Q&A with Dhana Fox

Cat-a-pig! Our June membership package is out and your kids will have the best time building the perfect catapult for Ham the pig and his friends to escape their fate on the farm. We were so delighted to chat to Sunshine Coast-based author, Dhana Fox about the inspiration and process behind creating this book.

Watch on or scroll down more to read the transcript.

Janice: Welcome everybody,  it’s Janice here from Little Birdie Books and today I am so honoured to have Dhana Fox joining us to chat about her book, ‘Ham’. Hi Dhana!

Dhana: Hi, how are you?

Janice: Good, thank you. We’ve heard that you’ve had a different career prior to writing children’s books so I’d love to hear from you, how did it all come about in terms of starting to write these really funny books for kids?

Dhana: It took quite some time, I thought about this, the longer answer I knew I wanted to do something else creative so I used to do music and then I had my two children and I was dying to get back into the creative field. But I knew music wasn’t it. But then I was really scared thinking, I know how long it takes to train to do something new. I had some little ideas coming to me, little story ideas but then there was the scare factor. It took quite a long time to commit to it. Probably a couple years to take it seriously and to keep it I was just ignoring all the signs I think.

Janice: I definitely think it’s always a huge leap of faith when somebody change his career so definitely credit for you for taking that leap and just going for it.

Dhana: Yeah like we’re not 20 anymore and that’s you don’t have that blind ambition with responsibilities. Yeah it’s so different second time around.

Janice: Definitely can relate to that so you know as we said you wrote this book Ham and it’s illustrated by Anna Demechenko. Can you actually give us a little bit of a synopsis of Ham?

Dhana: So Ham is a pig on a farm along with his three mates and they think that they’re pets until the shocking day comes that they discover they’re not pets they’re actually destined for the dinner table. So they all come together yeah they are coming together to find a plan to save their own bacon little lamb and unfortunately all the little plans don’t go uh that fantastically well. But there’s a humor in the book and then they get the answer from something uh more organic which comes from their droppings and so they create a newer vegetable farm andd so now the farmer has prize winning vegetables and he’s focused on that so then they can go on enjoying their peaceful life on the farm.

Janice: Ah amazing so you know we’ve seen lots of other books and even films about farm animals trying to escape whatever destiny that they think is out there for them and so how did that idea for you for Ham originate, like how did you decide that it was going to be a pig that was the main character. I’d love to know about that process.

Dhana: I think it was three strange things coming together I had firstly, I had a, I still do have a fridge magnet with a pig with a fake big grin on his face and it just says eat more fish and I’ve stared at that for 15 years on my fridge. I was watching a lot of Shaun the sheep at the time with my little girl that was quite young and it was huge. I used to laugh every single day and so i was um always like the pigs in a story watching Shaun the sheep and then I, you know like that funny idea of pigs being worried that they’re going to get eaten and then a little turning the turning point came when I remembered my dad saying about some old puppet show and the puppet was called lamb chops um that the lady would yeah I have a vague memory of it then I thought, okay lamb chops and then it was oh Ham how obvious is that he’s called Ham and then that’s when the story took off and it started to make sense pieced it together yeah so it’s funny how all those little things had to join together.

Janice: Yeah we just love hearing you know, from authors the inspiration behind you know their picture books because yeah it often comes from multiple places and it’s like a slow sometimes it’s a slow brew but sometimes it’s like an instant coming together and everything so yeah that’s awesome. It’s such a beautiful book, look at the illustrations and you know his gorgeously voluptuous wobbly just check out this rump like I just love the wording in there so how did the process between you and anna work in terms of creating this book together?

Dhana: I think probably uh quite normal and the fact that we had a traditional publisher and they are the boss. They’re the creative director in charge of putting us together so I’ve never directly communicated with Anna. We’ve might have liked each other on social media posts yeah yeah submit our work and then it’s up to the creative director to mesh our work together making sure everyone’s happy and of course we had stay in each other’s work just to make sure the whole thing was making sense um but I still find it strange that she lives on the other side of the planet and we’re collaborating with this. I love that fact yeah it’s yeah it’s amazing and the fact that her first language isn’t even English either yeah and yeah and she’s trying to create something with oh that’s not too Australian I suppose, the book but yeah, we have to mesh our cultures together.

Janice: Yes definitely and you know looking at different world views as well and life experiences for everybody is obviously different depending on where you live in the world um so usually when this happens is your story or your manuscript like fairly complete before it goes to the illustrator, or how does that happen?

Dhana: Yes um just trying to remember, yeah there was weren’t too many changes because then we don’t want to mess her around yep so everything’s pretty much done. Usually they’re called final edits and there might be some little tweaking later on but it should be all finished um and then I’ll be back and then um let us pop to her, yep, to do yeah magic amazing.

Janice: I think she’s really just beautifully captured like the emotions of the characters like like say in this page like you can really tell exactly what the animals are feeling and thinking and I think she’s done such a good job of that paired with your text as well like you really can put yourself in the animal’s shoes and be like,  okay that’s what they’re dealing with here. It’s like a life or death situation.

Dhana: It’s in the eyes, isn’t that kind of.

Janice: Yeah totally and you know as we’ve mentioned to you before, obviously as a speech pathologist we just really love the range of really sophisticated and what we call that robust vocabulary that you use in this book. Words like pungent, priceless, gruesome idyllic. I mean, in your book the list kind of goes on. The rhyme and rhythm that you have in the story as well it just makes it a really fun read aloud. I think that’s why we keep coming back to it. What’s important to us is not only our kids enjoying it but we always say, we got to pick books that adults are actually going to enjoy reading because you don’t want to read books 100 times over if it’s not gonna be a book that you’re gonna enjoy it.  So I’d love to know, how does that come about for you in terms of deciding whether something is a rhyming story or does it depend on the book and the vocabulary. Does that just all come really naturally to you? I just want to understand that a bit more.

Dhana: I think as far as the writing and rhyme, I do think like having a music background has helped and thinking of flow rhythm yeah and not just rhyming the last word of every line and then yeah certainly not every story comes to you in rhyme but I made a real effort to write out of rhyme as well. I didn’t want to sort of be fixed in that, the only way that only style of writing in case the story cropped up and it didn’t quite feel right. But yeah so that was hard. And I also, I was drawn to Julia Donaldson books when my girls were really young so constant amazing rhyme. I’d like to think like a percentage of that like a tiny little bit rubbed off on me um so that’s I think that’s why I started at the beginning writing in rhyme and so now I do a bit of a mix. I like to kind of mix it up because it it does have its frustrating moments when it just isn’t flowing and you know what you want to say but it just doesn’t fall into place so I like to balance that out. It’s a bit of prose every now and again.

Janice: I think that it’s a beautiful point that you’ve made that, you know, there’s rhyme but then there’s also rhythm as well and that’s what we really look , is that it just has a natural rhythm yeah and some books still do a fantastic job of having good rhythm without it necessarily rhyming and it still just has a really nice flow and that’s so important to us as adults looking at it because you don’t want it to sound clunky when you’re reading it out aloud.
Janice: I’d love to know, what did you enjoy the most about creating this book?

Dhana: I think it was the writing process. Obviously seeing the book come together, that’s also a stunning part but when I was writing it, I did know I was sort of pushing some boundaries going oh it’s a bit dark with a little bit of the humour and I honestly didn’t know if I could get away with it. In hindsight I have gotten away with it, like a little rebel in me because yeah it gives me a bit of a kick to to know that I pushed what pushed how even how comfortable I was without and then somehow I know that kids don’t interpret the text the way we do so it might like one page looks a bit gruesome but the kids don’t seem to react in the same way as adults do with it so I’m always mindful of that going, I can push it but the gatekeepers might push back, we’ll just see what happens.

Janice: That’s so funny because Tania and I had a basically a very similar conversation. We look at so many books and when we choose them for the membership, we literally were like, oh is it like too controversial but at the same time you know at the end of the day we were like, well you know we’re not gonna please everybody in the whole world and this is a real life issue that happens in the world. Whether your stance on it is different, that’s okay but that’s how it is and I think similar to what you said is that kids don’t see all the layers that we as adults do because when we actually read it with our kids just enjoyed the book so much because of the humour. You just did such a good job in telling it a story of escaping but you know sort of introducing ideas to them but not overwhelming with that whole controversial idea or and they just took it as, oh these animals are trying to escape trying to you know make sure they never get eaten and that makes sense to young children. We were just like said with the gate keeper thing, the publishers obviously thought it was okay to be published. so yeah it’s been published!

Dhana: Yeah I’d like joke sort of you just throw in a toilet joke at the end…that’s also what kids remember.

Janice: Exactly they just love the fact that it’s their poop…so I guess that kind of links to our next question. What would you like families to get out of this book when they’re reading it together?

Dhana: Yeah exactly what you said before. But I’d love to know that homes that are reading this at bedtime. The adult reader isn’t going, oh my gosh we can’t handle that book again because I’m a parent. I’ve been there many nights when you just want to laugh. I love when you’re actually laughing and connecting over the same book at bedtime with your child. Just the connection that you have with your child at that point is such a nice way to end the day. Above all a giggle for both adult and child and if it leads on to strange random discussions of paddock to plate, if it leads on to that then that’s brilliant. But I’m always humour first, it has to be light-hearted enough for everyone to have some sort of joyous time over the book.

Janice: I definitely think you’ve achieved that goal. We would love to know what’s coming up for you for the rest of this year now. Before we started recording we just talked about the fact that you have a brand new book as well so yeah feel free to tell us about that and tell us what’s happening for you for the rest of the year.

Dhana: So that book is a sequel, it came out in February actually, even though I don’t know where the last couple of months have gone. Then there’s another picture book coming out next year but in the meantime, i think my my pile of stories is a little low at the moment so i just want to get back to writing some fun stories again. It’s very easy to get distracted with stuff going on or even being a parent. So I’d love to just spend some quality time and just get back to writing for fun. I just feel like there’s it’s been too long of a break for me so that’s what I would love to do for the rest of the year just to sit down try to get rid of those distractions and get the joy of writing.

Janice: Yes let your creative juices flow hey. Dhana, like we have been saying all along we just absolutely are so glad that we came across your book and have just enjoyed it thoroughly in our family so we’re very excited for other families if they haven’t seen the book already to enjoy it as part of our membership. Thank you so much for chatting with us today.

Dhana: You’re welcome, yeah absolutely no problem at all. Thanks for having me on.

This is just one of the SIX fantastic books we have in our current membership. Plus, get a copy of Nick Bland’s King Pig, another pig on a mission when you join us in July. Head over to the FOR FAMILIES page to join us today!

Thanks again to Dhana and happy reading!