Planning Our P.I. Penguin Christmas Special

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Kaylie and Josh with our food at Sizzler Ready to work with story planning notebooks, pens, and pencils.

Last Thursday, the Bec J. Smith team (Rebecca, Kaylie, and Joshua) set about planning their P.I. Penguin Christmas Special. I’ll tell you a secret, we actually had the first ideas for this in December last year but it was too late to write, get illustrated, and publish a book in time to enjoy that holiday season. Now, with Christmas fast approaching again, we wanted to get the story together so that we can share it with you all this December.

As with every P.I. Penguin adventure, the first step in creating the book is to spend time together planning the story. Normally, when we plan our P.I. Penguin books we outline and plan the story while visiting the place where the adventure happens. But it was August 31st and it would still be a few months before Christmas decorations and light displays would begin to appear around Perth. Thankfully, we had memories of past Christmases, and an appetite for a very special lunch, so we decided to go to Sizzler and enjoy an all-you-can-eat salad bar buffet while we worked.

Kaylie and Josh with our food at Sizzler Ready to work with story planning notebooks, pens, and pencils. Kaylie and Josh hard at work sketching Josh is drawing his ideas for P.I. Penguin’s house Kaylie is drawing a vignette of P.I. Penguin.
Kaylie and Josh with our food at Sizzler
Ready to work with story planning notebooks,
pens, and pencils.
Kaylie and Josh hard at work sketching
Josh is drawing his ideas for P.I. Penguin’s house
Kaylie is drawing a vignette of P.I. Penguin.


Finding Our Friends

Anyone who has been to one of my Kids Can Make Picture books workshops knows, the very first step is to think up the characters. We had our main character of course. P.I. Penguin is the star of all our stories in this series. We also wanted to give Santa a chance to be in our story since it is a Christmas story after all. But who else would we meet?

A dibbler, a furry, brown marsupial hiding beneath a golden wattle flower.
A small, furry dibbler.


After some thinking and searching to explore more of our Australian native animals we came across this delightful little creature.

This is a Dibbler. Dibblers are small marsupials. In the 1900s they were thought to be extinct but were rediscovered in 1967. Now they can only be found in two isolated pockets of Western Australia’s coastal southwest.

We thought these adorable little creatures would love to play with strings of light around their bushy homes.

But after P.I. visits the dibblers there are other new friends to meet.
What other Australian native might we find?

A small brown lyrebird with a beautifully accented plume of tail feathers.
The Lyrebird is native to Australia’s south east coast.


That’s when Kaylie suggested this beautiful creature. He’s a lyrebird.

Lyrebirds have very cool tail feathers. The feathers on their body are quite short and dense, but the feathers on their tails are long and fine. It’s the breeding-age males that have the best tails. In fact, the longer and finer their tails the more the ladies like them. Their tails can be seventy centimetres long! But they’ve had to evolve in just the right way so that their tails aren’t so long that it makes it harder for them to survive in the wild.

Speaking of evolution, Lyrebirds have developed a very distinct trait in their vocalisation. They can mimic the sounds of the things they hear in their environment. Some scientists have even recorded lyrebirds mimicking the sound of man-made machinery like car alarms, chainsaws, and cameras.

This was a great pick for our story. I just know Adit Galih, our illustrator, will have fun drawing the fancy feathers of our lyrebird friend. But wait, there might be a problem!

Now, it’s important that we do our research and part of that is to check the distribution of the native animals we choose for our P.I. Penguin stories. You can imagine how disappointed we were to learn that lyrebirds aren’t found in West Australia’s wilderness. They are exclusive to Australia’s south eastern coastline. But, because it was such a beautiful animal, and it is Christmas after all, we decided a lyrebird might have a holiday in W.A.

A wide-eyed, mottle-feathered tawny frogmouth.
The Tawny Frogmouth is an odd looking bird.

Tawny Frogmouth

So now our story includes a lyrebird who has flown over from Sydney to visit his friends.
But what friends might he be visiting?

After some more searching we remembered the tawny frogmouth.

You know, I used to think tawny frogmouth were owls. In fact, I often called them, tawny frogmouth owls. After all, they are nocturnal, have big eyes, and puff out their broad chests. They look a lot like owls. But, again, research is an important part of planning a book, and as we learned more about the tawny frogmouth we discovered that the tawny frogmouth are actually more closely related to nightjars.

Josh found a really cool picture online where a family of tawny frogmouth were perched in the branches of a tree. Because of the colour of their feathers they almost completely blended in and looked like part of the trees trunk. Now that is camouflage. Yes, a tawny frogmouth would make a great addition to our story.

Now, with characters to help P.I. Penguin solve the case, it was time to put them in their place.


These Required Some Sketches For Reference

The next step in story planning is to develop a sense of where the story happens. While we’re thinking of settings we are also thinking of how the story unfolds. Where does the first scene take place? What is happening in that scene?

As usual, we decided to start the story at P.I. Penguin’s house. This time P.I. Penguin is out the front of his house putting up a Christmas light display. This is where things got a little tricky. You see, in our P.I. Penguin books we’ve seen parts of the inside of P.I. Penguin’s house. We’ve seen his bedroom with it’s arched window split down the middle. We’ve seen his living room with a larger open arched window looking out to a sandy beach and the ocean beyond. We’ve also seen his kitchen, which has a big, square window of glass submerged under water like a giant fish tank. How could we show P.I. Penguin’s house from the front and still keep true what we new about it from the inside?

P.I. Penguin's house from the front as imagined and drawn by Joshua.
P.I. Penguin’s house from the front as imagined and drawn by Joshua.

Joshua’s Vision Of P.I. Penguin’s House

I tell you, it was tricky. In the end we decided that P.I. Penguin’s house needs to be build partially into the side of a cliff. Along one side the ocean’s tide rises and in the early morning his kitchen window is below the water line. The front of P.I. Penguin’s house faces out to the beach which curves around the inlet so he has a lovely view of sandy shores and cool, blue waters.

Josh decided to draw a picture so we could get a better sense of what it might look like. There are some things we’ll need to add, like plants, and maybe a couple more windows, but I really loved to see the way he explored his ideas. He made a path up from the beach to the front door. Then gave the front facade of the house some distinct stonework. He even added a lean-to roof because Australian houses often have eaves and porches.

A photograph of one of Perth's top 10 Christmas Light displays in 2016.
A photograph of one of Perth’s top 10 Christmas Light displays in 2016.

Dibbler Home

Next, P.I. needed to venture away from home to visit his friends. First, he heads to the home of a small family of dibblers. We had an idea of where dibblers might live from our research but in our story we wanted them to have decorated their home with Christmas lights. So, again, we jumped online to find some inspiration. After scrolling through lots of photos, we started to get ideas and we incorporated parts of the lights in this display from Perth’s Top 10 Christmas lights displays of 2016 into our “Dibbler Lights” setting. See how we’ve included the reindeer, the overhead netting, and around a bush we have made a small star-mounted tree.

Tawny Frogmouth Home

That was the dibbler’s home, but next P.I. would visit the tawny frogmouth and we needed to find a way to make that display special too. Josh had a wonderful idea to add natural flowers and blossoms to the decoration the tawny frogmouths create. We also added a giant guiding star high, high up the trees so that it can be seen from great distance. Kaylie wanted to add a reindeer and sleigh gliding down the branches. And I saw a photo of a lights display that had green and blue lights on the ground that looked like grass and water so we added those too.

Our very rough sketch of how the dibblers created their light display.
Our very rough sketch of how the dibblers created their light display.
Our very rough sketch of the tawny frogmouth light display.
Our very rough sketch of the tawny frogmouth light display.
A giant Christmas tree in Forrest Chase, Perth.
A giant Christmas tree in Forrest Chase, Perth.

Forrest Chase, Perth

Finally, we knew we wanted P.I. Penguin and his friends to gather in the centre of Perth where, each year in Forrest Chase, the City of Perth erect a giant Christmas tree. A Christmas parade fills the streets and P.I. Penguin might just see some familiar faces among the crowd that gather to watch. This is where they’ll meet Santa, with a few special true-blue Aussie touches. (Kaylie couldn’t resist making sure Santa has a dusty holden ute.)

From characters, through settings, to plot we mapped out the story and reached a touching conclusion that drove home a beautiful message without even trying. I really love how that happens in story telling. You don’t have to force your message because as the story unfolds one will naturally develop and unfold. The one we ended up with wasn’t what I thought it might be when we started.
And I think it’s all the better for it.

By the time we put the final touches on our outline we’d enjoyed a fantastic meal, including yummy desert. Two and a half hours very well spent. That’s all it takes for three creative minds to pull together a story. But plot storming is only the first stage of the writing journey. There is more work ahead of us before we have a book to share.

The next step is to put together the storyboards that show how the story will unfold across the 48 pages of our picture book. Check back soon for a sneak peak at those and a look into the storyboarding process. Meanwhile, what do you think of what we have so far? We’d love to hear your thoughts so share your comments and questions in the discussion below.

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