Possum Magic is 30!

On Saturday night, Books Illustrated hosted a celebration for the iconic picture book ‘Possum Magic’ written by Mem Fox and illustrated by the amazing Julie Vivas 30 years ago.


It was a full house attended by many and with the wine flowing, open fires burning and the original artwork from Possum Magic hung around the place, it was a joyous occasion.


I met some old friends, my Maurice Saxby Mentor, Anna Walker and Erica Wagner from Allen & Unwin and I made many new friends including, Julie Vivas, Sue De Gennaro, Jane Tanner, Craig Smith, Francesca Rendle-Short and Sally Rippin. I also met the lovely Geri Barr from the Australian’s Children’s Literature Alliance and the gorgeous Justine who works for Ann and Ann at Books Illustrated.

Everybody was so friendly and happy to talk shop, it was great fun for me to gain an insight into how illustrators go about their work. I have to admit I was particularly relieved to hear about other’s people struggles with colour palette and character development.


We all enjoyed hearing more about Julie Viva’s journey in illustrating ‘Possum Magic’.

‘Possum Magic’ was originally called ‘Hush the invisible Mouse’ and after being rejected by nine publishing houses (yes, nine I hear you say) Omnibus in Adelaide took a chance on it. They had just published Kerry Argent’s ‘One Wooly Wombat’ and were looking for other stories with an Australian theme. So, the mice became possums. Mem Fox reworked the story and Julie created new illustrations and the rest is history.


At first, Julie began drawing real possums. She used to go to the night house at Taronga Zoo. She drew brush tail possums in every position until she got a feel for their body proportions and how they moved. She also looked at the injured baby ones at the Zoo hospital, too. After this, Julie then felt a bit braver about inventing her own possums. Julie explained that doing Hush as invisible was tricky but something as basic as using a broken line seemed to work.

Image Image

Julie simplified her possums, making their bodies big spheres and their heads small spheres with triangular faces. Tails and arm and legs were used for expression.

When Julie hung Grandma up by the tail she could see how this worked. In this form, not looking like real animals, Julie was able to ease them through their bike riding and their umbrella boating without it jarring too much.

“The human emotions that the possums go through are possibly easier to cope with in their visually unreal form. Early in the process, I realised real possums’ eyes are so big they take over. I felt that they took attention away from everything else in the picture, so I did adjust their eyes and this was another step away from reality.”

When it came to the colour palette Julie said she was afraid of large areas of strong colour, but colour roughs helped her decide, as the characters came into another life when the colours were applied. Using blues and purples in the fur seem to give relief from the expected brown and grey. The shape is so important, and Julie didn’t want anything to distract from that. Everything changes in a drawing when solid colour is used. The use of darker grey for the koala helps convey the weight of this character. Julie said it’s often difficult to get the balance that she had in the drawing when she start to paint.

Fascinating stuff. Stay tuned, as Julie Vivas will be the featured illustrator on my blog next month.

Julie also had on display some of her gorgeous illustrations from her latest picture book Davey & the Duckling soon to be released through Penguin Books and another of her well loved picture books Let the celebrations Begin has just been released in the Walker Australian Classic series. There was a lot to celebrate!



We also got to see some of the amazing books and artwork collected by Ann and Ann at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year. Some of them very dark in colour palette and fascinating in there concepts.




Thank you so much to Ann and Ann and Justine – it was truly a beautiful and inspiring evening.

You can read more about it on the Books Illustrated Blog http://booksillustrated.blogspot.com.au



Reference: an extract from an interview with Julie Vivas, Scan Vol 23, no.2

Day 5 Meeting with Anna Walker, my mentor!


As part of the Maurice Saxby Mentorship, we get to spend time with an established author and or illustrator to give us some guidance and advice with our work.

Yesterday I met with my mentor, the very talented, award-winning writer and illustrator Anna Walker.

Anna has the coolest basement studio. It was all painted white including the floors and from the moment I walked in, I couldn’t take it all in quick enough. It was a treasure trove full of beautiful artwork, books, furniture, fabric and items she’s collected.

Sitting on a vintage chair by the fire we talked about what had happened during the Maurice Saxby Mentorship so far. I told Anna how fabulous it had been and how I’d met Kevin Burgemeestre and Ann James and what wonderful illustrators they were. Free flowing, spontaneously free handed drawers and painters. I admitted I was envious of this skill and that I wasn’t like that…I didn’t want to say it but…I was neat.

The magic when two like souls meet. Anna too, is neat. Be proud of it, she tells me. That’s who we are. We all have different strengths.

Anna is a very considered illustrator, and you can really feel this in her artwork. They’re exquisite and whimsical, and just so perfectly beautiful to look at.


Anna then went on to explain to me and show me how she goes about writing a picture book story.

Anna always begins with a ‘mood board’. This sets the tone for the story and includes things Anna has collected that relate to the story such as photos, artwork and images, sketches, letters, fabrics and leaves. These mood boards were surprisingly large, at least an A1 or B1 in size. I thought they were a work of art in themselves. They were beautiful to look at and Anna told me how she used these to help her select her palette of colours. Rarely does she go beyond five colours e.g. for ‘Peggy’ (one of my favourite Anna Walker books), she used a palette of only five colours: green, brown, black, red & yellow. Anna likes to restrict her colour palate as this gives keeps the artwork a simplistic balance and cohesion. I’d never considered this before. Now, I understand why some of my artwork doesn’t quite flow or look like they fit together.

Anna didn’t deny there’s a lot to grapple with: style, medium, composition and layout.

After the mood board, Anna does some rough character sketches, building in complexity. There were a lot of chickens!

Anna then puts together a storyboard. This maps the text out within the 32-page requirement for a picture book (starting on page 4 & 5 leaving the front cover, end page and half title page free).

Anna likes this process for a number of reasons: it allows her to cut the text back allowing a picture to tell the story, it lets her to make sure the story fits the picture book format, and any structural faults can be easily seen which Anna resolves. To do this, Anna cuts and pastes text so that she can easily move it when she wants. Lots of photocopying and cutting and pasting. Just use blue-tac she tells me!

I was fascinated (and relieved) when Anna told me she might get half way through a storyboard before she truly knows her character and what they’re going to be like. Sometimes she then has to go back and make the character at the beginning more like the one in the middle.

After the storyboard, Anna sketches to the scale of the picture book. She always paints to the size of the picture book with a 2 cm bleed. When she’s happy with a drawing, she will paint it in with whatever she has, water colours or maybe even pencil to get the colours right. There’s a real subtlety to Anna’s work. It’s very considered and her efforts really show in the finished product. She keeps going until she gets this right. It might take several drafts. The amount of work Anna puts into this astounds me.

Then the pictures are photo shopped and Anna might will some filter effects and she might pop in some real buildings or a bike. We laughed comparing notes about the ‘select’ wand in Photoshop and how many hours you can spend with your graphics tablet ‘up close and personal’ with your artwork to get it just right. Amazing (ok and maybe a little obsessive) stuff.

From Photoshop Anna puts her work into InDesign (penguin used this for there picture book layouts), where she does her own graphic design work.

Moving onto my masterpieces…

Firstly, we looked at ‘My Perfect Baby Boy’. This is rhyming verse and is all about how your children start to show family traits from a very early age. Shall we say, my story has a few ‘issues’. The concept is good but the structure needs some serious work. And why does it have to be in verse asked Anna? I’m not sure because it was originally a story. I will definitely go back to my original manuscript and sus this out.

We then looked at my artwork. My baby is a bigheaded, big-eyed cartoon and in every scene I collage vintage wallpaper in the background. The style of the baby is a bit of a problem. Is this what I really want for my baby? I’m a fan of the outline, not a strong one, more of a sketchy kind of line, textured and pastel like. But how do you do that and not look like a cartoon? What do I want my baby to look like? His eyes are the key, because they’re the same as mine and that’s the whole point of the story.

One of my illustrations…it’s a little bright…so grab your sunnies


Anna suggested I do some more research on the style I’m looking for. How to develop a character, focusing on the fact that the eyes must be unique. Anna showed me several books by Lauren Childs (Charlie & Lola, Clarice Bean), Babette Cole, Polly Dunbar, and Mo Willem. Wow! I get what Anna means.

I’m going back to the drawing board with this one and doing a complete re-write and change of illo style.

Moving onto manuscript number two: ‘Hen & Duckling’

The story of ‘Hen & Duckling’ is based on the tragic but true story of ‘Lonely’. I grew up on a farm in Hamilton and ‘Lonely’ was the result of something my mother did as a joke. We had about 10 white leghorn chickens on the farm (little white dudes with red crests & legs) and some khaki campbell ducks (they are brown and green with white bands around their skinny little necks). They were always my responsibility; they were my girls, and I fed them every night: grain & shell grit, fresh water and scraps, including locking them up every night (don’t ask me what happened the night I forgot to shut them up – we had foxes – and put it this way, after we got a new chickens I never forgot to shut them in again).

Anyway, I digress. I fabricated ‘Hen & Duckling’ based on ‘Lonely’s ’ story (as it didn’t have a happy ending).

So, this is what happened. My mother put a duck egg under a relentlessly clucky hen. And yes, that egg somehow hatched. We had messed with nature, and this is how this tragic tale unfolded. The duckling thought he was a chicken, the hen treated him as her own and neither the chickens or the ducks wanted to have anything to do with either of them. I even caught the chickens and ducks trying to peck the poor little guy to death one day. So, as any decent mother would do, Hen moved herself and ‘Lonely’ (as we had now so appropriately christened him) to the garage.

Personally, I was a little bit annoyed as I then had to feed them in the garage as well as the rest of the girls back in the chook run. But I admit I was happy Hen and ‘Lonely’ were safe from the maddening crowd.

Hen and ‘Lonely’ lived a life of blissful happiness together far far away from the chook run. Until one day, when I was riding my horse Honey down the paddock, I saw ‘Lonely’ waddling along, all alone, heading quite purposely in a northerly direction. “Where on earth is he heading?” I wondered. I asked Mum when I got home. “Oh, yes, he now spends his days over at the neighbours farm with their flock of ducks. He comes back every night to stay with Hen.” OMG!

After awhile, ‘Lonely’ stopped making the trip back home at nighttime.

And after a long while, Hen eventually moved from the garage back into the chook run. Sigh.

So, that’s how ‘Hen & Duckling’ evolved.

Anna and I worked our way through a storyboard for this picture book and reduced the word count from 524 down to 457. There’s more work to be done but it’s much tighter and punchier.

The ending still needs work. It was a bit corny, but all in all I know exactly where I’m going with this manuscript.

I hope to evolve it into something a bit more minimalist, with some more white space. I love water colours and everyone always assumes Anna works in water colours but she actually uses acrylics. Acrylic inks as well as collage. I’m going to give these a go too.

I had a wonderful morning with Anna and I’m so grateful for her wonderful advice and time she gave me.



By Anna Walker

Scholastic Australia

This is the story of a brave chicken on a big adventure.

Peggy lives in a small house in a quiet street.

One blustery day a big gust of wind sweeps down and scoops up leaves, twigs and . . . Peggy!

The wind blows Peggy into the city, where she discovers strange new things, but how will she find her way back home?




Anna Walker Illustrator video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjeKnR4CxB4

Peggy book trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6fwlJxNoMM