I adore Anna Branford’s endearing character Violet Mackerel, who features in her own series for young girls, illustrated by Sarah Davis (Walker Books). Violet is written exquisitely and her empathy and kindness moves me even on multiple readings. The most recent instalment is Violet Mackerel’s Formal Occasion.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Anna.
Such a pleasure!
Where are you based and how involved are you in the children’s lit world?
I live in Melbourne in a little apartment that looks down over a park. It is just about perfect for a writer as it’s very quiet but at the same time, I can see the world going by. As for my involvement in the children’s lit world, besides writing, I’ve been doing lots of school visits and touring this year and I’ve also had the opportunity to present at two writers’ festivals too, Brisbane and Melbourne, both of which were fantastic.
How else do you spend your time?
I lecture in Sociology at Victoria University, teaching on topics like childhood and religion. And I also love making things by hand, especially dolls and nests. I love knitting and felting and that kind of thing.
In a funny sort of way, the inspiration actually came through doll making. I was selling my dolls at an especially beautiful Melbourne country market, St Andrews, which is outdoors and starts very early in the morning. It was during the winter so it was still dark. There was a fire and some people were playing fiddles and flutes, and even though the sun was coming up there were still stars in the sky. It was a bit magical really. I noticed that some of the people setting up their own stalls had children with them still in pajamas and half asleep, watching the market forming all around them. And as I was wondering what they thought about it all, somehow Violet and her family popped into my mind.
Could you tell us something about your main characters? Are the children or adults modelled on real people?
One of the funny things about writing is that for me, I often don’t realise where my influences and ideas come from until after I’ve finished the story. Then, as I reread, I realise how very much like my sister Violet is, or how similar Violet’s mum’s reaction is to something I have recently felt myself. Retrospectively, I can usually see exactly where each trait and characteristic comes from, but it’s never intentional at the time of writing. I see my sister, my friends (especially young friends) and sometimes myself in the characters I write about.
I love reading about Violet’s family’s creativity and involvement with making things and going to markets. Do you also like these things?
I absolutely love them. I grew up with parents who often made things and who encouraged my sister and I to make things too. And for me markets, and especially craft markets, are places where you get to see newborn ideas, fresh from people’s minds and hands. I also feel a lot of love for handwork with small and slightly uneven stitches and unintended fingerprints in clay – all the evidence of the love of human hands.
How closely have you collaborated with illustrator Sarah Davis?
I love working with her. In some ways you could say we collaborate closely in that we are absolutely co-creators of Violet and her family. But at the same time, many of the ideas in the Violet stories come purely from Sarah and are a wonderful surprise for me when I first open a set of illustrations for a new Violet story. Lots of the humour especially! In the later books in the series, Violet’s teddy bear has become a hilarious side character in the stories, reflecting Violet’s emotions and thoughts. That is purely Sarah’s doing and I enjoy it as much as any reader of the series!
Violet has actually had four different illustrators in her different editions! I believe that is pretty unusual and I’m not sure of the reasons behind the choices publishers make about these things, but my best guess is that an ‘ordinary family’ like the Mackerels is actually quite a specific idea depending on the culture and society it is being portrayed for. It has been hugely interesting for me to see both the differences and the similarities in the way the characters have been created in their various incarnations.
Have you received any responses from young readers about Violet Mackerel that particularly resonate with you?
One thing I would never have guessed when I started out as a writer is the wonderful mail you begin to get! I’ve received beautiful handmade gifts from children and lovely stories from parents telling me that a Violet book was the first their child read independently from cover to cover. That just amazes me. I’ve heard from a few young readers that they think of Violet as their own friend, and that resonates with me a lot. When I was young my family moved very often and I always has to leave friends behind, so I know how important portable book friends can be for children.
What else have you written?
Just recently I have been working on my new series about Lily the Elf. Lily lives with her dad and her granny in an elf house under a bridge, with a moss garden and a huge (to her) dandelion overhead. So she is an urban sort of elf who exists, as lots of us do, in the city but also in an incorporated natural world. And although there is a lot about her life that is elf-specific, such as her tininess, she is a relatable character too, and deals with lots of the same troubles and delights that children her age do. I’m having a lot of fun creating this series in collaboration with Lisa Coutts, an illustrator who captures Lily’s world so beautifully that I secretly suspect she may be half-elf herself.
What awards have your books won or been shortlisted for?
I’ve been very lucky in this department over the past few years! Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot was Honour Book in the 2011 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, Younger Readers category. In 2013, Violet Mackerel’s Personal Space won the Young Readers/Picture Book Award category of the Australian Family Therapists’ Award and was short-listed for the 2013 Children’s Peace Literature Awards. And in 2014, Violet Mackerel’s Possible Friend was short-listed for the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, Younger Readers category.
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m working on two things at the moment, a new Lily the Elf story about the trickiness of parting with old things even though you don’t really need them any more. And another thing that is top secret!
My favourite book of all time is Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I read it when I’m feeling sad and it is like an old friend. I read it when I get sick and it makes me feel better. I read it at Christmas and it fills the time with magic. I think there will always be at least a bit of happiness with me all my life, so long as I always have a copy on my shelves.
More recently I have been some of Banana Yoshimoto’s books and enjoying them very much and wishing I could travel to see some of the places she is writing about.
Christmas is coming. How do you plan to celebrate and what books would you like as Christmas presents?
I absolutely love Christmas! This morning my sister, my mum and I are also taking my three-year-old niece to ride the Christmas train at Myer and to see a gingerbread village. In the afternoon I am going to choose myself a Christmas tree. I celebrate non-stop all through December. I can never sing enough carols, or see enough lights and gingerbread creations, or wrap enough presents or light enough candles! But for Christmas itself my partner and I will disappear up into the mountains and have a couple of very peaceful days together, which is one of my favourite things of all. This year I would love to start sharing Alison Lester’s beautiful books with my niece so I am hoping for a copy of Magic Beach.
I have a website, annabranford.com, and can also be found on facebook.
All the best with your books, Anna. I’m looking forward to spending more time with Violet and Lily and later discovering your top secret project.
Thank you so much!