|Lin Oliver and Mem Fox|
In her introduction, Lin Oliver pointed out Mem's status as a living legend in our field.
"As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to creating picture books for young children, there is no one in the world who practices the art better than Mem Fox," Lin said.
The lunch-time legend talk started with a treat: Mem read 10 Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes to us.
Believe it or not, she thought she was done with writing. She even called her editor in the U.S., Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books, saying as much. But then she went to an event and saw babies from all around the world.
She was inspired, and on an airplane flight, she came up with the idea for the book and wrote it out in a tiny notebook in a fifteen-minute flurry.
Then, of course, she had to call Allyn back.
Mem got started writing picture books as an assignment meant to help her understand how difficult PBs are to write. She set out to write a love story to Australia, and she found an illustrator, Julie Vivas,—and after getting nine rejections in five years, that 10th editor said yes. Possum Magic, published in 1983, is Australia's bestselling book ever. It's sold 5 million copies to date.
She continued 14 years teaching drama and continued writing, but decided when she was 50 that she wanted to focus on writing because "it's a business."
Lin identified key qualities to Mem's work: brevity, rhythm, and rhyme.
What is your process of compacting the text you want to tell?
Mem learned after her first round of rejections that you have to set up a PB quickly—in the first couple of lines. A story for babies, like 10 Little Fingers..., it has to be very short. For older children, Mem permits longer stories, but she uses the Word Count feature to trim, and her success on this score gets her excited .
"I force myself to get rid of the rubbish," Mem said.
Sometimes she cuts too much, so she prints hard copies of every single change she makes. Sometimes she realizes an earlier draft was better.
Lin also asked about rhythm and wanted to know where Mem learned this skill.
She said it comes from the King James version of the Bible. She grew up listening to that and loved the musicality of that. Then she went to drama school and soaked up Shakespeare. She also grew up in a book-filled house in Africa, and she used to wander the garden clutching a poetry book to her chest, learning it by heart.
"It was in my veins," she said. "More importantly, it was in my heart."
She also listened to Sir John Gielgud reading British poetry on her record player.
Children's book creators are often told never to write in rhyme. How does Mem make a decision about writing in rhyme? Usually the impulse is that she knows she's writing for very, very young children. The books she writes are a step up from nursery rhymes. Her rhyming books aren't stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. "It's too difficult not to force a rhyme when you're writing a story."
When she's writing a book with a story in it, she can break a reader's heart and then mend it before the book is finished. "I don't believe you can do that if you write in rhyme."
She thinks that rhyme can be cute. It can be funny. It can be entertaining. But can it get that broken heart? I think only prose can do that.