“My willy is starting to wonka!” was the scream of an overexcited 4-year-old boy on a playground swing. Illustrator Fiona Katauskas laughed out loud when she heard this from her niece’s friend and it would later pop up in her thoughts when she was writing about erections for a children’s book. “Most adults think of erections in purely sexual terms,” she says, “but little boys can get them anytime, anywhere, for any reason.”
The Willy Wonka line was a great way to illustrate the phenomenon of random, non-sexual erections little boys experience in The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made, Ms Katauskas’ debut book. Described as ‘pretty much perfect’ by Child Magazine, the book guides readers through the stories of conception, fertilisation, pregnancy, birth and puberty using zany illustrations alongside simple but witty text.
Edgy drawings are nothing new for Ms Katauskas, who made her name as one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists.
Two decades ago she started drawing for newspapers and magazines, by “accident” she says. While working in overseas aid at an NGO, she did the occasional campaign cartoon. One day, when she was made redundant it was her friends who directed her to where her real talent lay. “I did some political cartoons, created a portfolio and eventually got some work with The Sydney Morning Herald,” she says.
Ms Katauskas has since illustrated for publications across the political spectrum, ranging from The Australian to The Chaser. She is also the producer and sometime host of the popular “Talking Pictures” segment on the ABC show Insiders.
So how did she go from satirising refugee policy to drawing ovaries?
“When my son was five, he asked me how babies were made,” Ms Katauskas says. “I wanted to get him a book on the subject but was shocked at the lack of relevant reading material targeted at children.” The few publications available were either boring or vague, so she ended up with the 1973 book Where Did I Come From?, the same one her mum gave her. Ms Katauskas knew she could do better and the idea of doing her own book was conceived.
She was keen to address topics the 1973 publication did not, such as same sex couples and non-traditional forms of conception. For example, she explains the In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) process through a series of amusing Mr Sperm meets Ms Egg diagrams and pictures. This had to be in her book she says because, “one in twenty-six births in Australia are now IVF assisted”.
Parents wanting to spare themselves the awkwardness of giving ‘the talk’ to their children can let Ms Katauskas do the hard work for them at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. She will be reading her book at Storytime Clubhouse, on Sunday 22 May, a full day event where authors share their favourite children’s stories. “I have to read out a disclaimer before I start,” Ms Katauskas says, referring to the fact that there may be a few children (read: parents) not quite ready for what she has to say.
Ms Katauskas was surprised at the lack of controversy her book has attracted, though there was one illustration that did raise some eyebrows. “A few readers were taken aback at a drawing of a curious little girl using a mirror to look at her vagina,” she says. Interestingly, there were no comments about the pictures on the previous pages of boys checking out their penises.
Gender double standards are a recurring theme for Ms Katauskas; she satirises the topic in her cartoons and is often asked why her field continues to be overwhelmingly male dominated. She also gets a little annoyed when people introduce her as one of Australia’s leading female cartoonist because, well, “there are only three of us”.
“There’s a perception out there that women aren’t funny. People go to a male comedian expecting to laugh. But when they see a female comedian they sit there with their arms crossed and are like ‘go on, prove to me you’re funny’”. In addition to facing higher expectations, she says that women are also less likely to hassle and push for themselves to get paid and published.
These days it is getting harder and harder for illustrators of any gender to make a living. Cartoonists are often the first to go when publishers make cut-backs, and rigid contracts can restrict their ability to make a decent living by working for different news organisations.
Ms Katauskas is hoping that one day someone will come up with a viable financial model for creative types. However, she fears that the media may soon be dominated by “trust fund kids who can afford to work for nothing”.
On the positive side, she says there are “more and more avenues for emerging artists to cut their teeth”, as new websites are created every day. Ms Katauskas has moved away from mainstream media, and draws cartoons for the Australian Jesuits publication, Eureka Street, and independent news and satire website, New Matilda.
She will also be trying something different at her other Festival event – Illustrator Battle Grounds, also on Sunday 22 May – in which she is pitted against Australia’s best illustrators in what sounds like a giant game of Pictionary in front of a live audience. Ms Katauskas says she has no idea how this event works, but thinks it sounds “terrifying”.
Ms Katauskas might have to bring her kids along for moral support. Max, 12, and Jonas, 10, would love it, as they’ve inherited her satirical gene. They can already reel off the names of all the Cabinet ministers, and make fun of their most recent political gaffes. Ms Katauskas is happy for them to follow in her footsteps, but if they do she hopes it will be “as a second career alongside a steady day job”.
Both boys are immensely proud of their famous mum too, up to a point. When her older son, Max, was asked to describe her for a school assignment, he wrote, “My mum is a cartoonist and published author. But I’d rather not say which book.”