Colour, Counting and Fun with Lucy Cousins

Legendary author – illustrator Lucy Cousins of the Maisy fame and the effervescent Hooray for… (Fish / Birds) series returns with some gloriously colourful newbies for little ones. Best known for her captivating learning books and ingenious simplicity over a range of age-appropriate topics for toddlers, these current titles are suitably superb. And here they are…

Splish, Splash, Ducky!, with its medley of bold, vibrant colours, intoxicating rhyme and adorably animated characters is like a toddler’s favourite play time come true in a picture book. The main character, Ducky Duckling, is the ultimate depiction of a curious, enthusiastic, and adventurous youngster up for anything that involves splashing in water, schmoozing with slimy critters and some playful activities. The book contains a scrumptious blend of small creatures one might find in the garden or around the pond on a rainy day, and the way Ducky interacts with them is just infectious. Cousins cleverly integrates the repetitive phrase, ‘Quack, quack, quack’ along with some onomatopoeia to add to the characters’ pure delight in their little games. And of course, no book for young children is complete without a bonding experience between parent and child as daddy duck provides the duckling with a sense of security, comfort, fun and love.
Two to five year olds will adore this playful story and happy-go-lucky Ducky, knowing after a busy adventure with friends there is always a soft spot awaiting them at the end of the day.

We’ve seen Lucy Cousins’ gorgeous counting books with Maisy and friends. In this ‘A Little Fish Book’ series, Count with Little Fish is yet another kinesthetically mesmerising board book for little hands. Exploring numbers from one through to ten, a progressive counting pattern of fish find their way swimming into our hearts and minds. Being able to touch and feel the embossed, decorated shiny numerals and their associated fish on the opposite page provides the young audience with a highly interactive mathematical reading experience. The language facet is also fetchingly engaging with its exuberant rhyme. “Three counting fish…one, two, three! Four flying fish, flapping wild and free.” “Seven scary fish, with sharp teeth to feed. Eight shy fish hiding in seaweed.” Cousins keeps the colour palette appropriately eye-catching with blue and green backgrounds to offset the vibrant, and often contrasting, cartoon fish.
Brilliant fun and learning, perfect as a first book for babies and as a repeat read for toddlers.

Where is Little Fish? is another new title in the ‘A Little Fish Book’ series. This time, it’s a game of seek and find with a lift-the-flap component. Little Fish, as featured in sparkling gold on the front cover, engages his friends, and us, to find him in amongst the underwater nursery of coral, shells and even a treasure chest. With the continual questioning, ‘Is Little Fish in the…’, or ‘Is Little Fish behind the…’, readers are encouraged to make predictions and experience trial and error as they open the flap to discover the actual identities. Naturally, it is only on the final page where we succeed, but not without a little surprise to enlighten all the senses. Friendly fishy faces grace the vivid pages set in simple primary-based colours and patterned accents to create the maximum impact. This perfectly sturdy and compact book makes for a terrific accompaniment to the other Lucy Cousins board books for children up to age three.

Walker Books UK, March 2018.

Review: A Taxonomy of Love by Rachael Allen


A Taxonomy of Love by Rachael Allen is an entirely adorable story that mixes fluff and angst until you have a book you absolutely can’t put down. I really appreciated how it hit some hard topics too, and gave me a lot to think about, in between a slow burn romance, lots of smiles, and some super cute moments to melt into. I also was absolutely keen to read this one because it features a character with Tourette’s Syndrome, and disabilities definitely need to be more prominent in YA! There is no disappointment to be had here at all.

The story follows Spencer from age 13 to 19 and beings the day he sees Hope move in next door. She’s something special (magical!) and he’s sort of half in love with her from the moment he sees her. But life isn’t a Disney film and things don’t quite go like they have in his head. But she’s not scared off by his Tourette’s and she loves the same things he does, like hiking and climbing and planning wild adventures around the world. But as Spencer and Hope grow up, things aren’t super clear cut anymore and complications arise: like older brothers swooping in to woe a girl you like, or terrible tragedies, or medication that screws you around, or trying to fit in to a world that has no interest in catering for you. Spencer draws taxonomies to try and figure everything out, but sometimes things don’t fit in boxes, do they?

I particularly loved how Tourette’s Syndrome and disabilities were handled in this book! Spencer is such a winning and relatable character, and I really loved reading about his highs and lows as he dealt with his disability. The book does discuss medication and treatments too, the good and the bad of it. Sometimes Spencer’s tics were so bad they physically hurt him, but other times his neurodiversity was a huge plus for his wrestling. And it was also refreshing and glorious that this book gives us a character with a disability where the focus of the story isn’t just Tourette’s and it never turns into Spencer’s tragedy. Neurodiverse kids deserve fluffy amazing books too, and I’m so glad this exists.

It also takes place over 7 years. Spencer starts off as a gawky 13 year old, desperate to impress Hope who just moved in next door while she has heart eyes for his older brother. It gives about 3 or so chapters to each year and fills the book with super great formatting, like some texts, letters, and lots of taxonomies drawn by Spencer. It unwinds Spencer and Hope’s relationship, which is never simple and sometimes poisonous, and it takes you on “will they, won’t they” roller coaster ride.

Spencer’s narration was absolutely the best. He’s simultaneously dorky and nerdy but a little bit of  a jock with his foray into wrestling (which he’s super good at). As the book takes us through the years, we watch him grow up and his voice on the page matures and changes too to reflect this. It’s so well written. The message of “being different sometimes sucks, but it is also cool when you find your people and can just find a place to fit into the world in your own way” was so lovingly and respectfully woven through the pages. It just makes your heart feel full to read.

A Taxonomy of Love is definitely going on your to-be-read list. It’s a lovely story, but also hits some tough subjects like grief, discrimination, and ableism, and it does everything so well. It’s about messy people who make mistakes and second (or third or fourth) chances. Plus it’s an addictive and fun read. What more could you want?!

Food Glorious Food – Delectable Picture Books

Food glorious food – I cannot get enough of it. Nor picture books that feature it. It’s hard not to over-indulge on food-inspired stories. Fill up on these satisfying little morsels.

Food is Fun

My Magnificent Jelly Bean Tree by Maura Finn and Aura Parker

After a small boy’s imagination takes root, a magical tree grows producing mouthfuls of marvellously juicy jelly beans under a canopy of cheerfulness and fun allowing the boy to be whomever he pleases and gad about ‘rudie nude’ in the rain. Filled with Parker’s delicious linear illustrations, …Jelly Bean Tree is an exuberant testimony to the potency of imagination and belief.

Amply appetising for 4 – 8-year-olds.

New Frontier Publishing May 2016

Continue reading Food Glorious Food – Delectable Picture Books

Different Ways of Learning: ‘Found in Melbourne’ & ‘Oi Cat!’

In ground-breaking publishing, two versions of a children’s picture book will be published simultaneously in English and Chinese by a mainstream Australian publisher. Found in Melbourne is written by Joanne O’Callaghan, illustrated by Kori Song, and the Chinese edition translated by Kevin Yang. It is published by Allen & Unwin.

The two hardcover books have identical illustrations, but one has a text in English and the other in ‘Simplified Chinese’.  It is set in Melbourne and further afield with locations such as Luna Park, the State Library of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road and Puffing Billy Railway. These places and further information about them is also given at the end of the books.

Beginning or ESL readers are assisted by the simple rhyming text. For example, ‘4 Four bicycles on the path by the bay. A trip to Tasmania sailing away… 10 Ten clocks at the station where we meet for the train. Bring an umbrella, it could start to rain!’

As well as exploring Melbourne, these are counting books. Young readers have the opportunity to learn or practise numerals from 1 to 12, then the big numbers 100, 1000 and 1,000,000.

There are many interesting details such as one of Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly paintings which makes an incognito appearance in the scene set at the National Gallery of Victoria. The girl and boy protagonists have red and black hair respectively.

Part of the rationale behind the books is that Victoria recently had almost 600,000 Chinese people visit annually, the Chinese population of Melbourne is increasing and over 75,000 schoolchildren are learning Mandarin in Victoria.


I was excited to see a new picture book by Essex-based Kes Grey, funny man creator of laugh-out-loud Billy’s Bucket and many other books. Oi Cat! (Hachette) is another picture book where Grey collaborates with illustrator Jim Field. It follows Oi Frog! and Oi Dog! 

 Like Found in Melbourne, Oi Cat! uses a rhyming text that is perfect for young readers. The rhyme, humour and anticipation will keep children reading and their vocabulary and spelling will be extended along the way, particularly by some of the animals’ names such as ‘alpaca’ (which rhymes with ‘cream cracker’), ‘armadillo’ (which rhymes with ‘pillow’), ‘dingoes’ (which rhymes with ‘flamingos’) and ‘gnats’, which cats sit on here instead of on ‘mats’. The narrative follows the dilemma of what cats could alternatively sit on and this creates playful reinforcement of the ‘-at’ *rime. There is also sly discussion about what hogs and mogs sit on: generating many ‘-og’ words such as ‘clog … cog … jog’ and a surprise and somewhat painful-looking ending. 

*rime Separate phonemes in a syllable can normally be broken into two parts. The rime is a vowel and any subsequent consonants (for example, in the word ‘cat’ the rime is /at/). Word families can be constructed using common rimes such as /at/ in ‘cat’, ‘pat’. (from the Australian Curriculum)

Missing by Sue Whiting

Sue Whiting is a stalwart of Australian literature for young people. She writes across categories, including picture books, non-fiction and novels for children and young adults and has had a successful career in publishing for Walker Books Australia. Her most recent work is Missing, a novel for middle grade.

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Sue.

Where are you based and what is your background? 

I am based in a small coastal village about an hour south of Sydney. I started my working life as a primary school teacher, specialising in literacy education and Reading Recovery. In 2005, I left teaching to pursue a career in publishing and was Publishing Manager and Senior Commissioning Editor at Walker Books for ten years.

What led to your career in children’s books and what are some highlights? 

I developed a passion for children’s books as a young teacher and this eventually led me to want to write my own books. It took me about ten years before I was brave enough to give this writing caper a crack though. Editing, well, I fell into editing by extreme accident – through submitting a manuscript to a small start-up publisher and ending up with the job as editor of their children’s list – but once I started working in this field, I found that I loved this side of the process equally as much as writing. And I learnt a heck of a lot about writing along the way too!

Highlights! Wow, that’s really tricky, because there have been so many. Holding your book baby for the first time is always very special, but the unexpected letter or email or message from someone who has been touched by your work in some way is without doubt the best feeling ever. Just last week, I received a video message from a three-year-old boy telling me how much he loved one of my early novelty books. That was pretty awesome.

In terms of my publishing career, I think nurturing the early careers of wonderful writers such Meg McKinlay, Sandy Fussell and Anna Branford, to name but a few, stands out as a highlight and what I am most proud of.

Could you tell us about some of the books you’ve written? 

I write across many age groups and genres, from picture books through to YA. My bestseller is The Firefighters, illustrated by Donna Rawlins. It celebrates its tenth year in print this year, which is wonderful, as books don’t tend to stay in print for very long these days. My award winner is A Swim in the Sea, illustrated by Meredith Thomas and my last published book was the nonfiction picture book, Platypus, illustrated by Mark Jackson. It was such a joy to write because I was able to write lyrically about this unique Australian animal. The Firefighters, Platypus and my YA novel, Portraits of Celina have all been published in the US and Platypus has just recently been published in Korea. Missing is my first middle grade novel since Get a Grip, Cooper Jones, which was published eight years ago

What genre is your new book Missing and what is the significance of its title?

Missing is a contemporary mystery/suspense novel for readers 10+. The story revolves around the disappearance of the mother of my central character, Mackenzie. So the title refers directly to the fact that Mackenzie’s mother is missing. But the word “missing” has many connotations. I love that it also relates to Mackenzie missing her mother, her missing out on so many things because her mother is missing and also her quest to find the missing pieces in the puzzle of her disappearance.

Could you tell us about your protagonist Mackenzie and some other characters?

Mackenzie is a pretty typical twelve-year-old girl. She lives in southern Sydney and is caught up in the excitement of the last weeks of primary school when her mother goes missing. She loves art, particularly working in black and white.

Maggie da Luca is Mackenzie’s mother. She is a bat biologist and academic who works for a scientific magazine. She often travels to remote corners of the globe to study and photograph bats for the magazine.

Joe is Mackenzie’s father. He is an insurance salesman. He falls to pieces when Maggie goes missing. He is a man with many secrets.

Lois Simpson is Mackenzie’s gran. She is a scientist and academic and is the person who Mackenzie leans on as she tries to deal with this tragic situation. She too has secrets.

At high school, Mackenzie befriends Billie. Billie is lively and impetuous and a great foil to Mackenzie’s grief. In Panama, Mackenzie meets Carlo. Carlo is fourteen and helps his uncle at the hotel Mackenzie and her father is staying at. His indifference infuriates Mackenzie, but she eventually discovers that he is someone she can trust.

Why have you given Mackenzie a gift for art?

I wanted Mackenzie to have a passion that was in opposition to her mother and grandmother’s love of science. Art was the obvious place and very early on I saw Mackenzie, in my mind’s eye, sketching bats. A trip to the NSW Art Gallery where I happened upon a sculpture of fruit bats hanging from a washing line was the moment that sealed the deal.

Much of the story is set in the jungles of Panama. It’s hard to believe you’ve never been there. How did you create such an exciting and authentic-seeming setting? What was your most surprising discovery about Panama?

I have to admit to feeling a tad guilty that I didn’t jump on a plane and spend weeks in the country to ensure I got it right, but truthfully, I just didn’t have the funds to do that. So I resolved to do everything I could to bring Boquete and Panama to life on the page through diligent research from afar. I researched Panama for about a year – mostly through the Internet. Boquete is a tourist town, which also has a large expat community, mostly American retirees. This worked in my favour as there were many blogs and vlogs I could access depicting everyday life in the town.

I also had two really lucky breaks. One was making contact with Dianne Heidke (sister of Australian author Lisa Heidke) who has lived in Boquete for a decade or more. Dianne was able to answer those questions I couldn’t find answers to on the Internet, and was able to give me access to that all-important local knowledge. She also read the final manuscript and acted as my sensitivity reader.

My second lucky break was the discovery that the local council streamed 24-hour feed of Boquete’s main square live on the Internet. I was able to watch the comings and goings across the square day and night. It felt slightly creepy and very stalkerish, but it really helped me to understand the rhythms of the town.

My most surprising discovery was the lack of resources of the police force in Boquete – to the point that sometimes they don’t have enough petrol to run their police car!

Why have you structured the story as ‘then’ and ‘now’?

Initially, I chose to structure the story this way so that I could move the story on from those early days when the family had just learned of the disappearance and when their grief would be too raw and impossible to bear. But as the story idea progressed, I quickly realised that the ‘then’ and ‘now’ structure was allowing me to create suspense and tension in an intriguing way. It was challenging to maintain, but I loved slotting in key information at just the right places.

How have you used bats as a symbol?

I used bats more as a link between Mackenzie and her mother than as a symbol. It was Mackenzie’s way to stay connected with her mother and her mother’s passion. However, bats do symbolise our ability to see our way through even the darkest times. Mackenzie and her family have to navigate through some very dark days through much of the story, but by the end, I hope to show them stepping out into the light. This was a happy accident that gave extra meaning to the final pages in particular.

During the novel you tantalise characters and readers with mention of gelatos. What’s your favourite flavour?

The gelatos were a nod to my time at Walker Books. There was an excellent gelato bar at the bottom of the building and we often had Gelato Fridays. My favourite was definitely salted caramel Greek yoghurt.

You are known for promoting your books in interesting and skilled interactions with children. How will you be promoting Missing?

Thank you for that! I love sharing my books and stories with groups of kids – it’s my favourite part of my job.

I am about to embark on a schools tour of Brisbane and Sydney, so have been busy preparing my presentations. My reasons for writing the story and my research and how I have used it will be the centre of my talks, as well as some scene-setting with a bit drumming, a lot of drama, and concluding with a “breaking news” report. I will also be doing writing workshops in Sydney and Melbourne – exploring how to create suspense in stories.

What have you enjoyed reading recently? 

I have just reread (for the fifth time) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It is one of my favourite books of all time – so beautifully crafted and emotive. I also recently enjoyed The Golden Age by Joan London and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

What’s next workwise for you?

I am working on a new middle grade novel with the working title of Chance. It too has a core mystery and is about truth and lies and the grey area between the two.

I also have a new picture book Beware the Deep Dark Forest illustrated by Annie White, which is due for release in October.

Thanks for your generous and enlightening answers Sue, and all the best with Missing. It is a gripping and original work with great appeal for young readers.

Review: Someday Somewhere by Lindsay Champion


SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE by Lindsay Champion was an absolute excellent and heart shredding book. All I knew going in was it’s about music, and being a musician who writes about music and also spent my entire teenagerdom listening to Beethoven on repeat…oh hello there book. You are mine. It absolutely didn’t disappoint and I was so teary at the end. It balanced emotion and complex characters and had such tight pacing that I couldn’t stop reading. I could feel myself speeding up with the book, like a classical piece just going faster and faster, until the string snaps at the end.

The story follows two teens, Ben and Dominique, who meet at a Carnegie Hall concert and a spark is lit. They both have their passions, music and dancing respectively, but connecting proves difficult as they go their separate ways without knowing even each other’s names. But finally they find each other again and Dom spins some impressive lies, thinking famous-music-prodigy-Ben won’t like her if he knows she’s super poor and works at her mum’s laundromat. And Ben’s obsessive need to conquer a Beethoven piece is breaking him into pieces, as much as he denies it. Their lives tangle and splinter as secrets and obsessions collide.

It’s about music and mental illness and wanting more. I think the music aspect was done nicely and felt authentic enough even though the author wasn’t a musician. I loved the parts where Ben was so into his music that nothing else mattered, because I really felt THERE with him. Even though I also ached for how unhealthy his obsession was and wanting someone to help him.

It’s dual narrated by Ben and Dominique. Ben is a rich musical prodigy and Dom is super poor and watching her mum struggle to run a laundromat and has had to give up her dream of being a dancer due to money. (She’s also half Ecuadorian.) Dom and Ben meet at a concert and then — SPARKS. Their get-together-story was super cute and I loved how they had to find each other with no information. It wasn’t instalove at all, but insta-connection, and it was perfectly done. They were also both equally winning, although Ben was a bit conceited (but there are reasons for that) and I rooted for Dom to have a better life and for Ben and her to work out.

I also loved the writing! It had a lot of cute and fun dialogue, some banter, some excellent side-characters (Cass was great and I hope he has a wonderful life too!) and how real it all felt. The details made the settings leap off the page. And every character felt real and complex, even if they weren’t mentioned very often.

Honestly SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE is amazing and I totally loved the combination of music and #meetcutes and two teens who just want more from their life. I’m just sitting here with heart eyes. It’s definitely the kind of story that is quick to read but stays with you long after you finish the last page.

Review: Hangman by Jack Heath & The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton

I’ve read two debut thrillers this month I’d like to share.

The first is by Australian author Jack Heath who has published over 20 YA novels but has now burst onto the adult fiction scene in a very big way with Hangman.


Sociopath Tim Blake goes by the codename Hangman and is contracted by the FBI as a last resort for his crime solving genius in complex cases. His genius comes with a hefty price tag though and in a despicable arrangement known only to one person within the FBI, he is permitted to take a life for every one he saves.

Despite the unpalatable agreement, Tim Blake is an anti-hero you find yourself backing and the pace of the plot is equivalent to any James Patterson crime novel.

Hangman is the first in a gruesomely dark series to feature Tim Blake and I can’t wait to find out what happens next. Warning: you’ll need a strong stomach though.

Hangman has also been optioned for television by the ABC in USA so fingers crossed we see Tim Blake on the big screen soon.

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton is an explosive and impressive debut. Juliette is a sociopath and not coping well after her boyfriend Nate broke up with her six months ago. Juliette is determined to win Nate back at all odds, including joining his airline and training as an airline steward in order to be closer to him.

Juliette really will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, including a little digital stalking, breaking and entering and general harassment. And that’s just for starters. Her daring made me nervous and more than a little edgy at times and the pages flew by as I admired her ingenuity and cringed at her constant need for Nate.

Juliette’s obsession and stalking extends to a few supporting female characters and I hope I never come across a woman like her in real life. Juliette’s master plan is slowly revealed to the reader and her motivations come into shocking focus.

The author’s experience working as a cabin crew member in the airline industry has given her the tools to portray the industry encompassing both characters to perfection. I enjoyed this setting enormously and relished the details of their work schedule, airline culture and lifestyle.

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton is a psychological thriller and one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year.

Cheers for Women on International Women’s Day – Picture Book Reviews

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8th to commemorate the women’s right movement. Surrounded by much controversy over the years, global marches still signify and stand for a shift in gender equality and mistreatment. So, with a strengthening power in facilitating strong girls and women, and equally credible boys and men, let’s celebrate this significant day with a couple of influential and empowering picture books for children in the early years.

Inspired by one of the largest political demonstrations in history, the Women’s March in January 2017, The Pink Hat by Andrew Joyner is a jubilant celebration of women’s rights in a subtle and playful tone. This is not a book that shoves political issues at children, but rather a quiet sentiment of coming together as a community with a sound common ground and purpose. The entirety of the book culminates with the focus on the pink hat, the symbolic object uniting the town – the women, the children, the mixture of cultures and races, and ages, and even some men. All of Joyner’s superlative illustrations present in shaded black and white line drawings, except for the pop of the fuchsia pink beanie and some pink rosy cheeks.

The hat begins with a grandma, a beautiful representation of a dignified, and very tech-savvy, woman who loves to knit. The cosy knit is then transported on its progressive journey as it is passed from the paws of her playful cat, to a ‘hard-to-reach’ place, acts as a comforter for a baby to the snatching jaws of a runaway dog, and into the hands of a young girl who enjoys its many uses. And one day the girl discovers that her beloved pink hat has begun a movement of its own, with a rally of pink hat-wearing people gesturing placards with “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, “Girl Power”, “The Future is Feminist”, plus more.

The Pink Hat is a story that promotes awareness and discussion of the events of the social campaign, without being didactic or heavy-handed. It is rather an engaging and enlightening read that sparks the thought for cause and effect, in more ways than one.

Random House Australia, January 2018.

Now here’s a book that celebrates women! With over 70 inspirational women in history, it’s Three Cheers for Women! by Marcia Williams. This large face non-fiction title is jam-packed with fascinating information, vivacious cartoons and fun commentary by supporting characters. It is a terrific resource for the primary classroom or bookshelf at home, with so much to pore over and discover.

Beginning back in Ancient Egyptian times, the first female to feature is Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt c. 69 BC – 30 BC. In comic-style, illustrated text boxes and speech bubbles we learn about how Cleopatra came to rule at eighteen years old, to be overpowered by her younger brother and then regained the throne by raising a winning army until her death at age 39.

To follow in the same page formatting are fearless fighters like Boudicca; Warrior Queen of the Iceni, and Joan of Arc; the Teenage Warrior. As eras progress we meet queens such as Elizabeth 1, legendary authors like Jane Austen, pioneers in health including Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie. There are the Human Rights Activists, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and Malala Yousafzai (1997- ) who became champions in helping underprivileged people and standing up for equal rights. Our own Cathy Freeman features, too, as Olympic hero for uniting a nation and fighting for the rights of Indigenous Australians.

The book concludes with pages identical to the classifieds section of the paper, listing more amazing women in leadership, sports, creative, pioneering and scientific roles. And a final note from the author leaves a task for the reader; many women had to be left out of the book, but who will you add to your list of inspirational women and girls?

Three Cheers for Women! is absolutely fascinating, written with a mixture of factual interest and candid anecdotes to keep readers engaged at their own pace. Never discounting the achievements or abilities of boys, this one really empowers girls with the power to do something world changing.

Walker Books U.K., November 2017.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein

Small Spaces is such a riveting, scary story, I was worried that I would still be reading when night fell. I was still reading … but had to keep going even though I knew I would be terrified. Congratulations on your stunning thriller, Sarah, and thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog.

Thanks so much! It’s a pleasure to be here.

Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community? 

I live in Melbourne, which has a thriving bookish community. There are always so many fantastic events, book launches and meet-ups happening, and I try to get along to as many as I can because I always come away feeling more connected and inspired. I’ve also been involved with the online YA community for the last decade, which is how I’ve met some wonderful critique partners and writing buddies, as well as participating in online conferences and pitching contests. Facebook groups and Twitter have been a fantastic way for me to connect with other kidlit writers and readers, not just in Australia but internationally.

What is the significance of the title, Small Spaces

For Tash, the protagonist of the story, it’s a very real phobia stemming from incidents that happened to her as a child. But from the opening lines of the novel it’s clear that it also refers to Tash’s psychological state and whether she can trust her own mind – the small space inside her head. In broader terms, it’s a reflection of how we all can sometimes feel isolated, lonely and vulnerable in our own small spaces, and forging connections and trusting others can often be challenging and scary.

You’ve used a distinctly Australian setting. Where is it set and why?

The story is set in two fictional locations – the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, and the rural area of Greenwillow and Willow Creek – which are about an hour’s drive apart on the NSW mid north coast. When I’m brainstorming a novel, I picture scenes very cinematically and start writing before I know exactly where the story is going to be set. Then I have to stop and start researching areas that tick all the boxes of my fictional setting and can feasibly accommodate all the major plot points and any secondary locations that are referenced in the story. I was born in NSW and wanted to set a story there, and having visited the mid north coast a number of times, it really helped me narrow things down, and became the perfect setting for the story.

Could you introduce your major characters to us …

Tash is seventeen and in her final year of school, craving independence and planning her future at an interstate university. But earning her parents’ trust is difficult because of childhood behavioural issues that seem to be cropping up again. Sadie is Tash’s best friend, the one who knows her best and her fiercest ally, trying to help Tash navigate through her phobias and unsettling memories. Two of those unsettling memories return in the form of Morgan and Mallory Fisher, a brother and sister who shared a disturbing day at the carnival with Tash nine years ago during a summer holiday at her Aunt Ally’s house. And then there’s Sparrow, Tash’s imaginary friend from childhood who looms heavily throughout all aspects of the plot, past and present.

Why have you given Tash an interest in photography and Morgan a gift in the visual arts?

This stems from my own creative background and the design degree I completed at university which included both visual arts and photography. I knew I wanted Tash and Morgan to collaborate on a project that played into the themes of the novel, and art was such a huge part of my life when I was a teen. It came very naturally to give Tash, Morgan and other characters in the story a creative outlet to express themselves.

Could you tell us about the ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ structure?

As soon as I started writing, I knew a large number of flashbacks would be required to properly explain what happened in Tash’s past. But I didn’t want to tell all of these in the passive past-tense voice of Tash recollecting them, because I felt this would dilute the tension and affect the pacing. Instead, I wrote these chapters in present tense using Tash’s childhood voice so the reader can see how things played out in real-time through her eyes. I also introduced therapy session transcripts and newspaper articles written in a clinical tone, so readers can form their own theories about what happened based on other evidence that isn’t skewed by Tash’s point of view.

As you wrote, how were you able to lay out the plot without giving too much away?

It wasn’t easy! I really had to think about the order I wanted snippets of information revealed because of how the past and present chapters feed into one another. There was a lot of shifting scenes and chapters around, and I had a large colour-coded plot outline which I’d lay out across my desk to give me a clear overview of what was happening and where. I had to pare back scenes and dialogue in revisions so as not to be too obvious, but at the same time reveal enough so that readers wouldn’t become frustrated about the storyline being too vague. It’s a real balancing act, and some days I cursed myself for choosing such a complicated narrative structure.

Without causing you to give away spoilers, which part of the plot, characterisation or symbolism was difficult to resolve?

I found the climax the most challenging part to write – I wanted it to do so many things while at the same time be fast-paced and absolutely gripping. I think endings are always tricky – they need to feel completely satisfying for the reader while tying up all the loose threads and illuminating the story’s themes. I never start writing a story until I know how the ending is going to play out. Then my challenge is figuring out how I’m going to get my characters there.

Carnivals and funfairs are some of my favourite locations in literature. They’re supposed to be fun but often are the opposite. What is so creepy about these places and what gives them (particularly derelict ones) such potential for horror?

I think for me the crowds and bustle of a busy carnival always poses the threat of a lost child, or the potential for someone to be swallowed up by it all before their companions even notice they’re missing. There are so many nooks and crannies to lurk and hide in! The noisy rides and all the squealing is so distracting and jarring, and there’s always exaggerated character art leering at you everywhere you turn. Carnivals are a bit too much of everything all at once, which makes us feel a bit queasy and disorientated. Derelict places add a whole other layer of creepiness because they conjure up ideas about ghosts and dead things. Plus, they’re deserted, so if anything bad happens, nobody’s coming to help!

What sort of movies do you watch?

I don’t read a huge amount of science fiction, but I absolutely love watching sci-fi movies! I also love anything with zombies, ghosts or aliens. I’m a big fan of bingeing a good Netflix series, and mostly enjoy intriguing supernatural shows like Stranger Things and The OA. I also love Nordic crime thrillers. I have a tendency to lean towards darker content.

Who have you written this book for?

It might be a cliché, but I definitely wrote this book for teenaged me. This is exactly the sort of story I was craving when I was a teen but had difficulty finding – something twisty and gripping, but with characters my age and themes I could relate to. I loved Christopher Pike’s books but struggled to find them in my school library and local bookshops (which was my whole world since the internet and online shopping didn’t yet exist), so I read a lot of adult crime and horror novels in my teens. But many of those stories were a hard slog with themes and situations that were very adult. I wrote this novel for teen readers who enjoy thrillers and creepy stories, but want characters and situations they can see themselves in.

What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)? 

I recently finished The Dry by Jane Harper and Wimmera by Mark Brandi, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since I am working on another suspenseful mystery set in a small Australian town. I’m currently reading two #LoveOzYA novels: The Fall by Tristan Bancks and Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell. My favourite genres to read are contemporaries, thrillers and domestic noir, and I have Sarah Bailey’s Dark Lake and A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window next up on my reading pile.

Thanks for your illuminating answers, Sarah and all the best with Small Spaces (Walker Books Australia) and your next book.

Thanks so much, Joy. Great questions! I’ve really enjoyed answering them.

Review: Boomerang by Helene Dunbar


Boomerang by Helene Dunbar was one of those beautifully written books that sort of creeps up on you. I can’t even stop thinking about it! It was actually also quite stressful, because there’s lots of complicated relationships going on here and you can’t help but panic a little hoping it all works out. It’s about messy kids and messy feelings and the heartfelt angst of brokenness. Definitely a book I’d recommend in a heartbeat!

The story is about Sean Woodhouse who’s returning home after 5 years of being “kidnapped”. Except he wasn’t kidnapped…he ran away from a neglectful mum and found an old loving couple who took him in and kept him safe. He fell in love with the boy nextdoor and he liked his new life. But something happens and Sean realises he has to go home. He’s #1 goal is to see if he can get use of his college fund and then leave again, but things get messy as his mother has changed and is a good person now and his whole town treats him like this poor rescued child. He’s torn between staying and going. Staying may be the “right” thing to do, but there will be brutally heartbreaking consequences if he doesn’t go.

The tension is the top thing I’ll rave about for this one! It had me so hooked I couldn’t do anything but keep reading. You just desperately want to know if Sean will stay or go, and as things escalate with the boy he left behind, Trip, who has a terrible life and needs Sean to come back…you just don’t know what the right choice will be.

I also liked that it was this “missing child” story, but with a twist. Admittedly I have read this twist before, but not for a while! And it was done SO well. And it was bittersweet knowing how much Sean needed to be loved, and that’s why he ran, but all the while his true family and childhood friends thought he’d been murdered. Imagine living with that?!

I also adored the love interest, Trip Marchette. He’s the boy next door and Sean’s childhood crush, but it’s complicated. It’s messy and their feelings for each other are unnamed and sometimes their relationship is downright poisonous. Trip’s abused by his uncle, but won’t leave. And Sean gets caught up in his own self-righteousness of not understanding the situation. I got hair-tearingly frustrated at BOTH of them. But madly wanted it to work out.

There is a little love triangle, which I found a huge drawback, except that it was really well written! Sean, back at home now, meets Emery who is absolutely lovely and dynamic and complex. It was hard to be mad at her for stealing Sean’s attention, when she was a fantastic person! It added another layer of tension to the story too, wondering if their relationship would unfold or if Sean wouldn’t lose focus of what he came home to do.

I also appreciated the diversity! There’s no labels, but most of the characters would probably identify as queer, plus Trip has dyslexia and it was portrayed so well.

Boomerang is seriously the kind of book you can’t put down! It’s complex and really unpacks thoughts about consequences and actions, what love means, and the difference between selflessness and selfishness. The pacing will keep you glued to the page and the characters will make and break your heart.

Lessons in Acceptance – Picture Books About Self-Love

For small children, many life-firsts can be a harrowing and daunting experience. Starting school is a prime example. However, many other situations also call for emotional resilience and understanding. These next few picture books provide helpful lessons in acceptance, each demonstrating for youngsters that is it okay to doubt, fear and ultimately embrace who you are.

Glitch by Michelle Worthington and Andrew Plant

Glitch is a nervous, twitchy kind of bug who trembles through his days in the rubbish heap, always full of self-doubt. June is his best mate who exudes calm and reason. Together they make a formidable team, building and racing billycarts. However, they have never won a race thanks to Glitch’s inability to handle the pressure and his severe lack of self-belief. It is not until he is forced to take the reins, aka steering wheel in their next big race that Glitch learns that it is not about winning or losing, but rather being brave enough to give it your best and enjoy the ride. Glitch is an exhilarating tale spiced with plenty of entertaining alliteration and action to keep readers glued to their seats and cheering for their new hero until the very end. An encouraging read for pre-school and early primary aged readers.

Ford Street Publishing 2017

Continue reading Lessons in Acceptance – Picture Books About Self-Love

School in Focus – Picture Book Reviews

We’re well and truly in to the school routine now, although some mornings seem to lack that ideal, perfect-world motivation and drive. But with these following picture books at the ready, your kids will be inspired to remember their purpose and excitement for the day ahead.

Time for School, Daddy is a gorgeously humorous role reversal-type situation, in the same as essence as the previous title by Dave Hackett, Time for Bed, Daddy. Most often than not it is in fact us parents struggling to get out of bed, greeted each morning with the bombardment of children eager to get the day started. And here, this is no different. The little girl wakes a dozy, grumbling Daddy so they can get ready for school. She gives him his favourite breakfast, which always ends in a mess. She washes and dresses him in his work clothes, not without a bit of chaos. She packs him a mighty fine lunch, a tad of grooming and then it’s time to walk out the door. But who’s going to school today?
Tonnes of energy emanate from both the text and the images, with an innocently grown-up voice from the girl’s perspective as she guides her father through the hectic routine. The bright and vibrant cartoon illustrations work beautifully in a simplistic, obvious focus on the actions, which are the perfect linchpin for the irony that makes this book so witty. Time for School, Daddy is adorable, motivating fun for children from age four.

University of Queensland Press, January 2018.

The school or public library may just be the best place to get inspired, excited and transported (figuratively) during a normally busy day. So for anyone who loves to read, a chance to dive into books would be plenty of motivation to leave the house in a hurry in the morning. But for one little girl, there is one book in particular that she can’t get enough of. Lucy’s Book, written by Natalie Jane Prior and illustrated by Cheryl Orsini, is one special story that follows one special story on many adventures as it is shared by Lucy to all her friends.
Lucy and her mum visit the library every Saturday. The enchanted red book, of which we speak, is recommended by Mrs Bruce and borrowed a multitude of times from the library. Lucy loves it so much, all her friends are dazzled by its charm and it makes its way into their hands too. The book is escorted on holidays to Honeycomb Bay and China, to the zoo, and even made into a banana sandwich. But what happens when the book is no longer available for borrowing? Do you believe in destiny?
Just like the premise of this story, the lively illustrations pronounce a real community feel; one of shared values, togetherness and spirit. With influences from real people (Mrs Bruce is a friend of the author and also the image of Megan the librarian at the local school), Lucy’s Book feels like a real-life fairytale where everyone gets to be involved in the swirl of magical bookishness and where fate is a reality. Dreamy for book lovers of any age.

Lothian Children’s Books, February 2017.

Ruby Lee is a highly enthusiastic student with a big imagination. But when it comes to being chosen as classroom helper, she’s not always the most efficient. Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee! is a wild and animated tale of learning patience, working to your skillset and being yourself.
Award-winning author Lisa Shanahan, together with graphic illustrator Binny, provide a linguistic and visual treat with their eccentric blend of humour and design. Shanahan’s quirky names are just the beginning of the literary goodness, with dialogue that perks in all the right places, and a storyline that is so authentically realistic despite all the crazy and creative figments Ruby Lee imagines in her mind. And flawlessly, Binny’s fantastical, detailed illustrations with blocks of colour and line work add that extra depth and meaning to both Ruby Lee’s real and made-up worlds.
Preschool and early years children will adore being taken into Ruby Lee’s school life as messenger as she discovers not how to be like someone else, but where her own strengths lie. Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee! plays out like a set of comical and whimsical scenes that will be requested to be delivered over and over again.

Lothian Children’s Books, July 2017.