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Six Questions with Gaille Walton

Visitors to The Book Bird know we’re passionate about the environment. Our collection of children’s books that foster a love of animals and plants, and which introduce conservation and activism to young people, is constantly expanding. There’s just so much on offer in this section for the next generation of earth-caretakers: it’s exciting and urgent. One of those books is Hootity Hoot by Gaille Walton, a picture-book for children aged 2-7 about the powerful owl and habitat loss. We chatted with Gaille about her book and the intentions behind it…

Hootity Hoot is the story of a hungry owl whose usual prey cannot be found in the bush. He enlists the help of his unlikely friends – wombat, lizard and galah – to help him find a meal. What gave you the idea for the story? 

I wanted to write a book featuring unique Australian animals. I taught at Chatswood Intensive English Centre in Sydney. The school backed onto natural bushland where a powerful owl dwelt. We witnessed it catching its prey and caring for its young—delightful! Knowing that the powerful owl was a threatened species helped to determine my main character: I wanted to highlight its plight. This formed the direction of my story.

The picture book has a clear environmental message. How would you summarise this message? 

Our flora and fauna are being severely impacted by human behaviour, resulting in loss of food and habitat. We must respect and care for our wildlife by protecting the lands and waterways where they live. Having opportunities to interact with nature is a blessing, a gift, which we must fight to maintain.

You’re clearly passionate about Australian native animals and advocating for their protection. Does this align with your work in other areas (have you worked in conservation, for instance), or is it something you have discovered and explored primarily in this picture book?  

Through teaching I have been very involved with many environmental and social programs—and indeed leading many—such as Clean Up Australia, Bird Week, Wattle Day, and Harmony Day. I still have my ‘Gould League for Birds’ badges from when I was in primary school!

The book is aimed at young readers aged 3–7 but will of likely be read with parents and guardians. What effect do you hope the book will have on your readers? 

I hope children and their carers love my book. I get goosebumps when I’m told that Hoot is the ‘go to’ book at bedtime. Any author’s dream! And I love it when I hear that children have memorised the rhyme. Books are so important in a young person’s development. As a mother, grandmother, and teacher, I have seen first-hand the joy that books spark. I’m privileged and grateful that now my own book, dear Hootity Hoot, is in the world.

If carers and children talk about the characters and setting, I hope that the tale can be related to our real world. Some children will have knowledge of Australia’s droughts and bushfires. Some may have first-hand experience. I hope that carers—family members, teachers—will seize the opportunity to talk about how people are helping our wildlife recover from these traumas—how humans have witnessed our animals helping each other, regardless of the species. I hope they will talk about being mindful to the needs of our precious flora and fauna. Hopefully the conversation will include the importance of community and friendship, adapting to change and resilience.

You dedicate the book to your family and credit them with inspiring you to explore the magic of language. What does the magic of language mean to you?  

Ah, yes! My family! Literature has always been at the core in our households. We’ve all been involved in writing and reading; it’s the fundamental part of education. The magic is in how we string our words together, like pearls in a necklace. This applies to both the oral and written forms of language. Marcus Zusak said of Bridge of Clay, ‘Every word had to earn its place on a page’. I always think of this when I write. In lyrical language, the words must sing together, to harmonise. You have the rhyme, the rhythm, the alliteration and much more. Amanda Gorman’s Presidential Inauguration poem is a stand-out for showing how the deliberate crafting of words is a breathtaking power— magical!

This is your first picture book. How did you find the process of writing, collaborating with an illustrator, and then publishing Hootity Hoot?  

This professional experience is up there with the most satisfying of my career. My book reached fruition because of an online course I completed in 2015. Returning from New York in 2014, I was seated alongside a young Melbourne lady. She had been attending a Writers’ Conference at Stony Brook University on Long Island. It sounded marvellous: one year of online mentoring and two mandatory conferences in New York, and the opportunity to work with twelve like-minded people. I applied, had to include several pieces of writing, and was accepted. The icing on the cake was that Julie Andrew’s daughter was our leader—Emma Hamilton Walton. So cool! Sheer bliss! Powerful Owl’s story was born during this time. My fellow students were such helpful critics.

Collaborating with my illustrator, Graeme Compton, was another fulfilling experience, and continues to be. As you can see, the illustrations are superb—they truly give fervour to my words and portray charming animals against an honest Australian landscape. When I travelled to Narrabri to meet Graeme and his wife, Donna, they were most hospitable and opened several doors for me. For this I am grateful, too.

Hootity Hoot was published by Little Steps. The professional team gave guidance, advice, showed patience but above all gave me complete ownership of every detail, be it the font size and shape, the colour choices and, oh boy (!!) the discussions around punctuation! By the way at Stony Brook we talked, wrote, wined, and dined in a heritage listed windmill on the campus. Why heritage listed? Mark Twain wrote in this very same space! Wow!