Today I am ecstatic to welcome children’s book author Lisa Dalrymple! Lisa’s most recent storybook, Skink on the Brink (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), is about a young skink named Stewie the Blue who loves his pondside home, his blue tail, and making up rhymes. But when Stewie stops being bluey, he starts to have doubts about who he really is. Lisa stopped by to talk about how travel has influenced her writing, what skinks and children have in common, and more.
Bookish Notions: How did the story of Stewie the Blue come about and what was your journey to publication like?
Lisa Dalrymple: I first heard about this endangered species, the Common Five-lined Skink, about 4 years ago when we were camping at The Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario. I immediately knew I wanted to write a fun story in which the main character was a skink. It would expose readers to a skink character and the world he inhabits without necessarily having to make it a goal to teach. I confess, I’m also a sucker for wordplay and rhyme and I just loved the way the word skink tickled as it rolled off my tongue. It seemed to beg to become part of a rhyme and a story.
As I got to know more about skinks, I realized, with all the changes they go through in a lifetime, they really do have an amazing story to which kids, who are constantly growing and changing too, might be able to relate.
Over a year later, at about the same time as I met Christie Harkin at Word on the Street in Toronto, I finished the first polished draft of Skink on the Brink. We talked and Christie told me that it sounded like Skink might be a good fit for the series of Tell-Me-More books she was currently editing. It was!
However, it wasn’t officially accepted for publication until fall 2011. In the meantime, I submitted it to The Writers’ Union of Canada’s 2011 Writing for Children Competition. I was completely floored when Nancy MacLeod of TWUC called to tell me that it had won first place. It was a pretty exciting time: to receive notification of the win, followed shortly thereafter by my first (and second) publishing contracts – especially after so many years of work.
BN: What was it like working with the book’s illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo?
LD: Working with Suzanne has been a fantastic experience. She’s full of energy and enthusiasm, both during the production phase and during the visits and signings that we do together.
During production, for the most part, we worked separately. I created the text and submitted it before Suzanne even saw it. (From my understanding, the author rarely gets a lot of input into the illustrations of a picture book, which makes a lot of sense: it’s important that each side of a team have her own creative space to engage with the story in her own way before bringing it together as a whole.)
In my experiences, however, I’ve been really lucky. Suzanne and Christie Harkin (our editor/publisher/wearer of many hats) would share the illustrations with me from time to time so that I could offer suggestions or feedback. Suzanne was entirely committed to respecting the integrity of the text which, in this case, included a lot of research to ensure the biological accuracy of the book. She used some of my photos taken in The Pinery, Stewie’s actual habitat, as the basis for her illustrations. She did massive amounts of research herself and she made sure to incorporate the actual species of plants and animals that would be a part of Stewie’s world.
At the end of the process, I think we now have a fun, story-driven picture book about a little skink who makes up rhymes as he runs through the woods but which has as a background an accurate reflection of the physical world Stewie would actually inhabit.
BN: What advice do you have for aspiring children’s book writers?
LD: There is so much important advice out there given by far more experienced writers than me – but you’re not going to hear any of it if you’re sitting in your house staring at a cursor on a screen.
Get out there and meet other writers and creators. The camaraderie and support of a network of peers is invaluable – for information sharing, providing a shoulder to cry on (or a glass to clink with), for forming critique groups and for gaining access to all that wonderful advice.
Some good places to start are organizations for children’s writers such as CANSCAIP, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Any festivals, trade shows or signings that have anything to do with books can also be useful places to connect with other writers or industry professionals.
A critique group is also really important. Even if your writing is already awesome, there is so much to be learned from seeing other perspectives on your work. Engaging with other people’s stories when offering a critique has helped me learn to see my own work with a more critical eye and helped me to develop further focus and direction in my own writing.
(If anyone reading this has any further questions, or would like direction to an online critique group for serious children’s writers, they can feel free to contact me through my website.)
BN: Your author description says that you love to travel (me too!); what is your favourite place that you’ve been to so far and which place are you most excited to visit next?
LD: Hmmm. This is an impossible question for me to answer. I love travelling, having new experiences and seeing new places – which means that everywhere I’ve been has been an amazing experience, just for having seen it.
I think Edinburgh, Scotland is the most beautiful city on earth; I look back on our year in Bangkok, Thailand with incredible fondness and nostalgia; our year in South Korea was the one in which I experienced the greatest culture shock – and therefore learned the most about myself and others; and staying in an Amazonian lodge in Peru was definitely one of the most amazing adventures I’ve ever had.
It is a lifelong dream of mine to visit Tanzania to see the Serengeti region and to trek up Kilimanjaro – or, perhaps, to better supplement one of my current projects, I would love to visit Jamaica.
BN: What project(s) are you working on now?
LD: I’m very excited about a multicultural picture book I’m working on now in which a Canadian girl travels to Edinburgh, Bangkok, South Korea, Peru and Jamaica before returning to Canada. Sound familiar? Being able to draw on my time and personal experiences in (almost) all of these countries has been a lot of fun and very rewarding for me.
Also, my third picture book, Bubbly Troubly Polar Bear, the sequel to If It’s No Trouble… A Big Polar Bear, is due out with Tuckamore Books in October 2013.
Lisa Dalrymple loves to travel and has lived all over the world. She currently hangs her hat in Fergus, ON, where she lives with her husband and three kids. Skink on the Brink is her second picture book. You can find Lisa online at lisadalrymple.com.
Also, be sure to check out this interview with Skink on the Brink‘s illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo.