In 2005, author Alison Lester journeyed from her native Australia to Antarctica aboard the Aurora Australis, an icebreaker carrying scientists and supplies to the remote Mawson Station research center. In Sophie Scott Goes South, just out from Houghton Mifflin, the author recreates her experience through the diary entries of a fictional nine-year-old girl whose father is captain of the ship. The book features Lester’s photos of her Antarctica travels, her own illustrations, and pictures that children drew in response to e-mails she sent to schools and families, detailing her voyage, to solicit children’s art for an exhibit she assembled as a component of a government arts fellowship. Bookshelf spoke with Lester about why she decided to venture to the bottom of the world, and why she chose to chronicle the expedition in a children’s book.
What inspired you to set sail for Antarctica?
I’d known for a long time that the Australian government ran a program that allowed artists to travel to Antarctica on Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowships, and I’d planned to apply one day. When I turned 50, I suddenly realized I was getting old, and that I’d better get cracking. So I eventually applied for a fellowship in 2004 and traveled to Antarctica in March 2005.
What was it about Antarctica that intrigued you?
I grew up on the far south coast of mainland Australia, and Antarctica didn’t seem that far away – just down beyond Tasmania. The freezing winter winds that roared across our farm felt as though they had come straight from the South Pole. I was romanced by the stories of the heroic explorers, and wanted to experience firsthand the exquisite sea and landscapes I’d seen in photographs.
Was the continent all that you’d hoped for?
Yes. I’ve been back to Antarctica four times since that first trip, working as an artist, photographer, or journalist on tourist expeditions. I’m addicted to Antarctica. I love the colors, the epic scale of things, and the wild weather.
Did much of what you discovered and learned on that first trip surprise you?
I was surprised to find that I was such a seadog! I often get seasick on small boats, but I was fine on the Aurora Australis and loved the rough weather. It was exciting to be in the middle of the huge Southern Ocean, very far away from anybody. When I first saw the continent, with mountains poking up through the ice cap, I thought the ice was mist. It was hard to believe such an enormous block of ice could exist.
What inspired you to solicit art from children while on that expedition?
My voyage project as an Australia Antarctic Arts Fellow was an art exhibition called Kids’ Antarctic Art. The guidelines for the fellowship application were for something like, “a project that fostered the public’s awareness and understanding of Australia’s role in Antarctica.” So I said I would go to Antarctica as the eyes and ears of children around Australia. Every night of my six-week voyage, I e-mailed children, describing my experiences. I had a massive list of contacts all around Australia, many from remote indigenous communities, and I had some overseas contacts too, from doing writing and illustrating workshops in schools. I asked the kids to draw my descriptions and to send me their drawings, or copies of them.
What did you think of the kids’ submissions?
The response was fantastic. I had so many replies that it crashed the ship’s server! More and more schools and individuals joined up as the voyage progressed, and a friend set up a Web page to make it easier. My friend Richie Steven was then the librarian at the British School in Tokyo, and he said the kids were racing to school to see my daily e-mail, full of amazing adventures.
And when I got home there were huge piles of envelopes full of drawings waiting for me. The drawings were a mixture of different styles and mediums, and I used them to make 40 artworks for the exhibition, which opened at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2007 and has toured to many parts of Australia since then. My memory is a bit hazy, but it has also been to Korea and I think Japan and India. It’s a fun exhibition because it usually also includes a slideshow of all my best Antarctic photos, and Antarctic art activities for kids. We sell limited edition prints of the drawings and the profits go to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. A proportional percentage of Sophie Scott Goes South’s royalties will go to the hospital, too.
At what point did you decide to write a book based on your Antarctic adventure?
It wasn’t until I was at the offices of my publisher, Penguin Australia, one day after I returned. I was talking about the trip and I mentioned my daily e-mails and one of my editors, Laura Harris, suggested turning my narrative into a child’s voyage – and so Sophie Scott was born. But I didn’t work with Laura on the book. My editor for this book was Jane Godwin. We really get each other and she has a great ear and eye for just what a book needs.
Was it a challenge to filter your traveling experiences through a nine-year-old’s perspective?
Actually, it’s pretty easy for me to be a nine year old!
Was the character of Sophie based on anyone you know, or yourself as a child, or is she entirely fictional?
I think Sophie is a mixture of a whole lot of great little girls I’ve known – intrepid, smart, brave, and funny. I like the way she gets on with things.
Is this the first time you’ve drawn from your own life to create a children’s book?
Most of my books reflect some part of my life. Magic Beach is the place I’ve spent summer all my life. My Farm is our family farm. Others like Running with the Horses or Isabella’s Bed come from dreamland. My books often contain a lot of imaginary life, but not much is made up in Sophie Scott Goes South. I pretty much told it as it was.
What are you working on now? Do you have any more trips planned that might spark another book?
Right now I’m working on Noni the Pony Goes to the Beach and next year I plan to illustrate Nicky Catches Koalas, the final book in the Clive Eats Alligators series. In this book a group of children travels around the world helping endangered animals. I can’t wait to start it.
I’ll be traveling to more remote indigenous communities next year too, making books about children’s lives there, and maybe someday all those stories will turn into something. But I’m actually looking forward to a rest, as I’ve been Australia’s first Children’s Laureate for the past two years, and the touring schedule has been very full. It’s going to be nice to stay home for a while.
Sophie Scott Goes South by Alison Lester. Houghton Mifflin, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-544-08895-5