Grumble Boats by Susannah McFarlane, illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Susannah and Tamsin.

Your picture book Grumble Boats (Affirm Press) is an original and uplifting picture book for young children about expressing and dealing with grumpiness and the relationship between Emma and her Grandma. It accentuates Grandma’s kindness and wisdom, Emma’s trust and their mutual love.

Susannah, I love how your tale starts with such immediacy and well-developed characters. How did you achieve this?

Susannah: Thank you! The two characters are drawn heavily from my watching – and loving – of my mum and my daughter, also Emma, as they interacted, often when Grandma – and Grandpa – would look after Emma after school. They had their own special relationship and I was very grateful for that, that my kids had the unconditional love of other adults – and adults who had time to listen and watch. The text has been a passion project for a number of years, in amongst my other writing and publishing work, and I have tinkered and played with the words, really working to capture the relationship between Grandma and Emma – Grandma knows Emma and Emma knows her grandma knows her – that’s very special, I think, and I wanted to capture that.

Where/when is your story set? What is the importance of your setting?

Susannah: It was my local beach in my mind but any beach can be a launching pad for a grumble boat, a huge expanse to swallow up a grumble – and I just love the beautiful water and beach that Tamsin has created!

Tamsin: I loved that the story was a beach setting on a colder day, rather than summer. With winter clothes and wrapping up warm. For the beach, I drew inspiration from my visits to my sister and her family in Rosebud, Victoria, the beach huts, jetty and easy walking distance to the safe beach down the road from home.

What role does Grandma’s dog, Bella, play?

Susannah: Bella’s there because she’s part of the family and she just gets on with her dog things! It’s also nice to have a second, side-story in a picture book, one told largely through the pictures. In my mind, Bella was our cavoodle but I love Tamsin’s Bella and the spirit of dogginess she captures so well.

Tamsin: Bella is big and boisterous and fun and a distraction. She LOVES Emma, jumping up, wagging her tail and excited to see her, even though she’s grumpy – Bella doesn’t care! She’s excited for the beach, she’s excited to just be. I love that she is just part of the family and adds another narrative alongside the main story, but also highlighting the fact that dogs are dogs and happy with being in the moment, which really compliments the whole story and adds that extra layer.

Without giving away your wonderful resolution, how does your intriguing title Grumble Boats give a clue as to what the story is about?

Susannah: Well, we have to do something with our grumbles, and a boat might be just the thing to help us …..

How have you articulated grumpiness?

Tamsin: I loved drawing the grumpy faces! The hunched shoulders, the body language, the kicking the sand, and slowly slowly moving closer to granny – slowly her smile appears. 

Susannah: I think that’s one of the main things of the story. How do we articulate grumpiness? How do we learn to express it and how can we learn to get it out of our systems so we can get on with our life more happily? Emma’s ‘Hmph’ is a very powerful expression of her grumpiness, as are her crossed arms (Tamsin has captured Emma’s grumpiness so well!).

Best of all, Emma then can say to Grandma, because she knows her grandma will listen and maybe help her sort herself out, ‘I’m grumpy.’ Much-loved US children’s TV host, Mr Rogers, said ‘If you can name an emotion, you can manage it’ and this is really a lot of what Grumble Boats is about – naming and managing grumpiness.

The furious scribbling, the drawing of the grumbles, is of course Emma’s big articulating and releasing of her grumpiness and Grandma shows her that this is a very good thing to do. That’s also important I think, to validate people’s feelings and help them process them.

How have you incorporated humour into the story?

Susannah: I think we can thank Bella for a lot of that!

Tamsin: Bella being silly!

What, if any, of the characteristics of Grandma in the story have you experienced personally?

Susannah: As above, I have been blessed to experience all those characteristics through my Mum both in her managing my grumbles (not just when I was little!) and with Emma. Also, Grandma’s big pockets, full of things, were a signature element of Mum!

What special traits do you appreciate and cherish in Grandmas?

Susannah: Their calm and patient stillness and time and their willingness to give that to you. That they can lovingly watch and steer you through tricky things – and have fun with you!

Tamsin, what media have you used and why?

Tamsin: I have used pencil, watercolour, colour pencils and Fabriano bright white watercolour paper. I love using watercolour to layer and especially with the beach and the ocean and the sand, adding the extra details, I love that watercolour sometimes has a mind of its own and can bleed across the page, but it’s also easy to add the extra fine details.

Tamsin, many of your illustrations fill double pages (including your lovely endpapers), with some one-page spreads as well. Where and why have you used framed panels?

Tamsin: I used the framed panels to add a point of difference to the pages, break it up a bit, but also was really useful for the drawing stages and the making the boat stages. My publisher had the idea of adding the Bella vignettes with the stick to keep a consistent rhythm though the books and we added the three panels with boats as well, I love how it breaks the pages up and then gives the double pages more presence. Bella finding a stick is my favourite page!

Tamsin, how have you created a sense of space in your outdoor scenes?

Tamsin: As before, I think using the variations between pages with different viewpoints helps, and some close-ups and then stepping right back with the double page wordless spread really emphasises the space/sense of place.

Susannah, which one of Tamsin’s illustrations captured the essence of one of your characters?

Susannah: I love them all but I particularly love Emma looking distinctly unimpressed as Bella, helpfully I’m sure she thinks, licks her face. I love Emma’s hands crossed tight – she’s not letting anything get in the way of her being cross – Grandma, looking on, has other ideas as we find out!

Grumble Boats by Susannah McFarlane, illustrated Tamsin Ainslie (Affirm Press)

What do you hope this book inspires children (and those who read it to them) to emulate?

Susannah: I hope it encourages children to share their emotions (even their ‘bad’ ones) with trusted adults who can help them. I hope people, big and small, will draw their grumbles and throw them away, perhaps out to sea but anywhere so they can then get on and do better things – like eat baked beans on toast!

Tamsin: I have had so many people tell me they LOVE LOVE LOVE this idea of grumble boats, they make them with their children and grandchildren and float them away on the beach and down the creek and down a river. It is SUCH a brilliant text, I love everything about this.

Could you tell us something about other books you have created?

Tamsin: I have illustrated a few books over the years, more recently I have illustrated The Sisters Saint Claire, Collecting Sunshine and Sometimes Cake.

Susannah: I wrote the middle-level fiction series, EJ12 Girl Hero, also featuring an Emma and a spy adventure series for young girls – and boys. Over 21 books, I grew very attached to my little secret agent who often found real life problems much more tricky than the missions she went on! More recently, I had a lot of fun re-writing fairy tales in Fairy Tales for Feisty Girls.

What are you working on now/next?

Susannah: I’ve been playing with another picture book idea that explores similar themes to Grumble Boats but with words rather than scribbles. I think it might involve Emma’s older brother, Tom ….

Tamsin: At the moment I am working on a gorgeous text written by Kate Mayes and to be published by Harper Collins called In My Garden about different gardens and places all over the world. I am also writing and Illustrating a series of books Barney Gumnut and Friends, also to be published by Harper Collins. 

What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?

Susannah: I loved Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – a funny yet very real and confronting story of love and loss and mental illness.  And I am loving dipping into The Fire of Joy by Clive James, a very personal anthology (and justifications of his selections) of his favourite 80 poems to read out aloud.

Tamsin: My absolute favourite recent read was The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir, I loved it so much. Cannot recommend that highly enough! I also read Sorrow and Bliss recently, which was excellent. I also very much loved The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, brilliant brilliant brilliant. And Honeybee by Craig Silvey.

Thanks very much for your responses, Susannah and Tamsin. They gave lovely insights into Grumble Boats and I relished reading them. You do work well as a team!

Grumble Boats should be critically acclaimed as well as becoming a favourite with children and their grandparents.

Grumble Boats at Affirm Press

Susannah McFarlane’s website

Interview with Susannah McFarlane about Bold Tales for Brave-Hearted Boys

Tamsin Ainslie’s website

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