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

Thursday 18 June 2015

Guest Post: The Writing of 'My Name is Lizzie Flynn' by Claire Saxby

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome children's author and poet Claire Saxby to share some background on her latest picture book, My Name is Lizzie Flynn.

My Name is Lizzie Flynn is the story of a young convict girl aboard a ship called the Rajah, during her journey to Australia in 1841.

I came to this story via the Rajah Quilt, an historic textile. Someone, on learning I was a writer and that I liked history and sewing said I should write about this quilt. The more I researched, the more drawn I was to this quilt and the more I wanted to write a story around it.

The Rajah quilt was made by multiple (the number keeps increasing, and is now thought to be possibly as many as 50) convict women aboard a ship called the Rajah during their voyage to Australia in 1841. On arrival the quilt was presented to the Van Dieman’s Land governor’s wife, Jane Franklin. Then the trail becomes a bit foggy. Sometime in the next couple of years the quilt journeyed back to England, possibly destined for prison-reformer Elizabeth Fry.

And then it vanished.

147 years later – yes 147 years – the quilt surfaced in a Scottish attic. The deceased owner of the estate had no identifiable connection with Australia, convicts, quilting or Elizabeth Fry and her work. What a wonderful mystery! The quilt includes a beautifully-stitched dedication which (fortunately) includes the details of its construction – the when, the where and the why. Without this, it may have been lost forever.

Amazing. But that story didn’t belong in a picture book. More research. I found lists of the convict women aboard, their ages, their crimes and their sentences. The youngest convict aboard Rajah was 13 years old, sentenced to 7 years transportation for theft. I borrowed her age, her sentence and the crime of another convict in constructing Lizzie. I tried to imagine just what it would have been like to have been sentenced to transportation. Molly emerged as a friend to Lizzie, because bereft of family, friends would have been very important.

I travelled to Canberra to view the quilt in the Special Collections room and was fortunate to spend time with one of the conservators who suggested that not all the women would have been equally thrilled about making a quilt for some wealthy lady who already had more than they would ever have. So Big Martha was ‘born’. She resents those who decide her fate, those who have power over her. During the journey/story, Lizzie learns to sew, contributes to the construction of the quilt and makes a conscious decision to look to the future, despite the awfulness of her past and her present.

My Name is Lizzie Flynn was accepted by Black Dog/Walker Books and the editing began as did search for an illustrator. That’s when Lizzy Newcomb came ‘aboard’. Her na├»ve paintings are beautiful, colourful and evocative, and portray Lizzie’s journey sensitively.

When the editing was done and the illustrations at final stages, I discovered a just-released book that combined all the information I’d spent so long amassing. (Patchwork Prisoners by Trudy Cowley and Dianne Snowden) AGGGH! Written by two Tasmanian academics, it would have cut short my research by months! It’s a fabulous resource though and it was heartening and affirming to discover that there were no glaring oversights in my research. Women and children have long been under-represented in our literature, both in non-fiction and fiction, although this is slowly changing.

I am very excited that I can now begin to share My Name is Lizzie Flynn with readers of all ages. It’s written with primary readers in mind, but I hope it will be of interest to a much wider readership. Many adults have heard of the Rajah quilt, while few know the details.

But as much as I love the quilt, my primary intent in writing was to explore the lives of convict women. They were survivors, shaped by extreme adversity, convicted of a range of crimes, with few skills or possessions, yet most of them not only survived but thrived in Australia. They married, raised families, toiled hard in fledgling colonies. They were pioneers, wives, mothers, businesswomen, often all simultaneously. They are our foremothers. We owe them much.

Claire Saxby is an Australian children's author and poet. Her books include fiction and non-fiction titles such as Big Red Kangaroo, Meet the Anzacs, and Seadog. Her latest picture book, My Name is Lizzie Flynn: A Story of the Rajah Quilt is illustrated by Lizzy Newcomb and published by Black Dog Books. Visit Claire's website and Facebook page for more information about her books and author events.