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I was a country child, born and raised in rural South Australia. We had a sheep farm, and I lived there with my mother and father and older brother until I had to go to school in Adelaide. I've lived in the city now for most of my life, but many of my books are set in the country: it's the place that is always most vividly real for me. Perhaps subconsciously I keep trying to re-create it, to bring back my happy childhood.

Sheep Farm Click here
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Reading has always been central to my life.

On reading ...

I could read, more or less, before I went to school. Soon I was reading not only the books I owned but the books in the school library, the books that were sent to me by the Country Lending Service in Adelaide, and anything else I could get my hands on (The Women's Weekly, the children's page in the Chronicle, the Disney comics my mother collected for the Red Cross). I read about Babar the Elephant, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Winnie the Pooh and Milly-Molly-Mandy. I read Tiger Tim annuals and story collections with beautiful illustrations by artists like Rene Cloke and Margaret Tarrant. Books opened wonderful new worlds for me.

There weren't many Australian books written for children when I was little. I remember the Leslie Rees stories about Australian animals, and the Digit Dick series. And of course there were Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and the novels of Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner, all written long before I was born. Most of the books I read were by English writers, or were set in England (like Mary Poppins, whose author, I later discovered, was actually Australian). For some reason I particularly enjoyed stories about life in English boarding schools, which didn't remotely resemble any school I knew, and where the girls had old-fashioned names like Phyllis and Dulcie. I adored Little Women, What Katy Did, and anything by Noel Streatfeild.

Young Penny

After a couple of false starts I produced my
first finished manuscript at the age of fourteen.

When I was a bit older I started to read the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, losing myself in the fascinating world of nineteenth-century England. The contrast between what I read and the kinds of books available to children today could hardly be greater.

After a couple of false starts I produced my first finished manuscript at the age of fourteen. It was about sixty pages long, typewritten on my mother's old typewriter, and it was about a squirrel. Given my almost constant diet of English books, I suppose this wasn't very surprising. I sent it off to a publisher, who sent me a kind letter but didn't offer to publish my manuscript. That wasn't surprising either. I can see now that it wasn't very good.

A few years after graduating from university I became a book editor. It was a great job: getting other people's books ready for publication is in some ways almost as big a challenge as writing your own. I worked for a general publisher (Rigby, then based in Adelaide), and later for Omnibus Books, who publish books for children. I hadn't written anything since my squirrel story all those years ago, but by the early 1990s I'd decided that writing children's books was what I really did want to do after all. All I can say now is that I wish I'd come to this decision earlier!

I left Omnibus in 2004 and started to work 'offshore' for Penguin Books in Melbourne, editing their Aussie Nibbles and Aussie Bites series. This kept me happily employed until the Bites and Nibbles came to an end in 2012. At this point I realised, with a slight sense of panic, that I now had my chance to work as a writer full-time. Luckily the transition was made very easy for me because I was already writing for Penguin's Our Australian Girl series. I wrote four books about a nineteenth-century Irish orphan, Nellie O'Neill, who comes to South Australia to work as a domestic servant. (All my childhood reading of nineteenth-century novels now proved invaluable!) The Nellies were published in 2012, and after that I began a new series, this time about a 1930s girl, Ruby Quinlan, whose life is dramatically changed by the Great Depression. Writing for Our Australian Girl was great fun, because I love doing historical research almost as much as I enjoy writing. 


... and on writing

The craft of writing can to some extent be learned, although nothing can give you your individual 'voice': that is yours alone, and it can't really be taught, any more than a sense of humour can be taught. Some writers are natural story-tellers - they keep their readers captivated and wanting to know 'what happens next' - and that too is a talent not everybody has. Others dazzle your mind with original ideas, or make you look at familiar things in a new and different way. The best writers can both entertain you and make you think. Theirs are the stories you get lost in, the stories you don't want to end, the stories with characters who go on living in your mind after you have finished the book. They are the stories that change the way you see the world.

There are three things that as a writer I can't live without: (1) the delete function on my computer, (2) the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, and (3) a little book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. (He's the E.B. White who wrote Charlotte's Web.) I know that if I took more notice of what Strunk and White have to say about English usage, I'd be a much better writer. Another, more indulgent, way in which I like to think I am improving my writing is to read as much as I can. There are so many brilliant children's books being published today, many of them in Australia, and each one I read teaches me something new.

The learning never stops. Nor does the reward, the feeling of accomplishment, when you hold in your hands, for the first time, a published book you have written.

There are so many brilliant children's books being published today.

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