June Perkins is a writer and a poet, who has just published a fantastic collection of poems for children called ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’. This lovely lady took time to answer a few questions regarding her book. If you are curious what she had to say, read on!
Pasifika Tales: ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ is a collection of poems for children. Why did you write it?
June Perkins: I began writing the poems that became ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ when my children were young (the youngest was four and eldest eight) and we lived in Far North Queensland.
I started a community arts project called ‘Ripple’, combining poetry and photography for National Poetry week and ran workshops to encourage people of all ages to write and recite poems for poetry week. This was funded by a regional art development fund grant from my local council. Many of the workshops were with children in schools, and as I prepared them I realized there weren’t that many poems reflecting the lives of the children I was visiting, so I began to write some especially for them and often with them. I loved these school visits and the germ of an idea for a place based poetry book that children of Far North Queensland would see themselves represented in was born, even though I didn’t realize it at first.
Every now and then I had a poem published in a regional anthology, the title poem of the book was accepted into an anthology of Queensland Writers. I began and maintained a blog called ‘Ripple Poetry’.
I worked on the text for the book for over eight years, but it was the move to Brisbane, Queensland, away from Tully, Far North Queensland, and back into a city environment, as well as missing our old home’s more natural environment, that motivated me to finish this project as a tribute to our old home and our life and community there.
PT: Is this book only for children?
JP: The book is by no means only for children, and nor is it for children of a specific age. I wanted a book that parents, grandparents and teachers could enjoy as much as their children, and perhaps read it at another level. I dearly wanted to create a book children could grow up with, and gain more understanding of some poems over time by revisiting them.
Some of the poems are for readers to perform together, and this can be people of any age who like dialogue or participatory poems. I came across a lot of these when preparing my workshops for schools and was also influenced by Owen Allen, a poet from the Tablelands. He creates sound scape poems with the noises of the rainforest as a backdrop provided by the audience and they are just amazing.
I liked the idea of making poetry more accessible to people who might have lost their love of it through the magic of a picture book format.
PT: It’s not a secret that children are a very demanding audience. Weren’t you scared that the book might not suit their tastes?
JP: I like, not fear the fact, that children are so honest with their feedback. But I think for anyone to face a fear of writing for children, I think you just take your poems or stories to children whilst you are writing them, and listen to them and immerse yourself in their imaginative way of seeing the world. As well as being a mum, I did a bit of teacher aiding whilst living in Far North Queensland and that gave me confidence that I was on the right track with the poems. I ran a creativity lunch time club that was a lot of fun, and we went questing for stories and poems.
I was lucky to find an editor, Matilda Elliot, who worked in early childhood at various points during her career, and she strongly believed these poems would work with children. We would talk about which poems to include and which to leave out. Yes, there were many more poems than those that made the final cut. Some poems I included underwent several edits until I was completely happy with them and felt they would have a lovely almost musical beat for children to respond to.
We looked at taking children on a journey through the poems, so that although each poem was distinct, the poems could be arranged in a sequence that made you interested and intrigued. Helene Magisson, the illustrator, added the dimension of an illustration that would open a door into the poems that might be a little more demanding. When she came on board the project I just knew in my bones it was going to work. You can read more about the collaboration with Helene here.
And then, to top it all off, was the work our designer Heidi Den Ronden did, who got the text to do things I could never have thought of, so you can see her skills at work as well. She visually transformed text to be playful for children. You can find out more about Heidi here.
I had a chance to test this out further at an event in Brisbane called the Big Draw, where illustrators and writers share their work with the public. The response of the children to the three poems I chose to read them was really intriguing. They checked out the illustrations closely and loved the detail and humour in the words, and the art.
PT: What makes this book special?
JP: I think two major things – its setting in Far North Queensland and that the poems and art are in equal balance, without one being more or less important than the other. It is a sincere collaboration with an illustrator who adds an extra dimension to the work with her interpretation of the poems through her illustration.
Although I have written poetry for a very long time I never expected my first solo book to be a fully illustrated children’s book. And yet as it unfolded it felt like a special book I was meant to write.
PT: Could you share what the poems are about?
JP: When I read a poem aloud in public, I tend to give it very little introduction and let a poem speak for itself, although with this book the illustrator also plays a vital role.
I might ask: Have you lived in Far North Queensland? Do you know what a cassowary is? Have you ever seen a Ulysses butterfly? Have you ever been on a fishing trip with your family and there was someone that just wouldn’t stop making noise? With this book I can also show them in the illustration what it is so they can have a picture to help them if their answer is ‘no’. I like to ask people, especially children and youth, what they think it means and see what their interpretation is.
The key to understanding these poems is that they work at a literal level, and tell a story, about children on a hot day in classroom, or a mother bird waiting for father bird to return home, or the magic that might be possible if a fairy’s tooth was discovered and could grant wishes.
They have another level where they explore questions like what can a teacher do with a restless classroom to help children learn, what will happen to a tree if too many people visit it as a tourist attraction, and what lies beyond this life – after the caterpillar becomes a butterfly and then all too quickly disappears. The poems don’t necessarily give an answer to the questions they pose, but they invite the reader to think, imagine, explore, and discover.
PT: That is certainly true that every person can interpret the same poem differently. But is there a message that you – as the author of the book – wanted to convey?
JP: I don’t think I intentionally set out with a specific message, but I do care about trees, plants, people, and that probably comes across in the poems.
I’d love there to be more respect and understanding of the diversity of the people in Australia and the world; so it was important to me that the illustrator also respected that diversity and could show it with sensitivity. I think Helene captured the diversity of Australia, so children of many backgrounds can see themselves on the poetry quest of this book.
I love poetry and creativity, and feel that in life we can find poetry and beauty almost everywhere if we look for it and find where it is hiding. A poet and an artist can then bring it into focus and make it dance. That might be something that is embedded in the poems, now that I think about it.
PT: There’s a lot about nature. Was it your aim to make nature ‘fun’ for kids? Or to teach them that it’s important to respect the environment?
JP: I think both. I wrote about nature a lot because I felt so connected to it when living in Far North Queensland, and I never wanted to forget that feeling of connection.
Nature in that space seemed to me like a beautiful gallery of art, just appearing before me and my children when we went on walks in the rainforest, at the beach, or through the fields of cane.
‘Hunting For A Poem’ was inspired by going for a nature walk with an artist and carer for the environment, who was to become a very good friend. She would take children for nature walks and also teach them about art. My daughter got to know her and went to art workshops with her. I think nature is not only fun but can inspire art and creativity.
PT: Now, your book was published thanks to crowdfunding. Do you think this is a good option for authors?
JP: I think if you have a vision of a very specific book that you don’t think a publisher would want to take a risk on, but you think the world needs your book, go for it. But be prepared for the roller coaster ride it will be. Do make sure you find out a lot about the publishing process, and gather a professional team with a designer, editor, and if you need them illustrator.
It helps if you have a lot of support for your project through the community for which you are creating and do a lot of linking and networking prior to going for it. This increases your chance of success and helps you to gauge the potential response of the audience for the work you are creating. You are crowd funding, so you need a crowd to respond.
PT: What advice would you give to those writers who consider crowdfunding?
JP: I wrote a whole article on this you can find at the Queensland Writer’s Centre here.
My main advice would be to prepare well, prepare your product well, make a good video, and have a realistic timeline for your project. Do lots and lots of preparation. It might be a good idea to do some Kickstarter training courses. I did one with the Children’s Book Academy, and my mentor for this course was a brilliant support in the lead up to and during my Kickstarter.
You can learn a lot from studying crowd funding efforts of others in your genre and think about what made their project successful – this really helps a lot.
PT: Do you have plans to write more?
Whilst crowd funding my book, I applied for and won a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors to work on picture book manuscripts that I had also been writing since moving to Brisbane. I had had some of these critiqued by Write Links, a group that is especially there to develop the craft and opportunities for authors for children and young adults, prior to this application. They were big supporters of my crowd funding efforts.
Whilst I pack my crowd funded book I have been working on several picture books and next step is to send these to traditional publishers, and also think about if any of them might be a more crowd funded project. I am open to working independently or with a publisher.
Publishing requires a lot of work and sometimes takes too much time away from my actual writing. It would be lovely to have the support of a publishing company, although doing my own project has given me a lot of confidence.
It was a special moment to have my writing mentor attend the launch of ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ and say that I had many more gems to share that we had been working on.
One of my friends from Write Links spoke at the launch about how proud and happy they were to have been involved in the journey of the book. This meant a great deal to have the respect of peers, many of them traditionally published and some independent publishers, but most of all I enjoyed receiving my first fan message from a nine year old reader, passed on by her mother, just a few days after the launch.
I enjoyed ‘Magic Fish Dreaming’ A-L-O-T. I really enjoyed ‘Brahminy Bravery.’ Where do you get your ideas from? Where did you learn the stories in your poems?