Places of flowers

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Glenda Millard

I grew up in the goldfields of central Victoria and for all my childhood years my family lived in a miner’s cottage. The metre-thick walls were stone and mud brick and the kitchen and wash-house were detached. We had open fires in the bedrooms, a chip-heater to warm the bathwater and a long-drop toilet outside.

My paternal grandparents lived in the same street – also in a miner’s cottage, a weatherboard with small rooms, tiny window panes, shiny brass doorknobs, a glassed-in verandah at the back that served as “the sleepout” and a two-roomed cellar underneath. There were many chimneys in Grandma’s house and built-in shelves beside the chimneys – for books.

At the other end of our street my maternal grandmother lived in a Victorian cottage with a central passage, a wash-house, complete with copper, out the back, cast-iron lace on the verandah and a silver-frosted front gate. In winter we warmed our feet in the oven of Nana’s wood stove.

When I got married my husband and I built a new house and raised our family there. But in my 40s, when I began to write stories, nearly all of them were set in old houses – the places of my childhood.

In 2011, when we first saw Girrahween, it seemed almost like a homecoming – a house with little windows, shiny doorknobs, verandahs back and front and a cellar underneath. It reminded me of where I had come from, what made me the person I am and, ultimately, what informs my writing.

I haven’t yet discovered how long the house has had its name but as far as I can ascertain, Girrahween is an aboriginal word meaning “Place of Flowers”. It seemed right to keep the name and, since I love flowers, I’m starting to add more roses and other flowering plants to the garden.

The search for Girrahween was strongly influenced by my experiences of visiting schools to speak to children about writing. I felt there was so much more I could show the students and their teachers. I wished they could see the original illustrations from my picture books, how large some of them are or how small and the different techniques and media used to create them, manuscripts in various stages of readiness, scrapbooks full of information I collect before I start writing and all the other paraphernalia that relates to a finished book. But it is difficult to share that depth of experience for all sorts of reasons – starting with excess baggage on aircraft. So I thought it would be wonderful to find a house that was suitable to sometimes share with other people who are interested in children’s books, to let them have a greater insight into the writing process. Since purchasing Girrahween, I have held several workshops for groups of school children and a book launch, and later this year will be hosting a small conference and also a workshop for adults featuring the wonderful artist/illustrator Rebecca Cool.

The launch was of a picture book called, For All Creatures, a book primarily about being thankful for everything, with a focus on animals. Sally Hoyle, a friend of mine from Newcastle, is a civil celebrant and promised me that if I had a launch for the book she would come down to Girrahween and perform a blessing for the animals. So I invited people to bring their various pets, making sure we didn’t have any that were going to cause grievous bodily harm to each other or to the humans present. Among them were cats, dogs, chooks, guinea pigs and, of course, the donkeys. The owner of the donkeys lives within walking distance of Girrahween. She brought two Irish donkeys, which are a very small and shaggy, and a Mammoth, which is a large American breed. They were all good-natured and placid. The Irish ones pulled little carts and ate the bales of hay I had placed around the garden for people to sit on. It wasn’t only the children among the guests who were enchanted by these gorgeous creatures. Writing is a solitary and private pursuit, so hosting these events is a wonderful way of sharing my passion for children’s literature.

Although I now have some school groups who visit Girrahween, I continue to visit many other schools and especially enjoy those in rural and remote locations. On one of my last visits of 2012, I was invited to the home of my wonderful host Louise Daniher, the teacher librarian at St Mary’s War Memorial School in West Wyalong. Lou lives on a farm and when I arrived her husband was harvesting oats and I was offered the opportunity of watching the process. We were driven to the paddock by my host’s 11-year-old son who, I was assured, had been driving for years. I then had the great privilege of being a passenger in the header. We drove around the “block”, which I was told would take about two full days to harvest. At school the next day I noticed that nearly all the little kindergarten boys drew pictures of headers.

At Quambatook, another rural school, my accommodation was arranged at the local caravan park. There were only two on-site cabins – the other one was inhabited by a tradesman who had come to do repairs after a flood had devastated the town and who was still there some months later. The school had arranged the booking and assured me I didn’t need to bring any bedding and that the local pub served tasty meals. Unfortunately the pub closed before I arrived and the last tenant must have taken the bedding with him. I put on every piece of clothing I had with me and left the one-bar radiator on all night. But despite those minor inconveniences I loved every minute of my time at that school of 26 students, and later on this year, the grade 5/6 pupils from Quambatook school are paying me a visit at Girrahween – all four of them! They will all be most welcome at my “Place of flowers”.

About Glenda Millard

Glenda Millard had her first book published in 1999. She now has 24 books, including 12 picture books, eight novels for younger readers (seven of which are books in the widely-acclaimed Kingdom of Silk series) and three young adult novels. Many of Glenda’s books have received prestigious awards both nationally and internationally. To find out more about Glenda’s books and Girrahween, visit her website.