'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Guest Post - Susan Hall, National Library of Australia

Hi – my name is Susan Hall and I manage and commission all the children’s books that are published by the National Library of Australia. What? I hear you say – I thought the Library collected books, not published them!

In fact, the Library collects lots of things...
Here you can find Billy Hughes’ false teeth; James Cook’s original journal written aboard the ship Endeavour on its voyage to Australia; 918 flower paintings by the amazing Ellis Rowan who travelled remote outback country alone in her long skirt and gloves at a time when women could not even vote; one of Mawson’s socks; paintings of Sydney birds and plants by an artist on the First Fleet in the 1780s; an oil-stained suitcase used by Charles Kingsford Smith to transfer oil from one failing engine to another mid-air…
The Library has been publishing books for over 20 years, with the aim of sharing the collection and bringing it alive. But one audience was missing – kids! When I came to the Library in 2004, one of my special passions was to start a children’s list, to reach a young audience and their parents.

The Library published its first children’s books in 2005, starting with ABC, shapes, colours and counting books. In 2006, Guess Who? a Lift-the-Flap Book of Australian Animals was published. It was amazing to see that animal illustrations by John Gould used in the book proved still fresh and immediate for children, despite being produced in the nineteenth century.

Using a letter of the alphabet as a clue, children have to guess which animal is hiding under the flap. ‘Did you know’ facts are also given for each animal. Guess Who? has been very popular, and has been reprinted three times.

We always consult children when we are making our books – they soon tell us if we are going wrong! The preschool titles, such as Guess Who?, were discussed at conceptual stage (after which the flaps were added at the children’s request) and then, once written, were tested in preschools (this is when we realised  that the words “cockatoos mate for life” would require more complicated explanation than the preschool teacher was prepared for!).
Our books for older children, such as Australian Backyard Explorer by Peter Macinnis (winner of the CBCA Eve Pownall Award for Information Books), are fact-checked and tested with teachers and students. Information about the Library’s collections appears at the back of all our children’s books, even including our colouring-in book. In this way, we are letting parents and readers know all about the Library.
Design is crucial to all our children’s books. For example, in Australian Backyard Explorer, the text is brought to life by the use of images from our collection (paintings, drawings, manuscripts, photos, maps) plus the use of ‘design features’ to break the text into the smaller chunks that younger readers prefer. These include ‘a closer look’ (boxed text with more detailed information for children who want to read in depth, signposted with a magnifying glass graphic), ‘did you know’ texts (illustrated with cartoons) and illustrated projects such as making an insect light trap, estimating distance and collecting water.

I have written several of our preschool titles, including Guess Who?, Ellis Rowan’s Fairy World and Old Macdonald Had Some Land (an Aussie version with native animals).

Our preschool titles will soon include my interactive book about Incy Wincy spider, a favourite with this age group, where readers can ‘pull the tab’ and ‘lift the flap’ to make the spider climb the spout, a butterfly soar in the sky, a caterpillar munch holes in a leaf and a frog dart out at a dragonfly. I’ve had the biggest fun creating this book with the designer – it was her first flap book and we learned a huge amount along the way.  
So now you know – the Library not only collects books but also publishes them! You can see all of our books on our online shop.
More great children’s titles are planned for the future, including some fiction. We are publishing a series of animal tales in conjunction with the RSPCA, working with some new well-known children’s authors (exciting  - watch this space!), producing more titles with our existing successful authors such as Peter Macinnis and Stephanie Owen Reeder, experimenting with paper engineering, and also republishing an old favourite: Shy the Platypus by Leslie Rees.

Elizabeth Lea at N Curtin school ‘testing’ one of the NLA's books