Friday, October 12, 2012

From Librarian to Author - Guest Post

From Librarian to Author
by Sharon McGuinness

For the last 30 years as both a public librarian and teacher librarian, I have read countless books aloud to children. It’s still one of my most important and enjoyable roles. To be able to see children connect with a book, be immersed in its story until the end and reflect upon it afterwards gives me great satisfaction. As a teacher librarian, I aim to increase their knowledge, confidence and skills in reading themselves, but being able to foster their love of reading for pure enjoyment is something I know they will carry forever and pass on to their own children.

I now find myself being ‘on the other side’ though, – what happens when a teacher librarian becomes a children’s author?

Sometimes that knowledge can be a ‘dangerous’ thing! Over the years I believe I’ve been influenced by picture books with strong visual literacy elements – Bamboozled by David Legge and The Watertower by Gary Crew are just two examples and I am naturally drawn to those titles which offer the reader ‘something more’.

When offered a contract for my picture book, Coming Home, I was of course excited to see who would accept the job as illustrator. Usually, authors have very little input, but I was very fortunate as Rochelle Manners, the publisher of Wombat Books, requested my suggestions. Once Shannon Melville was offered a contract though, I couldn’t help myself – I had to offer my own ideas regarding the visual elements. While I’d been writing the book, illustrative ideas would often develop simultaneously and the text of Coming Home left ‘wriggle room’ for the illustrator’s own interpretation.

The story revolves around Gemma, a young girl who is struggling to understand why her dad seems sad day after day. He sits alone in his unweeded garden – the metaphor for his mood -- and he seems to disappear from daily life – sinking into ‘another place’. Gemma wonders whether it is somehow her fault, did she do something wrong? Her mother is reassuring and explains that Dad is suffering from an illness called depression, which ‘you can’t see like a broken leg, but it’s there just the same’. Gemma continues to involve dad in her life and then one day, he begins to feel a change – his mood begins to lift.

I always discuss with my students what criteria makes a ‘good’ picture book, one being that the illustrations must enhance and expand the story....not just repeat what has been written as text. As I open each picture book to read, I know my students will be looking first at the beginning endpapers. Are they illustrated or plain? How do illustrated endpapers add to the story? Is there a contrast between the beginning and final endpapers?

Because the garden is a metaphor for the father’s mood, I suggested that the beginning and final endpapers feature symbols of the garden. Perhaps the book could open with black and white images of weeds and end with vibrantly coloured flowers?

As the father’s mood at the beginning is ‘dark’ and heavy, I suggested this could be mirrored in the use of black and white images. Only when the father’s mood begins to lift, colour could be introduced into the pages.

These were just suggestions however, as any strongly dictated ideas would only constrict the illustrator’s creative interpretation of the text. Shannon suggested that instead of completely black and white images, a hint of colour on each page be included. When I viewed the roughs, I could immediately see the value in her idea. Those little hints of colour came to represent hope - that one day the father would recover.

The text refers to depression as being an illness that is hard to see, not like a broken leg for example. Yet, if you look at some of the visual aspects within the book, you can ‘see’ the father’s depressive mood.

I’ll ask the students to be detectives – to use their sharp powers of observation to pick up clues left by the illustrator throughout the story.

How can they see the father’s depression? What does the wilted rose represent? What is it that the father sees in the garden, trying to reach the sunlight?

It’s extremely satisfying to now hold my book, seeing the marriage of text and illustration, knowing it has been collaboration between author, illustrator and publisher.

I hope the book may start a conversation in families where there is a parent suffering from depression, as one in five people will experience depression in their lifetime.

I also hope teacher librarians will enjoy sharing Coming Home with their students and I suspect there may be others going over to ‘the other side’ in the near future, just as I this space.

BIO: Sharon McGuinness has been a teacher librarian since 2003. Qualifying as a primary teacher in the early 80’s and faced with the prospect of casual teaching, Sharon applied instead for one of five positions as a library assistant at Parramatta City Library. Successful in gaining a position, Sharon embarked on a career as a public librarian and has been involved in a variety of libraries ever since.

Always an avid reader, Sharon remembers writing her first ‘book’ as a school assignment in year 6 and was hooked. Her writing takes many forms – articles on teacher librarianship, short stories and a passion for writing letters to the editor of the SMH!

Sharon’s two websites include one for teachers and teacher librarians:

and her author site:

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