Posted in info

Meet the author: Briony Stewart

In every issue of Alphabet Soup magazine we interview an author or illustrator. The trouble is, we can only fit some of their answers in the magazine. So we print the full interviews on the blog—we wouldn’t want you to miss out!

In issue 12 we talked to Briony Stewart, author & illustrator of Kumiko and the Dragon, Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret, and Kumiko and the Shadow Catchers.

"Briony Stewart. Photo © H Eslick 2011.
Briony Stewart. (Photo © H Eslick)

Where do you live?

In a house! But I wish it were a tree house.

What do you love about being a writer-illustrator?

I’ve always enjoyed being “away with the fairies,” (as my mum used to call it,) I love daydreaming!  Imagining things, solving problems and inventing are some of my favourite things to do. When the things I dream up make other people happy, make them laugh or have a good think, then it makes me happy too.

Was it easy to get your first book published?

Hmm … a tricky question … Can I say yes and no?

Yes, because I was lucky enough to have a book editor ask to publish my first book before I had even started to try to find someone to publish it! That doesn’t happen very often—even J.K Rowling was rejected a few times to start out with …

But I’ll also say no, because the truth is, even though I ended up in the right place at the right time, I had done a ton of work to get there in the first place. I studied fine art and writing at university, and I wrote and drew every day from the age of fifteen because I decided I wanted to publish a book one day.

I used to say I got lucky, but then someone said “you make your own luck,” and I think that’s kind of true too.

What do you like to do when you are not writing or illustrating?

I love movies, especially but perhaps not surprisingly, kids movies, sci-fi and adventure films. I also like making things—anything. Right now I am trying to make a hexagrammic antiprism lampshade out of cardboard for the kitchen. I also like long chats over a cup of tea, cycling (lazy cycling that involves scenery, short distances, and ice cream), pottering about in my kitchen cooking with music turned up loud enough to sing along to, or sitting on the back steps patting my rabbit Winston, whilst quietly observing the garden.

What made you become a writer-illustrator?

These three things:Kumiko and the dragon (cover)

1. Other people’s books and stories. I wanted to live in their worlds forever, so I started extending and exploring their stories in my head. For instance, I would take myself on walks through Misselthwaite Manor as though I was Mary from The Secret Garden. Soon I started coming up with my own stories and worlds too.

2. When I was 15 I started catching the train to school. It took half an hour and it was boring, so I started writing journals (and dreaming) to pass the time.

3. My English teacher started reading my journals, then the English department, then my friends. I liked having readers to write for. My teacher told me I should publish a book, which was great because I secretly wanted to anyway. Having people who believed in me helped me decide to do it.

Where do you get your ideas?

Kumiko and the Dragon's Secret (cover)Mostly I come up with ideas from things I see or hear or feel in everyday life. Sometimes they morph with some of the daydreams that have been floating around my head for a while, and mutate into a story. I have always been inspired by old stories, myths and folktales too, I’m not sure why. Anything that sounds mysterious and possibly real gets me pretty excited.

Do you have any advice for young writers and artists?

Keep practising, and trying new things all the time. Art and writing is something that for the most part, you have to teach yourself because unlike a lot of other subjects it’s individual. Collect authors and artists that you really like, and study the things you like most about their work. Keep making your own stuff and stick at it. If it really means a lot to you, there’s no way you won’t get really good at it.

Are you working on a book at the moment?

"Kumiko and the Shadow Catchers (cover)"Well, I have just finished my last Kumiko and the Dragon book, and have just begun a new novel for teenagers. It’s about growing up, and graffiti. There’s another novel I am working on too, its for upper primary school students and it is to do with time travel. I think it’s going to be awesome … so awesome that I can’t say any more!

Are there any writers/illustrators who influence your writing/artwork?

Shaun Tan showed me that illustration and art are the same thing, and I admire that. I love fine art illustrators, like CM Barker, Mucha, Searl, Rackham and Dulac.  I like the animated work of Miyazaki and the written work of Tim Winton and poet Robert Frost. But songs and scientific drawings—even beautiful packaging—influence me! I find something to love in the work of most authors and illustrators.

When you were working on the Kumiko books, which came first—the artwork or the story text?

Kumiko definitely started out as a story that I wrote down, but for me images and writing are closely linked. I see the events of a story vividly as I write—almost like watching a movie. I would have loved to have painted all the scenes from Kumiko and the Dragon but the story was too long to be a picture book. Because I knew there would only be 20 black and white pictures, I actually turned many of the images into description instead! So the story is more vivid because I absorbed a lot of what would have made great pictures into the writing. Also, as I am writing I often draw the scenes and characters as references while I’m writing. So the text and art in this book really grew together at the same time, though the text was completed before the final illustrations were done.

What materials do you prefer to use in your artwork?

I am more of a drawer, so pen and pencil are my main tools. But I like using gouache and watercolour paints too, and have started using them more.

Does the story influence your choice of materials?

Of course! Kumiko and the Dragon had to be black and white, but I chose the style and materials because they reminded me a bit of traditional Japanese wood block prints, and Manga, which are both inherently Japanese. But I would equally use soft, watercolour washes for a gentle story, or bright bold, gouache for an action packed adventure!

Do you mostly write in a paper journal, or on a computer?

Time wise I mostly work on the computer, but paper journals are special. I like making covers for new journals, and collecting them. They remind me that I am working towards a book, not a blog or email. They also keep better records of all my more random thoughts (from the doodles in the margins to the shopping list in the top corner).  I use my journal for all the real creative work, and only use the computer to pull all the little pieces together, to begin the long process of editing.

For more information about Briony and her books, check out her website.

Interview by Alphabet Soup magazine. © Alphabet Soup magazine & Briony Stewart, 2011. (Photo  ©Harry Eslick 2011.)
Posted in authors, teachers' resources

Meet the author: Oliver Phommavanh!

"Oliver Phommavanh, author of Thai-riffic!"
Oliver Phommavanh, author of Thai-riffic!

In every issue of Alphabet Soup magazine we interview an author or illustrator. The trouble is, we can only fit some of their answers in the magazine. So we print the full interviews on the blog—we wouldn’t want you to miss out!

In issue 10 we talked to Oliver Phommavanh, author of Thai-riffic!

Where do you live?
I live at my website, and blog (how’s that for shameless plugging in the first question?). Offline, I live in Liverpool, Western Sydney.

What do you love best about being a writer?
I never have to grow up hehe. I really love creating quirky characters and cramming in as many funny jokes as I can. Plus I enjoy visiting different schools and making kids laugh.

What was your favourite book as a child?
I was a bookworm so I have many favourites. I loved Paul Jennings’s ‘Un’ series and Morris Gleitzman’s Blabber Mouth and Sticky Beak books. Hating Alison Ashley was also pretty cool.

Was it easy to get Thai-riffic! published?
Not really. I knew it was going to be tough so I prepared myself for lots of rejections and setbacks. But I also had this belief that there was nothing like Thai-riffic! out there yet, so that kept me going. It was going to be a matter of time until I saw Thai-riffic! on the shelves.

"Thai-riffic!" coverWhat do you like to do when you are not writing?
I love playing video games and reading (still proud to be a bookworm). I’m a primary school teacher and stand up comedian so my days are jam packed!

What made you become a writer?
I always wanted to be one, ever since I started getting awards for writing in Year 1. It took me some time to find my audience and style though. I tried my hand at adult fiction in my uni days. Then I tried teaching and realised that I was destined to write for kids.

Where do you get your ideas?
Most of my stories start off with a core moment or feeling from my childhood. Some of my characters are based on kids that I’ve taught. Teaching can be wonderful market research hehe. I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go, soaking up funny lines, come backs and any striking language and descriptions of the classroom. I’ve also trained my brain as a stand up comedian to squeeze out jokes from any situation.

Do you have any advice for young writers?
Get yourself out there in the writing community. I joined a writers group and other organisations such as SCBWI and CBCA, meeting lots of writers and authors. I’ve been lucky to get my breaks through festivals and conferences, where publishers are so approachable, in other words, they can’t escape hehe. There are heaps of competitions to enter, if you win then you gain some cred and assurance that you’re on the right track. And just keep writing, let those words flow. If you’re enjoying the process, then you’re halfway there.

Are you working on a book at the moment?
I’ve just finished my second book Con-nerd, coming out in June 2011. It’s about a nerd (me, surprise surprise) who has a knack for drawing cartoons that suddenly makes him cool and popular. I’ve just started writing my next book about a teenager doing stand up comedy, which should hit the shelves in 2012.

Do any of your family or friends recognise themselves in your writing?
I hope so because I love using their names as characters in my stories. Thai-riffic!‘s eccentric parents are based on Mum and Dad. Everyone’s grateful to find their names and/or personalities in print. It’s a simple way of thanking them for supporting me on my ‘cHEwY’ journey.

You can find out more about Oliver Phommavanh and his books on his website and blog.

Posted in authors, competitions, teachers' resources, what we're reading

Our Australian Girl series — meet the author

This month there is a new series out called Our Australian Girl. Each story in the series is set in a particular era of Australian history and the first books in the series explore the convict era and colonisation, the goldrush and Federation. In the first books we meet Grace, Letty, Poppy and Rose. Each of their stories begins in a different era and each character has their own series of four books.

Meet Rose

Meet Letty Meet Grace

Today we are lucky to have one of the authors visiting Soup Blog. Gabrielle Wang is writing the series about Poppy. The first book, Meet Poppy, is out now.

Meet Poppy

Were you asked to write Poppy’s story in particular?

I was given the name Poppy by my publisher. But they let me decide on the era in Australian history that I wanted to write about. I chose the Gold Rush because it was a very exciting time, and because my great grandfather came to Australia then. He was Chinese. I have written him into the third book which is called Poppy and the Thief. I have never met my great grandfather so I don’t know what kind of man he was. I therefore had to make up a lot, especially about his personality. But I did know what town he settled in and what he did for a living. There is a plaque in Wahgunyah on the Murray River that is dedicated to him. He was a pioneer in that area.

Poppy’s story is set in 1864. Did you have to do some research before you starting writing?

With historical fiction you always have to do heaps of research. Even though Poppy is not a real person, a lot of the facts in the novel are true. For example, Harry Power is a real bushranger. When I write a story, I see a picture in my mind as if I’m watching a movie, so before I could start the Poppy series I had to have an image in my mind of the way Victoria looked back then—the towns, the way people dressed, their hairstyles, the food they ate etc. Because 1864 is quite early in the history of white settlement in Victoria, most of the towns we know today didn’t exist then. I had to be very careful not to write about a town that had not been built yet.
How long did you need to research before you were ready to write?

I researched the story for about 4 months then I wrote a first draft. This is when you write and don’t stop to do corrections. You just want to get the story down. There are four books in the Poppy series but I wrote the first draft as if it was one long novel because that’s what it is really. Each small novel is only a part of a bigger story. Of course the research part doesn’t stop when you start writing. For example, in Meet Poppy, I needed to know how people lit stoves and fires in 1864. Were there matches? I needed to know what kind of lighting they used and what washhouses looked like, and much much more. As I wrote the story I was constantly on the internet searching for small details like these. We are so lucky that Google is available. It makes writing much easier.
Did you go anywhere else to find your information?

I went to the State Library of Victoria and did a lot of my research there. Unlike suburban libraries, you are not allowed to borrow the books from any State Library. I also took books out from my own local library, used the Internet, bought books to keep, and interviewed people. The story takes place along the Murray River, so I drove up to Beechworth and stayed for the weekend to get a good idea of the vegetation and have a look at the historic towns there. Poppy is born to a Chinese father and an Aboriginal mother so I have had to work closely with several Aboriginal people to make sure everything I wrote concerning Indigenous matters was correct.
Do you think growing up in 1864 was very different from growing up in 2011?

Try to imagine what life would have been like back then. There is no electricity, no computers, no aeroplanes or cars. The toilet is outside or just a hole in the ground. You ride on horses or in carriages or else walk. If your father is a gold prospector you probably live in a tent or bark hut if you’re lucky, by the banks of a creek muddied with gold panning. You don’t go to school unless you live in a town. Probably at least one of your brothers and sisters has died. If you are an Aboriginal girl, life is much worse for you. You would be forcibly taken away from your parents and put on a mission like Bird Creek. There you would be trained as a servant girl to work in a rich person’s home. You most likely would never see your mum or dad ever again.
What do you like best about Poppy’s character?

Poppy is brave, much braver than I could ever be. She is resourceful and creative and most of all, she is very kind.

Have you read any of the other ‘Our Australian Girl’ books?

Yes. I love Grace and Letty and Rose. They are all such strong characters and their stories are very exciting.

Gabrielle Wang
Gabrielle Wang, author of Meet Poppy

Did you find writing ‘Meet Poppy‘ any different from writing your previous books?

The Poppy books, Meet Poppy, Poppy at Summerhill, Poppy and the Thief, and Poppy Comes Home are a series and I’ve never written a series before. But now I have a taste for it, I’ve decided to start on another series soon. I’m not sure what it’s going to be about, or what my main character will be called. I’ll let it simmer away in my mind first. Wh enever I visit a school to talk about my books I’m constantly on the lookout for names to use in my next story.

Gabrielle Wang’s books include The Garden of Empress Cassia, The Pearl of Tiger Bay, The Hidden Monastery, The Lion Drummer, A Ghost in My Suitcase and Little Paradise. You can find out more about her and her books on her website

You can find out more about the Our Australian Girl series on the series website. The website also has a fun page including a quiz, activities and a competition.

Posted in teachers' resources

Meet Ken Spillman – author of the Jake books


"Jake's Gigantic List""Ken Spillman"

Our visitor today is Ken Spillman, author of many books, including Jake’s Gigantic List and Jake’s Monster Mess. The third book in the series Jake’s Balloon Blast will be out in March 2011.

What made you become a writer?

Quite simply, a love of stories.  That developed early and by the age of 8 I was a keen writer, even during school holidays.  When I was 15, my English teacher told me to keep writing.  He forgot to tell me to stop writing, so I’m still going.  It’s all his fault.

Was it easy to get your first book published?

It was, actually, but before that I’d published a lot of short stories and poems, while having quite a few rejections as well.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I had many, including adventure stories like Robin Hood and Tom Sawyer.  But an enduring favourite was – and IS – The Little Prince.  That always gets me thinking – I can revisit it every year and learn something new!

Where do you get your ideas/inspiration?

It’s very difficult not to get ideas – so the trick is to give some time to the ideas you do have.  For me, watching and listening leads to imagining, and that’s where story begins.  After that, it’s all about work.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?"Jake's Balloon Blast"

I like to read!  But I also love sports and enjoy swimming or kicking a ball around.  Travelling is also great, and recently I’ve enjoyed talking to big groups of Jake fans in Asian countries.

Are you working on a book at the moment?

I’ve always got a few books on the go.  Chris Nixon is illustrating the fourth Jake book – with a sporting theme – and I’ve written two more.  I’m also working on a picture book for Scholastic and a new series for release by Puffin India later this year.

When you are writing the Jake books, do you work closely with Chris Nixon, or do you finish the text and then leave him to do the illustrations?

I finish the story first, but since the first Jake book I’ve been able to imagine what Chris will be able to do with it as I go along.  He nailed the Jake character straight off, so I know he’s always going to really ‘get’ what I write.

Do you have any advice for young writers?

First and foremost, have fun.  What a magical thing it is to create whole worlds – with just paper and ink!  If you enjoy writing, you’ll do it often – and that’s the second thing … work!

Posted in authors, Events, info, teachers' resources

“Lights Out!” (Kathryn Apel)

Kathryn Apel is the author of Fencing With Fear and This is the Mud. She’s here today to help us celebrate the launch of the Undercover Readers Club by sharing the books that she liked to read after ‘lights out’ when she was a child. Welcome, Kat!

"Fencing with fear cover""This is the mud (cover)"

What did I read after lights out when I was growing up?

"Kat Apel photo"
Kathryn Apel

Oh – that’s so easy!

If I was reading anything undercover when I was a kid, it would have been an Enid Blyton. (And then Nancy Drew … ) I loved the The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. I even staged a protest when our librarian banned these books from our school. Disgraceful – that they should be banned!

My lights-out reading was by the glow of the lounge room light spilling into my bedroom. I crouched near the door and tilted the words toward the light – but had to be ve-ry careful turning the pages, so I didn’t alert my parents to my presence. Just as well I had a carpeted bedroom floor. It softened flurried footsteps on those frantic flights back to bed! (Though the bedsprings did give me away on occasion … )

I also remember staying at my cousin’s house for a holiday and going to Vacation Bible School. My cousin and I were in stiff competition for the most bible verses memorised, and I needed an edge! My cousin was puzzled at how I had memorised so many verses next day – but I wasn’t telling him about that torch trick!

Yr 3 student Curtis Costa obviously had a few tricks up his sleeve, too. I was pretty chuffed by his review of my book  Fencing With Fear: “When I was reading and Dad told me, ‘Lights out!’ I hid the book, turned on my lamp and kept reading because it was so exciting.” What an awesome review! Thank you, Curtis.

Hmmmm … All this talk about Undercover Readers is making me a bit suspicious of my two book bug boys … and their lights out routines.

Why are you both looking soooo suspicious?


"Kat's symbol"

© 2010 Kathryn Apel

Visit Kat Apel’s site to find out more about her and her books.

"undercover readers logo"Alphabet Soup magazine is celebrating the launch of Undercover Readers (our new reviewers club for kids)!  If you’d like to join the Undercover Readers Club, you’ll find an information pack you can download from the Alphabet Soup website. As part of the celebrations, we have a different children’s author or illustrator visiting Soup Blog each day until 29 June 2010 to talk about what they used to read after ‘lights out’ when they were growing up.