I recently had the opportunity interview talented Australian author and illustrator, Sami Bayly.
Sami’s first book, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals, won the Children’s Indie Book of the Year Award and the Australian Book Design Awards. It received the Honour Award for the CBCA Eve Pownall Award and was shortlisted for the ABIA Book of the Year for Younger Children and the ABA Booksellers’ Choice 2020 Book of the Year Awards.
Her second book, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dangerous Animals, was shortlisted for the Children’s Indie Book of the Year Award, the CBCA Eve Pownall Award (judged by yours truly) and the ABIA Book of the Year for Younger Children.
What an incredible list of achievements (and what a lot of pressure to make her next book equally as impressive!)
I took the opportunity to ask Sami a few questions about her writing process in the hope that her answers could provide useful insight for teachers and students.
Where do you get ideas for your books?
I am inspired by all things weird and wonderful in nature. There are so many incredible creatures, plants and other oddities out in the world that are just waiting to be explored and have been the source of inspiration behind all of my books.
For The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals, the animal that started it all was actually the Australian White Ibis, also known as the “bin chicken”!
Back in 2018 I was constantly seeing people talking about how dirty and gross these birds were, so I ended up painting one myself. I tried my best to showcase the true beauty and brilliance of the bird, despite the many challenges they face. Fortunately, a publishing company (Hachette) saw my artwork and artist statement about these unusual birds and approached me to make a children’s book about ugly animals!
How do you research your idea/topic?
My research process is quite lengthy and involves reading a lot of different resources as well as chatting to as many people as possible. Since my books feature 60 animals (my third book will feature over 120), my job is to research the ins and outs of each animal, making sure the text outlines the most important aspects of the animals and explores the books theme (why an animal is ugly or dangerous).
The sources I beginning looking into first are the IUCN Red List, National Geographic, Australian Geographic, Australian Museum, scientific papers and studies, just to name a few. These websites and resources help me gain an initial general knowledge of a creature so that I know what areas to further dive into.
How long does it take you to research your books?
The time it takes me to research my books varies quite a bit. Typically, I will spend a day or so collecting various information on a single animal before collating it all into different categories: description, danger factor (for The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dangerous Animals), conservation status, diet, habitat and lastly, fun facts. However, some of the animals in my books are less well known than others, meaning that much further research is needed in order to fully understand them. This process done 60 times over ends up taking quite a while!
What is the Process You Use to Create Your Books?
Since finishing my third book, I realised that I have a set process and routine when it comes to making my books. This begins by creating a word doc where I add in all of my desired animals for the book, making sure to update the list whenever a new creature comes to mind. Then I start on the research side of things, collating all of the relevant information into specific categories for me to then rework and narrow down. Once the first draft of the text is done I will move on to the illustration side of things (revisiting the text later on before sending it through to the editors).
What things do you think about when writing your books?
When writing I am always trying to imagine what I would have wanted to read and discover when I was a kid myself. I know that if I am excited and passionate about my project, it will create the same feeling for all the kids out there who are like me, intrigued by the strange aspects of nature and eager to learn more. Since I am not a scientist, I don’t need to worry about using language that is too advanced or confusing. I write in a way that is natural for me but also simple enough so primary aged children can understand it.
How long does it take to write a book? Draw the illustrations?
The time it takes for me to finish my illustrations is a lot longer than the time it takes for me to write the book. My animal illustrations are all originally painted at A3 size with watercolours and white gouache and the timeframe can vary from 1 to 3 days. The length of time really depends on the complexity of the animal, whether it has hair, fur, feathers, scales or skin. Personally, feathers and scales are the most challenging subject matter for me to paint, whereas my favourite texture to paint is wrinkled skin! The text for each animal (after the research is done) usually takes a few hours up to a day to complete. Times this process by 60 and it definitely adds up!
When writing, students often only like to do one draft. How many drafts do you do when writing your books?
There are many, many drafts created before the final product is created. After rereading the first draft, I will send it away to the editors who will then pick up any errors and make small adjustments or points for me to further explain. After these issues are addressed, we will send the revisions back and forth until everything is solved and then it will go to print. This editing process takes a few weeks to a few months.
Who Influenced you to Become a writer and Illustrator?
I was influenced by many people to become an illustrator, whereas becoming a writer was something I didn’t quite anticipate. From an early age I grew up with my mum painting larger than life portraits of my pets and hanging them up around the house, so I felt inspired and encouraged from an early age to pursue my love of art. Books by Shaun Tan and Graeme Base were household favourites and definitely helped me see the potential of art as a living, even as a child.
After having a great experience in art in year 12 from my fellow classmates and teachers, I continued to believe that I could gain a career within the art world. I ended up getting in to my dream degree, a bachelor of Natural History Illustration (Honours) at the University of Newcastle. From there I met so many inspirational lecturers and students that made me realise that I could achieve whatever I desired, as long as I put my mind to it.
What Advice Do You Have for Young Writers and Illustrators?
Some of the best advice I can give to upcoming authors and illustrators out there is to continue with their goals and dreams no matter what others might say to discourage them. The hardest part about this industry is finding a concept or niche that you are passionate about and willing to dedicate countless hours and time to. Working over your typical 9-5 hours won’t feel like a chore, because you will be working towards something you are passionate about and the feeling at the end will be so much more rewarding than if you were to follow the career path that others envisage for you.
What Are You Working On at The Moment?
I am so pleased to say that I am now finished my third book, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature, after working on it for the last year! It has just gone to print and is expected to be released on the 29th of September 2021. This book will look into the peculiar habits of pairs in nature, uncovering the meaning of mutualism, commensalism and parasitism in a simple yet informative way. I cannot wait to share these amazing creatures with the kids of Australia and hope to inspire them to look after the natural world when they grow up.
What are your contact details?
I love doing school visits and workshops! So if you are interested in having me visit your school or event you can get in touch with me directly via my email: firstname.lastname@example.org
My website is: www.samibayly.com and my socials can all be found under the tag @samibayly
WOW! Thankyou so much for sharing your insights Sami.
I find it fascinating to learn about the process other writers use and think this knowledge is invaluable for teachers working with young writers in their classrooms. (I can just see myself saying, ‘If Sami Bayly doesn’t do her best writing in one draft, I can’t see how you could either…’)
I am super excited for Sami’s next book! I am sure it’s going to look great alongside her last one, on my new loungeroom coffee table (when I get one).
As a teacher, what did you find interesting about Sami’s responses? Do you find this inside information useful for your writing instruction? Share your thoughts in the comments below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.
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- Writer’s and the notebooks: Claire Saxby
- Writer’s and their notebooks: Lian Tanner
- Writer’s and their notebooks: Jodi Toering