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I was a country child, born and raised in rural South Australia. We had a sheep farm, and I lived there with my mother and father and older brother until I had to go to school in Adelaide. I've lived in the city now for most of my life, but many of my books are set in the country: it's the place that's always most vividly real for me.

Sheep Farm Click here
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Reading has always been central to my life.


On reading and writing ...

I could read, more or less, before I went to school. Soon I was reading not only the books I owned but the books in the school library, the books that were sent to me by the Country Lending Service in Adelaide, and anything else I could get my hands on. I read about Babar the Elephant, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Winnie the Pooh and Milly-Molly-Mandy. I read story collections with beautiful illustrations by artists like Rene Cloke and Margaret Tarrant. Books opened wonderful new worlds for me.

There weren't many Australian books written for children when I was little. I remember the Leslie Rees stories about Australian animals, and the Digit Dick series. And of course there were Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and the novels of Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner, all written many decades before I was born. Most of the books I read were by English or American writers. I adored Little Women, The Wind in the Willows, What Katy Did, and anything by Noel Streatfeild. When I was a bit older I read the novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. I was fascinated by the world of nineteenth-century England.

Young Penny

After a couple of false starts I produced my
first finished manuscript at the age of fourteen.

I produced my first finished manuscript at the age of fourteen. It was about sixty pages long, typewritten on my mother's old typewriter, and it was about a squirrel. Given my almost constant diet of English books, I suppose this wasn't very surprising. I sent it off to a publisher, who sent me a kind letter but didn't offer to publish my manuscript. That wasn't surprising either.

A few years after graduating from university I became a book editor. I worked for a general publisher (Rigby, then based in Adelaide), and later for Omnibus Books, who published books for children. I hadn't written anything since my squirrel story all those years ago, but by the early 1990s I'd decided that writing children's books was what I really did want to do after all.

I left Omnibus in 2004 and started to work for Penguin Books in Melbourne, editing their Aussie Nibbles and Aussie Bites series. This kept me happily employed until both series came to an end in 2012. At this point I realised, with a slight sense of panic, that I now had my chance to work as a writer full-time. Luckily the transition was made very easy for me because I was already writing for Penguin's Our Australian Girl series. I wrote four books about an Irish orphan, Nellie O'Neill, who comes to South Australia in 1849 to work as a domestic servant. (All my reading of nineteenth-century novels now proved invaluable!) The Nellie books were published in 2012, and after that I began a new series, this time about a 1930s girl, Ruby Quinlan, whose life is dramatically changed by the Great Depression. Writing for Our Australian Girl was great fun, because I love doing historical research almost as much as I enjoy writing. 

Recently I put my research experience to a different use: writing a family history. I wanted to write the story of a relative of mine, a RAAF pilot who was killed in the Second World War. This was such a moving and satisfying project for me - by far the most personal book I've ever written. It's called The Third Brother, and it was published by Wakefield Press in January 2017.

 

... and on being a writer

The craft of writing can to some extent be learned, although nothing can give you your individual 'voice': that is yours alone, and it can't really be taught, any more than a sense of humour can be taught. Some writers are natural story-tellers - they keep their readers captivated and wanting to know 'what happens next' - and that too is a talent not everybody has. Others dazzle your mind with original ideas, or make you look at familiar things in a new and different way. The best writers can both entertain you and make you think. Theirs are the stories you get lost in, the stories you don't want to end, the stories with characters who go on living in your mind after you have finished the book. They are the stories that change the way you see the world.

There are three things that as a writer I can't live without: my computer; the Shorter Oxford Dictionary; and a little book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. I know that if I took more notice of what Strunk and White have to say about English usage, I'd be a much better writer. Another, more indulgent, way in which I like to think I am improving my writing is to read as much as I can. There are so many brilliant children's books being published today, and each one I read teaches me something new.


 

There are so many brilliant children's books being published today.


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