We sat down with Story Box Library Founder & CEO, Nicole Brownlee and Senior Producer/Director, Shona van Lieshout to reminisce about favourite stories and storytellers, funny moments on set and the challenges of working with animals and in pandemics over the past decade!

Nicole, can you tell us what are you most proud of about Story Box Library?

Nicole: I am most proud of the quality of stories and the caliber of storytellers we have in our library! I am constantly amazed at how celebrities are willing to ‘spread the word’ and let their famous friends know about us.

Shona, you’ve been the driving force behind the production side of Story Box Library for around 5 years now, there must be some stand-out memories for you?

Shona: I’ve produced and directed around half of the stories in our collection and I’m particularly proud of our ability to continue production throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, particularly during the lockdowns in Victoria in 2020 and 2021. One of my fondest memories is directing Osher Gunsberg as he read for us at his neighborhood library in Sydney via Zoom from my bedroom in Melbourne. It’s something I never would have envisioned - directing a shoot from a different state - but Osher was incredibly accommodating, very professional and an absolute joy to work with.

So Nicole, what's your favourite story? And you can ONLY pick 1!

Nicole: That’s like asking me to pick my favourite child! So maybe my answer is that I love them all equally for different reasons. But if I really must pick I’m going to have to be nostalgic and pick Danny Katz reading his Little Lunch story The Sandpit. Like the story, my kids found a possum head in our backyard one day. Unlike in the story, they were too grossed out to actually pick it up and parade it around on a stick. Danny Katz is a master storyteller and gets all kids laughing.

What would your top pick be Shona?

Shona: Like Nicole, this is very hard for me to answer as there are so many wonderful stories and storytellers in our collection however, if I had to choose one it would be the multiple award winning book How To Make A Bird beautifully written by Meg McKinlay with stunning illustrations by Matt Ottley. We approached the very talented singer, songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke to read this as a special Melbourne Writers Festival read for Story Box Library and we were so thrilled when she said yes. I remember feeling like I was transported to another place whilst Kate was reading. Kate’s voice is like music, effortlessly reflecting the tone, rhythm and emotion of the text, highlighting nuances and inflections with precision. If you haven’t watched this story I highly recommend it.

Can you tell us what's the funniest thing that’s happened on set? Nicole?

Nicole: I don’t often get to go on set nowadays, but the storyteller that had me in stitches from start to finish was the gorgeous Cal Wilson. I don’t recall anything specific, just a memory of an overall joyous day. Her comments, facial expressions and character voices were exceptional. We were so lucky to have had her read for us.

Shona: We often have a great laugh on set yet a memory that stands out was filming the book Swoop by Nicole Godwin and Susannah Crispe read by Roby Favretto. We rigged a toy magpie on fishing wire for a scene where Roby is walking through a park and gets swooped. A number of dogs started barking, we also attracted two real magpies who came along to keep a very close eye on us and a school group found it all very entertaining and amusing snapping photos for their social media. Even a police officer responded to reports of swooping magpies. It was quite a challenge making the toy magpie swoop accurately, with poor Roby getting more knocks than swoops. However, Roby was a great sport, there were lots of laughs and the final footage looks surprisingly realistic.

In the past 10 years, you must have faced some challenging moments? 

Nicole: Yes, getting an email from Nick Cave’s agent, saying that Nick was happy to read for us on New Year’s Eve between 11-12pm... but he would not appear on camera was pretty challenging! I made it happen though, despite the fact that all in my team were off for holidays, and thankfully the wonderful Aaron Blabey was prepared to do an introduction to the reading. It was a lot, but I was thrilled with the final result. 

And how about you Shona, what challenge would you say has been the biggest during your time with Story Box Library?

Shona: Certainly my biggest challenge was navigating the impact of COVID-19. Numerous shoots had to be postponed because either the storyteller, camera operator or myself were exposed to someone with the virus or tested positive ourselves. Some of our shoots got postponed several times; however, despite these challenges we managed to film all our chosen stories. We recently filmed with Andy Krakouer, a former Australian Rules footballer and host of Yokayi Football who read Ninni Yabini in both English and Noonga for us. We’ve been trying to film this book for a few years and we are thrilled to finally add it to our collection. I highly recommend watching this story.

The old saying is 'Never work with children or animals'... we've had a fair few animals on set. Is the saying true?

Nicole: I’ve actually had good experiences with animals on set, but it’s clear I’ve been lucky! The funniest was shooting with Jimmy Rees and Matt Cosgrove at Stanton Library (NSW). It was for Matt’s book Alpaca’s with Maracas. We “rented” 2 Alpaca’s for the afternoon and needless to say they were confused and not overly impressed. In fact, one fell asleep during recording. Jimmy and Matt were so much fun to work with. Matt sent us an email a few weeks later saying that he had been re-united with one of the Alpaca’s at a reading at the State Library of NSW. Apparently the Alpaca stayed awake for that read! We have some hilarious bloopers from that shoot you can watch. Or you can read this blog post from the day.

Shona: Animals are undeniably adorable and definitely worth the additional time spent on set during filming. Over the years, we’ve featured many stories involving dogs, so it’s common for storytellers to bring their own furry companions along to the shoot. I do recall Claire Hooper’s dog Dusty eagerly leaping up and out of frame everytime I called “action” only to settle down calmly and pose with a smile to the camera as soon as filming stopped. I think the cutest animal we’ve had on set is a Refus Wallaby named Paddy featured at the end of Noni Hazlehurst’s read of Noni The Pony Rescues A Joey by Alison Lester. Paddy’s arrival was a welcome surprise on the day of filming, as the joey we had initially planned to film became unavailable due to its animal caretaker falling ill the day before.

Can you tell us about some of the fantastic locations you've filmed at?

Nicole: So many to choose from! The Sydney Botanic Gardens, The Melbourne Museum, The Chinese Museum, and even in my front garden on numerous occasions! I was particularly emotional when filming in Kinglake around the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires. The story, The House on the Mountain was read by the author Ella Holcombe who had tragically lost her family as a result of the fires. A beautiful piece of work that I still get a lump in my throat thinking about. 

Shona: We’ve filmed at so many amazing locations across Australia, including many libraries: such as the State Library of Queensland, State Library Victoria, Library at the Dock, Marrickville Library and Pavilion in Sydney to name just a few. My most memorable locations would be on stage at The Melbourne Theatre Company, Bondi Fire Station, the Penguin area at Sea Life Melbourne, The Collingwood Children’s Farm and North Styne Surf Life Saving Club at Manly beach. However, my best location was filming Ashleigh Marshall reading Saved!!! by Lydia Williams and Lucinda Gifford at AAMI Park. Standing on the soccer pitch was an unforgettable experience. This year, we’re thrilled to be filming with Matilda’s Goal Keeper and author Lydia William’s herself, so we might need to make another visit back to AAMI Park.

Our 500th story ‘Dressed for Success’ is a pretty special book. Can you tell us a little more about it?

Nicole: Aside from the fact that we’ve released a mix of 500 incredible stories, the opportunity to work with Emma Watkins and Vision Australia with an array of Nikki Hind's designer clothes for Emma to wear is worth celebrating!

Shona: It was really important to select a special story for our 500th read. We chose a story from the Big Visions Series: stories written in both Braille and English. Each book is based on a true story about those ups and downs that are ultimately positive, encouraging AND inspiring. We knew Emma Watkins would make the perfect storyteller and she was thrilled to be invited back to read for Story Box Library and thankfully was able to fit us into her very busy schedule. Emma is seriously one of the most professional, fun and lovely people I’ve worked with. Emma read Nikki Hind: Dressed for Success written by John Dickson and illustrated by Chantel de Sousa. This story is about Nikki Hind who always dreamed of being a fashion designer. When she was little, she had trouble seeing. Later, when a stroke took her away almost all of her eyesight, Nikki didn’t let that stop her. Now she has her own fashion label and her fashions are shown all around the world. We filmed in the Children’s Library at Vision Australia’s HQ in Melbourne and Nikki Hind provided a selection of her designer clothes for Emma to wear. What a fabulous collaboration for our 500th story.