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

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Author Interview: Maree Coote

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome Melbourne author and artist Maree Coote to discuss the concept behind her latest book, Alphabet City Melbourne. Maree's thoughts on creativity and belonging make me want to organise a photography outing with my children to capture the images that best represent our home town. I'm sure you'll feel the same way as you read this interview.

You have an obvious fascination with Melbourne. What is it about the city that you find so appealing?
I have vivid memories of childhood trips to town with my mother. For a 1960s bayside beach baby it was like another planet – loud, exciting, alien. Fashion was starting to swing, especially at 60s fashion headquarters like the In Shoppe and  'Merivale & Mr John'. To my young eyes, Melbourne seemed labyrinthine back then, and I loved how it was Mum's territory. It was she who was the gatekeeper of this particular big adventure, not Dad who usually was our explorer-guide in other activities. This was women's territory, and Mum knew it all.

The city seemed to be built for the women. It was a shopping world filled with courteous lift attendants, Ladies Lounges and women-only places. It was for women's business. Of course there was the throng of John Brack's worker drones, but for me a trip to town was always Mum's magical mystery tour. We explored laneways and viaducts, rooftop carnivals and basement cafeterias. We window-shopped, ate rum cakes and wondered at the rarefied goings-on inside Le Louvre at the Paris end of Collins.

The Melbourne Book focuses on the people and history of Melbourne and The Art of Melbourne on the way Melbourne has been represented in artwork. What prompted you to photograph letter formations as a way of capturing images of the city?
The idea occurred to me and so it seemed to me that the book just had to be done. Alphabet City Melbourne is a part of my new Alphabet City Project, in which I try to get people to take up noticing, which I think is a dying pastime and fast losing favour with the e-distracted young. With their indoor lifestyles, prescribed entertainments, and with their heads stuck in screens and devices. At worst they’ll get hit by a tram, at second worst they’ll miss out completely on their own time and place. This is their city, their time, their place, and their story. They should own it.

With this book, (and also with When You Go To Melbourne), I hope children will learn to discover their city in a fun way, that parents will explore with their children to find these letterforms and landmarks in-situ, and that children will learn to be alert to and inspired by their environment. I hope to encourage a sense of belonging and a sense of place in Melbourne’s tiniest minds.

Do you have rules for which images are acceptable? Can you use street signs or do the images need to be more unique?
It certainly made it much harder, but I was adamant not to cheat and use any old signage. I wanted the letters to be iconic and representative of the character of the city: to best express 'Melbourne-ness'. There’s a balance struck between the use of both abstract shapes and actual letters. Then there was the issue of colour, style and content for the key word Melbourne. I wanted to make sure those nine letters expressed the essence of the city's character: heritage, modernity, art, food culture, fun, wit and style.

The same standards were applied to the selection of the final alphabet of 26 letters. (I have actually collected many dozens of alphabets from which to select my 'hero' alphabet). I also wanted the final selection to appeal equally to boys and girls, and to adults, to be legible to locals and intellectually accessible to tourists. I wanted to give it texture by including close-up detail and wide-shot, to be ornate and simple, to be witty and sometimes really obvious.

I kept the story to one simple verse: Look up, look down, look all around, The alphabet’s all over town. It’s hidden in the scenery, The letters of the A-B-C! That way the message is clear and the rest is up to the simple story of shapes. Pictograms are in fact the origin of the creation of writing. Letters were born in ancient times as simple pictographic renderings of human and environmental concepts, so this is like going full circle in a way. 

You used some of your letter photograph for the endpapers in fourth edition of The Melbourne Book. What inspired you to gather together an alphabet of Melbourne letters into a book for children?
The children’s alphabet book idea came first, but I was finishing the fourth edition of The Melbourne Book: A History of Now at the time and I thought the letters would make great endpapers so I used them there too. I hoped they would amuse adults as well as children. I have been photographing Melbourne for four editions of The Melbourne Book for the past 12 years, and have a vast library of images. I kept noticing letter shapes and adding to the collection of options. Then I had the idea for the A-B-C book. Both books were launched at the same time, so we have dubbed the Alphabet City book ‘son of The Melbourne Book’.

I try to express ‘Melbourne-ness’ in whatever form is relevant to the idea. So I switch genre as is relevant. I write history, culture, and children’s books. It all depends on the idea and its best expression. It’s always about Melbourne and always about turning people on to Melbourne’s fabulously rich trove of stories, but the result is always different. The ideas dictate the kind of book it will be and indeed therefore who the reader will be.

The idea of telling Melbourne’s history through art (The Art of being Melbourne) demanded a rigorous and scholarly approach. The idea of discovering the riddles of the city in When You Go To Melbourne required a more complex, puzzle-filled illustrated children’s journey. The Melbourne Book is an eclectic ‘bible’ of information, so its form is dictated by that idea. And the idea of noticing letter shapes around Melbourne is best expressed in a bold and graphic  A-B-C boardbook for infants that is Alphabet City.

Other than reinforcing literacy skills, what do you hope that children gain from reading Alphabet City Melbourne?
Visual literacy goes hand-in-hand with pattern recognition – the basis of all creativity. Spotting differences and similarities is fundamental to the formation of ideas, observation and alertness. I want to help people to see that noticing their surroundings is really important, especially if you want to encourage creativity in children. Humans have always used their environment for creative inspiration, even if only on a purely decorative level, taking cues from nature for design ideas, colour schemes, patterns and so on.

The built environment can offer us plenty of inspiration too.  In this world of architecture, detail and history that litters our environment we can discover messages from the past, even be inspired to ask why some things are as they are, and what they mean. It’s about maintaining our curiosity, no matter what our age.

The Alphabet City website invites people from around the world to send in photographs of ‘letters’ that they find in their own city. What inspired you to turn this into an interactive project? Are you hoping to produce similar books for other major cities?
Yes, Alphabet City is an ongoing project for me, with lots of different expressions. We have just created the Alphabet City Fridge Magnet puzzle set which is a bit of fun, and lots of other things are happening with the concept now. I was inspired to open it to the wider world because that’s the nature of communication through design and it’s possible with the web. It takes Melbourne to the world. 

Do you have any plans for further books about Melbourne suitable for younger readers?
Yes, many! I recently launched a children’s picture book called When You Go To Melbourne which is being snapped up so fast we had to reprint after just three months. I believe I am the only author to offer Melbourne kids a contemporary picture book about their own city. Instead of 'A Trip to New York/Paris' and so on, I think the bookshelves our children see should include an experience of their own place.

Melbourne itself is at the centre of the story in When You Go To Melbourne, which encourages readers to get to know their city, to puzzle over its details, find hidden icons, identify its landmarks, and get to know its character and its charm. The same goes for Alphabet City Melbourne and the other new books I am working on.

I think we need to cherish our own local details and landmarks and thereby build a sense of ownership in and of our own place. Otherwise the city is too easily demolished and re-developed, stolen away from people ignorant of the charm, value, meaning or even of the very existence of many features.

Both of these recent books can be used by children, families or school groups as the basis of a discovery tour of the city. It’s a way to turn the city into a game – a real game.

You can find out more abour Maree Coote and her work by visiting the Melbourne Style website, where you are also able to purchase Maree's books including Alphabet City Melbourne. Visit the Alphabet City website for more information about Alphabet City Melbourne and details on how you can submit photos of your own city to the Alphabet City Project.