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  • Liane Morris

Kid's Unbridled Imagination Inspires Local Author


Newcastle has more than our fair share of musicians, actors, artists and authors and over recent years, there’s been a push by the City of Newcastle to establish the region as a creative industries hub. This thriving creative community is one of the reasons that Jess Black, successful award-winning children’s author, manuscript editor and creative writing teacher, has vowed never to move away from the city she calls home.

 

“Visitors are always surprised at what they find here,” said Jess.


“It’s such a creative place. There’s so much energy and exciting things happening. It’s wonderfully supportive for creative output, and I don’t plan to live elsewhere!”


Creative output is something that Jess seems to do rather well, having authored 47 books and counting. She’s recently released the first two picture books, Aussie Bird Babies and Aussie Farm Babies, in a series of six, called Black and White for Babies, high contrast board books ideal for attracting the attention of babes in arms and initiating a lifelong love of reading. She has a new picture book coming out next June, a series coming out in July and another project that it’s too early to talk about also on the horizon.


It's not just her own creative output that she’s engaged in, though. She’s also a passionate, creative writing teacher, guiding the future generations of our region’s writers through Story Hunter, an initiative of the Newcastle Writer’s Festival, and The Creative Word Shop. Both organisations offer school and holiday creative writing workshops. In addition, she further facilitates the learning of writing by providing professional development courses for teachers through Black & Wright. Black and Wright was founded by Ed Wright (of the Creative Word Shop) and Jess, who discovered that teachers were looking for a practical and concrete way to teach narrative to their students.


“I love teaching, kids especially,” said Jess.


“Their unbridled imaginations bring me such joy. It’s a pleasure to help them facilitate the magic of turning their ideas into stories. And by offering professional development to the teachers, we can feel secure in knowing that participating schools are harnessing that magic. It works particularly well when we package the two together, the teacher’s professional development and the creative workshop for the kids.”


Jess also tours schools, giving author talks, and offers manuscript assessments for aspiring authors. Add into this mix two teen daughters, her husband, a rescue dog and a tyrannical cat, and you could be forgiven for thinking that her life is pretty much complete, but she recently added piano lessons into the mix because “anything creative just brings me such joy.”


Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1972, Jess spent her childhood moving home a lot, spending blocks of time in Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Wellington and Sydney.


“My dad was in insurance management and just moved jobs a lot. I was always devastated moving from one place to another. I thought it was the worst thing to happen, and then after a while, I’d settle in and be happy, and then it would happen again. Looking back, I’m grateful because it taught me so much, but I’ve grown up with an aversion to moving, so Newcastle is stuck with me.”



As a child, Jess’s love of animals had her aspiring to be a vet, but her maths and science Kid’s Unbridled Imagination Inspires Local Authormarks were not good enough. Her pathway to writing came through her love of theatre. Graduating with Honours in 1997 from the University of Cape Town with a degree in Theatre, Film, Directing and Producing, she worked as a drama tutor, actress, director and producer before trying her hand at writing a play. The play was called Cruelty and won the 1997 Standard Bank National Arts Festival. It was a turning point in her life.


“I just fell in love with the process of writing. After my Honours year, I moved into television, working as a producer for Southern Star Entertainment and Sony Music before getting into script writing for Head Start through Gannon Television/Foxtel/ABC and then Sleepover Club for the Nine Network. After that, I became an editor with Scholastic Australia, which is where I met my husband.”


Jess’s big break as an author of children’s books came when Random House went into a partnership with the Irwin family and went looking for someone to write a series of books based on Bindi Irwin. An old friend from Jess’s university and television days was the editor, and together, they collaborated on an initial four-book deal.


“It was around 2009, and I was pregnant with my first daughter. I went on to work on the Bindi books for three years, and there were nine books in total. We also moved to Newcastle around this time. I enjoy the challenge of taking the essence of who someone is, imagining them as a young person and then creating stories around that.”


The success of the Bindi books led to more work as an ‘author for hire’ with Jess going on to write several series, including Little Paws and The Tales of Mr Walker for the Guide Dogs, Animal Tales for the RSPCA, and Kitty is not a Cat for Hachette Australia based on the TV series of the same name. She has also written The Colourful World of Poppy Star Olsen with Olympic Australian skateboarder Poppy Olsen, one of the Whodunnit Eddie Woo books, Time Out! with celebrity mathematician Eddie Woo and was co-author on the Kaboom Kid series based on David Warner, the cricketer. Most of these books fit within the junior fiction genre, however, Jess has also been an author for hire on picture book Logan’s Big Move, inspired by Australia’s BMX freestyle Olympic gold medalist and 2021 Sports Dad of the Year, Logan Martin.


“This kind of work is not for everyone,” said Jess. “I do get nervous about creating a fictional story based on a real person. It’s very different from writing your own fiction because you are usually on tight deadlines. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you have concrete deadlines.”


When Jess is not working as an author for hire, she creates her own work and is the author of the highly successful Keeper of the Crystals adventure fantasy series, the Pepper Creek Ponies series, inspired by her love of horses from when she was a child and two picture books - The Bold Australian Girl and Moon Dance.


“When I write for myself, there’s so much freedom; anything is possible. It’s also a little nerve-wracking because there’s no guarantee that it will be published or that people will buy it. I also like writing in series because it gives me time to figure out the story, to let everything fall into place.”


Her most awarded books have been from The Tales of Mr Walker series, with The Tales of Mr Walker longlisted by the Australian Book Industry Awards in 2019 as Book of the Year for Younger Children and recognised in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards as a Notable Book for Younger Readers in the same year. The series hit gold again with Mr Walker and the Dessert Delight recognised as a Notable Book in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards for Younger Readers in 2020.


Jess is inspired by everyday life, the people she’s close to and the things she loves doing.


“I get inspiration from my family, little moments and snippets of life. I find that when I walk along the beach or through the bush, taking my dog for a walk, that lack of distraction, the space in my mind, allows the ideas to flow.”


Jess’s next creative writing workshop for kids aged 7 to 14 will be held on January 17 in the school holidays at The Creative Word Shop www.creativewordshop.com.au/kids_workshops/cat-magic-7-14/ and her books can be purchased at all good bookstores or online at www.jessblack.com.au/shop

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