Australia is home to some exceptionally strange flora and fauna. The ubiquitous tropical heat of Far North Queensland seems to accentuate oddities and none typifies unique peculiarities more vividly than Australia’s heaviest flightless bird, the Cassowary.
Beautiful yet deadly, the Cassowary is a natural magnet of mystery and misinterpretation so naturally is a prime candidate as the main character in Samantha’s Wheeler’s latest children’s adventure, Mister Cassowary. Wheeler meshes misinterpretation of our native fauna extremely well with action packed, character driven, and emotionally sensitive adventures for readers seven and above.
City bred Flynn, is on a mission to Mission Beach in North Queensland with his dad to ready his deceased Grandad’s decrepit banana farm for sale. He’d rather be anywhere else than stuck in this sweltering sultry backwater with a father he seldom sees and barely knows.
Then he meets Abby and two baby cassowaries that slowly help him peel back the layers of mystery surrounding Grandad Barney’s death and his relationship with Big Blue, the meanest, largest, scariest Cassowary in the district.
Jammed with intrigue, adventure and more cassowaries than you will find in Australia Zoo, Mister Cassowary is an exhilarating and absorbing read for primary schoolers and animal lovers. I’m rating it as high as or higher than her debut novel, Smooch and Rose, on my got-to-read-animal-story list, and Smooch and Rose was sterling.
Today we trek down its creator, Sam Wheeler and discover even more about the enigmatic Cassowary.
After growing up rescuing animals, Samantha studied Agriculture, worked with farmers, and taught science. Writing children’s books inspired by nature, she hopes to prove that ‘anyone can make a difference’.
Welcome to the draft table, Sam!
Who is Sam Wheeler? Describe your writerly self.
I’m an animal lover and crave the outdoors, green spaces and nature. Given a choice of shopping in New York or trekking Blue Mountains, I’d choose the Blue Mountains any day.
Your books for children centre on animals endemic to Australia. Why is this element important in your writing?
My background is in biology and science, which gives me a strong interest in the environment, and when I hear about what’s in store for our precious wildlife, I feel driven to write about them. They say write what you love, and writing books about animals gives me an excuse to spend more time with the things I love. It’s all about the story I want to tell.
How did Mister Cassowary’s tale evolve?
When I was writing Smooch & Rose, I was working as a tutor with the Ronald McDonald Learning Program. One of my students had to give a PowerPoint presentation on an endangered Australian animal, and having chosen the cassowary, he asked me for help. But I didn’t know anything about cassowaries! As soon as I found out that the males raise the chicks, the story started swirling in my head.
Mister Cassowary addresses various sub themes such as the FIFO father son relationship. Why do you think this holds significant relevance amongst your young readership?
I loved the parallel: the way the male cassowaries are so close to their young chicks versus human fathers who, because of work and other reasons, can sometimes be absent and distant towards their sons. I think many children whose parents work a lot, or travel away, have felt like Flynn. They may relate to his feeling that his dad doesn’t know who he is, and what he’s capable of.
Do you actively research each of your stories before you write them? What is the most mind-boggling thing you have learnt during the writing of Mister Cassowary?
Yes, I love the research! I travelled up to Mission Beach (North Queensland) twice to research Mister Cassowary, and would go again in a heartbeat. The people up there are so passionate about this beautiful bird, and are trying so hard to save it. I learnt so many interesting things: cassowaries don’t have a tongue, they can swim really well, they can run up to 50km/hour (which is why you shouldn’t run if you see one) they were the most treasured gift an emperor or a king could receive. I also think they can tell the time. Up at Mission Beach, a local cassowary turns up at the local dump at one minute to 10 every morning. The dump opens at 10!
What is the hardest part about giving life and soul to stories like yours?
Making sure they aren’t too preachy and the characters are believable. I have to make sure they’re real people, not just tools to push the issue.
What is on the draft table for Sam?
Exciting times! Two more ‘animal’ books are in the making, plus another special story about a girl who can’t talk.
Just for fun question (there’s always one): If you could be any Aussie animal, which would you be and why?
I wouldn’t mind being a willy wagtail! They always look happy and cheeky, and imagine being able to fly!
University of Queensland Press October 2015