SCBWI Victoria Presentation – 18 May
On Saturday 18 May I was invited to present, as a member speaker, at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Victoria, meeting at Library at the Dock. I had the privilege of presenting beside fellow member and talented author/illlustrator Elise Hurst and Guest Speaker/Freelance Editor Extraordinaire, Alison Arnold.
After the usual welcome to participants and acknowledgement of recent publications and publishing news by members, Assistant Regional Adviser, Caz Goodwin introduced me explaining that I was the ARA before her, serving a period of 9 years and stepping down 5 years ago.
It is amazing to me and a credit to Caz and her committee, (previously including Chris Bell, Jo Burnell and Serena Geddes) how much SCBWI Victoria has changed and grown in that time. It’s a wonderful, supportive organisation where you can talk children books, learn about the industry and meet like-minded creators, wherever you are in your writing journey.
Chris Bell, Me and Caz Goodwin, Dromkeen
Below is my presentation:
SCBWI PRESENTATION – MAY 18, 2019 – CORINNE FENTON
Writing from the Heart
I have a love of picture books because I believe they are for all ages – from before a baby is born to when we die, and picture books can cover any subject from birth to death and all that comes in between.
They are often a stepping-stone and children who may not LOVE reading, can dip in and out of a picture book, learning more on the subject or characters from information books, or the internet.
To be honest, I have absolutely no desire to write a novel, thick or thin and I only ever wanted to write picture books, the kind that touch your heart.
Like many authors I had several educational books published before I was offered a contract for my first picture book, Queenie One Elephant’s Story, the true story of a much-loved zoo elephant.
I came across Q. by accident, I was writing a book on House Sparrows when someone suggested I contact the Melbourne Zoo. I jumped on to the zoo website and I have no idea how I found myself away from the birds and amongst the elephants, but I did, and there I found a page on Queenie. I read it and I cried then cried some more, but I knew at that moment I would write her story. It took 4years and 8 months and lots of pain, before I held the book in my hands. I researched a little at the zoo and a lot at the public records office, but by far the most information I got for Queenie, and for all my Non-fiction books, is from the people I meet who are or have been connected in some way to the story. From the beginning Queenie had my heart, and she always will.
The Dog on the Tuckerbox began with the discovery of a little tourist book about the dog on the tuckerbox which I’d saved from many years ago. I travelled to Gundagai 5 times to research, launch and promote this book. I struggled with this story for a long time until I realised that I didn’t know my character. I sat with many dogs, big and small when I was writing this book – but it wasn’t until, a dog my daughter was looking after, a beautiful Kelpie named Kate – died in my arms that I truly came to know my Lady. You would never want that to happen for a book, but it gave my story the emotional impact it needed. The book is dedicated to Kate.
Flame Stands Waiting (fictional story set in a real time and place) will always be special because my mother gave me the seed to the story. One day she said ‘You know the first thing your grandmother wanted to do when she moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to live, was to ride a carousel horse at Luna Park.’ Sebastian illustrated from a photograph of Mum, and the book is dedicated to my mother, grandma and Great Grandmother, Clara. It celebrates the women in my life.
Chasing Shadows – I always wanted to write a book with a theme of a child dealing with depression. I tackle this subject with a light touch – the word death or died is not mentioned – it can be read on two levels, one of a little girl who cannot bond with her new puppy, or the reader can go deeper and ask why. This story began sitting in my backyard in Warrandyte watching Maverick as a puppy, rolling and tumbling about in the shadows. (No napkin, pen or lipstick – began on my iphone.)
The four Hey Baby books began, also by accident. I had written a book called ‘The Wonder of You’ which is still sitting somewhere in a bottom drawer. On the final page for this book I’d written a 50 word poem, a love letter from a mother to her baby – that became Hey Baby and was followed by Hey Mum, I Love You, Hey Dad, You’re Great and Hey Baby, It’s Christmas.
Luck and timing both play a big part in what we do. Then there’s serendipity.
Then came Little Dog and the Christmas Wish – once again a fictional story but set in a real place and time – Melbourne 1956/57. This book was also a struggle; Robin Cowcher was the third illustrator and because her illustrative style is so spare, the original text would have been too heavy, so I had to lose about 200 words. A big ask for a picture book.
Before the launch I found Harry and two months later I received the sort of phone call we all wish and hope for.
Little Dog had been chosen as the theme for the Myer Christmas Windows 2015. Few people realise that the windows travel the following years from Myer Melbourne and Brisbane (the first year), followed by Ballarat, Geelong and Wagga, so Little Dog was on display for the final time last Christmas in Wagga Wagga.
It’s one thing to see your words become illustrations, but a humbling and thrilling experience to see those characters come to life.
Because I started writing the story at a table in The Hopetoun Tea Rooms in Block Arcade, a mini-me was made and included in the windows. I donated this to The Block Arcade where I now sit.
I was lucky enough to be asked to write a second story for the windows which I was writing while the first windows were still on display. This was an enormous task both for me in the writing, (even I the back of a taxi), the illustrator, Marjorie Crosby Fairall and the publisher, Maryann Ballantyne – but we made it. I remember taking photos at Luna Park one night at sunset while speaking on the phone to the artistic director and the illustrator who both live in Sydney. Marjory illustrated the sunset from my photos.
Little Dog and the Summer Holiday is a ‘sequel’ to Little Dog and the Christmas Wish – it’s about an old fashioned family holiday – it includes many memories of my childhood, including my Shell passport, bathers and my doll Fairy – it was described by one reviewer as ‘the perfect grandparents book.’
Somewhere in between here I wrote, You Have My Heart (slide of baby and hand) and Counting on You, a bit like the Hey Baby series, 50 word poems but with themes of love and caring – both illustrated again by Robin Cowcher.
Two more true stories which I couldn’t let go, are Bob the Railway Dog, the true story of a Smithfield who travelled by train through SA, Vic, NSW and Qld. in the late 1800’s. This book was also published in the US and this year will be released in Azerbaijan (which I’d never heard of.) Smithy.
And My Friend Tertius which took me a decade. I never want any story to take that long again, but it was worth every single tear and the years of searching.
It took 5 years to find Arthur Cooper’s son in London, who filled the gaps for me and shared some precious information. I also met the daughter of Emily Hahn in New York – (EH was with Arthur Cooper on the day they rescued Tertius in a Hong Kong market.)
I found the end of this story first, then the beginning, but it was the middle which took time. I had to find out how a man escaped 1942 Singapore, as it was falling, with a small gibbon ape in his arms. There was no way I could have ever given up on Tertius.
I have to know and love my characters before I begin to write. I sat with elephants, with many, many dogs, gibbons for days on end, and ridden many carousel horses, round and round.
My latest book A Cat Called Trim was different –
I’m allergic to Cats – I sneeze and cough and my eyes go all red and puffy.
There is only one cat in our neighbourhood, a chubby grey one, called Tosca and although I could watch the way he walked, stalked and lazed in the sun, I couldn’t touch him.
Then one morning, I was greeted by a slender black cat at our back door, meowing and begging to come in.
This cat had yellow-green eyes, white paws and a white star on its chest. It was so hard for me not to open that door. When I told my husband, I remember him rolling his eyes with a look of ‘my wife, she’s crazy’ on his face.
But a few days later the cat came back, once again, begging to come in, rubbing against the back windows. Only this time Grant saw it too, so he had to concede that I’m not mad.
About a week later, it visited again only this time it crept along the narrow window sill of my upstairs study as I was working on A Cat Called Trim. I was too nervous to move – I’ve never seen him again.
So, I believe, apart from the hard work, the pain and the agony, there’s luck and timing and a touch of serendipity in every story.
In October I’m travelling to London (paying for myself) for the UK release of Trim and for the launch of a new book about a squirrel called Scruffle-Nut. The illustrator, Owen Swan, who I worked with on Tertius, is coming with me. We will also be catching up with Arthur Cooper’s son, which will be a great thrill.
This will probably never happen again, so we had to grab the opportunity and drink in the moments.