Monday, August 12, 2013

Interview with children's author Alison Lester

Alison Lester is my favourite children’s author of all time. You may know her as the author and illustrator of the Clive Eats Alligators series, or the spectacular Are We There Yet? I learned that she is also an intrepid traveller and animal lover who shares my passion for the Northern Territory.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a children’s author and illustrator, and I live on a little farm outside Melbourne with a couple of horses, dogs, cats, and a big vegie garden. I have a husband and three grown up kids, one of whom is a vet.

I’ve been the Australian Children’s Laureate [along with Boori Monty Pryor] for two years, which ends in November and involves a lot of travelling. I do like travelling so I can’t complain but I have been away from home a little too much!

My favourite thing is to work with kids in remote indigenous communities and help them write and make books about their lives.

Image courtesy Alison Lester
Alison Lester with a very relaxed cat.
Animals are a common feature in most of your work. Can you tell us the influence animals had on you and what sort of relationship you had with them as a child?

I really do love animals and without being too soppy about it, if I see a dog I will talk to it - I say hello (sometimes just with my eyes), it might wag its tail. It’s the same with horses, I am always very interested in them as characters rather than as creatures. As a kid we didn’t have pet dogs, but we always had cats and horses and were working with cattle all the time. I was interested by animals in the natural world as well. Where we lived there were lots of kangaroos, koalas, and wombats.

When I was a kid I raised a baby wombat, and when my kids were little we found and raised an orphaned wombat.

When my eldest son was six we bought him a jack Russell terrier who had many litters of puppies over the years.

Image courtesy Alison Lester
Reading with horses.

Alison Lester illustration
Art imitates life...
Do you live with any animals now?

We have a 30-year-old Clydesdale-thoroughbred horse called Woollyfoot, and his paddock mate is a Shetland-miniature pony cross called Honey who is good for taking little kids on rides. Woollyfoot and I have been hunting, eventing, droving and just riding together for nearly twenty years. We have Bigsy, a jack Russell terrier-sausage dog cross who rules the roost. He is a lovely character but very bossy. I’ve taught him to fall over dead when I shoot him with my finger but he usually messes this trick up if anybody is watching. There’s Buffy, a border collie-red heeler cross who is 16 this year, and Jessie the jack Russell terrier border collie cross who is very fat. There’s Little the Kelpie and Jerry, an Australian-Airedale terrier cross – a very hairy little dog. And Easy the cat.

Then my two kids who live in the city have a cat and dog between them so if they go away it gets pretty animally around here.

Alison Lester
A Lester family portrait.
Do you write about your animals in your books?

In the Bonnie and Sam books, a lot of our animals are characters in those books, but I nearly always changed their names. For example Woollyfoot became Whale.

Image Courtesy Alison Lester

Your books provide a brilliant child's perspective on the world. When you were a kid what did you think about vets? Has that view changed?

I really wanted to be a vet when I was a kid and I probably did until I got to year ten or even year 11. I was struggling a bit with chemistry, and there was no one who said “you can do it”. Everyone said “it’s not much of a job for a girl”, but for a time there I certainly saw it as the absolute dream job. I don’t know how I would have gone doing the hard things though.

I just had my old horse at the vet yesterday to see a visiting equine heart specialist, it was lovely watching her look at him. I was really concerned that he might have been in pain. He has a problem with his aortic valve but he is less likely to deteriorate rapidly so it means we can still go out for short rides.

Alison Lester author
Canine family portrait.
You have undertaken adventures and residencies around the world and worked with kids from different backgrounds. How important are animals in their lives?

I think animals are just a wonderful way for kids to be able to empathise. If you see a child who can be with an animal and not understand that the animal needs looking after you’re with a kid who needs lots of help in their life.

I think animals are a wonderful way to understand responsibility for looking after a living thing. Any kid who knows and loves an animal has a friend for life.

How has writing facilitated your interaction with animals?

I’ve been to China a couple of times and been to see the pandas which was very nice even though they were in the panda place, it was still lovely watching them.

Antarctica was wonderful. I saw a few different sorts of whales - orcas, minke whales, humpbacks and fin whales, and lots of penguins and seals.

A whale surfaces near British Colombia.
In the Arctic I saw polar bears which were pretty stunning. One day we got off the ship and were on a little zodiac pottering around the edge of an island in a huge fjord and a young polar bear was wandering along the shore.

The young polar bear goes about his business, unfazed by the mesmerised audience.
We watched him eat a nest full of ducklings, swim towards us to get a bird off the water, lay down and scratch his back on the heath. One of my favourite books is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez…it’s a beautiful natural history of the Arctic.

Do you read a lot?

I am an absolute bookworm. I really loved the Poisonwood Bible, and A Visit from the Goon Squad. I just finished reading a book called Where’d you Go Bernadette which I loved. I really like The Uttermost Part of the Earth, a book about a kid who grew up in Tierra del Fuego last century.

When I worry about people and I can’t sleep there are a few books I go to that are like a balm. It’s a nice way to use books, to calm you down.

[Ed: Are We There Yet?  is my balm!]

Any favourite pet or animal related websites you'd like to share?

I use the internet a heap but I don’t look at too much animally stuff on the web. I’m writing another book in the series Clive Eats Aligators, called Nicky Catches Koalas. It’s about kids who travel around the world helping endangered animals, so I have used the red list to help make sensible suggestions about which animals to write about.  

Being a cat!