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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 is always most vividly real for me. Perhaps subconsciously I keep trying to re-create it, to bring back my happy childhood.Click here
to read about my books
Reading has always been central to my life.
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 (The Women's Weekly, the children's page in the Chronicle, the Disney comics my mother collected for the Red Cross). I read about Babar the Elephant, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Winnie the Pooh and Milly-Molly-Mandy. I read Tiger Tim annuals and 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 long before I was born. Most of the books I read were by English writers, or were set in England (like Mary Poppins, whose author, I later discovered, was actually Australian). For some reason I particularly enjoyed stories about life in English boarding schools, which didn't remotely resemble any school I knew, and where the girls had old-fashioned names like Phyllis and Dulcie. I adored Little Women, What Katy Did, and anything by Noel Streatfeild.
After a couple of false starts I produced my
first finished manuscript at the age of fourteen.
When I was a bit older I started to read the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. I wasn't deterred by small type or long sentences, and lost myself in the fascinating world of nineteenth-century England. The contrast between what I read and the kinds of books available to children today could hardly be greater.
After a couple of false starts 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, but it wasn't accepted for publication. It wasn't very good.
After graduating from university I became a book editor. It was a great job (and still is, because I still do it): getting other people's books ready for publication is in some ways almost as great a challenge as writing your own. I worked for a general publisher (Rigby, then based in Adelaide), and later I moved to Omnibus Books, who publish books for children. I hadn't written anything since my squirrel story all those years ago, but in the early 1990s I decided that writing children's books was what I really did want to do after all. All I can say now is that I wish I'd come to this decision earlier!
These days I work from home, editing the Aussie Nibbles and Aussie Bites series for Penguin Books in Melbourne. When I'm not editing, I write. I don't yet have the luxury of writing full time, but being employed in the field of children's publishing has some particular benefits, too. It keeps me in touch with other writers, and it helps me to know what's currently being published, and to be aware of the latest trends.
Writing is a craft: there are nuts-and-bolts aspects to it, things like working out plotlines and character, that can to a degree be learned. It helps if you understand the basic rules of grammar, even if you choose to ignore them for artistic purposes! But there are other things that are more difficult to achieve: an individual voice, an original viewpoint, a sense of balance, an eye for the ‘shape' of a story. These are talents which (like the ability to draw, or sing in tune, or do cartwheels) you either possess or you don't. But in the end nothing makes the actual process of writing any easier. Buried deep in my filing cabinet are many manuscripts, begun with great optimism, that never realised their potential.
There are three things that as a writer I can't live without: (1) my computer, (2) the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, and (3) a little book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. (He's the E.B. White who wrote Charlotte's Web.) 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, many of them in Australia, and each one I read teaches me something new.
The learning never stops. Nor does the sense of magic, the feeling of accomplishment, when you hold in your hands, for the first time, a published book you have written.
There are so many brilliant children's books being published today.
Click here to read about my books