As a writer, I experience vicarious joy in the celebration of other writers. And celebrations don’t come more joyful than at the Children’s Book Festival, held annually in Melbourne by The Wheeler Centre in partnership with the State Library of Victoria.
It was standing room only at Sunday’s festival when New Zealand author-illustrator Lynley Dodd arrived on stage for an ‘in conversation’ with Michael Williams at the Wheeler Centre. Dodd is best known as the creator of the Hairy Maclary and friends series and, in the lead up to her appearance, all through the audience, people were reading the stories aloud in a John Cage-like symphony of animal noises.
It is 30 years since Hairy Maclary burst forth from Donaldson’s Dairy, the first of 20 books featuring the ‘bumptious and breezy’ terrier, his canine friends and his feline counterpart Slinky Malinki (‘rapscallion cat’), not to mention Scarface Claw, ‘the toughest tom in town’.
In a nice touch, children in the audience were invited to ask most of the questions during the session. Many asked about animals that inspired the various characters in the books. My favourite question from the floor: ‘Why is Bottomley Potts all covered in spots?’
In response to a question about where she got her ideas, Lynley said she has ‘ideas antennae’ and collects ideas in notebooks. She recommended all aspiring writers keep ideas books.
Asked by one child in the audience to tell a story, Lynley recounted a true story from New Zealand of a baby seal that wandered out of the sea, along Welcome Bay Road, up to the back door of a house, through the cat-flap and into the lounge-room, where it made itself comfortable on the couch. The surprised home-owner contacted the SPCA, who took the seal away in the back of a van. But the seal escaped and made its way into the front seat, where it managed to turn on the radio.
‘But if I tried to write this up as a story,’ Lynley said, ‘people would say, “Oh, dear, she’s really lost it this time”.’
When my seven-year-old and I had the good fortune to cross paths with Lynley later in Little Lonsdale Street, she proved as delightful and gracious in person as she was on stage.
This being the third year in a row we’ve attended the festival, my daughter and I are getting quite proficient at planning our day. We pore over the action-packed program in advance to set priorities and pace ourselves.
Her top workshop pick was comic book making with Bernard Caleo, director of Graphic Novels! Melbourne!, comic book artist and producer. Bernard began the session by telling the crowd of impressionable youngsters that ‘making comics is simply the best thing you can do with your life ever.’ By the end, I think many agreed with him.
While she wasn’t up to adding to The Great Wall of Comics assembled by 100 Story Building, my daughter did manage contribute to the Never Ending Story evolving from a marquee on Little Lonsdale Street, and wrote a book for the Kids Own Publishing Book Cubby.
We spent more time outside than in previous years, making the most of glorious weather, arriving late morning to witness Rhys Muldoon on the Stage Lawn at the State Library, winning hearts and minds with an upbeat song about poo.
We crossed paths with Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter, the latter reciting The Jabberwock to a rapt audience. This led us naturally to A caterpillar, a gryphon and the Jabberwock, an exhibition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in the Library’s Cowen Gallery.
Later in the day we ended up back on the State Library lawns, grooving with Nikki Ashby and the Proppa Deadly Crew, followed by The List Operators, who had both of us laughing our heads off — and my seven-year-old’s not easy to impress.
More than twenty-four hours later, we are still re-living the highlights of the day. And singing an upbeat song about poo.