The story of Alfie in The Underwater Fancy-dress Parade grew out of a conversation with a friend. Over a Mexican dinner, she told me about her little nephew, who was petrified of cats. On nights when he stayed over at her house, he’d have to tiptoe past her cat on the way to the bathroom. From across the hall, she’d hear him whisper to himself, ‘Be brave, Saul! Be brave!’
That struck me as such a perfect and tender moment — such a vivid illustration of childhood fears that are both tiny and huge, and often invisible to adults. And from that moment I wanted to write a book that said to kids, ‘You are not alone in your fears. And they won’t always be with you. I promise.’ I wanted children to know that, with time and love and space to grow, anxieties fade. Fear melts away — sometimes all at once, sometimes drop by drop.
Saul gave me the sensibility of Alfie’s character, but a big part of the story came from Allison, the incredibly talented illustrator. Before the words were ever written, we had been dreaming about collaborating on a picture book. I knew from her brilliant cover designs (and her extensive collection of indoor plants!) that she loved to draw things from the natural world, so I wanted to write a story that gave her the space to do this properly.
One day she mentioned that she’d always wanted to illustrate sea creatures, inspired by her childhood spent wading through rock pools on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Suddenly, I had a plot: Alfie takes a trip to the aquarium, which (while not quite as exotic!) gave her that chance, and gave me a resolution to an idea that had been swimming around in my head.
With the character, conflict, action and setting in place, the manuscript came together with rare ease. But it didn’t really come alive until I saw Allison’s beautiful illustrations. With the limited three-colour palette and her stunning choice of colours, the pictures feel both vintage and modern, classic and new. The details are exquisite, from the family photo on the living-room wall, to the lassos being twirled on Alfie’s cowboy wallpaper, to the potpourri of sea life.
As the deadline approached, Al and I worked intensely, back and forth, every day for a month to make sure the final art was all that we’d hoped. Those were such golden and creative days of hours-long phone calls and late-night emails as her illustrations evolved and evolved, ever more beautiful. I can’t express how magical it felt to watch my words grow into something so perfect and tender. It was like having my own creative genie, granting wish after wish that I didn’t even know I had inside me.
It’s my deepest hope that our book finds its way into the hands of the real-life Alfies out there – those kids who are shy, or introverted, or sometimes have bad feelings that they can’t articulate or shrug off easily. I hope that it can provide comfort and self-acceptance, just when it’s needed most. I hope it brings others the joy and wonder that it has given to me.