One of the loveliest aspects of my writing life is connecting with other children’s book creators and sharing the excitement of a new story finding its way to young readers. This week I’m chatting with Vikki Conley and Penelope Pratley about their creative life and their beautiful picture book, Ella and Mrs Gooseberry.
Congratulations to you both on the release of this warm-hearted story about Ella’s quest to find out what love looks like and how to help her next door neighbour find it again. It brought a smile to my day and I’m sure it will become a favourite with families.
Penelope, what was your response on first reading Vikki’s manuscript? My first response to a manuscript is always to draw a few quick sketches as I read the story and see how the characters present themselves.
Did the story immediately conjure images for you? Immediately I knew that the images where the characters explain ‘What love looks like’ would use the colours of the rainbow in the background which would lead to a rainbow of colour as Mrs Gooseberry danced in her kitchen. I also really wanted to include the ‘floating’ elements to represent the magic feeling that is love.
Please share a little about your process in illustrating the book. How collaborative was it? As an illustrator I complete a storyboard that is then sent to the publisher. The art director and editor then provide feedback on placement and any early changes that may need to occur. Then I complete a set of ‘good copy’ drawings that are sent back to the publisher and shared with the author. From there the publisher provides me with any further changes before I commence the final illustrations using pencil and watercolour paint.
Vikki, has the book been illustrated the way you envisioned it would be when you wrote it? When I write, I visualise scenes, not necessarily exact color or style. However, I always hoped that the story would be in soft watercolor with gentle characters and warm colors. Penelope has done just this with her beautiful illustrations. So I think the answer is yes!
Do you have a favourite part of Ella and Mrs Gooseberry?
V. I love the floating images that represent each character’s wonder and response to the question, “What does love look like?” I was thrilled when I saw Penelope had conceived this concept for the story. It added visual excitement and supported the story in such a original way.
P. It’s so hard to choose just one part! I’m particularly fond of the ‘love looks like’ pages – especially the ‘grandma’ page as it’s based on my beautiful mother-in-law. I also love the small story of the soccer ball getting stuck in Mrs Gooseberry’s front yard that we later see Mrs Gooseberry kicking happily.
What do you hope readers will take away from the experience of reading this book?
V. That they will be encouraged to wonder. That they will explore the idea of love with their family. That they will consider how others feel. That they will feel warm inside like an apple pie!
P. I hope readers will appreciate the importance of community and will value that love comes in many different forms and that a child’s solution to a problem comes from the heart.
Where do you find your creative inspiration?
V. In so many places. In particular, I expose myself to a lot of art and wilderness. I read widely. As a treat, I try to get to galleries and performances. A podcast, audio book or music is often playing in my car, or while I cook dinner. I walk among trees and along rivers several times a week. I then try to notice the small things in life – sounds, body language, light, movement, colors. Diverse experiences are also good for my creative juices – travel, food, climbing mountains, trying new things regularly.
P. Well Vikki’s beautiful story obviously, my family and friends and ‘Olive’ who was an elderly blind lady I used to read to after meeting her on the bus home after school. I would spend my Sunday afternoons walking to her house and reading her The Secret Garden and many classic tales.
How has your childhood influenced you as a children’s books creator?
V. Enormously. I grew up on a farm nestled in between the mountains, rainforest, the ocean and a national park. Animals, the natural world and adventure left a lasting imprint on my mind and soul. I have memories of doing backflips down sand dunes and spotting kangaroos hopping along the beach on remote islands, body painting myself with white clay found in river streams, making daisy chains for the orphan lambs that we reared by bottle, and eating icecream with mulberries picked straight from the tree. I still feel, smell and smile about all of these memories. They inspire my writing every day.
P. I was very ill as a child and still suffer from a range of chronic autoimmune conditions. So books and art have always kept me company. When I returned to school in grade two after a long stint in hospital our class was reading Possum Magic. The accompanying activity was to recreate one of Julie Vivas’ stunning watercolour illustrations. That moment was completely magic for me. I was not a great reader until early high school but would spend hours listening to stories on cassette tape and poring over picture books. My Nan in particular encouraged my love of art, always providing a steady stream of paper and materials to keep me company while I was unable to attend school. Art and creativity have always had a consistent presence in my life.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published?
V. Finding space in my life to just keep writing.
P. Believing that I could. Because it doesn’t matter how many people tell you can do something until you believe it yourself.
What’s the best aspect of your creative life?
V. Working with other creators who bring their own imagination and flair to a project. That sweet spot where story meets illustration is like honey on crumpets!
P. Oh my goodness – there are SO many! I suppose the best one is I get to do what I love every day and I am still available to be a mum to my two beautiful children.
V. Having to keep so many multiple projects and jobs on the go in order to be able to afford crumpets.
P. Time! I never seem to have enough of it and I spend vast amounts of time alone. Sometimes it would be great to have someone to bounce ideas off as I’m creating.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now in this industry? What do you wish you’d known?
V. I would have reworked my early manuscripts for longer before I started submitting. Perhaps done my Australian Writers’ Centre Picture Book course sooner – it helped me take a giant leap.
P. I think the only thing I would do differently is to have started sooner.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
V. Just keep writing.
P. Do all things with excellence.
What’s your top tip for aspiring children’s books creators?
V. Just keep writing. But also seek opportunities to improve eg a mentor, a course, a writer’s group.
P. Put your work out there and put time in to hone your craft with daily repeated practice.
How important is social media to you?
V. I used to be slightly afraid, almost opposed to social media. However, I now embrace it. It’s helped me connect with many creators and professionals in the industry. It’s also allowed others to share my journey and support me along the way.
P. Not overly important as far as self promotion but super important for the beautiful friendships and for the advice of fellow illustrators and writers who are so generous with their time and knowledge.
Is there a favourite childhood book that has influenced you creatively?
V. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton because it is pure bliss and wonder. And also The Gingerbread Man by Jim Aylesworth for its fun and cheekiness. How can you ever forget that line…? “Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread man.”
P. Ha! I can’t possibly only share one. Possum Magic – Mem Fox, Let’s Play – Marie Hall Ets, Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams, The Little Matchstick Girl – Hans Christian Anderson, and The Little Green Road To Fairyland- Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.
Vikki Conley is one of the most prolific emerging children’s authors, with seven picture books being released within the next two years. She is a writer, book reviewer and intrepid adventurer. She has worked as a professional writer and marketer, with diverse communities in Africa, Asia and Australia, for over 20 years.
Vikki has been short-listed, long-listed and placed in competitions including Jackie Hosking’s Poetry For Kids (2019), the CYA Competition (2018 & 2019) and the Charlotte Waring Barton Award (2017). Vikki has a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and has completed two children’s picture book courses (Writers Victoria and the Australian Writers’ Centre).
To find out more about Vikki, visit https://www.vikkiconley.com/
Penelope Pratley is an emerging illustrator, writer and educator living in NSW, Australia. The first picture book she illustrated was published in 2018. With an aim to grow hearts she uses watercolour, ink, pencil and mixed media. Penelope always had a BIG dream to write and illustrate quality books and inspire children to read. When she’s not working in her garden studio or munching chocolate freckles, you’ll find her at the back of the local bookshop in the children’s section. Penelope has illustrated two picture books published in 2019 and is excited to be illustrating more for publication in 2020. To find out more about Penelope, visit https://www.penelopesnest.com/
About Ella and Mrs Gooseberry
Grumpy old Mrs Gooseberry from next door has lost her love. ‘I didn’t know you could lose love,’ says Ella. So she begins her quest to find out what love looks like and how she can help Mrs Gooseberry to rediscover it. Her mother says love is like home-cooked pie. Her teacher says it’s like lanterns in the night. Perhaps love might look like a little kitten. Ella and Mrs Gooseberry is a heart-warming picture book about a child’s understanding of love, selfless giving and how it makes you feel.
It is available from www.ekbooks.org and wherever good books are sold.