Posts tagged author

Star Author: Barbara Else – How cool are maps?

I feel very lucky to have an artist as clever as Sam Broad to do the cover and maps for the Tales of Fontania.

What are the best things about Sam? He has an amazing sense of fun and drama. I don’t think he could do a boring picture no matter how hard to tried. His illustrations almost zoom off the page with energy. The other thing I really like is how he adds in his own little details.

The Volume of Possible Endings is in five parts and each one is headed by an illustration. The one on page 158 is a fabulous raven soldier. See how his foot rests on the toadstool. See the feather dropping off his hunky arm. And take a look at the can of army rations on p 98. It’s pretty disgusting. I love it.

The inside covers of The Volume of Possible Endings have a map of Owl Town where most of the action takes place. While I’m drafting a novel, I have to do maps myself to make sure I’m sending the characters in the right directions. I’m very grateful that Sam can look at my scrappy scribbles and turn them into versions that are so much fun and – well, I’ve already said clever. But when it’s about Sam Broad, it is worth saying clever at least twice.

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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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Author of the Week – Kate DiCamillo

Author of the Week is a new feature on the Christchurch Kids Blog.  It’s where we’ll introduce you to some great authors whose books you’ll find in our libraries.  If you love the featured author and have read some of the books, we’d love to hear what you think.

Each of the author profiles comes from one of our really cool databases, called Novelist.  If you’re looking for some new books or authors you should really check it out.  Our first author of the week is Kate DiCamillo.

Versatile, award-winning American author Kate DiCamillo writes realistic fiction and fantasy stories for both older and younger kids. With both beautiful language and characters full of personality, her books — some stand-alones, some series — are infused with a sweet tone and threads of humor while not shying away from substantive themes. However, no matter what the story, DiCamillo weaves gentle humor throughout.

Here are just a few of Kate DiCamillo’s books that we have in the library:

Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures

Rescuing a squirrel after an accident involving a vacuum cleaner, comic-reading cynic Flora Belle Buckman is astonished when the squirrel, Ulysses, demonstrates astonishing powers of strength and flight after being revived.

The Magician’s Elephant

When ten-year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene encounters a fortune teller in the marketplace one day and she tells him that his sister, who is presumed dead, is in fact alive, he embarks on a remarkable series of adventures as he desperately tries to find her.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Edward Tulane, a cold-hearted and proud toy rabbit, loves only himself until he is separated from the little girl who adores him and travels across the country, acquiring new owners and listening to their hopes, dreams, and histories.

Because of Winn-Dixie

Ten-year-old India Opal Buloni describes her first summer in the town of Naomi, Florida, and all the good things that happen to her because of her big ugly dog Winn-Dixie.

The Tale of Despereaux

The adventures of Desperaux Tilling, a small mouse of unusual talents, the princess that he loves, the servant girl who longs to be a princess, and a devious rat determined to bring them all to ruin.

For more books by Kate DiCamillo or to find books and authors similar to her, check out Novelist.

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Boom towns and wild mountain roads

Hi again after some wet and blustery days up here in the North.

I thought some of you might be interested in a few of the fascinating facts I learnt about our history while researching The Drover’s Quest. For example, did you know that during the heady West Coast gold rush days of the 1860s, Hokitika was one of NZ’s biggest towns? It was chock-full of pubs (at one count 84 hotels lined Revell Street), dancing halls, and gambling dens and home to colourful characters like Fenian Jenny who liked to dance in emerald green petticoats, and diggers with funny names like Johnny the Rat and Alex the Greek.

 The road through Arthur’s Pass had only just been completed, linking the goldfields to Christchurch. About a thousand men had hacked out a route through the rock and thick bush, using only pickaxes and shovels. It was a hair-raising journey across that early road. In those days, Cobb and Co was King, with many people travelling by coach across the treacherous Pass to get to the wild West Coast. I read amazing stories of runaway coaches and horses hooning down steep mountainsides, or else crossing raging rivers like the Waimakariri in flood, or the Taramakau, nicknamed the Terrible Cow. Exciting days!

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The Damned

The Damned was a terrifying experience. But before I explain why, this is the blurb: “It’s not just the Dead who want to return to the Land of the Living, but the creatures of Hell itself. And only Lazarus, Stone, Keeper of the Dead, can stop them. But he’s on an insane rescue mission to save his best mate and his dad, with only the help of an undead priest and an angel with an alcohol problem. This isn’t just about saving the world, this is personal…”

So why so terrifying? Well, The Damned was the first time I’d ever experienced characters taking on a life of their own, controlling the story, and telling me what was going to happen next, where they were going to go, rather than the other way round. It was a bit disconcerting. I’m big on planning my books out. To me, it’s a bit like how I’d approach a piece of art (were I an artist, which I’m not, trust me!) First, I’d sketch it out, until I was happy with what I was doing, and then I’d add in the detail, the colour. And that’s much how I work – plan it out first, get happy with the structure of the story, then colour it in! However, half way through The Damned, the characters had other ideas as to what was going to happen. And I just had to hold on tight and hope they knew what they were doing, which it turns out they did!

The Damned is an epic conclusion to a crazy, dark, hellish journey. It draws on a lot of my love of horror movies and fiction, with plenty of nods to everything from Lovecraft to Fulci. The characters are still with me, the story still haunts me, and I hope that, once you survive your time with the Dead/Dark/Damned, you’ll be a little bit haunted by it, too!

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Are you Skulduggery’s biggest fan?

If you answered yes to the question above you just might have the chance to meet Derek Landy, the creator of Skulduggery Pleasant, when he comes to New Zealand for his 2012 Down Under Tour in August.  If that isn’t enough, you’ll also get a complete set of Skulduggery books, signed by Derek.  All you have to do to have the chance to meet Derek Landy is go to his website and answer these two questions:

  1. Gordon Edgley is, amongst other things, a horror writer and uncle. He is also dead. Stephanie, his beloved niece, is saddened by this unexpected event. In the first Skulduggery Pleasant Book you are introduced to the rest of Gordon’s family. Name the other family members who make an appearance in the sample chapter on the website.
  2. Tell them in 25 words or less why it should be you meeting Derek Down Under.

What are you waiting for?  Go to to enter.  You can also listen to a FREE audio book of the very first Skulduggery Pleasant book on his website.

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Where do YOU write?

I’ve been writing, writing, writing, for years and years and years. And in all that time, I’ve written in all kinds of places. I once wrote a whole novel (70,000 words!) on the train to and from work over a period of about five weeks. I was surrounded by commuters, squashed into a little seat, yet somehow I managed (and got lots of very odd looks!) I’ve written in airport lounges, cafes, front rooms, dining rooms, libraries, under trees, in churches…

The thing I’m wondering is, does where you write affect what you write? I think it’s a bit of both. As writers, and as people, we’re affected utterly by our surroundings. After all, much of where I get my ideas from lies in all that I see/do/hear/smell/read/watch/experience (etc). When I look back at all those different places I’ve scribbled in, each one has only really been possible because I’ve managed to shut myself away, often with music and headphones.

I’m currently looking at getting myself a writing shed. This is very exciting, even though it doesn’t sound it! Imagine though, a place all to yourself to just go and sit and think and write and invent crazy new worlds and ideas and monsters and heroes and heroines and adventures. How ace is that?

So where do you go to get creative or to read or think or write or just “be”? And if you haven’t got anywhere, is there some way that you can change that?

I’ll keep you posted on the shed…


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Farewell to Brian Jacques and Redwall

I was sad to learn today that the author of the Redwall series, Brian Jacques, died on 5 February 2011. Brian has written many books in the Redwall series, including Rakkety Tam, The Legend of Luke, Marlfox, and The Pearls of Lutra, as well as the fantastic Flying Dutchman series.  Here are some interesting facts about Brian Jacques:

  • He was caned by a teacher, who could not believe a 10-year-old could write so well, when he wrote a short story about a bird who cleaned a crocodile’s teeth.
  • He left school at 15 and traveled the world as a merchant seaman.
  • He wrote his first story, Redwall, for children at Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool.  Because the children were blind, he made his writing as descriptive as possible, painting pictures with words so that they could see them in their imaginations.
  • He has worked as a railway fireman, a longshoreman, a long-distance truck driver, a bus driver, a boxer, a bobby (Police Constable), a postmaster, and a stand-up comic.
  • He has sold over 20 million books worldwide and they have been translated into 29 languages.

We have lots of Brian’s books in the library for you to enjoy so come and borrow some to see why they are so popular.

What’s your favourite Brian Jacques book?

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Questions for Des Hunt

I’m a huge fan of Des Hunt’s and I was very excited to have him as one of our Star Authors.  I’ve loved reading his posts about creating a setting, characters and plot and we hope that you all have too.  I’ve read most of Des Hunt’s books so I had a few questions that I wanted to ask him.  You can read his answers here and if you have your own questions for Des you could add a comment.

Why did you want to be a writer?

Since I was very young I’ve been fascinated by science. I ended up becoming a teacher because I wanted to help others develop a similar interest. I wrote text books, invented electronic machines, created scientific games, anything that would help others understand the world around them. Eventually I turned to fiction. My specific aim was to feature New Zealand wildlife, it’s special nature and why we should take care with the environment.

What do you like most about writing for this age group?

Their open minds, their sense of wonder at discovering new things, and their willingness to be adventurous, at least within their minds. They’re also wonderful to meet when I visit schools and discuss writing. Even those who are not so keen on reading enjoy the chemistry and biology that are part of my presentations. It’s all part of the adventure both for them and for me.

Your stories are set in different parts of New Zealand. What is your favourite part of the country?

Any place that has a small population set in a wild place. If there are caves, geothermal activity, and native bush then all the better. In no set order my favourite regions would be: Coromandel Peninsula (that’s why I live here), West Coast of the South Island, Taupo-Rotorua, Kaikoura Coast.

You’ve just released The Naughty Kids Book of Nature, a non-fiction book about New Zealand wildlife, and your books feature some of that wildlife. What is your favourite native animal and why?

This one is easy to answer: the tuatara. It is a truly unique animal as it has no close relation left anywhere in the world. It lives to be ancient and as a child, I wondered if it’s third eye helped it to see things that maybe other animals couldn’t. My second choice is the grey warbler. It is such a small bird, and yet it’s song is one of the most commonly heard around New Zealand. One of my best memories as a naturalist is watching a tiny grey warbler feed a huge shining cuckoo chick. It looked after a different species as if it was one of its own. I think there’s a message there for us humans.

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Writing Tip of the Week – Brian Falkner

This week’s writing tip comes from Brian Falkner, author of Tomorrow Code, Henry and the Flea, Brainjack, and his new book The Project.

“Writing is like learning to walk. You fall down, you get back up and try again. Little by little you learn from your mistakes. You get better and better at it, and one day it just happens and it is a magical moment.”

If you want to find out more about Brian Falkner’s books and writing, you can visit his cool website or read his Star Author posts here on the blog.

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Publish your own stories

I love writing stories, and I hope you do too!

If you’ve written a story that you’d like to have published online, just go to my website and click on “Your Stories” or you can click on this link:

On this page you can publish your story so that other kids can read it. I read all the stories that are published.

Happy writing!


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Interview with Steve Cole

Steve Cole photoAstrosaurs author Steve Cole was unfortunately unable to come to Christchurch last week for the launch of the Christchurch Kids Blog.   Luckily, I still got the chance to have a chat with Steve and I asked him about his books, writing, Doctor Who, and jamming with his band.

How do you keep track of the different series that you write?

“It’s a bit like going around and spending time at a friend’s house.  I like to enjoy the different worlds, whether it’s Trashland with The Slime Squad, deep space with the Astrosaurs or Farmer Barmer’s farm with the Cows in  Action.  It’s quite good to find yourself back there and I enjoy playing with those characters.  It’s always a bit scary inventing a new scene – the Slime Squad took about 3 goes to get it right.  The websites that fans create also help me to keep track of the characters and what is happening.”

Why did you want to be a writer?

“You get to make things up and people give you money for it.  When I was little I would make things up and get into trouble, but now I get rewarded.  It’s really good fun to be able to use your imagination and create characters, places, monsters, baddies and adventures.”

What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a writer?

“The best thing is that you don’t have to get dressed in the morning, and you can work whenever you choose.  The worst thing is that it can be pretty lonely, just you and your computer or pad of paper, scribbling away frantically.   That’s why I  really enjoy going to festivals and schools so I can meet the children I’m writing for.”

You’ve written some of the Doctor Who book as well as your books for children.  Who is your favourite Doctor?

“I really like the new one (Matt Smith) and I didn’t think that anybody could beat David Tennant.  My all-time favourite is probably Tom Baker because he’s the one I grew up with.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Who is Richard Newsome?

Richard Newsome is another of the fantastic authors that are joining us for the launch of the Christchurch Kids Blog on Wednesday 8 September, 7pm at Central Library.  Richard is an Australian author (although he was born in New Zealand) and his first book, The Billionaire’s Curse was published in 2009 when he won the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.

He’s had lots of different jobs before becoming a writer, including a journalist (“he chased after police cars while they chased after bad guys”) and jobs in TV and radio.

He’s written two books in The Billionaire’s Trilogy, The Billionaire’s Curse and The Emerald Casket.  They are both amazingly adventurous stories and I really recommend them.  You can read my review of The Billionaire’s Curse here on the blog.

If you would like to meet Richard Newsome and maybe even get his autograph, come along to the launch of the Christchurch Kids Blog on Wednesday 8 September.

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Leonie Thorpe’s visit to Central Library

Leonie Thorpe at Central Library

Leonie Thorpe talking about her books

Ever wanted to know how much an author gets paid for each book they sell?  Well Christchurch author Leonie Thorpe can tell you, and I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed.  However, as Leonie explained, being a writer is not all about the money, it’s about getting your book published and seeing it on the shelf.

Before becoming an author, Leonie worked in a hospital testing all sorts of things, including your number ones and number twos (YUCK!).  She explained that there are lots of different ways that you could get your writing published, such as entering it into writing competitions and getting it in the School Journal.

Leonie Thorpe has had three books published, called Archie’s Adventures, Archie Saves the Day, and The Sheep on the Fourth Floor, which we have in the library for you to borrow.  Look out for our interview with Leonie on the blog soon.

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Writing Tip of the Week – Joy Cowley

This week’s writing tip comes from one of New Zealand’s best-loved authors, Joy Cowley.  Joy has written some fantastic books over the years, including Bow Down Shadrach, Hunter, Greedy Cat, and Snake and Lizard.  In this writing tip, Joy talks about writing the end of a story.

“A story is a bit like a running race. It takes us a while to warm up but once we get going, we don’t always stop at the finishing tape, but run on. The right ending for any story is usually soon after the problem gets solved. If you don’t know where or how to end your story, stop and look back a few sentences. Chances are you’ll find the correct ending already written.”

Come and meet Joy Cowley at the Christchurch Town Hall this Sunday at the Storylines Free Family Day.  You could hear her read some of her books, talk about writing, and even get one of her books signed.

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