How I got into books (the full story)

19/01/2017

I wrote and illustrated my first picture book in 1993. I was in grade 6. It was not very good. I entered it in the Make Your Own Storybook competition, a statewide contest run by the Children’s Book Council of Australia WA branch. I didn’t win a prize, though I did receive a handy-dandy certificate of participation.

In year 7 I tried harder, entered the competition again and my book came 3rd in my age group. I was very proud and wondered if one day I might be able to make proper books. (I still have the books that I made for the competition.)

In primary school and high school I drew cartoons for the student newspapers. I graduated high school in December 1999, and started working on my first website of my cartoons; I did my first freelance cartoon jobs, and started writing my first ‘proper’ picture book manuscript (which has never been published, and is not very good).

In 2001 I began studying primary teaching, and my art teacher was the great Guundie Kuchling – artist, writer and illustrator of some wondeful environmentally-conscious children’s picture books. She read my manuscript and was very generous, giving me some very constructive criticism and lots of encouragement.

Around this time I sent my first illustration samples to publishers. I received several rejections and one encouraging note which I still have in my files.

Between 2003 and 2008 I did a few different things:

    • I finished a degree in community psych and got a day job with the public service;
    • I drew comics for my university student magazine;
    • I went to as many professional development sessions and open days at the Fremantle Children’s Literature Centre as I could;
    • I submitted illustration samples to The Style File website 4 or 5 times, was rejected each time but took on their awesome feedback;
    • and I worked freelance for the Quokka newspaper, doing their cover illustrations.

The Quokka was a very long apprenticeship for me. I did almost 300 covers for the Quokka between 2003 and 2010. The discipline of a weekly deadline was a great learning experience; I became much quicker with photoshop, I became much quicker with my rough drawings, and I became more confident in my work.

I was slowly getting better. And now I was a freelance cartoonist. But I still wasn’t making children’s books, which was what I really wanted to do.

So in 2008 I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I can say without exaggeration that SCBWI kick-started my career.

I attended my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in February 2008, shy and unprepared. My portfolio was abysmal. But I met a few unpublished author/illustrators around my age. We were all trying to get into the industry, so we became a support network for each other. We’ve been friends ever since.

I worked on many picture book and comic book ideas that year. Most of them died torturous deaths. But in late 2008 I produced a series of watercolour pieces for an Australian Cartoonists’ Association exhibition. It was a new style for me, and something I did just because I wanted to. I pushed myself to do better work. And it paid off in three huge ways: 1) the pieces I made helped me to ‘level up’ my skills; 2) some of those pieces helped me get accepted onto the Style File website; and 3) one of the pieces I painted sparked the interest of a certain Mr Norman Jorgensen.

It was in June the next year that we SCBWIans were on Rottnest Island off the coast of WA for the inaugural SCBWI Retreat. An author called Norman Jorgensen looked at the watercolour pieces in my portfolio, particularly one of a little knight. He asked if I’d like to work on a book with him. He said it was about a fearful boy who wanted to be a brave Viking and he’d been writing it for a while (which he hadn’t – he made the story up on the spot). I said yes.

We got straight to work, throwing ideas back and forth, and drafting the manuscript and storyboards. (This is not the usual process; most of the time a writer approaches a publisher with their manuscript, then the publisher picks and enlists the illustrator).

Meanwhile, I submitted a manuscript idea to the CYA Conference competition. It received a Highly Commended Award. It was called In The Lion. The recognition was very encouraging. It made me wonder if I might be able to do this.

Norman and I kept working at our book idea. Thankfully his publisher, Cate Sutherland, was interested. She gave us lots of feedback, told us to go away and work on it some more and come back in a couple of months. We did. She liked the new improved version, and we all signed the contract in November 2009.

Fast forward to June 2010, Rottnest again. Sarah Foster from Walker Books was a special guest of SCBWI. She read my manuscript for In The Lion and offered me a contract to publish it. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I started the final artwork for The Last Viking in September 2010. It was my first book and I had a lot to learn about the illustration process, and quite frankly the challenge was freaking me out. I wanted to give up many times, but I knew that I would regret it if I did. I’d wanted this opportunity for so long and I needed to give it everything I had. I told myself, ‘you only get one debut book.’ I kept going and I finished the illustrations in January 2011.

June 2011. The Last Viking was published by Fremantle Press. There was much rejoicing, drinking of mead and eating of pickled herring. Norman and I were very proud to have this book out in the world.

That year I presented at my first big writers’ festivals, and I visited New York for the SCBWI Winter Conference where I met lots more amazing writers and illustrators. I also spent most of the year planning and finishing the artwork for In The Lion, with much support and encouragement from my art director, Donna Rawlins. In The Lion was ready to go to print by Christmas 2011.

2012. In The Lion was published by Walker Books. The Last Viking won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Members’ Choice Award. I signed on as SCBWI Australia West’s Illustrator Coordinator, and attended my first SCBWI Sydney conference. I presented at a lot more schools and a lot more festivals that year. Things were gaining momentum. I was still balancing out my writing and illustrating with a part-time day job … but only just.

2013. The balance finally tipped. There were too many opportunities coming my way in the near future and I couldn’t take those up while still at my day job. So, on August 1st 2013, I began working as a full time children’s book creator. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Thank you to all involved with SCBWI in the East and the West for everything you’ve given me over the years; you’re a brilliant group of crazy wonderful people and you made (and make) a huge difference. And thanks to every other person and organisation who has helped me too – my year 6 and 7 primary school teachers, the CBCA (WA), my high school art teachers, The Literature Centre, The Australian Cartoonists’ Association, the CYA Conference, Guundie Kuchling, Norman Jorgensen, Cate Sutherland, Sarah Foster, Donna Rawlins, all my other editors and art directors, and all my SCBWI buddies.

And last but not least – thanks to you too, the reader!