StoryBox recently sat down with author/illustrator, Blake Nuto to discuss his book, When You’re a Boy. When You’re A Boy was nominated and shortlisted for the CBCA Award for New Illustrator, an award that aims to recognise and encourage new talent in the field of Australian children's book illustration.

Learning Support and Enrichment teacher by day, author and illustrator by night, a father of three, Blake certainly is a busy man! However, Blake was very generous with his time and the following rich conversations we had around the deeper meaning of When You’re A Boy and why stories and storytelling are important to him.

Blake firstly explains that he has been writing for most of his life, mainly song (with his band), the odd poem and more recently picture books. He explains that for him, what drew him to picture books is ‘the connection with poetry and my connection with songwriting’. He reflects on the positive male role models in his life as ‘being the men that took the time to listen, and talked about feelings…men that were sensitive, that took the time to talk about feelings and ideas, I think that is the most inspiring thing for any young male, more than any grand gesture’. Here’s more of our conversation:

Where did you write ‘When You’re A Boy’ ?

I wrote that on the bus on the way home. It’s just the practise of writing for me, and being open to giving ideas a go. I jot things down whenever they come to me. For that one (When You’re A Boy) I wrote, and it wasn’t until about 2 years later, that I then showed Affirm Press a really basic draft and concepts.

Did you base ‘When You’re A Boy’ on your experiences as a child or as a father to a son?

I said it’s a letter of self-acceptance initially. It’s a bit of a ‘letting go’ of these ideas that were imposed on me as I was growing up, not really by my family but definitely by my peers and the media in general. It’s almost like a ‘breathing out’ and ‘it’s ok’ not to live up to the standards. And I really wanted to communicate that message to my son as I still see those difficult messages being sent to him. From him being a young boy saying his favourite colour is pink, to as soon as he went into daycare it was definitely not pink anymore. It was interesting how instantly he felt like he had to conform to the standard that still seems to persist despite all the discussions.

How did you find illustrating your When You’re A Boy and can you tell us a bit of background on the images?

Blake explains that he illustrated his first self-published book, A Child of Galaxies back in 2017, however, he feels that When You’re A Boy is much more progressive, and reflective of where he is at as an artist. Interestingly, Blake didn’t actually plan to illustrate the story, it was only when Affirm Press suggested it, did he decide to give it a go. Blake then goes on to say ‘I’ve always wanted to paint, it took me about 10 years after high school art to have another go’. Blake then explains that Jess Racklyeft (Author/Illustrator/Story Tools creator) was his mentor for When You’re A Boy workshopping illustrations together. Blake also divulges that many of the book's landscapes were inspired by his very own Tasmanian backyard (seen from his back window!) and hikes with his son.

Tell us about the feedback on When You’re a Boy or what general messages have people taken away after reading When You’re A Boy?

‘A lot of people have said ‘oh I bought that for my nephew or I bought it for my son’, it’s a real gift book. What I hear from that is that they feel like it’s a message that they want to share with the young boys in their life, particularly women who have said that to me. 

It’s this conversation everyone is wanting to find a way to have, and maybe this book is a catalyst to get that conversation happening in the world, which I think is really lovely to contribute to. I think this book helps to articulate some of the ideas that are clearly in the public forum, more than ever it seems’. Blake then responded to my discussions about how the book is open to interpretation (dependent on age and experiences and family dynamics) in terms of ‘depth’ and messaging. Blake then goes on to say: ‘I wanted to leave some openness there. I know with my own son, he’s gone through some really rough and tumble stages, and then I’ve pigeonholed him as that, and then he just surprises me by doing these wildly sensitive things at school or writing something that’s really beautiful. And I didn’t know it was there and probably wouldn’t have given room for it, because I developed this idea. In the same breath, I didn’t want to say, boys have to be a certain way.’

Finally, Why are stories important to you or why is storytelling important to you?

‘In a world where everything moves fast, stories — especially books — are slow. They can only be appreciated when given your full attention and a good story honour that offering. From opening the cover, to turning each page, they offer a chance for the adult and child to quiet the world and share a conversation which goes on long after the story is over — sometimes for as long as your life.’ 

We thank Blake Nuto for his time, and we look forward to watching When You’re A Boy being read by the incredible Peter Houghton.