Updated: Jul 17
It's the height of winter but we are basking in the warmth of the reviews we are getting for our debut picture book, Willow the Wonderer - 'Beautiful' is how most of our readers describe the book. It seems that everyone, from great grandchildren to great grandparents, are falling in love with Willow - our hearts could not be more glad. As we countdown the final copies of the first print run, we thought we'd share some of the highlights from the reviews and the 'backstory' in this blog. For those who make it to the end ... there's a sneak peek of what's coming next.
Willow the Wonderer is a genre defying children's book
Willow the Wonderer is an enchanting tale about the search for happiness. It is beautifully illustrated, has quirky rhymes and even makes counting fun.
It also tackles the most existential of all questions in our human experience - what is happiness and where can I find it?
The book is by no means a definitive guide to happiness … but it does offer our readers a resolution. The story ends with an insight into the nature and source of happiness - or as we like to think of it, a seed of wisdom on happiness. We hope that this seed blossoms with time and guides our young readers on their journey through life.
What is the right age to be talking about happiness with children?
A few people have asked or questioned whether it is too early to be discussing the 'deeper philosophy' around happiness with children.
We believe, and this goes to the heart of why Darren and I produced this book, that:
"it's never too early to plant seeds of wisdom in young minds"
I can say from my own lived experience that the stories that I read as a child have been amongst the most influential in my life. Even if there were elements that I was not able to intellectually grasp or explain at the time, at some level it became embedded in my psyche and influenced - rightly or wrongly - my outlook on life. And it's those childhood conditionings that have the hardest to change in my adult years.
Besides, who is to say what a child can or cannot grasp; they may not have the vocabulary to express themselves fully but that does not mean that they don't have an innate intuition to understand things.
I feel it's best not to underestimate children. Plant positive seeds early; it may just be the help children need to navigate the many 'false narratives' they are going to encounter through life.
Encouragingly, judging by the vast majority of reviews and feedback we've received, most people agree.
When we started off working on 'Willow the Wonderer', Darren and I talked about it as a story we wish we'd grown up with. Nine months on it seems these are stories that we've all, at some level, been yearning for.
The first set of reviews
Willow the Wonderer was our first book so we were understandably a little nervous about publishing it. We thought we'd better 'test' it with a few folks before releasing it into the wild.
So we gathered up a good mix of people from all works of life - from bankers, scientists, psychologists and consultants to artists, musicians, yoga teachers and spiritual healers - and gave them a copy of the book.
It was interesting to hear the feedback. Everyone had a slightly different take on the book. They asked different questions and liked different aspects. They all however agreed that this was a book they'd want their children to grow up with - it was a children's book in a class of its own and was certainly setting a new standard where Australian picture books were concerned.
It is said that our desire to be happy, is what makes us all the same.
Is it any surprise then that a book that talks to a universal wisdom on happiness would resonate across the spectrum?
And so we finally released Willow into the wild...
We had a rocky start.
We received the books in July 2021 just as the East Coast entered a full lockdown for four months so had to delay the launch till November. Sure enough, the Omicron wave soon took hold. We then re-launched the book in March 2022.
I knew we had a good book on our hands but I remember wondering - in this world of celebrities and influencers, who's going buy books from 'anonymous-us'?
Six months on, Willow the Wonderer has found it's way to readers all over Australia and beyond who have loved and embraced our picture book - and given it mostly four - five star ratings. From what we can tell, they are a very special bunch.
These are people who not only have great taste in all things, but also conviction in their taste. They don't wait for the 'gatekeepers' to tell them what is good or not, and they certainly aren't slave to trends. They have a pioneering spirit, they like to discover new thing and they set the trends. If it wasn't for them, many good things would go unnoticed.
If you are reading this, you are one of them.
Willow the Wonderer replaced The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Amongst the first lot of buyers was an old colleague of mine, Paul.
He had bought the book for his daughter who must be about three or four years old. He sent me a text shortly afterwards:
'Issy loves the book and asks for it every night as part of bedtime routine. It's a huge compliment because it has been The Hungry Caterpillar for the last 18 months.'
I have to admit, I was a little chuffed to hear that Willow the Wonderer had replaced The Very Hungry Caterpillar, at least in Paul's household :)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is an all time bestselling picture book that (according to Wikipedia) has sold a copy every 30 seconds since it was published in 1969 - it's an incredible feat for a book that was also very innovative in its time.
Parents reads the same picture books over and over again
I also realised that when children love something, they really, really love it!
Parents of young children tend to suffer for their children's love; they're the ones who have to read the same book a gazillion times...
It was a good thing then that we kept Willow the Wonderer short and sharp - you are welcome.
And we do hope that the grown-ups reading (and re-reading) the book also find a nugget of inspiration in the story too. Darren and I certainly use it as a reminder.
Planting seeds of wisdom
A few months later Stephanie, Paul's wife, tagged us onto a post mentioning that their daughter had memorised the book and goes around reciting it out aloud.
It was the sweetest image and touched us deeply.
Producing the picture book, and then having to learn the ropes of publishing and eCommerce to get it out there to the world, has been a deeply personal journey for both Darren and I. The marketing side has definitely been trying for two otherwise 'shy and retreating' types...
If it wasn't for our strongly held conviction 'to create stories that planted seeds of wisdom', we would have walked away from it all months ago.
Reading that there was a little girl growing up somewhere, reciting to herself that 'happiness lies within and it knows no bounds', made every effort we've put in, worth every while.
This conviction (to use storytelling to plant seeds of wisdom) has come from our life experience; it's not religious or spiritual or anything else other than a lived human experience. I've elaborated on this at the end of the blog, as we have received a note or two seeking to understand the connection, if any, to faith.
Grandmothers are Willow's biggest fans
When we first launched the book, we really had no idea what to expect - we were new to the book business after all. As the reviews started coming in, I realised that a lot of them were from grandmothers. This again, was a very poignant moment for me.
Some of the fondest childhood memories I have is of the times we (my siblings and I) spent with our grandmother over school holidays - she'd come over and stay with us.
I learnt many things from her; crochet, raising chicks and ducklings, making mango pickles and jams, and cooking the meanest fish curry there is. The best times though were when we had finished our morning chores and sat down with our cups of tea and biscuits, listening to her stories whilst she crocheted away.
It was only later on in life I came to realise how much I have been influenced by her stories and the lessons contained therein.
Seeing Willow the Wonderer picture books create a whole new set of memories for grandmothers and their grandchildren is gratifying beyond words.
And not only are the grand daughters, grandsons and even great grandchildren loving the books - their parents love them as well. It seems that grandmas are totally nailing the presents department with Willow the Wonderer!
"Beautiful" is the most frequently used word in the reviews
Reading what people have to say about the book is always interesting and the word choice, telling: "Beautiful is how most of our readers describe the picture book.
Willow the Wonderer sits in the much loved genre of picture books, where the illustrations are just as important as the words (if not more), to the storytelling and evoking the feelings of wonder, awe and yes, beauty.
Darren spent well over six months on the illustrations, and in the process developed an innovative new style that not only brings the story to life but also thoroughly engages our young readers in the narrative - it even makes counting fun!
One of Darren's early inspirations was the 'Where's Wally' series, with it highly detailed illustrations and the challenge contained therein to spot Wally. Who doesn't like that, right?
The question was how to create that same feeling for a completely different type of book?
Inspired by seeing how the mind works, as it seeks out shapes and forms in all things - clouds, fire, scenery - Darren came up with the idea to embed all the creatures in their environment, blurring the boundaries that usually separate the two.
The 'campfire scene' in particular is a throwback to his childhood days spent at his grandmother's house in Wales. They had a cosy fireplace in the living room and he would there, staring at the flames, captivated by all the forms he'd see arise and dissipate within.
The style is also a nod to the understanding we have today of the interconnectivity of all things - the boundaries between us and our environment may be thinner than we think ...
Darren then painstakingly drew it all out, embedding the many creatures in the story into their environment, using a naturalistic style used in oil paintings.
Road-testing the illustrations
I'll happily admit it that we were a little nervous about it all. You never know how a session with the young ones is going to turn out...
To our delight, we could not have had a more engaged group of youngsters.
The children were all thoroughly engaged with the story and every time I turned a page, would spontaneously say 'Where's Willow,' before pointing him out.
They'd then meticulously point out every creature on the page referenced in the story.
Yes, three year-olds successfully 'hacked' every one of Darren's illustration tricks.
No sticky fingers please
One of Darren's old friends was also amongst our early book buyers. Bill pre-ordered two copies for his grandsons well before we had launched the book.
Bill himself is an illustrator and seeing the work that Darren put into the books, he decided to keep the two he bought at home.
He messaged us to say that 'the grandchildren can read it when they come to visit.'
We love that Bill couldn't stand to see the beautiful picture books get trashed!
We also have it on good authority that there are other grandparents, uncles and aunts who have carefully tucked their 'first editions' away, only to be used during story-time under close supervision and with clean fingers. You know who you are ...
This is a book a generation will remember
The final word on the reviews has to go to Myles Boyd.
His father Kevin, a discerning reader himself, was the first to buy a copy of our book. When Myles saw it, he immediately hopped on and bought another copy to give as a present to his niece. He wrote back to us.
'Beautiful and wise. This is a book a generation will remember.'
We sure hope so Myles! Would be wonderful to see Willow the Wonderer counted amongst the best Australian picture books!
Myles immortal words now closes out the latest video we've put together on the reviews - it will be hitting the airwaves soon.
So what's next? Did anyone say a plush toy donkey...
A number of parents and grandparents have been 'quietly' asking us to make a Willow soft toy. 'Kids love their plush toys and it is a fantastic way to engage them during story-time', we've learnt.
The customer is always right. After months (and months) of design and sampling, Darren is (finally) satisfied with little Willow. Here's a sneak peek of the Willow plush toy.
We think he is the cutest baby donkey around - you'll certainly not find another one in a 70s striped purple onesie that's for sure!
The toys will be available from mid September. We are now open for pre-orders so get yours in!
The Willow plush toy will also be available at select giftshops around Australia - we'll highlight it in our "Buy Local" page closer to time.
All these book and gift shops have been personally curated by Darren and I during our travels around Australia. They are fantastic local businesses so do look up if there is one near you and buy local where you can.
The good news doesn't end there: New picture book coming soon
Willow the Wonderer will officially become a 'picture book series' in November this year when we release the second title 'Honey Time'.
Our little Willow encounters the Queen Bee on his next adventurous foray who decides that it's time our unlikely hero learn a brand new life lesson :) And yes, this book will give our young hero greater insight into happiness as well.
We've shared a lot of laughs putting this next book together - can't wait to share it with you all! And as a reward for making it this far in the blog... here's a sneak peek of the cover (it's a rough).
Our sincere thanks to everyone for your support of Willow the Wonderer. We couldn't have made it this far without you and what else can we say except that,
You all have great taste in books - after all, you bought the book before it became famous ;-)
Thanks also to everyone who has taken the time to leave us a review - we appreciate it.
And if you haven't already, you can leave us your reviews here.
Endnote: Our lived human experience is our inspiration
Our conviction, to use storytelling to plant seeds of wisdom, has come from our life experience; it's not religious or spiritual or anything else other than a lived human experience.
Darren and I come from very different backgrounds.
We were born and grew up in different parts of the world; Darren in the cold, dark, bleak, rainy Wales and I in the beautiful, friendly, warm, tropical paradise that is Fiji Islands.
We come from different eras; Darren grew up in the analogue era of the seventies and eighties whereas my formative years in the nineties and noughties ushered in the digital era. True to form, his first draft is always in pencil and paper whereas I use my 'Surface Pro'.
We had different cultural influences; Darren had an agnostic upbringing with sport and music being the main cultural influences, whilst I grew up immersed in the very colourful and multi-faceted Fijian-Indian culture, Hindu religion and Bollywood!
We had different motivating for migrating to Australia; Darren moved with his family when he was fourteen - they were escaping the bleak Welsh weather. I engineered my exit when I was eighteen - I was escaping the confines of the traditional Indian culture.
We've had starkly different professional lives; Darren always knew he was going to pursue a career in the arts and had a highly accomplished one in design and illustration (although his dad still regrets he did not pursue football/soccer). I wanted to be Indiana Jones (an archeologist specialising in lost civilisations) but alas ended up in commerce, specialising in the world of strategy and banking (my dad is rather happy about that).
In spite of our different backgrounds, we grew up with essentially the same 'grand narratives'; get the grades, get the job, find your prince/princess and live happily ever after...
We spent our early lives chasing this dream and lived through all the fun and folly that this entails. But regardless of what we did or accomplished, we never found any lasting sense of contentment.
I remember reading a quote once that said,
'Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a fantastic stroke of good luck.'
So it was for us. The feeling of unsettledness made us search far and wide for 'the answers' and over time, led us to discover the treasure trove of age-old universal wisdom that can be found across all human cultures over time.
When we say wisdom, we are referring to insights that have come from a deep introspective examination of the human life and the human condition.
These can be found in ancient and contemporary philosophies as well as in contemplative wisdom traditions across the Eastern and Western worlds. It has been around for thousands of years, is universal in nature and resonates with us at a human level - after all it speaks to our human condition.
However, a lot of this wisdom no longer forms part of the narratives that we grow up with in our post-modern, highly westernised, hyper capitalist and materialistic societies.
Darren and I shared a desire to use storytelling to change that. We wanted the next generation to have a better start in life that comes with having a more balanced outlook.