When Fiona Lloyd wasn’t buried in books at her local library, she was relishing an escape from the fast-paced city she lived in, to the wild beaches and rolling green countryside of north-east England. Her childhood home couldn’t have been further from the one she gave the middle-grade protagonist in her debut novel, Being Jimmy Baxter. The Central Coast author drew inspiration from her adopted homeland, creating a fictional town based on her travels into rural Australia.
‘The dry rural landscape I drove through on my visits to Dubbo and Mudgee, and the highway to Canberra, were the total opposite of my little piece of England,’ she says. ‘Now, I glimpsed Dorothea Mackellar’s wide brown land.’
Although the landscape in the novel differs to that of Lloyd’s adolescent years, the author has inserted some of her own universal emotions and struggles. On the surface, Being Jimmy Baxter, aimed at 10- to 14-year-olds, is a coming-of-age story about a young boy navigating upheaval, and finding his place in a new town with new people. Go deeper and this is a story about mental health, with alcoholism, domestic violence and depression running through the pages. It’s an important subject, yet despite its seriousness, Fiona tackles it with simple, childlike language, a sprinkling of humour and plenty of naivety (on Jimmy’s part). Fiona’s characters and their sometimes painful situations are authentic, something the mum of three has been able to achieve by leaning into her own mental health struggles.
‘A lot of those emotions and experiences are drawn exactly from myself,’ she says. ‘I struggled with depression when I had my first son because I didn’t know anybody on the Coast … I felt alone, trying to make a life in a new land.’
She can authentically write about upheaval not just because she moved countries at the age of 29, but because she experienced it often as a child as well.
‘We moved a lot,’ she says of her childhood. ‘I went to five schools, so I was always the new girl.’
Despite this, Being Jimmy Baxter, set in the ’90s, isn’t a heavy book, but rather an honest portrayal of adult themes experienced from the perspective of a rough-around-the-edges, lovable Aussie kid. Twelve-year-old Jimmy is endearing, and his innocence and positive outlook keep you turning the pages.
Fiona says Jimmy came to her while reading Morris Gleitzman’s Once series about friendship during the Holocaust. Fiona was invested in Gleitzman’s main character, Felix, and how the author tackled a dark topic in a way that was accessible to children. She says it wasn’t a deliberate choice to write upper middle grade but Jimmy’s voice came to her naturally.
‘We were driving back from Byron at the time, and I was kind of just staring out the window; I had my notepad, thinking of Felix and then Jimmy arriving and the landscape … so it kind of all came together from that,’ she says.
Friendship is a big part of her book too, and she’s skilful at creating believable relationships and characters.
Being Jimmy Baxter hit bookstore shelves in July after a three-year journey from idea to publication. Although it’s Fiona’s first novel, the Kariong resident is entrenched in the local and NSW writing industry. She is the Schools Program Coordinator for Words on the Waves Writers’ Festival, and a member of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. In between all of these commitments, and raising her three children, she continues to write, while also watching the world meet Jimmy Baxter. C
*Being Jimmy Baxter is published by Penguin Random House, RRP: $16.99