Combining words with pictures to record your Covid stories

A workshop to stimulate your creativity, and maybe a recipe for survival in these uncertain times.

As I enjoy writing as much as I enjoy creating pictures, I always love having the opportunity to talk about both, and how one sparks off the other. When my friend and fellow-poet Maria Vouis asked me if I’d like to take part in presenting a life-writing workshop for SA Health, utilising prose, poetry and pictures, I jumped at the chance.

Maria, 2022 winner of SA’s Satura prize for Poetry and MC/fellow co-coordinator of our musicians/poets’ open mic Southern Poets’ Interactive Network (SPIN for short) and I have received funding from SA Health – Ageing Well Grants to run four whole-day workshops to be held in outlying areas of the city, as well as in two rural districts, enabling local residents to take advantage of a facility that is rarely available within their community.

Viral Lines encourages participants to combine poetry, prose and visuals to capture their personal COVID stories of struggle, survival and victory. It uses poetry and prose as memoir, combined with visual storytelling such as drawing and photo-collage, to explore this testing time in collective and personal history.

When I looked at my own coping strategies during the worst of the lockdowns, I realised that I was using Instagram to record my daily thoughts, both to offer a little solace to those who were suffering far greater privations than I was, and also to derive comfort from communicating with others who were experiencing anxiety similar to my own.

I created a very silly cartoon strip on Instagram called Rat of the Year 2020 that ran for precisely four episodes before I ran out of inspiration. But boy, was it a good way to let off steam! I also wrote a few haiku, some of which turned into haiga. Here’s an example:

During the workshop I will be talking about these and other ways to combine words and pictures, both as a coping mechanism and as a way to explore new pathways in creativity.

The workshops are aimed at seniors but they are open to all ages and all levels of experience. For teachers, social workers, counsellors and other professionals, we offer a Professional Development Certificate.

‘Life Writing’ is a powerful voicing tool that focuses on and integrates profound and challenging experiences. We would love to hear, read and look at your stories. The workshop provides a forum for sharing, empathising, and strengthening social relationships, thereby helping to forge resilience and reduce isolation in the community.

There will be four workshops, starting with Seaford, SA on Saturday August 6, 10am – 4pm, followed by Whyalla on Saturday 27.8.22, and Goolwa on Saturday 17.9.22. The fourth workshop date and location is pending.

The workshop cost is $30 or $25 concession, and includes morning tea.

If you’re interested in booking for one of the workshops, please contact me via my contact page.


A new year, and a new direction

When I started this blog I thought I was going to talk mainly about picture books. I had no idea that after a year of studying picture books, writing and illustrating my own picture books, and submitting multiple times with no tangible success, I would suddenly be inspired to write a middle grade novel. I’m still not sure how it happened, but maybe it was because I’d started to read a lot of recent middle grade novels, and I found I was enjoying them as much as any adult novel. And then I heard that publishers were looking for middle grade novels. And then I had an idea for one.

I’m still at the early stages of my novel, but I’ve already discovered that a) I love writing for this level, b) it’s extremely hard work but I don’t mind a bit, and c) all that hard work I put into learning how to write picture books has been an enormous help. I am still determined to get my picture books published, but writing for middle grade is easier in one respect: I don’t have to think about leaving imaginative space for the pictures! That means I can have enormous fun describing scenes and characters.

I have some favourite middle grade novels, dating from a long time ago right up to the present day.

When I was a child, there was no such thing as a middle grade novel. There were books for children that had a few pictures, and books for older children that had no pictures. Middle grade novels are aimed at 8 to 12 year-olds, and the children in the stories are usually aged 10 to 13. I’m not sure how old Moomin and his friends were supposed to be, but I lapped up the Moomin books when I was 8 or 9. I also enjoyed the Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers, The Little Grey Men (that made me cry) and the Hobbit, but none of these books were about children just like me.

I read some of the classic stories about children such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, the E Nesbit books and the Narnia books, but none of the children in these stories seemed contemporary.

These days there are more and more books that seem to be exclusively child-centred, and address a wealth of modern childhood problems from bullying to gender identity. There are fantasy books, sci-fi, magic realism and historical adventures, but most of them seem to feature child protagonists.

I have listed below some of my favourites so far. I don’t intend to cover all the genres, as I prefer semi-fantasies that are rooted in the real world over pure fantasy or realism. But in two of these books the real world is more dominant than in the others.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Every middle grade author seems to love this one. It’s realistic, but the children invent a fantasy world to escape into. The realism is almost too hard to bear, but we know the hero will come through the experience and become a stronger person.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. This is another book that contains harrowing realism, but there is a more ambiguous streak of fantasy in here that gives hope even in the darkest moments. The writing style is brilliant.

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold. The realism becomes a little far-fetched when the heroine goes with her scientist father to stay on a remote island in the Arctic circle, and then befriends a polar bear. But somehow you’re compelled to believe it all. And the bear is so lovable.

The Unicorn in the Barn by Jacqueline Ogburn. It’s very easy to believe in unicorns when a pregnant one turns up in the vet’s barn. But magic is not necessarily that helpful when you’re dealing with real life. This is a clever mixture of facing up to real problems and a magical adventure that nearly goes terribly wrong.

I will add to this list in future posts. None of these titles resemble the book I’m writing, but I found them all inspiring in different ways. I’d love to know if you have read some of these books and enjoyed them too. And can you recommend some to me?


Mentorship part 3: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome.

My PB#chat mentorship finished at the beginning of December last year, when I had to upload the first 100 words of the manuscript and four of the illustrations to a showcase that took place during the first week of December. Agents and publishers from all over the USA were invited to view. Unfortunately I couldn’t show my dummy book – which I was quite proud of – but I figured that if an agent was interested in the story I could send them the dummy when they contacted me. I felt I’d finally clambered out of the uncanny valley between making Elton too human-looking and making him too realistic. I was also satisfied with my sample illustrations, which were carefully selected to reflect Elton’s character, some of the other characters, and the landscape he lives in.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to come rolling in.

But it didn’t quite happen the way I’d expected it to. No comments at all! I noticed that some of my fellow mentees were getting anything up to seven or eight comments from agents and publishers. By the end of the week, only a few of us had received no requests for a submission. What was wrong with us? I wondered if they didn’t like my illustrations. I wondered if they didn’t like the way the story was going. When you write and illustrate a story it’s very easy to feel impostor’s syndrome three times over: ‘Am I a lousy writer? Am I a lousy illustrator? Do I suck at both?’

I looked again at what was currently being published. I consulted my fellow mentees and together we discussed what the agents had been looking for. I concluded in the end that – plain and simple – my story just wasn’t the current flavor of the month.

So I picked myself up off the floor and did what all rejected creators have to do – I got on with another story. This time I didn’t illustrate it – I wanted the story to make it on its own. This story has had plenty of approving peer reviews, and Brian also had a quick look and liked it! So it’s up on the SCBWI Winter Conference Manuscript Showcase (viewable only to agents and publishers) right now, from Feb 19, for 2 weeks. And I put three illustrations for another story that I’ve written into the Winter Conference Illustrators’ Portfolio which you can view here. I’m somewhere near the end as it’s listed alphabetically. Look for the three blue ones. Wish me luck, but I’m not stopping there. My mentorship with Brian Lies has given me the confidence and determination to keep sending off my stories, with and without illustrations, to agents and publishers in Australia, the US and the UK where I grew up. Some time, somewhere, someone will like my stuff and offer me a contract! Some day my ship will come!


Mentorship Part 2: the story evolves

Almost two months into my mentorship, and Elton’s Ears is taking shape in new ways that I’d never anticipated. The story is just about resolved at last: Raven is merely hinting at a way that Elton might find his way home, allowing Elton to do all the thinking for himself. So the next stage is to make sure the characters are consistent. In the process of developing the layout I ended up with some very sketchy drawings and some more finished ones, so I needed to get them all looking as though they belonged to the same book. The image above was my first sketch for Elton trying to stand up for the first time. The image below is the more refined version. I’ve lost some of the spontaneity on the way, but Brian reassured me that that happens to him too! Especially once the colour is added, children (and some adults) will need a more finished image in order to ‘read’ the action. Plus, in the process of transforming the drawings, I decided to give Elton a triumphant expression in the last picture.

I’d already gathered all the deer drawings together and started to compare them, noticing that in some, Elton looked much bigger next to his Mum than in others, and after studying Mule Deer a little more closely I made Dad a whole lot chunkier and Mum became a little more streamlined.

First sketch for the family
Elton and his parents, revised rough

Brian still pointed out that the antlers don’t look quite in perspective – I may have to construct a model out of pipe cleaners!

I now have to think carefully about the repeated images of Elton in various stages of surprise and panic. He needs to look and act like a mule deer but at the same time he has to appeal to children, so his emotions have to be recognisably similar to human emotions.

In his first encounter with loud noises, he began as a little too exaggerated:

His eyes are just a bit too human, he has teeth like a horse and a neck like a giraffe! Notice also that the text is in front of the drawing. Publishers hate that! So I needed to move the text outside his ears, plus a member of my critique group pointed out that ‘croak’ is the sound that frogs make. After a discussion between friends about the relative noises made by Australian and American ravens (we refer to them all as ‘crows’ in Australia, but in fact most Australian ‘crows’ are ravens) I decided that ‘Karrk’ was the best compromise for a sound made by both species.

So here I’ve adjusted his face so it’s more realistic, but Brian thinks it’s still in that ‘uncanny valley’ which falls between ‘not quite animal’ and ‘not quite human’. I need to make his eyes more deer-like, and less human. I’ve also made his ears smaller, because the story is not about his ears being abnormally large, it’s about the fear induced by the sudden amplification of noises.

I’m still working on varying Elton’s posture, to express panic and fear, speed, delight and relief.

Brian has given me a useful tip: he says if I print out all the ‘Elton’ faces, I can compare them and analyse whether they all look like the same character from different angles. He traces one face and overlays it on the others to compare relative proportions, in the same way as an animator would do.

All this preparation – long before I embark on the final illustrations! But it’s well worth it. I learned from another mentor, the water colourist Alan Ramachandran, that your picture will be 10 times better for every hour you put into preparing beforehand. Next time you pick up a picture book, consider that each picture may have taken between 4 and 40 hours to complete: and that’s only after all that previous preparation undertaken by both writer and illustrator, not to mention the editor and the designer!


Mentorship, Part 1: Kill your Darlings

When I submitted my manuscript for the #PBChat Mentorship program, I thought I had taken the story as far down the road to completion as possible. That is, I’d shown it to a peer critique group, I’d worked on the dummy book for several weeks, and I’d put it in a drawer for several weeks, then taken it out and worked on it, then repeated the process several more times. But what I hadn’t done was show it to an author/illustrator like Brian Lies who has extensive experience both as a professional creator and as a mentor. And that’s exactly what I needed to do!

Brian and I haven’t met online yet, but he’s already given me a wealth of advice in what he called his ‘first thoughts’ – all three pages of them! One of the most valuable tips he gave was to pay attention to the pacing of my story. Once I have the story laid out in dummy book form, it’s not just all about the page turn. There will be fast-moving parts of the story which need the counterpoint of slower passages, and I hadn’t thought much about that aspect at all. Tomie de Paola compared creating picture books with writing, directing and performing an opera or a musical, because you are engaging your audience with language, rhythm, colour, emotion, story and action all at once – so why not music as well? And just as we need quiet passages in a musical performance, so we need comforting pauses in a fast-moving children’s story.

Brian made several excellent suggestions about the positioning of the characters, such as making sure that your hero is not placed so far away in the picture that you can’t see his facial expression, or you can’t empathise with his situation because you aren’t right in there with him. But he also drew attention to the fact that my hero wasn’t really resolving the situation himself – he was getting too many hints from his helpful companion, the Raven. I needed to make the Raven’s character more subtle so that he didn’t just behave like a schoolteacher, but gave Elton the opportunity to work things out on his own.

I ended up pasting my original layout into a giant storyboard which I joined together from four A4 sheets. I took out two scenes that I felt weren’t needed, and added another spread to slow down the action in the first few pages, which then contrasts with the buildup of momentum in the second half of the story. I downloaded a template for this purpose from storyboardnotebook.com The first spread represents the cover design, which at the moment I have repeated as the CIPdata/title page spread. The blank pages represent end papers, plus a blank in the middle of the book that needed an extra illustration, to represent the calm before the next disturbing event.

You’ll notice that the animal sounds are very large and a little worrying! Brian suggested I make them less distorted, so a child could read them more easily.

This is how my first storyboard looked.

In my next blog post, I’ll demonstrate what happened after I started applying some more of the changes that Brian suggested.


Opportunity Knocks

When I began writing this blog last month I said I would occasionally talk about my own picture books, as well as describing the picture books, both recent and ancient, that impress me. I wasn’t expecting to have any exciting news about my own work for a long time to come, but I was mistaken!

Yesterday I woke up to discover that I had been selected to receive a mentorship with one of my favourite American author/illustrators, Brian Lies. This is a dream come true. I applied for the mentorship through PBChat, thinking I’d be highly unlikely to get anywhere as the competition is US based and there must be a million aspiring US author/illustrators who’d be grasping at the chance. So it was a huge surprise to find I was a winner!

The little fellow in the picture at the top of the page is the one who earned me this privilege. His name is Elton and his story was inspired by my Canadian grandson, who at the time of my second visit to his home in the Rockies, BC, was very afraid of loud noises. Together we sat down and made up a story about a mule deer who had ultra sensitive hearing – which led him into all sorts of trouble! Elton eventually discovers that his ears can be extremely useful, once he knows how to use them.

I’m hoping Brian will help me to hone the story and pictures into something that will be acceptable to publishers. At the moment it’s in the raw state of early conception, and as the weeks of the mentorship go by I’ll be documenting its progress, both story and pictures.

I love the way Brian writes, and his drawings are exquisite. His book ‘The Rough Patch’ moved me to tears. So I know I will learn a lot from him, and I feel very fortunate. To sample the way he crafts his stories, listen to the two interviews that are posted on the home page of his website.

One of Brian Lies’ beautiful illustrations for ‘The Rough Patch’

I’m so grateful to Justin Colon, the inspiration behind PBChat. I’m now part of a whole new community of fellow mentees, and I’m determined to make the most of every moment of my mentorship.



As this is my brand new website (my old website was getting overloaded with diverse topics that have preoccupied me over the last 20 years), the focus in this blog is going to be on my first, current and future passion – picture books. I have always loved picture books, but I was never as serious about writing and illustrating them as I am now. Having worked as an illustrator, a poet and a printmaker, these occupations have helped me to appreciate the power of words and pictures more than ever before.

I will use this blog to create a library of my favourite picture books, past and present. I will analyse why I like them, what is uniquely special about them, and how they were created.

Just occasionally there will be some news about my own picture books, which I’m constantly working on.

For my first post, I’m going to mention a book that captured my heart a few weeks ago. I subscribe to a wonderful website called Brain Pickings, and this is where I discovered Pinnochio: the Origin Story by Alessandro Sanna.

This is an almost wordless picture book, something which publishers are often very afraid of publishing. They feel that parents and teachers need a story to narrate to the children, but I found this story very easy to narrate to my granddaughter – the pictures told me exactly what to say. They are watercolours, rendered in the brightest colours, using a seemingly effortless technique that evolves with the natural flow of the medium (you can see Alessandro working in this youtube video). The story is on one level just a series of adventures experienced by – a twig. But the beauty of the images somehow gives it greater depths; I compare it to listening to Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, if you can get the Disney images out of your head and concentrate on the power of the music instead. Because we don’t have a didactic narrative, Sanna’s pictures literally speak for themselves.

As to the meaning of this story, my granddaughter never asked me to explain. She simply absorbed the pictures, feeling the emotions that the images evoked, and empathising with the little stick creature. She didn’t know the Pinocchio story and had never seen the Disney version, even though she is totally up to date with the latest Disney epics.

I suggest you read the article in Brain Pickings and then buy the book for your child, someone else’s child, or yourself. You won’t regret it.