How to use a writer's notebook with students

Writers And Their Notebooks: Trace Balla

Mar 15, 2020

One question I get asked a lot is “how should we use writer’s notebooks with students?” I'm all about authenticity so I thought it would make sense to ask some published authors how they use their writer’s notebooks.

As I’ve said before, the more we (as teachers) know and understand about how writers in the wild (i.e. outside the school gates) go about writing, the better teachers of writing we'll be. In this case, the more we know about how writers in the wild use their writer’s notebooks, the better we'll be able to use them in purposeful and authentic ways in our classrooms.

I've been in contact with a bunch of fabulous Australian authors (all featured on the Oz Lit Teacher mentor text reviews page ) and I'll be sharing their insights on this blog as a part of my Writer's Notebooks author interview series.

First up, we have Australian author / illustrator Trace Balla. I reviewed one of Trace’s books, ‘Rockhopping’ (CBCA Book of the Year 2017) late last year. (Click here to access the bookplate). Trace is known for her distinctive illustrations and has written a number of books including: Rockhopping, Rivertime (CBCA shortlist 2015), Shine and The Thank You Dish. She also has a brand new book coming out at the end of this month: Landing with Wings.

 writer's notebook primary school example

Trace Balla's CBCA shortlisted graphic novel, Rockhopping


 Interview with author Trace Balla

Here is what Trace Balla had to say about using her notebook (or what she calls a sketchbook or journal):

I always keep a notebook by my bed… the mornings are the time I have my best ideas… or even the middle of the night… though of course they can “strike” at any time so I try to keep a notebook handy all the time. I sew big pockets on my clothes to fit them in! I call myself a story-catcher and those notebooks are definitely the catch of the day!

I call myself a story-catcher and those notebooks are definitely the catch of the day! (Trace Balla, 2020)


I do what I call “mixing it up” where my words and pictures have equal weight and are often combined… that’s the way they end up in the books too. So some notebooks are more wordy and others more pictures, but always a mix. 

Later they are a great reference. I used notes from various camping and hiking trips in different places to get inspiration for Rockhopping - for example the deep diving scene is actually from a sketchbook made in the top end, rather than in Gariwerd (the Grampians).

 writer's notebook real example


I have another experience from the Top End to share. I was up in Jaowyn country sitting on some rocks in Kakadu National Park with an incredible view, sketching it, while behind me a lot of other tourists took photos. Then the ranger came and had a look and we got talking. He happened to be the son of the highly respected Elder Bill Nudgee (excuse my spelling I’m not sure). So he knew the teachings/stories of his country. And because I was sketching he started to tell me all the place names in the language of the area, while I wrote them in on the landmarks I had sketched. Then he told me some of those teachings. This is one of many ways I have found inroads into enriching my life, just because I am journaling.

I made an animated film - The Earlybird- about commuting on a bike based on notes and stick figure sketches I scrawled on the back of some envelopes whilst sitting in heavy traffic in the city. I had decided I wanted to see if it was faster to ride or drive across town to a class I was attending… of course the ride was faster and I was green with envy watching the cyclists whiz by the day I tried driving. But that envy and the joy of riding got me taking down ideas which then became the film. 

 writer's notebook primary school example


After taking notes, which may be specifically for a book, like Rockhopping where I went specially to Gariwerd to do some research hikes, I then come home to pull it all together based on my journals. A very unexpected event happened - I can’t say  what - you have to read the book to find out - that inspired me to grab my journal and a video camera and document the event as it unfolded - so I had plenty of reference of what it was like at the time. I think that is key. Catching the moment while it’s hot, rather than memories... and my memory is not great… 

My book Shine is very different. It is based on the tragic sudden death of my brother in law. I wrote it in stick figure and note form in the middle of the night after he had just died, for my young niece who I could see trying to understand what that death meant… I then made the original book the next week for her. Later Allen and Unwin commissioned me to remake it with them, which was great to get it out there for a wider audience, especially for other kids who may sadly relate. 

This story was imaginary, and symbolic, where my other books have much more documentary style influence. For example, I did many sketches out in the bush for those other books, with notes alongside them. Other times my notebooks are used for processing personal aspects of my life, like when my mother died. I find it so healing and helpful to get things down on paper. They will probably never be used for any books, yet it is an important part of what I do in my journals, and as a way to get through the ups and downs of life. I love some of those sketches. 

 writer's notebook primary school how to use


My sketchbooks/journals are probably my most precious possessions. My favourite is a handmade journal of my travels in India 25 years ago, cartoon stories and musings, done on the spot, which when I look at, take me back there. I used these to make another animated film -Letters to Faraway Friends - they are both treasures to me, but the book more so.

I made a photo book for a family gift one year of a bunch of pages from my journals. As well as being great fodder for any books that may come from them, they are treasures in themselves.

Sew a pocket! Put a little book and pencil in there, and you never know what you might catch! 

(Copyright - Trace Balla – 2020)

Many thanks to Trace Balla for providing these wonderful insights into how she uses her writer’s notebook. Don't forget to check out her new book, Landing with Wings. Also, if you're interested in finding out more about Trace and her work, you can visit these sites:


Wow! What a great launch into our writer’s notebook series!

  • What did you find interesting about Trace Balla’s use of her writer’s notebook?
  • How could teachers use this knowledge when teaching writing?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.



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