‘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

‘In a World of Imagination’ – Interview with Anna Walker

imageAnna Walker; master creator of picture books encompassing emotion, wisdom, sensitivity, adventure, charm and humour. And equally as gentle, creative, genuine and profound as her delightful stories and pictures is the author / illustrator herself, with which I had the utmost pleasure in meeting recently at her Mr Huff Exhibition. I am honoured that the amazingly talented Anna Walker has agreed to shed some light on her enchanting book-creating world and her newest masterpiece, Mr Huff (review here).  

imageYour trademark style of illustrating is always infallibly charming with its whimsical and multi-textured features. How did you develop this style and how did you come to illustrate books for children?

Ever since I was child I had wanted to illustrate children’s books. I developed my work with wanting to create an illustration that was hand crafted – a small piece of art. Perhaps this has contributed to my work looking textured as I use cut paper, watercolours, etching and woodblock. I look for different mediums to bring to life the picture I have in mind. Sometimes it reminds me of playing with my doll’s house as a child, making tiny cut flowers, blankets, and paintings to hang on the wall of the miniature rooms! The whimsy I don’t seem to be able to help, no matter what I try it is part of who I am, it seems my love of fairy tales and enchanted worlds pervades my world.  

imageYour long-standing partnership with the masterful author, Jane Godwin, has been hugely successful with titles including ‘Today We Have No Plans’, ‘Little Cat and the Big Red Bus’, ‘Starting School’, and ‘All Through the Year’. How did the pairing come about, and what aspects of working with her do you enjoy most?

In 2007, Penguin said they were going to send me a manuscript of a story to see if I was interested in illustrating it. I remember the yellow A4 envelope arriving in the mail and sitting on the corner of the couch to open the package. In the afternoon sun I read Little Cat and the Big Red Bus, written by Jane Godwin. By the time I finished I had tears in my eyes, it was so beautiful. I could hardly believe I had been asked to illustrate a true picture book that was so special.  This was the beginning a wonderful partnership. I love collaborating with Janie, she is a wonderful writer and an inspiring person.    

Many of your books were penned and illustrated independently. Do you find working independently or in collaboration more challenging, and why?

I enjoy collaborating as much as working independently. In some ways every book is a collaboration because you are chatting about the ideas and what the story is communicating early on with the editor, your family, friends and the designer.    

Your writing style is equally as gentle, thoughtful and enchanting as your pictures. How do you get this harmony so aligned? Do you prefer one aspect of the book creation over the other?

Thank you for your kind words! I prefer the drawing and painting over the writing. At times I find the writing very difficult but I persist as I have a vision of a story to tell. My stories usually are sparked by images and I bring the words in later to partner them.  

imageCongratulations on the launch of your latest picture book release, ‘Mr Huff’! Your recent exhibition beautifully showcased your work, including the book’s storyboard process, from inception to completion, original artworks, as well as your adorable models used in your stop-motion trailer. Can you tell us a bit about the response you’ve received so far. Any stand out moments? What was your most rewarding part of the process?

I couldn’t be happier with the way the Mr Huff exhibition went. In the lead up to the exhibition I wondered why I was having it. I felt like cancelling the whole thing. But on the opening night everyone was so lovely and said such kind things about the story.  During the exhibition it was particularly rewarding for me to see tiny children fascinated with the puppet I made of Mr Huff for the stop motion. A highlight for me was an email from a mum with two boys one of whom experienced Anxiety. The mum said the book was now part of their lives and that some days they described as ‘Huff Days’. When I read  these words they made every bit of the work that went into the story worth it.  

‘Mr Huff’ is a stunningly poignant yet uplifting and sweet story of a young boy who overcomes this growing sense of melancholy around him. Where did the inspiration for this story come from, and how did it develop?

The inspiration came from scribbling in my visual diary when I was feeling worried about things. There was no real reason for this anxiety it’s just something that visits me sometimes. I was drawing how that feels when it occurred to me perhaps I could translate that idea into a picture book. And so Mr Huff was born.  

The message of embracing challenges and being positive is one that stands out in ‘Mr Huff’. What would you like readers to gain from this book? Do you have a motto or life philosophy?

I find it fascinating how different people respond to the book. When a book ventures out into the world you hope that some families will relate to the story but I am never really sure whether that will happen. I have been overwhelmed with the lovely responses to Mr Huff.  

What do you love most about writing and illustrating for children?

I think the thing I love most is traipsing in the world of the imagination. It is very exciting to take a character that you can see in your mind and create a reality for them, to bring them to life so to speak.  To tell a story in 32 pages means your thoughts and ideas need to be distilled so that the result of the few words partnered with pictures speak volumes. I believe in the picture book being a true art form and think children deserve the time and consideration put into the books they are reading.  

Which authors and/or artists have been your greatest influences in becoming the successful writer and illustrator you are now?

Growing up, I was surrounded by wonderful authors such as A.A.Milne, Beatrix Potter and William Steig. I had open access to books with my mum being a librarian. A stand out though was Maurice Sendak who had a huge impact on me. When I was in Grade 3, I was mesmerised by Where the Wild Things Are and thrilled that our class made cardboard monsters of the Wild Things! I remember reading Aranea by Jenny Wagner and being struck by how a picture book could be about something so simple, so quiet and gentle.
The Australian authors and illustrators also played a big role in forming the illustrator I am today. Ron Brooks, Alison Lester, Ann James and Bob Graham are such pivotal figures in Australian literature and each inspiring in how they continue to create amazing children’s books.  

You’ve been winning numerous literary awards around Australia since 2009. What do these honours mean to you? Are there any that stand out as most significant to you?

The Crichton award in 2009 was one of the most special as when I was in the audience I sat in between Bob Graham and Pamela Allen! Bob chatted to me, and it is a memory I will treasure. I must admit I also loved Peggy being shortlisted in 2013 as my children were very impressed with the gold sticker!  

What projects are you currently working on? What can all of your fans look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

I am working on two special stories. One of them is about a little girl and it is set in Paris. I can’t wait to begin the paintings!  

What advice would you give to aspiring writers and illustrators wanting to publish their own picture books?
Be brave. Draw, write and explore ideas. Explore history, colour, mediums, reference, typography, design, experiences and anything else you are passionate about. Make books. Read them out loud. Find your voice.

Thank you so very much for answering my questions, Anna! It’s been a real pleasure!

Visit Anna Walker’s website and facebook pages.

imageHer new book with Jane Godwin, What Do You Wish For? will be out this September.

Review – Hurry Up Alfie by Anna Walker

hurry-up-alfieHere comes Alfie! Bursting onto the scene. So much to do, so little time. Alfie is plenty busy… too busy to get ready to go out.

With classics including the I Love series, I Don’t Believe in Dragons and Peggy, and her beautiful illustrations for Jane Godwin’s All Through the Year, Starting School and Today We Have No Plans, award-winning author / illustrator Anna Walker knows kids. And here is no exception with her easily-distracted, stubborn and fun-loving crocodile in her latest release, Hurry Up Alfie.
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‘Alfie’s in no hurry to get up… until he finds out he’s going to the park!’

But in typical kid fashion, Alfie’s handstands are more important than eating breakfast, as is chasing Steve McQueen the cat. And looking for undies unexpectedly leads to the discoveries of missing items and different ways to use your pyjamas. What else?!

Alfie thinks he’s finally ready. It’s coming up to midday on the clock, and an ever-so-quickly-losing-patience-parent informs him that it is not an umbrella needed but rather some clothes!

The battle to get dressed eventually ends when a compromise is made, and parent and child make their way to meet Bert at the park; clothes, umbrella and all. However, there’s sure to be a re-match when it is time to go home!

hurry up alfie page 2As a mother two young girls, the struggle to get out of the house on time is all too familiar. Anna Walker similarly understands these daily pleasures and the joys of negotiating with an ‘independent’ pre-schooler, with so much warmth and humour. Her trademark illustrative style of watercolours, pencil, textured patterns and photo collages once again so perfectly compliment the gentle and whimsical storyline, as well as adding to the detail and movement, and making each scene so real.

Hurry Up Alfie is an adorably funny read that rings true for any household with young children. It’s a gorgeous story about asserting one’s independence, learning to focus on a task, self-expression and cooperating with others, but also enjoying the simple pleasures in life. If only we could all be so care-free like Alfie!  

Review by Romi Sharp
www.romisharp.wordpress.com
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