"Pandemic Tales: An Interview with Tessa-Jean Tuttle"
TM: Tendai Machingaidze TT: Tessa-Jean Tuttle
TM: Tell us about yourself - Where you are from; Where you studied; Where you’ve worked; Where you are now.
TT: Hey everyone, my name is officially Tessa-Jean Tuttle - I mostly go by Tessa. I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe and happily lived my childhood and school days there. After high school I spent a year working and traveling, and then made my way down to Cape Town, South Africa to study at UCT. My plan was to study Psychology and possibly some English. I graduated in 2006 with a degree in Social Anthropology and English Literature. Essentially I studied people and stories, which as it turns out are among my lifelong favourite things.
A decade in Cape Town saw me complete my degree, work in Admin and Event Management at my local church, marry an Aussie, and start my first small business. We have since lived in Australia, Zambia, and the United States, had 2 wonderfully wild children, worked for various non-profits, and most recently, moved back to Cape Town.
TM: Your book When I Can’t See Grandma: A 2020 Pandemic Tale of Encouragement for Children is unique in many respects. Talk to us about your storytelling journey from inspiration to publication.
TT: I had the privilege of being a part of a writing Mastermind through Hope*Writers in 2020 and was working towards a nonfiction book proposal for adults. I had committed to making progress as a writer, but I never expected to write for children (which seems crazy to me now). As the pandemic year unfolded, we were having conversations around what people needed to read, and what they would need to read in the coming years.
I confessed that I had in the past drafted a few childrens’ stories, and it had crossed my mind that children around the world have so many questions and fears. They needed something to help them untangle what they were going through, and why they couldn’t hug their grandma! My coaches and colleagues loved the idea and encouraged me that I could be the one to write it and I guess they were right. It felt crazy to even consider it; books usually take years to bring to life.
I logged off the call, made a cup of tea and sat down to write. The first draft spilled out onto the keyboard as I sat in lockdown next to my sleeping children. While this picture book is aimed at 4-8 year olds, in some ways it is as much for the adults reading it to them. To give them a few tools, help them put words to what their little people might be going through and how to help them.
It took a lot longer than I had hoped to get from that night to the first release of the e-book. I self-published through Kindle Direct Press which I had never even heard of before this, so there was a lot to learn. I see now how fortunate I was to have cheerleaders and friends who could do edits and pre-read the book to their families, as well as others to help with marketing and send encouragement when I hit yet another admin wall. (Writing often seems like solitary work, but I hope this shows how it takes a team).
At the time I was working on it, I felt the clock was ticking; I assumed I had a few weeks before a book for children living through a pandemic was no longer relevant. Well we passed 1 year in print 16 June 2021 and the book has just been released in print in Australia, in time for their recent string of lockdowns.
TM: One of the first things I noticed when I picked up the book is the diversity represented in the illustrations. Talk to us about the choices you made for the pictures and why?
TT: Ah, it makes me happy that you noticed. As a parent and as a writer, it’s really important to me that children see themselves and their world represented in literature. In addition to that, I know that stories have such power to show us the world beyond our door, as well as connect us to those around us. There was no question in my mind that this would be a diverse family; we live in a diverse world.
I usually have a specific individual or family in mind when I write. When I wrote the first draft of this book I was picturing one of my closest friends & her family in lockdown. Kezia & I ended up basing the characters in the book loosely around some of them.
The content of the illustrations was also kept quite minimalist so it wasn’t tied to a particular place or one type of home. One of the strong themes of this book is that we all experience similar emotions when we face challenges and I hoped that keeping it ‘place neutral’ would reinforce that.
TM: Children’s literature is unique in that writers have to collaborate with Illustrators. Did you know Keziah Davies prior to publishing your book? What was it like working with her?
TT: The illustration piece was such a fun part of the process for me, and I am so glad I self-published or I may never have been involved.
Kezia is a delight. We have known each other since high school when we both lived in Zim and went to church together. We ended up at the same church in Cape Town too and have kept in touch as we’ve both moved across the world.
She is an artist with a unique style, as well as a fantastic teacher who loves kids. I felt vulnerable about hiring a stranger to share this first book with, so I approached her and I think she did an excellent job. She was very patient with me as I felt a bit like ‘the blind leading the blind’ finding my way through the process on some days. I do hope we will work together again.
TM: What is your favorite children’s book?
TT: Ooooh - right now it’s a toss up between All the Colours of Christmas by Mathew Paul Turner and What a Wonderful World it Could Be by Mary-An. Those are both pretty new releases. I spent my own childhood buried in Enid Blyton and the Narnia series so I’ll always love those. There are so many new children’s books that are tackling tough topics and showing more diversity and inclusivity that it’s hard to choose!
TM: What can we expect from you in the future?
TT: There is something of a sequel to my Grandma book in the works. I am currently working on a book proposal for a trilogy for kids which is based in rural Australia, to honour where my kids were born. Beyond that, I am enjoying getting to know the children’s literature world through Instagram, and doing some freelance work and thoroughly enjoying being back in Southern Africa.
Find out more about Tessa-Jean Tuttle at: