Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan - A Lion and Dragonfly Interview!
We couldn't be more thrilled to share this delightful interview with Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan - the team behind the brilliant Cannonball! They explained that in their home of New Zealand, cannonballs are known as bombs - and are quite a popular summertime endeavor! Read on to learn a bit more about their creative and personal partnership - including their best collaboration: a baby boy!
Kia Ora Sacha and Josh!
What was the inspiration for Cannonball?
Here in New Zealand cannonballs (or as we call them here, bombs) are a huge part of our culture. If you travel through our country on any given day, but especially in the summer, you are bound to come across children and adults alike jumping into the sea, pools, rivers and lakes for hours and hours at a time. One summer visiting my parents, I was admiring the skill of some children doing cannonballs - it really took me back to being a kid myself and got me thinking - there needs to be a picture book celebrating the art and joy of cannonballs!!
On top of that, cannonballing is something that is particularly popular with Māori and we really wanted to create a book that young Māori could recognise themselves in and connect with. This is especially important as Josh (who is of Māori descent) and I are published by an independent Māori publisher in New Zealand (HUIA Publishers).
When I started thinking about cannonballs, I had lots of things swirling around in my mind. My grandmother had passed away a year or two before I wrote the story, and her independent, sassy nature was very much on my mind. I was remembering all her great stories of riding horses, driving trucks and racing speedboats as a young woman - so she very much inspired the Nan in the story, who is an incredible force and absolute pillar of support for her grandchild.
I also kept thinking about what it would be like to be a child, very much immersed in the cannonballing world, but who perhaps wasn’t your typical cannonballer in certain ways and was yet to pull off a cannonball. I wanted to go on a journey with the child, working through issues of self-doubt, confidence, having people tell him what he should be doing etc - but it would only be when the child really embraced who he was as a person and was brave enough to listen to his own burgeoning voice - that everything would fall into place for him.
How did you come to collaborate on this book?
Cannonball is our third picture book together. All of our picture books have been published by HUIA in New Zealand in both English and Māori.
Our first picture book was Keys and we have our publishers to thank for pairing us up (something we will be forever grateful for!) We didn’t actually meet or have any communication until the day of the book launch. This is quite typical between authors and illustrators of picture books - in fact sometimes they don’t meet at all!!
As it turned out, both Josh and I lived in Wellington, so we found that we were able to do book events together and by the time we published our second book, The Marble Maker, we had become friends.
For our first two books, we followed the standard path of me submitting my manuscript and then, when it got approval - Josh was selected to illustrate them. But by the time I had written The Bomb (Cannonball) I knew that I wanted to work with only Josh as I adored his work and we were beginning to get into a bit of a performance routine when sharing our books at events - which was something we were both keen to develop further.
Because of this we made a decision to submit the manuscript for Cannonball/The Bomb together. This meant lots of coffee meetings brainstorming and creating a vision for the story. Together we created an initial storyboard for the book and somewhere over the course of all those coffees and creative sparks - we found ourselves falling in love!! By the time The Bomb was published in New Zealand a year or so later, not only had we created a beautiful book together - but I was also recently pregnant with our baby son.
What inspired you to become an author/illustrator?
I think the pivotal moment was discovering some of the picture books I loved as a kid when I was putting on story time readings at a public library. I had just finished an illustration degree and was working part time as a library assistant. The book I found was probably something like The Monster at the End of this Book, The Elephant and the Bad Baby or The Kuia and the Spider. I think it was the mixture of the strong nostalgic feeling reading these books again, having fun reading them out loud, watching how the kids connected to the stories, the wonderful shared experience of storytelling, and just being simply blown away with the picturebook artform that lit the fire. From then on, making picture books was the dream.
What do you think are the ingredients for a great children’s book?
Something that evokes emotion - something that can make you laugh, or cry, feel delighted, inspired, entertained, understood, connected. It needs to make you feel something.
I also adore picture books with beautiful, rich, illustrations, interesting palette choices and innovative design - even more so when thought has gone into the production quality and finish of the book itself.
I also think it’s very important for the words to flow. They don’t need to rhyme necessarily - but they do need to have rhythm and roll of the tongue nicely. For the most part, picture books are designed to be read aloud - so they need to sound as beautiful as they look.
What is your hometown?
I grew up in and around a very small town on the east coast of the north island called Kawerau. Kawerau is in an area called the Bay of Plenty and it is very close to beautiful lakes, bush and the sea - because of this I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in nature as a kid.
I live in a very beautiful city now (Wellington) but even so, some days I am completely overwhelmed by a longing to be back home, with my toes in the sand at Ōhope Beach.
I am also from a small town in New Zealand called Feilding which is near the bottom of the North Island. There were a number of good swimming holes in the two awa (rivers) in the area where we would spend many hours doing “cannonballs” in the summertime!
What is your favorite place to write?
Sacha: It depends on what stage I’m at. When I’m in the early ideas/brainstorming stage I quite like writing in a cafe - I find the low level hum of cafe life quite energising for my daydreaming!! Later, when I am really putting pen to paper, I find I work best completely alone and in silence - often at our sunny kitchen table. I tend to read my writing aloud over and over again, so having a quiet, private space to do this suits me best.
Josh: I don’t have a set place where I do my work. Most of my illustrations are digital nowadays, mainly created on an iPad. Actually, a fair bit of the illustrations for Cannonball were done on a laptop and iPad on lunch breaks in my car as I couldn’t find a suitable space at my office day-job. The car was parked next to the Botanical Gardens in Wellington though, so there was a lot of beautiful scenery and big Pōhutukawa trees to inspire me (a lot of the trees in the book are Pōhutukawa trees!!)
Do you listen to music while you are working? If so, what’s currently on your playlist?
I’m lucky that I get to listen to music while I illustrate. I can’t when I write and I think Sacha can’t when she writes either. I mostly listen to (and try to school myself on) 60s and 70s soul, R&B and rock n’ roll/punk and reggae. I also listen to a lot of podcasts. The podcasts I have been listening to recently are, the Adam Buxton Podcast, Revisionist History, Ologies with Alie Ward, RNZ’z Black Sheep, The Office Deep Dive with Brian Baumgartner, Broken Record and a Beatles podcast, Something about the Beatles.
I am a big Beatles fan (they were my musical awakening as an 11 year old) so I often have a Beatles album on high rotation. At the moment it is Anthology 2. The other albums I am loving listening to when I work are Leon Bridges new album, Gold-Diggers Sound, Louis Baker’s album Love Levitates, Troy Kingi’s album The Ghost of Freddie Cesar, and Stevie Wonder’s album Sign Sealed and Delivered (his cover of the Beatles’ We Can Work it Out is incredible!!!)
What picture book do you never tire of reading to children?
Sacha: Thankfully the Hairy McClary books by Lynley Dodd never seem to get old - which is good considering our little boy demands that we read them about a billion times a day!!!
Sacha and I have read/performed our books The Marble Maker and The Bomb countless times at festivals and schools and they never get old. I think we have tried to keep them fresh by trying to outdo our performance each last time. The Marble Maker gets more theatrical each time and we have ended up adding more and more props and dances to the performance. Plus I think the writing—Sacha’s writing!!—is just so fun and quirky and heartfelt with such great characters that they are wonderful to read out loud.
What children’s book (other than your own) are you recommending to friends at the moment?
Sacha & Josh:
Oh this is a tough one!! There are so many books that we ADORE and we’re always adding to our list of favourites. Off the top of my head, some picture books that we’d both recommend are:
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson, I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen, Penguin Problems by Jory John & Lane Smith, Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love and Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space by Dr Dominic Walliman & Ben Newman….. Honestly…..we could go on and on and on…...and on!
It’s back-to-school season in Virginia (where Lion & Dragonfly is based). We have to know: What is your favorite school supply?
Sacha: Two things. Firstly, at all times I like to have an A4 plain, unlined notebook with thick white pages (the kinds often used for visual diaries) tucked into my bag. I like the space and freedom of no lines to scribble down my ideas, brainstorms and freewriting. I do this in the most disorganised fashion, just randomly opening up the book and putting things in all sorts of places that later take me a long time to find!! So the notebook is number one.
The second item would be just a cheap blue biro pen - but importantly, it needs to have a thin/fine nib. It sounds pedantic, but the standard biro nib size just feels all chunky and clunky to me. Pair my fine nibbed pen up with my visual diary notebook, perhaps a coffee in a cafe too and I’m in heaven!!!
Josh: I second the cheap biro, but I think mine could be either blue or black and I like a standard nib. For me doodling or drawing without knowing where I am heading, I guess improvising has been key to me discovering my style or voice as an illustrator. Most of the time I am doodling a new character with a biro pen on whatever paper I can find (bills, meeting minutes, margins of exercise books or post it notes!) I think the permanence of the biro pen means I am not too precious about the final art so it gives me freedom to create.
Which superpower would you most like to have?
When I was a kid I often dreamed of being able to fly - perhaps this is part of what drew me to cannonballs, with their almost flight-like leaps through the air???
Josh: One of my tipuna (ancestors) was said to transform into a Kārearea (New Zealand falcon) and fly across great distances. I think transforming into a bird would be a cool superpower!!
If you weren’t an author, what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
Part of me wants to be an outrageously flamboyant diva-like lead singer, strutting my stuff on stage. Another part of me wants to be an illustrator, quietly painting and drawing and creating in my studio all day.
Sadly, I suspect that my absolute lack of skill or talent in these areas means they will only ever be just dreams.
Josh: Before I got into illustrating a lot of my creative energy was creating music in a rock ‘n roll band with friends. I would have loved to have made a career out of music. I also would love to be able to write… like Sacha ha ha!! But these will only ever be dreams too though ha ha!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers or illustrators?
Josh: I think study story craft and find what inspires you. If watching classic 80s adventure comedy movies is your thing then study the arcs of the story, the characters and their journeys. If you want to get into picturebooks find your favourite picturebook and study its structure and pacing. How many words are on the page? How many pictures are on the page? What are the page turns like? How are the words and pictures working together as a dream team? If you have a favourite book, have a look for other work by the author, illustrator and/or publisher. A big piece of advice is to read a lot of picturebooks and get engrossed in them. Be critical and find out what works and what doesn’t work and why. Read the books OUT LOUD!!!
Libraries are amazing for finding new books!!! Also, if you are approaching a publisher with a story you don’t need to have an illustrator lined up with your manuscript. Unless you are a writer-illustrator, sometimes having drawings with your story can hinder your chances of a publisher picking it up! Also, have fun and play (free write and doodle!!!)
What are you currently working on?
We are both finishing up work on a children’s television show that we helped to develop for TVNZ called Extreme Cake Sports. It’s currently in the last stages of post production. As far as our picture books go - Josh is working on a new cover for the North American release of our first book Keys by Source Books, which will be published in the States next year under the new title: When Daddy Tucks Me In. We also have two more picture books in the pipeline for HUIA Publishers. One is a silly, lighthearted romp about a pig who is well and truly marching to the sound of their own drum. The other is a heartfelt yet humorous look at a relationship between a father and his son as they navigate some tricky terrain . At this stage, both are due to come out in New Zealand late next year.