How do they do it?… author/illustrators – dual lives. ‘Fire’ – the first Element Door

I admire those talented author/illustrators, those high-achievers of children’s books with dual creative minds – like Shaun Tan, Gabrielle Wang, Sally Rippin, Narelle Oliver, Kerry Argent and Pamela Allen (and heaps more). I’m so jealous!

How do they split their time between both activities, especially if they’re writing novels as well as picture books? What comes first, the story idea or the first little mental image that pops into their heads? And the biggest question of all – how do they find time to do both activities, and the housework as well?!

I’m endeavouring to interview a well-known author/illustrator in a future blog so might have some questions answered soon.

I have a special interest in the way illustrator-writers/artists work, as I struggle to find a way to paint while writing full-time. I don’t illustrate my stories, except for the chapter headings, the motifs in Secrets of Eromanga. But I am an artist and printmaker – and have been for the last 18 years and 3 months to be precise.

‘Layers of Time’ – my final illustration from ‘Secrets of Eromanga’ – pen and ink

Eleven years ago, WORDS took over my head and my life, usurping the painterly life and gradually relegating my easel, paints, brushes and print rollers to the downstairs cupboard. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE WRITING more than eating, sometimes. But!

When I was new at this ‘game’ of writing children’s books, it was easy – one day writing, one day painting, one day in the Evil Day Job (that’s all I could handle). But then, with stealth and muscle, writing crept into my psyche like the first flow in a dry creek bed. Hardly noticeable at first, then the flood.

Making art became more difficult – not the skill side, it was the thinking side. Because like writing, painting requires many hours of thought as well as craft skill.

So, here we are in 2011, I have some books, articles and short stories under my publishing belt; many more on the ‘drawing board’, and the easel is still under its sheet so I can’t see the large half-finished canvas I started 6 months ago.

If anyone has any suggestions to get my writing/painting life into order, I’d love to hear from you!

Have to admit even when painting, dastardly WORDS crept into my work. Maybe they’ve always been there and I didn’t recognise the love of my life (sorry, Ross!) 🙂

Here is an example where words figure in my artwork: Fireone of The Element Doors (an installation at The Gap High School Library, Brisbane) – painted in acrylic, oils, mixed media on real doors. Metal door handles are engraved with contour lines – an important motive in my work. All of the Element Doors have words of some sort ’embedded’ into the paint. Fire has newspaper headlines about bushfires in Australia.  See the story of Fire below.

These 4 doors were real doors, used every day by hundreds of students. But a re-modelling of the library last year meant that 3 of the doors are now up on the wall and one, Fire is screwed to another wall all by itself – it was deemed too heavy to put at a higher level because it is an actual fire protection door. I had no idea it was the library’s fire door when I chose it for the Fire painting.

Painting ‘Fire’ in The Gap High School Library before it was put back in place

FIRE – A nation hostage to the gum

Laden with volatile eucalyptus oils and as recognizably Australian as the koala, the gum tree evolved to fit this land like a glove. Its many varieties have adapted to the seasonal flare-ups of bushfires – surviving and sprouting with new growth when the rains arrive. Bushfires are a natural part of the renewal across this land.

 We want to live close to the natural beauty of the Australian bush, but even after many decades of bushfire tragedies, it’s ironic we ignore the gum’s ability to increase the destructive path of fire.

 If we want to live in harmony with, rather than hostage to the gum we need to understand its place in our Australian landscape.

© Sheryl Gwyther 2003

For the next three days, I will post the other three Element Doors with their particular story attached.

All images are copyrighted. If you would like to use them for educational purposes, please acknowledge them and contact me first for permission.
(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2011


After the flood … Brisbane January 2011

We in this fair city have witnessed something many thought we would never see again – our winding, snake-like Brisbane river changing from its lazy, sinuous flow to the sea and turning into a huge, rushing, swirling, mud-laden monster that broke its banks and tore into the heart of suburbs and into the edges of the central business district.

Flooding in the suburb of Rosalie (photo supplied by David Gwyther and Kathleen Kelly)

There was no discrimination by this river – no picking off its targets. This flood tore through the suburbs of low-paid workers and millionaires alike. If you lived beside the river in a palatial mansion, or in a humble, weather-board house in low-lying suburbs not far from the Brisbane River or one of its feeder rivers, you were in the flood lottery – a lottery of countless winners. This time lives were lost and many thousands of people are homeless.

Who would have thought the river would destroy again? Not now we are a modern, sub-tropical fun-loving city, bigger and better than 1974, masters of land and waterways, embracing our beautiful river frontages with parks and cultural precincts, building multi-housed developments in low contours of the land, filling in natural streams, covering the soil with cement and bitumen. Complacent.

Many of us have not forgotten the horrors of 1974, the last time our river broke its banks, flooding into suburbs and into the centre of Brisbane city, submerging homes and leaving behind a foul-smelling, sticky, slimy mud that coated walls and floors.

Brisbane floods in 1974 - photo by Courier Mail

I remember the sound and the smell of that monster river most of all. At the end of the street, even before you saw it, you heard its roar and the thumping, smashing sound as huge gums tossed about like matchsticks in the rushing water. The smell of disaster is not one easily forgotten – nor the sight of drowned cows, boats, parts of house roofs, refrigerators, and the debris of people’s lives – tossing and bobbing in the churning waters.

Never again did we think we would see the brown monster strike – now we had the Wivenhoe Dam, built in response to the ’74 flood, able to contain many millions of litres of water – to mitigate and regulate the Brisbane River’s flow to the sea.

Two years ago, the dam was at a 16% level – the city was on Level 6 water restrictions. Who would have thought it would reach 197% full.

This time, all the circumstances that could cause a major flood happened. Rain in the region for 6 weeks beforehand; soaking the ground to capacity; major tributaries at capacity; high tides at the mouth of our tidal river; record-breaking rainfalls in the catchments areas and in Brisbane itself with its many creeks feeding into the river and forced (controlled) releases of millions of litres from the mitigation dam, Wivenhoe.

After the flood - South Bank parklands

We love this river whatever it throws at us – and it does what it is meant to do as a tidal, floodplain river. It has flooded for millions of years. That is its way. This is its fourth epic-proportion flood since white settlers sailed up its sinuous curves and saw the beauty of its shores and the potential for cultivation on its flood plains. Previous known major floods were in 1841, 1893 and 1974.

Each of those floods and the relatively minor ones since settlement has astonished the growing population, just like this flood of 2011. Brisbanites learned lessons from each disaster.

We will learn more about the river’s character again this time. We will respect its power and its force all over again. We will remember – until the next time?

Flood level - now dropped by 2.5 metres, still falling

(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2011


The Lil Gwyther Prize continues the dream…

Scratch the proverbial skin of most early-childhood trained teachers and you’ll find someone willing to fight tooth and nail for young children – in particular, their rights to sound, developmentally-appropriate learning experiences in the formative years of their lives.

Lily Gwyther and David

It describes Lil Gwyther perfectly. Lil was well-known in Queensland as a passionate reformer in early childhood classes (kindergarten and pre-school to Year 3). She was also a primary teacher, then an early childhood advisory teacher who turned into a full-time activist.

During the 1980s and 1990s, she campaigned for the rights of young children to have an education firmly-centred on their needs, and appropriate to their development. She was also my mum-in-law, and influenced my decision in the 1980s to train as an early-childhood teacher.

She talked regularly to education journalists, spoke at many schools and colleges, wrote numerous letters to the editor, she was on the local ABC radio every week with a talk-back show where many parents rang in with questions about their child’s development and their concerns for what was happening to those children once they entered primary school.

She stirred up several Education Ministers and other politicians, had morning tea with Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen to discuss the problems of children starting school too early (which incidently, Lady Flo agreed with because of her personal experience), and badgered various Education Department heads (Lil outlasted several).

Most succumbed to her charm and her passion about the benefits of regarding each child as an individual and not trying to “fit them in the same box of teaching”. But of course, the biggest battles were against those who handed out government money to support education.

One of Lil’s favourite pieces of advice to parents ended with the words, Don’t ask if your child is ready for school – ask if the school is ready for your child. Many a time in Brisbane people have told us about Lil’s contribution to their lives by saying,

It was Lil who convinced us to give little Johnny (or Janey) another year of pre-school. And thank goodness we did!

Lil loved children and she remained passionate about early childhood education until her early 90s when Alzheimer’s disease stole away her fine brain. In true Lil style, she fought it with fury until the end.

From a handmade book celebrating Lil’s full life – crafted by Sheryl Gwyther

We wanted to do something in Lil’s name to continue her work and her commitment to Early Childhood Development Principles. We were also concerned about the current push to ‘formalise’ education in the Queensland Prep classes (and it’s not just in Qld), and the move to downgrade play-based activities for learning. Early childhood educators who believe in developmental principles are dismayed about this move and fear future consequences for children.

So to celebrate her life and to help keep alive the principles she worked so hard for, Ross, David and I bequested a substantial amount of money in Lil’s name to the Early Childhood Studies Unit, at the Faculty of Education (Queensland University of Technology).

Numerous friends and supporters who knew Lil and her work donated and continue to donate money to the LIL GWYTHER AWARD, as did the Faculty of Education (Early Childhood) itself, the Queensland Teachers Union, the Early Childhood Teachers Association, Early Childhood Australia and many others (full list of donors here).

The prize money is part of an Award that will support and encourage graduate early childhood teachers to be ambassadors for developmentally appropriate and child-centred teaching once they go into the workforce.

As well as a cheque for $1000, it includes membership to the Early Childhood Teachers Association, Early Childhood Australia and the Queensland Teachers Union. The amount of money donated will ensure The LIL GWYTHER AWARD will continue to be an annual event for many years to come.

This week, the inaugural prize for 2010 was awarded to Anne-Maree Hansen.

Anne-Maree completed the Bachelor of Education (Preservice Early Childhood) course with a grade point average of 6.4.

Her lecturers and the principal of her prac. school record, Anne-Maree demonstrated an outstanding teaching, engaging learners in an individualised program. She skilfully implemented the Early Years curriculum and other school systemic initiatives. Her behaviour management strategies were appropriate, effective and reflected the Early Years philosophy of the school … a worthy recipient of this award.

The Gwyther family thank the QUT Education Faculty and the staff of the School of Early Childhood, in particular, the Head of the School, Professor Ann Farrell, and Dr Gail Halliwell, another passionate supporter of early childhood education. Our gratitude also goes to the generous donors, both big and small.

We wish Anne-Maree all the very best for her future career as an early childhood teacher. Lil’s spirit and passion is sure to go with her.

If you would like to add your support to the LIL GWYTHER AWARD, donations are most welcome.  CLICK ON THIS LINK.



Since becoming involved in the world of children’s books as an author, the more I see what a wonderful world it is. No wonder everybody I know in this particular field is so passionate about what they do.

Two such people, Tania McCartney and Megan Blandford. They run a blog site called KIDS BOOK REVIEW. A month or so ago, they asked me to be a regular commentator on their site – I have the freedom to write articles about books, kids and learning, and literacy.

As an ex-early childhood teacher, an ex-adult literacy teacher and someone passionate about books for children and young adults, I jumped at the chance.

Here is my most recent article about the MIRACLE OF LEARNING TO READ. It will appear on the Kids Book Review site today. Please check out the other excellent things on this site when you get the chance….

There is nothing quite like reading a story to a group of children and their delighted giggles as they ‘get’ it. Or a child so immersed in a book she is caught inside an imaginary world, fighting dragons or bullies alongside a fictional character. Or the delight on a child’s face when he reads and understands his first book all by himself?

How did you learn to read? Did it happen without even you being aware? Or was it a daily struggle to decipher clumps of alphabet letters on the page whilst relying on picture clues?

This is the way it has been for young children ever since learning to read became a required skill.

Image from the Oswego Public Library, Oregon.

That it happens at all is a miracle when you understand how much this skill relies on the intricate balances involved – the wiring of the brain and its electrical connections, and the whole body’s physical growth and development, i.e. a child’s maturity.

Then add into the equation how that individual child learns best. It could be through visual and/or aural discrimination – i.e. noticing differences and similarities between letters; or it could be through a tactile sense of letter shapes only remembered through the fingertips.

Just to confuse the issue – factor in visual/aural memory. Is a child able to remember the shapes and sounds of letters? Does the child understand that a particular shape has a particular sound? Now confuse it all by combining that shape with another shape to change its sound.

Okay, now bring in one of the hardest things of all … a child’s own awareness of what they can and can’t do. Yes, good old self-esteem! If you can’t do something that someone else the same age (or even younger) can do, how would you feel if you were 5, 6 or 7?

See the problem here? What happens when an already work-overloaded teacher tries to teach 25+ children to read, all the same way at the same time? Twenty-five little bodies whose physical, intellectual, social-emotional skills are each developing at their own rate and in his/her own way. And this isn’t even factoring in that boys in these early years are at least six months developmentally behind girls. They physically cannot sit still for long! Yes, I’m making a statement here!

These are the reasons I think of ‘learning to read’ as a miracle. For the majority of children, it happens. For others, it takes a little longer before the ‘penny drops’. For some children it requires more individual and skilled help from a professional – someone who (hopefully) finds out first how that child learns best, and then guides the process, step-by-step.

As parents, we can encourage our children to enjoy the process of learning to read. The little take-home readers are fine for confidence building and repetition, and libraries are full of brilliant, enjoyable picture books for young children. Read stories to your kids! Practice your reading-aloud voice so you don’t ‘kill the words’. Let them see you reading for enjoyment too. Turn off the TV occasionally and have a ‘LOVING BOOKS TIME’ – where everyone shares what they’re reading.

These are some of the things we can do to encourage the miracle of learning to read.


The KIDS BOOK REVIEW site: this article will appear on this excellent site for teachers, parents and anyone interested in children’s books and children’s learning. 12th November 2010.

Want to know more about why many people are passionate about the world of Early Childhood?

On following one’s passion … whatever it is

A little over ten years ago I was a painter – not the house-painting kind, but on canvas.

I used to draw when I was a kid – without worrying what it looked like. But as an adult I never felt my drawings were good enough. So one day, in an attempt to do something about it, I cut back on my ‘real’ job and enrolled at the Brisbane Institute of Art as a part-time student. It was like finding something I hadn’t even realised had been lost.


From then on, art filled my waking life and even my dreams … which might have been the reason my husband caught me, fast asleep and swishing my hand through the air in wide, painterly strokes.

For nine years, I learned to draw and paint and understand the alchemy of mixing colour – under the tutelage of brilliant artists like Hollie, Glen Henderson, Sally L’Estrange and David Paulson. I lived, breathed and talked art, and probably bored my non-artist friends to death.

I do have one pang of regret though, remembering the day I told my young son to stop complaining and go make himself lunch because I didn’t want to stop painting. He made himself a rough banana sandwich and one for me. He was four at the time. It was 2pm and I had forgotten to eat lunch – alright for an adult, but not a child. And it wasn’t the first time I had done that. Bad mother!

I thought I would be painting until the day I dropped with brush in hand and the smell of gum turpentine up my nose. But no, an interloper crept up on the paintings … insidious, gentle TEXT.

‘land is memory memory is land land is memory memory is land’

I have never been happy with painting objects as they seem (although I loved to paint still-lifes every now and then), and going to BIA pushed me out of comfort zones. I loved when the abstraction of ideas appear in the images too.

When I studied painters who use text as part of their art – like the wonderful Australian artists Bea Maddock and John Wolseley,  words began to appear into my paintings more and more – paintings became narratives, demanding to tell more than what the images did.

I did a text-sprinkled painting about my grandmother growing up in the shadow of Walsh’s Pyramid and it wasn’t enough – the narrative filled my head until I wrote it down.

I was hooked. The path to writing for children followed soon after.

In the beginning it was easy to slip between the two forms of creating – they are so similar. A painting goes through many drafts like writing. Sometimes a mistake ends up a ‘happy accident’, offering a better solution to a problem in design or media, just like in writing. But writing demands much more than painting. Something had to give way…

What I once was with art, now I am with writing –  not answering the phone if I’m in fictional land; thinking, dreaming about characters, plots, dialogues and all. I try not to bore my non-writing friends, especially those who keep asking me when I’m going to paint more pictures or have another exhibition, but my head is never not filled with words.  I also relish any opportunity to spend time with my author friends talking writing and books.

But have to admit, I do feel pangs of regret I don’t make the time to paint anymore  – especially when I see my artist friends at their work-in-progress or talk to other artists about what they are doing. Or when I smell gum turpentine. Tubes of oils still sit in my studio, with blank canvases, my easel and brushes. I will paint again. One day.

Two of my paintings feature in the February 2010 issue of the Housten Literary Review online magazine.

(c) Images on this post are under the protection of international copyright laws and must not be copied without the permission of the author.