An interview with creative dynamo, Briony Stewart

Published on Wednesday, 18 August 2021
Last updated on Monday, 16 August 2021

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Briony Stewart is a mum-of-two and award-winning children’s book creator. Her wondrous words and imaginative illustrations have won many young fans since her first book was published back in 2007, and there’s excitement aplenty in Briony’s dog-tastic Magoo series.

Her first Magoo book – We Love You, Magoo – has captured the hearts of book lovers, dog lovers and publishing gurus, and Briony’s second title in the series, Where Are You, Magoo? is hot off the press.

To learn about Magoo’s back story, and see how picture books can inspire a love of reading in early childhood, we spoke with Briony herself.

What inspired you to write We Love You, Magoo, and what’s the story about?

The story of Magoo came up when I could see a certain dynamic playing out between my two year-old and our dog. She was finally noticing that he was part of our family, but she also enjoyed telling him off. If he even so much as looked at her breakfast she’d say, “No Fergus, this is NOT for you!”

Of course at the time, I myself was saying “No” a fair bit. I was the mum of a two-year-old, a pretty full-on dog and a brand-new baby. So, it was a funny sort of mimicking, but it also made me feel very sorry for our poor dog!

In a very short time, he had gone from being the ‘only baby’ of the family, to a second-class citizen!

So, the story is really about that. It’s about a dog who’s quite like a toddler and is learning what he can and can’t do. Not because we are mean, of course, but because we love him and want to take care of him.

Where Are You Magoo? has just come out. How do you hope preschoolers will respond to this second Magoo story?

I hope part of the fun of this series is that the little people being read the latest story already know when Magoo is doing the wrong things, and they can enjoy knowing better!

The Magoo books are designed for sharing. An adult reads as Magoo, and the refrain is fun to say, and to repeat.

These books encourage reading aloud, and hopefully an enjoyment of rhythm and language, too. But most of all, I just hope they teach a little person that books are fun, and being read to is fun, so they can build on that as they become readers themselves.

Whether parents are reading Magoo or another book, how can we instill a love of reading in our children from an early age?

Just by taking the time to make reading-time a warm, enveloping feeling.

It doesn’t really matter what you are reading. It’s just important to be patient and read books (even the ones you’re very bored of, or dislike) whenever asked (well, as much as you can bear) – whether that’s at the breakfast table, on the potty or in the garden.

Parents can also develop a love of reading by:

  • Doing all the silly voices, including pretend indignation and showing how a story can be brought to life.
  • Making trips to libraries and bookshops and letting children choose something without judgment, and
  • Showing children that the world inside is as big and rich as the world outside by linking the two. Maybe your local nature park is a Gruffalo forest? Maybe a mermaid lives under that bridge? Maybe Snugglepot and Cuddlepie live in that big, old gumtree?

These kinds of questions open the mind up to possibilities and adventure, and if children enjoy that feeling, then they’re more than likely going to LOVE the world of books.

You’ve created books with deeper themes, such as loss and fear. Whether a picture book is funny or heartfelt, what does it need to engage and delight under fives?

I think it has to have two things: A sense of playfulness and a kernel of truth.

The playfulness can be comedy, it can be surprises and quirkiness, or it can simply be a fun or beautiful use of figurative language and/or rhythm, pattern or colour play in the illustrations.

The truth part is that bit of the book that comes from something you’ve noticed or experienced or wondered about the world, that you can put into the story. It doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful, but you have to have a connection to it or personal delight in it. I think that’s the winning combo.

Which picture books have been a hit in your family over the years?

Oh goodness, we have so many favourites!

Of the classics, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, and The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers are requested often. Both of those are well told, fun stories with great illustrations.

My daughter was hugely into the Maisy mouse books as a two- and three-year-old. I think she liked the themes, but also the fact that she could memorise them and ‘read’ the books to herself.

My son is three now and loves all the roadworks books by Sally Sutton (again, because he can recite them).

Anything written and/or illustrated by our friend Karen Blair is usually also a favourite.

I should probably say Magoo too, because my daughter has chosen it and taken it home from her school library twice now, even though we have it at home!

That’s so great to hear, and we can’t wait to see what you create next. Where Are You, Magoo? by Briony Stewart is published by Penguin Random House Australia

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