Who are you? Virginia Lowe – I do have a PhD, so I can call myself ‘Doctor’ – but I usually don’t. I am author of Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell, about two children’s responses to books from birth, and of chapters in academic books on poetry, early literacy and Beatrix Potter. I have been involved with the Children’s Book Council of Australia (Victorian Branch) for over forty years. Wife of John for 42 years, mother of two, grandmother of one adolescent.
What do you do? I have been proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book for about fifteen years.
How did Create a Kids’ Book come to be? After finishing Year 12, I became a librarian, and during the course studied children’s literature. I found that I loved it, and got a job as the first Children’s Librarian at the brand new Moonee Valley Regional Library – selecting the whole children’s collection of about forty thousand books.
Despite not having been to university, I lectured in English and Children’s Literature at ACU for four years, and at 38, I began university. It wasn’t easy with a job, husband John doing his Masters, kids Ralph in primary and Rebecca in secondary, but I pressed on, with John’s full support again.
I did Honours, then a Master’s on English women poets in anthologies, then later again began my PhD. Lecturing in children’s literature, I often had students asking for advice on stories they had written. One student had a sister who was an artist illustrating her picture book, so I worked with her, too. She and I decided we could teach others the skills in a workshop situation, so Create a Kids’ Book was born. Jackie Young worked with me for about eight years, then went off to concentrate on her art work.
Jo Thompson took over the illustrator side of the workshops, and other assessors joined up to help with the manuscript assessment and e-course side of the business. They are all wonderful people – Jennifer Dabbs, Beck Lowe, Eileen Nelson, June Colbert and Marlo Garnsworthy (now living in America). We assess writing and illustrations for children from toddlers to YA novels. About forty books have been published through commercial publishers, and many self-published. They are listed on the successes page on our website.
What inspired Create a Kids’ Book? The fact that I was well known in the children’s book world, and had already helped many people write their stories. It seemed like the ideal job – and useful as well.
What does the site provide readers? There are writing tips, especially on how to write a picture book. So many people think this must be easy because there are so few words, but in fact it is as difficult as writing poetry – every word must be exactly right. And you have to know about the 32 page rule, and the way the illustrations can tell the story, replacing many words. There is also information on the workshops, e-courses, mentoring and manuscript assessment. Also there is information about my parent-observer records and my other publications.
What have you yourself written? My book Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell and about thirty academic articles. Also three chapters in academic books. An unpublished picture book, Yabby, is now doing good service on my website.
You are a published poet. Is this your favourite genre to write in? Yes I think so. It is certainly more fun than the academic writing, but I don’t do it as often as I might. John is the real poet in the household. I also have half a children’s novel, but it has been sitting there for eight years – who knows when I will find time to get back to it?
What makes a great picture book? The text needs to be original, and have that something extra that will make the editor take notice of it. This is where the professional assessment helps. As well as copy editing (and your spelling and grammar must be correct) we are also able to make suggestions about extra aspects that would make it more attractive to the publishers. We may not even want authors to change the words, but rather make a suggestion about the illustrations which might mean that it also teaches children about perspective, for instance.
What is your greatest writerly dream? I would like the parent-observer diaries to be used more extensively. I would like to be asked to submit chapters to many academic books, where they would be relevant. There is so much work in them, and no one can use them apart from me. My goal is to have young children less likely to be underestimated. So even though the academic writing is harder work and less fun than fiction or poetry, I guess that is what I will continue to do.
If you weren’t involved in literature, what would you be doing? Had I been able to go to university straight from school, I would have studied science. I am still very interested in science. Like Margaret Mahy, I read New Scientist regularly. But I guess my preferred reading is what is called ‘literary fiction’. I’ve belonged to the same book group for thirty-seven years, and in the last three years have joined another, reading and discussing children’s books. I’d probably be retired, actually, with all the time to read all the books I’d like.
How has the children’s book scene changed in the last 10 years and where is it headed? It’s harder to get commercially published, it’s easier to self-publish and e-books are having an impact – but I can’t predict where that will go, particularly for picture books. The interactive ones trouble me, because I’m not sure that young children will have enough concentration to understand the narrative when they’re busy pushing things to make things happen.
Name five children’s books you adore.
Moominsummer Madness (Tove Jansson)
For All Creatures (Glenda Millard/Rebecca Cool)
The Rabbits (John Marsden/Shaun Tan)
Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak)
The Just So Stories (Rudyard Kipling)
Tell us your perfect day. A stiff breeze, cloudy or sunny (I could do without rain). Some good research/writing or manuscript assessment done, and a poem written too, then a walk on the beach.
Which children’s book character is most like you and why? Well I’d like to be like Moominmamma – accepting, unflappable, optimistic and thoroughly supportive to her whole family adopted or otherwise. But I’m afraid I’m more like the Hemulin – collecting, classifying, studying, vague and a bit self-centred.
What’s next for Virginia Lowe and Create a Kids’ Book? The business will keep going as long as there is a demand for it, though I may be less involved – still keeping an overview though, and writing recommendatory letters to go to the publishers with stories I think particularly good. Lots of academic writing, lots of reading, writing poetry and maybe get back to that children’s novel.
See Virginia’s work at www.createakidsbook.com.au