Embarrassing author anecdotes as the travelling companion of an imaginary cake-eating hippo

If I had created a smaller imaginary hippo friend 25 years ago, it would have been easier. But I didn't realise then how far we might have to travel together.

A is for anecdotes

These mini stories are the raw material from which writers create their books, but often it's the embarrassing events after the book is written which supply more humour.

Imagine the embarrassment of retrieving a hippo with a baggage tag from the airport carousel when surrounded by business travellers in suits. Luckily, Hippo, detachable cake and library bag travel with me as a tool of trade rather than excess baggage.

Like most children's authors I travel frequently for research or book tours. Once, my minder librarian photographed the hippo and me under the 'Oversized Baggage' sign at Perth airport. Not flattering, but funny.

B is for breathalyser

When the police waved me down to be breath tested (only had coffee), they were so astonished by the large stuffed pink hippo strapped into my front passenger seat (and tilted back so I could see for left turns), that they waved me on.

C is for candles

The bookstore kindly provided one hundred candles on the hippo cake. I blew them out quickly, just before the smoke detector above shrieked.

D is for dirty

After a literary festival, the over-loved Hippo needed cleaning. Dry cleaners wouldn't touch it because the head had paper inside. Too big to fit into washing machines, Hippo had to be 'emptied' of the filling of polystyrene balls and the 'skin' washed by hand in baby soap flakes. Experts advised removing filling either in the car park or in a bath. I found out why. The polystyrene balls went everywhere - even clung into our underwear. I hand washed 'skinny' Hippo in our bath and a visitor freaked on opening the bathroom door because Hippo was hanging from the shower to dry.

E for embroidery

Recently I got my third request for an embroidered square for a favourite author quilt. Flattering, but I'm hopeless at sewing. My neighbour Clare came to the rescue again and did it within the 48-hour limit. The American school sent American stamps for a reply paid envelope, not realising Australians have their own stamps.

F for facelift and fan mail

I don't sew, so my co-author Goldie mended the hippo when his seams split and the original 'pattern' couldn't be traced. The 'facelift' altered the expression and the eyebrows became menacing rather than kindly. So quick nips and tucks were necessary. Fan mail peaks during Book Week and Hippo gets his own, via snail mail and also email. 'I haven't got a friend. Could you sit on my roof and be my friend?' is one of the more poignant which I answer, in character.

G is for gender change

For a number of reasons I wrote Hand Me Down Hippo illustrated by Mini Goss, whereas the original hippo was illustrated by Deborah Niland. They co-exist like favourite cousins, because the new female mini-hippo was 'handed down' to a new generation of readers in the way in which favourite toys or clothes are hand-me-downs to someone younger or smaller. But remembering whether to say 'he' or 'she' for the same hippo 'prop' is a challenge.

H is for Hand me down

A Queensland special school student designed a patchwork Hand me down Hippo by sticking on bits and I thought it was a brilliant idea. A patchwork is made from bits of other treasures. And the Hand me down Hippo has been passed onto the next generation as the treasured idea of friendship and reassurance.

I is for identity

During a family crisis, I was dropped at Tullamarine airport by my daughter who raced off with my handbag containing my ticket, credit cards and ID. Helpful air staff accepted my author photo on the back of my book as ID, re-issued a ticket and sent my handbag on the next flight to Launceston. A good Samaritan in the queue gave me a couple of dollars for a coffee, saying 'You'll need this'. When interviewed on radio as part of the author tour the next day, I made a public thank you and swore I'd keep my photo on books up to date.

J is for journeys

Often translated books travel further than their creators. Yesterday I got a reader's email from Finland about General Store which was translated into Finnish 25 years ago and a query about the Japanese version of the hippo book.

K is for knowledge

I do know that real hippos eat carrots, but mine eats cake.

L for ladder climbing competency

Due to education department regulations, no staff can climb above their own height without a ladder climbing competency certificate. We forged one for hippo so the local newspaper photographer could film the hippo climbing the ladder onto the mobile library van roof.

M for mobile library van

Being driven by the librarian in a van which has my hippo character painted outside and the books inside was surreal. Rural children chose the hippo character to be painted (and remain) for the next ten years on the side of the van, which visits little rural schools in the Shepparton region.

N is for naming books and characters

Until he left home, I used to offer my son a dollar a title. Apt titles matter, and similar series books must start with different words for easy cataloguing. Ironically I called the new female Hippo Mini, even before Mini Goss became the illustrator, then found the illustrator's daughter's name was Hazel.

P is for pyjamas (PJs)

An American couple emailed a request for advice where to buy 'his and hers' hippo pyjamas. Frankly I don't wear pyjamas, but when the large cake-eating hippo went in the Federation Parade it was on a bedtime story book float, drawn by 30 children in pyjamas. Under duress, I'd been persuaded to wear a pair too, as two adults were required to 'anchor' the pulling ropes, so the float wouldn't catch in Melbourne tram lines.

Hippo pyjamas in my size are rare. The Myers Basement salesgirl was most helpful - said the hippo PJs reminded her of her favourite picture book There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake. Could I turn to the TV camera in the parade, so she could see the PJs she sold me?

That's why there was a photo of hippo PJs on my author website, because the Mt Eliza school librarians greeted me in their hippo PJs during an author visit. And for a casual dress literary day, their secondary school girls had bought every pair available locally and some were even sharing tops or bottoms.

Q is for question mark candles

The party shop didn't have any. So they made a special order and now they've become fashionable, not just for Hand me down Hippo cakes (to match any age readers), but also for birthdays of people of indeterminate age.

R is for remote

One Book Week I was invited to Mt Newman mining settlement in the West Australian outback and stayed at the SPQ (single person's quarters) in the BHP mining town. The imaginative librarian had footsteps leading into the library. Most of the population is under five, so the imaginary hippo was a great attraction, especially to one wildlife pet-loving boy, whose Indiana Jones look-alike single dad turned up in his four-wheel drive to take me to visit his camel pets which they intended riding in the local family race across the desert. No cakeeating camels in stories yet, but …

S is salesman

The Toyota Echo car salesman was a little surprised when I asked, 'Do you think a hippo would fit in this car?' It did.

S is also for sculpture

Hippo has been immortalised in an outdoor sculpture of favourite book characters in the gardens of Dromkeen Children's Literature Homestead in Victoria. The power of fantasy is such that children don't seem to have a problem with an imaginary friend taking on other forms like an author prop of a stuffed toy, or being sculpted.

T for travel

A friend suggested that I could legitimately travel in the freeway fast lane to the airport as the front seat belted hippo qualified as a passenger.

U for unusual events and fiction prediction

During a heavy storm, Prep children told the librarian it must be the hippo on their school roof. Several ducks have been named after my character 'Stickybeak'.

V for viewpoint

When the publishers wanted to change the 'smack' to 'growled', in line with contemporary families, there was a great fuss and hundreds emailed and discussed the issue on talkback and web chats.

One brave but illiterate mum of a Prep child admitted she'd learnt to read There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake with her child, and asked 'Are there any more books like that we can read together?'

W for website

Hippo has its own website and too many people collect hippos! Please I do not need any more hippo bathplugs, toothbrush holders or even hippo mugs.

X is unknown

The stories not yet written.

Y is why not?

Z is for the zoo

The book was launched 25 years ago beside the hippo enclosure with hippo-shaped food, including hippo dandruff (white marshmallows) and hippo blood (red wine).

This is the end of my A to Z of my work style history as author and travelling companion to an imaginary cake-eating hippo. When things go wrong for a writer, it's called research, but sometimes a character and a book have a life of their own.

Hazel Edwards

Hazel Edwards writes books and scripts for children and adults. Picture book There's a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake is her best known title. It has been continually in print for 25 years and adapted for stage, radio, video and puppetry, as well as being widely translated.

Teachers' notes for her books are available at