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.
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.
From teaching in Germany to illustrating in Australia, Katrin Dreiling has literally come a long way to become the inspiring, creative and talented artist she is today. Celebrating her first picture book with award-winning author Michelle Worthington, we are fortunate enough to have Katrin join us for an awesome chat on her work and The World’s Worst Pirate. First, a little about the book.
Will hates being a pirate, and his buccaneering skills, or lack thereof, are obvious to the rest of the crew. His mother, the Captain, is less than impressed with his choice of passion – a scallywag chef in the galley. That is, until Will saves the entire ship from a bloodthirsty Kraken – by feeding it one of hisdelicious cupcakes! With all satisfied by the outcome, a change of heart sees Will become the best pirate-chef / Kraken-tamer / cupcake-maker of the seven seas.
Dreiling’s illustrations bring much life, colour and energy to this thought-provoking and empowering story about listening to your heart. Her cleverly curated techniques involving splashes and sprays, line and fluid watercolours, mixed with her unique and quirky stylised characters and scenes make for a playful, light-hearted romp on board this momentous deck.
Aspirational, with plenty of sweet and bubbly goodness to leave you licking your lips for more, The World’s Worst Pirate is a jolly and hearty quest for any pirate-loving (or not!) adventurer from age four.
Katrin, congratulations on the release of your debut picture book, The World’s Worst Pirate! Can you tell us a bit about your journey towards being selected as illustrator for this book?
Thank you very much and thank you for inviting me to this interview! I have known Kathy and Peter Creamer for a little while simply through social media. They contacted me when I had just finished an illustration for my inky version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Princess and the Pea and bought the original artwork. When Little Pink Dog Books started to call for submissions Kathy was so kind to approach me again and this is how things started to flow. I really appreciate all their support. It is so important to know that someone believes in your work when you are just starting out.
The story by Michelle Worthington contains an empowering message about following your dreams despite challenges. Does this resonate with you? What were your challenges and rewards during the illustration process?
It resonates with me indeed on a very personal level. A couple of years ago I took the plunge to make a career change and start out as an illustrator which has been a very freeing experience for me considering my background. I am writing about this in more detail on my blog at katrindreiling.com. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustration process and working in this team and have to admit that the biggest challenge was to not eat too much chocolate…
I love your mix of line, watercolour, splashes and sprays! What a perfect combination of techniques for this book! What kinds of media did you use? How did you develop your unique style?
I usually like to mix media depending on what colour I’m after. For example, if I am about to create a cloud and I remember to have a beautiful blue paper somewhere in my paper collection I might decide to do a collaged cloud. I also always aim to incorporate techniques that children are familiar with (ink/ watercolour splashing) to inspire them to get creative, too.
What is your favourite part / illustration in The World’s Worst Pirate? Why?
I think I like the cover the best because I really enjoyed drawing those waves. They took forever but it was really relaxing to do. Also I liked having all characters on this one page and seeing how they look together.
How did you find collaborating with Michelle? Were there any surprising moments?
I have met Michelle years ago before this project when I was undertaking my own little publishing business. So I knew she was very professional to work with but I had no idea she would be so easy going and supportive. She made my job really easy and a pure delight.
How would you describe the support of the publishing team at Little Pink Dog Books? How long did the illustrations take to complete?
Little Pink Dog Books were equally supportive, very transparent and a joy to work with. The illustrations were done in three steps (sketching, storyboarding, final artwork) and I had plenty of time for each stage to help achieving the best results possible. I think altogether I was illustrating over a course of eight months.
Fun Question: What is your favourite flavour of cupcake?
Most certainly vanilla! Although I am very fond of chocolate, too…and I can never say no to mocha flavour but I think my favourite one would be choc chip cupcakes unless there’s the ones with fancy icing and strawberry flavour, they aren’t too bad either…..
Have you always wanted to be a children’s illustrator? Which artists influenced you along your journey?
It’s a life-long dream to work creatively but the direction of children’s illustrations was definitely influenced by my own three children. I could see how much impact the artwork has on little minds when reading a book together and I wanted to achieve exactly that. My favourite illustrators are Russell Ayto, Chuck Groenink and many French illustrators because I love the poetry in their art.
What else is on the cards for Katrin Dreiling? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I recently finished a project with MacMillan Education and hope for more projects of that kind. Currently I am working on my own picture book manuscript and the illustrations and then I also recently signed my second contract with Little Pink Dog Books and Michelle Worthington. Illustration work for that one are well on the way and I sometimes give some sneak peaks on my social media…..
Thank you so much for your piratey participation, Katrin! 😊 🐙
Katrin studied languages in Germany to become a teacher, and ended up being an illustrator in Australia. She loves to come up with quirky creations that inspire children to get creative themselves. She also provided the characters for animated university lectures and government staff coaching videos that attracted over 320,000 views worldwide to date. Katrin just finished her first pirate book written by Michelle Worthington and to be published by Little Pink Dog Books this year and currently works on a project to be published by Macmillan Education. As much as she enjoys illustrating, she could not fully put her language studies behind her, occasionally authoring short stories. Katrin also enjoys giving colourful and messy art classes to kids twice a week. In her free time Katrin loves to spend time with her husband, three children and Golden Retriever “Loki”.
For my interview with Michelle Worthington on getting to know The World’s Worst Pirate, please head here.
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.
Know that magical feeling of being totally captivated by an exotic world of unbelievable action and a place where only your imagination comes true? If you’d like to experience that feeling again then take heed, because The Leaky Story will take you there! It’s like a fantastic blend of the realms captured in The Neverending Story and Jumanji; with curious characters and creatures literally bounding from words to life.
This book about an eager book, busting to be engulfed by an inquisitive young boy, packs a hearty punch when it comes to fruition. But slowly at first, the tension builds as the leak becomes a flood, and soon overcomes the entire Blossburn living room – unbeknownst to J.J’s technology-addicted parents. But with gusto and fight, the whole family become the swashbuckling pirate- and kraken-battlers they could only ever imagine possible and reclaim the land that is rightfully theirs. I wonder what other surprises are in store for the Blossburn family!
Sillett’s narrative exudes energy, spirit, wit and personality, which is perfectly matched by Tortop’s whimsical illustrations. With both text and pictures, you can feel the tension rising and pace quickening as quiet moments become rowdy, and empty spaces begin to saturate each scene. I just love the quirky little details that Anil always integrates into her books. Readers will enjoy spotting funny, subtle qualities and character relationships (even of the unlikely kind!). Her sketching and digital art is rich with colour, fluidity and ambience- the ultimate atmosphere for a treacherous test on the high seas!
The Leaky Story certainly laves over us with its exciting and memorable read aloud experience, surging the wildest of imaginations. So get off your devices and go pick up a book! Highly recommended for preschoolers and up. Dimity’s review is here.
The Great Zoo Hullabaloo! piques our curiosity from the outset, leading us in with a medley of scittering and scattering animal footprints across the endpapers. Upon entering, a bird’s eye view shot of the sparse scene again creates a sense of wonder and keeps the pages turning. Anil has brilliantly captured this intensity throughout with her subtle clues and witty elements that add further richness to the animated text.
In a rhythmic rumble that reflects a bebopping tune, Carthew’s narrative sweeps us from a hush to a rambunctious hullabaloo. When Jess and Jack discover the absence of creatures in the Zoo, they set about with their most astute senses to solve this unusual mystery. Only to find a ka-thumping, drumming, hooting, humming orchestral menagerie of wildlife celebrating none other than baby roo’s first birthday! With clapping, jiving and a goose-ejecting cake, moonlight parties don’t get any better.
Movement, energy, exhilaration and cuteness-overload, The Great Zoo Hullabaloo! offers a festivity for the senses and a clamorous encounter of the wild kind. A range of animals and instruments from all over the world provide plenty of scope for learning, as well as a reminder of our universal similarities and the importance of unity. A joyous book of rhythm, teamwork, togetherness, and a love of music that children from age three will devour with every turn.
To an infant child, the world is full of unbelievable marvels. Every new discovery is cause for celebration and intense scrutiny. They inherently know how to appreciate the most minuscule details of life because for them, these are the ones that count the most.
Robert Vescio’s latest picture book, Ella Saw The Tree invites young readers to pause for thought and cherish the finer details of life, ones they are often forced to abandon or forget about as they deal with the daily need to ‘grow up’.
Today, we welcome Robert back to the draft table to discuss how his book about mindfulness can help us all slow down whilst catching up with the things that really matter.
With her superlative illustrative talents and ultra-impressive list of publications, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the skill, imagination, dedication and charisma of Anil Tortop. The Turkish-born artist, designer and animation-expert is here today to discuss her books, processes and latest ventures. 🙂
😀 I wanted to start with a big smile. It’s been hectic indeed!
I work simultaneously on a few projects. In fact, when I have only one project I can’t focus on it well. Two is still not enough. My favourite is 3-4 projects at a time. Otherwise I just feel lazy and find myself doing nothing until the deadline gets closer. But not all these projects are books. I usually have something with a short deadline aside. Books take much more time and sometimes having a break and working on another project feels refreshing.
I have a home-made calendar; each month is an A4 paper with a magnet at the back and it covers the whole left side of my fridge. I put all my deadlines there and see everything in a glance. Having it in the kitchen, my panic starts at breakfast. Other than that, I don’t have a particular method to manage. I just work when I should, which is most of the time. I have been trying to be a well-organised person with dedicated working hours but it never works for more than two days. I still have hope!
Have there been any particular stories that you felt a stronger connection with or any that challenged you in unexpected ways?
Mmm… Hard question. I’m trying to give an answer to myself but I guess I don’t feel that kind of things for stories. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them but couldn’t label any of them with “stronger connection” either. But I do feel connected with the characters in the stories. Recently my favourite is the octopus in The Leaky Story and her connection with the father. It reminds me of my dad, although I don’t know why.
Challenge… Yes! One of the most challenging stories was in a picture book I illustrated last year. Because there was no story when I was asked to illustrate it! Of course, the editor had a clear idea of how they wanted it and made lots of suggestions. But in the end, the words came after the illustrations. I had huge room to create a visual story. I panicked a lot! I wanted to make it really good. Then I panicked even more! But eventually, it was fun.
If you could walk a day in the life of one of your illustrated characters which would you choose and why?
I guess that would be Digby. Because he’s so clever and talented and knows how to have fun. And I like his pyjamas. 😊
Since launching your current books, what has the audience response been like? Any stand-out moments?
The reviews have been really nice. Facebook also shows me a lot of “likes” and nice comments, if that means anything at all. But I have never come across a “real audience”. I mean, children. I really wonder what they think and would love to hear that directly from them.
The latest release, The Leaky Story has been reviewed a lot lately. I was even interviewed live on ABC Brisbane. I think the moment I probably won’t forget for a while is that. It took only 3 minutes but I was way out of my comfort zone. Phew!
You often record your progress through fascinating time lapse videos. Can you explain a little about your preferred media and method to your illustrating genius.
Except for the initial warm-up sketches and storyboards, I almost always work digitally. I use Photoshop. My favourite Photoshop brush that I use for outlines is “Pencil”. It feels a little bit like a pencil. I recently upgraded from Wacom Intous to Cintiq (drawing tablets).
My process differs from one project to another but it’s usually like that: I make several storyboards first. It takes some time to get satisfied. Then I do the roughs. Then the clean drawings and finally colouring. And I do all these for all of the illustrations in a book simultaneously. I mean, I don’t start and finish one illustration and go to the next. I start and finish all the illustrations at the same time.
You can watch all my videos on my Vimeo channel.
You have a remarkable working relationship with your husband, Ozan, at Tadaa Book. Please tell us about your roles and how you collaborate on a daily basis. What does Tadaa Book offer its clients?
Tadaa Book basically offers illustration and design services, especially to self-publishers. Then if our authors need, we help them with printing and publishing and creating marketing materials too.
Ozan and I started working together back in Turkey. He was the art director of a traditional publishing house and I was the in-house illustrator. After coming to Australia we worked with a lot of self-publishers, collaborating again. Then we wanted to take it a step forward and founded Tadaa.
Ozan is my personal art director at home. But on a daily basis, he does much more than that. Although our roles are a bit mixed up from time to time, I usually illustrate only. He does the rest. He deals with new authors and other illustrators from different parts of the world, does the art direction of projects, keeps our website and social media accounts updated, goes to the post office to send Storyboard Notebooks, learns new things, deals with my computer problems, etc.
What is the best part of what you do?
Smelling a freshly (offset) printed book. I love that! I love to see the happiness of the authors too. It’s really rewarding.
Have you done anything lately that was out of your comfort zone? What was it and how did it go?
It was definitely the radio interview that I mentioned! It wasn’t terrible I guess but I can’t say it went well either. I at least give 10 points to myself for the bravery. Questions were unexpected and it was too quick. I’m glad I didn’t freeze. I actually kind of did but Emma Griffiths handled it really well. Afterwards, listening to myself was even harder than the 3 minutes I spent there! I won’t listen again.
We would love to learn more about what you’re currently working on! Do you have any sneak peeks or details that you can share?
A new book is coming out on 1st of May!The Great Zoo Hullaballoo by Mark Carthew (New Frontier Publishing). You can watch the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/211773518
Currently, I’m working on two picture books. One is Meeka by Suzanne Barton (Tadaa Book), the second one is Scaredy Cat by Heather Gallagher (New Frontier Publishing). I probably will share some sneak peeks soon on social media, but not now, unfortunately.
Meanwhile at Tadaa, we are working on the Book Week publication of Ipswich District Teacher-Librarian Network. Here are the cover and details: http://idtl.net.au/book-week.php
And two other picture books are contracted for the rest of the year.
Besides the books, I’m regularly illustrating for a Turkish children’s magazine, doing illustrations and animations for a web-based science platform for children in the US, and designing characters for a couple animated TV shows in Turkey.
Will be a hectic year again!
Wow! You sure are a busy lady! Thank you so much, Anil, for participating in this interview! 🙂
Thank you for having me here!
Stay tuned for some special reviews of Anil’s latest picture books!
Hi Alex Ratt, could you tell us about yourself and your alter-ego?
That’s a very existential question! I have to decide which is me and which is the alter ego…Well, I was Frances Watts first, so let’s start with her—I mean me.
I have written twenty-two books, ranging from picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson) to historical novels for young adults (most recently The Peony Lantern, set in nineteenth-century Japan). And then there’s my less fragrant alter ego, Alex Ratt. I thought being someone completely different would allow me the freedom to write something completely different—hence Alex Ratt. (Also, Alex Ratt has a big bushy false moustache and Frances doesn’t. And who wouldn’t jump at an excuse to wear a false moustache?!)
Who is Jules Faber?
Jules Faber, I’m delighted to say, has a much more straightforward identity: he is Jules Faber! He is also an extremely talented cartoonist and illustrator, well known for his work on Ahn Do’s Weirdo series and David Warner’s The Kaboom Kid series.
How important are the illustrations in this book?
The illustrations are integral. The Stinky Street Stories (Pan Macmillan Australia) should feel welcoming and accessible to all kinds of readers, whether they are confident readers or not, and the illustrations do so much to convey the humour that is inherent in the text. One thing I particularly loved about working with Jules on this book is his spirit of adventure. Whatever wacky image I can dream up, he is prepared to draw. A sculpture of a rocket ship made entirely of carrots? No problem!
What type of comedy do you write?
Despite the word ‘stinky’ in the title, I don’t actually see the humour in The Stinky Street Stories as focusing on the gross. To me, the real humour is in the absurdity of situations and images. And the challenge is to take the absurdity and, within the bounds of the story, make it logical.
How do you get your readers to laugh out loud (as I did about some carrots and a pumpkin head)?
I’m glad you liked those bits—that’s exactly what I mean about the humour being absurd rather than gross. That’s where I find those laugh-out-loud moments: in unexpected juxtapositions, in ideas pushed to ridiculous extremes, in characters who treat these hilarious scenarios seriously.
Brian is a very funny character. Could you tell us about him, his sister Brenda, and any other characters?
Brian (‘call me Brain—everyone does’) has a somewhat overinflated sense of his own intellectual prowess, which is why he is able to meet absurdity with seriousness. His friend Nerf is the perfect sidekick, being just ever so slightly dafter—but loyal and good-hearted. The real brain of the family is Brian’s sister Brenda. And in his heart, Brian knows it to be so, and calls on her in moments of crisis.
What is your favourite scene in The Stinky Street Stories?
You picked it yourself: the pumpkin heads. Because within that particular story, ‘The Ripe and Rotten Reek’, it not only makes perfect sense for Brian and Nerf to be running across a field with pumpkins on their heads, it is a positively brilliant plan!
Who do you hope reads this book?
Everyone! By which I mean boys and girls. I had a lot of fun turning gender stereotypes on their heads. The (anti)heroes might be boys, but the girls have a strong, smart, sassy presence. And, as I said above, I hope the book is enjoyed by confident readers and reluctant readers—we (by which I mean the whole village that makes a book: the author and illustrator and publisher and editor and designer) were determined to make it a book that had something to offer every kind of kid and every kind of reader.
What’s next in Stinky Street?
The second in the series, 2 Stinky, will be published in August. There are smelly sewers, pongy penguins…and a house of (stinky) horrors!
What other humour have you written?
All my books have humour in them—it’s just the way I’m wired—but the first overtly humorous books were those of the Ernie & Maud series, featuring trainee superhero Ernie Eggers and his trainee sidekick: a sheep called Maud. More recently I have contributed stories to two humorous anthologies, Laugh Your Head Off and Laugh Your Head Off Again.
How many aliases do you have?
Oh dear…You’re on to me, aren’t you?! The truth is, Alex Ratt is not my only pen name. Frances Watts is a pen name too. (Yes, my pen name has a pen name.) My real name is Ali Lavau, and I am a very serious book editor who hardly ever wears a false moustache to work.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the Australian children’s and YA literary community?
I’m based in Melbourne. I write fantasy/ adventure novels for young readers (and the young at heart). I also regularly visit schools and teach writing workshops. It’s such a joy to work with students and to encourage their creativity.
Your writing has a singular, imaginative style. It’s also thrilling and unexpected.
I really loved your stand-alone novel, The Hush, and reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here.
How do you think your creative brain works differently from the brains of other people?
Thanks Joy, that means a lot to me.
I’ve always had an urge to tell stories and to ‘make believe’. My parents have countless videos from my early childhood, full of me babbling about fairies or dragons or making up alternative endings to fairy tales.
Having said that, I believe everyone has the potential to be creative. When we are children, all it takes is a plastic toy or a pile of sand to craft a wildly imaginative universe from scratch.
Many people lose touch with their childhood creativity as they grow older. However, I think the potential for wild imagination still lurks within all of us, whether we are authors or accountants! All we need is a chance to express it.
Have you had any particularly memorable feedback about The Hush?
I recently received an email from a young reader who used The Hush as inspiration when playing her various musical instruments. She said that she liked to pretend she was conjuring sorcery through her music, just like the characters in The Hush.
I loved this idea, since it reminded me of my own childhood. When I was a kid, I used to pretend to be various literary characters to inspire myself during daily tasks. (When we did fitness tests in PE, I secretly pretended I was training for a quidditch match!)
It was incredibly touching to hear that my own book could have a similar effect for a reader.
After such a powerful novel, why are you now writing a series?
In a fantasy novel, it often takes a while to establish how the magic and society function. This can sometimes take up a significant chunk of the book. By writing a series, I can cover most of this ‘world building’ in the first book. Then, in later installments, I get to have fun exploring the characters and world more deeply.
I also love the fun of plotting out a series in advance and hiding secret clues about future titles. In the Agent Nomad series, there are moments in Book One and Two with hidden significance that won’t be revealed until later… but of course, my lips are sealed!
It’s about spies and sorcery — and unlike my previous books, it’s set in the modern world.
The protagonist is a 15-year-old called Natalie. When the book begins, she’s an ordinary Aussie teenager, worried about homework and Maths tests.
One night, however, it all changes. A pair of deadly strangers invade Natalie’s home and she barely escapes with her life. In the aftermath, she is recruited by a sorcerous spy agency called HELIX.
As a HELIX cadet, Natalie must train to use her own magical abilities. She adopts the codename ‘Nomad’ and prepares to fight against a cabal of ruthless sorcerers called the Inductors.
Before her training is complete, however, Nomad and her fellow cadets are sent to London, risking their lives to thwart a ruthless Inductor plot before time runs out.
Could you describe each of the three main protagonists, Nomad, Riff and Phoenix, in a phrase or sentence?
Nomad is an artist and a born traveller, who yearns for adventure and to explore the world.
Riff is a jokester with a love of fun, food and rock music – but he also has real talent and a deep love for his friends and family.
Phoenix is a talented fighter, who hides the trauma of her past behind the façade of an emotionless warrior.
I liked both the Australian and London settings. How do you create a sense of place without excessive description?
I think a few carefully chosen sensory details can be more effective than overloaded paragraphs of description.
In the school assembly scene, for example, I needed to describe an Aussie high school gym on a scorching February day. I snuck in snippets of sensory detail: the stink of sweat and cheap perfume sprays, the buzz of a blowfly, the whispering students and glaring teachers etc.
A few of these little details should be enough. If they’re strategically placed throughout a scene, they should prompt the reader to subconsciously fill in the rest of the setting with their own experience and memories.
The pace moves quickly. What’s a favourite scene or ‘inventiveness’ you’ve created?
For personal reasons, I’m quite fond of the chase scene on the train into Melbourne. I’ve spent countless hours sitting on Melbourne’s public transport, daydreaming about magic and excitement. It was fun to incorporate a mundane location like Caulfield Station into a fantasy book. I felt a bit cheeky doing it, actually!
(In reality, I associate Caulfield Station with travelling to university exams. Not quite as thrilling as a magical chase scene!)
Your writing style is a highlight. How would you describe it?
It varies a bit from book to book. In Agent Nomad, I’m speaking through Natalie (a teenage first person narrator). It’s an interesting balancing act to weave in descriptive detail without losing the flavour of her narrative voice.
Danika, my narrator in Chasing the Valley, has a slightly different voice. She’s more cynical and hardened at the start of the series, so her style of self-expression is different. Also, since she’s from a fictional dystopian world, she narrates with different vocabulary and colloquialisms.
By contrast, The Hush is written in third person. I had fun incorporating fancier descriptions (and more complex figurative language) into this book, since I didn’t have to worry about a first person narrator’s style or vocabulary!
Science or magic? Magic or science?
Science in the real world, magic in fiction.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
In SFF, I’ve really enjoyed Illuminae and Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – it’s such a brilliant idea to write SciFi in an epistolary format.
Are you writing something else at the moment? If so, could you tell us about it?
I must confess I’m writing too many things! Needless to say, they’re all fantasy projects. Every time I finish a manuscript, a new idea starts itching at me… and before I know it, I’m halfway through another one! Oops.
All the best with ‘Agent Nomad’, Skye. It should create a unique niche in the market.
When reading a book by Julie Hunt I feel like I’m entering into an uncanny world, where imagination seeps into the interstices of reality. Julie is the author of The Coat (illustrated by Ron Brooks), which won CBCA picture book of the year in 2013.
Her other major books are Precious Little (illustrated by Gaye Chapman), the Little Else series (illustrated by Beth Norling) and KidGlovz, which features in this interview. These books are published by Allen & Unwin.
Quality graphic novels for children are extremely rare and should be cherished. KidGlovz, written by Julie Hunt and illustrated by Dale Newman over four years, is an outstanding example of the form. It won the 2016 Queensland Literary Award and Dale was shortlisted for the 2016 Crichton Award as a debut book illustrator. Although sophisticated, reluctant readers also enjoy it.
The title of KidGlovz derives from the saying, ‘handle with kid gloves’. The protagonist, KidGlovz is a talented, fragile boy who is being raised for profit rather than nurtured. With insufficient food and while virtually a prisoner in his room, he is visited by tightrope walker, Shoestring, who frees him from avaricious guardian Dr Spin, exposing him instead to an external world of danger and adventure.
I met Julie at the State Theatre Café in Hobart last week. It seemed like a fitting, although subconscious, choice by Julie because KidGlovz begins as a theatre performance by the young precocious pianist. Fittingly, the Hobart theatre and café also adjoins a bookshop.
This was the perfect time for an interview because Julie has just had the go-ahead from her publisher Allen & Unwin (great supporters of the graphic novel) for Shoestring, the companion book to KidGlovz. Julie actually wrote it as a sequel soon after completing KidGlovz. It’s now less a sequel than a discrete work even though the characters of KidGlovz and, of course, Shoestring reappear and Julie is rewriting it so that it will become an illustrated, rather than ‘graphic’ novel. She is translating potential visual images and jokes into words but there will still be 100 pictures.
Shoestring will be published in 2018 and a third book will then be in the pipeline, featuring Sylvie Quickfingers, a stolen child prodigy who has a cameo at the end of KidGlovz.
Even though writing is ‘arduous and difficult’, Julie is ‘only interested if the work excites me’. When I asked Julie if her editor and publisher need to restrain her creative brain with its original perspective and perhaps prevent her from straying too far into a wondrous strangeness, she replied that they are formative, ‘They encourage me to go further’.
Julie’s picture book The Coat has been greatly acclaimed. Its illustrator, Ron Brooks, happens to live across the river from Julie, but The Coat was not a collaborative work – Ron illustrated Julie’s story after she wrote it.
Julie’s subconscious seems to be continuously at work, with the gloves being a recurring motif in both The Coat and KidGlovz. She’s often ‘not aware of this stuff till a bit later.’
Music is another motif rising throughout Julie’s books such as Song For a Scarlet Runner, winner of the inaugural Readings Children’s Book Prize and shortlisted for multiple prestigious awards. Julie studied the trumpet and sang Bulgarian folk music, which took her to ‘another realm’ and showcased her ‘larger than life self’ when she was on stage.
Secondary characters such as Splitworld Sam from KidGlovz and Siltman from Song For a Scarlet Runner are both otherworldly figures. Names, such as in Julie’s junior series Little Else, illustrated by Beth Norling, are important to Julie. She knows she’s not on the right track if she doesn’t have the right names for her characters.
It was a pleasure to meet this extremely talented author. Julie is a delightful person, with a generous smile and laugh. As a writer, Julie feels like the tightrope walker in the famous postcard by Quint Buccholz. She steps out and ‘hopes for the best’.
From our very own Boomerang Books blogger / word smith extraordinaire, Dimity Powell, together with the divinely talented illustrator, Nicky Johnston, we have a very special feature here today! I have had the utmost pleasure in reviewing their gorgeous new book, The Fix-It Man, and in finding out more about their collaboration. Enjoy!
Poignant, perfectly pitched and picture perfect. The Fix-It Man is a story that so effectively and sensitively captures the heartache and love between a little girl and her father when dealing with loss. Dimity Powell’s words are paced at a gentle rhythm that allow its readers space to breathe and take in the deeper meaning at the heart of the tale. The illustrations by Nicky Johnston encapsulate adversity and strength with their unmistakable emotive intensity.
A little girl has complete faith in her dad to fix anything. “It’s what dads do.” Whether it’s super gluing kites, mending the dog’s kennel or piecing shattered teapots back together, Dad is at the heart of turning bad days into good. But even her dependable, handy father can’t fix Mama. And there is nothing more shattering than that moment. That wordless moment of grief in the slimmest of moonlight that father and daughter lay wrapped up in Mama’s quilt, sure to be the first of many sleepless nights. Hearts break and cracks widen, but with a little bit of optimism and a whole lot of love, they know they can fix things together.
Superbly narrated and delicately illustrated, The Fix-It Man is a reassuring story that gently addresses the themes of love, life and loss in a thoughtful way. Being able to embrace life and cope with death at the same time shows great resilience. And for readers from age four in similar circumstances, this book offers an invaluable sense of hope and comfort.
Congratulations on the release of your newest picture book, The Fix-It Man!
DP: Thanks, Romi. Dancing on clouds happy about it.
Dimity, this is your debut in the picture book arena! Where did the foundation for this story come from?
DP: Like many story ideas of mine, it evolved from a real life incident, which developed into a thought, which led to a question, which resulted in a small movie inside my head. The hard part was extracting the best bits and shaping them into a picture book text. I love the belief small children have in their parents, that they can fix anything and everything. I wanted to explore the reaction of a child when this belief is challenged, when their fixer suddenly needs fixing, too.
How did you find the whole publishing process with EK Books? How much input did you have with Nicky’s illustrations?
DP: A veritable dream. Likewise, Nicky is a dream to work with. She is dedicated and meticulous and included me in just about every step of the process from rough drafts to finals. This was something I had not expected so it was a joy to correspond with her and give feedback on the images as they developed. There was never any real need to clarify the relationship between her images and my text; Nicky just seemed to know what was going on in my head. There was however, a lot of discussion between us and our publisher about the various nuances and symbols; all the tiny details used throughout the visual narrative. It was a real team effort.
What do you like about Nicky’s style? How do you feel her illustrations have complemented your text?
DP: Everything! Nicky’s current style is perfectly suited to this story and exactly the way I envisaged this family to be. The emotion projected in Nicky’s images is poignantly powerful.
Nicky’s illustrations more than just complement the story. They add a level of subtly and sensitivity without ever being maudlin. Her soft colour palette and homogeneous characters invite readers into the very heart and soul of the story: we could be that family.
Nicky, what drew you to Dimity’s story when you first read it? Did you feel a connection with the text? Did the images naturally appear in your mind or was it a process that developed over time?
NJ: As soon as I read Dim’s manuscript, I connected to it immediately. Visuals started filling my head, I sketched them all into my sketchbook (pages of them!) it was quite overwhelming actually.
The story is beautifully written, every word, every pause and every page break is a deliberate choice to ensure the flow of the story is not only read, but felt.
The illustrated scenes, the characters, the subtle visual sub stories came to me with immense ease. I worked on the first concept roughs almost obsessively. The entire developmental process from roughs to producing the final artworks filled me with pure joy.
Dimity and Nicky, you seem like a terrific team with an organic relationship, which certainly resonates through the book. How did you feel about the collaboration with one another along the journey? Were there any hiccups or surprises you can share with us?
DP: Extremely grateful and satisfied in the most fulfilling way. From the very first sample spread I saw, I knew my words were in good hands. Nicky’s ability to ‘get’ my intentions is uncanny. I think the way she is able to extract exactly how I picture the characters and scenes out of my head and capture them in watercolour (without any consultation) is true genius and just a little bit spooky. The biggest surprise for me was that everything progressed so fluidly and enjoyably.
NJ: I am amazed with the personal connection Dim and I have, given we have only ever met in person twice! I think our minds, visions and emotions are aligned in quite an authentic way. I am pleased the illustrations and the text combination demonstrates this unitedness too.
This was my first time working with EK Books and I really loved the team approach that was given to the entire project. It was fabulous to be able to bounce around my ideas and rough sketches with everyone to be sure we would create the book to the highest standard.
What has been the most rewarding part of creating this book so far?
DP: When I got the call from my publisher with the green light good news. It had been a long hard slog to get to that point so that call was a massive relief. I may have shed a few tears. Holding it (The Fix-It Man) in my hands for the first time was also a bit momentous. Oh and watching the visual landscape of my story come to life with each of Nicky’s illustrations. I still find that part of storytelling inexplicably rewarding; watching your words come alive is pure magic. Sorry to carry on but I feel very rewarded!
NJ: Seeing the illustrations and the text together for the first time was pretty special. And to be called a ‘Dream Team’ topped it off for me!
It was quite a lengthy process from beginning to end, and like all things that take time, the wait has been worth it.
DP: The dream team…still sets me aglow.
Thank you both so much for participating in this mini interview!! 🙂 xx
NJ: What great questions, thank you for having us share our collection journey of creating The Fix It Man!
A Shadow’s Breathby Nicole Hayes (Penguin Random House Australia) has just been published. Nicole spoke toBoomerang Books.
Where are you based and how are you involved in Australia’s YA lit community?
I am a Melbourne-based YA author and reader. The YA lit community in Melbourne is very open and embracing, and as an Ambassador to the Stella Schools Prize Program and a writing teacher, I get to meet lots of readers and writers at schools and festivals. When I’m not writing or teaching writing, I often work with other authors on their manuscripts.
What sports are you interested in?
A lot of sports, but I love AFL most of all. I used to play footy when I was a kid and became a rabid Hawthorn fan in my teens. My first novel, The Whole of My World, featured a teenage girl obsessed with footy, very loosely based on my experiences, and eventually led to my writing two more books about footy, and introduced me to the rest of the Outer Sanctum team – the all-female AFL podcast I’m involved in. I also watch a lot of soccer and Futsal because both my daughters are keen players.
Can you tell us about your other books?
The Whole of My World is about teenager Shelley Brown who is desperate to escape her grieving father and her own terrible secret. When she changes schools and a new friend introduces her to her footy heroes, Shelley’s passion for the game tips over into obsession, and she loses track of herself and all the things that matter in the process.
One True Thing is about 16 year old Frankie Mulvaney-Webb whose mum is the Premier of Victoria. But Frankie hates the spotlight. All she wants to do is lay low and focus on her rock band, but her life is turned upside down when photos of her mum in a secret rendezvous with a much younger man go viral.
The novel has two alternating narratives, depicting two different timeframes interwoven throughout until they merge into one near the end. The Now chapters tell of Tessa Gilham’s survival story following a car accident that has left her and her boyfriend Nick stranded in the middle of the Australian bush. The second narrative, the Then chapters, go back over the last days before the accident, uncovering what drove Tessa and Nick into the bush in the first place, revealing why Tessa is afraid to go home.
It’s a fascinating title. Could you give us an insight into it?
Once I decided that Tessa would be a painter, I became particularly interested in finding a title that reflected the many issues around light and colour. My research uncovered a lot about the relativity of colour, which emerged as a powerful theme throughout the novel. I became fascinated by colour and how we see it differently, how it’s a cultural construct as well as an individual one, but also the logistics of how it works – that it’s also about how light is reflected and how our brain processes this information. In the middle of this reading I remembered an Emily Dickinson poem, “A Certain Slant of Light”, and this stanza caught me:
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
That’s when the shadow made its way into the title. I played around with different phrasings, then stumbled on “a shadow’s breath”, which is also an expression that means the smallest thing, or the tiniest margin. I really liked the idea of that – because these tiny things, even as slight as a shadow’s breath – can change how we see things completely. And so often the difference between life and death is as small as a shadow’s breath – one step the wrong way, or seconds earlier or later… Whole lives can change at a whim. There’s so much power in that almost non-existent thing. I also love that it hints at something vaguely mystical and impossible to hold.
Tell us about the characters Tessa, Yuki and Nick.
Tessa Gilham is mostly a loner and feels like she doesn’t belong. She’s convinced that the town hates her and her mum, and she’s probably right to a point. But Tessa’s life is improving — her mum has kicked out her abusive ex-partner, and is sober again. Tessa wants to believe that life will be different, but she’s so fragile and damaged that she struggles to trust it to last. In the process of trying to heal, she rediscovers her love of painting and, between this therapeutic outlet and the blossoming friendships around her, her new boyfriend, Nick and the ever faithful Yuki, Tessa is beginning to find her feet.
Yuki Fraser is Tessa’s best friend and her one reliable companion. It was often the Fraser home where Tessa sought escape from her abusive home life. Yuki’s dad is the local cop, and an old friend of the Gilhams – he’s determined to protect Tessa and has worked hard to keep Ellen Gilham out of jail. Yuki’s mum and little sister treat Tessa like family. Always have. But Yuki is trying to find her own way too, and tension between the girls increases as Tessa leans more heavily on her boyfriend Nick, neglecting to be there for Yuki in the way Yuki has always been there for Tessa.
Nick Kostas is one of the “new kids” from St Catherine’s which has recently merged with Carrima High. He and Tessa have just started dating but because he’s so popular and successful, and a year ahead at school, Tessa isn’t entirely secure in their relationship, and struggles to understand why he would choose her over more likely girls. The fact that he’s about to move to the city to go to university doesn’t help the situation, despite Nick’s obvious devotion to her.
What is the importance of Tessa’s home life to the story?
Tessa and her mum are trying on this new life, and still finding their way back to each other. Ellen Gilham has only recently sent “the arsehole” packing, and is newly sober, but as it’s been so long since it was just the two of them together, Tessa and Ellen are still working out how to be a family.
Tessa has been responsible for herself for so long that she isn’t sure how to let Ellen mother her, and Ellen is weighed down with guilt and regret that she let things continue for as long as she did. A guilt that Tessa feels is, mostly, deserved. Damaged and hurt, Tessa is struggling to forgive her mother, while the fragile Ellen wants only to earn back her daughter’s trust.
How important is the concept of ‘shouganai’ (surrender) in the narrative?
It was one of the first meaningful phrases I learnt in Japanese when I was living there many years ago, and it always stayed with me. It has different interpretations – positive and negative – but when Yuki’s mum says it, there’s a certain dignity and grace attached to accepting what – or who — can’t be changed. Specifically, accepting those you love for who they are – warts and all. In A Shadow’s Breath, I twisted its use to apply to people and their situation, but I love the bravery inherent in that. The idea of stepping back and letting things play out as they’re intended.
What role does art play?
For Tessa, art is her saving grace. Through her art she is able to find her way back to her childhood and begin to process and understand what happened to her. Her painting offers an outlet but also a means through which she can develop self-belief and start to accept her own worth. It also provides a connection with her new friends, and an opportunity to express herself, to earn these new friendships, particularly with Nick, who admires her work and envies her talent. Through their appreciation and admiration, she begins to look to the future for the first time.
Have any responses from your readers particularly resonated with you?
The story idea emerged at least partly from my encounters with young people whose own homes are not the haven they’re meant to be, and I really wanted their stories to be heard too. Since the novel came out, I’ve had several readers message to congratulate me on how I have depicted the reality of an abusive family and the challenges for those left behind. It’s genuinely humbling to be told that Tessa’s experience feels authentic to those who have had a similar life.
What other books have left a deep impression on you?
So many! The book that continues to shake me, no matter how many times I read it, is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, McCarthy manages to depict a harrowing and bleak world of post-apocalyptic America in such sparse and beautiful language that I have found myself rereading passages too many times to count. But beyond the writing itself, the story depicts possibly the purist kind of parental love – it is a story about a dying man and his young son attempting to travel south to avoid an almost certainly lethal winter – and yet it never once uses the word love. There’s barely an expression of emotion in the whole novel. And yet it makes me cry like a baby every time I read it. I shiver even now just thinking about it.
Thanks for your generous and insightful responses, Nicole, and all the best with A Shadow’s Breath.
Meet Julia Lawrinson, author of Before You Forget,Penguin Australia
Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Julia.
Where are you based and what’s your background in books?
I am based in Western Australia, and I’ve published thirteen novels for children and young adults (lucky thirteen, I hope!)
I really enjoyed your 2006 YA novel, Bye Beautiful . Could you tell us about this and some of your other writing?
Most of my books are realistic, contemporary novels. Bye, Beautiful is set in the wheatbelt in 1966, and so is a departure from that. It is about a policeman’s family, and what happens when two sisters fall in love with the same boy, who happens to be Aboriginal. Although it is fiction, it is based on my mother’s story: my grandfather was a policeman who became officer in charge of the North West before he retired, and his strong personality and morality has had a lasting effect on his family. I feel I work best as a writer when I have a strong emotional connection to what I’m writing about.
My earliest work was very ‘gritty’: dealing with bogan high schools and adolescent psychiatric hospitals. Those stories resonated a lot with readers, and were stories that needed to be told.
Your new novel Before You Forget has a devastating personal connection for you. Could you tell us about the genesis of this novel?
The novel was written in response to seeing the suffering that my daughter went through when her father developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which began as she was starting high school. It wasn’t just the loss of memory that was an issue: his whole personality changed, and he went through periods of being anxious and angry by turns, which was difficult for both me and my daughter. He would give money away, invite perfect strangers home, almost cause accidents when he was driving without the slightest awareness of it. He refused to see doctors, and when he finally did, they suspected he had depression, alcoholism and various other things until he saw a specialist. Being there with him when he was diagnosed remains the most awful day of my life.
It was incredibly painful for my daughter to see the father she knew disappear in this way, and nobody really seemed to understand. The only person who truly got it was her friend Gemma, whose mother had the same disease, and who tragically died the week the book was released. I want people to understand the impact of diseases like Alzheimer’s on the kids in the family, to have empathy for the extended grief such conditions create.
What is the most terrifying thing about Alzheimer’s?
That it strips away what defines you as yourself. Annie’s dad’s defining feature was his intelligence. It was so awful to see that disappear. Although he’s retained his sense of humour to the end.
How has the book helped your family?
It’s been cathartic, being able to describe some of the things that happened, and to reclaim some of what we lost through the story. The situations in the novel are common to most families where a parent develops Alzheimer’s or similar neurological diseases, so hopefully it will provide a sort of sense of community.
How can others help families in this situation?
By asking what they need. People often want to come in and take control, or offer what they think is best, but it’s really important to listen to what would make the family’s life easier. It will be different for everyone. Also, to be respectful of people’s emotions: taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer’s is an emotional rollercoaster. I remember someone saying to me early on that Alzheimer’s was a beautiful thing, which felt like being slapped in the face. Teenagers with parents with Alzheimer’s can become very impatient and frustrated, but this doesn’t mean they don’t love their parent. It means they are dealing with the grief of dealing with a parent who is no longer who they used to be.
Who are your favourite artists?
Visual artists? Monet, Van Gogh, Rene Magritte, Brett Whitely, Frida Kahlo, Jeffrey Smart, Margaret Olley.
The protagonist, Amelia, loves art. How have you used art to reflect Amelia’s experiences?
I tried to have Amelia’s struggle to express herself as an artist parallel her difficulties in expressing her feelings about what is happened to her and her dad. Amelia is quite self-contained, but her art shows what is important to her.
How have you incorporated 9/11 into the story?
Amelia obsessively watches 9/11 footage, reads about it, tries to imagine what it would have been like to be there. To her, it is her personal disaster writ large. Instead of having something slow and invisible up-end your life, there is something fast, immediate and visual. But she also learns that it is not just one story: there are lots of stories out of 9/11, including stories of hope and bravery and fellow-feeling.
Amelia’s best friend Gemma has a problem. Could you tell us about this?
Gemma develops an eating disorder almost by accident: she begins dieting and then finds herself on a path she can’t get off. I’ve seen this happen with a lot of young people, and it happened to me as a teenager. You can’t mess with restricting food: once you start, the problems you may have been using food to deal with get magnified. Amelia can’t understand it, because to her Gemma has everything, and she is also upset that Gemma can’t appreciate Amelia’s serious problems. They can’t help each other, in a sense, because of what’s going on in their own lives, but they do try to find a way back to each other.
I should note that I used my daughter’s best friend’s name with permission in the novel, but the real Gemma bears no resemblance to the fictional one!
Amelia’s neighbour, Will, plays chess and one of your earlier books is called Chess Nuts. Why have you used chess in your YA novel, rather than another pastime or point of contact?
Again, this was part of the autobiographical aspect of the novel: my daughter played chess, and her dad was a chess coach (which is how Chess Nuts came about). It was also one of the first things that alerted me to his mental decline: a man who remembered every move of his year seven chess final to suddenly forget how to move a knight. It was a clear sign something was wrong.
What other books have left a deep impression on you?
I read a lot of books featuring bodily or mental illness when I was a teenager. Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die had a big impact on me, as did The Bell Jar, A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata, and Second Star to the Right by Deborah Hautzig.
Thanks very much, Julia, and all the best with your new book and your family. Your story will no doubt help many others.
A few years ago, I had the supreme pleasure of joining a world of word nuts who allowed me to accompany them on hair-raising adventures through time and reason; I discovered the Word Hunters – a trilogy of etymological enigmas by author Nick Earls and illustrator, Terry Whidborne. I carry on a bit about the awesomeness of their series, here. Although Word Hunters is more than satisfying and a dozen other superlatives to boot, I was left wanting more as many exhilarating experiences are wont to make you feel. And so, the trilogy has expanded with the launch of the Top Secret Files.
Top Secret Files is a sort of compendium of loosely connected thoughts and verbal exploration. It’s a journal of notes and taste bud temptations. It’s an explanation of even more philology through brief crisp narrative and pages of eye-catching sketches, drawings, and diagrams. It’s the journal of the great word hunter, Caractacus entrusted to the ancient librarian, Mursili who perhaps a little misguidedly assigns it back to our dauntless duo, Earls and Whidborne.
Today we have the auspicious pleasure of welcoming Nick Earls to the draft table to learn a little more about the custodian of the Word Hunters and how he is dealing with his Top Secret Files.
Twenty-six books into the job, he’s an unkempt work in progress, growing into the thought lines etched deep into his forehead and still trying to get better each time he writes.
In a former life, your quest was to serve and protect or at least, make people feel better. How does your current occupational goal as a writer compare?
I now wear my underpants on the inside and don’t have a cape. Each job hinges on a connection with people. In medicine, it’s getting to understand them on their terms, so that the story they tell makes as much sense as possible. In writing the kind of fiction I mostly do, it’s about tapping into characters who, when read, feel as though they can’t have been made up. With Word Hunters there are other objectives too – there’s an adventure to be had and a world of mind-blowing words facts to play around with. My goal as the writer of this series is to entertain, but also be part of opening minds to the possibilities of history and the fascinating workings of the language. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of saying that English is a crazy language that makes no sense, but the more you grasp its 1500-year history (plus some back-story) the more sense it ends up making. And the more powerfully you can use it. ‘Night’ and ‘light’, for instance, aren’t spelled that way by chance, or because someone threw darts at a board – there’s a reason for it, and a really interesting one (featuring a now-lost letter), so we wrote about that in the new book.
Name three titles you have created that you are particularly proud of and why.
It’s not a thing I feel about anything I write. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s all awful – it’s just that ‘pride’ isn’t really the feeling. I love the process of exploring the story and its characters, and how they’ll all work, and then the job of working hard to get the details right and delivering them in a compelling way. If someone gets it, I feel good. It feels as if all that work was worth sharing. Okay, one example: Gotham, the first novella in the Wisdom Tree series. I had two story ideas that I wanted to give to one character, and I thought I could make them work together in an interesting way. So, the first two acts are essentially one of those story ideas, with seeds being sewn for the third, then act three really takes you somewhere, delivers something (I hope) you’re not expecting, and also casts new light on the earlier part of the story. It’s worked just as I hoped it would for quite a lot of people now, and I have to admit that’s gratifying, since I love it when fiction works that way in my head.
It’s been nearly three and a half years since the Word Hunter series hit our bookshelves. Was a follow up compendium like Top Secret Files always on the cards? If not, what evoked the idea and need for it?
It was Terry’s idea, and he put it to me when we were driving between two schools, doing our live Word Hunters show when the third book came out in 2013. He wanted to do something more visual and less dependent on a big new narrative, and he wanted to explore some of the gadgets we’d included. In that conversation, I realised I’d found some excellent word stuff that I hadn’t been able to include in the other three books, and we came up with the idea of a kind of manual, or ‘a compendium of devices and methods’ as Caractacus rather self-importantly puts it. Living in the Dark Ages and seeing the consequence of knowledge loss, Caractacus puts a premium on knowledge and, unlike the rest of us, has a pipeline to the future. So, this is him trying to keep track of the info future word hunters bring back to him, some of which he adapts for use in his own time. Some of that presented a fascinating challenge. In book three, he’s created lightweight 21st-century ceramic armour for the hunters to fight in, and for Top Secret Files I had to work out how it was made, then work out how to adapt that to processes someone could use on a Dark Ages pig farm. I have to say, that stretched me. Then we paired that with the fun activity of making your own medieval armour from cardboard, using the fascinating terms for each piece.
Expect the unexpected. You’ll come out of this dressed in armour from the 15th century, making bread from 3000 years ago and able to navigate using the Ancient Phoenician alphabet (or, more correctly, abjad). And who doesn’t want that set of awesome skills? You’ll also understand why we score tennis the way we do, where cricket fielding positions got their names, and how our alphabet found twelve new letters and lost nine of them!
Top Secret Files reads as a combination of loose jaunty exchanges and solid historical fact. At times if feels even more revealing and fantastical than the Word Hunters storylines. (Are all those words that couldn’t be saved as part of the English language real? Sorry had to ask; I’m too lazy to research every groke, fudgel, and curglaff) Why did you choose this style of delivery over straightforward narrative?
Some of the most improbable things in the book are true including, yes, those words that couldn’t be saved (even the one that involves doing a distinctly weird thing to a part of a horse that’s best left alone …). When I was tunnelling around for material, I wanted the facts to be weirder than the fiction, so that the fiction seems all the more plausible.
We had this kind of style in mind from the start, for two reasons. First, not having to build a massive narrative to slip in one brilliant word fact gave us licence to include lots more stuff and focus on it. It would have taken several more of the original books and a lot of complicated storytelling to have created opportunities to use everything we got to use here. Also, Terry was very mindful of creating a different way into the word hunters’ world. This was deliberately compact, really visual and in short sections (with an overarching concept but not an overarching narrative) to provide a way into the world for kids not immediately drawn to 40-60,000 words of narrative.
We wanted to make the original three books accessible by telling the most engrossing time-travel adventure story we could, but this book is designed to increase the accessibility even more. We wanted to create something for, say, 9-10-year-old boys not yet hooked by reading big stories (while at the same time offering fascinating content for people who are). If they get into this, maybe they’ll pick up book one, and then book two and book three. And by the end of that, maybe they’ll have felt that buzz in their head that only books can put there, and they’ll want more. I got into reading as a kid, but Terry didn’t, and this is Terry coming up with the kind of book he thinks might have made a difference to him at that age.
Illustrator, Terry Whidborne receives equal airplay alongside you, Lexi and Al throughout this journal. What was the dynamic like working with him? How did it influence and or benefit this production?
Terry’s great. We met working on an advertising campaign in 2002. We’re friends and I’m also in awe of his skills as an artist – another reason to do this book: I want publishers and others to see just how talented Terry is.
We each bring very different things to a book like this, and I think that helps make us a great team. We also had a very clear shared vision of what we wanted the end result to be. And it was always clear that we would have the freedom to suggest possible topics to each other, and throw in ideas to get the other one thinking. Terry would say things like, ‘I reckon there would be some kind of portal-sniffing device,’ and I’d have to rummage around for the science to sort-of back it up.
And I’d often say, about something I was working on, ‘I don’t know what this looks like – could you show me?’ and he would. Or I’d say, ‘here’s some great content I want to use, but how do we make it visual?’ and Terry would say, ‘How about a map?’
And he’d hide small things and see if I’d find them. Once you find, say, the ink smudge that’s also a map of Iceland – in context – you realise this book has more Easter eggs than Coles in March. It’s a slim book, but there are about a zillion tiny details in there, and they reveal themselves in different ways.
What inspires you to include or exclude words for discussion in the Word Hunter books? What external forces such as travel for example, influence your writing direction?
This time, I got the chance to use things that had amazed me, but that I wasn’t in a position to devote 20,000 words of narrative to. So, that was fun.
It was very interesting plotting the big story that runs across the first three books, and that create the world that the Top Secret Diary lives in. I needed each of the first three books to be an entire satisfying story, but also part of a whole, and I knew each one would feature three word quests. I also knew I wanted to follow a bunch of different pathways – English is what it is because of that – so I needed a mix of Germanic and Norman French/Latin words and words with very different origins. And I needed to get the characters to certain places at certain times to tell the big story we were telling. That was an awesome puzzle to try to solve. In the case of the last word in book three, I decided I needed something that would take us to the earliest-known book in English, link with an epic Dark Ages battle and get there via Shakespeare and one other interesting step. No easy task. I got there though.
Whose genius was it to include the interactive app, LAYAR for kids to utilise? Do you think this is the way of future storytelling?
That was Terry. The moment he discovered LAYAR, I got fanatical about it. It’s perfect for this book. Perfect. Again, it’s a great way in for someone not rushing to read lots of text, but for whom the idea of using a gadget to reveal hidden content appeals. And no one had more potential hidden content than me. I instantly knew it’d add massively to the reading experience, and I’d get to use a lot more great stuff.
Is it the way of future storytelling? It’s part of it, I’m sure. Technology gives us more tools than we’ve ever had. We just have to be smart enough to use them judiciously. LAYAR would be a gimmick or a distraction for some things, but it’s ideal for this.
On a scale of Never-Do-It-Again to Most-Exhilarating-Audience-To-Write-For-Ever!, how do you rate writing for tween readers? What is most appealing about writing for this age group?
I’m still learning, I think. I’m maybe a more natural writer for adults, but with the right material, time and smart editing, I can end up with something that works for the tween brain, and I’m getting closer to some of the techniques becoming instinctive. Two things are massively appealing about this age group. It’s a huge buzz when a kid comes up to you and raves about their Word Hunters experience and starts sharing some great etymology they’ve dug up. There’s a 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old whose grasp of English, you know, has been altered for the better. I love that. The other thing I really love is going round the schools and doing Word Hunters events. We’ve come up with a show that we can do together or solo that includes loads of visuals, props, games and a lot of noise, and It’s way more fun doing it than I ever thought. Every time I front up to a school with all my Word Hunters’ gear, I’m excited.
Now that you and Terry have been entrusted with Caractacus’ archive of Word Huntery (and really really interesting recipes!) thanks to Mursili, and blatantly ignoring all warnings to the contrary, have exposed it to the world, what plans do you and Terry have for the journal? Are more copies likely to appear? In short, what is on the draft table for Nick?
I have a PhD to finish, so no new fiction this year, but in the meantime, I want to make the most of the new material we’ve added to our show and take it around the place. I know that’s technically part of the job, because it might sell some books, but I actually want to do it because of the fun we can have and because of the way it opens a roomful of minds to the prospect of actually looking at our language and how it works, understanding it better and ultimately using it with greater power than most of us grew up being able to. I’ll also be putting in some effort to avoid the wrath of Caractacus. He’s not one to understand that this stuff was just too good to keep hidden.
Just for fun question (there’s always one): Describe a guilty pleasure (of yours) incorporating three words that did not exist before the last century.
Brilliant question. I’ll go as recent as I can. I regularly google (2001, as a verb) idle factoids (1973, invented by Norman Mailer, though the meaning has evolved since) using Bluetooth (1997).
Super! Thanks Nick.
If you reside in Queensland, you can catch Nick and Terry putting in some effort to avoid Caractacus’ wrath and share their Top Secrets at one of this year’s Book Link QLD’s Romancing the Stars events during March. For details on where they will be appearing (there are Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast venues), and how to book, visit the Book Links site, here.
I just love sequels that cleverly, though subtly, intertwine with small connections but take you on a whole new, unique adventure. Renee Price, author, educator and entertainer extraordinaire has done just that with her second book in the Digby series – an enthusiastic, lively and inquisitive romp jam-packed with mystery, melody and rhythm. Not to mention its upbeat and dynamic illustrations. Today we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity of a sneak peek into the soon-to-be-released, anticipated Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?! Doesn’t the title just make you want to get out your maracas and microphones and shimmy to your heart’s content!
Renee is here to tell us more about her book. Welcome, Renee!
Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?, much like Digby’s Moon Mission, portrays the joy and innocence of children’s imagination and curiosity. Digby and his friends have solved the mystery of a hungry moon, now it’s up to them (and some useful tools) to solve the mystery of a noisy noise! I’m really excited to release this book as it combines my two writing loves; stories and (spoiler alert!) song. J
How do you hope the concepts addressed in the story will resonate with readers?
I hope they will resonate really well! Digby’s stories celebrate friendship and teamwork, curiosity, creativity and problem-solving. I always write with these concepts in mind, yet rather than driving the messages home, deliver them in an entertaining and humorous way, and kids really engage and become enthused about getting involved, becoming part of the story, and problem-solving too.
What is your favourite part of the book? Why?
I have three favourite parts (is that allowed?)! I am once again, in love with Anil Tortop’s visual representation of my words. I swear she has a device that can tap into my brain and extract my exact thoughts on how I see my words looking on a page. I also LOVE the barcode design by Ozan Tortop (wait ‘til you see it, it’s so cool!). My third favourite part, and one I hold close to my heart is the musical element of the story. Combining words, pictures and music completes me! J
You are naturally musical yourself. What do you see as the main benefits of ‘tapping’ into one’s musical side? How have you seen children respond through your entertaining show performances?
I could rattle on all day about this one! Music is a universal language. Not only can we communicate through music, we can immerse ourselves in music to soothe, comfort, inspire, excite, entertain… there are no limits. We are all musical! I love visiting schools and preschools, seeing all kids engage in the story-telling that music offers and how it complements the written word. I can’t wait to launch the live performance for Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?. Music and story-telling galore!
I will never be able to properly articulate just how awesome this duo is. Not only are they incredibly professional and easy to work with, but they are so supportive and nothing is ever too much to ask. Their communication is top-notch and their work is utterly awesome. The entire collaboration with them has been enjoyable, from storyboard drafts right through to prepping files for print. I urge anyone contemplating a self-publishing journey to get in contact with them at tadaabook.com.
Being self-published you did quite a lot of work to get both Digby books off the ground and onto the shelves. Were you more confident this time? Did you do anything differently? What have been the advantages of already having the initial book under your belt, both in ways of publishing and marketing?
In some ways, I felt more confident because it was familiar and I knew what to expect, but it was also overwhelming at times because I knew what to expect! It’s a challenging journey, and at times, I wondered why I was putting myself through it all again, especially having two young children and little time to juggle everything. Through my first book, there were many things I missed as well, such as wider distribution channels, timing of publication date to meet Book Awards entry criteria, further research into print-on-demand services versus off-shore/bulk printing. But the advantages of having my first book out there, meeting more and more wonderful industry professionals to chat with and seek advice has been invaluable. One big thing I did differently this time was print offshore with a company who publishes a lot of trade-published titles. I’m really excited about the higher quality of my second book.
Fun Question! If you could be any musical instrument, what would it be and why?
Ooh, now this is a tricky one! I’d have to say a double bass – because then I’d finally be tall! J What would you be?
Hmm… I’d have to think about that!
Please share your book’s release date and what we can look forward to in the lead up to launch day and beyond. What exciting activities and events have you got planned?
Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who? will be released on March 1 2017. A book trailer is now available (see below), previewing a little of the musical element of the book, too, and there will be some more sneak-peeks coming in the lead up to the launch. We’ll also have some giveaways and fun stuff via Digby’s Facebook page and website.
Launch Day is Saturday March 4 2017 at Wallsend Library (Newcastle NSW) and is shaping up to be an exciting morning, featuring a book reading, signing, colouring activities and a special music performance! Follow Digby’s blog for updates at www.digbyfixit.com.
Thanks so much, Renee! Looking forward to jammin’ with Digby and his friends very soon! 🙂
BIG thanks to you, Romi! You’re a superstar. J
Pre-order your copy of Digby and the Yodelayhee… Who?here.
Self-help titles are normally in high demand following the glut of Christmas overindulgence we adults tend to experience at this time of year. Children, thankfully do not time their greed or any other dilemmas for that matter so predictably. Therefore, it’s comforting to know there is an ever-available selection of fantastic kids’ books allowing little ones to explore their emotions, temper their fears, and make themselves feel a whole lot better about themselves and the world they live in. Here a few in picture book form.
This is a divine picture book series featuring two unlikely companions, Pickle and Bree that centres around sound values and the importance of friendship. Romi Sharp discusses the various nuances and inspirations behind these demonstrative tales with author, Alison Reynolds, here. Visually exuberant, each title is crammed with subtle etiquette, positive attitude and enough storyline to keep kids tuned in and listening to the messages behind Bree and Pickle’s occasional disagreements. How this delicious sounding pair work their way through The Decorating Disaster and decorating The Birthday Party Cake are the first two in the series and reviewed, here. The Playground Meanies and The Big Snow Adventure follow early next year. Supportive, fun learning for 5 – 8-year-olds.
I adore Erzinger’s playful organically hued illustrations in Morgan’s timeless tale of overcoming your fears, in this case, of the dark. It’s impossible for Dingo to sleep because of his aversion to night. In desperation, he believes that if he can catch the Sun who watches over him by day and keep it with him by night, he will be safe. His nocturnal bushland friends are quick to come to his aid, gently helping him discover another guardian angel, one who watches over him each night. The value of listening to your friends in times of trouble and doubt are gingerly brought home in this simple and enjoyable tale. Great for frightened pre-schoolers.
Agatha is one little lassie who also finds it hard to face her dread of the dark. When her fellow pre-schoolers tease and taunt her about it, her imagination threatens to spill into her real world until she realises with a little bit of help from the adults around her, that everyone has doubts and fears about something and that it is all right to admit this. Once Agatha allows her fear of monsters a bit of free reign, she discovers they are something she actually enjoys spending time with, sharing tea parties and sprinkle biscuits with them. Pignataro’s delicate narrative and soft, welcoming illustrations invite calm and help alleviate those pesky fears that follow us about. Highly recommended for shared pre-school reading.
Move over Cranky Bear, there’s a new gal in town and her name is Popcorn. Popcorn is ‘quite simply, the friendliest chicken at Fiddlesticks Farm’. She’s your consummate over-sharer, adjective exploiter, and spreader of good cheer tonic, whose heart of gold is bigger than the henhouse. Every circle of friends has a Popcorn.
One day, Popcorn happens upon a fabulous friend machine, known in human circles as the cursed smart mobile phone. Popcorn is so enamoured by its captive glow and entreating way of connecting to others, that she becomes obsessed with messaging and soon completely forgets about all her old friends. It turns out her new cyber friends are chicken lovers too but for reasons more sinister than friendship. Will Popcorn’s true friends stand by her and save the day? Or is Popcorn’s goose cooked?
This is my pick of the bunch cautionary tale. Bland deals with cyber-safety and social media mindfulness in a comical yet completely relatable way that is sure to make little kids squirt with laughter and understanding. Highly recommended as an engaging read for 4-year-olds and above and primary schoolers who may be toting their own fabulous friend machines about.
Bill Condon is a man of modest expectations that do not match his considerable abilities. He writes with charm, wit, sincerity and affection. His novels for young people, of which there are many resonate a genuineness that fascinates newcomers and for many older readers, transports them back to the idle days of their childhood, warts and all. We are fortunate to have Bill at the drafts table today to reveal some of the mental conflicts he still encounters prior to penning a new story (a predicament faced by nearly every author) and some insights behind the inspiration for his latest junior novel, All of Us Together.
All of Us Together is a tale of warmth, heartache, tragedy and hope all rolled up in one very threadbare blanket that was the Great Depression in the early 1930s. The heroes of this tale are ordinary folk trying to etch out a life during an extraordinary period of Australia’s pre-World War II history. Poverty and having to grow up sooner than you ought to thankfully are not issues many modern day Australian youngsters have to deal with on a day to day basis (although unfortunately they are never completely absent from any society). Condon manages to infuse enough hope into what appears an untenable and inevitable situation for Daniel and his family when they are forced to leave their family home and begin afresh, without being morose. All of Us Together is a realistic and unapologetic view of life with an emphasis on the positive power of sticking together through thick and thin.
Here’s what Bill has to say:
Recently I started to watch a movie called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I didn’t care for it very much and turned it off after a short while. The thing that struck me most about it were the very first words spoken. A teenage boy says: ‘I have no idea how to tell this story’. This is exactly how I feel every time I go into battle with the blank page. One of the problems I have is that usually my mind is blanker than the page.
Although I have been at this game for a long time and have published many books, writing doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it often feels like I’ve never written anything, and have no idea how to go about it.
As gloomy as it may sound, one of the great motivators for me has long been the prospect of death. From the early 80s I wrote children’s poems and plays, short stories, and non-fiction. This was my comfort zone, and I was fairly successful at it. However, I felt that a novel was beyond me.
One night I was talking to one of my two wonderful sisters, and she hinted very tactfully, that perhaps I should try to push myself a little with my writing. I think she even put it more delicately than that, but it was enough to stir me into action. When I was 50, I at long last took the plunge and attempted a young adult novel. I was afraid that I’d fail, but I was even more afraid that I’d die without having tried. The book was called Dogs and it won an Honour Award in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards. Awards are such a lottery, but I was lucky. Perhaps if it hadn’t done well I might have gone back to doing what came easier to me. Even so, it was another five years before my next young adult novel appeared. I’ve now written eight novels, and each one has been a huge struggle.
In 2014 I had a junior novel called The Simple Things published. I thought writing for younger kids would be easier than writing for teenagers, but I was so wrong. It seems any kind of writing is just plain hard for me. I’d written that book and had it accepted in 2012, but it took two years to get published. Then another two years went by, in which I was unable to write anything. So for four years the blank page won out. The one thing that finally got me going again was my old friend Death, or the fear of it.
At the start of this year I had a lot of medical tests done and I’d convinced myself that the results wouldn’t be good. ‘Just one more book’, I told myself. So I went back to a story I’d tried to write the year before, only to give up on. This time I attacked it as if I had a very pressing deadline. From the outset I had a title, All Of Us Together. I knew it was a junior novel set in the Great Depression in Australia, but like the boy I mentioned at the start of this piece, I had no idea how to write it. Then memories kicked in.
When I was young my parents told me of their Depression experiences. If only I’d known that I’d need their help in writing a book one day I would have listened much more closely than I did. But as young people often do, I took them and their stories for granted. I’m sorry to say that it was pretty much a case of in one ear and out the other.
Luckily, some things stuck. I remembered my dad talking about Happy Valley, a ramshackle unemployment camp near Sydney. There were similar camps all over Australia, set up to cater for people who had lost their jobs and homes and had nowhere else to go. I remembered my mum telling me about the tramps who would regularly turn up at her parent’s door to ask for a handout. She said they were always given something to eat. Both of these memories – Happy Valley, and the tramp asking for food – made it into my book. And too, I borrowed from my own life, as I usually do. When Daniel, the main character in the story, gets into strife, his misdeeds are ones that I got up to when I was a child.
Slowly I got to know and understand Daniel and his sisters, Adelaide and Lydia, as well as their parents, and instead of dreading the thought of going to my computer, I actually wanted to spend as much time as I could with my fictional family. They had become almost real to me, and I hope readers will feel the same way.
Once I’d found my way into the story and the words were starting to flow, I received my test results. All is fine. This leaves me free to get on with life, and keep on hoping, for one more book.
We hope so too, Bill!
Thanks for visiting. Discover more bookish revelations about Bill as he continues his Blog Tour around Australia.
Today, dedicated writer for children and father himself, Robert Vescio uncovers the story behind his latest picture book, Jack and Mia. In this special guest post, he reveals how his own family background influenced this story.
But first a little bit about Jack and Mia. I have to say I love the look and feel of this book. Claire Richards’ diversity aware illustrations make me want to reach out and stroke the cover and pages. They are vibrant, childlike and at the same time, visually satisfying, filling up the pages with joyful colour, kind of how I’d imagine kids would view their world. The pages themselves are thick and glossy, a delight to turn through. The generous finger feel somehow makes me want to start reading the story again immediately I get to the end which will put this book in good stead for those repeated read requests.
Vescio’s tale is reminiscent of other classic picture books addressing the friendship separation theme such as Amy and Louis by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood but flips the concept in that Mia does not move away at first, but rather into Jack’s life. By doing so, suddenly ‘his days were full of rainbows’. He experiences a deep, rewarding friendship with Mia, unlike any other he’s ever had. They share everything together even a case of chicken pox and become King and Queen of their kingdom, until suddenly, Mia has to move ‘far, far away’. It’s not exactly clear where Mia’s family are transferred to however Richards’ illustrations suggest that it’s because of her father’s military postings.
Jack’s kingdom is in tatters, his world in ruin as he worries that Mia will no longer remember him being so far away. Little does he suspect that she shares the same despair as him until he happens upon one of Mia’s books, left behind in his toy box. It is this simple keepsake coupled with a bit of modern day technology that reunite the pair once again and allow their kingdom to flourish and grow…across the oceans.
Jack and Mia is an ideal book to share with young readers who may be experiencing their own emotional lows caused by separation of a loved one, either family member away for work or friend who’s had to move even just to a new school. A great class room and bedside book and possibly one of the most sensitive and well penned by Vescio to date. Now, here’s more from Robert:
‘I wroteJack and Miato show how friendships (rich in imagination) can survive distance by finding creative ways to stay connected.
Jack and Mia do everything together. They stick together like paper and glue. Then, one day, Mia’s family moves away – not to another suburb but to another country on the other side of the world.
This is a story that will resonate with children who are about to move or have moved and miss their friends. Unlike other picture books about this subject, Jack and Mia illustrates how today kids are finding it easier to keep in touch with friends and loved ones who live far away.
“Growing up, I had friends that moved half the world away – common for working parents and military families – and the only way to connect with them was to write or call,” said Robert. “Today, technology is changing the way we stay connected. Everything you need is in the palm of your hands.”
Skype hangouts have become a common occurrence in today’s society. It’s as easy as grabbing a coffee with your computer screen. In fact, Skype has become so popular that people use ‘Skyping’ as a verb to connect with people.
Of course, social media has also revolutionised how people talk. Facebook connects over 1 billion worldwide every day.
But, of course, not everyone embraces high tech gadgets. Some people prefer the human touch – a hug, for instance. Jack and Mia is all about how kids can use their imaginations to play together, even when they’re an ocean apart.
Jack and Mia (illustrated by Claire Richards and published by Wombat Books) is a warm and entertaining tale about the power of a child’s imagination and to keep a friendship long and strong, regardless of distance.’
Elizabeth Kasmer’s debut novel Becoming Aurora has just been published by University of Queensland Press. It has a thoughtful, multifaceted storyline and deals with important issues.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books Elizabeth.
Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA lit world?
I live in a tiny town in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Over the years I’ve met many aspiring and established writers through the annual CYA Conference in Brisbane, SCBWI (Brisbane and the Sunny Coast) and the occasional visit to the Write Links group. Children and YA writers sure are a warm-hearted and generous lot!
What’s your working background and how else do you spend your time?
My work background is quite varied. I’ve worked for the blood bank as a donor attendant (visiting just about every RSL and local hall in the greater Brisbane area), as a car park attendant and receptionist. When I was a student I worked in a recycling factory and I have also worked as a primary school teacher. Since the birth of my three sons I’ve helped my husband run his home-based business as a construction programmer. Any spare time is usually spent reading, swimming or catching up with family and friends.
What award has Becoming Aurora won?
Becoming Aurora (or, Aurora, as it was then known) was awarded the Queensland Literary Awards, Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award 2015.
Could you tell us something about your main characters, and the genesis of Aurora’s name?
Rory is grieving the loss of her father and trying to fit in with a group of kids who resent the influx of migrants (known as ‘boaties’) into their town. Jack is a feisty former champion boxer and tent boxer and Essam is an Iranian migrant and boxer trying his best to fit into his new home country.
I named Aurora after a painting that hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery. I was in Brisbane for a meeting with my writing mentor to discuss story ideas when I decided to take the opportunity to stop by the gallery. Inside, I got talking to an elderly man who told me he had been visiting the (Australian) paintings every year since the gallery had opened there in 1982. He said his annual trip was like visiting old friends. I was on my way out of the gallery when I spotted Aurora by Edward Burne-Jones (one of my ‘old friends’). As I have a niece named Aurora I decided to purchase a postcard of the painting to send to her. On the train trip home I knew the main character in my story was named Aurora by her father after the painting hanging in the gallery.
How do your characters show kindness?
Rory tends to Jack in the aged care facility and takes the time to listen to his stories. Through friendships with both Jack and Essam, Rory learns to overcome her prejudices and preconceived ideas of what ‘old person’ and ‘boat person’ means. Essam teaches Rory how to box.
How is Becoming Aurora a very Queensland story?
The story is set in the (former) sugarcane town of Nambour. I tried to root the story in the landscape, using local features and icons such as the Glass House Mountains, the beaches and the Big Pineapple. The story is also set over the Christmas holidays which means there is plenty of heat, sweat and storms brewing on the horizon.
Have you received any responses from young readers about Becoming Aurora that particularly resonate with you?
Not as yet but I’m looking forward to hearing responses from young readers!
What are you writing at the moment?
A children’s novel also set in Queensland. This story revolves around a river, superstitious river folk, and two friends who live and fish there.
It was great meeting you at the Brisbane Writers Festival and being in conversation on a panel of debut YA novelists with you, Christopher Currie and Mark Smith. What’s a strong memory of that day?
Meeting both yourself and fellow debut writers Chris Currie and Mark Smith for our discussion was a highlight, but my strongest memory of the day was when I went back to the green room to collect my bag before heading home. I slid open the door and inside, waiting to go on stage, was David Levithan, Meg Rosoff and Jay Kristoff! I stumbled into the room, smiling like a maniac and babbling about just needing to get my bag. David Levithan asked me a question, but it was at that point I got tunnel vision, grabbed my bag and backed out of the room, still smiling. I’m kicking myself now because, really, who wouldn’t want to say hi to a trio of awesome authors?
What a memorable green room encounter!
It was lovely to meet you and all the best with your books, Elizabeth.
Laugh Your Head Off Again (Pan Macmillan Australia) is a very funny book of clever stories by top Australian writers such as Andy Griffiths, Morris Gleitzman, Meg McKinlay, Frances Watts, Sally Rippin, Jaclyn Moriarty, Katrina Nannestad, Tony Wilson and New Zealander, Alan Brough. It’s ideal for primary school aged children and would be a good Christmas present.
Read more from some of the funny authors in Laugh Your Head Off Again…
Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? What’s something funny about your family?
I think people who come from serious families can probably be funny too. Maybe even funnier than the people who come from funny families? After all, they had to do all the work of being humorous while they were growing up. Nobody else in their family pitched in. So they have now become well-trained, highly-tuned humour machines. Whereas I got to lie around on couches laughing at my parents and my siblings.
Something funny about my family is that none of us can sneeze just once. We all have to sneeze twenty-five or thirty times. We are accustomed to it but other people stare and count our sneezes.
What’s something funny about you?
My hair looks a bit funny today. It looks funny every morning, to be honest, because I seem to sleep like a revolving door, turning around and around on the pillow until my hair is so electrified I could be a dandelion.
What are your other books? What’s something funny in them?
In Finding Cassie Crazy, a boy named Charlie thinks he has saved the school from a gas explosion. All the kids are sitting on the oval waiting for the police to check the school, and Charlie is feeling very proud of himself. ‘See those girls sitting cross-legged and singing?’ he says. ‘They wouldn’t be doing that right now if it wasn’t for me. See that guy over there taking the shoelace out of one of his sneakers? Same thing. That girl picking her nose? SHE WOULD BE DEAD AND HER NOSE WOULD BE FULLY UNPICKED IF IT WAS NOT FOR ME.’
What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? How did you do it?
In my book Dreaming of Amelia, the characters are writing an exam essay which has to be in ‘gothic’ form––so they have to make it scary and mysterious. Emily is describing ordinary, everyday things and trying to make them sound gothic to impress the examiners. ‘There is a deep foreboding in me,’ she says, ‘that my new shampoo doesn’t actually bring out the honey highlights in my hair like it says it does!’ Also: ‘I often sense, via a paroxysm of terror, when I’ve got a new pimple. And behold, there it was, a pimple of gothic proportions. I won’t distress you by describing it, except to say that it was on my chin where a witch will oft keep a wart.’
What is the title of your story in the book Laugh Your Head Off Again? Could you tell us something about the story?
The story is called ‘The Quibbles’. It’s about Barney, the King of the Realms of Dartmeter, Emperor of the Islets from Hither to Thither, Lord of all the Surrounding Bits and Bobs. He has come to Sydney for a holiday. While in Sydney, he spends a day taking the kids next door––Tim and Emily––to their activities (swimming, tennis, karate and guitar). He has many quibbles (small complaints) about the way these activities are taught. He also has many quibbles (tiny pebble-sharp creatures that jump around between toes) in his shoes.
Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? What’s something funny about your family?
Coming from a funny family sure helps. It’s even better if they’re all crazy.
My dad is optimistic, enthusiastic and extremely clumsy – a dangerous combination. I loved reading the Berenstain Bears when I was a kid, because the dad in those books was so much like my mine. Once, at a camping ground, my brother and I were trying to perfect the art of somersaulting into the pool, when Dad came along to show us a better way. He leapt into the air, completed a brilliant somersault, then came down, head-first, onto the edge of the pool. Moans. Groans. Blood. Stitches. The whole catastrophe. My brother and I were delighted!
What’s something funny about you?
I watch ‘Shaun the Sheep’ when nobody’s watching. I laugh myself stupid.
What are your other books? What’s something funny in them?
Mrs Groves, in my Olive of Groves series, is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever created. She’s headmistress of Mrs Groves’ Boarding School for Naughty Boys, Talking Animals and Circus Performers. She is kind but bonkers, and has absolutely no control over her unruly students. In fact, when things get out of hand, she drops to the floor and commando crawls into hiding – beneath the fronds of a potted palm, inside a cupboard amongst the tangrams and protractors, or behind the heavy velvet curtains in her office. It may not be the most effective way to run a school, but it has worked for Mrs Groves for the last twenty-seven years and she is not about to change things now!
What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? How did you do it?
I used to teach at a tiny country school. One day at lunch time, the kids made rude body parts in the sandpit. They were killing themselves laughing. It was really cute and a typical little-kid thing to do. I was in the middle of writing Red Dirt Diary 2: Blue About Love at the time, so I put it in the book. There’s just one line and a picture. I didn’t need to change anything. It was funny and sweet as it was. Life is full of marvels and laughs that are just waiting to be included in a story!
What is the title of your story in the book Laugh Your Head Off Again? Could you tell us something about the story?
My story is Mr Big and Ziggy. Mr Big is an enormous dog, possibly a mix of Great Dane, Labrador and horse. Ziggy is a small boy with a big heart, but a limited imagination when it comes to naming his pets. Both dog and boy are delightful but, together, they have a knack for getting into spots of bother. And sometimes, they get into seriously large splatters of bother …
And last but not least, here’s funnyman Alan Brough!
Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? I’m not sure. I’ve spent a long time thinking about that question and I still haven’t arrived at a satisfactory answer. What’s something funny about your family? You could always tell if my great aunt Marge was coming to visit because you could hear her coming down the street burping and farting really loudly. (That’s true. Once she got lost in a stand of native bush and was found because we followed the sound of her burps.)
What’s something funny about you? Lobster wobbling. (It’s a thing I do. Some people find it funny. Okay, only two people have ever found it funny. Most people find it slightly odd and a bit upsetting.)
What are your other books? I have only written one other book: Charlie and the War Against the Grannies. What’s something funny in it? Charlie dies. I know it doesn’t sound funny but it is. (He’s not really dead, he’s just been squirted in the face with rooster brand chilli sauce by an evil granny.)
What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? Farting. How did you do it? By just saying the word ‘farting.’ (Try it. Next time you’re with a group of other people doing something serious just say the word ‘farting’ and see what happens.)
What is the title of your story in the book Laugh Your Head Off Again? The name of my story is ‘Charlie and the Silence of the Llamas’. Could you tell us something about the story? It features a boy called Charlie, some llamas and a machine called ‘The Pulsating Pointy Prong of Puncturing Panic.’
Thanks very much Jaclyn, Katrina and Alan and all the best to you and the other contributors with Laugh Your Head Off Again.
Halloween is a time of frights and treats, tricks and magic, guises and remembrance – All Saints’ Day Eve. A fitting time to indulge in a little fantasy and fun. Karen Foxlee’s latest mid grade novel, A Most Magical Girl combines all of these things and will have primary aged readers biting their nails in delicious anticipation. Utterly charming, frightful in places and marvellously magic in others, this is an adventure both girls and boys will find spell binding.
Annabel Grey is a proper little lady of the Victorian times. She devoutly attempts to follow the sermons delivered by Miss Finch’s Little Blue Book, a bible of Victorian social etiquette and expectations but her good intentions derail after she is sent to live with her two aunts in London. They are Shoreditch witches and apart from being Annabel’s new guardians, unlock a heritage Annabel had no idea about, her ability to perform magic.
However, Annabel has no time to dispute their proclamations because her unusual abilities allow her to foresee a terrible future for London and all who dwell there. Mr Angel, evil warlock of the underworld has built a sinister device to use with his black magic to destroy all of the good magic in the world and those who practise it. Only a most magical girl can stop him.
Foxlee’s use of language is bewitching. Annabel’s adventure is fast paced and divinely otherworldly both in spirit and in setting. I thoroughly adored flying along on her desperate quest with Kitty and her strong-willed broomstick. I’m sure children will find A Most Magical Girl just as enchanting.
Today Karen joins us at the draft table to reveal the magical places A Most Magical Girl sprung from.
Welcome Karen! Tell us a bit about kids, authors and story ideas…
The Big Leap
I love to tell my young audiences that kids and authors are pretty much the same when it comes story ideas. They always look dubious at first. Authors surely have a special library of previously unused ideas I can see them thinking. It’s locked away somewhere at the top of a turret beside their quills and their perfect first drafts.
“It’s true,” I assure them. “You tell me where you get your ideas from and we’ll see if we’re the same.”
Their hands shoot up: from life experiences, from dreams, from things you see! From things you read, things that happened a long time ago, from things you hope for, from television! Story ideas start from things you overhear, from facts, from songs, from comic books, from movies, from computer games, from mixing your own life with the life of book characters that you love! From day-dreaming!
I always love hearing that one. It validates all my hours spent lying quietly day-dreaming. “Oh my goodness,” I cry, ticking off each one. ‘How weird! My ideas come from all these places too! They come from everywhere!”
Authors let ideas come, we day-dream, we are open to them. We store them away in our brain machine never knowing when we might need them. We put an idea from a year ago with an idea from today. We percolate ideas. We write them down without knowing what they mean.
But, I tell them, there’s also another way that authors and kids are the same when it comes to story ideas. Their dubious expressions return. I clamber up onto a table. Now they start to look down-right worried.
From an experience (a visit to a museum many years before)
From a life-long love of history and from reading lots books with historical settings
From a love of magic and heaps of little ideas about how magic works
A good old-fashioned daydream.
I was lying on my sofa thinking about a museum I’d visited a decade before. This museum was in London and it contained a recreated Victorian era street, where I wandered for hours. Years later, on my sofa, I closed my eyes and day-dreamed a carriage arriving on that street. I imagined a girl stepping down. She was pretty and a bit posh and also, I knew as I watched her, the owner of a secret. She stood before a shop window and read the words printed there. Miss E & H Vine’s Magic Shop. Wow, I thought. Magic. I love Magic. This seems good. What’s going to happen here?
“What do you think authors do when they have some ideas that excite them?” I ask from my table top perch. “What do you do?”
A chorus of replies: Just start! Just start writing! Just start even if you don’t know the answer!
“Do you just LEAP into the story?” I ask.
“Yes!” they shout, because they really want to see an author jump off a table.
And so, because it is the absolute truth about authors and ideas and how they really are not much different to children, I LEAP!
James Roy has a strong pedigree in the world of children’s and young adult writing. His stand-out books in my opinion are Town, sophisticated interlinked short stories; Problem Child, about bullying from the bully’s point of view; and his intriguing, wrenching YA novel, Anonymity Jones.
It’s a powerful, important story, shared by Rwandan, Noël Zihabamwe and has won the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize this year.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, James.
Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA and children’s lit world?
I live in the Blue Mountains, but I travel broadly in my work as a schools presenter, as well as in my pursuit of a cracking story. I am heavily involved with WestWords, a Western Sydney youth literature initiative, and I try to be supportive of (and seek the support of) other kidlit/YA creators.
What’s your background and how else do you spend your time?
I was raised in a Seventh-day Adventist missionary family, and I think that upbringing gave me two great gifts – a love of story, and a love of music. Writing ticks the first box, and playing in various bands ticks the other.
I remember seeing a fantastic version of your children’s book Edsel Grizzler as a Bookgig at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Which one other of your works would you like to see in a different form?
I’m currently working on a screen adaptation of Captain Mack, which excites me (although I’m still looking for a producer – hint hint…). I think Town would make an interesting stageplay or film, and of course One Thousand Hills.
Why did you write One Thousand Hills?
As a child, my friend Noël lived the story of One Thousand Hills. In a sense this book was written to honour him and the countless other children living through the hell of civil war and tribal violence. I hope it also serves as something of a cautionary tale – this is what happens when hatred, ignorance and bigotry is left unchecked.
Is it a novel for children or young adults?
It was written for young people. It is very carefully structured to allow younger readers to appreciate it without being too confronted. But anyone – adult or young person – who comes to it with any foreknowledge of the events is left in no doubt that this was a brutal and nightmarish event.
Could you tell us about your main character?
Pascal is very much like Noël, who was nine at the time of the genocide. He’s a normal kid with siblings, parents, friends, teachers. He’s a normal kid who one day encounters the unimaginable.
How do you know and can write a character like this?
Societal and cultural detail was obtained through my conversations with Noël. Beyond that, Pascal is just a kid. If I’ve learnt one thing from twenty years of speaking with kids all over the world, it’s that the same things motivate, excite and worry them no matter where on earth they live.
Have you received any responses from readers about One Thousand Hills that particularly resonate with you?
The most interesting one I’ve read was on GoodReads, where someone said they really didn’t like it – that it made them feel physically ill – before going on and listing all the ways it had affected them, and talking about how much they had learnt and processed from reading the book. I took that as a win.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing the latest of the Chook Doolan books, and also putting together some ideas for an adult novel that will form part of my Masters dissertation. In the meantime, a sequel to One Thousand Hills seems quite likely.
What have you recently enjoyed reading?
I’m currently re-reading Moby Dick, in preparation for my dissertation. I’m also about to get back into Old Yeller forty years after I first read it. I have a multitude of tissues at the ready.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Would it be too political to suggest that we #CloseTheCamps?
Thanks for your answers and all the best with One Thousand Hills, James.
Laugh Your Head Off Again(Pan Macmillan Australia) is a very funny book of clever stories by top Australian writers such as Andy Griffiths, Morris Gleitzman, Meg McKinlay, Frances Watts, Sally Rippin, Jaclyn Moriarty, Katrina Nannestad, Tony Wilson and New Zealander, Alan Brough. It’s ideal for primary school aged children and would be a good Christmas present.
Meg McKinlay answers my questions (and makes me laugh out loud):
Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? What’s something funny about your family?
I’m not sure where my sense of humour comes from but I do think all families are funny in their own way. Mine has recently developed a habit of replacing photos in other family members’ houses with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and seeing how long it takes them to notice. I find this pretty amusing.
What’s something funny about you?
It takes me an average of 78 days to notice that a photo of a cherished family member has been replaced with a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What are your other books? What’s something funny in them?
I’ve published thirteen books, ranging from picture books all the way through to a poetry collection for adults. Some of my best-known books are No Bears, Duck for a Day, and A Single Stone.
One of my favourite funny moments is in Definitely No Ducks! – the sequel to Duck for a Day – when Max the duck disguises himself as a penguin in order to take part in a class assembly, and things go chaotically wrong.
What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? How did you do it?
I once drove past someone sitting at a bus stop and – due to their long limbs and black clothing – briefly mistook them for a speed camera. I turned this into a poem called ‘Walter’, about a boy with ‘unnatural angles’ who deliberately sets out to trick motorists. As for how I did so, I just let my brain think the weirdest thoughts imaginable and ran with them. I consider this to be a very sound policy at all times.
My story is called “Corn Chip Belieber”. It’s about two boys who find a corn chip that looks like Justin Bieber and come up with a get-rich-quick scheme, only to be thwarted by a kamikaze seagull. It was a ridiculous amount of fun to write but has complicated my love of corn chips.
Thanks very much Meg and all the best with this new book and your other work.
Tania McCartney is no stranger to the world of Kids’ Literature. Her knowledge and ability to produce entertaining, endearing and enduring picture books is nothing short of remarkable and now sitting comfortably in her enviable arsenal of accreditations, is a re-discovered gift – illustration.
Sumptuously rich in detail and stuffed with enough iconic charm to make both Banjo Paterson and Con the Fruiterer feel at home, her first self-illustrated picture book, Australia: Illustrated delivers a (very satisfying) slice of all things Aussie to an audience who might still remember what a frog cake is as well as those young enough to regard the Wheel of Brisbane as their first Ferris wheel ride.
It is a magnificent compendium of facts, landmarks, foods, cultures, flora, fauna, natural wonders, celebrities and attractions playfully illustrated in Tania’s unique, considered hand. Her drawings do more than just tell a story and describe a caption. They fill my visual soul. New South Wales’s Snowy Mountain region is resplendent with wild silver Brumbies (skiiing, horse riding and snowboarding as it were!) for example, revealing Tania’s cheeky take on life and no doubt, her own personal reflections of a land she clearly adores.
Her affection is contagious. From the divinely cloth-bound cover and very first end pages, clean and devoid of the congestion of civilization (a nod to the pre-settlement days of Australia perhaps), to each State and Territories’ four to five page expose of their specific peculiarities, Australia: Illustrated draws the reader in and, sublimely, educates and entertains along the way. The final end pages, a testament to the diversity and wonder that fills this wide brown land (with green bits, girt by sapphire seas) we call, home.
Today, we leave the draft table for a pair of comfy armchairs, a delicious cup of tea and a few precious moments with the gifted creator behind EK Book’s newest non-fiction picture book release, Australia: Illustrated.
Welcome, Tania. It’s great to finally spend some ‘virtual’ time with you.
So lovely to visit, Dim!
Your very first self-illustrated picture book,Australia Illustrated, is out any moment. Has this been a dream come true?
In a word: yes!
Have you been suffering heart palpitations? I know I’d be more anxious that than
Yes. How did you know??
I could hear them all the way up here in Brisbane.
I’m not surprised. They’re pretty thunderous.
Has this book been a bucket-list kind of thing?
Yes and no. It was more of a meant-to-be than a bucket-list-thing, though now it’s been ticked off my bucket-list, I’m happy it got onto that list!
It has actually just been a long-buried seed of an idea but it may not have even grown if the circumstances hadn’t been right. There was a grant I wanted to apply for, I needed a contract to do so, my publisher just happened to think the idea was fabulous at the time (this changes, as you know!) and I got a contract the next day.
I know! If only all contracts were like that! This was a little scary, though, because the idea was quite ethereal at the time. I mean, I knew it would unfold okay… and it did. But I did it all the wrong way.
What do you mean?
I basically winged it. I had an outline, of course, but the content was pretty much an organic process. I was SO lucky to have this kind of opportunity. And I did the cover first. I mean, who does the cover first?
I don’t much about the illustrative process, but that does sound a little dotty.
SO dotty. But it worked because that cover was one of my favourite things to create, and it set the scene for the style and layout of the entire book. I highly recommend up-ending processes!
Are you proud of this book?
I am for the fact that I finished it. It took a year and contains over 1000 hand-drawn images over 96 pages. Half of the finished pages are digitally illustrated, too, so it was a lot of work and I was also in learning mode at the time (re-learning my illustration skills and also learning digital skills—I basically learned as I went).
I’m also proud of it because it’s my first self-illustrated book and I think first self-illustrated books take a lot of courage. Like, a lot. It’s scary because I’ve had years to get used to writing criticism, but illustration criticism is a whole other colour on the palette.
So, my nerves are on standby, for sure—and I have to consistently tell myself I created this book for me, no one else—and that if kids and adults happen to take pleasure in it, that will please me very, very much. In fact, ALL creators should create books for themselves first and foremost. If we created them for other people, we’d never enjoy it as much or do our best work. And once our books are published, they become someone else’s anyway, so it’s nice to hang onto ownership during production!
Oh gosh, Dim, this tea is so good.
Thanks! Isn’t it divine? You’ve written several books about Australia. Will there be more?
Probably not. I do have ideas for books about Australian people (biographic), plants and animals but they won’t be Australia-centric, if that makes sense.
I don’t know why I’ve written so many books on Australia. It’s not a conscious decision. Perhaps it’s because the world is full of so much negativity right now—I fully realise and accept that our country (any country) is far from perfect, but it just feels so nice to celebrate what’s good here sometimes. And there’s so much that’s good. Australia Illustrated is a celebration of what’s good.
So much. The creative freedom. The ability to play and allow things to unfold. I know it’s not realistic, but it would be incredible if all books could be created in this way! It’s just so much fun. I loved relearning skills and meeting my characters and learning so much about this country that I never knew.
I loved the digital illustration and the layout and design. I also loved doing the finishing art in Photoshop. Creating the fonts was fun.
How did you do that?
With an app called iFontMaker. It’s fabulous. You can get so creative. You can even create fonts for your kids, using their handwriting.
Sounds fascinating, I’d love to give it a go.
You must. I also loved pulling the pages together. It’s so satisfying.
So, hang on, you did quite a bit for this book. Not just writing and illustrating?
I did heaps. I researched, wrote, fact-checked, drew, painted, did digital illustration and mono-printing, scanning, touching up, photography, fonts, layout, design, typography, cover layout and design—all to print-ready PDF. I LOVE doing all this. It’s so satisfying and skills-building. Then I had the wonderful Mark Thacker from Big Cat Design take all the PDFs and whack them in InDesign for the printer.
And my gorgeous publisher Anouska Jones was my editor and second eyes and ears, and I had a group of other eyes and ears, too, and then there was the team at Exisle and our printing coordinator Carol and publicist Alison and all the fabulous book reps and all the wonderful friends and colleagues who helped me authenticate things and help me out with research.
I have an entire page dedicated to thank yous! I also had the backing of the ACT Government—artsACT—for their grant to help produce this book.
So while I did a lot, I certainly didn’t do it alone. No one ever does it alone.
Gosh, we have an amazing bunch of people in this industry.
We do. I feel privileged to be part of it. This really is great tea, Dim.
Of course it is, it’s from Queensland! What’s next for you, Tania?
Well, I’ve just come out of a long rest! I took a lot of winter off, other than ongoing obligations and a little bit of production on some upcoming titles.
Oooh – can you share them with us?
Well, one is a sequel to Smile Cry with Jess Racklyeft. The other is a follow-up to This is Captain Cook with Christina Booth—and we’re also in the middle of another picture book for the National Library. Tina Snerling and I have been working on books 6 and 7 for the A Kids’ Year series.
I’ve been planning my illustration style for my first illustration commission with the National Library and I’ve been working on a non-fiction pitch for them, too, which I’ll illustrate. And I’ve been finalising a junior fiction manuscript after talks with a gorgeous publisher. Oh—and just like you would, I have several thousand other little bits and ideas floating around.
Yes, something I can relate 100% to! But would you have it any other way?
No! Well, yes—I really needed that time out after Australia Illustrated. It was an enormous amount of work. 96 pages!! So happy to have my energy and mojo back now, though.
Mojo back is good! Tania, thanks so much for stopping by today. I’ve really enjoyed the chat.
Me, too, Dim! And thanks for the tea!
The kettle is always on…
This is more than a picture book, more than a resource; Australia Illustrated is a meaningful, beautiful, thoughtful, piece of art.
Quiet achievers are those I admire most. Mark Carthew is one of those quiet achievers, except when he’s strumming out a tune on his guitar and reading one of his crazy verse orientated picture books aloud. With more projects on the draft table than you can wobble a pencil at, I thought it was high time we got to know one of Australia’s most consistent and talented children’s authors.
His recent release, Marvin and Marigold The Big Sneeze with Simon Prescott, exemplifies all that we’ve come to expect of a Mark Carthew picture book: clear, engaging story, lyrical text, and kid friendly pictures guaranteed to spark repeated readings. The Big Sneeze is the first in this mouse inspired cute critter series, ably introducing Marigold to her new neighbour, Marvin, who’s in a pretty woeful way with the flu to begin with. Their friendship begins in a rather slow, fractured way until with a dash of empathy and a slathering of kindness, Marigold comes to accept the true mouse behind all the sneezes, snorts and snuffles. A little classic in the making (which are what The Gobbling Tree and The Moose is Loose! are to me). Let’s find out how he does it.
I am passionate about words, pictures and music… and how each of these things resonates in its own special way to make images. The rhythm of language and the power of alliterative words and phrases shared out loud is something reflected in my stories, verse and songs.
Q: A hefty percentage of your children’s titles are picture books. What draws you to creating this genre of children’s literature?
Working with and seeing wonderfully talented illustrators bring your ideas to life is one of the great pleasures of being children’s picture book / illustrated text author. Each book is literally a birth; a special creation and much anticipated result of both vision and passion. Illustrator’s weave their own skills and magic into this creative process, making the genre a unique blend of two imaginations. I also enjoy working with editors, publishers and designers — and they need to get due credit; as they can bring significant (emotionally detached) insights and ideas to picture book projects.
Q: What style of writing do you identify most strongly with; children’s, poetry, song writing? Which style excites you the most to create?
Hard question, as many of my works involve combinations of all three! My picture books, anthologies and plays regularly revolve around narratives with a strong sense of the poetic, alliterative and rhythmic; and more often than not they have a musical or song element that dovetails naturally.
Q: Marvin and Marigold: The Big Sneeze, is the first in a new series of picture books featuring two new fun characters. Please tell us a bit about it. Why mice? Was this your original intention or is it a product of your collaboration with illustrator, Simon Prescott?
At a meeting in Frenchs Forest Sydney, my Publisher at New Frontier Sophia Whitfield, suggested she would be interested in me developing a manuscript around two animal characters. Reflecting on this while returning on the Manly Ferry, some verses started to flow; and the Marvin & Marigold series began that very day. Some of the key alliterative and rhyming stanzas based around their names, ‘mice’ and ‘mouse houses’ were written on the way back to Circular Quay. New Frontier had just set up a UK office in London and it was Sophia who made the UK connection to Simon Prescott, based on his whimsical style and expertise in illustrating mice.
Q: How did the concept of Marvin and Marigold come to being? What do you hope to portray in your stories about them?
Children’s publishers in Australia and around the world have had great success with picture books concerning cute and endearing animal characters; interestingly quite often with titles featuring ‘two names’. As mentioned, New Frontier was keen to see if I could pen something original and engaging along similar lines with potential for a series.
While still involving word play and strong rhyme; these narratives also explore some deeper thinking around familiar life scenarios, situations and personal challenges — as well as important themes such as family, relationships, kindness and empathy. A series with two next door neighbours and friends, a boy and a girl, provides the perfect vehicle.
Q: You mentioned that you ‘enjoy making books that encourage play with language, words and images’. Do you find it easier to ‘tell stories in song’ when developing a picture book as opposed to writing in prose? Describe the process for us.
My creativity seems to flow when I write in a lyrical, rhyming style and I think my love of verse texts, poetry and song writing has influenced my desire to share stories in sympathetic mediums. Poetic stanzas often bounce around in my head like a ‘third eye’ or voice. However, I am also very keen to extend my writing into a more prose based, graphic narrative style for the older primary readership and I have a couple of projects on the draft table in that regard.
Q: Your picture books in particular have strong appeal for lower primary and pre-primary aged readers, providing plenty of predictive reading possibilities and moments of fun to crow over again and again. What is the attraction for writing for this age group?
Younger audiences respond naturally to call and response, alliteration and the use of strong rhyming, onomatopoeic phrases that are part of my writing style. That natural early childhood interest in shared language and interaction excites me as a writer and allows me the privilege and space to enjoy the fun of word play mixed with drama, music, movement and spoken words.
Q: What’s on the draft table for Mark?
2017 will be a big year with three picture books as well as various other poetry and writing projects in production or development.
My long long term illustrator friend Mike Spoor (UK) and I will be releasing a speciality art style picture book Six Little Ducks (with song), a project which evolved from our 2013 Australian tour. The second book in the Marvin and Marigold series, Marvin & Marigold: A Christmas Surprise will be released in the lead-up to Christmas 2017 and The Great Zoo Hullabaloo illustrated by Anil Tortop (Qld) will be out in April 2017. That project was developed during my May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Fellowship and is in essence the sequel to The Moose is Loose!— but with a different publisher, illustrator and a new twist!
With the assistance of Karen Small from Small but Mighty Productions, I am planning to produce a 10th Anniversary Edition of my CBCA Honour Book and anthology, Can you keep a Secret? Timeless rhymes to share and treasure. I hope to do that in both eBook & hard copy.
I am also working on some new poetry anthologies and a graphic novel / crossover text for older primary readers.
Q: When not scribbling stories for children, who / what do you like to read?
I enjoy magical realism, folkloric and action / fantasy novels… and reading other writer’s illustrated books!
Q: Just for fun question (there’s always one): If you had to choose to be one of your picture book characters for a week, whom would you choose and why?
Mmmm… most of my current characters are animals, so that is a tricky question! I’d probably be Jack in my upcoming title – The Great Zoo Hullabaloo. He’s a zookeeper who enjoys being around animals, as well as playing the drums!
PS: Mark has lots of information, activities and free material on his wonderful website — www.markcarthew.com.au
Reading Daughter of Nomads feels like being inside a rich nomad tent surrounded by colours, textures and the scent of spices.
Could you tell us about the setting?
The setting is based on where we lived when we were aid workers in Pakistan in the 1980s and early 1990s. We lived in Abbottabad which I’ve used as inspiration for Sherwan (in 1662) where Jahani was brought up. The beautiful alpine lakes with paries (fairies), rushing rivers, dangerous bridges and fairy fields are all places we took our children to visit. Even the air view from Azhar’s carpet of the Karakorams and Himalayas came from personal experience when we had to take a rather old and small plane from Chitral to Peshawar to escape the blocked snow passes.
What exotic elements, talismans or motifs have you included in the series?
I have an ancient taveez which I bought in Peshawar and it became the inspiration for Jahani’s taveez. I also have a nomad dress and a pouch (similar to the one that Jahani’s nomad mother gives her). The idea of pari power in the story comes from the folklore of Hunza (Hahayul in The Tales of Jahani). I haven’t been to Hunza but my husband has and I have some lovely photos of the area that a friend, Catherine Wood, took for me.
Where did the stories woven into the main narrative that seem to be like Tales from the ArabianNights come from – traditional or your creation?
Most of these come from the Shahnameh: the Persian Book of Kings. The evil King Zahhak appears quite early in the Shahnameh as does that of Feraydun who slays him. The famous heroes Rostam, Sohrab and Gordafarid come later on. Even Kaveh one of the horses’ names comes from this mythology. The stories about the beginnings of the kingdoms I gleaned from Pakistani travel books. These are stories that people there know and these naturally fed into the fantasy aspect of the books.
How does the character of Jahani change?
Jahani wakes up one morning believing she is a poor girl who may not amount to much, maybe never be able to be married, and then finds she is someone else entirely. Due to a tragic event she suddenly has no idea who she is. Throughout the story she learns to trust and grows into a young woman who is able to take charge of her own destiny.
How have you subverted the traditional role of women?
In the Mughal Empire women did not rule on their own. If they were called Empress it was because their husband was an emperor. Yet the intrigue and deals that went on in the royal harems are fascinating to read about. One emperor was drugged half the time and his favourite wife made most of the decisions. He just had to sign the papers.
The women I met in Pakistan weren’t downtrodden as they are often depicted in the west. Once a girl gets educated she can do anything, wearing a scarf or not. I guess that’s why the Taliban shot Malala. She knew the truth: educate a girl and you change the world. Jahani wanted to change the world even before she knew who she was. She had to fight for the privilege to do so. I hope she will be a role model to show the unlimited potential all women have.
Are these stories for entertainment or to express issues? Or both?
After writing some stories with heavy topics like forced marriage, trafficking, war orphans and blasphemy, I wanted to write something lighter, fun, adventurous and epic. A story to show the beauty and the best of Pakistan. To celebrate the life we had there with our children. It was my eldest daughter who encouraged me to write about Jahani as this was a story she remembered from her childhood. When I look back on the story and also read some of the reviews I can see there is more to her character. It’s true I did want to portray a strong female character which I hope I have done with Jahani.
How have you segued book 1 into book 2? (unless this is a spoiler)
Daughter of Nomads segues into The Leopard Princess by Jahani having her recurring dream of fire; it is a pivotal scene for the second book as she finally learns what the dream means. When Jahani wakes from the dream only a few days have passed since the end of book one and then the action carries on with the nomads being attacked. Readers can read the first chapter of The Leopard Princess at the end of Daughter of Nomads.
How involved were you in the conception of the illustrations by D.M. Cornish? What is most appealing about them to you?
Aren’t they gorgeous? He is so talented. I loved the way they echo the gold and minarets of the Mughal Empire. I was asked for some ideas of what could go into the cover and the internal pictures but I wanted him to use his own ideas as I thought the best work would come out that way and so it did. I did want one of the illustrations in each book to include the leopard and one to include the carpet in the first book. Other than that D.M. worked his own magic.
Describe your dream magic carpet.
One that grows in feelings as Azhar’s does. Rich colours: red and green, maybe some animals as found on Persian carpets. One that can save your life if you fall off!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to mention the great job my son Michael Hawke did of Jahani’s poems. He’d read the manuscript and I told him Jahani liked Rumi’s poems but other than that inspiration, the work was all his own. Even at the end, close to typesetting, when my editor Kristy Bushnell and I realised we needed a song for the people to sing, Michael delivered. He is amazing.
Thank you very much for your generous responses, Rosanne and all the best with this series.
Krystal Sutherland’s YA debut novel Our Chemical Hearts has just been published by Penguin Random House Australia.
It describes a singular relationship and has an originality and authenticity that young adults will respond to.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Krystal.
Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA lit world?
I’m currently based in Sydney, though I’ve also lived in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. I’m slowly becoming more involved in the YA scene here in Australia; most of my writing friends are based in the UK, so I feel a certain pull toward London, but I’m going to meet a few Aussie authors on my tour. Hopefully they’ll like me enough to keep in touch!
What’s your working background and how else do you spend your time?
My first paid writing job was as a staff writer for my university’s what’s on magazine. It was a sweet gig. I got to go to red carpet events and interview celebrities like Matt Damon and Baz Luhrmann. After that I took over editing duties for a year, then worked as a foreign correspondent in Amsterdam before landing my book deal.
The book is set in the US… Somewhere… At the time of writing, I didn’t know US geography well enough to set it in, say, New York, so I left the specific location ambiguous.
What inspired me to write it? Gosh, so many things. It wasn’t like a lightning bolt out of the blue, that’s for sure. It was a slow burn of inspiration. It started with an image that became the first chapter: Henry in drama class, and Grace walking in. I wanted to know more about the characters, so I kept writing.
Major characters Henry Page and Grace Town are extremely memorable (love their names). Could you tell us about these characters?
Henry is optimistic but naïve, a classic hopeless romantic who believes in love at first sight and grand gestures. Grace is the opposite: a realist who’s had to grow up faster than most people and no longer sees love as something pretty and frilly.
How do you know and can write characters like these?
You don’t, not until you sit down and write them! The characters develop over time, becoming richer and richer the more time you spend with them.
Why did you write Murray, the Australian character, in such a ‘Steve Irwin’ style?
Whenever I travel or live overseas, I notice this strange phenomenon: Australians become hyper Australian. We talk about dropbears and how dangerous our fauna is (even though most of us have never seen a deadly snake in the wild). We say g’day a lot more and our accents tend to become more noticeable. A lot of the world sees us as “Steve Irwin style” and don’t know any different – so in order to protect his Aussie identity, Murray is essentially giving the people what they want.
Could you tell us something about the music and literary references you’ve included in the novel?
They were mostly just what I was listening to or reading at the time – ‘Someday’ by the Strokes, ‘Hey’ by the Pixies, a bit of Elvis playing in the coffee shop when I was writing one day. The Pablo Neruda poem is one I’ve loved for some time, and it fit the story so well I couldn’t not include it.
Have you received any responses from young readers about Our Chemical Hearts that particularly resonate with you?
I’ve had several young readers tell me Our Chemical Hearts is their new favourite book, which – as a writer – is massive. The books we love as teens help shape us into the adults we eventually become, so having that kind of impact on someone’s life is simply mind-blowing.
What are you writing at the moment?
I just finished the draft of my second book, which is a YA magical realism about fear and anxiety. I think readers are really going to connect with it.
What have you enjoyed reading?
My favourite YA books of the year so far are The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley, and This Savage Song by V.E.Schwab. Outside of YA, I adored Uprooted by Naomi Novak.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m going on a five day, five state tour of Australia! If you’re in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane or Sydney, I’ll be visiting a bookstore near you. Check my website for dates, times and locations.
Thanks for your really interesting answers and all the best with Our Chemical Hearts, Krystal.
Skydancer’s Escape (Book #1) introduces us to young Ruby Wishfingers’ world and takes us on a wild ride with the mischievous antics of her toy-turned-real unicorn, Skydancer. In Book #2; Toad-ally Magic! Ruby’s wishing fingers create even more havoc when she turns her bratty little cousin into a toad. See the full reviews here.
It is with huge delight to welcome Deborah to Boomerang Books to discuss her books from the wonderfully ‘magical’, creative and unputdownable series – Ruby Wishfingers.
Deborah, can you tell us how this series was created?
The name ‘Ruby Wishfingers’ literally popped into my head while I was grocery shopping with my kids at Aldi! How could I ignore an extraordinary name like that? On the drive home I started to wonder who Ruby might be. Over the weeks and months a story began to develop.
What were your inspirations and how did your ideas develop?
Like most writers I draw upon my own experiences, sometimes consciously and at other times subconsciously. There are snippets of people I know in all the Ruby characters. There is definitely a lot of me as a child in Ruby. There’s a lot of my Nana in Granny Wishfingers, too. My experiences as a mother were useful when Jellybean hit the terrible twos, too! I spent a few years in Qld so my experiences with cane toads probably inspired much of Ruby Wishfingers 2: Toad-ally Magic!
But there are other little things I didn’t realise had subconsciously crept in until family members pointed them out. Like how my grandfather used to come over from England in the summer to stay on our farm in New Zealand, and because he liked his own space we used to hire a caravan and set it up in the garden for him. As a child I had a serious addiction to strawberry jam sandwiches, so somehow that got in too!
What were your favourite books or authors to read as a child, and have any of these influenced the wondrous adventures in Ruby Wishfingers?
I loved all kinds of books as a child, but two that stood out were ‘The House that Sailed Away’ by Pat Hutchins and ‘The World around the Corner’ by Maurice Gee. I loved anything by Roald Dahl (especially The Twits) , Dick King-Smith and Judy Blume. I loved Willard Price’s ‘Adventure’ books. I loved the Narnia books. And I loved the old ‘pick-a-path’ and ‘choose your own adventure’ stories, too.
All of these books have stayed with me, so they probably have influenced my own writing!
Did you plot the whole series beforehand or have they evolved over time?
The Ruby series has absolutely evolved over time. It has been fascinating for me to watch Ruby and her world grow. One of the reasons I love writing is that I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next!
How do you ensure that each book flows smoothly from one to the next?
I work intuitively. If it feels right, I explore further, and if it doesn’t feel right I turn around and try something else. I’m not sure that’s very helpful advice, sorry! Everyone has to find their own way of working but this seems to be mine at the moment. I’m still very much a learner and perhaps with time and experience I’ll develop a more streamlined approach!
Are any of the characters based on anyone you know? Who would you say you are most like?
I do recognise a lot of myself as a child in Ruby. She’s curious, resourceful and optimistic. She tries her best to do the right thing and has a strong belief in extraordinary things, like magic. I think Ruby and I would have been great friends!
What, if any, challenges have you faced whilst producing the series?
Sometimes I have to remind myself not to overcomplicate a story by cramming in too many ideas!
What have been the most rewarding moments with creating and promoting the Ruby Wishfingers books?
The team at Wombat Books have been wonderful to work with. I am so thrilled with how the books have turned out. Seeing my characters brought to life through Leigh’s illustrations has been such a treat! I am enjoying visiting schools and libraries to talk about the series, especially when the kids are familiar with the stories and characters. I love hearing kids repeat lines or phrases from the book and hearing who their favourite characters are. And it is always exciting to spot your books in the wild-especially in the front window of a bookshop! I’ve enjoyed launches and other promotional events for the Ruby series with Newcastle Libraries, Lake Macquarie Libraries and our wonderful local bookstores Maclean’s Booksellers and Harry Hartog, all of whom continue to be hugely supportive of my work.
How have your fans taken to Ruby? Any stand out moments / responses?
I’ve had lots of lovely feedback from parents, teachers and kids about how much they are enjoying the series so far. I’ve heard a few anecdotes of staying up way past bed time because a child (and parent!) just had to find out what happened next! Seeing photos of kids dressed as Ruby for book week parades is a real thrill and I love to see children’s artwork inspired by the book, too.
The images in the books are gorgeously energetic and enchanting! What has it been like to work with illustrator, Leigh Hedstrom? Was it a collaborative process or did she have most of the creative control?
I was very happy for Leigh to let her imagination and talents run wild! I adore her work- she has captured the characters so perfectly. Leigh lives in a different state to me but we’ve chatted via email and I’d love to meet her one day!
Can you give us any clues as to what fun we can expect from Ruby Wishfingers 3: Hide and Seek?
Another exciting fast paced adventure with plenty of laughs and more than a few surprises… terrifying tyrannosaurs, turbo charged worms and giant tantrum throwing toddlers may also be involved!
How many books have you planned for this exciting series? When will they be released?
At this stage there will be five books in the Ruby Wishfingers series. The third book in the series, Ruby Wishfingers: Hide and Seek is due for release November this year. I’ll be launching it on November 12th at 2pm at Belmont Library (NSW). There will be a reading from the story, balloons, giveaways, lots of yummy treats and fun activities!
The fourth and fifth books will be released in 2017.
Fun Question! If you could wish for anything in the world, what would that be and why?
That’s a tricky one, because as we know, wishes don’t always turn out exactly how you might expect! But sometimes I wish that the world would slow down. Life has become so fast paced; we often miss the magic that is all around us.
Finally, do you have any questions or comments (or secrets) for our readers regarding your spectacular Ruby Wishfingers series?
Many of the names in the Ruby books are ‘borrowed’! I took George and Lillian Wishfingers’ names from my (past and present) dogs. Norman the goldfish has my grandfather’s name. And Ruby’s teacher, Mr Wilson, is named after one of my daughter’s favourite teachers!
September is Dementia Awareness Month, an important initiative providing Australians with further knowledge and understanding of how dementia affects individuals, their families and carers. The theme for this year is ‘You are not alone’; a sentiment that aims to help those impacted to feel supported and empowered even in difficult circumstances.
Dedicating their time and energy to raising awareness of the topic of ageing grandparents or other family members is a passionate group of Australian children’s authors and illustrators. Their personal, heartfelt stories of hope and compassion continue to provide encouragement, optimism and inspiration to many children and families confronting change and illness in the ones they love.
Debra Tidball‘s When I see Grandma fits perfectly with the theme of ‘You are not alone’ on several levels. It is apoignant story of a little girl who brightens the dreams of her grandmother in an Aged Care Home. With gorgeously illuminating illustrations by Leigh Hedstrom, this book includes both heartwarming and practical strategies for creating, and rekindling fond memories.
Debra states, “When I see Grandmashows children interacting in a space that is not usually thought of as child-friendly – an aged care home. If parents of young children can see beyond the sadness of their own experiences and take their children to visit aged relatives in this setting, it can provide an enriching experience for all.”
She further relays, “Research shows that people with dementia and their carers are significantly lonelier than the general population. The children in When I See Grandma share very simple things they enjoy with their gran and the other residents – like reading, singing, and playing peek-a-boo, all giving the message, in a very natural, easy way, that their grandma is not alone.” Debra wrote the book to “let families know that they are not alone in their experiences and to encourage families to keep connections with elderly and ailing relatives so that they too, know that they are not alone.”
More on the book and a Boomerang Books interview with Debra Tidball can be found here.
In a recent article, Debra provides enlightening guidance for children and parents on reading to grandparents. Find it on the Wombat Books blog here.
Lucas and Jack focuses on the power of memory to establish close bonds between a boy and his Grandpop. Divinely illustrated by Andrew McLean, and gently written by Ellie Royce, this book is a fantastic medium “to start conversation, memories and stories flowing.”
Ellie explains the power of listening. “As a picture book about older people’s stories, it [Lucas and Jack] encourages the listening which often leads to such enriching connections being formed.” Read the full article here.
More on Ellie Royce’s book and a Boomerang Books interview is here.
Victoria Lane (Thieberger) is the author of Celia and Nonna, with timeless illustrations by Kayleen West. This gentle book embraces the hard realities of dementia and adapting to change, but at the same time highlights strength, togetherness and faith in the ones we love.
Victoria encourages readers to find ways to accept and manage these often confusing times. “It is so important to keep children involved and informed, whatever changes are happening in the family… Celia finds her own delightful way(s). I hope that Celia and Nonna will help to start a conversation with children when a loved one is affected by dementia or old age.”
The full review and Boomerang Books interview with Victoria Lane is here.
Do You Remember? by Kelly O’Gara and Anna McNeil is a comforting, poignant story of memory and togetherness of a mouse and her grandmother. The celebration and the gradual fading of those memories are gently portrayed using the child’s artwork as a medium to remind her grandmother of her own rich and wonderful stories. This book shows a beautiful way to support and encourage children and their elderly grandparents to preserve and strengthen their bonds.
Harry Helps Grandpa Remember, authored by Karen Tyrrell, and illustrated by Aaron Pocock, is a story of compassion, humour and hope. Young Harry provides a forgetful, confused and lost Grandpa with cleverly integrated coping and memory skills. Here is a book that gently introduces “children to the realities of Dementia and Alzheimer’s.” Find out more about the book here.
Alzheimer’s Australia also has resources to help provide reassurance to families. Another website to explore is Dementia in my Family, where you can find most of the above picture books listed in the resources section. Click here for more information on dementia and loneliness.
Today we welcome author, Wai Chim to the draft table. Her motivation to write Freedom Swimmer, stems from the little known history of her father and the need to understand more about the horrific events that took place during the period of China’s Cultural Revolution. Here is her story about his story.
Writing my father’s story
As a child, my father’s journey from a poor farming village near Shenzhen to ultimately living and working in a small Chinese restaurant in Long Island was fascinating to me. But for the most part, he was tight lipped about his past. While I can recount so much detail about my mother’s family and her childhood in Hong Kong (from her primary school friends to how she was always in the trouble with my grandmother) – I knew very little about my father’s past.
Part of this was because he was pretty much the typical ‘Asian dad’ – quiet, emotionally distant and he didn’t talk about his feelings or say much about his life.
Back then, I could probably tell you three things about his life in China:
His parents had passed away when he about sixteen and he only had a younger sister left in China
His family had been very, very, very poor
As a teenager he had left his village and made the swim to Hong Kong
I was particularly fascinated by ‘the swim’, probably because I was (and still am) such a terrible swimmer. I knew from a very young age that ‘the swim’ was an important part of his life story – and that terrible things must have happened for him to have made that choice.
A large part of my initial inspiration and motivation for writing Freedom Swimmer was to come closer to understanding my father’s history and this important piece of his past. However as I started writing, it became so much more than that.
My father was a great resource and opened up about a lot of the details of his life, but through my research, I found out there was so much more going on behind the scenes. My father and his family suffered greatly as a direct result of some of the horrible policies that were put in place at the national level. The events that transpired weren’t isolated to my family, a single village or even one particular region. An estimated 45 million deaths occurred as a result of the manmade famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward while millions more suffered at hands the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
And like my father, the people who went through it all simply weren’t talking about it.
I was shocked. The loud-mouthed, ‘my first amendment rights are sacred’ American in me was floored that that this had happened and people like my dad were just keeping quiet. As I delved deeper and deeper into the past, I wanted to wrap my arms around the young boy that was my father and cocoon him from some of the tragedies of his past.
My father, of course, is an incredibly strong and amazing man – he couldn’t have made it this far if he wasn’t. And it was because of his dreams of a better life, of finding better opportunity for himself and his future that I can even be sitting here today, writing a book based on his past. That I could be so shocked by some of the things I learned, and that all of his suffering is completely unfathomable compared to the silly #firstworldproblems that I complain about.
Where are you based and what is your current professional role?
After living most of my adult as an “inner westie”, I moved to the north-west of Sydney 6 years ago. I currently work at Liverpool City Library, in Sydney’s south-west, where my title is Coordinator, Outreach Programs. People have mistaken me for a librarian for much of my working life; I actually started out as an English teacher, and have worked in publishing and arts projects for the past 20-something years. Working in a public library is a wonderful opportunity and one I am enjoying very much.
How did you select which authors to invite to contribute to The Book that Made Me?
I started out with a wish list, which was part of my pitch. That original list included writers whose work I knew and admired, and who I believed would have some really interesting and potentially unexpected ways of approaching the topic. I was also looking for a variety of contributors; not every person on the list was necessarily what we might think of as a writer of YA, but were writers who teens would likely have come across in other media, and whose work I thought was well worth bringing to their attention. My publisher also wanted to make sure Walker authors were well-represented, including authors from their New Zealand and UK lists.
I was also keen to include writers across genres, form (I would have loved to have had more visual artists involved) and from a range of cultural backgrounds. It was especially important to me to have Aboriginal contributors, and not just because the royalties from the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, but because there is no Australian story without indigenous voices.
How was this title selected?
The Book That Made Me was only meant to be a working title until we all decided there wasn’t a better one that described what the book was. I can’t imagine it being called anything else now.
What brief/guidelines did you give the contributors?
I’ve actually quoted part of the brief in my introduction to the book: It may have been the book that made you fall in love. Made you understand something for the first time. Made you think. Made you laugh. Made you angry. Made you feel safe. Made you feel challenged in ways you never knew you could be; emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made you you.
How did you get a response from Mal Peet, who died last year? (has the book been awhile in the planning?)
I think I first pitched The Book That Made Me in 2012 or 2013. The publication date was pushed back twice. This isn’t unusual in publishing, and it especially is not unusual for a book of this nature, with multiple contributors.
I met Mal and his wife Elspeth Graham several times when they travelled to Australia for writers’ festivals, and he was on that original wishlist of contributors. Mal was one of the smartest, funniest and most generous men I ever met, and I am honoured to have his witty and slightly angry piece in the book.
Was much editing involved throughout? If so, what type of edits?
Both a lot and not much! None of the contributions needed much in the way of a structural edit; most of the back and forth with the writers was to fact-check and clarify ideas, and also to ensure copyright clearance for works cited (when direct quotes were made). I came up with titles for most of the essays, which the contributors obviously had to approve, so there was also a bit of back and forth there. Copy-editing was done externally—fresh eyes!—and the final page proofs were checked by me, my fabulous in-house editor at Walker, Mary Verney and the contributors (and yet a few pesky typos slipped through nevertheless!).
How did you deal with authors who wanted to include more than one book?
With pleasure! There was never any expectation that the contributors would necessarily stick to one book, or even, as it turned out, to a book at all. I love that magazines, comic books and plays (for example) are honoured. I’m also thrilled that Ambelin Kwaymullina wrote so brilliantly about Aboriginal story and the oral tradition, which is, after all, where all stories started.
Was there anyone you wanted and couldn’t get – and could maybe include in another book? Or an author you want for the future?
Yes and yes—of course! In the natural way of these things, some entirely amazing people ended up dropping out of the project, or couldn’t do it in the first place (kindly expressing regret). If there were to be a second book, well, there are some really exciting new YA writers that have emerged in the last few years who would definitely be getting an invitation.
How did you organise the blend of Australian and OS material?
That was partly done in consultation with Walker Books Australia (see previous answer), although some of the OS writers were on my original list.
How did you sequence the chapters?
All credit for that goes to Mary Verney. This final bit of the puzzle needed to be solved shortly after I started my new job at Liverpool City Library, so I handed that over to Mary, who I think did a masterful job in balancing tone, content and form. As an editor myself, I am delighted that the book was in the hands of such a skilful fellow editor.
Were you surprised by any of the responses?
Only in an “Oh my, how delightful/ thrilling/ fascinating/ wonderful/ moving” way. I think, as an editor, that you don’t really invite/commission people who won’t surprise you in some way or another; at least, that’s how I like to work. And a book of this nature can only work if you allow people their head, so to speak—the freedom to explore and surprise. Otherwise, if you’re too rigid in your expectations and requirements, you end up with something homogenous and, dare I say, probably a bit worthy and dull.
I’d say I was surprised by the generosity of the contributors, but I’ve worked in kids’/YA lit for a quarter of a century and this generosity of spirit and the work from writers for young people doesn’t actually surprise me in the slightest.
What have you learned?
That there’s nothing more exciting than walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelves; that there’s nothing more gratifying than reading the words of strangers who have read and appreciated and understood what you’ve set out to achieve.
What else would you like to share?
If you like the book, please seek out the works by the contributors, and buy or borrow their books, and if you’re interested in my writing about children’s and YA literature, there’s more at misrule.com.au/wordpress
And please support the work of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation: http://www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au/
Awoken by the sneaky light of the moon, the gentle breeze and the sounds of the waves gives Caspar the perfect opportunity to go ‘sailing’. Without a stir from his soundly sleeping parents and the chooks in the shed, the young boy and his dog venture out to the shore with their trailer and boat in toe. Something feels different to other nights, and with the guidance of the dolphins and the whispers of the fishes, they are lead to a most glorious vision… Whales! But some secrets are just too good to share!
Binks writes this narrative with a dreamy sense of delicacy and atmosphere that takes its readers into the scene. Her illustrations are equally entrancing with their eerie kind of feel conveying light amongst the darkness, and gentleness within the movement.
Capturing the essence of adventure and imagination, Caspar and the Night Sea is a humbling and soulful tale perfect for preschoolers at bedtime. It is also a brilliant facilitator for encouraging ecological study and advocacy amongst its readers.
I am thrilled to have the lovely Alison Binks discuss the inspirations and processes behind her new book. Thanks, Alison!
Congratulations on the release of your debut picture book, Caspar and the Night Sea! How have you found the whole publishing process? What did you do to celebrate its launch?
Thank you Romi. I was of course amazed and delighted to be selected for publication. Following that excitement I was dismayed when I learnt the length of time the publication process was due to take, (years) and in the end it was even slower. So I feel it’s been a long road, but now I realise how it all works I’m just keen to get going on another book.
I have not had a launch as yet but I’m still hoping to organise an event of some sort. It may be when the weather turns, and we all feel more encouraged to get out of our houses. Maybe when the children can contemplate the idea of sailing in a warm breeze. I’ll make some cupcakes and set up with a stack of books somewhere.
You have done both the text and pictures in this book. Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you come to write and illustrate for children?
I wrote this story for my son Caspar. It was to be a gift for him, and a process for me of immersing myself in the imaginary world of my little boy, who was then 2, and dreaming big dreams for him.
My background is in architecture, design and fine art. I exhibit my work, and usually paint landscapes in oils, but this was an opportunity to work on a smaller scale and it was lovely to sit down at a desk in a small pool of light, and work in a different way.
Caspar and the Night Sea is a wondrous tale of a boy and his dog venturing out on their boat into the depths of the ocean, in the darkest part of the night. Where did this inspiration come from? What were your intentions for readers to grasp from this imaginative concept?
I wanted a tale about a child who has secret adventures. We lead such busy lives, with children tagging along through the adult world much of the time, timetabled. I wanted to work with the idea of childhood freedom and children’s ability to do things on their own.
The image of a little boat sailing off over a dark sea came to me very early on and I built the story around this mental picture.
Your illustrations are mesmorising with their mix of dreamy watercolours and ink drawing to create movement. Do you experiment with different styles in creating the right ‘feel’? How have you come to develop this style of art? What is your favourite medium to use?
When I travel I often take a small watercolour sketchbook, and watercolour was the first painting medium I used. For these illustrations I was influenced by the work of other artists, Ron Brooks and Robert Ingpen in particular. (See The Bunyip at Berkley’s Creek or Ingpen’s Wind in the Willows). The challenge was that the story takes place in the dark. I studied the way other artists approached this and decided that for me to lay the black ink over the watercolour would allow a palette of subtle colours to exist beneath the black night of the ink.
Fun Question! If you could be any creature in the ocean what would it be and why?
I have always sailed, and dolphins seem to me to be having the most fun in the water down there, surfing on bow waves, leaping out of the water for no particular reason. And they seem to have a language of their own and that appeals to me.
What tips would you give other emerging authors or illustrators eager to have their work published?
I was very lucky to find a publisher for whom the story resonated. I don’t have any tips for that, except to search for the one person who really connects with what you are doing.
What’s next for Alison Binks? What projects are you currently working on?
My hope is simply to have enough success with this book that Windy Hollow, my publisher, will agree to print the next one! There is a more complex story both in my mind and partly on paper, waiting until I have time to come back to it. I’ve painted a first illustration and have ideas about a new colour palette and a slightly different approach. But first I am doing the legwork to get Caspar and the Night Sea into the bookstores, schools, kinders… wherever I can, and spreading the word.
All the best of luck and success! Thank you so much for the interview, Alison! 🙂
Look out for Alison Binks and her amazing work at her website .
Hang onto to your bronze daggers as you are in for ‘a riveting, mythic Bronze Age adventure’ – we have the remarkable Wendy Orr at the draft table today, escorting us on her Blog Tour for her stunning new novel, Dragonfly Song. And like all terrific stories, there is usually an even more fascinating story behind it; how it came to light, what energies and events conspired to motivate its first heartbeat. Today, Wendy shares her inspiration with us.
Sometimes it’s easy to see where an idea’s inspiration has come from. Sometimes it’s not – and sometimes some of the things that inspire it don’t end up in the story. Dragonfly Song is one of those mysteries.
Certainly one thread comes from childhood and teenage reading of Greek myths and Mary Renault’s retelling of the Theseus myth, The King Must Die. (There are many stories about Theseus, a king of Athens with a typically complicated hero life. However he is best known for being one of seven youths and seven maidens sent as a tribute to King Minos of Crete. Minos sent them into a labyrinth to be devoured by the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur – but luckily, Theseus defeated the Minotaur instead of being eaten.)
Then, about twenty-five years ago, I dreamed about a white robed priestess leading a long torchlight procession up a steep green volcanic mountain. As a story grew around the dream, I started reading up on the intriging civilization that flourished in Crete around four thousand years ago. The Minoans seem to have worshipped a mother goddess and been ruled by a priestess until they were taken over by the warlike Mycenaeans of mainland Greece. Their palaces had grand courtyards and stairways, flushing toilets, lightwells, and painted frescoes on walls, ceilings and floors. They had beautiful art, gold and jewellery; images of priestesses holding snakes and of young men and women leaping over the backs of giant bulls. What if these bull-leaping games had inspired the original myth of Theseus?
Although the rather melodramatic novel I wrote then was, luckily, never published, the images of that world never left me. Eventually I started playing with the idea of a completely new story set in the same era.
It started to take shape on a 2010 visit to New Delhi. Culture shock can be a great inspiration: new sounds and smells; beautiful buildings and overwhelming poverty. Home again, doodling with a fingerpaint app, I sketched a girl with a sad twisted mouth and tangled black curls. This wasn’t the direction I’d expected, but one evening in my tai chi class, the form of the story appeared in a luminescent blue bubble – and no, I can’t explain it exactly what I mean by that, but it was powerful enough to bring me to tears. The next day I saw a dragonfly, the exact same colour as the bubble.
And dragonflies kept on appearing whenever I made a significant decision or saw something that helped to shape the story: finding an offcut of chipped flint on a Danish island; visiting the mysterious deep blue source of a French river that would have seemed even more mysterious and holy in ancient times…
Ah the synchronicity of life…Thank you, Wendy!
Watch Wendy explain more, here. Catch up with her again as she continues her DragonFly Song Adventure and tour.
Stick around for my full review of Dragonfly Song coming soon. Meantime you can get it now, here, if you can’t wait to read it first!
Oliver Phommavanh’s new novel for children, The Other Christy has just been published by Penguin Random House.
It has a very appealing storyline and characters, voices some important issues with a light touch, and is told with the author’s trademark big heart and humour.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Oliver.
No worries Joy.
Where are you based and how involved are you in the children’s lit world? (you often seem to be on a stage …!)
I’m based in Cabramatta, South-West Sydney. I’ve been fortunate to appear in many writers festivals and school literature festivals across Australia. I’m involved with organisations such as the CBCA Northern Sydney Sub branch and SCBWI as well. I’m also an ambassador for Room To Read, a non-profit organization that brings literacy to developing countries.
How is this related to being a stand-up comedian?
I love making people laugh, so I divide my time doing kids comedy in my books and adults comedy on the stage.
How else do you spend your time?
I’m a lifelong gamer so I try to play video games in my downtime. I also like jogging and hanging out with friends.
Tell us about The Other Christy.
It’s a story of two girls named Christy in a class. It’s a friendship between a quiet girl with loud thoughts and a popular girl who discovers that she’s quite lonely.
Who particularly do you hope reads it?
Anyone who might feel a little strange or weird. I hear them, I want to be a voice for all those kids who feel left out.
Have you come across kids with the same name in a class or somewhere? How did people differentiate them? Was one called ‘the other Oliver’ or something similar?
I was the only Oliver in my primary and high school days, but Oliver’s a popular name now so I got lucky. I’ve taught classes with kids with the same name and we usually went with their last name, like Matthew Brown and Matthew Galway.
Is it more fun to write about the mean kids or the others?
I have fun writing about the other kids, especially the ones who blend in the background. Mainly because they usually have something unusual or strange about them.
I’ve read a memoir recently where the church was the most helpful group in helping new refugees. Someone from the church also helped Christy and her Grandpa find somewhere to live. How true to life or typical is this?
I drew from experiences from my own church, we are one of many churches out in south-west Sydney that have welcomed new arrivals and have helped them settle in the community.
You write a lot about food in this book. What’s your favourite food mentioned/not mentioned?
My favourite dessert is chocolate brownies, which is mentioned in the book. My favourite food is pizza, burgers and hot chips, which have been featured in my other books haha
What happened at the launch of The Other Christy? Was there good food?
It was a delightful afternoon with plenty of loved ones, friends and fans. You bet there was delicious food hehe. There were loads of sweet treats for our cake stall. My wife and extended family made a lot of the treats, so it was all made with love!
How is this book different from your others?
This is the first book with a main character that isn’t a part of me. It’s a story where I’ve had to draw from my own observations as a primary school teacher, teaching shy students like Christy.
Have you received any responses from readers about The Other Christy that particularly resonate with you?
I’ve spoken to many kids who are in a class with another person with the same name. Some become friends, others are more like friendly rivals. I’ve also had kids come up to me and can relate to Christy and her desire to find a best friend.
Which Australian authors do you admire?
My biggest influences are Morris Gletizman, Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths.
What have you enjoyed reading?
I’m currently reading The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale. I’ve finished The Enemy series by Charlie Higson with the last book, fittingly titled ‘The End.’
Thanks and all the best with The Other Christy and your other books, Oliver.
Where did your passion for books and writing children’s stories begin? Are there any particular books or authors that have played a significant role in where you are today?
I think the passion was always there. I can’t remember a time when words and stories didn’t fascinate me. The sound and power of words has always intrigued. However, we were a book-poor family. And I went to a book-poor school. It was just how it was. I now realise I’ve always carried that ache inside of me. So, I guess it had to come out somewhere, sometime. I’m grateful it did. I would probably credit becoming a teacher and having daughters of my own with the eventual, tentative, stepping out into the children’s writing arena. But I also had a couple of angels in my later adult life who gave me a nudge.
Without a childhood plethora of books or reading matter, I’m on a constant treadmill, trying to capture the thrill of books which are embedded in the psyche of many of my writing colleagues, for whom those books were friends. And so I swing; to read back to my childhood and forward to what is out there today. I’m constantly reading. At times, I wonder if I evaluate enough of what I read. It just seems that I’m hungry or thirsty for stories and poetry. So many authors affected me, but two who immediately spring to mind are Robin Klein and Ruth Park. Their writing touched me; it was full of exquisite detail, rich in character and expressive in language. And they spoke of our country and culture, and at times, our history.
Your writing style varies between heartrending poetry, to playful rhyme and informative and lyrical narrative. Do you have a preferred style of writing? How has your style evolved over the years?
I think once again it comes down very much to what pleases me, particularly aurally. I don’t have a particular favourite way of writing. I write in the style that suits the work. And I find it interesting that although the style might differ according to what I’m writing, people still say they can recognise my work when they see or hear it. I guess my style is like a maypole, with many ribbons attached – each one individual but connected. I think, or hope, that my style has become more honest and richer as it’s evolved. That would please me.
Some of your recent books, in particular Our Village in the Sky, Where’s Jessie? and Mrs Dog, all carry a timeless feel with their beautifully lyrical language and images, as well as encapsulating more sophisticated topics such as cultural differences, loss and survival. What draws you to write with these kinds of themes?
Although at times, I can feel like a suburban fringe-dweller, I have to remind myself that my life has been full of interesting twists and turns and often it is the idea of survival that is uppermost. I think that many everyday people are heroes, tackling life’s mountains. However, from different, and sometimes difficult challenges comes strength and confidence. The word used a lot today is resilience. I think I try and show that in my work. We all battle at times, in various ways, and sometimes we have to dig deep to find courage or strength to continue. Or to look at a situation in a different way. Often, too, help can come when one person takes the hand of another.
I love to see a world of real things; kindness, laughter, nature, play and creativity. I’m not much of an adult in the highly commercialised world.
I think all of this affects the kind of stories and poems I write – and the themes and language embedded in them.
Your most recent release, Mrs Dog, is a truly moving story of unconditional love, nurturing and courage, with elements of humour and adversity blended in the mix. Did this story emerge from a personal experience? What aspect of the story is most meaningful to you?
Like in most stories, Mrs Dog is a mixture of experience and imagination. Over a period of years I had collected two names. They sat around in my head for ages with no story. Over time I linked them to farm-style incidents told to me by my husband, and then changed the ideas during many drafts until the final story emerged. It certainly wasn’t one whole package to begin with. I really like the fact that when under pressure, a person/creature is often able to rise above their own expectations, as Baa-rah did in his effort to save Mrs Dog.
What has been the most insightful feedback or response to Mrs Dog so far?
The unconditional love and compassion shown within an unlikely inter-generational relationship.
In both instances, I was able to work closely with Anne, which is not the usual experience with author and illustrator. Often seeds are sown many years before eventualities and this was the case in our first collaboration, Our Village in the Sky. Anne and I had become friends through many creator-style catch-ups, and she liked the photos and experiences I told her of my stay in the Himalayan mountains. When I later applied for a Carclew Fellowship for the 2012 Adelaide Festival of Literature, I devised a picture book of poems as a potential project and asked Anne if she’d illustrate. Fortunately I won the award, and in a serendipitous situation, Anne took her sketches and several of my poems to Allen and Unwin, who subsequently published the title.
Anne was able to use images from my photos to create her scenes and characters and we worked closely on the layout and flow of the book, with me making several trips interstate.
In both books, Anne’s palette and style suit the stories perfectly and I am full of admiration for her work. It evokes both emotion and sensory appreciation. Where’s Jessie? is a story triggered from the sighting of a real teddy bear that’d travelled to the outback on a camel. Because I’d earlier researched and written an award-winning information book, Hoosh! Camels in Australia, I was able to provide Anne with much visual material. Anne could also access the historical database of Trove in the National Library of Australia.
There was story collaboration, too, when Anne suggested changing the character of the person who eventually finds Bertie, from an Afghan camel boy to an Aboriginal boy.
Where’s Jessie? is based on the real life travels of Bertie the bear through the outback in the early 1900s. What was it about Bertie’s story that caught your attention? What was it like to research, and how did you feel meeting the daughter of Bertie’s owner?
While visiting a country Cornish Festival in South Australia in 2011, I entered a church hall to view a collection of historic memorabilia. The real Bertie bear was seated on a chair, looking slightly tatty but well-loved. The note attached mentioned two facts; he was 101 years old. And he’d travelled to Alice Springs by camel. What a thrill! I had no idea of what I might do with that information, but I was finally able to track down the now-owner, the daughter of the original-owner, who’d been a baby at the time she’d received the bear. I’d had enough experience in the outback (flash floods, included) as well as my earlier research with camels, so it was really the story I needed to work on. At the launch of Where’s Jessie?, the now-owner spoke movingly about how well-loved the ancient bear still is within their family; citing that he is still the comforter of sick children and the soother of bad dreams.
Our Village in the Sky is beautifully written in angelic language that reflects the perspectives of different hard-working, yet playful, children in a remote village amongst the Himalayan mountains. This book is based on your observations whilst living there. What else can you reveal about your experience? What was the most rewarding part about writing this story?
I felt compelled to write about this village, and particularly the children, because I was able to interact with them at the time, using sign language or games. Or I simply watched them. Only a few villagers spoke any English at all, and it was very minimal. Culturally, and because of the language barrier, it was not possible for me to ask about many things pertaining to women or family life. So my focus was the children. I noted and photographed. I wrote a diary of my feelings and thoughts. But, back home, when I came to write, it was the children I wanted to write about. The images in my mind decided that the ‘story’ would be a series of poems depicting their life, so different to children in the Western world. The most rewarding part was the connection I felt through the words, and that I had acknowledged my experience in that area of the world.
What do you hope for readers to gain from this book?
Curiosity. Understanding. Awareness. And being able to relate to the child-like aspects in each poem.
Can you please tell us about your working relationship with illustrator Ann James on the I’m a Dirty/Hungry Dinosaur books? Was this collaboration any different to any other of your author-illustrator partnerships?
Ann and I had been published together in a book called Dog Star, an Omnibus/Scholastic chapter book in the SOLO series and we’d become friends mainly through catch-ups at various festivals and so on. At one festival at Ipswich in 2009, I asked Ann to consider a poem I’d written. It was called I’m a dirty dinosaur. Over discussions, Ann agreed to illustrate it and with the poem and a few sketches the material went first to my agent, Jacinta di Mase, before it was picked up and published by Penguin Australia. (now Penguin Random House Australia) Ann and I chatted about the text and pictures throughout the process, just as we did with the second book, I’m a hungry dinosaur. Both books have been a lovely culmination and collaboration of ideas.
What were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of creating the ‘dinosaur’ books?
Working with Ann is a joy. She is alive with ideas, energy and enthusiasm. We both enjoy the playfulness of the books, and the act of play and fun with language is important to both of us. Ann also likes to minimalise her line work to give the maximum effect and I think she’s done this brilliantly in both books. I also like to hone down my words so they shine without any extra unnecessary baggage.
There’s also an integral trust between the two of us, which is wonderful.
The challenge came in the second book. It’s not an unusual dilemma. The first is the prototype. The second must follow the format yet still have its own life. We believe we achieved that in I’m a hungry dinosaur!
If you could be any kind of dinosaur, what would that be and why?
I guess if I could be any dinosaur it would be the one Ann created!
As an experienced author, what advice would you give to those writers just starting out?
Apart from reading and writing, I think it’s interesting to write down passages from other authors’ books. Writing slows your thinking down. You might enjoy reading the passages, but when you write them down, you are considering the authors’ motivations and reasons for writing those particular words. You might notice more fully the effect those words have. You might feel the pull of a different style, which could loosen your own, stretch it or challenge it. Finding your own voice can often take a long time. But playing around with other people’s words can sometimes be quite surprising.
Work hard. Understand that writing is a craft. As such, there is always room for improvement. And improvement brings you closer to publication.
And finally, if you could ask our readers any question, what would that be?
Some authors write in a particular genre. Their readers know what to expect. However, I write in many different genres. Do you see this as problematic in your reading of my work? **
Thank you so much for the privilege, Janeen! 🙂
Thank you, Romi. Your wonderful, thoughtful questions were much appreciated.
Precious Things by Australian author Kelly Doust follows a handmade beaded collar through history to the present, touching on the women who owned it and wore it in the past. Kelly Doust joins us on the blog today.
Thanks for joining us Kelly. How did you become interested in vintage clothing?
I fell in love with all fashion when I was really young. I was that kid into dress-ups who always wore weird stuff to mufti day with makeup applied on the bus, inevitably having to wipe it off when a teacher noticed. My local charity store and flea market first exposed me to vintage clothing, but I also adored my mum’s seventies denim flares, cork wedges and plunging velour evening gowns, which seemed so risqué and fun and spoke of grown-up adventures I was dying to become old enough for.
Do you believe that a garment or handmade item can carry part of the essence of the previous owner? (Do you believe an item can carry good vibes or bad juju?)
Not really, but I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong. I wore a refashioned eighties wedding dress for my own wedding and didn’t give it much thought at the time, although the true story behind why it ended up in a vintage clothing store probably isn’t the rosiest.
In most cases there’s no way of learning the history of a vintage garment. Does this make you sad or do you prefer the wonder and intrigue?
It’s a kind of sweet sadness, the idea of stories being lost but it’s also the natural way of things. I’m always visiting fashion exhibitions because they share photographs and plaques with all sorts of fascinating contextual information. The May 2016 issue of UK Vogue has this brilliant fashion story featuring costumes worn by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during their years of touring with The Rolling Stones, but Kate Moss is modelling them with a thoroughly modern twist. That’s so inspiring to me.
This is your debut novel, but you’re certainly no stranger to writing. You’ve worked in the publishing industry and published a number of books (including: Crafty Minx, A Life in Frocks, Minxy Vintage and The Crafty Minx at Home) and I was wondering where you do most of your writing?
Usually at home, but last year we were renovating and I ended up writing in my local cafe most days. It was actually quite useful, because I tried to write as much as I could before ordering another coffee, which made me quite productive. I try to have only two cups a day, so it really focused my mind on writing quickly!
What are you reading at the moment? Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were and Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist, which recently won the 2016 Vogel Award. Both are so beautifully written. Inga Simpson’s passion for Australian natural history just shines through in Where the Trees Were, and I love the premise of the novel, which slips from present to past to uncover the story of the trees her protagonist, Jayne, is trying to protect. The Memory Artist is also quite staggeringly accomplished, especially for a first novel, and its Russian setting is very evocative. I find myself reading it in awe.
What’s next? Apart from promoting Precious Things, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a second novel. Not a sequel to Precious Things but another novel set in England with many similar themes. I also have a new day job, which involves choosing books to turn into audiobooks. It’s really thrilling – I’m reading so widely and love the idea of bringing authors to new readers or listeners.
Thanks for your time Kelly and good luck on your next novel!
Thanks so much for interviewing me for Boomerang Books, Tracey – I so appreciate it! ☺