On Writing and Illustrating BOWERBIRD BLUES

Guest author/illustrator post at PaperbarkWords blog by Aura Parker

My latest creation, Bowerbird Blues is a picture book about longing, searching and love. A story which has slowly simmered along over the last few tumultuous years and means a great deal to me. My bowerbird falls in love with the colour of the sea and the sparkling blue of the sky, but nothing seems to satisfy. I wrote BOWERBIRD BLUES for lots of reasons, most of all, to try and capture a feeling, of longing for connection, for a craving which turns out to be for someone, instead of something. I wrote it for the joy of making, building, crafting, and finding out what you care for, or what matters most of all. I wrote it as a celebration of colour. I wrote it for a love of nature, and passion for our fragile environment, as an abundance of plastic pollution is clearly on display.

My desire to write grows out of a love of reading, an infatuation with the sounds of our language and the way it sweeps you away with all its charming qualities, lifts you up, prods you down, and makes you feel! I made a strong connection with reading when I was a child. It’s so wonderful when those little black and white squiggles on the page fade away and the story plays out in your mind – if only I could get there more often – tap into an alternate world – have more adventures – live more lives. If only! Not all books are the right portal, but some you don’t want to finish! Well, sometimes writing can feel like that too, when words are flowing freely – carrying you along – it’s so exciting the world fades away. But other times writing can be difficult. When writing is hard it’s like pulling your brain out of your ear! It’s incredibly tricky to pull your brain out of your ear. In fact, doing so can cause all sorts of confounding problems, not to mention, being terribly messy and awkward, but if you persevere through the doubts and madness, and actually finish the story…. Hooray! It is very rewarding. Even if you must deal with your brain being out in the open, on full display, for all to see and comment on! Being confronted by your own concepts and innermost thoughts manifested in written form (with images too, in my case) is very strange! I feel like shouting from the hilltops about the book, but at the same time hiding it under the bed so no one can see, which is a complete contradiction and makes no sense at all, but sometimes it’s hard to explain the concoction of fear and excitement that is making art. My picture books (so far) are only 200 – 500 words long! Yes, that’s the entire book! I am anxious for my stories to be loved and surprise myself with how weirdly driven I can be about crafting all the details and how much I truly enjoy creating them.

Bowerbird Blues is my seventh book and is one of those rare stories that was written easily, (the pictures are what tortured me, a-good-sort-of-torture-that-I-love, but still!) after talking about it excitedly, the story formed like clouds in my mind and tumbled out of the air and onto the page, like it was waiting for me. I wrote it six years ago and submitted it to my literary agent. Around the same time, I was writing preschool rhyming texts, which are a different style of book, exacting in the beat, joyful, childlike and tricky to get right. Even though Bowerbird Blues is deeper, quieter and has a different tone, the tightness of the words, or perhaps the way I have paired words together, in this case lots of active bird-like verbs such as ‘scouring, scavenging’ is strangely reminiscent of my other stories. I wrote it with the words dribbling down the page, sometimes a single word on a line and it has stayed the same in the final book, true to my original manuscript.

Sometimes hearing a song can bring memories flooding back from the time you were listening to it, well this book has become like that, with memories intertwined in it. The first time I saw a bower was ten years ago when my kids were little. It was a messy, strewn, strange collection of blue pegs and straws littered on the ground. Australian Satin Bowerbirds create a bower of twigs and decorate it to attract a mate, and an interest in their fascinating behaviour spurred the story along. Bowerbirds are savvy collectors with intense perfectionist hearts, connoisseurs of colour and careful arrangers of their treasures. It was during our lockdowns, after the terror of the bushfires in 2020 while I was also grieving the loss of my father that I was trying to get around to doing the sketches my publisher had asked for. She loved the manuscript and wanted to see what I had in mind for the character. I knew how the spreads would look and roughly where the page breaks would be, but this book needed landscapes and a strong sense of place. I wanted to give it the depth it deserved. I drew the bird and created storyboards, but pockets of focus were hard to find. The meaning of the blue and the importance of colour to my concept mapped itself out during the uncertainty and greyness of 2020, and I think that explains some of the sadness imposed on the bowerbird’s journey. Bowerbirds are naturally harsh birds, and my natural style is bright and friendly, the story is ultimately uplifting, hence my inner-designer searched far and wide to find exactly the right tone of blackish blue for my silky bird. It took me a few iterations to come up with a bird that felt right, to show loneliness with a gently downcast head or happiness in the outstretched wings and pleasure of being lost in the moment. The story kept asking me for more and more depth and more and more time. My illustrations are often highly detailed, full of patterns and things to find, often carefully placed and influenced by my earlier textiles work, stylized, and drawn through the filter of my imagination. I imagined some of the spreads for Bowerbird Blues as vast blue sky with lots of negative space around the character to convey isolation and add emotion. I drew the airport with grounded planes as though viewed by the bird, capturing how it feels when you are on an airplane looking down at teeny tiny cars and miniature people crawling around like ants – I love that feeling! You really have to view this book in print to get a sense of how the detailed spreads contrast with the simpler compositions on the page turns, and you miss out on how the earthy paper feels if you only look on screen.

During this time, I attempted to help my sister-in-law who works for Wires chase a bird around the edge of the harbour to try and save its life. It had a blue ring stuck around its neck – one tiny, deadly piece of plastic! I am sorry to tell you we couldn’t catch it and she called for reinforcement. It wasn’t a bowerbird though, and that isn’t the story in my book, just one of the memories and experiences that added up to this story as it gathered momentum and meaning. I promise, Bowerbird Blues is a hopeful, warm and loving story and the search is not in vain! I am all on board with encouraging kids to love nature though, in all its wonderful bizarreness, as well as muster up courage to cherish and protect it.

In late 2021 when the final art was in full swing, I asked esteemed illustrator, Bruce Whatley for some critique and mentoring, especially with the painterly textures for my character. We caught up on Zoom and he was most generous with encouragement and a highly trained eye for how to integrate my digital with traditional watercolour. My publisher at Scholastic, Rebecca Young, who is also an award-winning author herself, and the book designer Hannah Janzen both have meticulous attention to detail and made the book look beautiful with embossing and shiny foil on the cover. I am grateful to work with such a caring and talented team. Thanks also to my literary agent at Curtis Brown, Pippa Masson.

Bowerbird Blues is about longing and love. Craving depth. Connection. I hope the story will be embraced. Please seek it out in printed form as it’s intended to be, you know, one of those old fashioned, low-tech, humble but wonderful things we call the printed book.

Bowerbird Blues, written and illustrated by Aura Parker is out now!

INSTAGRAM @auraparker

Thanks to Aura for writing this piece and also supplying the images.

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