Close and Personal with Davina Bell.

Arianne recently chatted with best-selling children’s author Davina Bell, about her gorgeous new picture book, All the Ways to be Smart, featured in this month’s Recommended Reads:

Read on for Davina’s own unqiue insight into the world of children’s book publishing, and the idea behind this delightful book.

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of All the Ways to be Smartand its huge success! It’s such an enjoyable book with an important and beautiful message.

Thanks very much! It has been a joy and surprise to watch the warm reception it’s received.

Had the idea for this book been inside you for a while, waiting for the right time to be written?

No, not at all. The idea came from a dinner party with Allison Colpoys, the illustrator, and our publisher, Miriam Rosenbloom. Allison was telling a story about her niece, the punchline of which was her niece declaring ‘Maybe I’m smart at drawing witches’ hats’. Miriam and I looked at each other across the table and said, ‘That’s a book!’ I went away and started researching intelligence, and the manuscript came from there – relatively quickly for me.

What was your favourite aspect of the writing process for All the Ways to be Smart, and what was the most challenging?

I dove really deep into Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as a basis for the book, and I loved doing that research – even though his theory is out of vogue in academic circles these days. Each line in the book is mapped to one of those intelligences, which was a really fun challenge. The most difficult part was definitely finding the tone and framework: was this going to be a story about one child in the form of a narrative? The story of multiple children? Eventually I landed on the second-person concept-book structure, but it took some thinking to bend it into that shape.

How many drafts does a picture book normally take until you consider it finished?

That really depends on the book. It also depends on what you consider to be a draft. I will read my manuscripts over and over and over, tweaking a word or a line each time. Is each of those readings a draft? In which case, I could easily do fifty.

The illustrations are just delightful. How did you meet Allison Colpoys?

Allison and I met at Penguin Books, where I was a junior editor and she was a book designer. We both worked long hours and got to know each other over late-night car rides home, but we were never allocated the same projects. Eventually we came up with one of our own that allowed us to work together. That was the series redesign of the Australian Children’s Classics, and we loved collaborating on it so much that when it was finished we didn’t want it to end. I wrote a picture-book text for Allison to illustrate so we could prolong our working relationship, which became The Underwater Fancy-dress Parade. That’s blossomed into a wonderful picture-book partnership of three books to date and many years of joy and fun.

Where do you write? Describe your space.

I am lucky enough to have lived for the last year in an apartment with a spare room that is now my study. Such luxury!! So instead of perching at the end of the dining table or writing in bed, I work in a room with an armchair and a desk up against a big window that looks out onto a huge tree and a little park. It’s cold in winter, but it’s light and bright and I can see the skyline of the city. 

If you weren’t a writer, what do imagine your career would be?

I have a day job as a book editor four days a week, so I guess that’s my career. But if I didn’t work in the world of books or publishing, I’d love to do something with nature and colour, with an aspect that was outdoors, far away from a desk. So perhaps a florist or a gardener of some sort. (My favourite subject at uni was the history of landscape architecture).

Who were some of your favourite authors growing up?

So many! Judy Blume and Judith Kerr. Dr Seuss and Ruth Park. Robin Klein and John Marsden. Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Cynthia Voigt and Emily Rodda. Elizabeth Levy and Ann M. Martin. Dick Bruna and Eric Carle.

Did you enjoy school?

There were lots of aspects of school I loved. I went to quite an academic school, and I really responded to the rigour and structure of that. I loved my friends and eating lunch outside in the sunshine on the grass, and the annual arts festival, and my netball team. High school was stressful and scary in parts, and any aspect involving running gave me high anxiety, and on reflection I think I had some issues with authority that continue to this day. But overall my memories are fond! 

Have you always wanted to write for children?

Friends who’ve known me my whole life say that I was always going to be an author – I’ve been writing stories since I was really small and my love of reading is lifelong. I studied law at uni, but I was terrible at it and hated it, and spent most of those years caring for children in some capacity – as a nanny, a babysitter, a therapist for children with autism. During those years, I read a lot of books to a lot of kids, and I think that’s where my love of books and writing developed into a more specific interest in children’s literature.

What do you think are the key ingredients for a perfect picture book?

Some combination of comfort, wonder and joy – whether that’s in theme or character or plot or language or structure. Ideally the combination of these elements will delight or surprise.

What would your advice be for aspiring children’s authors?

Read as many children’s books as you can – and then write the book that only you can write. See if you can figure out your particular point of view. What is the gift that only you can bring to the genre? Is it your sense of humour? A specific childhood incident? Some aspect of your career or experience of the world? A particular sense of narrative or plot idea?

And then work at it – work hard, with respect and joy and gratitude in your heart. 

Finally, read your work aloud – to yourself and to anyone who will listen. Have people read it back to you. Always be prepared to try again.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions Davina! The TWC wishes you all the best in your future creative endeavours.