Across the Tasman 6: Sarah Davis

unnamedToday in my New Zealand series, I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with the wonderful illustrator Sarah Davis. Sarah began illustrating picture books in 2008, and is now, as she puts it,  ‘ruined for any other career.’ She has an honours degree in literature, and her love of language and narrative underpins her illustration work – as a self-taught artist, she is constantly experimenting with new ways to tell stories visually. She has illustrated more than 37 books with major publishers and been shortlisted for about the same number of awards in Australia and New Zealand. Sarah is an ambassador for Room to Read, and the Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (Australia East/NZ) Sarah is represented by the Gallt Zacker Agency in the USA and Frances Plumpton Literary Agency in New Zealand.

Sarah, you’ve said you are now spoiled for any other career other than illustration! Can you tell us about how that career started? What first drew you to illustration? And who were your main artistic influences?fearlesscover-copy

I think I’ve always been heading towards illustration, actually, but I got temporarily derailed by Life. I actually majored in English literature and creative writing at uni, and haven’t had much art training, and had my son when I was only 20, so went into teaching English at secondary school because it was something i felt passionate about and the hours were also good to fit around being a sole parent. I’d always drawn for fun and wanted to do more with it, but couldn’t really find the time.  I started dabbling in art a bit more seriously when I was about 26, but had our two lovely daughters in 2001 and 2003, and was still working part time, so it was hard to fit it in! When we moved to Sydney in 2004, I took time off work and that’s when illustration started to take off for me. I decided I’d go with the “fake it till you make it!’ philosophy, and set up a profile on some online freelancing sites, and got a bunch of jobs that way which taught me how it all worked and helped me start to build a portfolio. Then I decided to have a go at picture book illustration. I applied to the Stylefile with some truly horrible art samples, and they very sensibly and very kindly rejected me. Their rejection was accompanied by an A4 page of incredibly constructive criticism, and I took all their advice on board and built a much better portfolio, which i took to a critique at a SCBWI conference, and it all took off from there, thanks in a large part to my fairy godmother Susanne Gervay, who was incredibly kind and supportive and enthusiastically made connections and opportunities appear for me.soundsspooky_cover_hbk

What draws me to illustration is the opportunity it provides for narrative – I’m a sucker for story. My artistic influences are pretty varied, I think – I spend a lot of time online gazing at the awe-inspiring work of superior beings. I don’t think I really have a style, and seem to shift my approach based on the demands of the text, which I suppose is why the people whose work I admire also cover a broad spectrum of styles and periods.

You’ve become one of NZ’s busiest illustrators, with many books published, and lots more on the go. How do you manage your time with all the different projects?

Very badly! I call my system “surfing the tidal wave” – that feeling where you’re performing a very tricky balancing act, only just staying afloat, and there’s a weight of thundering chaos surging at your heels waiting to crash down on you. So far I haven’t totally wiped out and I’m still juuuust ahead of the wave. I’ve illustrated 37 trade picture and chapter books since 2008, as well as taking on commercial projects, books for educational publishers such as Cengage, and speaking at between 20-40 schools a year. Balancing that and family time has been very hectic – we’ve got three kids and 6 months ago we acquired a lovely extra teenager. There were quite a few occasions over the last few years when I had a deadline looming and I didn’t sleep at all for days in a row. I wouldn’t recommend it! I’m much better at achieving work/life balance now. I’m being very selective about what I take on, and trying to be much more disciplined with planning ahead. My son actually introduced me to bullet journalling this year, which is actually a wonderful way to be mindful and deliberate about how you spend your days. (

hippoWhat ‘sells’ you into agreeing to illustrating a text? What sorts of things do you look for? And do you have contact with authors at any stage during the process of creating the illustrations?

The text has to come to life in my head and make me feel something – it has to make me laugh or cry. I like texts that feel unusual and a little unhinged, or that feel as though they haven’t been done before. Vivid, evocative language and appealing characters. To be honest, a lot of the books I’ve done have been sequels – so I’ve initially signed on for one book, and then ended up locked in to doing 3 or 4, which is a brilliant problem to have, but also a little frustrating. I feel like it’s forced me to mark time a bit and cover old ground, when I really want to be moving on and trying something new. But I think I’m just coming to the end of that now!

I usually don’t have a lot of contact with the authors through the process – the publisher usually liases with them, shows them the roughs, processes any feedback for me. It’s a bit odd, because that’s how it works even with authors I know quite well! Me and Juliette MacIver are a bit naughty though and we often have quite long consultations in which the publishers aren’t included, usually involving bottles of wine and ukeleles. (actually, we should include the publishers – they’re all great people and  good fun and can probably also drink wine and play the ukelele.)toucan-can-f-cvr-300dpi

You’ve illustrated both picture books and chapter books. What do you prefer doing? And how does the process differ between the two styles of books?

I much prefer picture books – there’s a lot more leeway for the illustrator to tell a story. Illustrating for chapter books is quite prescribed and proscribed – you basically get told what to draw and given a space in which to draw it on each page. It feels a lot more like  you’re just decorating the text. When you’re illustrating a picture book text you really have a huge interpretive role, and you have to bring the characters to life, draw out and enhance the themes of the text, work out how the action of the plot will play out visually. It’s much more challenging and fun. You can also subvert the text, add unexpected twists and turns and layers – then it becomes a wonderful sort of alchemy where the contributions of two creators meet and mix and create a new level of meaning.mdcc_hbk

You are published both in New Zealand and Australia, and your books have won awards in both countries. Do you see any differences between the two countries in terms of reception of books, and reader responses?

I’m not sure, really!  To be honest, I try not to think too much about how my books are being received, because it scares me! Best to keep my head down and just get on with it. Obviously, awards are always lovely – my favourite kind of award to get are the Children’s Choice awards. Kids are very wise and also really tough judges. As far as differences between the 2 countries go… um…. The Marmaduke Duck series became a really big hit in New Zealand and is a bit of a household name over there, but never really took off here. The quirky kiwi sense of humour might have something to do with that. I mean, it’s an entire 4 book series about a duck who makes jam! Doesn’t get much weirder than that…

mmd_wide-blue-seasDoes being a New Zealander impact on or influence your work? If so, in what way?

Well, I think it must, in the way that everyone’s childhood influences their work! I moved from England to Aotearoa when I was 6, and grew up mainly in Christchurch. The land had a huge effect on me. The mountains and bush and sea of Aotearoa have an really powerful presence – this brooding sense that the land is living, and aware of you.

I think for a little country it really punches above its weight creatively, and as a kid I remember there being a lot of emphasis in school on art and creative writing. I read voraciously, and a lot of my favourite authors were NZ writers. Gavin Bishop actually came to visit my school when I was about 9 or 10, and I remember he was working on Mrs McGinty’s Bizarre Plant, and showed us all his rough sketches – I was transfixed! (I actually wrote a blog post about it:

I should also mention my fabulous NZ publishers: Gecko Press and Scholastic NZ. Both extraordinary powerhouses of creativity and absolutely delightful to work with, and tireless in promoting their books and trying to get them out into the wider world, which is a necessity for NZ publishers since the local market is so small. An extra shout out must go to Julia Marshall at Gecko, who has built the company from the ground up and really does produce the most extraordinarily beautiful books.

What are you working on now?hoth

I’m working on a sequel to Be Brave Pink Piglet, published by Hachette, and a super-secret (and exciting!) project for Penguin, which is due in January. I also have a couple of educational titles on the go so that I can pay the bills. I’m working on a couple of series of paintings, too, and hoping to have an exhibition next year. But what I’m most excited about is that I’ve finally finished writing a picture book of my own, and am also going to be illustrating another that my son wrote. They’re both with a publisher now, going to acquisitions soon I hope!

Cover reveal for Two Rainbows!

Drum-roll: very happy to be able to reveal the gorgeous cover of Two Rainbows, the second of my two picture books to appear next year with Little Hare. With strikingly atmospheric pictures by fantastic new illustrator Michael McMahon, it’s an exploration of colour and the very different ways it’s found in city and country life, seen through the eyes of a little girl.The book comes out in July 2017.


Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!


Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.

A joint celebration of World Poetry Day and The School Magazine


School Magazine mascot

WP_20160229_14_40_48_Pro Jackie Hosking of Pass It On had a brilliant idea for today: jointly mark World Poetry Day and the 100-year celebrations of the world’s oldest continuously-running literary magazine for children. Australia’s very own wonderful School Magazine, by a blog tour highlighting children’s poetry published in the Magazine. And I’m delighted to be part of that fabulous blog tour!

First of all, I want to say that not only do I love The School Magazine, but I owe a lot to it. As a young reader of non-English speaking background who came to Australia as a school-age child, The School Magazine was one of the most important factors for me in discovering a world of English-language literature, both Australian and international. And later it nurtured me as an emerging writer, with my first story for children, Platypus Daybreak, published in the Magazine in 1988–and excitingly, it was illustrated by Noela Young, whose pictures I’d so loved as a child in Ruth Park’s The Muddle-Headed Wombat! (That is is one of the great pleasures of being published in the magazine–your pieces are illustrated by some of Australia’s most wonderful illustrators!) Over the years I’ve had lots of things published in the Magazine–short stories, articles, plays, and lately, poetry too. My recent success with poetry in The School Magazine has in fact also played an important part in not only encouraging me to write a great deal more of it–but also successfully submitting it for publication in anthologies both here and overseas, and for that I’m grateful once again to the Magazine.WP_20160229_14_41_27_Pro

I’ve had three poems published so far in The School Magazine in very recent times–Wings in ‘Touchdown’ May 2014 (illustrated by the great Bronwyn Bancroft); Building Site Zoo in ‘Countdown’, WP_20160229_14_41_14_ProApril 2015; Bushland rainbow in ‘Blast Off’ , June 2015 (both illustrated by the wonderful Matt Ottley) and coming up in April in ‘Orbit’ this year, Dance of the autumn trees, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft.WP_20160319_07_08_27_Pro


So today I’m republishing here, below, the full text of ‘Building Site Zoo’ , with a pic of that page in the Magazine, for your enjoyment! Happy World Poetry Day to everyone–and a very happy 100th birthday to that great literary treasure, The School Magazine! And below the poem are links to other blogs on the tour.

(Please Note: The poem text is copyright to me, illustration reproduced from The School Magazine, copyright to Matt Ottley, design copyright The School Magazine. )

Building Site Zoo

by Sophie Masson

Morning has started and with it too

The day of the beasts from the building site zoo.


The mighty bulldozer wakes with a roar,

Lumbers to work, always wants more,

Paws at the dirt, churns up the ground,

Bellowing challenge to all that’s around.


Jack hammer, jack hammer,

Hops like a roo,

Jump jumping jack hammer,

Show off, that’s you!

Jack hammer, jack hammer,

Stop, that will do!


Concrete mixer’s hungry jaws

Chewing and mashing with never a pause,

Turning sand and gravel so coarse

Into the finest, silkiest sauce.


The cranes are fishing up in the sky,

Patiently dropping their lines from on high.

They never get bored, they never get tired,

They never get angry, they never get fired.

Their long arms don’t shake

As slowly they take

Their prey from the ground to the air to the ground.


Look! Listen! Every day they start up anew

Those amazing beasts from the building site zoo.




Other blogs on the tour:











In praise of Tintin

tintin1A piece of mine I’m republishing, having just been reading some Tintins again!

Tintin of the ageless quiff and boundless enthusiasm, from the gorgeous comic books by the Belgian author and illustrator Herge has turned eighty-six this year ! Of course I have every single volume of his adventures, some in French, some in English, as well as quite a few associated books, including a gorgeous book of travel narratives and photographs retracing the steps of Tintin and his friends in such countries as Tibet, Scotland, the Congo and ‘Syldavia’, compiled by the French magazine Geo. This curiosity, along with Tintin encyclopedias, dictionaries, diaries and several figurines of Tintin and his friends, action figures, bookend the scruffiest, most loved-to-death collection of the Tintin adventures, which we never get tired of rereading.

The Tintin adventures are the books most often pulled out of the groaning family shelves when any of my kids come home to visit. When anyone’s feeling tired, discouraged, or simply at a loose end, Tintin is the prescribed remedy—a remedy of freshness, fun and escape that never fails to work. And when I canvass many of my writer friends as to favourite childhood reading, Tintin comes up again and again.

Translated into the world’s languages, over the four generations and more since his birth in the pages of an obscure children’s journal, Le Petit Vingtième, the immortal little reporter has proved remarkably adept at transcending all kinds of barriers of nationality, culture, religion, class, race, sex, ethnicity, age, whatever you will. The brainchild of the renowned Belgian cartoonist Hergé(his real name was Georges Rémi—and his pen-name comes from the phonetic French rendition of RG, his initials spelt backwards), Tintin’s now reached an iconic status. You rarely hear anymore the snobby, narrow-minded assertion that it’s not right for kids, because it’s—shock, horror!– a comic. Yes, some of the early work is very dated and patronising (my least favourites, for this reason, as well as incoherent story, are the early Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America). But mostly, the Tintin corpus has aged remarkably well, because at the heart of Herge’s work is a realistic, amused but compassionate view of human nature, and a strong feeling for justice. Along with the social comedy and the crisp dialogue, there is also a horror of cruelty and bullying, and a tenderness for the ‘ordinary’ aspects of human life, as opposed to those who would have us valuing ideas over people.

Hergé very much kept up with what was going on in his times, something that is clear in the Tintin adventures. Yet it’s a curious fact about the Tintin stories that they’re both timeless and very much of their time. With consummate artistry, in both gorgeous pictures and crisp words, Herge managed to both document the realities of the twentieth century, and create his own world. The archetypal characters, social comedy, jaunty pace, inventive language, extraordinary command of line and colour, exciting, suspenseful plots, and clever dialogue of the books are all handled with the lightest of touches that belied the author/illustrator’s painstaking care with his work, both visual and written, and the immense amount of research he did to create such a seemingly effortless, pleasurable result. He combed dictionaries for words that could be used for the ever more colourful and bizarre invective of Captain Haddock; read umpteen atlases, books of science, folklore, geography and history to get exactly the nuances of the various places Tintin explores. Like Shakespeare, he did not visit the places he set the stories in, preferring to document himself in libraries and museums, but his own city of Brussels features anonymously many times at the beginnings of Tintin adventures.

The Tintin books have been highly influential in pop culture. Writers and film-makers have been greatly inspired by them. When I was compiling a series of columns for a book magazine a few years ago, on the favourite childhood books of several prominent children’s writers, Tintin came up many, many times as a major influence. Tintin has also helped to make the extraordinary art of comic books acceptable to a wide range of people(incidentally the massive success of such European books clearly shows that it’s certainly not just the US that calls the cultural tune).

But the Tintin alchemy has not yet been totally successfully distilled into decent film versions—of the abortive 1970’s cartoon series, the less said the better(indeed Herge himself, who had had no control over them, hated and despised them). The recent Steven Spielberg film was okay, but no more. It doesn’t matter We Tintinophiles have all those gorgeous stories to read again and again; a mixture of cinema and storytelling right there in front of our eyes, in a perfect blend of word and image.

Northern Russian splendours: an interview with photographer Richard Davies

2(1)Recently I became aware of the magnificent work of  British photographer Richard Davies, who over several periods of travel in Northern Russia, has been documenting the everyday and extraordinary splendours and colours of the region, and especially its glorious wooden churches and colourful characters. Richard has published two beautiful books: Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North 100 years after Bilibin(sadly out of print at the moment) and the recent Russian Types and Scenes, which you can get on Amazon (and which I can very highly recommend!). Inspired by the gorgeous work of this fellow Russophile, I got in touch with Richard, and this fascinating interview is the result. Enjoy!207RT_mod2[1]

Richard, can you tell us first about Northern Russia, which has inspired your work? How long have you been visiting the area? And what drew you to it?

I’m a Russophile! My standard story for explaining this is that one-day, my mother came home with an LP (long playing record) of Jascha Heifetz playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. On the flip side he was playing Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard and I played it continuously, day and night for weeks. It drove my father crazy, my mother was happy that I was happy. I was head banging to Prokofiev while my friends head banged to the Rolling Stones – very sad. The other influence, I remembered this recently, was our local dentist. He was an out and out Communist and a great dentist. The waiting room was strewn with copies of Soviet magazines and the patients were left to quietly soak up the propaganda. Danny Stalford, Red dentist, and local Communist Councillor obviously had some success with me – I fell in love with the country if not the system.

In the late 70’s and 80’s I took Intourist trips to Leningrad and Moscow to satisfy my Russophile needs. Concerts at the Philharmonia, opera at the Kirov, Maly and Bolshoi, art at the Hermitage, Russian, Pushkin and Tretyakov museums, day trips to Novgorod and the Golden Ring etc etc – but the countryside of Turgenev and Tolstoy was out of bounds

bilibin wooden church

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

bilibin wooden church photo

Photograph by Ivan Bilibin




With the break of the Soviet Union, that changed. In 2001 I came across some postcards published at the beginning the 20th century of watercolours and photographs of wooden churches by the artist Ivan Bilibin. Bilibin had travelled to the Russian North in 1902, 1903 and 1904. Friends in St Petersburg found me a driver, Alex Popov the Professor of Atmospheric Physics at St Petersburg University, and in 2002 we set off in Bilibin’s coach tracks.

1a(1)Wooden Churches was published ten years later.

The wooden churches of northern Russia, which you have documented in your first book, are unique and fragile works of art as well as testaments of faith. What is being done both to preserve them as monuments and keep them alive as part of the distinctive religious life of the region? And what do you think might further be done?

Many of the churches that Bilibin had recorded were no more and those that had survived were in a perilous state.

During the war a wonderful book had been published in Russia celebrating the wooden architecture of the north – it was recognized as a facet of Russian culture that the armed forces where fighting to preserve. After the war, Stalin was able to blame the destruction of these cultural artifacts on the enemy and great efforts where made to restore those that had survived the revolution and the war. But with the break up of the Soviet Union funds disappeared and the churches where again left to rot, with rusting signs attached proclaiming that such and such a church was an ‘Historic Monument under the Protection of the State’.

47RTprint[1]Many churches are being re-inhabited by their local communities, roofs are being patched and plastic bagged cardboard icons are being pinned to walls but many churches, because of collectivisation, have been left with nobody to care for them.

In the summer volunteers now flock to the north, many under the flag of Obscheye Delo, an organization founded by the Moscow priest, Father Alexei, to do what they can to save the churches. There are very good professional restorers on hand but sadly the funds aren’t. The feeling is that the Church is more interested in building spanking new buildings than preserving archaic old wooden ones. And for the moment the State seems to be more interested in building up its nuclear arsenal than preserving historic churches in the far north.183RT_mod2[1]

The ‘Wooden Churches’ book has sold out – do you have plans to reprint?

I had a publisher for ‘Wooden Churches’ but they came back to me with terrible layouts– can you believe it they cropped my photographs!! So I ended up publishing the book myself. It was great fun but not a great money making venture (I did in fact get my money back) so I’m thinking hard before reprinting. I’m sure it would sell (the churches are so beautiful), but it would be good to reprint it on the back of an exhibition.

How have local people reacted to your work? 

The local people in the Russian North are naturally very kind and generous and I’m pleased to say that they have been very kind and generous to ‘Wooden Churches’. I’ve done my best to make sure that it is sitting on a good few shelves in Northern Russia. I haven’t yet had the chance to show ‘Russian Types’ to many people in Russia although I have had two reactions. 1/ The wife of the restorer Alexander Popov complained that the photograph of her husband showed his bottom and not his face. 2/Our translator on the last trip to Russia in April this year laughed out loud almost every time she turned a page – I took this as a compliment.

87RT_mod1(1)[1]What anecdotes or encounters particularly stand out for you in your travels throughout northern Russia?

Everyday, travelling in Russia is an adventure – I’ve yet to encounter a bear although I’ve heard many encountering-bear stories! I have been towed by snowmobile across a frozen lake horizontally on a sledge and arrived at our destination iced up like a frozen corpse. I’ve flown in a flimsy aircraft to land in a field next to a wooden terminal. I’ve been hauled in for questioning by the authorities at a town with an intercontinental ballistic missile site attached. I’ve venture across the White Sea to uninhabited islands and crumbling churches with twenty beautiful art history students from St Petersburg University. I’ve drunk more vodka than I should on occasions and eaten piles of bliny with honey and cream – my liver is shot and my cholesterol levels are sky high – I could go on…

In your second book, Russian Types and Scenes, you and your co-creator Alexander Mozhaev profile the everyday life and colourful characters of northern Russia in a wonderfully vivid way, through both photographs and texts. Can you tell us a bit about how the book came to be, and how you worked on it together?1_(1)

Having published one book myself, the only thing I could do was to publish another. I’d continued to travel to the North, with the students, filmmakers and friends. I had been taking photographs of people while photographing the churches and continued to do so on these trips. I love pure photographic books but I also love words so I wanted to put a book together gelling the two. Alexander Moshaev, a Moscow writer and architectural historian, was one of the friends who joined me on some of these trips. Sasha is very lively and I soon understood that he had insights into what we were seeing that I, as an Englishman, would never have (needless to say, many of the things I enjoyed he found rather banal). He would also interpret the content of my photographs in ways that I couldn’t. I read a lot of Russian stories in English, sadly I don’t speak Russian, and tracked down quotations that would fit into my photographic narrative. And as the book was coming together I would ask Sasha for suggestions and 28(1)stories.

I was also very lucky that one of the students from St Petersburg, Natasha Shalina, was studying in London while I was putting the book together. With a few deft taps on her iphone she would come up with wonderful things from Russian web sites that would inevitably lead to other wonderful things. She also helped with translating Sasha’s particular style.219ART_mod2[1]

Do you have any anecdotes about the people or occasions you’ve featured in that book?

The fun about putting these books together, ‘Wooden Churches’ over 9 years and ‘Russian Types’ over two years, is obviously that what you have at the end is the result of a great adventure. As a photographer you never know who or what will come in front of your camera each day. Matilda Moreton, the writer of Wooden Churches never knew who she would meet each day and what they would tell her. Researching the texts was equally exhilarating. I bought a copy of the New Yorker once on a whim and inside was a great story about Russian bells. I was reading the biography of a Russian children’s writer and suddenly he’s talking about wooden churches. It’s as though all these things are given to you if you loiter long enough. But then again there are the photos you missed, the people you didn’t talk to and the books you didn’t open.

Are you working on a new book at the moment?

I am. I will publish a book with a photograph I took in 1967 – by rights the book should appear in 2017. The book will have photographs and stories about seaside ‘Pleasure Piers’ – like Russian Churches they are often decorated with onion domes and they also attracts great writing and yarns!

Note: All photos aside from those by Ivan Bilibin pic are copyright to and courtesy of Richard Davies. 

On comics and graphic novels: an interview with Bruce Mutard

Ever since I was a Tintin-devouring child, I’ve loved comics and graphic novels, so it’s a great pleasure today to be featuring a really interesting interview I did recently with Bruce Mutard, one of Australia’s most prominent creators in these genres.

Bruce has been writing and drawing comics for 25 years, producing 4 graphic novels: The Sacrifice (Allen & Unwin, 2008), The Silence (Allen & Unwin, 2009), A Mind of Love (Black House Comics, 2011), The Bunker (Image Comics, 2003) and a collection of short stories, Stripshow (Milk Shadow Books, 2012). He also has had short comics stories in Overland, Meanjin, The Australian Book DSC04353 copyReview and Tango among others, and has illustrated several books for Macmillan Education’s Stories From Australia’s History, series. He has just completed a Master of Design in comics studies on the interaction of words and pictures at Monash University. He has conducted many comic workshops, and given talks at Melbourne Writers Festival, NMIT, RMIT, Edith Cowan University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, and presented papers on comic theory at Oxford University, Loughborough University and University of Arts, London among others.

Bruce is an eloquent and knowledgeable advocate for comics and graphic novels generally, and holds the comics and graphic novels portfolio within the Australian Society of Authors. Recently, his passion has led him to a new direction. Read on!

Bruce, you’re about to launch a new imprint, Fabliaux. Can you tell us about it? What motivated you to start it? What has the journey been like so far? And what kinds of books will you be publishing?

The idea for Fabliaux started a few years ago when I was still thinking of self-publishing some of my own work that wasn’t suited or wanted by my existing publishers. This was primarily my short comics collection: Sex, Politics and Religion: Stories To Break Up Families By and Alice In Nomansland – a still unpublished graphic novel that is predominately naughty humour, and unlike any other I’ve done. Those books are still floating about, though I’d much rather other mutard alicepublishers took them on. Anyhow, I’d always nursed the possibility of publishing other people’s work if I thought it needed to take print form, and that there might be enough of a market to make the investment back. I chose the name Fabliaux because it has a literary pedigree and doesn’t have ‘comics’ in it, limiting the sorts of books I might be able to publish. I may one day do prose, poetry, artists books, art books or kids books. Anyhow, Fabliaux is a term given to a genre of ribald and comic tales told by jongleurs in France in the 12th and 13th Centuries; the precursors to similar bawdy tales in the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.

from Roman de Renart, medieval French fabliau

from Roman de Renart, medieval French fabliau

So far the journey has been ‘artistic’, which is to say that I’ve blundered into publishing with the eye on the creative end-goal, satisfying my authors, but less concerned about the costs and how to market the work! To that end, my aim is to publish books that have a niche readership, but nevertheless one that is proven to exist, and to make sure the print quality is the best for the work. I’m an author first and foremost, so that is my main role, but since that often takes me to markets, fairs, conventions and the like, I might have an opportunity to sell some of these books. I won’t do mass-market books, as I have neither resources nor time to put into the marketing and administration of such an enterprise. I give my author’s contracts and generous terms, though no advances. I make no promises other than to publish and do my best to take the authors work to the world in my stumbling fashion. Don’t laugh, please.

The launch title of Fabliaux is the provocatively-titled Art is a Lie, by Carol Wood and Susan Butcher–a unique work indeed. Tell us about it–how did you discover it? What drew you to it so much that you chose it as the launch title of Fabliaux?

I’m pretty certain Art Is A Lie is unique. In short, it’s a collection of 1-3 page comics strips mostly first printed in a US art magazine, Artillery, over the past 9 years under the title, Dead or Alive. Essentially they are spoof biographies of famous artists, done in myriad of styles so no two Art is a Lie Dalistories look the same. Imagine Picasso as done by EC Segar (Popeye), Duchamp as a Dick Tracy story, Hieronymous Bosch as done by Don Martin (MAD), or the 5000 Fakes of Dr Seuss. Imagine Frida Kahlo as a Betty Boop cartoon, or if you can, Tom of Finland as done by George Herriman. You probably can’t imagine such things, but they do exist in this book. There’s fumetti of which a couple all the characters and backgrounds are intricately constructed models that Carol in particular, makes. The level of detail in these is astonishing. In short, they are brilliant and I think the world needs to know about it! As for discovering it, I’ve known Carol and Sue for perhaps 20 odd years on and off, so when they showed me the work they’dArt is a Lie Picasso been doing for Artillery, I was blown away – laughing. Since the magazine was not available in Australia, I wondered if there would ever be a collection of the strips so I could have a well thumbed, cup ring stained, annotated copy on my bookshelf. The magazine’s publisher was in no position to produce such a book, nor were the Pox Girls. For many years, nor was I, but as the old saying goes: ‘good things happen to people who wait.’

The rise of self-publishing has been talked about a lot in recent times, but not so much another phenomenon–the rise of small presses founded by creators: authors, illustrators, graphic novelists, who are publishing other people’s work. Why do you think this is happening? And do you have any thoughts on what it means for the literary landscape and the publishing industry?

It is probably a confluence of factors. Firstly, there is the general contraction of sales across the industry that has lead to a reluctance on the part of established publishers large and small to take on new projects, even from authors they’ve published. Unless an author has earned out their advances (assuming they got one), it’s hard to place a new work, especially something that is a challenging literary work. The old template publishers worked from by having commercially successful works subsidise the publication of works of merit has diminished. But those authors who have been fortunate enough to do well out of their literary career, generally love writers, good writing, good books and having been through the mill of building a career in writing, also know how much more difficult it is to get published today. So, I think their passion for literature means they are willing to set up imprints and publish those works that the established publishers have forgone, not to prove the latter wrong, but simply to ensure good work gets published, be it in print or digital. Some may have a better business head than others (like me), but I’m sure it’s passion for the art, craft and life of words and pictures, that drives them.

The comics/graphic novels scene has both expanded and contracted in recent years in Australia. There seems to be more creators than ever yet less opportunity for them to be exposed at the traditional showcase events, such as Comicon, Supanova etc. Can you comment on that? 

I would agree there has been a huge expansion in the number of creators and works being produced in recent years. The Ledgers committee (The Ledgers are the recently reinstituted annual Australian comics awards) had a long list of more than 250 to sift through last year, whittling that down to about 40 for the shortlist. There are so many more people considering comics as a medium with which to tell their stories or non-fiction. I would disagree that there are less opportunities to showcase their work; if anything, it’s the opposite. True, showcasing comics work is not overly rewarding at the pop culture expos like Supanova and Ozcomicon for the simple reason that they are nowhere near as popular as the other stuff on show. The main reason people to go to those is to dress up in cosplay, get photos and stuff signed by the stars, attend their speaking sessions, play some games, buy copslay merchandise, get prints, toys, books and dvds. It’s very rare that there is a comic guest that requires one to buy tokens in advance and line up for an hour or more to get something signed (Stan Lee is one such). stan lee signingAlthough comicons began with all comics, they have evolved with time to embrace all the pop culture that was largely born in comics, or spec fiction. It’s a case where the children of comics have gone and built a world that left its parents and grandparents long behind. Occasionally, these elders are known to express a little pique at being marginalised or forgotten. But there’s nothing wrong with that; evolution is healthy and the events bring joy to tens of thousands of people every time they are put on.

But in the last few years, a good number of comics only events have sprouted up which probably resemble the comicons of old in their early days. There’s Comic Gong in Wollongong (which may evolve to be more pop culture); Comic Con-Versation in Sydney in September, run across several library services; the Homecooked Comics Festival in Melbourne, put on by the City of Darebin; The Central West Comics Festival in Parkes; the Zine and Indy Comics home cookedSymposium in Brisbane, the Sticky Zine Fair in Melbourne and numerous zine fairs that are also very good places for comics creators to sell their work direct to the public. I suppose the biggest problem in Australia is that these forums are almost the only way most creators reach their public, for aside from those few of us whose work is published by mainstream book publishers, most are sold through a few local comic shops and/or online. There is no national comics distributor that reaches all the local comics shops, let alone high street bookshops that sell graphic novels. Most of the latter do not sell ‘floppies’ or mini-comics. The Australian comic shops buy 90-100% of their stock from Diamond Comics Distributors – a near monopoly comic distributor in the USA, where all the Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW and other popular titles come from. These stores very rarely set up accounts with anyone else, unless it’s manga, Anime, Dvds, figurines and other stuff they might sell. I know that you can’t find my books from Allen & Unwin in most Australian comic shops because they won’t set up accounts with Allied Distribution for a few local graphic novels. So, if you go to your local comics shop in your capital city (there’s a handful in major regional centres), then you’re most likely to find what is produced by creators who reside in that city, as they have personally taken their work to be sold there – usually on consignment. There have been a few attempts over the past couple of decades to create a national comics distribution system, but aside from one who failed at the first hurdle, the others foundered on the lack of support and interest from the comic shops. Australian comics are by and large marginal sellers compared to the American comics and Manga. The reasons for this are the simple fact that we don’t produce comics that compare with the slick overseas products (see question 6, below).

Tell us about your own books–and whether you’re working on something new.

The-SacrificeMy own books to this point, have been very specifically set in Australia and dealing with Australian themes, which has been at times appreciated for that fact because it’s uncommon. For instance, my novel, The Sacrifice, is set very specifically in Melbourne, during the years 1939-1942, following the travails, loves and life of a dedicated pacifist, whose unwillingness to enlist is corroded by a rapidly changing cultural and societal matrix as a consequence of war, and of course, the influx of American troops. The Australia of that period: ‘white’, xenophobic, English, colonial and still a bit cocky even after the bruising taken by participating in WW1, is evoked with considerable detail, to the point where due to the presence of the juxtaposed narrative images, it is a major character in the story. My next book, follows the daughter of the principal in The Sacrifice as she serves as an army nurse in Vietnam during 1970 to 1975. But there are plenty of extended parts set in Melbourne during this period, which will show the changes from the previous era, but also how much it’s changing for the better, even if it was barely perceptible during that period. I have been working on this book for the better part of 8 years and there is a considerable way to go, due to having completely revamped the story twice. On the side, I on occasion do smaller projects by commission, usually silencecover if they offer me a challenge to do something that I’ve never drawn before, or it’ll mean comics appearing in a place where they’ve rarely, if ever appeared. So for that reason, it is not the money that motivates me, but what I might learn by doing the work. Examples are the all-comics issue of Cordite, where artists adapted contemporary poems into comics. For me, the challenge was to take words that are usually so visually evocative and allusive, into something actually visible, but without simply illustrating them. I adapted A Frances Johnson’s poem, Microaviary (about drone warfare of all things) because when I read it, all these images by association flooded into my consciousness from my unconscious, and it was immediately apparent to me that I should simply put those images down. To that end, about half the actual words disappeared into the Mutard_panel_1images, and where they remained, the images added new contexts and layers, so that in a sense, it was a new work. I would love to do more such ‘collaborations’ and there is talk of such.

Aside from that, I have also recently completed my Masters degree, researching what it means to ‘write with pictures’ which is how I actually think of my craft. It is another way of saying that in comics, the pictures need to do the bulk of the work of conveying the story. In cinema, they call it ‘show don’t tell’. It’s about the most sagely three words of advice I could give any budding comics artist, only it’s also one of the hardest balances to achieve. Words are easy to put down, cut and paste and have a sort of precision about them, especially compared to the polysemous nature of images. What I really learnt from my research was how little study had been made into the formal properties of what I called juxtaposed narrative images. Much ink and pixels have been devoted to the content via all sorts of prisms (feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, structuralist, sociological, medical, Freudian, Friedman, etc.), but strangely, little has been done to place it within art theory or as a visual art. Rather than produce a new work for print, I took it into space as an exhibition, where there was no page  one, no need for the meta boundaries of the page – just walls, doors and of course, the space CD 01within the room itself. I really want to do a PhD and take this much further and develop a new theory of comics that starts with the proposition that it is a medium, not a genre of literature. So, this means technically, the answer to the question ‘Are comics literature?’ is actually, no. But I Stanley Bruce Mutard Space oddity 01try not to say that in polite company.

Is there a distinctive ‘Australian’ style and approach to comics and graphic novels? Do you see your own books as fitting within that?

While I wouldn’t say there was any overarching style in terms of appearance, such as manga has, or the ‘ligne claire’ (clear line) school of BD, or the sort weightless dynamism pioneered by Jack Kirby that signifies the superhero genre, I would say there is a characteristic idiosyncrasy in Australian comics. It may sound strange to say, but comics might be one area where the ‘tyranny of distance’ is still at play. By that I mean few creators here really think they have a chance of ever being able to make a living from comics, or getting hired to work for the big comics publishers in the USA, Europe or Japan. There are a number of writers and artists who comicozhave succeeded, particularly with the US comic publishers (speaking English helps). But since the Australian market is so small, and therefore the prospect of sales is limited to local readers, Australian creators tend to produce work that is not obviously aimed at readers in those other markets. They tend to produce comics for the sheer joy and pleasure of it, and garnering a few readers tends to satisfy them. Some might say that this elffin-cover-1displays a lack of ambition or professionalism, but it’s not. Those who really do want to make a living in comics doing work for hire, put in the long, hard yards at improving their skills, getting the feedback from industry professionals as they hawk their portfolios at the US shows (or European ones). As for selling ones own creator owned graphic novels to compare with say, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, David B, Rutu Modan, Art Spiegelman and so on, have a harder row to plough. Even in the US market, few creators make a living exclusively from their comics, but at least there are substantially more and much larger comic’s shows with which to showcase and sell their work. In the last few years, some Australian creators (including myself) have made the trek to North America to sell work at shows like Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the Small Press Expo, CAKE and the like. It’s an expensive way to showcase ones work, and I’m not convinced it’s worth it given that any follow up sales have to be made via ones social media or site, necessitating shipping hard copies overseas, which has a frightful cost, (normally more than the margin between retail price and cost of production). There is no question that building a big reputation in comics would be easier if based in the USA, Canada or perhaps in Europe.

That said, not too many local works are specifically Australian in content or character either, often being set in imaginary worlds, mining the tropes of spec fiction genres. There is a strong trend to autobio comics, which depict the prosaic and quotidian with some reflective humour. I find autobio comics to be interesting in that with the presence of the image, the authors often depict themselves quite unfavourably and viscerally – a trend set by Robert Crumb. For some reason self-loathing almost seems to be a requirement for autobio comics, where the body and its liquids seem to feature prominently. I guess there is a safety in ink, where it is not possible to Mutard comic 2transmit physical infectious agents, though it is very prone to spreading infectious memes!

I was brought up reading within the strong French tradition of ‘bandes dessinées‘,or BD, as comics and graphic novels are known there. That whole area of publishing is mainstream in France, the books are sold in every bookshop, creators are routinely invited to general literary festivals as well as the BD-oriented ones, and the books cover many different genres and age ranges .In America and Japan, the other two great traditional centres of comics and graphic novels, the art form is similarly respected and accepted in the mainstream of publishing. But not in Britain or Australia, where the mainstream either ignores it, or looks down on it. Or both! What’s your take on this?

Long have some of us looked to France and wished the cultural acceptance of comics there, was replicated here. In Japan, it is certainly a similar case, although I believe it is not a career too many parents would hope their sons and (few) daughters would take up, as it’s punishing work and pays badly. I would disagree that comics are a respected art form in the USA. The same pejorative connotations that have tarred and feathered comics here and in the UK, applies to the Anglophone speaking world in general. This view generally runs along the lines that  little-nemo-19060812-s comics are mostly for kids, are superficial, sub-literate, containing very little content worthy of literary merit, nor give cause for and reward consideration by academia, literature festivals and arts grants bodies. And for much of the history of Anglophone comics, including a fair proportion of what is produced today as ‘mainstream’ or superhero/action/spec fic comics, you would not find much to convince you otherwise. Despite revisionist historical appreciation of the skills of George Herriman, Winsor McCay, EC Segar, Walt Kelly, Jack Kirby, Bill Gaines (as publisher), Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner and so on, very few people appreciated what they did at the time they produced their work, such that Roy Lichenstein could blatantly plagiarise comics artists work without attribution or reward.

It has only been since the revisionary comics of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Bill Sienkewicz, Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman in the mid 1980s, did a wider appreciation of comics as a form of literature to be taken seriously, take root and found fertile soil in which to grow. Now there’s an abundance of academic studies mining a new field of comics studies (why not; it was a new field with ground to stake like a new unfarmed fertile valley), mainstream book publishers suddenly taking an interest in a genre they hitherto ignored and republishing collections of comics, graphic novels and studies (but mostly only those creators who had V_for_vendettaxachieved considerable acclaim and attention within the comics market first). Literary festivals started to invite a few of the leading lights of comics to participate, though I think still in a way that shows they don’t get comics in the same way they don’t understand spec fiction; they are generally programmed as a separate stream, not integrated into the main program. Most importantly for me, is the sudden appearance of often substantial comics collections in public libraries (and some school libraries, though there is still an inconsistency in how to shelve it: ideally as it’s own section, not within general fiction or non-fiction). All of this points to the steady progress comics have made to enter the arts mainstream in the Anglophone world. There is still a long way to go to attain a mass readership like the Franco-Belgian world has, and it will probably never get there given the plethora of new competing forms of content (and their delivery) for the public’s attention, but it’s no longer considered a juvenile activity. There’s a level of immediate Mausrespect for the medium and its makers now that was largely absent as recently as 15 years ago. There is no better time to be making comics than now – even if it’s almost impossible to make a living at it. But that’s the same as being an author in general!

Recently, a librarian told me something that astonished me–she said that she had no idea how to read comics and graphic novels. It seemed to me to encapsulate a major problem: that unlike in the strong European tradition of comics and graphic novels specifically directed at children, young Australians rarely get a chance to ‘learn to read’ in those genres. And there is in fact very little for children published in those areas in Australia. Yet at the same time it seems a very natural art/literary form for children to respond to. Why do you think so few Australian comics creators write for kids?

There could be a number of explanations to the librarian’s difficulty: a structural cognitive deficit where her mind simply couldn’t interpret the iconic recurrence, and therefore ‘sculpt’ space and time within her mind in the additive way that comics requires; a kind of visual dyslexia if you will. Or, she can read words, but not ‘read’ images. It may be that she has grown up having absorbed the pejorative tag on comics and therefore, unconsciously resistant to them (when I appeared on the First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer Byrne, she told me she didn’t ‘get’ graphic novels, either).

But you’re right, it seems in the great effort of comics to persuade the Anglophone world that comics are NOT just for kids, we’ve forgotten to keep them. Once upon a time superhero comics were all suitable for kids thanks to the requirement to receive the imprimatur of the Comics Code Authority seal (and therefore, appear on American newsstands). In the mid 1980s, the revisionism of the genre allied with the bulk of American comics being sold in specialty comics shops patronized mostly by adolescent males of all ages, meant the arrival of mature readers labels on comics, which very soon grew to encompass all genre comics, as almost all the readers were adult males. Naturally, their interests are somewhat narrow, meaning the content was (and continues to be) largely a mix of violence, gore, swearing and captain congobadly drawn sexy women in contortionist poses to satisfy the male gaze. But that is modifying as the readership of comics expands to embrace women and a plurality of voices, there are now comics for everyone. Thank heavens!

Since most comic creators tend to love comics, there is no surprise that they write and draw the kind of material they like to read (for good or ill), which tends to the adult. I am one such creator; almost all the work I create is aimed at 15+ readers of all genders. Given what I said above regarding Australian comics and the book market here, there isn’t a lot of incentive to produce comics for kids in the way there is for picture books. But this is changing as there are few comics aimed at kids coming onto the market, like Gregory Mackay’s delightful Anders and the Comet , Sorab Del Rio’s Rudy Cool, Sarah Ellerton’s Finding Gossamyr, Ruth Starke and Greg Holfeld’s Captain Congo, (an adventure in the ‘Tin Tin’ mold).

andersThere has been a slowly building countervailing trend to produce comics for kids (like Toon Books, run by Francoise Mouly), especially in a pedagogical context, since many teachers I’ve spoken to are happy to find anything that kids will read. At long last the educational world has accepted that reading comics is still reading, and moreover, helps with reading by having words constantly associated with what they stand for, even emotions, smells, sounds, the sense of touch and the like. In that respect, the arguments put forward for picture books can be applied to comics as well. I hope this will lead to the presence of comics available to readers at all age groups in a manner found in Japan and Europe.

Picture That: Illustrators on food 3: Lisa Stewart

Lisa Stewart 4Today I’m featuring the touching, lively and beautiful work of Lisa Stewart, illustrator and musician. Lisa’s illustrated seven books, including five picture books and two illustrated books. And I’m thrilled to reveal that we are collaborating on an illustrated story together, to be published later this year by Christmas Press.

Lisa Stewart 2In this post Lisa tells us a bit about her journey to becoming an illustrator, offers a delicious family favourite recipe devised by her daughter Claire, and shares with us some of her gorgeous illustrations. Lisa’s website is at

Lisa Stewart portraitLisa’s story

As a young mother, some 17 years ago, pushing my daughter in her pram to any paper, art supply, card or book store I could find I was instantly attracted to wrapping paper with illustrations by Jane Ray wonderful British illustrator and author). I adored her attention to detail and her animals, trees, water, sun, moon and stars. A new love was born, of children’s picture books and paper.

Later in Germany I sent a CD of mine (I play the violin ) and a letter of thanks to Jane for her artwork. To my delight she responded with five picture books and a glorious phoenix card of hers and a friendship was formed. Lisa Stewart love story 1
My family and I flew to England to meet her. Seeing her studio and her artwork (admired by her husband and her three children) framed and hung throughout their home filled me with joy. My secret dream was to become an illustrator and be like Jane.
The illustrative style I use came about during the creation of a 20 page wordless love story. I began to cut out hundreds of tiny pieces of paper and create images. Friends and family were represented as trees, birds, fish, dragons and whales. A broken heart became thousands of little flowers and the night sky a full moon on black rice paper.Lisa Stewart love story 2
With support form my dear friend Lynndy Bennett at Gleebooks, I sent some publishers a few of the pictures from the love story and had a call from Ana Vivas from Scholastic Press. We met and I got to send in ideas for a book by Kerry Brown called ‘Can I Cuddle the Moon?’ I enjoyed doing some little drawings and to my amazement was chosen to illustrate it.

My dream of becoming an illustrator has come true. Lisa Stewart 8

Lisa Stewart 1

Here is the recipe for  a favourite family dish, ‘Claire’s Nachos’,  that my daughter has been making  from around the age of ten. She is nineteen now.

Claire’s Nachos

> 1 medium to large brown onion
> 3 tins kidney beans
> 1 tin tomatoesLisa Stewart 3
> 1 small tin corn (optional)
> smoked chipotle in adobo sauce or other chilli e.g. chilli paste
> 2 tsp cumin or premixed Mexican seasoning
> Corn chips
> for the guacamole:
> 2 ripe avocadoes
> cumin
> salt and pepper to taste
> the juice of one whole lime
> for the pico de gallo:
> 3 to 4 medium tomatoes
> juice of one whole lime
> salt to taste
> chopped cilantro(coriander)
>Lisa Stewart recipe
> Instructions:
> Dice onion and fry in vegetable oil of your preference until translucent.
> Finely chop/mince half a chipotle chilli and add it to the onion.
> Drain the beans and fry them in with the onion and chilli until the beans soften.
> Roughly mash the beans, then add the tin of tomato and the cumin.
> Add the corn.
> Stir well and season to taste.
> Guacamole:
> halve the avocadoes and scoop out the flesh into a medium mixing bowl.
> Mash with a fork and add the lime juice, salt, pepper, and cumin.
> Mix well. Lisa Stewart 6
> Pico de Gallo:
> finely dice the tomatoes, and place in a bowl with the lime juice, cilantro and salt. mix well.
> To serve, place bean mix on top of corn chips, with pico de gallo and guacamole on top.


Lisa Stewart 5

Picture That: Illustrators on food, 2: Beattie Alvarez

Beattie's rabbit familyCross-posted from my food blog.Beattie's flower fairy 1

Today I’m featuring gorgeous illustrations and a yummy easy recipe by Beattie Alvarez, young multi-talented illustrator, author, editor, toymaker, mother of two lively children, and passionate reader! She is also one of the team at Christmas Press Picture Books and at the beautiful toyshop, Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard.

Beattie portrait

Mi Goreng for the busy reader

by Beattie Alvarez

Too busy reading a book to do the shopping? Just got to the exciting part and don’t want to stop for long, but your tummy is grumbling? Want something hot, simple, and delicious to eat while you’re reading your book?
I have the perfect recipe for you!
Mi Goreng!
Most people have had this delicious noodle concoction, a favourite with students and people on a budget. They’re cheap, quick, and yummy. Most people have also gone to the cupboard in their hour of hunger only to discover that they have RUN OUT! Oh, the horror!
This happened to me yesterday.
It was a quiet afternoon and I was happily reading Harry Potter in the sun when I realised that I was drooling on it as I read about the fantastic feasts. NOT GOOD. Being the day before payday, my pantry was looking sad. What could I make that was warm and cosy and QUICK? I didn’t want to put down Harry for too long.
I found two sad looking spring onions, half a Spanish onion, tomato sauce, and manis (sweet soy sauce). And a ten pack of dry two-minute noodles.
Five minutes later (I kid you not!) Harry was safely tucked under the edge of my bowl as I wolfed down my meal. To be fair, mi goreng is not ideal for eating with Harry Potter. What you need with Harry are pies and puddings, cakes and sweets, hot chocolate, baked potatoes, and all those other fabulously English things. However, my meal was perfectly adequate and (with the right book) would have been perfect!  Beattie's mi goreng

1 tbsp sweet soy sauce (manis – available from most supermarkets in the Asian food aisle).
1 tbsp tomato sauce
pepper – I used a lot, but some people would prefer less. Start with half a teaspoon and go from there.
Onions of some description
3 packets of dry noodles
soy sauce to taste
egg (optional)

Beattie's goblinMethod:
1. Pick your favourite book. Get it ready for later.
2. Mix tomato sauce, pepper, and sweet soy sauce in a bowl.
3. Boil and drain your noodles
4. Finely chop, and then fry your onions in the oil until they are nice and crispy, but not burnt.
5. (optional) poach or fry your egg
6. Turn the heat off, throw everything into the frying pan and mix, adding soy sauce to taste.
7. (optional, but advised) transfer to plate or bowl.
8. Open your book and read while eating.
9. Go back for seconds if necessary.
NB. All quantities are approximate and to my taste. I don’t like things very saucy (read want you will into that statement!), so I used three packets of noodles. Some people would only use two. I also like quite sweet savoury dishes. If you prefer salty, then add more soy sauce or lessen the amounts of Manis and tomato sauce. And if you aren’t kissing someone later, fried garlic works well too.

Beattie's mushroom

Beattie's strawberry fairy

Picture That, illustrators on food: 1: Trish Donald

Cross-posted from my food blog.

Cement_LIfe  A  couple of years ago, I ran a series featuring the favourite recipes of authors. This time, I’m inaugurating a new series, Picture That, which features illustrators talking about food and giving us a favourite recipe, but also showcasing favourite new illustrations. Picture That will be running from time to time over the next couple of months, but today is the first of the series, and it features the fabulous illustrator Trish Donald. Reptilicus


Trish usually paints landscapes using acrylics but in recent years she has been shifting focus toward character design where she likes to blend natural with digital medium. Her latest exhibition, in November 2014, contained works created through  a combination of pen drawings, collages, and digital drawings. Trish spent many years working as a graphic designer after which she spent 14 years teaching graphic design at TAFE. She currently works in Industry at the University of New England. Trish runs creative workshops at NERAM, in Armidale and the New England Writers’ Centre teaching others how to develop characters, use colour, or use mixed media.  Most recently, she had a short story and illustration published in Once Upon A Christmas (edited by Beattie Alvarez, published by Christmas Press, 2014) and she looks forward to future creative endeavours.


Trish presents here a favourite recipe: Portuguese Marinated Carrots.

When I make these for friends they are always impressed and absolutely love them so I am going to share it with you too.

Cenouras De Conserva – Marinated Carrots

(a Portuguese aperitif)


4-5 carrots

1 Cup water (from cooking the carrots)

Pinch of salt

1-2 cloves garlic

Parsley – Continental

2 Tbsp Olive Oil (virgin)

2-3 tsp white vinegar

1tsp red paprika (not hot)

Toothpicks – for serving


Peeled and slice carrots into thick circles.

Put carrots in pot, cover with water and add some salt.

Boil for 3-5 minutes depending on tenderness – you want them to be soft but firm so they don’t fall apart.

Strain and put aside some of the carrot water (if you do not have enough carrot water you can just add water from the tap)

Put carrots in the fridge

Chop the garlic finely

Chop the parsley finely

In a cup combine the olive oil, vinegar, paprika and carrot water.   Cenouras_De_Conserva_Marinated_Carrots

Pour this mixture over the carrots and stir through, put back in fridge.

Taste mixture and add vinegar or oil according to taste.

Traditionally the carrots are a little bit on the vinegar side.

If you have added too much vinegar add more water and stir through.

Put on a shallow dish and supply toothpicks when serving.

Your guests will not be disappointed!