A Breath of Fresh Air – Katrina McKelvey on ‘Dandelions’

imageKatrina McKelvey started life in a little country town in New South Wales, where she was fortunate to be able to soak up the charming facets of nature. Nowadays, Katrina is soaking up the well-deserved praise for her gorgeous debut picture book, ‘Dandelions’.
Having had embraced the pleasures and joys through her roles as mother, former teacher, CBCA Newcastle sub-branch president, committee member for the Newcastle Writers’ Festival, and now author, Katrina’s first book certainly reflects her creativity, dedication and passion for life and love for children.

image‘Dandelions’ is a whimsical, delicate story of the special bond between father and daughter, but also of the magic of the world around us. It is about resilience, hope, imagination, wonder and affection. Katrina’s text is perfectly poised, complimenting its storyline on every level. Graceful and tender, the story explores the life cycle of the dandelion as a little girl prompts her Dad to re-evaluate the beauty and simplicity that life has to offer, and together they allow their imaginations to take a wonderful flight.

The illustrations by Kirrili Lonergan are exquisite, with their watercolour fluidity that almost literally sweeps us in to this free and dreamy world. As the wind carries the dandelion seeds across town, we too, can sense ourselves swirling, twirling, spinning and turning on this fanciful drift.

Lyrically and visually stunning, ‘Dandelions’ will spread love, appreciation and curiosity far and wide, harvesting treasured bonds between the generations. Readers from age four will be blown away by its beauty!

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to find out more about Katrina McKelvey and how her ‘Dandelion’ wish literally came true.  

Congratulations on the release of your first picture book, ‘Dandelions’! What have you got planned for your upcoming book launch?  

Thanks! Kirrili and I plan to celebrate in a huge way with our family and friends. We will be launching Dandelions on Saturday, 31st October at 10:30am in the Lovett Gallery at Newcastle Library. We have planned some dandy treats, craft activities and a live reading of the story. We will be projecting the illustrations on a large screen as I read so everyone can feel like they are part of the book even from the back of the room. Kirrili will give a demonstration of how to draw a dandelion seed head. And of course we will be toasting all the people who have helped us during this long journey.  

image‘Dandelions’ is a sensitive and magical story of the beauty of nature and the loving relationship between father and daughter. What was the inspiration behind this story?

As my daughter and I used to walk to and from preschool, she would jump in gardens and gutters to pick dandelion seed heads. We found them growing everywhere. She enjoyed blowing them apart with me. After that, as my husband mowed the lawn, I used to get a little sad watching him destroy the dandelion plants that made those puff balls she loved so much and I wondered how she would feel if she ever found out.  

I have loved watching the relationship develop between my husband and our daughter. It’s a very special relationship – one I hope they cherish forever.  

This book also incorporates lyrical elements that are perfect for promoting dance and movement. As a former teacher, do you have any other teaching and learning ideas for children to engage further with ‘Dandelions’?  

Gosh, the possibilities are endless!  

Firstly, the story should just be enjoyed. I hope adults and children find a really comfy, quiet place to snuggle in and share the magic of Dandelions.  

But to extend this experience, here are some more educational based ideas.
1) Children could investigate the lifecycle of a dandelion and watch it happen in their own backyards. They could research the origin of the name ‘dandelion’. It’s very interesting! They could also investigate dandelion folk names. Some of these are very funny. There are great time lapse videos on YouTube showing how a dandelion flower turns into a seed head. Amazing!  
2) Children could investigate other uses of the parts of the dandelion plant. Every part of the plant can be eaten in some way. You’d be amazed. But I don’t advise you just pick it and start eating it! Children may also like to taste dandelion tea.  
3) Children could collect dandelion seed heads, leaves and flowers. They could use dandelion seeds to make pictures and collages, use dandelion leaves to stamp patterns, and use dandelion flowers as a brush or stamp to paint pictures.  
4) Parents and teachers could discuss the themes of Dandelions with children. The themes include forgiveness, resilience, hope, love, using your imagination, and the importance of the different types of family relationships.  
5) If teachers and parents have children with sensory needs, this book is an excellent companion or springboard to assist with enhancing their sensory learning experiences (blowing, touching, tasting, and seeing).  
And for more advanced children:  
6) Dandelions is full of prepositions and verbs. Children could try and find them. Children could brainstorm other prepositions and verbs to show how and where they think dandelions move and then write their own sentences using a similar structure to the sentences in Dandelions (e.g. … tumbling in the wind above …). They could publish and illustrate their sentences and form a class book.  

A full set of ‘Teaching Notes’ is available by clicking here.  

imageKirrili Lonergan‘s illustrations perfectly compliment the gentle, whimsical nature of the text. What do you like about Kirrili’s work, and how did you find the collaborative process with her?  
I’ve had the privilege of watching Kirrili’s style develop first hand over the last several years. I love how she layers colours, her messy nature and her signature stripes. The first time I saw a completed dandelion seed head I cried. (Hint: Look at the endpapers)  

Our friendship started many years earlier, but our collaboration for this book actually started back in 2011 – long before our contract – with a single dandelions illustration. That illustration travelling the country with my manuscript and accompanied many rejections all the way back home.  

Late in 2013, I found a writing competition I could send Dandelions to. The judge was a publisher and she wanted to publish it after we completed a few rewrites. Then I was asked if I would like to suggest an illustration style that would match my story (this is rare). Of course I put forward Kirrili’s illustration that travelled the country with my original manuscript. The publisher agreed and our official ‘Dandelions’ collaboration was born.  
I was so lucky to see the illustrations develop and grow during the next part of the publication process. Usually authors don’t have input into the illustration process – they just get in the way!  

I watched Kirrili enjoy developing her unique style for this book, develop her colour palette, and perfect her seed heads – sometimes by touch light (but that’s another story!). I saw her pride grow as she moved closer and closer to finalising every single illustration. She would send me photos of her work in progress at random times – which was always a delight.  

We had fun going on day trips to take photos of houses, trees, rivers and flowers. We looked at colours, angles, movement and style. I learnt a lot. She looks at things in a different way to me – with that artistic eye I don’t have. She designed and finalised the cover and sent it to the publisher before I got to see it. Kirrili wanted to keep it as a surprise until further through the process. When I finally saw it, I cried! – again.  

How would you describe your publishing experience with EK Books?  

We have been so lucky! We have worked with a beautiful publishing team. From the initial discussion about the possibility of publishing Dandelions to now, every member of the team has been helpful and lovely. Kirrili and I have felt we have been kept in the loop and guided and supported professionally through every step of the journey. Every word and every line has had the attention of several people. Everything went smoothly. We are so proud of the relationship we have developed with EK Books and we are proud of the book we made together.  

What were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of creating this book?  

I think the rewards are still coming. I can’t wait to see Dandelions in the hands of children and see how they interact with the story. I wonder what their favourite page will be? I wonder whether Dandelions makes dads stop and snuggle with their daughters on the lawn somewhere instead of mowing it!  

One of the biggest challenges was to find a publisher who believed in the story as much as I did.  

The second biggest challenge was to wait from the signing of the contract until I had the first copy of Dandelions in my hand. It took 2 years from getting my publisher’s attention to holding it. At least I got to watch Kirrili illustrate it during the long wait.  

Who or what inspired you to become an author? Do you have a preference for the type of genre you like to write? What is it about writing stories for children that you love?  

I was a full-time mum while my children were little. I read lots of picture books to them during this time and fell in love with them. I had given up primary teaching so when my children started preschool, I wanted to start a new career that involved children and was very creative. It had to be flexible too so I could do it around my family’s needs. Writing for children was the answer. I find writing hard work. It doesn’t come easy for me so I love the challenge. It keeps me feeling young.  

I love writing picture books but have dabbled with the idea of writing early chapter book in the near future. Writing a picture book is extremely hard!  Writing for children gives me permission to play with words. I get to play with the sound of them and the look of them too. I get to make up characters and journey with them as they do amazing things. I get to connect with children on a very deep level and have fun with them too.  

I admire Stephen Michael King’s writing style. I often reread the picture books he has written to see how he’s played with words. My favourites include, ‘A Bear and a Tree’, and ‘Henry and Amy’.  

Besides dandelions, what is your favourite kind of plant or flower?  

I have a few but I would have to say roses. I love looking at them and the way they smell. I grow them in my own garden and they get fussed over a little. They make an appearance in Dandelions too. I also love Lavender, Jasmine and Violets.  

imageWhat were your favourite books to read as a child? Any that have influenced you as a writer now?  

I have to honestly say I don’t have a favourite book from childhood. I was a reluctant reader as a child and I could be found climbing trees and playing Basketball instead. I found THE book when I was teaching in my twenties – Just Tricking by Andy Griffiths. I completely understand what it is like not to want to read books. I was a good reader but had no desire to jump into a book. Quite sad now I think about it. Hopefully I can help children who a reluctant readers with my books.  

What’s next for Katrina McKelvey? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?  

I have lots of picture book ideas rolling around in my head and as many on my computer. I have a couple of solicited picture book manuscripts in front of publishers at the moment too. I‘ve been planning a new picture book manuscript which will have children turning books upside down. I plan to start submitting early chapter books to publishers next year.  

I’ll continue to work on the children’s program of the Newcastle Writers’ Festival. I enjoy being a Books In Homes Role Model. I love working with my ‘children’s writing group’ though the Hunter Writers Centre. I also participate in the guided reading program in my daughter’s classroom. I’m busy but I’m so fortunate.  

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

*Dandelions will be launched on Saturday, 31st October at 10:30am in the Lovett Gallery at Newcastle Library.  See details here.

**For more information on the author, please visit Katrina’s website and facebook pages.  

***And for Dimity’s full review of ‘Dandelions’, click here.