Today is the start of a fabulous Our Australian Girl week at Kids’ Book Capers. We have some great interviews and reviews planned and there are opportunities to win a copy of one of the fabulous Our Australian Girl books from Penguin Australia.
The series took two years and two months to develop and Publisher, Jane Godwin has taken time out from her busy schedule to talk to us about these hugely popular new books and why their 8-11 year old readers are loving them.
Jane, where did the inspiration/idea for the Our Australian Girl series come from?
I had been thinking that a lot of series material available for 8 – 11 year old girls is similar in content and style – tween-orientated, with the story itself often being secondary to the overall package (website, merchandise, sparkles and glitter).This is all fine and good and there is a perfectly legitimate market and desire for this material, but I suppose I kept thinking is this all we can offer our girls?
At the same time, I observed in the young girls around me a sort of lessening in their expectations of what a book could provide. I’m generalising here, but it appeared that many of them didn’t really expect to have a memorable, rich or meaningful experience with a book. Or perhaps with a contemporary book. Many have resorted to books from previous eras if they want to read a ‘real’ story.
Meanwhile, parents everywhere appear to be increasingly concerned re young girls having to ‘grow up too fast’ – from department stores selling ‘sexy’ clothing for pre-pubescent girls, to celebrity, fashion and make-up magazines aimed at eight year olds, right through to the fear of the effect on a whole generation of having been exposed too young and too soon to the now ubiquitous nature of pornography.
Therefore I perceived a gap in the market and a need for a different type of book for today’s 8 – 11 year old girls. I also felt a personal responsibility to offer young female readers a rewarding and engaging reading experience. I wanted to make something that would appeal to all types of readers – to cut across social groups and classes, and across reading levels.
There is a series in America (called American Girl) which we were aware of, so some of the inspiration came from learning about that series, although Our Australian Girl has emerged organically as a very different type of series to American Girl.
Your own personal passion for “reading and kids and stories shines through in this series”. Was it hard to find a team that shared these goals?
Well, I was tremendously fortunate and grateful to work with the team that we gathered for OAG. The four authors (Sofie Laguna, Alison Lloyd, Gabrielle Wang and Sherryl Clark) were fantastic to work with and were also very committed to making their stories the best they could be. The talented illustrator, Lucia Masciullo, helped to bring the stories and the eras to life with her delicate and beautiful watercolours throughout the books. Davina Bell (series editor), Katie Evans (editor of the Poppy books) Rita Hart (series consultant) and Evi Oetomo (series designer) and I all shared the same creative vision for the series.
It was a small team for so many books and everyone worked incredibly hard to manage every aspect of the series. Sometimes I think the stars align with groups of people working creatively and I think they aligned for us!
Why do you think the Our Australian Girl series is proving to be so popular?
From the feedback we have had it does seem to have struck a chord with readers themselves, but also with their parents and teachers and other adults in their lives. I think the kids are loving them because of the quality of the stories and the strength of the characters. They really are great stories!
Girls are also responding positively to the look of the series, which is very rewarding because so much thought went into the design. We wanted the books to look pretty but not saccharine pretty, and not like anything else out there in the market place. Parents are welcoming the fact that these books encourage girls to feel that they can be valued for qualities other than their clothes or their mobile phone – qualities such as strength, resourcefulness, independence, kindness. And teachers can see that the kids are learning about aspects of our history almost without realising it as they read these stories.
How does the Our Australian Girl series complement the school curriculum. Are teacher’s notes available? If so, can you provide a link.
Our Australian Girl taps into so many aspects of the curriculum and can be used widely in Literature Circles, wider reading, history, English, literacy, SOSE, geography, and even in subjects like philosophy as it can be used as a springboard for self reflection and enquiry into one’s own personal history.
And then as the national curriculum kicks in, educators are having a chance to review history teaching in our schools. All this obviously taps into questions of belonging, of identity, of national self esteem, of what it means to be Australian.
We are a culture characterised by diversity and we want our children to grow up celebrating this rather than experiencing cultural and social discord. It feels as if it’s time to provide a fresh angle in interpreting our past for a new generation, and I believe Our Australian Girl is part of this. And yes, teachers’ notes are available at
Why do you think contemporary readers can relate to Letty, Poppy, Rose and Grace even though the girls lived in a different era?
In many ways the lives of the Our Australian Girls are very different to lives of Australian girls today, but we really wanted young readers to be able to identify with the characters and almost end up seeing them as friends (and remember them in the way that we as adults remember favourite characters from books of our childhood). The tagline of the series is ‘a girl like me in a time gone by’ and to achieve this we made sure that there were aspects of each character that young readers today could relate to. Grace loves horses, Letty has a friend who manipulates her, Poppy meets a dog whom she adores, and Rose feels that sometimes the world is unfair and people are not treated equally.
Young readers today are relating to all these aspects of the stories. And in a broader sense, all the characters are searching for a place where they fit in, they are exploring notions of independence and finding their way in the world, and really those aspects of life haven’t really changed.
I was at the launch of the Our Australian Girl series and it was clear that it had absorbed the lives of everyone involved. Why do you think this series is so important to the creators?
Well, as I mentioned before I do feel a responsibility not only as a publisher but as a mother and as a female and maybe even as a human being (!) to provide young readers with a rich and memorable experience.
I wanted to give them credit rather than patronise them. I am very concerned about the broader challenges for young girls growing up today, and here was an opportunity to maybe make a small difference to the way girls see themselves and the way they make choices. And I am working with people who share these concerns and are passionate about making a difference. We each believe in the goals and ideas behind the project so fervently that I suppose we probably appear a bit evangelical! But I do feel this in some ways is the most important thing I have contributed (so far!) in my career as a provider of books for children.
Is there an Our Australian Boy series planned?
Yes! We have had so many people ask us this question and we are in the early stages of developing something for boys. I won’t say any more about it here except that it will be quite different from Our Australian Girl but still feature great stories and vivid, memorable characters. And it will link in with Our Australian Girl so that teachers will be able to use the series alongside each other in the classroom.
What are you enjoying most about working on the series?
At the moment I am enjoying seeing the third lot of books (out in July) land on my desk from the printer. As each lot arrives, we put them all together and just gaze at them lovingly because the design of the books makes them look so appealing all sitting together, either face out or spine out. We are also just finishing the editing on the last lot of books (book 4, out in October) and we are starting on two new ones for next year,so we’re reading those manuscripts and working on the new covers.
I think at the moment I’m allowing myself just a few minutes (maybe seconds) to feel a sense of satisfaction in what we have achieved – but it’s bittersweet because we are saying goodbye to Grace, Letty, Poppy and Rose (and to the intense and rewarding relationship we have shared with their four authors over the last two years). It’s also really enjoyable to read the book 4 manuscripts and see how our little girls have grown and changed through their adventures across the four books.
About the Illustrator
Lucia Masciullo, the talent behind the pictures in the Our Australian Girl Books
Each of the Our Australian Girl Books has beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo.
Lucia was born in Italy, but moved to Australia looking for new opportunities. She thinks all Australians keep in their blood a bit of their pioneer heritage, regardless of their own birthplace.
Lucia is visiting us today to talk about her journey and her work.
I work full time as a children’s book illustrator. And I love it.
I was born and bred in Livorno, Italy and I moved to Australia in 2007 with my partner.
In Australia I have seen my first books published. I was lucky enough to meet and collaborate with fantastic people in the children’s book industry. Among them Hardie Grant Egmont (HGE) publishing director Hilary Rogers and Penguin (Australia) publisher Jane Godwin. I am sincerely grateful to them for betting on me and my artistic vision.
I really liked to work on the illustrations for the Our Australian Girl series.
The most challenging thing for me has been to find images that I could use as references.
All the four stories are well set in a specific epoch of Australian history and I needed exactly the objects in use in those years.
And some of the objects are very rare to find nowadays: I spent weeks studying peculiar things like what kind of tools were in use during the gold rush for example or what kind of saddle people used in the first Australian settlement or the look of a car in 1900 (I didn’t even know they had cars in 1900).
I think has been also a nice way for me to approach Australian history: I have to confess Italian schools don’t teach very much about the topic and I have been eager to learn more about the country I’m going to be living in. But I was fortunate enough to have the authors and Davina to my side who helped me and gave me feedback.
This was the first time I worked with black and white illustrations: I am quite confident using colours but this time I had to focus more on the different tones of gray and strokes instead of using colors as a means of expression. I really enjoyed the process and I am happy with the results.
For the 64 final illustrations I used watercolor and I added details with a black pencil. I painted the images slightly bigger than the size they are printed on the book. This allows the final images to have plenty of details while not completely losing my eyesight.
So interesting to hear how you work, Lucia. Sometimes people don’t realise how much time and research is involved in illustrating a book.
Over the next four days, the authors who created the Our Australian Girl characters will be dropping into Kids’ Book Capers to share their journeys and talk about their books.
In the meantime, don’t forget to enter the competition happening this week at Kids’ Book Capers. There are four great Our Australian Girl books to be won.
Enter the OUR AUSTRALIAN GIRL COMPETITION here…