“ ‘Like’ was too small a word for how she felt about her little room, her special window, the wooden walls with Grandma’s name in looping letters.”
(Bella and the Voyaging House)
Meg McKinlay is one of Australia’s finest writers for young people. Her books span ages and genres. They invariably blend an engaging story and authentic characterisation with a poetic lyricism. I have eagerly read Meg’s books and followed her career since her early novel, Surface Tension – which I still have on my bookshelf alongside her other books.
Her new book Bella and the Voyaging House (published by Fremantle Press) is an original fantasy set in the real world for primary age readers. It is the stand-alone sequel to Bella and the Wandering House, a 2016 CBCA Notable book.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Meg.
Bella and the Voyaging House follows Bella and the Wandering House but can easily be read without having read the first book. How does the first book lead into the second?
The first book opens with Bella’s discovery that her house is going out walking at night. At the heart of the story is the mystery of why it’s doing so, and Bella’s quest to help it find what it’s looking for.
Bella and the Voyaging House picks up shortly afterwards, with the house – and family – settled in a new seaside location. The house still goes travelling at night, but with a twist: it’s sailing out onto the ocean now, rather than walking around the streets. The reasons for this are connected to the origin of the house itself, but I’ll say no more about that for fear of veering too far into spoiler territory.
Could you please tell us a little more about Bella, Grandad and the house?
Yes, I would absolutely love to! Character is always central to me in a book and the relationships between these three are at the heart of things in this one. Firstly, Bella is very close to Grandad. While her parents are good and well-meaning people, they are very busy Being Adults, and don’t make much space for the quieter, imaginative world Bella inhabits. Grandad, on the other hand, is creative and curious – an inventor and wonderer, a potterer-about-with-things – and actively encourages Bella’s way of seeing and being in the world. Both Grandad and Bella are also deeply connected to the house, and in particular to Bella’s upstairs bedroom with its little round window, which Grandad insisted on building himself from special materials. The house functions as a character in the books, with a history and personality all its own – sometimes stubborn, sometimes playful, always with a clear sense of what it needs to do and why, even if those impulses sometimes cause problems for Bella!
How have you managed to so successfully balance the fantasy element of a travelling, sentient house in a real-world setting?
This is something I never thought consciously about so it’s good to hear that it seems to be successful! When you’re blending fantasy and reality I think it’s important to make sure that the fantastical element has its own internal logic – for example, if the house is walking or sailing, it’s bound by the ‘rules’ or real-world physics of those activities. It can’t cross the whole ocean in a night; it must still be guided by compass points or star maps, and so on. So there are always elements of the real world to which the fantastic is tied, and I guess that functions to ground both elements and link them together in a way that feels believable.
Grandad says, “I always find the best things aren’t planned. They just sort of work themselves out somehow.” How did this happen to you as you wrote your story?
I love that you’ve picked up on these lines because even though I wasn’t thinking this at the time, they really do capture so much about how I work. I’m not much good at planning stories and never have been. I find that even when I try, as soon as I start writing I deviate from my so-called plan immediately and just tend to follow my nose. I think the creative process for me is so much about leaving room for discovery, for random little morsels of surprise which can end up becoming central to the book. Without having that openness in the writing process, it just isn’t fun for me, and I feel like the tapestry of the story wouldn’t be as rich. That said, when I say “…things just sort of work themselves out somehow”, what I really mean is that my early drafts are very messy indeed – more chaos than tapestry – and I do a lot of re-writing.
How have you incorporated humour into the tale?
I did have a bit of fun with this one! While I feel some kinship with Mum and dad and their Incessant Adulting, I also love poking gentle fun at them and trying to nudge them out of their comfort zones. This is easy to do when they’re stuck out on the ocean and have lost all control over things. I particularly enjoyed throwing curveballs at Mum in the form of cheeky wildlife, and giving Dad some signature catchphrases. There is also a point in the book when an enormous cruise ship appears, bringing with it all sorts of comedic potential and I really enjoyed writing those scenes.
Your story is illustrated by Nicholas Schafer. In which illustration has he best captured the essence of your vision?
My favourite illustration is hands-down the double page spread of Grandad and Bella flying together in Grandad’s contraption. I’m not generally a visual thinker, but in an odd sort of way the story owes its existence to my own version of this image. One day I was watching boats off the Fremantle coast and for some reason started imagining Bella’s house out on the water. Why would it be out there? What would it get up to? Oh! And what if it got stuck? Or refused to come back? Or …?
These ponderings and little story fragments run through my head all the time, and I don’t pursue most of them. There are just too many and I never planned to write a sequel to Bella and the Wandering House, so these random thoughts would have remained just that if it hadn’t been for one thing. Which was that for some reason, when I thought about the house staying out there, and perhaps needing rescue, I imagined Grandad – creative inventor of whimsical and yet oddly practical things – flying in to the rescue. He would be wearing a retro helmet, and old-timey aviator goggles, and as soon as I saw him in my mind’s eye, I just knew I had to bring that to life, to let him take that flight. It was entirely for that reason that I went on to write the story, and so I’m thrilled that Nick has brought this particular image to such vivid life
Which do you prefer – vanilla slice or doughnuts?
I think I’m going to go with doughnuts. I do like vanilla slice but find it a bit on the heavy side these days. Maybe when I’m as old as Grandad I’ll come back around to it.
Could you tell us about some of your other books with Fremantle Press?
In addition to Bella and the Wandering House, I’ve published two picture books with Fremantle Press. Ten Tiny Things, which is illustrated by Kyle Hughes-Odgers, is the story of what happens when Tessa and Zachary’s family car breaks down, forcing them to walk to school. This is a terrible inconvenience, until they start to slow down and notice all the glorious, hidden things around them. I grew up in family without a car, relying mostly on walking and riding my bike to get places, and I think that practice of moving slowly through the world has had an enormous role to play in my creative life.
The other book is Drawn Onward, which is illustrated by Andrew Frazer, and is unlike anything I’ve done before. It’s a sort of palindromic text which flips itself from forwards to backwards and in doing so moves from gloom to optimism, suggesting the importance of perspective and mindset, of using the tools within to reframe the world around us. This one is fairly conceptual and aimed more at older readers. It’s an idea I had a long time ago but set aside because it seemed unillustratable, but Andrew has done the most incredible job with it.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
I recently got to read an advance copy of Peter Carnavas’ new middle-grade novel My Brother Ben and want to give it to everyone. It’s just bursting with heart and all the best stuff of boyhood.
I also loved Your Birthday was the BEST!, by Maggie Hutchings and Felicity Sala. This picture book, which is on this year’s CBCA shortlist, was the best kind of surprise and has the kind of wry humour that makes me laugh out loud.
How can your readers contact you?
The best way is probably via email and that address is available at my website below. I’m on all the usual social media, and people do send messages there, too, but I find it hard to keep track, and a bit noisy with bits and pieces coming in from so many different directions!
Children will love reading about Bella and her voyaging house. They will wish that they could be part of the adventure. Thanks for your responses and all the very best with this lovely, imaginative book, Meg.
Bella and the Voyaging House at Fremantle Press
How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay & Matt Ottley on the blog