Monday, 28 January 2013

A LIFE IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS



 What kinds of influences draw a person into the world of children’s literature? Contemplating this recently, I decided to draw on my own life experiences to see why three decades of my life have been devoted to the subject.

As a child who was a voracious reader, I only ever owned one book – Heidi, which was a birthday gift one year and which I re-read many times. When I was young there were few books specifically for children; every Friday I fronted up to Mortdale Public Library and asked the librarian. “Has Miss Blyton written another book this week?”  Other books I remember reading avidly as a child and teenager were The Swiss Family Robinson, How Green was my Valley, and Charles Dickens’ novels. I also found a coverless book of Australian poems which I fondly read aloud and copied, attempting to write poems myself. At school a fifth grade teacher read aloud the whole of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (both of which I loved), I don’t remember any teacher ever encouraging me to read. What I do remember was that at home I was discouraged from reading in order to “better” spend my time working on our family farm. Ours was a home without books or reading, though occasionally my mother bought a woman’s magazine.

It never occurred to me to become a writer: my career goal was always to become a famous painter. However, lack of talent put paid to that idea, so as soon as I was able I left home, armed with a Teachers’ College Scholarship. Two years later I graduated and became a primary school teacher, a job that I loved and flourished in. I especially loved writing plays for my students to perform and reading and recommending books to them. It was only some years later that I was asked by a schools’ inspector if I would like to take on a temporary (six month) position as assistant to the editor of the NSW Department of Education. Working with the editor, children’s author Lilith Norman and alongside assistant editor Joanne Horniman, I soon learned how to edit my writing ruthlessly.

My secondment finished, I moved to a remote area of NSW where I began writing my first children’s novel, Terri. Reaching a stumbling block with it, I enrolled in a five-day writing course with (the late) author Joan Phipson (whose stories I had read in the NSW School Magazine), author Eleanor Spence and Children’s Publisher Ann Bower-Ingram (of William Collins). I learnt much during that short period and was able to finish my novel. In the meantime, I met the late author/editor Michael Dugan at the Adelaide Arts Festival and when he’d stated he’d only ever had two manuscript submissions during his editorship of the national children’s magazine Puffinalia, published by Penguin Books, I secured the correct address and began submitting short stories I’d written. Michael was kind and generous, and moreover published my stories. He also agreed to read my completed manuscript of Terri, passing it on to Kay Ronai, then children’s editor at Penguin Books. The day I received a call from Kay saying Penguin wanted to publish Terri stands out in my memory. I rang my mother with the good news. “That’s nice, dear,” she said. “Did I tell you that your sister won the Tomerong Ladies’ Squash finals last week?”

Penguin published my second novel, Piggy Moss, which had an amazing launch at a Sydney school (even though there were no copies of the book available on the day as the Melbourne publicist had forgotten them!) It was at the launch that I met other children’s literary figures, such as Simon French, Lowell Tarlington and Maurice Saxby. Lowell’s book Taylor’s Troubles, co-launched the same day (no copies available, either) and Terri were among the first Australian Puffins ever published. (Prior to that, Australian children’s books were always published in the UK and exported to Australia.)

It came as a blow when Penguin refused my third book (and one of my favourites), the humorous tall tale The Belligrumble Bigfoot, but I was happy when it was contracted by Kangaroo Press. Many books I have written – over 100 – have since been published by publishers such as Hodder Headline, Random House, Rigby, HarperCollins, Harcourt Education, Angus & Robertson and numerous others.

During my career in children’s books, I have worked in other fields besides authorship. As well as speaking at conferences and attending numerous CBCA children’s literary lunches, I have sold books, including my own remainders and in a Wollongong bookstore, working with Jean Ferguson of the ABA who introduced me to many wonderful titles. Then I sourced and sold new and second-hand children’s books at book fairs in local primary schools. For many years, too, I worked as a schools’ performer on author visits at hundreds of schools around NSW and interstate. At first I worked alone, but then my husband, award-winning children’s author Bill Condon, joined me. He would perform for children in the infants’ department while I worked with primary students. At lunch-times we often sold our remainders - thousands of them over the years! Often I also presented writing and editing workshops to primary-aged children and to teachers. Sometimes I gave talks to parents and/or ran Wordgames’ evenings for them (Wordgames are writing games I devised for team competition; they were very popular, and helped schools raise funds.)

At various stages of my career I have founded writing workshops and groups. These latter included the Fellowship of Australian Writers (at Campbelltown and still running over 25 years later) and the south-west branch of the Children’s Books Council of Australia (also at Campbelltown in 1993). During the four years I presided over the two CBCA branches, we had many successful functions. These included literary lunches with authors (Jackie French came along to one, shortly after her first book was published) and with local identities, as well as author evenings. One night we had a huge crowd for the English children’s author, Pat Hutchens. We also organised a very big conference at Warwick Farm where speakers included Bruce Whatley (at his first CBCA gig), Duncan Ball and others. Unfortunately the CBCA branch floundered when I left town three years later. However, in that short time, we managed to have more than 40 authors and illustrators visit the south-west. In February 2008, I formed the Illawarra branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia and was elected its President, a position I held for three years.

Many years ago, too, I co-founded (with authors Mary Small and Joan Dalgleish) the Sydney Network of Authors and Illustrators, a loose group of published children’s book creators. Originally we met for some years at the Australian Journalists’ Club near Central Railway Station, but more recently Network met at the Hughenden Hotel in Woollahra. Some attendees at early meetings included the late David Bateson (who was our unofficial photographer), Vashti Farrer, Margaret Wild, Nigel Gray, Libby Gleeson et al.

In my job as co-editor (with Doug Macleod) of Puffinalia children’s magazine (published by Penguin Books), I mentored many young writers: one of them, a recently published 15-year-old, made the trip from Melbourne to visit Network with her mother. Sonya Hartnett was reserved, but obviously in her element. Since then, Sonya has written numerous books and won major literary awards including the highly lucrative Pippi Longstocking (international) Award.

One achievement I feel very pleased about was establishing a weekly online newsletter, CAINON, for those in the children’s book industry, which I ran as a volunteer for over six months, building up a following of over 500 before the job overwhelmed me and I passed it on to a young woman I had been mentoring for some time. She, in turn, re-named it Pass It On (PIO), and began charging a fee for it. As time passed, I regretted my decision and so started up an online magazine, Buzz Words (All the Buzz about Children’s Books), also for people in the children’s book industry. I relied on freelance writers for most of the Buzz Words book reviews, and paid article and interview contributors as well as writing many articles myself. After five years of putting out Buzz Words ,  I passed it on to Vicki Stanton, a children’s writer I mentor. (www.buzzwordsmagazine.com)

Over the years I’ve devoted myself to other aspects of children’s books. At one time I presented a one-hour program on community TV, a children’s book chat show where I interviewed authors such as Margaret Clarke, Susanne Gervay, Moya Simons, the school boys who financed Colin Thompson’s first trip to Australia and numerous others, including schoolgirl, Jessica Carroll, who wrote her first (and only) picture book text, Billy the Punk (illustrated by Craig Smith) when she was in sixth grade as a class project. I have also mentored and/or taught many new writers in the early stages of their careers, namely Margaret McAlister, Sue Whiting, Susanne Gervay, J A Mawter, Moya Simons, Sandy Fussell, Maureen (Mo) Johnson, Delwyne Stephens, Jackie Hosking, to name but a few. All of them have gone on to publish children’s books; Margaret is also a highly regarded teacher and writing mentor (Writing4Success); Sue now works as children’s editor for Walker Books Australia and Susanne Gervay won the 2007 Lady Cutler Award for services to children’s literature.

I’ve presented papers on children’s literature and writing at many institutions, and taught writing and editing classes at evening colleges, universities, primary and high schools, TAFEs and writers’ centres. Currently I have a correspondence creative writing course running for young writers (through the NSW Writers’ Centre) and an online writing course for adults wishing to write for young people. For a time, too, I handled the publicity for the KOALA (Kids Own Australian Literature Awards) organisation.

As well as reviewing many children’s books (Reading Time and Buzz Words), I’ve worked as a children’s magazine editor. For several years Doug MacLeod and I co-edited Puffinalia magazine; I worked as story editor for Little Ears, a magazine for children aged three and up. (www.littleears.com.au) While at Puffinalia, I published the writings of three newcomers to children’s books: Robin Klein, Errol Broome and Alan Baillie.

In the 30 plus years since I first started writing for children, I’ve progressed from typing manuscripts on an old-fashioned Olivetti manuscript typewriter to working on the latest whizz-bang computer. Over the course of my career in children’s books, too, I’ve met and made friends with many other children’s writers and editors. Being in this field is like being part of a large and caring family. Time and again I hear budding children’s authors say how generous my colleagues are with their time and advice, and it’s true: there is a genuine camaraderie in the industry. I feel privileged indeed to be a part of the children’s books fraternity and hope to continue being here for many years to come.

Dianne (Di) Bates’ most recent book is Crossing the Line (Ford Street). She is married to award-winning children’s author, Bill Condon, and lives in Wollongong, NSW. Her website is www.enterprisingwords.com



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