Stephanie Owen Reeder’s book Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony won the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books in the 2016 Children’s Book Council Awards. In this Q&A she describes her three-year journey with Lennie—the boy who rode a horse on his own from Victoria to Sydney to be at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She also explains why he’s so legendary and loveable.
You told the Sydney Morning Herald that you were trawling through digital newspaper archives when you came across the story of Lennie Gwyther, the nine-year-old who rode his pony alone from rural Victoria to witness the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. What was it about Lennie that sparked your imagination?
First of all, it was the image of this small boy, sitting straight and tall on his pony, seemingly all alone, as he rode past the important dignitaries at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I wanted to know who he was, how he got there, and why he had been selected for the singular honour of being in the Grand Opening Parade for one of Australia’s greatest icons. Once I started digging deeper, I was totally bowled over by this laconic nine-year-old and his indefatigable pony who took on and achieved such an enormous task.
Researching and writing Lennie the Legend was a three-year journey involving a long road trip. Can you describe this journey and what it brought home to you about Lennie’s character and remarkable achievement?
I undertook two road trips with my husband, John, retracing Lennie’s actual journey. The first was from Canberra to Leongatha in Victoria and back again. Experiencing firsthand the countryside that Lennie had travelled through helped to inform the descriptions of place in my book. Driving from Leongatha back to Canberra also made me realise what an enormous trip this would have been on horseback. I was very glad I was in a car! I still can’t believe that a nine-year-old boy had the stamina and fortitude to undertake such a long and arduous trip all alone, except for his beloved pony. I also travelled from Canberra to Sydney along Lennie’s route, and in Sydney I visited Taronga Park Zoo, using a 1930s map of the zoo to find my way around. It really made me feel like I was walking in Lennie’s shoes.
In Leongatha, I saw where Lennie had lived and I was privileged to meet people who had known him, including his sister-in-law and one of his school mates. I also had a long phone conversation with Lennie’s sister, Beryl Ferrier, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday by doing the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb!
What do children find most compelling about Lennie’s story?
Lennie’s age and his determination are what seem to impress children the most. The majority of children I talk to of that age are only allowed to go around the block, to a friend’s house nearby or to a local shop, so they can’t believe that Lennie travelled so far with just his pony for company. They are also impressed by the way he handled himself—he didn’t let all the attention go to his head, but remained a humble country lad.
What do you most hope children will feel, think or do in response to reading about Lennie’s passion and determination?
I hope that they are inspired by Lennie’s passion and determination to follow their dreams too, and never give up. Lennie had watched the Harbour Bridge being built for his whole life, and his fascination with everything mechanical initially drove his desire to see the bridge for himself. Everyone needs to be passionate about something, and Lennie shows children how such passion can lead to the most amazing and surprising of outcomes.
In your Teacher’s Notes for Lennie the Legend you suggest that teachers ask children to imagine that they are one of the people watching the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening parade—and you provide them with a link to footage in which Lennie is seen riding on Ginger Mick. What thoughts and feelings did you have when you first saw Lennie in this parade footage?
I got goosebumps when I saw this image! Lennie looks so small, but he and Ginger Mick just calmly ride along, looking around at everything as though they are having a ride in the country on a Sunday afternoon. It is always wonderful to see images like this of the characters I am writing about. It brings it home to me that they are real people, and that I need to treat their story with great respect.
Who else in the parade piqued your interest? For instance, I’d love to know the backstory of the man in the top hat riding the penny-farthing …
There are always stories within stories! I felt sorry for the poor lifesavers in the parade whose feet got burnt because they hadn’t been provided with shoes! The 100 workers who had built the bridge, who marched in front of Lennie, and the Aboriginal people marching behind him, all had their own amazing stories to tell. The Aboriginal people were described in the program for the parade as ‘playing popular airs on gum leaves’. Lennie obviously chatted to them, as his signature has recently been found on a boomerang that was carried by one the Aboriginal people during the parade. The boomerang is now held in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
What fun or strange facts did you learn about the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the course of researching and writing Lennie the Legend?
One of my favourite stories was of a worker who fell off the bridge (it happened quite a lot, as they did not wear safety harnesses). He survived because he went into the water feet first, but the force of the water as he hit it meant that the soles of his work boots came off and the uppers ended up around his thighs. Ouch!
Another suggested question for students in your Teacher’s Notes is: What is the definition of a hero or heroine? So, tell us, who is your hero or heroine, and why?
For me, heroes are not necessarily famous people who achieve great things, but ordinary people who show great courage in difficult circumstances, like all the main characters in my Heritage Heroes series. While I was writing Lennie the Legend my hero was my daughter-in-law, Josie, who was battling breast cancer. She continued to care for her two little boys right up to the end. I could not have written this book at such a difficult time for our family without her encouragement and support.
Lennie the Legend, Amazing Grace and Lost! A True Tale from the Bush are described as companion books, what does this mean? Ideally, how would you like people to encounter these companions, what would you like them to do?
They are a part of my Heritage Heroes series, in which I try to bring to life stories of remarkable and inspiring young people from Australia’s history. I am hoping to write eight books in this series, with each featuring a different state or territory of Australia. Each book can be read independently, but together they provide a fascinating window into our past. They share a similar layout that combines a fictionalised re-creation of a true story with historical information sections, plus stunning images from the National Library of Australia’s collections. These are books for children to read independently, for adults to read to the significant children in their lives, and for adults to savour for themselves.
Back in the late 1980s you co-edited The Inside Story: Creating Children’s Books with Emeritus Professor Belle Alderman AM. The book provides insights into the creation of some of Australia’s best-loved books for children, including Possum Magic. In what ways have the processes involved in creating lovable books for children changed since The Inside Story? If they haven’t changed, why not?
I don’t think the processes have changed. It is still all about imagination and creativity, and producing a book that touches the heart and provides solace, while also entertaining and educating the reader. It’s impossible to tell which books are going to lodge in the national conscious like Possum Magic did, but sometimes the right story, written beautifully and with compelling illustrations, will do just that. It is every writer’s dream to create such a book.
You studied Fine Art at the Australian National University, did a PhD in Communication at the University of Canberra, and have written and illustrated eight children’s books and two books for adults. What’s your top piece of advice for people who want to write and illustrate books for children?
Read, read, read! Write, write, write! Communicate actively with children. Write from the heart about things that speak to you. Research intensively. And never give up!
What was the best and the worst thing about growing up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches?
I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s living a very free and easy life in Sydney, at a time when children were allowed to roam free just like Lennie. I spent hours playing in the bush, climbing trees, exploring caves, making bush huts, roaming the beaches, swimming, catching waves, collecting shells, getting sunburnt and pottering in rock pools. I also read voraciously, painted pictures and wrote stories. It was a great balance! I actually can’t think of any negatives. It is a beautiful part of the world! Luckily, one of my daughters lives there now, so I get to visit a lot. It always feels like coming home.
You have worked as a librarian, secondary school teacher, university lecturer and Hansard editor at Federal Parliament. What, if anything, from your time at Hansard has crept into your books for children or adults?
I have actually just finished writing two picture book manuscripts based on stories from Old Parliament House here in Canberra. One tells the story of a cat who lived at Old Parliament House and was on speaking terms with all of the prime ministers, from Menzies to Hawke. The other is a tale of a native mouse who gets stuck in the House and is chased by the people who work there. Hopefully they will be available next year.
What are the best ways to encourage children to love reading?
Start reading to them when they are very small—or even in utero. It is all about the sound of your voice and the closeness of sharing stories together. Have books everywhere in the house—even in the toilet and the bathroom! Have a set time set aside each day to read together. Let them choose the books that speak to them as well as reading them the books that speak to you. Share your love and enthusiasm with them. And above all enjoy reading!
You are an award-winning book reviewer who reviews for both Fairfax publications and Australian Book Review. What three books for adults or children do you recommend A Bigger Brighter World readers ask Santa for this Christmas and why?
Some of the books for adults I have enjoyed this year include the remarkable World War II story All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (I kept hoping his wonderful writing style would rub off on me!) and two Australian titles: On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornell, a very elegantly written re-creation of when Agatha Christie went missing; and Goodwood by Holly Throsby, a highly readable re-creation of life in a small Australian country town where things are going awry.
For children I recommend Tania McCartney’s Australia Illustrated, a visual celebration of all things Oz; Somewhere Else by Gus Gordon, a gentle story about finding yourself; and Lots by Marc Martin, a fascinating visual voyage around the world.
What creative projects do you have in the pipeline for 2017?
I am just finishing the editing process of my next Heritage Heroes title—a fabulous story about a girl who was given away by her family to the circus when she was just seven and went on to be the best bareback rider in the world. I am also writing a picture book text for another historical story which, like Lennie, features some of Australia’s icons. And of course there are the two Parliamentary stories. And then there’s all the other books I have lined up to write! So many stories and so little time!