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Ask the Author: Lorena Carrington

By Lara Cain Gray

Lorena Carrington is best known as an illustrator whose books have been published in Australia and internationally. Her works are created using photography and digital montage techniques to form richly layered images. She has worked with the likes of Kate Forsyth, Sophie Masson and Carmel Bird, and has illustrated fairy tale collections, picture books, and created covers for novels and anthologies. She also exhibits her work in galleries around Australia, and holds workshops on illustration, books and story. She is recipient of the 2020 Australian Fairy Tale Society award, for her ‘outstanding contribution to the field of Australian Fairy Tales’ and held a May Gibbs Creative Time Fellowship for 2023.  Leaf Letters is her first junior fiction work as both author and illustrator. 
About Leaf Letters: Nine-year-old Hazel Bird is happiest on her own, photographing the tiny wild worlds in her neighbourhood bushland. But then she meets Cole, a boy with a hundred pockets and a strange and marvellous way of talking. Together they find hidden treasure and a handwritten book of secret codes? Can you help them solve the puzzles and discover the mysterious child who buried it so many years ago? 

Q & A with Lorena Carrington

You are best known to readers as an illustrator, but have you always enjoyed writing for children too?
I have! I’ve always had a semi-secret writing life — mostly short stories, picture book texts and half written children’s novels — so it’s lovely (if slightly scary) that one is seeing the light of day. I’ve decided that writing is far more terrifying to send into the world than illustration. People know right away if they like your art style or not, but they have to invest in writing. Both money and time! But saying that, I’ve had a wonderful time weaving my writing and illustration work together. And writing for kids is the absolute best. You get to dive just as deep into a story and say just as much as with adult novels, but it’s neater, more direct and to the point. And playful! Playing with words and ideas is one of my greatest joys, and children’s books are the ideal place to do it.
What inspired you to create this story and these characters?
I’ve always been a collector, of both things and photographs, and I’ve always loved puzzles, secret codes, cryptic crosswords… Any kind of word games really. So basically I wrote myself into a story! Hazel is very much based on my own interests and feelings about the world (albeit from a younger perspective). Cole keeps a lot close to his chest, but he is also generous and kind and wants nothing more than to find a friend in this new place he has moved to, even if his attempts at helping are sometimes misconstrued. Olivia represents the realm outside the little world that Hazel has created for herself. Without giving away too many spoilers, she is integral in opening up Hazel’s horizons again, but has her own complicated life too. Basically, I wanted to create characters who always try to be kind, but are still learning how to exist in an often confusing world.
Can you tell us a little about the creative process for Leaf Letters? What came first, for example, the story or the images?
 If I told you how much illustrator-Lorena swore and shook her fist at writer-Lorena, this would not be a family friendly interview! But mostly they played well together. Because the illustrations are such an integral part of the story, I actually wrote, illustrated, and did a lot of the layout for it at the same time. I needed to know how the illustrations and text would fit together on the page. All of Cole’s dialogue is in illustration form, so it was particularly important that the text and pictures worked together for him. With the exception of the hand written and drawn elements, pretty much all of the illustrations were photographs I took on my phone. So I would write a little bit, then go find something for Cole’s dialogue, or head out into the bush to find some moss to photograph, fit it into the layout, then write the next bit. Very unorthodox but it worked for this particular book. And it made me feel a bit like Hazel, collecting photographs in the same way she does.
What key themes or messages do you hope readers will take away from this story? 
I tell people that this is a book for the quiet kids. And also, it’s for the neurodiverse kids, and the kids who feel like they don’t quite fit in. You can be who you are, and like what you like, and you will find your place in the world, and your people. I really wanted the kids in Leaf Letters to be absolutely their own people. They grow and learn, but no-one forces Cole to speak, and no-one calls Hazel weird for disappearing into the bush to photograph leaves and tiny mushrooms in her own quiet company. They have misunderstandings, in the rift between Hazel and her old friend Olivia, and a moment of drama between Hazel and Cole, but it was important to me that they aren’t pressured to be anything other than themselves. Also, puzzles are cool, and so is collecting interesting rocks, and we should all celebrate the things that bring us joy!
Lorena Carrington – Photographic Illustrator

Lara Cain Gray’s book The Grown Up’s Guide To Picture Books is being published in September this year.

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