Joy Lawn is a freelance writer and reviewer for The Weekend Australian, Books+Publishing and Magpies Magazine, specialising in children’s/YA and literary fiction. She judges the Aurealis and Qld Literary awards and is a former CBCA judge. Joy has worked for indie bookshops as a literature consultant. Joy is fascinated by ideas and images and how authors and illustrators express these with truth and originality.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Eliza.
Where are you based and what are your interests?
I’m based on a little farm in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. I love gardening – particularly growing and preserving our own food. I love knitting, yoga and have two horses that I compete a little bit in dressage. I also adore reading,
Could you describe your writing process?
I’m a very haphazard writer – I write fast in big chunks and then will take time away from the story to percolate ideas. Sometimes I’ll be really happy with the idea for a story, but the characters won’t fit. Or sometimes the characters will be really vivid, but it takes me a while to find a story for them.
How are you involved in the literary community?
I’ve never been asked this question before! I’ve taught creative writing at community centres, judged quite a few short story competitions, spoken a festivals, libraries and bookstores and do my best to support other writers by buying books and requesting them at libraries. I have also worked briefly as a bookseller and interned at a publishing house. I think the most important way I’m involved in the literary community is through being a reader – readers are the lifeblood.
What is your experience of being part of writers’ festivals?
I love it – writing and reading are generally quite solitary activities and there’s something so magical about being part of an event where everyone comes together to celebrate their love of stories.
I wrote In the Quiet quite quickly and without a lot of expectation. It’s the easiest story I’ve ever written – it just flowed. It’s narrated by a woman who’s recently died, watching her family on their rural horse property. It’s not sci-fi or fantasy or anything like that. She’s just watching and reflecting and hoping.
My other novel, Ache, is focused on the recovery of an unconventional family after a bushfire ravages their community.
I’ve also written quite a few short stories and articles – most of my writing deals (in various degrees) with trauma and grief.
How has this led to having your YA novel, P is for Pearl (HarperCollins) being published?
I’ve written a manuscript every year since I was fourteen – that’s a lot of novels! Pearl was the story I wrote as a sixteen year old and then tucked away in a drawer because I was convinced it wasn’t good enough. If I hadn’t had my adult fiction titles published, I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence to go through my old stories.
What genre within YA fiction is it?
P is for Pearl is contemporary YA fiction.
What is the significance of the title?
The title has gone through some changes since I was sixteen (back then it was called Wade’s Point – bit boring, hey?!). P is for Pearl fits it perfectly – Pearl is Gwen’s middle name and it symbolises her grabbling with who she actually is versus who she thinks her mother wanted her to be.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Gwen is the main character in P is for Pearl. She doesn’t realise it, but she’s still recovering from the trauma that her family went through years ago. She’s obsessed with running and is often confused and feels conflicted about what she should be feeling.
Loretta is Gwen’s best friend. She’s fiercely intelligent, fiery and protective.
Gordon is Gwen’s other best friend. He’s quiet, funny, very artistic and often bickers with Loretta as thought they’re an old married couple.
Ben’s the new kid in town and Gwen’s crush – clever, kind and insightful, he’s intrigued by Gwen but also distracted by his own family secrets.
What is the importance of the setting?
Setting is very important in all my novels. P is for Pearl is set in a small (fictional) town on the west coast of Tasmania. The rugged coastal landscape is crucial to the plot.
Who have you written this book for?
I wrote this book when I was sixteen and – if I’m honest – I wrote it for myself. It was a cathartic book for me to write. Reworking it into the novel it is now, I wrote it for young people who perhaps are grappling with what mental illness looks like and how to reconcile the reality of the people you love experiencing mental illness.
I know P is for Pearl is very new, but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from early readers?
I’ve had people getting in touch to tell me that the family and representations of mental illness really resonated with them – which means a lot to me.
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m working on my next adult fiction novel.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)? At the moment I’m reading Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden and absolutely adoring it.
Thanks Eliza and all the best with P is for Pearl.
The Harper Effect has caused even a non-tennis aficionado such as myself to develop an interest in tennis, particularly in the lives and commitment of tennis players. The Harper Effect (Pan Macmillan Australia) is Taryn Bashford’s debut YA novel. It has already had an ‘effect’, I can’t get it out of my head …
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Taryn.
Thank you very much for having me 😊
As a debut novelist, how were you able to acquire a publishing contract?
My book deal came about after I had a few fingers in pies, and a couple of them came up with plums 😉 I had entered the Varuna House Publishing Introduction Program which was run in conjunction with Pan Macmillan. I was one of the winners which meant I got to stay at Varuna House for a week and work on my manuscript with a mentor. However, at the same time, Curtis Brown, a literary agent in Sydney, took me on board. I had submitted my novel to them some months before, following a meeting at the CYA Conference in Brisbane. They sped up the process so that I didn’t have to wait for the residency before knowing if Pan Macmillan would publish my novel. I got to use that residency for the second book instead, as Pan Macmillan offered a two-book deal.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Although we’re far from Brisbane, I belong to the SCBWI and attend meetings down there whenever I can. I enjoy meeting people there, and particularly sharing what I’ve learnt on the road to publishing. I also attend meetings of the SCBWI sub-branch on the Sunshine Coast for similar reasons. It’s great to share experiences, stories and talk all things books. I also put together a writing group after meeting various writers at Varuna House or at conferences like Brisbane’s CYA Conference. We all live in the local area, so it was meant to be! We meet regularly to critique each other’s work and we also support each other in all aspects of the publishing and writing process.
Which well-known professional tennis player do you most admire and why?
I’d have to say Serena Williams because her recent media activity about sport being a way of empowering girls is very close to my heart. Research shows this to be true, and it also shows that girls in sport have much better self-esteem and better body images of themselves. This is so important now that our teens are exposed to photoshopped images of movie stars, actresses and singers – and can never hope to be that perfect.
What tip to playing better tennis can you give us?
You’re probably better off asking my brother that question. He’s the tennis star in our family. However, having been a part of his journey, I believe the key differentiator to being a great tennis player and being a brilliant champion tennis player is how you play the mind game. This is evident in The Harper Effect too when Harper falters, but put simply, if you don’t believe in yourself, and if you don’t have that instinct to win whatever it takes, or have mental tools to help you deal with losing a point, then you’ll often choke when the pressure turns up.
Why have you written a YA novel about tennis? Why tennis rather than another sport?
The Harper Effect was first written when I was 14 and my brother had recently won Nationals at Wimbledon and then won a scholarship to the Nick Bollettierri Academy in Florida. At the time, tennis was a big deal in our house. Obviously, I’ve re-drafted the novel several times since then, and my focus was on highlighting teens that go above and beyond the norm, and contrasting that with the fact that they’re still teens. This means they’re making mistakes, still wrangling with teen issues like boyfriends and sibling rivalry and school, but they’re on a world stage so the consequences of bad choices are often greater.
I’m really impressed with how you incorporated this into the novel, but could you also tell us here something readers should know about the lives of professional athletes, particularly tennis players. It sounds like such a struggle and sacrifice.
I’m glad you got that message. The world of any professional athlete is not glamorous, even if it seems that way on TV. If you read Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, this is again highlighted. The training, sacrifices, focus and hard work are all needed every day and that’s tough, but then the rewards if you make it big are massive. I’m talking specifically of tennis when I say that. Some sports are not as lucrative, but I believe the highs of winning, of travelling, of breaking records and proving yourself, are worth the hard work and having to sacrifice that beef burger 😊
What is the significance of the title, The Harper Effect?
The effect that Harper has on Colt is an important part of the plot. She draws him out of himself so that he’s less robotic in his tennis and he becomes more ‘human’ in his personal life. This in turn helps his game. The effect she has on him is also that his ‘mental game’ improves – he’s able to stay strong and face the pressure head on. Harper’s effect on Jacob and Aria are less admirable, but her actions do result in Aria spreading her wings and going on to bigger and better things in Rome, and to Jacob having a wake-up call about his drinking and the need to grow up and leave behind his childhood.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Harper Hunter is a 16-year-old tennis player who’s just turned professional and is struggling with the extra pressure that puts on her game. This results in her coach of 5 years dumping her, and telling her she doesn’t have what it takes. Harper has been on the junior circuit for five years by now. As a result, she’s missed a lot of her childhood and it’s meant her sister and best friend, Jacob, someone she’d fallen in love with, have become romantically involved. It’s this situation that shows Harper at her weakest, because she’s yet to learn how to deal with the situation in a mature way and so she makes some bad choices. It’s through her understanding of Colt and his life, and through helping him, that she grows up enough to eventually make the right choices in her life.
Aria Hunter is her sister. She’s another high achieving teen but in the music arena. Her dream is to go to the Sydney Conservatorium with her boyfriend, Jacob. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but ultimately, she gives up her dream after Harper betrays her. Luckily, she finds a bigger dream to chase.
Colt is the 17 year old tennis pro who becomes Harper’s mixed doubles partner and training partner. He appears to be a cold, closed-off person at first, but we learn that it’s because he’s hiding some family secrets in order to make it in the world of tennis. His personal issues affect his game, but it’s Harper who helps him to the other side of an ocean of choices.
Jacob is Harper and Aria’s next-door neighbour. They’ve been friends since kindergarten. With Harper on tour from a young age, their friendship trio was tested, and he becomes romantically involved with Aria. Then he realises he is with her in an attempt to get back a piece of Harper, the girl he’s truly in love with. He’s also somewhat spoilt by his neglectful parents who tend to buy his happiness with money and gifts. This impacts his personality as he’s used to getting what he wants. When he can’t have Harper, he truly goes off the rails.
How could Harper and Aria’s parents have predicted their passions when they named them?
The girl’s names are more an extension of the parent’s interests and loves before they were born. Their mum is a music buff, and so she got her choice for their first child. Their dad was a high achieving tennis player and was keen to name his child after his tennis idol. In my mind, he got his choice since he’d not got it for the first child. In the end, the girls reflected their namesakes – I guess I could’ve swapped them over to confuse things!
What’s your favourite colour and what is the significance of purple in the novel?
My favourite colour is cerulean blue. It’s just so pretty and makes me feel relaxed when I see it. Purple is significant in the novel because it represents different things as the characters grow up. At first, it represents their childhood and that’s represented by the Purple Woods where they spent most of the childhood playing games and just being kids. The Purple Woods then become part of what helps Harper deal with her on-court pressure. She’s told by her coach, Milo, to go somewhere in her mind where she feels relaxed and happy and somewhere that has a calming effect on her. Purple Time is then born. It helps Harper to win. But when she loses Purple Time, after everything back home goes wrong and the woods no longer represent that happy and safe place, it shows that she’s grown as a player as she no longer needs Purple Time to win. She is able to find the resources within herself to deal with the pressure. As we near the climax of the novel, we find Jacob is still lost in the Purple Woods, unable to leave them behind. He’s got a way to go before he grows up. Harper, on the other hand, no longer wishes to be there. She understands it’s time to leave them behind and face the world as an adult. Aria has spread her wings and flown to Rome, so she has also let go of her childhood.
What happened at the launch of The Harper Effect?
I had an amazing time at the official launch of The Harper Effect on the Sunshine Coast. One of my hopes for my book is that teens and in fact people of all ages are inspired to both chase their dreams (sporting or not), but to also stay in sport and even achieve professional levels in sport. So I put together a panel of young elite athletes as examples of real life Harpers. I wanted the audience to see that no matter their dream, these girls were living proof that with hard work and dedication, self-motivation and focus, you can achieve what you set out to. I’m also very keen to give our teens new role models in our literature. Instead of giving them images of beauty to live up to, let’s give them sporty, confident and successful heroines in books to look up to. The panel were living and breathing role models too.
For whom have you written this book?
The book was dedicated to my brother. He played the professional circuit before becoming a professional tennis coach. He coached young players like Amelie Mauresmo and Marcos Baghdatis, who were at the time in their teens. While The Harper Effect is not based on him or his experiences, as the story is completely fictional, the facts and details that I learnt from him are an important part of the authenticity of the setting of the novel.
I know it’s only just been published but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from readers?
Yes, the main ones being that everyone loves Colt and Milo and that the tennis part of the book surprised them. Many readers found the setting of the world of professional tennis to be very interesting. They reported that they looked at the play at the recent Australian Open through new eyes. That was very gratifying. They also felt inspired to follow their dreams or meet their goals.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I’m currently re-reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. She is one of my favourite American YA writers. The book before that was Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. I’ve not come across a Margaret Atwood book I don’t love 😊 Looking at my list (I keep a list that highlights my thoughts on the books I’ve read, and I also make a note of the publisher), the book before that was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – also a re-read because his writing is so dense you need to re-read it so you don’t miss any of his gorgeous phrasing!
Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Meand Between Usare memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.
Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!
How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?
TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.
Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here. How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?
I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.
To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?
I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.
What is the significance of the cover?
The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.
How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?
I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.
How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?
Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.
You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?
How have you differentiated between their voices?
Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…
Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.
Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.
Which character would you like to write more about?
I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.
I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?
I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.
You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?
I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.
They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.
Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?
I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.
Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.
Geekerella by Ashley Poston (Penguin Random House) is a contemporary Cinderella story told by both Danielle (Elle) as the Cinderella character and 18-year-old actor, Darien Freeman as her potential love interest.
Elle’s father had established ExcelsiCon cosplay before he died. Elle now lives with her stepmother, a wedding planner, and stepsister twins Chloe (who is nasty) and Calliope (whose attitude towards Elle may be softening). Elle works part-time at the Magic Pumpkin food truck with Sage, who also makes costumes.
Darien is a former soap actor who is now starring as Prince Carmindor in Starfield, the new movie version of a cult sci-fi show. He is actually a fan of the show and wants to ‘do the fandom justice’ even though Jessica, his female co-star is really only using it for publicity and as a stepping stone to an academy award career. Jess thinks that Daren is cute, ‘equal parts dorky and sexy’. They are supposed to be dating.
Darien wants to do his own stunts, is a ‘pretty boy’ swamped by fans, but is actually vulnerable and a bit shy. His overbearing but distant father is his manager; Gail, is his slightly older, inept but caring minder; and Lonny his new bodyguard.
Without having met him, Elle despises Darien. She doesn’t realise that he is the person who contacted her through the phone she inherited from her father and is now texting constantly. At the same time, her blog posts against Darien playing the role of Carmindor go viral. When they meet in person they despise each other.
The plot builds to the cosplay convention and ExcelsiCon ball. Elle’s parents had been the king and queen of cosplay – her father dressed as the Federation Prince, Carmindor, and her mother as beautiful Amara. Elle decides to attend the ball and Sage alters her father’s costume for her. But Chloe, as ugly-natured stepsister, steps in and steals the Amara silk dress and glass shoes for Cal to wear to the ball and ruins Carmindor’s coat.
Subplots about leaked details about the Starfield movie, Darien’s stalker and interference in Darien and Elle’s texts add intrigue.
This reimagined fairy tale about hidden and mistaken identities is great fun. Its premise of the famous guy yearning for an unknown girl is also explored in the equally engaging Unrequited by Sydney writer Emma Grey about a girl pursued by the famous lead singer in boy band.
‘Common’ in Tony Birch’s new collection of short stories, Common People (University of Queensland Press) could allude to the commonality – shared traits and unity – of people, or the working-class roots of many of his characters. Either way, these stories are unflinching accounts of Aboriginal, poor, vulnerable, victimised or depraved characters. Many have fine hearts despite their disadvantaged circumstances.
Birch employs recurring symbols and themes such as stars; drugs and drug dealing; unwell, collapsing men and positive girl figures throughout the tales. He tells stories through the eyes of young or child narrators here – and across much of his fiction.
The first story, ‘The Ghost Train’ is a memorable, seemingly despairing account of two women who work their first night shift at a meat packing factory. And yet the word “HOPE” is inscribed on Maria’s T-shirt, albeit on a picture of Barack Obama’s face.
‘Harmless’ is one of several stories featuring a positive, proactive, young girl. An old hermit-like man living alone in a hut helps the girl narrator – who has a certain freedom and agency from riding her bike – care for another young female, abused 14-year-old Rita. This tale evokes the roaming boys in Birch’s Ghost River and their encounters with a group of old men. (I have previously blogged about Ghost River.)
‘Death Star’ integrates two of Birch’s prevalent concerns in this collection – drugs and stars as a symbol. Young Dominic doesn’t go to his older brother’s funeral. His brother was a car thief and died in a car accident. He also loved stars.
‘Liam’ is a powerful recount about Liam who was locked up at the age of 16 for robbery. The young narrator’s religious Catholic family took him in and, as a charismatic storyteller, Liam became a loved family member. However, his pet dog, Sally Ann, became aggressive when something terrible happened.
‘Sissy’ also appears in The Best Australian Stories 2017, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke. Sissy is chosen by the nuns to have a holiday with another family. She becomes uneasy after her friend Betty tells her of a girl she knows in a similar situation who didn’t return from her holiday.
Viola, a Madam, breaks her own rules to care for young Gabriel when he is brought to her brothel in the eviscerating ‘Frank Slim’.
A company tries to return cremated remains to their next of kin in ‘Raven & Sons’; a reformed (or not) alcoholic grandmother looks after her grandson for the first time in ‘Worship’; grown men are ailing in ‘Paper Moon’, ‘Joe Roberts’ and ‘Painted Glass’; and Aboriginal characters feature in ‘The White Girl’ and ‘Colours’.
Australia Day (Text Publishing) by Melanie Cheng is worth highlighting as the 26th January draws near. The celebration of Australia Day is currently under fire and this work explores life in Australian society and on Australia Day itself from the viewpoints of characters from a range of backgrounds and beliefs. It is perhaps shaped more as a commentary than a criticism of Australia and Australia Day, although its smooth yet sharp edges niggle the reader to ponder about the diverse lives of those who live in Australia and what Australia Day may mean to those of non-Anglo (particularly Asian-Australian) heritage.
This book of short stories was the Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It was then shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Fiction in 2017 and is currently longlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction. Australia Day is Chinese-Australian Melanie Cheng’s debut literary publication. She lives in Melbourne where she works as a general practitioner.
The first story is ‘Australia Day’, a sweltering account of Stanley Chu’s uncomfortable visit to fellow medical student Jess’s family home. Hong Kong-born Stanley is out of place amongst the family’s form of celebration, epitomised by Jess’s father’s ignorant racism.
Syrian au pair, Leila, visits the Northern Territory in ‘Big Problems’. South African woman, Ellen, repeats that there are “big problems” caused by non-White races, without seeming to notice or recognise Leila’s heritage.
Tania carries capsicum spray, expecting abuse as she works at the car registry in ‘Ticket-Holders Number 5’ and Deepak, a doctor, is victimised in ‘Fracture’, giving another side to this issue.
My favourite story is ‘Muse’, about old Evan whose wife Lola has died, and his bossy daughter Bea who keeps an eye on him. Evan’s life changes when Bea brings her partner, Edwina, to dinner. Edwina is an artist who was “highly commended in the Archibald” art awards. Edwina introduces Evan to life-drawing and he becomes obsessed with the model. As the narrative moves forward, the author also offers glimpses into Evan’s past, particularly his affair with Ana from the milk bar, who wasn’t beautiful like Lola, but “didn’t slip out of my hands like silk when I held her”. A grandson completes Evan’s transformation.
‘Mrs Chan’ encapsulates the book with a tender portrayal of an old woman from Hong Kong cooking for her grandson’s twentieth birthday on Australia Day. This completes a thought-provoking cycle.
Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?
The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.
What genre are they?
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.
What are you writing about now or next?
I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them. Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com
Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spyand your other books.
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Tristan’s replies. (Felice features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
Tristan was one of the knights of the round table. It can mean ‘noise’ or ‘boldness’ or ‘sorrow’. Certainly, there are notes of boldness and sorrow in my novels and my teachers always told me I was unnecessarily noisy.
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Tristan about The Fall and Felice (in the next post) about The Boy and the Spy
THE FALL is inspired by a crime scene I visited doing work experience with a news crew when I was in high school. A man had stolen a woman’s handbag, run through a park, jumped over a fence at the back of the park and didn’t realise that the park was built on top of a multi-storey carpark which was built into the hillside. This and my love of the Hitchcock thriller REAR WINDOW collided to inspire the story.
What genre are they?
THE FALL is a kind of crime, mystery, suspense, thriller. But it’s not just characters servicing plot. I try to write characters that you care about and I want to explore big ideas that are relevant to middle-grade readers. THE FALL touches on mortality, rites of passage for kids and what it means to be a good human and family member, to make good choices.
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Most of the book is set in a single apartment building over the space of twenty-four hours. I set myself that challenge and it makes the book quite intense. The building is in Sydney, very much like a building a friend of mine lives in, which is only about 100 metres from the crime scene that I visited back when I was sixteen years-old. It’s also influenced by the apartments I stayed in while travelling in England and Europe for four months during the writing of the second draft.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
THE FALL begins at 2.08am in a fifth-floor apartment with Sam waking to hear two men arguing in the apartment overhead. Moments later he witnesses a crime. The perpetrator of that crime realises that Sam is the sole witness and comes after him. This sets the drama in motion, with Sam becoming increasingly entwined in the crime as the story progresses.
Books need to start with a bang but, when they do, as an author you need to ensure that the rest of the story lives up to the opening and that the end is even better.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
Sam Garner is twelve-going-on-thirteen. He has never met his father before this week. He grew up in the Blue Mountains (not unlike myself) and his father left before he was born. His mother has never wanted him to see his father and his dad hasn’t exactly been breaking his neck to get in touch either. But, after having an operation on his knee (as I did when I was thirteen), Sam’s Mum has to work and she finally allows Sam to go and stay with his father, Harry, a newspaper crime reporter, for a week while he recuperates. On his second-last night, he witnesses the crime.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
It’s very different to my younger, funnier illustrated short stories in the Tom Weekly books. There is humour in THE FALL but it’s darker, more thrilling and it explores bigger ideas. It’s more in the vein of TWO WOLVES.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I hate Fleech’s book. Kidding. It’s actually my favourite book he’s written. I really like SPECKY MAGEE but I think ‘THE BOY AND THE SPY’ is another step up. It has a thrilling opening scene but the book isn’t just about action. The characters are rich and believable and it’s told against the backdrop of an important and exciting historical moment. My fourteen year-old son just devoured it a few days ago, too.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We see each other a few times a year at dinners and festivals and when I’m in Melbourne I’ll see if Fleech is around for a catch-up. We have a shared history in that we both started out as TV actors, both lived in the U.K. for a few years. In fact I interviewed Felice when I was presenting a TV series in the U.K. and he was performing in a musical. He is a super-energetic entertainer and we both like the idea of using video and performance to bring books to life for kids.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
Runner – Robert Newton
Okay For Now – Gary D Schmidt
Joey Pigza Loses Control – Jack Gantos
Once series – Morris Gleitzman
What are you writing about now or next?
I’ve just finished the next book of short stories in the TOM WEEKLY series and Gus Gordon is illustrating it now. It’s out in 2018 and features stories in which Tom tries to eat a car, his guinea pig is taken hostage, his grandmother involves him in a plot to steal a prize fruitcake, he is attacked by a gang of killer possums and he believes that he and his bum have the potential to save the world.
I’m also writing a new crime-thriller called DETENTION about a kid involved in a school lockdown who comes face-to-face with the threat. I imagine it’ll be out either 2019 or 2020. I like to let the novels breathe so they take a few years to evolve.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s a great complement to the writing work. Writing is intensely personal and sometimes lonely. I love going out and trying new stories and ideas on readers. I love visualising the stories and bringing them to life with anecdotes and images and video and music. It’s fun mucking around with ideas, hearing what readers respond to and hopefully inspiring kids to pick up a book or create their own stories.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks Joy. Hi Fleech. Fun chatting to you. And don’t forget to put a book into your child / grandchild / niece or nephew / brother / sister / friend / random kid in the street’s Santa sack this Crimbo. 😉
Thanks Tristan and all the best with The Fall and your other books.
Where are you based and what is your current role, Darren?
I live in Vancouver. My current role is husband, father, provider and fiction scribbler.
How involved are you in the YA community?
Not as much as I used to be when I was a teacher. My 16 year old twins keep me connected to today’s kids, though.
Could you tell us a little about your early books?
Well, they’ve all disappeared, sad to say. However, I’m proud of them and each one was notable in its own way. My first novel, The Procrastinator, got my first personal, positive rejection (still one of the very best feelings I’ve ever had in my career); my second novel, Most Valuable Potential, was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; my third novel, The Umbilical Word, secured my wonderful literary agent; and my fourth novel, Kindling, picked up my first contract with a major trade publishing house (Hachette).
Thank you for your kind words, Joy. The protagonists of AYSM are twins, Justine and Perry Richter. Justine is smart, well read, neurotypical and the sole carer of her brother. Perry is smart, sensitive, neurodiverse and hopeful of “freeing” his sister. Perry makes three appearances in the new novel, Exchange of Heart. It was a real treat to connect with him again.
What is the significance of the clever title of your powerful new novel Exchange of Heart?
Exchange of Heart captures what this novel is all about, both literally and thematically. There’s a lot to unpack; it makes sense at a surface level then becomes deeper and richer the further you delve into the story.
Why is this book important?
Like all good fiction, I need to have told a good tale in order for the work to be assigned any importance. If readers feel I’ve told a good tale then there is some food-for-thought that can be discussed. PTSD in young adults, treatment of the intellectually disabled, use of the R-word, mental health of refugees, among others. In some ways, Exchange of Heart is a political YA novel. I embrace that label.
Could you tell us about your complex major character, Munro Maddux?
I love Munro. I think he’s the best character I’ve ever put down on the page. So many qualities about him that I admire – his honour, his tenacity, his nuance, his care. I love his wounded heart. Unlike many other characters I’ve written, he’s not an open book. He’s not ‘all the feels’. That’s very commendable in this day and age.
Who is the Coyote?
The Coyote is less a ‘who’ and more a ‘what’. It’s a voice in Munro’s head that’s constantly at him and it’s the most debilitating symptom of his PTSD-infused grief over the loss of his younger sister, Evie. Why Coyote? In North American First Nations/Aboriginal lore, Coyote represents ‘trickster’ medicine; it is a deceiver, not to be trusted. It was the perfect motif for Munro’s nemesis.
What is the significance of the “-er” words?
I was actually looking to create something self help-ish that was a bit cheesy. And the students of Sussex High, Rowan in particular, see it that way. In Munro’s case, though, his ‘er’ word – ‘better’ – was right on the money.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the assisted-living community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
It changes every day! Today, I’ll say Bernie because she seeks to protect her fellow Fair Go residents from discrimination and oppression. We need more Bernies in the world!
What would you like to see change or improve for those in assisted-living communities in the near future?
The programs that served as inspiration for my fictional Fair Go – Youngcare in Australia and Bittersweet Farms in the US – are wonderful examples of what is possible with assisted living. If there is one thing I would like to see in all situations of supported care, it is residents having a say in their work, their play, their passion, their collaboration. Generally, having agency in their lives.
Having lived and been flooded in Brisbane myself, your descriptions of place such as Walter Taylor Bridge and South Bank resonated strongly. Where is a significant place in Brisbane for you?
There’s a few. Mum and Dad’s house in Mitchelton. Milpera State High, where I taught for almost ten years. Lang Park (I still can’t call it Suncorp Stadium). My grandmother’s house in Hawthorne which, sadly, no longer exists.
The Tolstoy quote, I felt, summed up Exchange of Heart perfectly. The love of others is the catalyst for Munro to forgive himself and heal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fascinating story for me, not the least of which for its commentary about the treatment of the intellectually disabled.
Magabala is a Broome-based Indigenous publisher. It publishes Bruce Pascoe, the award-winning author of Black Emu (for adults) and Fog a Dox, Seahorse and Mrs Whitlam for children. Magabala’s Greg Dreise’s Mad Magpie has just won the Indigenous category of the national Speech Pathology awards. Deadly D and Justice Jones by David Hartley and Scott Prince is an appealing series which I’ve reviewed for the blog previously and Brenton McKenna’s graphic novels, Ubby’s Underdogs are full of appeal.
And one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen is published by Magabala – Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler.
Big Fella Rain
A suburb new picture book is Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber. It traces the natural world’s wait for rain in northern Australia. The illustrations by Fern Martins are impressive and one appears above as the feature image for this post. They are lovely, evocative works of art.
Mrs White and the Red Desert
The red cover of Mrs White and the Red Desert by Josie Boyle, illustrated by Maggie Prewett, represents the overshadowing power of the desert sand to explain in an amusing way why the children’s homework is always smudged with red. This is a highlight in Magabala’s list.
On the Way to Nana’s
Red ochre colour also sets the scene of On the Way to Nana’sby Frances and Lindsay Haji-Ali, illustrated by animator David Hardy. This is an accomplished, extremely appealing, tale of travelling to Nana’s house. Things the family see on the way, from flowers to anthills, goannas, brumbies and boabs, are counted backwards from 15 to 1, which is very useful for children who are learning to count. The numbers are shown as numerals and in words. Some of the text is repetitive, “I’m on the way to Nana’s house. What will I see?”
Molly the Pirate
The first picture book from Magabala’s Indigenous Creator Scholarship is Molly the Pirate by Lorraine Teece, illustrated by Paul Seden. Molly lives far from the sea but imagines she is a pirate. Paul Seden takes the challenge modelled by the lively text to create vibrant, gloriously-coloured illustrations. He also does a great job with camera angles, particularly from above and below the hills hoist clothes lines.
Based on the song by Lorrae Coffin, Free Diving looks at the role of Indigenous free divers. It is a poignant insight into history, illustrated by Bronwyn Houston.
At the Zoo I See
At the Beach I See
Two board books for the very young from the new “Young Art” series are At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (the team behind Steve Goes to Carnival) and At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh, who uses black linework with wash backgrounds.
Robert Ingpen was born in 1936 and is the only Australian illustrator to have won the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen award. He is a virtuoso of painterly artwork and has illustrated Australian stories such as Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, Mustara by Rosanne Hawke, Ziba Came on a Boat written by Liz Lofthouse, The Poppykettle series and The Afternoon Treehouse and a long list of children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (hence the title of this tribute to his work), Peter Pan and Wendy, The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The Nutcracker, The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol will be perfect books for Christmas. Ingpen has also designed Australian postage stamps.
His most recent books include the awarded outback-based Tea and Sugar Christmas and Radio Rescue! (both written by Jane Jolly). Wonderlands gives a generous insight into these books and others. It is a must-have celebration of children’s literature through the lens of our maestro, Robert Ingpen.
The School of Music by Meurig and Rachel Bowen, illustrated by Daniel Frost (Wide Eyed Editions, Allen & Unwin)
Music is important for the pleasure it gives and because it’s good for the brain and can lead to unexpected friendships and opportunities. Enjoyable and useful to use in homes, schools and music schools, The School of Music is a lavish compendium of music, musicians and instruments in picture book form.
Musician characters (such as Diva Venus, a star singer, Ronny ‘Beethoven’ O’Reilly, a composer and Roxy Mojo, a percussion specialist) are introduced at the beginning of the book and feature strategically throughout to explain concepts. Section 1 looks at different types of music and instruments and how music connects with film, maths, architecture and other disciplines. Section 2 offers a musical toolbox, which enables children to write music, beginning with fun graphic scores using pictures and symbols. Section 3 is about children making music themselves. The book suggests diverse ways such as making a kitchen orchestra as well as playing a conventional instrument or singing. It concludes with tips on performing and composing.
There are bonus music samples accessed by the QR code at the end of the book and children could dip in and out of this book or use it as a Christmas holiday music appreciation and education course, ideally even alongside learning a musical instrument.
Illustrator-icon Anne Spudvilas is known for The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin (my teacher notes are on the Reading Australia site), Woolvs in the Sitee (written by Margaret Wild) and her first book The Race by Christobel Mattingley which won the Crichton Award for Illustration and was a CBCA Honour Book. Her new interpretation of Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) is a sumptuous gift book. It is a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet set on the Murray-Darling. The lavish illustrations are textured and allusive. Spudvilas features black and white with occasional limited shades of yellow, and red for a few sparse dramatic and accentuated moments.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
Stepping Stones (UQP) was published earlier in the year but remains timely with the ongoing issues in caring for and resettling refugees. Margriet Ruurs saw Syrian, Nizar Ali Badr’s stone and pebble artwork online and worked hard and inventively to contact him and gain permission to use his art to highlight the plight of those escaping the horrors of war. The text is written in Arabic and English.
Another unusual and fascinating picture book is Drawn Onward (Fremantle Press), a palindromic text which can be read forwards and backwards . Meg McKinlay, who is most well-known for her multiple awarded dystopian novel, A Single Stone, uses the palindrome form to rephrase negative phrases and thoughts into positive. She calls it “optimism training for our kids”. The design is appropriately subtle and enigmatic.
Like the other books reviewed here, colour is used efficaciously in Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream (Lothian Children’s Books, Hachette). The story begins “Once in a blue moon, everyone has a really, really excellent dream.” Danny’s world is coloured blue and his father’s factory makes every hue of blue paint. After Danny’s dessert of blueberries one night, he dreams, not in blue, but of a red whale. Blue continues to dominate his life until he decides to create his dream colour in paint. It takes until Day 99 when “Not – Blue” appears and, even though people are suspicious, Not-Blue starts showing up where it’s not expected. This is a wonderful book about being different, dreaming and persistence in creativity.
Thank you, Joy! And many thanks for having me on the blog.
But first, where are you based and what is your background?
I live in Sydney, with my husband and our three sons, not far from where I grew up as a kid. I initially studied Communications straight out of high school at UTS, where I majored in writing and media theory, before then going on to train as an actor at Theatre Nepean, UWS. Towards the end of my acting training, I taught drama to a group of kids out at Mount Pleasant and I wrote them a play. It was then that it finally dawned on me that I didn’t want to be an actor after all, that in fact I wanted to be a writer but for young people, rather than adults. So not long after, I enrolled in a writing course with the acclaimed children’s author Libby Gleeson. That course felt both like a complete revelation and a homecoming. It was there that I workshopped a picture text I had written on my honeymoon of all places, about a little boy and his ice cream van driving dad. Libby Gleeson was a wonderful teacher and she instinctively knew how to draw out the possibilities of both a writer and a text and because of that early encouragement, here I am sixteen books later.
Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting? Have there been any particularly memorable responses?
I’ve spoken to thousands of kids over the years, presenting talks and writing workshops. In my general talks, I’ll often share funny stories about my life, what kind of kid I was growing up and especially some of the funny stories about bringing up my boys. There’s lots of acting and hilarity, especially when I share the inspiration behind stories like Sleep Tight, My Honey or My Mum Tarzan. I always bring along some of my writing journals and I usually explore the growth of at least one book in detail, from first seed to final story. I’m keen for kids to hear about the writing process but I’m also especially passionate for them to grasp how curiosity about ordinary moments can lead to the creation of juicy stories.
Funnily enough, some of the loveliest moments happen when I’m not speaking at all, when little clusters of kids sidle up at the end of a session to confide about a book they’ve been writing, or how they’re going to go out and buy their own writing journal that very afternoon, so they can write about the idea they have for a funny story about their own crazy mum, grandpa or dog. Because just as much as I want kids to love my books, at the end of the day, I want to inspire them even more so to discover the beauty and worth of their own stories.
I adore your laugh-out-loud YA novel My Big Birkett (it’s one of my all-time favourites) and love reciting parts about the animals that mate for life, The Tempest and gorgeous Raven and the meals he makes using mince; as well as your wonderful picture books. Could you tell us about some of these books?
Thanks Joy! It makes me especially happy to know that you are a Raven fan!
I’m often asked what I prefer to write most and I always say I love writing both picture books and novels and that I couldn’t choose between them. The best part of writing picture books for me is the absolute thrill of collaboration. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many brilliant illustrators over the years and each one has taught me so much about the power of the visual text. Some of my picture books that have been especially well-received include the Bear and Chook books, illustrated by Emma Quay, Gordon’s got a Snookie, illustrated by Wayne Harris and Big Pet Day, illustrated by Gus Gordon, who was also on the QLA shortlist too, for his gorgeous picture book, Somewhere Else. My most recent picture book is Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! illustrated by Binny Talib. This was such a tough text to illustrate, mainly because of the fairly swift juxtaposition of the scenes of school life, with Ruby Lee’s fervent imagination. I’m just so delighted at what a marvellously beautiful job Binny has done.
I will say that one of the unforeseen joys of my writing life has been the steady, heartfelt emails I have received over the years from teen readers regarding My Big Birkett. These emails about Gemma and Raven and the De Head family have been incredibly sincere and poignant and they have often left me with a huge lump in my throat.
I know this is a tricky question but how do you incorporate humour into your writing?
This is a tricky question! As a kid, I looked into books like they were real windows. The books that spoke to me most were always the ones that captured acutely the laugh-out-loud jumbly nature of life, alongside the bittersweet ache. In terms of writing humour, I always keep an ear out for those little things that will make kids laugh. Not so long ago, my sister told me a story about how her four-year old son crept into her bed in the middle of the night and snuggled up tight to her, saying, ‘I love you so much Mummy, I want to shoot you out of a cannon!’ When I tell that story to kids, they roll around on the floor, laughing their heads off. But at the same time I know they recognise the vehemence of that kind of love, because they’ve felt it rocketing around in their own chests. I think humour has this remarkable capacity to encourage true connection and I’m always keen to incorporate it in my work, because it radically paves the way for readers to engage more fully and tenderly not only with a character’s dreams, fears, hopes and sorrows but also perhaps, with their own.
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (A&U) has just won the QLA Griffith University Children’s Book award. The judge report says:
“The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler is structured as a quintessential Australian beach camping holiday but the exceptional storytelling soars to welcome the reader into both the setting and young Henry Hoobler’s rites of passage. We are given a heart-warming insight into introspective Henry. He is a genius at noticing things, surprising his fellow campers with his success in board and card games. He is also ‘Mr Worst-Case Scenario’, dreading the bugs, stingers and sharks of the beach but, most of all, dreading learning to ride his new silver bike. The bike is a symbol of fear, but its significance changes as Henry discovers courage and freedom. Courage can be found when friends are ‘straight-up and true’, embodied by free-spirit Cassie. This tale reminds us that everyone is different and everyone has gifts. Some, like Henry, prefer to learn quietly but even extroverts can be fearful.
The writing is literary and metaphorical, encompassing a vast emotional range whilst being utterly engaging for children. It is rare to encounter a novel for mid-primary children characterised by such perception and cadence.”
What was your reaction when you realised you had won?
I was astonished and delighted. It took quite a few days for it to truly sink in. Then I was just overcome with immense gratitude that the judges had seen something special in Henry.
It was wonderful to meet your young son, Rohan, at the awards presentation in Brisbane (and others there loved seeing him reading The Hobbit as the night wore on). Why was he there and what was your dual experience of the awards evening?
One of the initial nudges for writing Henry Hoobler was watching Rohie develop as a reader. After a slow start, he had a very sudden and rapid acceleration over a single year and I knew he was in this slippery in-between stage, where the books he was capable of reading were still quite a huge stretch for him emotionally. I began to wonder if I could write something that would speak directly to his life. As I wrote Henry, I read chapter after chapter out loud to Rohie. When I had finished the book and before it had been published, he persuaded his class teacher that I should come to school and read some chapters to his whole class as well. I dedicated the novel to Rohan because I wanted to acknowledge just what an incredible gift it was to have his enthusiastic encouragement along the way.
Rohie is an avid bookworm and so hanging out at the QLA awards ceremony for him was suddenly like meeting all of his people, all at once. He was especially touched that I mentioned him in my speech and I was especially touched when Rebe Taylor, the winner of the QLA History Book Award asked him to sign her copy of Henry. I can safely say that if Rohie’s class teacher had seen that handwriting, he would have been granted his official pen licence on the spot!
What is the significance of the title The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler?
Early in the novel, Henry discovers that his rather unique talent for noticing things, makes him almost unbeatable when it comes to playing cards and board games. After Henry convincingly and unexpectedly smashes all the men and the older boys at games, Patch, his rather begrudging older brother finally acknowledges that Henry might be bit of a grand genius. It’s the beginning of a radical shift in the way Henry sees himself. Although Henry has replayed every worst case scenario in vivid detail regarding his camping holiday, what he has never considered is all the ways this summer might turn out to be the best one yet, the grand, genius summer of all summers.
Could you tell us about your protagonist Henry and some other characters?
Henry is a sensitive, imaginative and thoughtful nine-year old boy. He is the middle child, slotted right in between his athletically gifted, funny, know-it-all fifteen-year old brother Patch and his rambunctious, My Little Pony obsessed younger sister Lulu. Both Henry and his mum share some anxious traits and tend towards self-reflection and to feeling things deeply. Henry is very keen to please his exuberant dad, who is a real enthusiast for life. But Henry is filled with dread at the idea of learning how to ride his new bike without training wheels, especially in front of prickly Reed Barone, another boy who is close to Henry’s age and who is prone to sneering. Eventually, Henry meets ten-year old Cassie, who lives onsite in a caravan with her Pop. Cassie is a free spirit and alive to the world in ways that astonish Henry. Finally, Cassie’s straight up and true courage rubs off and with an unexpected Lulu intervention, Henry learns how to summon up his own courage and to do a whole series of adventurous things that he never imagined.
For what age-group is this novel intended?
Henry is intended for 7-11 year olds. I’ve been really pleased though by the numbers of reviewers that have also recommended it as a read-aloud for the whole family or the school classroom too.
How did you balance fine literary writing with the other elements of the narrative?
I was keen to write in a way that was hospitable to all kinds of middle grade readers, those that were confidently independent and those newly finding their feet. As a result, the story contains lots of snappy dialogue, which helps to give the text an easy, engaging flow. In terms of metaphoric imagery, I kept in mind some feedback given to me around another novel, regarding the importance of restraint. I was conscious that any poetic moment really had to serve the story and forward the action. At the same time, I wanted the novel to contain a certain richness of vocabulary because something the American writer Madeleine L’Engle once said has stayed with me for years, ‘We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.’ So balancing all of these elements was challenging, a little like prancing across a highwire tightrope.
As well as being good fun to read, Henry Hoobler has some important underpinning themes. Could you share some of these?
I’m always a little cautious when discussing themes because I know the writer is sometimes the least insightful person on that subject! With Henry though, I was keen to explore the nature of courage, the way one young boy discovers how to be brave over the summer, by learning how to make a tiny bit of room for the worry in his life, without giving it the whole house. The novel examines the transformative nature of unexpected friendship, the contagiousness of courage, the way we need one another in order to learn how to become brave and the way courage always arrives through the actual taking of considered risks. The novel celebrates the importance of family and community and the value of perseverance, forgiveness and kindness. I was keen to write about the beauty of the natural world and how to recognise and treasure the true significance of small ordinary moments.
Which awards have had particular significance for you?
Whenever a book of mine is either shortlisted or receives an award, I’m always extraordinarily surprised and grateful. I know it’s such a hard job to make those kinds of choices, especially when there are so many equally deserving and beautiful books out in the world. Writing a book does take a significant investment of energy and time and winning an award always means that a book will have a much greater chance of being widely read. I was particularly thrilled in 2010 when Bear and Chook by the Sea won the CBCA’s Book of the Year for Early Childhood, not just because it was a moment I got to share with my good friend the illustrator Emma Quay but also because as a kid, I drew a poster every single year for Oatley Library’s celebrations of the Children’s Book Council’s Book of the Year Awards. I was desperate to win a book prize in that poster competition, never dreaming that I would one day write a book that would win an award from such a long-established and hallowed institution.
What are you writing next?
I’ve been writing a series of picture book texts and I’m just returning now to a novel for teenagers that has been patiently waiting it’s turn.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve loved Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, Karen Foxlee’s A Most Magical Girl, James Rebanks The Shepherd’s Life, Brian Doyle’s collection of essays Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies and the picture books Oi, Frog by Kez Gray and Jim Field and Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge.
Thanks so much for having me on the blog and for asking such astonishingly good, stretching questions. It was lovely to take the time to reflect and ponder.
Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful responses, Lisa and all the very best with your excellent novel, The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler, and your other works. We greatly look forward to what your imaginative mind will bring us next.
London-based writer Katherine Rundell has sprung into prominence with her children’s novels in recent times. She has just written two more books and one is a sumptuous Christmas picture book, One Christmas Wish, illustrated by Emily Sutton (Bloomsbury). It draws on many nostalgic and loved Christmas images, such as being with family and decorating the tree.
One Christmas Wish begins on Christmas Eve with Theo sorting out the Christmas decorations. He finds four unexpected and dilapidated pieces: a rocking horse, a robin, a tin soldier and an angel. His parents are out working and his new babysitter has fallen asleep with her phone but Theo sees a shooting star and wishes to not be alone. The four decorations seem to come to life and offer to help Theo with whatever he needs. However, the decorations all need something themselves, such as the robin remembering how to sing and the soldier needing someone to love and protect. The heart of Christmas is reached when they find a nativity scene in the town square and Theo’s Christmas wish comes true soon after.
The illustrations invite you into the scenes, particularly those with full bleeds to the pages’ edges such as in Mrs Goodyere’s cosy room where she teaches the robin to sing Away in a Manger and the snowy wood where Theo and the others search for feathers to replenish the angel’s wings.
The Explorer (illustrated by Hannah Horn; published by Bloomsbury) is Katherine Rundell’s other new book and it is a rollicking adventure for primary children set in the Amazon after Fred’s small plane crashes. Two girls about his age, Con and Lila, and five-year-old Max also survive. They rescue a baby sloth, raid a bee-hive, make a raft and find a map. They resolve to venture to where the X on the map is located. Disconcertingly, there are signs that someone else has lived in the jungle too.
There is some depth in the narrative, particularly as the children undergo rites of passage. Even though their existence is difficult, at times Fred seems pleased not to be living a humdrum life: “At school, it’s the same thing, every day. I liked that it might be all right to believe in large, mad, wild things.”
The Explorer is inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, and these two novels do share a similar sense of adventure and freedom.
And thank you for blogging me. It’s blogging exciting to be here.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I’m in Sydney and have a background in documentary and TV. I also do copywriting and write for an educational publisher.
What sort of music do you like and do you play any instruments?
What sort of music don’t I like might be an easier question to answer. There’s not really any types of music I don’t get into. Well except Opera and music that involves men dancing in long socks with bells attached. Struggle with that a little.
Basically I like good music. And a lot of bad music too come to think of it! I just like music.
But I don’t play myself.
I think Dr Boogaloo & The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter is my love letter to music. It expresses all my pent up love which I can’t express by playing an instrument. Kitchen dancing keeps it in check most of the time but sometimes it just needs to come out.
What have you learned about the importance of music?
I believe humans are musical beings. It’s an intrinsic part of who we are. We need music.
What led to you writing a children’s novel?
I started writing for children when I had my own. I kept getting ideas for books and when they slept I would rush upstairs to the attic and try to write. Unfortunately all my children were terrible sleepers so my output is hardly prodigious. Hard to write a book in 45 minutes. But I’m on a roll now!
Could you tell us about ten-year-old Blue, her horrible mother and some other characters?
Ah the lovely Blue. I’m very fond of Blue. She has a quiet strength and she tries to keep her chin up no matter how hard things get. She’s not one to complain – unlike her awful mother. Blue’s mother is somewhat self-obsessed. She thinks having a daughter who can’t laugh is an absolute bummer! It’s ruining her life and simply must be fixed. If not she plans on shipping her off to a boarding school in Switzerland somewhere. One of those ones where they don’t come home in the holidays. Costs a bit more but well worth it obviously, under the circumstances.
Now, let me introduce you to the wonderful Dr Boogaloo and his glorious wife Bessie. They run The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures. You may not have ever thought of music as medicine but according to the Boogaloos, music can cure anything!
Of course, you need the right dose of the right music. No point listening to a jive if you’re in need of some boogie-woogie, and you can’t just substitute a hum for a chant, or an opera for a ballad, or a toot for a blow. Absolutely not! Musical medicine is an exact art. And it’s extraordinarily complicated. The way Dr Boogaloo explains it is this – everyone has their own tune but sometimes, for one reason or other, we get all out of tune. We lose the beat, you might say. Unfortunately, your tune is just like your fingerprint. No two are the same. Which is why fixing tunes is SUCH a tricky business!
Dr Boogaloo describes Bessie as the magic in his wand and it’s true they are a great team. Dr Boogaloo reminds me a bit of a brand new pencil – he’s very straight ahead – which is perhaps not what you would expect for a musical doctor. Bessie on the other hand is a little more eccentric. She reminds me of a rainbow caught up inside a tornado. Bessie looks after the Doctor’s instrument collection which is so enormous they keep it in a shed about as big as an A380 aircraft hanger.
I particularly enjoyed Blue’s introduction to the Snorkel Porkel Crumpety Worpel Laughter Clinic. Could you tell us about how people enter it and about some of the Laughter Detection Tests?
Well entry is via a giant slide with a vertical drop that would make your nose bleed – hence the need for padded pants to avoid a really good buttock burn –followed by the the tickle machine which helps sort out the wheat from the chaff in terms of laughter issues. Then, once you get past the lobby guy who has a seriously good aim when it comes to snot olives, you’re off to the testing rooms. They are very thorough at the Snorkel Porkel. There are not many places they won’t venture to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Can we just say, strange animal farts, blooper reels, hula-hooping cats in bikinis, Youtube videos of epic fails and a gentleman called Gassy Gus who can blow up balloons with his bottom! You did ask!
Music is important in your novel but what about colour?
Well Blue’s mother has a thing for colour. She goes through colour ‘phases’. You can probably guess what ‘phase’ she was in when she named Blue ‘Blue’. At this point in time, she’s in a white phase. Phases generally involve a lot of shopping, redecorating and pouring over paint charts. Blue is finding her mother’s white phase particularly challenging. Absolutely everything in the house is white so even finding the fridge can be quite tricky. There’s a lot of falling over the couch, that sort of thing.
Could you tell us about the role of musical imperfection?
Well I can only tell you what I’ve learnt from my time at The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures but according to Dr Boogaloo, imperfection is an essential ingredient in any musical cure. One of the many musicians who work’s regularly at the clinic is a Canadian called Neil. He’s famous for the perfect bum note or loose string and exactly when to drop one in. Quite a skill.
Have you paid homage to any other authors in your plot, setting or characters?
Not authors so much but songwriters and songs seem to be scattered about the place. That’s my silly love thing again. You don’t need to get the musical references to enjoy the story – I’m sure most of the kids won’t – but if you’re a music fan reading to your kids, hopefully they might amuse you. Some are obvious, others not. For example, Blue’s globetrotting, game-hunting father sends her a pair of high heels covered in diamonds. There’s even diamonds on the soles! And of course Bessie would name her pet pygmy pocket possums after some of her favourite singers – Dolly & Makeba. Tupelo trees, weeping songs, I’m wearing my musical heart on my sleeve I’m afraid….
Are you planning anything special for the book launch?
Of course. Blue’s mother’s favourite – bubbles. And my favourite – music. We have Gramophone Man coming along to play some very old tunes on his steam-powered turntables. That should give most people’s musical immune systems a jolly good boost before the silly season begins.
What are you writing about now or next?
My next book is called The Crumples of Shambolstown. It’s about some very crumpled folks who live next to some very Crisp folks. A gang of Crumple kids venture into Cripsville and things go very, very wrong. It’s a crumply thriller!
Aboriginal literature and other art forms are transforming Australian culture at the moment. The recent Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ Festivals were both opened by Aboriginal speakers, including dual Miles Franklin winning author, Kim Scott. Leah Purcell’s play script, The Drover’s Wife, won overall Book of the Year in both the NSW and Victorian Premier’s Literary awards. Other Aboriginal authors are also winning major awards with Bruce Pascoe and Ellen Van Neerven recent stand-outs. The ten-year anniversary of Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin award win for Carpentaria was celebrated at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival this month.
The new sumptuous coffee table book art book, Our Mob, God’s Story also showcases Indigenous Australians through portrayal of their religious beliefs using their traditional form of story-telling through pictures. It is edited by award-winning Christobel Mattingley, known for championing and sharing Aboriginal stories in Maralinga, the Anangu Storyand Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story and other books and by Louise Sherman. It is endorsed by Noel Pearson and Boori Monty Pryor, who was the inaugural Children’s Laureate and winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary award (children’s fiction) for Shake a Leg.
The editors spent over four years collecting the artwork, striving to include works from as many language groups as possible. 115 paintings were eventually selected, including two by Yvonne Edwards whose story is told in Maralinga’s Long Shadow.
A glowing range of colours and styles create dynamism throughout the book. The genesis of each artwork is explained and often a brief description of the form and media is included. Some of the Biblical text is also written in language and there is a glossary of symbols.
Creation stories proliferate. They range from Glendora Naden’s earthy, symbolic Creation to Bronwyn Coleman-Sleep’s vibrant Sunflowers (Garden of Eden). Traditional stories from the Old Testament include Kristy Naden’s patterned Noah’s Flood, Rupert Jack’s stunning dot-painting, Abraham (featured image at top), and Gail Naden’s sand and ochre Weilwan Waters II.
Julie Dowling magnificently uses both Aboriginal iconography and European Renaissance-style portraiture in Born for You and Grace Kumbi employs flowing lines and dot work in Three Hunters.
The aerial perspective of Central Australian artwork is demonstrated in Imiyari Adamson’s Tjulpun Tjulpunpa (Desert Wildflowers)
and sinuous symbols show The Greatest Love of All (Bronwyn Coleman-Sleep).
A group of Amata women created the rich, well composed Tree of Life.
As the introduction to the book outlines: “Some narrow-minded missionaries did not seek to understand the culture… Others with a wider vision, sought to learn the heart languages of the people among whom they lived…In this book 66 artists from over 40 First Nations of Australia share their vision of Christ, human and divine.”
Our Mob, God’s Story is a beautiful and significant art book. It is an affirmation and celebration of Australia’s first peoples and those who hold Christian beliefs.
Hopefully it will also help to achieve its aim of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
In an illustrious and diverse career in children’s books Australian author Janeen Brian has written across genres and forms. Her books span novels, series, picture books and non-fiction.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Janeen.
Thank you very much for inviting me.
Where are you based, what is your background and how are you involved in Australia’s children’s literature community?
Home for me is in a seaside town called Glenelg in South Australia, about twenty minutes from Adelaide. Originally a primary and junior primary teacher, who worked for some years in a small school library, I began writing for pleasure some time in my thirties, having not ever considered writing before. My career, although I didn’t know it at the time, began when I was lucky enough to start writing for an educational publisher. Since then, I have written over a hundred books, which include educational titles.
Writing communities and Writers’ Centres were thin on the ground when I began, so when a group of children’s writers, calling themselves Ekidnas, and a Writers’ Centre was formed in Adelaide, I felt lucky to suddenly find myself among like-minded people. It was probably a turning point for me. I am still involved in Ekidnas, and am a member of SA Writers’ Centre, ASA, IBBY, SCWBI, SBCASA Branch and was, up until recently, on the selection panel for The May Gibbs’ Children’s Literature Trust Fellowships in South Australia. I’m also an Ambassador for the Little Big Book Club (Raising Literacy Australia) and the Premier’s Reading Challenge.
How have you been mentored by the Australian book industry? Are you able to mentor others in the industry?
There is no doubt in my mind that any workshop, festival, reading or other type of literature event I’ve ever attended has had an impact on me. And nourished me. So that would be my experience of industry mentoring. Plus I was fortunate to win a Carclew Fellowship (Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature) in 2012, which was a type of financial mentoring!
My own mentoring would be in the form of workshops and author visits to schools or libraries. However, I once mentored a lady who was interested in picture books, in a one-on-one situation.
Who publishes your books and which illustrators have you enjoyed collaborating with?
I am published with a wide variety of publishers, and one reason for that might be that I write across a broad range of genres. My publishers include Penguin Random House Australia, Allen & Unwin, Walker Books, Scholastic, Omnibus Books, National Library of Australia, Little Hare/Hardie Grant Publishing, Five Mile Press/Bonnier Publishing Australia and most recently, Little Book Press (Raising Literacy Australia).
Could you give us a retrospective of some of your most important or popular books? (please include novels, series, picture books and non-fiction)
I think Pilawuk–When I was Young (published by ERA Publications) is an enduring information books for teachers and in classrooms because at the time of writing it was one of the earliest titles about The Stolen Generation. It also was an Honour Award winner with CBCA.
Another Honour book, published in 2001, was the very popular picture book, Where does Thursday go? (illustrated by Stephen Michael King and published by Margaret Hamilton Books/Scholastic Australia). It’s since been published in UK, translated into 11 other countries and recently enjoyed yet another reprint.
Although now out of print (although I have since had it reprinted and handle distribution), the Honour award winning information book, Hoosh! Camels in Australia was an important book to research and was widely acclaimed. (Since translated into Arabian)
I’m also an award-winning poet. I also enjoy writing verse at times and Silly Galah! (illustrated by Cheryll Johns and published by Omnibus/Scholastic) is still a popular book, featuring humorous, informative verses about Australian animals and birds. Its recent follow-up is Silly Squid! by the same illustrator and publisher, which highlights Australia’s sea life.
My two dinosaur picture books, I’m a dirty dinosaur and I’m a hungry dinosaur (illustrated by Ann James and published by Penguin Random Australia) have been runaway successes. The former won an Honour Award, was Winner of 2014 Speech Pathology Awards of Australia and is the book selected for many Early Childhood Reading programs, targeting families, nationwide. (eg. First 5 Forever in Queensland) It’s also been published in China. The latter was a Notable Award.
What awards have they been shortlisted for or won?
I have been shortlisted or won Notable awards for other titles including, Eddie Pipper, Where’s Jessie? and Little Chicken, chickabee.
How do you keep your non-fiction so interesting?
Thank you for that kind comment.
Because I read less non-fiction than fiction, I’m aware that in order to interest certain readers, I first have to interest myself. Over the years I’ve come to believe, that factual information which is written in a more narrative or story-like style is more accessible and interesting for readers such as me. I also try to include fascinating details, using the child-in-me to help decide which to choose.
I know that good books often inexplicably go out of print. Which of your books have stayed in print for a long time? Which haven’t? How have you tried to keep any of your books in print? Is there anything we can do to keep good books in print (apart from buying them)?
That’s an interesting question and one which is out of the author’s control. A publisher determines the when and why a title will not be reprinted. The bottom line is usually sales figures. Many of my educational titles are out of print, but many also remain in print. Often educational and trade publishers change focus or decide to drop a series. Apart from Hoosh! Camels in Australia, which I now reprint and distribute, all other titles mentioned above are still in print. Constant promotion, seeking out niche markets, looking to digital printing and reprinting through Print on Demand are a few ways to potentially keep good books out in reader-land. The creator must work in collaboration with the publisher or look at alternative publishing ideas to keep their book afloat.
Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting? Have there been any particularly memorable responses?
Like many children’s writers who’ve been publishing over a number of years (for me, approximately thirty-five years) I’ve given thousands of presentations. I like to be super-prepared, have lots of artefacts, objects, interactive ideas to get the children involved, puppets, songs, creating rhymes, music or rhythm making, choral chanting, dress-ups, role-play, visual material, and nowadays, powerpoints. It all depends on the age-group of the children I’m presenting to. I ALWAYS read to the children. That is a given. And I include poetry reading too. Often we’ll act out one of my poems as I read it. I believe strongly that when an author reads their own work to an audience, a little bit of magic comes out in the words.
One memorable situation wasn’t a presentation as such, but it has always stayed with me. A Year 7 boy in a co-ed college in Adelaide won a competition for a piece of his writing.
He decided to spend part of his prize-winnings purchasing an extra copy of my book, Where does Thursday go? for the school library, because it had been his favourite book when he was young.
If that was not enough, the teacher-librarian invited the boy, his family, all the library monitors and me to a beautiful morning tea. And I read the book aloud to the boy, and all who were seated at the table. How I got through the reading without crying, I’ll never know. But there were tears in the librarian’s eyes.
Are you aware of any progression in your books – writing style, intended reader, subjects addressed …
I think the one of the biggest lessons I learned was that if you have the desire, the passion and the tough skin to write, that it is a craft – and therefore can be improved.
The strange thing was that I had never in my wildest dreams set out to be a writer. I loved reading. And I loved reading other people’s books. I enjoyed English at school, but there was never any huge encouragement or spark in me that urged me to become an author. So learning was and still is, a big factor in my writing life.
At first I enjoyed writing picture books, poetry and short fiction. And I’ve written over 200 poems, stories, plays and articles for The School Magazine, but of late, I’ve extended my writing loves to include novels. I have also written several teenage short stories for specific anthologies, and although I enjoy writing short stories, my preferred age group is younger, babies to upper primary.
What are you writing about now or next?
I was overseas for four months of this year, returning in July, and while I was away I wrote several poems. The School Magazine has already accepted one. I have also finished a picture book and the first draft of a children’s novel. I’ve sent the picture book to my agent but the novel is safely under lock and key so I don’t look at it for a month. I have a tendency, or bad habit, to send out texts too early!
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
Lots of lovely books including:
A re-reading of Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate diCamillo)
A Cardboard Palace ( Allayne Webster)
Fabish: The Horse that Braved a Bushfire (Neridah McMullin)
Running Wild (Michael Morpurgo)
Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)
The War that Saved my Life ( Kimberly Brubaker Bradley)
Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
Anything else you’d like to add?
Two things I’ve learned along the way:
Finding your own voice and style takes time, a lot of writing and a lot of rejections.
Everybody has different writing interests.
Everybody writes differently.
Everybody chooses whether to plot OR to free-wheel-write as a ‘pantser’ OR use a combination of both.
Writers often go about writing each book differently.
Thanks Janeen, and all the best with your wonderful books.
The 2017 Queensland Literary awards shortlists have recently been announced. They are a good reflection of the quality of current Australian writing.
The Qld Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance and The Courier-Mail 2017 People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year show an exciting cross-section of Qld authors. The University of Queensland Fiction Book award category is also notable this year for its Qld authors such as Nick Earls with Vancouver, Ashley Hay with A Hundred Small Lessons and Melissa Ashley with The Birdman’s Wife.
My particular interests are literary fiction, children’s and YA so I’ve read all but 1 of the 15 books in these 3 categories. In the Fiction category, authors Heather Rose and Nick Earls have already been scooping awards in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary awards. I’ve previously reviewed Hannah Kent’s The Good People for the blog.
Wendy Orr is shortlisted for the Griffith University Children’s Book Award and I learned at the Brisbane Writers Festival this weekend that she also lives in Qld. Dragonfly Song has already been awarded a CBCA Honour prize this year. And I believe that Richard Yaxley, whose YA novel This is My Songis shortlisted, is based in Qld.
In the Griffith University Young Adult Book category, two books in particular have been generating attention in other awards. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon was shortlisted for two international awards: the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize; and then it went even higher to win an Honour Book award in the CILIP Carnegie Medal. It has received Australian commendations as well, including an Honour prize in the CBCA awards. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian. Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley won the Indies award and was also an Honour book for the CBCA. I also reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.
Australian literature for young readers in the past few years has been particularly strong in the YA novel and children’s picture book categories. The QLA Children’s shortlist shows a turnaround towards novels for younger readers. Hopefully this is the beginning of a renaissance in Australian children’s novels.
Brisbane Writers Festivalhas had a new lease of life with the appointment of CEO and Artistic Director, Zoe Pollock for the festival’s 55th anniversary. The festival was about “The big stories – and the little ones in between” and the biggest story of them all was probably the recognition of Indigenous literature and creators, particularly the tenth anniversary of Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin award. This was uniquely celebrated as an immersive dramatic and visual performance inside “Angel’s Palace”, a specially constructed “art-tent”, designed by Gordon Hookey.
The opening address was given by Alec Doomadgee, who spoke about “Indigenous knowledge creation”. He showed excerpts from his seminal film Zach’s Ceremony. Alec said that “reading books gives you a real history of the country you’re in”. He uses the arts and culture to tell stories and create change and urged us all to go away and do something for change. My family has something planned …
I was fortunate to moderate a panel session about “Connecting to Place” which explored how three authors create place as a character (or not – as we discovered) in their stories.
Melissa Lukashenko spoke about the significance of land in her beautifully written, award-winning novel Mullumbimby. Ashley Hay let us look inside a special Brisbane house, peopled over time by two vulnerable women whose lives interconnect. Her novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, has just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards. Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel, Skylarking, was one of my best books of 2016 for the Weekend Australian. It is set on a windswept, isolated cape and is a fine piece of writing about friendship between two young women. Kate is destined for big things in the literary world if she continues to write at such a high level.
I also attended a session about the Australian book industry, “Published in Oz”. It was exciting to hear how writing and reading is the biggest art form that people engage with in Australia. 20% of Australians attend a book event annually and Australia has the highest per capita attendance at writers’ festivals in the world. Reading books is the number 1 favourite leisure activity of Australians. Double the number of Australians enjoy reading books to attending sporting events, playing video games or other pursuits. Australia also has the world’s top independent bookseller market.
Another enlightening session was a workshop for adults on visual literacy by James Foley. He has illustrated Sigi Cohen’s, My Dead Bunny, The Last Vikingby Norman Jorgensen and other books.
The BWF also hosted “Word Play” an outstanding program for young people. My highlight was hearing Wendy Orr, author of the Nim’s Island series (the genesis of the movies), Peeling the Onion and the masterful historical fantasy based on the Minoan myths of bull-dancing, Dragonfly Song. This novel has also just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards.
Thanks to the organisers of the 2017 BWF and to those involved. There was a very special buzz in Brisbane.
Take Three Girls (Pan Macmillan Australia)is a brilliant new novel written by three prominent Australian YA authors, Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood, each the creator of their own notable, highly acclaimed novels.
I’m thrilled that all three authors join us on the blog.
How did you meet and could you tell us something that surprises you about your co-authors?
CATH: I met Simmone on a road trip to a Lowther Hall writing camp. I didn’t have a car, and she gave me a lift. We talked all the way. I met Fiona when Pan Macmillan published the brilliant Six Impossible Things.
I am not surprised by their talent, but I’m in awe of it. I’m always surprised by their descriptions in writing. I read them and wonder how they came up with such beautiful sentences.
SIMMONE: Fiona and I met when we were both working on TV show The Secret Life of Us. I was Script Coordinator, she was writing an episode. I really liked her episode. Also, she shared her sandwich with me!
FIONA: Simmone introduced me to Cath, and she also suggested I show my manuscript for Six Impossible Things to her publisher, Pan Macmillan. I’m not exactly surprised any more but still impressed that both Cath and Simmone are such lateral creative thinkers. I’m much more inclined to choose a path and stay on it, while Cath and Simmone will more readily take a detour or write a new section of the map – so I love that; I need more of that in my writing practice.
Whose idea was the book and how could you consider putting aside writing time that could have been used for your own books to write Take Three Girls together?
CATH: We all wanted to write together. (At least, that’s how I remember it.) I was thrilled to be writing with two of my favourite authors. Take Three Girls took a long time because we were always able to put aside the joint book to work on our own projects.
SIMMONE: I can’t even remember which of us said we should write the book. I think we all laughed and then had a moment of, wait, YES! It was good to work on the book because it was contracted, and because it was fun. When I’m mid-way through writing a novel (as I always seem to be) any distraction will do. The writing of Take Three Girls was much easier than my current WIP maybe because the investment was split three ways.
FIONA: It was lovely to break from the usual solitude of writing. We agreed that we’d never put pressure on each other to put this project first – it had to fit around our other writing deadlines. If you build that in as a condition of the collaboration, then delays are not a problem. And we also said that our friendship comes first: if it stops being enjoyable, or it causes any friction, then we drop it. You do hear the occasional horror story of collaborations going wrong, but we weren’t going to let that happen.
It seems that this novel has been a long time coming. I first heard of its existence through the Leading Edge Books conference several years ago and have been waiting with great (and completely fulfilled) expectation. Why has it taken until now to reach us?
CATH: It has taken a long time! We agreed to let each other work on individual projects. (So Words in Deep Blue slowed us down!) But also, it takes time to write in collaboration. There’s a lot more talk, planning, juggling, rewriting.
SIMMONE: None of us stopped writing on other projects. It wasn’t like we could rip six months out of the calendar and work exclusively on the book. We refused to let it be a stressful exercise because that would have defeated the purpose, which was in some to give us each some relief from our own personal book hells.
FIONA: It definitely took longer than we had originally anticipated, but that has ended up being a strength. We had longer to develop and live with and get to know our characters, and the story itself evolved in ways it probably wouldn’t have if we’d had a clear run at writing it and finishing it more quickly. It took just as long to write as an individual novel because it’s not just a matter of dividing the work three ways, rather, you are engaging in an extended creative process of listening and responding to two other writers as you shape a world and story and themes together.
Where does the title come from?
SIMMONE: Just a little bit inspired by the 1960s UK TV show. The book was originally called Friends Anonymous, but then we found a dating website with the same name so had a rethink and did a bit of a poll.
Probably like all your readers, I was trying to guess who wrote which character – Clem, Kate and Ady – while I was reading (and I occasionally wondered if you were trying to put us off track by using some of each other’s signature traits). And the warmth and understanding makes me think you also have fallen in love with each other’s characters. Maybe you each wrote one character and then added to the other characters…
How did you collaborate on the writing process? Are you going to reveal who wrote what?
SIMMONE: Ha! I don’t know about Cath and Fiona but I can’t really write like anyone but myself. I think we are pretty simpatico writers though … I wrote Clem, Cath wrote Kate, Fiona wrote Ady.
FIONA: One of the things that made our process very writer-friendly was that we each created a character – and wrote that character, and did all the plotting together. And we divided up the Wellness work sheets and PSST posts. So we developed an initial overall narrative outline and talked through our character arcs at a weekend away, then we would do further plotting and planning, chapter by chapter, go away and write our own characters, come together and read, talk, rethink, refine, replot. I think our writing styles do sit comfortably together, and we loved spending time with these three characters. And yes, I absolutely fell in love with Clem and Kate.
One of the characters, Kate, plays cello. How do you know so much about cello and loop-based performance?
CATH: I had some help! My niece, Esther, plays the cello. She told me about the double stops. ☺ But I adore Zoe Keating. If I could have any talent, I would be able to play like her. She stops my heart.
Ady is regarded as ‘Queen Bitch, according to school folklore’. She is much more than she seems (like the other girls) and is surprisingly perceptive about others. How do you show this?
FIONA: Because Ady is an artist, it felt natural to give her that perceptive quality: she really looks, really notices. I show that in her thoughts, and we offer the reader a dislocation between what Ady is thinking, and how others perceive her. Because our structure includes Wellness journal entries for each character this allowed me to give readers extra glimpses of how Ady’s understanding of Kate and Clem changes over the course of the narrative, for example.
Clem recognises that most girls are trying to be perfect. Why is she able to step away from looking svelte from swimming?
SIMMONE: I think she has a moment where she realises that she will never look how she wants to look, or how she thinks she’s supposed to look, and that there has to be more to her, and that there is more to her.
I love when the girls talk about their perfect days late in the novel. Kate’s is ‘writing music and playing music’, Ady’s is ‘playing with fabrics, dreaming up clothes that don’t look like other stuff’ and then Max cuts in to say her thousand perfect days ‘all involve books and movies and music’.
What are your perfect days?
CATH: My perfect day is filled with nothing – so there’s space to dream and write.
SIMMONE: My perfect days sees me far away, maybe seeing in real life something I’ve only read about.
FIONA: Mine would include a long sleep-in, a walk, some writing, some reading, some food, some solitude, and some family and friends time.
Thank you all for this wondrous YA novel about surprising friendship.
Pip Harry is the author of three Australian YA novels, I’ll Tell You Mine; Head of theRiver, an unflinching look at elite school rowing,and now, Because of You which gives insight into people living on the streets.
Where are you based and what is your current role, Pip?
Currently I am based in steamy Singapore, where my family has been living for the past 18 months on an expat adventure. I had an earlier stint here when I was six years old … it’s changed a bit since then! I love the warm weather, the proximity to Asia for quick trips to exotic destinations and the food is so good. Satay, noodles, chilli crab, dumplings, I could go on!
How involved are you in Australia’s YA community?
I’m actively and passionately involved in Australia’s YA community, even from my Singapore outpost! Through the #LoveOzYA movement – which aims to promote local content to local readers – I’ve been swept up in support and love for Aussie YA. Wherever possible I review or promote other #LoveOzYA releases. We are one big YA family.
Could you tell us about your earlier books?
In 2012, I released my debut novel, I’ll Tell You Mine, about a goth teenager sent to a strict girl’s boarding school. In 2014, I followed up with Head of the River, about siblings competing in the high stakes annual school rowing race and putting it all on the line to win.
Why is your new novel Because of You (UQP) important?
It’s important because it offers younger readers the opportunity to understand and emphasise with the daily struggles of street people. Many teenagers have little or no contact with the homeless community, except perhaps walking past them on the street, but this book tells their stories, reminds readers that it could happen to any one of us, and offers hope for change.
Could you tell us about your major characters, Tiny and Nola?
Tiny, 18, is sleeping rough and has fled her rural town for the city. Nola, 17, is drifting through her final year at school, unsure of her path in life or her friendships. When Nola is assigned to do 20 days of mandatory community service at a homeless shelter’s creative writing program, the girls meet and form a friendship that will change both their lives.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
One of the things I loved most about writing Because of You was the supporting cast of characters. The one who captured my heart was Meredith, who runs the Street Library. I love her belief that “books can save anyone, if they’re the right ones,” and her passion to bring stories to the streets.
My son cooks burgers for the homeless in Sydney. What would you suggest ordinary Australians do for the homeless?
Does he? That’s so fantastic! There is so much ordinary Australian’s can do to lend a hand in the homeless community, from serving food in soup kitchens to supporting creative workshops or offering your time and skills in other ways. Check out govolunteer.com.au for opportunities in your area.
What hope do you see for Australia’s homeless in the near future?
It’s easy to get discouraged about the homeless crisis when tent cities are being dismantled and figures for homelessness are rising. But my hope is that we can take national action to end homelessness in this country through supporting our homeless organisations and investing in affordable, stable and permanent public housing.
Why have you incorporated Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon into Because of You?
Those books are incredible and they’re written by Australian authors I admire, so I wanted my characters to read and adore them too!
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading the chilling, ghostly Ballad for a Mad Girl by the brilliant Vikki Wakefield and I’m in awe of the backwards narrative in Everything is Changed by Nova Weetman. I really liked the passion and rawness of Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur.
Thanks very much, Pip, and all the best with Because of You.
Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Jules and especially for your amazing bespoke Boomerang blog cartoon featured at the top of this interview.
Have you met Alex Ratt, the author of The Stinky Street Stories (PanMacmillan)? If so, what did Alex smell like?
I have met Alex Ratt and she smelled of success and lollipops.
Your illustrations for The Stinky Street Stories 1 & 2 add lots of wicked fun to Alex Ratt’s (aka Frances Watts) words. Which story did you particularly enjoy illustrating and why?
I think I had the most fun drawing Smelly Birthday To Me because I could draw a lot of animals, which I really like to draw.
How do you describe your style of illustration in these books?
Simplistic cartoons designed to highlight the funniest parts of the text (and there are lots of funniest parts!)
What else have you illustrated? How was your style different in these?
I’ve illustrated David Warner’s Kaboom Kid series, Michael Pryor’s Leo Da Vinci series, Damean Posner’s Helix and the Arrival, Andy Jones’s Awesome Book of Rap, Rhyme and Poetry and the Cat and Dog Stories series of short stories. Sometimes I just draw in my usual style but sometimes, as in the Kaboom Kid series, I re-imagine my style to better suit the story. It’s always important to make lead characters look very different from characters in my other books.
Have you met Anh Do, author of WeirDo, another series you’re illustrating? If so, what was your impression of him?
I’ve met Anh, yeah. He’s great fun and just as funny as he is on TV.
What work did you do for Disney?
I worked on a show called The Proud Family in the Background and Layout Department.
What awards have you won?
We won Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards for the first Weirdo and we’ve won three Honours Awards for Weirdo, Weirdo 3 and Weirdo 5 at the KOALAs.
I’ve also won three Rotary Cartoon Awards for my comic strip MiBraine.
What books have you enjoyed reading recently?
I just re-read a fantastic book called Ready Player One about future life inside a 3D videogame. The movie comes out next year and I’m really looking forward to it.
Could you do a quick drawing for us at Boomerang Books Blog? It could be a sketch of Brian from the Stinky Street Stories encountering Boomerang Books Blog or whatever you wish.
And here it is!
Thank you so much for your answers and cartoon, Jules, and we look forward to seeing more of your inimitable work.
Stinky Street Stories 2 available 12th September 2017.
Claire Zorn stands out again with her extraordinary One Would Think the Deep (University of Queensland Press). She won both CBCA Older Readers’ category and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award with her previous novel, The Protected. One Would Think the Deep is set in the 1990s and submerges the music of this era into the struggles of Sam who is suffering from grief and rage after the death of his mother. The authoritative evocations of the ocean and surfing reflect his passion.
Congratulations also to the highly accomplished honour books in this category. They are both also remarkable and world class: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan Australia) and The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Hachette Australia). I’ve written more about this impeccable trio of novels previously, as well as about the shortlisted books in this category.
I am also very excited by the Book of the Year: Early Childhood winner, Go Home, Cheeky Animals! (Allen & Unwin) written by Johanna Bell and illustrated by Indigenous man, Dion Beasley. It is such a cheeky, joy-filled story; perfectly structured. The illustrator also sells his work in the form of t-shirts and other merchandise on his website.
The honour books in this category are also excellent examples of texts for young children. Nannie Loves by Kylie Dunstan (Working Title Press) has nostalgic-looking but bright tissue-paper collages and Gary by Leila Rudge (Walker Books) is an ingeniously structured tale about a homing pigeon who can’t fly. I’ve written more about the Early Childhood books for the blog here.
Another picture book with appeal to young readers won Picture Book of the Year. Home in the Rain (Walker Books) is Bob Graham’s seventh CBCA win. He is a maestro and this book equals his magnificent best even though it takes place in the unlikely setting of a car in the rain.
The Picture Book honour books are written by the affable and inventive Lance Balchin with Mechanica (The Five Mile Press) and talented writer for a range of ages and genres, Maxine Beneba Clarke with The Patchwork Bike (Hachette Australia). Van T Rudd has expressed movement and community in his street art inspired illustrations of the bike and its creators. I’ve written more about these books here and elsewhere in the blog, including how to share the books with children.
Book of the Year: Younger Readers has been won by Trace Balla’s entertaining and comprehensive depiction of a trip through the Grampians in Rockhopping (Allen & Unwin). Honour books are Wendy Orr’s masterful, myth-inspired novel Dragonfly Song (Allen & Unwin) and the comical Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade written by Kate & Jol Temple and illustrated by John Foye (which completes the A&U triumvirate of winners in this category). I’ve written previously about the books for younger readers here and elsewhere in the blog.
Emily Rodda is indisputably one of Australia’s best writers and she is also acclaimed around the globe. Many of her works, of which I have a large collection in my bookshelf, are contemporary classics where she conjures magical worlds based in both reality and fantasy that resonate with all young people and kindle their imaginations.
I can’t overstate her gifts and importance to countless children’s (and adults’) lives and am unbelievably excited that she has agreed to speak to Boomerang Books Blog.
Emily, I have heard you say that some of your characters have been based on your own children. Have you written a character based on yourself? If so, who?
A: It’s fairly common for writers to draw on autobiographical material in their early books, and I was no exception. Lizzie, the mother of the main character in my first book, Something Special, is a light but quite faithful sketch of me—as I was at that time, anyway. Normally I don’t base characters on real people, though. It’s more interesting to let characters grow into themselves as the book develops.
How do you create a magical element in a realist setting? How do you know how much magic to include?
A: I’ve always seen the potential for magic in ordinary things, people and places. Most people have experienced odd things at one time or another—a weird string of coincidences, maybe, or time apparently going faster or slower than usual, or a strange feeling in an old house, or a flicker of shadow seen out of the corner of an eye … I’ve written stories based on all these things. Writing magical reality is just a matter of giving your imagination full play, letting it lead you, allowing yourself to believe, and then writing the story accordingly.
Which of your settings would you like to visit or live in?
But in fact I actually feel as if I have lived in all my other worlds as well. While I was writing Deltora Quest, part of my mind was living in Deltora all the time. It was the same with Rondo, with the world of the Three Doors, and of course with Rowan of Rin. I know them all as well as I know my home place, and I can revisit them any time I like. Rowan’s world is the one I find the most appealing, I think, but this could be because it was the one I wrote about first.
What is your favourite nursery rhyme or fairy tale and have you included it in your work in any way?
A: I can’t say I have an absolute favourite, really, though Little Red Riding Hood has always appealed to me because I like the idea of the big bad wolf impersonating the Granny. I put legendary, fairytale and nursery rhyme characters into the world of Rondo because I see Rondo is a sort of metaphor for the imagination, and of course the tales we’ve heard and read are part of that, all jumbled up in our minds with the things we’ve thought up for ourselves.
The Shop at Hoopers Bend (Angus&Robertson, HarperCollins) is a transcendent tale that made me cry both times I’ve read it but also lifted my heart.
A: Thank you! That’s a wonderful compliment.
You’ve named your main character, Quil (from Jonquil). Why have you chosen this name rather than another winter bulb or flower?
A: I always try to give my characters names that somehow suit their personalities. We have a lot of jonquils in our garden. They aren’t flamboyant and bright. They don’t make big, happy, dancing statements, like daffodils. They’re unobtrusive, but when you get close to them you can see their delicate beauty, and you realise that they have the most beautiful scent. So to me the jonquil was a good symbol for a reserved and sensitive person like Quil.
Could you tell us a little about Quil’s game, ‘Stardust’? What type of person are you from this game?
A: Having learned that everything on earth contains the dust of long-dead stars, Quil decides that this is the answer to the vexed question of why we are instantly attracted to some people—even feeling as if we have met them before—but are left unsure or even wary about others, however nice they are, till we know them much better. Quil believes we recognise and feel we ‘know’ people whose stardust most exactly matches our own.
This has been an idea of mine for a long time. It applies to places as well as people. Quil takes the theory further by dividing people she meets into types and giving those types star names of her own invention. This helps her to feel in control of her world, to some extent. Her stardust types are very personal to her. I wouldn’t dare say which type she might decide I am. A bit of a mixture, I suspect.
The setting around the character-filled shop at Hoopers Bend is distinctly Australian. How do you create this or other scenes with a minimum of description?
A: That’s quite a hard question to answer, because when I’m writing I don’t think specifically about which words to use. I just put myself into the scene and say what I’m seeing, hearing and smelling. I don’t like to stop the story dead with great slabs of description, preferring to give the atmosphere and appearance of any setting come out through the eyes of the characters as the story moves on.
What did you enjoy reading as a girl?
A: In early primary school I read all the usual Australian children’s classics, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and lots of Enid Blyton and LM Montgomery books among many others. By the end of primary school I had discovered the Brontes, and after that I read books for adults almost exclusively.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
A: I’m just reading Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on TheTempest, and am enjoying it immensely. Margaret Atwood never fails to amaze me.
Thank you, Emily, and all the best with your wonderful books and their important legacy.
Samantha Wheeler writes informative tales about environmental and conservation issues. She frames these inside warm, child-friendly stories. They are also exciting.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Samantha.
My pleasure, thanks for asking
Where are you based, what is your background and how are you involved in Australia’s children’s literature community?
I split my time between our inner city home near the Brisbane CBD, and a small property we have near the Sunshine Coast. I came to writing quite a late, only writing my first story after completing the Year of The Novel course at the Qld Writers Centre in 2009. Prior to that I worked with farmers and taught agriculture and science in high schools. My first published story, Smooch & Rose, about koalas in Redland Bay, was accepted by UQP after I pitched to Kristina Schulz at the CYA conference in 2012, and was published in 2013. Being fairly new to writing, I’ve found the children’s literature community in Brisbane, and Australia wide to be incredibly welcoming and encouraging. I feel very lucky to have chosen this genre for my books.
Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting? Have there been any particularly memorable responses?
Yes, I do, and with my background in teaching, I love this part of being an author. I hope I make them interesting by having fun with the animals and characters I’ve written about. Encouraging children to explore their curiosity is a wonderful thing. For example, who knew cassowaries had no tongue? Or that wombats had square poo? Nature is full of delightful surprises. One of the most memorable responses happened just recently at a local school. After I spoke about my latest book, Wombat Warriors, the whole school (including the principal) sang ‘Dig Like a Wombat’ – with actions!! It was fantastic!
I can imagine children collecting and keeping your books. Could you tell us about your books?
Aww! That’s a nice thing to say! Thank you. To be honest, I would collect my books (he he). I write exactly the type of book I would have loved as a child. I was really into books with an element of truth, so books like Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals fit that description. So when I write now, I try and satisfy that burning urge to find out more about nature while creating an adventurous ride for the reader. I usually choose stories after seeing things myself (e.g: when developers cut down all the trees where a koala lived: Smooch & Rose, or when I saw a newspaper article about wombats being buried alive: Wombat Warriors) or after talking to children about the problems facing our wildlife. (e.g: the cassowaries up in Mission Beach: Mister Cassowary, or the problem of plastic in our ocean: Turtle Trackers (coming 2018)). So if you’ve seen anything that worries you … let me know!
What awards have they been shortlisted for or won?
My first children’s book, Smooch & Rose, was shortlisted for the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards and the Readings Children’s Book Prize, and my third, Mister Cassowary, was shortlisted for the 2016 Wilderness Society Environment Award for Children’s Literature, the Readings Children’s Book Prize, Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Award and was commended in the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales Whitley Award. It’s too early to say for Wombat Warriors, but fingers crossed!
How do you combine information about Australian animals and environmental issues with a satisfying storyline?
It’s a bit tricky! I usually do a lot of research before writing, and my early drafts can be a bit didactic. I sprout facts worse than an encyclopedia. Luckily I have very patient editors at UQP, who kindly point this out, and I have to switch things around to weave the facts more carefully into the story. It’s not always easy though. Endings are especially hard as, like my characters, I want to save all the cassowaries or all the wombats, which can be a bit unrealistic. I have to keep focussed on the ones in the story and think about how they might be saved in a practical and realistic way.
What’s your favourite Australian animal?
I think I’d have to say the southern hairy nosed wombat. So adorable! I loved researching them, and think a sequel to Wombat Warriors might be in order, just so I can research them again! I do have a soft spot for sugar gliders and willy wagtails though.
What were you like as a girl?
I lived in Africa as a little girl, and although I loved school and reading, I think I was quite shy in class. Collecting interesting animals (like chameleons, tortoises and giant stick insects) and having adventures outdoors were by far my favourite things to do.
Who do you model your characters on?
Most of my characters are a mix of people I know. So Aunt Evie in Wombat Warriors was based on a colourful aunt of mine in England who didn’t have her own children and seemed to forget I was only a child. Staying with her was both scary and exciting, as she’d let me do things Mum would never approve.The shy Mouse in the same book is based on a young girl I know who always looks to her mum when I ask her a question, despite having very firm views on wildlife herself. Spud in Spud & Charli was a huge thoroughbred I used to own, who smelt terrible, and loved eating more than anything else in the world. And nasty Uncle Malcolm in Smooch & Rose, well … some things are best left a secret.
Are you aware of any progression in your books – writing style, intended reader, issues addressed …
My books have become a little longer since Smooch & Rose, mainly because there’s so much to say! But the overall style and intended audience has remained the same. I’ve tried to spread the protagonists out across the books so that I’m not always writing about girls or about boys, just trying to mix it up. The issues have no real pattern, just the ones that press most to be written. I’m always on the lookout for possible ideas, and most of our family holidays revolve around some sort of animal adventure, so all suggestions welcome!
What are you writing about now or next?
I’m editing my next book called Turtle Trackers, which is set up near Mon Repos in Bundaberg. Approximately 300-400 turtles come to the beaches in this area to nest every year. While I had the pleasure of watching baby turtles hatch last January, I was saddened to hear of all the problems they face. Many students I’ve spoken to have said that the turtle is their favourite animal, so I’m really looking forward to sharing this book with them early next year.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve just finished the most magnificent children’s book by my wonderful friend and colleague, Peter Carnavas. The Elephant. It’s also published by UQP and is beautiful, funny, and sad. It’s Peter’s first novel and boy, its good!
Thanks Samantha, and all the best with your wonderful books.
Thank you Joy, it was my pleasure. All the best with your wonderful blog.
Thanks for being interviewed by Boomerang Books Blog, Steph. Where are you based and what is your current role?
I’m based on the Gold Coast, but I was born and raised in Melbourne. I write Young Adult novels and visit schools to give talks and run writing workshops.
How involved are you in Australia’s YA community?
I read more Australian YA that probably any other category! And I recommend it heartily to everyone, every chance I get. Australian YA is wonderful both to read and as a community to be part of – I have always found YA writers and readers incredibly supportive and welcoming.
Could you tell us about your earlier books?
My debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, is about a girl saving a boy from drowning, the secrets they both keep and all of the events that ensue, including garden gnome theft and lobster emancipation.
My second novel, All This Could End, is about Nina, a girl who robs banks with her psychopathic parents and younger brother – and accidentally takes hostage a boy she knows in a bank robbery that goes horribly awry.
It’s the first time I’ve really felt comfortable writing about a lot of things that are very close to my heart – I drew on my own life a lot writing this novel, and wrote about things that I think are important to represent in fiction for young people.
I was inspired to write Kirby dealing with her grandfather’s dementia after someone in my own life was diagnosed with dementia, which is something that so many people deal with. And even though the novel covers a lot of heavier things – including mental illness and being estranged from a parent – there’s still a lot of humour and lightness. It’s a novel that’s hopeful.
Kirby is gay but the focus of the novel is not on her coming out; that’s just one aspect of her life and who she is, and is normal and accepted, as it should be. The country town where she lives is not a homogenous place, because Australia is diverse, and I wanted to represent that – so characters some from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I aspired to write individuals; no real person is defined by one aspect of themselves, and people rarely fit clichés, so I wanted my characters to reflect that.
I wrote Night Swimming as the novel that would have been a comfort to me as a young person, who often felt anxious and out of place and awkward, and who struggled with my sexuality and my race and so many other things. And I hope that other young people will find the novel uplifting. I hope that it resonates.
Who are the major human (and animal) characters?
Kirby, our awkward/adorable protagonist, who has a pet goat, is a carpentry apprentice and loves her family and her town more than anything. She wants nothing to change in her life, and – unfortunately for her – suddenly everything does.
Clancy, her best friend, who is obsessed with musical theatre and longs to leave town, move to Sydney, and become a star. Instead he’s stuck working in his parents’ restaurant. He continually comes up with ridiculous money-making schemes and insists on Kirby being his partner-in-crime.
Iris, new girl in town and the love interest of both Kirby and Clancy. Her parents open a restaurant across the road from the restaurant belonging to Clancy’s parents, sparking a bit of a rivalry. She plays the mandolin, is the most brightly dressed person Kirby has ever met, and makes a lot of puns.
Stanley, Kirby’s pet goat, son of her first pet goat, Gary. Likeable, charming, sophisticated. Not a regular goat, a cool goat. Best character in the book.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the community setting. Who is your favourite and why?
Kirby’s cousin Nathan is my favourite of the secondary characters – he’s a bogan and a bit of a dag, but he’s a very affable, endearing character. (And he, and Kirby’s friend/Nathan’s girlfriend Claire, were the same age as me when I wrote this – about 21. So if I lived in the town, I would be friends with them – that’s probably why I wrote them to be so likeable.)
I really enjoyed the humour in the story. Could you share a little?
Thank you! Clancy is the biggest source of humour in the story – probably because he is so unapologetically and ridiculously himself, and Kirby is willing to be a sidekick and go along with his absurd plans. His Cane Toad Removal Specialists scheme is one of my favourites.
Why crop circles?
I love The X-Files. I love conspiracy theories around aliens, though I don’t believe them – they’re entertaining. And I love the idea of bored teenage kids in country towns making crop circles.
I also wanted to explore the way that things that are pretty uneventful (i.e. some crops getting flattened) can explode into a huge source of gossip and intrigue when there’s not much else going on (i.e. in a small town).
I really enjoyed 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager, and so many young people study George Orwell books at school. And because they’re classics, older people have read them, too. So a love of George Orwell books is something that Kirby has in common with her mum – who she’s very different from, in a lot of ways.
Were you talking to Gabrielle Tozer while you both were writing your new books? You’ve both mentioned The Very Hungry Caterpillar! What were some of your favourite books as a child?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is such a timeless classic – I adored it as a kid, and I think anyone who read it as a child loved it. I remember wanting to create stories way back when I was reading picture books – probably before I actually understood the words. I loved Where The Wild Things Are, and the Charlie and Lola series, and The Lighthouse Keepers’ Lunch.
As a slightly older kid, I loved massive series – The Saddle Club, Babysitter’s Club, Enid Blyton’s books, just anything with a whole lot of books I could collect and obsess over. My favourite Australian books as a kid was Deborah Abela’s Max Remy Superspy series. I always wanted to be a spy.
I started reading YA when I was about eleven – my first favourite YA novel was On The Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, and it’s still one of my favourites now (I could not possibly name a single favourite novel these days – I would have to give you a top ten).
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading lots of Australian YA, including:
Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad For A Mad Girl which is an incredibly creepy novel about a girl being haunted by a ghost – that’s still very authentic and magnificently written (like everything by Wakefield).
Paula Weston’s The Undercurrent which combines sci-fi and action in a future, dystopian Australia and manages to be both enjoyable escapism and politically relevant and thought-provoking, which is quite a feat.
Mark Smith’s The Road To Winter which is a really haunting dystopian novel that’s ultimately hopeful. It’s reminiscent of Claire Zorn’s The Sky So Heavy but with a deadly virus as the apocalyptic event rather than nuclear winter. I’m excited for the sequel.
And I just finished Begin, End, Begin, the #LoveOzYA anthology, which was all kinds of wonderful. My favourite story is the one by Jaclyn Moriarty, because it features a time travel agency and a hilarious protagonist.
Thanks very much, Steph, and all the best with Night Swimming.
Thank you for interviewing me! Always a pleasure to ramble about books!
Where are you based and what is your current role, Danielle?
I live in Melbourne, and currently I wear many hats … I’m a young adult and middle grade literary agent with Jacinta di Mase Management. I’m a writer, editor and book blogger – and most recently I edited and contributed to the HarperCollins book Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology.
How did something you’ve done in the past help you get this position?
From about the ages of 14–21 I wrote a lot of FanFiction. “FanFic”, if you don’t know, is fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator.
I wrote a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and Twilight fanfic – just because I loved it, and imagining worlds beyond the end of a television season or the last page in a book got my creative synapses firing.
And actually, when I applied for the university course that set me on this path of books – RMIT’s Creative Writing and Editing program – I didn’t have any of my own creative writing to submit for consideration, so I sent through one of my Buffy fanfic pieces. And I got in.
I honestly don’t know that I’d be here today if I hadn’t found a sustaining creative-outlet in FanFiction.
How involved are you in Australia’s enthusiastic YA community?
Very. I’ve had my own personal book review blog – Alpha Reader – since 2009 that I still contribute to today. When I started my book blog, I called it “my solo book club” and I just read the books that I wanted to – which just so happened to be a lot of what I’ve always read and gravitated towards – romance and YA. I’d always write these long, rambling and impassioned reviews of YA books, and eventually that led to me being invited to write about youth literature for the Kill Your Darlings online journal, for about 2 years. I always tried to give YA, and Aussie YA especially, the respect and consideration I didn’t think it was getting from mainstream arts media.
Then in 2015 the #LoveOzYA grassroots movement kicked of and I became a proud supporter of that conversation – until I was eventually elected to help form the inaugural and official #LoveOzYA committee, championing Australian YA.
It’s fantastic that females are writing brilliant Oz YA. Even in the recent past there were outcries about lack of female writers being shortlisted for the Older Reader (YA) category in the CBCA, for example, but this year all 6 shortlisted books are by women. I know there are a few around, and you’ve included two in your book, but where have the males gone?
I think it’s all pretty subjective, really – and balances out in the end.
If you look at younger children’s books in Australia (junior fiction and the 8-12 middle grade readership), that category has mostly been male-dominated, and for a long time. The likes of Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Shaun Tan, Jack Heath, Tristan Bancks, John Flanagan, Andy Griffiths, Oliver Phommavanh…
Australia and international YA also has no problem spotlighting fine male authors – Markus Zusak, Jay Kristoff, John Marsden, Patrick Ness, John Green, James Dashner, Rick Riordan, David Levithan, Ransom Riggs, Jay Asher … I think the guys are doing okay.
The fact that the #LoveOzYA Anthology doesn’t have more male writers came down to availability – we did query others, but timelines and deadlines didn’t match up, in the end … but we got two of the finest writers – period! – in Will Kostakis and Michael Pryor.
And what we prioritised more was a diversification of story and genres, as opposed to genders.
Could you tell us about Begin, End, Begin, the anthology of Australian YA short stories you’ve edited?
#LoveOzYA was a hashtag that sparked a conversation that created a movement that led to this book … the #LoveOzYA hashtag was created in response to the onslaught of American blockbuster YA that was dominating our bookshelves. And the idea to create an Anthology riffing on that hashtag and grassroots movement was just about showing people all there is to love about Australian YA – and giving us a way to crack open the conversation about supporting local stories and authors.
At the end of the day I think the hashtag, movement and book are all about encouraging Aussie teens to read Australian stories – so they grow into adults who seek out their national literature, and keep our books community alive and thriving.
How was this title selected?
The theme we gave each of the authors to write to was “firsts”. But writing about “firsts” inevitably leads the mind to think about “lasts”. And we found that this second recurring theme emerged in just about all the stories being written – every beginning was an ending too – and we loved that, we wanted to pay tribute to that.
What genres have you included? Was this deliberate, or an outcome of what the authors wrote?
We wanted a big enough theme that all of these eclectic authors could write across multiple genres and really showcase the fact that “Australian stories” are not just set in the outback or small coastal towns …but that Australian stories are ghost stories. And space stories. And anything-else we want them to be! It was very deliberate.
How did you select which authors to invite to contribute to Begin, End, Begin – or did they twist your arm?
Well, when I started approaching authors it was all a very hush-hush secret and embargoed project … but myself and Harper Collins publisher, Chren Byng, started by writing separate lists of – maybe? – 30 authors we’d love to work with. Then we came together and picked out where we had crossovers in our wish-list, and from there it was a matter of going down the line and asking everyone if they were available and would they like to be apart of this amazing project?
I will say that since the Anthology came out, I’ve had a few Aussie YA authors approach me and let it be known that *if* there’s a second, they’d love to be involved.
So. Watch this space.
What brief/guidelines did you give the contributors?
The theme of “Firsts” and a ten thousand-word limit. And that the story had to be original. Then it was a matter of letting their imaginations run wild …
Was there any author you wanted and couldn’t get – and could maybe include in another book? Or an author you want for the future?
Yes. And yes. But I won’t say who, because they may be someone I’d like to approach for Anthology No. 2 and I’d quite like any future line-up to be a surprise. But I’ve been asking readers which Aussie authors they’d like to see appear in any future Anthology … and writing down those suggestions too.
There’s definitely a list I’m holding onto.
What have you learned about any of these authors?
I’ve learned that I was absolutely right to have been fans of all of them before embarking on this project … because every single one just astounded me with their generosity and story.
My advice is; don’t just meet your idols – but work with them. See what magic happens.
Who wrote the most unexpected story? Why?
Oh my gosh, – me! I was the unexpected emerging voice in the Anthology, with my story ‘Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory’ and there were times when I thought I would be too crippled by self-doubt and imposter syndrome to get it done … but I did and I’m proud of it. And a bit surprised, to be honest.
Mine is a story about a little sister, saying goodbye to her Deaf big brother on his last night in their small town. It’s inspired by my own family, partly – and when I initially spoke about it with our Harper Collins editor, she told me that she loved the idea because she’s CODA (a child of Deaf adults). So we both spent a lot of time getting it right and focusing especially on the rhythms, beauty and rapidity AusLan (Australian sign-language). So I’m proud and surprised by what I accomplished.
Did anyone surprise you by submitting their work early?
I don’t think so? … Amie Kaufman surprised me by being a day late, only because she was getting her friend (who works at NASA!) to read over her story and give some feedback on the logistics and feasibility of her outer-space setting.
I wasn’t upset in the least; I thought it was SO COOL!
And I’d still quite like to get a “NASA-certified” sticker on the front cover because of it. HA!
How did you sequence the stories?
My publisher, Chren, put is so perfectly when she said choosing the sequence would be like putting together the perfect mix-tape. I took that advice and made sure there was a balance of genres (so sci-fi, followed by contemporary, followed by surrealism, followed by contemporary) just to hit those different peaks. And also that long and short stories were side-by-side, so readers wouldn’t get two 10K stories in a row, and become a little weary with lengths.
Was much editing involved throughout? If so, what type of edits?
There was a bit of editing … structural edits for each story, talking out things like character-development and whether or not the story was hitting the right marks at the right times (trickier to do when you have a shorter word-count, and not the length of a novel to ease into dramatic climaxes or subtle denouments). But everyone got there in the end. And there was certainly nobody who needed more editing than anyone else (myself included!)
What do you hope for OZ YA in the near future?
I certainly don’t think that Australian YA is perfect. I think it needs to be more diverse and inclusive, to honestly portray Australia back to its teen readers.
But that being said – I don’t think the representation in Australian YA will get better by us ignoring our national youth literature. I think it will improve by us investing in it, and that’s certainly the route I’m taking.
I’m now a literary agent, and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m actively seeking and prioritising “Own Voices” stories (a term coined by American YA author Corinne Duyvis, to identify books about marginalised protagonists written by authors who share that same identity.)
And I’m really proud of the fact that the first YA manuscript I sold was a sci-fi, eco-thriller called ‘Borderland’ – written by a debut Indigenous writer and poet, Graham Akhurst (coming out with Hachette, in 2018).
I take it as a huge honour, opportunity and responsibility that I’m now in a position to have a say in the Aussie YA of the future … and for my little corner of the books world, I’m going to do all I can to make sure all Australian stories get told, and that as many Aussie teens as possible see themselves in those stories.
Because teenagers who fall in love with their national youth literature, will one day grow up to be adult readers who seek out Australian stories. And everyone has a story worth telling.
Thanks for answering these questions and for all your work in promoting Oz YA literature, Danielle, and all the best with Begin, End, Begin and your other endeavours.
Where are you based, Gabrielle, and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’ve lived in Sydney for 11 years, went to university in Canberra and grew up in Wagga Wagga. It’s no secret the YA community in Australia is filled with passionate, supportive and hardworking authors, readers, bloggers, bookstagrammers, vloggers, educators, booksellers, librarians, publicists, editors, publishers etc, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Writing novels is so solitary and I’m an extrovert – well, most of the time – so I adore the wider community from a social and professional aspect, including participation in festivals, launches, catch-ups, book clubs, Twitter live chats, writing sprints, the list goes on.
You seem to be very active on social media. How does this help (or not help) your work?
I have a love-hate relationship with social media, especially Twitter. I made a horrifying discovery the other day: I have written almost 46,000 tweets since joining in October 2009 (I won’t tell you how many novels I could’ve written with that number of words but it’s in the double digits). I’m quite all or nothing in everything I do in life so I’ll often have to block myself from social for blocks of time using apps like Freedom or SelfControl – but a large majority of the Australian writing community is online now so I can’t see myself quitting anytime soon! On the upside, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook connect me with other writers, book lovers and pop culture addicts, which has been a joy – I’ve taken many online friendships to the real world, especially in recent years. Believe it or not, it can also be a wonderful source of motivation; I often invite other writers to join me for #500in30 writing sprints on Twitter, where we strive to write 500 words in half an hour, so it can be fruitful. Sometimes.
What does your title, Remind Me How This Ends (HarperCollins), refer to? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?
My novel Remind Me How This Ends is about two characters who don’t know what’s next after high school – and the title refers to decision-fatigue, being stuck at the crossroads and feeling like you missed the memo on getting your life together. My own feelings of uncertainty, grief and heartache came first with this novel, closely followed by the lead characters and storyline. The title came well after I’d finished the first few drafts. My husband, who is my first reader, and I had Adele’s latest album blasting at home one day and he suggested the title ‘Remind Me How This Ends’ to me after listening to the lyrics of her song ‘All I Ask’. I knew it was perfect. (Later that day we realised the lyric ‘remind me how this ends’ was a mondegreen – a misheard lyric – and Adele’s real lyric was ‘it matters how it ends’.)
What is the significance of the cover? Like the title, Remind Me How This Ends’ cover plays into uncertainty and endings – happy or otherwise.The daisy petals represent that classic idea of ‘They love me, they love not’… but you’ll have to read the novel to find out more!
How does this novel differ from your earlier books? Remind Me How This Is Ends is a very personal novel. My heart is smeared on every page of this one. I loved entertaining readers with Josie’s shenanigans in The Internand Faking It, but I wanted to challenge myself to write something real that connected on an emotional level, even if it hurt. Reading it now, I can see I wasn’t in a great headspace during the drafting process – my characters’ pain is my pain – but the wonderful thing about writing is you can unpack your feelings on the page. I’m proud of this one, mainly because I wasn’t always confident that I’d be able to finish it, so it’s extra special to hold a copy in my hands.
Could you introduce us to the major characters? Milo and Layla are 18-year-old family friends and former next-door neighbours who haven’t seen each other for five years – not since Layla’s mum died in shocking circumstances when they were 13 and her grieving father whisked her away from their small town of Durnan in the middle of the night. Now, Layla is back – showing up at Milo’s family’s bookstore of all places – and things are even more complicated between them. These two friends are lost, so very lost, but in extremely different ways. Milo’s girlfriend and mates have fled Durnan for jobs and university but he’s stayed behind so feels suffocated by his overbearing parents and indecision. Layla’s spent five years pushing away the memory of her mum, but being back in town with Milo triggers the past in a way she never expected…
Is there a character you would like to write more about? Maybe Milo’s obnoxious older brother Trent. He was so much fun to write. I’ve met many ‘Trents’ during my time living in Wagga and Canberra – his voice was so clear to me during the drafting process.
Could you describe Milo’s family’s bookshop? How would you change it if you owned it? The Little Bookshop is quaint, sleepy and, like many of the people and places in Durnan, a little unappreciated – mainly because his father is too busy chasing after another dream! Milo and Trent, who both work shifts at the shop, also don’t treat it with the care it deserves either because they’re too self-absorbed with their own lives. If I owned The Little Bookshop, I would change it in many ways – I’d connect with the Durnan community, add storytime sessions for parents and children, and hire staff who are passionate about books!
Characters remember the picture book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. What other books from your childhood left an impression? So many! My parents are former teachers so my childhood was filled with gorgeous stories – and their passion for reading is a big reason why I dedicated my debut picture book Peas and Quiet to them. I still have Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, There’s A Hippopotamus On Our Rooftop Eating Cake, Possum Magic, Wombat Stew, Picasso The Green Tree Frog and Edward the Emu on my bookshelf – and the collection hasn’t stopped growing.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)? I’ve recently finished A.S.King’s Still Life With Tornado, Pip Harry’s forthcoming Because of You, Claire Christian’s forthcoming Beautiful Mess and Catherine Deveny’s Use Your Words. Next on the TBR pile is Madonna King’s Being 14, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, and Eliza Henry-Jones’ Ache.
I was very disappointed to miss hearing you at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Gabrielle. What did you talk about and what did you particularly enjoy about your sessions?
I’m disappointed I missed out on meeting you too, Joy. It was a crazy-busy week, and we obviously both had full dance-cards! As for my Festival talk: I have a theory about teenage audiences –10% of them love writing, and really want to be there. 20% are readers, so they’re happy to be there as well – that means 30% of the room are ‘interested’. 40% are pleased to be missing out on classwork, and if they enjoy the talk that’s a bonus. I put them in the ‘open’ category. That leaves 30% of the room at various degrees of active resistance to listening to what I have to say. I figure I’ve already got the ‘interested’ top 30%. The ‘open’ 40% can be persuaded. But it’s those tough nuts in the bottom 30% – the ones who don’t want to be there – who I want to crack. So my talk is directed at them. I talk about what I was like when I was at school (bad), and I read out extracts of my year 11 report (very bad), which generally sends a gasp through the room. I then explain that I’m a professional liar these days because I’m paid to make up stories, but I add that they shouldn’t judge me too harshly because actually, everyone lies. The fun part is when I ask them to put their hand up if they’ve told a lie that morning, and most of the room puts up their hand (including teachers). I then explain that lying isn’t always bad, because it utilises a particular type of thinking called ‘divergent thinking’ which is important for creativity. I take them through a technique I use called Nine Squares – which is divergent thinking made easy – and explain how they can use it for good (coming up with ideas), instead of evil (telling lies). One of the things that I particularly loved about my sessions at the Festival was when teachers came up to me afterwards and said they’re now going to incorporate Nine Squares into their classroom lessons. And when a group of boys walked up to me and said they thought writing sucked, but they’d each bought a copy of my book for me to sign anyway. Well, that right there felt like success to me.
What a great turn around with those students, Gabrielle! Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m a Melbourne girl, and work a couple of days a week at Readings books in Malvern. I’m lucky enough to have made a fantastic group of friends in the Melbourne YA writing community who I’ve met through talking at Festivals and school visits – Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Emily Gale, Nova Weetman, Kim Kane, Bec Lim, Chrissie Keighery, and Simmone Howell are all people I catch up with regularly. I’ve also become great friends with some Sydney writers (again through Festivals) and catch up with Kirsty Eagar, Melina Marchetta, and Will Kostakis whenever I’m in their neck of the woods.
I’ve really enjoyed the originality of your novels, Gabrielle. Could you give our readers a brief overview of each?
That’s gorgeous of you to say so, Joy. Thanks. My first YA book was ‘Beatle Meets Destiny’ which was about a superstitious boy called Beatle, who meets a girl called Destiny in unusual circumstances, and wonders whether she’s ‘the one’ – only problem being that Beatle already has a girlfriend. My next book was, ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’, a crazy road-trip type adventure between a group of 5 teenagers who have never met each other, but who have to drive (unlicensed) from Melbourne to Sydney in order to deliver the body of Jesus Christ to his next ‘safe house’. Some people were put off reading it because they thought it would be thrusting religion down their throat – it wasn’t. It wasn’t about religion at all (despite the fact that Jesus Christ Himself featured as one of the characters). In fact, it was an exploration of the themes of trust and selflessness, and I loved writing it because I felt like it was such an original concept. My third book was called ‘The Guy The Girl The Artist and His EX’. It follows four characters (again, who don’t know each other) who are all impacted on by the real-life theft of Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ from the National Gallery of Victoria by the Australian Cultural Terrorists in 1986. My newest book is called, ‘My Life as a Hashtag’. It centres on a girl called MC who feels like everything is going wrong in her world, so she vents anonymously against one of her best friends on-line, only to watch, powerless, as her rant goes world-wide viral a few weeks later.
As with your other titles, I greatly admire My life as a hashtag (Allen & Unwin). How does this differ from your other books?
‘My Life as a Hashtag’ is a much more linear novel. It’s ‘straighter’. It’s told from the perspective of looking back over the past year, running straight through from beginning to end, whereas with all my other books I’ve always liked playing with structure. I wanted to have a more tried-and-true structure for MLAAH, because there were a number of important issues I wanted to explore, and I felt like a linear structure would help give clarity to the concepts I was wanting to examine.
What issues did you raise in the novel?
There are a number of themes I wanted to look at: the issue of social media and how teens negotiate it; family break-ups; the identity of self; the politics of boys in female friendships; on-line trolling; the fact that once you post something on-line, you have no control over what people do with it; sibling relationships; ‘blocking’ and being ‘blocked’; and watching a party unfold on social media, when you’re not invited.
How did you create such a strong feeling of dread?
Creating a strong sense of dread was one of the ‘balances’ we worked hard to get right. I say ‘we’ because my editor and publisher were instrumental in pushing me to go further, and pulling me back when I went too far. I wanted there to be a sense of dread, but I also wanted a lightness throughout the book, otherwise the story would have been too grim. The sense of dread is created partly by telling the story from the perspective of the narrator looking back over the past year, which gives the reader the sense that something momentous has happened which the narrator is now reflecting back over.
This novel is very current, especially about social media. How do you know what teens are saying/doing?
The irony of me writing a book where social media is one of the major focuses, is that I’m not on Facebook, I’ve only recently started getting the hang of Twitter, and I’m still nervous about posting photos on Instagram. So technically, I don’t know what I’m talking about! However, as it turned out, my lack of knowledge ended up being to my advantage, because I didn’t make any assumptions about how teenagers use social media. Instead, I interviewed a number of them about how they approach it, the politics of posting, and how they deal with it emotionally. One of the things that I found interesting was the fact that they engage with it differently from even twenty somethings, creating something of a ‘generation gap’ between teens and people who are only a few years older. With respect to the teenagers I interviewed, I was astonished by some of the things they revealed to me (to the point where some them didn’t want to be thanked in the Acknowledgements – they’d rather remain anonymous). Through my research, I learnt about a thing called the secret Tumblr diary, which parents definitely don’t know about, and even friends aren’t privy to. If a teenager has a secret Tumblr diary, it’s the place they go to find a safe (and secret) community with others who are struggling with, say, their sexuality, body image, gender or friendship issues. I found the concept of the secret Tumblr diary both alarming and comforting. Alarming, because if, for example, they’re anorexic or bulimic, there are girls (overwhelming this is a girl issue) called Ana (pro-anorexia) or Mia (pro-bulimia) who give tips on how to purge (vomit) effectively. But comforting because this is where they go to speak to likeminded individuals if they aren’t sure if they’re gay, or trans, or are trying to reconcile other confusing feelings or issues inside their head.
What tips have you learned about successfully using social media while researching and writing this novel?
I learnt that if you want to get the optimum ‘likes’ on Instagram, you have to time your posts for when everyone is most likely to be on-line. Generally a Sunday afternoon is a good time. Definitely NOT a Saturday night.
Have you ever started any trending posts?
No. I think a trending post would be quite difficult to manufacture, and the stuff that goes viral is so random, it’s almost impossible to pick.
What does the cover represent?
I adore the cover and think Debra Billson did an outstanding job. It’s a photo from an Instagram post, taken the night MC and one of her best friends Anouk have a massive falling out over a boy called Jed. The title and my name are written in a font which has graduated colouring, mirroring the logo of Instagram. It’s so funny to watch adults pick up my book and ask me what the cover represents, whereas teenagers pick it up and instantly recognise it as Instagram.
MC and her friends are studying Jasper Jones and Harvest in English. Why did you choose these two books?
‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey is a current school text that has as one of its themes the idea of rumour and innuendo and assumption of guilt. ‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace is set back in the middle ages when stocks in the village square were a form of punishment. Both books – even though they’re both set in an earlier time – have parallels with today’s internet culture: the public shaming, innuendo and rumour, where society makes judgments on people without having the full facts – often without even caring what the real facts are. So long as someone can be the scapegoat, everyone’s happy.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I’m one of the judges for the Readings Prize for Adult Literature, so I’ve been reading plenty of new Australian fiction lately. Some of the ones I’ve personally loved (which may or may not make it onto the long or short list) are, ‘Skylarking’ by Kate Mildenhall, ‘The Lost Pages’ by Marija Pericic, ‘To the Sea’ by Christine Dibley, ‘From the Wreck’ by Jane Rawson and ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent. So much great Australian fiction at the moment – we’re really experiencing a heyday. The other book I really want to read is, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders which I’ve heard amazing things about.
I loved Skylarking and The Good People but you’ve given me even more books I must read, Gabrielle.
Thank you for your very generous answers, Gabrielle, and wishing you great success with My life as a hashtag and your other books.
I described this year’s CBCA picture books in a previous post but promised to also write about Bob Graham’s Home in the Rain, which I have done here.
I’ve also added some ways of sharing the shortlisted picture books with children at home or school in case it helps with Book Week activities.
Home in the Rain is written and illustrated by Bob Graham (Walker Books Australia)
A mother and daughter, Francie, are driving home from Grandma’s in heavy rain. The illustrations suggest that they are possibly African-Australian. The mother is pregnant with a baby sister for Francie. They stop en route to have a picnic in the car.
While driving, Francie uses her finger to write names on the foggy windows.
Spell words with their fingers using different media, e.g. play-dough, sand, polystyrene balls, or fingerpainting with paint.
Alternatively, if the weather is cold, they could blow on windows to make steam and then write words or names.
This picture book is also appropriate for very young readers, partly because of the interest generated by the animals shown outside the car, such as the baby rabbit diving for cover, the hunting kestrel, and a seagull eating chips.
Children could make cork creatures of the animals shown in the book and hide them around the library, classroom or home.
Outis written by Angela May George and illustrated by Owen Swan (Scholastic Press)
After reading Out, read other refugee stories such as Teacup, Ziba Came on a Boat, My Two Blankets, The Treasure Box and Little Refugee.
Music/Dance The girl dances at school to different music.
The teacher, parent or carer could play music from cultures represented by refugees in Australia and children could dance to this music.
English The child’s mother has English lessons.
Children could learn a few words from languages spoken by refugees in Australia.
My Brother is written and illustrated by Dee Huxley, character creation and illustration by Oliver Huxley and design by Tiffany Huxley (Working Title Press)
Children could emulate the structure and changing colour of the illustrations in the book by folding a piece of paper to form a left and right hand side. On the left side they could draw or paint in monochrome colours to represent sorrow and grief. Then, beside this on the right hand side, they could illustrate using warm colours to represent happiness and hope.
One Photo is written by Ross Watkins, illustrated by Liz Anelli (Penguin Random House Australia)
At home, children could take photos of family and important things.
Then they could select one best photo of people or something that is important for them to remember.
Print the photo at home if possible, or digitally send to school ready for printing.
Form and display a class montage with one photo from each child.
Mechanica: a beginner’s field guide by Lance Balchin (The Five Mile Press, Bonnier Publishing Australia)
Alternatively, construct 3-D winged creatures similar to those on the endpapers using found and made materials, such as foil.
Children could also make up their own 2-D creature in the style of those in the book. Present these on a double-page using the format of the book, where there is both an illustration and a written description.
The Patchwork Bike is written by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Van T Rudd (Hachette Australia)
Make a large bike as a class. If possible, make it big enough to sit on.
Try to use materials shown in the book:
Bent bucket seat, handlebar branches
Bashed tin can handles, wood cut wheels
Flag from flour sack, small pot bell
Painted on lights, bark numberplate
Paint Movement Practise the technique of smearing paint to show movement.
There were three debut authors shortlisted in the 2017 CBCA Older Readers category, signalling the new talent being unearthed in Australian YA. Unlike some short lists in the past, all the authors are female this year, representing the number of females writing YA.
Most of the novels are contemporary realism, although Waer is speculative fiction and Yellow has elements of spec fiction.
Many of the characters come from working class backgrounds and some are dealing with deep anger, particularly in Frankie and One Would Think the Deep.
Parents are missing, dead or substance-abusers in virtually all the books. Children are missing in Frankie, Yellow, Words in Deep Blue (where Cal drowned) and Waer (where Kemp is missing). Beach/water settings are prevalent and music features in Frankie and One Would Think the Deep.
The predominance of the colours blue and yellow on the covers reflect the colour schemes published in 2016, very different from the black dystopian and supernatural covers of the past.
In this post, I will focus on the three novels by debut authors because I’ve written about the other books previously.
Waer is a werewolf tale, told as an intricate fantasy.
There are three narrators: Kaebha, a torturer, Lycaea and Lowell, who takes his pagan religion seriously, lives in a valley and finds Lycaea almost drowned. When soldiers destroy the valley dwellings, Lowell and Lycaea escape with some others. Archetypes from fantasy such as the journey, battles and hidden identity surface.
War and the displacement of Lowell and others form some parallels with current refugees, ‘To them we’re not people’.
Readers who enjoy Waer should love Megan Whalen Turner’s exceptional series which begins with The Thief. She has a new one out, Thick as Thieves.
Yellow by Megan Jacobson (Penguin Random House Aust)
Yellow is a very well written story about 14-year-old Kirra. Her surfie father named her after Kirra Beach, but calls her ‘Yellow’ because of her yellow eyes. Yellow often suggests cowardice but this girl is brave.
The story is set near Byron Bay. Kirra’s father has left the family and her mother has become a drunk. In graphic scenes, Kirra forces her to detox. The words of the popular girls scratch her inside but she decides to fight back. ‘People only have the power to make you feel small if you let them.’ Her relationship with kind Noah seems promising but she wrecks it by getting drunk at his party.
Yellow becomes a ghost story when Kirra causes a dog to drown and then talks to a ghost boy in a disconnected phone box. She tries to catch his murderer, putting herself at risk.
Kirra’s English teacher and the local librarian recommend Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. All books worth pursuing…
Issues of forgiveness arise here and in Frankie.
Frankie by Shivaun Plozza (Penguin Random House Aust)
Frankie is Italian and funny. She was abandoned by her mother and thinks she ‘deserve[s] to fail’. Her younger half-brother, Xavier, who seems to be a thief, finds her and gives her a longed-for Joy Division album. In this book, musician Ian Curtis killed himself like Jeff Buckley did in One Would Think the Deep, but both their music lives on.
Frankie is set around Smith St, Collingwood (where Robert Newton’s Mr Romanov’s Garden in the Sky and some of his historical novels were also set).
The dialogue in Frankie is smart, with a streetwise voice. The scene where Frankie follows Nate with his ‘blue gaze’ to a ‘fence’s’ house, is chillingly intimidating. When Xavier disappears, the contrast between the lack of energy put into his disappearance compared with that of rich boy Harrison Finnick-Hyde is explored.
There are numerous descriptions of graffiti throughout the novel. Readers could perhaps create their own ‘Small Street Interruptions’ based on Michael Pederson’s website ‘Outside’ http://miguelmarquezoutside.com/.
Pederson leaves quirky temporary artwork (such as roping off a dandelion with a sign, ‘do not touch’ like in an art gallery) in laneways, backstreets and buildings to surprise and encourage people to slow down, be in the moment and recognise surroundings. He attaches them with Blu-tak and removable tape.
The other three shortlisted books are:
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan Aust) which recently won the Indie YA award.
Music helps but doesn’t heal protagonist Sam’s residual rage and grief. There is a playlist at the end of the book featuring Jeff Buckley’s Loser, So Real and Grace and Split Enz’s I Got You (which Jennifer Niven also uses in All the Bright Places).
The Bone Sparrowby Zana Fraillon (Hachette Aust) recently won the ABIA award for older children, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book award and is currently shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie medal.
Zana Fraillon’s next novel, The Ones That Disappeared, about child trafficking, will be published this month.
I heard her speak with best-selling Australian writer, Sally Rippin, famous for Billie B Brown, and whose Polly and Buster series has just been released, at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne this month. The event was sold out, with people standing.
Kate’s latest novel is Raymie Nightingale, a gem of a tale in which Raymie hopes to gain her father’s interest by winning a beauty contest. This story is ‘the absolutely true story of my heart’, confessed Kate, whose father had also left their family. Family photos show Kate, her brother and mother but her father is missing. Until Raymie Nightingale, Kate had created fictional fathers in her books, writing instead about missing mothers, in a kind of reverse reality from her own life. Until this book, Kate had only written herself obliquely into her stories.
As a child, she was ‘terrified, shy and worried but was astonishingly good at making friends. That’s what saved me – I could connect’. She loved to read, ‘Books were the most magical thing in the world. I didn’t think humans had anything to do with it… Reading was how I made sense of the world – the doorway in. I’m most in my body when reading a book!’ She now pretends to be an extrovert.
When a child asked if she reads or writes more, Kate responded, ‘Reading is pleasurable. Writing is difficult for me.’ Quoting Dorothy Parker, she retorted, ‘I hate writing. I love having written’ and then added, ‘I’m so much happier writing. That’s not to say I’m happy writing.’ Kate experiences the voice of failure at about 9am in the morning so she tries to write before then and uses ‘that editing voice’ only after 9am. She keeps a journal while travelling and returns to it when writing later. ‘So much of writing is subconscious’. Writing hasn’t become any easier: ‘All you know is you’ve written a novel before but don’t know if you can write this novel.’ She overcomes this by regarding each piece of writing as a draft.
Kate often writes about animal characters, such as the mouse in The Tale of Despereaux and the squirrel, Ulysses, in Flora and Ulysses. Kate loves the word ‘capacious’ and uses the phrase ‘God’s capacious hands’ in Flora and Ulysses to describe Flora’s father’s heart. Kate also hopes to be ‘capacious of heart’.She certainly does seem to have won many Australian hearts during her tour here.
Some of Kate’s other novels are The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Tiger Rising and The Magician’s Elephant. Her wonderful Christmas picture book is Great Joy.
American YA writer, Jennifer Niven has been wowing fans up and down Australia’s east coast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival, to Brisbane, then Reading Matters in Melbourne, then Adelaide and further afield.
It is no wonder she is greatly loved. She seems to care for everyone she meets and gives equal weight to answering the questions and concerns of all her readers. She has transformed the difficulties and joys she has experienced in her own life into becoming a brave, ‘honest and responsible’ writer, speaking for those who may not have a voice. She doesn’t like conflict but has become an advocate after writing her first YA story about a boy she loved who suffered from mental illness in All the Bright Places. She poignantly recalls, ‘I lost him to suicide’ and about how she wrote about this relationship and experience ‘as honestly as I could … Pieces of me are in each of my books’. Jennifer has since received thousands of messages about how All the Bright Places has, in some way, saved people’s lives.
Jennifer reiterates that everyone deserves to be seen and heard and inscribes some people’s books: ‘You are wanted’. ‘Life can be dark but there are always bright places everywhere.’
I was thrilled to be invited to lunch in Sydney with Jennifer and a small group of informed young bloggers. Jennifer was charming; a lady who listens and engages. She was very generous with her time; asked us all to sign her copy of All the Bright Places (a lovely, original idea) and showed us a sneak peak of the photo of the young actor who will be playing lead character, Finch, in the movie of All the Bright Places.
When I asked at lunch how she gets into the writing zone as quickly as possible, she explained the importance of music and playlists, including Split Enz’s song, I Got You (her playlists are online). Lyrics are ‘also all about words’, but in a different form.
Even though Jennifer is generous with her words in conversation, she is happy to listen to others rather than dominate the conversation; conversely when writing, she writes more than she needs before paring back the words.
Unfortunately, she’s not able to write while on tour but, despite this, jumped at the chance to come to Australia, agreeing even before she was given the dates.
Jennifer concluded one of her sessions at Reading Matters by sharing her and her author mother’s writing advice: ‘let yourself cry (or laugh or feel); check it in the bus locker (put distractions away so you can focus on writing); and write the kind of story you want to read.’
Thanks to Penguin RandomHouse Australia for the incredible opportunity to meet Jennifer.
As part of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Student Sessions, I was fortunate to host a couple of sessions with British stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes and facilitate one with Randa Abdel-Fattah and Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Natalie became one of the most popular presenters at the festival. She’s probably better described as a performer, though, because she brings ancient history and the ancient mythic world alive and into the present for her audiences.
She reworks stories for her own purposes, drawing on her expertise in the ancient world and on making it relevant today. She stands out because she can share her knowledge on stage, screen and in her books in a rivetting way.
Natalie is a classicist and a comedian, an unusual combination. She used to be a stand-up comic, but retired when she realised she preferred tragedy to comedy. Her quick wit and incredible knowledge enabled her to effortlessly command the stage.
Natalie’s new novel The Children of Jocasta was published in May. It’s a re-telling of the Oedipus/Jocasta/Antigone tale and will make you fascinated by mythic history (if you’re not already). An earlier book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life explores philosophers such as Plato, Ovid and Agrippina the Younger.
Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied
In our session about ‘Mono or Multi-cultured’ at the Wharf, Randa Abdel-Fattah, who examines issue of racism, multiculturalism and human rights in Australia through her novels and essays, explored what contemporary multiculturalism and racism look like in Australia today with activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Randa has written Does My Head Look Big in This?, When Michael Met Mina and other novels, particularly for young adults, as well as essays. When Michael Met Mina is an important story because it gives both Michael’s view – a popular guy coming from a racist family – and Mina’s – an intelligent young woman whose family was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing her and her mother to flee by boat. The novel airs many issues and opinions – true and false – such as people saying that ‘potential terrorists are hiding among boat people’ and people who want to be able to say, ‘Merry Christmas’ without offending anyone; to some darker-skinned girls feeling they have to use skin-whitening creams and others being intimidated and vilified. The novel gives diverse viewpoints. It’s great to read because we are exposed to different perspectives and then make up our own minds. It shows the power of literature to create understanding and empathy.
Randa has also been a lawyer and has a PhD in Islamophobia in Australia.
Yassmin is well known through her media appearances and I’ve learned from reading her memoir, Yassmin’s Story (which she wrote recently while in her 20s) that she loved reading Enid Blyton and her favourite character was, as you might expect, George; she deliberately created slang at school; she channels Beyonce in time of need; she loves sharing stories on stage and she learned in debating that she can argue any side of an argument!
Yassmin also won Young Queenslander of the Year in 2015; as a teenager co-founded Youth Without Borders; is an engineer; worked on a rig and loves cars.
I cannot do these intelligent and articulate authors justice in their explanation of structural racism and other issues here. I do suggest reading their books and online articles to gain a greater understanding of, particularly, racism in Australia.
As always, the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May was an amazing week.
The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced on the Monday night and I was thrilled to meet the Patricia Wrightson (children’s book) winner for the surrealist mystery Iris and the Tiger, Leanne Hall (who I interviewed for the blog here), photographed below with shortlisted Tamsin Janu and shortlisted Ethel Turner YA author Lili Wilkinson.
The winner of the Kenneth Slessor Poetry award was Peter Boyle for the inimical Ghostspeaking, an intriguing mystery of finely woven stories and poems. The richly constructed characters are brought to life with interlaced poems. It evokes Borges’ Labyrinthswith the brush strokes and ideas of artist William Robinson and the clear bold outlines and strokes of Matisse.
At the SWF, I was privileged to be in conversation with Dr Anita Heiss and Witi Ihimaera for the ‘Indigenous Voices’ sessions at the Wharf in Walsh Bay and at Parramatta Riverside Theatres. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss Anita’s new The Race for Reconciliation, a novel for children that celebrates Aboriginal hero Cathy Freeman and shares truths that many Australian children don’t know about stolen children, National Sorry Day and other aspects of Aboriginal recent history.
Anita has also shown Aboriginal women in contemporary Australian literature in new and important ways such as in Barbed Wire & Cherry Blossoms. This compares the WW2 Prisoner of War camp near Cowra in central NSW when Japanese soldiers broke out, with the local Wiradjuri people who also virtually lived under prison conditions – and had less food than the Japanese prisoners.
Also in this session was revered Maori writer Witi Ihimaera. He was the first Maori author to have both a novel and short stories published. In his memoir, Maori Boy, Witi uses a unique and powerful spiral thread structure. He also uses myths in his work.
Witi is well known for his book and movie from the book, Whale Rider and also now, Mahana. At times he wished he was brought up more in Maori traditions and he wasn’t great at the haka. But he was destined to do another kind of haka.
Anita and Witi made a fine team enlightening us about indigenous voices.
By Neridah McMullin, illustrated by Andrew McLean Allen & Unwin
Another amazing animal in the Eve Pownall shortlisted books is the horse, Fabish. He was an old horse who rescued the yearlings from the terrible Black Saturday bushfire. The trainer rescued the finest race horses but couldn’t look after them all so he set Fabish free with the yearlings. He discovered every single one safe after the decimating fire but didn’t know where Fabian had taken them.
Picture book form is an apt medium for this true story. Important Australian illustrator, Andrew McLean, is an expert in painting our countryside and animals and Neridah McMullin has crystallised the events into a riveting tale.
Primary-age children could no doubt imagine where the horses may have found safety. They could write and draw their possible experiences.
By Michael Sedunary, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs Berbay Publishing
This tale begins in 1808, 20 years after the First Fleet, when soldiers arrest Governor Bligh. It then retrospectively tells the account of the Mutiny on the Bounty before returning to Bligh’s attempts to quell both the Rum Rebellion and John Macarthur.
Michael Sedunary’s writing is picturesque and colourful; personalising Bligh’s life and endeavours.
Bern Emmerichs’ illustrations are intricate and patterned.
Surprisingly, blogging and social media appear in this book. Bligh’s log (now kept in Sydney’s Mitchell Library) relates blogging to the gossip, printed pamphlets and handbills of the period. Macarthur’s ‘tweets’ against Bligh are viewed as the social media of the time.
The first Australian political cartoon (adapted here) shows Bligh dragged from under his bed by Major Johnston’s men. Propaganda is explained and readers are asked to think about how ‘simple slogans and labels are meant to stop us thinking any further about things.’
More surprises appear when readers are asked to consider who is the hero or villain – Cook or Bligh? (Cook ordered many more floggings than Bligh.)
Other books in the series are What’s Your Story? and The Unlikely Story of Bennelong and Phillip.
Enormous congratulations to Berbay Publishing for its Bologna Award.
The Eve Pownall Information Books this year span the ABC, animals and history.
They highlight several small, independent publishers, who should be congratulated on their excellent publications.
Spellbound: Making Pictures with the ABC
By Maree Coote Melbournestyle Books
Spellbound also won a 2017 Bologna Ragazzi Award. It’s a large, sumptuous hardcover in three parts: architecture, animals and people, and features typography (letter art) where images are created from letters that spell their names.
Young children could find the letters in the illustrations. Older readers could appreciate the typographic poetry (shape poetry) where the meaning of the text is enhanced visually.
I spoke to the creator, Maree, on the day before she flew to Bologna to receive her award, who explained that she has restricted herself to using existing fonts.
There are three levels of difficulty within the book’s examples: 1. any letters that inspire a picture can be used 2. only use letters of the correct spelling of the subject’s name 3. only use correct spelling and only 1 font per letter (see page 3).
This book helps understanding of Visual Literacy. (See page 3 for line and shape, and page 63 for patterns.)
Children could use Macs, or equivalent, to create their own letter art.
There is even a mini tutorial on how to create animals using only letters.
A-Z of Endangered Animals
Words and Illustrations by Jennifer Cossins Red Parka Press
The Introduction explains how the high animal extinction rate is due largely to humans, and also introduced species such as rabbits and foxes, in Australia.
Everyone can help by reusing and recycling, keeping beaches clean and not wasting water.
The book is well-designed; it’s clean and clear.
It is structured with one animal representing each letter of the alphabet.
Information on the left-hand page includes conservation (e.g. endangered or vulnerable) status; current population; description of the animal and where it lives; and an interesting fact such as no two tigers have the same striped pattern, and eastern gorillas use basic tools to gather food.
Each animal is illustrated on the opposite page.
Primary-aged children could focus on Australian endangered animals and present information using the same format, possibly to make a class book.
Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks
By Gina M. Newton National Library of Australia
Like A-Z Endangered Animals, Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks shows which species are endangered, vulnerable or threatened (their conservation status).
Every state and territory is included, so readers may be able to visit one.
The structure is organised by environments and habitats such as woodlands and grasslands (the Bush), wetlands and waterways, arid zones and coast, oceans and islands.
Each habitat has a double page, followed by one page each for selected animals.
Read this book to discover more about our wildlife and how to care for the environment
There are high-quality photos, interesting ‘fast facts’ and a glossary.
I will write about the 3 other Eve Pownall shortlisted books in another post.
This is my third post about Book of the Year: Younger Readers and I have already posted about Picture Books and books for Early Childhood. Teachers, librarians and parents may be interested in sharing these books with young readers. I have included a range of activity ideas.
Dragonfly Song dances far back into historical fiction – to the Bronze Age in Crete where King Minos, the Bull King, demands an annual tribute of 13-year-old boys and girls. Aissa, named after the dragonfly, is born with extra thumbs and her father defies the gods by cutting them off. When he dies, the wise-woman takes the baby to a farm but her life there is destroyed and she becomes a ‘mute’ servant and then a bull dancer. Aissa summarises her life as a poem on pages 376-7.
The writing is a mixture of prose and poetry and these both extend the narrative. There is recurring dragonfly imagery and snakes are a potent motif. This is a crossover novel for younger and older readers. Could some read it as a literary Hunger Games?
Writing Children could write in the styles of both the prose and poetry.
Sculpture They could google images of sculptures of Theseus and the Minotaur (on which part of Dragonfly Song is based), or use the cover illustration, and twist thin, coated wire to replicate the human and other figure in action (science: force and gravity).
Dragonfly Jewellery Children could represent the dragonfly symbolism by threading coloured beads, particularly blue, onto wire to make brooches or other jewellery.
Karen Foxlee continues the speculative fiction with A Most Magical Girl, a fantasy for 9-12-year-old girls (in particular) about Annabel Grey who is sent to live with her witch great-aunts in their magic shop in London. These women can bewitch broomsticks or make a potion to turn someone into a wolf. At first Annabel doesn’t believe in magic, even though she can see visions in puddles, but she is enlisted into a quest to prevent Dark Magic and evil Mr Angel and his shadowlings and resurrection machine from overtaking London.
Kitty, the wild betwister (someone who goes between ‘this world and that world’), frequents Highgate cemetery and other crannies and is also full of magic. She is able to create a ‘heart-light’. Readers could contrast these two girls, as well as smelly, eye-twinkling troll Hafwen who longs to see the stars.
When Annabel and Kitty are sent ‘Under London’, they encounter trolls and a dragon. A map is somehow drawn onto Annabel’s skin. Children could read the descriptions about the map and use them to illustrate the visible skin of a paper figure or mannequin.
The girls must find the Morever or White Wand to save the people of London. As well as a rite of passage and story about friendship, A Most Magical Girl portrays the battle between dark and light.
Each chapter begins with an extract from Miss Finch’s Little Blue Book (1855) about manners for young ladies. These loosely correlate with the plot. Readers could write a brief alternate plot line to correspond with all or some of these extracts.
The UK setting is interesting because, until recently, Karen Foxlee seems to have been better known and appreciated in the UK and US than in her homeland. Hopefully this is changing. A Most Magical Girl is a very well imagined and constructed middle grade novel.
A Most Magical Girl is a beautiful hardback publication and is a great companion novel to Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy. Older readers should explore Karen Foxlee’s YA novel, The Midnight Dress. It is an exquisitely written, wondrous tale.
I will also write about the shortlisted books for Older Readers and the excellent Eve Pownall information books in upcoming posts.
Bunurong man from Victoria, Bruce Pascoe also wrote Fog a Dox, which won a YA Prime Minister’s Literary Award and Seahorse. Like Seahorse, Mrs Whitlam centres around an Aboriginal family, without emphasising Aboriginal issues. Pascoe here portrays well-functioning, happy, ‘normal’ families. He also won 2016 Book of the Year for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for his adult book, Dark Emu. I’ve interviewed the author for Boomerang Blog here.
In Mrs Whitlam, Marnie is surprised to inherit a Clydesdale horse called Mrs Maggie Whitlam after its young owner dies. The horse is named after the wife of the former Prime Minister who, as Marnie’s mother states, ‘Did a fair bit for black people too!’ The tale explores suffering at an appropriate level for young readers, introduces us to a very appealing girl who is brave but sometimes made to feel inferior, and culminates in an exciting rescue.
After finishing the short novel, children could re-read descriptions of the horse, research Clydesdales and then make an ‘assemblage’ (a 3D collage originating from Picasso’s cubist constructions). They could make the rough sculpture by using ‘found objects’ such as wire, cardboard and wool or twine.
Extreme suffering is evident in this well-written holocaust tale set in Warsaw, Poland during WW2. It is mainly placed in history just before Morris Gleitzman’s novel, Soon, another graphic account of violence against children and adults.
Within These Walls is not just another holocaust story. It is particularly interesting and engaging and reveals a depth of knowledge and research based on true events, especially in the sealed ghetto. The details such as Miri’s mother wearing a wig and baking challah create verisimilitude. The family reads the Biblical book of Esther and the Passover account of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, replacing slavery with freedom. Both books are pertinent to the story told here. Family is critical to Miri but, tragically, she loses her parents and siblings one by one.
We experience Miri’s life in the city, the open and closed ghetto and in a dark cellar. The novel begins with her time in the cellar and it is used to foreshadow some of Miri’s darkest times.
Even though Within These Walls is shortlisted for younger readers, parents and schools may wish to examine the contents before giving to all children.
The Younger Readers CBCA Short List has a well-balanced selection of books; there’s something for all primary school age groups. I know the awards are judged on literary merit, but this is a helpful and positive by-product.
I’ve written about these 6 books in three Parts for the blog.
As well as a plot run-down and mention of anything that stands out, I’ve incorporated some activities that children could do with these books at school or home.
Boys, in particular, will be very keen to read these first two books.
By Kate Temple & Jol Temple, illustrated by John Foye Allen & Unwin
Jimmy is thrilled to share a name with Captain James Cook but not so keen to write a diary, like the explorer. When he reads that Cook kept a ‘log’, he becomes far more interested. Like Jimmy, children could keep a short log about their daily activities, especially at school, and include one or more illustrations in the naïve style of the book.
The book is funny. When Jimmy dresses up as Cook for History Week he uses powder and hair cream to create Cook’s curls but the cream leaves him with bald spots. He takes his fake arm to Bed, Bath and Cables and loses it in the Kids’ Ball Pit.
When he realises that Cook was killed by the Hawaiians, Jimmy resolves to continue his explorations. He eats cereal to try to win a competition to Hawaii, feeds his baby sister an orange thinking she has scurvy and inadvertently terrorises a guest speaker. He starts an Explorers’ Society (but no girls are allowed) and the members use a formula of ‘Sir + Street Name + Fridge’ brand to invent their names, such as ‘Sir Clanville Fisher-Paykel’. Children could also try finding their own explorer names using this method.
Jimmy discovers lots of information from Google, such as what ‘fermented’ is, and uses an ancestry site to find out about his descendants. Children could also use the internet to learn about their past family.
This companion graphic novel to the award-winning Rivertime is set in Gariwerd (the Grampians). It tells the second story of Clancy and Uncle Egg, whilst respectfully including and acknowledging the Jardwadjali, Djab Wurrung and other Aboriginal peoples, as they try to find the source of the Glenelg River. Nephew and uncle also encounter native wildlife and plants and, of course, get lost along the way.
Read this book in conjunction with the Eve Pownall shortlisted, Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks. Teacher notes are available at the publishers’ website. Also read My Place by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins to highlight the section where Clancy imagines the history of the lake and who could have lived there (page 71).
Children could use the panels when Clancy is falling down the cliff, on pages 32-39, to create their own mini-graphic novel or animation of something that could go wrong in the wilderness.