Welcome to #TheQuickSixInterview with Isabelle Duff and Susannah Crispe!

It’s with pure delight to welcome this beautiful duo to the blog today! Gratitude to author Isabelle Duff and author-illustrator Susannah Crispe for sharing their journey in creating their gorgeous picture book, The Real Cowgirl. Together, these creators are no ‘one-trick-ponies’ when it comes to matters of the heart, having collaborated previously on Cookie; another touching story of pet friendship and managing anxiety. Words and illustrations sensitively showcase the courage and growing confidence of their protagonist, Sal, as she navigates both her beaming sense of self when riding her pony around the farm, juxtaposed with her emotional anxieties when she is at school. The tenderness, kindness and strength that culminate through the story and pictures perfectly balance like an exquisite equestrian performance, that makes a lasting impression on your heart.

Thanks so much, Isabelle and Susannah! 🙂

About the Author

Isabelle Duff is a farmer, author, and student at the University of New South Wales, where she is studying Advanced Science and Commerce. She has worked on her family farm near Manildra, NSW, where they farm sheep and cattle, and crop. Isabelle is a self-proclaimed ‘tree hugger’, passionate about science and environmental agribusiness. She hopes to one day manage the family business. She has volunteered at her local primary school and is keen to facilitate discussions with children about mental illness, to help reduce stigma and ignorance.

Isabelle signed her first publishing contract, for Cookie, with EK Books when she was 18. That book was inspired by her border collie Saffy, and by the Australian bush. The Real Cowgirl is based on her first pony, Bindi, and her friends that make her feel brave.

Please find Isabelle Duff at her website: Isabelle Duff and on Instagram.

About the Illustrator

Susannah Crispe is a Canberra-based children’s book illustrator with a background in zoology and art history. She has a degree in Art History from the University of Sydney (2008) and studied Zoology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of New England.

Susannah is a largely self-taught artist and works primarily in watercolour and digital collage. Susannah is also a stay-at-home-mum, where reading books with the kids forms a huge part of her everyday routine. Susannah illustrated Isabelle’s first book, Cookie, as well as Where the Heart Is (also with EK Books). Susannah’s other books include Under the Moonlight, Swoop and Cloudspotting.

Susannah Crispe can be found at her website: Susannah Crispe | Oh Susannah Illustration | Canberra and on Instagram and Facebook.

The Real Cowgirl can be purchased via the EK Books website.

Teaching notes can be found here.

WHO wrote, illustrated and published this book?

Written by Isabelle Duff, illustrated by Susannah Crispe and published by EK Books.

WHAT is it about?

Isabelle: In The Real Cowgirl, Sal finds going to school scary and isolating, she feels safe and strong at home. Throughout the story, we see her friends, both her pony and her human friend, help her to feel brave and build her up to feel all the wonderful things they can see in her.

I wrote The Real Cowgirl about friendship and the way in which it can make you feel brave. It is still my friends that make me feel the most brave.

What is your favourite part of this book?

Susannah: I have two favourite parts of this book. The spread early in the book where Sal and her pony gallop up the biggest hills and feel like they’re flying makes me feel joyous, imagining the air rushing past them as they race up the rocky hill, that sense of freedom and confidence. It was the first page I illustrated and I had a strong idea of how I wanted the scene to feel.

The other part of the book that I love is the scene where Sal and her new friend ride together over the hills. I feel a kind of anticipation in the characters on this page as they pause their ride and look out at the world that lies before them.

What media did you use to illustrate it?

Susannah: Watercolour, colour pencil and digital collage. The illustrations are created by painting all the elements (characters, plants, animals, scenery) separately, then arranging them in Photoshop. Each illustration can have hundreds of layers.

WHEN is its release / launch date?

Release date is 5 June 2024, with a launch party at the Book Cow in Canberra with both Isabelle and Susannah on 7 July. Click here to get your free tickets.

WHERE did the inspiration for this book come from?

Isabelle: I grew up riding horses with my mother on my parents’ farm. My first pony, Bindi, was a huge part of my life and source of support, and I wanted to be a real cowgirl when I grew up. I often didn’t like going to school, it made me very anxious, and I would come home and go straight out into the paddock. This anxiety is something that I have carried forward throughout my teenage years and into adulthood.

WHY is this book meaningful to you?

Isabelle: I wanted to emphasise a set of qualities that I think make a “real cowgirl” as the things my mum taught me, it was the most important to be growing up: brave, strong, wild, smart, kind, fierce, a good friend.

Susannah: As a child, I always felt out of place, more confident in my own world than in school with my friends. My own child also struggles with social and school anxiety, a common issue in a post-Covid world. I think it’s so important for children to see their own experiences represented in literature, to normalise conversations about mental health, neurodivergence and self-care. I love the qualities Isabelle emphasises in this book – we all need reminding to be brave and wild and kind.

Why would its message resonate with readers?

Isabelle: I hope The Real Cowgirl can help start conversations with kids about scary feelings, in particular feeling anxious. I think a huge part of improving the way we deal with mental illness is reducing the stigma in young kids and giving them the tools to empathise with themselves and others.

HOW long did it take to write?

Isabelle: I wrote the first draft of The Real Cowgirl in January 2022 and the final draft in March the same year, but it was an idea I had been hoping to write about for a while.

How long did it take to illustrate?

Susannah: I took about 8 months to illustrate the book, with a little time off part way through for Christmas in New York.

How do you feel about the text / illustrations? Do they convey the feeling or mood you envisioned?

Susannah: I’m very happy with the finished product. Isabelle and I have worked together before, I think our styles of expression complement each other. I love the look of this book, the scenery and colour palette feel like home to me.

OTHER information or experiences you’d like to share?

This is the second collaboration from Isabelle Duff and Susannah Crispe. Their first book Cookie (EK Books, 2021) is a heart-warming story about the love between a pet and their person. It is a sensitive exploration of childhood depression and anxiety, and the importance of empathy.

Please share your some of your favourite promotional ideas for this book.

Susannah: I love the celebration of rural life in this book and would love to see photos of the places and animals that make big and little readers feel wild and brave. Bonus points for pony photos!

Thanks so much, Isabelle and Susannah, for sharing the inspiration and journey with your touching, beautifully written and illustrated picture book! 🙂

#thequicksixinterview #therealcowgirl #bravery #friendship #animals #picturebooks #justkidslit

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