I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books. Stories were shared regularly around the kitchen table, and we were all encouraged to read verse out loud, particularly the works of A A Milne (‘James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree’), Alfred Noyes (‘The highwayman came riding, riding . . . up to the old inn-door’) and Hilaire Belloc (‘Matilda, Who Told Lies and was Burned to Death’).
So my head was always full of stories and words, rhythm and rhyme. Poems jumped into my brain when I was riding my bike to school along the banks of the Bunyip River (which is a story in itself!). I’d repeat them over and over until I knew them off by heart, then, when I got home, I’d grab an old exercise book and race up to the hay stack so I could scribble them down in private.
My early attempts at poetry were very much doggerel (and catterel!) and usually about animals.
Penelope was a pig
One day she ate a fig
She wasn’t fond of it
So she threw it in a pit
Then, when I was about eight, I sent in a longer poem called My Little Creek to the Junior Age section of The Age newspaper. Not only did they print it, they paid me 17 shillings and sixpence for it – a fortune back in the days when it took you and your brother six months of saving up your sixpence a week ‘job’ money to buy a Monopoly set.
It was my first paid publication – and I was determined it wouldn’t be my last. I sat in my bedroom munching on toasted cheese sandwiches, solemnly resolving there and then that I would become ‘A Writer’ when I grew up. I even had a ‘writerly’ pen name picked out – Gemma Craven – and a publisher – Penguin – whose Puffin books were among my favourites at the time. Especially Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and Ivan Southall’s Ash Road and Hills End.
I kept writing poetry all through school, but most of it gushed out in Year 11 and 12 – pages and pages of teenage angst poetry when I should have been studying instead. And I wrote a long spoof of the Canterbury Tales based on the teachers at my school for our school magazine.
I enjoyed other kinds of writing as well. My cousins (who lived across the paddock) and I started our own newspaper called The Thrilling Three when were about nine or ten. It was full of interviews with the farm animals (how many eggs had been laid that day) and other important goings on. I wrote play scripts for my friends to perform at lunchtimes at school (complete with sound effects). And I started a romantic novel when I was eleven, called Those Who Wait, which sadly never developed past the first chapter.
It was all great practice for when I did finally grow up (highly questionable!) and became A Writer for real. And then strange things began to happen. I was asked to use a pen name for my first published book, Hot Licks, which was part of the Dolly Fiction series. There was already a well-known English actor called Gemma Craven by then, so I changed the Craven part to Carey instead.
The doggerel and catterel fed into my book of poems for the very young, Doodledum Dancing, published by . . . Penguin!
And one night at a literary dinner, I met my childhood idol, Ivan Southall, who agreed to let me visit his home to interview him for a children’s magazine I was editing. And he made me a toasted cheese sandwich!!!
Meredith Costain is a versatile writer whose work ranges from picture books through to novels, poetry and narrative non-fiction. Her books include CBCA Honour Book Doodledum Dancing, Mummies are Lovely, novelisations of Dance Academy, and the quirky illustrated series, The Ella Diaries. She enjoys presenting writing workshops in libraries and schools. Visit her (and meet her many pets!) at www.meredithcostain.com