Shelly's latest picture book is Hello Baby, with adorable illustrations by Jedda Robaard, published by Allen & Unwin.
Shelly's debut was a series of counting-themed picture books for one to five-year-olds – published in June 2017 through Allen & Unwin.
Shelly Unwin was a stay-at-home mum with a young family when she decided to take the leap of faith and try her hand at writing picture books. “I was reading to my daughter one night and suddenly I knew 100% that was what I wanted to do,” recalls Shelly.
She decided that she needed to do a course – fully prepared to admit that there was in fact a huge amount to learn about writing picture books that she didn’t know. “I wanted to give myself a solid foundation so that when a story idea came to me, I would be able to execute it well,” she says. “I also wanted to learn about the picture book market and how to approach publishers. I was very eager to get going quickly, but in the right way.”
After searching online, the idea of a short five-week course with the Australian Writers’ Centre appealed – as it only required a few hours commitment each week and fitted in with her busy life with a baby and a three-year old. She enrolled in the aptly titled course, Writing Picture Books.
Graduate of Australian Writers' Centre, now a full-time author
What Shelly learnt from AWC:
“If it wasn’t for this course I would most likely have started submitting and wondering why nothing was sticking,” admits Shelly. But thanks to the guidance of course presenter Cathie Tasker, she was able to understand the “big picture” to putting together a picture book.
“Cathie’s knowledge of the picture book market was fantastic – she’d worked in the industry for years and years. We learnt so much about the conventions of structuring a story, and identified the patterns in successful stories. We looked at pace, rhythm and cadence, voice and characterisation. It was all tremendously valuable. I am naturally drawn to writing in rhyme and without this course I would have been writing everything in rhyme because I liked it, rather than because the story demanded it.”
The course gave Shelly the fundamental building blocks and from there it was all about practice, dedication and imagination. “If it wasn’t for this course I think I would have wasted a lot of valuable time writing long texts that missed the mark and that would have driven editors and parents mad!”
Shelly is now writing full-time – or as ‘full-time’ as being a mum to young children will allow. Her kids are now both at school, so between the hours of 9.30am and 3pm you will find her on her laptop.
“I LOVE that I can call this my job. It is my passion and my obsession, and for me the biggest thrill, even above being offered a new contract, is when I get a new idea. My blood races and for the first few weeks of the idea I feel like I am racing time to try and nail my thoughts on the page, it’s exhilarating knowing that I’m on to something.”
She launched her first picture book series (You're One!, You're Two!, You're Three!, You're Four! and You're Five!) in June 2017, and they were released in the USA in 2019 by DoubleDay Books. Shelly has gone on to publish several more bright and beautiful picture books.
Did Shelly ever imagine she’d find success with a great publishing deal? Well actually, yes. She could quite literally picture it!
“I imagined it as strongly as I could. I made myself a positive affirmation poster for my tea cupboard door. And I visualised not just a publishing contract – but a ‘great’ publishing contract.”
And she certainly has no regrets. “The Writing Picture Books course at AWC is a long-term investment in your writing and worth every penny. You might even get a critique group together after the course like I did – and the value of this keeps on giving.
“It was a really great course, I learnt what I didn’t know, and there’s so much that you don’t know about writing picture books, it’s such a craft. From reading a picture book it looks so simple, it’s only when you start to explore what’s involved that you learn how much there is to it. Go NOW and sign up!”
Above: Shelly Unwin's book series launch, hosted by Valerie Khoo.