Post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan
At our monthly SCBWI Japan meeting on October 5, 2019, Frané Lessac and Mark Greenwood, an award-winning Antipodean team, shared their knowledge, experiences and love of creating picture books for children. Between them they touched on several important themes including inspirations, research, reflecting diversity and writing about sensitive subjects.
Childhood memories, old photographs, museum visits, hobbies and ‘what if’ scenarios have sparked in both Frané and Mark the desire to find out more about a topic and put it down on paper. Frané, a self-taught illustrator, was not keen on the adage “write what you know” but rather “write what you love, write what you want to know” and encouraged us to stay curious.
Both Frané and Mark work mainly on creative non-fiction stories, therefore in-depth research is vitally important. Their research is not limited to internet searches and library runs. They collect photos, historical accounts and personal memorabilia. And, if possible, they travel to the places where the stories took place, connecting not only with people, but the landscapes and nature of past events to ensure the accuracy of their stories. Frané and Mark also share a commitment to reflect diversity in their projects. “Children need to see themselves in the books they read,” Frané said, paraphrasing Dr Rudine Sims Bishop’s speech on multicultural literacy, Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors. Frané’s illustrations in the award-winning picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (2018), written by Traci Sorell, beautifully reflects the diversity of modern day Cherokee people while extending an invitation to readers of all cultures to step inside the Cherokee community.
Many of Mark’s stories focus on Australian history. Included in his published works are several that tell the stories of Australian Aboriginal heroes, such as Jandamarra, (2013), illustrated by Terry Dutton. This work not only acknowledges indigenous historical figures but, importantly, adds some of the missing voices to current historical narratives.
Related to this issue, one of our members asked how writers and illustrators outside a specific group or ethnicity go about telling the stories of others. Frané and Mark talked at length on how they spent time with communities whose stories they have shared, the importance of forming relationships, asking for permissions and establishing authenticity. “Go there. Try to get approval and gather as much information as possible,” advised Frané. Mark agreed and added that where possible, “create a cross-cultural approach” in which one of the team, writer or illustrator, is from the community itself.
Another member asked how to write about difficult subjects in stories. Frané showed us how she uses color to express both joyful and dark emotions. Mark urged us not to shy away from difficult issues but counseled us to avoid blame and find the humanity in all those involved in the story.
Frané and Mark covered so much in their presentations and did so with heart. They revealed some of the lessons learned throughout their careers, entertained us with wonderful anecdotes and provided a generous amount of advice and so many helpful tips. If you ever have an opportunity to attend a talk by either or both of these speakers, you will not be disappointed.
Mari Boyle is a writer and a teacher.