Welcome to my stop on the Extraordinary! blog tour. I am very grateful that I had the chance to ask Penny Harrison some questions about her inspiration for this wonderful book. Here are her answers:
This book abounds with an appreciation of the natural world, does this stem from your own childhood?
Yes! I grew up on a cattle farm in the middle of New South Wales, in Australia. It was an incredible place, in the Capertee Valley, surrounded by the bluest mountains.
We really did experience four seasons there and each season bought something special, whether it was exploring and camping in the bush in spring and swimming in the creek in summer, or picking fruit for homemade jam in autumn and hunting for natural treasures while collecting kindling for the fire in winter.
I felt a strong sense of place in this natural world from an early age.
Could you tell UK readers what life is like on an Australian farm?
I was five years old when we first moved to the farm. It was in the middle of one of Australia’s worst droughts and all I can remember is the dust and driving around on the back of a truck, feeding hay to the cattle.
I learned to read when I was very young and escaped into books, like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, where nature was pretty and lush.
But the drought eventually broke – the hills turned green, the trees in the orchard were laden with fruit, and the rivers and creeks started flowing. At times they even flooded, cutting us off from the nearest town.
We had plenty of pets, including a poddy calf, a joey kangaroo, a milking cow, and various guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens.
We would catch a bus to the nearest primary school, which usually took about an hour (including a bumpy 15-minute drive along our dirt driveway).
For high school, we were sent to boarding school in Sydney. But, being a shy homebody (and a country girl at heart), I didn’t last long and ended up doing most of my schooling by correspondence, which involved packages of work being sent to me in the mail.
I read in your biography that you have written for many audiences, what drew you to children’s picture books?
I’ve mostly written for newspapers and magazines, covering every thing from courts and police rounds to gardens and interiors. But the thing with journalism is that you’re telling other people’s stories and often using their words.
I’ve always loved children’s books and am completely obsessed with illustration (I would so love to be able to draw). It just took me a long time to realise that these were the stories I wanted to tell, and even longer to build up the confidence to try writing them.
Why did you choose to write this book in rhyme?
It honestly just came out that way. The concept didn’t begin as a rhyming story, but when I started, I found it really wanted to rhyme. Some stories are stubborn like that.
What message would you like your readers to take away from Extraordinary!?
That the little moments in life are what matter most. We can strive for success and grandeur, but being able to notice and treasure the ‘ordinary’ is what will ultimately fulfil us. And what we need more of in this world.
For years I’ve had a quote from William Martin (beautifully illustrated by children’s author/illustrator Jess Racklyeft) pinned to my wall and this was the inspiration for Extraordinary:
How closely did you work with the illustrator, Katie Wilson, and what do you think about the way she has illustrated your story?
About six years ago, I started following Katie’s beautiful work on Facebook and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’d love to see her illustrate a picture book’. When I heard that I’d been paired with Katie for one of my own books, I was blown away. Katie worked with the publisher and designer. I simply sent her effusive messages every time I saw some of the pages. What she’s done is exquisite.
What were your favourite picture books from your own childhood, and do you have any favourites that you shared with your own children?
I was a big Shirley Hughes fan as a child. I adored Dogger, but my favourite was probably Sally’s Secret, about a little girl who finds a secret cubby hidden in the garden. I spent a lot of my childhood creating similar cubbies. My son and I loved reading Koala Lou (Mem Fox and Pamela Lofts) and anything by Dr Seuss. And my daughter and I both adored Peggy (Anna Walker), Sadie (Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad), and Ada Twist Scientist (Andrea Beaty and David Roberts). We still do.
Do you have a particular writing space in your home?
I have a lovely big old table for a desk that looks out into my garden, but, to be honest, I don’t often write there. Usually, I’m scribbling notes while waiting in the car to pick up one of the kids, sitting outside with a cup of tea, or unable to sleep in the middle of the night!
Can you tell us what you will be working on next?
I have a couple of picture book ideas that I’m working on and a concept for a junior fiction series that I’d love to explore.
Thank you so very much Penny for this insight into the background to Extraordinary! I cannot wait to read your next picture book. In the meantime, here is my review of Extraordinary!
This amazing picture book encourages children to appreciate the beauty of nature and the everyday moments which make life extraordinary.
Firstly, you have to take a few moments to linger over the glorious hardback cover. The stunning woodland scene painted in rich autumnal colours, with small details such as leaf spines picked out in foil is so evocative that you can almost smell the loamy scent of the forest floor as the young boy and his dog explore it.
Penny Harrison has written the entire book in gentle rhyme, with a soothing rhythm that lulls you into a meditative recognition of the simple pleasures of life.
The accompanying artwork by Katie Wilson immerses the reader initially into open landscapes where the imagination is invited to soar like an eagle as your wishes expand to the horizons. Then, from these grand vistas the story moves to the domestic, where simple indoor pleasures like relaxing with a bookcase full of wonders in a cosy lounge are to be treasured. Outside, the focus zooms in to observe the antics of insects exploring a blade of grass, or the delight to be found in inhaling the scents of a spring day and observing new life bursting forth. On every page there are joyous depictions of the life-enhancing experience of appreciating the natural world throughout the seasons, with numerous tiny details to find, which will reward re-readers of this book. The words and pictures are in complete harmony as they encourage a feeling of deep gratitude for precious moments in life.
As we learn to appreciate the benefits of children spending time exploring the natural world for the benefit of their mental and physical health, and as we encourage them to enjoy and protect their environment, this book will be a wonderful addition to any primary school classroom or library and indeed to any home picture book collection. In a world where even the youngest children are spending large amounts of time staring at screens, this book is a welcome reminder to relish the fleeting special moments of connection with nature.
Thank you to New Frontier Publishing UK for my review copy of Extraordinary! and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.