Caroline Magerl talks to Cast of Thousands about her latest picturebook

Maya and Cat

Written and illustrated by Caroline Magerl

Published by Walker Books


One rainy night Maya sees a lost cat sitting on a roof. She tries to lure it down with a feather boa but her visitor isn't interested. Cat finally pads its way up the path for sardines, but declines the invitation of an open door. Perhaps it already has a home? Maya sets off into the rain with Cat following her… and so begins the gentlest of quests to reunite Cat with its family. 

Caroline Magerl’s atmospheric watercolours and lyrical text give this book a timeless feel - there are images and ideas here that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading and make you want to look and think again. Maya doesn’t know where she’s going, or what she’ll find when she gets there but she recognises the need to “follow Cat’s nose” and there’s something quite compelling about her rainy search.
Understated and reflective in tone yet possessing real depth and warmth, Maya and Cat makes an ideal one-to-one for younger readers, but there’s much to build on, too, if you want to give the book a broader stage. There’s plenty of space left between text and pictures for inferring and imagining, and children from about four to seven will find lots to inspire playful exploration and creative activities.

One rainy night Maya sees Cat sitting on a roof...                                  copyright Caroline Magerl for Walker Books
Illustrator and author Caroline Magerl lives and works in Australia, but CoT was lucky enough to meet her while she was in London to launch Maya and Cat. 

Welcome to Cast of Thousands, Caroline and thank you so much for talking to us!

I am very excited to be interviewed!

Cat is such an endearing character! Are you a cat-lover? Was she inspired by a real lost cat?

I do love cats and I’ve always wanted to own one. I’ve had so many near-misses, but it’s never happened, unfortunately. And yes, Cat’s lineage goes right back! When I was in my twenties I lived on a yacht in a mangrove creek and there were prawn trawlers all around, and nets all over the place. One morning I looked up on the wharf and there was this beautiful tabby and it was obviously a stray. It was just sitting there, so I threw my net into the creek and pulled up some mullet and the cat just wolfed and wolfed. Trouble was, it was eating too many fish and some of the trawlermen were threatening to throw it in the creek, so to amuse them and keep it safe I called it Cooking Fat!

Next day Cooking Fat was there again, boomp down on the deck, then into the cockpit, and I thought, this cat needs a home... sadly, though, I couldn’t keep him myself so I asked my boss. And he said yeah, I’ll have the cat, but you have to put it in a box. And I was trying to think what to put the cat in, and then I saw a crabpot, so I put some fish in it and Cooking Fat went right in and I shut the lid and he just sat there! And that’s how I saved him – so in this instance, it did start with a real cat, yes! He found his way into my book, along with that impulse of mine to help. When I was younger, I got into scrapes because I tried to help stray animals….. and it wasn’t just Cooking Fat, I knew a lot of cats on boats.

Caroline as a child on the boat her father built, which was their family home
Living on boats has been a big part of your life, hasn’t it? So was that another inspiration for this book? Cat’s family has a very special floating home - it's almost Ark-like, and has its own particular warmth and sense of welcoming eccentricity.

Absolutely! We lived on a marina when I was a kid, and each boat was like a separate world. They are strange little insular places, boats - they move about with their people on board, and those people wear their eccentricities on their sleeves. Each home is a little world, each person is a world unto themselves. They were characters, and I kind of channeled that.

So how do you go about blending the real and the imaginary and turning them into a picturebook? What’s the process like in action?

I write words and imagine images almost in tandem, so the process is a bit like a two-legged sack race. Sometimes an image will come to me and I think ‘that’s the direction this needs to go’ and sometimes I’m trying to focus on a narrative, and the images begin to accrue around the words, and in the actual solid action of the book.

A story has its own thread of logic, and you have to figure it out somehow, and every image has an emotional charge to it.

Once I begin to process the story, I write poetic snippets. I write the way I illustrate, almost in fragments, just words that run nicely or allude to things or have meanings attached. It’s in those somehow essential things – things attached to memory – that I find my way forward. Basically almost by feel…

Like Maya in your book, when she ‘followed Cat’s nose’ to find Cat’s family... Letting ideas and associations lead you must be a really interesting way to work. Does your intuitive sense help you know what to leave out, as well as include?

That’s when it gets difficult! Because working intuitively could give me an endless web of associations, and that wouldn’t take me to a conclusion or a proper satisfying narrative. I say to myself “someone’s going to read this, and it’s got to make sense, and it’s got to have a meaning, and it’s got to take them somewhere….” Which isn’t easy for me, because that association thing and memory thing, and all the poetic fragment stuff, I can sit there and do that all day long and go nowhere. I’ve had to learn to shut that down, and sit down and become rather more dry, and work it out…

That sounds tough! But once your ideas are assembled and they’re in the right order, what happens next? How do you start the process of getting your visual ideas onto paper?
An early sketch for Maya and Cat

At night I produce charcoal sketches to give me an idea of what I’m doing and where the words will go and what’s the best angle, and whether I’ve thought of everything… and I do many of them at times, especially if it’s a really important piece. And then I try to produce that illustration in one go, in a day. And if I get it done with no revisions, in a day, I’m happy. Because it means I’ve got the planning sorted and I can just relax and draw and have fun with it. But that stuff needs to be really well worked out before I attack a picture.

So you’re trying to keep the energy and focus going?

It’s also about mood. I have to maintain myself in this place, because I need to believe it intensely, to feel it in order to do it. So I will think about certain music that helps me be in this mood, my entire workroom is papered with drawings of this stuff all around me, so in a sense I really submerge myself. It’s all I think about. When I’m walking round the neighbourhood in the evening, I’m thinking about this. When I go to bed, I think about this. When I get up, that’s what I work on. It’s laborious. I see spots before my eyes before the end of the process!

That sounds pretty rigorous … 

Children’s books seem simple, but the thing is, they’re not. And they matter hugely. Books basically can help you navigate through life - they take you over time and distance, and they are powerful things but you have to be patient. You have to give them enough time for something to grow and develop.

For me, it’s bound up in my parents’ story as migrants who came from Germany to make a new life in Australia. It’s quite a story, and a lot of that sits in my head - about people and the things they do, about how they make themselves at home in the world - and that’s an intensely interesting subject for me. There’s been a lot about writing and illustrating picturebooks that’s been my way of making myself at home in the world.

Children’s books stick with you - and because you read them when you’re young, you’ll remember what you used to be like when you read those words again. You have a door back to the person you were as a child, and that’s one of the reasons I think books are so immensely important.

Books are powerful things but you have to be patient. You have to give them enough time for something to grow and develop

Doors have a special place in your book, don’t they – when Maya’s trying to find Cat’s family she knocks on lots of different doors, and she has to open her own door to meet Cat in the first place.

Their story world feels so real – did you think of this place as Australian while you were creating it? Or did the inspiration for the setting come from elsewhere?

There are places in Sydney and Melbourne that aren’t unlike the town in this book, but the streets do look like the UK, or at least Europe in some form or other.

There’s actually a scene in the book that was inspired by Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. I was wandering down the streets completely entranced by the difference between where I live and your world here…. and there was this little alley. In fact there were lots of alleys!

A photo Caroline took in the UK, showing houses with doors opening right onto the street

Here’s one of the photos I took. It’s somebody’s world behind each window, and people are living close to each other, and I could just see the possibilities. It’s right on the street, and that’s not something we tend to have much of, except in some of the older neighbourhoods. Normally we have a yard, and it’s a long way to the front door. But here you’re walking right past someone’s actual house, which changes the way you can set the picture up.

Maya and Cat setting off to look for Cat's family         copyright Caroline Magerl for Walker Books

So here’s the alley after it found its way into the book. It’s quite an intimate space and it feels convenient for me to have this kind of arrangement, where the houses are right on the street. And Maya’s so close to them. It’s like there are other worlds and we can see them as she moves from house to house.

That’s really interesting - children often look closely at illustrations, don't they, but perhaps we don’t spend enough time discussing how those images make them feel and what they’re contributing to the story. And knowing more about how an illustrator thinks and how they view their work could give us a language for doing that. Would you talk us through a couple of the illustrations in this book, and tell us how you see them? What you remember thinking about as you created them, and what you were trying to achieve?

Maya trying to lure Cat down from the roof             copyright Caroline Magerl for Walker Books

This picture is about Maya and Cat but seen as part of a landscape - that’s the mood of the piece, it tells you about the world they live in. And because they’re tiny, I had to make sure I had a very solid design, so you would find them both. So that’s why there are these spots of colour… I’ve used the pattern of yellow lights so your eye moves to the doorway and you can see Maya. Her feather boa is almost like a pointer - that was quite deliberate - and then her shadow helps you look up and see Cat in the middle, on the roof.

All of this gets worked out in large charcoal drawings first of all, to make sure I’ve given it as much thought as I can; that it meets my requirements for readability and clarity and interest. I have to think about where the text will go, and the clouds, and then I sit down and work out the colour. With watercolour being veils of colour, one on the other, you have to think about where the brightest colours will go, where the subtle colours are, what should recede, what should come forward… I also think about temperature. In fact that’s quite important to me, for some reason – temperature of colour matters to me a great deal, and I use it. So all these things – even the weight of the line, will it be a heavy line or will it be fine and detailed - all these things have to be worked out and I really do labour over it.

Here are two of the sketches I produced while I was working on that rooftop spread.

Early sketch for the rooftop spread
Later version

Thatmust be very complex - but hearing you talk about the scene really does help me feel part of it. I love the way you can see right down to the sea – in fact, the house boat is there, isn’t it! And it’s also there in the second spread you’re going to tell us about?

Maya returning from the wharf carrying Cat's kitten in her basket         copyright Caroline Magerl for Walker Books

This is another big, big picture with tiny little characters so it was difficult to get right. I wanted to be able to see the pier and Cat’s boat, but they have to be in the distance… so once again it was an issue of size and scale. I solved it by making Maya come high up on a hill, so we can see the pier and the bay behind her.

I’ve used the lights again - this is part of the language of the book, that you see the pools of light and the feather boa as the path sweeps up. The colour and the mood are also important, I really wanted this picture to have that soft sense of evening falling, because it leads on towards the end of the book.

And that was another thing I had to get right - Maya’s on her way home again, so the direction is actually going left rather than right, back towards the beginning of the book, and I had to make that work, too. 

It's really interesting to see how all this comes together, thank you so much for sharing!

What about getting out and about on your own adventures, visiting schools and libraries and other venues? Have you seen your books being used to inspire creative activities? What’s helped children connect with your storyworlds?

I do lots of school visits and I notice that when teachers prepare the children with some kind of lesson about watercolour or storytelling or the characters, or even just talk about the story, it immediately propels my visit forward. It gives the kids the opportunity to jump ahead and get something more out of meeting me. So that’s always good! 

My first picturebook Hasel and Rose (and the Wish Thing) was used to inspire activities in a school in Toowoomba – they’d done a beautiful job of creating boxes and getting kids to sail along in them, which was great.

The big thing is to trust a child’s instincts. If they like my books, that’s great, but if they don’t then that’s OK too. It’s important to value and accept a child’s response, and to let it be. That’s why we need all kinds of books, and I’m very open to that. I’m just one of many people working in an active and important industry.

And are you working on something new right now?

Yes, always. Madly! It’s just an ongoing process...

The next book to come out is called Nop – the title comes from a word my daughter used to say when she didn’t want to do something. The story came about from my experiences as a child when my father was building a yacht and I was playing on a dump – not an awful dump, just a place where people left stuff. It was extraordinary, there were mountains of stuff like marquetry and costume jewellery, all tangled about … it was a wonderland. That was one of the inspirations.

There’s a certain obstinacy and an individual path that is followed by the character in the story who is basically a bear my daughter sewed as a present for my husband. It was such an unfortunate-looking creature but I loved it to bits and it spurred this weird journey in the story. The book has a surprising ending and I’m very fond of it.

And when does Nop come out?

November 2019…. just Australia at this point, but fingers crossed!

It sounds as if we really need to meet Nop - let’s hope your finger crossing works! Thank you so much for talking to us, Caroline, and the very best of luck with all your projects….

Thank you for a wonderful afternoon! I have loved speaking with you about Maya and Cat and about picturebooks in general, and will be following your new venture with great enthusiasm!

Maya and Cat was published in 2019 by Walker Books in the UK and Australia (and Candlewick Books in the US) 
It was shortlisted in February 2019 for the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature.

Hasel and Rose was published by Penguin Australia in 2016 (and by Doubleday in the US under the title Rose and the Wish Thing)

Find out more about Caroline’s picturebooks at click here

See the trailer for Rose and the Wish Thing at

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