I met Sean E Avery through our voluntary work for the Tim Winton Young Writers’ Award so I knew he was passionate about storytelling, kids’ literacy, and connection through story. But I wasn’t expecting such generosity in sharing his tips for emerging creatives — helpful, no-nonsense advice. I was also delighted to find out that we both have a strong connection to South Africa. Look out for Sean’s new books coming to a bookshop near you soon!

NLK: Can you please share a little about yourself and your creative journey?

SEA: Creative journey: Mum’s an art teacher so we’ve been making stuff together from day dot. I studied design at uni where I built a bunch of sculptures that went “viral” (Front page of Reddit, Huffington Post, Variety, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, 9Gag, DeviantArt, etc) when I shared pictures of them on the interwebs. I also wrote and illustrated a picture book as part of a graphics project during that design degree that would be published by Fremantle Press as All Monkeys Love Bananas; which is now in its sixth or seventh print run. I liked reading that book to kids so much that I followed in Mum’s footsteps and became an art teacher myself. I continue to write and draw between teaching and I have a picture book coming out this year with Larrikin House called Happy As A Hog Out Of Mud; a picture book and a graphic novel with Walker in 2022; and another picture book and graphic novel with Walker in 2023.

NLK: Please tell us about your animal sculptures made from electronic waste. Where are your sculptures exhibited?

SEA: I don’t make sculptures at all anymore so I can dedicate my limited creative time to making books. Teaching is the greatest influence on what I write, shaping the humour and subject matter of my stories.

NLK: When did you emigrate from South Africa? (my dad is from RSA and most of the family is still in Cape Town and Durban) How did this experience shape you as a person? Have you used this experience in your creative pursuits?

SEA: I was 15 when I moved from SA and I’m 33 now! Long time. I do like to write about African animals actually! My new story, Happy As A Hog Out Of Mud is about a fancy warthog named Charlesworth Oinkington — a warthog that doesn’t like to play in mud and adventures through the bushveld to find like-minded, sophisticated creatures to share a cup of tea with. 

NLK: Can you please tell us about your books, All Monkeys Have Bananas, and Harold and Grace? Are there similarities in the processes you used for these books? (Can you please tell us about other writing projects?)

SEA: The bulk of the illustrations in All Monkeys Love Bananas and Harold & Grace were created with traditional pen and ink. Digitial colour was added to the drawings in Photoshop, along with a fair amount of digital retouching and resizing of illustrative elements. My process of how I create changes from book to book, but essentially it goes like this:

*I get an idea (a fancy warthog is too sophisticated to play in mud)
*I write the story so it fits on 32 pages (between 500 – 1000 words)
*I typeset the words in a layout programme called InDesign (editing as I go)
*I spend a few days stealing other people’s ideas on illustration style and character design from Instagram (these reference pictures get stuck on my pinboard in front of my desk, along with some reference photos I or others have taken)
*I create character models and a set of thumbnail sketches for the whole book
*I start on page 2 (page 1 is the title page) and illustrate a spread at time until the book is finished
*As I illustrate, I continue to edit the words as the pictures evolve

I want the picture books I write to appeal to a broad audience. They need to be funny; well designed; and have depth beyond what’s immediately obvious. I also tend to steer clear of cheap jokes and puns in my writing. Stephen King reckons the road to literary hell is paved with adverbs — well, I say the road to children’s literary hell is paved with puns. 

I can’t talk too much about what’s coming up with Walker in 2022 and 2023, except to say that there will be a picture book and a graphic novel in both those years. This year, I’m really excited about Happy As A Hog Out Of Mud with Larrikin House. My illustration style has taken a massive leap in the past five years and I think this book showcases it well — lots of collaged elements and funky characters. A preview of the book can be found here:

NLK: You are also a teacher, does teaching inform the way you approach storytelling for kids? In what ways?

SEA: My teaching practice has been one of the biggest influences on my writing and drawing. After seven years in the business, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the issues kids find important. I also know how to pitch my humour to appeal to the different age ranges. 

NLK: Do you have any tips for anyone starting out on their creative journey?

SEA: Tips:
*Practise every day even if it is for five minutes — I recently finished writing a middle-grade chapter/graphic story (8,192 words). It took me 36 days to do it. This is a snapshot of how many words I wrote each day:

The simple act of showing up consistently will get things done. Don’t try to be a 3000-word-a-day hero once a month — it generally doesn’t stick.
*Join a group like SCWBI and/or a small critique group that share your passion. You’ll be notified about events where you can meet editors and publishers to get much-needed feedback that improves your craft
*Take feedback seriously from people who know what they’re talking about. Also take it with a pinch of salt — try not to get hung up if an editor doesn’t like your work. It’s not personal and you’re not interested in editors who don’t like your work anyway; just keep looking for the ones who do
*Delete your Facebook and unfollow all your friends on Instagram (unless they are creatives who share inspiring work) — social media is poison for the soul unless you strictly control what you’re viewing. Impossible on Facebook, but Instagram can be tailored to be a flood of gorgeous inspiration from brilliant people all around the globe. You don’t have time to create? You’ve just deleted your Facebook, so now you do! 🙂
*Read every day
*Read every day
*Read every day

NLK: What books will you be reading to your new baby?

SEA:  I’ve been seriously pondering this question a bit harder than I really should. I think I’m going to start with Alison Lester; move through Mem Fox; Eric Carle; Lynley Dodd; then onto Dr Seuss.

About Sean

Sean E Avery is a teacher, writer-illustrator, sculptor and designer born in South Africa; living in Perth, Western Australia. He is a passionate Art teacher at Carnaby Rise Primary School in Landsdale.

Sean’s first picture book with Fremantle Press, All Monkeys Love Bananas, is a hit with children in Australia, The Middle East and Asia. His second book, Harold and Grace, has become an excellent teaching resource for the Year Two science focus of metamorphosis. He has a playful way with words, an energetic illustration style, and a keen eye for design.

Internationally, Sean is best known for his animal sculptures made from electronic waste — particularly those made from discarded CDs and DVDs. Photos of Sean’s sculptures have featured in print and screen publications all around the world and many galleries and private collectors have commissioned him to build unusual and exciting pieces for them.

Sean is curious, enthusiastic and ready to work hard for the things he believes in.

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