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Freda Chiu combines her creative talents with debut picture book ‘A Trip to the Hospital’

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Course taken at AWC:
Writing Picture Books

“My heart was pounding hard in my chest and I felt so elated and relieved that my childhood dream was finally coming true!”

That’s how Freda Chiu describes the moment she found out that her debut picture book, A Trip to the Hospital, was going to be published by Allen & Unwin. Although she was a successful freelance artist and educator, Freda wasn’t sure she had the skills to write her own picture book. But after taking the Writing Picture Books course with the Australian Writers’ Centre, Freda gained the confidence to navigate the children’s publishing industry.

“I loved how structured and practical the Writing Picture Books course was,” Freda says. “I learned more in the two days I was at the AWC than in the few years prior doing self-research.”

Above photograph by KC Avila

Regaining confidence in her writing skills
Working as a freelance illustrator, Freda felt that her portfolio had potential for children’s picture books but was less confident about her writing skills. That’s when she decided to enrol in Writing Picture Books with Cathie Tasker.

“As a self-taught artist, I also wanted professional feedback about my portfolio so I could polish it as much as possible before submitting my work to publishers I admired,” Freda says. “It became quite evident that learning from leading industry professionals in the Australian publishing industry would give me the insight I wanted so desperately, so I was very excited when I discovered the Writing Picture Books course at the AWC.”

One major stumbling block for Freda was that despite a lifelong love of writing, she had lost confidence in her own abilities.

“Creative writing came naturally to me up until the end of high school, but I lost my confidence when I stopped writing after graduation to focus on art. As an illustrator, getting over that fear of writing and ‘just doing it’ without feeling the need to be perfect has opened up many possibilities,” Freda says. “The course helped give me the springboard and confidence I needed to start thinking of my illustrations in relation to words, and the kinds of stories I wish to tell.”

Having spent some time working as a bookseller, Freda had been surrounded by gorgeous picture books. But she still found the publishing industry perplexing, so she particularly valued the advice from tutor Cathie Tasker.

“Cathie cut right to the chase about the ins and outs of the publishing world, what publishers look for, what to avoid when pitching an MS, and the formal narrative techniques of writing a picture book,” Freda says. “She gave me some of the most valuable advice about my portfolio that day. I really appreciated her honesty. That feedback alone helped me make some important changes to my work which eventually caught the attention of my dream publishers!”

Research and writing
After Allen & Unwin accepted her pitch for A Trip to the Hospital, Freda had to make several trips of her own to help develop her story.

“The next few months were spent researching all things hospital related, storyboarding, revising the manuscript with my extremely supportive editor, Nicola Santilli, and creating final art,” Freda says. “For me, research was challenging because hospital protocols during the pandemic are constantly changing, and in order to know how to structure the narrative and the medical journeys of my three child protagonists, I needed to know the kinds of medical treatment one would typically get in their situations. It was like a puzzle that secondary research alone couldn’t solve!”

A Trip to the Hospital follows Momo, Rani and Henry on three very different adventures inside a busy children's hospital. Freda was moved by the professionalism and compassion of the healthcare professionals she interviewed as part of her research and was keen for her book to reflect that.

“I wanted to make it a book that celebrates our frontline hospital workers and shows children that they will receive the best care should they ever be admitted to hospital. Additionally, reflecting the diversity of hospital workers and children was crucial to me. I want children of all backgrounds who read my books to feel seen, and know they are capable of achieving anything!”

As well as publishing her debut picture book, Freda has now illustrated another picture book. Minty Mae Gray and the Strangely Good Day, written by television and radio personality Fifi Box, will be published in October 2021 by Bright Light, the new children’s book imprint from Hardie Grant. 

“I’m still pinching myself that I get to work in an industry with some of the kindest people who genuinely care about their creators,” Freda says.

The freedom to tell her stories
Freda is currently illustrating a middle-grade fantasy book, and also lectures in illustration at the University of Technology Sydney. Now that she has regained her writing confidence, she’s keen to publish more of her own work.

“I keep a little notebook filled with scribbled ideas that I might use in the future. I hope to write a fiction book eventually, and now feel more confident about pitching a manuscript to publishers when the time comes,” Freda says. 

Her journey to publication was a lot faster than she ever expected, in part because of the valuable tips she learned at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

“If you’re an illustrator who has always wanted to write and illustrate picture books but you’re not confident at writing, the Writing Picture Books course will help you realise that you CAN and will equip you with all the tools you need,” Freda says. “Being able to write and illustrate your own books is a unique skill that allows you more creative freedom to tell the stories you wish to see in the world!”

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