Susan Wardell’s first picture book is nominated in two categories at this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. She tells Claire Mabey about the genesis of the book, and what she thinks of the state of children’s publishing in Aotearoa.
Claire Mabey: What was the inspiration for The Lighthouse Princess?
Susan Wardell: The Lighthouse Princess began as a story my husband and I were telling to each other, aloud, as we walked along a wild and windy beach, more than 10 years ago. The idea was a sort of introvert, feminist fairytale … an inverted Rapunzel story, set in a rugged castle on the cliff we were walking towards. Like a downhill snowball it has picked up little details and features over the years, from all sorts of places I went and things I experienced, often around the South Island of Aotearoa. The castle transformed into a lighthouse later, as part of that; and after I had children, and wanted to age it down for them, and then eventually, turn it into a written manuscript.
This is your first picture book. What did you learn?
Both in writing the book, and in hearing children’s responses, I have learnt to respect the nuance children are capable of perceiving. We don’t need to talk down to them. We can take seeds of the things that feel most real to us, and form that into a story. Yes, there can be silliness, and humour, and joy, and play (and pleasure is an important part of reading, however it arrives) but it can also contain big themes and deep feelings. This excites me.
How did you discover the work of illustrator Rose Northey?
I had a rather unique experience for this book, as the manuscript was used as part of the Gavin Bishop award, which is for first-time illustrators. This meant my text was sent out to any interested entrants, so that they put together some concept drawings and sample pages. These were then judged by a prize committee, in order to pick the person who would actually get the contract to illustrate the book (under mentorship of Gavin Bishop). I didn’t discover Rose’s work until the whole process was complete, and she was announced as the winner… at which point I felt like I had won the lottery, because she is so absolutely wonderful and talented. I feel very lucky.
You write in lots of genres – what appealed to you about writing a picture book?
My own children are 9 and 7. Becoming a parent was certainly part of what tipped me over into thinking about this genre. Particularly when my eldest (a daughter) was small, I was thinking a lot about the type of books and stories she would be exposed to, and what I most wanted to pass on to her.
Picture books require you to fit a lot of meaning, story, characterisation, mood, and nuance, into a short space, using words as carefully and sparingly as possible. In that way, even when I first started, it felt pretty similar to the work I was more experienced with, in writing poetry and flash fiction for example, which helped me feel confident to apply what I already knew. The part that was totally new was the strange alchemy of words and images; the way they come together, to become more than the sum of their parts. The idea of seeing something from my own head come to life on the page, through someone else’s imagination and artistic skills, also intrigued me!
In some ways I feel like this book has already had more impact than all of the other writing I have done in other genres over the years, combined. There is a certain mode of attention that picture books get – read aloud, together, often cuddled up in the intimate space of the evening, sometimes read repeatedly over days and weeks and years – that means they can really become part of a child’s inner landscape. Having that kind of influence feels like a huge privilege, and is a key appeal for me towards continuing to work in the space of children’s literature.
What are your favourite children’s books?
I loved fairy stories and magic stories as a child. This included Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, which my mum would read aloud to me, and Shirley Barber books, which I would save money up to buy in order to spend ages ogling the amazing illustrations. I was also attached to a few classics like E.M Montgomery (both ‘Anne’ and ‘Emily’) which I mentioned, and The Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge). I read quite a lot of ‘old fashioned’ books.
For picture books, a favourite even today is a book called Debbie’s Dream, by Gilbert Delahaye, which features child who dreams of a dancing snowman in a winter wonderland while ill with a fever, and deals with themes of longing, disappointment and imagination in a way that stayed with me. From the same stack of books, I have another called Once Upon a Time in the Meadow, by Rose Selarose, where six little cousins live in a cottage by the meadow, and have picnics, and dress-up parades, and then save an injured rabbit from a trap. Looking back I suppose a lot of my favourites were books that combined a certain cosiness with a sense of adventure, magic, romance or independence … which, now that I think about it, is probably a fairly consistent approach in my own writing too!
What has been most challenging thing for you in the making of The Lighthouse Princess?
Patience and perseverance, because it took a lot of time – nearly nine years – between the first spark of an idea, and holding it in my hands in print. Getting published is hard, especially for a first book. So it required quite a bit of courage, and also humility, to learn to take feedback, and to edit and rework things, but without giving up. Having a writers’ community to support you, and also help you navigate the sometimes confusing ins and outs of publishing, can make a big difference.
What has been the most rewarding?
I read a lot digitally these days, but a print book is a really beautiful artefact, a treasure really. I used to lie awake after a bad day and imagine what it what would feel like to hold a book that I had written in my hands. It hasn’t disappointed! Seeing it printed and produced so beautifully, touching the cover, admiring the details, feels wonderful.
Seeing children’s responses to it is even more rewarding. On a recent Storylines tour in the Bay of Plenty, I visited 14 different schools and libraries. Kids are the most honest critics, but realising how many of them had already read the book, and had their own experiences, feelings and relationship with it, quite outside of me, was both strange and moving.
What are your thoughts on the state of children’s publishing in Aotearoa?
Children’s books may be short-form – and yes, even have pictures added – but they deserve to be treated with just as much seriousness and care as any other genre of writing. My editor Catherine O’Loughlin at Penguin Random House NZ has modelled this to me in a wonderful way.
The skill that goes into really good children’s writing, and the value it holds, is not always recognised, supported, remunerated or celebrated appropriately – with the wonderful exception of events like the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, where we all get to bask in the lovely glow of this very special type of literature for a little while; to relive our own childhoods, and put our minds to work again on how to populate the next generation’s childhoods with the most rich, meaningful and joyful stories we can think of.
The Lighthouse Princess is a finalist at the 2023 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It is vying for the Picture Book Award and the NZSA Best First Book Award, while Rose’s artwork is in the running for the Russell Clark Award for Illustration. The winners will be revealed at a ceremony in Wellington on Thursday 10 August.