Michael McMahon on creating illustrations for Two Rainbows

My latest picture book, Two Rainbows, illustrated by the wonderful Michael McMahon, came out this month with Little Hare and to celebrate I asked Michael to share his creation process for the book, which he’s done in this very interesting post. Enjoy!

I was first given a draft of Sophie’s Two Rainbows by my publisher Little Hare and was asked to imagine this little world of words becoming illustrations. When reading the story for the first time there were two things that I was struck by. One was the stories unique look at colour, and the other was Sophie’s original choice of words.

Stepping through the colours of a rainbow the reader follows a little girl as she begins to notice all of the colourful differences between the city where she lives and the memories of her home in the countryside. Sophie’s words give life to a simple story that highlights both the obvious and the subtle. Comparing the vibrance of the farm meadows to a muted bus-stop poster gives the story both a realistic and idealistic twist.

Illustrations are often simply coloured in, either to express emotion or create emphasis, but it’s rare for colour to sit at the forefront of a narrative. In that sense it was a nice change of pace to wonder how colour could be used in each scene. I often sketch and then start to put together each illustration, with colour naturally following on from this somewhere near to the end of the process. However, it was interesting that colour was now going to be considered first before touching pen to paper.


After reading each page, I would very quickly draw the first things that came to my mind, not thinking it through too much. I would then read the next part of the story and do the same. I like the spontaneity of this. After considering each page separately, I’d then start to sketch the story again and consider it as a whole – crossing things out and moving things around until it starts to form something I feel is working well.

This is how the messy sketches begin…



After the initial sketches, I find it important to start each book with a little bit of research. In a way, I feel it’s good for storytellers to know and imagine the world of their characters, a sort of ‘reading-before-the-lines’ not just between them. I imagined the little girl in the book growing up and spending her childhood in the countryside and then suddenly having to pick up everything and shift into the heart of a very far away city. I took my time photographing the inner suburbs of my own city to get a sense of where the little girl might live. I also went through troves of old photos of famous cities to create a kind of made up metropolis. I took inspiration from a lot of different places.

This is how the sketches start to take on a little more shape…
















When the sketches are finished and placed alongside the text, I then start to put together the illustrations by adding more details and slowly refining each one until we have the finished book.



Five Favourites 6: Margrete Lamond

Today Margrete Lamond remembers her five favourites from childhood.

Little Bear’s Visit by Elsa Minarik and Maurice Sendak
This is the first book I remember poring over, around the age of three or four, before I could even read. The pictures fascinated me: they were friendly but also slightly weird and a little bit scary. I had to leave the book behind in Norway when we emigrated, and I only recently tracked down a first edition copy to pore over again.
The Family from One-end Street by Eve Garnett
My mother used to read to us from this book, and when I was a better reader I read and re-read it for myself. It gave me a powerful sense of cheerful poverty in mid-20th-century London. I can barely remember what it was about, but laundry and steam in the kitchen is a strong image I seem to have retained. Still have the book. Must reread!
Tørris. Gutten fra Storlidalen by Berit Braenne
A Norwegian classic, given to me on the day of our departure for Australia to remind me of the Old Country. A romanticised but also somewhat realistic account of remote mountain life in early 20th century Norway, again deeply impoverished families making do and finding joy in small things. Memories of this book are redolent with the scent of warm pine needles. Still have this book.
The Borrowers Afloat by Mary Norton
There was just something fascinating about their tininess, and about the inverted view of the human world that the story presented. I loved how they made do with all sorts of ‘borrowed’ items, including their funny names. ‘Homily’ sticks fast in the mind.
Longtime Passing by Hesba Brinsmead
Continuing the theme of being enamoured of stories about families struggling to make ends meet under harsh circumstances … my love affair with the Blue Mountains and the (unrealistic) romance of remote rural country life began with this book. I adored the Victor Ambrus illustrations, too. (So exciting to recently see his artwork on Time Team!)


Delighted to announce a new picture-book contract

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Little Pink Dog Books for my picture-book text, See Monkey. It’s a fun text for very young children, focussed on the hectic day of a toddler’s favourite toy. I’m thrilled that it will be illustrated by the fantastic Kathy Creamer, gifted and experienced illustrator who along with her husband Peter is one of the principals of Little Pink Dog Books. It was lovely to be able to sign the contract yesterday in person with Peter and Kathy, in the very conducive surroundings of Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard in Armidale!

Five Favourites 5: Adele Geras

Today, it’s the turn of Adèle Geras to tell us about her five favourites.

Is there a woman writer of a certain age who won’t have LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott among her favourites? I don’t think so. They generally love the book because of Jo, and her burning ambition to be a writer, but for me the attraction was more the four sisters living together through good times and bad and getting irritated with one another but still remaining loving throughout.  I am an only child and this book paints a portrait of life with siblings that felt magical to me when I was very young and still does.

TALES OF TROY by Andrew Lang.  This book was given to me in 1951  when I was 7. It has coloured my entire life. It’s the story of the Trojan War with the most beautiful illustrations by H.J. Ford. I knew whole passages of it by heart by the time I was 8.  It was the beginning of my love affair with the legends and stories of Ancient Greece and then later, Rome. But this was the start of it and I still have the book on my shelves. It’s been a huge inspiration to me, leading directly, I think to my own books set in Ancient Greece: TROY, ITHAKA and DIDO.
 THE MALORY TOWERS series by Enid Blyton.   I had to re- read one of these books about twenty years ago for a conference at which I spoke about them. And I was shocked to discover that (unlike Little Women and Tales of Troy) they did not stand up to adult scrutiny. They struck me as paper thin, rather shoddily written and clichéd in every way. But….but but but. I loved them with a passion as a child, and this passion didn’t dim when I went to boarding school myself and found it to be not a bit like Malory Towers. Blyton has created a world that swallows up young girls and transports them. She fills it with characters who are readily identifiable and when I was about 8, this was so enchanting that I hold the world the books made in my head  quite separately from the rather thin gruel of the actual text. That is Blyton’s magic. She created more readers than anyone before or since, except for J. K. Rowling.
BALLET SHOES by Noel  Streatfeild. Oh, my goodness how I adored this book! I’ve also read it as an adult and it’s just as good as it ever was because Streatfeild was such a wonderful writer. Here again we have siblings, albeit not birth siblings but three girls collected by an eccentric explorer with a kind heart. The whole set up struck me as thrilling. The grown ups were amazing: different from most other grown ups in books. They were bohemian and strange and did unexpected things. And the dramas of the ballet classes and the fact that one of the sisters went on to become a pilot…it was, in every way, a brilliant wish -fulfilment book and also beautifully written.  When I first read it I was determined to be a STAR and I identified with  that side of the novel  completely.
Nowadays, we have box sets. Back in the late 50s and early 60s we had series of books. I loved John Galsworthy’s FORSYTE saga but mostly at school the books that kept us  going, that we passed around the class, discussing every turn and twist of the plots till we were blue in the face, the books that preoccupied us most were the WHITEOAKS books by Mazo de la Roche.  They were set in Canada and the house the Whiteoaks family lived in was called Jalna. I can’t now recall how many books there were but they seemed never to stop. My own favourite character was Rennie, who was a dangerously attractive red-headed man and RENNIE’S DAUGHTER was my favourite of the series, though I also loved FINCH’S FORTUNE. Finch was the pale, rather more weedy and intellectual brother of Rennie, if I remember correctly. These books were, in the words of my elder daughter: heaven on a stick. Big house, slightly tyrannical matriach, lots of different siblings and assorted in – laws. Difficult children. And lots of romantic sexual simmerings. Fabulous stuff!  I have never revisited these books. I daren’t…I want the spell to be unbroken. I doubt if anyone under 60 will ever have heard of Mazo de la Roche. Sic transit gloria…

Five Favourites 3: Hazel Edwards

Today Hazel Edwards tells us about her five favourites from childhood.

The Land of Far Beyond by Enid Blyton

My grandfather had a private lending library and the children’s section was a wall of Enid Blyton. So I devoured the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and then moved onto flying with Biggles. I wasn’t that keen on horses, so missed out on the Mary Grant Bruce books. But the book which impacted on my early life was Enid Blyton’s ‘The Land of Far Beyond.’ This was my first experience with an allegorical story, which was a quest, and where the characters had the names of their attributes. E.g. Mr Doubt, and the giant’s page boy called Fright. Even the places they travelled matched their names.As an adult, when we orienteered on a real map with Mt Disappointment labelled, it reminded me of ‘The Land of Far Beyond.’ Because I no longer have my own copy, I Googled the title and had a feeling of familiarity as I looked at the cover on the Enid Blyton Society  webpage.  http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/book-details.php?id=358

Today’s children would  consider this cover bland, but I loved the sense of a journey conveyed in the artwork.  I liked the economy of a story with several meanings and layers. But the story ALSO needed adventure and danger with eccentric characters to interest me

The Rubaiyat of Omah Khayyam

My father encouraged me to read. He shared ‘The Rubaiyat of Omah Khayyam’ with me by reading it aloud. I didn’t really understand it. But I liked the shape of the ideas. And the idea of a door to which there was no key. Maybe that encouraged me to co-write Hijabi Girl later.

The Magic Far-Away Tree, by Enid Blyton.

The atttraction there was the food and the variety of different lands.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

Read the other levels later as an adult. But as a child I thought it was about pigs.

The poetry of Robbie Burns

My father read this in his Glaswegian accent and I didn’t understand a word of it, but I knew he liked it.

My other reading was Biblical stories because I went to Baptist Sunday school. So my reading was fairly diverse as a child. Now I prefer biographies and well-plotted mysteries.


Five Favourites 2: Libby Gleeson

Today’s selection of childhood favourites is by Libby Gleeson.


The Story of Ferdinand Author: Munro Leaf. Illustrator: Robert Lawson
        This one of a bull which didn’t want to fight in the bull ring but rather to sit and smell the flowers really delighted me. He grows up to be the biggest and strongest bull    in the field but still remains one who would rather smell flowers. He sits on a bee on one occasion and the sting sends him leaping and charging around the field and so he’s seen as aggressive and is taken to the bull ring. He still only wants to smell flowers and so those organising the bull fight are thwarted.

Anne of Green Gables. L M Montgomery

       I loved this story of a red headed outsider who was determined to make her way. Anne had been adopted by Mathew and Marilla to help on their farm but they had  thought they were adopting a boy. Despite initial difficulties, Anne – with an ‘e’ – stays and develops friendships. I loved her disdain for her classmate Gilbert, knowing they’d get together in the end.

A Little Bush Maid. Mary Grant Bruce
        This is the first in the long series of Billabong Books and I devoured every one. Norah Linton is growing up on a station in Victoria in the early years of the twentieth century. She is doted on by her widowed father and her brother Jim when he comes home from boarding school on holidays. He brings his friend Wally with him and  the three of them have fairly standard bush adventures together.  Old fashioned values towards race and class persist and I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable but   I envied Norah, wild on her horse, and so I ignored them when I was a child.

The Enchanted Wood. Enid Blyton
        I read all the Enid Blyton books I could get my hands on but this is the one that stayed with me. I think it’s the best book she ever wrote – and she wrote hundreds. It’s the first in the Faraway Tree series and introduces us to Jo, Bessie and Fanny and their cousin Dick. (names are sanitised in modern editions.) The children find a tree in a wood and when they climb it they meet all kinds of fantasy creatures such as Mrs Washalot, Moonface and Saucepan Man. A ladder at the top of the tree  leads to lands that circulate so a different land may be at the top at any time. The children must leave before the land moves on from the top of the tree. I thought  it was brilliant when I was a child and I still do!

A Girl of the Limberlost.  Gene Stratton Porter
        This was my most favourite novel of my early teenage years. Elnora Comstock lives with her widowed mother on the edge of the Limberlost swamp land. Elnora is   bright and wants an education but her mother believes it to be a waste of time for a girl. Elnora fights and argues with her mother and pays for her education by gathering artifacts and moths from the swamp. She grows in her understanding of the world of nature and in her confidence as she becomes a woman. This is a dramatic, gothic novel, so unlike the sweet rolling green hills of much English fiction I read. I loved it.

The Blue Cat: an interview with Ursula Dubosarsky

Today I am delighted to be interviewing dear friend and fellow writer Ursula Dubosarsky as she celebrates the release this week of her latest novel for children, The Blue Cat (Allen and Unwin) Set in 1942, it’s a beautiful, haunting novel whose limpid prose takes us into the mind and heart of an imaginative and observant child, Columba, as she experiences the disruptions of wartime Sydney with her bossy friend Hilda and forms a touching and tentative bond with a disorientated, motherless young refugee, Ellery. Perfectly-pitched, with a vivid portrayal of Columba’s small world, touches of humour and a subtle evocation of the horrors that Ellery and his father have fled from in ‘You-rope’, The Blue Cat is also a mysterious, even mystical work whose heart-wrenching, enigmatic ending stays in your mind long after you close the book. It is another triumph for one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors of children’s fiction, and will no doubt appear on many award lists.

First of all, Ursula, congratulations on the publication of The Blue Cat! Can you tell us a little about how the idea for the story came to you?

Thanks Sophie. Always nerve-wracking when a book comes out!  Like any story the ideas come at you from all sides until finally, mysteriously, you start to write it. When I was a child I was fascinated as all children are by the various tale their parents let slip about their own childhood. My parents both grew up in Sydney during World War Two, which is the time and setting of ‘The Blue Cat’. My mother told us once (and I think she only mentioned it once, or perhaps twice) about the arrival of a German-Jewish refugee in her class one day at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta. Perhaps that’s when it started…

The image of the blue cat is woven throughout the book. Uncanny yet real, creature of dream and creature of fur, it appears and disappears at various times, and seemed to me to bring a feeling both of protection and dread. Is that what you intended? Or did you have something else in mind?

The cat sprang in my mind on a very long flight home to Sydney from Berlin – in the form of the poem that is at the beginning of the book.  I have to say I’ve always been afraid of this cat. Right from the start I thought that there was something sinister, even evil about him,   but I realized when I re-read the book that in fact he’s more ambiguous than that. Sometimes he’s even almost a comforting presence, as you say. So perhaps he’s both. I know that people can be shocked at this apparent indecision of an author about her own work! But I’m afraid all of my books are like that – open windows, (oops! out jumps the cat) perhaps, rather than closed doors.

Columba’s voice is both sharp and dreamy. She sees a lot but doesn’t always understand what she sees. She is very much a child and yet at a certain level in her consciousness she perceives what Ellery and his father have gone through in a more empathetic and certainly more extraordinary way than the adults. How did you balance these different aspects of her character to create such a believable yet unusual presence?

When I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve noticed that if there is one thing I seem quite UNABLE to articulate, that is how to create character. For me this is the most intuitive part of writing – or at least the most hidden and buried from myself. I always feel as if the characters simply exist somewhere else and I’m just putting them on stage. You’re quite right about Columba, who sees and doesn’t understand, but she feels and yet knows something despite that. “The Cloud of Unknowing” one might say – that by surrendering oneself to not knowing you might perhaps get a glimpse of some truth.

You have included authentic documents from 1942 in the book, such as ads, government pamphlets, a letter from the Free French in The School Magazine and an editorial in the Schoolboys Chronicle which I believe was written by your father as a young person! What do you think primary, contemporary documents add to the texture of a historical novel? And can you also briefly comment on some of the other extra material you’ve included, such as pictures?

The book in a way is a kind of collage. I note the definition of collage in Wikipedia:‘A collage may sometimes include magazine and newspaper clippingsribbonspaint, bits of colored or handmade papers, portions of other artwork or texts, photographs and other found objects, glued to a piece of paper or canvas.’ In ‘The Blue Cat’ there is the story of course, written by me, but then there are all those bits and pieces of the past, pasted in between the lines.  I adored making collages as a child at school – that feeling of excitement with the blank page, the glue and all the little bits and pieces of things to be stuck on where and how you chose.

Again, as a student in history classes I always responded very strongly to “primary sources”, those original documents, often ephemeral, that speak directly to us from the period in which they were created. I wanted readers also to have that experience, of reading and seeing the same things that the characters would have read and seen. The editorial by my dad you refer to was from a newspaper that he created and edited at Neutral Bay Public School during the war – as soon as I read it (only a few years ago when it turned up amongst various of his papers) I knew I HAD to include it. I went into the Department of Education office of the School Magazine to read through all the issues of the period of the book. (Thanks School Magazine!) The photograph of Ellery’s watch – I actually bought a vintage watch of the period on the internet, to make sure it was the real thing. I also managed to get a copy of the original air raid advice pamphlet on ebay – as well as the little prayer card of Columba. The copy of Vergil’s Aeneid with those wonderful ghostly annotations in pencil I bought years ago at the Salvation Army in Tempe…

The Blue Cat never specifically mentions the Holocaust, yet it is inevitably in the subtext. How difficult was it to approach the writing of the story in a way that neither overtly flags the horror of what was happening, nor elides it?

When I was a child in the 1960s I knew nothing about the Holocaust, but we all knew that the word Hitler was terrifying. That was something we understood from popular culture – adults are not going to tell children the details of the Holocaust. After all it’s a natural and I think good instinct to protect children from the various horrors of human behavior. The Holocaust is something you learn about, piece by piece, as you grow up. The adults in Columba’s life are not going to tell her what they know, what they guess, about Ellery’s situation. But they are not going to tell her lies either. I suppose in this book I have had to tread that same narrow path.

There is a touch of fairy tale, in its most mysterious yet immediate aspect, in much of The Blue Cat, but especially in the final sections. Can you tell us something about that?

For me not it’s not so much a fairytale as a mythical landscape, some very blessed place.  When I began writing I had in mind this medieval poem by Petronius Arbiter, translated by Helen Waddell. It always summons up Sydney to me, and how the experience of its beauty is a gift that can never be take away from you.

 O SHORE more dear to me than life! O sea!

Most happy I that unto my own lands

Have leave to come at last. So fair a day!

Here it was long ago I used to swim

Startling the Naiads with alternate stroke.

Here is the pool, and here the seaweed sways.

Here is the harbour for a stilled desire.

Yea, I have lived: never shall Fate unkind

Take what was given in that earlier hour.

The Blue Cat is one of a trio of your recent novels, The Golden Day and The Red Shoe being the other two, which are set at very particular points in Australian history, and are focussed around children’s limited yet luminous understanding of the events going on around them. Can you expand a little on that, and what attracted you to writing about those historical periods in particular? And also, and forgive me if this is a silly question—given the ‘colour’ theme of the titles, did you intend them to be a triptych somewhat like the ‘Three Colours’ series of films by the French-Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski?

I started with ‘The Red Shoe’, set in 1954, and this was purely the result of hearing a program on the radio. I’d had no thought of writing a novel set in the 1950s, but the idea appeared and I got to work. You are right to evoke ‘Three Colours’ – that was something I did have in mind – a dreamy thought of three novels, set in Sydney harbour,  each one a different colour and set in a different decade. In the course of history a decade is nothing! But for a child a decade is their whole lifetime.

Finally, you wrote part of this novel while in Paris, during an Australia Council-funded writer’s residency in the Keesing Studio—a wonderful experience for you I know as it was for me when I was there in 2010! Aside from mention of the fall of France, and the notorious photograph of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is reproduced in the book, there is no obvious connection to Paris. But do you feel something of what you experienced in Paris got into the texture of your story?

Before I went to Paris I had imagined that Paris itself would be a more significant part of the book. It didn’t work out that way though, and I have no explanation for that. It just didn’t happen. But the flat we were living in was right next door to the Paris Holocaust Museum, which I visited often and I think perhaps that will be another book altogether.


You can see a trailer for The Blue Cat here and some very interesting snippets, including videos, about the historical background of the book on Ursula’s website, here. You can also read an interview I did with Ursula about her Paris residency on my blog, here.