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Monday, 11 November 2013

Touring Australia with Tania McCartney - An Aussie Year Interview



Understanding where you are from and appreciating it are two of the most important endeavours you can experience in life. Today, I am compelled to give my little Aussie flag a bit of a wobble because those patriotic juices, that deliciously dress ‘the salad bowl of culture and race that typifies our beautiful country’ are bubbling madly after reading Tania McCartney’s sparkling new picture book, An Aussie Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Australian Kids.

More than a nondescript chronological listing of dates and events, An Aussie Year is countless moments of pure joy. It is fantastic factual fun. It is a riotous romp through the enthralling landscapes and cultures and flora and fauna of our land. And for me, it was a walk back down that footpath of life to a time when many of these sensations, sights and events were first captured in the wet concrete of my childhood memories. 

McCartney has left very few stones unturned in this marvellous collection of celebrations, traditions and events. No mean feat when one considers the sheer enormity of cultural diversity shared by Australians. Five different Aussie kids, leap, surf, fish, twirl, eat, trick, bake, sing and even flag-wave their way through a ‘typical’ calendar year evoking thought, wonder and a tremendous sense of place and time, while each adding their own particular flavour and flair. The reader is able to relate to a little piece of themselves from nearly all of the characters thus transforming An Aussie Year into an intimate and personal celebration of recollection.

An Aussie Year pleases on a variety of levels, not least of which are the splendiferous illustrations by Queensland illustrator, Tina Snerling. Her carefully colour-coordinated renditions of Ned, Lily, Zoe, Kirra and Matilda create a perfect balance of play amidst the meandering text and surreptitious placement of noteworthy dates.  I chuckled at the hat-wearing Melbourne Cup gee-gee and smiled over grilled cheese sangers with noodle soup – so much like my weekend childhood lunches…

Many of these shared moments and observations will strike a familiar chord with older readers. Others will be more familiar to our Z generation, ensuring An Aussie Year will not fail to have a positive and lasting impact on children both in the classroom and at home. 

To celebrate the birth of An Aussie Year, I popped along to Tania’s launch at the Black Cat Book Shop last month. Here is what she had to share in between book signing and distributing sweets…

Q Tania, I have not encountered a picture book that looks so specifically at the fabric of life that surrounds our Aussie kids before? Did you create An Aussie Year because of a perceived void in the picture book market or was there some other need you wished to convey? Why choose the picture book format?

The idea for An Aussie Year first came to me while living in China with my family (2005 – 2009). We travelled a lot around Asia and I was struck by the many and varied Asian children’s books (English versions) that catalogued and celebrated local culture and the life of children. It dawned on me that Australia doesn’t have a book like this—not an all-encompassing overview, anyway. So yes, part of the reasoning behind the book was definitely market void. I love a good market void. 

Aussie kids Tina, Tania & Michael Gerard Bauer
But the overriding drive for creating this book was definitely an expat thing. When you live overseas (or indeed, when you travel overseas), a strange phenomenon tends to overtake you—patriotism; sometimes to sickening proportions! So although I thrive on and adore the cultural saturation of other places, I found myself reminiscing on how fortunate Australian kids are, and how varied and fascinating our local ethnicities are. I also found myself feeling very proud and sentimental about our Aussie childhood. So, the book was born.

It never dawned on me to do anything other than a picture book for An Aussie Year. To me, the purest childhood joys are found in the very young.

Q How long did it take to produce ‘twelve months in the life of Australian kids’? 

This book was actually a very long time coming—it was first conceived around 2008, then I pottered with it, writing snippets, for around two or three years. I subbed it to a few publishers between 2010 and 2011 and it always got a fantastic response but no one committed. It was almost taken on by a Top 5 publisher, but the editors wanted to change it as they found it hard to envisage what the book could/would be. I must admit, even I didn’t really know what the book’s vision was at the time!

It wasn’t until I showed the manuscript to my illustrator/designer friend Tina Snerling and then to Anouska Jones of Exisle Publishing (Anouska had published my adult book Beijing Tai Tai) that things took off for the book. Anouska showed her acquisitions team and they were instantly smitten. I wish all acquisitions could be so fast!

The book underwent quite the transformation while working with Tina. It became focused and honed and much better. Along with Anouska, we worked as a small team to take the book from first edits through to print-ready PDFs. It was an incredible and richly rewarding process which took around five to six months. I wish more illustrators and authors could work closely as a production team. It’s invaluable.

Q What makes An Aussie Year culturally significant and important for young readers? 

It’s significant because it celebrates who we are—a nation of deliciously-blended people with an intense, exotic flavour that’s still very Australian. People often ask ‘what exactly is Australian?’—there is no single defining ‘formula’ for an Aussie. My response is: ‘exactly’. From our First People to our most recent Korean immigrants, we are a unique blend and it’s so important to celebrate that. 

We tried hard to cover as many ethnicities as we could in An Aussie Year. The book’s entries and five characters represent parts of the world that make up the majority of our country’s population, and hopefully incorporate other ethnicities of similar ilk (I hate to sound generic! but we couldn’t possibly represent every single Australian ethnicity). 

Australia is arguably the most successful role model for a peaceful multicultural society and I am enormously proud of that. Racial and cultural tolerance is something that (sadly) needs to be taught to our children early—along with a passion for ethnic diversity. I’ve always said travel is the most effective education for children and I hope An Aussie Year in some way helps kids fall in love with, and be proud of, the fascinating and life-enriching rewards of ethnic diversity.

Q Each month is jammed with interesting fun facts and observations yet I love the uncluttered style and colour scheme of the illustrations. Was this format what you first had in mind when trying to depict a calendar story or did is evolve organically as you worked with Tina Snerling?

It was my original format idea, yes. You can see in the image below my very first draft for January—this is how I envisaged the pages (and this was well before I had defined five central characters). I knew the pages would be extremely text-busy (and yet we cut the text down to about one-eighth of its original content!) and lots would be ‘going on’, so it was important to keep things visually clean. 

Tina is responsible for the amazing illustrations and colour scheme. She also did the typefacing, and even hand-created some fonts. Despite my original ideas, the style and layout for the pages went through several changes, and in this way, the end result was very organic.

Q Were the contents of this book rigorously researched or are the dates, traditions and celebrations included favoured ones that feature regularly on your own calendar?

The dates were intensely researched and catalogued, then cut, honed, trimmed, edited and cut some more. It was really important to me that we include some ‘old-fashioned’ and secular events (like Guy Fawkes night and Shrove Tuesday) because I wanted to appeal as much to adult sentimentality (we used to celebrate Guy Fawkes as a kid, with a bonfire in the backyard) as I did to the curiosity of kids. I wanted kids to ask ‘Dad, what’s Guy Fawkes night?’ I’m all about progression but I become quite despairing when out-moded traditions—or words, or recipes or anything—become lost.

Other dates, like Halloween, were difficult because many Australians see this festival as ‘American’ and are often dismissive of it as yet another ‘commercial’ fad, but Halloween is actually of British/European origin—bloodlines that are steeped in the veins of the majority of Australians. The fact is, Halloween is becoming very popular with Australia’s youth, so we reworded it as All Hallow’s Eve (in keeping with Euro tradition) and didn’t mention Trick-or-Treating, which is the ‘American’ part of the festival.

Yes, I’ll admit there are some entries that resonated with my own childhood, but these will also resonate with others. Regardless, I was really aware of the danger in being too one-eyed, so manuscript entries were tossed around between our team, as well as friends, colleagues, school teachers, and Aboriginal advisor Lisa Watego.

We also knew that countless dates and traditions would be seen as ‘missing’ from the book and that people everywhere would be saying ‘what about…?’ but of course, it was impossible to add them all. We had to be as generic as possible otherwise this book would have been 1000 pages long, and I think most people will understand that.

Q As a child, were there any events or celebrations that created significant, lasting impressions on you? Is it important to you that these or ones like them resonate as strongly with your own children? Why?

Oh yes, so very much. Christmas, of course, was enormous for us as kids. There is no other word to describe Christmastime in my memory as a child other than ‘magical’.

To me, celebration and tradition are the bones of childhood, even if the tradition is waffles every Sunday morning. Childhood shapes who we become, and in my eyes, creating a childhood that’s both stable and magical is paramount. Tradition provides stability and celebration provides magic. That’s all I want for any child, let alone my own children.

Q For me, seasons trigger memories of events and expectations of things to come. Do you have a favourite season or time of the year? Why is it significant?

I spent my first ten years in Hobart, so I’ve always felt cosiest and happiest in winter. Ironically, I didn’t see any significant amount of snow until I was in Europe, age 25! but I remember crying my eyes out when I saw it fall (in London) for the first time in my life. For some reason, all my happiest memories revolve around Winter.

My favourite seasons have, however, changed as I’ve gotten older. Through my 30s, it was Autumn I loved the most (finally, freedom from the summer heat!) and I simply adored the falling leaves and ‘change’ in the air. But now, in my 40s, I’m falling in love with Spring.

Q Do you like to claim dates and fill your calendar in advance with things to do and see or do you prefer to live more spontaneously?

Both. An author’s life is typically stretched between a-year-in-advance and last-minute planning. I have a massive calendar desk pad which I fill in months in advance, but add to as I go along. I love spontaneity when taking time out, but must admit I find comfort in planning when things are hectic.

Q We all tend to live a little vicariously through our kids at times. Do you allow yours to drive your holiday activities and decisions? Do you think this book will embolden kids to be more autonomous in their choices and understanding of Australian society?

My kids are so relaxed during holidays. They work so hard and have so much on during term, they like nothing better than chilling out at home, doing not much else but reading, baking, kicking the ball, playing games or on the computer. In fact, when I offer to take them out somewhere fun, they whinge and moan!

I think we fill our kids with ‘too much’ too much. A lot of the entries in An Aussie Year are of the most simple things; chatting on the phone, swinging on a tyre, playing on an iPad, jumping through puddles. I hope this book emboldens kids to just ‘be’.

Q Your writing calendar has been full to bursting this year Tania, what is on your draft table for 2014?

Every year I tell myself I’ll take it slower but I’m so utterly smitten and impassioned by the children’s book industry, it’s so hard to say no. Plus, even though I’m completely wired most of the time, I love my work; it’s never a chore.

For 2014, I would like to write more and promote less. I’d also like to spend less time on the computer, more time in nature, more time moving by arms and legs (as opposed to my eyes and fingers) and more time reading. I’m very keen to effect greater balance in my life overall.

Q Name one thing you’d like to achieve next year from your non-writing wish list?

A sense of space.

Just for fun question: If a space monster arrived unannounced and consumed all the calendars in my house, I would most likely have a minor conniption, feel inclined to break something and shout loudly. How would you react? 

I’d feel an overwhelming sense of freedom.

Insert: sigh-in-agreement. 

Ripper Stuff Tania. Thanks these totally inspirational moments.

Continue this marvellous virtual tour with Tania - find a date that suits you HERE.
Visit the An Aussie Year web site to meet all the characters from the book, see updates and behind-the-scenes work. There's also some Fun Activities for kids.

Buy An Aussie Year here or from any great book store.

EK Publishing October 2013
ISBN: 978-1-921966-24-8