AWC graduate Deborah Frenkel is now a successful picture book author

Deborah Frenkel reignited her long-held dream of becoming an author when she became immersed in the world of picture books after the birth of her daughter. Throw in frequent long walks and she soon started to simmer with stories of her own.

Knowing she needed some direction to get her stories on to the page, Deborah jumped into Writing Picture Books at the Australian Writers' Centre. Since then, she has gone on to publish four picture books, with more under contract. Her latest release is 100 School Days, out now with Affirm. She has also published The Truck Cat, The Sydney Harbour Fairy and Naturopolis.

Inspired to write

When creativity struck, Deborah was working as an advertising copywriter, so she already knew that writing was a practical skill she could learn. But she had never tackled a book or a work of fiction before. That’s why she turned to the Australian Writers' Centre.

“I was coming to the end of my maternity leave with my first child. My daughter was one of those babies who would only nap in a baby carrier while moving, so I spent months and months walking the streets of my neighbourhood with her snoring gently on my chest. It turns out there's something very meditative about walking without anywhere to get to – it stirs up so many ideas,” Deborah told us.

“I couldn't stop thinking about stories, many of them inspired by the piles of picture books we were reading every day. I realised this was my opportunity to actually do something about the need-to-write that I'd squashed inside myself for decades.

“I knew I needed some kind of instruction. In my day job – the one I was on maternity leave from – I was (and still am) an advertising copywriter, so I already had a very pragmatic approach to writing, borne of years of working on whichever brief I was allocated. I knew it's a craft you can hone, but I didn't know the first thing about writing a book. And I was looking for a course I could do from home, flexibly. So I started with Writing Picture Books.”

She was particularly drawn to the no-nonsense nature of AWC courses, which deliver detailed and actionable content.

“They're extremely practical. I've done a few other writing short courses, and often hit a point where I'm frustrated by the vagueness of the lessons – sometimes the whole thing feels like the introduction. I don't need broad strokes inspiration from a course, I need nuts and bolts! All the AWC courses I've done have delivered that,” she says.

A whole new world

Deborah says that that first course unlocked the floodgates of creativity for her.

“About 18 months after completing the course, using what I'd learned, I applied for and was awarded an Australian Society of Authors mentorship for a non-fiction picture book manuscript. It was a manuscript inspired, appropriately, by wandering the streets with my daughter, who was by then a toddler and fascinated by all the weeds, moss, ants, and lizards she could inspect at toddler-height.”

This manuscript eventually became her debut book Naturopolis.

“A year or so later, I submitted the same manuscript to a publisher's open submissions window, and then a few months later received a mysterious email from the publisher asking if we could talk on the phone. As soon as I answered, she said, ‘Congratulations, I'd like to publish your manuscript!' and I nearly fell over – only I didn't, because by that stage I had a second baby who, if I recall correctly, had just pooed all over my hands. Glamorous!,” Deborah recalls.

Naturopolis is beautifully illustrated by debut illustrator Ingrid Bartkowiak, and went on to be awarded by the Children's Book Council of Australia and elsewhere.

The start of a career as an author

“As soon as I got a little momentum with the mentorship and this first contract, it snowballed. I kept writing and submitting and joined critique groups full of staggeringly talented writers, and soon I had a second picture book under contract, The Sydney Harbour Fairy, which was published in 2023 by Affirm Press. I have two more picture books out this year, The Truck Cat and 100 School Days. And I have others under contract for release in the coming years,” she says.

The Truck Cat tells the story of Tinka, a cat who lives on a B-double truck with his human, Yacoub. But while Tinka and Yacoub live literally everywhere, home feels very far away, for both of them. Then when Tinka and Yacoub get separated on the highway, everything changes, and in finding their way back to each other, they discover something new about what home might mean. 

“It's a story about cats and humans, immigration and identity, and homes lost and found… and there's even a hint of a love story, too! It's illustrated by Danny Snell and published by Bright Light.”

100 School Days is a celebration of growth and learning, in a rhyming narrative that also incorporates elements of a counting book. 

“It's the first picture book in Australia about the ‘100 days of school' milestone that many primary schools celebrate in the first year of school,” Deborah says. “It's fun and heartfelt and I think it encapsulates the joy and drama of the first year of primary school! It's illustrated by Laura Stitzel and published by Affirm Press.”

Deborah continues her work as an advertising copywriter while fitting her creative writing into evenings and weekends. And while she is bubbling with ideas for older readers and writing short stories, picture books are her main focus for now. Her adventures with her three-year-old provide ongoing inspiration.

“That's the benefit of living with your target audience – it's constant market research!”

Deborah’s writing process

Fitting writing in around her work and family means she has to be flexible.

“My writing process is very fluid and often happens on-the-go – it normally involves me stabbing single-sentence thoughts into my Notes app, or emailing myself a couple of words before I forget them! Ideas find me and I find that if I can't stop thinking about something, it's probably a good idea that's worth pursuing.

“Once I get to the laptop, I generally write a picture book manuscript in a single sitting, and then edit it furiously over a longer period of time.”

One surprising aspect of creating picture books that Deborah loves is working with an illustrator and an editor.

“I love the collaboration of it, and how other minds make your words far, far better than they ever could have been in your little Word document! I also love the visual thinking required, which is its own language, and it’s one I'm slowly learning, book by book.”

As Deborah continues to pursue success with her picture books, she is thankful for those first steps she took with her newborn – and the AWC.

“Do a course! There's nothing to lose,” she says. “You hear a lot about how fiendishly difficult it is to get a publishing contract, so I'd tucked away any hope I had of that happening. But it happens! Persistence pays off, and so does owning your goals and dreams.”

Courses completed at AWC:

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