Many years ago, I did a regional book tour, with the illustrator Emma Quay, where we spoke at a conference and visited some local schools. At one such school, we turned up a little behind schedule and when we got into the library, we realised we needed one extra table. The teacher-librarian commissioned a small, eager-to-please student to go off as a messenger, with her friend, to another classroom. The small girl was instructed to take the note to another teacher, who would organise some big kids to bring down an extra table. The small girl gazed up at the teacher-librarian. She flicked a glance over towards us. She swallowed, nodding solemnly, as if she clearly grasped the seriousness of the commission and the privilege of the assignment. And then she was gone, a whirl of flying plaits.
And we waited.
By this time, the teacher-librarian was getting a little flustered. She was watching the clock and licking her lips. She knew we were on a tight schedule. And just as we were about to give up, the small girl returned to library; red-cheeked, breathless and starry-eyed, as if she had conquered the world.
'Where’s the table?’ asked the teacher-librarian.
'The what?’ said the small girl.
'The table!’ said the teacher-librarian.
'I don’t know,’ said the small girl.
'You don’t know?’
The teacher-librarian sucked in a breath. ‘Well, where’s the note?’
'The note?’ said the small girl.
'Yes,’ said the teacher-librarian.
'Well, it’s on the table.’
'On the table?’
'Yes,’ said the small girl. ‘I left it on the table.’
'But did you give it to the teacher?’
'No,’ said the small girl.
'No!’ repeated the teacher-librarian. She glanced our way and blushed furiously. I could tell she was contemplating early retirement; life on the golf course, the serenity of the greens and the comfort of a club sandwich, made by somebody else.
'No,’ said the small girl. ‘I didn’t give it to the teacher.’
'But why not?
The small girl shook her head. ‘Because she wasn’t there.’
'Oh…so you just left…oh, no...’
'Yes,’ said the small girl, shooting us a sad glance.
In that moment, I felt so much for both. For that harried teacher-librarian, trying her very best to make everything lovely for our visit and especially for that small, eager-to-please girl. And Emma and I reassured them both, over and over again, that we didn’t need the table and we went on to read our stories to the kids, laughing and answering multitudes of questions, showing drafts and drawings and having a wonderful time. But I stored that small, tiny moment up, as I often do, because I remembered what it was like to be that small girl, so desperate to please, so overjoyed to be chosen.
But that experience stirred up another memory of another small girl. A kindergarten girl bursting back into my son’s classroom after a bathroom break, shaking the water from her fingers and singing, ‘I have just washed my haaaands!’ as if she was the lead soprano in a dramatic opera. I loved that crazy firecracker of kid, how exuberant and beautiful she was, the hilarious way she was always doing something outrageously imaginative and funny, but always at the wrong moment.
In some weird way, those two tiny memories collided, and Ruby Lee exploded forth. In some senses, Ruby Lee is the archetype for every chatty, heart-on-their-sleeve, dying-to-be-chosen, never-sit-still kid I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a lot of them over the years because they often ended up in my drama class! Perhaps in some ways, I wrote ‘Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee’ for them, as some kind of blazing encouragement that the very thing that was making their lives sometimes tricky then, would also one day be the saving of them.
I’m immensely thrilled to have worked with the illustrator Binny Talib. She is such a wonderful and hugely talented illustrator and designer. I’m so grateful for the ways Binny has brought Ruby Lee to such gorgeous, vivid life. I love Ruby Lee’s big eyes and her large orange side buns, such a subtle and clever intertextual visual reference to that other intrepid, valiant, ingenious female character, Princess Leia. I love the way Binny has captured George Papadopoulos, his gentle perseverance, patience and restraint and the pink-cheeked saintliness of the long-suffering Mrs Majestic-Jones. This text was a such tough one to illustrate because of the juxtaposition of school life, with the very detailed sequences of Ruby Lee’s fertile imagination. To be honest, I was unsure how it could be done. But Binny pulled it off, with more flair and innovation and good humour than I could ever possibly imagine.
When I write a text, I’m never entirely sure what moments will resonate the most. I can have one moment in mind on the page, only to discover it’s another moment entirely when the book is read aloud. I’ve had the fun of reading Ruby Lee aloud to thousands of kids now and amid much laughter, there are always two small moments where a peculiar hush descends, where the whole audience grows strangely still. When this first happened to me years ago, I had no clue as to what it meant. But now I know that these are the moments where the whole audience is collectively feeling the full and sudden weight of another character’s feelings. It’s always in those moments that I am completely undone by what an immense, holy privilege it is to write for children.
Children’s Publisher and Bookseller
“This light-hearted, lesson-filled picture book from Lisa Shanahan (author of ‘Bear and Chook’ and ‘Big Pet Day’) perfectly matches Binny Talib’s simple-yet-vivid illustrations. Talib uses specific shades of blue, yellow, red and green to create a childlike uniformity that complements the story of a bold young girl who entertains her vivid imagination at school, getting herself and her friend in trouble…The story is told with humour and quirkiness, and is full of Ruby’s thoughts and discussions with her friend George, who is a great moral support. It will be particularly relatable for readers in kindergarten and early primary school. It will also be a confidence-booster for children who might feel like they don’t quite fit in or that they aren’t good enough at a particular task, telling them not to worry because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses—a lesson that could be valuable to some parents as well.” Christina Copeland
Kids Book Review
“‘Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee!’ is a fabulous picture book about discovering the things you’re good at and learning to accept you can’t be good at everything. It’s a fun and funny story about self-discovery and identity, relatable to every child and everyone who’s ever been a child, too. The character development in this book is deep and amazing. By the end of the book, you’ll feel as if Ruby Lee is a real person — that you know her personally. Her hopes, dreams, disappointments and flaws are all exposed, pulling you into the story so you experience the same sadness, joy and pride as Ruby Lee does through the book. Kids will really ‘get’ this book. It’s entertaining and engaging, it’s super relatable and it explores themes that are relevant and important in a child’s world. With amazing characters, a fun story, stunning illustrations and awesome themes, it’s a picture book all kids will adore.” Shaye Wardrop
Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Judges Comments
“‘Hark, It's Me, Ruby Lee!’ is an engaging and humorous story, well-constructed and layered with emotional depth, a consummate achievement in a picture book intended for young children. The storytelling is enlightening whilst being lively and playful, with rich vocabulary and child-friendly language. The bold manga-influenced illustrations attract attention and abound in visual jokes. The child protagonists, Ruby Lee and George Papadopoulos, are deftly crafted in few words: they are fully realised and form empathetic alliances with the reader. Ruby Lee declares that she is the best at announcing 'Hark, it's me, Ruby Lee!' and loves helping, 'humming and hopping and handstands at dusk'. Both the words and the bright over-the-top pictures reflect her exuberant free spirit...Friendship is a potent theme and the refrain 'Fear not! I am the bearer of good news!' may prompt the reader to wonder what good news Ruby Lee may be announcing. This is open-ended but there is a clear message about being courageous. Boisterous, creative children will find a kindred spirit in Ruby Lee in this empowering, joyous tale; others will cheer her on and perhaps decide to emulate some of her intrepid, imaginative nature.”