Monday, September 6, 2010

Writing Billie...

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


  1. I for one am glad that you took on the extra work! The series has been so well received and I think it has filled in a much needed gap in the market for fun, age appropriate feisty girl stories. I know a seven year old who is absolutely rapt with Billie.

  2. Thanks Bec! I have SO much fun writing them. I think to find something that seems to come so easily and naturally might be a sign that I am writing for the right age-group (for me). I remember once Andy Griffiths said to me: 'Write for who you want to talk to (in schools)' - and I LOVE talking to the younger primary students most of all, so I guess he was right. (As he is about a lot of things!)

  3. I wondered why you hadn't illustrated the series yourself so thanks for sharing that, and yes, I agree the illustrations are gorgeous. Congratulations on writing such a popular series and you're right - that simple, pared-back language is so hard to achieve.

  4. Thanks Robyn. Fortunately I have an uncanny memory of myself at Billie's age so I am never short of story ideas for this age group - but squeezing them all into 1500 words max and words that a child can read alone, has taken some getting used to!
    Have enjoyed reading your blog about the MWF. Your book seems to be going well. I see it everywhere!

  5. Awww Sally! Thank you for this article! I have to thank you and the Hardie Grant team for finding me and giving me this opportunity to be part of the BBB team!
    I am LOVING, just LOVING illustrating the BBB world. I am always looking forward to reading the new stories. JUST LOVING IT!
    I am hoping that one day I will get to fly over and meet you all in person...

    Until then I will try my best to keep delivering with all my best efforts. I am just feeling so fortunate to be part of this and wouldnt want it to end any time soon!
    Keep writing!

  6. We are lucky to have you Aki - and don't worry! There are plenty more Billies on the way! Just got my advance copy of the Christmas one on Friday. It looks GORGEOUS!