By Melissa Grant
Spider Lee can spin a good yarn.
As a teacher with great creative energy, she has a knack for writing stories that engage young readers.
The Nyora writer and illustrator, whose real name is Kelly Hunter, has spent years in rural schools as both a teacher and welfare coordinator.
It’s these experiences that have helped inspire and shape stories that, like her pen name, capture children’s attention.
“I know what gets a laugh, and more importantly, I know how powerful books can be in helping children relate to and understand the world around them,” the Koonwarra Village School teacher said.
Spider Lee’s first picture book was ‘Wobbly Boots’ in 2011, a resource for teachers and social workers to gently address the issues of substance abuse and family violence with young children.
“It was an important book to write, as at the time, there were no age-appropriate resources to support these vulnerable children,” she explained.
“It’s really a book to be shared with a teacher or social worker.”
Two years later, Spider published ‘The Hair Ball’, a book that started out as a simple poem and evolved into a joyous rhyming picture book about the power of resourcefulness and community.
In 2018, Spider authored a middle grade fiction novel, ‘Living Next to Dr Death’.
She made the leap from picture books to children’s fiction novels after witnessing many boys aged 8-12 becoming disengaged from stories.
It was her mission to write a page-turner.
“I was motivated because I could see the kids, particularly the older boy students, could be disengaged from the books that we have,” she said.
“A lot of things being published at the time – there was not a lot of guts, not a lot of storyline. Those interested could read it in an hour. I wanted to produce something that was a bit meatier.”
The powerful story was inspired by the complexities of friendships she had witnessed in the school yard, particularly how boys without a strong male role model navigated the path of trust and peer pressure.
Spider Lee’s latest book ‘Black Dog, Brown Dog’ isn’t inspired by her experiences in the school, but rather her childhood on a farm in northern Victoria with 11 siblings.
It’s a rhyming tale of muddy paws and the chaos they cause.
“As if that was not enough chaos, we also had three dogs, several goats, stray cats and free ranging chickens sharing the old farmhouse with us,” she said.
“There was never a dull moment, and the speed with which an exuberant dog can unravel the most organised family is a universal theme.”
Spider Lee had long dreamed of becoming a children’s author and initially struggled with confidence.
“Putting your creativity out to show friends and, more scarily, publishers, takes courage and resilience,” she said.
“My publishing journey has been punctuated with highs and lows, but the key is to be persistent, believe in your dream and allow your skill set to grow by writing through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.”
Her adult daughters, Sandra and Alex, and husband Mark have been her biggest supporters, while her four grandchildren are huge fans of her work, particularly Jet and Chad who are of primary school age.
“They are super proud when their schoolmates go ‘do you know Spider Lee?’,” she said.
So how did she come up with the name Spider Lee?
Well, she had to come up with something after she googled her real name and found there was already a ‘Kelly Hunter’, an Australian romance writer.
So she thought she would use her childhood nickname Spider.
“My nan dubbed me her spider, as I spent many hours beneath her sewing table collecting pins, which I am inclined to think she threw there to keep me busy!”
The only problem was Spider Hunter didn’t quite work.
“I am a dedicated lover of all creatures great and small, so I used my middle name, Lee,” she said.
“Spider Lee is easy to spell, easy to remember and is gender neutral, making it easy for all young readers to connect with.”
Spider Lee is currently writing and illustrating a series of junior fiction novels and hopes to release the first, ‘Raeni and the Newborn Stars,’ this year, and the second, ‘Poppy and the Worry Doll,’ in 2022.
She’s also endeavouring to expand as an artist too, releasing a calendar, card and giftware range this year, and has two more picture books at various stages of completion.
You will find Spider Lee’s books at outlets like Loch Village Emporium, Makers & Collectors Korumburra and Aunty’s Place Lang Lang.
You can also check out her books on her website https://spiderlee.net.au/books-by-spider-lee/