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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Julie Abery

Last spring, I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet Julie Abery in person and hang out with her in Bologna, Italy. She is such a warm, welcoming, and talented person.

Julie is a former early years' teacher in the beautiful country of Switzerland, where she lives with her partner and their adorable Springer Spaniel. Originally from England, Julie has spent half of her life living in Europe, bringing up her three (now grown up) children, and immersing herself in new languages and cultures.

She is the author of four board books Little Tiger (2019), Little Panda (2019), Little Hippo (Spring 2020), and Little Monkey (Spring 2020) and two upcoming nonfiction picture books The Old Man and the Penguin: A True Story of True Friendship (Fall 2020) and Sakamoto and the Sugar-Ditch Kids (Spring 2021).

Her debut nonfiction picture book, Yusra Swims, releases next week on February 25, 2020.

Welcome Julie, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest picture book and writing.

Thanks for inviting me, Maria. It is a pleasure to be here.

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?)

JULIE: I am a mum, a supply teacher, and a children’s author. I love picture books and have been fortunate to have a career sharing stories and singing songs with hundreds of children from around the world. My first foray into writing was a winter play for the early childhood centre…dancing snowflakes, ice-skating reindeers, and a missing present rap gushed out of my pen. It took a few more plays and wobbly manuscripts before I started to find my voice. I really love research for stories, even in the Little Animal Friends board book series I try to make the animal behaviour as true to life as possible.

Sounds like you're having a grand time! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Hmmmm…well, I speak four languages, and used to work for the director of a famous rally team!

That's interesting. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I only really remember Enid Blyton books at home. I particularly liked the Amelia Jane series, about a very naughty rag doll.

What inspired you to write Yusra Swims?

The news. Like so many people I watched heart-wrenching reports of overloaded boats full of refugees looking for safety and a better future but putting themselves in such perilous danger. I must admit to having a deep fear of the sea, I am not a strong swimmer, and I think my personal anxiety triggered a rush of spare rhyming stanzas. I wrote them down with no idea what I would do with them or where they would lead, but when I read Yusra’s story, I realized that I had captured much of her story in my words.

Text © Julie Abery, 2020. Image © Sally Deng, 2020.

Such an interesting way to get started with a story. What was the hardest part of researching Yusra Swims? The easiest?

I suppose the research was made easier by the press' interest in Yusra’s journey from Syria to the Olympics. Her story is inspiring, uplifting, and hopeful; she’s a role model. The hardest part was keeping her story authentic and portraying Yusra as the strong, resilient, brave young woman that she is.

I imagine that writing it in rhyme made that even harder. Your board books are also written in rhyme. Was it easier or harder to write Yusra Swims? Why?

It was harder to write Yusra Swims in rhyme, I think. A couple of times I felt like I was losing my way, so I wrote the whole story out in prose to keep me focused on what I wanted to say. The spare quatrains had to move the story forward with purpose while keeping true to the story. [This is one portion of the rhyme on the previous spread.]

Crowded boat,

Fading light,

Slipping quickly

Out of sight.

I'm immensely impressed that you accomplished this slice of her life in such a tight rhyme. Is there something you want your readers to know about Yusra Swims?

I would like people to know that despite all the hurdles Yusra faced on her journey to Europe, she never gave up. Yusra Swims is a story full of empathy and hope.

You definitely succeeded in portraying that. How long did it take from first draft to publication? What was the hardest part of the process? The easiest?

From first draft to publication of Yusra Swims took just shy of four years. I felt that it was important when writing about someone so young to have their permission. I think that was the hardest part of the process. It took 18 months in total, but it was absolutely worth the wait.

Interesting point. It can be more complicated writing about someone who is alive. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors?

I think the waiting is the most difficult part of the children’s publishing business—everything moves very slowly. I have found the best thing is to have lots of projects on the go to distract you.

There's also the added benefit of having something coming out each year. Besides The Old Man and the Penguin: A True Story of True Friendship (Fall 2020) and Sakamoto and the Sugar-Ditch Kids (Spring 2021), are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

There are two more Little Animal Friends in the works for spring 2021, and the only clue I will give you is that the animals are both black and white! 😉

Well, we know it can't be a panda. (If you don't know why - check out the first image of this post) Hmm . . . zebra, penguin, lemur, or a skunk. Can't wait to see who the next animals in your series will be. Is there something you wish you could tell your younger self or kids today?

Be persistent and patient, and never give up on your dreams.

Great advice, Julie. What is your favorite animal? Why?

Well, given that Tilly, our spaniel, is watching me as I write—it has to be a dog! They are such great companions.

Thank you, Julie for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you, Maria. I hope we will meet up again in Europe someday soon.

Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Yusra Swims.

To find out more about Julie Abery, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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