Today’s guest post is by Corinne Fenton, whose beautiful non-fiction picture book with illustrator Andrew McLean, To the Bridge, about the remarkable 1000 km horseback journey made in 1932 by nine year old Lennie Gwyther and his pony Ginger Mick, has just been released this month. Two of the three launches planned for the book had to be cancelled due to the current situation, but the first launch, at Leongatha, the place where the main characters of the book came from, was held on March 12. (See photo below). In her post, which was also her launch speech, Corinne writes about piecing together Lennie’s story from his family and friends.
Telling true stories
By Corinne Fenton
‘Lennie knew that if he travelled twenty miles a day he would make it on time and it wouldn’t be too much for Ginger Mick.
So, on 3rd February 1932, when Lennie and Ginger Mick were nine years old, they set off along the winding road out of Leongatha, to ride six hundred miles to Sydney.’
Some true-story picture books take years to create because it’s difficult to find specific information, or people connected to the story.
This was not the case with To the Bridge, because in the beginning I found Beryl, the little sister of my main character, Lennie Gwyther. I first met Beryl when she was 90. She shared priceless snippets she remembered about her eldest brother – how he loved to build things, how he was quiet and humble, a real thinker and how the most precious thing in the world to him was his beloved pony, Ginger Mick.
She told me Ginger Mick preferred to trot rather than walk or canter, and that he was highly intelligent with a will of his own. If he saw a cow lagging, he would give it a clip on the rump. Lennie called him Ginger for short.
I asked Beryl if Lennie was a loner, ‘No,’ she said, ‘but he preferred to be making things which took time, so he spent a lot of time alone.’
Ginger Mick was the love of Lennie’s life. From the beginning they were inseparable. They were born on the same day and Lennie’s maternal grandfather gifted Ginger Mick to Lennie on their second birthday.
To the Bridge has still taken five years from when I first mentioned this story to Publisher, Maryann Ballantyne and almost five years since I visited Beryl on the Gold Coast. I also made trips to Leongatha and to Ballarat to meet family and source more priceless details. My task was to then bring these volumes of details and information back to 577 words. Many people think it’s easy, but often it’s painful to part with carefully chosen words, leaving only the heart and the framework of precise words, to tell the tale.
And of course the other half of telling the story in picture books is in the illustrations, in this case the stunning ones by Andrew McLean.
Writing true stories is always harder than fiction ones, and over the years I’ve realised how much of my soul travels with my characters. Each book takes a part of me with it and with each book, I meet new people who become lifelong friends.
True stories, like To the Bridge are the way we learn about our past and where we come from. To share that with a new generation is what writing true picture books is all about.
Of course I did not do this alone. There are so many people who rode with us:
Julie Oliveri, who first mentioned the story of her family to me, Publisher Maryann Ballantyne who knew the power of Lennie and Ginger Mick the moment I mentioned them and who crafted and championed it for me, as only she can do, Beryl Ferrier without whom this version of the story would not be and Andrew McLean whose heart-wrenching illustrations tell the other half of my words and make it a true picture book. It has been an honour and a privilege to work with Andrew once again.
Thanks also to Julie Campbell, Beryl and Lennie’s niece, who went above and beyond to help me, especially for taking me to Flers the family farm, 5 years ago, to see where Lennie and his siblings grew up, and most importantly where Ginger Mick is buried. Thanks Beryl’s son, Laurie Watson, Historian John Murphy, Pat Spinks and Lyn Skillern from the Leongatha Historical Society and special thanks to Peter Watchorn, Leongatha Newsagent for organising the Leongatha Launch, Mary Small, Stephanie Owen Reeder and Beryl for writing their versions of the story, Walker Books Australia and Black Dog Books –To the Bridge is my 12th book published by Maryann and Black Dog and it is also, unfortunately, the very last Black Dog book.
(An In Memoriam note from Corinne: Beryl Ferrier was to co-launch the book with Maryann Ballantyne in Leongatha on March 12 and with me at the Sydney launch scheduled for March 19 at Fort Street Public School, overlooking the bridge on the 88th Anniversary of its opening and Lennie and Ginger Mick’s crossing. Tragically, Beryl was killed in an accident near her home on the Gold Coast on her way to teach French at the U3A University at Tugan, the day before the Leongatha launch and her 95th birthday. She was the most amazing woman.)
More about the book here.