Janeen Brian, my writing friend, will have a new picture book launched on the 9th of March. I asked her some questions about this new book and also about the writing process. As a writer, the writing process of someone else is endlessly fascinating.
The formulation of the story was different because it began with a human character, not an animal as it turned out to be! (Someone once said I write a lot of stories with animals in them!) The initial character was based on a woman I’d seen at a local fair, selling her woollen works.
I was also trying to pitch a story with an Aussie flavour because that’s what the publisher was looking for. So, the main difference I guess, was that to begin with I was coming at it from an external angle - that is, attempting to create a picture book with an Aussie theme. I’d done thematic commissions before for educational publishers, but not so with trade picture books. I was fairly loose with any ideas that presented themselves to me, so the story took many twists and turns along the way.
What is it about picture book writing that draws you to it again and again?
Although they are not always easy to write, I am compelled to write picture books because of the wonderful pictorial and poetic nature of the genre. I adore succinctness and the striving for that perfect word. Strangely enough, although I consider myself a visual person, I don’t have set-in-concrete images of the characters or setting. In fact they’re quite vague, like a washed-out dream, and I often see the action through the character’s eyes, which means it’s opportunity time for the illustrator! I love to create words, and play with words and you can do that in picture books. Like a poem too, your words can shoot straight to the emotions. I think illustrators are amazing and Kat Chadwick in Shirl and the Wollomby Show has captured a paddock of sheep in a way I would never have dreamed of! They are absolute characters and I know she is keen to have another adventure with them.
In this book you have written a rhyming text. Is this a difficult feat?
Oh yes. With prose you can create a story and work on it draft after draft, but it’s the weird anomaly of rhyme that tests you! Rhyme is both constricting and surprising at the same time. However, if you’re open to ideas, sometimes a rhyming word can set you off on a different path altogether. It might sound formulaic, to get a word to rhyme and then create from that, but in fact it’s difficult at times. Everything has to follow on from that rhyme. It’s a challenge to write in rhyme and I think it was the writer Eleanor Nilsson, who said once that you should have your story idea first and then think of the rhyming pattern. While I think that is good advice, I also like to see where ideas go if they’re not hemmed in too tightly. The other challenge is that, whether it’s a stand-alone poem or a picture book, rhyming verse must have a particular rhythm. It goes hand-in-hand. The trouble is some words have too many or too few syllables and so the rhythmic pattern can soon become in disarray. So what do you do? You seek another word, or twist the sentence around, or work out a different solution altogether. Often as not, a particular word can be the undoing of many hours of work. Reminds me of dominoes. And it’s vital to read the work aloud, not once, but a hundred times! Even then, if you’re unlucky, you might still miss a rhythmic beat.
I know there is a lot of humour in the book also and certainly humour in the illustrations as well. How important is humour for you in children's writing?
I think it’s very important – depending on the tone of the book, of course. Children love to laugh. Listen to what children think of a major event, and they’ll regale you with one tiny incident that amused them! I don’t think it’s easy for some writers to write humour, and some do it better for one particular age group than another. Some writers are often the type of people who look for humour in their lives anyway and so that spills out into their writing, particularly if they can reach back into their childhood memories. I love to write humour into my work and I’m over the moon if it makes children laugh. Then I know I’ve struck gold.
Do you think that the picture book market is expanding or shrinking in Australia?
Over fifteen years ago I heard from every publisher and from those who’d been to major overseas fairs that the picture book market was dying. Paper was too expensive; four colour was too expensive, hard cover picture books are way too costly and so on. Publishers are still saying the same thing, but a few are looking at ways of reducing costs for the book buyer. It might be reducing the number of pages or lowering the cost of a paperback. But I believe picture books are the absolute key to children’s literacy, visual awareness and love of literature and to see that genre wither is just an inconceivable thought. Of course, there are already picture book stories online as well, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t involve the sensory book-reading/cuddling bonding that is so important for children.
What gave you the idea for Shirl? Is there an evolving story behind the book?
Shirl came about inadvertently. In the first few drafts of the story she wasn’t even there! In fact when she did creep into one aspect of the story, it was the publisher who said, ‘I rather like Shirl. What say you think about concentrating on her?’ Like I said before, dominoes! What I’d written up to then, crumbled in the face of that idea. But the comment sent thoughts wandering through my head. And so, after much brainstorming and re-thinking, Shirl eventually took centre stage.
Is there anything in particular that you would like to highlight about this book?
I think it’s a book simply to enjoy. It’s a good read-aloud story with humour and with great illustrations, and it says to us all, that whatever we come up against in life, we should just have a go and tackle it. You never know what could happen. And that’s a fairly strong Aussie attitude!
Thanks Janeen for sharing the journey of 'Shirl and the Wollomby Show.' And also a wonderful surprise was the dedication! What a privilege and joy.