Three significant things happened one week in April this year: I took a positive pregnancy test, followed by a positive covid test and then received an email from the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, telling me my little blue self published Young Adult novel was a finalist in the 2022 awards. I was sworn to secrecy, but put on a mask and stood in my partner’s office doorway to tell him. I couldn’t help myself.
Drafted when I first arrived in Melbourne in 2016, Learning to love Blue quickly felt like a symbol of my own difficult migration. I wrote 1000 words a day for a few months, while also completing my third poetry collection, Photos of the Sky, but it came at the cost of making real life friends and actually enjoying my new home in the way that my character, Paige, manages to. The first draft was rather introspective and waffly and reflected my own constant contemplation of my recent decisions.
Things changed, months and years past and I slowly began to feel comfortable in my new home. Thanks to work and dating apps, I started to meet people and each time I revised Blue I added more life, more joy and more drama to the otherwise quiet life of Paige. Life and the novel were becoming more and more how life and a novel should be.
Then life really took off: I found love and friendships, went on adventures, had a baby. Things were rolling along as the manuscript lay untouched. And then… it was 2020. Our baby was born in January, just before the world as we knew it ground to a shocking halt. We had new challenges to face and faced these in isolation from not only our overseas families, but even just our nearby friends. Life shrunk down to our bubble of three and we focussed only on looking after each other.
I took two years parental leave from my job as the first year flew by in a blur of ground-hog day lockdowns, and by the second year I could see just a little bit further beyond our four walls and front gate. I was ready for the challenges of wider life again.
So I dug out the long neglected manuscript and gave it a shake. I read it, enjoying the memories of exploring a new city again, just as I was starting to show my daughter the joy of the city we’ve chosen to live in. The music venues and cafes of Paige’s world were struggling to stay open and the novel felt like a love song to the city we all fall in love with when we first arrive in Melbourne. Thrown into yet another lockdown, I had time and curiosity, so I investigated self-publishing.
The whole process from editing to holding the printed book in my hands was a matter of a few short months and I truly thought I would be happy if just a couple of my facebook fans were able to hold their own copy too. I did not have lofty ambitions for this book and was feeling content in the rhythm of my Melbourne life, hopeful about the opening up to come.
While judging the poetry category of the Ockhams in September and after some positive comments from said facebook fans, I realised that the judging process for book awards is fair and objective: books arrive in a stack that the judges work their way through carefully and every book is given a chance. As publisher of my own work, it was up to me to back it and I thought at the very least that’s a couple more people in the world who will know about the book. I packaged the required number of copies up in a tatty old green shoebox, somehow managed to misspell ‘New Zealand’ in the address label and sent it off, only imagining the possibilities I was opening it up for.
When I told my partner about the shortlist from a safe distance in April, we were just about to go to New Zealand for a holiday. Travel was stressful and the idea of us all going again so soon for the awards ceremony was somewhat unappealing. I decided I would go alone and just for a couple of days. I wanted to take this Wellington-to-Melbourne book back to Wellington and was representing both author and publisher. By the time I travelled I was five months pregnant, so not really alone at all.
The awards last week were thrilling. Being in a crowd again, being part of a celebration again, being with my New Zealand family knowing my partner and daughter were in Melbourne live-streaming in the kitchen was buzzy and flustering. Sharing a stage with Children’s Literature greats such as David Hill, Eileen Merriman, Gavin Bishop and their esteemed publishers was beyond my wildest dreams. This little blue book had taken me far from its lockdown origins.
I’m still reeling from this win. I was kindly reminded recently that judges spend hours deliberating these things and it’s not the random fluke it felt like on the night. If the book lacks the action and adventure of the other finalists, that’s because it’s supposed to. It’s a quiet book. It’s a book about listening, slowing down, considering other people’s points of view and of course learning to love all the great music that exists in the world already. I am indebted to Joni Mitchell for her wonderful album Blue – a gentle yet powerful reminder to feel all the feelings of being alive. Melbourne is alive again and we go out and exist in the world with purpose, exploring the city anew. Learning to love Blue is out in the world too and I’m over the moon that it’s being read and loved and having its own adventures.