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Aside from being the author and illustrator of several award-winning books for children – including Kumiko and the Shadow Catchers – you’ll also find Briony Stewart giving lectures on children’s literature at university or conducting talks and workshops with children across Australia.
In light of her newly released children’s book ‘We Love You Magoo’, we spoke to the Western Australian creative about the inspiration behind her work.
Would you care to tell us a bit about your new children’s book, We Love You Magoo?
We Love You Magoo is a sweet and funny picture book for bossy toddlers and exasperated parents. I wrote the book when I was suddenly the parent of a two-year-old, a newborn and an eccentric dog. A new, bossy dynamic emerged between my toddler and our dog which kind of mimicked the one between myself and my toddler. It was funny. But maybe not as much for our dog who had up until that point thought of himself as a beloved child only to find himself at a lower tier. He couldn’t understand why my toddler got to have an omelette at the table when he only got to have dry biscuits in a bowl on the floor.
When it comes to creative storytelling, what makes for a great children’s book?
I think truth plays a big part in great kids books. The crazy, imaginative and magical stuff is fun to write and to read, but there has to be a little kernel of something from lived experience. Whether it’s something from your own childhood or just understanding kids – how they think and what makes them chuckle at any given age. Also, in remembering that picture books are read by adults to small children, they should have a little something there for everyone and it has to be fun to read aloud.
I love that you’ve based it on your own daughter and rescue dog, Fergus. I hold my late rescue dog close to my heart. What would you like young readers to take away from the book?
Well aside from noticing and loving their dogs a little more, mostly I’d love a young reader to just have fun with the storytelling process and fall in love with books. It’s definitely a story that invites interaction v and some great parent-doing-a-dog-voice moments. I think the story will resonate with parents too, or anyone caring for small, exasperating but infinitely loveable little creatures.
We love the simply beautiful and playful illustrations in We Love You Magoo. Did you have these created during or after the writing process?
Thank you! I created the illustrations after I wrote the story. At first, I actually didn’t think I was the right illustrator for the book! I had an idea of what I thought it needed, which was something quite different from the soft and detailed illustration work I’ve done previously. But I knew that it’d be hard to pitch the story without the visual humour I was imagining.
I’ve also wanted to illustrate something silly and wacky for ages so I decided I should take the chance on myself! Magoo is SO much fun to draw. I think drawing him myself really helped me understand his character better. Which is good because there is already a second book contracted in what I hope will be a series – move over Hairy Maclary! (Not to diss Hairy Maclairy of course, I love those books!)
Aside from having your book tour and events cancelled, are the other ways in which the COVID-19 crisis has affected you as a writer and illustrator?
Oh of course! Aside from those hard initial weeks like everyone going mad trying to work from home and homeschool simultaneously I had a lot of event type work immediately cancelled due to audience restrictions. But there’s also the disconcerting longterm effects to the industry as a whole. The economic downturn is hard on the arts, despite it being the thing that everyone turns to (think of all the shows people watched and books they read in lockdown – if they didn’t have kids that is!)
When bookshops struggle, publishers have to pull back and be very careful and conservative with what they can afford to print, they can’t take as many risks on new authors and new titles. As a creator, there are manuscripts you suddenly just have to put away in a draw and say, “maybe in a year or two.” It’s quite depressing. Internationally, different countries are going through their own COVID-19 related challenges, which makes it harder to sell into their markets.
‘We Love You Magoo would have been presented to international publishers at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy in March along with many other new upcoming Australian titles but of course, that annual event was cancelled. ‘We Love You Magoo’, is emerging into a climate much different than I imagined. The game plan has changed, the goalposts have changed but I still have high hopes. Magoo is particularly loveable.
Regardless, what are the best ways to support your industry during this tough time?
The best way to support all children’s book creators is firstly to support bookshops – make every gift this year a book! Also, try to buy new titles by Australian creators rather than just the classics, or even better, local creators (from your state) there are so many and they are so fabulous. Bookshop staff can always help you there. Lastly, just recommend books, talk about them, recommend them. If you enjoyed a book tell people about it!
Lastly, is it true you’ll be hosting a dog parade and launch party once circumstances permit?
Oh my, yes! It may be the only time I make a book where a dog parade would be entirely appropriate at a launch and I think it’s a cuteness factor we all need right now!