An Interview with Margaret Connolly & Natalie Jane Prior about A Boat of Stars

In 2017, Sophie Masson interviewed Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior about their poetry anthology, A Boat of Stars. A longer version of  this interview was first published on Sophie’s website, Firebird Feathers. 

How do the two of you know each other? 

We’ve been working together very closely for over twenty years as agent and client. During that time the relationship has evolved into both a working and a personal friendship.

What kind of poems did each of you enjoy as a child? Any poems or books which you loved?

Interestingly, when we talked about this, we discovered a common childhood link was hearing poetry read or recited by our fathers, poetry they liked themselves and wanted to share. Margaret remembers that her father had a number of anthologies he liked to read from, and recalls hearing poetry like “Hiawatha”, as well as works by Hilaire Belloc, and Australian poets including Banjo Paterson. Natalie’s father liked poetry by John Masefield (“Sea Fever” was his greatest favourite; she read it at his funeral in 2018) and she remembers seeking out and learning Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” by heart, because he kept forgetting bits in the middle when he recited it! Walter de la Mare, e e cummings, Eleanor Farjeon and Ogden Nash were other favourites. Our reading was shaped by what was available at home and in school libraries, but you can see from the list above that there was a strong emphasis on rhythm and rhyme.

Share Garden

Illustration by Tamsin Ainslie for “The Share Garden” by Alexa Moses

Whose idea was it to put together a collection of children’s poems? Did you collect the poems and then approach HarperCollins/ABC books? Or did the collection come about some other way?

There was a joint flash of inspiration. We realised there had not been a poetry anthology featuring new Australian children’s poems for a very long time, so we spoke to a few people whose work we admired, and put together a proposal.

What age group is your collection aimed at? In what way do you hope the poems will inspire readers?

As far as age range is concerned: anywhere from babies to grown ups. This is a book for sharing. Obviously, we hope the book will help children develop a life-long love of poetry, and that the enjoyment of rhythm and rhyme will seep down deep into their consciousness.


Illustration by Kerry Argent for “Kaboom!” by Lesley Gibbes

How did you go about finding poems for the book, and how did you decide jointly to select any poem? If you trialled the poems, how did you do this?

We asked people we knew to contribute poems, and were overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. Making the final choice involved many hours of enjoyable reading and conversation, but we have have similar taste and had a very clear idea of what we were looking for. Some poems were read to children while we were making our choices, but this was really for the pleasure of it, and not intended as “trialling”.

Some of the poets included in the book are not known for their poetry – how did you find them and their poems? Did you commission poems?

They were all interesting writers we thought would have something to contribute. Some had contributed to The School Magazine, others had written rhymed picture book texts. In some cases we knew people wrote poetry but lacked outlets.

Who was the editor you worked with and did you need to discard any poems you’d chosen; if so, why? 

Chren Byng is the publisher at ABC Books, and we were assisted in house by editor Eve Tonelli—both were extremely supportive of the project from the start. The finished anthology had to be balanced in style, mood and content, which inevitably meant that some good poems could not be included in order to avoid duplication.

Can you talk about the illustration and design of the book?

In order to give the book a cohesive look, we decided to work with a core team of illustrators, who did most of the illustrations, with other illustrators adding one or two pieces each  for variety. Shirley Tran Thai, our designer from the HarperCollins Design Studio, then did a splendid job of pulling everything together.

What was the most difficult aspect of compiling the book for each of you?

It was hard work and very time consuming, but always a labour of love.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We hope the book gives pleasure to Australian families for years to come.

Margaret Connolly is a Sydney-based literary agent whose clients include poets Les Murray and Robert Gray. She also represents many of the talented authors and illustrators whose work is in this book. In 2017, she received the Pixie O’Harris Award for her contribution to Australian Children’s Literature.

Natalie Jane Prior’s numerous books for children include classic picture book The Paw (illustrated by Terry Denton), the internationally successful fantasy series Lily Quench, and recent picture book favourite Lucy’s Book, illustrated by long-standing collaborator, Cheryl Orsini. She lives in Brisbane.

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