Tag: Australian children’s books

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


A red-hot chilli evening!

Book launches are the best fun! After months, and sometimes years of writing, re-writing, editing and refining your story, there it is with its beautiful cover on the bookshop shelf.

That’s when around 60 of your friends and family gather to help you celebrate too! What a great excuse for a party. My launch for Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper was on Friday evening at Black Cat Books and Cafe, Paddington, Brisbane. What a great place to have a launch! If you ever go there, check out the beautiful back decks that lead down a terraced hill under the Jacaranda trees.

It was a privilege to have award-winning author, Michael Bauer on hand as guest speaker to help launch Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper. Michael is a man of wit, charm, good humour and a fellow-traveller in the magical mine-field world of being an author. I’m pleased to call him friend.

In his speech, Michael brought up the topic of how he’d never been involved in a protest rally until he met me. And recounted the stirring day of our protest rally I’d organised here in Brisbane, out the front of the city Dymocks store in last year’s battle against lifting the Restrictions against Parallel Importation of Books. Michaelproved to be  the perfect person to have at your side in those moments – calm, clear-thinking and an award-winning, established Australian author. He was also at my side when we lobbied local Federal politicians in their offices.

Michael’s hilarious descriptions had the book launch audience in fits of laughter. And his lovely words and his warmth towards me and about my writing, and the new book were most appreciated.

It was also great to have family, friends from all walks of my life, including many of my friends from the world of writing at the launch. I’ll let these pictures do the talking.


Notice the traditional Mexican paper-cut banners?
Sheryl and Ally Howard



Launching Charlie…the Red Hot Questions

To celebrate tomorrow’s launch of my new book, Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper I’m posting a recent interview about the writing of this book. The interviewer was Aussie author, Janeen Brian.

Hello and a big, red hot welcome to my dear writing friend and colleague, Sheryl Gwyther, whose Pearson chapter book, Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper, has just been released.

It’s a great story with plenty of problems, humour and determination woven throughout and perfect for the chapter-reading age group!

I wanted to ask Sheryl more about the book and her writing in general.

Can you tell us what was the initial trigger for this story and what are three other related ideas you used to help create or develop it?

That’s an easy question, Janeen. I love the look of chillies – their varied shapes and colours and gorgeous glossy skins, and I like growing them. Only problem is, I can only eat them in very small quantities and I’m totally allergic to the mildest of them all, capsicums!

When I decided to write a story about someone who was crazy about growing and eating chillies, young Charlie jumped into my head and the story took off.

What was your method in working on this book? Was it mainly plot or character driven?

I did have a strong vision about what Charlie was like, but I also had to come up with a plot that would keep the reader wanting to know how Charlie would solve her dilemma. Would she and her Habanero win with all the obstacles put in her way?  Then it was a matter of imagining lots of situations where chillies could cause problems.

Were there any surprises that happened along the writing journey?

You bet your guacamole boots, Janeen! When I first outlined this story, I didn’t realise how much fun it would be actually writing it. Charlie was such a strong character in my head, sometimes it was like I was thinking through her head, not mine. Very surprising!!

I also got a very big surprise when a possum ate a chilli from the FIERY Habanero plant in my garden. Possums aren’t meant to eat chillied!! Maybeit got such a shock it never ate a chilli again.

I learned a number of things while reading the story; for example, milk cools the mouth after eating hot, spicy food. Did you find you needed to do a lot of research?

I LOVE researching for all my stories – partly because I enjoy finding out things and mostly because it’s good to know the ‘ins and outs’ of the subject matter – whether it’s about dinosaur fossils out in western Queensland (in my novel, Secrets of Eromanga), or learning to juggle when I wrote Princess Clown (I failed at the fourth ball toss), or some amazing things I found out about chillies while writing Charlie & the Red Hot Chilli Pepper.

For example: Did you know that birds can eat the hottest chillies possible with no ill effects? Why? Because their internal system can cope with the chilli’s capsaicin (burn-factor chemical), the chilli seed passes through their gullet quickly and is dispersed further from the mother plant … more chance of survival for the new chilli plants!

Of course, the reason why the chilli is so hot for everything else is to stop it being eaten and destroyed – the seed does not survive in the intestines of all other animals (including humans). Clever chillies! Clearly, my possum thinks he’s a bird.

I love the element of music in the story. Do you find music is an element that appears in your stories, or are there more predominant ‘Sheryl passions’ like art, geology or palaeontology?

Clever you, Janeen, to pick up another one of my passions! Yes, the element of music is present in many of the stories I write, even if I don’t mention it in the story. Music has rhythm, just like words and sentences. Music also has colour and I like to bring ‘colour’ to stories – that’s the element that keeps a plot and characters interesting to the reader. I play music on my stereo while I write – from classical, to jazz, to Cuban, to rock and Celtic music. Some people need silence to write, I like music!

Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper is published by Pearson in their new series, Chapters. Tell us what it was like writing for the Educational Market.

I started writing chapter books for the Education Market late last year – it was a pleasant surprise.  Nobody in those two publishing houses told me I had to use word-lists, nobody stopped me using longer, more complicated words that would challenge a child (like soufflé and circlet in Princess Clown).

The books themselves are professionally produced, and I’m really happy with the end product. And best thing of all, I am delighted to be the author of chapter books – the first ‘real’ books that young readers tackle by themselves.

Princess Clown was the first book I wrote for the education market. Blake published it several month ago and I was thrilled with how it turned out. Sian Naylor’s illustrations are brilliant (and very clever!) and I love the extension activities in the back of the book.

Pearson did a fantastic job with Charlie and the RHCP too. The book’s US illustrator, Richard Hoit captures Charlie’s enthusiastic face and all the pictures are just right for the story. He even got the shape and colour right for the Habanero chilli on the front cover.

Both Charlie and the RHCP and Princess Clown are available from the publishers on the internet. Some schools already have copies and Charlie is already in some bookshops.

What are you writing now?

I have several stories ‘on the boil’. Three are longer novels and one is a shorter length to suit the 9-10 age groups. I’m enjoying writing the shorter story – Fangus Fearbottom is a young vampire who would rather eat bananas than drink blood, so he’ll have heaps of funny adventures. I’m hoping to develop it into a series as I have lots of ideas that could cause conflict for poor Fangus (wonder how he will solve his banana-dilemma?)

Thank you so much for inviting me to talk on your blog, Janeen. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it! If any of your readers would like to know more about writing chapter books, I’ve written a blog on the subject. Here is the link on the Kids Book Review site.


Princess Clown – available from Blake Publishing

Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper – available from Pearson Australia

Secrets of Eromanga – can be ordered from bookshops or Sheryl

Thanks Sheryl, for such great answers and best wishes for your terrific book. By the way, I am also a lover of the shape and shine of chillies!

Janeen Brian.


writing for children -v- writing for adults

Someone said an intriguing thing the other day and it set me thinking.

‘Why don’t you write for adults, Sheryl?’

‘I prefer to write for kids.’

‘Oh, well, I guess writing for children is much easier.’

Okay, so how would you respond in that situation if you were a writer of children’s books? For once, I held my tongue and didn’t bite back. It is an important question to a writer of the genre and it needs careful consideration – even if just to defend my choice of audience, in a coherent way.

First, let’s get rid of the myth that writing for children is easier. I suspect it is harder – not only do you face the rigorous ‘gate-keepers’ for quality books known as Australian children’s publishers, you also are up against the harshest, most ‘lackadaisical’ of critics – young readers.  Adult readers will give you the benefit of the doubt in your story. They will read a few chapters, or almost to the end, before giving up if it doesn’t grab their attention (I know, because I’m one of them).

But a child reader will read the first sentence, or paragraph, and if you’re lucky, the first page, before deciding whether to keep going. And fair enough, too. There are so many other media grabbing their attention span – that’s the way things are now.

There’s also the tricky adaptations you must make to write for different age groups and reading abilities – I have to write the story first, then, if it is for the younger, chapter-book readers, I take out more than I leave in, ensuring the story still rollicks along.

Why do I write for children?

  1. The characters that live in my stories are children (or animals) experiencing the rocky road of life. I’ve never thought of an adult as the main character. That does not mean I don’t write about adults too. I do – like Matron Maddock and Algernon Parris in my story, McAlpine & Macbeth. They are real in my head – evil, corrupt, but both pragmatic about what must be done to survive in an uncertain world.
  2. The stories spilling from my imagination owe homage to the stories I have loved reading over the years – heroes (always young) facing challenges and quests, or fighting the odds to follow their hopes and dreams, facing off (and eventually winning) against antagonists who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
  3. I thrive on challenges, and writing for the children’s book industry is one of them. I will never climb a cliff-face or venture out of my depth in the sea, but every time I send off another story or a play to publishers, the possibility of rejection is there like a stone in my shoe. Every author I know who submits a manuscript feels the same way.
  4. I love the way child readers respond to books – the way stories capture them, the way characters becomes alive in their minds. I love their enthusiasm and their excitement when their favourite authors visit a school library.
  5. I also love being part of a community of Australian children’s writers. Since being involved in the SAVING AUSSIE BOOKS campaign last year, I connected up with authors and illustrators from across the nation. They write for all age levels and range from beginning, through to established, award-winning writers.  I have met publishers in the industry as well. All are incredibly enthusiastic people and generous with their support to fellow writers. Maybe it is because our focus is on children.
    I don’t get the impression there is that connected feeling in the world of writers for adults.

Do you write or illustrate children’s books? Tell us why do you do it? What spurs you on?

For another hilarious view on this topic, check out Katrina Germein’s blogging: 10 Things Not to Say to a Children’s Author