Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate
Written by Claire Saxby Illustrated by Judith Rossell
Published by Windy Hollow

Today I am talking with Claire Saxby about Picture Books and the role illustrations play. I’ve heard the role of the illustrator described in terms of creating a companion story inspired by the author’s text but reaching beyond what is actually written.
Author and SCBWI President Stephen Mooser, president of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and an author of more than 60 books, defines a picture book as: ‘One in which the pictures and the text play equal roles.’

Welcome Claire!
I'd like to begin by asking you about the integration of text and illustrations in a Picture Book and comment on the extent to which they require a particular style of writing.
Picture books are a category all of their own. The story has to work on its own, but then the illustrations have to add another story. The author has to leave enough 'room' for the illustrator to move. I seldom include any illustration notes unless it's to convey something that's not directly in the text but that is integral to the story. It's a tricky balance to include enough details but not to hog-tie the illustrator.
Could you briefly outline the distinctive roles played by illustrations in a Picture Book compared to a Picture Story Book or early reader?
I'm not quite sure what you mean by the distinction between Picture Book and Picture Story Book as I use the terms interchangeably. But if you mean PSB to be a longer story with fewer illustration, then the balance changes between text and illustration. As with early readers, the illustrations then tend to illuminate the text rather that carry their own story.
As an author, although not responsible for the illustrations, do you create a story board or find yourself visualising pictures to accompany the text as you write?
No. I seldom have any idea what my characters look like and only very vague ideas about the appearance of the setting. I look through my characters eyes out into their world, and my focus is on their behaviours and personality. I'm always surprised by how someone interprets my's one of the magic surprises when I see the first images.
I'm wondering whether you have ever found it difficult to let go of your ideas for the illustration and trust the illustrator and publisher to bring the final product together?
No, for the reasons mentioned above. The only time I've really had a discussion about how something has been illustrated was in 'Deepwater Blues' a chapter book. The main character overcomes a fear of really deep water (and what's in it) when his mate says he should take a look at an octopus he's found. The illustrator drew a 'giant of the deep' octopus, several times bigger than the boy! No swimmer in their right mind WOULDN'T be scared of something that big! I'd imagined a tiny little octopus, looking almost too small to be real. Not only did the illustration remain, the image was reproduced on the front cover!
On looking at some of your picture books, I note you have been matched up with various illustrators. What do you think you have you learned from having a number of different illustrators illustrate your picture books?
What talented people illustrators are! Of course I was already aware of that, but seeing them bring my story to life while bringing their own ideas to the project is awe-inspiring. It's also interesting having the same person work on two projects and seeing how different their work can be.
In creating the text for a picture book one writer suggested it was a matter of deciding what to leave in (plot) and what to leave out (description)! In ‘Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Goat’ can you offer an example or two of what the illustrations tell the reader that the text does not?
Picture book writing is definitely about what to leave out! When you have so few words to play with, there is no room for any word that's not pulling its weight. In my first picture book, 'Ebi's Boat' I met with illustrator Anne Spudvilas and we talked about what to leave out. 'Ebi's Boat' was already short, but when Anne showed me how she could illustrate a certain part without the words, I slashed more, until the final text has just under 300 words. In 'Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate', I had used more description than I usually do, perhaps as a way to explain each animal and their physical relationship to each other. I wanted their movements to be logical. But they didn't belong in the final version and many of them are now gone. Judith Rossell, the illustrator has positioned both Sheep and Goat beautifully.
During workshops and critique groups I have encountered a number of writers who express reluctance to submit a Picture Book manuscript to a publisher because they don’t want to ‘let go’ of their own ideas about the illustrations. What comments/reassurances can you offer?
More, perhaps, than any other writing form, picture books are a collaboration. The writer brings the story, the editor/publisher sees the potential and the place in the market, and the illustrator brings the story off the page. Each brings their own special magic to a project. Sometimes three brains aren't better than one, but in the case of a picture book, they certainly are! I couldn't possibly have the same understanding of all the different aspects of picture book production, and it's wonderful to have professionals on board who are experts in their own field.
There appears to be a popular misconception among beginning children’s writers that Picture Books are easier to write than other forms of children’s books. I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
How could I argue with Mark Twain? My mother asked me why I didn't write poems in her birthday cards. I said it was because I'm usually writing the card on the day of her birthday and have no time to draft. To write poetry and picture books, there are so many elements that have to be contained in the few words. Plot, character, setting, all the things that belong in any story. But in picture books, there's no time to drop in little bits here and there that build up over chapters. Everything has to happen in less than 32 pages. That means drafting, redrafting and then redrafting again, until every word is working properly. No waffle, no ambiguity, nothing but distilled story. It's hard, but very rewarding.
And rewarding, Claire has been this visit. I look foward with great interest to joining the rest of your tour as I hope will other readers. So, from me, happy touring!

Thanks Mabel, some very thought-provoking questions!

The Tour Schedule:
Monday 17August: Dee White
Tuesday 18 August: Rebecca Newman
Wednesday 19 August: Mabel Kaplan:
Thursday 20 August: Sandy Fussell:
Friday 21 August Dale: Harcombe
Saturday 22 August: Sally Murphy
Sunday 23 August: Robyn Opie
Monday 24 August: Sally Odgers:

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Picture books are not just for children! They are one of my favourite kinds of books to browse and enjoy. Each time I come across a new picture book, I rediscover their joy - revisit concepts and topics approached in fresh and unexpected ways - reminding me of the song from Peter Pan: "I won't grow up . . . not me!"
I'd lilke to believe it's the job of children's writers to find the fairy dust magic in the seemingly mundane - to leave children entranced and to keep the rest of us sane.
A recent visit to a bookstore brought me face to face with book after weary book of endless diets and weight watching.
Imagine my delight (and relief) when, upon reaching shelves in the children's section, I came upon Dutch writer, Sylvia Van Ommen’s picture book, The Surprise. Yes! Another book on weight watching - but this time covered in the kind of magic dust that fills me with inner joy.

A sheep finds a way to get rid of too much weight. The book shows the sheep on the scales, looking at herself in a mirror, recording her weight on a chart, visiting a pharmacy and getting rid of her excess weight in a shearing shed, spinning it into skeins and knitting a jumper for a giraffe! (But then, I am a farmer's daughter!)
And there's another reason why I am talking sheep today! Children's writer, Claire Saxby of Victoria begins her blog tour of Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate tomorrow, Monday 17August. She'll be talking with Dee White at
On Wednesday she’ll be here on TALE I TELL to share with me some of her thoughts on the role of illustrations in picture books and specifically in her soon to be released picture book: Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate. Can’t you hear them already? I can hardly wait to see the way magic dust will spread this time.

The Tour Schedule:
Monday 17August: Dee White
Tuesday 18 August: Rebecca Newman
Wednesday 19 August: Mabel Kaplan:
Thursday 20 August: Sandy Fussell:
Friday 21 August Dale: Harcombe
Saturday 22 August: Sally Murphy
Sunday 23 August: Robyn Opie
Monday 24 August: Sally Odgers:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Samurai Kids: Monkey Fist
by Sandy Fussell
Illustrated by Rhian Nest James
Published by Walker Books Australia
ISBN: 9781921150913
Release date: 1 August 2009

Although Monkey Fist is a stand-alone story it is also Sandy Fussell's fourth book in the Series.

In Samurai Kids, Sensei Ki-Yaga, a Samurai Warrior from old Japan collects students that no other Samurai master is willing to train and sets up his Cockroach Ryu Training School. On their own, each student may struggle but together, they discover they are strong. Already they have proved themselves strong enough to win the annual Samurai Training Games and beat the Dragon Ryu who made fun of them. They have developed the ninja skills needed to enter the castle of the Emperor and avert war between the mountain ryus. They have travelled across China to aid the shaolin monks of the White Tiger Temple. In Monkey Fist, they race to the Forbidden City to rescue Kyoko from the evil Secretary of Rites, Lu Zeng.

In preparing questions about the cultural setting and background to Samurai Kids: Monkey Fist, I picked up two the earlier books in the series - White Crane and Owl Ninja hoping to taste something of the flavour of the series and learn about the characters. I found myself immersed in layer upon layer of Japanese culture, mysticism and folklore. The stories read like an enlarged Haiku offering so much more than the words themselves.

I am so delighted that Sandy Fussell can join me today for her blog tour.
Welcome Sandy!

1. As I read your Samurai books I am struck by the underlays of Japanese culture, folklore, mysticism waiting to be uncovered. How did this relationship come about?

I did a project on Japan when I was nine. I thought it was the most beautiful, magical place. And I still do. I’ve never been there and some of my friends say I wrote Samurai Kids in the hope of one day going on a research trip! Oh, I wish. From Japan the Kids travel to China, where Monkey Fist is set. I have been to China but only barely. I did a day trip from Hong Kong which saw the group venture just far enough inside the border to need a visa. China is on my wish list too. I would love to see the Forbidden City where much of the action of Monkey Fist takes place. Later titles will see the Samurai Kids journey into Korea, the Kingdom of Joseon. The culture and history of north-east Asia fascinates me.

2. I am most intrigued by the relationship between the names of the Cockroach Ryu members and their totems. Tell me about them.

To me, the children’s spirit guides were a natural extension of the fact that these were children with special abilities. They draw strength from ‘their spirit’. Niya’s spirit is the White Crane because like him, it stands one-legged, perfectly still and balanced. Like the White Crane, Niya has excellent eyesight and dreams of flying high. Blind Taji’s spirit is the Golden Bat and like the bat he can see life clearly despite the darkness he lives in.

What I didn’t anticipate was how children would love this feature. In truth, I was a little wary as this is the one aspect which does not have a firm footing in Japanese history or culture. It belongs to Sensei’s wisdom and the children’s sense of identity. Now kids often approach me brandishing imaginary swords, saying: “I’m Mikko and my spirit is the Striped Gecko.” 

3. Tell me more about the Samurai - Ninja relationship.

The samurai and the ninja were traditional enemies so it was only natural that eventually the Kids would come in contact with ninja. Plus my youngest son insisted on it. After I read the original manuscript to him he asked: “Where are the ninja?” I was trying to think of a clever-parent answer when he said: “I know, they’re in Book 2”. So when Walker Books later asked me if I had any ideas for a sequel – ninja immediately came to mind. The other thing that fascinated me about the samurai-ninja relationship was the irony - while the proud noble samurai despised the sneaky, deceitful ninja, when he wanted someone assassinated in the middle of the night, he employed a ninja!

4. Can you describe something of the significance of Zen and Tao in the Samurai Kids generally but particularly with reference to Monkey Fist.

The samurai practised Zazen meditation; they believed it was as important to care for the mind and the body. There are many things about Zen which fascinate me. I love the simplicity of its wisdom – that nothing could be the ultimate answer. Zen is everything and Zen is nothing. This is intrinsic to the humour of Samurai Kids where as a Zen Master, Sensei is a Master of NOTHING and the kids spend a lot of time learning about NOTHING. Zen koans are heaps of fun. Like: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Kids are very Zen and have immediate answers. We adults are the one who think too much!

The Tao way was one of going with the flow and of being one with nature. It too was a popular thought in Japan and China in the mid seventeenth century. Sensei’s teachings are mainly based on Zen with a Tao influence. In Samurai Kids the focus is not on the religious ideology but the positive values of these beliefs and their historical context.

5. What part do the almost casual references to Japanese folkloric icons such as Tanuki, fox, shape shifters etc play in the overall telling of the story.

The samurai and people of seventeenth century Japan believed in creatures like the Tanuki. They believed the fox, or Kitsune, was a shapeshifter. They believed in monsters and ghosts. The people of isolated mountain areas were as superstitious as the members of the Imperial Court. What we now call folktales were accepted parts of the samurai kids cultural world. These elements add a historical perspective and an exotic flavour to the storytelling. What kid doesn’t love a good fairytale or ghost story?

6. Sensei is also known as Ki-Yaga. Why? Is a subtle connection to the Russian Baba Yaga intended here or is the name similarity co-incidental?

I don’t exactly know where the name came from. I made it up and it sounded right. In retrospect, not choosing authentic Japanese names is my greatest regret and a mistake I will never repeat. But my initial feedback was no reader would remember seven Japanese names. I have since found that only applies to adults!!! Kids could have easily remembered twenty!!!

Ki-Yaga’s name was originally Ki-Yoda but some felt it was too similar to Jedi Master Yoda (A wise teacher is a wise teacher in any galaxy and yes, I am a Star Wars fan!). Kids often ask me where Ki-Yaga gets his sayings from and I tell them about the one I found in a fortune cookie “Never use a hatchet to remove a fly from the face of a friend.” But when my eldest son read White Crane he said: “It’s you. Sensei talks just like you do.” Hmm….

7. I found the term ‘Monkey Fist’ used to describe a nautical type of knot. How does the term apply to the Samurai?

Monkey Fist has a triple meaning in the book. It is a nautical knot which Kyoko learns when the kids first travel to China by boat. With her six fingers on each hand Kyoko is adept at tying knots. In Imperial China, where a knot is a symbol of longevity, Kyoko’s skill is coveted by the evil Lu-Zeng who kidnaps her. Monkey Fist is also a shaolin fighting skill, one of the Monkey Moves where the fighter imitates the stance of a monkey and uses agility to advantage. When Lu-Zeng forces Kyoko to fight for him, she must rely on her Monkey fighting skills. Which is only natural, as her spirit guide is the rare Japanese macaque or Snow Monkey.

Thank you Sandy. I've enjoyed your visit immensely as I hope have our visitors to this site. To learn more about the Samurai Kids, I hope you will all check in at the other stops on Sandy's blog tour as listed below.

Tour Schedule:

1 Aug  Dee White
2 Aug  Dale Harcombe
3 Aug  Claire Saxby
4 Aug  Sally Odgrs
5 Aug  Mabel Kaplan [That's right here]
6 Aug  Sally Murphy
7 Aug  Robyn Opie
8 Aug  Rebecca Newman
9 Aug  Susan Stephenson
10 Aug Jeffery E Doherty