Lesley Gibbes makes a splash with her ‘Three Little Mermaids’ picture book

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We're absolutely thrilled that our amazing presenter Lesley Gibbes has published another children's book. Three Little Mermaids, which is beautifully illustrated by Lisa Stewart, is out now with Scholastic Australia.

Lesley is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for children. Her chapter book series Fizz has been published in the US, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, France and Iran. The first book in the series, Fizz and the Police Dog Tryouts was awarded CBCA Notable Book for Younger Readers in 2017. Since then, she has continued to write chapter books for younger readers as well as picture books for littlies.

With all this experience, you can imagine the breadth of knowledge Lesley brings as an AWC course creator and presenter is extraordinary. It's not superlative to say that our students love her.

Writing Chapter Books for 6-9 year olds was the best writing course I’ve done. Lesley was a great presenter and every second I set aside for this course was focused purely on learning. The short writing assignment critiqued by Lesley was a fantastic bonus. The parameters of this assignment reinforced all the major points of the course and I had great fun putting them into practice.” – Carolyn Eldridge-Alfonzetti

We sat down to pick Lesley's brain about Three Little Mermaids, her writing process, and teaching at the Australian Writers' Centre.

How did the idea for Three Little Mermaids come about?

Three Little Mermaids is a poem and poems always come to me as a rhythm. I listen to the rhythm over and over again. I tap it. I walk in time to it. I play around with it in my head until I know just who it belongs to.

Unlike the marching, determined rhythm of my characters in Scary Night, this rhythm was quiet, mysterious and magical. It took me away into the underwater world of three little mermaids. Soon the rhythm gave way to words.

Under the rock shelf, through ribbons of weed,

Across the sandbar, where the stingrays feed,

Over the coral, lit bright by the sun,

Three Little Mermaids begin to have fun.

So you start with the rhythm. What comes next?

At this point, I needed to decide on the story. I had my characters, setting and rhythm, but what exactly were my mermaids going to do? 

It’s bedtime and the mermaids have been sent off to sleep, but the ocean is calling, and they want to play. The three little mermaids leave their beds and sneak out for more fun. When the grown-ups catch them they’re sent back to bed, but these naughty mermaids keep sneaking out for more play until finally they meet a shark!

Now I knew my story, I needed to find a structure to hang it on. I often spend time reading picture books just to look at the structure. There are so many to choose from. Scary Night had a linear structure where the story started at point A, with the three characters beginning a mysterious journey, and moved forward to point B, their final destination.

Three Little Mermaids needed something different, so I decided on a circular structure. My three little mermaids would leave their cosy beds to play in a magical underwater playground then, after being caught by the grown-ups, would return back to bed. This circular pattern would repeat again and again until, after meeting a shark, they finally return to bed for good and go to sleep.

Tell us about how you got this book published

After polishing the text, I put the manuscript away for a few weeks and worked on something else. This allowed me to look at the manuscript with fresh eyes before submitting the work.

My first submission was to my agent. My agent liked the story, so she pitched the manuscript to publishers on my behalf.

It can take many months to get an answer from a publisher. Manuscripts are taken to acquisition meetings and are discussed by all members of the publishing house team. Everyone has to be in agreement before a manuscript is accepted. Luckily for me the team at Scholastic loved Three Little Mermaids and made an offer on the manuscript. After accepting the offer there was a wait for the contract to be drawn up and signed.

Many new writers are surprised at just how long it takes for a picture book to be published once it has been accepted. It can take time to find the right illustrator and then more time for that illustrator to be ready to begin the illustrations for your story. And then it takes maybe a year or more for an illustrator to complete the illustrations.

How does the illustration process work?

During the illustration process for Three Little Mermaids I saw sketches, then complete storyboards of the break-up of text and accompanying draft illustrations. It was at this stage that I was able to make comments about Lisa Stewart’s illustrations and suggest changes. After these discussions, the illustrator can begin creating full-colour illustrations. 

When everyone is happy with the illustrations, cover, font and overall design of the book, it’s time to work on the blurb (this was done by my editor) and the dedication page. I dedicated Three Little Mermaids to my husband and two children. After a final once over (or more) it’s off to the printers.

Wow, there's a lot involved in publishing a picture book! 

Picture book authors need to be patient. Not only is the illustration process a long one, but sometimes there are other unforeseen delays. A change over in editor for Three Little Mermaids delayed publication further. All up it was a long, long wait. The Three Little Mermaids manuscript was accepted in May 2017 and finally published in January 2020.

Was it worth the wait? Of course it was! It’s a wonderful feeling when the postman calls with a box of advanced copies of your work and you see the final product.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being an author?

Teaching is the most rewarding thing for me about being an author. I was a passionate primary school teacher for sixteen years before turning my hand to writing. I get so much joy out of combining my passion for children’s literature and writing with my passion for teaching. 

My favourite teaching experience is my online course for the Australian Writers’ Centre where I share my knowledge and passion about writing chapter books.

Congratulations, Lesley, on your latest achievement!

It's safe to say that Lesley's passion for teaching really comes through in her courses and we're pleased as punch to have her as an AWC presenter.

“Lesley Gibbes was a personable, knowledgeable and highly engaging presenter. She demonstrated a wealth of knowledge about chapter books beyond her own titles. The most enjoyable part was delving into the details about chapter books, and hearing Lesley's tips on word choices, themes and sentence structure. I appreciated that we got straight into it and focused on learning about chapter books, and listening to what Lesley had to say.” – Liz Ledden

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