As we grow up and experience a variety of things that life has to offer, we become attuned to our own identity and sense of self. We develop tastes, interests, abilities, likes and dislikes, individual quirks, and future aspirations. We are all unique and special in our own little ways. One such individual who is truly one of a kind is the multi-talented, all-round exceptional lady; author, illustrator, editor, presenter and Kids’ Book Review founder, Tania McCartney. It has been an absolute pleasure learning more about her writerly life, exciting upcoming events and inspiration behind her latest striking release, Peas in a Pod (see review).
Congratulations on your most recent release ‘Peas in a Pod’! How did you celebrate its launch?
I was actually in Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, and well … when in Singapore, launch a book! We celebrated the launch during a morning tea break at the festival. I presented on the creation of the book, talked about Tina Snerling’s amazing illustrations, and then had a book signing. It was lots of fun.
See Tania’s write up of her launch experience in Singapore here: http://taniamccartney.blogspot.com.au/2015/06/peas-in-pod-book-launch-singapore.html?m=1
What was the inspiration behind this story?
I tend to write my books intuitively, without overt inspiration. Characters pop onto my head and a story quickly follows; I just write it down! But if I think about it, the Peas story is perhaps a subconscious desire to promote diversity which is a hot topic in PBs worldwide at the moment. The movement was initiated in the United States, perhaps as a counterpoint to the myriad PBs that tell kids ‘we are all the same! everyone is equal! you’re all winners!’ The thing is, Real Life is not same-same and is certainly not equal. We need to teach kids they will sometimes win and sometimes lose and that being ourselves or standing out in any way as an individual is a fine thing indeed. I’m a strong advocate for teaching kids to never compromise their uniqueness … and to let no one dull their shine.
‘Peas in a Pod’ is a wonderful celebration of individuality, accepting each others’ unique qualities, and realising one’s dreams. We’ve seen these themes in some of your other books, including ‘This is Captain Cook’, ‘Tottie and Dot’ and ‘An Aussie Year’. Was this your intention when writing these books?
Not consciously. I was at a talk recently where some famous author was quoted as saying that all books are in some way autobiographical, ie: there’s a little part of us in everything we write. I’ve never been a conformist or someone who needs to belong to a group. I’m all for quirks and points of difference and the stretching (or obliteration) of stereotypes. So my little Peas in a Pod, and many of my other characters just seem to morph into people with a solid sense of self. I believe one of the greatest gifts we can teach children is to honour their own sense of self—and to trust it.
What message do you hope for readers to gain from reading ‘Peas in a Pod’?
First and foremost, I want them to find the story entertaining. Entertain first. Educate second (preferably imperceptibly when it comes to fictional picture books). I want it to charm them mentally and then resonate with them emotionally, even if they don’t know why. Beyond that, I hope they come away from the story knowing that yes, while we all eat, drink, breathe (suck our thumbs, in the cased of the Peas!) and have the same coloured blood, we are, each and every one of us, different to the point of kooky.
What is your favourite part of the story? Why?
My favourite part is the page with the girls on the swings. It’s just so poignant. It’s at a point in the story where the ‘sameness’ has clearly broken their spirits, and the image is so emotional for me. Swings are meant to be swung on, with little legs high in the air, but here, they are stationary. It’s a perfect image in terms of visual literacy. My other favourite part is the last page, but I can’t say what happens there because it will spoil the story!
What’s your most unique quality?
I love your questions! Probably my ability to ‘see’ words when I write. It’s hard to explain but I’m a visual writer in a literal sense—I see colours and shapes and characters and tones and patterns and themes that help shape the words that emerge. I’ll often storyboard or layout books I’m writing so I can ‘see’ how things are unfolding. This has made it a lot easier to transition into illustrating, too, which I’m doing for the first time this year.
‘Peas in a Pod’ is written in a simple, whimsical sense with that gorgeous repetition that keeps readers engaged. How do you decide which writing style best suits your stories? Does this decision come naturally or it is a conscious effort to strive for perfection? Do you have a preferred style of writing?
Again, I think it’s intuitive. I know my audience for each book, so I write with that audience in mind, using appropriate language and word usage. Having said that, I don’t believe in patronizing the reader, and will still use relatively sophisticated text whenever I can. Context and association is powerful, even at a very young age. That’s how kids learn delicious words!
My favourite style of writing, you’ve already mentioned—whimsical. I adore magical realism. I love rhyme (but it has to be infallible) and although picture books are my obsession, the books I enjoy writing the most are junior fiction because they allow me so much more wordage (I have three WIP junior fiction novels).
I think repetition should be used achingly sparingly, and should only be used for the very young. It has to be rhythmic and succinct and it has to stop soon after it starts. A book with endless repetition is my idea of hell. The only person in the world who’s ever done it right is Dr Seuss, and even then, enough is enough!
I’m also a strong believer in minimal text picture books, as I feel the images should do most of the talking. That’s why they’re ‘picture’ books.
You’ve had tremendous success working with illustrator, Tina Snerling, including collaborations on the award-winning ‘An Aussie Year’, and ‘Tottie and Dot’. Her pictures in ‘Peas in a Pod’ perfectly compliment the sweet, colourful nature of the story. What do you like about her artistic style? How much illustrative detail do you normally provide, and how much is left to her imagination?
I love that she blends stylish modern with heartfelt whimsy so seamlessly. Her sense of colour is unparalleled, and beautiful colour is HUGE for me. I love that her artistic repertoire is vast—she can switch from fine art to cartoon in a nanosecond. And I love her penchant for detail. She never fails to astound me with the tiny little bits and pieces that make any picture book great.
The more books we do together, the more creative license Tina has because she understands what I write. Along the way, I might make comment on something tiny that would better support text, but other than that, she comes up with all the characters on her own (I always love them) and also adds ‘extra’ ideas and elements that enhance my words.
Tina and I are really lucky to work closely on our books—not something all creators enjoy. This brings the books that extra ‘something’ that can only come from open collaboration. The end result is more seamless, more cohesive, more plump with meaning.
You are an inspirational literacy advocate and supporter of children’s book creators with your many roles; author, illustrator, editor, speaker, reviewer and founder of the reputable ‘Kids’ Book Review’ literature site and the 52-Week Illustration Challenge. How is your working life managed? Which of these roles do you feel most established? Is there a particular one you wish you had more time for?
It’s interesting because as my career has developed, I’ve found a much greater need for focus, which means dropping a few of those roles, particularly in the last six months. I actually found I was no longer managing to ‘do it all’—at least not without compromising my health and sanity.
I genuinely love helping others, promoting other works and sharing all I’ve learned—and of course, I’ll never stop beating children over the head with books books books! But I’ve had to take a big step back of late, to focus on my own journey, which is undergoing a lot of change. After a 25+ year hiatus, I’m re-entering the world of illustration with my first author/illustrator contract, so it’s been interesting watching that side of myself develop.
I‘ve been writing professionally for 27 years now, in varying genres, so that side of my career is well-established, as is my speaking and presenting. Illustration, while it’s always been a part of my life, is brand new in a professional/career sense. So that’s what I’ll be dedicating more time to these coming years. Notice I said ‘dedicating’ and not ‘wishing’. We all need to stop wishing and just dedicate. It’s so important.
What do you love about writing children’s books?
Everything. The initial concept, the research and development, the illustration process, the editing, design, layout—everything. Then there’s the reaction from kids. That’s just the best. To see kids resonate with or learn from you work … to see them scurry into a corner and sit with my books and devour every page. It’s insanely rewarding.
Which books did you enjoy reading as a child? Have any of these influenced your writing style?
Like anyone born from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, I adored Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Eric Carle and Dr Seuss. Yes, I think they have influenced both my style and content—magical realism and wonder. I remember being particularly struck by James and the Giant Peach. It blew my mind. CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia similarly reconfigured my internal world, and I do think this has affected the way I write as an adult.
With all your knowledge and experience gained over the past 25+ years in mind, what piece of advice could you share with aspiring writers in the children’s literature industry?
Never stop learning and growing your skillset. Watch The Gap by Ira Glass (search for it on YouTube) and be really self-effacing with what you’re producing. I’ve lost count of the people who’ve said to me ‘I’ve decided I want to write children’s books. How do I get published?’ My response? ‘Dedicate the next ten years to daily writing. Then ask me that same question.’
The best writers and illustrators know they can always improve, and do not take offence when critiqued or rejected. They just keep honing their craft, and keep themselves current.
Also, write from the heart and write what you love. I don’t agree that we should write for kids or publishers. I think we should write what WE want, what WE love, and do it in a voice that will appeal to our target market. Or better yet, just write it and then assess the target market at the end! We need to love what we write. We need to be overcome with passion and adoration for the stories tumbling onto our blank pages. THAT is how we end up with contracts.
What’s next for Tania McCartney? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
September 2015 sees the release of a new book for the National Library, illustrated by the superlative Andrew Joyner—Australian Kids Through the Years. At the same time, two follow-up books to An Aussie Year will be released in the UK (with a small print run here)—An English Year and A Scottish Year. These will be followed in 2016 by two more international titles in the series. So excited about these, but you’ll have to wait and see where they’ll be set!
In 2016, I have a picture book—Smile Cry—coming out, illustrated by Jess Racklyeft who I met through my 52-Week Illustration Challenge. It’s really different and I can’t wait to see the response to it. Jess’s illustrations are so gorgeous.
In either 2016 or 2017, my next National Library book will be out—a follow-on to This is Captain Cook, with my dear friend Christina Booth. It’s about one of my favourite historical figures of all time—and book three is on another favourite (this time a woman).
But the most exciting news of all is my first author/illustrator contract. It’s going to be a high-page-count book and will take me nearly a year to complete. It’s a little overwhelming making this career transition, and a little scary, but our industry is so inclusive and warm—I know I’ll have some supportive hands holding me up!
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Tania!
I LOVE THEM! Thank you SO much, Romi. xxx
Find more information about Tania, her books, and initiatives at the following links:
52-Week Illustration Challenge:
To purchase her invaluable ebook resource for writers and illustrators; The Fantastical Flying Creator, please follow this link: