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.
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.”
HOW I DO IT
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