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A quiet place: Katrina Lehman on ‘Wren’

Katrina Lehman’s picture book Wren (illus by Sophie Beer, Scribble, July) is filled with ‘fluid, rhythmic prose’ that ‘rolls off the tongue’, alongside ‘gloriously colourful’ illustrations, writes reviewer Bronte Coates. She spoke to the author.

Tell us the story of how this book came together. Did you and Sophie work separately on the text and image and then touch base, or was the process more collaborative throughout?

Miri, my wonderful publisher, and I took six months trying to find the right illustrator for Wren. We wanted a new illustrator, someone local, and something unique. The moment Miri sent me Sophie’s portfolio I knew she was the one. Her work is abstract and bright and my eldest announced that she loved it. Coincidentally, Sophie also comes from a large family, and even her roughs captured the chaos and craziness of my large family, but in a suburban setting. The whole process was very collaborative: we went back and forth with roughs perfecting character consistency, ages, getting the characters absolutely right, and varying the compositions. Sophie’s intuitive feel for composition as a first-time picture book illustrator was astonishing and she introduced all the minutiae that I so love and that took the story to the next level. Even now I am finding little things in the illustrations that I hadn’t seen before.

While some picture books feel propelled by an idea or concept, Wren feels like it’s built around the story. Was this your intention, or did the story come later?

It was a sort of melding of a couple of things: one, wondering how our two very different girls were going to react to a new baby in the family; two, my fascination with families and how different each sibling can be; and three, wondering what it was like for my brother growing up as the youngest of four and the only boy. So I started writing about this little boy who just wanted to find his own place in a big family, and it all flowed really quickly from there.

Wren’s love of peace and quiet is extremely relatable, and one of the ideas I took from this book was the importance of giving each other space. How important to do you think this idea is for children to explore?

Having three children is definitely challenging and particularly in a suburban setting where there is so much social activity that you forget how important quiet time is. Much of the time the house is full of noise and chaos. My partner and I both work so it’s important to not only find time together as a family, but also find time for each child individually. Even just 10 minutes on the couch in the morning or at night reading a book.

We have just finished renovating and it was really important to us to have a big garden so I could give them the free-range play that I think is so important for creativity, but also set up a playroom and little nooks in each room (a window seat, a long art table, a book reading corner) where each child can go to have some time out and time apart.

Wren is such a loving and vibrant depiction of family chaos. Were you drawing from your own experience?

I had a dream childhood growing up with three siblings on a farm in country New South Wales: mouse-hunting in haystacks, leeching, yabbying, shearing, box-sliding down hills, camping. The complete freedom and resilience of an outdoors childhood is something I am sad that I’ll never be able to give my kids in the city, but I try to encourage as much independence and chaos as possible.

If you could gift one classic picture book to every child in the world, what would it be and why?

I love Today We Have No Plans (Jane Godwin, illus by Anna Walker, Puffin) because it’s a story that I think every family can relate to in this day and age.

And then there are the gorgeous early childhood classics Dear Zoo (Rod Campbell, Puffin) and Where Is the Green Sheep? (Mem Fox, illus by Judy Horacek, Puffin), or at the older end, Are We There Yet? (Alison Lester, Puffin). Personally, I have always loved dark picture books and my favourites for adults are The Rabbits (John Marsden, illus by Shaun Tan, Lothian), The Red Tree (Shaun Tan, Lothian) and Fox (Margaret Wild, illus by Ron Brooks, A&U).

What was the last book you read and loved?

When God Was a Rabbit (Sarah Winman, Headline). I love reading about the intricacies of family relationships and siblings. This is such a vivid lyrical account of childhood I almost wept when I finished it.


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