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Brown Bird by Jane Arthur
Brown Bird by Jane Arthur

BooksMay 21, 2024

Five reasons I wrote a ‘quiet’ children’s novel

Brown Bird by Jane Arthur
Brown Bird by Jane Arthur

Poet, editor and former bookseller Jane Arthur’s debut children’s novel Brown Bird is the story of a shy, self-conscious 11-year-old – partly based on her childhood self – venturing out of her quiet comfort zone.

Children’s books are close to my heart because mostly I believe that adults are rings of age wrapped around a childish (in the best sense) core, like bark on trees. In Brown Bird, Jane Arthur’s lead character Rebecca is shy, loves (really loves) books, she worries that she’s weird, she bites her nails until they bleed, and when she doesn’t have her glasses on she thinks, “My face looked weird in the mirror without them, like there was too much skin and not enough face.”

This is the novel that I wish that speccy, scared 11-year-old me had owned. But these books are hard to find because they’re hard to write. “Quiet novels” draw from the drama of daily life and even deeper the hidden drama unfolding minute by minute inside an anxious child’s mind. To write a character like this is to lift the child self at the core of every adult and let them speak. Rebecca is a girl after my own heart and her story of one summer navigating the neighbourhood with her bold new friend Chester (a lesson in remembering that even brave and outgoing kids can be hiding enormous worries, too) made me cry at least five times. In a world full of loud books for kids, I wanted to ask Jane to explain why she’s offering this beautiful alternative. / Claire Mabey


Because I couldn’t write an unquiet one. For me, a “quiet” novel is character-driven and the opposite of that is plot-driven, like a page-turning fantasy, adventure, or thriller. I’ve never had an imagination that works in that way – and for most of my life I thought that meant I wasn’t creative. I know now that my brand of creativity is more concerned with “inner life”, which is a nice way of saying I am constantly in my own head worrying about things and overthinking. At an event recently I found myself describing my poems as being about: “Me, me, me, ARGH EXISTENCE, me, me, me.” 

So: people and observations about our interactions and articulating insecurities – that’s my arena. To me, it’s high drama. I can get really worked up about that stuff. I don’t need a dragon or a serial killer to start panicking. LOL.


Because I judged the children’s book awards two years in a row and there weren’t many of this type of book. This is not a criticism, just an observation, but I thought there was probably room for more of the kind of thing I especially liked to read when I was a child, and still do: the Anastasia series by Lois Lowry, Harriet the Spy, Judy Blume (apparently I had a thing for New England); books about complicated, self-involved but sympathetic girls. Not that I started writing Brown Bird thinking it would end up being published – it was more a project for myself (see point three).


Because I wanted to see if I could. Since I was little, I’ve always wondered if I had it in me to write – to completion! – a novel. Apparently I can, but crikey it is really hard.

I recently found a spreadsheet I made in October 2019 (love spreadsheets), when I started properly plotting out the structure of things – this is after already coming up with the characters and the general gist of the story. Then I chipped away hopelessly between day jobs and family life getting basically nowhere until I received a Creative NZ grant (hallelujah) and a Michael King Writers Residency (godsend), which meant I could finally bash out most of the first draft in a few intense weeks in mid-2020. And then I just kept going, because I could see the end was in sight. When I was done, I applied for a manuscript assessment through the NZSA, which was super helpful (recommend!). I tweaked things and edited and tweaked. Four-and-a-half years after making that spreadsheet, the book is published!


Because I feel lazy if I don’t have a project, but I’m too lazy for the project to involve anything other than sitting.


Because I thought it might help someone. My life has been a series of thinking I’m the sole weirdo on the planet, or the weirdest kid in the room, or the only teenager who thinks like this, or the only person who is this way, interspersed with realisations that there are, in fact, other people who feel the same, only to feel alone again when a new idiosyncrasy kicks in. 

I’ve come to peace with this cycle, but something that helped me accept it was readers responding to my poetry. I thought I was writing about my most bizarre and specific anxieties, so to have people say they found it relatable and therefore reassuring (!) was surreal and actually very reassuring to me. 

I decided to create a child character with elements of my child self – who thinks she is the only self-conscious, awkward, shy and socially uncertain person to ever exist – in case it makes even one young reader feel less alone. Rebecca, the 11-year-old protagonist of Brown Bird, isn’t me, exactly, but there’s an emotional core that’s much the same. Because it’s a children’s book, throughout the course of the novel Rebecca makes more personal progress than I have in real life, but that just goes to show even adults can learn from reading books for kids.

Brown Bird (Puffin, $20) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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