Topic: Bookrapt Seminar 2014: A Blanket of Books by Debbie McCauley

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On Saturday 2 August 2014, the Bay of Plenty Children's Literature Association Incorporated, otherwise known as 'Bookrapt' held their annual seminar at Tauranga Intermediate. Report by Debbie McCauley.

With over 40 attendees, the seminar featured Joy Watson, Mary-Anne Scott and Donovan Bixley.

Joy Watson

Introduced by Karolyn Timarkos who reminded the audience that it is now 25 years since 'Grandpa’s Slippers' was published and that it has just be re-released for this very important anniversary.

Joy showed us the literal ‘blanket of books’ that she created especially for the seminar featuring titles by her and sewn onto a baby blanket that served her nine children well. Joy and her three brothers were born into a family of readers where books played a major part. Her father was a meticulous keeper of records – he wrote everything down and was a prolific letter writer. He made carbon copies of his letters and so the family has these treasured copies of her father’s work. Joy is grateful for the history of reading within her family – reading was always too important to be disturbed.

Her parents were able to scrape up enough money to send the children to boarding school for a couple of years each, although Joy begged for another year and was lucky enough to receive it.

She is very careful to always have a book to read because no book to read equals housework. This enjoyment of reading led to the challenge of writing which she began when her seven daughters and two sons had grown up and left home. Joy joined a writing group in Hastings after she attended a talk and was inspired. She received encouragement from the group and her tutor Diane Hebley.

In 1989 her first book was inspired by husband Kevin’s tatty old slippers. Joy sent it to Auckland and was amazed when they decided to print it. ‘It was a shot in the dark’ she said.  Joy says she owes a ‘great debt of gratitude’ to her illustrator Wendy Hodder who was able to bring the story of Grandpa to life. ‘Her illustrations are quite remarkable; she is very clever’. Joy’s books have been published in Spanish and Te Reo Maori.

Joy has a love of words and a love of playing with words, especially nonsense verse and limericks. She read aloud her entertaining poems ‘Mrs Macabre’ and ‘The Quick Brown Fox jumped over the Lazy Dog’. The audience suggested a book of her poetry might be next on the publishing list.


Mary-Anne Scott

Introduced by Amanda McFadden, Mary-Anne is the second eldest of Joy Watson’s children and the mother of four boys herself. She admitted to probably having the biggest library fine in New Zealand with a $600 bill received after she accidentally mixed up a bag of books to be returned to the library with her recycling. She works as a guitar teacher.

Books and music were the cornerstones of Mary-Ann and her sibling’s world. They were all required to learn two musical instruments and to practice for at least an hour per day. Mary-Ann played the cello and guitar. At some stage of her childhood she requested that she be called ‘Marigold’ in an American accent – this still haunts her today as her siblings remind her of it on occasion.

Mary-Anne is immensely proud of her mother, Joy Watson. Her first child was at kindergarten when Joy’s first book, ‘Grandpa's Slippers’ (1989) was published. She believes that the ability to be moved or transported are the elements of a good book.

She wrote ‘My Uncle Leo’s getting married’ which was a paid job through School Journal. Mary-Anne has written short stories and submitted them to several competitions with reasonable success. ‘Writing is a way to make sense of things’.

Mary-Anne spent a year doing a Creative Writing course at Whitireia which she found inspiring. Her tutor was Mandy Hager. She has become appalled by her past use of adverbs.

Her observations of her own boys and their discussions with friends and during car rides have given her an insight into the world of teen boys. She wrote the first chapter of her young adult book ‘Snakes & Ladders’ (2012) as an open-ended short story. ‘I write things down as I’m afraid to say them out loud’. Her protagonist, Finn, has been like a fifth son as she wrote his story. David Hill mentored her around this time and this helped the script to be read by the publisher.

In December 2009 Mary-Anne sent the manuscript to Scholastic. In June 2010 they wrote to tell her they had received the script and in October 2010 said they would publish with the book coming out in May 2012. She rejected the proposed covers for the book until finally she persuaded her sons and a friend to dress up and snapped a photograph of them which was used. She makes $2 per book and is not sure how many have sold.

Thinks like slang, text language and driver’s licence laws are all things that can change and render a book obsolete. Brainstorming can be good – she has written ‘What If” on a large sheet of papers and brainstormed from there. When asked what she is up to now Mary-Ann replied, ‘Either it’s a lull or it’s over’.


Donovan Bixley

Introduced by Susan Brocker. Author, illustrator and book designer Donovan Bixley is also the father of three daughters. He has written and illustrated six books.

Donovan grew up in Taupo. His first job was illustrating ‘Dog on Holiday’ (2000) by Dot Meharry through Learning Media. He was offered $1,200 all up but turned it down in favour of royalties instead. In 2012 he received his first royalty payment and has received $300 to date. Lessons have been learnt!

‘Faithfully Mozart: the fantastical world of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’ (2005) was Donovan’s third attempt at a book and took six years to complete. A lot of the time went into the book but Donovan believes that rewards are not always financial. He tries to learn as much as he can from the process each time and in the past has been guilty of being young, naive and arrogant – although he still finds it fun to put on his little 8-year-old boy hat.

So far Donovan has worked on 80 published books and over 100 school journal stories. He has spent four years on the bestseller lists and has sold books in 27 countries. His most successful book so far is ‘Wheels on the Bus’ (2010). He also did ‘Old MacDonald's Farm’ (2011). He received many other offers of this type of book from publishers but didn’t want to become pigeon-holed and so has moved on to other things. A copy of his book ‘The Three Bears … Sort Of’ (2013) by Yvonne Morrison was gifted to Prince George.

Donovan feels that the world is just too distracting – ‘just turn it off and do some work!’ He believes that kids are sponges and likes to give them tons to look at in his book. He is not a fan of white spaces in illustration. He believes that the more stuff you can stick into a picture, then the more opportunities you give children to go off on a tangent into a side story. His characters interact with each other and even the shadows – so that the world exists beyond the pages. Adults come back to his book and see new stories they’d missed the first time.

Two of Donovan’s inspirations are Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman. Each book is a process and Donovan likes to give things a go and see what happens from there. This is the New Zealand way of doing things rather than the American where he believes things are very structured and the next big thing is always trying to be manufactured.

Three weeks after Donovan started work on Margaret Mahy’s ‘Dashing Dog’ the author passed away. She never said what type of dog featured in the story, but Donovan eventually chose a poodle. He has since heard that Margaret did have a big black poodle in mind when penning the story.

Kauri Glen School are currently creating a musical using Donovan’s wordless book on climate change ‘The Weather Machine’ (2013) which is a great compliment to Donovan's work.

Debbie McCauley (11 August 2014).

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