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Stephanie Owen Reeder is one of the city’s most successful and awarded children’s book authors, with her latest COVID lockdown-inspired work Ghostie being launched next weekend.
We chat with Stephanie about her road to publishing 20 titles, her latest movie deal and how her 8-year-old granddaughter Ava inspired her most recent work.
Tell us about your own childhood. Was it book material?
I mainly grew up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, but my parents moved house a lot and so I went to six different primary schools, including three in one year! I ended up at Avalon Primary School and then went to Pittwater High School. Avalon Beach was a perfect place to grow up, especially in the 1950s when children were encouraged to roam free.
There were koalas and possums in our backyard and a nature reserve at the end of the street, with caves to explore and giant angophora trees to climb. And I spent almost every day of the summer school holidays at the beach, exploring the rock pools and trying not to get stung by bluebottles.
When did you learn to love words?
I learnt to love words on my father’s knee, as he read to us every night. And, in our house, books were treasured Christmas and birthday presents, and rewards for doing well at school. I still have the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that my great-grandmother gave me for my 8th birthday. I’d underlined all the big words in pencil so I could look them up in the dictionary later.
Two teachers in primary school encouraged me to write, and I remember being very embarrassed when they read my essays out loud to the class. I wrote and illustrated my first ‘book’ of poems at seven, and when I wasn’t out exploring the bush, at the beach or looking after my three younger siblings, I was drawing pictures or writing stories.
Enrolling in Arts at university was a move in which direction exactly?
Given that I was in the list of the top 100 students in the state in Higher School Certificate English, it was always presumed that I’d study English at Sydney University.
But I was a bit of a bolshie by then, and I wasn’t going to do what Mum and Dad said I should, so I studied languages and history instead. But I wasn’t really sure at that stage where I was going—boys, bra-burning and anti-war Moratorium marches seemed more important to me. However, I wanted to live away from home, and so a teachers college scholarship shaped the initial career path I took.
What was your first published book and how did it eventuate?
My first published children’s book was based on my honours thesis in Indonesian and Malayan Studies. I translated a 14th century manuscript about Rangda, the flaming witch, from Kawi (a dead language) into English, and analysed representations of the story in Javanese and Balinese art.
I rewrote and illustrated the story for an assignment when I was studying children’s literature for a Graduate Diploma in Librarianship at the CCAE, now the University of Canberra. I reworked the story and illustrations again some years later, when my twins were studying Indonesian at Forrest Primary School.
Encouraged by the children’s responses to my ‘book’, I sent it off to Random House. Much to my surprise, The Flaming Witch was published in 1997, with illustrations by Indonesian artist Dadang Cristanto, whose artwork can be seen at both the National Gallery of Australia and in the grounds of the ANU.
How did you combine writing with paid work?
I went back to full-time work in 1983, when my twins were eight and my youngest daughter was four. I worked as a librarian at the National Library of Australia and then as a Hansard Editor at Parliament House, where I stayed for nearly 25 years.
It was a challenging job, with long hours, but a Grade A Journalist’s pay was good—an important consideration for a single mother with three children and a mortgage! While working at Hansard, I also tutored at the University of Canberra, did freelance writing, editing and reviewing, edited the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s journal Reading Time, and undertook both a Master’s Degree in Education and a PhD in Communication.
Not surprisingly, at age 49, I had a heart attack! A year later, a car accident contributed to my taking early retirement at age 55. It was the best thing I ever did, as since then I’ve been able to concentrate on writing and illustrating books, with my 20th book, Ghostie, coming out this month!
Where do you find inspiration?
The inspiration for my picture books often comes from memories of my childhood and from my children and my grandchildren. I wrote and illustrated three lift-the-flap concept books, including the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Honour Book I’ve Got a Feeling!, for my grandsons Kai and Louie, who I helped to care for while their mum was battling breast cancer.
Unfortunately, Josie died when the boys were just three and four, so I was one of their primary carers for a number of years. My nonfiction picture book Australia’s Wild Weird Wonderful Weather, illustrated by super-talented Canberra creative Tania McCartney, was inspired by my son’s sport-related obsession with the weather.
Trouble in the Surf, which tells the story of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith’s near-death experience in the Bondi rip aged just nine, was inspired by my Dad, who was both a lifesaver and an aviator. And my latest book Ghostie was inspired by my granddaughter Ava and her imaginary friend Ghostie, a cheeky and mischievous little fellow who has helped her get through the pandemic.
I’m also inspired by Australian history. I taught history at high schools in Sydney, and I still have a letter from some of my students thanking me for making history come alive for them. So it was not surprising that my first novel was based on a true story about inspirational young people from Australia’s past. Lost! A True Tale from the Bush, published by the National Library of Australia, was the first book in my Heritage Heroes series. This series has been a labour of love that has rewarded me in many ways, including with two major writing awards—the NSW Premier’s History Award and the CBCA Book of the Year Award.
Do you have a writing routine? Place, time, desk, habits?
I’ve been writing full time from home for over 15 years now, and definitely have a routine. This is particularly important at the moment, as I’m working on seven books at once, all at different stages of production.
I’m usually in my study by 9.30, dealing with emails and other admin. Around 10.30, I head off to my local café for coffee and cake, usually with some editing or proofreading in hand. It’s a chance to sit outside and have contact with the real world!
Then it’s back to work, usually until 5 pm. To avoid spending all day in front of a screen, I often sit in a comfy couch to do hardcopy editing and proofreading. I also write the first drafts of my books in longhand in exercise books. There’s something special about the flow of words straight from the brain and the heart, through the hand and onto the empty page!
What do you love about children’s literature?
What’s not to love? Children’s books help shape our view of the world from an early age, and we carry memories of the images and words of the books that resonate with us into adulthood.
Since the 1970s, I’ve studied children’s literature, written about it as a critic, taught it as an academic, reviewed it for newspapers and magazines, and now I am lucky enough to be able to create children’s books of my own for others to hopefully treasure.
It’s one of the hardest genres to write well, but it’s also one of the most satisfying to work in. Those moments when your book connects with a child are truly special, and over the years I’ve had more than a few that have brought me to tears.
How do you compare the weight of editing Hansard with the fly-away joy of describing slime in a kid’s book?
Working at Hansard was one of the most difficult editing jobs I’ve had. Capturing the words of a politician in full flight, and then transcribing them from spoken into written English without changing the tenor of the speaker or what was actually said, was definitely challenging.
We were also dealing with often difficult and complex subjects that required an above-average understanding of the English language, current affairs and history. While writing books for children is often a joyous task, full of fun and frivolity, it can also cover more challenging subjects.
In my books, I’ve covered natural disasters, global warming and climate change, as well as drownings, accidents, child abandonment, domestic violence, starvation and dying of thirst. And, in my latest historical novel, I even had to describe how to cut the throat of a sheep!
How did you find COVID lockdowns and what did you observe in your granddaughter Ava’s life?
As they have for everyone, the last two years have been difficult. Although I’m used to working from home, it’s different when someone else is telling you to do it! I missed mixing with my writing tribe for morning teas, conferences, seminars, book launches and other gatherings, and there were no school visits. I lost a lot of my income, and publishers were cutting back or working from home, so it was harder to get books published.
And like many families, the last year or two has been hard for us. My granddaughter Ava is a resilient young soul, and in many ways she has enjoyed having her mummy and daddy to herself at home. But she has missed her friends, and she has been affected by constant worries about getting sick, wearing masks and RAT testing. Ava has also missed seeing her cousins, Kai and Louie, who now live in New South Wales. Luckily, both of my daughters live in Canberra, so we’ve been able to have some family time, which for kids is particularly important. And of course, Ava has had Ghostie and her very active imagination to keep her company.
Tell me about your daughter (and Ava’s mum) Megan, she clearly got the writer’s gene. How does that make you feel?
Like me, my daughter Megan is a writer and a journalist. English and photography were her best subjects at high school, so it was no surprise that her initial career path was as a photojournalist with the Canberra Times. It made my heart sing that she was also a wordsmith, like me.
She’s since worked in public relations, including for rock stars and musicians, at MONA and the National Gallery of Australia, and for the University of Canberra. She’s also way too good at playing Scrabble and beats me every time. I obviously taught her too well!
The writing genes have also definitely been passed on to Megan’s daughter Ava, not only from me and her mother, but also from her Dad, who is a songwriter, and from her great-great-uncle A.D. Hope, the renowned Australian poet. Ava has already won awards for her writing, and she’s about to have a poem published in an anthology at just eight years old.
In terms of a career what are the best and worst parts of being an author?
The best part of being an author is using your imagination, playing around with words, creating other worlds for people to disappear into and holding your book baby in your hands. It’s also the interaction with other creatives, especially when working on a picture book with an illustrator who is interpreting your words.
The worst parts include the constant setting yourself up for rejection, as you send off proposals to publishers or spend over a year writing a manuscript, only to be met with months of silence before you give up and try again. There’s also the lack of recognition for children’s authors, including those annoying questions about when you’re going to write a ‘real’ book. And of course, there’s the lack of money. Even though I work full-time as an author, I couldn’t survive on just what I earn from it. I definitely do it for love, not money.
How does one secure a movie deal?
Getting a movie deal for the third book in my Heritage Heroes series, Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony, came as a total surprise! It’s based on the true story of nine-year-old Lennie Gwyther, who in 1932 left his family farm in Leongatha in Victoria and rode his pony Ginger Mick to Sydney to see the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Lennie’s story was taken up by the media along the way, and by the time he got to Sydney he was welcomed into Martin Place by thousands of people and invited to take part in the parade for the opening of the bridge. It’s an amazing story of resilience and resourcefulness.
Lennie the Legend has been optioned by Roadshow Films Australia and is now in pre-production. Like everything else, it got held up by COVID lockdowns, but I’ve been assured that it is definitely going ahead. However, I’ll believe it when I actually see it up there on the silver screen!
This is a seriously big deal, tell us more!
After the success of the first two books award-winning books in the Heritage Heroes series, NLA Publishing were keen to do another title. I’d come across Lennie’s story when I was researching Amazing Grace and had put it in my ideas file. The sales people took a bit of convincing, but the book finally came out in February 2015. Writing it was difficult, as I was also looking after my sick daughter-in-law and her little boys, but coming home each day and escaping into Lennie’s world helped me cope with what was going on in the real world.
Soon after the book came out, I had a message on my answering machine from a gentleman with an American accent. He said he was from Village Roadshow and wanted to option my book for a feature film. I thought it was a prank call, but I rang him back, he came to Canberra especially to meet me, and the rest is history! The book Lennie the Legend was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award and won the CBCA Book of the Year Award, and we had 14 other requests for film options. It was also optioned for a major stage production, but unfortunately that fell through due to COVID.
This writing caper has certainly been a wild ride. But I intend to keep writing for as long as I can hold a pen and clatter away on a keyboard. And I can’t wait to see where my books take me over the next few years!
Stephanie’s latest book Ghostie will be launched on Saturday 19 March at 3 pm, at The Book Cow, 47 Jardine Street, Kingston.