SCBWI Success Story with Judith Rossell

Judith Rossell author and illustrator met her US literary agent Jill Corcoron, at the SCBWI Biannual Conference in Sydney who represented her for her award winning new novel, Withering-by-Sea. It was published by ABC Books.

In Victorian England, Stella Montgomery lives with her three dreadful Aunts at the Hotel Majestic. One day, she sees something she shouldn’t have, and is plunged into an adventure. Can she overcome the sinister magician and his gang of thugs, a hand-of-glory, a clockwork beetle,  a military pudding, mutton-in-aspic and an enormous, ghostly sea monster, to find her way home?

‘Wildly imaginative, darkly funny. I was hooked from the first page.’ Jen Storer, author of Tensy Farlow and the Home for Mislaid Children.

‘Withering-by-Sea is a delightful, thoroughly enjoyable book…Lots of detail and a sharp ear for cockney-style dialect brings sparkling life to both the setting and characters.’ Australian Books & Publishing.
Winner Children’s and YA Indie Award, 2015
ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children, 2015
Shortlist CBCA Younger Reader 2015
Shortlist Aurealis Awards Children’s Book 2014

Industry Innovators: Jan Latta

Jan Latta – author, wildlife photographer and Independent Publisher

In 1994 Jan came face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in Rwanda and the experience changed her life. When her guide said there were fewer than 600 mountain gorillas left in the wild, she decided to publish books for children on endangered animals. But first she became a wildlife photographer so she could tell the animal's stories in pictures as well as words.

She went back to Africa to learn wildlife photography. She followed elephants, dangerous rhinos, prides of lions, gentle giraffes, and had a wonderful experience with two cheetahs. Then to the Wolong mountains in China for pandas, jungles of Borneo with orangutans, Sri Lanka for the elusive leopard and Uganda for Dr Jane Goodalls’ chimps. She has had some amazing adventures, and near-death experiences, following her dream to help the survival of endangered animals.

As a very successful independent publisher what has been the key aspect of your success?

A lot of hard work because I had to become the author, wildlife photographer, designer and publisher to make the books affordable for schools. 

How do you deal with distribution?

I've been lucky to have a good distributor in Australia, Tom Danby of INT Books, Frank Cai of Blue Fountain in China, (where I go each year to talk at schools), and I'm just working with a new Hong Kong distributor, Fields & Associates.

Tell us about your books and why you decided to independently publish?

The concept for the True to Life Books are the endangered animals talking to children about their life in the wild – where they live, what they eat, how they hunt, and how they survive. So it was important to become a wildlife photographer to tell the animal's story in photographs as well as words.  Each trip is very expensive – flying to the animals natural habitat, living in a tent and paying a special guide who supplies the facts about each animal. He also keeps me safe! No publishing house is going to finance me to go into the wild with the possibility of getting usable photographs. I became an independent publisher so book sales could help finance my adventures creating the next book. 

Which book of yours do you love most and why?

That is difficult to answer because each book has been my favourite when the printer sends the first sample. It is such a thrill turning the pages for the first time and seeing months of hard work in colour. Lennie the Leopard took 15 years to complete, so that was the most expensive book to produce with trips to Africa and Sri Lanka. The Diary of a Wildlife Photographer book was a challenge when the ABC asked me to write a journal covering  20 years of adventures creating the True to Life Books.

How important is it to get design and layout right?

Very important. I like a simple design and use the strength of the photographs to tell the story with a simple text. It is especially important to have clean typography with a large font for children's books.

How do you achieve the balance between income and passion for your topic?

I went from a highly paid creative director to a self publisher who had to fund nine trips to Africa, two to China, Borneo, India, also Ugunda and Sri Lanka.

I love what I do so income is not as important as children learning about the animals and librarians supporting the series of True to Life books. 


We had a wonderful VIC SCBWI event in Melbourne on Saturday 13 June, with three industry professionals sharing their experience and expertise: Publisher for young children at Penguin, Jane Godwin; author and illustrator Judith Rossell and author Corinne Fenton.

Our first speaker, Judith Rossell, used PowerPoint to show what led to her multiple award winning novel, Withering-by-Sea. After a brief introduction to her early work, she talked about her interest in ‘Victoriana’ and how many of the amazing inventions that appeared in 1885, formed the background to her novel. Think telephone, electric light bulb, typewriter, bicycle, chocolate bars, compulsory schooling, heritage buildings and hotels, to name just a few. Her advice, which echoed throughout the afternoon, is to write about whatever sparks your passion, and to trust the process, because you might not come up with all the answers immediately. Above all, she emphasised the importance of careful research and well developed characters.

Our next speaker, Corinne Fenton, is known for her prize winning picture story books. However, this time she was speaking as a judge for the Primary School Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards. Corinne talked vast numbers of entries; some six thousand poems turned up in 2014, a large percentage coming from NSW and Victoria. This year the numbers seem to have fallen, but that may still change. We agreed that being asked to judge these awards is only for the brave hearted and thanked her profusely.

Our final speaker, Jane Godwin, is a multiple award winner for her books and also a publisher of books for young readers at Penguin Books Australia. She outlined twenty nine things she has learnt in both roles, claiming each new book presents another challenge. To condense these a little:

·      Every new book ultimately reflects one’s taste.

·      The book is the result of a relationship between creators and publisher.

·      A schedule must be established between author and illustrator.

·      People have very different ways of reading.

·      She likes books to be inventive and take risks.

·      Publishers and creators can’t control everything, no matter how hard they try.

·      Both creators and publishers should enjoy the process.

·      Know your market: education, bookshops, discount stores etc.

·      She is never elated at the end of a project, always thinks it could be better.

·      The writer and the publisher wear different hats.

·      A book can be published in many different ways.

·      No matter what the future holds, there will always be a place for paper books.

·      Writing and illustrating is always hard. We are ‘compost heaps’ who use all our experiences in our work.

·      Constructive criticism can be helpful. Mistakes will still happen.

·      Writing what you don’t know encourages research and imagination.

·      Character is everything. Without convincing characters a book will fail.

·      It is important to find your own voice.

·      Don’t be obsessed by markets.

·      Don’t see children as all the same.

·      Keep an idea or character in your head even when you aren’t creating.

All this information was appreciated by both established and emerging creators.