Andrew Piccoli spent his career overseeing some of Australia’s most memorable ad campaigns. Now, he has turned his attention to a particular area of passion: children’s literature.
Now retired, Piccoli spent the COVID-19 lockdown writing the story of Dexter the Dahu for children aged between five and nine. He has donated a copy of the charming book to every Victorian primary school and public library, and released it nationally.
Piccoli spoke to B&T about the inspirtion for Dexter the Dahu, the story of a young European mountain goat who must make his way to a prestigious boarding school, experiencing adventures and life lessons along the way.
B&T: What prompted you to make the shift towards writing?
AP: First of all, I’ve always had an interest in and belief in children’s literature and children’s storytelling. I’ve always believed that storytelling and the literature that evolves from it is the foundation of early childhood education. That’s been that’s been a number one belief. Secondly, I had the good fortune to be living in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of years ago.
I went into the English section of one of the bookstores in Zurich. They had an amazing collection of children’s stories in English, and I started to read about all those, and discover the concept of the dahu [a mythical European mountian goat].
I [wanted to make up] a story about this, and then of course, with COVID hitting here so badly, we were locked in for five months, across two bursts. [I had] the time to pull it all together, and finish it off and get it professionally edited, get an illustrator and a graphic designer and printer, and get on with it.
I hadn’t [done a book before but] I’ve always had an interest in storytelling and literature, because of its importance in the foundation of early education. And combined with my experience living in Zurich – because this whole thing is semi-set in Switzerland, and the concept of a dahu who is a European Alpine legend.
So using that folklore element, what are some of the themes that you wanted to explore?
There are messages, subtle messages in every chapter, because Dexter goes on a six day journey across the Alps, to arrive at his school, St. Nicholas Alpine School for Dahu. It’s written in an entertaining way, because it’s aimed for children who are aged five to nine years, so one does not want to be too didactic about all the messages in there. So I mean, he comes across Ivan the ogre, the river of stones, etc, etc.
There are messages of the importance of family, simple things about how to deal with a bully, to have to think for yourself, the importance of family, resilience and determination to overcome obstacles to ultimately get to your goal, which in this case, is arriving at the boarding school where [Dexter] is going to spend the next six years.
Ads on some fundamental level are about telling stories. Is that something that you found helped while writing, even though you’re catering to very different audiences when you’re creating an ad as to when you’re writing a children’s book?
I enjoy the creative process – although I was in marketing, I wasn’t a pure advertising person. I worked in marketing all my life, for 40 years, here in Australia and Canada and United Kingdom, and in the United Kingdom. I worked in various markets from there: Canada, Middle East, Europe, and North Africa.
The whole creative process that’s involved in marketing was something that I have always enjoyed. Coming up with an idea or discovering an idea, and developing that idea to produce an end result. That’s what it is.
So do you have any plans for any future books? Would you stick with children’s literature?
I would stick with children’s. I’ve learned a lot from this process. Of course, with Dexter having arrived at school, there is the opportunity – I’ve already started writing a sequel, because there [could be] a book for every year of school. Eventually, obviously, he graduates from St. Nicolas, and he gets back home. And I won’t tell you what happens when he gets home!
I’ve drafted out the next six years of his schooling. There are adventures in every year of school, but whether I do that depends upon how successful is is in commercial terms.
This initial book really began as a philanthropic exercise, and then I enjoyed the creative process. It was a whole lot of fun for me to do that. I mean, because of my belief in the importance of children’s literature and storytelling to children’s education, I donated nearly two and a half thousand copies of the book to Victorian primary schools and Victorian public libraries. That was that’s really what it was all about.
It was just my small contribution to the vast and wonderful world of children’s literture. I’ve got distribution in Victoria, which is where I’m based, and it’s now available on Booktopia nationally, it’s available on Amazon, internationally and in Australia. So whether I do any more depends upon how commercially successful this is. .
Where did your passion for children’s literature start?
Well, you know, in a strange kind of way, it came back from when I was a very young child, with my sister, and our babysitter .
[She] used to come over in an evening and then my parents would go out to meet with their friends, and she would read us fairy stories. I read a whole lot more while I was in Zurich, because there’s a whole different range of fairytales that exist in Europe compared to here. And then I’ve subsequently got a whole library full of these fairytales. It’s just amazing, and also, I just found it interesting.
It’s a whole genre that people make careers out of in terms of analysing and working out the subtle meaning of Little Red Riding Hood, for example. It’s been done in a whole different number of ways. It’s just an area I find interesting.
Is there anything else that you would like to add about your work?
I can only stress not just the technical skill of reading, but the power of stories and literature, first and foremost to stir up the imagination. Because in this digital world we now live in, there’s still a great need for imagination, in being able to solve problems, whether they be problems in the industry you’re working in, or your own personal life – you got to have imagination. Children’s stories, if you start with those at a very early age, can stir the imagination.
They can be a wonderful tool to have as you go through your life, to solve issues, because there are just issues that come up in your personal life and your working life that takes imagination to solve. I think that’s one big thing that reading at a very early age, and particularly fairy tales, can get your mind leaning towards.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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