Inside the CBCA Shortlist with Joy Lawn
The Secrets of Magnolia Moon by Edwina Wyatt, illustrated by Katherine Quinn (Walker Books Australia) is shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia in the Book of the Year: Younger Readers category.
The Secrets of Magnolia Moon is an appealing story about Magnolia Moon told in lyrical, engaging writing.
Congratulations on your CBCA shortlisting, Edwina, and thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords.
Where are you based and what is your background in children’s books?
It’s such a pleasure. Thank you for having me!
I am based in the Victorian high country. I am the author of six picture books, the first of which was published in 2015. The Secrets of Magnolia Moon is my first chapter book and now I am hooked!
Your character of Magnolia Moon is thoughtful and endearing. Could you please introduce her to us?
Oh, I am so pleased! That’s lovely to hear – thank you.
Magnolia Moon is nine years old and lives in the town of Thistledown. She has a curmudgeonly talking staircase, a best friend called Imogen May, a head full of twigs and feathers, and a special understanding with the moon. Magnolia is a romantic and curious child with a fascination in Greek mythology, a huge imagination and a love of nature. Her quirky way of looking at the world is uniquely hers and helps her find magic and inspiration in everything she does. Above all else, she is a deep thinker, a compassionate friend and a good listener – the kind of person who can be entrusted with a great many secrets.
What are some of the experiences that she is facing?
Magnolia’s life is changing: her family is growing, there is an angel at school, and her best friend is moving away. On top of that, people are sharing their secrets with her: problems or challenges they are facing. Magnolia has to come up with a way to help others solve their problems whilst maintaining their trust, all the while having her own secrets and big feelings to deal with. Some are funny secrets, some are silly and some more serious. But all are highly relatable for any child. Through helping other people, Magnolia has to develop her own values, question her assumptions and try to make sense of the world.
Why have you used an episodic structure?
While the book spans a year in Magnolia’s life giving the story continuity, each chapter is a separate entity, so it is perfect for that bedtime read when just a chapter is enough. This structure is also ideal for newly independent readers who are building their confidence and skills.
Using this episodic structure allowed me to drill down into the small micro-details of life. I also enjoyed the mental challenge of having to write ten tight little stories, all with a separate problem to be solved, that added up to one bigger story. Working this way also made the task feel more manageable, as I just told myself I had to make one neat little quilt square at a time and then could stitch it all together and make something substantial. I think it’s also a product of my picture book sensibility, where everything needs to be so tight and economical. It helped me keep control of the narrative and stopped it from going saggy in the middle!
Could you tell us a little about her friends and family?
There is quite a large cast of characters in the book, including:
Imogen May, Magnolia’s best friend, (who understands the importance of questions like, “If you could be a fruit, any fruit, what would you be?”, wishing trees, and talking crows); Mama Moon and Daddy Moon, Magnolia’s messy, musical parents; Grandma Moon, Magnolia’s eccentric, irreverent, insect-loving grandmother who lives with a menagerie of animals; Reuben, the angel-boy; Atlas, the family cat; Casper Sloan, the shy, reticent and slightly cynical new boy in town who has a porridge-eating basset hound called Bonnie, and always packs an ‘alphabet lunch’ in paper bag; and, of course, the magical moon.
What is the significance of some of your characters’ names?
Magnolia blossoms photo by izik (Creative Commons)
Magnolia flowers represent love for nature, beauty, perseverance, longevity, nobility and feminine sweetness. Magnolias also remind me of my family and favourite gardens. One of my earliest paintings at school was of a magnolia – my mum still has it framed on her wall.
‘Magnolia’ by Edwina Wyatt, age 12 (1998)
The surname of ‘Moon’ was also a deliberate choice, since I wanted my main character to have lunar, ‘moonish’ qualities. I had a lot of fun playing with those comparative passages in the book – they were some of my favourite passages to write.
When auditioning character names, much of it came down to how it sounded when read aloud. I spent a lot of time reading the book out loud to my dog, to make sure the rhythm was right. For example, I had to add the “May” onto “Imogen”, as the name alone didn’t have enough syllables to sound right when said in combination with Magnolia.
“Magnolia Moon and Imogen May” just sounded so much better than: “Magnolia Moon and Imogen.” Bonkers! I know.
You have used moon symbolism beautifully. Why have you featured the moon?
That’s so kind– thank you. I have a bit of an obsession with the moon. It’s a powerful symbol in art and literature and has such magical and divine feminine energy. And when personified, it offers some wonderful character traits to play with, since it is so magnetic, mysterious, cyclical and omnipresent.
I also didn’t want Magnolia to feel alone and burdened with all her secrets. By sharing her feelings and problems with something so big, it allows her to step back and get some perspective. In this sense, the moon plays a pivotal role as the ultimate secret keeper – keeping the secrets of the universe and representing the things beyond Magnolia’s control:
“The moon whispered back. It told her all sorts of things. About the oceans it moves, the stars that pass by. About what it’s like to be old and full of holes. To live so far away. But there were some things it would not tell Magnolia: secrets it wanted to keep. Such as what she was getting for her birthday. And why her brother Finnegan crawls backwards and not forwards. And why it was taking so long to grow up. It wasn’t easy being almost ten. And no matter how she prodded and poked for it to tell her, the moon only winked.” (page 151)
What is the significance of Greek myths to Magnolia?
These parts were such fun to write. The Greek myths arm Magnolia with the language and mental machinery to understand some of the situations she finds herself in. Viewing the world this way gives her courage and bravery, transforms the mundane into something magical and allows her travel in style when she would rather fly on a winged-horse than walk home from school.
The drama and high-stakes of Greek myths also helped display the brevity of Magnolia’s feelings. As whilst she is experiencing small, ordinary moments, to her they seem like great triumphs or tragedies as she feels things on such a grand scale.
What is your favourite flower?
This is such a tough question as I adore so many flowers. A gift from my mother, which she inherited from her own mother. Wisteria holds a special place for me and I managed to sneak a vine or two into the book. And I love magnolias of course! The white grandifloras are beautiful, but it is the more common pink and purple magnolias with the fuzzy little green slipper buds that I love the most (Magnolia Soulangeana).
As I write this, I currently have a vase on the kitchen table full of two favourites including stock (the most amazing perfume) and jonquils. I also adore lilac, sweet peas and hydrangeas. I have just finished planting out my spring bulbs and have been guarding them against attack from the chickens!
(I have shamelessly cheated on this question…sorry!)
(I love all these flowers as well, Edwina, so am glad you added more.)
How have you incorporated hope into the story?
I wanted this book to feel like a big old hug – a veritable hot mug of hope. Yet I never want to be didactic or pretend that I have any answers – because I don’t. The moon is used as a symbol of hope throughout the book and so is Magnolia’s ‘little red kite’ that dives and swoops in her heart. Magnolia also has to figure out whether she believes there is any point to having hope when she is faced with Casper Sloan’s rather resigned outlook. But Magnolia is convinced that we must always hope and says:
“That the seeds of hope can live in the darkest places – in the deepest holes and cracks of a broken heart. Fed by tears. Fuelled by courage. Wending their way towards the light until they bloomed inside. Growing into something new and unexpected.” (page 33)
Which of Katherine Quinn’s lovely illustrations is your favourite, and why?
I adore all of the illustrations – Katherine Quinn has done such an exquisite job. I am particularly fond of this image, though: Magnolia and Mama Moon dancing the Heel and Toe Polka on page 55, since it captures Magnolia’s spirit so well (and I love Katherine’s sneaky inclusion of snow drops in there which has significance in the story).
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Reader award this year had on you or this book?
It’s such a huge honour and a privilege, and also a great help. These awards help creators and publishers share what has been a labour of love, keeps the book alive for longer and helps put the book into children’s hands. The book has also been shortlisted for Readings’ Children’s Book Prize 2020, which is just so lovely and it means a great deal to me to have industry support.
It’s very encouraging, as it’s not a hysterical, fast-paced read full of action and dramatic tension, but rather a gently humorous and tender portrayal of friendship and family with just a touch of fantasy, that zooms in on the small moments in everyday life. In this way I feel that it offers something unique for a different sort of child, a more reflective, and overlooked sort of reader who might be in want of a different sort of hero.
Also, very pleased that it has happened at this stage of my career, several years in when I understand the value of it, and have really had to work hard to establish my voice and learn how to deal with rejection and criticism. I realise how hard it is to get a book to break through, but by the same token, how important it is not to be too distracted by opinion. I now know how to keep my eyes on what’s important, how to stay in my own lane and focus on my job, which is to keep creating, and working as hard as I can to create the very best worlds that I can for kids to escape into. So that they can always find a friend, an adventure and a safe, magical place on the page.
Could you tell us about some of your other books?
I have a picture book just out recently (May 2020) called Sometimes Cake illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie. That’s a gorgeous little project and I can’t wait to introduce the two characters in this story: Audrey and Lion. It’s a story about finding joy in the smallest things and discovering that, even on the most ordinary of days, there is always a reason to have cake. It’s out now in Australia and the UK, published by Walker Books and to be released in the USA in March 2021 (Candlewick Press).
Some of my earlier work includes picture books Together Always illustrated by Lucia Masciullo (CBCA NOTABLE 2017, Early Childhood Book of the Year) and In the Evening illustrated by Gaye Chapman (CBCA NOTABLE 2016, Picture Book of the Year) published by Little Hare Books.
What are you writing or working on now?
I am very excited to say that Book 2: THE MAGIC OF MAGNOLIA MOON will be out late next year with the wonderful Walker Books. It is currently being illustrated and I cannot wait to see this project come together. I am busy editing this and polishing it up.
I have also just finished a new stand-alone middle grade novel which will be out early next year at this stage. More on that soon!
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
In terms of recent children’s fiction that I have read and adored, I highly recommend Beyond the Laughing Sky and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas.I also loved the “My Happy Life” books by Rose Lagercrantz, The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator by Matilda Woods and The Secret Library of Hummingbird House by Julianne Negri.
How can your readers contact you?
Do drop by and say hello via Instagram or send me an email via the contact page on my website: https://edwinawyatt.com.au
The Secrets of Magnolia Moon is a beautiful hard cover gift book and a lovely work to share with young children. Magnolia is a well-rounded character whose imaginative nature is perfectly balanced with surprises and intrepidness.
Thank you for your wonderful responses, Edwina, and all the best with this novel and its sequel as well as your other books, Edwina.