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Buzz Words interviews Sandi Wooton

November 26, 2019

I moved from Portland, Oregon, USA to Wollongong in 1979. I used to write humorous stories in primary school to read to my classmates and friends. I also enjoyed writing poetry from a very young age. But it wasn’t until my own children were born that I became seriously interested in writing for children.

I served as Treasurer of the Illawarra-South Coast Sub-Branch of the Children’s Book Council (CBCA) from 2008 to 2012. During this time, I met a lot of wonderful, talented local children’s authors who really helped me along my journey to becoming a published children’s author. It was also during this period when I joined a local writers group. They are a talented group, and their feedback and support over the years contributed greatly to my development as a writer.

I currently work at the University of Wollongong Library. But I try to write a little every day, either before or after work, and almost always on the weekends. Science fiction and fantasy are special interests, so many of my stories explore themes within these genres. I also write stories about the wildlife I observe around me. Two examples are: Yikes! Sharp Spikes! – a story about an echidna, and A Thief in the Forest – a poem about a bowerbird. You can find some of my poems and short stories in issues of The School Magazine.

Your first children’s book, Paint with Magic was published this year: how did you go about getting it accepted for publication?
Paint with Magic (Big Sky Publishing) was published first as a poem by The School Magazine in 2010 (reprinted in 2016), so this work has certainly had its run! David Legge illustrated the poem and did an excellent job. After receiving encouraging feedback from School Magazine staff, I submitted the text as a picture book to a few different publishers, and finally had it accepted for publication with Big Sky in 2017. But even prior to publication with The School Magazine, Paint with Magic placed third in the Picture Books-Primary School Category of the 2007 Brisbane Writers Festival CYA Conference, Writing & Illustrating Competition! This is a good example of how important it is to take advantage of writing competitions and workshops, especially those that provide feedback on your work. A picture book is a very different format to a poem, and Pat Kan is the illustrator for the picture book version. Pat captures the “child artist’s” perspective perfectly with his beautiful illustrations.

What inspired you to write Paint with Magic? What age group is it for and what is it about?
Paint with Magic is a humorous fantasy tale with a wide cast of characters, including an outrageous octopus, aspiring artist and a host of sea creatures. Paint with Magic focuses on the themes of art, creativity and inspiration. It also highlights some of the animals that are found in coastal and marine environments. It’s no surprise to me that an octopus should make an appearance in one of my children’s stories. Before moving to Wollongong, I grew up in Oregon USA where summer holidays always included trips to the seaside. It was there at a local aquarium that I had a real-life encounter with an octopus. The octopus raised one arm out of the tank and touched my hand! A greeting? Or just curiosity? The squishy, rubbery texture of the suction cups against my skin was a magical experience, one that I have never forgotten.

Paint with Magic is targeted towards children aged 3 to 10 years. I had a lot of fun writing this book. I always enjoy writing in verse (I’m a big Dr Seuss fan), and this story seemed to work best in this format. Rhyme (if written well) can strengthen the story in a picture book and enhance the visual qualities of the work.

I spent quite a lot of time at the beach when I was young, also when my children were little, exploring rock pools, observing marine animals in their natural habitats. Octopuses have a little magic of their own – the ability to make themselves invisible to predators by blending into their environment. I have discovered small octopuses camouflaged inside rocky crevices in tidal pools on numerous occasions. Octopuses are amazing creatures, highly intelligent with complex brains. They are so smart; they have even been known to escape from their tanks!

What do you hope that readers take away from reading this book?
As humans, we all have a connection to our natural environment, and nature provides endless opportunities for expressing ourselves in art. I hope readers will be inspired to think and express themselves creatively and feel a sense of wonderment about our world.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a picture book about a dragon that becomes trapped after being blown into a child’s backyard in a storm. I wrote it a few years ago, but had put the manuscript away for a while. I thought it might be time to take it out again and have another look at it.

Can you name five children’s picture books which you most enjoyed reading?
There’s a sea in my Bedroom by Margaret Wild; Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson; Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd; Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell; Where the Forest Meets the Sea by Jeannie Baker.

What advice would you give to an unpublished author about getting a book published?
* Write. Write. Write.
* Keep practicing and don’t be discouraged when your work is rejected by publishers – it’s a highly competitive industry and even the most successful writers receive rejections from publishers.
* Read as much as possible and check out the industry newsletters (like Buzzwords) and publisher’s websites for book reviews to keep up to date.
* It’s extremely important to know your audience and focus on creating a story that will connect with your readers.
* Enter lots of writing contests and competitions, especially those that provide feedback on your work. It really will help improve your writing!
* Attend writers’ workshops. Workshops can be very useful in developing your writing skills.
* Join a writers’ group.

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