Q&A with author Libby Hathorn

The Best Cat, the Est Cat author Libby Hathorn.
The Best Cat, the Est Cat author Libby Hathorn.
Illustration by Rosie Handley

You've said that poetry has been central to your life for as long as you can remember. How does your passion for poetry influence what you write?

The amazing gift that poetry gives, and keeps on giving to the reader, is the magic and the joy of words.

To me, writing a text for a picture book is much like writing a poem — it should flow yet be succinct; it should be great to read out loud; it should have a twist or a surprise at the end! (I think I've written about 15 or so texts for picture books in verse, but even if they are not in verse, the text must 'flow'.)

As a celebrated and prolific writer with more than 80 books for children and young adults under your belt, what is still the most exciting thing about bringing a story to life?

The process is intoxicating. 

The welcome flash of an idea; the line that comes in some mysterious way that is often like poetry and makes me wonder; getting the idea down in some satisfying way; joining forces with the publisher and an illustrator; and the wonderful task of planning those 32 pages.

Best of all is the day your 'baby' arrives and you can hold your brand-new book in your hand.

You've been on the children's publishing scene for over 40 years now. How have Australian children's stories changed over the years?

Diversity of texts is the biggest change. Forty years ago Australia was at last publishing its own Australian stories (most were English texts before that) and that included Aboriginal writers and illustrators for the first time. 

Our texts were far more diverse and experimental as waves of other cultures arrived here; and sometimes quite radical too.

How did The Best Cat, the Est Cat come about?

I was invited to write a story for children to showcase the amazing riches of our State Library archives. A delightful invitation but a huge, almost frightening task.

How was I to whisk kids around a place so big, with so much to show, unless I used some kind of magic. Then the magic cat and the EST ideas came to me and really seemed to be a winner as kids love things like the biggest and the smallest the weirdest and the funniest.

My granddaughter suggested the pooiest and I even managed to get that in too (see conservators).

You've worked with many talented illustrators over the years. What was it about Rosie's designs that caught your eye?

I've always admired a strong and adventurous sense of design and I could see at once Rosie Handley had both. Also, she is working in this library and so had perfect access to all the treasures we discussed. 

We knew we couldn't possibly show everything but we chose to show a wide range. Her characters — the big black cat and the boy and the girl — came to life quickly.

What do you find captivating about the State Library, and why was it the perfect setting for The Best Cat, the Est Cat?

It is a library, as described in the book, so huge and so cram-packed with treasures, and so imposing; it is a place you could get lost in, so many places, so many hidden corridors and sets of stairs.

And yet it is a place where you can easily find a quiet corner to read, to research, or simply to dream.

What is one thing you hope children will take away when they read The Best Cat, the Est Cat?

That they've enjoyed a good story first and foremost. And while enjoying it they can see that the Library is a treasure trove of a place with so many things to see and do, with so much going on all of the time. That it is their library open to all — it is theirs!

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write their own children’s books?

You have to write a lot so that writing become second nature and of course you have to read a lot. Ideas are everywhere: in your family, on the bus, at school, you have to put up your story antennae, listen and record and let the idea run around in your head a little, before you pounce on it!

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (May Gibbs) as a little kid and Seven Little Australians (Ethel Turner) when I was a bit older. Archives about both these story writers are well represented in this library. Hooray! I also loved a book from my parents' bookcase called A Treasury of Verse — a strange mixture of English and Australian poetry.

What are you reading right now that has made you feel inspired?

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohry (which recently won Miles Franklin Award) is making me think about how a story might form around a labyrinth or a maze. Also, an amazing book, Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathon Brori. I'm circling an idea of a story about a tree! But it has to be Australian.


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