On Monday, we spoke to author Penni Russon about how she became an author. Today she is going to tell us all about the inspiration behind her award winning book, Little Bird.

Little Bird tells the story of teenager, Ruby-lee who falls in love with the baby she is looking after.

Congratulations Penni on receiving a 2010 CBCA Notable for Little Bird. Can you tell us where the inspiration for this book came from?

I worked in childcare the year after I left school, then as a babysitter all through uni. I had that experience of working with a particular baby who I fell for. It was a physical, almost biological, love (not icky!), which I recognised when I held my own babies years later.

I’d recently done a week of regional touring where I talked to lots of girls who didn’t read. So Ruby-lee lives in an ex-council estate outer suburb of Hobart, and is a non-reader and at one stage her teacher says something along the lines of ‘why are girls like you so determined to oppress yourselves?’, reflecting my own frustration.

Are any of the characters based on real people?

The character of Spence (baby Maisy’s estranged father and a teacher at Ruby-lee’s school) is based on a real person – I was interested in the idea of a teacher who falls for a student, exploring him not as a social pariah or even a dirty old man, but as someone a bit sad and pathetic, though not irredeemable.

Having worked in childcare, you obviously knew a lot about it. Was there any reason you wanted to feature childcare in your book?

I wanted to write about a girl who wants to be a childcarer in recognition of the fantastic young women I worked with, and also the young men and women who have looked after my own kids.

Childcare is a terribly undervalued and underpaid industry, but it also offers amazing opportunities for young women to move up quickly through the ranks, and to travel and support themselves.

Can you tell us about your main character, Ruby-lee?

I love Ruby-lee. I think I love her the most of all my characters. She is flawed – she lets herself be pushed around by big personalities, is too easily impressed, and she has a lazy streak. But though she’s grown up in a culture of not reading (she used to read in primary school but fell out of the habit), she is quick witted and reflective and she actually expresses herself eloquently – she has all this possibility lurking beneath her surface. And she has a really heightened sense of right and wrong, and in the end she starts making decisions that shows she’s in control of her future, she is not just the sum of her past.

How have you used the ‘little bird’ motif in your story?

I wove a thread all the way through the manuscript. In the end the bird represents both Maisy, the baby bird that Ruby-lee must protect, but also Ruby-lee herself, a bird about to spread her wings and leave the nest. It gave the novel a poetic strand it was missing, that delicately wove all the emotional threads of the story and I was very proud of the end result.

It’s always great for readers to find out how their favourite books have been created. Thanks Penni for for sharing the story of Little Bird with us.


AN AUTHOR’S JOURNEY – Penni Russon Shares Her Story

Penni Russon has written seven books including Little Bird for which she has received a 2010 CBCA Notable award. We’re going to feature Little Bird on Kids’ Writing Capers on Wednesday, but today we’re going to talk about Penni, the author.

Penni grew up in Tasmania and says she still considers herself to be a Tasmanian writer.

Penni, can you tell us how your writing career started?

Writing was always something that existed at the periphery of my being, though as a primary school kid I wanted to be a clown, and then an actor.

By the time I started uni it was archaeology that I was interested in.

But really when you connect all those things up what they have in common is storytelling and, for clowning and acting, playfulness.

It also shows I didn’t ever want to be a proper grown up with an office job. I fell out of love with archaeology when I realised it was less about dreaming up stories than it was about verifiable facts. Along the way I always wrote – mostly poetry until my mid twenties when I discovered that I knew how to think in novels.

Was it hard converting storytelling to writing?

The actual becoming a writer seems easy. I finished my BA, thought ‘now what?’ and found the diploma in Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. I vaguely thought there might be a job in it for me. I developed my writing and rewriting and workshopping skills (alongside some pretty fabulous peers, including one the Alllen & Unwin editor who edited my book, Little Bird.

I also did a work experience placement at Allen & Unwin and when I finished they kept giving me freelance editing work. Then my friend, writer Kirsty Murray, told me ‘they don’t want another editor, they’re waiting for you to write a book.’ So I did. I am very obedient.

What did working as an editor teach you about writing?

Working as a structural editor (reading books and writing big reports on what was working and what wasn’t, highlighting inconsistencies in the plot, or characterisation, asking questions like ‘what’s at stake for the main character?’) had been like an apprenticeship in being a writer, though I learned a lot by writing and rewriting my early novels too.

Do your books have any consistent themes/symbols/locations?

Birds come up a bit, the sea is a big motif for me (growing up on an island). My first three books were set in Tasmania, which I came back to for Little Bird. I am interested in that age where girls come into their power, sexually, but also in terms of understanding their effect on the world around them, their autonomy, their strength… I felt that I mishandled that transition, hurting people in the process. Perhaps that’s why I am so interested in exploring how different girls deal with it.

Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Penni. On Wednesday, Penni is coming back to tell us about how she wrote her award winning Little Bird and where the inspiration come from.

Hope you can join us then.