Caroline Magerl – A Journey of the Heart Part 2

In last week’s part of the interview we delved into the history and imagination of the brilliant Caroline Magerl. Today she generously shares how ‘Hasel and Rose’ (‘Rose and the Wish Thing’) became the magical book that we all adore.

With reference back to ‘Hasel and Rose’, this beautiful story of displacement and friendship emerged out of great significance to your own past experiences. Can you tell us how this book is meaningful to you and what you hope readers will gain from it?

imageAs I was writing this story, I remembered how as a child I drew much strength when holding a particular toy. It had somehow been nominated to provide protection and courage. This is something I have seen many other children do and is heart-warming to watch, but also deeply intriguing. It occurred to me that there is something significant to be learnt from these fleeting relationships.

During the years of writing Rose and the Wish Thing, I happened to see a boy tenderly carry a kitten in the hood of his jacket. We were on a Melbourne tram and he kept his composure by gently stroking the whiskered face at his shoulder, all the while under slander from other boys sitting nearby. This incident was instrumental in shaping a part of the story, that of Rose carrying the Wish Thing in her hood.

Finding the Wish Thing was just the start for Rose, her courage was there all along, but now it was engaged. The world outside her door is after all the object and desirable end to the tale of finding the Wish Thing. It is the friendship that happens once a Rose finds her place in the world, which is the less obvious but true focus of this story.

‘Hasel and Rose’ is soon to be released in the U.S. with the title ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’. Congratulations! How did this publication come about? How much input did you have in this international release? Besides the titles do the books differ at all?

Thanks.

imageThe good people at Penguin Australia took ‘Hasel and Rose’ to the Bologna Book fair before it was released. While there a publisher at Double Day (Random House) noticed it and bought the North American rights. It was somewhat surreal to have an overseas contract signed before the book was printed.  They requested a small number of changes such as the title. Double Day felt that changing Hasel into ‘the wish thing’ clarified the intention and had the added purpose of being less gender specific.

Over the years I have come to appreciate that published works are a collaboration of editors, publishers, marketing, art editors, designers and the list goes on. Most have years of experience and genuinely want to add to the success of the book. As the creator I will always fight for the intregity of my work but equally I would be foolish not to acknowledge professional direction when offered. All of this is an art more than science or perhaps it is better described as an awkward dance.

I will be travelling to America when the book is released in March to present at places such as the Mazza Museum, Eric Carle Museum and a selected number of bookshops. I must also mention Dr Belle Alderman of the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature. Belle was kind enough to introduce my work to the Eric Carle Museum staff recently during her vacation in America. Once again, I find myself personally indebted and very grateful to know there are people such as Belle, in the Australian Children’s book industry freely giving so much of their time, effort and expertise.

Your illustrations are so gorgeously fluid and energetic, soulful and emotive. Do you have a favourite image from ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’? What was your creative thought process while illustrating the book? How does the watercolour medium reflect the story’s underlying themes?

I don’t have a favourite image as such. Each has a specific reason for existing. For example, if I start at the beginning;

imageRose was a new face in a new street; her feet are not on the ground, she is in a space that is not hers. You are looking up at her in a large building… in a sense she is hanging onto the window sill, a floating feeling between a window in and a window out. There she hangs onto something, but it is not what she needs. To give the impression of loneliness, of being somewhere that was not home, I had a strong intuition to create a vignette as a floating image; a window into the story. It’s fleeting and you aren’t meant to dwell, its intention is to lead you in.

Watercolour was the obvious choice of medium. It was the first medium I saw in books as a child. I was fascinated by the simultaneous impression of overall harmony, and yet it was plain to see that that the image was built up in films and layers of colour. It had the ability to be evocative and loose, but also describe things in minute details. I didn’t know how it was done, only that it could be done and that there was great skill in doing so. I became obsessed with it and eventually taught myself.

This picture as with the rest of the story has a consistent palette which helped to maintain an underlying harmony. A very pale yellow was applied beneath all the images, which provided a sense of warmth throughout. The yellow is a very clear colour which manages to glow through the many layers which were laid over. I had great delight in floating the opaque bricks in mid air against the wall, where they sit almost magically against the building. The blue sky and red bricks are reminiscent of my early impressions of Sydney, where as a child; I was a new face in a new street. Leaving Europe where the sky covered as a blanket over the world, my new town appeared with a sense of blue immensity. For me, red and blue are emotionally charged colours.

Part of the visual narrative in this picture is the distant streetscape. This created a neighborhood atmosphere which is a major part of the story; there was something to be gained out there, something for Rose to gain, a promise of something. It wasn’t just Rose in a window; it was also an overlay of meaning and an unspoken agenda. Pictures have a very powerful role in telling the unspoken aspects of a story. Its language is in the colour, tonal value, perspective, proportions, expression, and in this case an understated yet obvious element, ‘a new street’.

Loose line work creates a spontaneous joy. There is a sense of exploration as the strokes create new vegetation, random birds, etc. They spring forward in the most charming way, but do come with the enormous risk of irreversibility. Line work reads beautifully and you can feel the energy of the person who drew it.

Equally but differently; Through a glass.

Some of the images in the story were defined as much from my frustration at not being able to pin the story down as the narrative itself.

imageIn this image with views through Rose’s cardboard telescope, there is a series of tantalizing views before Rose sees the wish thing arriving in a box. This was engendered by a memory of watching the Sydney harbor pass by in a dizzying smudge, through the porthole of the yacht that was my childhood home. Nothing was still as the vessel swung on its mooring, things endlessly slipped by. These memories underpinned much of the illustration and in this case even the design.

Getting around your own habitual thinking is one of the hardest things in trying to create something new. I now use cardboard telescopes as a matter of course.

Are there any artists or other people in your life that have been your greatest influences in becoming the successful author / illustrator you are today?

In 2013 I was giving a presentation of my fine art at Debut Contemporary in Notting Hill, London.  I took time out to visit some of the wonderful establishments around London.

imageOne in particular was Chris Beetles gallery, a highly prestigious private gallery featuring illustrators past and present; Sir Quentin Blake, Arthur Rackham to name just a couple, so it was a definite must see for me. When I arrived the gallery’s large and somewhat impressive door was shut.  I contemplated knocking and at that moment it swung open for a lady with an appointment (unlike me) breezed in. I sort of rode her slipstream through the entry.

It really is a jaw dropping place with so many extraordinary framed illustrations. To see some of the original works that I have loved since childhood, neatly stacked on the floor and crowding the walls was just unforgettable. I didn’t have time to take it all in, when in a slightly dazed moment Chris Beetles himself pleasantly materialized before me. After a short and somewhat nervous conversation, I found myself showing him some diary drawings from my yet to be published book, Hasel and Rose. To my great delight, he suggested that I send the gallery a copy of the published work.

In time, it came to pass that the originals of Hasel and Rose featured in the gallery’s 2014 ‘The Illustrators’ exhibition and I had the good fortune to attend the opening night.

It was magical to walk down the alleys of St James in the evening gloom and then turn the corner to see my illustrations brightly lit through the gallery window. A sort of Harry Potter comes true moment. It was a wonderful night where I met some fabulous artists and well known figures such as author Lord Jeffery Archer. I still consider this to be the most outlandish and wonderful good fortune to find my work in this exceptional gallery.

What projects are you currently working on? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

I am happy to say that I have signed with an agent, Ronnie Herman who is now touting my latest texts to American publishers. The hope and aim is to have a book with simultaneous release in Australia and America, but as you can image that is easier said than done.

I have my fingers and toes crossed at the moment.

All the best with what sounds to be an exciting year ahead!

Thank you so much, Caroline for this wonderful opportunity to get to know more about you and your fascinating work!

It was my pleasure and many thanks for reading.

Visit Caroline Magerl at her website and facebook page.

Caroline Magerl – A Journey of the Heart

imageI am so honoured to have had the opportunity to learn more about the talented illustrator and author, Caroline Magerl, and to be able to share her rich and fascinating past, and present, with our readers. We also focus on her latest book, ‘Hasel and Rose’, also known as ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’; a story of hope, adventure, connection, magic, depth, and of love – these all intricately weaved into an exquisite story with powerful images that perfectly sums up some of Caroline’s most significant earlier years.

You’ve had such an interesting and rich history in terms of your upbringing and how you ventured into the illustrative and writing world. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from your beginnings to now?

As a young child, my family were migrants to Australia. My parents had come from the broken world of post war Germany. They arrived with an overbearing sense of grief, on many different levels. These impressions became a permanent presence that was not openly discussed. The old world had come along with us, baggage, as it were.

imageOur new home was in the dry fringes of suburban Sydney and it was fair to say we were not keyed into the new culture. My aunt tried to raise geraniums on the shady side of the house, despite the redback spiders. My father planted a pine tree dead centre in the front yard; as homage to our homeland. My parents began building a 45 foot steel yacht in the back yard which did little to aid our integration into the neighborhood; the escape pod…we were strangers and this was to be our new home. It was ironic to come to a new country just to find a way to float at a distance from its shores.

imageOccasionally packages would arrive in brown boxes, sent by my grandmother from behind the Iron Curtain. Oddly these packages (the tired brown box in the story of Rose) contained marvelous East German picture books, the pages of which showed a very different side of Germany. They were enchanting and saturated with an atmosphere and colour that I loved at first sight. It was incongruous to me that something so beautiful could originate from a land my imagination held as bleak. Importantly, they provided a different view of the culture we had come from. Here was a direct example of the impact books can have. At some level, I was asking questions.

Books eventually provided a vehicle for me to understand my past and explore my future. Around the age of seven, I began reading the works of Australian authors. I had lived in the country long enough to recognize their great love of the landscape in the words, the engagement with indigenous stories, the personality of the bush. When Patricia Wrightson wrote of small creatures up in the eucalypts stirring and rustling the leaves as if it were the wind, throwing down sticks on unsuspecting heads, I knew in my bones this was all true. Or that there would be a trickster in froglike shape who watches children from limpid green ponds, speaking with them when it chose to, or tricking them as the mood took. It was no odder than the actual wildlife and wilderness of Australia. What I was reading really clicked with my experience of places like Kuring-Gai Chase. Australian authors invited me into the place I lived, enriched my experience and led me further into relating to my new home and the people around me. Nothing could have prepared us for Australia, but these books were a path to relating to this place.

Looking back, I now understand that these works taught me how effectively and elegantly picture books communicate a world of ideas and emotions. This was something that could be made, built with paper and paint and was tremendously appealing. I remember observing this in practice when I saw the faith my daughter had in the structural qualities of sticky tape. Sticky tape and sheer will, could do all. My youth was spent living aboard my family yacht sailing up and down the east coast. This lifestyle afforded little space for possessions but books were my constant companions. There were literally weeks of nothing more than the three of us aboard. No TV, sometimes very few people or none at all as we travelled. The East coast was a lonelier place then. Reading gave me somewhere else to be.

I spoke about the two impressions of where my family had come from. The grey and grief stricken realities of my parent’s world were real, it was something I felt. I was also impelled to re-imagine my world and picture books showed me this could be done. Art and storytelling teach us to know that there are other ways to see things and if that is so, it encourages us to see for ourselves. That sustains like nothing I know.

What learning experiences and/or feedback have really helped you to practice and improve your craft?

imageI had wanted to illustrate picture books from those early days. Initially my interest lay in being a picture book illustrator and I must admit that I was not immediately successful in this endeavour. Even though, I had worked as a cartoonist and feature’s illustrator for magazines, newspapers, educational publishers, and had even started to sell my art through galleries, none of this seemed to sway the picture book publishers.

All this occurred at a very different time when emails and internet were new, personal approach was still best. I was a long distance from the centers of publishing so I began sending sample art in lightly fragranced envelopes to every publisher in Australia and waited, and waited, wondering why I was not immediately embraced into the fold. Thinking I was suited to the job was not nearly enough.

imageIt was many years before I got my first break. An editor, who I had met years earlier, paired my watercolour style with a text by Libby Hathorn to re illustrate and publish in Australia. As I floated down the corridor with my first brief in hand, another editor stuck his head round the door and beckoned me into his office. So after years of frustration, I landed my first two jobs in one day.

The first book won me the Crichton award for best new picture book illustrator. Immediately after this I told myself that I was done with scented envelopes. I got on the phone to a highly respected Melbourne publishing house and boldly asked to speak with the art editor. I announced myself as Caroline Magerl, the artist who had just won the Crichton Award, and waited in expectation of a sharp intake of breath. Listening intently, I overheard the secretary announce me as ‘a Mrs Crichton on the line’, to the editor. I was getting used to how things were going to go. I now realize those years of working as an illustrator in other fields helped me to hone my work. There is no substitute for practice. Determination is also important. For most, success it is a long time coming and you have to just keep going.

Most of your books have been published as a joint collaboration between you, as the illustrator, and a fellow author. How does this process compare with that of a project you have written and illustrated alone, such as ‘Hasel and Rose’? Is one way more challenging than the other?

The working life of an illustrator differs from that of a writer. Unlike authors, I was not tied to any particular publishing house, and my useful life extended only as far as the timeframe of each particular illustration job. I could float from one publisher to another, and back again. Even though I provided what I considered to be a vital part of a book, its pictures, the prime mover was the author. All the wrangling was already done by the time I received a text to illustrate.

Again and again, I noted the marked difference between the operating styles of the producers of imagery, who tended to be quiet, poor self promoters living in hollowed out trees, as opposed to the far more vocal and able negotiators, the authors, not to mention the publishers themselves. That was how I perceived it as I contemplated never owning a hollowed out log of my own.

A number of years ago, I happened to be on a small yacht on a charming waterway near Sydney. On board was an author, a publisher and myself. The wind was blowing directly against us, from the direction of an island that we were heading for. I was at the helm, tacking toward the island as the wind was directly against us. Bear in mind, I had lived on yachts for 25 years had some ten thousand plus sea miles behind me. After some general banter about how illustrators are at the very tail end in the production of picture books, the publisher turned to me, irritated at my lack of direct progress toward the target, then pointed firmly at the island and announced, “That way!”  Irritating as this day sail was for me, with its abundant metaphors….what I took from this was that ‘the me’ who paints was not a great negotiator or business person. I could do worse than learn from the others on the boat that day.

How did the story of ‘Hasel and Rose’ unfold? What was your process in bringing this book to life?

imageMy creative method as an illustrator is to lie down. My best work is done that way. The text literally lives under my pillow for weeks with sketches completed at all hours. If I have to leave the hollowed log, the text goes with me. In a sense, my life is grafted onto and channeled into the story at hand.  A good example of this was when I was illustrating a book titled Castles for the aforementioned author and publisher.  I had decided to feature a sandcastle on the cover and had gone to the beach to build one, and then draw the result. As I beavered away, I had drawn the compassionate attention of an elder gentleman who offered to help me build my sandcastle. I scowled at his intrusion, did he not recognize a professional going about her business? He did not … and went away confirmed in his view that there are some very odd people about. This is perhaps why some creative people may seem a little unplugged from the here and now. It is down to your energy being diverted into Narnia, or wherever. Bear with us, we’ll be back with you shortly.

image‘Hasel and Rose’ had rumbled along beside me for ten years, beginning with two sentences I had written in a journal. I wrote these quite spontaneously, and after reading them back to myself, I realized I had stumbled onto something that mattered deeply to me. I was stuck. Initially I approached an editor of a major publisher, and presented a journal in which the story was drawn in images, a storyboard if you like.  The editor showed great interest at the first meeting and offered a contract on the spot. Before I had left that office she had begun to suggest changes, and sadly I must admit that I wasn’t confident enough of my writing to defend my work, it was too personal … I was at a fork in the road. If I accepted the offer of help, the contract and the book would have come out much sooner. Obviously, I did not follow that path and it cost me ten years. However what I learnt over those ten years was not so much how to write, but how I write and ‘Hasel and Rose’ is the end result.

As an illustrator my starting point was to draw, however all the pictures in the world could not bring me the right words. Trust I drew a boxful of pictures. It was excruciating as my brain noticed my frustration and immediately fell back to my default, ‘Oh, you have a problem, draw a picture’. Doing something else, anything else, can be the only way forward at a time like this. I joined a Ju-Jitsu dojo. You won’t believe how much throwing grown men over your shoulders can provide creative solutions. When I was ready, I was grateful that my editor at Penguin, Michelle Madden paid out a lot of rope as I painfully inched toward something like a narrative. Her patience was invaluable.

imageAt one point I tried writing in German, my native language, in an effort to find my voice. I noticed I expressed myself differently in German, and that told me to keep digging, it was there … somewhere. I had many pictures and many fragments of poetic text, the story was written twice. It was there but it took the form of a collage. I had a story in pictures, a wish thing endlessly travelling toward Rose. At the same time, I had also written a little tale on the side, about a lost toy which was quirky and had some humour, and better still a structure. Michelle put one and one together; here were the parallel stories. I almost heard the cry of ‘This Way!’ It made perfect sense. The experience of writing the story and the story itself became one and the same, and the stalemate was over.

May I also add that Michelle did this over her Christmas break. I often hear of people in the publishing business going above and beyond, so I would especially like to thank Michelle and Lisa Riley (Publisher) for their help and guidance with Hasel and Rose.

Read more of Caroline‘s intriguing insights into how ‘Hasel and Rose’ progressed from here in A Journey of the Heart Part 2.

You can visit Caroline Magerl at her website and facebook page.

August – celebrating children’s books

Pig the PugAugust is an important month for Australian children’s books because the CBCA Book of the Year is announced on 15th and National Literacy and Numeracy Week is held from 25-31 August.

The aim of NLNW website, as stated on their website is:

National Literacy and Numeracy Week represents a collaborative approach by the Australian Government and school communities to highlight the importance of literacy and numeracy skills for all children and young people, with a specific focus on school-aged children.

The Week gives schools the opportunity to be involved in a range of literacy and numeracy activities. The Week aims to recognise locally the achievements of students and the work of teachers, parents and members of the community who support young people to develop stronger literacy and numeracy skills.

One of the literacy activities is Read for Australia. This is a simultaneous read where groups from around Australia read the same book on Friday 29th August at 2pm EST. A video of the book with Auslan for the hearing impaired, captions and a transcript will be released a week before the read.

The book selected for 2014 is Sunday Chutney, a picture book by Aaron Blabey. This book looks at friendship and what it’s like to be different. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Australian Book Industry Awards as well as the CBCA Picture Book of the Year. I was Queensland CBCA judge at that time – and thrilled that it was shortlisted.

Sunday Chutney

Teacher Notes for a range of ages is available on the NLNW website.

I’ve written notes for Years 5-6, which include a focus on the ‘panelling’ (a feature of graphic novels and some picture books) in the illustrations.

The author of Sunday Chutney, Aaron Blabey is a talented man. Some may remember him as the award-winning TV star of the political satire The Damnation of Harvey McHugh. He is a visual artist (much of his work is strictly for adults not children, though!) as well as a respected and popular writer and illustrator of a plethora of children’s picture books.

His most recent release (July 2014)  Pig the Pug is published by Scholastic Press. This is a very funny rhyming story about a selfish pug called Pig who won’t share his toys with his flatmate Trevor the sausage dog. This leads to a dire but hilarious comeuppance. Blabey’s illustrations have a distinctive style. His characters frequently have wide, puppet-like faces with popping eyes. He often uses a predominately brown palette, which sets his books apart from the pack – and works! He is a fitting ambassador for NLNW.

OUR AUSTRALIAN GIRL – ROSE

MEET ROSE’S CREATOR, SHERRYL CLARK

Sherryl Clark was born in New Zealand and learnt a lot about European history at school but nothing about Australia. She had no idea how the government worked, or that the states were independent until Federation. Now she lives in Australia and in writing the story of Our Australian Girl Rose knows more about Federation than most Aussies!

Sherryl is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to share the journey that she and Rose have taken together.

What did you enjoy most/find hardest about the research process?

Initially, I thought that Federation would be really hard to write a fictional story around, until I discovered this was also the time when the suffragettes were really active in their battle for the vote for women.

The more I researched about this, the more my story started to come alive. Then I came up with the idea that Rose would play cricket, and be really good at it, but of course at that time it would be frowned upon.

The best part of Federation research was discovering that this was very likely the time when the big Melbourne-Sydney rivalry started! The hardest was, as always, verifying facts – dates, who said what and when. I liked finding out things such as the bubonic plague in Sydney.

What did it feel like to walk in Rose’s shoes?

I searched on the internet until I found an old photo that looked like how I imagined Rose, my character. That, along with the suffragette information and the cricket/bowling talent helped to bring Rose to life for me.

I like to work from images, so I found a photo of a house I thought might have been her family home, and old photos of Bourke Street where her father’s Emporium might have been. All of the photos I found helped in one way or another – I could then imagine Rose in the middle of all of that, and what she would have been most interested in.

What is the most inspiring thing you discovered about Rose?

Although I loved turning Rose into the “real” Shane Warne with her spin bowling talents, what I think really brings her to life is her growing realisation of how life is for the poor in her city. Her family is wealthy, but simply from observing and listening, Rose comes to see that her life is privileged and that she is lucky – it makes her compassionate and someone who wants to help in real terms.

How do you think you would have survived living in Rose’s  era?

I think I would have hated living in that era! The clothing was ugly, the corsets were damaging to women’s bodies and the food wasn’t very nice either.

I would have been a troublemaker like Aunt Alice, throwing off the corset and staging sitdown protests. Women were treated like pieces of furniture, and I get mad enough about inequality now, let alone back then.

What significant historical events are covered in your books?

Federation, of course – the lead-up, the proclamation and the first sitting of Parliament, and also the death of Queen Victoria. Melbourne at that time had very few houses with electricity or telephones, there were few cars (although some enterprising Australians were building their own), and we still had hansom cabs, cable and horse-drawn trams and trains.

One of my favourite things to write about was Coles Arcade – there was a lot more I could have included but space restrictions meant it had to be taken out.

A REVIEW OF ROSE’S STORIES

Rose is the only one of the Our Australian Girls who comes from a privileged background where there is plenty of money and food but Rose has hardships of her own.

Rose is a feisty adventurous girl struggling to be ‘herself’ in a world of corsets, oversized hats and hairpins that made your head ache. She wants the freedom that boys have – to climb trees and ride bikes.

She wants to be like her beloved Aunt Alice who refuses to wear a corset and is campaigning for women’s right to vote.

In book one, MEET ROSE, readers meet Rose at her large house in Melbourne where she would rather play cricket and have adventures than be a ‘lady’ – where she is constantly in trouble for going out without her hat and parasol.

When Aunt Alice comes to stay, Rose’s life changes for the better, but unfortunately her mother and her aunt don’t see eye to eye. Rose has a loving older sister, Martha and a brother Edward whom she idolises, but seems to have problems of his own.

In book two, ROSE ON WHEELS, things get even worse. Mother seems intent on hiring a dreadful new governess, Miss Higgingbottom. Rose doesn’t want a governess, she wants to go to school like her brother, Edward.

Then it looks as if Aunt Alice is going to move to Adelaide to accept a teaching position and Rose will have nobody who truly understands her.

Rose borrows a bike and rides to Melbourne to her father’s work. Her intention is to get him to persuade his sister Aunt Alice to stay.

But things don’t go according to plan and what happens to her while she is riding Aunt Alice’s bike is going to incur the wrath of both parents and her aunt. Will she be able to persuade Aunt Alice to stay? Will she get her wish and be sent to school and avoid the awful Miss Higgingbottom?

Rose lived in an era when it was a lot harder to get around than today. There were few cars and most forms of transport were pulled by horses. Bicycles like the one Rose rides became very popular.

Rose’s story is full of historical detail, and young readers will be fascinated with Rose’s world and the things that young girls weren’t allowed to do back in the early 1900s. I loved her feisty character and think readers will do. Rose is not afraid to flout convention and stand up for what she believes in.

OUR AUSTRALIAN GIRL COMPETITION HAPPENING NOW!

LAST CHANCE TO WIN!

 

OUR AUSTRALIAN GIRL SERIES – FROM THE BEGINNING

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…