A ‘story catcher’ on a mission, Balla’s Landing with Wings inspires readers to appreciate their connection to place, observe the world with genuine curiosity and reconnect with nature and each other.
Self-taught author and illustrator of six books, Trace Balla, walks me through her garden – virtually – and sets me (her computer) down in the studio tucked beside a grapevine at the back of her property in the Dja Dja Wurrung Country of central Victoria. The studio is a reflection of her work with its warm, earthy atmosphere. It is filled with pieces of artistry and storytelling that she would pull from a shelf every so often as we talked about a few of her recent publications.
Balla’s first publication of 2020, Landing with Wings, is a heartfelt story of a young girl, Miri, and her mother as they become friends with neighbours and find their place in their new home. Balla’s inspiration stems from her and her son’s move to regional Victoria from Melbourne 10 years ago. Notebook always on hand, Balla began collecting bits and pieces of what went on around her as she adjusted to her own new home.
“I call myself a story catcher,” Balla tells me with a warm, nostalgic smile. “I collect little snippets of what goes on — I take things that really happen and I change them.”
Over many years, Balla worked to weave elements of her own experiences into Miri’s adventures. Balla, too, had a favourite tree she would visit often. Balla, too, was curious about a friend’s project conserving a frog species just up the road. Balla’s son, too, befriended the schoolyard horse.
Although Landing with Wings was Balla’s seventh graphic novella, the creative process can still be challenging as each publication is unique. Balla explained to me, with a slightly exasperated look on her face, that creating a graphic novella is like a Rubik’s cube – moving one piece shifts all the others. Piecing together the storyline and events in nature featured throughout Landing with Wings was even more challenging because they also needed to align with the correct seasons.
For Landing with Wings, Balla used digital software for the first time since illustrating her first book, Rivertime, in 2014. She found the software intuitive to learn, but she was surprised that creating digital illustrations felt just as personal as hand-drawn illustrations, and digitising some of the creative process made it more seamless for Balla overall. More transportable than the precious single copies of hand-drawn illustrations, Balla could carry her digital illustrations with her to the library or on trips out of town and she could add bits and pieces or edit errors without having to redraw an entire panel.
Balla’s stories often include cultural content of the First Nations People from the places about which she writes. Balla feels Aboriginal content is important to her stories about connection to place, and to do it properly is a slow, careful and rewarding task. It often means lots of back and forth with community members to ensure her book is accurate, as well as going through the necessary protocols for receiving permission to share their content. The trust between her and the First Nations People of Djaara Country, where Landing with Wings is set, is part of an ongoing relationship. It is one which Balla built by having patience and being thoughtful in her use of the community’s cultural content.
A young Syrian refugee Balla saw in a video was also an inspiration behind Landing with Wings. Balla observed the difficult situation the girl experienced of coming to a new place and feeling disconnected. She thought about the girl’s future and hoped she would be able to find her own place someday with which she could connect.
Perhaps now more than ever, readers might relate to the reflections of finding a connection to place throughout Balla’s storylines and characters in Landing with Wings and in her second book of 2020, Heart of the Bubble. Balla self-published Heart of the Bubble during the first Victorian lockdown when she noticed neighbours slowing down, taking up gardening, and reconnecting with their communities.
“When you think you’re isolated, you’re actually still connected to people, place, and nature – you remember how nourishing it can be,” Balla reminds me.
Balla saw just how much we had been missing our connection to place. Although it took lots of effort and long hours for such a quick turnaround, Balla hoped Heart of the Bubble would encourage people not to come out of lockdown and just go back to the way things were.
Balla’s stories explore current and past elements of place, community, Aboriginal culture, and the natural world, but she sees her creative role as more about sharing a soft history. Happy to let someone else teach kids about the hard history of Australia later, Balla’s intention is to captivate and inspire children and adults alike about the enchantment and wonder of the natural world. Her work is about planting a seed that inspires readers to look closer, draw, smell, feel and appreciate details of the people and the earth around them.
“The more you notice, the more you care about what you notice and you become more connected to it,” explains Balla.
She believes that the earlier a connection to their environment can be instilled in a child’s heart, the better. Using that connection to encourage people to take care of the world instead of fear-mongering certainly seems a more proactive approach to solving the global climate challenges.
“These books really are for everyone, disguised as kids’ books,” Balla says near the end of our conversation, a warm, nostalgic smile spreading across her face once again. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone could easily connect to the myriad of beautifully illustrated observations of nature, community, and self in Balla’s stories. Both Landing with Wings and Heart of the Bubble are sure to be heartwarming and wonderful experiences for every reader.
What’s Next? Balla’s newest book Cycling Together, about girlhood and youth empowerment, was due to launch on 25 July 2021 but has been postponed from the recent Victoria lockdown. However, you can find the eBook, paperback, two short films about the making of the book, and teacher notes on Balla’s website. All proceeds benefit Operation Toilets.
Banner image is of Balla with many of her stories and is courtesy of Trace Balla.