Today I am so fortunate to have as my guests two of the most creative people in my orbit. Sally Murphy and Sonia Kretschmar are the author and illustrator of a new picture book from Walker Books entitled:
‘DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA’
The battle in the village of Villers-Bretonneux may have occurred almost 100 years ago, but this sensitively handled story will ensure it is a story that is kept alive and relevant for generations to come. And I have to say, this story blew me away. It’s going to be a brilliant book to have as a family resource and I know teachers are going to fall over themselves to get it.
Just as exciting is the fact that Walker books have offered two of these beautiful books as prizes to celebrate the launch, and it couldn’t be easier to enter ! Details at the bottom of the blog.
Congratulations Sally and Sonia on such a beautiful book! Both the text and illustrations are sensitive and engaging, and together they offer a book to be treasured. Indeed, ‘Do Not Forget Australia’ is a book that shouldn’t be forgotten and I hope will never be forgotten – and not just because it’s wonderfully crafted.
Sally, if I may start with you: Many Australians have a familial connection to France in both world wars, but in particular to Villers-Bretonneux. I lost Great-Uncles there myself. Is this the case with you? Or was there another reason for creating this story? Also, because it fits here, can you share the moment you knew this story had to be written and in this format?
Sally: My Grandfather fought on the Western Front, though he wasn’t at Villers-Bretonneux. I must confess that this was a part of my family history I knew little about until my son, Tom, was entering a speaking competition about the Anzac experience. He started asking questions and researching and renewed that connection for me. Then, a few months later, Tom was chosen (on the basis of his speech) to travel on the Premier’s Anzac Tour to France and Belgium.
It was at a parent briefing for this trip that I saw a photo of the school at Villers-Bretonneux. It was a lightbulb moment. I’d seen photos of the school before, but it was this time that I started to really wonder how a sign, written in English, reminding students in a French school not to forget Australia, came to be. I knew there was a story there. Because the stimulus – that sign – was so very visual – the decision to write it as a picture book text seemed quite natural.
Sonia, as someone who can’t draw a straight line, I’m always in awe of those with your artistic talent. So, similarly, I wonder if you could describe your reaction to reading the text? Did you visualise immediately how you would proceed?
Sonia: The first thing that really affected me about the text was the heightened emotion of the time – I empathised with the characters a great deal. Contrasting with that was the mundane reality of having to cope with such tragedy and loss, and also the joy of new beginnings. I guess we all have impressions of what life was like during WW1, though it was after I did a bit of additional research I was able to visualise a version of what things may have been like in a small town n Northern France.
Sally, may I compliment you on your deft touch with this story. War is scary, and you don’t really shy away from that fact, but your gentle touch ensures children are educated and can empathise without being traumatised. Was that balance difficult to achieve?
Sally: Thanks, Kerri. It’s a relief to hear you say that. You are right – war IS scary, and as such it’s a scary thing to write about. To get the balance between the horror of the events and the need to not sanitise, but certainly make accessible for children is difficult. I think the point of telling stories like this one is not to emphasise the war, or who ‘won’ and ‘lost’, but to show how humanity is the winner when people – ordinary people –overcome adversity. This is a war story but is really a story about friendship.
Sonia, we’re getting close to 100 years since this event, and many younger readers will have no knowledge of not only this battle – but of this era. Your illustrations add so much to this story – you bring the society, of the time, to life. Can you tell me something about the method you used in your illustrations to capture the past and still keep the story relevant to young readers of today?
Sonia: I guess I always try to get a sense of connection or feeling coming through the characters, which I hope is timeless. I also try to achieve a balance of simplicity and sophistication, so the pictures are welcoming at first but bring further rewards if you choose to dwell on them a bit longer. I think an approach of stylised realism brings a sense of quirkiness that younger readers may find appealing. Keeping painterly textures and details also adds to the warmth, or at least I hope so!
Sally, obviously this is a story close to your heart? Does that means it was an easy write – or were there some heart-wrenching moments?
Sally: Yes, it was close to my heart. This story really got under my skin and it was really important to get it right. It was difficult to write because I so much wanted it to work. I probably didn’t get as intensely emotional as I wrote this as perhaps with Pearl and Toppling – perhaps because I knew that this story had such a positive ending, whereas with the verse novels I didn’t know quite how they would resolve. That doesn’t mean Do Not Forget Australia was less important to me – just different. This story really excited me, because I couldn’t wait to share the story with children.
I wonder if I could ask you both about the collaborative process? Was there much communication? Had you worked together before?
Sally: Almost no communication – although we are friends on Facebook! After Walker had accepted the manuscript, they sent me some samples of Sonia’s work. They suggested she might be a god match for this story and asked if I agreed. I was just amazed by the beauty of her artwork (the samples were from Song of the Dove) and said a very emphatic yes. During the illustration process I was shown sketches and drafts, which came through the editor. This is a very common way of working – it allows both sides to give honest feedback. Of course all my feedback was positive!
Sonia: I hadn’t worked with Sally before, nor have we met – Sally is in Perth and I’m in Melbourne. Walker Books sent through the manuscript to me and asked if I was interested, which I was – I thought it was a story worth telling and remembering during current times, in which Australians seem to be increasingly xenophobic. Helping each other, across borders, and indeed across the other side of the world, and showing thanks for that help and rememberence of these events gives another perspective to children who can’t quite understand events like Anzac Day. There wasn’t any direct communication between us – it was all through the publisher, though I think there was a bit of collaboration, at a distance – as I uncovered more historical details through my picture research , some text changes had to be made, for example.
Finally – as an author I’m a sucker for having to know how other creators work. I.e. – your processes… So, may I ask you both: Do you have any rituals? Roald Dahl had to sharpen all his pencils and no one was ever allowed to clean his office other than empty an overflowing waste basket. Is there anything you each have to do?
Sally: Rituals? Hah! I live in a messy, disorganised house with many kids, a dog, a day job… so ritual is not very possible. And yet, maybe my ritual is that I continue to make myself write, even in the midst of that. On the days when the house is quiet and I have no other obligations, I also make sure I set a time when I will start writing:”‘At 10 o’clock, no matter what else needs to be done, I am going to write”. And I try to stick to it. I sit at my desk before that time and try to clear away the distractions – facebook, twitter, bills, emails, whatever – so that at writing time I can write. It works. Sometimes.
Sonia: Definitely starting the day with a coffee – I wish I had the discipline to do things I’m supposed to do – such as clean my desk before starting, or indeed cleaning it at the end of the day. I to tend to be a bit cluttered. Because I work alone, my “water cooler moments” usually involve occasionally keeping an eye out on Facebook, but I’m not sure if you could call that a ritual or a habit. Other rituals may be called “obligations”, such as walking my dog Ernie – he has ways of making his presence known if he doesn’t have his way – and then I’d never get any work done!
And how do you approach each work? Dive in? Ruminate? Do you work for set hours per day? Certain time of day when you’re most creative?
Sally: I don’t have set hours, simply because of the stuff I mentioned above (kids, job etc) but on the days I am at home, I try to be at my desk for about 4 hours, plus breaks. As for a new project – each one is quite different. Sometimes I have an idea, make some notes, do a little research then do nothing about it for months – even years. Then one day the story starts to talk to me, telling me it’s ready, and I start writing. Other times I have an idea and start writing to see where it will take me. With Do Not Forget Australia, I started with research and thinking a lot about how I could craft it into a story. It was several months before I wrote the first draft and that draft needed a lot of work before itw as anywhere near publishable. It was the story – the characters of Henri and Billy especially – which needed to be shaped out of the facts, making them credible and people readers will care about.
And when am I most creative? Funnily enough, usually when I’m not trying to write. Walking on the beach, lying in bed, driving the car, etc. these are the times when new ideas, new sentences, new plot points, come to me. Luckily I have lots of notebooks.
Sonia: I do like to dive in, but I feel like I’m most productive from about 3pm onwards, unfortunately, which means I sometimes work well into the night when a deadline is looming. The good thing is that I’m able to juggle time around for other commitments, so I feel like I’m very flexible. But that also means I usually have no idea what a public holiday is.
Thank you both for sharing these insights – as well as some of your busy time with myself and fellow bloggers. The blog schedule (above) is pretty hectic alone – and makes me even ‘more’ appreciative of your time, so even bigger thanks for hanging around to chat.
As we get the ball rolling, I wish you the greatest success with this book – though I suspect it’s not going to need a lot!
And don’t forget, if you’re reading this blog – all you have to do to go into the draw for one of those gorgeous books, is leave a message! Too, too easy!
I’ll be popping in and out, but we’re going to leave this open until Sunday – and we’ll announce the winners then!
So, ask away!!