Posts tagged Star Author

Solving The Fly Papers mysteries

character1 If you’ve been following the adventures of Spencer, Tora, and their friends in the first two books of The Fly Papers, you know that the kids still have a lot of mysteries to figure out. Luckily they’ve got six more books to do it in!

People often ask if I’ve planned what’s going to happen all the way through to the eighth book.

When I first started writing book one, my answer was, ‘Mmmm … kind of.’ I had a vague resolution that I aimed get to at the end of book eight, but that was about all.

character2The wise and generous author Fleur Beale took me in hand and told me (nicely) that I needed to do better than that. She warned that if I didn’t have a very clear idea what was going to happen throughout the whole series, then writing it would be dangerous. I might get to a point later in the plot where I was stuck and would suddenly realise I should have written things differently earlier on.

So I came up with a few paragraphs of plot description for each book, but deep down, I knew it might not be enough to save me from a plot tangle.

Luckily – after the first book was published – something exciting happened. We got approached by a  producer working for quite a famous British film and TV company. This company was interested in maybe turning The Fly Papers into a TV series! (I didn’t believe it at first. I didn’t even reply to their email for about a month, because I thought it was someone scamming me. But nope, it was legit.)

Well. First they wanted to know more aboutcharacter3 every book’s storyline. So I began feverishly developing the plot in more detail than I’d ever tried to do before.

As it happened, no TV series eventuated. (Such is the uncertain nature of the film and TV industry.)

I was a bit disappointed, but not horribly, because I’d been trying not to get my hopes up. I was also grateful. I now had pages and pages of plot information to work from, all the way through to the end of The Fly Papers.

character5So now, when people ask me if I’ve planned what’s going to happen the answer is, ‘Yes – everything!’

(But no, I’m not telling.)

P.S. All these lovely character illustrations from The Fly Papers are by the marvellous illustrator Sabrina Malcolm.

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How to edit a magazine (part 3)

Writing isn’t part of every editor’s job – but it’s part of mine. For each Wild Things magazine I write an episode of Owl Kids plus at least one article. I also write word puzzles and devise a board game.

Here’s how we make the game:

First, I think of an idea. Then I draw a rough draft and start testing it on my family. I test it over and over, each time making small changes to the rules until it all works. It’s fun at first, but after several days my kids are begging me please not to make them play the game again!

Once the game is devised, there’s still plenty to do. The game wouldn’t be the game without Rob Di Leva, the designer. So when I’ve settled on the final instructions for it and made a draft layout, I send it all to him. At this stage it doesn’t look much fun to play!

This was my draft layout for the September 2013 game:


Rob spends a lot of time and imagination turning each game into something that people would actually enjoy.

Here’s what he did with the plan above.


Notice that he’s not just a fantastic designer, but a wonderful illustrator.

In fact, if you think Wild Things looks interesting and fun in general – that’s all thanks to Rob. While I’m writing and editing, he’s spending hour after hour taking care of the visual side. Behind every good-looking magazine (or book) is a great designer!

Okay. Once everything is written, illustrated, edited, and designed, and the whole magazine is almost ready to be printed – one last task begins. Proofreading.

This takes ages, and involves the editor and several others going over and over every part of the magazine to try and make sure it’s absolutely, perfectly, incontrovertibly correct – while the designer fixes all the spotted errors.

Now, let me tell you a secret that all editors know. No matter how well you think you’ve done your proofreading, at least one mistake will somehow creep through and end up in the printed magazine.

You just have to hope it’s nothing serious …

For example, you wouldn’t want a single dot left out of an email address so that everyone sends competition entries to the wrong place, causing great panic and an urgent phone call to tech support, who have to drop everything to get all the emails redirected from the wrong email address to the right one …

You wouldn’t want that.

But that is just an example, of course.


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How to edit a magazine (part 2)

In my last post I talked about planning each issue of Wild Things magazine. That’s fun – but here’s what’s MORE fun:

Deciding who to invite (or beg) to contribute.


Who are your favourite authors and illustrators?

Imagine you could create a magazine and invite them all to do something for it. Who would you ask to do what?

Who would you ask to design and draw a beautiful maze?

Who would you ask to write an article about your favourite animal?

Who would you ask to write a hilarious skit? And whose illustration might go brilliantly with that skit? You can team them up.


I can hardly describe how exciting it is to send off emails to writers and illustrators I admire, enquiring if they’d do a particular job for Wild Things, and then waiting for their reply.

Occasionally they’re too busy, but usually they say yes. (Yay!) Then I send them more details about the job, so they can get going. I try not to give  TOO MUCH detail – it’s better if they have loads of freedom. Because what’s the point in asking creative professionals to do a job if they can’t be creative?

Here’s the most brilliant thing of all:

The finished work that they send back is ALWAYS different from how I thought it would be – and way better. I’m in awe of how these people’s imaginations work. New Zealand has many amazing professional writers and illustrators!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter this exciting bit, I have to do boring stuff: make sure the contributors send in invoices so they can get paid, and sometimes ask them to fill in tax forms.

Strange things can happen …

Have you seen the book, Watch Out, Snail!? It’s about Powelliphanta – incredible, rare, giant snails that live only in New Zealand. They’re way more awesome than the common garden snails that eat your precious vegetables.

The book’s illustrator is Margaret Tolland, and for one issue of Wild Things, she made us a beautiful maze where you have to help a Powelliphanta snail find its food.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, I think the common garden snails that keep trying to live in our letterbox must have been jealous, because when she sent me her tax form, they ate it! All they left were a few shreds of holey paper.

I had to email Margaret, apologise profusely, and ask her if she could send another tax form, because snails had eaten the first!

More about editing a magazine soon. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for your favourite NZ authors and illustrators in any Wild Things issues you see. (And beware the letterbox snails.)


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How to edit a magazine (part 1)

Have you ever made a class magazine?

I love working on magazines, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I got a job editing Wild Things. That’s the magazine of KCC – the Kiwi Conservation Club. KCC has members all round the country – kids like you – who get together to have fun and help save the environment.


So. What does the Wild Things editor do?

I start planning each issue about three months before it has to be printed.

First I talk to four important people:

  • Tiff, the manager of KCC
  • Rob, the graphic designer and art director of Wild Things
  • Marina, who edits the Forest & Bird magazine (the adult’s version of Wild Things), and
  •  Mandy who’s in charge of the KCC website.

These four are always having brilliant ideas, as well as hearing important news, so I have to figure out the best way to fit all their ideas and news into one issue.

I ask myself: What could we make a puzzle or game or skit out of? What should have an article written about it? How long should the article be? What might we have to leave out, or maybe put in a later issue?

I have to remember we have only 24 pages in an issue. Sometimes I wish I could cram in a bazillion and six things – but then the writing would be so tiny you’d barely read it.

After much scribbling and typing and deleting and retyping, I have a plan I’m happy with. Part of it looks like this. See what it shows? (Enlarge it by clicking on it.)


Yes – you just got a sneak peek at what will be on each page in the next issue.

In publishing jargon, that’s called a ‘flat plan’. I’m not quite sure why, but I suppose it makes sense: it is a plan, and it is flat (usually … unless it’s spent too long in my messy bag, or our cat Smoofie has been sitting on it.)

The next step is to see what Tiff, Rob, Marina, and Mandy think of the flat plan.

Hmmm … I haven’t shown this one to them yet – you’re the first to see it!

I better go show them now. More about how to edit a magazine soon.

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Sending warm, dry thoughts

Dear Christchurch readers

I saw the photos in the news, and heard about your floods. All I want to say right now is that I hope – so much – that you can all stay as warm and dry as possible. If only we could send you a giant blow-dryer for your city.

Snuggle up when you can, and as best you can, and take care.


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The lure of mystery

Hi everyone – I’ve been looking forward to being your March author.

Do you like mystery?

I do. Growing up, my favourite book series was The Three Investigators. I longed to discover this gang was real and join them as investigator number four –  I mean, they really did need a girl.

I also loved those mysteries you have to solve yourself, like the Encyclopedia Brown stories – except I got impatient and looked up the answers. Then I’d feel angry at myself and try to brainwash myself into believing I’d worked them out on my own.

ImageThe stories I love writing are also mysterious ones. The Fly Papers is full of mystery.

Another series I’m working on is The Owl Kids. It’s for a magazine called Wild Things and has wonderful illustrations by Adele Jackson. (Like the one on the left right!ahem, 45 years old and I still get my left and right mixed up sometimes.)

I’ll talk more about it soon, but you can read the first episode here – and solve the first of its mysteries.

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March Star Author – Johanna Knox

Johanna KnoxOur marvelous March Star Author is New Zealand author, Johanna Knox.  Johanna has had an interesting and varied career as a writer.  She has written books for children and adults, edited magazines, worked as a manuscript assessor, created exhibitions for museums and visitors centres, and she now runs her own publishing company.

The Fly Papers is Johanna’s fantastic series for children, and the first two books are available in the library, The Flytrap Snaps and The Sundew Stalks.

Thanks for joining us Johanna!  We look forward to hearing all about your books and your writing, and maybe a little about carnivorous plants.

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Win a signed copy of Canterbury Quake

February has flown by and it’s time for our first Star Author of the year, Desna Wallace, to say goodbye.  Desna has very kindly offered us a signed copy of her new book, Canterbury Quake, to give away.

To get in the draw for the signed book all you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below.  Competition closes Friday 7 March.

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Ideas are everywhere

I’m sitting here at lunch time in the library surrounded by thousands of books and wondering what they all have in common. And do you know what it is. It’s an idea!

They all had an author who started off with an idea and poked and prodded that idea until it became a story.  I suspect that some ideas took lots of pushing and shoving to get just right, while some ideas might have been a little easier to form. However,  I can almost guarantee that each and every author, when they finally sat down to write, wrote their story idea over and over until it was just the way it needed to be.  A story ripe and juicy just waiting for you to read.

That’s fine, I hear you say, but where do authors get their ideas? They get ideas anywhere and everywhere. Things people say and do, the night sky, a wintery cold night, the smell of popcorn cooking are just a few things to think about when you are wanting ideas. I know that I get ideas from silly things that happen at school. Once we had a teacher who was very embarrassed  when his wife popped in to class with his lunch after he had left it at home on the bench. I thought this was so funny I turned that idea into a play and it was published in the School Journal. I had to change things of course or I would get in to trouble but it just shows you that ideas really are everywhere.

What ideas will you have today? Just make sure you write them down in a notebook so you don’t forget and let a good story get away.

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Back again already

shopHi again

I wasn’t going to post anything until next week but just couldn’t wait until then.

I was out shopping after work on Monday and went in to a local bookshop and there under the W’s was a pile of my books.

What an amazing feeling to see you your own books sitting on a shelf just waiting for someone to buy.

It really is the most awesome feeling in the world. I only hope the staff and customers didn’t think I was a bit crazy taking a photo of the books.

Very exciting things happening and all so much fun.

See you next week.


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February Star Author – Desna Wallace

Desna WallaceOur Star Author programme is back for 2014 and we have some great authors for you this year.

Our first Star Author for the year is Christchurch author Desna Wallace. Desna is a school librarian from Christchurch who is passionate about children’s books. Desna has had a number of plays, poems and stories published in the School Journal.

Cover of Canterbury QuakeHer first novel is being published this month  My New Zealand Story: Canterbury Quake. It is the latest book in Scholastic’s My New Zealand Story series and focuses on the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

Thanks for joining us Desna!  We look forward to hearing all about your writing and your wonderful new book.

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Illustrating the great Margaret Mahy

Over the years I’ve had many manuscripts offered to me, from short School Journal stories to picture books and a few novels too. It is always the most exciting (and often scary) part of my work – imagining for the first time all the different ways this manuscript could be illustrated. But there are manuscripts and then there are MANUSCRIPTS. Earlier this year I illustrated Margaret Mahy’s Dashing Dog. I’d never been offered a picture book manuscript like it. Being my final blog post for the Star Author programme, I thought I’d discuss why I think Dashing Dog is so unique – and also why I made some of the decisions I made and what I was trying to achieve as an illustrator.

It’s a very subtle art that Margaret Mahy practiced – one that seems deceptively simple to outsiders – and it can be a bit difficult to decribe exactly how she does what she does. Well here’s my perspective from an illustrators point of view … sometimes, when I’m given a manuscript, I feel like the author is telling me what to do. The words can seem like they’re giving me a list of instructions, like … “Kevin sat over there, in a red chair, with orange hair, with his teddy bear, did we care?” (that’s not from an actual book by the way). However, in Dashing Dog we hardly get a sense that much is going on at all – there IS a lot going on, perhaps more than in some other books, but it’s going on in a different way.

When I first read the manuscript for Dashing Dog I couldn’t figure out just why I liked it so much, or what made it so different. The only thing I could come up with was that this was real poetry – not just some rhyming words. Dashing Dog was like a list of ingredients as opposed to the aforementioned list of instructions. Like all great writers, Margaret uses lovely evocative words that are great to roll around in your mouth, and like my friend Kyle Mewburn, Margaret’s words are very sparse. She was keenly aware of the fine relationship between author and illustrator, and like all great picture book authors, she leaves lots of gaps for me to fill in.


Possible Dashing Dogs?

For example …

Most obviously, Margaret doesn’t prescribe what kind of dog Dashing Dog is, or what colour or what size for that matter. Margaret only gives one clue as to what dog I might choose to illustrate – the word “curlicued”. I did lots of character sketches of all kinds of curly, long haired dogs, trying to find one that would be just right for the story. Eventually I settled on a large blue/grey poodle – why? because Margaret takes our hero on a journey from la-de-da dashing to heroic dashing savior. I thought that a poodle would be the perfect dog because you could have a lot of fun visually with the contrast between a manicured poodle and the disheveled heroic dog at the end of the story. Also, Margaret’s stories always have a wonderful streak of crazy ridiculousness, and I thought that the poodle matched her fun story-telling.

So I had my poodle, why make hime roan blue? I had decided early on that I didn’t want to illustrate yet another New Zealand story where I had to do page upon page of blue skies (and yet another blue sky cover to sit on the bookshelves) – instead, the tone of Dashing Dog was going to be a summery yellow. I envisioned the cover on my first reading of the manuscript – and leaping across this yellow sky would be a roan blue dog (at that stage, of undetermined breed).


the cover for Dashing Dog was the first vivid picture that lodged in my brain.

So here’s the funny part … after I had completed Dashing Dog I got a phone call from the mother of a boy I went to school with. She told me that her son, now living in Christchuch, owned the brother of Margaret Mahy’s dog – and this dog was … a large poodle. Black to tell the truth, but a large poodle none-the-less. So Margaret also had poodles in mind when she wrote this story. It just goes to show what a great writer she was, because she writes a story that is so obviously about a poodle without ever once mentioned the breed of the dog. I related this story to someone and they replied “Didn’t you know it was supposed to be a poodle?” – which completely misses the point – which is, the author (contrary to popular public belief) does not tell the illustrator what to do.

While I was working on Dashing Dog I was also working on a book about Shakespeare. Actors love to play Hamlet because during the course of the play he portrays almost every possible human emotion. In a fun and simple way, I decided to make my Dashing Dog the canine children’s version of Hamlet. Aside from a fun story and the simple pun on ‘dashing’, Margaret takes our Dashing Dog on an emotional and character-developing journey with a subtle secondary message of not judging by appearances. As an illustrator, it was fun to try and convey all the different doggy emotions and it became my mission to make ‘dogginess’ the focus of the story.


Some of the many moods of Dashing Dog

It’s no surprise then that Margaret also doesn’t describe the environment of Dashing Dog. It’s simply a beach somewhere. The mission I give myself is to expand and fill in the spaces she leaves for me. I know there will be people out there who think that is the wrong approach – that my pictures are overdone and perhaps I should just have pictures on blank backgrounds and leave something to the reader’s imagination (someone said words to that effect somewhere). There is always a place for ‘white space’ – but here’s what I’m trying to achieve… Usually, somewhere near the start and again at the end of the book, I like to set the scene – pop in a big double page of colour and excitement that sets the tone of the story and describes the environment and the world that this book inhabits. In Dashing Dog I blended all my favourite beaches: it is part Devonport boardwalk; part Napier waterfront; part Mount Maunganui; and part Whangamata (what’s the point in being an illustrator if you can’t be self-indulgent every once in a while?). My other aim with these big spreads is to expand the story beyond the pages. I want the readers to feel that this world continues outside the edges of my illustrations – that it could be a REAL fantasy world and is full of life.

I have a very vivid imagination, and as a child these were the type of illustrations I liked – especially books like Graham Oakley’s Church Mice series, which are jam packed with amazing detail. Even as an adult I can pore over them for hours. So – counter-intuitively it seems – for me, more detail, not less, lets the reader’s imagination run wild.


I want readers to imagine the world carries on beyond the edges of the page.

Detail CAN be problematic though. I can understand the reader, or publisher, who finds detailed illustrations are a distraction from the story flow (especially in rhyming books). This is quite a fashion in American books. It’s a fine line to choose what, and how much, detail to put into a picture. Sometimes I pick up a book and feel like I’m assulted by an illustrator who has stuck in all manner of unrelated rubbish. Sometimes the detail becomes the main focus of the image may be totally distracting rather than a nice little background aside. In Dashing Dog there are all sorts of things going on in the background, but hopefully they all relate to the story – either characters and items that will appear later on, or funny in-jokes (if you look closely you might find a certain young boy wandering to the seaside with a shark fin attached to his back). In the spread above is an array of ugly dogs – which simply stand to contrast our heroic poodle.

All this detail is a common trait in my work. Kids are like little sponges and if you don’t give them stuff to discover within a book, then there’s not much reason for them to go back to that book over and over (let alone the parents who might have to read it night after night). I find an entire book full of simplistic illustrations boring, and they miss out on opportunities for kids to latch on to weird little background items. In one of our Dinosaur Rescue books, author Kyle Mewburn wrote a tiny aside about Roman fire brigades. It was a great pleasure to get an email from a boy on the other side of the world who read that aside and became fascinated with Roman history. This is the type of thing I did as a kid (and still do as an adult).

At the end of the day, I can’t second guess what everyone else in the world will like, I just try to do books that I would like. I have taken to heart Elizabeth Taylor’s quote “if you do it for yourself, at least ONE person will be happy”. It seems like a lot of hoohah when you write it all down, but these are all things I do instinctively. Really I’m just trying to emulate my heroes. I pick out parts of their work that I like the most and slowly form some ideas about what I’m trying to achieve. I try not to over think what I do. I know what I like. And I know what I don’t like. As Brian Eno said – “you have to be opinionated, that gives you a basis for your artistic choices”.

Picture books are often children’s first experience of the written and painted arts, and in the best books, words and pictures each complement the other with what they do best. I’ve had the pleasure of illustrating some of New Zealand’s finest writers and it’s my greatest joy to be able to make a full time career out of something that I am so passionate about. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of my Star Author blogs about my thoughts and processes. Even if you DIDN’T – that’s great – go and form your own opinions and do something different!

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Influence and inspiration

One of my all time favourite picture books is The Lorax by Dr Seuss. It’s partly the reason why I’m a children’s book author and illustrator. So I thought I’d write about why I think it’s so great and how it has influenced my work – in particular on my wordless book The Weather Machine.


The Lorax by Dr Seuss (1971), The Weather Machine by Donovan Bixley (2013)

As a kid, Dr Seuss was unlike any other author around. Whenever I discovered a new book of his I would naturally assume that it had only just been released. Years later I discovered that a lot of his great works like The Cat in the Hat, The Sleep Book and Green Eggs and Ham etc were published way back in the 50’s and early 60’s (which makes them even more amazing in their ‘newness’). Years after I discovered that The Lorax was from a later Seuss period. It actually came out in the year I was born and perhaps there is something about his message and that era which has some subcounscious connection to me?

Of all Seuss’ books, The Lorax seemed to stand out for me. For one, it has Truffula Trees! Being a New Zealander meant that every cabbage tree I saw was proof that the Lorax might just be hiding around the corner. Of course Truffula trees are soft and fluffy, and cabbage trees are hard and spiky – but that doesn’t matter to a child’s imagination. The things I loved about The Lorax as a kid were the same things I love now – it’s still as vibrant and energetic and magical in pictures and words and imagination as it was more than 40 years ago when it was first published. AND it’s hugely successful (no point having a great book if nobody reads it). No one is infallibly great, and quite often Seuss irritates me with his made up rhyming words, but in The Lorax they’re perfect – “Your machinery chugs on day and night without stop, making gluppity glupp. Also scholppity schopp” – and “You’re glumping the pond where the humming fish hummed. No more can they hum for their gills are all gummed”. That environmental message is the real icing on the cake. It’s even more relevant now than when it came out. The funny thing was, it’s such a strong message but as a kid I was barely aware of it. Not unaware in a bad way – I was just so caught up in the magical world of The Lorax that the message of “let’s not use up every last resource and screw the planet” just kinda sunk in.

After I left university, I worked in the film industry – I didn’t like it. I mucked around at some of the big advertising agencies – I didn’t like that either. Then in my mid twenties I had a very specific thought involving The Lorax. I was sick of wasting my time and talents churning out cliche advertising and pretending to be creative, and I thought: “Imagine if you could do just one thing – just one book like The Lorax – a book that had not lost any of its impact after so many years … that would be something worthwhile”. From that moment I decided to focus my creative talents on the world of children’s books.

So for a long time I have been wanting to create my Lorax. I’d also been hugely influenced by the wordless books of Mordillo and Jean Jacques Loup and I had wanted to do one of those . But every time I tried to come up with something that combined the influence of these books it just seemed like I was trying too hard. Eventually, many years later, after illustrating more than 70 books, when I’d forgotten all about trying to create my homage to The Lorax, the influences came together all by themselves. In a lightning bolt moment, several ideas that had been lurking around in the back of my mind all fused together – which turned out to be my wordless book The Weather Machine.


The magical world of Seuss’ Lorax had a huge influence on my Weather Machine.

The Weather Machine is hugely influenced by Dr Suess, though I didn’t specifically look at any of his work or even think about him while I was creating it. It would be hard for anyone of my generation not to be influenced by Seuss’ magical worlds. The Weather Machine deals with the issues of climate change when our hero decides to build a machine to control the weather. On a grander scale it deals more generally with man (it’s usually man) meddling with nature and trying to play God, like Frankenstein. Pretty heavy stuff? But I had always hoped that the format of a wordless book would make it less daunting – less preachy. Readers would be able to make up their own minds about what it all meant, rather than feel like they were getting a lecture on the environment. The influence of Suess is in that environmental message and the colourful, magical world and the fun of storytelling. On the surface The Weather Machine is just a fantasy story, with some slapstick silent movie fun. But hopefully readers will discover new layers of meaning hidden in the pictures as they got older.

One of the strangest things that relates to the influence of The Lorax was the creation of my main protagonist. I realized only after the book was published that he has a striking resemblance to Seuss’ Once ler, the unwitting villain from The Lorax. We only get to see The Once ler’s gloved arms and hands and feet though. In The Weather Machine, my protagonist is also an unwitting villain, like the Once ler he’s just looking out for number one. He also wears a onesie baby suit and a top hat – which is supposed to represent that he thinks he knows better than everyone else, but he’s actually just a big baby. But perhaps he was also my subconscious version of what The Once ler looks like in the full?


Seuss’ gloved Once ler and my unwitting protagonist from The Weather Machine

I don’t know if The Weather Machine (or any other book I might create) will ever achieve the influential level of The Lorax – but it’s a great ambition to aim for and I love the idea that maybe, just one person out there might be affected by what you’ve created and it might make them want to do something too.

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Meet our November Star Author Donovan Bixley

Our fantastic November Star Author is New Zealand author and illustrator, Donovan Bixley.  Donovan has illustrated heaps of books, including his own Kiwi versions of The Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm, Brian Falkner’s Northwood and Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, the Dinosaur Rescue series with Kyle Mewburn, and his latest book, The Weather Machine.  He has illustrated more than 100 stories and book covers as well as over 70 books.  He has also written and illustrated a book all about the life of Mozart, called Faithfully Mozart.

Thanks for joining us Donovan!  We look forward to hearing all about your writing and illustrating.


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“What do you do all day?”

ImageIt’s fantastic to be invited to be the Star Author for November. I don’t get to blog much, so this will be a fun excuse to talk about some of the things going on in my brain… ummm … actually, that’s a bit like trying to pull some coherent strands out of a bird nest.

So where to start?

I had two books come out on the same day last month – “Dashing Dog” and “The Weather Machine” – and whenever I have a new book released, that’s when I get a sudden rush of emails or phone calls from people all over the country who want me to illustrate their book. This would be great if it were a call from one of my favourite authors like Neil Gaiman, Charlie Higgson, Kyle Mewburn or Brian Falkner (among others …), but, more often than not, it’s a call from someone who has never written a children’s book before, and they usually say something like “I’ve written a book and you can illustrate it for me.” – wow lucky me! I get this comment so often, so there is obviously some misapprehension that I am sitting about all day waiting for people to give me things to do.

So then … what DO I do all day long?

Kids often ask me “do you get to draw pictures all day long?” and yep – as a full time author and illustrator that’s pretty much true. It can very very hard work even torturous at times, but the kind of torturous work that’s enjoyable – ha ha. Books are such long term projects, which means that I’m locked into them for months, even years, in advance. At any time of year I am usually working on several books at once (at the moment I am working on five). I am concepting and writing two. I’m am doing research and roughs for another two, and I am doing final illustrations as well as working on design and layup for yet another. This staggered way of working keeps me going all year round and I’m always working on books at different stages of completion. A normal picture book can take between six months to a year to complete, and in between I also illustrate little jobs like covers and one off stories for school journals.

It can be a pretty intense job and I often get sucked into the world of the book I am working on. I often have to remind myself to take a break. I have a lovely studio with my guitar and piano nearby so I usually get up and play for a few minutes (if I remember) – then crack the whip and back to it (deadlines wait for no man). For the last few months I have been working on a comic novel and I have to complete two pages every day. If I don’t then it will completely screw up my schedule – like I said, all this drawing fun can be pretty hard work.



Most nights I take my work home with me too, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Luckily I have the ability to be able to chat and talk while I’m drawing and I usually like to be surrounded by a bit of noise and conversation while I’m working. I also talk with my family about what I’m doing and sometimes we come up with cool ideas for books over dinner or while we’re driving somewhere. My kids are also really good models for my illustrations (I don’t know what I’ll do when they get too big to model as children). Everyone in my family has been trained up really well to give me good honest feedback. They are all really well-read and have strong opinions about books (and movies and music too). It’s really useful to have them all to help me get perspective on my work and tell me if it isn’t up to scratch.

I do most of my writing freehand in bed at night. I usually work out things completely in my head (while I am drawing all day) and at the end of the day I can just sit down let the writing ideas flow (of course there is ALWAYS a lot of editing to do with any form of writing). During the year I get offered manuscripts from publishers. It’s always exciting to see that simple text for the first time and imagine what you could do with it. It’s also really exciting to have a chance to work on something I’d never think of on my own (like “Dinosaur Rescue” with Kyle Mewburn and “Northwood” with Brian Falkner). On the other hand, I also spend a lot of time writing new books. That’s the only way I can get to draw or write about things that nobody else will offer me (like “Faithfully Mozart” or “The Weather Machine”). During some parts of the year I am doing a lot of writing and concept drawings for those future projects. These projects can take many years to finally be finished (usually because I’m too busy with so many other projects). At the moment I have around seven projects either with publishers or in the process of getting down on paper from picture books to illustrated novels and short stories to a large sophisticated picture book for adults. You can see that I really like to do lots of different formats and genres. All these projects are at different stages of completion, so they’ll all hopefully come to fruition over successive years (depending on whether publishers like them or not), and I’m either going to have nothing to do, or I’m going to be totally flat out!

So, in short, there’s never enough hours in the week to do all the books I want to work on. I’m very strict about having my weekends off though. So it’s lucky that I adore writing and illustrating children’s books, because it’s what I’d be doing anyway.

Over the next month I’m hoping to talk about what I try to do when I’m illustrating a manuscript, my inspiration, the comic novel I am currently working on and how I got to be an author and illustrator in the first place. I don’t really have anything specific planned – so leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to know and I’ll do my best to answer it.

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Your turn!

Your turn to write a poem

I find lots of people think that poetry is so hard to write.

Yet a poem can be written with rhythm, strength and strong feeling by just using two words for each line, a bit like a ladder, all the way down that page

Here are some photos that might help you to have a go.




Here’s an example:

Brown towers

cobble stones

sky paving

giraffe tall.

(c)  Lorraine Marwood

See if you can write ten lines like this- after all that is only a 20 word poem.  Have a go.  Post your poems in the comments section.  I’d love to read them.

This type of poem cuts out all the unnecessary words and allows the poem to breathe.  It also makes us use the strong words of writing like nouns and verbs.

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Childhood and its influence on my writing.

Now that’s an interesting topic!  I know that what I liked as a child, I still like now.

One thing I loved to do was explore.  We lived near the bush and near the abandoned workings of one of Bendigo’s famous gold fields.

I walked through some paddocks and into the old mining area.  It was very dangerous when I look back now, because many of the mines were uncapped and so deep and so full of water , way down.

But I could feel the history, the untold stories, the drama, the hardships, the excitement of finding gold.  I also began to read about the gold fields.  So many thousands of people came to Bendigo from all over the world to find their fortune.  Many Chinese came too and you can still see the re-workings of abandoned mines by the Chinese, they made the mine shaft circular, different to the Cornish miners.

I began to imagine.  For years an idea ran through my head.  I even have the draft of a story I wrote before my goldfield story ‘Ratwhiskers and me’ was published by Walker books.


The story is written in a different way, as a verse novel.  I realised that particular genre was just what I needed to complete that story.

I remember begin ‘stuck’ half way through the writing.  So I took a thermos and sat just in a little park near an abandoned gold field.  My characters began to breathe easy and as I soaked in the atmosphere, my writing had a new direction.

This was a story I had to write.  I love finding snippets of history and breathing new life into them.


Here is a photo of the graves of many Chinese miners who died on the Bendigo gold field.  A cemetery is often an interesting place to walk through.

So this is one aspect of my childhood that lives on in one of my books.

What do/did you like as a child and are you still interested in those things?  I’d love to hear about them.

Lorraine M

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Gathering Ideas for writing

How does an author gather ideas?

How does a poet gather ideas?

My answer:

We look and observe, capture a tiny detail, embroider it

look at it from a different angle, then surprise the reader and ourselves.

I use exercise books like this to keep all my ideas together:


I always write the date in, I jot down a thought, a sight, a little treasure of a word, or a sudden idea.

(or even the complete poem)

If I don’t write it down straight away it goes away never to return.

Here is a suggestion for you to begin your own ‘ideas’ book.

Try keeping an ideas book each day for a week.

  1. Just write down a conversation that was funny or unusual you were a part of or overheard.

Here’s an example:

While on a walk recently  I overheard these comments:

‘I bet a thousand dollars…’


‘It’ll make you dizzy.’


‘But then you would never…

These fragments could become part of a story, or a poem or lead to more ideas.

2.  Just write down a few words about what was happening in your world, even the weather.

3.  Even a quick sketch of your pet and a few words about what they like to do best.  Sketching and writing is a great idea.

For my latest collection of poetry ‘Guinea Pig town and other poems about animals’ Walker books, I was able to observe animals and then write from this.  Taking a photograph to look back later was great also.

Here are two photos of two animals.  Both were in London and both are the subjects of poems in my book.



If you are able to look in a copy of ‘Guinea Pig town and other Animal poems’ then look up:

‘A big bathroom’


Then you can see the finished poems.

What do you like to write about?  I’d love to hear from you.

Lorraine M

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The All Important How Question and What question

I am often asked, ‘How did I become a writer?’ Just last week I was asked this question as I went into a remote school to teach poetry.

I looked at the boy who asked me and asked him in turn, ‘how old are you?’  Luckily he replied with the age I was looking for.  He said , ’eight’.

‘Well that’s the age I can remember thinking that’s what I really really want to be when I grow up, to be an author,’ I replied.

But I didn’t add that though I’d never meet an author, or knew anything about the journey to becoming an author; I still knew in my heart that was what I had to be.   I also loved reading.  Reading all sorts of books is a great start to becoming an author.

I didn’t know that at the time, but already I was embarking on my writer’s journey.

So that leads to another question, ‘what books did you like to read as a child?’

Well I’m not sure if you have ever heard of this very old book called ‘The Princess and Curdie’ by a famous author called George Macdonald.  He wrote this book many years ago, in fact it was very old when I was a child!!!

I loved it.  The thrill of a fabulous, loving and altogether magical grandmother, a princess alone and under threat by  dreadful goblins and a poor ordinary miner’s son called Curdie.  Wow!  I was hooked and today that book still has pride of place on my bookshelves.

So here’s a question for you?  What book has stirred your imagination, has transported you to another world, one that you’d keep through all your growing years and into adulthood?  I’d love to hear.

Next time I’ll show you a little bit of how I work ; my secret writing books and even share a way for you to start your own writing book.

Lorraine Marwood


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Walking the dog


I had a visit yesterday afternoon from Indigo, a lovely year 9 student who’s doing a project on writers – and at the same time, she’s writing a novel herself. She asked me lots of interesting questions about how I wrote and where I got my ideas from and what advice I had for writers. It was good timing, because I planned to write on just those things on the Christchurchkids blog today.

I could be really silly, and answer “How do you write?” by saying that I sit at my desk and  tap away at the keyboard with my fingers.

Well, actually, that IS what I do, but other stuff comes first. One thing I do before I start writing most days, and definitely before I start a new project, is lots of walking. A walk around the park with my dog Gus is good because I find thinking and walking go really well together.
I don’t make lots of notes; I tend to work things out in my head. I play out scenes as if my mind was a movie screen. I try out ideas and (because I like an insanely complicated plot) I try to make twists and turns and figure out “what if?” as if I’m playing a game or doing a jigsaw. Gus is a great help because he needs to walk every day and he comes and reminds GUSme if I don’t take him.

Could you resist those doggy eyes?

Where do I get my ideas from? The answer is everywhere. I am like a magpie, collecting bits and pieces. News items, conversations that I overhear, people I see in the street, pictures, paintings, photos and places all go to making a story. In Verity Sparks Lost and Found, there is a strand of the plot about spirit photography. That got there because a friend was throwing out old books and there was one on the supernatural she thought I’d like. In the early days of photography, people were easily fooled by double exposures and other tricks, and there were some great pictures with “ghosts ” in them. So I used them in my book.

My main piece of advice for writers is simple. Finish that story! Don’t leave it half-finished or just started. When you’ve got it finished, then you’ll have something to work with. You can edit, rearrange, change, cut, add and polish to make your story much, much better. But only if you finish it first.

All the best,


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