My special guest this week is Katrina McKelvey, a children’s author, former primary school teacher, wife, and mother to two tweenagers and a cocker spaniel. She’s written many children’s picture books and educational readers including No Baths Week, Up To Something, Isla’s Family Tree (April, 2020), and Chasing Rainbows (August, 2020). She’s highly involved in CBCA, SCBWI, literary conferences and festivals, and loves visiting schools. She’s left-handed, loves tea and rollercoasters, and is addicted to mint chocolate. While in lockdown in Disney World a few years ago, she survived Hurricane Gene (category 5) by eating awful brownies. You can visit her at www.katrinamckelvey.com
Thank you for joining me, Katrina, and congratulations on the release of your picture book, Isla’s Family Tree, which is a beautiful introduction to the concept of family trees and how they grow for young readers. Let’s find out a little about you and your writing…
What’s the best aspect of your creative life? Flexible use of my time. And I get to make stuff up! I love being creative whether it’s with words, technology, or helping finalise a picture book file just before it goes to print.
—the worst? Waiting to hear back from publishers about submissions. And then getting a ‘no’ when you had a gut feeling it would be a ‘yes’.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your picture books? Everywhere, including observing and listening to my children, and taking in the small things in life. Ideas are all around. We just need to stop and open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds.
How has your own childhood influenced you as a children’s books author? I was a reluctant reader as a child. I still am. And books weren’t all around me when I was a child, and reading wasn’t modeled by my parents. So, I made sure my children have shelves full of them. We visit libraries and literary events regularly, and I was heavily involved in helping them learn how to read and write. Still am actually. I also try to take them to events where they can meet their literary idols. I remember taking my son to meet Andy Griffiths at the Sydney Writers Festival when he was younger. Great memories!
How do you approach a new picture book project? Walk us through your creative process. Once you have an idea, what’s the next step?
- Idea comes first – and it usually comes when I’m busy so I type it in the Notes app on my phone.
- Then I let the idea rumble in my head for days, sometimes weeks – letting it go to crazy places.
- Next, I write a story plan and try and work out the complication, and what my character’s goal is and what is motivating them.
- Then I might open a new, secret Pinterest board and start pulling together images and illustrations of what my character looks like.
- Some research (facts and market research) may come in next – depends on the story.
- Then I write a first draft.
- Then a second.
- Then a third.
- When I’m happy (and I’m usually very excited by this stage) I’ll start putting my manuscript through my writing groups. I’m now a member of three groups (Hunter Writers Centre, Writing NSW, SCBWI online). In between I’ll do a rewrite before submitting to the next one.
- When I feel I can’t do anymore with it, I get it professionally edited.
- After this, of course there’s another rewrite.
- During the rewrites, I usually make a dummy book (for no one else but myself) and I check on page turns. My daughter usually sits in front of me on the floor and gives me feedback.
- Once I feel I can’t do any more, I’ll start submitting it to publishers.
What are you working on at the moment? A new picture book about a girl, a dog, a book, and a treehouse. And I’m planning a JF series – very early chapter books.
How much time do you spend on creating each picture book? It varies but sometimes years! Usually nothing less than two years.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? I hope everyone takes away something different. I also hope they connect in some way – either by relating to the character, or relating to the journey. And if my books fuel conversation either in the family, or in the classroom, that’s a bonus. And I adore seeing craft and other activities being completed as a result of my stories.
Is there any area of writing that you still find challenging? Yes. Word count – I always write too many words and don’t always use simple sentences. I’m getting better at controlling passive voice too. And aren’t we all working on improving the technique, ‘show, don’t tell’.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Believing in myself. I learnt quickly no one will until you do. And then I understood writing is emotional but publishing is a business.
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing children’s books? I’d probably be back in the classroom teaching upper primary school children, specialising in gifted education.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as an author? I’d spend more time on the craft of writing before submitting. I’d also get all my manuscripts professionally edited before sending them to a publisher.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become a picture book creator?
- Writing picture books for children is a specialised craft.
- The industry has many ups and downs so be ready to navigate the array of emotions along the way.
- Look at rejections as a good thing. They let you know you’re not there yet but keep to going.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
- Be grateful.
- And you need the 6 P’s:
What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? I have five:
- Make connections inside the industry. Start with local libraries and bookshop owners. Then find your local authors and illustrators. Join organisations such as SCBWI and CBCA. Subscribe to industry newsletters such as PIO and Buzz Words. Subscribe to publisher newsletters. Join a writing group and get your work critiqued by peers.
- Educate yourself. Do courses and workshops via your state’s writing centre, the AWC or ASA.
- Attend literary festivals. Volunteer and help out as well as attend sessions. If available, have a manuscript assessment.
- Become a member of online groups such as Creative Kids Tales, The Duck Pond, and Just Write For Kids.
- Follow Australian publishers and inspirational authors and illustrators on social media.
Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why? Oliver Jeffers – he is so clever, a family man, and has an amazing, caring mind. Stephen Michael King – I want to talk to him about his writing style. Andy Griffiths – he’s always so busy and has thousands of people lining up to see him so no one ever gets to just chat to him. Commissioning editor of my favourite publishing house (I’ll keep that anonymous) – I want to get into their head and find out what makes them sit up when considering publishing manuscripts.
Written by Katrina McKelvey, Illustrated by Prue Pittock
Isla’s family is changing and she’s not happy!
It’s time for Isla to explore her family tree so that she can see how all families change and grow over time.
The perfect book for anyone looking to find a way to introduce new family members or show children how they belong in their own family.
Buy the book here.