People—children and adults alike—often ask me ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ They can come from all manner of places and experiences, from things I hear children say to places I've been and things I’ve uncovered. The inspiration for my latest book with the National Library of Australia, The Imagineer, is very close to home. It is this family tool, a mandolin. 

Just after the Second World War, in a time when manufactured implements were a rarity, a rather rustic mandolin was bought in a local European market by my wife Bini’s father. This was not the shiny whiz-bang tool used in many kitchens today. This was a single-purpose tool for crinkle-cut slicing and vegetable slicing. It was fixed together with nails, wing nuts, screws and wood, possibly palings, as well as both corrugated and smooth metal work for blades. These were wedged and fastened between pieces of wood. It’s a truly homely part of the kitchen, and we still have it, although the metalwork is well rusted and one of the wing nuts is too tight for it to be functional. But like most items belonging to wartime refugees, it was valuable and it had a purpose.

A wooden and metal mandolin slicer laid out on a white surface
Christopher Cheng's vintage mandolin. Image: supplied.

At the same time I was rediscovering Bini’s mandolin, my young godsons were creating and inventing with Lego. They build the most amazing contraptions—much like I once attempted with not nearly as much success. In my childhood, our Lego pieces were thin or thick blocks; no working doors and windows, flames, swords or people’s heads that I can remember—although we did have wheels, I think. We really had to use our imagination. The boys build spaceships and digging implements and monsters and helping machines and so much more. 

And then I remembered the garage at our house when I was growing up. It had all manner of whatchamacallits, many transported from Asia, and some rustically created here. And then I remembered my neighbour Mr Evans and his house, which had all sorts of thingamajigs. It was a treasure trove of bits and pieces and old implements, even meat grinders.

Living in Newtown, we’re surrounded by antique stores filled to the rafters with just the sort of fandangled contraptions that sparked these memories. Bini and I scoured the antique shops and took very many photographs.

Children's book illustrations showing household items
Illustrations by Lucia Masciullo from The Imagineer. Image: supplied.

And then I moved my search online to Trove. I was able to scour that wonderful resource for pictures and find many old things that I could reimagine as something new, or ask myself ‘what else could it be used for?’—a great question for a writer to ponder. Some of those objects that fascinated me—and there were very, very many that fascinated me—are included in the back matter of The Imagineer; some I remember using as a child, like the lawn mower, the Sad Iron and the scrubbing brush. The Carpet Sweeper, Cylinder Record and much more were uncovered there as well. If you haven’t dug into Trove, then DO!

From all this, an invention tale was created, The Imagineer, and Susan Hall at the National Library (who had previously published my book New Year Surprise!) was thrilled. 

And then, there is the illustrator, Lucia Masciullo. I was so very excited when she said ‘yes’ to the invitation to create the exquisite art for this story. I have always loved her work. I knew that her imagining of the child, the apartment, the playful way the child and grandfather interact, the importance of planning and drawing, and then the grandfather’s garage with so much stuff would be done perfectly. Lucia’s imagining of the child’s final invention—a superlative creation displayed in all its visual working glory over the trifold page—demonstrates that she knew exactly what I was thinking too: how important is that bond between child and grandparent. Every grandparent needing a little help around the house would love one of these machines! 

Children's book illustration showing two characters examining a book
Illustrations by Lucia Masciullo from The Imagineer. Image: supplied.

Thanks to the NLA Publishing team for their wonderful dedication to this story, to Lucia for her art and especially to my beautiful Bini, who gave me the original mandolin.

By Christopher Cheng