Writing About Nature: Meet Julie Murphy
High up in the Australian Alps lives a tiny creature called the mountain pygmy-possum. In Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths, we follow Possum as she fills up on bogong moths during spring and summer and hibernates in the winter.
Julie Murphy is the writer behind this remarkable tale of two creatures and the incredible conservation work that is helping them to survive. A former zoologist and zookeeper, Julie revels in bringing her love of animals and writing together to inspire children about the natural world. We spoke to her about the craft of writing and her tips for aspiring children’s book writers.
What made you want to become a children’s book author?
I have always enjoyed writing but didn’t think it could be a viable career. I also loved animals, so I decided to study zoology at university. Numerous jobs followed, including ten years as a part-time zookeeper. Over this time, I also carried out voluntary research on the side and wrote articles – scientific articles, zoo-related ones, and some for a national children’s pet magazine which was my first foray into children’s writing.
When I left zookeeping to become a stay-at-home mum, I was reading countless picture books to my child and discovered something lifechanging – I love picture books! They can be funny, beautiful, compelling and profound; all in miraculously few words. I think picture books deserve to be read by adults as well as children. There is so much we can learn from them!
I decided to combine all my loves into one package and try my hand at writing children’s books about animals and nature. A steep learning curve followed but, in time, I felt like I’d found my home – that special place where I feel a comfortable sense of belonging.
What do you like about writing children’s books?
It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle. There’s the challenge of coming up with an idea that’s worth spending the next year or two on, nutting out the best story structure to flesh out that idea, and then finding the right words to bring it all to life in an entertaining, informative and compelling way that suits children. Easy, right? And then it’s up to the illustrator and publishing team to work their magic to complete the package! Holding the finished book in my hands is always a wonderful feeling. It’s an acknowledgement that, as a team, we have brought something new and special into the world.
I find writing children’s books to be a wonderful way to spend my time. It’s personally fulfilling, and I hope to make a positive contribution to the world. If just one of my books hooks a child on reading or nature, I’ll be happy.
Where do you find writing inspiration?
Anywhere and everywhere, if I stay curious and observant. Ideas pop up while walking the dog, reading, watching TV, going to sleep, but mostly when I’m communing with nature. I love being in nature. My family always holidays in places near the beach, bush or forest. Or sometimes all three!
Your latest book is about the mountain pygmy-possum and the bogong moth. What inspired you to write about these animals and their relationship with one another?
I was familiar with the mountain pygmy-possum from my former career as a zookeeper, and thought the species ticked all the boxes. It’s super cute, has a fascinating life history, is found only in Australia, is critically endangered and yet not very widely known in the community. There are so few picture books about mountain pygmy-possums, I thought the time was right to write about them. How can children be expected to care about this possum’s conservation if they don’t even know it exists?
Initially, bogong moths had a supporting role in my story. My publisher, Briana, wisely suggested focusing a little more on the moth. In doing so, the story became not only more interesting, but it also gained a human-interest factor that, helped by links in the back matter to Zoos Victoria’s Lights Off program for bogong moths and Moth Tracker citizen-science project, empowers readers to get involved to help moth and possum.
What do you hope children will take away from this book?
I hope my story and Ben Clifford’s beautiful illustrations will inspire kids to love books, reading and the natural world. I also hope children will feel empowered to help conserve our precious threatened species and natural environments, and look to the future with hope in their hearts.
Transcript available from: https://blog.publish.csiro.au/transcripts/tiny-possum-and-the-migrating-moths/
Do you have any tips for aspiring children’s book authors?
Read, write without listening too much to your pesky inner critic and be patient. In my experience, everything takes longer than expected. Choose a topic that really grabs you; that you find exciting, interesting or that leaves you curious to learn more. Lastly, join writers’ groups to find your tribe. Their friendship and support will be priceless.
Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths is written by Julie Murphy and illustrated by Ben Clifford. It’s available to purchase on our website and from all good bookstores. Free Teacher Notes are also available to download from our website.
To find out more about Julie and to follow her work, check out her website.