> Skip to content

Article  •  15 August 2022


One author-illustrator duo talks about working together and staying creative

We chatted with author Michael Wagner and illustrator Tom Jellett to learn about their new book, Dirt by Sea.

Dirt by Sea is a gorgeous new comic-style picture book that will leave you dreaming of a trip around Australia.

Written by Michael Wagner and illustrated by Tom Jellett, the book captures the same fun spirit as their previous works, including Why I Love Summer and Why I Love Footy.  

Following a dad and his daughter, Daisy, the book chronicles their road trip across Australia, as the duo visits many beautiful beaches. 

To learn more about the book, we sat down with Michael and Tom to chat about all things Dirt by Sea and get the scoop on their collaborative process.

About Dirt by Sea

In short, Dirt by Sea is about Australian beach culture. When Daisy misunderstands the Australian national anthem as 'dirt by sea' rather than 'girt by sea' her dad realises that she has never seen the ocean. To introduce her to the beauty of Australia's coastline, he surprises her with a trip around Australia in an old kombi. Daisy and her dad deepen their bond as she discovers the beauty of the beach by visiting the most iconic beaches across Australia. ‘It’s about discovering the love of beach culture and learning how to have fun and be safe at the beach,’ says Michael. ‘It’s a skill that Australians are particularly proud of, but it’s not necessarily a natural skill to have.’

Taking the scenario to the extreme, Michael set the book in the furthest town from the ocean, Eromanga, then had the characters stop at as many beaches as could fit between the pages. ‘They circumnavigate Australia to learn how to go to the beach,’ he jokes.

While on the surface the book is about visiting beaches all over Australia, a powerful subtext underlies the story. During their big adventure, Daisy and her dad each grow in their own way. Daisy learns to travel, to love the coastline and to make new friends wherever she goes, while Dad learns to get past his grief and get his life moving again.

Road trips are 'about all of those little hours – or lots of hours – in between, says Tom. ‘There are these wonderful moments when you go on holiday and you have all these empty hours to fill up talking, listening to music, singing or just being together.

‘I think that’s a really valuable thing, and that’s what I wanted to put into the book,’ he says.

Working together

Though Michael and Tom fill different roles as writer and illustrator, the synergy of their creative ideas makes for a book that's better than each could create on their own.

First, Michael begins with a complete story and then Tom joins, adding his illustrations to match the writing. However, it's not set in stone. 

As they work together, each contributes ideas that guide the book to its final iteration. 

‘One of the things I really like about working with Michael is that if he can see an illustrative idea going a certain way, he’s happy to change the text around to meet that,’ says Tom.

‘A lot of times, Tom’s ideas make the book better, even though they’re not usually the same ideas I had,’ adds Michael. ‘He is a guy who communicates visually, so when he says we can get a message across in a better way, I'm all ears. He has great ideas and, in the end, all I care about is what's best for the book.’

On top of their teamwork and open-mindedness, another magic ingredient allows the pair to work well with one another. 

‘We have a similar kind of energy,’ explains Michael. ‘I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, I don’t know where it came from, I'm just glad it's there . . . there’s a nice little simpatico going happening.’

Routine is the key to creativity

Though the life of creatives might seem fresh and exciting, Michael and Tom are the first to admit that it isn't as glossy as it may seem. 

‘I know, as a writer, my reputation should be that I’m having a wild life,’ says Michael, ‘but I don’t think anyone who’s a serious professional is probably doing that.’

Knowing that creating quality work is all about putting in the hours, Michael tries to stick to standard working hours when he can. ‘Boringly, I’m the same as Michael,’ echoes Tom, noting that he also tries to keep a regular 9 – 5 schedule. ‘If it’s closer to a deadline, it’s a bit earlier than 9 and a bit later than 5. . . but you can’t sit around waiting for creativity. You’ve just got to keep drawing or doing something.’

‘We go into creative professions to get away from that 9 – 5 existence,’ adds Michael, ‘but it’s actually better if you do that.

‘You never know what’s going to see the light of day. . . so just keep working and churn it out as if you’re working in a sausage factory. Let that be the process.’

The age-old adage ‘hard work pays off’ has never seemed truer. The years spent perfecting Dirt by Sea are immediately evident when you open the book. While hard work, dedication, and sheer hours played a role, the duo also had to find ways to stay creative while working.

‘It’s a bit of a marathon,’ admits Tom, sharing that he created incentives to keep him going. ‘Quite pathetically, you save treats for yourself,’ he says. ‘I’ve become terribly addicted to making lists every week, and there’s nothing more satisfying than crossing something off.’

Like Tom, Michael's trick for staying creative is to keep the gears turning. ‘I have multiple journals – maybe a dozen – full of ideas,’ he says. 'if I run out of steam on one, I go onto another one.’ Thanks to this process, Michael finds that he is usually excited about what he is working on, which helps him stay creative as he writes.

Needless to say, it pays off in spades.

Readers of all ages across Australia and beyond will delight in this heartfelt story and its lovely illustrations. We recommened securing your copy early by pre-ordering it before the 20 September 2022 publication date. 


While you're here, check out the best children's books for Father's Day 2022

Feature Title

Dirt by Sea

Explore our wonderful coastline and the joy of a family road-trip with Dad and Daisy!

Along the way, they will discover all about Australia and much, much more.

Read more

More features

See all
Stock your school library with these wonderful books

26 books for school libraries that students will love.

Does your kid hate reading? Try these graphic novels for every age group

Graphic novels are the perfect way to get disinterested readers to pick up a book. Check out some of the best graphic novels for kids of all ages. 

Dirt by Sea Activity

Build a Kombi with Dad and Daisy!

Why I Love Summer activity pack

Summer, the best season ever, now has an activity pack!

Meet the 3 Penguin AU team members who helped illustrate this inspiring book

See how our talented employees contributed to Not Here to Make You Comfortable.

5 series to read if you like Ranger’s Apprentice

Series like Ranger’s Apprentice to read next.

A look inside This Camp is Doomed

Peek inside Anna Zobel’s new book, This Camp Is Doomed.

Look inside this book about all things magical and unexplained

This compendium for kids is a fascinating look into the secrets of the supernatural world.

Kirsty Greenwood on blending fantastical elements with big-city life in The Love of My Afterlife

Author Kirsty Greenwood shares why she wanted to write about the challenges of making friends as an adult, which parts of writing were most challenging, and what she hopes readers take away from the book.

Brooke Robinson shares the inspiration behind The Negotiator

Brooke Robinson shares her secrets to crafting an intriguing plotline, her love of research and how she winds down after a day of writing about high-stakes scenarios.

Ceridwen Dovey shares why she chose to set her new book in space

We caught up with the author to learn about her upcoming book, Only The Astronauts, why she chose to write about space and her unique narrative perspective.

Alex Michaelides shares why his new novel was his favourite to write

Learn about Alex Michaelides’s new book, the real-life people who inspired his characters and how growing up in Cyprus contributed to the setting.

Looking for more articles?

See all articles