‘Michael Wagner & Jane Godwin: talented literary partners’

Michael Wagner and Jane Godwin are a talented husband and wife literary couple.

One of the first times I was aware of Jane Godwin’s work was when she was CBCA shortlisted for The True Story of Mary Who Wanted to Stand on Her Head. This and her other books are wonderful, and I particularly love the picture books Today We Have No Plans, Starting School and Go Go and the Silver Shoes and her YA novel Falling from Grace.

I clearly remember meeting Michael Wagner in Brisbane when I was consultant for an Indie bookstore there. Penguin Books were taking him around to talk about his unique series ‘The Undys’. I loved the games that the father and son played in these books and the love, as well as pathos, in their life and relationships in the housing commission apartment where they lived.

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Jane and Michael.

What are your professional roles in the book world?

We’re both full-time authors and part-time publishers. I (Michael) have my own small imprint, Billy Goat Books, which allows me to dabble in publishing by releasing a book or two a year, while Jane freelances for a couple of different publishers.

What have you written together and how do you help each other with your work/writing?

MW: We’ve actually only collaborated once, on the picture book Bear Make Den, the text of which is about 50 words, so much of our effort went into reducing the number of words in the text. It’s funny, you might think that two authors would double the prose, but in that instance, we helped each other create the most economical prose possible.

But we’re also slowly working together on a series of early readers. It’s an idea that I came up with, that would probably work as a series, but which really plays more to Jane’s strengths (i.e. her understanding of very young children), so it makes sense for us to work on it together.

When we’re not working together, we help each other with feedback and encouragement. It’s hard for ‘life-partners’ to be too critical of each other’s work – we’re meant to be our number one supporters, really – but whenever we get stuck, we seek help from each other.

What other literary/illustrative partnerships do you have and what books have these produced?

MW: There are actually too many of these to list, but an author-illustrator partnership I’m particularly enjoying right now is with my friend Wayne Bryant in the creation of the So Wrong series. He and I both love Mad Magazine, and we’ve created something similarly subversive and naughty, but in book format, and aimed more squarely at primary kids. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved, although I know many would wonder why. J

JG: Anna Walker and I have created 6 picture books together, and we’re working on our seventh.  I am also Anna’s publisher of her books that she writes and illustrates herself, so we are quite connected!  I feel very lucky to have the partnership with Anna.  We have become good friends through working and exploring ideas together, and I think we each have an understanding of how the other works, and sees the world.

I’ve also made 3 books with Andrew Joyner, and we’re working on a couple more at the moment.  I love working with Andy – he is a genius at character and gesture, and he’s also very insightful with text, and gives great advice and feedback about the narrative and story.  He’s interested in the words as well as the visual world of the story.

Alison Lester and I have collaborated in many ways as well.  I’m her publisher, we’re great friends, and we’ve made many books together in Aboriginal communities with the kids and sometimes with the adults, too.  Recently we collaborated in creating a picture book called The Silver Sea, which we made with young patients at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.  This was a really wonderful project to be involved in, and all proceeds go to the Education Institute at the RCH.

My friend Davina Bell and I have also collaborated in various ways.  Together we created the Our Australian Girl series when we were both working at Penguin. Davina and I have also co-written two books, and both have been illustrated by Freya Blackwood.  The three of us really enjoy working together, and usually this involves a trip to stay with Freya in Orange, where Davina and I camp in her beautiful studio.

Could you give us examples of your books across age-groups and forms, from picture books to series and novels.

JG: I’ve written picture books, junior novels and also stand-alone novels for middle readers and teenage readers.  I wrote many titles in the Aussie Bites and Aussie Nibbles series, and over the past 10 or so years it has been mainly picture books.  Part of the reason for this is that I adore the picture book genre – it fascinates and inspires me – and the other part is that I had a very busy and demanding job as a publisher so never had the time to write novels.  Now that I’ve left Penguin, I’m working on longer stories as well as picture books.

Which of your books’ longevity in print are you particularly pleased about?

MW: I’m most thrilled about the Maxx Rumble series, which, so far, has been in print for 14 years. It was my first proper attempt at writing for children and remains my most enduring work. I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it, which I think, is why it’s worked so well. J

JG: I’m pleased that the novel I wrote over 10 years ago now, Falling From Grace, remains in print and is set at Year 8 level in secondary schools.  I still receive letters about that book from readers both here and in the US, so I feel happy that it’s still being enjoyed and hopefully hasn’t dated too much!

When in Brisbane, Michael and I also talked about his being in a band and about Jane’s YA novel Falling from Grace (2006), which I loved and have kept all these years. I still have the post-it note on the cover, which I wrote recommending it to one of my twin sons, who was then 14 years-old. The key character for me, Kip, was also 14 in the book, looked older than his years, played music, had given up swimming even though he was a champion and suffered anxiety – all like my son. He seemed like such a real person.

If I recall correctly, Michael mentioned that Jane had written the character with the help of their son, Wil.

After all these years, Falling from Grace is deservedly still in print and I highly recommend it.

JG: Oh, that’s lovely, Joy – thank you.  Wil didn’t help me with the actual writing, but I was certainly observing him and his world when I was writing that book!

It’s perhaps not surprising that the son of such a creative couple is now the lead singer, lyricist and muso in famous Oz band, The Smith Street Band.

How did you nurture Wil as a writer? Which song of his are you most proud and why?

JG: Wil was always interested in music and rhythm, from a very young age.  He was also always interested in language.  He spoke at a very early age, and also loved reading and books.  I read to him a lot, until he was quite old!  A passion for music is also something that Wil and Michael share.  I’m proud of a lot of his songs, and I have my favourites.  A sentimental favourite is My Little Sinking Ship, which is a song he wrote for his sister, our daughter Lizzie, when they were both teenagers.  I also love Laika, which is a very sad but beautiful song about vulnerability, really, based around the story of the Russian dog that was sent into space.  Lizzie and Wil have actually collaborated on both those songs – Lizzie made a little animation film clip for My Little Sinking Ship when she was in secondary school, and they made a handmade book, illustrated by Lizzie, for Laika.  We printed a limited quantity and they sold it at gigs. Recently, Wil received an email from a teacher at a Melbourne primary school, who said that her grade 5 and 6 students studied the Laika song, and it really inspired them in different ways. I found this very moving.

MW: All I can add to what Jane’s said is that I’ve been semi-obsessed with music since I was in primary school and I think that sort of passion from a parent is often absorbed by his/her children. I was also in a band that almost became famous, so perhaps Wil is living out a part of my life that was never quite fulfilled. I should also say that I never consciously pushed him in that (or any other) direction, we just responded to his interests, whatever they were at the time.

Which literary award has meant the most to you?

JG: I won the QLD Premier’s Award with my first novel, and this probably meant the most because it was very affirming when I was just starting out.

What are you reading and enjoying at the moment or recently?

JG: I’m reading George Saunders’s short story collection The Tenth of December. I recently read Lincoln in the Bardo and loved it, so I’m reading everything else of his now!  (Wil is also reading the same book, btw!)  I recently read Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo.  I love her writing, and can’t wait for her next book to come out.

MW: I’m almost always reading books about psychology, philosophy or human nature. I guess I’m hoping to become wise some day.

What are you writing now or next?

MW: I’m writing a few different picture books at the moment, but also trying to master a middle-reader series idea I’ve had hanging around for about five years. It has a catchy title and some decent enough plot ideas, but I’ve never been able to find the main character’s voice. Luckily, I think I’ve just started to find it recently. I sure hope so!

JG: I’m writing lots of picture books, and also a novel.

There do seem to be many books rushed through publication at the moment, particularly novels with misprints and with plots, characters and structure that could benefit from more care. This is actually preventing books from being shortlisted for awards. Why is this rushed writing and publication process happening and is it going to improve?

JG: When I remember back in the dark ages when I was working as an editor, we had a lot more time to work on each title.  We could give each book, and each author, the time they needed.  Many publishers and editors still really try to do this now, but the world of publishing and the economics of publishing have changed so much, and books often tend to be rushed through.

What would you both like to be remembered for?

MW: As someone who did his best. And perhaps made the world slightly better – be that through my books, or talks and workshops, or even through our children.

JG: I like Michael’s comment here, so I’ll echo that, I think – as someone who did her best!

Michael Wagner’s website

Jane Godwin’s website

Love and Life – Picture Books for Mums

Looking for beautiful books that capture your heart with themes of comfort, joy, encouragement, living life and nurturing this Mother’s Day? Here are a few that possess these qualities, and more, ensuring you’re bursting with love and light on your special day.

My Meerkat Mum, Ruth Paul (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, April 2017.

Meerkats. Utterly adorable. Quirky. Funny. Eccentric. Fiercely protective and loyal. It doesn’t take much to fall in love with them, and here is a sharp-witted, sweet tale that you will fall in love with, too.

Single words and short, punchy sentences establish the pace for the quick and tenacious characteristics of these feisty little creatures. “Up. Stretch. Left. Right. Sleepy Mum. Morning light.” The illustrations favour the same theatrics with their humorous assortment of snapshots showcasing the meerkats in each and every action. It is Mum’s duty to prepare her three pups for the busy day ahead. Ensuring they are meticulously groomed from every angle, they are ready to set out from their burrow for a lesson in hunting. But their work is not without misadventure as the young meerkats encounter a lick of danger. Luckily Meerkat Mum is there to assert her authority, security and comfort…as all good mums do!

Ruth Paul has captured the heart of motherhood through her cheeky, vivacious story of possibly one of the cutest animals in existence. My Meerkat Mum is a delightful read for mums and bubs to share, highlighting the love and ultimate dedication of a Mum who’s work is never complete. A book that preschoolers will simply adore.

Old Pig, Margaret Wild (author), Ron Brooks (illus.), Allen & Unwin, Jan 2017.

Written and illustrated by the legendary creators that are Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, this heart rending classic remains as moving as since it was first published 20 years ago. The comfort in knowing you’re taken care of long after a loved one has gone brings peace and warmth even to the most broken of hearts. This story of living, giving, optimism, appreciation and infinite love will move you to tears whilst shining a beacon of light and hope in the places you need it most.

It has been only Old Pig and Granddaughter for a long time. They are an inseparable pair, a tremendous team that work well together, but most importantly, enjoy each other’s company. As quickly as we’ve fallen for this loving duo, we are shaken with a harsh reality that Old Pig is gravely ill. And Granddaughter is left to deal with her sudden sense of loneliness, alone. But Old Pig has some final affairs to prepare. Besides the bills, Old Pig gives Granddaughter the gift of peace and a sensational love for the world around her. “Do you see how the light glitters on the leaves?” “Do you see how the clouds gather like gossips in the sky?” And Granddaughter gives her own final gift too…tissues, please!

This story that deals with life and letting go has been written by Margaret Wild with the most beautiful, sincere language in a spiritually uplifting and gentle manner. It emanates with an aura of goodness; that generosity, solicitude and serenity can fulfil one’s happiness. Brooks’ use of light and shade and autumn tones encapsulate the ride of emotions as well as capturing the beauty of a world infused with promise.

Old Pig is a delicate look at loss in a story so filled with love. It is a reassuring book for early primary years children, and in particular those who have lost, or are especially close to, a grandparent.

Under the Love Umbrella, Davina Bell (author), Allison Colpoys (illus.), Scribble, Feb 2017.

No matter where one is, physically, emotionally or spiritually, they can take comfort in knowing that they are deeply and truly loved. Under the Love Umbrella is a charming analogy and reminder for our children that they always have the security of our love despite their fears, mistakes, insecurities, and even their misdemeanours.

Gorgeously poetic in its rhyming stance, Davina Bell uses sweet and mesmerising language to steal our hearts. A variety of everyday situations are captured, and are constantly brought back to the soothing words, “…love umbrella.” Whether they are experiencing unfair play, or feeling shy, moving house and strange new things, or bad dreams and big worries, the children can rely on feeling safe, considered and loved. Although it cannot be seen, love can be felt, even a long, long way away.

The simple colour palette with pops of neon orange is in similar style to this duo’s previous title, The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade. Colpoys effectively attracts readers with her joyous and warm images, encapsulating a diverse population of family types and cultural backgrounds.

Under the Love Umbrella is an encouraging, reassuring and light-hearted story filled with warmth for any parent to share with their young ones. It includes several themes that offer valuable discussion points, including the final question, “Who’s under your love umbrella?”.

Stay safe, warm and protected this Mother’s Day! Snuggle up with a good book and a loved one. X

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Children with Anxiety – Picture Book Reviews

Often it is our differences, fears and anxieties that contribute to our feelings (or lack thereof) of self-worth. It is common within our society to feel out of place or lack self-confidence. But you know what? That’s OK! Maybe it just takes a little time to warm up, to find your feet and be ready to tackle the world. Understanding and accepting oneself can often be a process that takes maturing, and a gentle and sympathetic support system can be a vital part of that growth. The following two books deal with these tender matters in beautifully delicate and encouraging ways.

imageThe Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade, Davina Bell (author), Allison Colpoys (illus.), Scribe Publications, 2015.

A sensitive young boy named Alfie feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as he struggles with social anxiety. Naturally, he’d rather hide than face performing as Captain Starfish in the upcoming fancy-dress parade. Those all-too-familiar feelings of nervousness that he has experienced before return. Admitting his fear of failure to the cowboys on his wallpaper is scary enough, but how will his Mum react when he tells her he can’t go?

Well, Mum (and Dad) are gratefully understanding. In fact, Mum takes Alfie to the aquarium instead. The underwater world is beautiful and wondrous, but upon spotting a starfish, just like his costume, he feels that heaviness weighing upon him once more. Fortuously it is a little shy clownfish that he connects with who shows him that it’s alright to wait in the wings (or coral, so to speak) until the time to emerge from the depths feels right.

imageDavina Bell’s genuinely heartfelt and beautifully written text so effectively relates Alfie’s fears and nightmares in an empathetic, delicate manner. Equally, Colpoys‘s exquisite illustrations with their soothing blues and greys and pops of neon orange, and the fantastic use of space and perspective add that perfect depth of soul and vulnerability.

The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade’ speaks into the lives of many children facing anxiety. A poignant and enchanting tale set to add a little sparkle and illumination to the more sensitive souls of this often daunting world.

imageBeing Agatha, Anna Pignataro (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2015.

Here we have another reserved child fearing the judgement of others. But just like it did for the boy in Davina Bell’s book, it takes time and encouragement for this character to truly realise what makes her an individual and thus overcome her internal struggles.

We are immediately drawn in with a pertinent discussion topic. First we see that Agatha’s parents are of an inter-racial (or inter-specie) communion, and that Agatha is centred at this somewhat of a divide at family get-togethers. Then there’s the fact that her likes and abilities seem less impressive than others’ – another reason to feel a sense of lack of worth. So Agatha decides that hiding from her classmates is the solution, until she realises that she’s more important than she thinks. With a little reinforcement from her teacher, Agatha’s friends are able to rattle off a number of traits that make her special. But they all agree, “no one else is a better Agatha than you!”

imageWhilst Anna Pignataro‘s simple narrative relays Agatha’s worries about her lack of belonging, it is her pictures that form the basis for its interpretation. Anna’s language is sensitive and gentle, and her illustrations support these qualities unequivocally. The grey tones of the charcoal render the story’s restrain and softness yet carry a sense of similarity amongst the characters. And it is the pops of watercolours and collage elements that give life, spirit and individuality to each of them, too. A wonderfully eclectic mix that this book highlights of difference as well as belonging.

‘Being Agatha’ is a modest, sweet and intriguing story lightly addressing feelings of anxiety with a reassuring touch that a range of young children (and species) between 2 and 6 will be able to relate to.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Meet Davina Bell, author of The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade

Davina BellThanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Davina Bell.

My pleasure!

What’s your background in books?

I was the type of kid who read all night by the hallway light that peeked through the cracks of my bedroom door and wrote endless stories on old computer paper – the type with the holes in the side that you ripped off.

So it was no surprise to me when I eventually ended up working at Penguin as a children’s book editor. Before that, I studied Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, which is where I reawakened my love of writing after a long dormant phase.

Underwater Fancy-Dress

Could you tell us what prompted you to write your tender picture book The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade (Scribe)? 

My friend’s nephew often stays over at her house. He’s terrified of cats, and he would have to sneak past her cat to get to the bathroom at night. She would hear him say to himself, ‘Be brave, Saul! Be brave!’

That was such a tender and beautiful story for me, and reminded me of how childhood, for all its freedoms, is full of fears, big and small. I wanted to write a book that said to children, ‘You are not alone in your fears.’

I had also just read Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which is about introversion, and how difficult life can be if you go through it believing that your introversion is a fault or a source of shame, rather than its own way of being, with its own gifts.Quiet

 

How did you decide what Alfie’s costume for the Fancy-Dress Parade would be?

I wish I knew! It wasn’t a conscious decision – my writing mind decides so many things for me. The more I write, the more I learn to just step out of the way and trust it do its work, and then to apply my analytical mind to editing and strengthening whatever it delivers. Captain Starfish was just there, in the story, and I loved him immediately, no editing required.

Alfie’s parents are understanding and seem to know exactly how to treat him. Who are they based on/how did you craft them?

While I was at university, I looked after the children of many families and I saw many different parenting styles at work. My friends are all now just having babies, and that has been really interesting to watch, too! So Alfie’s parents are a blend of the best bits I have seen: patience, a desire to see how the world looks from a child’s point of view, open communication, and a willingness to take each child and each day on its own terms.

Are you worried about Alfie, such a sensitive child?

Do you know what? I think Alfie is going to be okay! His parents really seem to understand and support him, and I think they’ll give him the space and support to realise that his introversion and sensitivity are, in many ways, a gift. It is hard to be sensitive – I know from experience – but you are also so awake to the world in all its tragedy and wonder.

What’s the significance of the cowboys on Alfie’s wall?

The cowboys are Alfie’s confidants – sort of like an imaginary-friend substitute. I think they are also a part of Alfie and a way for him to talk through his feelings with himself. Cowboys are daring and very devil-may-care, so perhaps they are Alfie’s alter-ego. (I feel like I’m getting very Jungian here!)

Your writing is subtle and your words carefully chosen. How important is the quality of the writing to you?

Thank you! Having worked on many picture books during my time at Penguin, I realise the importance of every single word – how it’s thought over, taken out, put back in, played around with. This is the process I went through with my text because I absolutely believe that we owe it to the child reader to make their early experiences of books really high-quality ones.

I also wanted to tell a story about shyness and sensitivity and introversion without talking specifically about those concepts, and that pushed me to be subtle and to tread lightly.

How closely did you collaborate with the illustrator, Allison Colpoys? Hating Alison Ashley

I was lucky enough to collaborate extremely closely with Allison on the book – we have a fantastic working relationship and a shared vision, so it was such a glorious process to go through together. We workshopped every creative decision, big or small, and it was so much fun. As a long-time fan of her award-winning cover design, I feel incredibly blessed to have had her illustrate Alfie’s story. Nobody can believe this is her first picture book!

Thanks very much, Davina.

Thanks for the great questions!

(Allison Colpoy’s cover for Hating Alison Ashley)