Belief Compassion Dreams – More Picture Books that Inspire

The well of picture books possessing that alluring duality to entertain and inspire never seems to run dry. Here are a few new titles to keep you topped up.

Feathers by Phil Cummings and Phil Lesnie

Phil Lesnie used pencil, watercolour and a tiny bit of gouache to decorate Cummings’ story of compassion and hope. According to his note, he also spilled his coffee on it twice and left it in. Despite his refreshing flippancy, both he and Cummings have created a picture book awash with extreme visual sincerity and narrative beauty. Their story follows the flight of a migrating sandpiper whose tug for home takes the reader through crumbled war-torn landscapes, over deep river valleys, through dark stormy nights, and across flood-ravaged plains and turbulent seas until finally coming to rest near Mia’s house.

At various locations, a feather or two is lost, each causing a reaction between those who happen upon it, connecting us, the reader, with the inhabitants from lands far distant and their circumstances. The sandpiper is a curious yet brilliant choice for the allegorical conduit between that which is normal for some and catastrophic for others.

Feathers promotes themes of immigration, hope, tolerance, cultural awareness, compassion and humanity in a divinely beautiful way. Highly recommended for primary aged readers.

Scholastic Press August 2017

Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge

When a small rhino sets off across a the ocean waves in search of something more, he discovers a world of possibilities and wonders greater than he could have ever imagined and the satisfaction of eventually returning home. This is a comely tale of living your dreams to their fullest and ignoring those soothsayers who warn you otherwise. See Romi’s full review, here.

Walker Books Australia August 2017

I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox and Ronojoy Ghosh

I’m Australian Too focuses on multiculturalism from within our own backyards or indeed, the backyards of a dozen or more typically Aussie kids with not so typically Aussie roots. Celebrating diversity in a way that pre-schoolers will relate to, Fox uses simple verse and a conversational tone to prompt readers to investigate their own cultural heritage and to not only celebrate it but embrace those with different family histories, as well. Each introduction ends on a bouncy high note suggesting that no matter where we originate from, no matter what the circumstance of our being Australian, we are all one and better for it.

Scholastic Australia March 2017

Sarah and the Steep Slope by Danny Parker and Matt Ottley

One of the most powerful and affecting picture book teams around, join forces again to present Sarah’s story of seemingly insurmountable odds. Sarah is unable to leave her home because of a slope. It blots out the sun and surrounds her house blocking every exit. Despite her best efforts, the slope will not budge, trapping Sarah, ‘all day long’. Until the slope doctor makes a suggestion and with the help of her friends, Sarah discovers a way to see past the slope and to conquer it.

Sarah and the Steep Slope is a tremendous story of courage, friendship and emotional resilience. Occasionally we, including young children, all encounter slopes like Sarah’s that effectively prevent us from seeing what is beyond and inhibit us from venturing further than we need to. Parker’s narrative gives one hope and salvation from negative thoughts and actions by illustrating the formidable healing power of friendship. Ottley reinforces this notion of self-belief with utterly lovable, whimsy-filled illustrations that bathe each page with texture and meaning without imagery clutter. Another masterpiece and my new best favourite.

Little Hare Books, imprint of HEG August 2017

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Review: Ultimatum by K.M. Walton

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Ultimatum by K.M. Walton is the kind of story that’s going to tug at your heartstrings! I totally admit that I’m really fond of books that feature brothers, especially cantankerous ones that have to learn to work together and support each other. It always gets me in the feels! And I immediately loved Vance and Oscar, who are basically vinegar and sugar, and their character development is the best. They totally tried to glare each other to death the whole book, but okay they were going through a lot! I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it definitely has slotted onto my shelf of “Underrated Awesome.”

The story follows Vance and Oscar who are waiting in a hospice over the bed of their dying father. He’s dying from liver failure due to drinking himself to death…so that’s super hard. And the relationship between him = his children = very very complicated. Honestly, it’s a messy story with messy characters and that’s a huge reason why I liked it! It flips back and forth in time between Vance in the past watching the dark spiral events that lead them to the present, which is narrated by Oscar, in the hospice. Even though we spend a fair bit of time in one setting, the emotional tension is always ramped up. The boys are trying to hold in their emotions while waiting desperately to see if their father will wake up or die in his coma. And each of the boys is silently hoping for the opposite outcome.

Definitely time to talk about the characters, amirite?! Oscar is the absolute sweetest. He’s musical and shy and very smart and wears his feelings on his sleeve…which absolutely backfires because his father and older brother, Vance, are both loud aggressive people who think having a good time involves alcohol and a wild party. The contrast between soft Oscar and wild Vance was really well written without being too dramatic. Vance is completely unlikeable for most of the book, being a jock and super snarky and always picking on Oscar or ignoring him for being too “sensitive”. But you can see Vance struggling with trying to impress his father, a constant claw towards being wanted and loved by doing his best to be “wild”. Vance and Oscar have a 100% history of not getting on…but they both hate that this is how it is so much.

I also really liked the psychology behind the book. Vance is here, emulating his horrible alcoholic father (who he worships) by drinking and getting into trouble and just trying to be “cool”…and Oscar is in the other corner, being as far away from all that stuff as he can. Seeing them both trying to get attention in opposite ways, and equally failing, is heart-breaking. Vance did just want to be loved and supported, but he was so blind to what he was doing that he was willing to burn down his life to achieve that. I loved how the book delved deep into actions vs reactions and consequences, and it perfectly captured different responses to devastating situations. So well done!

I loved the brother’s voices too: each being separate and distinct. It’s always hard with two dual-narrators both told in 1st person, but I do think the book pulled it off!

It’s also set over such a short period of time that the scenes, pacing, and writing were all really snappy and well-paced. IMPRESSED. I didn’t want to put it down, wondering what would happen at the end with their father’s coma and whether the brothers would fix the lifelong wounds in their relationship. Or, you know, murder each other. It was definitely impossible to put down, that’s for sure.

Altogether, Ultimatum was such a fantastic book. It was full of grittiness and sadness and it didn’t sugar-coat any edges. It also had a lot of “cause and effect” plots going on, which I appreciated! It shows decline, but also recovery. And, I mean, it’s super sad…I can’t even imagine watching a parent in a coma and about to die and yet these two boys had to do it all alone because they had no other family. If you need to see whether you have a heart, pick this one up. It’ll melt your cold bones for sure.

I Want to Be Something – Picture Books with Inspiring Characters

Children have their whole lives ahead of them to do and be whatever they desire. Whether or not those wishes seem achievable, let’s encourage their dreams and aspirations and teach them that obstacles are an important part of the journey. Here are a couple of inspiring picture books that support the notions of following your heart and striving to reach your goals.

Eric the Postie by Matt Shanks is an adorable story about a little echidna stamping his mark on the small township of Wattleford in outback Australia. His ancestors, as seen in Eric’s own Hall of Fame-type gallery, had all achieved greatness in their own right. However, Eric’s dream is to be the best postie in town, and he has all the perfect attributes to prove it – dog protection, a really long tongue for licking envelopes, a sharp beak for opening the residents’ mail, and the ability to keep the letterboxes pest free. But when he realises he has no actual mail to deliver, Eric abounds an inventive delivery scheme that ensures a successful postal experience for everyone.

Matt Shanks’ ingenious story is heartwarming, lively and simple, and his illustrations on white backgrounds equally match the gentle, charismatic and uncomplicated nature of the book. I love his placement of the characters’ off-the-face eyes, and the endpapers are pretty special, too!

If you’re looking for a book that will get the seal the approval from your preschooler, then this one delivers! With sheer determination, tenacity and ambition, Eric the Postie addresses them all.

Scholastic Australia, July 2017.

Nothing says, ‘I’m the queen of the world!’ like the majestic stance of the small rhinoceros on her boat that graces the front cover of this book. And rightly so. In Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge, this little powerhouse impresses us all with her spirited resolve as she achieves her dreams of seeing the world.

Against the belief of the other rhinoceroses, who only trust in mud wallowing, grass grazing, tree scratching and sun bathing, the small rhinoceros doggedly, yet stoically, fashions up a boat, waves goodbye and sails away into the distance. With the dreamy wording by McKinlay and Rudge’s equally dreamy watercolour, pencil and collage illustrations, we are allowed to share in the protagonist’s wonderfully dreamy and exotic adventures to “faraway lands and beyond.” The rhinoceroses are typically unimpressed with her stories on her return, but perhaps there is still hope for one inspired ‘littler’ soul.

This small character with big might is clear in her resistance to the adult’s pressures and expectations, without all the fuss. She is impressively composed, curious and adventurous, and doesn’t fall into the trap of accepting the everyday monotonous routine. So, take her example and create your own story… Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros is inspirational for all living beings, great and small.

Walker Books, August 2017.

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Review – Ruben

It took Bruce Whatley almost the same amount of time I have been plying my trade as an author to conceive and create this 96-page picture book (around 10 years that is). To call Ruben a masterpiece is a discredit to the complexity and intense beauty that harbours within each page. One might spend hours alone exploring the end pages, searching for clues and analysing the significances secreted within.  This is not a picture book for the faint hearted. However, it is a supreme testament to Whatley’s self-effacing talent and a proclamation to strive to be the best you can be. As decreed by Whatley himself, ‘It had to be the best I could be.’

Ruben is a captivating synthesis of picture book and graphic novel. Told in parts akin to chapters, it describes the solo existence of a small boy living in the shadows of a futuristic city that functions only on what it receives. It is incapable of producing anything in return, an inequitable industrial wasteland of pylons, viaducts and ominous occupants who represent the pseudo organic heartbeat of a mechanical monster.

Continue reading Review – Ruben

Review: The Crown’s Fate #2 by Evelyn Skye

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The Crown’s Fate by Evelyn Skye was an amazing duology finale that was absolutely exquisite. It was everything I was hoping for to wrap up The Crown’s Game series! Is it possible to flail enough?! This duology is rich in Russian mythology and culture and magic and a definite recommend. It’s magical and dark and beautiful and perfection.

You can check out my review for The Crown’s Game, book 1, here!

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The story takes off where book 1 left off: with our magicians caught in the aftermath of their war together. Nikolai is trapped in another realm and Vika is now the Imperial Enchanter — but it’s more dangerous and complicated than she could ever have imagined. Rebels are rising and Pasha, the young new Tsar, is struggling to keep control of the throne. Nikolai is desperate to escape the shadow realm he’s created to save himself, but at what cost? When dark forces offer him a way of escape, he has to choose whether he’ll take them and continue the fight with Vika — or help save his friends.

I lowkey, I didn’t want it to be the finale! If there are more books in Vika, Pasha, and Nikolai’s world I would be totally on board for that. I might even pass bribes of cake, let’s be real here. You know a book is excellent when the world so so captivates you with its breathtaking descriptions and complexities that you want infinitely more of it. I love how it mixes historical-Russia with a dash of magic that just makes everything all the more special. Because every book should have magic in it.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this sequel is that it’s a lot darker than the first book. We have shadow realms and darker magic and DEATH, with the return of sinister powers and with Nikolai frolicking in the dark side. I love him 5000% more now.

LIST OF OTHER THINGS TO LOVE

  • Plenty of character development. Like they’re all reeling from the heart-wrenching finale of book one, and the effects are so palpable.
  • Deepens the magic system. We get to see more of what the magicians can do, and since they were pretty dang spectacular the first time round, this is the best.
  • There is food. Vika makes an edible Christmas tree and I think this is why I love her.
  • Higher stakes. Which means you’re going to experience pain.
  • Girl power. Like serious girl power. Vika is #Fabulousness personified, and Yuliana (Pasha’s sister) just slays with her ability to run a kingdom because Pasha is adorable and I love him but he’s also as useful as a grape.
  • Better than the first! And I loved the first a lot, so this is saying something. All the AND ADORATION.

    And excuse me while I take another moment for foodie appreciation. Look, I’m not try to tell you how to live your life, but if your epic fantasy doesn’t have gobs and gobs of delicious foodie descriptions — then it’s wrong. The Crown’s Fate rules for delicious Russian food descriptions.

    And while it is about love, it’s also about friendship and family.
    Which is my favourite thing in books. I can’t be more happy with how it all worked out. I loved getting to see Pasha and Nikolai interact as brothers now. Although, let’s be real: they took sibling rivalry to the next level.

    The Crown’s Fate perfectly balanced gorgeous writing, a rich and imaginative Russia, with characters it’s impossible not to love. The plot was fast-paced and rich with intrigue and twists. It’s definitely a highlight of my year so far.

Playful Picture Books to Explore

Whether relaying conceptual understandings, or understanding the minds of young explorers, picture books can take their readers on imaginative, sensory and mind-boggling journeys. Making discoveries through play and contextual language opens up a whole new way of perceiving the world. Just look at these new titles that inspire a range of learning adventures.

From Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury‘s classic quest, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ comes the must-haves; My Explorer’s Journal and My Adventure Field Guide.

The latter includes the most fascinating contents that will keep you in good stead as you embark on your outdoor nature journey. Whether rain, hail or shine, a rainforest, caves, mountains or your backyard, there’s plenty to explore. Complete with planning and safety tips, the guide sets out to encourage a field of fun activities for children and adults to delight in together. Chapters include facts, questions and experiments about the Sky, Down in the Ground, the Field, Plants and Trees, Creepy-Crawlies, Extraordinary Creatures, Tracks and our climate. With adorable illustrations and liveliness in essence of the original story, plus a comprehensive glossary, the Field Guide exudes a glorious sense of wonderment, excitement and acumen for your brave expedition.

The Explorer’s Journal is the perfect accompaniment as a keepsake record of your fun adventures, but also ‘bears’ it’s own weight as a stand-alone resource. There is space for sketching, writing and pasting in souvenirs, as well as a handy elastic close to keep your place. Following the same chapters as the Field Guide, this journal allows its users opportunities to find objects or animals, and make and record observations with the guidance of the clever, leading questioning and tasks. From creative writing to rainy day crafts, nature games, making perfume and actively encouraging sustainable living, little minds will be brimming with motivation to learn more about our beautiful world.

The We’re Going on a Bear Hunt Field Guide and Explorer’s Journal are treasure troves of amazing information, inspiration and pure joy, perfect for any backpacker from age five.

Walker Books UK, Walker Books Australia, April 2017.

Double Take! A New Look at Opposites will have your brains charging and your hearts pounding with chaotic goodness. Author Susan Hood cleverly winds exact opposites through a range of divergent perspectives.

Travelling with boy and elephant we meander along and across the town, from crossing the street to watering different-sized plants, balancing up in the sky to flexing down in the sea, observing in galleries, standing in queues and riding a roller coaster. What do all these have in common? Differing points of view. “Who knows what is BIG unless there is small? Does short measure up except next to TALL?” With a collection of opposites, prepositional language, and relative words and comparable contexts, Double Take! is so much fun and encouraging of perceptual awareness. Jay Fleck’s illustrations in blocks of colour and shape with his retro-look characters are the perfect match for the rollicking rhyme, wit and acuity gracing the pages. I give it the opposite of a low recommendation for preschoolers and above (or is it below?).

Walker Books UK, Walker Books Australia, July 2017.

Jez Alborough is the phenomenal success of classics like Where’s My Teddy? and Hug. In succession, his newest story is an adorable mix of innocence, cheekiness and warmth; it’s Play.

Simple sentences in speech bubbles relay the conversation between mummy chimp and baby Bobo. The detailed illustrations are the driving force leading its young observers through the recognisable feelings of curiosity, frustration, exhilaration, disappointment, rebellion, fear, anxiety, relief and finally, comfort. With Mum repeating “bedtime” and “stay”, all Bobo wants to do is “play”.

Swinging out of his tree without permission, the tiny chimp is lucky to have the support of the other animals to allow him his adventure out and back again with safety. The episodic layout gives the book a natural sense of playfulness as well as the clarity pre-readers will benefit from in understanding the sequence of events. With a strong-willed, relatable and loveable character, Play will become a nightly favourite for any toddler resisting the bedtime routine (and the demands of their parents!).

Walker Books UK, Walker Books Australia, July 2017.

South Asian Inspired YA Epic Fantasy Books

One of the best parts of reading is disappearing into other countries and cultures — preferably with a little magic on top. So what could be better than epic fantasy that’s inspired by South Asian cultures?!? Today we are going to peruse some delicious young adult novels that take a detour from the repetitious medieval British settings!


REBEL OF THE SANDS BY ALWYN HAMILTON

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This is a swashbuckling, sharpshooting, magical adventure set in a world that rings of the Arabian Nights folklore! It fits an interesting combination of guns and magic and deserts together that feels super unique. Plus there is sass. So much sass. Amani is an excellent marksman who wants adventure and decides to escape across the deserts with a mysterious foreigner.

It contains rebellion, deserts, djinn, and other monsters that lurk beneath the sands.  Not to mention a shoot out on a moving train because this is like THE WILD WEST meets ARABIAN NIGHTS and it’s exciting.

 

POISON’S KISS BY BREEANA SHIELDS

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Set in a mythical fantasy kingdom that resembles India, this story is about a girl who is a visha kanya — her kiss is death. Marinda obviously it not doing well in the love life factor, but she’s doing anything and everything to keep her sickly little brother alive. Which means working for a cruel boss who uses her as a weapon. But then she meets a boy in a bookshop and starts to wonder if she can get out of her brutal and murderous career path.

The world is pretty lush and vivid, with gorgeous descriptions, and has basis in Indian folklore.

 

THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN BY ROSHANI CHOKSHI

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This features a fantasy-inspired Indian society where a girl, Maya, is cursed to fulfil a marriage of death and doom. Which is kind of a turn off for a lot of guys, it seems. However she ends up in a political marriage with a strange boy who rules a kingdom that is magical and definitely not what it seems. We’re taking on a whirlwind journey where myth becomes life. Roll out the demon talking horses, magic trees, and worlds controlled by a single thread!

This book’s definite strength is its lush and melodic writing style. It spins the story with beautiful prose and a slower pace to match the carefully unfurling magic.

 

 

THE WRATH AND THE DAWN BY RENEE AHDIEH

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This is an absolutely gorgeous retelling of the tales of Shahrzad who told the 1001 Nights stories to the Sultan to stop him killing all his wives. The book takes a magical twist to the tale and there are monsters and curses here that lurk in the shadows. Shazi is the most epic of protagonists who is here to stop the boy-Sultan’s rampage…except things are definitely more than they seem and he’s harbouring secrets that change everything.

I also will totally admit that the food descriptions in this book?? They slay. They are so darn delicious that I just wanted to eat the book.

Review: Vicarious by Paula Stokes

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Vicarious by Paula Stokes is definitely a wild ride with dark undertones! It’s a high-stakes thriller where 18-year-old Winter has to find out who murdered her older sister. And, why. It’s not graphic at all, but it definitely stays in the “dark side” and deals with topics more suited for older Young Adults. It keeps up quite the action pace and packs a lot into a 320-page story! You won’t be pausing much for breath for this one, while you see what Winter, with her badass fighting skills and brutal past, will do to find her sister’s killer.

Basically Winter works for a company that specialises in this technology that allows people to have stimulated thrills from the comfort of their own home. Things like diving with sharks, skydiving, or having sex with movie stars. People like Winter will go out and actually do the thrills, recording on their special ViSE headsets. While that’s the premise of the story, the actual stunts Winter pulls for her job don’t feature all that much. She’s mostly trying to figure out what happened to her sister and unravel the mysteries that start building up around her past, especially in the blocks of time she doesn’t remember. Someone is definitely after the tech and may do anything to get it.

Now the book isn’t graphic or explicit, but it is set against a backdrop of clubs and drugs. Winter was a child prostitute, stolen from Korea. She’s been rescued by Gideon who acts as her boss and older brother, while she and her sister Rose work as stunt girls. That’s just the backdrop though, and it doesn’t go into details. But you definitely see and feel the PTSD Winter has from her brutal and terrifying past.

Winter was such an interesting character! She holds onto a lot of her Korean roots, but is very eager to also fully immerse herself in America. She’s taken a new name (her Korean one being buried along with her terrifying memories of the past) and the book discusses a lot of mental health issues. Winter’s PTSD plays a huge part in the story too.

I also loved her relationship with her co-worker, Jesse! Winter isn’t sure she’ll ever be ready for a boyfriend, and Jesse doesn’t push, but he definitely likes her and their friendship grows into something strong and dependable. Jesse is super sweet! And also super badass. Although Winter doesn’t exactly need any saving (she’s epic with knives and martial arts), it’s epic to see them work together to solve the murder mystery.

The thriller aspect is really quite full on. I spent most of the book suspecting everyone of being a shady killer, and when Winter has black-outs in her memory, it just thickens the plot. I looove it when books turn into high-stake guessing games, so this was a solid win here! We get to piece together clues and suspect the worst as Winter unravels the story.

It also features a super diverse cast, which is amazing. Winter and Rose are obviously Korean. And Jesse is biracial and Mexican. It’s amazing having a full cast of featuring diverse characters were their culture is part of them and interestingly explored.

Vicarious is definitely a good thriller to pick up if you don’t mind the dark side. It’s an interesting story that’s easy to stay engaged with. I personally preferred the fighting scenes to their forays into clubs and technology experiences, but it was full of plot twists and sci-fi elements and lots of very sharp knives.

Review: On The Java Ridge by Jock Serong

This a taut political thriller than isn’t ground down by the halls of parliament but instead plays itself out on the high seas as three people’s lives intersect as a storm bears down upon them, both literally and figuratively.

Isi Natoli is the skipper of a surf safari business that takes Australian tourists out to the reefs and islands off the Indonesian coastline. As her business partner makes a desperate trip home to Australia in search of more funds she heads out with a group looking for adventures and the perfect wave.

Roya is a young Afghani girl who along with her pregnant mother has been forced to flee her home after her father and brother disappeared. They have made their way to Indonesia and are about to embark on the next dangerous leg of their journey.

Cassius Calvert is an ex-Olympian turned Federal politician who is the Minister for Border Integrity (formerly Immigration). With an election taking place in seven days Cassius has just announced a major new policy shift in the way Australia polices its borders. A new policy which will shift responsibility away from the Government and the Navy and onto a privately contracted security firm.

These three stories are inextricably woven together with devastating consequences and in doing so creates a thriller unlike anything you have read before. What makes this book so good is that it is a political thriller that doesn’t define its politics. Cassius’s political party is never named, he could be Liberal or Labor. The attitudes of the Australian tourists who get caught up in Roya’s journey are also vague and indefinite. They all have differing views but it is their apathy more that anything that comes to the fore until they are each forced to face the reality of the situation they are confronted with and the ramifications their decisions and attitudes have.

Jock Serong’s third novel takes his writing to whole a new level moving him from the ranks of Australian crime writers to watch to writer’s you have got to read now.

Buy the book here…

Perception – The Power of Picture Book Point of View

Picture books have an immense power and ability to relay subject matter in a range of perspectives. How young developing minds perceive the world around them helps them make sense of themselves as well as those living in worlds different from theirs. The following picture books all support themes of perception in the most tender and winsome ways.

The Cloudspotter by Tom McLaughlin

A young boy seeks solace in spotting clouds and the adventures they enshroud. His imaginative blue-sky sojourns stave loneliness until he encounters The Scruffy Dog whom he feels is after his cloud sanctuaries for herself. He plots to remove her but when she is no longer beside him, realises that both she and he had been searching for something else all along.

A beautifully illustrated succinct look at imagination, friendship and viewing things from a different point of view. A must read.

Bloomsbury June 2015

Ollie’s Treasures by Lynn Jenkins & Kirrili Lonergan Continue reading Perception – The Power of Picture Book Point of View

Review: Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

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Made You Up by Francesca Zappia is an amazing novel about schizophrenia, school, and making friends with a boy who may or may not be real. The whole story caught me by surprise with how much I loved it! It felt so realistic and relatable with how it is to be a teen, and it was also amazing have the perspective of someone who deals with delusions. I was so caught up, the 400-pages rushed by in a flash! And the ending is the kind that will definitely turn you on your head. Such excellence.

The story follows Alex who’s just trying to get through her last year of highschool so she can get into college — while keep control of her delusions and schizophrenia. There are a few mysteries going on at school which she is trying to solve. And on top of that, she meets a boy named Miles who she’s sure she’s met before…or has she?

I thought the representation of schizophrenia was extremely interesting. I’ve read other books on this topic, such as Challenger Deep and Alice and the Fly, which both summarised the vivid and devastating delusions from a completely different angle. Alex seems to maintain a “normal” life. She’s witty and has some great dialogue lines and she has many hopes and plans for the future. She has hobbies (she loves photography) and she has a job and is a history nerd. But her paranoid schizophrenia is still there. I actually really liked this representation because it shows that (a) mental health issues are a spectrum, and (b) often times someone on the outside can’t “see”…which really can underline the fact you shouldn’t judge people without knowing the whole story. But I liked how Alex had mental health struggles, but she wasn’t just those struggles. I definitely connected and rooted for Alex!

The secondary characters are also excellently written and well developed. Alex is going to this new school (she got kicked out of her last) and so she meets a motley crew, but notably: Tucker and Miles. Tucker is a really cool, sweet dude and I liked his easy-going friendship with Alex. It was really especially nice to see platonic boy-and-girl friendships featuring!

Miles is extremely interesting and complex. He’s German and skinny and a genius and often horrible and unempathetic. I loved him a lot, basically instantly, because you can tell there’s more to him than meets the eye. I think he’s also on the autism spectrum and this definitely shows in his personality and how he relates to people. I thought he was so well written and represented! I loved how he’s just this a fountain of extreme intelligence, and his character development and relationship with Alex is amazing.

I so appreciate how this book tackled so many complex topics and treated them well and with total respect.

My only negatives were I guessed the biggest plot twist at the end! However that might be just me who reads, let’s face it, an awful lot.

I definitely think Made You Up is the kind of book you want to experience. It’s so so well written and a phenomenal debut. It made me instantly realise I’ll need to read everything by this author of ever. It’s full of feels and emotions and important messages and definitely will get you thinking.

Breathtaking Fantasy Adventures for Middle Grade and Young Adults

It’s not often I get the opportunity to delve into the depths of fantasy-adventure novels, so the change has been an interesting welcome. If you’re a thrill-seeker, a supernatural-hunting-wannabe, a mission-impossible-style adrenalin junkie or courageous-fugitive aspirant, then these following books are for you!

Fenn Halflin and the Seaborn by Francesca Armour-Chelu, July 2017.

Following its predecessor, Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero, this final futuristic fantasy takes the resourceful and brave Fenn Halflin to new depths of heroism. With fantastic, fast-paced action, Fenn and his loyal mongoose Tikki are at the forefront of saving themselves and the Seaborn people from the grips of the merciless Terra Firma and their evil leader, Chilstone. Haunted by his past and his pain, Chilstone literally drowns in his own hatred in response to the inner strength of our protagonist, Fenn. Uncomplicated but enough visualisation to get lost in, the dystopian Fenn Halflin and the Seaborn will sweep its middle grade readers into a spunky science fiction odyssey.

The City of Secret Rivers by Jacob Sager Weinstein, June 2017.

Twelve-year-old Hyacinth gains a lot more than she bargained for when moving from America to London; the place of her ancestry. Drawing on a wonderful mix of real life and an underground magical alternate reality, author Jacob Sager Weinstein literally sweeps us through a series upon romping series of adventure into tunnels, pipes and mazes in the secret sewer systems of London. When something as simple as washing her hands sets off a complicated chain of dangerous events, Hyacinth is thrust into a world of outlandish characters, including muddy Saltpetre Men, toshers and a bather-wearing pig, facing tests of trust, bravery and the acceptance of a whole new identity. All this to save her kidnapped Mom, oh, and the entire city from the Great Fire – plot by the conniving Lady Roslyn. With elements of suspense, humour, excitement and pure terror, The City of Secret Rivers combines the kind of complexity and ingenuity to that of Lewis Carroll and J.K. Rowling all rolled into a fantastical adventure for mid to upper primary-aged children.

William Wenton and the Luridium Thief by Bobbie Peers, April 2017.

First in this exciting new series is William Wenton; an extraordinarily talented codebreaker which lands him in all sorts of strife. Kidnapped by the Institute for Post-Human Research for his code-cracking skills, what follows is a series of mystery, adventure and secret discoveries. Wenton not only discovers the powerful substance, luridium whilst held captive, but also forges a path of self-discovery and identity, as most youngsters do on their journey into adulthood. With cryptic puzzles and fiendish mechanical inventions, the Luridium Thief is a captivating and enigmatic fantasy novel that will immediately hook those upper-primary readers.

The Traitor and the Thief by Gareth Ward, August 2017.

More secrets, spies and being hunted. Another thrilling steampunk story for older readers, The Traitor and the Thief is essentially about fourteen-year-old petty thief Sin, on his own mission of soul-searching, relationship-building, and becoming a saviour. Caught and recruited into the Covert Operations Group (COG), Sin is trained to be an agile spy with mastery in weaponry and technology in order to uncover truths and conquer dangerous adventures. With quirkiness and elements of imaginative realities, as well as a touch of budding young romance and navigating teenagehood, this fantasy novel suits those readers out for a good mystery mixed with adventure.

Alex Rider: Never Say Die (Book 11) by Anthony Horowitz, June 2017.

From the bestselling series here is a new mission for Alex Rider, a fifteen-year-old adopted into a writerly family, and recruited by the M16 agents. Intensely terrifying adventure leads to clues as to the whereabouts of his female guardian, Jack – ultimately held for ransom by a terrorist organisation. Set in Cairo, and packed with plot twists and turns, Never Say Die is an exciting and absolutely gripping explosion of action and adrenalin that will have its readers on tender hooks until the end.

Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, including authors Cassandra Clare, Sarah Ress Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman, May 2017.

To fully immerse oneself in this latest volume of the ‘Shadowhunters’ series, background knowledge and loyalty to best-selling YA author, Cassandra Clare would be ideal. In essence of the Harry Potter-style ideology of mixing realms between the normal and the magical variety, these tales confront protecting the ‘mundane’ world from the dangers of the supernatural beings. With ten short stories written by four authors and varying in complexity, Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy fans will, I’m sure, relish learning of every new skill, memory and life discovery of its central character, human / vampire / Shadowhunter Simon Lewis.

Walker Books Australia

Interview with Katrin Dreiling – Illustrator of The World’s Worst Pirate

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 his delicious 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.

Little Pink Dog Books, July 2017. Purchase here.

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! 😊 🐙 

Argh!!!!! 

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.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: Eliza And Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

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Eliza And Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia is the ultimate book for those of us who hiss at sunlight and live on the internet. It’s brimming with internet, geek, and nerdom appreciation! And on top of that, the writing is absolutely amazing and it features protagonists’ struggling with anxiety and depression and their entirely relatable journeys. This book just felt so applicable to this day! I can do naught but appreciate it’s perfection.

The story follows Eliza who is the anonymous creator of an internet-famous webcomic series called Monstrous Sea. Online she is a mysterious and powerful creator and is loved and adored by so many. She’s made quite the profit off her business and fans adore every chapter update. Her closest friends are online and she can talk to them about anything. But in the physical life? Eliza hates leaving her room. She barely talks and has severe anxiety and depression and every day is just about getting through school so she can finish and go to college to study art. Until she meets a fanfic writer at her very school: Wallace. The two form a deep friendship based on their loves of the Monstrous Sea fandom and their connection over anxiety (Wallace has selective mutism). But Wallace doesn’t know who Eliza truly is. And she’s not sure if telling him will ruin everything.

I was already a big fan of the author’s debut, Made You Up, so I went into this story know it’d be amazing. I maybe liked the debut better, but this one just hit home with the levels of sheer geekdom over the comicseries. I think anyone who’s anxious, introverted, or loves to get lost in literature — will definitely relate to Eliza and feel understood.

 

“Eliza, your worth as a person is not dependant on the art you create or what other people think of it.”

 

I also loved the emphasis on internet friendships! Most of Eliza’s life is online and her parents are of the opinion that online-friends-aren’t-real-friends. Which is obviously ridiculous and stresses Eliza out a lot. She loves the freedom of the internet, the chance to think before she has to talk. I also couldn’t get over how awesome Max and Emmy, Eliza’s chat buddies, were. We only “met” them through internet dialogue, but they were so complex, interesting, and relatable! I also loved that there was quite an age gap between the three friends (Eliza was 17, Emmy 14, and Max in his early twenties). It just goes to show and prove that internet friendship can and will transcend barriers. The whole thing was sweet and lovely! The book totally did highlight how the internet can suck, but mostly it was positive which was such a refreshing change.

And of course I must mention how wonderful the featuring characters of Eliza and Wallace were! It was amazing to read how they both struggled with anxiety, but it displayed in different forms (with Eliza retreating from life, and Wallace not speaking in public). It goes to show what a spectrum mental health issues are. I also loved Eliza’s family, who were sweet and kind…if totally clueless about her love and dedication to her webcomic. They really did try to connect with her, even though they often made things worse. And Wallace was complex and interesting. Their relationship starts as tentative friends and then progresses so sweetly. I loved it!

Also anytime someone says “exercise” Eliza runs away. This is relatable and perfect.

It also was great that the book featured people who weren’t good at talking, but still communicated through art, writing, and notes. There’s still plenty of dialogue in the book, but the balance was perfect.

And the book is also illustrated! Many sections and pages have snippets of Eliza’s comic. And it includes emails and web-chats too, to make a very entirely pleasing and uniquely formatted novel.

 

“Do you ever have an idea for a story, a character, or even a line of dialogue or something, and suddenly it seems like the whole world is brighter? Like everything opens up, and everything makes sense?”

Eliza And Her Monsters is definitely the kind of book you need in your life! The sheer amount of GEEK AND INTERNET LOVE makes it so worth it. I love how I felt understood by it and I love how it really explained and delved into the reasons why fandoms and art and writing are so important to some people!

The Legacy of Imagination – Picture Books that Celebrate Imagination

Imagination – the external source of ideas and creative verve or simply an astonishing faculty for storing all that happens to you and all that you wish could happen to you. Either way, when a picture book encapsulates this wonderful cache of wishes and experiences, the sky is the limit as to what you can do and where you can go. Young children instinctively know this and apparently, so too do gecko-sque styled sketches…

I Want to Be in A Book by Narelle Oliver

This picture book, the last title by Narelle Oliver, is a kind of mecca to imagination and creation. It epitomises the need to belong, the joy of purpose and the delicate process of turning dreams into magical reality. And it is all done through the eyes and heart of a mere idea…a sketch, but a sketch with a name, Cecil.

Continue reading The Legacy of Imagination – Picture Books that Celebrate Imagination

Samantha Wheeler, Wombat Warrior

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.

The Best YA Duologies

When it comes to starting a new book series, sometimes we bookworms scare ourselves with how many we start but don’t finish. There can be a lot of books, okay?! A series that stretches over four books can be quite daunting. Which is why some authors are lovely and kind and have given us the beautiful gift that are: duologies.

Duologies contain two books, which is great because (a) less commitment, (b) less time spent waiting for more sequels, and (c) no middle-book-series-blues! They’re concise and get the entire story told over two volumes, and we love them.

In case you want to try a simple duology but don’t know where to start: HERE! I will help by listing some absolutely amazing ones.


THIS SAVAGE SONG & OUR DARK DUET

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This duology by VE Schwab must be one of my favourites in all the world. It centres around a Gotham-like world (sans Batman) where monsters and violence reign supreme, and two factions within the city war for rulership and safety. A monster-boy, August Flynn, who plays the violin ends up going to school with the opposition’s sharp and cutting daughter, Kate Harker. They develop and unlikely friendship before they end up on the run for their lives.

The story is all about monsters vs humans, and asks questions like “what truly makes a monster”. It talks about acts of violence and consequences and it’s just altogether fascinating. Definite 5-star reads!

 

SIX OF CROWS & CROOKED KINGDOM

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This two are a follow up from Leigh Bardugo’s famous Grisha trilogy. You can read this by themselves though! The are set in the lush world of the Grisha and Ravka, where a young mastermind con artist named Kaz Brekker is putting together a crew to take on an enormous heist. They have to break into an high security ice palace and steal back a boy and a magical formula. Kaz is ruthless and clever, and his crew is a knot of complex and terrifying teens.

The beauty in this series is firstly the complexity of the plots (heists!) and then secondly in the gorgeous characters and how dynamic and interesting they are. You can’t help but become invested after just a few pages!

 

THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE & THE SHIP BEYOND TIME

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This is about a time travelling ex-pirate ship that contains a father and his daughter who can manipulate time. They have to find the perfect map, however, and the father is on the constant look out for one that might take them back to his dead wife. They get caught up in Hawaii in the 19th century in a heist!

Nix is such a fabulous and winning heroine and you can’t help but root for her and feel her worry and pain as her father tries to change history…because if he does that, will Nix cease to exist?

 

THE CROWN’S GAME & THE CROWN’S FATE

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This is a fantasy duology set in Russia, in a world were the tsar has magicians who work for him. But there can only be one and two teens, Vika and Nikolai must compete for the place to work for the royalty. It’s a really amazingly beautiful and visual series, with not so much “duels of magic to the death” but inventive magical creations to show who’s the most powerful. The two’s rivalry relationship is compromised by growing affections towards each other and also to their mutual best friend, Pasha. Who also just happens to be the next tsar.

It features high stakes, marvellous writing, and plot twists at the end that will leave you reeling!

Review – That Stubborn Seed of Hope

Human beings can be a tenacious breed. Our stubborn ability to cling to optimism often overrides unsolicited fear, which I guess allows us to fit in with the rest of the world’s species and, in short, survive. Brian Falkner artfully cultivates that seed of hope in a choice collection of short stories ideal for mid-grade to YA readers and beyond.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope Stories heralds what I hope is the first of more anthologies for children, depicting concise, gripping stories linked in theme and flavour. The tone of this collection is at times dark and sobering, sorrowful and desperate yet somehow also manages to leave the reader with a yearning to read on, to venture further into their own swamp of fears and to face those disquietudes with the help of another’s story.

Falkner addresses a number of fearful situations and occasions to dread with these stories: the fear of death, embarrassment, rejection, heartbreak to name a few. At times the obvious theme is enshrouded by a veil of less certain anxieties which combine to form complex and rich narratives. Continue reading Review – That Stubborn Seed of Hope

Review: Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee

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Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee is a fantastic tale of internet fame,  summer holidays, and friendship! After totally adoring the author’s other book, Lucky Few, I was really keen to try this one.  Plus, you know, I might’ve wanted to see if I could glean tips on how to get half a million followers over night on social media. As you do when reading these kind of books.  That might not have happened, but I still absolutely adored this hilarious, sweet, and addictive story! I was also really keen to finally read a book with an asexual protagonist, because asexuality seems woefully underrepresented in Young Adult books. And, of course, this book features a lot of appreciation for Russian literature. (Hey, Tolstoy on the front cover!)

The story basically follows Tash who runs a web-vlog series that’s a modern adaption of Anna Karenina that suddenly goes viral. It’s acted out by her friends and classmates and they take filming very seriously. Tash directs and writes scripts with her best-friend, Jack, and they’re a bit of a salt and vinegar mix, but truly do love each other. Jack and her brother Paul are like Tash’s “siblings from another mother” and they’re all super close. Although Tash might have a small crush on Paul, something she thinks she can never act on because she’s asexual and doesn’t think Paul would want a relationship without sex. Life turns even more complicated when the sudden fame also brings slews of haters and trolls out. Tash has to figure out how to balance this without being paralysed from creating and without pushing her friends away in an attempt to keep everything afloat.

The book also has such a nice summer-vibe, with plenty of banter amongst friends as well as work in their web-series. It was just so pleasurable to read! I loved the character dynamics the most. You end up just wanting to faceplant yourself into the book so you can hang out with Tash, Paul, and Jack and basically never leave. It takes an excellent book to bring the characters off the page so well!

Now don’t fear if you don’t know much about Russian literature! I still found the book entirely awesome despite (a) never having read Anna Katerina, or (b) not actually being a youtuber myself! There was still so much to be engaged with and connect to.

Plus I really appreciated the fact that it was so internet-focused. I mean, I’m a blogger and tweeter, so just reading about teens who share the same internet-centric interests as me was really refreshing and fun!

I also liked how it did show the darker side of “fame”, especially on the internet. Things can get quite snide and snarky very fast online, and the story didn’t paint a purely rosy picture of what was going on. It was realistic and also super interesting!

Shout out to the friendships for being the absolute best! Tash’s dynamics with her neighbours were so much fun. And I enjoyed getting to know (although slowly) the rest of the cast of her vlog-crew. There are a LOT of characters here, though, which took a bit of getting used to. But I have such a weakness for childhood-friends growing up together, and it’s stinkin’ adorable.

The writing style features lots of banter and wit, which was super engaging to read. Plus it was easy to just keep flipping pages! I’d devoured half the book before I even noticed.

Tash Hearts Tolstoy is definitely the kind of book you need in your life. It’s funny and bittersweet, with some occasional sadder undercurrents and some very meaty food-for-thought. I loved the sibling/friendship dynamics and the internet focus! It was just the most pleasant book to read and definitely one to recommend!

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe

Steph Bowe’s latest YA novel is Night Swimming.

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.

Why is your new novel Night Swimming (Text Publishing) important?

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).

Why have you mentioned George Orwell books?

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!

Amazing Creatures of the World – Stunning Non-Fiction Books for Kids

When non-fiction texts are presented in the most visually and perceptively- arousing ways that leave the mundane behind and turn into a curious adventure of the wild variety. That’s what these following graphic information books about nature’s amazing creatures do to nurture and sharpen our hearts and minds.

A is for Australian Animals, Frané Lessac (author, illus.), Walker Books, August 2017.

Internationally renown for her striking illustrations is USA-born, Frané Lessac, artist to books including Pattan’s Pumpkin (by Chitra Soundar), Simpson and his Donkey, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash, and Midnight (all by Mark Greenwood). Her remarkable A is for Australia (review) precedes this stunning addition; the factastic tour, A is for Australian Animals.

A necessary introduction neatly begins the book at ‘A’; a map of Australia surrounded by general facts about the unique qualities of our native fauna. What’s to follow is a detailed alphabetic collection of fascinating facts and characteristics all the way through to ‘Z’. With one or two animals featured on each double page spread, this resource is a compendium of colour and life. Each page is divided with large, bold headers and accompanied by smaller font paragraphs interwoven between the pictures. Beautiful, vibrant earthy tones in a production of silky gouache and etched naive-style paintings capture the eclectic mix of wildlife characters in their surroundings.

Equipped with animal distribution maps in the index and enough mind-blowing information to forge the most knowledgable animal experts, A is for Australian Animals is a highly valuable and engaging learning tool for students in primary school. I am now a fan of the long-necked, mosquito-devouring oblong turtle!

Koala, Claire Saxby (author), Julie Vivas (illus.), Walker Books, August 2017.

One particular favourite is the native Aussie fluffball- the koala. With other best-selling Australian animal themed books by award-winning non-fiction author Claire Saxby, including Emu and Big Red Kangaroo (review), here is a gripping exploration of the symbolic Koala.

Written in both a story tale and informative format, and masterfully illustrated by the legendary Julie Vivas (Possum Magic), Koala’s journey begins high in a tree fork with his nurturing mother. But he is old enough to look after himself now, and being challenged by another male sees little Koala lost in search for another home. Factually, males fight in their need for a mate between late spring and the end of summer. Navigating his way around the bushland and avoiding dangers like predators and human deforestation, Koala eventually finds his own tree where he is safe and independently sufficient.

Here is a book that is so beautifully descriptive, with sensational watercolour scenes you could hang on your wall. Koala enforces enough compassion to reinforce proactive pledges for wildlife sustainability, but is also simply a pleasurable and captivating read for its primary school aged readers.

Rock Pool Secrets, Narelle Oliver (author, illus.), Walker Books, April 2017.

With her final contribution to the children’s literature world, the superlative Narelle Oliver leaves a lasting testament of her undeniable passion for the creatures of our world and her abundance of talent. Oliver has blessed us with numerous award-winning treasures, like Baby Bilby, where do you sleep?, The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay, Sand Swimmers, and this last one; Rock Pool Secrets.

A scrupulously crafted linocut print, etch and watercolour portfolio of art make up this glorious exploration into the shallows of the pools. Each spread contains secrets nestled in and amongst the exhibition of line, shape, colour and texture. Cleverly integrated lift-the-flaps intersect between what is hiding and its unveiling. Whether it’s bubble-coloured shrimp tangled in seaweed, rock-fronting, ‘bumpy’ starfish, octopuses in ink clouds, or turban sea snails sealed in their shells with ‘lids called cat’s eyes’, there’s plenty to peruse and discover in this satisfyingly magical, concealed realm of the rock pool.

Beautifully descriptive turns and phrases add more depth and interest to the stunning visuals that facilitate factual knowledge about this richly diverse world of sea organisms. Huge amounts of detail to be learned about some of the smallest and most fascinating creatures! Children from four will absolutely delight in the Rock Pool Secrets search, but it will be no secret how much they love it!

Wild Animals of the South, Dieter Braun (author, illus.), Walker Books, June 2017. First edition by Flying Eye Books, London.

German author-illustrator, Dieter Braun, presents a spectacular array of animals from the southern hemisphere in this delectably gorgeous encyclopaedia-style graphic volume. Wild Animals of the South is the sequel to Wild Animals of the North.

A powerfully persuasive introduction leads the opening with a dedication to the wonderfully colourful, diverse, rich and rare wildlife that lives within these pages. Unfortunately, many will, and have already disappeared. What would the world be like without the power and beauty of these creatures in the animal kingdom? Despite their unique differences, their individual ways of living, it is with such importance that we take cognisance; “their will to live and their freedom” is what ties them together.

The book is divided into five regions; Africa, South America, Asia, Australia and Antarctica. Fun, fascinating and witty facts of various animals are explained in short paragraphs (just the right amount to prevent brain-overload!), along with its common and more scientific name, and striking, crisp and textured prints that fill the large-face pages. Meet majestic lions, impressive giraffes and even the unceremonious mantis in Africa, the glowing toucan and lazy sloths in South America, and zesty crocs, powerful kangaroos and our cuddly wombats in Australia, plus so much more!

There are 140 pages, including a pictorial index of each animal in their region, of breathtaking images and banks of useful, modest and age-appropriate information to add to your brain trust. Wild Animals of the South is a must-have resource for any home or school bookshelf.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: Here Lies Daniel Tate by Cristin Terrill

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Here Lies Daniel Tate by Cristin Terrill is an absolutely amazing and mind-twisting book about a young con artist who steals a missing boy’s identity. It was so well written that I didn’t want to put it down. Also it had only small chapter breaks instead of actual finished-chapters…so the entire book was a conspiracy to NOT let itself be put down. And it was so so worth it. It was equal parts con artistry and thriller and mystery as you wonder (a) what happened to the real Daniel Tate, and (b) what the fake Daniel Tate will sacrifice or do to keep this pretend life he’s building for himself.

I’m honestly such a fan! I love books that mess with my mind and the narrator beings the book by telling you he’s going to lie. He is a professional liar. So what are you going to believe? #MindTwisting

It’s narrated in 1st person by the protagonist who is never truly named, except for this identity he stole: Daniel Tate. You know he has a bad home life and is living by conning his way into halfway houses by acting like a traumatised younger boy. He steals. He’s constantly on the move. He cons people into helping him. Then he settles on the idea of taking the identity of the infamous Daniel Tate who disappeared when he was 10 years old. The narrator figures if he can pull it off, he can be looked after for a week or so and catch a break. But he accidentally ends up loving the Tate family and feels desperate to keep hold of what he’s stolen. But can he truly trick this family for long enough to stay? And what really happened to the true Daniel Tate?

The book is a mind field of interesting and complicated questions. I also adore how it answers questions by asking more and you just keep flicking pages with your heart somewhat escaping because WHAT IS GOING ON. The book was simply superb!

So I absolutely thoroughly enjoyed the protagonist’s narration. He’s definitely clever and good at faking it, possibly a sociopath…but at the same time he really longs for a family and safety. It was really easy to feel for him. He never intended to get too deep into this con, but the Tate family are really desperate not to let him go. The Tates are also super rich and super messed up. You can practically smell their dark family secrets. And even though they seem to love and care for this fake-Danny with few questions, you can tell things are a little darker and twisted than all that. I really wanted good things to happen to the narrator! He was precious and just needed to be loved. Imagine spending your whole life pretending to be someone else? He was at the point where, if he wasn’t faking being Daniel Tate, he didn’t even know how to act because he didn’t know who he was.

It was also very suspenseful. To the point where you can just wave goodbye to doing anything else because, no, friend, you’re going to sit here and just READ because you want answers. You get emotionally tangled up in hoping Danny’s life works out but having a SICK DREAD FEELING the whole time.

I also loved how complex and dimensional all the characters were. The Tate family were vastly complicated, with secrets being slung around and everyone having different agendas. I loved the soft, sweet, caring Lex and the solid and authoritative Patrick — both Danny’s older siblings who’ll do anything to keep him safe and well now that they have “him back”. Then there’s a younger sister who adores her newly-found “brother” and a slightly older brother, Nicholas who seems to be the only one who doesn’t accept the fake-Danny is truly is brother. (Well, mate, you’re not wrong.)

Then the ending is just designed to BLOW YOUR MIND and leave you screaming faintly in the corner.

Basically Here Lies Daniel Tate is the kind of book you need in your life. It’s a thriller with heartwarming family elements and the most precious of con artist protagonists. It’s full of lies and twists and it’ll captivate you to the very last page.

Review – The Elephant

It is a rare day on earth that I’m lost for words. Fortunately Peter Carnavas never seems to be. And he uses a few more than usual in his latest work, The Elephant.

Now it’s no secret I’m unashamedly enamoured by Carnavas’ work; his illustrated picture books embrace you like a warm welcome hug. This, his first foray into longer narratives, is a hug you can immerse yourself even deeper into but beware, you may not want to let go. I didn’t.

The Elephant is an average-sized, understated junior novel for people with small hands and large hearts. Even the cover is benign and quiet, muting the enormity of what’s to come. It reads with the elegant crispness of a verse novel using a collection of brief chapters to relay Olive’s story about her dad and the lugubrious grey elephant that plagues his every move. Despite the heavy nature of Olive’s situation, it’s this wonderful lightness of touch, Carnavas’ refined way with words to convey powerful meaning and Olive’s own irrepressible personality that add the light to her father’s shade and give this story a sunny disposition. Continue reading Review – The Elephant

The Most Highly Anticipated YA Sequels Of 2017

Apparently 2017 is crowning itself the queen of the young adult sequels. There are so many epic additions to series coming out this year, it’s just impossible not to try and eat them all at once! And if you’re a little behind on release dates and figuring out which series you should be caught up on…sit down and relax, my friend. I am here to help.

Here are some highly anticipated YA sequels that are either newly on the shelves or just around the corner!


 

OUR DARK DUET (published June)

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This is the sequel and finally to the incredible This Savage Song! It follows the story of Kate Harker, child of a cruel mafi overlord, and August Flynn, a violinist monster who wishes he was human and their fight to save their depraved and dying city of Verity.

It’s like Batman’s Gotham but with violins and heartbreakingly good writing. Definitely a must read!

 

 

NOW I RISE (publishing July)

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This is the sequel to And I Darken, which is a gender-bent Vlad the Impaler retelling. It follows siblings, Lada and Radu, as they’re ripped from their home and given as gifts to secure a piece to their father’s enemy. They grow up far away from home, unloved, and unwanted, until they meet the future boy sultan and both fall hopelessly in love with him. It’s full of politics and intrigue and the most terrifying bloody heroine of ever. Do not mess with Lada. Like…ever.

 

 

LORD OF SHADOWS (published May)

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This is the sequel to Lady Midnight, another addition to the ever-expanding Shadowhunter world by Cassandra Clare! If you haven’t caught up on her other books, don’t fear! This trilogy is actually possibly to read on its own. It’s a tangled mess of necromancers and dark faeries and war, and it focuses on Emma Carstairs who’s trying to solve the mystery of who murdered her parents. It also follows her parabati, Julian Blackthorn’s life as he tries to raise his siblings and keep them safe in a world that’s not kind to damaged people.

 

 

THE CROWN’S FATE (published May)

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This is the sequel and finale to The Crown’s Game, which is about two magicians vying for the spot as the Tsar’s right hand. There can only be one, however, hence a fight to the death with magical tricks, games, duels, and manipulation. The only problem is Vika and Nikolai are also falling in love, and their future Tsar is their best friend…which makes the whole “fight to the death” thing super hard. It’s also set in Russia and has a luscious backdrop of Russian culture and food. The levels of magical imagination are absolutely breathtaking!

 

ALWAYS AND FOREVER, LARA JEAN (published May)

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This is the 3rd book in the Lara Jean series that starts with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and then PS. I Still Love You. The story is about Lara Jean (surprise!) who is a Korean-American teenager who used to write letters to her crushes. She never mailed them of course…until one day they accidentally get mailed. It’s a really super sweet and adorable story about family, sisters, first love, and baking. There is so much baking in it, you’ll probably eat your copy of the book. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

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Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner is a super emotional book about grief and guilt. I expected my heart to be beaten about since last year I read Zentner’s debut, The Serpent King, and wow was that emotionally devastating and incredible. Goodbye Days has the same level of intensity! It’s like being left out in the rain with a bucket to catch your tears…and honestly it can be hard to read at times because it was so raw. But a book that really makes you feel things?! You know that is an excellent story!

The book follows the tragic story of Carver whose 3 friends have just died instantly in a horrific car accident. And the last thing the driver was doing? Reading a text that Carver had just sent. The guilt is heavy on Carver, resulting in severe anxiety attacks and devastation. He’s absolutely hated by most of his friends’ families. But the grandmother of one of his dead friends asks Carver to help her have a “goodbye day” for closure, and he agrees…and it unravels more to the story.

The heartbreak levels for the reader are EXTREMELY HIGH HERE. The writing is so incredible that you not only ache for Carver, you ache with Carver. Just the knowledge that his text “could” have been the reason his friends died is a crippling fact lodged in your mind and you can’t help but see all sides to the story. The writing is so strong though, and I felt such righteous indignation that Carver was going through this and suffering so much when he’s not the only one to blame. (C’mon, his friend picked up the phone too.) Plus I think the book really perfectly balanced adding in jokes and quips and lighter scenes, without severing the heaviness of the storyline, but not making the book one huge bucket of depressing tales.

I really felt for all the characters. Sometimes it’s hard to care when a book starts off with a large portion of the cast already dead. You don’t really get a chance to know them, right?! But there are tons of flash-backs that help you really connect to Carver’s friends. And it’s so hard to read these happy memories, knowing what goes down. I did find the flashbacks a little unsatisfying when they didn’t focus equally on all the boys, though. It would’ve been nice to have equal backstory for them!

SMALL LIST OF OTHER THINGS TO LOVE:

  • Carver’s big sister, Georgia, is the best and SO loving and supportive! I always adore epic sibling relationships in books.
  • It has a REALLY positive portrayal of therapy and mental health plans, and actually goes into detail about anxiety therapy.
  • It doesn’t cure anything with romance.
  • The representation of anxiety is stunningly accurate and well crafted.
  • Honestly it was just so so well written I couldn’t put it down.
  • It was full of tension, as well as fun and lighter scenes!
  • There was so much food I nearly ate my book.

 

Goodbye Days is definitely a heartbreaking and beautiful book! It balances darkness with hope and it was thoroughly heart-wrenching. Definitely a book to read if you’re not sure if you have a heart, because this will find it for you. It’s a story that deals with unfairness and rage and the complexities of grief. It was quite unsettling and upsetting for me, and I couldn’t wait to see the outcome. Carver was a fantastic narrator who was totally easy to relate to and root for. I definitely think Jeff Zentner is a master storyteller and I can’t wait to read basically everything he ever writes of ever.

Anything But Catastrophic – Picture Books about Cats

Cat lovers! You won’t find disaster here. In fact, far from it. These following cat books are brilliant enough to stretch your imaginations, tickle your sweet spots and scratch at your curiosity. And they all so precisely capture the little nuances that make cats, cats.

In this sequel to The Cat Wants Custard by dynamic duo, P. Crumble and Lucinda Gifford, The Cat Wants Cuddles delights us with humorous cat antics and extreme mood swings. Whether being notoriously independent, totally ambivalent or attention-deprived, Kevin is a typical tomcat.

Surly facial expressions and skittish body language emphasise the stubborn and scornful retaliation Kevin assigns to his owner’s requests for a cuddle. Managing to escape the torturous grip of patting hands, and with absolutely no regard for his flatmate, Dog, Kevin finally finds some peace and quiet. That is until a wave of jealousy rushes over him and he commands dominance over Dog for his former lap-position… but that doesn’t last long!

This book is decidedly potent with its bold, primary-based colours and energetic qualities that exude passion and wit, especially those lime-green, telling eyes. The Cat Wants Cuddles is a book that preschoolers will be snatching, cradling and squeezing with both paws.

Scholastic Australia, May 2017.

The Catawampus Cat is full of personality and individuality, and utter charm. Jason Carter Eaton writes a thoughtful and witty tale that inspires his readers to consider the world from a different perspective. Gus Gordon’s mixed media illustrations are characteristically charismatic and ooze with a sway of retro style and a hint of contemporary flair. The characters are flawlessly represented to match their quirky names and traits that Eaton so brilliantly describes.

When the catawampus, aka diagonally-angled, cat enters the town on a Tuesday morning, one by one each of the villagers see things from another point of view. Because of the askew-walking feline, lost possessions are found, relationships rekindled, creativity is sparked and new challenges are triumphed – all with thanks to the power of the tilt. Soon the whole town is lopsided, and they even mark the first Tuesday of the new year as “Catawampus Cat Day” in his honour. But all the cat wants is to be unique, so he sets off… ‘straight’ out of town!

Eccentric, memorable and thought-provoking with the most loveable and endearing character. The Catawampus Cat will be the new favourite for preschool and early years children…it’s ours!

Penguin Random House, April 2017.

Doodle Cat is back, but this time Doodle Cat is Bored. At first this drives him out of his mind, but then he finds a crayon. Experimenting with it as a soup spoon, a spade, a dance partner finally leads the cat to discover it is in fact for doodling… But he already knew that, right? Demonstrating his creative, imaginative, and sometimes crude mind through the use of the crayon is a tiring feat for the red, graphic squiggle that is Doodle Cat. And with one final engagement, he asks the audience, “What will you draw?”

Kat Patrick writes this story with bounce, energy and vitality. The sentences are simple to create an interactive yet highly amusing report from the view of the cat. Lauren Marriott’s illustrations reflect this beautifully. Her choice of fire engine red perfectly assigns Doodle Cat his prominence on the mostly plain white backgrounds. She has also introduced the front cover’s lemon yellow, which features sporadically within the pages, too.

Young children will certainly be ‘drawn’ to both the simplicity of the book but also the scope of curiosity and artistic opportunities it reinforces. Doodle Cat is Bored is bursting with ideas to quell those boredom blues.

Scribble, May 2017.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: The Force by Don Winslow

I can still remember the first time I read Don Winslow. I had been given a copy of The Power of the Dog as a birthday present with the caveat “wait until you read this”. I was instantly blown away. My first thought was “who is this guy”. After devouring the book I got my hands on everything of his I could read (Warning: there is another Don Winslow who writes erotica, not the same author). I read into how he wrote The Power of the Dog and how close to the truth his novel was and how dangerous his research became. But on top of all this meticulous research was a novel that was entertaining, tragically infused and told with a style unlike anything I had read before. Winslow returned to the same heights with The Cartel but he has outdone himself with his new novel The Force.

Denny Malone is a hero cop in the NYPD. He is the self-declared King of Manhattan North. He heads a task force that fights gun and drug violence directly on the frontlines. Malone works in a world of violence and corruption and he does whatever it takes to defend his patch of New York City. But 18 years of bending the rules has taken its strain and many of those rules have snapped. In fact there’s not many rules Malone hasn’t broken now and he’s about to cross the one rule he never dreamed he’d cross. But Malone doesn’t have a choice. He’s burned all his choices long ago.

Winslow wrote two epics of the War on Drugs and has now written the first true epic cop novel. As always Winslow doesn’t mince the truth. We are not manipulated into liking Denny Malone or thinking that he’s really a good guy underneath. Both Malone and the reader know the good cop inside Malone died a long time ago. But what Winslow demonstrates is the different levels of bad guy, at all levels and on the both sides of the law. Everyone has a price to get what they want and everyone is paying a price in the hope they get paid for another. And the more they pay the more desperate they are to get paid, until there can only be one conclusion.

Don Winslow has written an explosive epic that doesn’t slow down one millisecond from it’s opening prologue through to the very last page. A story equally as shocking in the corruption it shows as the lengths people go to preserve it. A crime classic from an absolute master of the genre.

Buy the book here…

Double Dipping – Meaningful Mindfulness

Mindfulness feels like the new catch cry. Its sudden appearance on school curricula and in children’s literature gives one the sense it’s a new concept but of course this is not one hundred per cent accurate. It’s more of a case of nudging empathy and caring within our next generations into a more prominent light, one that is accessible to them. Literature is one such way to improve accessibility and these two examples show how cleverly it can be done.

Ella Saw the Tree by Robert Vescio and Cheri Hughes

Picture books on mindfulness abound. This picture book by Big Sky Publishing is particularly special because of its gentle quality and strong connection with the everyday child. There is no overt preaching to relay the suggestion to pause for thought and take time to look around and notice the world. Hughes illustrations glow. Vescio’s narrative flows with an easy grace, reflecting the soul of this story, to remain calm and thoughtful.

Ella loves her backyard and fills her days playing in it but she overlooks the most obvious things at times, like the giant tree in the corner of her garden until one day, as the wind showers her with the tree’s falling leaves, she gets the impression it is crying. Despite reassurance to the contrary from her mother and Ella’s attempts to stem the downpour of falling leaves, nothing can alter nature.

Ella’s mother then teaches her daughter to see things in a different light by learning to sit still, observe, feel and ultimately recognise and appreciate all the many splendours, whether large or minuscule of the world. And this allows Ella to enjoy her world much, much more.

Ella Saw the Tree is a beautiful picture book to share, to keep and refer back to when needed. Whilst it focuses on an individual’s discovery of self-awareness, the implication that we should be more observant and empathetic towards our friends is also present amongst the swirling leaves of Ella’s tree.

Read Romi’s in-depth review of Ella Saw the Tree, here. For more insight into the story behind this story, read my interview with author, Robert Vescio, here.

Big Sky Publishing 2017

Too Many Friends by Katheryn Apel

This lilting junior novel is so on point with readers in this age bracket (6 – 8 years), it’s alarming. Apel reaches deep into the playground psyche of Grade 2s and extracts genuine emotion with the feather touch of verse.

The dilemma of having too many friends and those friends not all liking each other truly does germinate in the junior school years, quickly sprouting into an all-encompassing crisis, at least it can in the eyes of a seven year old. It’s a problem that often continues throughout the primary years as children’s social webs widen and become entangled by their developing emotions.

This eloquent verse novel more than ably addresses this social predicament from the point of view of Tahnee, whose pond of playmates is full to overflowing. How she works on retaining her bonds with friends she already has whilst inviting others she wants to befriend is skin-tingling touching and will no doubt strike a chord with many other children her age.

This third verse novel by Apel has a slightly younger, more playful feel about it than the previous, Bully on the Bus and On Track, which again suits the topic well. Tahnee is a warm, likeable character who epitosmises the concept of a mindful child. She shares her friendship woes with us in a series of short, elegant chapters that almost feel like standalone poems, perfect for readers to spend time with by themselves or as a sensitive shared reading experience.

Too Many Friends positively celebrates mindfulness and friendship for lower primary aged readers, demonstrating the power and beauty of these two concepts through the discerning use of verse. Highly recommended.

UQP May 2017

#byaustralianbuyaustralian

Begin, End, Begin: a #LoveOzYA anthology

I interviewed Danielle Binks, editor of Begin, End, Begin: a #LoveOzYA anthology of Australian YA short stories (HarperCollins)

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.

Gabrielle Tozer

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.

Ellie Marnie

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…

Michael Pryor

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.

Will Kostakis

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.

Jaclyn Moriarty

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? 

Lili Wilkinson

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? 

Danielle Binks

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.

Amie Kaufman

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!)

Alice Pung RoselliPhotography

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).

Melissa Keil

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.

Thank you, thank you, thank you

Review: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts was one of my most anticipated reads for 2017 and it absolutely did not disappoint. It’s full to bursting with sassy dialogue, bloody action scenes, and the most complex and amazing characters of ever. There’s so much love-and-hate relationships that just kept me flipping pages as fast as my eyeballs could gobble the words. And when I finished? I sit in anxious anticipation for hopeful future sequels. Please. I beg. I have needs here.

It follows the story of Tilla, who’s a bastard of a great lord who may or may not be brewing a rebellion. Tilla’s more into sneaking about with her half-brother the stableboy, exploring tunnels, and getting into mischief, so war is not her concern. Until she eats dinner with the visiting crown princess and accidentally saves her life from a murder attempt. Then they’re on the run with a group of unlikely local bastards who don’t get along all that well. But they miiiight just need to change that if they want to survive.

Honestly, the sass levels were what won my heart. When a book starts with two siblings bantering amiably about the snobby royalty, I know I’m in for a winning story.

The cast was quite large, but everyone was interesting and complex. They all had personalities and backstories, complexities and fears and venerabilities. And we’re not introduced to them all in a heap, so that was helpful. I can barely even pick a favourite! I adored our narrator, Tilla, who is (quite frankly) badass. She’s equal parts awkward and fierce, and she’ll do anything for her friends. Her half-brother, Jax, is a big dork and I couldn’t help but fall in love with him too! Their sibling relationship is THE BOMB and they’re so there for each other (also there to make fun of each other, but ya know…sibling love). Miles is the nerdy bookworm who gets understimated when he really really shouldn’t be. Zell is a warrior from the clans and totally Closed Off And Emotionless™ but secretly a big squish. And lastly Lyriana is the wizard princess who will nuture plants to grow and also smite her enemies really viciously if they mess with those she loves.

I loved the plot with the threats of wars, the betraying parents, the teens growing into weapons and strengths while they traverse through the forest in order to save the princess. (Although let’s be real here: the princess saves herself in this one.) The book gets gritty, which I wholly appreciated, because what’s an epic fantasy without high stakes and wild action scenes of blood and stabbing?!? I LOVED THIS.

I also really loved the writing style, which was abnormally modern for an epic fantasy. It was consistently modern though (with the characters using phrases like “badass” and “sucks” etc) so it didn’t feel out of place or jarring. And it made me connect to the story far more, because the jokes were ones I’m familiar with.

Overall, it was fun and exciting and kept the sakes high! Do NOT think your favourites will be safe! I think Tilla is one of the best, most winning YA protagonists of 2017, with her badassery and her sassery. It combines stabbing with explosions and powerful magicians, and adds in characters who fairly leap off the page with their shenanigans. I’m such a fan.

Remind Me How This Ends by Gabrielle Tozer

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 Intern and 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.

Thanks Gabrielle.

It was my pleasure!

My Life as a Hashtag, interview with Gabrielle Williams

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.

Review: Song Of The Current by Sarah Tolcser

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Song Of The Current by Sarah Tolcser absolutely caught my heart with its levels of epic swashbuckling. I’m always on the look out for delicious pirate books, and this doesn’t disappoint! Also add in a dash of love/hate romance, smuggling, dark power that does not sleep, badass female captains, personified water gods, a small mention of a water drakon, and delicious amounts of fried fishfingers — and you have ourself a most spectacular novel. I can’t love this one enough!

The story centres around Caro Oresteia who is-first mate to her father, a wherry captain. They sail the rivers (and have a small side-business of smuggling) and they get called upon to deliver a secret box. When Caro’s dad gets thrown in jail, she has to sail her ship alone and deliver the box. Except a pirate attack drives her to check out this sinister cargo — and the contents change everything.

I will also emphatically rave over the world building. Most of the book takes place on rivers, and I could just feel the murky depths and the jungles and the wherries catching the right tides as they slink up and down jungle infested rivers. I could see it all! It was perfect and brilliant. #aesthetic Plus it actually had a unique and interesting magic system and an intoxicatingly vicious political aspect going on. I didn’t get confused or overwhelmed. Details were sparse but pointed.

Caro was an AMAZING protagonist! She’s stubborn and feisty and loyal and brave. She’s in love with the water and her boat, and when her dad gets thrown into jail for not smuggling something super top secret and suspicious for the royalty? CARO DOES IT. She gets a letter of the marque and becomes a privateer. Also she will stab you in the eye if you insult her ship.

The romance was just the best, with the love-to-hate trope done to perfection. Caro getting entangled with an important and stuffily vain boy who needs her help. Their banter is exceptional. Mostly because they hate each other. I ship these two. Markos is forever my favourite. He dresses nicely, he has no idea what anything does on a ship (#relatable), and he is badass when he’s finished being vain.

The plot was engaging the whole time! Although all the sea/ship explanations lost me. However it did make the book feel real. There as plenty of sailing and gunshots and sneaking around like skulking pirates.

My only dislikes? Not much! I was just disappointed I guessed all the plot twists and the stakes never felt really high enough for me to be worried for the characters.

This is a completely murky and beautiful tale of rivers and pirates, of smugglers and guns, of sea gods and monsters. It was beautifully and engagingly written with characters I fell totally in love with! I adored how much it empowered women and gave us the badass female pirates we’ve all been longing for. There’s explosions and deathly sword fights and stolen ships and an engaging plot. What more could we want?!

Sharing the CBCA Picture Books with Children

I described this year’s CBCA picture books in a previous post but promised to also write about Bob Graham’s Home in the Rain, which I have done here.

I’ve also added some ways of sharing the shortlisted picture books with children at home or school in case it helps with Book Week activities.

Home in the Rain  is written and illustrated by Bob Graham (Walker Books Australia)

A mother and daughter, Francie, are driving home from Grandma’s in heavy rain. The illustrations suggest that they are possibly African-Australian. The mother is pregnant with a baby sister for Francie. They stop en route to have a picnic in the car.

While driving, Francie uses her finger to write names on the foggy windows.

Children could:

Spell words with their fingers using different media, e.g. play-dough, sand, polystyrene balls, or fingerpainting with paint.

Alternatively, if the weather is cold, they could blow on windows to make steam and then write words or names.

This picture book is also appropriate for very young readers, partly because of the interest generated by the animals shown outside the car, such as the baby rabbit diving for cover, the hunting kestrel, and a seagull eating chips.

Children could make cork creatures of the animals shown in the book and hide them around the library, classroom or home.

Out is written by Angela May George and illustrated by Owen Swan (Scholastic Press)

After reading Out, read other refugee stories such as Teacup, Ziba Came on a Boat, My Two Blankets, The Treasure Box and Little Refugee.

Music/Dance The girl dances at school to different music.

The teacher, parent or carer could play music from cultures represented by refugees in Australia and children could dance to this music.

English The child’s mother has English lessons.

Children could learn a few words from languages spoken by refugees in Australia.

My Brother is written and illustrated by Dee Huxley, character creation and illustration by Oliver Huxley and design by Tiffany Huxley (Working Title Press)

Children could emulate the structure and changing colour of the illustrations in the book by folding a piece of paper to form a left and right hand side. On the left side they could draw or paint in monochrome colours to represent sorrow and grief. Then, beside this on the right hand side, they could illustrate using warm colours to represent happiness and hope.

One Photo is written by Ross Watkins, illustrated by Liz Anelli (Penguin Random House Australia)

At home, children could take photos of family and important things.

Then they could select one best photo of people or something that is important for them to remember.

Print the photo at home if possible, or digitally send to school ready for printing.

Form and display a class montage with one photo from each child.

Mechanica: a beginner’s field guide by Lance Balchin (The Five Mile Press, Bonnier Publishing Australia)

The Mechanica website enables children to make their own creatures https://www.mechanica.com.au/

Alternatively, construct 3-D winged creatures similar to those on the endpapers using found and made materials, such as foil.

Children could also make up their own 2-D creature in the style of those in the book. Present these on a double-page using the format of the book, where there is both an illustration and a written description.

The Patchwork Bike is written by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Van T Rudd (Hachette Australia)

Make a large bike as a class. If possible, make it big enough to sit on.

Try to use materials shown in the book:

Bent bucket seat,               handlebar branches

Bashed tin can handles,      wood cut wheels

Flag from flour sack,           small pot bell

Painted on lights,                bark numberplate

Paint Movement Practise the technique of smearing paint to show movement.

Never Bored – Board Books for Babies

Little books for little hands to grasp. Big world concepts for small minds to soak up. Board books are often baby’s first introduction to the relationship between sound and words and pictures. They also represent a delightful extension of love between parent and child as their worlds widen. These next few board books ensure these shared reading experiences are both entertaining and memorable.

At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells

This is the first in the Young Art board book series by young Indigenous Australian artists. Home grown and little hand worthy, it is a brief but merry parade of animals you might find at the Zoo. Some you’d have to look hard for, like the ‘prowling quoll’ and ‘queenly cassowary’ chicks, others are more immediate and recognisable like the ‘surprised lion.’

Button’s stripped bare text is spot on for toddlers and two year olds but includes some jolly adjectives to keep little minds tuned in and turning. I love Wells’ painted and ink illustrations – expression plus! Collect them all for your 0 – 4 year-olds.

Magabala Books February 2017

The Thank You Dish by Trace Balla

Meal times at our place are often a mixed plate of dedicated eating, distracted concentration and animated conversation. The Thank You Dish draws on these around-table -scenarios as one family sits down to enjoy their meal.

Continue reading Never Bored – Board Books for Babies

CBCA Older Readers Short List: Waer, Yellow & Frankie

There were three debut authors shortlisted in the 2017 CBCA Older Readers category, signalling the new talent being unearthed in Australian YA. Unlike some short lists in the past, all the authors are female this year, representing the number of females writing YA.

Overview

Most of the novels are contemporary realism, although Waer is speculative fiction and Yellow has elements of spec fiction.

Many of the characters come from working class backgrounds and some are dealing with deep anger, particularly in Frankie and One Would Think the Deep.

Parents are missing, dead or substance-abusers in virtually all the books. Children are missing in Frankie, Yellow, Words in Deep Blue (where Cal drowned) and Waer (where Kemp is missing). Beach/water settings are prevalent and music features in Frankie and One Would Think the Deep.

The predominance of the colours blue and yellow on the covers reflect the colour schemes published in 2016, very different from the black dystopian and supernatural covers of the past.

In this post, I will focus on the three novels by debut authors because I’ve written about the other books previously.

Waer by Meg Caddy (Text Publishing)

Waer is a werewolf tale, told as an intricate fantasy.

There are three narrators: Kaebha, a torturer, Lycaea and Lowell, who takes his pagan religion seriously, lives in a valley and finds Lycaea almost drowned. When soldiers destroy the valley dwellings, Lowell and Lycaea escape with some others. Archetypes from fantasy such as the journey, battles and hidden identity surface.

War and the displacement of Lowell and others form some parallels with current refugees, ‘To them we’re not people’.

Readers who enjoy Waer should love Megan Whalen Turner’s exceptional series which begins with The Thief. She has a new one out, Thick as Thieves.

Yellow by Megan Jacobson (Penguin Random House Aust)

Yellow is a very well written story about 14-year-old Kirra. Her surfie father named her after Kirra Beach, but calls her ‘Yellow’ because of her yellow eyes. Yellow often suggests cowardice but this girl is brave.

The story is set near Byron Bay. Kirra’s father has left the family and her mother has become a drunk. In graphic scenes, Kirra forces her to detox. The words of the popular girls scratch her inside but she decides to fight back. ‘People only have the power to make you feel small if you let them.’ Her relationship with kind Noah seems promising but she wrecks it by getting drunk at his party.

Yellow becomes a ghost story when Kirra causes a dog to drown and then talks to a ghost boy in a disconnected phone box. She tries to catch his murderer, putting herself at risk.

Kirra’s English teacher and the local librarian recommend Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. All books worth pursuing…

Issues of forgiveness arise here and in Frankie.

Frankie by Shivaun Plozza (Penguin Random House Aust)

Frankie is Italian and funny. She was abandoned by her mother and thinks she ‘deserve[s] to fail’. Her younger half-brother, Xavier, who seems to be a thief, finds her and gives her a longed-for Joy Division album. In this book, musician Ian Curtis killed himself like Jeff Buckley did in One Would Think the Deep, but both their music lives on.

Frankie is set around Smith St, Collingwood (where Robert Newton’s Mr Romanov’s Garden in the Sky and some of his historical novels were also set).

The dialogue in Frankie is smart, with a streetwise voice. The scene where Frankie follows Nate with his ‘blue gaze’ to a ‘fence’s’ house, is chillingly intimidating. When Xavier disappears, the contrast between the lack of energy put into his disappearance compared with that of rich boy Harrison Finnick-Hyde is explored.

There are numerous descriptions of graffiti throughout the novel. Readers could perhaps create their own ‘Small Street Interruptions’ based on Michael Pederson’s website ‘Outside’ http://miguelmarquezoutside.com/.

Pederson leaves quirky temporary artwork (such as roping off a dandelion with a sign, ‘do not touch’ like in an art gallery) in laneways, backstreets and buildings to surprise and encourage people to slow down, be in the moment and recognise surroundings. He attaches them with Blu-tak and removable tape.

The other three shortlisted books are:

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan Aust) which recently won the Indie YA award.

Readers can explore a related Virtual Letter Library http://loveozya.com.au/love/the-letter-library/ .

One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn (UQP) was recently shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Ethel Turner award.

Music helps but doesn’t heal protagonist Sam’s residual rage and grief. There is a playlist at the end of the book featuring Jeff Buckley’s Loser, So Real and Grace and Split Enz’s I Got You (which Jennifer Niven also uses in All the Bright Places).

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Hachette Aust) recently won the ABIA award for older children, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book award and is currently shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie medal.

Zana Fraillon’s next novel, The Ones That Disappeared, about child trafficking, will be published this month.

Kate DiCamillo & Sally Rippin

Kate DiCamillo is a particularly appealing author. Her novels for children are highly popular and some – Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and Bink and Gollie – have been made into movies

I heard her speak with best-selling Australian writer, Sally Rippin, famous for Billie B Brown, and whose Polly and Buster series has just been released, at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne this month. The event was sold out, with people standing.

Kate’s latest novel is Raymie Nightingale, a gem of a tale in which Raymie hopes to gain her father’s interest by winning a beauty contest. This story is ‘the absolutely true story of my heart’, confessed Kate, whose father had also left their family. Family photos show Kate, her brother and mother but her father is missing. Until Raymie Nightingale, Kate had created fictional fathers in her books, writing instead about missing mothers, in a kind of reverse reality from her own life. Until this book, Kate had only written herself obliquely into her stories.

As a child, she was ‘terrified, shy and worried but was astonishingly good at making friends. That’s what saved me – I could connect’. She loved to read, ‘Books were the most magical thing in the world. I didn’t think humans had anything to do with it… Reading was how I made sense of the world – the doorway in. I’m most in my body when reading a book!’ She now pretends to be an extrovert.

When a child asked if she reads or writes more, Kate responded, ‘Reading is pleasurable. Writing is difficult for me.’ Quoting Dorothy Parker, she retorted, ‘I hate writing. I love having written’ and then added, ‘I’m so much happier writing. That’s not to say I’m happy writing.’ Kate experiences the voice of failure at about 9am in the morning so she tries to write before then and uses ‘that editing voice’ only after 9am. She keeps a journal while travelling and returns to it when writing later. ‘So much of writing is subconscious’. Writing hasn’t become any easier: ‘All you know is you’ve written a novel before but don’t know if you can write this novel.’ She overcomes this by regarding each piece of writing as a draft.

Kate often writes about animal characters, such as the mouse in The Tale of Despereaux and the squirrel, Ulysses, in Flora and Ulysses. Kate loves the word ‘capacious’ and uses the phrase ‘God’s capacious hands’ in Flora and Ulysses to describe Flora’s father’s heart. Kate also hopes to be ‘capacious of heart’.  She certainly does seem to have won many Australian hearts during her tour here.

Some of Kate’s other novels are The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Tiger Rising and The Magician’s Elephant. Her wonderful Christmas picture book is Great Joy.

Some of Sally’s other children’s books are Angel Creek, Chenxi and the Foreigner and the picture book, The Rainbirds.

 

 

 

 

 

YA Books Told In Love Letters, Notes, and Emails

Books tell amazing stories in all sorts of formats. Sometimes they use prose or poetry, illustrations or photographs. And today? We need to talk about books told in love letters, notes, and emails! Because writing is arguably the best way to learn about someone. It’s often easier to confess a secret or be venerable on paper and these books underline that fact!

If you’re looking for a book featuring letters? LOOK NO FURTHER. I have you covered.


LETTERS TO THE LOST BY BRIGID KEMMERER

BUY HERE

This is an absolutely beautiful, but bittersweet, tale of two teens who are dealing with extreme levels of grief. They begin writing to each other on accident. Juliet leaves letters at her mother’s gravestone and one day Declan, who’s working in the graveyard on community service, picks one up and writes back. They begin first an angry communication and then develop friendship through grief and confessions. It’s a relief to both of them to talk anonymously to someone who understands. But as they realise they also know each other in real life, they are worried the other won’t like the “real” them. It’s an absolutely poignant story of heartbreak and being judgemental of people who’s stories you don’t know.

 

 

SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA BY BECKY ALBERTALLI

BUY HERE

Simon has met the most amazing boy online and lives for their frequent email exchanges. Except one day he forgets to log out of the school computer and a bully discovers his emails. He blackmails Simon — threatening to out Simon as being gay. And Simon isn’t ready for that yet.

It’s a super, super cute story featuring two boys emailing back and forth. The story isn’t wholly told in messages, though, so you get to follow Simon in his everyday life of friends, awkward first love, Harry Potter obsession, drama class, and Oreo appreciation. It’s about being true to yourself and it’s the most heartwarming and special story!

 

ILLUMINAE BY JAY KRISTOFF AND AMIE KAUFMAN

BUY HERE

This is a sci-fi action story told solely in emails, messages, reports, and photos! It’s absolutely brilliantly formatted and the visuals totally take the book to the next level of special. The story is basically about a rogue company destroying a planet and the survivors end up on a damaged ship floating through space. The enemy is closing in and they’re trying to get the ship’s Artificial Intelligence up and active to fight for them. Except there’s also a virus sweeping through the refugees. And the AI is possibly planning to wipe out all threats — which could very well be the people it’s supposed to protect.

You will most likely be clinging to your seat through reading this with heart pounding. The action doesn’t stop and the plot twists are phenomenal.

 

WE ARE STILL TORNADOES BY MICHAEL KUN AND SUSAN MULLEN

BUY HERE

This is a story of two teens after high school: Cath has headed off to college and Scott is stuck working in his family story after he bombed his highschool finales. They’ve been best friends all their lives, so they write avidly to each other as they explore the world of just-becoming-adults. The letters are packed with so much complexity and meaning and even though the entire book is just told in epistolary format, you get to know the characters so well. And you can’t help rooting for them to stop living in denial of their feelings for each other and to follow their dreams and live the kind of life they hunger for.

Jennifer Niven in Australia

American YA writer, Jennifer Niven has been wowing fans up and down Australia’s east coast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival, to Brisbane, then Reading Matters in Melbourne, then Adelaide and further afield.

It is no wonder she is greatly loved. She seems to care for everyone she meets and gives equal weight to answering the questions and concerns of all her readers. She has transformed the difficulties and joys she has experienced in her own life into becoming a brave, ‘honest and responsible’ writer, speaking for those who may not have a voice. She doesn’t like conflict but has become an advocate after writing her first YA story about a boy she loved who suffered from mental illness in All the Bright Places. She poignantly recalls, ‘I lost him to suicide’ and about how she wrote about this relationship and experience ‘as honestly as I could … Pieces of me are in each of my books’. Jennifer has since received thousands of messages about how All the Bright Places has, in some way, saved people’s lives.

Jennifer reiterates that everyone deserves to be seen and heard and inscribes some people’s books: ‘You are wanted’. ‘Life can be dark but there are always bright places everywhere.’

I was thrilled to be invited to lunch in Sydney with Jennifer and a small group of informed young bloggers. Jennifer was charming; a lady who listens and engages. She was very generous with her time; asked us all to sign her copy of All the Bright Places (a lovely, original idea) and showed us a sneak peak of the photo of the young actor who will be playing lead character, Finch, in the movie of All the Bright Places.

When I asked at lunch how she gets into the writing zone as quickly as possible, she explained the importance of music and playlists, including Split Enz’s song, I Got You (her playlists are online). Lyrics are ‘also all about words’, but in a different form.

Even though Jennifer is generous with her words in conversation, she is happy to listen to others rather than dominate the conversation; conversely when writing, she writes more than she needs before paring back the words.

Unfortunately, she’s not able to write while on tour but, despite this, jumped at the chance to come to Australia, agreeing even before she was given the dates.

Jennifer concluded one of her sessions at Reading Matters by sharing her and her author mother’s writing advice: ‘let yourself cry (or laugh or feel); check it in the bus locker (put distractions away so you can focus on writing); and write the kind of story you want to read.’

Thanks to Penguin RandomHouse Australia for the incredible opportunity to meet Jennifer.

Further links:

Jennifer recommends Germ online magazine

Follow Jennifer

My brief review of Holding Up the Universe for Boomerang blog

My review of Holding Up the Universe for the Weekend Australian

Natalie Haynes, Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied at the SWF

As part of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Student Sessions, I was fortunate to host a couple of sessions with British stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes and facilitate one with Randa Abdel-Fattah and Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Natalie Haynes

Natalie became one of the most popular presenters at the festival. She’s probably better described as a performer, though, because she brings ancient history and the ancient mythic world alive and into the present for her audiences.

She reworks stories for her own purposes, drawing on her expertise in the ancient world and on making it relevant today. She stands out because she can share her knowledge on stage, screen and in her books in a rivetting way.

Natalie is a classicist and a comedian, an unusual combination. She used to be a stand-up comic, but retired when she realised she preferred tragedy to comedy. Her quick wit and incredible knowledge enabled her to effortlessly command the stage.

Natalie’s new novel The Children of Jocasta was published in May. It’s a re-telling of the Oedipus/Jocasta/Antigone tale and will make you fascinated by mythic history (if you’re not already). An earlier book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life explores philosophers such as Plato, Ovid and Agrippina the Younger.

Natalie Haynes

Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied

In our session about ‘Mono or Multi-cultured’ at the Wharf, Randa Abdel-Fattah, who examines issue of racism, multiculturalism and human rights in Australia through her novels and essays, explored what contemporary multiculturalism and racism look like in Australia today with activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Randa has written Does My Head Look Big in This?, When Michael Met Mina and other novels, particularly for young adults, as well as essays. When Michael Met Mina is an important story because it gives both Michael’s view – a popular guy coming from a racist family – and Mina’s – an intelligent young woman whose family was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing her and her mother to flee by boat. The novel airs many issues and opinions – true and false – such as people saying that ‘potential terrorists are hiding among boat people’ and people who want to be able to say, ‘Merry Christmas’ without offending anyone; to some darker-skinned girls feeling they have to use skin-whitening creams and others being intimidated and vilified. The novel gives diverse viewpoints. It’s great to read because we are exposed to different perspectives and then make up our own minds. It shows the power of literature to create understanding and empathy.

Randa has also been a lawyer and has a PhD in Islamophobia in Australia.

Yassmin is well known through her media appearances and I’ve learned from reading her memoir, Yassmin’s Story (which she wrote recently while in her 20s) that she loved reading Enid Blyton and her favourite character was, as you might expect, George; she deliberately created slang at school; she channels Beyonce in time of need; she loves sharing stories on stage and she learned in debating that she can argue any side of an argument!

Yassmin also won Young Queenslander of the Year in 2015; as a teenager co-founded Youth Without Borders; is an engineer; worked on a rig and loves cars.

I cannot do these intelligent and articulate authors justice in their explanation of structural racism and other issues here. I do suggest reading their books and online articles to gain a greater understanding of, particularly, racism in Australia.Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting