Wild books for wild kids

29 September 2022

When Leisa Stewart-Sharpe graduated from UQ in 2001, she could never have imagined the wild places her working life would take her.

After training as a journalist, then moving into communications, her love of the written word and her passion for wildlife – particularly shark conservation – helped her forge a successful career as a children's author.

At the end of 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic threw her adopted home of the United Kingdom into lockdown once again, Leisa published her first book: Blue Planet II, a children’s picture book to accompany the BBC’s documentary of the same name.

Since then, Leisa (Bachelor of Journalism / Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) '01) has written and published 7 children’s fiction and non-fiction books – including the children’s biography of fierce wildlife advocate and environmentalist Sir David Attenborough.

Early inspiration

Leisa grew up in Bundaberg in central Queensland, where her loves of both books and nature had plenty of opportunities to flourish.

She spent many hours in her local library, immersing herself in the fantastical worlds of authors like Enid Blyton and Jeannie Baker. But the books about animals were some of her most treasured.

“There was this one book. I've still got it. The Loch Ness Monster and Other Mysteries. I read it and read it until I broke the spine. It was just full of mystery and monsters.

“For me, it was non-fiction. Because there was definitely a Loch Ness Monster.”

The time she spent out on the reef has stayed with her.

“I was really lucky – my grandfather made his own boat and my mum trusted that it wouldn’t sink,” she said.

“We used to go out with Grandad and my dad to the reef at Lady Musgrave Island.”

Little did Leisa know that those days at the library and trips out to the reef would lead to a career as a natural history writer.

“I look back now and think, ‘Gosh, those moments were the ones that implanted themselves in me and sat dormant for years. They changed the course of my career’.”

Leisa moved to Brisbane to study at UQ in 1998. After graduating in 2001, she spent a short time working at the Courier-Mail before moving into public relations.

Leisa spent the early years of her career working in public relations in Australia. She took a leap of faith and moved to the United Kingdom, where she met her now-husband.

She spent the next 20 years working in communications roles in the UK with FTSE 100 companies – first in media-facing roles and then in change communication.

“More and more in the margins of my days, I found myself writing stories for children.

“After my kids were born, I’d give them their bath at night and I’d be sitting on the floor writing.

“And eventually I found an agent, and it kind of took off!”

Writing wild stories 

After years of submitting manuscripts to editors, Leisa was approached by Puffin to write the children’s companion book for BBC Earth’s Blue Planet II documentary.

The non-fiction picture book, which tells the stories of the incredible animals and habitats of our planet’s oceans, was published in November 2020 – right as pandemic restrictions forced book shops around the UK to close.

Despite this challenge, Blue Planet II quickly became a best seller around the world. The series’ second book, The Green Planetsaw similar success.

Leisa is now hard at work writing the fourth book in the series, and the third book – Frozen Planet II – will be released on 6 October to accompany the new BBC documentary.

“I get to work closely with the BBC and the show’s producers. They’ll give me a brief and share some of their research, but I don’t get to see the show until it airs,” Leisa said.

After the success of her first books, Leisa was invited to participate in a remarkable new project: writing a children’s edition of Sir David Attenborough’s biography. The finished product, Wild LifeThe Extraordinary Adventures of Sir David Attenborough, was published in May 2022.

She was relieved to hear that Sir David was ‘very complimented by’ her book.

“Sir David’s a real hero of mine because he's such a voice for nature and is using his time to stand up for wildlife, which is so important.”

It’s people like Sir David who have inspired Leisa to be a voice for nature in her books.

“All my non-fiction is about wild animals living in wild places. And I write them for wild kids. Kids who are curious about nature but also may also be feeling eco anxious about what's happening to the world. I want to share stories that give them hope that nature is resilient and that there are good people fighting to protect it.”

Leisa’s fiction writing also features wild animals, using them to teach children important messages. Her latest book, The Beastly Bunch, tells the story of Flo the flamingo, who invites the clever and pretty animals to her pool party but leaves the beasts who live next door off her guest list.

“It’s a gentle lesson about kindness and inclusivity; about learning not to judge people by their feathers and fur and skin, but for who they are inside.

“I wrote this book on a colouring-in sheet after pulling off the motorway. At the time, my five-year-old was having trouble fitting in at school.

“I’m really proud of it because I come from a long line of beasts. I had a bit of trouble fitting in when I was five, too. So, when I saw my five-year-old struggling, I thought ‘there’s a story here’.”

Leisa’s studies and early career have helped her immensely in her path to writing for children.

“Writing for children is not simple. It is very tricky to write something well in a very small number of words, which is what the journalism department teaches you to do.”

Back into the wild

Leisa is working on 4 new children’s books, including a new book for the BBC and a puzzle adventure.

She has plenty of exciting new ideas, too, and hopes her 13th book will be a spooky one. She'd also love to write a book that helps share her passion for shark conservation. 

Though she is now a published author who writes for a living, Leisa thinks there is always more to learn about writing.

“I always say that when I retire, I'm going to go back to university and study English literature or a master’s degree in writing. I would love to do that. You can always learn more.”