authors, interviews

Meg McKinlay on How to Make a Bird

Meg McKinlay, author, sitting in a library

Meg McKinlay is an award-winning children’s writer and poet. She has published seventeen books for children, ranging from picture books through to young adult novels. Meg lives with her family near the ocean in Fremantle and spends most of her time cooking up books. Her latest book is How to Make a Bird, illustrated by Matt Ottley.

From the publisher:

We shadow the protagonist as she contemplates the blue print of an idea, collects the things that inspire from the natural world to shape a bird. And breathes life into it before letting it fly free. It shows how small things, combined with a little imagination and a steady heart, can transform into works of magic.

How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay and Matt Ottley

On with the questions!

How long did it take you from the start of the idea for this book to the book being published?

Sixteen years! That may be some kind of all-time record and in this case it’s not because I’m such a slow writer. I actually wrote this manuscript quite quickly and the published version is almost identical to the original. The problem was simply that publishers didn’t want it. I sent it to lots of places in Australia and then in the US but got no interest at all, just lots of rejection letters telling me it was ‘odd’, ‘not a picture book’, ‘not relevant to children’ and ‘unillustratable’. Although I didn’t agree with those comments, I couldn’t do much but put it away in a drawer and sigh from time to time. Then in 2017, I pulled it out of the drawer, sighed a little more deeply, and thought I’d give it another shot. There was a new publisher at Walker Books, one with a particular love of lyrical language and perhaps a different sort of vision, and she signed it up on the spot.

Did you meet with the illustrator (Matt Ottley) while he was creating the illustrations? 

Matt and I had an informal catch-up before he started working on the book. We didn’t talk directly about the illustrations, but about the ideas behind the book. He wanted to get a sense of where it had come from for me, my personal connection to it and what I saw as being at the heart of it. We chatted over coffee about philosophy and creativity and all sorts of vaguely related things, and both came away feeling like we were very much in synch about what was important in the book. Matt was working on other projects at the time and it wasn’t until much later that he started his first sketches for this one. After that initial chat, conversations about the process and the nitty-gritty of the illustrations took place via the publisher, in consultation with their editor and art director.

You write books for a variety of age groups – picture books, junior fiction, novels for upper primary, and YA novels. Do you like to work a little on many projects at the same time, or do you focus on one book at a time? 

What I usually do is work on one longer project – usually a novel for upper primary or YA – and a bunch of other little bits and pieces such as picture books and poems. I always have a couple of picture books at various stages and there are hundreds of poems clamouring for attention. I’m not good with structure and story – narrative does not come naturally to me – so being able to dip in and out of these shorter or less structured fragments is really important creatively.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?

At the moment I’m working on a sequel to A Single Stone, though I’m honestly not sure if I’ll ever get it over the finish line. It’s been a very disrupted few years and has been a real struggle to make progress. I also have some picture books in the pipeline and am currently putting the finishing touches on one that’s coming out next year. It’s called Ella and the Useless Day and is about a journey to the rubbish tip that doesn’t quite go according to plan. It’s a collaboration with illustrator Karen Blair, who has brought so much genius energy to the story; I’m so excited for it to hit shelves.

What are you currently reading? 

I recently got to read an advance copy of Peter Carnavas’ new middle-grade novel My Brother Ben and want to give it to everyone. It’s about brothers and birds and boats and it’s just absolutely beautiful.

How to Make a Bird is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or your local library.


Hear Meg McKinlay talk about the book (YouTube)

Download teachers’ notes for How to Make a Bird

Take a look inside the book

Visit Meg McKinlay’s website for more about her and her books

Visit Matt Ottley’s site for more about him and his illustrations.

How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay and Matt Ottley