At the very first moment we met, around 11 years ago, the lovely Tan and I just hit it off and I, for one, have treasured this friendship and her astounding talent since.
Tania McCartney, welcome to Just So Stories- I have no idea why it’s taken this long to do a Q&A with you … not only one of my favourite author/illustrator people, but such a super human being! However, with your newest Plume adventure being released, it’s pretty perfect timing!
Let’s get into it!
Q. As someone once sang, “let’s start at the very beginning..”. Tell us about little Tania: growing up, family background, interests, good girl or naughty girl, studious or not? – you know what we want 😉.
Well, I was born on the small isle of Tasmania where I developed a loving relationship with raspberries. When I reached school age, it’s perhaps no surprise that art and English were my favourite subjects. My most treasured possession was a white exercise book crammed with stories and the whopping great glittery stickers Mrs Nicholas handed out for the tales she loved most. Oh, the glory to see a half- or even page-sized sticker in that book.
As a tween, we moved to Coffs Harbour where I morphed into a beach-loving surfer and wannabe fashion designer. At high-school, I was intermittently a rebel, enthusiast, swot or class clown, depending on the subject and the teacher (per: science, art, English, maths).
Q. I know you started your writing career in the world of magazines and publishing. Could you tell us a little about that and what made you pivot to writing books for children?
Magazines have been quite the addiction. My first article was for Dolly magazine (at age 20) and when we moved to Beijing, I penned more than 250 tidbits, feature articles and columns for expat magazines like Time Out Beijing, The Beijinger, City Weekend, Beijing Kids and Little Star magazines.
Back in Australia, I worked for Australian Women Online, founded Kids’ Book Review, and contributed to various magazines and websites, including Maeve, Tickle the Imagination, HerCanberra and Boomerang Books blog. Roles included writer, feature writer, columnist, photographer, designer, editor, associate editor, contributing editor, copy editor and proofreader.
Including my reviews and articles for Kids’ Book Review, I probably have over 4000 articles in print or online. I also started my own magazine, called ‘little’ (there are some snippets of it on my blog), but kids’ books quickly snagged and dragged me away from this magazine thread.
Q. What other jobs have you done, if any?
Oh goodness, I’m the Jill-of-all-trades. My first job was in the milk bar at the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, around age 13. During high school, I worked part time at a newsagent, then at 18, I moved to Sydney where I spent 8 years in various roles – receptionist, executive secretary, marketing assistant, catwalk model, photographer’s model, promo girl in department stores.
Then it was various roles in Paris and London—mostly temp office work in London and secretarial/computer software training for the Australian Embassy in Paris. When I moved back to Melbourne, I spent four years as a flight attendant, pottered with magazine work and toyed with adult fiction.
It wasn’t until I met my husband that I was finally able to take on my dream role—a maker of books, mostly children’s books (sad that it so oft takes marriage for women to realise their dreams). When we lived in Beijing with our young family, I complimented my magazine work by producing my first picture book (Riley and the Sleeping Dragon). Then back in Canberra four years later, I founded Kids’ Book Review and immersed—with gusto—in our kids’ book community. That’s when things really took flight.
Q. When we first met, I think you had just published the second Riley book and I remember you talking about the illustrator for those. Now you illustrate your own books – and beautifully I might add! – how did that transition come about?
Ah, yes! The gorgeous Keiron Pratt illustrated those Riley books. Feels like a lifetime ago.
My own illustration journey began when ‘midlife crisis’ kicked in. I used to paint and draw prolifically as a child and young adult, but—like so many—lost the connection as adult life grew bigger. I’ve always loved art and illustration and was desperate to take it up again, so in early 2013, I founded the 52-Week Illustration Challenge as a way to challenge myself to regain non-existent drawing skills.
The Challenge Facebook group was a huge success—it grew to over 7000 members over three years and is absolutely responsible for my illustration journey. We had a weekly theme to inspire artists to create and post to the group, and no one was more surprised than me to see latent skills recover and blossom.
From my first woeful offering of a pair of eggs to a circus troupe and the first piece I was actually proud of, I went on to rapidly improve, eventually securing my first self-illustrated picture book contract for Australia Illustrated.
[I’m still so proud to have been noted in the credits for Australia Illustrated! 😊]
I’ve since gone on to illustrate a series of maps, puzzles, greeting cards—and 18 books. Most of these books were as author/illustrator but a small handful in cahoots with an author, including Australia’s Wild Weird Wonderful Weather with friend Stephanie Owen Reeder.
One thing I didn’t count on was how much time it takes to illustrate books, and how hard it is on a middle-aged body. So, half-way through my Evie and Pog chapter book series, I switched to digital illustration, using Procreate on the iPad. I do all my books digitally now and I absolutely love it.
It’s hard to believe I illustrate books now. I still pinch myself.
Q. You published work for adults before you turned to writing for kids. I particularly enjoyed Beijing Tai Tai with the insights into ex-pat life in China and loads of humour. Which is tougher – writing for adults or writing for children?
For children, without question. I think people have little idea how hard it is to get children’s books right, particularly picture books, where every word must earn its place, and where visual narrative is even more important that the text. It’s an intricate, delicate and nuanced dance.
Similarly, books for older kids have such firm parameters in terms of themes, language, vocabulary and construct. They are totally dependent on the readership age yet simultaneously the need to cover many literacy variables.
In truth, it takes deep skill, craftsmanship, experience and time to do children’s books well.
Q. You’ve now published many books and your picture books are just so glorious. Tell us about the process e.g. How long does the process of writing and illustrating one of your PBs take on average? Which has been the most difficult to create and why?
It really depends. Smile Cry took 20 minutes to write (and was illustrated by Jess Racklyeft). Australia Illustrated took a year to write and illustrate. Mamie took over 3 years from concept to publication.
I don’t think any of my books have been ‘difficult’ to make but if I think in terms of hefty workload, it was likely Fauna: Australia’s Most Curious Creatures . It was a crushing amount of work because I crafted it in Adobe Illustrator—sitting at my Mac, using a mouse (I know!) and the result was not one but two frozen shoulders. I also did all of the research, writing, photography (for textures to use in the illos), scientific editor liaison, layout, design, typesetting, cover. It was HUGE.
And testament to effort = reward, Fauna is by far my most award-winning book. I’m so proud of that book … and my shoulders were worth it.
Q. I especially love your ‘travelogue’ type books as well as the biography-based ones, and there have been quite a few. These are obviously genres close to your heart. What lies behind that?
It’s not till these past few years I’ve realised just how many of my books feature the Earth, nature, animals, travel, culture, diversity.
I’m a bit of a travel obsessive. I mean, who isn’t? But it started young with me—I’d read the atlas. Like, sit and read it, as a child. And I’ve always been obsessed with maps—again, I would sit and read street directories (back in the pre-GPS Dark Ages). A world globe has always been my idea of heaven.
Our planet and travel have always fascinated me and they still do, so you can only imagine how excited I was when Hardie Grant Explore contracted me to create my first —Australia, Illustrated Map and then the Plume series of travel picture books. Some of the biggest highlights of my career.
Q. Now would be timely to share Plume and his latest adventure with us! 😊
Ah, yes! Festival Seeker! Book three in the Plume series—what fun it was to create. In this episode, Plume gads about the planet experiencing some of the world’s most colourful and dynamic festivals. He flies, of course, on Ava of the Albatross Express, visiting kids in countries like India, Spain, Fiji, Scotland and Brazil.
From spectacular fireworks to puffs of rainbow powder and carpets made of blossoms to burning Viking galleys, Plume has an absolute blast experiencing these remarkable festivals. Each time he travels, he meets new children, and he brings their culture and traditions home to his black and white friends—i.e. the other Antarctic penguins.
This book, like the others, is all about diversity, kindness, colour, adventure, friendship, sharing. It’s a feel-good way for kids to voyage the world from their own home (so timely, with Covid!)—and to be enriched and uplifted in ways that only travel can muster.
Q. What does your writing space look (pictures always welcomed!)
It’s a light, bright studio at the front of our house—with a lovely nook for my Mac, lots of cupboards and space for books … and, of course, there are lots of books! There’s also artworks and toys and photos and knickknacks from our travels that inspire and uplift me.
I have a large trestle table right under the window for when I one day return to hand-rendered illustrations (and I will). Even though digital art is my thing now, I really miss watercolour and ink and printing. There’s something less convenient but much more magical about it.
Q. What does downtime for Tania look like? What else do you enjoy doing? (and I know you work long and hard, so hope there IS some downtime!)
Not much downtime these past ten years! But I’ve recently rectified that and I’m finally, FINALLY reading more. And not just kids’ books. Adult books, too. I’m also getting more walks and yoga in, and my hubby recently brought a spin bike into our lives – so that’s giving me quite the [much-needed] workout.
I also love playing dress-ups (quite the clothing obsession) which is a great excuse to meet friends for coffee. I enjoy gardening, interior design, crochet, visiting galleries and a little nature photography. In the coming years, we’ll be travelling a lot more, so planning trips will be back on the agenda. Bliss!
Q. Who are your personal favourites – authors, illustrators, books? (as a child/as an adult)
As a child, it was Blinky Bill and Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton and Archie comics, the latter much to my mother’s disdain (I now read Austen, so she needn’t have worried).
As an adult, I’m pulling the good old ‘how can I possibly choose’ thing, which is generally true, but what I can categorically say is that my favourite picture books of all time are the Miroslav Sasek This is… series
I’m also a huge fan of non-fiction picture books, and faves include Animalium by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, The Book of Bees and The Book of Trees by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski, Mad About Monkeys (and ensuing series) by Owen Davey, and Suffragette by David Roberts.
Favourite children’s book creators include Anna Walker, Owen Davey, Chris Turnham, Isabelle Arsenault, Suzy Lee, David Roberts, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Gus Gordon, Jenni Desmond, Marc Martin and Jackie French.
[ditto to many of these favourites as well – don’t you just adore Owen Davey’s non-fiction? I truly relish each one I see.]
Q. What has been your greatest professional achievement or highlight to this point?
Touching the lives of children, uplifting and inspiring them, in any way I can.
Q. What is next up for the talented Tania? Is there a special project in the offing?
I’m actually scaling back my work from 2023. I have some life to live, you know? And I’m not 30 anymore (alas). So, there’ll be a much greater life balance and perhaps some deep gaps in between my books from now on. That both terrifies and thrills me.
I nevertheless have three books out in 2023 – the first in February – my beloved Dorrie (HarperCollins) on the life of Blinky Bill creator Dorothy Wall in February. Mid-year will be my Wildlife book with Hardie Grant Explore – which was a huge amount of much work – akin to I Heart the World. Really excited about it. Then in October, I have the fourth Plume book. Can’t tell you what it’s about yet, but it’s going to be soooo cute!
Q. Aside from your family and the memories they will carry in their hearts, how would you want to be remembered by the world at large?
Such a hard and confronting question. Okay, leaving out all the crappy parts, I’d like to be remembered as…
A good person. Warm. Generous. Helpful. Thoughtful. Thorough. Responsive.
Someone who heart-and-souled her career, even though her perfectionism and self-expectations were oft debilitating, sometimes even damaging.
Dedicated. Driven. Passionate. Innovative. Curious. Dynamic. Multi-faceted.
A founder, creator, artist, instigator, enthusiast, listener, adventurer, outsider. This last one is particularly important to me.
And, lastly, as someone who in any way uplifted and inspired and comforted even one child.
Tania, I can attest to all of the qualities above – you truly are an inspiration, and not just to children either. It is such a privilege to be your friend. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful insight into your life. I am looking forward to reviewing Plume: Festival Seeker – and more next year.