Research for Picture Books

A brief chat with a librarian friend the other day caused me to think about the understanding of the work behind the story in picture books.

The point I would like to make is that, whether the book is a true story – as in the cases of Queenie: One Elephant’s Story, The Dog on the Tuckerbox, Bob the Railway Dog and My Friend Tertius – or whether it’s a fiction story, set in a real place in real time – as in Flame Stands Waiting, Little Dog and the Christmas Wish, One Christmas Eve and Little Dog and the Summer Holiday, the research is still an enormous undertaking.

So far, my greatest challenges have been Queenie, which from discovery to finished book took 4 years 8 months, to Tertius which took 10 years, the others have all involved a large amount of time and research, both for myself and for the illustrators.

Below is an article called Tuppence a Ride, which I wrote for the Probus Club Magazine in December 2006/January 2007 edition. For me it highlights the value of history in picture books and the work that goes into finding every precious piece of information in an information book, a newspaper, on the internet, but more than often, it’s just talking to someone and finding that shining gem.

‘Tuppence a Ride’ – the writing of ‘Queenie: One Elephant’s Story’

© Corinne Fenton

There are many kinds of journeys. Some to far off places, others to the unknown, even journeys into outer space. But my journey was different – it was with one of the world’s largest but most gentle creatures. My journey was with an elephant. A special elephant called Queenie.

It began when I first saw a page about Queenie on the Melbourne Zoo website.

I was researching for a picture book I was writing on ‘house sparrows’ – about as far away as you can get from an elephant – when I fell upon Queenie’s story.

From the moment I read about her – and cried for her – I knew there was more to tell, more to learn. I knew I had to research and write her true story and I knew it was going to take time.

I have no idea what drew me away from the sparrows or how I ended up looking through the elephant pages. But I did and from that day on the writing of Queenie has been a series of falling across accidental information, tripping over minute details and constantly  feeling I was meant to do this. I was meant to follow my heart and give Queenie a permanent place in bookshops, libraries, class rooms, in precious home picture book collections. And, especially in the hearts and memories of all who read her story.

As often happens with authors, the idea of writing Queenie, somersaulted around in my head for several months. I kept asking myself, how I would tell such a tragic story and make it a good story for children.

As the Melbourne Zoo only holds records of the last 30 years, I was directed to the Public Record Office where I found information on all of the elephants who had once resided at the Melbourne Zoo. An idea began to form in my head. I decided at this point to write a story about all six elephants that had lived permanently at the Melbourne zoo and intertwine their lives so that the story would be a celebration of elephants at the Zoo and a record of their history. (Ranee, Queenie, Betty, Peggy, Mek Kapah and Bong Su.)

I did several drafts along these lines, but that Christmas, as my family pulled apart their Christmas bon-bons – the contents of my bon-bon fell into my lap. It contained a small blue plastic elephant. I knew then, it was Queenie’s story I had to write.

I went back to the zoo, the PRO, the State Library and my computer and did more research. I borrowed every elephant information book I could find and checked out all the elephant picture books that had ever been published. I remember being utterly amazed that no-one had ever thought about writing Queenie’s story.

I wrote and rewrote. I visited the zoo several times and sat where Queenie once stood. I followed the path she once walked and stared at the depressing area that used to be her enclosure. I imagined children of a bygone era feeding her apples and peanuts, calling out her name and going for rides on her broad back. I closed my eyes and saw her there.

I wanted her story to be honest and believable for children and the child in us all – to write her story so that she could be loved and remembered for generations into the future.

In February 2003 I sent my story to Black Dog Books. Within days Maryann Ballantyne and Andrew Kelly, my publishers, both contacted me to say they liked what they saw and were enthusiastic about the story. Andrew went on to say that his parents had actually met on the back of Queenie when they were children aged three.

Maryann recalled her mother telling Queenie’s story over and over again to her and her siblings. She remembered them all wailing with tears of frustration at the injustice of Queenie’s death. They never grew tired of her tale.

An email dated 28 February 2003 from Maryann, confirmed my invitation into Black Dog to discuss Queenie the book.  Much later I discovered that Queenie had arrived in Melbourne on this exact day, 101 years earlier!

‘Tuppence a Ride’ (working title) was accepted for publication on 4 March 2003.

Illustrators were discussed at length. Finding the right illustrator was paramount and I was very fortunate that Peter Gouldthorpe agreed to illustrate. In fact Peter’s name had been mentioned to me year’s earlier and the prospect of him illustrating another picture book text I had written . . . which is still languishing in a bottom drawer somewhere!

Once Peter began illustrating there were more questions, more research – I seemed to be following a trail of serendipity. Whichever way I turned there were Queenie connections.

I found the grandson of Captain Colin McDonald who was the master of the ship that brought Queenie to Australia and discovered that I had once worked with this man in my first job at H.C. Sleigh Limited.

Another piece of vital information came about when an old school friend was talking to a work colleague. It turned out that her relatives had once lived at the zoo, hosed Queenie down and cleaned her toenails. One of them said that Queenie was the most beautiful animal at the zoo.

Then there was the evening my husband attended a school reunion. He was speaking with his ‘old’ lit teacher. As it turned out this gentleman had once flown to England (with his parents) and shared part of the journey with Wilfred Lawson’s daughter.

It is Queenie’s name that most people seem to remember and many people who have ever ridden elephants at the Melbourne zoo believe it is Queenie they rode. It is one of the many pleasures of this journey that I am able to ask, ‘About when did you ride the elephant?’ and quite often the reply is much later than 1944, in which case I have to say, ‘No, I’m afraid you are too young to have ridden on Queenie’s back.’ Most people are disappointed if it wasn’t Queenie they rode.

Queenie was a patient and gentle giant. She walked the circuit at Melbourne Zoo for almost 40 years and in her lifetime walked in excess of 100,000 miles and carried more than one million passengers, up to twelve at a time. That’s a lot to ask of an animal.

If there is one outstanding thing I have learned in the writing of Queenie, it is that the writing of a picture book is a true partnership. It begins with the writer, moves to publisher, illustrator, designer and printer – and all that comes in between. For me, writing Queenie has been the most amazing journey.

In conclusion, I’d like to share a paragraph or two from a book called ‘The Astonishing Elephant’ written by Shana Alexander, first published in the USA by Random House 2000.

Quote: ‘Elephants are not like us entirely, but they are a lot like the very best of us. They are like what we would want to be, the ideal toward which we strive. They have essential nobility, serenity, sagacity, loyalty, and playfulness, a simple goodness, a lack of animosity – unless provoked. They occupy a special place in our consciousness; they convey a sense of perfect beings. Yet these same creatures that appear to embody the best in humankind have throughout history brought out the worst: our savagery, greed, and unfeeling cruelty.

And the sadness? Perhaps it stems from a visceral awareness that today both elephant species, Asian and African, tremble on the edge of extinction. Yet if we allow the elephant to vanish from the planet, do we not forfeit some of what is best in ourselves? Unquote

‘Queenie: One Elephant’s Story’ is not only about Queenie, but it is also a reminder that there was a time when there were elephants just like her who patiently gave rides to children and adults in zoos all over the world. It also reminds us how animals were once ‘housed’ in zoos – in cages with ugly bars or in depressing concrete enclosures – and shows how experience and knowledge has improved living conditions for animals living in zoos today in many places throughout the world. Sadly, this is not in all places yet.

For me, writing ‘Queenie’ was meant to be. And as I have said in the front of the book, ‘I would like to dedicate this book to her memory, so that she can go on living for many more generations in the hearts of us all.’

I would be pleased to hear from anyone who has a special memory of Queenie, a photograph or other memorabilia saved from the zoo in those days of long ago.


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  1. Chris Bell A big journey from tiny sparrows to this beautiful classic, Corinne. But so worthwhile.
    September 19, 2017 at 11:38 am · Reply

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