Little Lon by Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Heather Potter & Mark Jackson (published by Wild Dog Books)
Andrew Kelly is a stalwart of the literary community. He has undertaken many roles but is most recently recognised as the co-author, with Aunty Joy Murphy, of Wilam: a Birrarung Story. Wilam is featuring in children’s literary awards. Andrew has now written Little Lon, a nostalgic, evocative tale that gives a vignette of Melbourne’s history.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Andrew.
Where are you based, what is your background and how are you involved in the children’s literature community?
I live in Melbourne, and I have lived here almost all my life. I grew up in the 1960s in a suburb of Melbourne called South Yarra, which was nowhere near as salubrious then as it was now. I roamed the streets with my friend Phil Macleish. That gave me a sympathy for the children growing up on the street in Little Lon. One of our favourites was going down to the shopping strip and buying 20 cents of hot chips from the Greek family who ran the fish and chip shop. The chips came wrapped in newspaper.
I have a long engagement with the children’s literature community, proofreading, editing, publishing and now writing. Now I am not only a writer but a riverkeeper. I am the voice for Melbourne’s Yarra River. I reckon my best literary skill is being able to pick a good story.
Little Lon is a very Melbourne book. It is important to show solidarity and support Melbourne at this time. What is Little Lon and what does it mean to Melbourne people? What is its relevance to people elsewhere in Australia?
Little Lon is the top end of Little Lonsdale Street and it is one of Melbourne’s famous lanes and alleyways. In the early days, Little Lon was said to be where all the bad people hung out, thugs and robbers. There is a story that the Victorian Parliamentary mace was illegally taken from the Parliament, which is very close to the top end of Little Lon, down into the murky depths of the lane – never to be found again.
What I like about Marie’s story in Little Lon is that it defies that dark reputation. To me, the relevance of the story to Australians is that where you find children, you find love and joy and hope. Children don’t compare their surroundings in the way adults do. The book also tells a tale of post-European settlement multiculturalism, even back in the 1920s.
Would you describe Little Lon as an oral history? Could you explain its genesis?
It started as an interview, so yes it is an oral history. It has been reshaped to be a children’s picture book, but I hope it retains those beautiful rhythms and cadences of the spoken language of people who talk much more naturally than they write.
How did you research the story?
I love Melbourne, and I love Melbourne’s history. I was doodling around on the internet looking up this and that bit of Melbourne’s history and I came across Marie’s story, and she spoke to me. It is incredible how much is stored on the internet. The other useful tool was a good pair of shoes – for walking up and down the lane and getting a real feel for it.
Narrator Marie’s house is very appealing. What is your favourite part of it, and why?
The shutters undoubtedly are my favourite part. They are the gateway to the street. I do like the way the house is right on the street, and the shutters allow you to become part of the street or to shut it out if you need to and have your own space. Mark and Heather capture that feeling on page three of the book.
Which anecdote that you have incorporated into the book particularly resonated with you and why?
I engage with the story of blocking the gutters to sail little boats. My friend Phil and I used to do that in the gutters of South Yarra. We did not block them up as Phil’s house was on a hill. We’d make quick little ‘boats’ out of matchsticks and watch them race down the gutter and disappear down the drain – if we couldn’t catch them first.
How do you think people have changed since Marie’s time in the 1920s and 1930s?
Well, it is such a digital world now. I am impressed by the technology and the digital ecosystem we inhabit, but we are also missing out on something – like sailing boats in gutters – things that we can engage with using all our senses. There was an immediacy in living then that we have lost.
You wrote the words, but how did the collaboration with illustrators Heather Potter and Mark Jackson work?
I think their work is fantastic. I am very grateful to the publisher at Wild Dog, Maryann Ballantyne, for teaming me up with Heather and Mark. The manuscript evolved along with the roughs. We rewrote the book as we went along. I usually do an extensive illustration brief, but before I had finished the brief Mark and Heather had done all the research themselves. I did let them know that there was a full-size mock-up of a house very similar to Marie’s in the Little Lon section of the Melbourne Museum’s ‘Melbourne Story’ exhibition. (Marie’s house was built in the 1850s.) I can see parts of that house in the illustrations.
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Eve Pownall award this year for Wilam had on you or your book?
Being short-listed is lovely. Most writers are insecure about their writing. You are putting yourself out there, exposing your thoughts to public view. So it is really lovely to have that recognition. It’s a soft, warm glow beaming over one’s nervous ego.
(Lovely and apt way of describing this feeling, Andrew)
What are you writing or working on now?
I am writing a book about the penguins at St Kilda. For the 1956 Olympics, the breakwater was extended by dumping rocks in the sea. Some of the penguins from Phillip Island who were hunting squid and anchovy in Port Phillip Bay stayed and built burrows in the rocks. Now there is a colony there. Ecologists call this a novel ecosystem, which is what happens when people make something and animals accidentally find a home there. It is out next year from Wild Dog Books.
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
For children, I would have to recommend Young Dark Emu, which was short-listed alongside Wilam. It is must-read to understand First People’s land management and agriculture on this continent. For adults, I am recommending Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta. There is a theme. The big issue we as Australians face today is how to reconcile with land and with people.
How can your readers contact you?
I am pleased to have a website: andrewkelly.com.au. It is soon to be renovated.
Thanks for your responses, Andrew, and all the very best with your books and involvement in the children’s (and other) literary community.