Writing a series of picture books – Tania McCartney

Riley and the jumpy kangaroo book cover

Tania McCartney
Tania McCartney

Today we have pressed the pause button on our Poetry Festival to take time out for a celebration! We are very happy to have Tania McCartney visiting as part of her Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo Book Launch Blog Tour — A Very Jumpy Tour. This is the fifth book in the Riley series, so we asked Tania some questions about how she goes about writing picture books in a series.

This is the fifth book in your Riley the Little Aviator series. When you wrote the first book, did you plan to write a series or did Riley and the Sleeping Dragon enter the world as a standalone picture book?

I wrote Riley and the Sleeping Dragon while living in Beijing — and I never dreamed the book idea would become a series. As this book was just a little personal project of mine, I was surprised when the book did well in China and I was even more surprised when the book did well in Australia, when we returned home in 2009. These kinds of surprises are very nice!

Because it did so well, I wondered if another title might work. And it did! so I just kept going. So far Riley has visited Beijing, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Each book in the series is set in a different part of the world. How do you choose where to send Riley next?

I had originally planned for Riley to travel to Asian cities, but kids in Australia were desperate to have Riley visit their home town, so I quickly changed that concept to Australian cities. Sydney came first because it has the largest population, followed by Melbourne.

I wanted to send Riley to Canberra this year because it’s where I’m currently living, and the Riley books have a bit of a cult following here. I also wanted to help celebrate Canberra’s Centenary Year — 100 years old in 2013!

I choose the place depending on where we’ve visited as a family because all the photos used in the Riley books are taken by me. I have a lot of photos up my sleeve including Tasmania (we spent two weeks touring the island in 2010; it’s SUCH a cool place and I’m actually a Hobart girl), New Zealand, the west coast of the United States, and several Asian and European countries/cities.

I’d actually love to send Riley overseas again. I’ve even had thoughts of sending Riley to the North Pole. Shall have to rug up for that visit!

Is there anything different about each new title, or do you try to keep all the Riley books as much the same as possible (apart from the plot)?

It’s important to tie a book series together and this is usually done with the way the books look, and the same kind of plot structure/theme. I also think it’s important to add extra elements that make new books in a series feel fresh and exciting.

For the Riley series, I changed up the way I did each book — just so I could add that freshness.

In Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, the dragon isn’t seen in any of the photos … until right at the very end. This helps make the ending more of a surprise.

riley and the sleeping dragon (cover)

In Riley and the Dancing Lion, there are lions all through the book, but they’re never the one Riley is looking for. This makes kids wonder what the ‘right’ dragon will look like, and helps build suspense.

riley and the dancing lion

In Riley and the Curious Koala, the koala is hiding on the pages, sometimes in different forms, like a cloud or an umbrella. Kids LOVE to hunt for koalas in every photo (though he doesn’t appear on the page featuring Luna Park — so don’t break your eyes looking for him!).

"Riley and the Curious Koala (cover)"

In Riley and the Grumpy Wombat, the wombat isn’t revealed until the end, but I gave Riley a series of amazing ‘contraptions’ he can use to help find her (because the wombat travels underground and Riley would have found it hard to spot her while flying a plane!).

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat (cover)

In Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo, I decided to change things up by adding colour to the photographs for the first time. As the story unfolds, more and more colour creeps into the images — and when you see the very last photograph over a double page spread, you’ll understand why!

Riley and the jumpy kangaroo book cover

Is there anything you need to keep in mind each time you start writing a new book in the Riley series?

Yes —Panda I need to make sure we include the animal from the last book! Each time Riley starts a new adventure, a little toy version of the critter from the previous book joins the entire crew. Eventually, Riley will have an entire zoo of creatures accompanying him. Kieron and I have joked about attaching a hot air balloon to Riley’s plane so all the creatures can sit in it.

I also need to ensure I keep the style and ‘voice’ of the book the same as the others. This is what ties it to a series. Sometimes this is difficult to do because as you grow as an author, your voice and style changes and (hopefully!) improves. I would actually love the opportunity to do the Riley books a little differently now but I can’t alter the look of an established series.

Have you decided in advance how many titles will be in the Riley series? How do you decide on the right number of books for a series?

I was hoping to release a Riley book every year, forever! But my work on other books has become so busy, Jumpy Roo took two years to produce. The next one may even be three years away. This is upsetting because I adore the books and I have kids asking for them all the time. I will try to make them more frequent!!

Where to next for Riley?

I’m thinking maybe Tassie or New Zealand. I’d love to visit Tassie again soon, so that may sway me. Or maybe I could ask the kids of Australia to nominate Riley’s next destination. Perhaps I’ll send him to the city where kids make the loudest noise!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The Jumpy Roo book launch is being held at Floriade this year! Anyone living in or visiting Canberra on 15 September is invited along, but RSVPs are essential if you want a goodie bag and balloon! You can find out more here.

You can also visit the Riley the Little Aviator website to see updates, learn more about the places Riley visits, and see behind-the-scenes work. There are also some fun activities for kids.


If you’d like to learn more about Tania, visit her website, the Riley the Little Aviator website or check out some earlier Soup Blog posts featuring Tania here and here!

Interview with Tania McCartney © 2013 Tania McCartney and Rebecca Newman

This post is just one stop in the Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo blog tour. For the full Blog Tour schedule, jump in your little red plane and head right here.

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