Squish is just a little rabbit. But being little can lead to BIG problems. Sometimes Squish is hard to hear, and see. And it isn’t easy making friends.
But no matter how little Squish is, one thing is certain…he has a very large heart.
What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?
I was a hungry reader. Hungry for words and images and stories of characters living lives more exciting than my own. I inhaled books as if their words alone would keep me breathing.
When I was a wee little thing, my mum would take my brother and I to the local library once a fortnight. The building looked so big, and I remember being in awe of all the shelves of towering books inside. All those colours, spine-out. All those musty flickering pages.
We could choose up to ten books each to loan, which for me was like some amazing gift – it felt like Christmas all throughout the year.
I adored picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Penguin Putnam, 1969) and an Australian classic: Edward the Emu by Sheena Knowles, illustrated by Rod Clement (HarperCollins, 1990).
Once I was at school, I quickly discovered I had access to a whole new library. My mum worked long hours so I was often dropped at school long before the other kids, and learnt that the library was nearly always open. I began picking out books by random, reading my first chapter book about a little glider possum and another about unicorns. I loved fantasies and adventures the most.
Over the years, the school librarian got to know me and steered me towards new books she’d brought in (I love an enthusiastic librarian!). We also had a library cat that curled up on my lap as I read amongst the cushions.
My first picture book, Squish Rabbit, is about a very little rabbit with a big heart, and I often get asked why I like rabbits so much. I suppose this is fair, considering I grew up in Queensland, Australia, where rabbits are not only rare but also illegal to own as pets (due to farming).
So I’ve had to ponder this: why are there always rabbits hopping around the warren of my mind and gnawing their way into my stories? One of the obvious answers comes from the books I grew up reading. The first hard cover series I was given was a set of little Beatrix Potter books, my favourite of course being Peter Rabbit (Warne, 1902). I also loved Dick Bruna’s books, and not surprisingly found a favourite in his Miffy series (Big Tent Entertainment, 1955).
I have my grandparents to thank for much of my early reading also, as their house was full of old English tales and comic books that my dad and his brothers once read.
My dad was British, so I spent chunks of my childhood in England visiting his family. Memories of my times over there are quite dreamlike, almost as if I was wandering through some kind of storybook.
England was where I went to visit my grandparents in their funny little cottage with their ancient cat, where tea and toast were served morning and night. They had wild animals in their backyard that were new and fascinating to me, like snow-white rabbits and twitchy little squirrels (both of which feature in Squish Rabbit). The countryside was lush and green, and home to the kind of tangly forests where adventures were sure to happen.
It is no wonder to me that now as a writer and illustrator for children, when I need to escape to the storytelling part of my mind, this is where I go – back down the rabbit hole.
As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?
I think one of the most valuable lessons in writing is something I was first told as a young writer, which is to write what you know. I have discovered over time that this is not meant to be taken literally, otherwise we wouldn’t have stories about vampires or magicians or tales set on Mars. If you could only write about things you had actually experienced then I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write a picture book from the point of view of a rabbit.
What is actually meant by this phrase is something I believe wholeheartedly, which is to write to your emotional truths. Write to the feelings that you know and understand. If you write about emotions you have sat inside of, then your characters and stories will be that much more alive to your readers.
Looking back on my childhood, Squish Rabbit certainly captures my emotional truths. I recall vividly what it was like to feel small in a big world. I remember the first time I lost my mum in the supermarket. The panic was so big it filled up my small body, so that I honestly believed I would never see her again. I remember having important things to say, in a world where big people get listened to first. I recall having questions and thoughts and ideas bubbling up inside of me, and yet having no clue how to say any of it.
This is ultimately why I started writing and drawing – to express all those things I had trouble voicing.
I think another thing that is captured really beautifully in my favourite picture books is voice. That elusive element that makes one writer’s words stand out over another’s. Finding your unique voice is something you can’t force – it takes time to develop. Time and lots of writing.
I’d recommend giving yourself permission to play around. Write stories of different styles and genres. If you’ve always written serious stories, try on humour for a change. If all your picture books are written in third person, try writing from a first person perspective.
Writing muscles need stretching and challenging – regularly. It’s also rare that someone would immediately fall into the exact style of book they’re best suited to writing. I initially began writing quite dark tales, and although this is still a part of my writing, I’ve discovered I have many stories in me that come with a lighter, quirkier tone.
Finally, I would also urge writers to seek out other creative people. If you’re reading this blog then that’s an excellent start! Four years ago, when I first started attending writing workshops and meeting other writers and illustrators, my writing output tripled. There’s something about being around others that bubble with ideas and a passion for stories that increases your own drive.
Through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I also met my critique partner, who I’ve been working with for many years. She reads nearly everything I write (including proof reading this article!) and there’s no way I’d be published without her support and wisdom.
Also, if you can track one down, find a pet that can help with your editing – my pup is brilliant at eliminating wayward adverbs…