Reading and writing … Ali Lavau aka Frances Watts. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
For many years, Ali Lavau was adamant she didn't have a book in her. She was quite content with her work as a children's book editor, never considering that her name might one day grace the front of one of her publisher's titles, rather than the flyleaf.
''Then, one day, I was walking down the street in Enmore and I saw this dad walking along with his little boy riding on his shoulders,'' she says. ''The dad looked at the little boy and said, 'Kiss for daddy?' and the little boy looked down and said, 'No! No kiss for daddy!' It was such a
dad-kid moment. It made me laugh and it stuck in my head.''
Goodnight Mice by Frances Watts and Judy Watson. ABC Books, $24.99.
And out of that spontaneous moment of fun, Lavau conjured her first children's book, titled, appropriately enough, Kisses for Daddy, which has since gone on to sell more than 300,000 copies across the world.
We're sitting at Lavau's dining table in inner-city Marrickville. The house, an original worker's cottage, is tiny. It reminds me of the cosy mouse house ''at the base of a tree'' that is the charming setting for Goodnight, Mice!, her latest picture book. Illustrated by Judy Watson, it won this year's Prime Minister's Literary Award for children's books.
Here it's probably as well to clear up any confusion over Lavau's name, which would still be unfamiliar to most children and their parents. When she's writing her own books - rather than editing others' work - Lavau adopts the nom de plume Frances Watts.
''They are kind of distinct,'' she says. ''Frances Watts is a children's books author and Ali Lavau is an editor of adult fiction and narrative non-fiction.''
Lavau settled on the pseudonym with the publication of her first book, so as not to compromise her editing work.
''I never wanted another author that I worked with to think of me as an author as well,'' she says. ''When you work with an author it is their creative voice that you are working with and I never wanted to be thought of as another creative voice sitting at the table.
''Part of being a good editor is being able to work in someone else's voice and maybe that is part of the reason Frances and Ali have to separate.''
As Lavau she is much in demand as an editor. The authors she has worked with include Alex Miller, Craig Silvey, Gillian Mears, Kerry Greenwood and Tom Keneally.
It all means her professional life does not lack for variety.
''One day I can be standing in front of a hundred schoolchildren making elephant noises and the next I can be at my desk editing a Miles Franklin winner,'' she says.
From her earliest years growing up in Switzerland (she came to Australia at the age of three), there was never much doubt Lavau was going to be involved in books in some capacity. ''I'd always wanted to work with books,'' she says. ''I was a mad reader as a kid and I worked part time in a bookshop at uni. It was always about books and reading for me for as long as I can remember.
''I remember my parents reading to me when I was very, very young. Reading was just expected. It was just what you did.''
After completing her PhD in literature at Macquarie University she chose an academic path, but then moved to editing children's books because she wanted something ''more collegial''.
As well as her picture books, she has a series, Sword Girl, aimed at seven- to nine-year-olds and featuring Tommy, ''a feisty kitchen hand who longs to be a knight''. The mediaeval setting reflects Lavau's own love of history and historical fiction, which, she says, was inspired by her father's passion for the Asterix comic books.
For slightly older children, there is the Gerander trilogy, telling the tale of three adventurous mice.
But despite having tackled most of the age groups at the younger end of publishing, Lavau has no plans to embark on an adult novel.
''It does annoy me when people ask when I'm going to write a 'real' book,'' she says. ''I love writing kids' books and if we don't get kids reading we won't have 'real' books. I suppose with picture books, because there aren't so many words, there is an assumption that they are easier. But, in fact, it really is quite difficult to encapsulate a whole idea in very few words in a genre where any extraneous words stand out - especially as the books are for reading aloud.''
In all, Lavau has 15 books to her name and she is working on another junior swashbuckler in the Sword Girl series.
''It turns out that I had quite a lot of words in me after all,'' she says.
Goodnight, Mice! by Frances Watts and Judy Watson is published by ABC Books, $24.99.