Sarah Milne is the author of Kiwis and Koalas, a beautiful picture book with a trans-Tasman story. We think this book will have resonance with many Kiwi and Aussie families, currently separated by the deflated Tasman travel bubble. It will also appeal to hearing-impaired children and their caregivers. Sarah was keen to write a story that subtly spoke to their experience – because all children deserve to see themselves in a picture book.
We asked her about the project.
What inspired you to write Kiwis and Koalas?
It has been a life-long dream of mine to have a book published. I used to write poetry and enter short story competitions when I was in my early teens and also completed a writing course via correspondence. For a long time, I imagined it would be a novel. Becoming a mum, that quickly turned into a children’s book – I don’t think I’ll ever look back now, it’s been such a fun experience.
You spent your formative years in Australia and grew up in New Zealand. Do you feel torn between the two countries?
For a long time, I did. I think in some ways, that is what drew me back and forth between the two for so long. I struggled to find a sense of home, always homesick when in the other. I think I will always feel a reach or pull to Australia, but it is only now, as a mother, and watching my child put down her own roots here that I feel truly settled in New Zealand again.
Your main character Lily is hearing impaired. What made you decide to do that?
It was one of the differences that we were facing as a new family when I began writing Kiwis & Koalas. My unborn baby was facing the possibility of being born deaf.
After showing minor flu-like symptoms in the middle of my pregnancy, my midwife ordered some bloodwork which showed my body was fighting something, my platelets were alarmingly low. After three days in hospital, isolating under infectious disease protocol (little did we know what the world would face three years later) I tested positive for Cytomegalovirus (CMV).
It was at this point that the synopsis for Kiwis and Koalas started forming – a little girl, her fury best friend and her big imagination …. Just like any other child.
Does Lily’s journey mirror your own?
I am the eldest of four and even as adults, we all have friends who still talk about our backyard. We grew up on a quarter acre section – with beautifully mown lawns and a manicured garden bed – the adventures and imagination that lay behind that border was the base of our childhood games! We would race around the lawn and then duck in and out of the garden bed. Just like Lily.
Did you have a vision for the illustrations in your story or was illustrator Laura Bernard the driving force here?
Oh, my goodness, this is a big question, ha-ha.
Laura and I consider ourselves friends now, although we are yet to meet in real life, but I’m surprised we are because I’m sure I was a nightmare to work with. I was basically an author who wished she could draw (I’m not kidding when I tell you my four-year-old can draw a better stick figure than me) so I had such clear ideas of how I wanted everything to look.
We spent hours on the phone and over Zoom where Laura basically became the hands for the images I had in my mind. Some of our favourite scenes have turned out the way have because of little misunderstandings, some tense frustrations and lots of laughs.
Laura swears she didn’t mind, but I’ve still promised not to have so much control over the next one – bringing Kiwis and Koalas into the world was such a special project for me, and I’m so grateful that Laura was willing to work so closely with me to create it.
How did you feel when you saw Laura’s illustrations for Kiwis and Koalas for the first time?
I’d found someone in Australia, but she never received my email. Publishers like to receive your manuscript with an idea of the illustrator you have in mind. When I was speaking to Sophia from Mary Egan Publishing, she pointed me towards a Directory for NZ creatives. She also said there was an illustrator they were dying to work with and that the right book hadn’t come along yet, but Kiwis and Koalas could be the one. When I saw Laura’s work I was absolutely sold! It was perfect for what I was envisioning. I went through her Instagram page and liked a ton of images going back months – she must have wondered who was stalking her profile! She’s incredibly talented.
Your book contains some strong messages for children. What are they?
That no matter where you are or who and what you are separated from, you can always feel close to them if you keep them in your heart.
Subtly, I hope I also go towards changing children’s subconscious thoughts about what “normal” looks like. Lily’s cochlear implant isn’t a feature of the story, it isn’t mentioned in the story line. It just is. She is clearly the daughter of a single parent, but again, it’s not mentioned in the storyline, it just is.
How challenging has the global pandemic been for you?
Wow, what a world we currently live in, right?!
I am a solo parent, working full time during these lockdowns and I also have a small candle business on the side – so from a business perspective, life is hectic, and the pandemic has hugely impacted shipping and supplies. The book launch here in Christchurch has had to be postponed and obviously the chance to launch it in person in Australia is not currently an option.
But … in lockdown last year our family went through a death, a near death, a cancer diagnosis, and a birth – those events were earth shattering, but it has given our whole family a huge perspective to take into 2021 and we see how the pandemic is also full of so much goodness. I have really clung to the positives of what this time brings us. I’m not very good at slowing down, so being forced to do so has created some beautiful memories I will treasure forever.
Time just collects extra opportunities so it will all work out how it is supposed to.
What are you working on now?
I have some special manuscripts in the pipeline. I would love Laura to Illustrate for me again, with a different method of illustration for the next book – a little boy, a big garden, unexpected friends, and lots of colour!
What is your hope for the future?
I’ve had two people say they think I could be the next Mem Fox – I’m not sure about that, but what a benchmark to aspire too! What’s that saying?! ‘Reach for the moon and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.’
Ultimately, my goal is to write more children’s books, leaving a mark of subtle inclusion in all my stories.