This article first appeared in Magpies magazine, Volume Seventeen, Issue No 2, May 2002
Elaine Forrestal: Know the Author by Alison Gregg
She knew she wanted to be involved somehow in children’s learning and development, to nurture creativity and the growth of imagination
The sense of engagement is almost palpable. A room full of bright eyed primary school children hanging on every word, watching every gesture, noting every nuance of voice and volume and changing facial expression, revelling in giving themselves wholly to the story as Elaine Forrestal tells it …
This award-winning children’s author served a long apprenticeship on the way to publication. First there were the stories her family told; the aunt who held them in thrall with bedtime re-telling of stories she had heard or read; the family commitment to art in all its expressions; Elaine’s own developing appetite for books and more books. Her father’s employment in a bank meant frequent moves for the family from one small country town to another. In the little rural schools that Elaine and her brothers attended, the arrival of a new consignment of books from the State Government’s Hadley Travelling Library Scheme was a red-letter day for all. Hadley Boxes were changed only every two months. Elaine had always read them all, from books for beginners through every grade range, well before the next batch was due. A voracious reader, she devoured everything she could find: classic tales of adventure and romance, Boy’s Own Stories, rattling good yarns, Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Horse and The Sign of the Dolphin, biographies of everyone from Scott of the Antarctic (Elaine was firm in her opinion that Oats would have been a better choice as expedition leader) to the Allied secret agent Odette in World War II.
Country town life, and her parent’s commitment to providing the best possible opportunities for their children were a mainstay of Elaine’s childhood. Her mother encouraged their involvement in the arts as participants, not just as viewers. Music was always part of their lives, as were drawing, craftwork, books and writing. The ABC Children’s Session and its Argonauts Club were a great influence. In the version broadcast to children in Western Australia, local author JK Ewers dispensed excellent and individual advice to each child writer.
By the time she had completed Year 10 however, Elaine could see no sense in staying at school. She decided she did not want to be either a teacher or a nurse so she may as well get a job in Perth. Within a few years she was married with two young children, and living in the country again. But it was the experience of watching her children grow and develop that sparked what has since become a lifelong passion. She knew she wanted to be involved somehow in children’s learning and development, to nurture creativity and the growth of imagination. She enrolled in a crash course to enable her to work as teacher’s aide in the local kindergarten. A few years later she moved to Perth, completed a degree in Early Childhood Education, and embarked on a very satisfying career as a pre-school teacher.
But then there was still the sense of stories waiting to be told. She told stories all the time of course, reading from books, re-telling classic tales, making up new ones to fit the activities of the day; enlivening them with puppets, drawings, dress-ups and funny voices.
Elaine says it’s this experience that’s given her a sure feel for audience reaction. She became adept at honing the story to the precise needs of that group at that moment. She and they delighted in the stories she told, but she never thought of writing them down until a colleague, Sharon Thompson (the illustrator of her latest book A Glassful of Giggles) suggested that she should. Elaine used her first long service leave to start putting stories on paper. A friend sent them to a publisher and to Elaine’s amazement, her stories were accepted straight away – but the publisher wanted more. She wrote as hard and as fast as she could. Four were published in Jean Chapman’s Stories to Share (1983). The US magazine, Highlights for Children, picked up others, and suddenly Elaine was a published writer.
She was still teaching and writing and thinking about an idea for a story involving a ghost at Herdsman’s Lake near to her home, but she couldn’t see how she could make it work for young children until a friend said ‘Just write it’. She did, and it became the first draft of her first children’s novel, The Watching Lake, published in 1991 and short listed for the WA Premier’s Book Awards that year.
A writing career
Elaine is now a full-time writer. All of her books retain her trademark sure sense of dialogue. Some are written in the present tense, some in the first person, some from a girl’s standpoint, some are related by a boy – but all are peopled with realistic child characters in realistic settings. There are many recurring themes: close-knit groups of friends; environmental concerns; multicultural and multi-age casts of characters (her depiction of seniors is a particular strength), family and peer relationships, music, exploration of issues that are meaningful to children now.
As an author, Elaine casts her net wide. Her books have dealt with the local environment and history and world issues; immediate concerns such as winning and losing at the school sports day; the child who is always king of the clan, as well as the child who never is. The action is carried largely in the dialogue. The voices are alive and the vocabulary convincing. Elaine listens to all the children at her workshops. She notes their concerns, their speech patterns, their attitudes, the kinds of things they want to know about.
Elaine’s training as a pre-school teacher has never left her. Her writing workshops become a model of creative invention. Children listen to a very brief story Elaine tells. Then, in pairs, they tell stories to each other. Elaine encourages them to embellish one of these stories and write it down. She helps them along with tips and aids. Dress-ups, props, acting in character are all part of the repertoire. Children draw maps, make puppets and models, play musical instruments, invent and sing songs. In workshops based on her books, she invites participants to predict the story from the cover and blurbs, guess at what sort of people they will find in the story, take on the role of a character from the book to respond to questions in a media interview about events … in short, to engage with characters, story and theme in ways that have the most meaning for them. And of course, in the process, she teaches them valuable writing tips and techniques. Many struggling writers would benefit from exposure to the essence of story, character and dialogue that is demonstrated so successfully in Elaine’s writing workshops.
This year has already seen a new collection of stories for young children (A Glassful of Giggles), a new edition of The Watching Lake, and Winning, about a tight knit group of friends who train fiercely and compete against each other in the school sports carnival. It’s about much more than that of course. Like all Elaine’s books it’s multi-layered, with overtones and nuances for those who respond to them. It’s an exploration of motives and actions and their effect on all the characters but, on the simplest level, it’s also about running in the school sports and catching a baddie. In this as in all her other work, Elaine sets out to explore motives, to show why people act in the way they do and the effect this has on others around them. That could sound sententious, but it never is. As a longtime judge of children’s creative writing competitions, Elaine is aware of the issues that concern – but also the joys that bring delight to – the children for whom she writes.
2002 sees the start of a new direction for her. She says kids are always asking her for a sequel, but she hates writing sequels. Instead, her next book will be presented as a trilogy. Each of the three volumes will have a plot line, resolution and closure, but they will be part of the same story written at the same time from the same creative idea. Not sequels, but rather a move in response to the currently popular audience demand to be able to buy books in sets. The story will be set in a vineyard run as a family concern. One family group lives and works on the property; their cousins live in the city where their parents handle promotion and marketing of the business. Both families are often together on the vineyard, and that’s where most of the interaction between the kids takes place.Elaine says she loves the circularity and seasonal differences provided by the setting: the changing seasons, the repeated actions of tending the vines and managing the winemaking process according to the time of year; the seasonal influx of pickers, pruners, bottlers; holiday times when the city family can join the others again. The three books will follow the children’s changing relationships as interests change with maturity, new alliances are formed, and old ties strengthened over time.
And the Gregory Rogers portrait …
Elaine was delighted when Penguin chose Gregory Rogers to provide the cover illustration for Someone Like Me. She hadn’t known him previously but they soon formed a close bond. They share common interests in art, music and good books. The commission came just after he had won the Kate Greenaway Award. Someone Like Me was to be released in the UK, and a cover illustration by the winner of this prestigious British award may well help to bring it to public attention. Although Elaine was delighted with the artwork, she was perhaps even more pleased by the accompanying note passed on by her agent: ‘I hope Elaine enjoys the picture as much as I enjoyed the story.’ She did, and has been just as delighted with the cover illustrations he has provided for three more of her books since then.
So last year, when her husband Peter was casting around for ideas for a very special present for her birthday, he decided to commission a portrait of Elaine from their friend and collaborator Greg Rogers. The trouble was, he wanted to keep it a secret from Elaine. No hint of it should reach her – but Greg lives in Queensland, Elaine in Perth, and the Forrestals share the same phone, fax, snail mail and email addresses. Skullduggery and subterfuge required! Greg and Peter rose to the challenge. Elaine had arranged to meet Greg for coffee and a chat when she was in Brisbane for the Somerset College Literature Festival. He told her then that he’d also been commissioned to do a promotional poster featuring photographs of writers, and on this flimsy excuse he took ‘dozens of photos’ of Elaine hamming it up for the camera. She was feeling relaxed and carefree and entered into the swing of the thing, never suspecting for a moment that there was more to it than met the eye.
Now cut forward to October 2001. It’s nearly Elaine’s birthday. The portrait is finished. How to make arrangements to get it shipped safely to Perth? How to get it installed in her house in secret? More skullduggery needed, with frantic coded messages to accomplices. But somehow it was done. Peter and his sidekick got the handsome portrait up and hung on the wall of the bedroom in which Elaine was (fortunately) fast asleep. She woke on her birthday morning to see … an apparent hole in the bedroom wall!
In the early half light of dawn, her first impression was that someone had knocked a hole clean through the outside wall and let the daylight in. Consternation! What she had seen was light reflecting off the portrait glass. Confusion reigned as she struggled awake and Peter explained, and she saw for the first time the portrait painted by Greg. It now has pride of place in their living room. They are delighted with it, and they also delight in telling the story of its outlandish progress from studio work to treasured birthday gift.