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November 9, 2023

Member Spotlight: Amelia Mellor

We are thrilled to share our November Member Spotlight features Amelia Mellor! Amelia was recently announced as the winner of the 2023 ARA Historical Novel Prize for Children and Young Adults for her novel The Bookseller’s Apprentice.

Amelia Mellor is the author of the award-winning Grandest Bookshop Trilogy, a fantasy series for children based on Melbourne history. The first book, The Grandest Bookshop in the World, has sold rights in territories around the world and has been optioned for film. Amelia started writing when she was eight years old, and holds postgraduate degrees in creative writing and teaching (primary and secondary). When she isn’t writing, surrounded by her collection of babushkas and tropical fish, she enjoys hiking, drawing, and spotting wildlife. Watch out for her next releases in 2024 and 2025.

What inspired you to begin a writing career?

Other people’s books! I was very language-focused as a baby, and I’ve always loved books. My parents read picture books to me, until I memorised them and could recite them to myself. When asked at the age of three what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said I wanted ‘to work in a shop surrounded by books that I have written.’ 

At school, I got stuck into writing pretty much as soon as I learned how. After I got a big gold sticker in Grade Two for a story about a family of humble fisherfolk fighting a sea monster, I knew I was on the right track. I started to write long stories on my own, and spent most of my time at recess, lunch or on the bus either reading or writing – my parents had to tell my teachers not to worry about it. In VCE Literature, I had some great teachers who taught me about the craft and mechanics of creative writing. My school also encouraged me by commissioning me to write the school play in VCE.

I went on to study creative writing at uni, and had two gap years in which writing was my focus at Glenfern Studios. I also spent a couple of months in the studios at the Old Melbourne Gaol. I wrote two books that were rejected about forty-five times altogether, before my debut, The Grandest Bookshop in the World. When a promising submission turned into a rejection, I realised I might never get published. I did my Master of Teaching so that at least I could tell stories by writing plays tailored to my students, and bring them all the fun and excitement of a school show, like I had with the younger kids when I was a teenager. But then a month later, a friend introduced me to a side of Melbourne history I had never heard of, and I had the first inspiration for Grandest. I was notified of both acceptance to my teaching course, and winning the May Gibbs Trust’s Ian Wilson Fellowship to work on Grandest, on the same day. The book came out in my first year of teaching, which was also the first year that COVID hit. 

So although teacher is always in my bio, and it does inform my writing for kids, I’ve been pretty single-minded about having a writing career from the beginning. 

What does it mean to you to win the ARA Historical Novel Prize for Children and Young Adults?

To have The Bookseller’s Apprentice celebrated through this award is just glorious. I am thrilled to be recognised for my research, my hard work writing this novel, and my commitment to teaching social history through entertaining literature. A century and a half ago, when the book is set, it might well have been considered a sign of the decay of society: a novel, for children, by a woman, based in the history of little old Australia, being celebrated in this way. And yet, the historical figures behind the characters at the heart of the book were themselves dedicated to recording Australian history, and promoting children’s books that were both educational and entertaining. To be winning the Historical Novel Prize for doing what the real booksellers of Cole’s Book Arcade did in their lifetimes makes me feel like part of a larger, longer, important cultural story about children’s literature. It makes me wonder what stories might be told in another hundred and fifty years!

It’s extremely gratifying to receive the immense praise for my efforts that this prestigious award represents – not to mention the very tangible praise from the judges and sponsor! And the prize itself is just as fantastic as the accolades. I wrote The Bookseller’s Apprentice while teaching full time, on a computer with a broken E key, so the significance of the material aspect is not lost on me.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

I think the most helpful thing would have been some guidance at uni about writing as a business and an industry. We spent a lot of time in our classes focused on creating literary fiction – writing as provocative art – and while that nurtured many of the necessary skills to navigate my journey from there, it’s much easier to navigate when one has a map. I had to figure out querying, contracts, and small business management for myself, with help from the ASA, Writers’ Victoria, books, articles, Affirm Press, friends in the industry and so on, sometimes making mistakes along the way. 

I think the main reason my first two books never got further than they did because I had no idea how to sell them. I knew there were elements and characters that made them enjoyable reads if the reader could be persuaded to pick them up, but I didn’t know where these books fit in the market – or even that fitting in the market was something I should have been thinking about! The showbusiness side of publishing is hard to figure out when you’re an aspiring writer trying to get a foot in the door.

Which Australian authors/illustrators have been influential for you?

In terms of formative influences, Paul Jennings and Emily Rodda probably had the biggest impact. I was reading their books when I started to write my own stories in primary school, in the early 2000s. It’s little wonder that my books are full of ghosts, monsters, riddles and dramatic twists!

What’s weird for me now is that I’m meeting writers at festival and conferences whose books I read as a kid! I think my favourite recent example was meeting Andy Griffiths, because he grew up with EW Cole’s books, and I grew up with Andy’s books, and now I’m creating books inspired by EW Cole that kids are going to grow up with! What an ouroboros.

Why do you think it’s important to be a member of the ASA?

Being a member of the ASA is really rewarding! I’ve had a manuscript assessed through an ASA mentorship program, called on the ASA for publishing advice, and relied for a couple of years now on the ASA payment rates for creators. It’s great to have on our side. I find that being a member helps me feel more confident in situations in which I could sell myself short as well. Schools and unpublished writers will sometimes ask us to give our time without fair payment, but the ASA knows what our work is worth. Membership provides access to some really fantastic resources for all kinds of writers at a variety of career stages. I genuinely refer people who come to me for publishing advice to the ASA, because of how useful my membership has been.

Find out more about Amelia at