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Interview with author/illustrator Sally Rippin
by Charlotte Richardson*

Australian writer and illustrator Sally Rippin grew up in many countries, including China, where in her late teens she studied Chinese traditional painting for three years. She has written and illustrated nine children’s books, illustrated eleven picture books by other authors and written two young adult novels. In addition to writing and illustrating books, Sally teaches a course on writing for children at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and is an active and popular presenter at schools and literary events.

She currently lives in Melbourne with her three boys and her Italian-Australian partner.


As writer and illustrator of both picture books and young adult novels, you have developed a rare set of talents. How do you go about starting a new project?

There are many ways I begin a new project, but almost always I sit with it for a while until I can find a way in. With illustration, I might make a few initial sketches in the beginning to help me visualize my ideas, but if I have the time I try to hold onto the manuscript for a while to let my ideas mature before I start the finished artwork. Usually I have two or three manuscripts ahead of me at one time, so this leaves me time to think about them before I begin work. Then, when I am ready, I try to clear some free time so that I can concentrate on the project without too many other distractions and really submerge myself in my work.

If I am writing a novel, I will usually try to get all my ideas down in one go while they are ‘hot’. This might be the whole story or just the basic framework. Then I put it away for a while to let it mature. During this time I think about themes I want to expand on or what it is I want to say in my novel. The rewriting and editing can take a long time, depending on how long the piece is. This is the ‘cold’ writing. I try to keep these two processes separate; otherwise my writing becomes lukewarm.

In The Rainbirds, written by David Metzenthen and cited as a 2006 Honour Book in the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year Awards, a young city boy connects with the pull of the natural world through the birds who migrate from country to city each autumn. Your beautiful, mixed-media illustrations create a seamless integration with the story. How do you attune your approach to different subject matter and locations? How do you go about creating a "sense of place" through your illustrations?

I am very influenced by the philosophy behind Chinese painting in my illustrations. This philosophy dates back thousands of years and is still practiced today. Chinese painters believe you don’t paint what is in front of you, you paint how you feel about what is in front of you. If a Chinese artist were to visit a magnificent landscape, he might make sketches while he is there, but the finished work would always be done in his studio. There, rather than trying to reproduce the landscape exactly, he paints his response to it. For me, art is an emotional response to the world, not a technical reproduction – we have cameras to do that. So, when I paint a landscape or an environment I work to reproduce the feeling of the place rather than its exact look.

Your picture book, Millie, about an irrepressible mischief-making but much-loved little girl, seems to be printed in only two colors. On your website you say: "The brushstokes are done in Chinese ink with a sheep hair brush and the scribbly red throughout is red pencil." How were decisions made about full color or limited color in the children’s books you’ve illustrated so far?

Surprisingly enough, Millie is actually a four-color reproduction – something I am eternally grateful to the publishers for. They could have easily done it cheaper but decided not to, which means all the lovely tones in the black come through. To have done it otherwise would have completely flattened the illustrations.

Usually the only black and white work I do is for chapter books – understandably to keep the cost down so that they can be sold cheaply. Books have become very expensive to buy in Australia – especially picture books!

How do the painting techniques you've learned in China influence your work as an illustrator?

My experience as an illustrator over the last ten years has made me fully appreciate and value all the painting techniques I learnt while living in China, not only in terms of brushwork and composition, but also in the way it's helped me understand the importance of the meditative act of painting as a vital part of my emotional well-being.

Does your experience of parenting affect your writing and illustration? How much are daily experiences an inspiration for your work?

Having kids, being around kids, affects everything I do. I can’t remember a time without children. I became a mother at 23, around about the same time I had my first book published. I have always combined my work with parenthood. However, even though my kids influence my work a great deal, most of my ideas still come from my own childhood. Watching my own kids’ experience of the world, I am still an outsider. If I draw from my own childhood, my ideas come from within and they have the authenticity of experience. It is my preferred way of writing. You don’t need to have kids to write for children; it’s more useful to have a vivid memory of your own childhood.

You have a new book, Water Buffalo Boy, coming out in Korea and are currently working on a novel. How is it all going? How do you organize your time between active writing and illustration projects and the public speaking and teaching?

I am very practiced at multi-tasking and I have a great partner who only works part-time. Without him I don’t think I could work at all! We just juggle everything as best as we can and try to remain flexible. Our kids are always our priority. Sometimes I look at friends with no kids and wonder what it would be like to have all that extra time, but I think having kids has forced me to become very organized and efficient.

Your family and South African storyteller/musician Valanga Khoza’s are friends, and you’ve even modeled characters on his children. How did you get to know each other? Did you develop a friendship first and then collaborate on Gezani and the Tricky Baboon, or vice versa?

We met at a Children’s Literature festival and quickly became good friends, eventually sharing a house together for a short time – both as single parents. The book came about after watching him perform to children – he is a mesmerizing oral storyteller and musician. We approached a publisher together and then she and I literally sat in the back of my son’s classroom while Valanga performed and we wrote down his story word for word. He is now my son’s godfather and I am his daughter’s godmother. In a way we feel like a family that has chosen to be together.

In the U.S., collaboration between writers and illustrators of children’s books is rare. Is the creative process more collaborative in Australia?  

I have been fortunate to collaborate quite closely with authors on a few of my books. Most of the time I know the author already, so I will talk to them about their ideas before I start my work. And if I don’t know the author, I will usually ask for the opportunity to talk with them beforehand, if they are interested. A picture book text is so sparse that I think it’s really important to hear what the manuscript means to the author, to help bring out in the illustrations everything they want to say. Then, once I have digested all their ideas, I will add my own, so hopefully the end result becomes rich and many-layered as well as true to both our artistic visions of the finished work.

Cultural traditions are always being re-invented, retold and re-imagined by authors and illustrators committed to young readers, reflecting both changing political values and, at least here in the U.S., increasing corporate influence on content. What does it mean for you, personally, as an Australian illustrator, to work in this day and age?

This is difficult for me to answer because I have never worked elsewhere as an illustrator. I guess I believe that the role of artists in our society is not merely to distract or decorate. Whether creating art for children or adults, artists have the opportunity to provide an alternative way of looking at the world and fuel to think and respond to it differently. Most artists too are driven by something other than money, which means they have to feel passionately about what they do in order to survive in our materialistic, consumerist society.

You’ve written about the pressure from publishers to draw “blended” faces rather than racially specific characters. How do you navigate the tension between what you choose to represent through your illustrations, and what publishing houses are willing to publish? Have you ever had to be "accommodating" in that regard?

In the end, whether I like it or not, there is nothing I can do if a publisher won’t publish my work as I first envision it. Many of my ideas are rejected, but I just keep chipping away…

Many of the books you have illustrated so far have a strong spiritual feel to them, whether overtly, like Becoming Buddha, or indirectly, as in The Rainbirds and When It Is Time. From your experience, how do books work most effectively to foster spiritual awareness in children?

I guess I see art – creation – as a form of spirituality. I am actually not a fan of organized religion, but I do believe there is a need for spirituality – for community, empathy and goodwill. Probably most religions begin with good intentions, but they become distorted by human frailty and then used as tools for self-righteousness. I think people need to look within to find a sense of morality and their place in the world. What I aim to create in my art for children is my own understanding and appreciation of this world and hopefully a starting point for them to develop their own connection with it.

Your young adult novel Chenxi and the Foreigner was revised considerably for re-issue, ten years after you completed the original manuscript. During the intervening decade, you wrote and illustrated many picture books. Do you think your experience as an illustrator informed your revision of Chenxi and the Foreigner, in which there are no illustrations to carry the narrative?

The changes I made in re-writing the novel were deeper political changes that I hadn’t felt confident to write about when I first began the novel in my early twenties. Chenxi is a very visual novel for me for two reasons: firstly because it describes the world of art and secondly because it is a record of a city that no longer exists. When I first began writing it, I was very aware that I was recording the details of a city that was rapidly changing. Shanghai nowadays looks very different from how it looked when I was a student there, over fifteen years ago. I also wanted to make it as visual as possible for the reader who has never been to China, so that they could picture the places I describe as if they had been there themselves. Most of those descriptive scenes remain the same. When I revisited the novel to write the new edition, I was very grateful for all the descriptive detail that I had included, because it helped transport me back to my time there.

To end our interview, could you please tell us a little bit about some of your upcoming projects?

In addition to the revised edition of my novel Chenxi and the Foreigner, I have three new picture books in production: Where Is Baby?, which I also wrote (Allen and Unwin); Elephant Mountain, by Janeen Brian (Penguin/Aussie Bite); and Water Buffalo Boy, a story by S E Kang set in Vietnam (Yeowon Media, Korea). I am also hoping to finish another young adult novel (my third) that I began writing in early 2007.

*Charlotte Richardson is a PaperTigers blogger and contributor

Posted January 2008

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Sally Rippin

Sally Rippin

By Sally Rippin:

Written & Illustrated ~

The Magic Mirror (Lothian/Hachette Giggles, 2007)

My Best Friend Is A Vampire
(Penguin/Aussie Bite, 2006)

The Really Big Food Project (Curriculum Corporation, 2004)

A Baby Brother For Little Bean
(Scholastic, 2000)

The Longest Noodle Ever (Scholastic, 2000)

Twin Trouble
(Omnibus Books, 2000)

What a Mess, Fang Fang! (Omnibus Books 1998)
CBCA Notable Book

Fang Fang's Chinese New Year
(Omnibus Books, 1996) Winner of the CBCA Crichton Award for illustration

Speak Chinese, Fang Fang! (Omnibus Books, 1996)

Illustrated ~

The Search of Fred Beany, by Kate Ryan
(Lothian, 2007)

The Rainbirds
by David Metzenthen
(Lothian, 2006)
Honour Book CBCA Awards, Shortlisted for the APA Book Design Awards

by Jenni Overend (Lothian/Start-Up, 2005)

Becoming Buddha - The Story of Siddhartha
by Whitney Stewart
(Lothian, 2005)

What Makes Me Me
by Stacey McLeary
(Lothian, 2005)

When It Is Time
by Stacey McLeary
(Lothian, 2004)

Too Many Monkeys
by Margaret Wild
(Omnibus, 2004)

Gezani and The Tricky Baboon
by Valanga Khoza
(Allen & Unwin, 2003)
Shortlisted for the APA Book Design Awards
Shortlisted for the Bilby Awards
Shortlisted for the 'Speech Pathology Australia' Book of the Year.

Young Adult ~

Leopard Skin
(Lothian, 2003)

Chenxi and The Foreigner (Lothian, 2002; 2008 revised edition)
CBCA Notable Book

More on the web:

What Colour Are Australians? (article first published in Viewpoint - Vol 14, no. 4)

Sample of Sally's illustrations

For more information, visit her website.


Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review


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