Spent Her Childhood on a Yacht
Caroline Magerl spent the majority of her childhood at sea on her parents’ yacht. Born in 1964 in a small German town near Frankfurt, picture book author Caroline Magerl moved with her parents to Australia when she was two. Shortly afterwards, while the family lived in Sydney’s suburbia, her dad built a 45-foot yacht. Until Magerl was fourteen, the family sailed the east coast of Australia, and she attended more than ten different schools. At age sixteen, Magerl joined another yacht, crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Not until almost her twenties did Magerl settle to life on land.
Although her heart’s desire was to create children’s books, Magerl worked steadily as an artist. Drawing on her sailing experience, Magerl made a living as a cartoonist for a yachting magazine. In 2001, she moved and her husband moved to a village in the coastal hinterland of Queensland, Australia, and began painting and exhibiting fulltime. While staying busy time with sell-out shows, Magerl made important connections with art gallery owners. Then, in 2006, the family moved once again. This time, Magerl learned printmaking at from a master printmaker, and soon had a press of her own.
Her wish to create children’s books received a boost when she won the Children’s Book Council of Australia, 2001 Crichton Award, for best new talent in the field of Children’s Book Illustration. Tomorrow I’ll review her first children’s book, funded by a grant, Rose and the Wish Thing. The illustrations were exhibited at the Chris Beetles gallery in the United Kingdom. Save the date of my review: May 25!
Each time she wrote, Magerl sent me samples of her beautiful artwork. I have enjoyed my email exchanges with her, and hope you’ll also appreciate getting to know a little of her background through the below interview.
ALLISON: What about Australia would you show a visitor?
CAROLINE: That could make a long list, but I will show some discipline and say the far north of Queensland for a start. High hills covered in monsoonal cloud, rainforests, huge butterflies and amazing bird life such as cassowaries, with the Great Barrier Reef offshore. There is so much to see in that part of the country in terms of tropical scenery and wildlife.
The other place I love is Tasmania, the island to the south of the continent. I stayed in a historic lighthouse cottage a couple of years ago at the mouth of the Tamar River. At night, the headland came alive with Fairy Penguins traipsing up to their burrows to feed their young. That was a fabulous experience in a part of the country rich in extraordinary natural beauty and historic interest and I only managed to see the east and north coast!
ALLISON: You had the unusual experience of being raised aboard a yacht. What was the best experience?
CAROLINE: The sheer proximity to the natural environment impressed me deeply, partly because it was so unavoidable and frequently uncomfortable, but also because it was so stunningly beautiful.
Coming up into the cockpit at dawn to see a completely different coast after a night of travel was one of those experiences that had a lasting impact. On one particular morning, I recall emerging from below and asking Dad the names of two islands that I saw to the east. He told me they were called Moon Island and Bird Island. Both were just barren lumps of rock as if randomly hurled into the sea, with tufts of green clinging here and there on the otherwise scoured rock-faces. The sight of these places were all the stronger for being the first thing I saw after a long night of hearing the diesel engine thump-thump-thump and knowing miles of coast had slipped by in the dark.
On a different note, living aboard offered a completely unique bathroom experience, one of which still brings a smile. We had a sea water toilet and on very dark nights, if I left the light off, it was possible to see the sparkling of plankton in the toilet bowl. These microscopic creatures are bioluminescent and so flash a cold greenish light, particularly when disturbed. One particular night, a tiny fish had been sucked into the toilet via the pump and I saw it go round and round the bowl like a tiny comet trailing its phosphorescent plankton wake. That experience was on a whole other level, for me!
ALLISON: You had the unusual experience of being raised aboard a yacht. What was the worst experience?
CAROLINE: The look on my parent’s faces one particular night, as we entered Crowdy Head Harbor. I was in the aft cabin below deck and my job was to read out the depth of water under the keel from the depth sounder. The sea was quite rough and the situation tense as we came close to the breakwaters on either side of the harbor entrance. Suddenly the stern of the boat was lifted high as a large wave swept under the yacht, and I saw the depth gage indicate shallow water under the hull. I looked up and glimpsed the alarm on my parent’s faces as they watched a wave, which was out of my view. We had passed over a rock or reef at the entrance of the harbor, which had caused the sea to heave up. That was one of the scarier moments of our boating life.
However, there was one worse thing, the week the yacht was sold and we moved off the Rosa-M. For all that it was a home which never stood still, the boat was the only home I felt connected to. It was awful saying goodbye to that triangular room and the life we had onboard.
ALLISON: How difficult was adapting to life off the yacht?
CAROLINE: Adapting to life aboard was strangely easy for me, in that it was genuinely interesting to live in a tiny triangular cabin at the bow of the boat. I was able to see the ever changing scenery through the portholes, day and night. I took less notice of the lack of hot running water, shower, any appliances such as washing machines and of course no phones. I am sure my mother felt these inconveniences more than I did.
Generally speaking, the fun of it all outweighed the negatives for me, but it left me with a bunch of odd habits. I did my laundry by hand right into my late twenties, and still cannot waste water for fear of empting the water tank.
Even when at last I moved ashore, I would find myself tilting a little whenever anyone came up the front steps of the house. That was because the yacht would always list over a bit when anyone stepped aboard, and I had an unconscious expectation this would happen even after a year living on dry land. My husband finally teased me out of that little foible.
ALLISON: What got you started in the business of making picture books?
CAROLINE: My family immigrated to Australia when I was two years old. My father had escaped the communist East Germany leaving his family behind. My Grandmother would send picture books to me from East Germany and these books had an enormous impact on me as a child. They were a window into the world we had left behind and also a window into my Grandmother, who I would not meet again for twenty years. I treasured the books from Germany, but was also deeply engaged with the literature I found in school libraries in Australia. I became convinced of the power of books to connect you to people and places.
As for my own picture books, I submitted work to publishers and art directors for nearly ten years. Then, in my thirties, after much effort I got my first picture book illustration contract. This book was presented with the Crichton award for best new illustrator of the year (Australia). After receiving the award and buoyed with a new found confidence, I rang every publisher I knew with the news hoping to drive home my advantage and get more texts to illustrate. As I waited on the line to be transferred to an art director at one major publisher I heard the secretary announce ‘a call from Mrs. Crichton’… Ouch! Things did get better from there.
ALLISON: How did a childhood living on a yacht shape your art and writing?
CAROLINE: Life onboard was a Spartan existence, we had no hot running water, a toilet which relied on manipulating various valves and pump handles, and a tiny portable television in a cheerful shade of orange. The yacht was 45 feet long but had little spare cabin space. I spent a lot of my time reading and drawing.
A great deal of the atmosphere of ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’ came directly from the experience of living on the boat. In one scene the Wish Thing is espied by Rose through a cardboard telescope. It bobs in and out of view in little circular images, which were inspired by the view out of my childhood round cabin porthole. Our yacht would swing at anchor and the scene outside passed by in a dizzying fashion, as if seen through a moving telescope; clouds, waves, distant shorelines. I used this device to add some suspense in illustrating the approach of the Wish Thing in the story, now you see, now you don’t….
ALLISON: What is your most memorable friendship experience?
CAROLINE: My friendship story revolves around a girl who lived on another boat. Christine and I met when we were both around ten years old, in a town called Bundaberg. Her family also lived aboard a yacht. We rowed between her boat and mine, and played in horse paddocks under the bridge with Christine’s beautiful dingo dog, Simba. When my folks sailed on to Townsville, Christine and I wrote letters to each other. Our paths crossed on a number of occasions and it was always a happy day when I saw her boat chug into harbor. The letters we wrote to each other became a habit for me… writing and illustrating, day to day events. I continue that same thing in my Illustrated Letters, as it feels entirely natural and reminds me of a wonderful time and a wonderful friendship. Christine and I are still in touch and she still has the most amazing devotion to her dogs.
ALLISON: The bond between Rose and the Wish Thing is a strong theme in your book. Why was this theme so important?
CAROLINE: As I was writing this story, I remembered how as a child I drew much strength when holding a particular toy. It had somehow been nominated to provide protection and courage. This is something I have seen many other children do and is heart-warming to watch, but also deeply intriguing. It occurred to me that there is something significant to be learnt from these fleeting relationships.
During the years of writing Rose and the Wish Thing, I happened to see a boy tenderly carry a kitten in the hood of his jacket. We were on a Melbourne tram and he kept his composure by gently stroking the whiskered face at his shoulder, all the while under slander from other youth sitting nearby. This incident was instrumental in shaping a part of the story, that of Rose carrying the Wish Thing in her hood.
Finding the Wish Thing was just the start for Rose, her courage was there all along, but now it was engaged. The world outside her door is after all the object and desirable end to the tale of finding the Wish Thing. It is the friendship that happens once a Rose finds her place in the world, which is the less obvious but true focus of this story.