Joshua Button is a young writer and illustrator from Broome Western Australia, who has published three books with Magabala Books, Australia’s first Indigenous publishing house.
We talk to Joshua about his creative life; the re-evaluation of his disability services; his current journey with NDIS and his future.
Tell us about your first book, Joshua and the Two Crabs.
I started writing that story in 2005, when I was in Year 5 in St Mary’s Primary School. The story is set in Crab Creek, a tidal creek just across the Bay from Broome, where I go fishing and crabbing with my family, hunting food to eat. I’m the boy in the story, walking through the muddy creeks and catching two crabs with my own hands.
How hard was it to write that book?
At that time, I was struggling. Having a disability in school was a bit depressing. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even tie my shoelaces. Luckily, my mentor, Robyn Wells, came along and taught me to read and write. Reading is a gift. It changed my life. I learnt a lot, making that book. I had to learn to pick up the brush, and make all the marks and put on layers of paint. I illustrated every page by myself.
Your second book, Steve goes to Carnival, took a long time to produce. It won a White Raven Award, was endorsed by Shaun Tan and is now published by Candlewick Press in the United States. Tell us about the storyline.
This is the story of Steve, a jazz-loving Gorilla, who lives at the Rio de Janeiro Zoo and goes to Carnival with his best friend, Antonio the Zookeeper. Robyn and I wrote and illustrated this together. It took over 10 years to finish. My favourite part is when Steve twirls the beautiful dancer around on the dance floor. I had to learn the nature of all the animals, what each character looks like, and create the atmosphere of Carnival and the Blue Jaguar Jazz Club. It was a big challenge to finish that book; it was published in 2017, and Pat Dodson launched it in Broome. I am really proud because the WA State Library bought all the artwork and put in on display for the Awesome Festival in 2018. When I was there, I gave a talk to school kids about how to write your own book, even if you have a disability.
Steve goes to Carnival is filled with zoo animals. Tell us how this led to your third book, At the Zoo, I see…
Magabala Books wanted to do a board book of zoo animals for little kids and they asked Robyn and I to do the illustrations. We used some of the animals from the Rio de Janeiro zoo, like the Jaguar and Anteater and the hungry Lion, then we added some Australian animals—a curious Wombat, a Cassowary and a Spotted Quoll. I had to really study the fur and feathers and feet of all the animals to get them looking right.
How has your disability support changed over the years?
It has changed a lot. I was with Disability Services from 2011 and then NDIS came along; all of that time I had just one main Service Provider. I just wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. I was just doing the same things, from Monday to Friday, with different people. But I had things in my mind. Last year, I decided to have more of say, and I explained to NDIS what my goals were. There was a big change. I moved over to being plan-managed, with NDSP managing my budget. Now I have my own say: I choose my own co-ordinator and I choose my own Independent Support Workers. It works much better for me. NDIS has helped me set up Joshua Button Enterprises, so I can sell the books and do new art projects, and work with other artists. Now I am can actually do these things in my life.
Who is someone who inspires you?
I have two mothers: my foster mum, Lorna, has a talent, and that is looking after kids. She has taken care of me all these years. She is beautiful and she understands me.
What are your goals for the next 12 months?
I want to learn to be able to live in a city; I live in a remote town and I need to learn how to live in other places and have a break from my work as a Teaching Assistant. When I go to Perth I get disability support from Inspire a Life. They are going to help me set up a market in Perth and sell my artwork. I want to see more of my brother John, who lives in Queensland. John also has a disability; he is a good artist, and a great drummer and plays in a band. I want to keep doing my artwork and write a book about my life.
What advice would you give to people working with NDIS?
You need to let NDIS know what you want. It’s in your mind. You need to tell them about your new ideas. Always have a plan. Keep a strong plan in your head. It’s simple.
Thanks so much for your time Joshua, we’re looking forward to seeing what you do next!
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