Alison Lester, author & illustrator ,65
it’s about getting it right so you’re not patronising
After three decades of writing and illustrating hugely popular picture books, you seem busier than ever. What happened? Grandkids. I thought you were supposed to retire before having grandchildren! We have number six coming in January and number seven in June – the oldest is three.
Your granddaughter Trixie was the inspiration for your latest, The Very Noisy Baby. How loud was she? You couldn’t take her to a restaurant; everyone would be staring because she’d be yelling. Not in an unhappy way… she was always making strange sounds like pirates and chainsaws. For the book, I ended up turning them into animal noises.
You’ve joked in the past that “my family all put their two bob’s worth in but they always say ridiculous things”. Your daughter Clair Hume is the publisher of this book… How did that work out? Luckily we had my editor as the go-between – but I did get the work in on time. I’m famous for being really late with deadlines but with this one I was much too scared, with my daughter cracking the whip.
Some people think it’s easy to write for children. What’s the truth? You need to “get” kids. It’s about getting it right so you’re not patronising them, and being engaging and interesting. But the trick to what sells is such a mystery.
You trained in Melbourne as an art teacher. What happened? Well, I wasn’t much of a teacher! One of the reasons Eddie and I got married was so I could get out of teaching. After we moved (to Nar Nar Goon North, West Gippsland) and had our first baby, I went for an interview with children’s editor Rosalind Price with a folder of pretty scrappy drawings. She told me years later that she hadn’t liked them much at all, but she really liked me and she thought she could get me to do better.
There’s now a gallery of your work in Fish Creek. It sounds like a place from one of your books. It is. All the landscapes in books like My Farm and Magic Beach are from that area in South Gippsland, so it seemed like the perfect place.
Tell us about Magic Beach the movie… Robert Connolly, who made Paper Planes, is working on it – it will be half live action, half animation. It’s still a way off but I’m really happy he is doing it; he’s got such a lovely way of looking at the world.
Are We There Yet? (2005) is based on a seemingly harmonious trip around Australia with your husband and three children. What was it really like? There certainly were moments along the way, but when we talk about it now we always say that that trip gave us a real emotional glue that really stuck us together as a family.
As an ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, you spend part of every year travelling to remote indigenous communities… I’ve been doing that sort of work since the mid-’90s, when I first visited a school at Gunbalanya in Arnhem Land. After that I got invited to lots of places, making books with both kids and adults. It’s been a beautiful job – there are kids out there who are just jumping out of their skins [to learn] but you just know they’re not going to get the chance to live the life they should.