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.
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.
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.
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.
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!