Shelly Unwin, an up-and-coming children’s book author, is our feature writer for this month’s Spotlight On. Shelly grew up in England surrounded by animals and a feisty palomino pony. She was the middle child of three and had eleven foster siblings (though not all at the same time!). At university, she studied teaching and biology, and she moved to Australia in 2002.
Shelly’s debut series of picture books, You’re One!, You’re Two!, You’re Three!, You’re Four!, and You’re Five! is due for release on the 1st of June. Shelly has two more picture books coming out in 2018, marking the cusp of an exciting career. Shelly is actively involved with several schools as the ‘author in residence’ for their writing programs and has spoken at various writers’ events in Sydney. Shelly lives on Sydney’s North Shore with her husband and their two young children. Our intern Ren Arcamone spoke to Shelly about the unique challenges of writing for children and the unexpected upsides of joining a writers’ group.
What inspired you to begin writing children’s literature?
It was an epiphany during my routine bedtime reading session with my three-year-old daughter Katie. The book in my hand was ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ by Keith Chapman and Jack Tickle (a great name for someone illustrating spiders, don’t you think?). A month earlier a friend had asked me what I was passionate about and suddenly I knew with complete conviction that I was passionate about picture books and that I wanted to create my own stories.
You’ve recently finished writing a series of five children’s rhyming books, You’re One!, You’re Two!, You’re Three!, You’re Four!, and You’re Five!, all due for release this June. The concept is simple yet warm and memorable. What do you think makes a good idea for a children’s book, and how do you dream it up?
Gosh, that’s hard. I had written so many different books before I had the idea for this series. And they all seemed like good ideas. But when the idea for You’re Five! (the first one I wrote in the series) struck me, I just knew it was ‘the one’. I had hot sweats and felt giddy with excitement. I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t already out in the market. It is a story that celebrates being five and the number five, and it speaks directly to the five-year-old child, making them feel special. There is no mention of childhood milestones, so every five year old that reads the book can feel successful and wonderful just by being five.
My daughter was five at the time. But it didn’t feel like I ‘thought’ of the idea. The idea just arrived, and the text just flooded its way onto the page. I worked backwards down to You’re One! with the text becoming more simplified and the context more immediate to the child’s world, e.g. ‘One tummy to tickle, one head to shake.’
Other books I’ve written have involved a different process. My son was obsessed with space, and I’d been thinking I’d like to write a great space book for about 6 weeks before the idea of how to write Blast Off! revealed itself.
My other picture book being published by Allen & Unwin next year is There’s a Baddie Running Through This Book, which was again inspired by my son, who was fascinated by one page in a library book that showed a burglar being chased by a police car. My creative process feels as though I’m writing the words but I don’t have control over the process; it just happens. Of course, there are multiple, multiple edits before the story ever leaves the house.
I think a good idea for a children’s book is one that resonates with the child’s interests, that pulls them into the story, making them feel involved and empowering them to feel great.
Your writers’ group here at the Centre played an interesting role in helping you find a publisher. Could you tell us that story?
I joined my critique group fairly early in the piece, after seeing an article by the group convenor Penny Morrison in Newsbite. The first and most important thing I learnt as part of this group was how to take constructive criticism and make it work for me, and how to edit, edit and re-edit before submitting. I also learnt about all of the networking opportunities, festivals and publisher critiques that were available to me. Most significantly, my group invited publishers to come along and critique our work in front of the whole group. I learnt so much through this process, but I also had the opportunity to present Blast Off! to Random House, which eventually landed me the publishing contract. Being a part of this critique group has also provided me with a group of like-minded friends who have provided support and guidance every step of the bumpy way.
How did you come to meet Katherine Battersby, the illustrator for your upcoming books? What’s the creative process of working with an illustrator like?
I haven’t ever had the pleasure of meeting Katherine. She is Australian, but based in Canada. It was Allen & Unwin that made the introduction and my first communication with her was via her first storyboard, which simply blew me away. She is such a talent and I have loved everything that she has presented for this project. I am not sure it is usually as easy as it has been with Katherine. She has always been so on point and added so much to the project through her wonderful creativity. We just let her to do what she does so well and revelled in the results.
Your non-fiction picture book Blast Off! is due to be published by Penguin Random House in 2018. Tell us a bit about it.
As I mentioned above, it was my son Harrison’s fascination with space that inspired this story. I had found that non-fiction books on space seemed too overloaded with facts to hold his interest, but that he was really keen to learn about the planets. I wanted to write something that would engage him in a story, make him giggle and give him the opportunity to learn some facts along the way. Hopefully with Blast Off! I have achieved this balance.
Do you have a regular writing routine? If so, what does it involve?
I used to. For years I would drop the kids at school/ daycare, grab a coffee and then chain myself to the desk for the limited time they were away. This year my youngest started kindergarten, and the luxury of five child-free days seems to have wreaked havoc with my discipline. I am also distracted with launch preparations for my series at the moment, as well as working with a couple of schools on big writing projects. One thing that often seems to happen is this: I get myself all lined up to work on my latest young adult novel, and then, like magic, a picture book idea strikes me and diverts my attention. It is a wonderful thing, yet frustrating at the same time. One day I will finish and submit one of my YA stories!
Do you have any advice for emerging children’s book writers?
Yes! Heaps! But most strongly I would recommend joining a critique group to get solid feedback on your work. Attend as many literary events that focus on your genre as you possibly can. Read, read, read. And if you’re serious, dedicate yourself to your writing like you would to running any other type of business. Take yourself seriously (although not too seriously), believe in yourself and take every opportunity to educate yourself further.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading a young adult novel The Impossible Story of Olive in Love by Tonia Alexandra, who is one of my friends from the CBCA Northern Sub Branch. I’ve only just started but I’m intrigued already!
In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring…
Writer/Poet? Jacqueline Harvey. She is a superbly successful writing machine, but she is also one of the most generous writers I have ever met. She cares about emerging writers and is incredibly supportive and encouraging.
Book? The Book Thief.
Time of day? School hours!
Music? Silence, ahhhh!
Location? Kitchen table with my puppy at my feet.