I write a little differently to some. I have been fortunate enough to have around 30 little editors scrutinise my manuscripts and give words of advice, encouragement and raise questions that must be answered.
When I wrote ‘Bilby’, more than a decade ago now, I wrote it because I was seeking a text that was value-laden in terms of encouraging resilience, friendship, bravery and love, but was pure escapism and quintessentially Australian.
I told my students I would read a book to them once a week, they would need to undertake some written work on the text at the end of it. They would need to keep notes about plot, values, characterisation, setting etc… all the things we were studying in English.
I had a story idea turning around in my mind from my journalism days so I put it down on paper. Then I read it to my year 8 students – but I didn’t tell them I was the author. I stopped after the first chapter, a bit insecure in my ability to captivate them, “what do you think? This book or another?”
“This book!” they resoundingly returned. Great, onwards and upwards.
Once a week I would read to them, they silently listened, some took notes, some drew illustrations of characters. At the end of the term the book was finished and they were asked to write letters to the ‘the author’ making sure they used all the terminology we had learned in class and telling the author what they liked or disliked about the book. They were told “be honest, but remember not to be rude, and if you want a reply say so at the bottom of your letter, although, authors are busy and famous people, we can but try…”
I collected all their letters and drawings, marveled over their questions, sighed over their spelling mistakes and quietly, over the Xmas holidays, set about individually replying to them at their home addresses. I loved all their letters, even the one that said: “Dear author, my teacher read me your book, I didn’t like it, coz I only really like motocross magazines, but as far as books go, it was alright. Don’t bother writing back.”
You have to love the honesty of children!
Other letters, full of praise and wonder, raised questions which I went back and redressed in my manuscript. Still others begged a response and asked where they could buy the book.
I enjoyed immensely addressing the envelopes to ‘Miss… or Master…..’ and putting ‘the author: Bilby’ on the back of the envelopes. In each letter I answered everything they asked, and at the bottom I wrote: P.S keep this letter, you never know when my signature might be worth something (ha ha), love Mrs Allan.
When I returned to school the following year I was always so pleased with the students’ amazement that someone they knew had written a book. They always asked where they could buy it – and now they can.
Thank you kids!