Karen Collum talks children’s books—and why they matter

The more we grow up, the more we can learn from children.

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Karen Collum.

Karren Collum is an author, teacher, speaker and story-teller, pastor’s wife and mother of four, based on the Gold Coast (Qld). She talks about her children’s books.

What got you into writing books for children?

I’ve always had a passion for children’s books. Throughout my career as a teacher, I used picture books in my classroom every day. I’d always harboured a secret desire to write and, one day, I plucked up enough courage to try!

Tell us about your various writing and publishing projects.

I’ve had four picture books published: Fish Don’t Need Snorkels and When I Look at You are both published by Autumn House, the Christian label of the Adventist publishing house in the UK; while Blow Me a Kiss and Small and Big have been published here in Australia. Along with picture books, I have a few novels for children on the go as well. I also write scripts and poems and performance pieces for churches and schools as needed.

Karen’s latest book, Small and Big.

What makes a good children’s book?

That’s such a tough question! For me, a good children’s book resonates with a child. They see themselves among the pages, but they also experience something beyond themselves. My favourite stories are those that empower children to make the world a better place.

How much work goes into writing a picture book like yours?

The short answer: lots! Some books percolate in my mind for years before I even begin the writing process, while others start on paper and are worked into shape over time. I can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to get a picture book manuscript just right. With only 500 words to tell an entire story, each word must be perfectly chosen and earn its place in the manuscript.

"I went to find him and was about to growl when he looked up at me with big blue eyes and said, 'Mummy! Look at this beautiful leaf!' In my haste—my desire to look only at the big things—I had almost missed the joy of something small."

What interaction have you had with your books’ illustrators?

I generally have little contact with the illustrator and sometimes have spoken to them for the first time at our book launch! Illustrators bring their experience, skill and talent to the project, and it’s important that they have the freedom to interpret the book and create a strong visual narrative to sit alongside the text. Among my books, I especially love the playful illustrations in Fish Don’t Need Snorkels and the colour palette and collage feel to the illustrations in Small and Big.

What was the inspiration for your most recent book, Small and Big?

I’m often inspired by real-life events. I was finishing a swimming lesson with my three boys, who were very small at the time, and I was pregnant with our fourth baby. All I wanted to do was get home, and get everybody fed and into bed for a nap. Jacob, one of my twins, suddenly disappeared from beside me. I went to find him and was about to growl when he looked up at me with big blue eyes and said, “Mummy! Look at this beautiful leaf!” In my haste—my desire to look only at the big things—I had almost missed the joy of something small. I then chose to enjoy the beauty of the leaf with him and set aside my agenda for a few moments. It was a beautiful moment of connection for us. The book explores what friendship is like between two people who are very different and how their differences actually enrich each other’s lives.

Why does this kind of book matter?

As a picture book author, I have two audiences, both parents and children. Small and Big is an important book because, when it is shared with a child, the child might identify more with the characters of Small or Big, but I’m hoping the parents identify with one of them too. The concept of celebrating our differences and valuing each other’s strengths is something that I hope will benefit all my readers, young and old. I firmly believe stories can change the world.


Small and Big was a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book for Early Readers, 2016, and is available now from Adventist Book Centres in Australia and New Zealand.