Before she even had kids, AWC graduate Jo Dabrowski loved buying and reading picture books and dreamed of one day being a published author herself.
“I’m great at imagining things! I should also say that I’ve imagined winning an Oscar, but I’m yet to imagine what category it would be in,” Jo told us. “The part I struggle with is believing I’m a published author. I still feel like someone has made a mistake somewhere and I’m about to be found out.”
But it is definitely not a mistake! Since completing Writing Picture Books at the Australian Writers' Centre, Jo has published two picture books, which she also illustrated, and her middle grade novel Get Your Act Together, Doris Kozlowski, is out now with Affirm Press.
“That was still truly one of the happiest and most exciting moments of my life,” Jo says, about being published. “Getting that first email with an offer for a contract was an absolute dream come true.”
From copywriter to picture book author
Jo had been working as a copywriter in advertising before taking time off to have children, then moved into freelance copywriting as her kids got older. But she wanted to try something new, so turned to the Writing Picture Books course at the Australian Writers' Centre.
“I’d had an idea for a picture book, and I wrote it, but I could see that it was long and wordy and pretty terrible actually, so I figured I could do with some advice,” Jo says.
The course was invaluable, as it helped Jo to quickly understand what makes a good picture book.
“I suspect a lot of people think that writing for kids is easy, especially writing picture books because they’re so short. But writing a picture book doesn’t just involve typing your story into a Word document. There are certain rules you need to be aware of and there’s a lot of crafting involved, and that’s what I found most useful in the course. Learning about things like structure, word limits, page numbers, all of that was totally new to me and I found it really valuable. As well as learning how to present a manuscript so that I was giving it the best chance of being acquisitioned.”
As well as learning the practical side of writing a picture book, Jo found the course sparked her creative imagination.
“It inspired me to think about the sort of books I wanted to write,” Jo says. “It may sound really obvious to other people but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me before that. Perhaps it was coming from an advertising background, where you’re encouraged to have great ideas, but the subject matter is never your choice. When it comes to writing books, it’s so important (and makes your life a lot happier) to write in a style or about subjects that genuinely interest you and are most suited to your sense of humour or personality.”
Jo’s first manuscript to be acquired was Have You Seen My Friend?, which Jo submitted as a mock-up of the book with rough line drawings, something she was used to doing from her advertising days. The manuscript was accepted by Affirm Press, who also liked Jo’s idea for Higher!, but their acquisition brought with them a new unexpected challenge – illustrating!
“It was Tash Besliev, my publisher at Affirm Press, who suggested we turn both stories into board books. She also suggested that I should illustrate them as well, which I totally wasn’t expecting. I had started making paper collages during lockdown in Melbourne and I think the bold, colourful papercut style worked for those two books, but I don’t imagine myself illustrating all my picture books in the future. I’m definitely more comfortable with words than pictures!”
The tools to be a successful author of children’s books
After completing Writing Picture Books, Jo then took the course Writing Children's Novels to broaden her understanding of writing in general.
“I enrolled purely thinking it might help me with my picture book writing. At the time, I genuinely never imagined I’d write a novel. Especially since one of my least favourite tasks as a copywriter was to write long copy!” Jo admits. “But in the last session of the course, the assignment we were given was to write a piece from the perspective of a teenager. I enjoyed it more than any other writing I’d ever done before. Pamela gave me such positive feedback about how my piece had made her laugh that it was the boost I
needed to try writing a middle grade novel.”
That novel is Get Your Act Together, Doris Kozlowski! which is out now with Affirm Press. It follows Doris Kozlowski, as she navigates grade six, her embarrassing family and finding her true friends.
With three published books under her belt, Jo is keen to keep writing across a wide age range, fitting her writing in around her day-to-day life.
“Right now, I’m working on my second middle grade novel, and I have a few picture book manuscripts on the go as well,” Jo says. “The school day is short, so I try to write as much as I can while my boys are out of the house. If I’m honest, some days I do find it hard to get going and am easily distracted by the sudden urge to hang out the washing or dive into the giant jar of cashews in the kitchen drawer. Quite often I find I’m at my most productive between 1pm and 3pm because I know school pick up is looming! I’ll often cram a day’s worth of writing into those final two hours.
“If I get some freelance copywriting work, I put my own writing on hold temporarily and focus on the advertising work. That’s always a good kick up the bum, as it reminds me to stay focused on my books while I have the time.”
Jo’s advice to other would-be writers is to give it a go.
“I think if you’re at all interested in writing for kids, doing a course with the AWC is a great first step to take. It can help you work out very quickly whether or not you have the right skills and if you’re interested in doing the work to develop them. The length of the courses and the workload involved make them completely manageable and easy to fit in with other commitments and life in general.”
Courses completed at AWC: