McCartney’s ‘Smile Cry’ conveys complex feelings to children

Tania McCartney’s new picture book Smile Cry is published in Australia this April and offers a unique and subtle exploration of children’s emotions. It’s also the tip of the iceberg in terms of McCartney’s amazing creative output—which is almost as huge as her love of raspberries!

What’s unique about your new picture book, Smile Cry (for children aged 3 and upwards) released this April in Australia and this March in New Zealand, the UK, the USA and Canada?

Smile Cry is unique in that it’s a flip-book—where one story starts at the front of the book and the other at the back, with the narrative meeting in the middle. It’s also unique in that it tackles the subtlety and nuance of emotion that I’ve not really seen in a picture book before. Many concept books feature happy, sad, angry, excited, surprised. Smile Cry focuses on the different ways we can feel happy or sad—and there are so many. A balloon-pop cry, for example, is much different to a goodbye-cry. An ate-all-the-pies smile is much different to a what-to-do-now smile (when we accidentally break something).

I simply adore books that don’t whack kids over the head with morals and ‘obviousness’. Even very young children have an innate sense of subtlety and an understanding of nuance that cannot be underestimated. Even if they can’t consciously express that understanding … it’s there. And that understanding hits kids a lot deeper than more flagrant narratives. I really feel we’ve achieved that subtlety and depth with Smile Cry.

What was the best thing about working with illustrator Jess Racklyeft on this significant project?

I met Jess through my 52-Week Illustration Challenge and she’s now one of our admin members. I am bananas for her work. Bananas. We ran a comp for members to illustrate one of my books (Smile Cry) and Jess won that opportunity. Working with her was a dream. She is so easy-going, so darn talented and came up with so very much that added to the storyline. In fact, I gave no real briefing for the imagery. I just let her at it! and she came back with a stunning storyboard. Each new completed spread was like Christmas—opening that jpeg gift and seeing her interpretation. It was heaven. So, the absolute best thing was that she nailed the text with her images. And she consistently surprised and delighted me.

Please tell A Bigger Brighter World readers more about piglet, bunny and cat—the three main characters in Smile Cry? Where did they come from? What do you feel about them now?

When Jess won the Challenge comp to illustrate my book, hers were some of only a handful of anthropomorphised characters. They just seemed to suit the narrative so well, and I immediately knew they were it. I got to know Piglet, Bunny and Cat more and more as Jess drew them, as the narrative of this book is not character-driven but rather situationally-driven. As these little darlings emoted all the words I’d written, I got to know each one more and more. So I guess, in a way, it was Jess who created them. They are such vulnerable creatures—a drawcard of a great character.

What do you hope Smile Cry will convey to children and their carers about happiness and sadness?

That we are complex beings and that oftentimes it’s okay to just ‘feel’ something rather than try to define it. Sometimes we can feel enraged over a spilled drink and sometimes we are calm over a deep betrayal. Sometimes we can feel scratchy or loopy or puffed. It doesn’t always have to be just ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Emotions are convoluted and are both transient and deeply-embedded and it’s okay to allow ourselves to feel things in less traditional, less clearly defined ways. We can’t always label emotional responses—and this is especially the case with kids who are still learning how to deal with and control the feelings that flood their little minds and hearts. I’m hoping Smile Cry helps them realise their depth and potential for expression, too.

Your list of works in progress is impressive and includes:

  • Smile Cry, EK Books, with illustrator Jess Racklyeft (April 2016)
  • First self-illustrated book (November 2016) 
  • Four more books in the Kids’ Year series for EK Books, with Tina Snerling (2016 and 2017)
  • Two more picture books for the National Library, with Christina Booth
  • Junior fiction series’ Ella McZoo: Animal Whisperer, Ava Bloom, Molly Meander 
  • Several thousand picture books and a bit of adult fiction and non-fiction.

What’s your secret to maintaining this amazing output?

Coffee! And just doing something I love. It’s never ‘work’ for me, and I’m really, really lucky to be doing this ‘work’ full time, so that helps. Also, my kids are older now—both in high school. And I have no social life! I guess I’m also a pretty organised person and I’ve learned how to let go of things in order to make space for the new. I rarely faff. I just get in and get things done. And I’ve backed right off on the social media thing. It’s a time-sucker, for sure.

Your blog includes some fantastic resources for authors and illustrators. What are your top two or three tips for people trying to establish a career in writing for children and young adults and feeling overwhelmed by the work it takes to do so in such a competitive field?

One. Focus on your industry rather than your market. Emerging creators become obsessed with their market, their audience, but they’ve got it backwards. If you try to make an impact on the market, your efforts will raise barely a plip in that vast ocean. If, however, you have the backing of friends and colleagues and acquaintances in the book industry, your efforts will make more than a plip. You might even make a tidal wave. Not only that, your industry is your friend—it’s there to support you, yes, but you can also learn a massive amount from it. And, like ANY industry, personal connection is what brings success. Connecting directly with the gatekeepers, the publishers, the publicists, the educators. Sharing is good and our children’s industry certainly does that well.

Two. Hone your craft. Write write write, draw draw draw. You can only improve and the only way to be published and also do well is to create great work. Great work sells itself. And you simply must write work that you love and that resonates with you. If you try to write or create something that doesn’t fit your vision and passion, it will never be great.

Three. Never give up. I know it’s cliché but, in publishing, tenacity is as important as talent. Seriously. There have been many, many bestselling books that were rejected dozens, even hundreds of times, before finding a publisher. Do not give up.

Your ‘Kids in a Year’ series is now international with A Scottish Year and An English Year released in Australia and the UK in September 2015. What’s one fun fact or visual from each of these books to entice A Bigger Brighter World readers to explore them further?

The fact that there’s nothing like these books on the market. Anywhere. Not that I’ve seen, anyway! And the fact that it’s always fascinating to know what different people around the world eat for breakfast. The website for ‘Kids in a Year’ publications is now up and running—so take a look!

One of the letters you received from a child said, ‘My favourite part of your presentation is when you put the Julia Gillard wig on Cody and when you put the handcuffs on Daniel.’ Please elaborate!

Ha ha! Good one! This is from my Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline (NLA, 2012) presentations that I host at schools. As I read through the book, I hand kids items that correlate to certain moments in Australian history, and two of these moments are when convicts arrived and our first female prime minister. At the end of the reading, the kids have to form a timeline, and get to parade their items. Before the presentation, I always ask the teachers which two kids are the ‘toughest’ and ‘naughtiest’ (I love naughty kids!) and I put the Julia wig on the toughest kid and the cuffs on the naughtiest kid, and their classmates go purple with laughter. I always choose a girl for the Captain Cook wig, too. Kids find delight in such simple, silly things. I love that about them, too.

Why and how did you create the 52-week illustration challenge (in its third year in 2016) and how will you be involved this time? It is open to any adult or child, long-time artist or newbie—what’s so good about it?

I wanted to reconnect with my love of illustration—something I adored as a child and teen. I had always dreamed of illustrating my own books but honestly thought I’d lost the skills to do this. I knew if I could give myself a weekly prompt to draw something, those skills might return, and they did. Rapidly, too. I was stunned, actually, how quickly I reconnected, and voila—my first self-illustrated book is out this November! I received the contract just 18 months after starting the Challenge. Dream. Come. True.

The Challenge now has over 4000 members and has spawned countless friendships, collaborations, opportunities and life changes. For something I thought I’d do on my own, or with maybe three industry friends, I’m still stunned at how it took off. We even exhibited for Arts Brookfield in Perth last year. The Challenge has absolutely changed my life.

Some illustration challenge themes for 2016 include, ‘Non-dominant hand’, ‘Zoo’, ‘Intricate’ and ‘Hairy’. What do you hope these particular themes will inspire? Can you choose one of these themes and describe your initial thoughts for your own illustrative contribution for it?

I chose the themes for 2014 and we asked members to nominate themes for 2015. Nicky Johnston, who took over as Director of the Challenge, chose the themes for 2016 based on what members had said, but she also peppered them with themes she wanted to personally draw, just as I had in 2014. The themes are cool, are they not? I love the really quirky ones. It’s hard to explain how inspiration comes for each theme—and, admittedly, I’m not participating in the Challenge anymore, as I’m so busy with book deadlines! But, when I completed the full year in 2014, I remember the ideas just forming in my mind, without much prompting at all. It’s almost like magic. But that’s what creativity is. Magic.

Seeing how other members interpret the themes is absolutely fascinating. It never fails to astound me how differently we think, and I thrive on those differences.

Your Riley the aviator series was inspired by wanting to gather some memories for your children of the time your family spent in Beijing. There are now five books in the series. In the world of children’s books, how important is it for an author to promise and produce a series?

Series are enormously popular because they offer familiarity. When a child falls in love with a story or a character, they form a deep attachment, and will often collect each and every book in the series, and patiently await upcoming books. Publishers, teachers, librarians and parents are fully aware of the importance of full literacy, and book series are definitely helpful in encouraging kids to read. Publishers are now releasing new series with three or four books at a time. That’s how popular they’ve become.

I love the publishing tips on your website. What is the curliest question you’ve ever been asked about publishing a children’s book and how did you respond?

The curliest question I’ve ever received is probably also the most common question. ‘I’ve written a children’s book. How do I get it published?’ This one makes me want to run screaming for the hills, but I usually respond with ‘How long is a piece of string?’ Every single publishing journey is different. Each and every one is an entirely different route, and the road is long and convoluted. The best and only way to travel that road is to take the first step.

The curliest child’s question came from a young year 4 boy. He said to me, very seriously: ‘Have you ever had writer’s block or mental breakdown?’ My response? ‘Yes.’ Him: ‘How did you deal with it?’ Me: ‘Vodka.’ Joking! I almost said it! But then went on to say, ‘By pushing on through.’ It’s always worked for me.

In summer you went to Maleny and other delicious places in Queensland for a break. What was your holiday reading list? What did your children take to read?

My youngest, Riley, took the latest Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid books. My teen daughter Ella took The 100 by Kass Morgan. I took A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle and The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane Von Furstenberg. I spent my twenties and thirties voraciously reading fiction. Now I almost exclusively read non-fiction, history and biography. Unless it’s children’s books, of course, which I read daily. Adult fiction is on its way back to me, though. I’m in a Jane Austen mood right now.

What were your top three children’s book discoveries in 2015? And which children’s authors should we be watching in 2016 (including you)?

I’m discovering a new one every hour or two! (I’m not joking!) For 2015, my favourite finds are too numerous to mention but here are just three picture books off the top of my head that I particularly loved: The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith (winner of Waterstone’s book of the year), Young Charlotte: Filmmaker by one of my all-time favourite creators, Frank Viva, and Marguerite’s Christmas by India Desjardins and Pascal Blanchet, which is truly one of the most exquisite picture books I’ve ever read.

For 2016, keep an eye on Marc Martin—I simply cannot wait for his next picture book, as they’re always exquisitely crafted. Ditto Gus Gordon and Anna Walker. I’m very keen to see an upcoming National Library Australia book by Coral Vass, and Jen Storer’s very first picture book, Clarrie’s Pig Day Out (HarperCollins). Jen is also working on some secret squirrel business that I’m keen to see. In the overseas market, I’m ever on the watch for more from Lane Smith, and the amazing partnership of Andrea Beaty and David Roberts.

Kids’ Book Review (KBR) is a 100 per cent voluntary children’s literature and book review site that supports and features authors, illustrators and publishers Australia-wide and internationally. When and why did you establish it, how successful has it been and how do you hope KBR will evolve from here on in?

KBR began as a simple blog to satisfy my picture book obsession. I started it in April 2009, just after we’d returned to Australia from four years in Beijing. I wanted to share and review picture books that I loved and it soon gathered a following. Over the past seven years, many and varied contributors have joined the site and it’s now pretty much run by Managing Editor Susan Whelan. I still contribute reviews but my work has taken me in other directions, so thank goodness for Susan!

KBR, according to Google, it’s now the number one children’s book review website on the internet, and if you google just ‘book reviews’, it comes in at number three. We consistently achieve 80K+ hits every month. I’m immensely proud of how far it’s come and how big it is now, but much of its success has been due to our tireless contributors. We not only feature reviews, but news, interviews and articles and teacher/parent/creator resources galore. We’ve run an unpublished manuscript award, we’ve run a successful newsletter and we’ve catalogued a boggling amount of valuable industry information. We’ve been told that Australian booksellers now use the site to help define the books they sell, so it’s a huge achievement. I’m most especially proud of the fact that the site fosters and promotes great books, authors and illustrators.

What are the best ways to encourage children to love reading?

As a past ambassador for the National Year of Reading (2012) and a current ambassador for the Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, I’m a HUGE juvenile literacy advocate and simply adore adults and schools that prize books and story for kids. Full literacy is not only vital, it’s life-changing.

We can encourage a love of reading by having kids fall in love with story. Story doesn’t only come in the form of books, so it means exposing children to all forms of storytelling, even if it’s a made-up tale that’s repeated at bedtime every night. We also need to give children access to a large variety of books (that’s why libraries are so great) and allow them to choose the books that appeal to their senses, even if they don’t appeal to us, as adults. Yes, even those dratted Disney Princess books. But the most important thing of all is to associate books and story with love, contentment, comfort and joy. By reading to a child as little as ten minutes a day, snuggled on the couch or on a lap or under a tree, offering warmth and comfort and fabulous tales that sweep them into other lands and times—this is what makes kids fall in love with reading.

And for those who struggle with the semantics of reading, a true love of story is what will make them persist … and eventually nail it.

Please describe your loving relationship with raspberries. The more rhapsodic the better!

Oh, it goes deep. It’s attached to a very special person in my life—my grandfather ‘Bampa’ Wilfred Winter, who was a Tasmanian historian, author and owner of Winter’s Photographic Studio in Burnie, which has only recently left the family’s hands after almost 100 years. He was and continues to be, even as he’s left this earth, my mentor and inspiration. Bampa had the most exquisite vegetable and fruit garden in his hilltop house in Burnie. He had a bright green thumb and, when we used to visit him from Hobart, he would hand me a juice-stained ice cream tub with TANIA scrawled across the top … and inside would be a soup of sweet, red, glistening baubles. All for me, every single one of them. I can still taste them. And no raspberry since has ever come close.

I really must write a book about that.

2 thoughts on “McCartney’s ‘Smile Cry’ conveys complex feelings to children

  1. Hi Tania and “A Bigger Brighter World”,

    This entertaining interview reads like a what-to watch-out-for children’s book expose.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Many Thanks,
    Karen Tyrrell Author

    • MLJ

      Hi Karen, you’re right! Tania’s work is great and her insight in this Q&A about who to look out for in children’s books is gold. So glad to have her wisdom featured on A Bigger Brighter World.And thanks for dropping by.

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