risky fiction’, and what an absolute delight it was. Nigel was his usual magnificent and thoughtful self, expertly guiding the conversation, and Mark and I found so many synergies in our work and writing process.

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My ‘set’ for F*CK COVID

Mark’s The Others is an absolute cracker of a book and kept me up until the early hours of the morning. Like The Breaking, which I was there to discuss, it’s tricky to talk about without giving away key plot points! But I found our conversation so rich and thought-provoking, and I hope the audience did too! It’s always difficult post-event to remember exactly what was said, which is why Sue Terry’s incredible write-up of the panel is invaluable! I will defer to her summary of everything, except to say that I work full-time as an editor, not part-time, which makes finding time to write extra challenging, especially when you combine that with being a single parent of three children. But there are cracks in life, and I seize on them whenever I can!

Jumping now to school visits, I wanted to mention the gorgeous kids at Dawul Remote Community School which is located in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is where Zoom comes into its own, because how lucky was I to visit this school remotely! I shared the stage (or screen!) with DeadlyScience’s Corey Tutt. I was fortunate to edit Corey’s brilliant middle-grade book, The First Scientists (Hardie Grant, out 13 October 2021), so it was an absolute blast chatting to the kids with him. They had so many great questions about books and writing, and I came away enlivened, as I always do. My own kids are homeschooling during lockdown and were under strict instructions to keep out! Just one of the many challenges (as all parents know) of trying to simultaneously work and homeschool.

 

Next up was a pre-record for the inaugural Macgregor Primary Writers Festival — a whole week in which the school does nothing but celebrate books and writers. How blissful does that sound! They had an incredible line-up, including Andy Griffiths, Jackie French, Bronwyn Bancroft and yours truly, among others. If only I could travel back in time and be a kid at that school!

 

And finally there was my Editing Essentials presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which covered editing the full gamut of kids books, from picture books through to YA. The SCBWI crew organised a stellar line-up and there was a lovely big crowd who had great questions. When asked which was my favourite children’s genre to edit I had to say ALL OF THEM!

These events have brightened my lockdown immeasurably. Massive thanks to all the organisers who are making sure adults and kids alike have plenty of literary goodness to sustain them in these crazy times.

Fergie reads my book!

16 July 2021

What a few weeks it has been! My latest picture book, Where the Heart Is, illustrated by Susannah Crispe, came out last month and I had no idea that it would result in possibly the greatest moment of my life. None other than the Fergie, Duchess of York, selected our humble little book to read on her Storytime channel. And it is blowing up. As I write this is has been just a little over 24 hours since it went live and already it’s had 20K views!

The reading features Paddy the dog and a complementary fruit platter that may look a bit like something other than palm trees. It’s a little wacky and a lot thrilling. And it is in fact the childhood dream that I didn’t know I had.

Paddy loving Where the Heart Is (for about two seconds)

When I was 11, like every other little English girl, I watched Princess Sarah Ferguson walk down the aisle and practically drooled over her satiny confection of a dress. Afterwards I sat on my floor and made a ‘book’ all about the wedding. I cut out pictures from magazines and wrote my best royal reportage.

Now that princess has read a real book that I wrote and it all feels completely surreal. She even pronounced my name right. All of this would have my 11-year-old self hyperventilating or screaming with joy or jumping up and down on the bed. Actually, probably all of those on rotation. Needless to say, even adult me has been riding a Fergulicious high.

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But before that came another high in the form of our book launch. We managed to sneak it in just before mandatory masks were brought in, and Dymocks Civic did the most amazing job of dressing up the shop in Where the Heart Is paraphernalia. We had a great crowd of small and big people – as Susannah said, we couldn’t have fit another person in.

 

It was such a joy to share this story, and I suppose I should tell you what it’s about! It’s based on a true story about a man named Joao who rescued a penguin, who he named Dindim, from an oil spill, just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They developed such a close bond that since his rescue, Dindim has spent eight months of every year with Joao, leaving in February for the Patagonia coasts of Argentina and Chile, and returning in June. The trip back to Joao is an extraordinary 8,000 kilometres. Scientists have never seen anything like it. So you can see why this heartwarming true story inspired me to write Where the Heart Is!

 

If you want to get your hands on a copy it’s available in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and Canada, in stores and online.

Where the Heart Is backstory

17 June 2021

Some time ago now (I’m a bit hazy on the details) I read a newspaper article about a man named Joao who rescued a penguin, who he named Dindim, from an oil spill. The chick washed up on an island village beach just outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, near Joao’s shanty home. They developed such a close bond that since his rescue, Dindim has spent eight months of every year with Joao, leaving in February for the Patagonia coasts of Argentina and Chile, and returning in June. The trip back to Joao is an extraordinary 8,000 kilometres. Nothing of its kind has ever before been witnessed.

After reading this incredible story I immediately felt the spark of a picture book arrive. The bond between human and animals (wild or domesticated) can be so special and I’ve experienced this myself with elephants in Thailand (I am an Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation). I’m also passionate about wild animals remaining in the wild, but this can only happen if humans do not destroy their habitats. In this case, the oil spill that threatened Dindim’s life. But we are also losing many penguin colonies to climate change. That is, perhaps, a story for another day, but it’s been wonderful to hear that early readers are already using the book to spark conversations around conservation and caring for animals and our environment.

Where the Heart Is officially hit stores yesterday. And it’s the very first book baby for illustrator Susannah Crispe who has so beautifully brought this story to life. I’m a sucker for endpapers, and she has created the most adorable and funniest endpapers ever (I might be a wee bit biased, but readers reactions confirm it!). Susannah has her own backstory about Where the Heart Is, and when I heard it I knew she was the perfect fit for this book. The synergies with the story I had written were like a sign!

So here’s Susannah talking about her experiences:

About 10 years ago, I spent several months travelling in South America. I relived that time a lot while working on Where the Heart Is, having spent time on Brazilian islands, including Joao’s island, and seeing Magellanic penguins like Dindim in the wild in Chile.

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Time in Brazil influenced the illustrations. Photo: Susannah Crispe

The Island of Chiloé, just off the coast of Chile, is a truly magical place filled with incredible birdlife. I had heard about a penguin colony on a tiny island nearby, but at the time I was travelling there weren’t any options for tourists to visit it. I negotiated with a taxi driver to drive along the coast (sometimes along the beaches themselves) to the bay opposite the Islotes de Peñihuil. There he negotiated with local fishermen to take me to the island to see the penguins.

I had been learning Spanish for a few months at his stage, but it turned out the fishermen only knew a handful of Spanish words, speaking one of the many indigenous languages instead. Despite this, they tried valiantly to point out various bird species to me. As we pulled up close to Peñihuil in their tiny battered boat, several small black and white heads popped up from burrows in the grass. Magellanic penguins were happily going about their day, in amongst Humboldt penguins, ducks, gulls, shags and terns.

Seals in Chile who inspired the illustrations. Photo: Susannah Crispe

It was an incredible experience, not least because of the beautiful and generous fishermen, and made even more special by the very friendly sea lions and otters who came to say hello.

Joao, the old man from Where the Heart Is, lives on the other side of the continent on an actual island paradise. I spent several weeks exploring and lounging on Brazilian beaches and islands, and Ilha Grande — Joao’s home — was by far my favourite place. There were no cars or roads on the island, just walking tracks leading from the port and town up and over mountains thick with jungle to a seemingly infinite number of pristine beaches.

The jungle there was an incredible place, filled with howler monkeys, marmosets, squirrels and birds. It was quite different to the Amazon jungle where the air’s thick with humidity and insects, and the wildlife makes so much noise you can’t think. On Ilha Grande, the jungle animals seemed almost as calm and relaxed as the people. I remember hiking to a waterfall one morning with a banana left over from breakfast in my bag. The instant I split the skin to open it, a dozen small furry faces materialised from the trees. As I finished the last bite, the tiny monkeys faded back between the vines as if they were figments of my imagination.

Honestly, I completely understand why Dindim returns to the island every year. I would too if I could!

It was pretty special being able to use my own source photos to develop the characters and landscapes in Where the Heart Is. Despite my truly rubbish photos, the memory of this day is still so vivid, and working on Dindim’s story feels like a tribute to this trip and the people who made it so memorable.

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Where the Heart Is has been simultaneously released in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and Canada. If you happen to be in Canberra on Saturday 26 June we’re launching at Dymocks in the Canberra Centre. Susannah has created a stunning window display, and if you come along at 11am there’ll be a book reading, craft and cupcakes. Hope to see some of you there!

 

Picture book illustration: Dub Leffler

6 April 2020

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into the illustration process of a picture book, this is the post for you. Illustrator Dub Leffler is a descendant of the Bigambul people of South West Queensland and one of Australia’s most sought after children’s book illustrators. He has created 23 books and I’ve been fortunate enough to edit two of them — Sorry Day by Coral Vass (2018) and Strangers on Country by Kirsty Murray and Dave Hartley (out April 2020).

In this interview he takes us behind the scenes on his creative process and gives us an insight into the publishing process, which is particularly invaluable for emerging picture book creators wanting to understand the nuts and bolts of it. I didn’t manage to get him to dish the dirt on working with the illusive Banksy (damn it) but he explains how new books have come to him through psychics and werewolves, how coffee and salt can be a medium for illustration, and what makes him want to illustrate an author’s manuscript.

Irma Gold: You are one of 13 kids, what was life like growing up? And did you spend a lot of time drawing?

Dub Leffler: Yes, it is a big family, however I didn’t grow up with my family due to being adopted at birth. Growing up in my adoptive family — who had five boys including myself — I always had time for drawing and did so quite frequently. I remember drawing a lot — before and after school, usually using spare pages in my school exercise books. I even made my own picture books using spare paper and dodgy staples.

Storyboard for Our Dreaming by Kirli Saunders

IG: What led you to illustrating children’s picture books?

DL: My mother went to a psychic and the psychic told her, ‘Your son, is going to write a book and he will travel overseas.’ A few months later, I moved back to Sydney and the following morning a lady came to the house I was renting to speak with my flatmate about working on children’s books. So it literally came to my doorstep. And the rest, as they say, is history.

IG: What does a typical day or week look like for you?

DL: A typical day for me is — drop daughter off at school, take dog for a jog and then work until 12 pm. Coffee break and then work again until about 2 pm. I often work late into the night/early morning too, because it is the quietest time. Going to bed between 1 am and 2 am is not uncommon.

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For each book, most of the time working on them comes down to research. I create a huge folder of images for inspiration for each story, as well as creating a soundtrack for each book so I have something to listen to while I work. I create my own mini deadlines for each book — finish the storyboard by this date, and so on. Being an illustrator, you work unconventional hours and often weekends.

IG: You have written and illustrated your own book, Once There Was a Boy, but you have also illustrated other authors’ stories. What is it about a manuscript that makes you want to take it on?

DL: If I connect with the story in some way, I usually illustrate it. It makes no difference to me if the author is established or being published for the first time. If the story is good and I can already see images in my head just from reading the text, then I usually say ‘yes’ to illustrating it.

Cover image of Once There was a Boy

IG: You have collaborated with internationally recognised illustrators like Shaun Tan, Colin Thompson and Banksy. Tell us more!

DL: Years ago, when I had illustrated only a handful of books, I met Colin Thompson at my wife’s cousin’s birthday party. The theme was fur and I went dressed as a werewolf. I had a very interesting conversation with Colin Thompson in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by people dressed in fur. Quite surreal. Colin ended up asking me to collaborate on a book with him. That book also contained work by Quentin Blake, Freya Blackwood, Shaun Tan and Sarah Davis. It was called The Bicycle Book and came out the same time at Once There Was a Boy, in 2011.

As for Banksy, I can’t talk about Banksy — circle of trust and all that.

IG: What mediums do you work in?

DL: I illustrate using an architect’s pencil for roughs, paint and draw with watercolours and use very, very expensive paper. Sometimes I use coffee, paint and salt on wet watercolour paper to build up texture on the paper and then draw back into it.

IG: What was the most challenging book that you’ve worked on, and why?

DL: Sorry Day was the most challenging story to illustrate due to the emotional content involved. Researching for Sorry Day was hard too — there is so much negativity out there in cyberspace in regards to Aboriginal people. I would often come across comments and replies to posts and videos filled with racism. And there was A LOT of it. This spurred me on to make Sorry Day the best damn book I could. It’s the most important book I have and possibly will ever illustrate.

Storyboards for Sorry Day by Coral Vass

IG: Out of all your books and illustrations, do you have a single favourite illustration?

DL: My favourite illustration would have to be in Sorry Day when the children are hiding in the creek among the bullrushes. You can hear the crinkle of the blades of grass and the children holding their breath. It has a quiet intensity.

IG: Sorry Day uses a dual narrative, with one narrative strand set in the past when the children are being stolen, and another in the present at Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The two colour schemes that you use for the two threads cleverly demarcates them. How did you come up with this?

DL: I have an old photograph of my mother. It is a faded black and white photo that has yellowed with age. I knew that this is how the ‘past’ section of Sorry Day should look. I worked closely with Amy Cullen, the graphic designer, in deciding how to use sepia tones throughout the book — at one point both full colour and sepia were proposed to be on the same page. It’s a good example of showing two different times using just illustration.

Storyboards for Strangers on Country

IG: Tell me about Strangers on Country by Dave Hartley and Kirsty Murray. How did you go about bringing this real people to life?

DL: The short answer is — research. The longer answer is — after I had done enough research and have collated enough reference images to form a coherent idea, I made sure to illustrate each image as if they were a still from a film — as if they could move at any moment. I try to imbue all of my illustrations with some type of movement — even if it’s the suggestion of someone breathing, this approach can help your images come alive in the viewers’ mind.

IG: What is the best aspect of your job?

DL: Being able to work from anywhere and choose my work hours. It’s great being your own boss. Plus, you get to travel — whether it’s to a conference or a book festival. These things help your career and it’s great connecting with people doing the same job.

IG: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

DL: Having to work long hours. Although it’s a pretty cool job — I get to draw pictures for a living!

IG: How long does it usually take you to illustrate a book?

DL: I have been known, from time to time, of going WAY past my deadlines — a lot of authors/illustrators do it. I actually had to push back Sorry Day a whole year because of the detail needed in the work. Plus the book was published on the 10th anniversary of when Kevin said ‘Sorry’. But usually I aim to finish one to two books a year.

IG: Can you take us through your illustrative process? How do you work with the publisher and author?

DL: It’s important to not only work with the publisher when illustrating a book, but also to work with the graphic designer if you can. They help hone your illustrations into something beautiful.

The process changes from publisher to publisher. Some are more hands on, some trust your judgment and let you do your thing. Sometimes you get notes suggesting what the illustrations should be. Sometimes you’re given free reign to interpret the text. Generally I work closely with both the publisher and graphic designer if I can, and make it a rule not to consort too closely with the authors. If you do work closely with an author, they have to realise that you have a job to do and that they (the author) are not the illustrator and should not tell you your job. In my experience, I unfortunately have had this happen. I have never come across an illustrator who told a writer how to write. You’re all working on the one book and it should be collaborative.

 

My personal process starts with small sketches of anything that comes to mind in regards to the story. I write notes on the story and underline key words in the text that should be illustrated. I read and re-read the story many times to make sure I illustrate true to the text. From there I begin storyboards. I have a special book just for storyboards and draw many different panels exploring things like colour, technique and composition. Along the way, I may do one or two concept illustrations — they are basically finished illustrations. They give me a good idea of what the tone of the book should be and how the finished artwork will look.

Throughout this process, there is a lot of correspondence between the publisher, graphic designer and myself and once we decide on a final storyboard, I begin the final art. This usually (but not always) is something I do quite quickly — I usually finish the final art in less than a month — but it’s the preparation I under take beforehand that takes a lot of time. The final art is basically the afterthought of all your prep.

Once I finish a piece of final art, I send photos of it to the publisher and graphic designer to make sure I haven’t missed anything, or if anything needs changing. I always draw final art to size — I mark the dimensions on the paper and am always aware of where the text will be on the page — you don’t want anything important in the illustration to be covered up with the story. It’s the illustrators job to support and enhance the story.

Once the final artwork is complete, a courier is organised and the artwork is picked up from my studio and six months or so later — BAM! You get a new book in the mail. And then the whole process starts again.