From Beijing to Canberra – Part 2 – travelling and writing

Tania continues with more on her Beijing experiences. It also spurred on her venture into a successful self-publishing business. I began Part 2 of our conversation by asking her about culture shock.

The Great Wall of China

Q: Visiting China for the first time gives you instant culture shock. In three weeks I fell under its spell, so much so that coming back to Australia was like enduring culture shock all over again. I wanted to return to China asap. Tania, you were there for four years, how much did the culture and the people impact upon you?

I can’t even tell you how much. Every time I try to talk about it, I weep! I loved living in China so much, I put together a memoir – Beijing Tai Tai – a funny take on the ups and downs of a Western wife in modern-day Beijing. Again the book went bananas and sold out of two print runs – I have none left, and thankfully, a publisher is taking it on next year with a revised and updated edition – it should be out by July 2011. I think it sold well because it perfectly expresses my passion for life in China – and how it touched my soul, and that of my family. I’ve had countless letters and emails from women of many different cultures saying how much they related to the book – its messages affect everyone – even those who’ve never been to China.

We’ve been home two years in January and whenever I run into people I haven’t seen in a while, they ask me how we’re settling in back home. I tell them we settled back in within minutes… it’s the letting go of China that’s proved the problem. I still haven’t let go. I would return in a heartbeat and four years was no way near enough for me. I’m really still quite devastated about leaving that place, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I have a big dream to go back and write for children there… we shall see.

Q: What was it like to return to Canberra?

I cried a lot! It probably took me at least six months to a year to ‘get over’ things. There’s still SO much I miss but life here has become too busy to look sideways – and that’s helped me with my grief… I felt like I left a lover! I honestly never knew China would affect me so much or that I would fall head over heels in love with the place.

Now, living in Beijing feels like a dream – like we were never there. I learned the language and really immersed myself in the culture while living there, so it was like pulling out a piece of my heart when we left. Sure, it had its mind bending frustrations, but it was one of the most amazing four years of my life – and what it gave my kids… priceless!

Q: Riley and the Sleeping Dragon was your first children’s book. Written in Beijing in 2008, it proved to be a huge success not only in China but also in Australia. What is it about? And did you plan for it to be a series from the start?

Riley and the Sleeping Dragon is about a little boy who searches for the elusive sleeping dragon of China that becomes the Great Wall. At the end of the book, the dragon/wall stretches and wakes up. The wall and the dragon combined are a metaphor for China and where she is now in history – only now waking and realize her power, strength, ancient wisdom and beauty on the world stage.

The book is unique in that it combines black and white photos of the capital with illustrations and also photos of a little real life toy plane. I wanted to create a book that combined adventure with travel, culture and history, and I feel the series has really achieved that.

Each time Riley travels to a new place, he collects a little toy of the creature he met in the book before. So in Riley and the Curious Koala, he has a toy panda, lion and dragon with him and in the next book, a little koala will join the band of adventurers. Each book not only showcases the city the book is set in, it holds cultural messages that are infused within the story, relevant to the setting.

Q:  Tania, I love how you’ve used black and white photographs of the cities and landscapes in each Riley story. Also love how the bright, colourful illustrations of Riley and the gang jump out from the black and white photos. Have you always had a passion for photography and design?

I have – but it’s only been since starting the series that I’ve pursued these elements more professionally. I’ve recently used my photographic and design skills for my first lifestyle book – handmade living: a designer collective – in conjunction with Handmade Canberra. This is some amazing book, and it was such a thrill to do most of the photography and design. It’s something I’d like to do more of – and the Riley series, of course, satisfies my desire for travel photography and typesetting – it’s great fun.

Having [illustrator] Kieron Pratt join me on this journey has just completely rounded out the Riley books for me. He has re-illustrated Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, too – and this book will be re-released (hopefully next year) using his updated illustrations (the first edition was illustrated by Canadian Mo Qovaizi). Kieron is freakish in that he sees inside my head and creates exactly the right pictures for the books – and adds an incredible sense of humour and cleverness to the pictures, too. I adore his work and how he has brought my books to life. Q: So where to next for Riley? New Zealand maybe? Or Paris? I can just imagine the adventurers buzzing the Eiffel Tower and looping the loop through the Arc De Triomphe.

For the first time ever, I’m not sure where he’ll travel next. It was going to be Vietnam, but then I considered the Californian coast to take things away from Asia for a while… but I think I’m going to settle on another Australian city – probably Melbourne, my home town. I want to do Canberra for the upcoming Centenary and I think it makes sense to do more of Australia right now – for various reasons.

I’ve also been writing quite a few children’s books that are unrelated to the Riley series, and I’m pleased to say some will be published next year, so I have to make sure I carve out the time to keep going with Riley. I have a big fan base now! (too funny!) so I need to satisfy my adventurous little friends.

I’m also considering incorporating my daughter Ella in some way into the books… or starting her own series. She’s been a very patient girl…

Q: Tania, you have boundless energy for many things – like being a passionate supporter of Australian children’s books and their authors and illustrators. You and Megan Blandford are the producers of the Kids Book Review site – a blog site read by thousands of parents, librarians, teachers and anyone interested and involved in books for young people. I can speak on behalf of many, many authors/illustrators who thank you both for that support.

Your life is incredibly full now, raising a family, running your book business, working with Handmade Canberra, writing your blogs and general networking – what and where next for Tania McCartney?

My next port of call is a break over Christmas, though I don’t see that happening as planned, as I am expecting some positive book news this week! My main focus for the new year is to prioritise and work out what means the most to me because things have kind of exploded this year – I often wonder how I’m going to get through all this work. I can’t complain! but I can only stretch myself so far before breaking. Family and health are everything to me – so a finer balance will be necessary in 2011… this year has taken a lot out of me.

December and January will be book promotion and 2 weeks in New Zealand (I’ve promised my friends I won’t take my laptop!). I’m starting work on the next Handmade Canberra book in February and by then I also hope to have a completed an ms for publication with a wonderful organisation. I hope to have 4 or 5 books on the shelves for 2011, and am really excited about working on some non-fiction children’s books, too, which I adore. It would be fantastic if one of my picture books is snapped up for publication, too – I have loved working on these manuscripts.

Megan and I are working hard to expand Kids Book Review and we have lots of exciting new additions and events to tie into the site early in the new year.

Other than that, I really want to get fitter. I tend to neglect myself when I’m busy – just taking care of the family and work only – so I need some dedicated time in 2011 to health and fitness. Golly, I must be getting old… isn’t that when you realise health is everything? That and following your passion. And boy am I doing that. I feel very blessed indeed.

It’s been fascinating talking with you, Tania – I look forward to getting together over real coffee next year in Canberra. Thank you so much for dropping in on my blog, and I wish you all the very best for Riley and the Curious Koala. (Further info:

Sheryl, this is AMAZING! I LOVED DOING IT! and the questions and your comments are brilliant. THANK YOU!!



12 thoughts on “From Beijing to Canberra – Part 2 – travelling and writing

  1. So very true! You’d think with all the social media and tv coverage that people would be more aware, but there’s no substitute for being there. Your adventurous spirit is an inspiration!


  2. Awww…. Lia and Sheryl – you are so gorgeous! What lovely comments. I honestly think that if every person in the world could experience life in a polar-opposite country, it would be a much more peaceful world indeed.



  3. Tania, you are a rare person, to be so open to a culture so very different from your own! It made for a fascinating series of posts, and I’m going to have to get a copy of Beijing Tai Tai to find out what you loved so much, what little moments added up to such a powerful emotional attachment. Wonderful interview!


  4. Christine, so wonderful to hear China also touched your heart… I think for me… I just didn’t expect it to, which is what made it all the sweeter.

    I honestly think the world would be a different place if we all had the opportunity to live in another country – even only for a short while. Understanding each other is the key to peace, is it not?

    I hope you get to go back one day again soon. See you there!



  5. Thank you, Margaret! I also hope the books reach a wider audience as the series unfold… I have a cult following but Koala looks like it’s hitting the main market well, even a day after release! It’s very exciting.

    You’re right about our native animals needing positive publicity. Did you know there are only 43,000 koalas left in the wild? It’s a shocking statistic – I don’t think people realise how serious this is. They could be gone before we know it… this is why I’m donating some proceeds from my book to the foundation.

    If every Australian donated a dollar, we could play a part in saving these glorious creatures.



  6. Book Chook – it was astounding to see the Chinese flock to our young children like they were world-famous movie stars. Unnerving, fascinating, wonderful. Oh, I would so love to go back. Not sure the kids would appreciate all that adoration all over again, though! x


  7. Tania and Sheryl…I’ve just spent a very enjoyable part of Sunday afternoon reading your interview.
    Great questions and insightful answers.
    I haven’t been to China but I can speak of the warmth and kindness of adult Chinese students in my English classes. I can well understand your emotional connection to a place that has touched your heart.
    Best wishes with the Riley series, Tania. Your vibrant storytelling combined with creative and unusual illustrations in your books will no doubt ensure an enthusiastic fan base who will be eagerly awaiting Riley’s next adventure experience.
    I especially liked that Riley is looking for a koala…our native animals need all the positive publicity they can get. I haven’t read any of the Riley books yet but have added them to my wish list.
    Thank you Tania and Sheryl.


  8. Tania, I can so recognise the hold China takes on you and the emotional pull to go back. I had ten wonderful weeks there in 2006; too short by far. My family was still home in Australia, so I had a huge and painful pull to come home again too. It was a real tug-of-love. I loved the culture, the people and can only imagine the reverse culture shock after four years. The first time the tv was switched on back here, I cried at the inanity of it and began to question many things. I hope you get to go back, if only for a visit, very soon. Thanks Sheryl for wonderful post. 🙂


  9. Mark me down as another Sinophile. We lived in Zhengzhou for six months, Tania, just down the road from you really. Even though it was a city of six million people, some would still stand with mouths agape when they saw our pale skin and round eyes. (At least, I think that’s what they were staring at!)


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