There are times in your life when something absolutely marvellous just seems to fall into your lap. Billie B Brown has been one of these things.
Hilary Rogers, the publisher at Hardie Grant Egmont, took me out for coffee one day and told me that she wanted to begin a new series of books for young readers (primarily girls) but with a strong female lead – a tomboy, I suppose – to balance out all the fairy and princess books that seem to heavily dominate the younger reader market these days. She asked me – would I like to write for the series – or write the series? (The catch obviously being very tight deadlines.) Well, what you have answered? Really, that’s like asking my seven year old if he’d like lollies for dinner!
I had a million things on, as I always do, and my sensible mind was saying, Sally, you really can’t cope with writing a whole series right now! What about the overdue novel and that set of illustrations you are halfway through? And aren’t you about to begin marking hundreds of assignments from all of your RMIT students? But obviously the offer was way too tempting to even begin to be overrided by my sensible mind and I set to work that very night putting together a whole list of ideas for Hilary to consider. Fortunately, I have a very strong memory of myself at Billie’s age, and so once I started coming up with story ideas, I just couldn’t stop! As luck had it – Hilary loved my ideas and we spent the next few weeks to-ing and fro-ing about how the series would evolve.
Billie went through many incarnations – at one stage I even called her Ruby Rose – without any idea that there was a famous MTV star who went by that name. (Fortunately the Hardie Grant staff are much hipper and groovier than I am and were able to (kindly) let me know!) We talked about the length of the stories (short) and the kind of language and sentence structure I should be using (very simple and pared-back for beginning readers – much harder than it looks!) Then, there was the troublesome dilemma of illustrator. I am also an illustrator and for quite a while we toyed with the idea of me illustrating the series even though we all knew deep down that there was no way I was going to be able to write and illustrate the books as quickly as Hilary wanted to publish them. So, with great difficulty, I handed over a little piece of my baby to be illustrated by someone else.
This is the first time I have done this, and I now know what trepidation and excitement picture book authors must feel when they wait to see what an illustrator has done with their precious words. As it turns out, the Hardie Grant team found the perfect illustrator, in a young (very gorgeous) Japanese-Kiwi woman, called Aki Fukuoka. Aki has created a Billie even more wonderful than I could have imagined (let alone illustrated). Super-groovy, fabulous dresser, feisty, messy – gorgeous! When I look at the series now I can’t imagine Billie any other way. And along with the gorgeous sherbet-y cover colours, the books look almost good enough to eat!
The team at Hardie Grant have been a joy to work with right from the start. And I don’t use the word ‘team’ lightly here. I am only a small part of the enormous success the Billie series has had so far, even though it has only been on the shelves since April. Everyone has worked so hard to get this little girl up and running, and the response to the books has been amazing. I have never received so much fan-mail in my life! Not only from little girls, but parents and teachers, too, thanking me for finally creating a character their girls can relate to.
Writing this series has been so delightful, really just one of those wonderful fortuitous things that comes along just at the right time. I really feel very lucky to have had such a great writing career so far, but I have to say creating the Billie B Brown series has definitely been the icing on the cake.
*This article first appeared on the Kids Book Review blog.
*The above image is the cover of The Perfect Present, to be released November 1, 2010