Millie Lewis had an unexpected birthday treat when she received an ‘I'm interested' email from publisher James Layton at Larrikin Books. While on maternity leave from her job as a paediatric psychologist, Millie had turned to writing to reclaim her pre-mummy identity, enrolling in courses at the Australian Writers' Centre. And just a short time later, she had a positive response to her manuscript for Mr Price's Pet Emporium.
“It's hard to describe the excitement that coursed through me in that moment,” Millie told us. “I had this sense that the trajectory of my life was about to change, which was super thrilling.”
Reconnecting with a lost love
Picture books have always been Millie’s first literary loves. She still has tattered copies of Pamela Allen's Who Sank The Boat and Alison Lester's Magic Beach on her bookshelf, and enjoyed revisiting them again as a parent. Six months into her maternity leave, Millie was feeling emotionally and intellectually drained and decided to reclaim some time for herself – starting at the beginning.
“I saw the Writing Picture Books course as an opportunity to pursue a lost passion from my childhood, and to reconnect with myself as a whole person,” Millie says. “I am also a paediatric psychologist in my everyday life, so I have a sincere appreciation for the developmental benefits picture books offer, both in building early literacy skills and in fostering connections between parents and children as they share the joyful experience of reading together.”
Following Writing Picture Books, Millie went on to complete two more courses at the Australian Writers' Centre.
“The Laugh Out Loud course appealed to me because I have always enjoyed funny stories. My son's laugh is the most precious sound in the world to me, and I don't get to hear it when we're reading something deep and meaningful – he is the king of silliness, and much prefers stories with fart noises or people being bonked on the head,” Millie says.
“The Writing Chapter Books for 6-9 year olds course was my brave attempt to move beyond the safe structure of a 500-word picture book story and explore something a
little different. Without the pictures to rely on, you have to flex different writing muscles, and I really enjoyed the challenge of building a larger narrative.”
Finding publishing success
Taking those new skills, Millie dived into the first draft for Mr Price's Pet Emporium, a fun rhyming romp that she finished in a weekend.
“I was feeling particularly motivated!” Millie says. “It has obviously been extensively refined since then with guidance from my amazing publisher, but I had a feeling the bones of the first draft were pretty solid from the second I put down the pen.”
Feeling brave after finishing Writing Picture Books, Millie decided to send her story to the publishers at Larrikin House for a manuscript assessment – which is when she got the positive email from publisher and CEO James Layton.
“To be honest I still have this irrational fear that my publishing contract with Larrikin could all be part of some strange, elaborate prank,” Millie admits. “I won't quite believe it until I'm holding my first book baby in my hands!”
Mr Price's Pet Emporium is filled with creatures of the unusual kind, and if you can see through Mr Price’s trickery and cheeky disguises, you might just find the perfect pet. The book features lavish illustrations by Maria Bazykina.
“Writing Picture Books showed me that I could learn to master something I knew very little about (and trust me, there are transferable lessons there when it comes to parenthood!) For the first time since having a baby, I felt competent at something, and that was truly transformative for me,” Millie says. “Of course, getting a picture book contract the same year was icing on the cake!”
Incorporating creativity into her everyday life
Millie has now returned to work part-time, but still finds time for creativity each day – “even if it's just five minutes of free writing, a silly poem or a rough sketch of a character idea.” She has also dived into the amazing kidlit community online.
“The most wonderful, supportive people you will ever meet!” Millie says. “It's a really nurturing and inspiring space, and I have enjoyed connecting with other writers at all stages of their journeys in groups like the Duck Pond, Creative Kids Tales, Sunshine House, and, of course, my fellow Larrikins!”
And while she has been lucky enough to find publishing success, Millie believes that tapping into her creative side has had other benefits.
“Taking the AWC courses helped me carve out some time in the day for myself to stretch my creativity, without worrying about whether or not the washing was loaded or the shelves were dusted,” she says. “It helped me reprioritise myself at a time when I really needed to, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it made me a better, happier mother.”