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We meet four fi­nal­ists in the NZ Book Awards for Chil­dren and Young Adults and ask them how they cre­ate the words and images that cap­ture kids’ imag­i­na­tions. By Felic­ity Monk and Emma Page.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

Juli­ette MacIver Fi­nal­ist in the Pic­ture Book cat­e­gory for That’s Not a Hip­popota­mus! and Gwen­dolyn!

Juli­ette MacIver be­gan writing just after her third child was born. “I needed to do some­thing cre­ative in the tiny gaps be­tween breast­feed­ing and chang­ing nap­pies and I’d al­ways wanted to write a chil­dren’s book and have it pub­lished. So I started writing and I just loved it.”

Her first chil­dren’s pic­ture book, Mar­maduke Duck and the Mar­malade Jam, came out in 2010; an­other 17 have fol­lowed. And although that sounds pro­lific, the Welling­ton mother-of-four points out that she’s ac­tu­ally writ­ten about 45 in that time. An­other 20 or so are half-fin­ished or aban­doned.

“Mostly it’s all about deal­ing with re­jec­tions. I have a spread­sheet with all the pub­lish­ers across the top and all the ti­tles down the side, and ev­ery time a book gets re­jected I colour it in or­ange and the spread­sheet is nearly all or­ange. I think it’s at about 105 re­jec­tions over those 45 ti­tles. But for me, it’s all just so much fun. It doesn’t feel like hard work.”

In a world awash with aw­ful chil­dren’s books – I should know, I’ve read a thou­sand of them, more than once – MacIver’s sto­ries are a plea­sure to read. The best ones, such as the Mar­maduke Duck se­ries (also her best­sellers), are play­ful and clever and have tongue-twisty rhymes that are fun to say: “You’ll all alarm my llama!’ cried llama-farmer Palmer. (The llama sure was calmer be­fore the farmer came.)”

Her books are also sold in Aus­tralia, Canada, the UK and the US and she has five books be­ing pub­lished in Man­darin. She has won a clutch of awards and has re­ceived pos­i­tive re­views from the Wall Street Jour­nal, New York Times and Boston Globe.

She says she of­ten strug­gles to re­mem­ber the ori­gins of her sto­ries – “a lit­tle bit like try­ing to re­mem­ber where a dream started”. But with That’s Not a Hip­popota­mus! she re­calls it be­gan with word­play.

“Hip­popota­mus is such a cu­ri­ous and fas­ci­nat­ing word, and I thought that it would be a mar­vel­lous chal­lenge to see how many words I could think of that would rhyme with it. So, the ini­tial ti­tle came from play­ing with words and then I built the story around that, which of­ten hap­pens.”


Am I dis­ci­plined in my writing? No. No, no, no. I some­times liken it to gar­den­ing for gar­den­ing en­thu­si­asts. Peo­ple stay out in the gar­den and it’s kinda hard work, but they stay out un­til they’re re­ally cold and it’s dark. I feel like that about writing.

It’s just pure fun. I get com­pletely ab­sorbed in it and some­times it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing. For me, writing pic­ture books is about 95 per cent fun and 5 per cent ef­fort. But then last year I wrote a chil­dren’s novel, which I haven’t sub­mit­ted to a pub­lisher yet, and that was the re­verse. It re­quired dis­ci­pline. That was the first time I had to work out a sys­tem for sit­ting down ev­ery day and mak­ing sure I stuck to some kind of tar­get. I ended up writing 1000 words a day. It was just so much hard work. I’m re­ally happy to be back into pic­ture book writing again. I al­ways write on blank pa­per by hand. It’s re­ally scrawly and there’s a lit­tle bit down the sides and ar­rows ev­ery­where... It’s al­most il­leg­i­ble.

So, I couldn’t do it on a com­puter be­cause I need to be able to move all around the page. Once I get to a cer­tain point I type it up and some­times print it off and scrib­ble all over. How do I know when I’ve reached the end? I usu­ally get to a point about half­way through and get an idea of the struc­ture. It’s kind of like rein­ing it in after a wild horse ride and go­ing, “Right, where are we go­ing?” I’d of­ten read my sto­ries aloud to my kids just to see how they’d re­spond, es­pe­cially when they were smaller. Once my then 6-year-old walked away in the mid­dle of a story and I was like, “Oh, maybe I’m not cap­tur­ing my tar­get au­di­ence.” He said, “I don’t like it” as he wan­dered off.

Now they’re older I use them for rhymes and they all come up with bril­liant ones I hadn’t thought of. They’re start­ing to get re­ally good at analysing when things don’t work, so that can be re­ally help­ful, too. The choice of il­lus­tra­tor is ul­ti­mately the pub­lisher’s de­ci­sion. They usu­ally run it by me be­fore they make the fi­nal de­ci­sion, but con­trol of the match be­tween text and il­lus­tra­tor is very much in the pub­lisher’s hands. The writing cre­ates pic­tures in my mind, but I know they’re not go­ing to match with pic­tures in some­body else’s mind. So it’s re­ally just a mat­ter of re­lin­quish­ing con­trol and hand­ing it over to some­one else to bring all of their imag­i­na­tion and ideas and in­ter­pre­ta­tion to the story, which makes it so much richer. Felic­ity Monk

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