Herman and Rosie deaf translation video


The NSW Premier's Reading Challenge presents Gus Gordon


Interview about Herman and Rosie with Miriam Zolin from Jazz Planet (2012) - This interview focuses on the music aspect of the book & researching in New York 

Herman plays jazz oboe by night and works in an office by day. Rosie is an aspiring jazz-singer by night and a waitress by day. Both are struggling to make ends meet and slowly giving up on their dreams, until one day their paths cross.

Gus Gordon has set his new kids’ picture book in New York City and its two main characters – Herman and Rosie – have jazz in common.

Gordon can’t remember the names of all the jazz clubs he went to in New York to research the story for Herman and Rosie, but the ones that appealed most to him, were often small and hidden away, with small but passionate audiences.

It’s one of the things I love about New York City’, he says. ‘You can’t beat looking around at faces in those jazz clubs and seeing the wide smiles. I love the grungy places that have flyers and papers peeling off the walls.

He visited Smalls, Blue Note, Birdland and The 55 Bar during his research trip in 2010 but it’s the small clubs whose names he can’t remember that inspired the jazz club that Rosie sings in on Thursday nights. There’s Rosie, singing her heart out at ‘The Mangy Hound’, and a solitary duck in the audience, reading a newspaper. Rosie doesn’t mind the tiny audience, says Gordon. ‘She’s doing what she wants to do because that’s her passion and that’s what keeps her going.’

The story of Herman and Rosie is about music and connection, in an urban landscape. Two solitary souls afloat in a big city share a love of jazz that eventually helps bring them together. Herman is an oboe player. Gordon explains that he wanted Herman to have an instrument that went with his personality.

‘Most people would think the obvious instrument would be a saxophone or a trumpet, but because Herman is a conservative, quiet, vest-wearing person who is lonely – and not particularly comfortable around people – I didn’t want a boisterous loud instrument. I love the oboe because it’s quiet and slightly quirky. It has a certain charm that those other instruments don’t have. I also thought, too, if you take a trumpet up to the roof to play, then that could be annoying to your neighbours but an oboe… where the music just seeps into the night… I thought that would be a more appealing sound.'

While researching, Gordon ran into Australian tenor saxophonist Adrian Cunningham and took this shot of him with his phone at a gig at Jules Bistro in the East Village.
Small world! They talked about Herman and Rosie’s story and the jazz scene in New York – he says it was great for research. ‘I’m not an afficionado of jazz’, says Gordon, ‘but I’ve always had a soundtrack to my books that I listen to while I’m writing. It’s another level of narrative that’s vital – a back story that seeps its way into the book by a kind of osmosis.

He chose New York because he had an urban tale in mind and ‘New York is the ultimate urban destination’. Researching the book, he stayed in the East Village. ‘I had to stay where I thought the characters were’, he says.

It was winter – and cold – and he sketched as long as his hands held out. ‘I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and wandered from jazz club to jazz club.’ It was important to get a sense of what his characters’ world really felt like. ‘The characters love their music. It’s part of who they are; they have a personal relationship with jazz. I wanted them to be in love with jazz music and with LPs.’

Herman and Rosie is a lovely book for kids but will also be enjoyed by adults – as much for its quirky, rich and textured images as for the charming story.


Herman and Rosie - Notes on the book's themes and inspirations (Parts of this essay featured in CBCA Reading Time magazine, 2013)

I was a huge reader as a kid. I read Enid Blyton madly, I loved Kenneth Graham’s Wind in The Willows and I devoured Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. I still regard those books highly. I read ahead of my age but I never lost sight of picture books. As a child who drew constantly, it was always the pictures that attracted me initially, however I think I understood, though couldn’t articulate it at the time, that there was much more going on beyond what I could see in the pictures and the words. There was a kind of magic there, secretly happening in between the visual and textual that made the whole book more interesting. The picture books that I enjoyed the most were those that seemed to have many layers of this magic – many layers of story. Even Richard Scarry, who was never truly appreciated amongst the children’s literature community, wrote (and illustrated) stories with lots of layers. His books weren’t just Raccoon-driving-cement-truck-action, there was often an underlying sweetness within and messages that were subtly woven in. You could never see it all on first reading.

Herman and Rosie is a layered picture book. There’s quite a bit going on and rather than spell out all the details to the reader (which I detest), I hope that they are able to connect the dots and come to their own conclusions, even if this is only on a level that they are able to understand.

Herman and Rosie is the end result of an idea that I had been playing with for a while. That idea is the notion that we as humans need to coexist, but by the very nature of the way this happens, we can often feel separated from those around us to a point where we feel cut off, isolated. The concept of feeling alone, surrounded by millions fascinates me. It's a universal theme. I am also constantly intrigued with the way that we all find each other. By that I mean, how we, self consciously or otherwise, are drawn to other like-minded people and how the smallest connection can often turn out to be the most valuable. In this story it is music that connect Herman and Rosie at first, and later loss, although the reader sees that there are other, slightly quirky, interests that bind them. A story about two characters who felt lonely living in a big city and the possible connections that they may have without their knowledge was the driving motivation for me to write Herman and Rosie. The intrinsic question being, ‘will they ever meet or will they, like ships in the night, silently pass each other?

I’ve wanted to write an urban tale for some time. Something to do with growing up in the country, I suppose. I love the whole ‘city mouse, country mouse’ theme where the city can seem so alien. I also wanted to write a story where music was a key component so bringing these things together was very satisfying. I’m surprised music isn’t used in picture books more often as it’s such a powerful connector.

New York was always going to be the city where the book was set. I love the place. I feel so alive there. It’s the perfect setting for two characters trying to make their way in a modern, albeit retro looking, world. New York also has that ‘film noir’ cinematic feel that I was looking for.

Visually I knew that collage was going to be the most important medium used. It’s such a potent medium and it adds depth to the layers of story but it has to be used cautiously as it can just as easily distract the reader if it jumps from the page too much. The tricky part is trying to marry all the collage elements together. Other than collage I used pencil, crayon, watercolour and acrylics. Crayon is particularly liberating. It makes me feel like a child again and I like that.

Writing Herman and Rosie was equal parts challenging and fun. I learnt a great deal that I didn’t know before I began. I used to think that the process of writing picture books was going to get easier but I have a feeling they’re all going to be hard work. Thankfully I find the same process enormously rewarding.

At the moment I am writing my next book while working on (illustrating) another picture book. Although I am not especially good at dividing my brain between two projects, I do like to have something else on the go. It’s a primal ‘hope for the future’ kind of thing. My sketchbooks are filled with story shrapnel – ideas that are going nowhere, some that will travel a little way and perhaps some, if I’m lucky, that may even make it down the road. I can never tell which of these is which. I only know that until I believe in it, I can’t expect anyone else to do so.


Five Very Bookish Questions – author feature on Kids Book Review website (2012)

1. Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why? Can you name a book or two in this genre that you particularly love?

Picture books are my favourite genre because there is so much going on. There are so many layers of story - in the visuals and the narrative and I enjoy the challenge of making it work in order to marry the two as seamlessly as possible. I like that there can be something for everybody - old or young. I also love picture books for their ability to tell a good story with rich, affective illustrations, sometimes with no words at all. Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival is a good example of the power of clever storytelling through strong visuals.

I am particularly attracted to well written picture books that are just plain funny - the nonsensical the better. Mr. Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs is off-the-wall in terms of silliness and the illustrations amplify the wonderful oddness of the whole thing. It’s deceptively clever and Leigh is a master of this type of book. Intelligent, funny picture books never get the credit they deserve.

2. Which books did you love to read as a young child?

1. Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham                                                                                           

2. Harry The Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion

3. Everything by Roald Dahl

4. Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry

5. Lord of The Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

3. Which three attributes make for a great children’s book? Can you give a book title example or two?

1. For me the story has to start well; with a bang or a promise that the book is going to be a great book. The opening line (especially in a picture book) or paragraph has got to say to the reader ‘you’re going to love this book!’ Otherwise, what’s the point.

Oliver Jeffers’ opening line from his picture book Lost and Found is a good example. It begins ‘Once there was a boy and one day he found a penguin at his door.’ It asks so many questions – we have to find out what happens. Another is Tomi Ungerers’ book Adelaide. It begins: ‘Adelaide’s parents were surprised when they saw that their daughter Adelaide had wings.’ Brilliant – I’m in!

2. Well-rounded, strong character/s. The character needs to be believable, memorable and interesting if the reader is going to give them their time and invest in the story. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a great character that kids can relate to. They love her inquisitiveness and her naughty side. Plus she is interesting to look at which always helps.

3. Respect for the reader. I have trouble with books that hand feed everything to the reader, not allowing them to piece the story together themselves – spelling every detail out. It’s insulting. The reader feels much more involved in the story when they are able to form their own visuals and own summations of what they are reading. There is a greater sense of gratification for the reader when they have worked for their meal. They empathise better with the books’ characters and their journeys. They then feel more committed to turning the page.

4. What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?

Aside from reading to them, I would say ‘be seen reading.’ Children grow up mimicking their parents and if both parents read there is a greater chance that their children will want to read too. Makes sense to me anyway.

5. Name three books you wish you’d written.

1. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak                                                                                  

2. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes                                                                                                             

3. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham