Benjamin, the central character in author and illustrator Sue Macartney's new picture book Benjamin's Blue Feet (Pajama Press), is a blue-footed booby — a seabird native to the South Pacific. While he enjoys all the usual bird stuff — diving, flying, and fishing — his true passion lies in treasure-hunting.
After coming across a discarded mirror, Benjamin begins to look closely at himself, and he doesn't like what he sees. His giant beak and and over-sized wings are bad enough, but the biggest problem is his clownish blue feet! He resolves to give himself a makeover using some of the other items he's found, but when he doesn't look like himself anymore, he realizes the things that made him stick out also made him special.
Macartney's playful storytelling works beautifully alongside her gorgeous, whimsical illustrations to deliver a book that has a lot of fun teaching young readers about self-acceptance.
We're thrilled to have Sue at Open Book today, where she discusses the important role her late cat played in the creative process, the beautiful moment when inspiration gives way to a concrete idea, and how there's more than one lesson to take away from her new book.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Benjamin’s Blue Feet is a story about a curious little Blue-footed booby with a special talent for treasure-spotting. One day, he discovers a mirror. It is his best treasure ever until it leads him to start questioning his appearance. Benjamin goes to pretty creative lengths to change his looks, but in the process learns something very important about himself. A couple of years ago I was brainstorming lots of ideas for the Story Storm challenge (formerly PiBoIdMo) – one that wouldn’t let go was about a main character dealing with self-doubt. As both a mom and a children’s art educator, nurturing healthy self-awareness is something that is important to me. I am also very passionate about nature. Some timely writing advice about focusing on one’s passions, a particularly engaging photo of a Blue-footed booby, and an ongoing fascination with the Galapagos Islands all combined to bring Benjamin to life.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Benjamin’s Blue Feet was written as a gentle exploration of self-awareness and self-esteem. I want kids to know that it’s normal to experience feelings of self-doubt, and that learning who we are and how to hold our own is what is important. I also want kids to know that I didn’t come up with this funny bird name all by myself! Blue-footed boobies are real birds! Benjamin’s friends in the story also live in the Galapagos archipelago, and if kids want to learn more about these amazing animals there is a link to a downloadable glossary at the front of the book. A lot of Benjamin’s “treasures” are actually garbage that unfortunately ends up on the beach. Depending on a child’s level of understanding, this also makes for a great starting point to talk about pollution.
What's your favourite part of the life cycle of a book?
My favourite part is that happy and unexpected instant when inspiration morphs into what feels like a strong idea. Whether it turns out to be a good idea or not, that fleeting moment always feels great!
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I always read my work aloud. That’s probably one of the reasons why I really like being able to shut the door and hunker down in my own little space. I come up for air at regular intervals and try my best to work some regular exercise into my daily routine – walking and yoga are my usual go-tos. For first drafts I like to start with pen and paper; then I’m happy to switch to the computer for my many read-aloud revisions.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
Writing, revising, and illustrating a story for months can be a pretty lonely endeavour. Enter Pippin — a once tiny rescue kitten — who, at the time of writing my book, had grown into a dignified 17 year-old black and white longhaired cat. He would wait in my studio even before I’d started my day, then jump onto my lap and try to get comfortable. Not the most ergonomically sound arrangement for either of us. He passed away a month before I completed my final illustrations. Thinking about the process of bringing this book to life will always bring back memories of his near constant companionship during those days.
Sue Macartney’s creative style as an author-illustrator has been shaped by life on four continents and work as a graphic designer and children’s art educator. She has a deep love of nature and lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband and a backyard full of birds.