Ursula Dubosarsky & Ask Hercules Quick

Ask Hercules Quick by Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Andrew Joyner

Ask Hercules Quick is a beautifully imagined and composed story by esteemed author Ursula Dubosarsky about Hercules who does odd jobs to save for a box of magic tricks. The story incorporates humour and intrigue and, while complete and satisfying, provides space for children to use their imaginations.

It is exuberantly illustrated by Andrew Joyner who has collaborated with Ursula on several books including The Terrible Plop and Two Many Elephants in this House and whose distinctive style features in the newly discovered Dr Seuss book, Dr Seuss’s Horse Museum.

Ask Hercules Quick (Allen & Unwin) is a small hardback chapter book that is a perfect bridge between picture and chapter books. It is an ideal gift book and will be enjoyed by families reading together or for young fluent readers to read themselves.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Ursula.

During your career you have written a great body of work and I’m sure you love all your books but of which are you most proud?

At the moment I would say “Midnight at the Library”, illustrated by Ron Brooks.  It is about the meaning and mystery of reading, writing, books and libraries. Ron’s illustrations are magnificent. I am so happy to have been asked by the National Library of Australia to do this book to help celebrate the Library.

What is the significance of the title of your new book, Ask Hercules Quick?

The title is a kind of play on words – the main character’s name is Hercules Quick, but you need to ask Hercules quick(ly) too! I met a little boy at a writers’ festival in Melbourne – I can’t remember his first name but his surname was Quick, which I thought was delightful. Then it was a matter of somehow finding the character and the stories to suit that name… There was an interview on radio I heard years ago with the American comedian Lily Tomlin talking about her childhood in a big apartment block, and how she would do odd jobs for the neighbours. Somehow that seemed to suit Hercules Quick and it went from there.  

Why have you used a mixture of one human character and the rest animals? Is it difficult to make this blend work?

I don’t know why I did that – it started with Professor Calamari, which made me laugh to think of (having an octopus as a neighbour) and after that the other animals simply appeared. I’m quite an instinctive writer, rather than one that makes plans. So in that sense it felt quite natural. If it hadn’t been working I would simply have stopped doing that and tried something else.

How do you create such clear descriptions of characters using only a few words?

Well that’s an appreciated compliment. Perhaps it’s more to do with me being more interested in the idiosyncratic mood of each character, rather than concentrating on their appearance and so on. It’s by their moods or personalities in stories that you know who is who, I find, rather than by what they look like and so on.

Sylvie the tadpole is originally a gift for Hercules. How does she become a pivotal character?

I felt there needed to be more than one thread pulling the stories together – of course the main thrust of the book is Hercules saving up money to buy the magic box. Sylvie the tadpole is a kind of subplot. And as we all know tadpoles grow and change in a way that can seem miraculous, so somehow it shadowed or echoed the changes and growth in Hercules’ own experiences through the stories.

How have you incorporated magical or whimsical elements into the story?

Essentially it’s a very ordinary sort of story – every child has seen something they want in a shop window, and then set about trying to save up for it. The part that’s magical or whimsical is the fact that Hercules’ aunt is an alligator, and everyone else that inhabits his world is an animal of some kind – an octopus, an elk, a spider, a turtle. But it is perfectly normal to Hercules, he certainly doesn’t question it – it’s just the context of his life.

What do you hope children learn or understand from your tale?

Hmm. Perhaps that wanting something can motivate you to take risks – and that it’s the wanting that’s more important than the thing itself. Your own goals can change and surprise you and life’s adventures take twists and turns you can’t predict

Did you originally plan Ask Hercules Quick to be a chapter book or did it evolve from another form or idea? How did it change along the way?

The first story I wrote I sent to the NSW School Magazine and it actually had a little girl called Hilda Quick. Then I changed Hilda to Hercules – I don’t know why – it was just a matter of playing around with what was going on in the story, and what was going on in my head, and in the end Hercules felt right.

Andrew Joyner has drawn wonderful illustrations. Which one particularly delights you?

I really LOVE the one of Aunt Alligator writing in her diary in secret code (page 7). Andrew is just the most observant illustrator, I can look at his illustrations over and over again and find more secrets and jokes and touching moments inside them every time. Really brilliant.

Aunt Alligator from Ask Hercules Quick, written by Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Andrew Joyner

Thanks very much for your responses, Ursula, and all the very best with Ask Hercules Quick.

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