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.
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.
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.
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)