Bringing Sarah to Life

All I saw at this stage was a beautiful illustration of Sarah – the end result. But behind the scenes, there was much more to bringing Sarah to life. At this point, it was all up to Chantal. From her perspective, she said she was looking forward to working on Slow Down Sarah! “I liked the energy, fun and actions. It suits my style. I like movement.”

I was thrilled to be working with Chantal! Just look at her bio:

Chantal Stewart was born in Paris, studied at the School of Applied Arts and began her career as a graphic designer. After moving to Australia, she discovered her true calling of becoming a children’s book illustrator. Chantal has worked with some of Australia’s most renowned publishers and authors. Her books have been shortlisted in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year awards multiple times, as well as the Young Australians Best Book Awards. Chantal was also shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Crichton Award. Her titles include, I Spy Mum!, I Spy Dad!, Percy, Smelly Chantelly, A Ghost of a Chance, Max Meets a Monster, and To the Light. She lives on the outskirts of Melbourne surrounded by trees and birds, and believes she has the best job in the world!

Chantal Stewart 2

Bringing Sarah to life was a process… even for a seasoned illustrator like Chantal. As she described it to me, “When I started, I was a bit fuzzy. When I saw the picture of your daughter, it helped, but my biggest challenge was working out how to create Sarah, as she would be wearing a helmet for most of the book. With a helmet on, you don’t see much of a face. But I eventually worked out how to overcame that challenge. Once I get a pencil between my fingers, that’s where ideas start to take expression. It doesn’t come straight away, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

These are some of the early sketches Chantal created, as she brought Sarah to life and began the illustrations for the book.

Early Sarah sketch 3

Early Sarah sketch

It was the start of a wonderful journey, working with Chantal and watching her create something beautiful from nothing. What incredible skill and imagination!

Commissioning Chantal

With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I embarked on the next step of the journey. I knew that if I was going to self-publish Slow Down Sarah!, I’d have to find an illustrator who could create on paper, the Sarah who had been getting clearer and clearer in my mind. But I had no idea who that would be, how on earth I would contact them, what the legalities would be, or anything else involved in commissioning an illustrator for a book!

The first thing I did was determine that I would work it out! The second thing I did was to start searching for the illustrator who I thought would be able to best bring my story to life. As I’d been writing and re-writing, I could see in my imagination the kind of illustrating style which would accurately capture who I felt Sarah to be. I knew that I would soon realise whose style could carry it off, if only I saw the right one. You know, the old ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ feeling. So I started looking at illustrations everywhere, searching for the illustrator who just might be the right one.

My search led me to many places: The Childrens picture books in our home, the library, online bookstores and the online stores of various book publisher, and to The Style File website at This is a website showcasing many different illustrators and with a huge cross section of different styles, I was sure I’d find someone I liked.

I was right. I’d already seen some of Chantal Stewart’s work on a publisher’s online store, but seeing her style on The Style File was another confirmation. I did more research, and had a good look at a cross section of her books, copying and pasting images of her work to compare to others. Here are some of her many picture book covers:

The Chocolate LoversI Spy Dad!Max Meets a MonsterDragon Mode

Star of the Circus

                                      Star of the Circus particularly grabbed my attention and gave me confidence that Chantal could indeed be my chosen illustrator, as it showed me that she could depict a farm (her chooks were gorgeous!!!!) and I loved her rendition of the little girl and thought she could do a great job of creating Sarah.

By the end of this process, I had shortlisted my search to two potential illustrators. Chantal worked from within Australia; the other illustrator was American. Yes, it would be easier to work with an Australian illustrator, but by that point Chantal had also become my favourite choice. The last remaining tests were a) whether she would accept my proposal; and b) whether she could create Sarah.

Thankfully The Style File website had Chantal’s contact details, so I set to work drafting up a proposal to present Slow Down Sarah! to her. While there were many times during my 5 years of university that I couldn’t stand the thought of writing another business proposal, at this point in time, I was glad I knew how to do it! So I created a proposal which was dependent on my approving her character sketch of Sarah, sent it off, and prayed for the best.

You can imagine my thrill when she accepted my proposal! Now the next step was just to be sure that we could see the same ‘Sarah’. Because there was history behind this story, my children and I spent an afternoon gathering photographic reference material. I also didn’t know how much experience Chantal had with rural living, coming from Melbourne, so we included photographs of the area, cattle, and horses. There were also photos of my original red motorbike on which the story was based. And I always felt as though my daughter Miriam looked the most like what I imagined Sarah to look like – long blonde ponytail flying out behind her! So Miriam became my model and we had a lot of fun capturing photos.








Chantal put pencil and watercolours to paper and before too long an e-mail came through with her image of Sarah attached. As I double clicked to open it, my heart was pounding. What would she look like? Would it look like the Sarah I had known and loved? Would we have to go back to the drawing board? Would she be everything I’d hoped for or would I be disappointed? The screen opened…

The day I saw Sarah with my own two eyes for the first time, was a thrill beyond thrill! She was beautiful… she was perfect… she was everything I’d hoped for! Even the bike was perfect! I was elated!!!!!!

Sample Sarah IllustrationThis now meant generating an illustration contract – another thing I didn’t know how to do – but I didn’t care! I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to see the rest of the illustrations! I did have to wait a little while because Chantal’s other commitments meant she was not available to begin for another six months, but I knew they would be worth waiting for! And they were!



From Rejection to Realisation

So there began the next stage – learning how to put together a submission, researching potential publishers with the right fit, packaging up the submission with great anticipation, and sending Slow Down Sarah! off into the big, wide world. A learning curve in itself, and an exercise in building self worth… nobody relishes the thought of rejection!

And of course, inevitably that day arrived. The stamped self addressed envelope turned up in the mail… and I opened it with trembling hands and a shaky heart. Would this be the moment I had longed for and dreamed of? Or would it be the first obstacle in the road to publication?

Even though you’re half prepared for it, the ‘No’ still hits with a resounding sting! While the words ‘…it doesn’t fit our publishing list at this time,’ aren’t necessarily criticising the quality of your writing, they still can only be classified as a big, fat, rejecting NO! And that’s what happened with the first rejection. A standard cover letter with the standard apology that my work couldn’t be included in their list, and me left not knowing if there was something inherently wrong with my writing, or if I just hadn’t found the right match in a publisher yet.

However, the second rejection was a whole new experience. This time I received a letter with feedback from the publisher. It said:

Dear Ainsley,

I read this with interest but unfortunately I cannot find a place for it on my current children’s book list. It’s fun and engaging and full of vitality. Sarah’s personality bursts with energy and is even more defined by her rural setting which gives her plenty of freedom and room to move. But I am afraid the story is not quite what I am looking for at the moment.

This is in part because of your choice to use rhyme. For while it gives the story an energetic bounce, and you manage to maintain the rhythm well throughout, books in verse are difficult to sell in the current competitive market, and unfortunately as a small…publisher of five or six titles a year, I am afraid I have to be very careful about what I take on. I am sorry we cannot make a fit this time…I wish you luck with it elsewhere.”

My initial feeling was ‘Rejected again.’ But then I remembered what I’d read… that as editors are so busy, the prospective writer should not expect to receive feedback from editors – a standard form letter that they have not accepted your submission is the norm. And if by chance, feedback is given to a writer, they should take it as a compliment because editors will usually only take the time to do that if they really like your work and want to encourage you. Remembering this information made that letter turn around in my mind from a rejection to an encouragement. The editor had actually taken the time to respond to me! She had said my book was fun, engaging and full of vitality! She’d noted the strength of Sarah’s personality. And she’d explained a perfectly valid reason why she herself could not take on the publication of my story, but she obviously thought it was otherwise of publication standard.

I began to feel more and more confident that Slow Down Sarah! had what it took to be a published book. The confidence boosters had begun with the editor pitch and her encouraging comments about my writing ability… my confidence grew again by the two sets of feedback I had received from the judges of the CYA competition, and now an editor of a publishing company had expressed confidence in it. All three of these sources of confidence were essentially rejections – the editor at the pitch didn’t take on the book; I didn’t win the competition and the editor was not going to publish my story. But I had decided to see the positive in each situation.

Then it dawned on me… Slow Down Sarah! was of a publishable standard. I just hadn’t found the publisher with whom it was a fit yet. I could continue submitting to publishers one at a time, finally find the right one, sign a publishing contract, have no control over the illustrator or other design elements of the book, and make a standard author royalty from book sales…

CW Online Store

OR….. I could take advantage of the distribution system I already had in place through Child Writes (including the online store at and the fact that we had secured a distributor, maintain control over the full process (selecting illustrator and the overall look), and make a higher percentage on each sale as a self publisher. It didn’t take long for me to decide. I opened a spreadsheet to compare, verified the numbers, spoke to Emma, and decided that I would change course immediately from submissions to commercial publishers, to becoming a self publisher. After all, we taught children to write and illustrate their own children’s picture books which we published through Boogie Books. Why on earth couldn’t we publish Slow Down, Sarah? And there began the next step of the journey…



From Concept to Competition

“And the winner is…… Slow Down…”

In that split second, as I sat with intense anticipation, longing to hear the title of my book being stated as the winner of the picture book competition at the CYA Conference (Children and Young Adult Writers) Conference, I was awash with emotions. Elation and thrill were about to burst forth. The winner’s name was about to be called, and I just knew it was going to be me!

CYA Conference

CYA Conference, Brisbane

Imagine my disappointment when the announcer finished her sentence with “…Stanley.” I couldn’t believe it! There was another entrant in the competition, in that same category, and it was called Slow Down Stanley!?!?! And in that moment – when I expected the sentence to be finished with “…Sarah”, I thought I had it in the bag. All the wind left my sails in one split second and there I was deflated, disappointed, disbelieving. I felt like a popped balloon. How could this be?

Fortunately I decided to get over my disappointment and get on with it. After all, I had an editor pitch booked with my preferred publisher. This was a little nerve-wracking, but she put me at ease immediately. It seemed that she’d liked my writing style, but didn’t think the book would suit their list. She actually spent time encouraging me to continue as a writer, and asked what my plans for writing were in the future. I left there feeling much less deflated than I’d felt at the competition announcement.

It certainly is a challenge to start putting your story out there and to notice the reaction it receives from the public. It wasn’t until weeks later that the full benefit of being in that competition was realised. That is when I received the judges comments on both of the stories I had submitted… to find that they actually thought both were quite good.

For anyone who is working on a story, competitions are excellent opportunities. To win is of course outstanding and can open many doors, but what is the benefit for all of those who enter but are not deemed number one at the time by those particular judges? Firstly, competitions force you to a) Work to a deadline and finish your story in time to submit it; and b) Provide you with excellent feedback that you can then use to improve your story or to launch you into the next stage, being to seek publication.

For me, the feedback I received for Slow Down Sarah! was the confidence that I needed to go ahead and start submitting my book to potential publishers. So I set about doing that, which opened a whole new chapter in the cycle of becoming a children’s picture book author.

Emma Mactaggart, my friend and business partner

Emma Mactaggart, my soon-to-be friend and business partner

Child Writes... the beginning of an adventure

Child Writes… the beginning of our adventure together!








And of course, something else very good did come out of my attendance at the CYA conference (besides the great information I learned)… and that was meeting my soon to be business partner and friend, Emma Mactaggart! Emma was a dynamic speaker at the conference, and is also the founder of Child Writes. When we spoke together, we could see that we absolutely had to work together to bring Child Writes to every budding child author and illustrator in Australia. And it’s been an exciting ride since then. A very worthwhile weekend indeed!

Layers and More Layers

I was soon to discover that books just don’t ‘appear’! Why did I ever think I would just get it all down at once?!?! I discovered a principle firsthand, which we teach through the Child Writes program. That is, that everything to do with writing and illustrating a book is done in layers. First there was the initial burst of inspiration, some words came to mind, they came to me in the form of a rhyme, so I kept going with it. I thought at that point, I just had to get it done as soon as possible. With four young children, time was always an issue, and I was looking for the big chunk of time in which I could ‘finally get this finished’. But the elusive chunk of time never eventuated, and so I developed the habit of spending the last half an hour before my children arrived home on the bus each weekday, sitting on my verandah and working layer after layer on my story. Check out my view!

Verandah View

The beauty of the daily writing time was threefold. Firstly, the story was always fresh in my mind and I didn’t’ have to waste time refreshing and reacquainting myself with it. Secondly, there was still enough of a break between sessions that it gave a sense of distance in which problem areas were easily identified (such as text which didn’t flow) and fresh inspiration was captured. And thirdly, it provided momentum and gave a sense of making progress, even if it did seem that I never got too far on any given day. I might have only changed one or two words, but each change would make the story stronger. Over a number of months of regular writing, the story took shape.

I wish I still had the first drafts to show you… though you’d need a degree in shorthand to decipher them! Neatness was not the utmost thought in my mind when inspiration was flying and the body of the work was being transferred from imagination to paper. Most of the time working on the rough draft layer, was spent just finding the perfect words which suited both rhyme and rhythm. Then it was the layer of polishing after receiving feedback from my mentor, Virginia Lowe (what an invaluable gem she was!). Then layer upon layer of getting the rhythm right, then polishing the words again, then editing punctuation and grammar, then breaking down the text page by page, and finally producing with a flourish what I felt must surely be a perfect work! Little did I know at that point, that the layers would continue all the way to publication… how could I know back then that I would still be finding tiny little punctuation or capitalisation errors all the way to the completion of the file for printing? Or that in a paragraph I’d read hundreds of times over, I would suddenly discover a far superior word I could be using! The polishing was gradual, but oh so satisfying!

So for those of you who plan to write anything – whether it be a picture book, fiction or non-fiction, you will save yourself a lot of frustration if you realise right now that writing is a process… and much more like a marathon than a sprint! The good news is that I finally got through all those layers… and I finally completed all of the suggestions Virginia had made for improvements. In fact, she wrote a letter recommending Slow Down Sarah to potential publishers I may have submitted to in the future (click here if you want to check it out). Aaaahhhh…. the satisfaction of a job well done and the enjoyment of a brief moment of reprieve before the next step in the process began.

Recommendation Letter

Yes, Kids Really Do Ride Motorbikes!

At this point, I know what you’re thinking if you are not from a country area. “She can’t be for real – kids don’t ride motorbikes!” Well, in fact I’m very real and kids really do ride motorbikes! I would venture to say that a large proportion of kids in any given rural area would either own a motorbike, have access to a motorbike or have ridden one. And hey, if you can ride a pushbike, why not ride a motorbike? I’m not sure how old I was when I first learned to ride my little red motorbike, but all of my four children have learned to ride (on the very same motorbike) and each of them were about four or five years old when they first learned to ride it! And if you still don’t believe me, check out the images of my youngest child learning to ride at age five (photos taken in 2010)!

Kaleb Learning to Ride 1  Kaleb Learning to Ride 2  Kaleb Learning to Ride 3

So I’m trusting that you believe me now and I can now get on with the rest of my blog 🙂

The Birth of a Story

How long does it take to go from the birth of a story to its publication? Much longer than most authors and illustrators would like! The first word of Slow Down Sarah! found its way to a blank page some time in the early part of 2010, but the concept of writing a children’s picture book was conceived even earlier than that. As I read picture books night after night to my four young children who voraciously devoured every word, it sparked a hunger in me to create my own piece of magic to share with my precious darlings.

Jul  Cute children red cheeks

The only problem was, I didn’t know how to go about it and I had absolutely no story ideas! Still, I knew I could do anything if I gave it a go, and I enrolled in Dr Virginia Low’s Create a Kids’ Book ecourse. This was to be the beginning of an exciting journey!

Create a Kids Book Heading 2

It wasn’t long into the journey that I received the assignment to write a story based on a recollection of something I experienced as a child. Wow, with a life on a farm and the oldest of five children, there were many experiences I could think of! However, none of them were as exciting and as fresh in my memory as riding my little red 50cc motorbike up and down the driveway and over the paddocks of our property. If it was a school day, I’d ride in the afternoons. If it was a weekend, I’d ride all day long. I only wish my parents had taken photographs of the open blisters I would work up on my right hand thumb by the end of a day of accelerating and braking, with the only stops being to eat, toilet and refuel. Oh, those were the days and I loved my little red bike! It gave me a sense of freedom and empowerment… I didn’t feel like just a little girl. I felt responsible for something. I also felt free – what a wonderful way to determine my own day and escape the sibling rivalry that may be arising in the house (there were five of us, remember)!

However, there was one problem. I had a tendency to ride a little too fast. Even though I had all the safety equipment and my Dad had mechanically limited the speed that the motorbike could go, my confidence and acceleration kept increasing. When my neighbour (a young man in his 20s who knew how to ride his own motorbike fast) told my Dad I was a little hair-raiser, I got a good talking to and Dad slowed the bike down some more! After many years of course I outgrew the bike and left home, but after having children of my own, it came back from my parents to live at my place… a little worse for wear (by this time it had gone through five children riding it).

 Moborbike. Side   Motorbike Front

Turns out my kids loved it too (though not quite as much as me! I never saw even one of them with a blister on their right hand thumb, but they did enjoy learning to ride a motorbike). How could I think of writing about anything else? Riding my motorbike was one of the fondest recollections of my childhood, and speed was usually a factor. So with this initial flash of inspiration, Slow Down Sarah! was birthed!