The write stuff
Authors of children books are often overlooked as key players in our literary development. But the stories they tell and images they create can enchant our children for years and influence their view of reading. What motivates these authors and how do they create such magic?
Renowned Sydney-based author Margaret Wild is as curious as most parents about the sorts of books children love. Some stories capture children instantly and become battered family relics, handed down like an heirloom. Others are heard, or read once, and discarded.
In Wild’s own family, Morris Sendak’s, Where The Wild Things Are, was a favourite. For many young children Wild’s wonderful stories, including There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, Miss Lily’s Fabulous Pink Feather Boa, Old Pig and My Granny are cherished books. The words and pictures will be remembered for years and recalled like a beloved childhood friend.
Wild’s stories don’t always come easily. Most develop around a clutter of characters and emotions, which live in her head for a year, or three. Those characters have been developing at a prolific rate since Wild’s first three books were published in 1984.
Some of her inspiration came from the books she read to her own small children, particularly Jenny Wagner’s Book, John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. It won the 1978 Children Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year. ‘I was busy with young children but still managed to do a bit of poetry and a short story. I read these books to my children wishing all the time I could write that well,’ she said.
Wild has done better in most cases. Illustrator Ron Brooks believes Wild tackles issues most writers avoid in picture books. He said in Fox, their most recent collaboration, Wild ‘broke the mould’ by writing about the destruction of a relationship between three animals.
Wild believes most children can only develop a love of stories if their parents nurture it at a very young age. She suggests parents let books become a welcomed part of their home. ‘I think it is important that children see reading books as a good time,’ Wild said.
Most recent publication
Grandpa Baby, August 2009, Puffin
While Mum and Dad are working, Grandpa looks after Georgie. They read stories, plant flowers and play dress-ups. One day, Georgie says, 'Today I'm big and you're a baby. Okay?
'Okay,' says Grandpa Baby. What will Georgie and Grandpa Baby get up to?
Jenny Wagner has been writing picture books for 32 years. After a break of a couple of years she is creating stories again, not just for small children, but for teenagers. Jenny Wagner is currently writing a novel for older children.
She suspects her career as a writer is all about reviving her own childhood, starting with the picture books, and then moving towards her teenage years.
Thankfully, she cannot leave her childhood behind and expects to be writing more picture books before too long. Imagine you child’s life without a Wagner story. There’s been about 16 of them, including The Werewolf Knight, Amy’s Monster, The Nimbin and The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek.
Now a grandmother, Wagner recalls her own childhood littered with poetry books. Certainly she made books an important part of her own children’s playtime. ‘Sometimes children love a book for the pictures. But in writing a picture book, the rhythm and pace count a lot because the books are read aloud to children,’ Wagner said.
The lyrical stories by A.A. Milne were favourites when her children were small (the eldest is now 41 years old) and are still picked up no wand again.
Melbourne writer Kirsty Murray uses her life as inspiration and plot. It seems to be working. Kirsty Murray’s children often sit around the dinner table when she is creating her stories. Her six children (three are her step-children) ranging in age from nine to 17 years, offer advice, scorn her lots or cheer her ideas along when she discusses her books with them between bites.
‘I have used whole conversations from our meal table. I love the way teenagers see things. The comments they make and ideas they develop are fantastic,’ she said.
Murray’s books, which include, Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish and soon to be released Market Blues are aimed at the post picture book group of nine to 14-year-olds. She has been passionate in her efforts to bring books to her children since they were a few months old.
‘My children all have their own library cards and library day has always been a fun day in our family. We used to get our books, buy fish and chips and everyone was allowed to eat and read at the same time on library day. It makes reading part of the family lifestyle and it makes books great fun,’ Murray said.
Most recent publications
The Children of the Wind Series: The Secret Life of Maeve Lee Kwong (Book IV), Allen & Unwin, Sept 2006
The fourth and final book in the Children of the Wind series, a sweeping Irish-Australian saga made up of Bridie's story, Patrick's story, Colm's story and Maeve's story; four inter-linked novels, beginning with the 1850s and moving right up to the present.
Ron Brooks is one of Australia’s most respected illustrators. He says he began to draw because he was in love with what his eyes could see. That beauty has now been given to millions of children around the world.
Imagine Rose, the grandmotherly figure in John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, looking dapper and sleek. Well, she simply couldn’t, according to her creator Ron Brooks. Rose, her house and her humble chattels were based on Brooks’ grandparents’ house.
That now famous household took almost three years to create, the time Brooks spends giving life and meaning to most characters in his books, which also include Fox and The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek.
Ever since the lonely Bunyip crawled from the muddy depths of Berkeley’s Creek in 1973, children have conjured up his pictures in the midst of their night dreams and day fantasies. But Brooks has never been interested in simply illustrating a story. He wants his pictures to reach the hearts of our children.
These days Brooks, who lives in Tasmania, only illustrates stories he loves. ‘Children have enough entertainment around them today; they need their hearts to be touched by a book,’ he said. It is heart-touching quality he seeks when choosing books for his own son, Henry, who is 7. He admires work by author Russell Hoban and believes Dr Seuss books are good for a rollicking story, word games and a laugh,’ but they are not for the heart and soul’.
Most recent publications
Henry’s bed; Henry’s bath by Margaret Perversi and Ron Brooks, Walker Books, August 2007
It's Henry's bedtime. But will Mama sleep with him? Will Papa? Will his cat, his dog, his hens, his ducks?
It's Henry's bath time. But Henry has other ideas. Will he give the cat a bath instead? Or the dog? The hens? The duck?
By Rosie Hoban
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, October 2000. Updated July 2009.