Cameron's Book Chat
Welcome to Cameron's Book Chat! Every month (0r so!) I'll be chatting with someone I admire from the world of books - authors, illustrators, editors - trying to find out what makes them tick, and how they produce their own magic. I hope you'll find lots of inspiration and insight here.
28 November 2020
I'm really honoured to welcome my second-ever guest to the page: extremely prolific and respected picture book author, Robert Vescio. Robert's first book for children, No Matter Who We're With, was published in 2013. Since then, he has written another 14 books as well as several short stories, featured in a range of anthologies. In our chat, Robert generously shared many deep insights into his work, which will be of great interest to readers and writers alike.
Hi Robert, thanks so much for taking the time to share some thoughts and experiences from your remarkable writing career. It’s a real pleasure to welcome you to the page.
Thank you for inviting me, Cameron.
To begin with, could you share with us a little about your journey to becoming a published author? Was this a path you’d wanted to follow since childhood?
I’ve always enjoyed writing stories.
Way back in high school I was actively involved in the production of the school magazine and yearbook and contributed lots of stories but never really took it seriously.
Then I worked in the publishing industry for over 12 years and it wasn’t until I worked on Studio Bambini – a children’s fashion magazine – that my love for picture books grew. I would read all the amazing picture books that came in for review and be in awe of the beautiful words and illustrations. But never thought I could write one.
And then I had kids and it wasn’t until my separation, in 2008, that I wanted to write a story to help my children cope with the changes in their lives. I couldn’t find anything in the market that was relevant at the time to our situation so I decided to write a story about it myself. I worked on it for months to get it right but kept it in my bottom drawer, feeling anxious about submitting it to publishers and them not liking it.
Then I finally took the plunge and sent it out to publishers. The waiting and the not knowing was the worst part. I had researched enough and accepted the reality that I had zero chance of being accepted. And then I got a bite from a publisher. They loved the story and said the theme was topical and accepted my story for publication. I signed a contract with them and the rest is history.
Robert's first picture book
So, from that day onwards, I set a goal to write stories to help children deal with changes in their lives and to better understand their world and relationships. There is no better way to do that than with picture books which are perfect to express ideas and emotions in simple ways and help them to understand.
When you develop the initial idea for a picture book, are you usually thinking more in terms of words or images, or does it tend to be both at the same time?
Great question. I have a weird writing style. It’s very unorthodox.
I think and write in pictures. I see pictures and then the words come to me. It’s like I’m watching a movie and I'm writing down what I see.
This was definitely the case with The Voyage. I envisioned everything as I was writing the story.
There is no right or wrong way to write a story. There is no set rule to say that only some styles of writing work.
Is there any particular working method you bring to the way you draft your stories?
I’m definitely a pantser when it comes to writing. A fly by the seats of your pants kind of writer. Whatever happens, happens.
I’ve always written my stories out of order and then revise and fix everything up. As I mentioned earlier, I’m very unorthodox in my approach.
But I always work with a dummy. I think it’s really important to work with a dummy. It helps to pace my story and allows me to see how it will look first-hand.
It’s not easy to write a story with a plot in under 500 words. I have to make sure the story flows and working with a dummy helps me achieve this.
Each spread should be different to the previous spread. This helps to move the story along - give it the momentum it needs to reach the end.
I always think about page turns. Page turns make the story entertaining. What is the reader going to discover on the next page? Will there be a twist?
My first draft is always the messiest and that’s not a bad thing. I make sure to get everything done on paper first. Then cull away the bits I don’t need like pruning away branches off a tree. However, I never throw the cuttings away, I keep them to grow into new stories.
Remember, if you try to make your story as perfect as possible – you will never finish your draft. Make sure to focus on the important elements of your story like character, setting and plot.
The magic of writing is to expect the unexpected. Your imagination will always change your plans.
Are there any particular take-away messages you usually want your stories to leave with your readers?
A love and appreciation for the written word.
Firstly, I want kids to develop a love of reading. Secondly, I hope they learn something along the way.
As a writer, I put myself out there in a way that will help change people’s lives and to better understand their world and relationships.
My aim is to make my readers think. When I write, I’m writing for a reader. I want to arouse their imagination. I want to strike a chord and provoke them.
And leave my readers wanting more.
I hope my stories leave children energised and inspired with a new appreciation for reading and writing.
Your book Happiness Is a Cloud very cleverly uses clouds and weather as a device to help children talk about their emotions. I’d be keen to know more about how nature inspires you as an author and shapes your ideas.
When you’re outdoors that is when you are truly connected with the natural world.
Nature helps to express my curiosity, insights, feelings and questions. Not only about nature but about myself, as well.
The story idea for Happiness is a Cloud came to me when I was home alone one day cloud gazing. At the time, my kids were on holiday with their mother and I missed not having them around. I thought this would make for a great story to help children express their feelings through behaviour and play.
I think nature helps children deal with emotional issues and anxiety. It gently allows children to share and discuss their feelings and problems with others.
Like Harry in the book, children experience complex feelings like adults but, usually, they struggle to express their feelings through words. So instead, they communicate their feelings in different ways.
Happiness is a Cloud explores our feelings and emotions by likening it to the changing shapes of clouds.
I haven’t attempted to write a picture book for a long time, but I imagine it’s a fine balancing act between deciding what to put in the text and what to leave for the illustrator to convey. I’d love to know how you negotiate this balance when drafting your stories?
Writing a picture book is not as easy as it looks.
People think just because there are few words, picture books are easy to write. But that’s not the case. They’re called picture books for a good reason.
When writing a picture book, the writer wears three hats: The writer’s hat, the illustrator’s hat and the designer’s hat.
The text tells one story and the pictures tell another story. And, all the while, you need to make sure that you leave enough room for the two to work together on the page. It’s a marriage of words and pictures.
Therefore, don’t worry too much about how your character or setting looks. Leave this part for the illustrator. In other words, trust the illustrator.
Leave enough space for the illustrator to tell their side of the story. Leave things open – don’t be too loud when you write. Silence speaks louder.
Your book Under the Same Sky was read by the well-known actor, Tom Hardy, as a bedtime story on the UK children’s show CBeebies. Can you tell us a little about how this came about, and what it was like hearing Tom’s reading for the first time?
That was the highlight of the year (2020). It was the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. I was blown away by the news.
It was a surprise. All credit goes to the publisher and the rights team.
Hearing Tom Hardy read the book was emotional. Tom Hardy has a deep, masterful voice and makes for an entertaining dive into bedtime stories. Just the Intro and Outro of the reading has reached well over 1M views.
It was an honour and privilege to have an A-lister like Tom Hardy read my story on UK television. And I was thrilled to hear from the producers of the show that Tom Hardy loved the book. Music to my ears.
Tom and friend thoroughly enjoying Under the Same Sky!
Has being a parent affected the themes and topics you address in your stories? Do you think being a parent makes it easier to write for children?
It helps to have kids. I observe them and the ideas start flowing.
For instance, I wrote my first picture book No Matter Who We’re With following my separation in 2008. Not only was it rough for me on a personal level, with so much upheaval and sadness, but for my children too. So, I decided to write a story that would help not only my children, but also other children going through a similar fate to cope with the many changes experienced when parents separate.
My intention, when I started writing, was never to write self-help books for children, but if you’ve lived life, you pick up life lessons along the way. So you naturally employ those life lessons in your work.
What’s next in the ever-evolving writing career of Robert Vescio?
I have four new picture books releasing next year. So, 2021 is going to be a busy year.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Art of Words with Joanna Bartel and EK Books
Wombat and Joey Roo with Emma Cracknell and Wild Eyed Press
Girl Lost with Anna Pignataro and New Frontier Publishing
A Squiggly Line with Colin Rowe and Little Pink Dog Books.
Where can readers find you and your books online?
For more information, please visit the following sites:
Facebook: Robert Vescio - Children's Author
It's been a real treat to learn more about how you do what you do - thanks again for your time and very thoughtful responses, Robert.
Robert's latest book, Into the Wild, is illustrated by Mel Armstrong and published by New Frontier Publishing. Please check out the utterly wonderful book trailer below.
Into the Wild tells the tale of a young boy named Roman who wanders where the hidden and wild lies. But through his travels, he discovers something rare and special – a friend to share his discoveries with.
Young readers will delight in searching with Roman for the unknown and mysterious.
Into the Wild, beautifully illustrated by Mel Armstrong and published by New Frontier Publishing, is a not only a celebration about the power of friendship but is also a journey about self-discovery. It opens our eyes to the unseen and beauty that surrounds us.
Mel’s stunning illustrations are filled with fun and attention-grabbing detail. They truly capture the atmosphere of the story and convey the emotion of the characters expressively. This is wandering all wrapped up in one beautiful package.
Just open your mind.
5 November 2020
It's a great thrill to welcome our first guest to the page: the multi-talented Megan Higginson. Megan is an author, illustrator, and very active advocate for books and the love of reading. She has recently released her first picture storybook, Raymund and the Fear Monster, which has garnered a truckload of positive reviews and enthusiastic readers.
Thanks so much for joining us, Megan. Share with us, if you will, a little bit about your journey as an author.
My journey as an author is a long and winding one. As a child I never believed I could write stories. I didn’t even learn to read until I was about eight. Writing was hard. With drawing I always felt I sucked at it even though I desperately wanted to draw and paint and would study illustrations and paintings for hours, trying to work out how the artist did what they did.
Besides all that, I loved books and was an utter bookworm. As a child, I would sit up a tree in my favourite reading spot and often imagined the characters having more adventures long after I had closed the last page. Sometimes I would even make up my own characters and take them on adventures. I never thought to write the stories down. I thought I was too stupid. Besides, whenever I wrote a story in class (primary and high school) and had to read it out, everyone would laugh at my story. To make it worse, my story would be sooooo completely and utterly different to everyone else’s. I also thought they laughed because it was because I had written something silly or horrid. But, looking back, I realise it was because my stories were funny and yes, they were completely different to everyone else’s.
As happens for a lot of mums, when I had my kids, I read to them heaps. I decided that I wanted to write and illustrate my own books. I even made up a story, Here Comes the Tickle Fish. I wrote it and illustrated it and read it to the kids every night. It was one of their favourites. As time went on, I entered local writing competitions and won every year.
By 2013, I was divorced. I decided to go on a mission trip to the Philippines. While there I met some lovely kids at a local orphanage. When I returned home, I began writing stories for them every week. Sometimes they were retellings of Bible Stories. Other times they were retellings of stories I’d heard. And then I started to make up my own stories. After a few months, the writer within me was released.
And then I made plans to return to the Philippines on another mission trip. I wrote Raymund and the Fear Monster for the orphanage kids. I also illustrated it (rather badly), printed out four copies at Officeworks, and gave it to them.
When I came home, I thought that was that. However, the writing bug had bitten hard and I couldn’t stop. I decided that I wanted to take writing seriously and enrolled in a Writing Picture Book course with The Australian Writer’s Centre. I haven’t looked back.
What are some of the topics and themes that you are most interested in exploring in your writing? Why do you think these appeal to you so much?
Fear and living with courage are two themes I find in most of my stories. I didn’t realise it until recently, but I always have a scare factor in every one of my stories. And somehow the main protagonist has to conquer their fear in order to do what must be done.
I’m aware that I’m drawn to these themes because I lived with fear my whole life. I grew up with a violent alcoholic father, I was homeless at 16, pregnant at 17, and then found myself in a toxic relationship. During my marriage I also became very sick with Fibromyalgia. There was a point in my marriage where I finally had had enough. I didn’t want to live in fear anymore. Someone said to me once that I wore fear like a comfortable old coat. Well I decided to chuck that old coat and got divorced.
I’ve learned a lot about myself, and about fear and what it means to have courage. Somehow that all seeps into my stories.
Tell us about your debut picture book, Raymund and the Fear Monster.
Raymund and the Fear Monster was originally written for the children I met in a Philippine orphanage in 2013. Many of them lived with fear and I wanted to create a story that was special for them.
After sharing my story with others, so many parents said that they had a child who would love the story. I realised that my story could go way further than I expected. It is now selling worldwide.
‘A monster that eats fear is terrorising Raymund’s village. Raymund is small and not very brave. Will Raymund be able to overcome his fear, defeat the monster and save his village?’
What was it like working on Raymund with your illustrator, Ester de Boer?
Ester and I have been friends for years. From the first time she heard Raymund and the Fear Monster she connected with the story. Ester and I are founding members of our writer’s group. She gave me a lot of feedback on the story over the four years of rewriting it.
Once the manuscript had been finalised, as every author should, I stepped back and let Ester do what she does best. We did discuss some crucial scenes and sometimes, Ester would ask what I thought of a particular scene. It was and still is, very much a collaboration.
You’ve also written a short story called Freya and the Fear Monster, which featured in the Creative Kids Tales Story Collection Volume 2 in 2019. Does Freya’s journey in this story have a lot in common with Raymund’s?
Freya’s journey is very similar to Raymund’s. Both children live in a village/town at the bottom of a huge mountain with a deep, dark forest/wood. They both have to deal with a big scary monster. The only difference with Freya’s story is that it is much shorter and doesn’t include much detail about the monster, or that he eats fear, or that he grows when he does eat fear.
Both kids decide to tag along with the other kids who go to ‘get rid of the monster,’ they both face the monster, and they both defeat it.
In Freya’s story, in parts of the story I played with assonance to emphasise important words in a phrase, to create a sense of rhythm, enhance mood, and to create a lyrical effect of words and sounds. In other areas I also used alliteration. It’s a fun story to read aloud for that reason, especially to younger children. Though older kids have enjoyed it too.
You have recently become very busy as an illustrator too, and are now illustrating a full-length picture book (My Princess Wears a Superhero Cape by Melissa Gijsbers). Do writing and illustrating fulfil the same creative needs for you?
Even though they are both creative, and have many similarities, for me they are not the same. They fill two very different places in my heart and soul. I love cats and dogs. If I don’t have one, I feel like something is missing in my life. I miss writing like crazy when I’m spending so much time illustrating, and vice versa.
What’s it like illustrating another author’s work as opposed to your own?
It’s been a fascinating process. I really love this story. It’s been exciting to let my imagination go wild to add extra layers to the story and create a fun and interesting visual narrative. Being an author though, I’m very conscious of making sure that I leave plenty of space for the words. I also love surprising the author.
Do you have any advice for writers who may be feeling creatively spent, or uninspired?
I received this great advice: Give yourself permission to take a break from writing/illustrating etc. Take the pressure off yourself. Binge watch Netflix. Hang out with friends. Read a great book. And take as long as you need to be able to recharge. Don’t rush the process.
In The Artists Way, Julia Cameron talks about taking yourself on Artists Dates. This is timeout for yourself to do something that fills you up. For me, it is going for a walk through the local art gallery, or checking out the local street art. Though that is a bit hard at the moment. These are my usual go-to creative activities. Although my favourite way to fill my creative well is to go for a meander in nature, especially in the bush. I also enjoy learning new things. So, I sometimes branch out and try my hand at something completely different.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of ideas. I have a fun dog story I’ve worked on heaps and even was mentored through by the lovely author, Dee White. I’ve submitted this story to various publishers over the past three years, but no luck. I’m thinking of illustrating and publishing it myself. I might even publish Freya and the Fear Monster as a picture book.
I have some teacher friends who love my short junior fiction stories and one often uses my manuscripts, and my published stories in her year two class. I’m thinking of putting several of my short stories together with illustrations in a story collection.
I’m also continuing working on my middle-grade sci-fi novel. I’ve nearly finished the third draft. I did have an agent interested in it when I had the first three chapters assessed a couple of years ago. So, I hope it will find a home with a traditional publisher.
And I will continue to work on the craft of writing and illustrating.
Where can readers find out more about you and get hold of your books?
Readers can find more about me on my website: https://www.meganhigginson.com/
Raymund and the Fear Monster can be found on my website (Australia Only). https://www.meganhigginson.com/books.html
Raymund is also available in online bookstores around the English-speaking world.
I’m currently not selling the anthologies on my website as I only have a few copies and plan to sell them in markets in the new year (hopefully).
Thanks so much for sharing so many personal insights into your incredible journey, Megan. It's been a real pleasure to pick your brain, and I can't wait to see how your journey continues.
Check out this spectacular trailer for Raymund and the Fear Monster.