Shellharbour children’s author Karen Hendriks will release the picture book Our Shellharbour later this year to help local kids connect more deeply with where they live.
However, it wasn’t until her previous three books began receiving awards and her popular book Feathers was featured by the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson on her Youtube channel Storytime With Fergie and Friends that Karen decided to pursue the project.
“I feel very fortunate, because this gave me the confidence to go ahead with Our Shellharbour,” she said. “That had a good impact on me as a writer because well, wow, did she really read my book?”
She said the 2021 video, which was republished by Fergie this week, helped her realise she was on the right path.
“I am so excited to be doing this book, as I have a teaching background and have always wanted Shellharbour kids to feel connected to the community and have a strong sense of belonging to where they live,” she said of Our Shellharbour.
Karen taught at Barrack Heights Public School, where she used picture books to inspire her students.
“Shellharbour was often in the shadow of Wollongong and Kiama,” she said. “But growing up here was just as amazing and I wanted the Shellharbour kids to know that. Some of the kids hadn’t even learned how to swim, yet they’re not far from the beach. I thought, if you show families and kids what’s in our area, they’ll want to do those things.”
Since giving up teaching to write picture books, she has had to work hard on her craft despite the misconception that writing children’s books is easy.
“The simpler the book seems, means lots of work has gone on to achieve this,” she said of the 32-page Our Shellharbour being six years in the making. “I wrote the manuscript in local coffee shops in the [Shellharbour] village for over a year.”
After her original illustrator had to withdraw, she secured Emma Stuart, who is in the process of hand-painting the illustrations in watercolour. The pair focuses on authenticity, even using shells from local beaches rather than Google images for inspiration.
“We are working so well together and I adore her creative style which is magical and whimsical and Shellharbour is both of those things too,” she said.
“I feel really fortunate because when Emma read the manuscript she said, ‘Oh, it’s so well written Karen and I’m seeing so many visuals’.
“She’s illustrated for a lot of big publishing houses, so that really warmed my heart.”
Emma is usually booked out three years in advance, but had a cancellation, ensuring the picture book will be released in about October this year.
Our Shellharbour tells the story of Lani, who is showing her cousin Oli, a newcomer to the area, all the sights from the mountains to the sea during an imaginary day.
It includes a dip at Cascade Falls, Oli catching his first fish while in a “tinnie” at Windang Bridge, spying rare white kookaburras in Blackbutt Forest, learning to swim in the Beverley Whitfield Pool, and seeing whales do ballet at Bass Point.
“I grew up doing lots of what’s in the book,” Karen said. “Shellharbour is unique and distinct from our neighbours Wollongong and Kiama. We are coming of age here and I think the kids in Shellharbour are lucky to have such beautiful natural places to visit.”
She said overseas writers watched a reel she did at Warilla Beach and wanted to know where she was holidaying.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not on holiday. I’m just at home’,” she said, laughing. “It makes you realise, yes, we are lucky.”
Karen focused on the concept of home in her book, Home, about “losing a home, finding a new one but not forgetting the one you lost”. It links to her own family’s refugee past.
Next month, she will visit a small village near Prague to find the house where her mother was born at the end of the Second World War, when her grandparents were expelled to Germany and lost their home. Later, they came to Australia and settled in Oak Flats.
“Whatever you write, it comes back to you as a writer and what inspires you,” she said.
Home is on the Refugee Council of Australia’s webpage as a resource and won an ABLE Golden Book award last year. The Book Cow in Kingston, ACT will host a launch for the book on 23 June during Refugee Week.