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The Emotional Landscape of Childhood: Q&A with PM Literary Awards Shortlisted Author Lisa Shanahan

November 30, 2018

Congratulations on Hark it’s Me Ruby Lee being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This book is beloved by many and is already award winning – can you share with us the story behind the story?

Thank you so much! I’m so delighted to be on the PMLA shortlist and in such great company too. As far as the story behind Ruby Lee goes, many years ago, I did a regional book tour out west and when I arrived at one of the schools, I realised I needed an extra table. So the teacher-librarian commissioned a small, eager-to-please student to go off as a messenger, to hunt one down. That small girl took the note from her teacher-librarian with immense solemnity, and then she was gone, a whirl of flying plaits. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

We waited so long, that the teacher-librarian began licking her lips nervously, clearly contemplating early retirement and life on the golf course. So you can imagine the relief when that small girl returned, breathless and starry-eyed, a conqueror of the world. But sadly, this relief was short-lived because it soon became apparent that not only had the extra table gone astray but so too had the note! In that moment, I felt so much for that harried teacher-librarian but especially for that small girl. I stored up the hapless look on her face, because I remembered what it was like to be her, so desperate to please, so overjoyed to be chosen and then so suddenly disconsolate.

Now that experience stirred up one more memory. A kindergarten girl erupting into my son’s classroom after a bathroom break, shaking the water from her fingers and singing, ‘I have just washed my haaaands!’ like an operatic diva. And in some way, those two tiny memories collided and Ruby Lee—this vibrant small girl with a big imagination, who longs to be chosen as a class messenger, burst forth. No doubt Ruby Lee is the archetype for every imaginative, never-sit-still kid I’ve ever met and perhaps I wrote the story for them, as some kind of blazing reassurance that the very thing that made life at school tricky, was also the absolute making of them.

Including your shortlisting in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, you have been shortlisted and won a number of awards for your books over the years, including the 2018 CBCA Honour Book of the Year for Early Childhood. What does this recognition mean to you?

Whenever a book of mine is shortlisted or receives an award, I’m always extraordinarily thrilled and grateful. It sometimes takes so long for a book to come together. In the case of Ruby Lee, I wrestled with that text, on and off, for close to seven years. So to have Ruby Lee recognised by the CBCA and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards is an affirmation that the long haul wrestle was worth it. Being shortlisted always means that a book will have a greater chance of being widely read, which is the very thing you long for most. Having said that, I’m also so glad that I don’t have to make any decisions around awards, because I recognise that I’m a part of an astonishing community of writers and illustrators in this country, all of them producing beautiful work.

Capturing the imagination of young readers is no easy feat. How do you manage to keep on top of what interests little readers?

The joke in my family is that not only do I remember every single detail of my own childhood but also every single detail of everyone else’s. That capacity to remember the emotional landscape of my childhood, combined with a fairly observant approach to everyday life has proven to be extremely helpful in discovering ideas that resonate with young readers.

You recently posted a line on your blog about the epic nature of small, ordinary moments and just how much can hinge on them. Is this how you approach your writing?

For sure! All the epic experiences of life hinge on small, ordinary moments, the significance of which we often overlook at the time. I’m interested in writing about those moments, maybe as a salutary attempt to see and to attend to them more closely in my own life! As a result, I always carry a writing journal with me wherever I go and I’m always collecting moments. Like the time I saw an eleven-year old boy on Sydney Town Hall train station, wearing a Spiderman mask, standing beside but also at a distance from his goth, Mohawk-wearing dad. Now, not all of those moments go on to become books or even scenes. But sometimes certain moments come with a shimmer and I’ve come to recognize this as a good sign as to whether a moment might have something more substantial to offer, in terms of a story.

What is your advice to parents who are trying to instil a love of reading in their children?

I always hope that parents will read out loud to their kids and especially that they will keep on reading picture books, for as long as possible. Picture books gather readers in close, not just because they tap into the whole oral tradition of storytelling but also because they tap into our longing for connection, our earliest memories of sitting in the warmth of a safe lap. The visual text in a picture book is often immensely sophisticated, offering at times a whole alternative story, and it’s here that kids are the absolute experts because they often read this visual text with much greater skill than the adults around them. I’d also recommend that if parents have a reluctant reader that they search for a really passionate children’s librarian or bookseller to accompany them, in the sometimes long and arduous journey to discover the right book.

Read more about Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee by Lisa Shanahan

Lisa Shanahan is an award-winning writer of picture books and fiction for young people. Some of her well-loved books include Gordon’s got a Snookie, Bear and Chook and Daddy’s Having a Horse. Her picture book Bear and Chook by the Sea, illustrated by Emma Quay, won the CBCA Book of the Year for Early Childhood in 2010 and BIG PET DAY, illustrated by Gus Gordon, won the Speech Pathology Book of the Year Award for the 5–8 age group in 2015.

Winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards will be announced on the 5th of December 2018. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for winner updates and author interviews.

You can also join the conversation by using the hashtag #PMLitAwards, and you can read the full list of shortlisted titles here.


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