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

Saturday 13 July 2013

Guest Post: Johanna Bell

Sometimes the story behind a picture book gives new meaning to the book itself. Too Many Cheeky Dogs by Johanna Bell and Dion Beasley is a case in point.  The product of a two-year collaboration, the book has overcome distance and disability with remarkable results. 

In this guest post, author Johanna Bell reflects on the book’s creation and the profound effect working with Dion has had on her creative outlook. 

How did you and artist Dion Beasley come to create a picture book together?

Dion is something of a local hero. If you’ve lived in the Northern Territory for more than one wet season then you know Dion Beasley and his cheeky dogs. Born profoundly deaf and with muscular dystrophy, Dion’s rise to artistic fame has captured the hearts of people from Alice Springs to Darwin.

Dion spent the first part of his life in a remote Indigenous community near the Queensland – Northern Territory border. At the age of eleven when he moved to Tennant Creek he had no Auslan (Australian sign language) and was struggling to communicate. Luckily for Dion support was on hand in the form of a most remarkable woman, Joie Boulter. She noticed that Dion liked to draw dogs and created lots of opportunities for him to do so.

Before long, drawing had become Dion’s main way of communicating with the world. As the saying goes ‘from little things big things grow’ and soon his passion had sprouted into a T-shirt label (aptly named Cheeky Dogs) and later, an exciting fine arts career with exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Australia.

Somewhere along the lines, I lucked upon Dion’s artwork and it changed my life. At the time I was working as an education researcher and had noticed that there was a need for more early picture books based on the lived experience of remote Indigenous children. I’d been pondering how a single book could resonate with a population as diverse as Indigenous Australia. When I came across Dion’s work I thought that the notion of the naughty dog could be the perfect vehicle. It doesn’t matter if you live at the foot of Uluru or in far north Queensland (or down town Melbourne for that matter), everyone knows at least one naughty dog. So I started dreaming and crafting a manuscript.

After a couple of years (life has a funny way of getting in the way of a good idea!) I was ready. I found Dion’s phone number online and rang his carer (the same Joie Boulter who had first supported his drawing). I tentatively introduced the idea of a Cheeky Dog Picture Book and Joie gave me my first challenge. ‘Why don’t you come down to Tennant Creek and meet Dion and see where it goes from there.’ It took another three months to raise the funds to travel to Tennant Creek but Dion and I have never looked back! You can read more about the story behind Too Many Cheeky Dogs on our website.

You and Dion are not your average author – illustrator team. Can you tell us about some of the things you have learnt creating a book together?

As you know Dion is profoundly deaf and has muscular dystrophy and I’m a first time author who has a pretty limited understanding of the publishing process. I am non-Indigenous, hearing, able-bodied and female. Dion uses a wheelchair, is male, Aboriginal and profoundly deaf, but we both feel immensely passionate about something. For Dion it’s cheeky dogs and for me, children’s books – and that was often enough to overcome the challenges that presented.

There were other qualities that helped us too, namely a dogged (no pun intended) determination. In the early days we struggled to get seed funding to kick-start the program. If we’d read too much into others’ hesitation about our odd coupling we may never have proceeded. There’s a funny tension in creative projects between external feedback and internal drive.  At different stages I needed to float my ideas to others but I also had to be quite one-eyed, filtering out comments that could sew a seed of doubt.

Dion is far more self-disciplined and dedicated to his art form than me. He draws every day. I’m lucky at the moment if I get to write every once in a while. Through Dion’s patient, methodical drawing and his infectious enthusiasm to share himself and his stories, I learnt about the power of collaborative practice.

When we started the project I had a vision in my mind about what the end product would look like, but working with Dion allowed me to trust the process. As I gradually (and often awkwardly) shared the manuscript in my very clunky Auslan, Dion introduced his vision and ideas. Sometimes he would draw what I explained but often he would take the story I had created in a new direction, adding characters and visual sub-plots.

We shared stories all the time, some of which were so relevant they wriggled their way into the book. In the last pages of the story there is an almighty dog scuffle and the narrator’s grandfather has to break up the fight by spraying the dogs with his hose. This scene was inspired by stories Dion told me while we worked on illustrations for the book.

In this way it is sometimes difficult to see where the text ends and the pictures begin. Put another way, it’s hard to see where my story stops and Dion’s starts. I read about books that are created by authors and illustrators who never meet and I can’t imagine what that’s like. Too Many Cheeky Dogs has so much of both of us in it.

Dion and Johanna will be working together in August at the Darwin Festival running picture book-making workshops with primary school students. To find out more, visit the Too Many Cheeky Dogs website. To follow the adventures of Dion and Johanna, sign up to their blog alerts or like their Facebook page.

Too Many Cheeky Dogs is published by Allen & Unwin. See our KBR review here.