Lyttelton local, Rebecca Nash, is a poet and creative writing teacher who has teamed up with her artist brother, Daniel Nash, to create a picture book. I talked to her about writing the book, the magic of small children, motherhood, and future projects.
Missbeecrafty: As a poet and now children’s author, how did you find the change from poetry to picture book writing?
It was a change in that it was a shift in language and audience. It came about through hanging out with my young daughter and watching the world with her. It was about getting rid of the ‘I’ of my poems and turning it into a ‘we’. An articulation of our shared world view.
MBC: The language of Wilbur’s Walk is deliciously descriptive, childlike, but not childish. Did it come easy for you, finding that child-voice?
I think it was easy because it was the voice I was immersed in at the time. My daughter’s developing language and all of the picture books and the no-time-for-novels vibe of those early years!
Yes, I remember that vibe when my children were small! So Is Wilbur the small child mentioned in your bio, then? Can you tell me more about the inspiration for the story?
Wilbur is a bit of a stand in for my daughter, yes, and Wally is a bit of a stand in for our dog. I think parts of it are very particular to us, but I’ve taken it in a direction that I hope will speak to other children too. With a bit of surrealism thrown in for good measure.
The book Mama started reading, the one about the mouse and the boat and the river, intrigued me! I thought instantly of a book I had when I was a child, The Voyage of Jim by Janet Barber. It was about a mouse and a boat and a river too (and an ocean as well!) Is there a real book that inspired the one that Mama reads?
It wasn’t a real book that I could name. I must read The Voyage of Jim! I wrote it like that because when kids ask for a story, they often don’t bother with titles. It’s more like they want the one ‘the girl in her gumboots and on that one page there’s a turtle and he looks really grumpy’. So it relates to kid-speak in that way.
What were your favourite books to read as a child?
Anything and everything. The ones I’ve read to my daughter that give me that beautiful, uncanny flash of transportation back to my childhood are: ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes, ‘Crusher is Coming’ by Bob Graham, ‘Doing the Washing’ by Sarah Garland, ‘Katie Morag and the Big Boy Cousins’ by Mairi Hedderwick and ‘Mr. Magnolia’ by Quentin Blake. I think they must have been on repeat because I remember every detail, even though it has been 30 years! This is the magic of stories.
What are you and your small child reading now?
We are into chapter books nowadays! the ‘Ramona the Pest’ series by Beverly Cleary is one of her favourites, and of course she is deeply invested in unicorns and princesses. The ‘Fancy Nancy’ books check the box for sparkle, and the one for story.
The song Mama sings about the world around Wilbur reminded me of the funny little made-up songs I used to sing to my daughter when she was a baby. Was singing to your little person something you did, too, as a Mama?
Yes! That’s absolutely it! Many made up songs in joy, and many made up as a distraction when we were on a slippery slope into tantrum-town!
The birds in the book say a lot of interesting things. Do you spend a lot of time listening to birds? How did you come up with the things that they say?
I think a full-on bird watcher is called a ‘Twitcher’ which sounds to me like they watch and listen so much that they end up taking on bird mannerisms. While I’m not quite there, I have left the blackbirds nesting in my roof gutter alone, which might well become a problem. I do love to listen to their squalling babies. With the birds in the book, I wanted them to start out bird-like, and then for their chat to become more and more understood by Wilbur. In the end he’s listening so hard he gets let into the magic. I thought tōrea would be gossipy, and that kōtare had to be the one to bring the surreal wisdom.
Can you give me a clue about what the kōtare said that’s so quiet and important?
It’s more of an abstract feeling of a thing that he says, which is why it’s really quiet and important. It’s about the throbbing pulse of the universe that children are so naturally connected to because they are learning furiously fast and haven’t forgotten how to be creative yet. Maybe it’s something about what Wilbur shares, intellectually and spiritually, with these magical birds.
Daniel’s illustrations have a naive and somewhat creepy feel. They make me think of John Burningham, if he was illustrating a story for Tim Burton, and the little pihipihi seems to have a smidgen of a Studio Ghibli No-Face vibe. Does the finished book look the way you imagined it would?
John Burningham is so cool. Mr. Gumpy is one of my heroes I reckon. I also like Tim Burton and the Studio Ghibli films! I didn’t have any expectations going into this whole book-making process, but I have always loved my brother’s drawings, which are weird in some of the same ways that my writing is weird, and also weird in their own unique, glorious way. The illustrations were an absolute surprise, while, at the same time, exactly what I hoped for and expected.
What was it like working with your brother on this project? Was it a collaborative process, or more of an individual approach?
I wrote the book and sent it to Dan. There was a bit of back and forth, but mostly it was a ‘yes, yes, yes’ from me all the way through. I trust his creativity so implicitly that I was very happy to let him run with it.
Is this the first project you have worked together on?
It is! Though you could say that our childhood was one long creative collaboration. Lots of story-telling and imaginative play.
Do you have any plans to write another book for children? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
I would like to, very much. My daughter is 7 now and I’d like to do a similar thing, where I try to channel her language into a story. I also live in Lyttelton where there are many rascally dogs that are loved by some, and much maligned by others. So some kind of Hairy-Maclary-but weird story might be on the cards.
That sounds like a wonderful story! I really hope we do get to read it one day.
The last year (and more!) has been a challenging one for all of us. Are there any challenges or lessons that you’d be able to share with us?
Gosh it’s been hard hasn’t it. Not seeing my family for ages (they all live up in the North Island), and trying to be a working mum with a kid at home was, at times, a very unpleasant juggle. But the more I learn, the less tosses I give about all the rules. Now I only wear stretchy pants, admit I don’t like spring onions, watch and read what gives me pleasure, let the grass grow and let my kid eat pasta for breakfast every morning. This feels like empowerment to me, and like I’m leaving lots of my skins clinging to various trees, like a cicada.