Tania McCartney is a prolific Australian author/illustrator who promotes children’s literature through Kids’ Book Review and The Happy Book podcast.
Readers may already have met her food-loving character Plume the penguin in Plume World Explorer. Plume returns for more travel and tasty treats in Plume Global Nibbler (Hardie Grant).
Tania McCartney writes elegantly and with much thought about the genesis and rationale of her Plume series for PaperbarkWords:
As I sit here inside my studio—doors shut, in a climate-controlled space—my mind, as ever, wanders to faraway places.
There’s something magical about travel. Little wonder Australians consistently make the top ten for most well-travelled people. We pretty much live in the cul de sac of the world, and although our country is diverse and beautiful, leaving its shores is not only a breathless adventure, it’s a rite of passage.
If travel is engaging and eye-opening for adults … imagine what a rush it is for children who are fresh and open and still navigating the wonder of the world. To me, travel is non-negotiable for kids. Nothing will grow a child and sprout life-enriching curiosity like new languages, surprising new foods and strange new sights.
Of course, we can’t always travel—and the past two years have seen more passport lapses than a positive PCR test. But fear not, intrepid voyagers … the next best thing is travel through the pages of a book (no visas required).
Plume: Global Nibbler is the second book in my travel picture book series for little ones—a trail of tales designed to inspire wanderlust in our smallest humans. Travel and food are tightly fused, and my belly still rumbles at the smörgåsbord of world cuisine I researched in the making of this book.
I mean, seriously, how could I pick favourites?
One of the best things about being an author is that you can play God. You can craft your own worlds, the people who live in it, and yes, yes, the menu, too. Creative possibility is even greater with children’s books, as we can craft our stories for little minds bereft of judgment and open to boundless possibility. Reality dissolves and magic is left behind.
Book creators can also take our personal loves, passions, even obsessions, and build them into story. I know I’m not alone when it comes to an obsession with travel—the richness and diversity and inspiration is endless when we step outside our climate-controlled studios.
Travel absolutely shapes us—and it hones no one more than children. It opens their hearts and minds and crams glorious, life-changing stuff inside. It stretches, uplifts, tantalises and engages. A bit like mozzarella pizza.
The Plume series is a culmination of all that drives me. Children, colour, illustration, words, culture, art, diversity, smeared on a bedrock of travel. It’s like all my life passions and dreams pasted into the pages of a book.
Of course, cramming the world into 40 pages and 900 words, is some task. We want to engage children with new cultures and places, but we can’t include it all and we can’t overwhelm the narrative. A picture book is a peek—a waft—of what awaits them over the horizon. It has to be built gently into the narrative yet detailed enough to spark interest in More.
Another thing we have to consider for young readers is the characters, because no matter the work, they do and simply must drive the story. For Plume, a penguin was an easy pick for the lead role. Firstly, hello—they’re adorable and universally loved—and animal characters are beloved by kids. This is because they’re not defined in terms of culture, ethnicity, socio-economic barriers or class—children can picture themselves in an animal no matter where they come from or who they are.
Penguins can be found in Antarctica and this setting was a perfect way to drive Plume to see the world outside its monochromatic shores. Even for the youngest reader, we must show drive and reason … I didn’t want Plume randomly up and leaving home. He had to have a reason. And setting sail from a comparatively colourless (although breathtaking!), same-same world was a powerful one.
I also felt strongly about the idea of a grand Biblioteca—as a way for Plume to travel via the pages of a book and be inspired to seek new worlds. It beautifully reflected the fact that kids are doing the very same with the series—travelling through the pages of a book. This is particularly important as most of the world’s children don’t have the means to travel extensively. A series like this can inspire kids to enjoy armchair travel until they can pop on a cap and set their own course.
Finding a way for Plume to move around the world involved lots of logistical pondering. As penguins are such accomplished swimmers, I originally pictured him scooting through oceans and seas or boarding the Whale Express. But whales could quite possibly struggle to reach the Grand Canyon or the depths of the Congo or the tip of La Tour Eiffel, so I settled on the majestical albatross—large enough to carry Plume and all manner of goodies. And of course, Ava of the Albatross Express gives the flightless Plume wings—a literal and figurative boon for this plucky penguin.
Children’s books—especially picture books—are so often relegated, rarely esteemed and viewed as ‘easy’ to write. The thing is, a picture book is a deeply complicated and arduous construct. The nuance, the consideration, the fact that each word must earn its place and therefore effect flow, rhythm and balance, is unparalleled. Its text narrative must run seamlessly with a visual narrative. It needs to appeal to—and be accessible to—an immeasurable range of children. It could not be more specialised or sophisticated.
Picture books are generally created for ages three to eight, though the readership really spans in utero to Methuselah. In that five-year stretch between three and eight, the level of understanding is cavernous, yet we can achieve a narrative that holds these ages in equal measure. Like a Pixar film, creators need to add elements that appeal to all readers, all levels of understanding.
Picture books create adult readers and lifetime-lovers of story—they are the foundation for the adult book world and it’s my great joy to create books for that scaffolding.
Working on this dream series has been one of my greatest career highlights, and taking this cool, quirky, vibrant little penguin around the world to meet children of all ethnicities is like the sweetest fresh-pressed orange juice on a hot Moroccan day.
Plume is a character so many children can respond to. He’s a round peg in a square hole yet he’s sans cliché—both nerdy and cool, serious yet silly, pragmatic but frivolous. He’s traditional yet open to new and exciting things. He’s so fully himself—and all children so desperately need to be fully themselves.
But what I love most about Plume is how much he cares. For his friends, his home, his planet.
In a world that’s shrinking by the day, we must encourage children to open their hearts and minds to the ways of others. Inspiring them to walk outside and absorb the phytoncide breath of a Norwegian forest or the florally scent of a Thai flower market or the spice of an Ethiopian curry … this is why we travel. We simply must move; biologically, we are living in similar bodies to our Neanderthal ancestors. We are nomads. We are not meant to ceaselessly sit or be shut up in a climate-controlled studio, or worse—the curse of a closed mind.
My hope for Plume is to spark curiosity in children and adults everywhere—to feel compelled to explore the world, yes, but also to simply open the door … and walk outside.
The second book in the Plume series, Plume: Global Nibbler, is out 18 May in Australia New Zealand, 24 May in North America and 26 May in the UK. The third book, Plume: Festival Seeker, will follow in November, 2022.
Tania McCartney is an author, illustrator, designer, editor and book obsessive. The founder of Kids’ Book Review and The Happy Book podcast, she has around 60 books in print or production, and is published in 20 countries. Tania’s career in magazines and publishing spans 35 years, but her greatest joy is in crafting books for children, specialising in picture books, non-fiction and junior fiction. A juvenile literacy ambassador, her shortlistings and awards include the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the World Illustration Awards, the Wilderness Society’s Environment Award, the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Australia/New Zealand, and the CBCA Laurie Copping Award for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature. Tania has lived in France, England and China, and currently lives in Canberra with her family, a forest of artwork and a mountain of books. She hopes to one day visit Antarctica, and she’ll travel, of course, on the Albatross Express.