What came first for you- illustrating or writing? Non-fiction/fiction?
I have always loved both visual art and story. I was lucky to be born in a family where reading and the arts were embraced. My mother is a voracious reader and I used to join my Dad and his friends while they were painting.
Later, while working as an early childhood professional my favourite times were those when I shared books with children, using text, voice and pictures to draw children into the book, giving them a chance to experience the world from a different perspective than their own.
I was involved with an amateur theatre company, designing and painting sets and backdrops, and directing the odd play. When I wrote a full-length play, NTH DEGREE REALITY, it was nerve wrecking but also satisfying to create a story and see it brought to life.
A few years later I went back to college to study visual arts full-time. I loved this experience. Fast forward another couple of years to when my last two children were born, instead of worrying about the kids eating my paints, I thought I’d try a different creative outlet, writing seemed a natural choice, and through the kids I had reconnected to my love for picture books.
I decided to write a picture book, how hard could it be right? Ha! I had no idea! The story itself was easy to write, but when I compared it to the picture books I loved to read with the kids, it was nowhere near as good. I enrolled in a picture book course, did workshops, joined writer’s groups and learned that writing picture books is hard!
In the beginning I mainly wrote fiction, but I also had an interest in non-fiction. I love finding the story in non-fiction. And because I am drawn to visual art that contains a narrative, it was fascinating to learn more about Sidney Nolan, most of his series of paintings contain a narrative. MEET SIDNEY NOLAN focuses on the lead-up to Nolan’s first major paintings, his Ned Kelly series. The series tells the story of Ned Kelly (a well-known Australian bushranger and outlaw) but it also tells the story of Sidney Nolan.
It is important to have a good understanding of what an illustrator brings to a story, and to fully grasp that a picture book is a perfect balance between illustrator and author to produce a picture book. You really can’t have one without the other. You have to embrace the added element the illustrator will bring to your story. A good illustrator will add extra layers and narratives to your stories and you need to give them room to do just that.
With Meet Sidney Nolan there was a lot of information that couldn’t fit in the book, either because of the word count restriction or because part of the story were controversial.
For example, Sidney Nolan had an affair with the wife of his good friend and art patron John Reed for many years. Sunday Reed was one of the major influences in his life during the period he created the Ned Kelly paintings. I wasn’t able to mention this; however the illustrator added Sunday’s image in a prominent place to compliment the text:
‘Sidney poured his feelings about war and violence onto the hardboard. He poured the adventures of his youth. He poured his modernist ideas. And he poured his secrets that would forever remain hidden behind Ned Kelly’s mask.’
There are many other instances where the illustrations give clues and insights into Sidney Nolan’s life.
Look at how Oliver’s snuggle blanket turns him into a superhero. I love this and is one of my favourite pages in the book, and it certainly wasn’t in my illustration notes.
As you can tell I have huge respect for illustrators and though I love painting, drawing and working with digital media, it is a real challenge to illustrate a 32 page picture book that is dynamic, appealing and has engaging characters. That is not to say that I never will, it certainly is one of my aims.
What inspired you to write Meet Sidney Nolan and Oliver’s Grumbles?
Meet Sidney Nolan was a dream come true. For the full story you can read ‘How I got my Contract’ with Sylvia Liu. It started out with a picture book I had written about another Australian artist with an amazing story.
During a SCBWI Conference in Sydney I pitched this story to Random House Australia for their MEET… series, and though they liked my writing they didn’t think this particular artist fit their series, instead they asked me to write about Sidney Nolan, an Australian artist I had admired for a long time.
Oliver’s Grumbles was one of the first picture book texts I wrote. It has seen many drafts. My third child was just born and my second just turned two, and getting in his stride with the ‘terrible twos’. I don’t know if the story was inspired by his tantrums or my own grumpiness from having to deal with lack of sleep, a baby, a toddler and a teenager. I have noticed since then that a lot of my stories have grumpy characters!
Boy, can I relate to that! I notice that my moods and interactions with my kids show up in stories sometimes, too.
Was your road to picture book publication paved through the slush or a connection?
Getting traditionally published needs tenacity, hard work and luck!
For Meet Sidney Nolan it was the connection I made through paying for an editor critique, I recommend going to conferences and meeting up with publishers and editors, being prepared and acting professionally without being pushy.
With Oliver’s Grumbles I was lucky that Dragon Tales Publishing was interested in working with local authors and artists. I had not met the team previously and I send an email with a query as per their submission guidelines, so that was a win for the slush pile! Just shows, you never know how it will happen!
So, so true, Yvonne! You never know! It makes it that much more important that we keep pressing on. One thing that always keeps me going in reading mentor texts. I'm excited to talk mentor texts with you in Part Two of our interview. (It's just a few steps away, folks...follow us HERE for part two.)
Yvonne Mes ( is a children’s author, illustrator and devourer of books. She writes short stories, picture books and junior novels.
Yvonne coordinates Write Links, the Brisbane children's writers and illustrators group and is vice president of Book Links QLD (Inc.) she reviews for Buzz Words Magazine and occasionally for the CBCA QLD newsletter. She has two decades experience working with children of all ages, abilities, many cultures and in various settings.
Yvonne has a Bachelor of Children's Services, a Certificate in Professional Children's Writing, qualifications in Visual Arts and Crafts as well as Training and Assessment. She is a member of SCBWI, CBCA, Book Links and the ASA.
Yvonne grew up in Amsterdam but has made her home in Australia. Her three sons make sure she is never lost for inspiration. Her mission: sneak a quiet cup of coffee. Result: cold coffee and noise.