Miss Kraken, The Fabulous Crab, Worm, Cats Do Not Like Birthdays. These are just some of the great books from Melbourne-based author and illustrator, Nicki Greenberg.
In October, we are featuring Nicki’s book, “Bitsy” in our 6 month membership and we were lucky enough to interview Nicki to hear the origins and behind-the-scenes story of the process of this book. So let’s get in to it…
1. Nicki, you have written children’s books about all different sorts of animals – cats, monkeys, dogs, reindeer, meerkats, crabs and moles. What inspired you to build a story around a bat in “Bitsy”?
I loved the idea of a nocturnal animal who is curious about the daytime. Bitsy came to me as a fully formed character: sweet, open-hearted, adventurous, optimistic, kind, and full of zest for life. Her surroundings and fellow animals took longer to develop, though. I initially wrote the story with a supporting cast of European woodland animals (mice, bunnies, hedgehogs etc) but my editors said that they’d love the book to have an Australian setting. That sent me off on a fascinating research mission. As it turns out, most of the cute, furry little animals in Australia are nocturnal. The numbat is an exception, though, and as a small diurnal creature, it was perfect for the role of Mitzi. Numbats are endangered and live in very few parts of Australia, so I focussed my research on a very specific area: the Dryandra Woodlands east of Perth. The plants and animals in the book are all found in that area. Bitsy herself is a Lesser Long-eared Bat, which is a very tiny and very cute type of microbat found in many parts of Australia.
2. How did this picture book originate? How did the overarching themes of acceptance and friendship come about?
It’s hard to say exactly how a story originates. But when I first thought of Bitsy, I wanted her story to show readers the beauty of having an open mind and the importance of challenging our assumptions about things that are unfamiliar. Mostly, I was thinking about xenophobia: the fear of people or cultures that are different to what we are accustomed to. In this story both the night creatures and the day creatures have assumptions about one another. Bitsy and Mitzi’s willingness to make friends challenges those prejudices for the other creatures as well.
3. Does the story come first or the illustrations? Or both simultaneously?
In this book the story came first, but I was simultaneously developing the character of Bitsy in my sketchbook. The broader context – the other animals and plants – took a lot of work to develop.
4. Can you tell us more about the illustration process in this book?
A lot of research went into these illustrations. I borrowed almost every book on eucalypts and Western Australian flora from the library, and visited the Australia Gardens in Cranbourne (part of the Royal Botanic Gardens) a number of times to get a feel for the environment and to photograph various trees and plants. Developing the animal characters was also quite tricky, especially the echidnas. To get these right, I made little plasticine models that I could use for reference. The illustrations themselves are made using a combination of old and new technology. I drew and coloured them digitally, but most of the colours are made with hand-painted sheets of paper that I scanned in and then layered in Photoshop. This gives the pictures a soft, organic feel.
5. What did you enjoy the most about creating this book?
I loved writing it, of course. Writing in verse is very satisfying – and challenging, too. And the pictures were a joy to work on. I especially enjoyed experimenting with the rich and subtle colours of Bitsy’s body, the gum leaves and the layered backgrounds.
6. What would you like families to get out of this book?
I hope that families get swept up in Bitsy’s sense of excitement and fun. I hope they enjoy the rhythm of the text and the atmosphere of the pictures. And of course I hope that the book’s message of open-heartedness and open-mindedness reinforces those things in young readers as well.
7. What’s coming up for you in the next few months or in 2022?
I am hard at work on a novel and another rhyming picture book. Stay tuned!
We are so excited for families to enjoy this book that is perfect for reading aloud, pausing and admiring Nicki’s illustrations and have fun creating your bat mobiles! Join our 6 month membership today!