INTERVIEW: Tom Baddeley

Emerging Arts Professional Kiri Falls talks to former journalist and broadcaster Tom Baddeley about writing rhyming verse for children.

What was your motivation for writing Aussie Legends?
My kids were the motivation – I have two young daughters. I was reading them some wonderful children’s books, and I noticed that the books with rhyming narratives connected with them much more than the books without rhyme.

I had a love of history as a kid, so I thought, if I could combine the two – rhyming narrative and history – I’d be killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. I could educate children about history, and entertain them with rollicking rhymes at the same time.

I started writing them when I was on tour with the Western Force in South Africa. I was the media manager for the team and when we went away we invariably went for a few weeks at a time, which, to be honest, I struggled with. I hated being away from my family so, in our second season during the trip to South Africa, I started writing the verse as a way of connecting with my kids.

Describe the process of writing Aussie Legends.
The first task was to identify a “ripping yarn” in Australian history. Kids love a good story, so I had to pick the historical characters with really great stories. The stories needed to capture kids’ imagination.

After I had chosen the stories, I had to go back and check the history. With the correct information, I mapped out the history of each individual. Then I picked out the key aspects, and formed nine or ten verses around these.

It was important to make sure the key points were highlighted in the verses. The difficult thing was getting the facts and information across, while choosing words that were accessible for young children. And then I still had to make it rhyme!

Did you test out the verses on your own children?
Yes, I ran a couple by my girls but I quickly realised the words didn’t resonate as much in the absence of pictures. So the next time I waited until Tracey had done some illustrations and that time round, the girls were all ears!

What was it like watching the illustrations emerge from your text?
It was fun watching the illustrations evolve. It was important that they highlighted the critical aspects, and captured the kids’ imaginations. I think Tracey’s done a great job of this with her illustrations.

How did you choose these particular historical figures?
As I mentioned before, picking out the best stories amongst the characters in Australian history was the first step.

However I also looked for a nice balance in the characters I chose. So there are males and females, explorers and animals, sporting greats and musicians.

If I had only been looking for a good story, I could have done a whole book on Australian explorers – there are some great stories there!

But the book is all about making kids aware of some key players in Australian history, so variety is important.

Where did your interest in history stem from?
From my parents, I would say. My father was passionate about military history, and my mother had a love of biography. So growing up I was very well exposed to these forms of story and writing.

Did poetry (of any kind) impact on your education while you were at school?
I wouldn’t say it had a great impact. I did have a school teacher called Mrs Pusenjak, at South Perth Primary in the 1970s, who was an inspirational woman. She had us reciting Lawson and Banjo Paterson from Year One! Her love of Australia’s bush poets – I think she once worked as a cook for a shearing team – was overt and I think it rubbed off on all of us. My interest in poetry stalled when I left primary school but my recollections of her reciting ‘The Man from Ironbark’ in her knee-high boots and birds nest hair-do are still vivid!

I didn’t have a lot of interest in reading poetry outside of school. I enjoyed a lot of non-fiction, and that’s what I read most of the time.

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