From a sea lion that fancied a dip in the saltwater pool, to a dog’s remarkable survival story, Dunedin has its share of tall-but-true tales involving animals.
Local author/illustrator Rachel McCoubrey has turned some of our animal escapades into beguiling books for children. Gina Rocco caught up with Rachel during the lockdown (remotely, of course) to find out more about one of Dunedin's newest children's authors.
Where did you grow up and how has that influenced your writing and illustrating? Have you been influenced by any particular authors?
I grew up in the north of England, just outside the Lake District in Cumbria. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time in the countryside - my Grandfather was a farmer and we spent weekends rambling in the fells. His farm neighboured some of Beatrix Potter’s land and as a child I loved her animal characters, although I preferred her illustrations to her stories. As I got older I remember reading Swallows and Amazons, which caught my imagination as it was set in the area local to me. I’ve always liked stories I could relate to and in some ways this has been my inspiration. I’ve had feedback from children and parents saying they love to see the familiar places in my books.
Can you tell us a bit about your background before you became an author?
Like a lot of other children’s writers I have a teaching background. I taught new entrants for almost eight years, both in the UK and New Zealand, before taking a break to have my own two children. Parenting alongside teaching proved too much of a challenge for me, and I’d always had the desire to at least illustrate a book so when I came across what I thought was an interesting local story (St Clair Splash) I thought I’d give self-publishing a go.
What sort of process do you go though and roughly how long does it take you to write and illustrate a story? What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this journey?
It can take me anywhere from six to nine months to write a story and illustrate a book. I usually begin with the story, write it in detail then refine it, often by simplifying. Then I decide how to divide it into the pages of a book. Next I set out to illustrate each page - this is the most rewarding aspect of what I do. I have a real passion for working in watercolour. It’s a quick and challenging medium to work with. I don’t always paint the perfect image the first time round. It often takes several attempts, and when my image doesn’t match up to the one in my imagination it can be frustrating! It’s important to have consistency with characters and colours so that they work coherently through the book.
Your books are based on real life animal stories, and all sales contribute to fundraising for local charities connected to the stories. Your book St Clair Splash is based on the amusing occasion a sea lion visited the St Clair salt water pool a few years ago, and you donate a portion of the book’s sales to the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust. Could you tell us a bit about your interest in conservation and animals?
It wasn’t until I started researching for the book St Clair Splash that I realised Sea Lions were endangered. It then occurred to me that this was an opportunity to support a local cause. The book has raised over a thousand dollars for the Sea Lion Trust and I have also been able to raise awareness for the cause, sharing it in local Primary Schools and even once doing a reading on The Monarch cruise, for their holiday program.
Your most recent book, Remarkable Meg, recounts the true story of local dog Meg who went missing for five weeks and miraculously survived. I haven't yet met an animal-lover who has been able to get through the story dry-eyed. This book is also a fundraiser for the Wildlife Hospital and LandSAR. Can you share something of the process of creating this book?
I have also noticed that Remarkable Meg has captured the hearts of many animal lovers. Invariably when I read it around schools and libraries there are misty eyes! I worked very closely with Meg’s ‘parents’ to write this story and convey their emotion, taking extensive notes and getting to know Meg and her owners on a more personal level, partly so I could explain more fully their special bond. I think many dog lovers in particular identified with this and I’m delighted that I was able to express such emotions with the power of words!
How do you spend your time when you're not writing or painting?
Because painting and writing can be a solitary task, I find it helpful to have social interactions. I help to lead a Mainly Music group once a week, which I find really enjoyable and rewarding. We are also an active family - we go biking and hiking together, when we can find the time!
What has the lockdown experience been like for you, and has it made it easier or more difficult to work on your writing and art?
Having my whole family at home during lockdown has been quite a distraction. I find I work better when I’m fully absorbed, and having a full house doesn’t allow for this! It’s been nice to have some un-rushed family time however, and to reassess some priorities.
What are you reading at the moment?
I got a little caught out by the abrupt nature of the lockdown. I usually enjoy biographies or true stories but didn’t have a fresh supply. So I thought I’d read a well known New Zealand author, Kate De Goldi, The 10 pm Question. I’m just part of the way through but I enjoy her humour and incredible imagination.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m illustrating a poetry book for a friend. This time I’m not illustrating my own words and some of the poems are quite abstract, so it is stretching me to be more creative with my watercolour work.
Do you have any advice for others wanting to self publish a children's book?
I’m not convinced I’m a great person to offer advice on self-publishing. I wasn’t aware of the rules and simply had a go! I can vouch for the fact it has been a tremendously rewarding experience. It’s wonderful to have feedback on how the children enjoy reading a book you have written. People send me photos and emails expressing this and these are things I treasure.
* * * * *
As part of our Dunedin City of Literature Collection, we hold several lending copies of all three of Rachel’s picture books: St Clair Splash, Turkey on the Loose, & Remarkable Meg.
During the lockdown, we put together a video story reading of Remarkable Meg as part of our Storytime at Home series: