An age-old story gets a new life

Author Meg McKinlay

EVER looked at your clutter and had the urge to give things new life instead of hauling them onto the verge for the compactor?

Ella and the Useless Day from WA author and illustrator duo Meg McKinlay and Karen Blair gives upcycling a fun twist for kids – but with an important message about looking after the planet.

Ella’s house if full of useless items. Once she and her dad decide to have a clean-up day, something very curious happens. Maybe what is useless to them is treasure to someone else?

Upcycling’s become the trendy thing in their hometown Fremantle; repurposing things but leaving them recognisable from their previous self. McKinlay says it’s part of a circular economy in the port city.

Ella and the Useless Day is “full Freo”, she said.

It was McKinlay’s own experience of cleaning out her family home that provided the raw materials for the story. 

McKinlay says it’s interesting how the popular saying Reduce, Reuse, Recycle puts recycling at the end, by which time stuff has already been labelled rubbish. Upcycling focuses on the reuse.

Her latest creation is a new trellis made from old bike wheels which now proudly fills her garden.

“The sheer amount of people in the world makes it difficult to send as little we can to landfill,” says McKinlay.

Blair, who provided the illustrations, said “we have a responsibility to show values when writing for children, not just selling a product”.

She included patchwork in her illustrations, saying fabric was an early starter in the upcycling movement. Families handed down and repurposed clothing, on the way creating connections through the generations.

Initially the collaboration was indirect as both the author and illustrator communicated via the publisher, and it wasn’t till Blair had some early sketches that they came together.

Illustrator Karen Blair

She said McKinlay’s adaptability with language and turn of phrase gave her the idea for the characters.

“There’s a joyfulness in the characters by using a suitable style that matched the text,” she said.

“A bit of a 1970s vibe from the words ‘fantastically ‘funky’.”

McKinlay said living in artsy Fremantle, particularly its colourful Street Arts Festival, had influenced her writing.

Blair, who’s hovered around Freo for about 20 years but really settled in a decade ago, says it’s a creative and eclectic commuity.

“Fremantle is also embracing, and there’s a way of being in the world,” she says, adding locals are open to communicating and passing things on. 

For readers, Blair said making a small difference in the world every day can bring about change, while McKinlay said embracing an idea can help start spreading the message.

While McKinlay is always working on something, she says when a box of newly printed books arrives she takes a moment. Travelling to bookstores and signing copies is an act of celebrating.

The pair are already working on a new book anticipated for 2024, How to Make a Bedtime, while Blair is working on her own book When I am Big as well as a couple of other smaller project.

It’s her first year as a full-time illustrator and already she’s in hot demand.

McKinlay is well established in the port’s literary circles, having published 15 picture books and five novels; but she’s also faced many rejection letters. 

“It’s not easy to get published, which can be disheartening, and you need inner motivation to keep going,” she said.

She said a good editor was worth their weight in gold, so it was important to pick the right one from a very big field.

“An editor will help make writing so much stronger.”

Ella and the Useless Day
Meg McKinlay and 

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