Jan Whiten, pictured here with Snowflake ‘a friendly ex-battery hen’, tells Reading Time how her love of reading children’s books led her into the exciting world of writing her own stories for children, and how Chooky-Doodle-Doo was inspired by the antics of Miss Milligan, one of her much-loved hens.
Chooky-Doodle-Doo might never have been written if it wasn’t for my husband casually asking one day if I’d like to get a few chooks. As I love animals, I was never going to say no, and soon we had a handful of feathery friends in the garden. One day when I was visiting them, Miss Milligan, a Rhode Island Red hen, did something so silly, and so adorably cute, that I thought it would make a good story. I didn’t write it down straight away, but spent a few days wondering things like, How do you write chook? And, What’s a good chooky voice? Finally I decided to play around with it and wrote the first draft in about 20 minutes, then spent the next few months refining it. I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with Chooky-Doodle-Doo.
I’ve always enjoyed writing. My primary school years were spent at a rural school in Victoria where we had one teacher, and students in all grades from one to six in one classroom. We knew each other very well. My favourite subject was English, and whenever we were allowed to write a creative story, I’d run straight home from school, eager to start. Somehow, though, the story never came out as wonderful on the paper as it had seemed in my head, but I didn’t let that minor problem stop me and kept on writing.
As a child I also loved reading. My collection of Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books sit proudly at the top of the bookcase, and the characters in many of the books I read then are still with me. I can clearly remember the first sad book I ever read, and crying helplessly over the death of an old cat that had been abandoned.
When my sons were young I met up with children’s books again and we spent hours reading together, delighting in finding those extra-special books to share. Bedtime cries of, ‘One more story please, Mum,’ always worked on me. On long car drives, I’d read the stories of authors like Paul Jennings out loud and we’d be laughing so hard we’d get stomach aches and watery eyes.
Over the years I experimented with different types of writing, but it was a funny line in a children’s book by Joy Cowley called Splosh about animals climbing into a hot air balloon that was my ‘aha!’ moment and I realised I wanted to write for kids. I’m not sure how often it happens that you know in less than a second exactly what you want to do, and I still wonder what would have happened if I’d never read Splosh, as now I couldn’t ever imagine not writing children’s stories.
I firmly believe in the saying, ‘A love of reading is caught and not taught’. I’m not only the aunty who gives books as presents, I’m also the aunty who will sit and enjoy the books too. That saying is also one of the reasons I enjoy visiting preschools and early learning centres. Recently I shared Chooky-Doodle-Doo with a group of young children, and when we reached the page where the rooster shows up, I asked them if they knew what kind of animal it was. One little boy became really excited and called out, ‘It’s a cock-a-doodle!’
When I’m not working (and even when I should be), you can usually find me at the end of the garden…chatting with a few old chooks.