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Wednesday 26 January 2022

Antonia Pesenti & Hilary Bell on Summer Time

Summer is here. School-bags and shoes have been flung to the back of the wardrobe, alarm clocks shoved into drawers, and long, lazy days unwind to the drone of lawnmowers and the hum of rotating fans. Sand accumulates in the shower recess; blond hair turns chlorine-green. 

Our third picture book, Summer Time is about the pilgrimages and rituals of the Australian summer: Neapolitan ice cream, dingy amenities blocks and municipal pools.

Our friendship began in 1995. We shared a sense of humour and found delight in similar things, but it took us 15 years to figure out how a playwright and an architect might collaborate. In 2005, we had each recently come home to Sydney with young families after a decade overseas (Hilary in New York, Antonia in Paris). Channelling our nostalgia for our own childhoods, along with the clarity of observation that comes with absence, that collaboration became the picture book Alphabetical Sydney. It drew on Hilary’s love of playful language and Antonia’s fascination with the built environment, colliding with a deep interest in the notion of place.

Our exploration of place continued with Numerical Street, a very different kind of picture book in terms of its busy detail, with crowded illustrations and longer, more complex verses. It pays tribute to the shopping streets of Australian suburbs, so familiar and ordinary, but so beautiful.

After the numbers and the alphabet our third book began to emerge – during a road trip on the South Coast. Admiring caravan parks in Narooma and municipal pools in Batemans Bay, Antonia started thinking about a book about summer holidays. We collected a long list of ideas – eskies, ants, saggy swimmers - and started the long process of finding a structure to hold them all together.

Summer Time 
takes as its framework the passage of time: from the seconds it takes to be swooped by magpies, to the days for a tray of mangoes to become overripe and the week of accumulating sand in a holiday cabin; from the eternity of waiting for your lunch to digest before you can swim, to the eternity of the dark emu’s flight across the night sky.

In every collaboration, we experiment with different illustrative and textual approaches to give each book a distinct feel. After the busyness of Numerical Street, Summer Time is simpler, the open spaces of the double-page spreads evoking the emotional landscape of summer and the languorous lines of verse meandering dreamily. What it has in common with our previous books is its specificity, trusting that the unique details hold universal truths. We examine every new idea from a child’s perspective – will they relate to it? – ditching those that don’t meet the standard.

Summer Time is perhaps our favourite collaboration.

It took: 

  • 10 days of a south coast road-trip to come up with the idea of a book about summer.
  • An hour in a Mexican restaurant discussing poetic vs quantifiable time.
  • A year to compile the definitive 20 subjects.
  • 8 seconds for Hilary to shoot down her first-ever waterslide.
  • Forever for Antonia to complete the illustrations, believing that they were only authentic if drawn when it was 26°C or hotter.
  • An eternity between sending the book off to NewSouth and getting our first copy in the mail.
  • 12 years of making books together,
  • … and a quarter of a century (and counting!) of friendship.

Title: Summer Time
Author: Hilary Bell
Illustrator: Antonia Pesenti
Publisher: NewSouth Books, $14.969
Publication Date: October 2019
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9781742236070
For ages: 4 - 8 
Type: Picture Book

Follow Antonia via her Instagram. Discover more about Hilary via her website.