The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Dimity Powell
I want my words to matter; for my picture books to remain
in children’s hearts like well-loved tunes
and my stories to resonate integrity. ~ Dimity Powell
One of the most wonderful things about an SCBWI conference is the people you meet. I had the privilege to meet this amazing author this February, at the SCBWI Sydney Conference. I am so pleased to introduce her and her work to you all.
Dimity Powell lives in Queensland, Australia. She “writes for children because she believes being a kid is one of the coolest things you can be…next to riding dragons and lying under palm trees. She believes in magic and that ice cream tastes divine in any flavour, except maybe rainbow sherbet. She hopes the dozens of stories she’s conjured up over the years will be read by children who love to curl up with books as much as she does.”
She has written one chapter book - PS: Who Stole Santa’s Mail? (2012), multiple magazine and anthology stories, and three picture books, The Fix-It Man (2017), At The End of Holyrood Lane (2018) – winner of the 2019 Crystal Kite Award, and Pippa which released July 1st.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
DIMITY: As you might have guessed, one of my favourite things is ice cream. I love eating it, making it, and hardly ever feel guilty for indulging in it. Books and reading are a bit like that too, or at least should be for kids. That’s why I love writing for children; to witness the look on their faces when they discover a story that’s just right for them and then gobble it up.
If books were ice cream, then picture books would be my favourite flavour. I love reading them, making them and indulging in their unique magic. I don’t always find them the easiest of genres to write but they are certainly the most satisfying to nail. I’ve been trying to do so for the last decade or so.
Perhaps, next to perfecting picture book scripts, carving out time to write each day is one of my greatest challenges as a writer. I often spend up to 6 – 7 hours behind the desk each day but much of that is tied up with other ‘work’ issues. When I’m wrestling with a new idea or editing a fresh manuscript, I find I’m most productive when I’m travelling be it on a train, plane, at the bus stop, or even when stranded in an airport lounge. There is something compellingly private about writing in public! It really seems to free up my creativity.
I love the comparison of picture books to ice cream. And that moment a child finds a special book - priceless. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?
I consumed so many books as a child-reader. Favourite authors included James Herriot, Colin Thiele, Elyne Mitchell and of course, Enid Blyton. I was not familiar with illustrators so much back then but remember loving (and still loving) that coltish, old-world style used to illustrate stories like Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in School. I loved the homeliness of their shoes for some reason. I also loved any story about animals and enjoyed a touch of mystery which is probably why I still own over 35 Trixie Beldon books.
And likely why you did such a great job with Pippa. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I once enjoyed a spa at George Harrison’s house. Without George, in case you were wondering.
Wow! Probably a good thing you clarified that. How did writing At the End of Holyrood Lane differ from writing Fix-It Man and Pippa? Was one either easier or more challenging to write?
All were challenging in their own unique way.
Pippa actually began life years ago in my head, as stories often do, way before Holyrood Lane was even a flicker of thought. Pippa sprung from a need to express the magic of following your heart and finding your way back to your place of comfort after the call of adventure summons you from it; essentially believing in yourself. I enjoyed drafting this story although the subsequent edits were quite exacting and resulted in many changes to the original story. Fortunately, though, I enjoy all these aspects of taking a story to publication because the result is usually always worth it.
The genesis of Holyrood Lane was very different. I had no inkling or desire to pen a story about domestic violence until I was propositioned to do so by the CEO of a local children’s welfare organisation. She insisted we needed more mainstream picture books on topics like these to encourage a better understanding and acknowledge the need to address this with children at a young age.
It was a mammoth challenge and one I found gruelling at times because of the confronting nature of the topic but I also found writing this story one of the most liberating experiences of my life. I deliberately took my time fine tuning and then re-tuning every single line until I hit the ‘sweet spot’. I knew I’d given everything I possibly could for Flick – the main character of Holyrood Lane.
Getting The Fix-It Man across the publishing line was perhaps the most gruelling. It was hard to convince the publisher that this story would work in spite of it being so emotionally charged and, at the time, being their first (published) picture book tackling the subject of loss and grief. The story itself emerged quickly but I did dismantle it several times before finally re-submitting it. I’m glad I persevered. Believing in yourself and your work is essential in this game.
I think you did very well by Flick. And I am adding that last sentence above my computer - Thank you. Were you concerned about tackling the intense or weighty subjects of loss (Fix-It Man) and emotional abuse (At the End of Holyrood Lane)? Any suggestions for dealing with these types of issues?
Yes, very much so, at least at first, but the more I involved myself in Flick’s story (At The End of Holyrood Lane), the more invested I became in a way to present it to children for them to enjoy and reflect on, no matter what their circumstance.
Addressing the subject of death and loss in The Fix-It Man was again, not something I actively set out to do. It evolved organically as the story unfolded around the idea of a small girl and her father trying to stick their lives back together after the loss of her mother.
Whenever you write an issued based story, there is always the chance that it will polarise people especially those who feel that the issue is not yet necessarily their concern. My counter to this is that the beauty of using picture books as a conduit for discussion about subject matter that is considered ‘taboo’ or too intense for kids to handle is the way they serve as both mirrors and windows for children. I believe it’s important to foster this kind of exposure to all of life’s ups and down and side swerves, whether they have experienced it yet or not, to develop emotional plasticity and resilience in young children, not to mention empathy.
One of the best ways of facilitating ‘looking through’ and ‘seeing reflections of self’ situations in picture books, is through the use of analogies and symbolism. I used the metaphor of violent thunderstorms to represent the instigator of fear and anxiety in Holyrood Lane so that there could be greater audience connectivity – the premise being, we all harbour some sort of fear even though we may not all be victims of abuse. Using devices like this allows readers in varying situations to relate with the same story in their own way.
I may be slightly prejudiced, but I think you accomplished your goals. And did so in a tender, honest way. For PB's to effectively function as windows and doors, we can't hide from reality. Not every book is for every person. Did you have any say in the illustrations for At the End of Holyrood Lane? Did any of the text have to change as the illustrations were completed?
I had very definite ideas of the kind of imagery that would suit this story’s theme. I rarely ever share these outright with the illustrator though as I prefer to allow them absolute creative license. For me this is part of the magic, seeing how my words are interpreted as pictures.
In this case, Nicky Johnston agreed to illustrate Holyrood Lane. She illustrated my first picture book The Fix-It Man, so I knew Flick was in safe hands, and we absolutely love working together. I find Nicky tremendously innovative when it comes to understanding the intent behind my words so when she showed me the very first roughs of Flick and Uni, her toy unicorn, and the raging storms, it was no surprise to find myself looking at the very same images that had been floating around in my head. (Although I did shed tears of extreme joy).
Text © Dimity Powell, 2018. Image © Nicky Johnston 2018.
Our publisher, EK Books, felt the same way. I think we changed one word in the whole script, otherwise everything remained true to the original.
What a perfect pairing and a great experience! Where does the inspiration for these stories come from? Are all of them based on something that happened in your life?
Yes and no. I often tell students in writing workshops that personal experiences are a great way of harnessing authenticity in storytelling. It doesn’t need to be a blow by blow recollection of something that happened to you; sometimes the merest suggestion of a past memory is enough to ignite a tale.
In The Fix-It Man for instance, I combined a "What if?" question (what if there was something Dad couldn’t fix, like a broken heart), with a real life experience (my infant child used to refer to her father as the fix-it man until one day, she broke a bowl that could not be fixed) and heaped a fair dollop of emotion on top (mum dies leaving them broken).
Text © Dimity Powell, 2017. Image © Nicky Johnston 2017.
Nearly all of my stories are inspired by events, memories, feelings, and places I’ve encountered throughout life. It’s one of the most indulgent perks of being an author; infusing fact into fiction in surreptitious and fun ways.
What a great advertising blurb for writers. And if anyone hasn't read these books, you're in for a treat! Is there something you want your readers to know about At the End of Holyrood Lane and Pippa?
I want readers to enjoy these books first and foremost. Knowing youngsters have fallen in love with one of the characters or were able to relate to them in some way is the chocolate topping on my ice cream cone. I also hope readers of any age are able to resonate with the story behind Holyrood Lane. I know it has for many already and that is deeply satisfying. I am repeatedly moved when people share their personal reactions to this tale with me. Acknowledgement of fear is the first important step in overcoming it. I hope books like this continue to reach out and let people know they are not alone.
I also want people to understand that although they may not be victims of domestic abuse themselves, they can still get something out of Holyrood Lane thanks to the parallel theme of overcoming fears.
Similarly, with Pippa, I hope readers recognise that we may all share a call for independence at some point and that’s okay, that striking out and taking risks is also okay, as long as we understand the consequences and know how and when to return to the comfort of home. If we didn’t step out of our comfort zones from time to time, how else would we make wonderful new discoveries. I believe children as young as three can recognise this. I also hope this fast-paced adventure tale spurs a better appreciation of the humble but amazingly talented homing pigeon. I love them!
© Andrew Plat 2019.
Speaking of windows and mirrors! The themes that we are not alone and we should not be afraid to explore, both tug at strings deep within the reader's soul. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for At the End of Holyrood Lane? How did it differ from publishing Pippa?
Everything! I love the collaborative working process to get everything just right. It’s exacting but exciting, too. Perhaps the best bit of all is seeing the book take shape with the final illustrations. It’s a thrill that never lessens for me.
There is one golden memory that shines a little more brightly than others. I was staying with Nicky for the launch of our first book, The Fix-It Man, when she invited me out to her studio, holy ground. She showed me the water colour spreads she was working on for Holyrood Lane and hesitated on one page she was having difficulty with. She asked my opinion for which, I felt deeply honoured and together we managed to work around the problem (of perspective). I’ll treasure that magic moment for always because nothing has made me feel so connected and involved in the marvelous alchemy of picture book making since.
Pippa is published with a different house, Ford Street Publishing, which I think is healthy to experience as an author. The editing experience was a little more onerous but working intimately with the publisher, illustrator, art designer, and editor meant once again I could enjoy productive collaborative exchanges.
A magic moment, indeed. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?
I’ve been writing for children for just over ten years or so now and can honestly say that despite the many bumpy bits, I love what I do. Carving a name for yourself is part relentless slog, part miracle, and part talent. Talent can be skill based, which can be developed. To improve anything, you must practice. This means as a writer, you must write.
The single most frustrating aspect of writing for me is possibly timing – my complete lack of it. The idea I had two years ago languishes in my too hard basket and the next minute I see it on someone else’s best seller list, kind of thing. My writing advice however is to ignore timelines. Think, read, think some more, write, then write some more. Then re-write. There is no ‘best time’ to begin. Beginning something makes it the best time.
Great advice! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m always scraping new words together! There’s another digital picture book story, Circus School, just released on the Kindergo App and another short story due out this year, but I’m most excited about a new picture book that is currently being illustrated with Wombat Books. It’s not due out until early 2021, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a tad longer. Sorry!
How exciting, I'll wait! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you’re glad you didn’t know at first?
Not really, I think ignorance can be blissful. I did however make sure I attended as many workshops, festivals, conferences, and launches as I could (and still do) to make myself as ‘publishable’ as possible so I was reasonably well versed in what was to come – warts and all. My motivation for writing hasn’t really changed since my first attempts in high school; I simply write the words that speak the loudest to be written. I think this is important to remember. Don’t try to be too prescriptive.
I think this business has taught me even more about self-worth, believing in your abilities and actualising your dreams. I understand better now that failure is not the same as unsuccessful. I’m glad I didn’t know how many failures it would take to land a winner in the beginning, though. That crystal ball image might have sent me running for the hills otherwise!
Right?! So, hang in there and write from your heart. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I always wanted to fly so was determined to come back as a stork when I was younger. I have modified this to a pelican in recent times because I have a strong affinity for the ocean, too. Reincarnation aside, I find it very hard to go past a Border Collie - #favouritedog. Now if dogs were ice cream…
What an interesting thought. Thank you Dimity for visiting and sharing about yourself and your books.
My absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me!
Be sure to come back on Friday for a Perfect Picture Book Post (#PPBF) on At the End of Holyrood Lane.
So readers, did we tease you enough for you to run right out and read all three of these books?
To learn more about Dimity Powell, or contact her: