What’s the Big Idea? by Sue Lawson & Karen Tayleur

What’s the Big Idea?: Australian Inventions that Changed the World by Sue Lawson & Karen Tayleur (Wild Dogs Books)

The inventions in this book are impressive and, in fact, mind-boggling. They begin with First Nations inventions such as yidakas (didgeridoos), fish and eel traps and fire stick farming, and continue through the eras to the present, with the pacemaker, polymer bank notes, google maps, the inflatable plane escape slide, the surf ski, the dual-flush toilet, the mobile laundry van for the homeless and many more. The ingenuity and importance of these inventions make us feel proud to be Australian.

The authors, Sue Lawson and Karen Tayleur are stalwarts of Australia’s children’s literature community and are two of the loveliest people in the publishing industry.

Spread from What’s the Big Idea?

Thank you for speaking to ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords, Sue and Karen.

Apart from writing books, what do you see as your role/s in the Australian children’s literature community?


Joy, thank you so much for this opportunity. Writing with Karen is always a delight. As you said, she is a lovely soul and such a talented writer, editor and mentor.

I’m not sure how to describe my role, but I do know what I love doing. I’ve always found the children’s literature community so supportive and generous that I like to try and follow that example and give where I am able.

Apart from writing books, I also support and nurture new writers. It’s rewarding to watch their skill and confidence develop. I do this with my publisher, Wild Dog Books, and privately. I also write teachers’ notes to support educators in using texts in the classroom.

I also work with young writers and with schools. I’ve worked with schools to develop writing programs and publish books for their community. That’s an amazing opportunity.


I remember the first time we met, Joy. It was your birthday, and you were attending a children’s literary event instead of painting the town red! [I remember it well, Karen. I wasn’t only attending that CBCA(Qld) Book of the Year event but had received a phone call that day asking if I could emcee it! You were up from Victoria and were carrying around a plant that you gave me as a birthday gift.]

This was around the same time that Sue and I met in a lucky collision of the planets. Sue is an incredibly generous person and talented writer whose contribution to the Australian writing community and reading public is profound.

I have been on the Children’s literature scene, either as an author or in editorial, since 2001. Mentoring authors and illustrators is now one of my main roles in this community. I do some work for Maryann Ballantyne at Wild Dog Books and for the Jacinta di Mase Literary Agency, as well as a few literature festivals throughout the year.

It is such a privilege to work with authors and illustrators – emerging or established. The arts industry is a unique beast, in that the work that is produced has an emotional link to the creators. I’m not saying that other jobs don’t have their own satisfactions, but in the arts … well … it’s personal. This adds a unique layer to the publishing industry that I haven’t found elsewhere. The role between editor and creator needs to be collaborative. Creators need to feel comfortable that you have their best interests at heart. I hope I bring that to my roles as mentor, editor, and publisher.


How did you get together to work on What’s the Big Idea? Who did what?

Maryann Ballantyne of Wild Dog Books suggested Sue and I work together on an Australian inventions book. After some initial research, we each made a list and brought that to the table. I’m pretty sure Sue already had her ‘visual working book’ in full swing. I had just discovered AON Timeline – a timeline software program – and was playing with plugging in inventions by their creation dates. We thought it made sense to group the inventions by ‘theme’, and then roughly allocated how many pages each theme would have. There were some themes we were personally drawn to. The rest we just divided between us.

Which Australian invention were you each determined to include? Why?


Gosh, that’s a hard one. We did have to do a bit of pruning, but the inventions I was determined to include were never in doubt as we both wanted to include First Nations inventions. We wanted these to be part of the book, spread out through each section and celebrated with others in that genre. In the past First Nations information has appeared to be an add on, not the celebration of its uniqueness, ingenuity, and complexity. 


When I studied Australian History at high school, our Australian timeline began with the European settlement, with little recognition of the First Australians. We are redressing this for students today, but it’s still a work in progress. Both Sue and I were clear that the inventions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were to be included in the book. We were also keen to include a better balance of male and female inventors, however it was difficult to achieve. This is just a reflection of the gender bias that has created a lack of opportunity or recognition for women in this field – and society in general. We have a long way to go in this area.

Spread from What’s the Big Idea?

Please tell us about one of the most surprising or clever inventions?


It’s hard to pick one. Overall, I was stunned by the inventiveness of Australians. I knew Australians had invented the cochlear ear, Speedos, Vegemite, the Victa lawnmower, Hills Hoist and the stump jump plough.  (Hell, I still have flashbacks about an HSC Australian History exam essay about the stump jump plough. *shudders*)

I didn’t realise there were so many other Australian inventions that have changed our world or the wide areas they covered. 

The plane safety inventions surprised me most. I didn’t realise those safety slides that air hostesses tell you about before a plane takes off were an Australian invention.

One of the most important?


I was going to mention Vegemite because, well, who doesn’t have Vegemite in their pantry? However, I’d like to highlight the Mobile Laundry Van for the Homeless. It’s not so much a ‘thing’ invention as a ‘service’ invention. The service offered by OrangeSky Australia is a free mobile laundry service for people experiencing homelessness. This organisation not only provides a free laundry service for those who don’t have access to such amenities but offers a point of connection and support. Such a wonderful idea. So sad that we need it.

Spread from What’s the Big Idea?

And one of the most wonderful?


Again, it’s so tough to pick one, so I will pick two and both help to improve people’s quality of life. The first is the cochlear ear implant. What a gift that is to so many people. The second is spray on skin. That has changed lives for those who suffer from severe burns.  

Why do you think Australians are so inventive?


I think some of the earliest inventions by European immigrants were in reaction to the new surrounds they found themselves in. First Australians found ways to work with their environment, but the early European settlers tried to bend the environment to fit with their understanding of the northern hemisphere seasons, landscapes, and fauna. Tools and equipment from ‘the old world’ were in short supply, so they were forced to adapt what they did have or create something new. In later years, Australians who had settled from across the globe created products specifically tailored to their environment and its challenges, moving on to a more global worldview in the 20th century with inventions in science and technology.

What do you think needs to be invented now or in the future?


I think in the future, we need more inventions to help us harness more climate friendly sources of power. I know there are many ideas being researched and tested, including a hydrogen battery for domestic use that stores rooftop solar energy.

I’d also like someone to invent a never-ending ink refill for my favourite pen that is no longer being made. I am using the one I have as sparingly as I can!

The book is formatted in an appealing, easy-to-read layout. Who organised this, and found the photos?


The initial concept for this book was quite busy and was a blueprint for the final design which became more streamlined under the eye of our publisher, Maryann Ballantyne, and talented designer, Guy Holt. As authors, both Sue and I kept an eye out for photographic and illustrative ideas as we wrote our text. These were submitted with our final manuscript and served as a guide for the designer, who added to images to the mix.

What application will this book have in schools?


As a former teacher, I can see endless uses for What’s the Big Idea? in schools. It’s design, layout and text will work well in many subject areas, including reading groups, science, technology, and even emotional intelligence lessons. Reading about what people have created, and what inspired them, will help children see what is possible with creativity, determination, and persistence.

What’s the Big Idea? is also a perfect book to use as a springboard for inquiries and reports.

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?


I know a lot of readers who can’t, or won’t, read a book from cover to cover. What’s the Big Idea? was designed to be dipped into and provide a jumping-off point for those readers keen to explore more about a subject that piques their interest. I hope it can inspire some readers to pick up a book and discover not just facts and figures, but some interesting stories behind the wonderful Australian inventions we take for granted today.

Please tell us about some of your body of work together and separately.


Karen was an editor at black dog books, so we first worked together when she edited my novels Allie McGregor’s True Colours, After, Finding Darcy, the Diva series and Dare You. We became friends through this process, and I value her knowledge and skill immensely. Writing together has been fun. It’s a joy to share ideas, bounce them around and then create some kind of order out of them. We have written What’s the Big Idea? and Show Me the Money together. I’m pretty sure there will be more.

I also write with Boonwurrung Elder, Aunty Fay Muir. We have written about nine books together. Four have been published to date – Nganga, Respect, Sharing and Family – while the others are at varying stages of the publishing process. Working with Fay is a joy. She’s such a knowledgeable and generous soul and has taught me – and continues to teach me – so much. Fay was the first person I collaborated with, and I loved the process so much that it gave me a taste for collaborative writing. My other collaborations include Peregrines in the City, with my former publisher, Andrew Kelly, An Important Message from Mr Beaky, and Mr Beaky the Blue Budgie with Taunwurrung woman, Cassie Leatham, and You Matter with my friend, Sue Hindle.

Collaboration is keeping me busy at the moment, so I’m not sure what is next for me, working solo.


Sue Lawson and I met around 2005 at black dog books when I edited her gorgeous book Allie McGregor’s True Colours. Sue went on to publish many books with black dog – Dare you, You Don’t Even Know, After, the Diva Series, and Finding Darcy to name a few – and each book rang with an emotional resonance that captured the imaginations and hearts of her readers. Her writing still does this today.

There is a sensible adage that suggests you should never mix business with pleasure. Luckily, I paid no attention to this wisdom. Sue and I – along with black dog authors Bernadette Kelly and Corinne Fenton – formed a little social writing group called The Cranneys (long story). We get together as a group several times a year, though in the past several years Corinne’s ‘Writing Agenda’ has gone out the window, and it’s more of a social gathering. So, I have known Sue in my capacity as her editor, friend, and now collaborative author for many years. Our first collaboration was Show Me the Money, published by Wild Dog Books in 2020.

I have written for both the educational and trade markets; mainly in the middle years market (including a 14-book series in the US featuring David Mortimore Baxter), but also some Young Adult fiction (Chasing Boys, Hostage, Six and Love Notes from Vinegar House) and one picture book (Halloween in Christmas Hills: the Legend of Stingy Jack) with the wonderful Heath McKenzie. Another picture book would be fun…

What’s the Big Idea?: Australian Inventions that Changed the World at Wild Dog Books

Sue Lawson’s website

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