Alison Lester is an Australian author and illustrator who has published around 30 children's picture books.
Her first book, Clive Eats Alligators, was commended in the Australian Picture Book of the Year Awards in 1986. Ernie Dances to the Didgeridoo was shortlisted in 2000 for the same award and her picture book, The Journey Home, received the award in 1990. In 2005 she won the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year award for Are We There Yet?: A Journey around Australia. Alison has also published two young adult novels, one of which (The Quickstand Pony) was named a CBCA Notable Book in 1997. In 2016 My Dog Bigsy was shortlisted for the CBCA Early Childhood Book of the Year award.
Alison’s varied career includes being the writer-in-residence at Tanglin Trust School in Singapore (1999), travelling to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow for the Kids Antarctic Art project (2005), exhibiting Are We There Yet? in Japan and Taiwan (2005-2006), being the artist and photographer on voyages to Antartctica and the Arctic (2007), being the artist-in-residence at the International School in Kiev in the Ukraine (2011), and being an Ambassador for the National Year of Reading (2012).
Alison was named the Inaugural Australian Children's Laureate with Boori Monty Pryor between 2011 and 2013. In 2013 she became an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and in 2015 she worked with the students on the Tiwi Islands to produce No Way Yirrikipayi.
In 2015, Alison was shortlisted for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and she was awarded the Dromkeen Medal in 2016.
Alison runs the Alison Lester Gallery in Fish Creek in Victoria, Australia. Her books have been published worldwide in numerous languages.
Nic: Alison Lester is an Australian treasure. Few families have not delighted in the award winning Are We There Yet, and Clive Eats Alligators, and Imagine. Alison is a creator of more than twenty-five picture books, two young adult novels and a collection of short stories, and she was the inaugural Australian Children’s Laureate along with Boori Monty Pryor.
Alison, welcome to The Garret.
Alison: Thanks for having me.
Nic: When you were a child, was it pictures or words that first attracted you to books?
Alison: Ah, I would say words. Yeah, we didn’t have many picture books, and I thought I didn’t really like the illustrations in them. [Laughter] I’ve always had a particular way I wanted things to look, but once I started getting novels I just loved it.
Nic: Do you remember some of the early books and authors that you read?
Alison: The two picture books that I can remember is one called Mitten the Kitten, which was just like a, you know like a stupid book. And there was another one about a horse called Adolphus, about a big old horse that I quite liked. And then I had an Aunt who always gave me good books, things like Tiger in the Bush and the Billabong books and by Gravel and Gum, I loved all those early Australian ones about kids galloping horses through the bush in the moonlight.
Nic: Okay, and then as you were growing up through your teens you started reading novels. Who were some of your favourites?
Alison: I remember mum telling me when I was twelve that I shouldn’t be reading James Bond books. [Laughter] So I had a pretty eclectic…
Nic: That’s unusual for a twelve-year-old girl to be reading.
Alison: I loved it, I thought ‘This is what my life is going to be like’, but it didn’t turn out that way. Really, once I started reading I just read whatever I could get my hands on. I guess probably I read fiction, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction unless it’s someone’s own personal story, and I don’t read much old stuff, I read contemporary fiction mainly.
Nic: Any particular favourite Australian fiction writers at the moment, contemporary?
Alison: Who do I love? One of my… I really love - she’s not Australian, but I’ll be struggling to think of the names now – Jennifer Egan, I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad and I’m reading her Manhattan Beach at the moment. I love all the famous Australian ones like Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan, and now that you’ve put me on the spot I can’t think of anyone in particular but there will be someone there.
Nic: That’s alright. Now, did you start writing or drawing first, or both at the same time? And when did it happen, when did you start?
Alison: Um, in my professional life…
Nic: No, personally, I mean did you write as a child, did you keep a diary, did you write stories?
Alison: Loved composition. No, I didn’t have a diary but we did composition at school when you had to write a story and I loved that. And I always drew a lot, like I’ve got drawing, I’ve actually got a book that mum kept for me that I made when I was ten, called The Secret of St Claire’s. It’s a terrible sort of knock off of an English girls boarding school drama with Nazi spies and evil prefects and stuff like that, and the writing and the illustrating is really woeful but, I loved it. And I think that’s the main thing: if you love something, it’s never a chore. You just keep doing it until you get a bit better.
Nic: Sure, tell me how you then progressed, tell me something about your career path, what you did early on after you left school.
Alison: I guess when I was a little kid at school, when I was really little I wanted to be a drover. I thought there could be nothing nicer than just being on my horse all day behind a mob of cattle, as I lived on a cattle farm.
Nic: Now I’ve seen your books, they come to life, yeah.
Alison: That’s right. And then as I got older, I thought I’d like to be a vet, but everyone said ‘Oh girls shouldn’t be a vet’, so I was put off a little bit by that, but having said that, if I wanted to I could’ve, but I wasn’t very good at the sciences. So, I ended up finishing school not really knowing what I would do but I got a scholarship to Melbourne University, so I went even though I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. Really, I just went to the pub for a year and failed half my subjects.
Alison: I wasn’t ashamed of it at the time, but when I think back now, how so many kids would’ve loved that opportunity and done something with it, it’s a little bit embarrassing.
Nic: You can call it research. [Laughter]
Alison: Yeah. After that I enrolled to become a high school teacher, so in those days you could still get a studentship from the government, so they paid you a living allowance to train and I did a four-year course at Melbourne State College to train to be a secondary art teacher. It was a great course, but it was nothing about teaching, it was just all about art. So you did photography and ceramics and print making and drawing and painting and everything. And when I actually went teaching, even though I loved being with the kids and making art, I hated having to be there everyday, it was just like ‘You’re joking, you know there’s no time to do anything’. So, in those days you were supposed to teach for three years to pay the government back your bond, but if you were a woman and you got married you only had to teach for a year so, on the strength of that, Eddie and I got married and I didn’t have to be a teacher anymore.
Nic: Boy that’s a…
Alison: We’re still married so I guess that was as good a reason as any. We went to South America and travelled there for a year and then when we came back I was pregnant with our first baby and I… it was like the train had ground to a holt, like all these years of just living in share houses and travelling and having parties and lots of fun and here I was going to be stuck at Pakenham South with a little baby and no car and no money and no friends, it was like ‘God I need to do something.
Someone told me there was a new children’s editor at Oxford University Press, a young woman who’d come out from England, so I rang up and asked if I could speak to her and asked if I could get some illustrating work. She very kindly said bring your folio in, so I had to run around the house and find something that could be a folio, because there wasn’t very much. I went in and met her and had a lovely time with her and she said she’d give me a job if something came up and she did.
Nic: What was the first job then?
Alison: It was a book for kindergarten kids called Big Dipper, so it was a collection of stories and songs and poems. It was a big thing, it was about one hundred pages, and they wanted a great variety of artwork, like they wanted lino cuts and water colours and charcoal and everything, so it was a lovely way to learn…
Nic: Yeah, fantastic.
Alison: And I was so thrilled to have been given a job, like I would have done it for nothing, but they actually paid me as well, so that was the start of it all.
Nic: And a great introduction into the world of publishing. And then at what stage did you then consider, ‘I can do the writing as well, I can create my own picture books?’
Alison: I hadn’t actually thought too much about it but, I was getting more and more picky with the texts that I was illustrating. And one day I went into the publishers and was moaning about this author whose book that I was illustrating, and she said ‘Well, if you don’t like illustrating other people’s work, why don’t you write your own story?’ And I said ‘Well, I’ve actually got an idea for one’, and that was Clive Eats Alligators. Once I did one, being such a control freak, I just loved the idea of being able to do it all my way instead of having to fit in with anyone else.
Nic: Has your process changed over the years, in terms of the process of framing a page or a spread, you know, does the words come first, does the picture come first and has that changed over the years?
Alison: No. I think that sort of conceptual part of it has stayed pretty much the same, that when I’ll get an idea and they can come from anywhere. Kissed by the Moon was actually a label on a sweater that I had, and I started thinking ‘Wow, that’d be a really nice title for a book’. Then once I start thinking like that I guess I’m thinking about words in my head, but I’m seeing the images at the same time, but once I write something down and then the words tend to take over and I’ll… I can always see pretty much what the book is going to look like, I can tell what size it’s going to be and how the pages will layout. When I start drawing, I always draw in quite a vigorous, energetic way first off, just getting rough ideas down…
Nic: Using what?
Alison: Nearly always draw with a 2B pencil, I love 2B pencils.
Nic: Right, right.
Alison: I always say that like… I do these roughs that are so rough and wild and when the editors look at them they just fill in all the gaps in their mind and it doesn’t always look as good as the rough… And then in the old days, I would trace that onto another bit of paper and work that up into a good drawing and then the thing that I’ve done for years is to photocopy that pencil drawing onto watercolour paper, so that that pencil line becomes a nice black granny line. It also gives me the freedom to be a little more adventurous with my watercolour, because it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake, I have another one.
Nic: Sure, sure. And at what point then does the story start taking shape, in terms of text and adding the text, I mean do you complete the drawings first or do you…
Alison: Oh no the text is always well done before I start doing the…
Nic: Oh okay.
Alison: So, it goes along together for a little while and then I really work on the text. I might finesse… I’m just changing words, but basically the way the text is drives those final illustrations.
Nic: Have you ever had an occasion where the story has somewhat changed because of the drawings you’ve created, either you’ve come up with an alternate ending or just an alternative angle because of a drawing or some drawings?
Alison: Not so much the drawings. I know when I did the novel The Quicksand Pony, I used photographs to illustrate that. And the little boy who I took a photograph of the cover, with the pony on the cover, when he came round for that, because we took it by firelight, he’d shaved his head. So, I actually had to change the story and make him shave his head in the story so it would fit in.
Nic: Ah, that’s great. So many of your books do reflect the Australian bush, animals, countryside. I’m assuming that reflects your early background?
Alison: Well I was lucky to grow up in a really beautiful part of the world which is down in Wilsons Promontory near South Gippsland. And our farm looked out of a corner inlet on the Prom, and I really felt like it was my place. My father and my uncle used to run cattle in Wilsons Promontory, so we really thought it was ours, and anyone else who was there was sort of just… we were putting up, tolerating them.
Alison: But those - the combination of hills and water and bush -was just something that’s really just stuck with me. When I draw a landscape it’s pretty much like that, and the adventures I think that I often imagined as a child… I spent a lot of time by myself, as I was the youngest of four by a few years and I was the horsiest one in the family, so for me a really good time was just going off on my horse all day and just riding on the farm and in the bush and just seeing what happened. I think it was a wonderful freedom and a wonderful strengthening for a little girl to have, a great feeling of power, I guess, that I could just go off and be completely independent and not worry about anything.
Nic: It is somewhat wonderful, isn’t it, that you had those adventures as a child and then as an adult you can recapture them again in your books…
Alison: Make them better! [Laughter]
Nic: I’m wondering, I mean you’ve had many best sellers, but probably your most famous book is Are We There Yet? which won the Children’s Book Council Award. Tell me how that book came about cause that’s the one that most people are going to know.
Alison: Yeah, it’s a beauty. I can remember doing it and thinking, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s going to buy this’. It seemed like not a very obvious book to be doing, but it came about when we took a family trip around Australia. We just took the middle term off school when the kids were nine and twelve and fifteen, and drove across the Nullarbor and up the coast of Western Australia and then back down through the centre. I was doing a tour with the National Book Council, so we would get somewhere and I would go and work in schools and libraries for the day and Eddie and the kids would go swimming… so I definitely got the rough end of the stick! But it was a really wonderful thing to do as a family, we had a great time. I’m sure we had fights, though they’ve all kind of faded, I can’t remember them. I mainly remember just this wonderful time of exploring that beautiful country… I hadn’t been to a lot of those places and I’ve been back to a lot of them since, but it gave us all a real addiction for being on the road and going out into that lovely red country.
Nic: Did you have the idea for the story as you, were going for the book as you were going or later on or did you know before you started this is an opportunity?
Alison: I thought before we set off that I should keep a diary, that it could turn out to be a really nice book. So, the kids were supposed to keep journals as part of their school work, which they… Lachie’s always said, ‘Got up, had breakfast, drove’ everyday, he didn’t put any details in. But I kept a bit of a diary, and then sometime after we got home I just put it all down as a document so that it had some shape. It took a long time, it took ten years to actually do it, even though I wasn’t working on it all that time, stopping and doing other projects, but it seemed such a complex thing to manage and because I’m such a control freak, I was like… ‘Should we shift this down another two millimetres down?’ You know, all this crazy stuff to try and make it as perfect as it could be. But when I look at that book, there is nothing that jumps out to me and says, ‘Oh you should’ve…’ And most of them have got something that I wish I’d done again. But that one feels very complete and polished.
Nic: Why did it take ten years? Why did it, I mean presumably you worked on other things obviously, as you were going along. Why did you not just stick with that and finish it?
Alison: I think because it was so hard to get it right, like there was so much information on each page, and I really love things to look good, so I wanted the pages to fit together really nicely… I mean Penguin were just tearing their hair out.
Nic: I bet they were.
Alison: I rang up at one stage and said, ‘Look, I’ll give the advance back, I just don’t think I can do this’. But they said ‘No, no, keep going’.
Nic: Everyone is grateful they did. Did you have the title from the beginning?
Alison: My editor actually came up with the title, yeah, she suggested Are We There Yet?
Nic: It’s a great title cause everyone can obviously relate to it.
Alison: Yeah, everyone knows it.
Nic: Do you have a… sort of a daily writing, drawing routine, or is everyday different?
Alison: Oh God, I wish I did have. I really, I hardly ever get to sit at my desk and write or illustrate. If I get a day when I can, it’s just an absolute gift. I seem to just be on the go the whole time. We’ve got lots of little grandkids, and I do stuff with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and the Royal Children’s Hospital…
Nic: Sure, sure.
Alison: And there’s just all the stuff that goes with… People say you have to just start saying ‘no’. Practice, practice in front of the mirror. But if I’ve got a job on, I’ll get up early and you know go for a walk and feed the horses and the dogs and sit down and just not answer the phone and do it, but unless that’s happening, I can go for months without working.
Nic: Okay. So, give us some sort of idea how long it takes to create a picture book, lets pretend you didn’t have all those other obligations, so you could just work full time and at times you probably have, when you were younger, probably had more of that opportunity. A lot of people wouldn’t know, you know how long it takes to create a picture book. Some people probably think it’s very easy, you know five words here, five words there and a bit of a picture. Give us some sense of how long it really takes to and the effort it requires.
Alison: If I’m talking to school kids I usually say, if I went to school for a term and did nothing but the book, I could get it done in a term. If I just stopped for lunch and worked the rest of the time, that’s like heaven, please someone let me do that!
Nic: Okay, so that’s a good way of looking at it, you could do four a year then, couldn’t you?
Alison: I could! I could be really punching them out.
Nic: With picture books, you’ve sort of got two audiences. You’ve got the adults who are reading and the children who are looking and listening. Do you take into consideration the two different audiences when you’re putting a book together, and if so, how does that work?
Alison: I definitely think about the reader as well, because when my kids were little, I just couldn’t stand reading those books, they were just excruciating, you know…
Alison: I mean I know they’re hugely popular, but Mr Men used to just drive me mad, that was the one, and if you missed a page they’d say, ‘You missed a page, you missed a page’.
Nic: Absolutely, absolutely.
Alison: I always try and make it fun for the parents as well. And I like having a little bit of rhythm, so if you’re in a hurry you can go (singing) ‘de de de le de le de… good night’.
Nic: What’s the trick to matching the text with the image?
Alison: Hmmm, I’m probably the wrong person to ask because it’s all, they’re both coming from me. But I’m always in awe of illustrators who work with writers where they get a story and illustrate it. I guess that has a real beauty when you see that lovely marriage that happens between those two creative things.
Nic: Should the words… should the image mirror the words or is it words trying to get across something different to the image?
Alison: I think ideally the pictures are saying something that the words haven’t. They’re related to the words, but you’re not just repeating yourself, you’re not just saying a big brown cow standing on the hill and there’s a picture of a big brown cow on the hill. It’s nice to add something to it, having said that, I probably do that all the time. I think it’s really important for the illustrations to take it, you know, into a whole other place.
Nic: I’m in awe of people who can both write and draw. I’m just wondering, your working space, does it more resemble an artist’s area or a writer’s area?
Alison: Definitely an artist area, there’s stuff everywhere, because I use a lot of different art materials now, like I used to always use just watercolours, but in more recent times I’ve used charcoal and I do some print making and things like that. And then for writing really, I just have whatever is at hand that I can write on, and then my computer. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to doing a novel again, it seems to me that a novel requires a lot of time and a lot of solitary time, and maybe I’ll get back into that sort of space where I do have that.
Nic: Why did you decide to do a novel then?
Alison: Well I think that probably happened at that time when my kids were all sort of getting into late adolescence and I had more time on my hands, and as they got older I was more interested in that sort of age group, so that’s how it happened. And now I’ve got little kids, I’m going back to doing little baby books again.
Nic: How is the process different for, you know, do you have to switch mindsets or…
Alison: When I’m illustrating I always think, ‘Gee, I wish I was writing, that would be so easy’, and when I’m writing I think ‘It’d be great to be illustrating’. But I think the thing that I love about writing is that you don’t have to fill in all the details, you know you can just use very few words to paint a massive scene and the reader just… their imagination colours in all that detail. So you don’t have that kind of pedestrian aspect that you often have with illustrating when you’ve made your picture but you’ve got to colour in all those leaves and stuff like that, so writing can be lots of fun like that.
Nic: How have you changed over the years, what have you learned over the years, what do you do better now than you used to do or differently?
Alison: I’m definitely a better drawer, like I really wasn’t a very good drawer when I set out. When I look at those early ones, I’m like ugh, I did Mr Potato Head’s on the kids and they didn’t look very good at all, so I’m better at that.
I think I’ve learnt to be a bit more restrained. I had terrific editors, I’ve had probably three main editors; Roslyn Price and Rita Scharf and Janie Godwin who all were great at never letting me be mawkish or sentimental or too verbose, so they were always ‘Pare it down, pare it down, polish it, make it as beautiful but as bare as you can’, and that’s been a great thing to learn.
Nic: The characters you draw and create, are they based on real-life figures and if so, to what degree?
Alison: Well often are without me even realising it. You know, I’ll do a drawing and someone will go, ‘Oh, you’ve drawn so and so’, and I think, ‘So I have’. You know, it’s just a completely unconscious thing that you do it like that, and I think the same is with your characters. I mean often in my novels my characters are me, and I don’t know if that means I’m an egomaniac or not, but I guess I know how that person thinks. I can’t imagine ever having the main character as a boy, I think it will always have to be a woman for me or a girl.
Nic: Okay. Do you see them reflecting you, your characters?
Nic: I mean based on what you’ve been talking about that’s certainly seems to come across. The constant horses, the drovers…
Alison: I don’t make much stuff up. Yeah, it’s all pretty much there.
Nic: Okay, okay.
Alison: That makes me think, in a way, that even though I whinge about not having enough time to work, part of the reason I think that my work happens is because I have this very busy life where I’m often going off and having pretty exciting fun times and being out in the bush and being with animals and little kids so that your work is always… there’s always just these characters just crowding to get in.
Nic: Do you work on more than one project at once, you have more in your mind and on the page?
Alison: I’ve got a few going, I’ve probably got about five things going on at the moment.
Alison: Some are really, really overdue [laughter]. I mean, if I can’t sleep at night they’ll probably all take turns with me having a little think about them. But usually the one that I’ve actually signed up to get done is the one I’ll be doing next.
Nic: Okay, okay. Do you… when you leave your work at the end of a day, when you come back the next day, do you look at what you’ve done the day before and make changes and corrections, look at it through fresh eyes or do you start, start on something fresh?
Alison: Well usually, if it’s a picture book I will have drawn the whole picture books, so for me that’s the hardest thing’s actually getting all of those images down and getting the drawing just the way I want it. When I haven’t drawn for a little while, I draw really badly, so I have to kind of draw all the rubbish out of my system and that can take a day, like I can draw and draw and draw and it’s all awful and then finally I’ll get into that zone where everything has that kind of look that I want, which for me I think, is where everything slightly looks like a stuffed toy, including the people. But if I’m colouring, like if I’m drawing I usually just get to it again and if I’m in the zone it’ll keep going and if I’m… I usually leave it and colour it all at the end and then I just jump back at the desk and everything’s ready to go and I keep at it.
Nic: Do you have any favourite spreads from your books? I mean if I was going to say to you, pick two or three favourite spreads and we’re going to frame them and put them on your wall, which ones stand out in your mind that you just absolutely love.
Alison: Probably, well I’ve got a little shop at Fish Creek so I do see all of these on the walls all the time. One of the ones that we sell the most is probably my favourite and that’s the wave scene from Magic Beach, where the kids are jumping the waves and that’s… even though if I did it again, I’d do it differently, it’s been around for such a long time now, it just feels like it’s my arm or something, and it’s a very familiar thing.
Nic: What would you do differently to it?
Alison: Um, I’d probably do it better [Laughter]
Nic: In what way? More detail, another five years.
Alison: Yeah, something like that.
Nic: You do a lot of touring in the schools, kids and stuff like that. What’s the most frequent question the kids ask you about your work?
Alison: Usually which one of your books do you like the best, yeah.
Alison: And I say, it’s like having to say which one of your kids you like the best, you know, because you love them all, but you love them in slightly different ways.
Nic: Right, and that’s a cop-out. You’re not going to give us anything?
Alison: Well, I do go on after that and say that it’s usually like in a family too, that the baby’s getting all the attention, so at the moment it’s The Very Noisy Baby but, because they’re so old now, some of those books are like thirty years old I think so, I can look back and it’s probably the ones that are most about my family, like Magic Beach and My Farm and The Quicksand Pony, that I am really attached to. But then when I looks at them more dis-passionately as books, I would probably say Imagine and Are We There Yet? and Kissed By the Moon.
Nic: Have your children followed in your footsteps at all?
Alison: Lachie, my youngest one, did a school project when he was in Year 7 called Clancy the Courageous Cow, which ended up being published by Scholastic.
Nic: Wow, fantastic.
Alison: Yeah, and translated into Japanese and Korean and Chinese. So he’s done two picture books. And my daughter Claire, who’s actually a publisher, she’s my publisher with The Very Noisy Baby, she did a book called Do You Love Dogs? which was like a dogs 101 for kids. And my eldest son Will has just finished, he hasn’t shown me, but he’s finished a huge novel that he’s been working on for a long, long time and is about to send it off to an agent so, fingers crossed for him.
Nic: Wow, fingers crossed. Have you given him any specific advice about…
Alison: Just do it, just get your bum on the chair and do it. [Laughter]
Nic: What was it like when you were appointed or announced as the Inaugural Children’s Laureate and what did it involve?
Alison: It was a fabulous couple of years, a huge amount of travel and a huge amount of… I guess you’d have to call it performing, where you’re doing talks and stuff all the time. And even though I can do that quite well, I find it a bit of a strain. So when I finished that year, I was like, ‘That was great but I don’t want to do it again’. I remember saying exactly the same thing after I took my horse around the cross-country course and the Master’s Games at Werribee, ‘that was great, but I never want to do it again’.
It was a huge honour, I remember when they rang to see if I would do it and my first impulse was, ‘Oh God, what if I do something really embarrassing and everyone will know about it because I’m the Children’s Laureate?’ But I managed to be a good girl for all that time. And then my second thought was how much my mum would’ve loved it, so it felt like a really good thing to do. And, yeah we travelled far and wide, China, Italy, Northern Ireland, all over Australia, like every state a couple of times… I was in and out of that airport just all the time.
Nic: So along the way you must have met some, obviously some international writers of the same genre. Who stands out in your mind as being fascinating to meet or whose works were you introduced to and therefore, you came to love them?
Alison: I met a couple of lovely ones in Ireland, but the best one I… and I had met her before in Australia when she was out here was Babette Cole. I bumped into her at the Valonia Children’s Fair, and we had just a great time talking about horses and she was such a fearless, funny, wild woman. Just terrific, yeah. So she would be the one.
Nic: Are there, have you ever been tempted to introduce themes or issues that might be pushing the line a little bit?
Nic: Or you’re just not that sort of writer? Or are you just happy…
Alison: I just don’t think I’m that sort of person, yeah. I was working on a book a little while ago called Looking For You, about someone just looking for their child and when I thought about it, it was just all too serious and it could’ve been about death and I thought,’Oh I don’t know that I really want to do that’. I think, my writing is pretty optimistic and happy and a celebration of the world, so I think Kissed By the Moon is probably the closest I would get to being moody, and it’s not very moody.
Nic: Have you ever written for adults or had the desire to?
Alison: Ahh, I’ve got a couple of books I wouldn’t mind having a go at and I’ve done a few newspaper articles. I did, I had a lovely trip up to Spitsbergen with Aurora Expeditions, and they got me to write a newspaper feature for that, for them which was lovely. I was really ill one year and I keep thinking it would be great - because it was such a strange time for me, being sick and having hallucinations - that I thought it would be an interesting way to start a book, but I think like with a child’s novel, I just have to wait until our grandchildren get a bit older and I’m not running around so much.
Nic: Australia has a rich tradition in picture books and children’s books. Any particular colleagues, artists, writers that you would most admire, Australian ones, contemporary?
Alison: Oh, just heaps of them and fabulous new ones coming through all the time, you know. Anna Walker is, like she can use watercolours just like nobody’s business, just the exquisite beautiful little things. Bob Graham’s work of course…
Nic: Oh, of course.
Alison: Has been forever around, Shaun Tan, I mean there’s just… Anne James, I always say to Anne James, you shouldn’t have been an illustrator ‘You should have been an artist’, because her work is so fine and beautiful. Coral Tulloch. Everyone works in such a different way and um, they’re all doing beautiful things.
Nic: And having travelled a lot around the world and having seen a lot, how does the Australian market… I mean it seems to be, you know thriving, seems to be, you know, one of the best. How does it compare on the global world stage?
Alison: I don’t know too much about that stuff, like I kind of do my thing but once they go out to the book shops, I don’t know, but we seem to have an incredible culture of reading here. Like I did work with the National Year of Reading Tour and when I was the Children’s Laurette just going out constantly talking about how important it is for kids to read. But I was always a little bit frustrated because I always felt like I was preaching to the converted, and it’s hard to get to those people who really do need the books.
One thing I’m a little involved in is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. It’s run by Uniting Way here in Australia, and it’s a thing she set up that once kids get signed up to it. I think they probably always come to it through welfare. They get a book in the mail every month until their six. So it’s just the most exciting way for people to get books into their house, because a lot of people who are in dire straights, they wouldn’t feel comfortable going into a library or even buying a book, but if the book actually gets parachuted into their house it’s a pretty exciting thing.
Nic: How did you become involved with that?
Alison: I think when she was out here last time and they were just launching it in Australia. She started it off in Tennessee and now it’s all over the states and other parts of the world, so they were setting it off here and Are We There Yet? was the first book that was being given.
Nic: Oh wow, what an honour.
Alison: So, I got to go down and meet Dolly Parton, yeah it was fabulous, she was so nice. I felt like a great big giant shaking hands with her cause she’s absolutely tiny.
Nic: And what about your involvement with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, what have you done there?
Alison: I’ve been working in remote Indigenous communities for a fair while, and when I heard about the ILF, I thought ‘I would be great to work for them’. They didn’t ask me for a little while but then they asked me to go somewhere, so I guess my thing that I’ve always done when I’ve gone out into communities is to help kids and adults turn their stories into books.
So, over the years, like when I first went out, we would just make a great big book out of paper and staple it all together. So we’d say, ‘What do you kids do out here?’ ‘You know we hunt, we do this’, and everyone would do a story and tell a little sentence and someone would write it below their story. Over the years we’ve started, we’ve made more complex and interesting and funny stories. And at one stage I was travelling with an A3 printer, paper, printing ink, a guillotine, a long-armed stapler, a laminator, everything so we could actually make the books on the spot.
Alison: That was the terrific thing, I remember… Where were we? A little place called Timber Creek, getting in there and making the books and when we left, the kids like had, we probably made a couple of books while we were there and there was a set of about twelve books of each title and they had them down at the store and the kids were just so pleased with themselves that these were their books about their place that they made.
Nic: How exciting.
Alison: So that’s what I did. But the ILF take it one step further, because they actually publish the books as proper books, as trade books, that’s just one arm of what they do. So, we’ll go in and make fabulous books and then they’ll make them as proper hardback books. But they’ve got three main things, they do that where they publish Indigenous stories, and often now they publish them in language too which is really fabulous. They have book bars where they put books into remote play schools, and it’ll be something like The Very Hungry Caterpillar in language so mothers can read to their babies in language and then the other one is just taking books into communities so kids get books to take home. So yeah it’s been a really delightful thing to be part of.
Nic: When I was reading, when my kids were young and I was reading your books to them, Indigenous characters in picture books were there in yours but not so much in other peoples. Was it a decision of yours to make sure you included them?
Alison: It was probably only in Ernie Dances to the Didgeridoo, which was actually set in Arnhem Land, because Gunbalunya in Arnhem Land was one of the first places I went. One of the books we made was called We Love Gunbalunya, and I started thinking this would be great as one of those Clive Eats Alligators books, so I worked with the Elders and the kids and the teachers and they gave permission for it to happen and then the senior girls from my editors for the book.
I don’t know that I could do that book now, I think people would say it was appropriating culture or something.
Nic: Yeah, I was going to ask… Things change. But it was a wonderful book for that. Are there young, Indigenous picture book artists being published at the moment?
Alison: Yeah, coming through all the time. But it just takes a while doesn’t it?
Alison: I’d have been really sad, like when I go to schools and I’d read Ernie Dances to the Didgeridoo, Indigenous kids love that book, so in a way it would have been really sad if it hadn’t happened. Yeah, it’s a can of worms isn’t it?
Nic: It is, it is. Do you want to open the can of worms? Do you have a view on that?
Alison: Well, I don’t know that I would do it now, I would feel it wasn’t my place to do that book. I’d probably try and work with a young Indigenous person from Gunbalunya and try and get them to do the illustrations.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Alison: Yeah, so things change.
Nic: They do indeed. There’s a lot of people out there that believe they can create a picture book. To all those people out there trying, what advice do you give to people? They obviously come to you all the time.
Alison: Well I always say to them, ‘I’m brutal, I’m really brutal, don’t expect me to be nice to you’. Because you do, you just write that first draft and you have to say, ‘This is the first draft, there’s going to be thirty. I have to just work on this and I’ve got to show it to people and listen to what they and either reject it or accept it, think clearly and not get my back up and not go, ‘Well, this is how it has to be cause it’s mine’, it doesn’t work.’
So, it’s a lot of jumping around and getting it right but also just keeping your nose to the grindstone, making it as good as you can. When people show me books that they’ve made that rhyme, I say to them ‘Go away and do it as a book that doesn’t rhyme and see if it works’, you know, because people do such awful rhyming books and at least then you know that the story works properly.
Nic: How many languages have your books been translated into and which is the most obscure?
Alison: Probably Yiddish I think. And maybe Catalan, is it Catalan that other Spanish language? Yeah. I don’t know maybe twenty or so. It’s really like… I love seeing them, it’s great seeing all the different editions.
Nic: Just finally, bit of a question from left field, but I’m wondering which classic children’s work from anywhere would you love to have written?
Alison: I think it’d have to be Where the Wild Things Are.
Nic: Ah, what is it about that book that you love so much?
Alison: I just adore it, yeah. Though I’ve been reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt a lot lately with my grandkids and they really… it works so well, it’s such a clever book.
Nic: It is fantastic, Where the Wild Things Are.
Alison: And I love Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and The Whale, or The Whale and The Snail, it’s a fabulous one too.
Nic: The Gruffalo, not so much?
Alison: Oh, I love The Gruffalo too.
Nic: So do I, I think it’s my favourite.
Alison: Yeah no, there’s a lot of authors I’d like to be. [Laughter]
Nic: Well we’re just grateful you are who you are Alison. I’d like to thank you very much for spending time talking to me today, and for contributing so much to the Australian literature and all the other magnificent work you are doing with those great organisations. Thank you very much.
Alison: Thank you Nic.