Struggling Book Children

BirrungSome thought-provoking Australian novels for children have appeared recently. Standouts include New Boy by Nick Earls (Puffin), Run, Pip, Run by J.C. Jones (Allen & Unwin), Dropping In by Geoff Havel (Fremantle Press), Birrung the Secret Friend by Children’s Laureate, Jackie French (Angus & Robertson) and Plenty by Ananda Braxton-Smith (Black Dog Books, Walker Books).

Nick Earls uses some of his own experiences as an Irish boy moving to Australia in one of his best works for children so far, New Boy.

New Boy

Earls’ character, Herschelle moves to Australia and has to deal with bullying and racism as a white South African who speaks English. His teacher looks Chinese but speaks with an Australian accent. Herschelle was popular and sporty but is now paired with Max, who looks like a nerd. Humour, and embarrassment, is derived from misunderstanding of Australian slang and idioms, such as ‘bring a plate’. This book is a very clever twist on the usual refugee story. Displacement comes in many forms.

Run Pip RunRun, Pip, Run by newcomer J.C. Jones is quite a hard-hitting story about a 10-year-old girl who lives with an old man and tries to manage alone when he is taken to hospital. Her teacher, Mr Blair, is intuitive and tries to help her, endangering his own position. Pip is an engaging, resourceful character. This novel makes important points about child welfare and children at risk.

 

I loved the humour in Geoff Havel’s The Real Facts of Life when I read it years ago. He has created more appealing characters in his latest novel for children, Dropping In.Dropping In

Stick and Ranga are adventurous and include new boy, James, who has cerebral palsy, in their stunts. A girl, Jess, also joins their group, and Stick isn’t quite sure how he should act around her.

Jackie French has begun a new series for younger readers with Birrung the Secret Friend.

Sydney’s early European colony is brought to life through the eyes of Barney who is welcomed into the home of clergyman, Richard Johnson and his wife when he is starving. Aboriginal girl, Birrung, also lives there. Johnson’s love and care, even at the risk of his own health, for the people around him is told through the likable lens of Barney’s eyes and voice.

 

PlentyAnd Ananda Braxton-Smith’s story, Plenty about 10-year-old Maddy who has to move to the country is a stunner. Maddy loved her home and friends but gradually falls under the spell of her Nana’s indigenous orchids and learns what home and sanctuary really are from Sudanese refugee girl, Grace. The writing and imagery is first-rate.

 

TANTONY – A HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL BOOK

There are some books that are so well written they make you hold your breath. They crawl inside you and inhabit your senses – make you wonder how someone could have thought to put words together in such a hauntingly beautiful way.

Tantony by Ananda Braxton Smith is one such book. It’s unusual title comes from the Tantony pig – the runt of the litter – the swineheard’s favourite. It’s the perfect metaphor for Boson Quirk, a young boy who is found dead,

‘face down in a bog of stars’.

Tantony is told from the point of view of Boson’s twin, Fermion and as if losing her brother isn’t bad enough, their mother, Moo has retreated into a world where she no longer speaks.

Moo had let the fire burn out. In the corner where she sloped and faded, a spider had anchored its silk to one of her fingertips and was swinging wallward. There was to be no brew, no fuss or chat. I dropped my wet-sheep bag and muddy bundles right in the doorway where everybody was sure to fall over them. She didn’t even turn.

In spite of standing right up close, I couldn’t hear her breath. I laid my hand flat on her drooping neck and felt her blood still beating there. She was only pretending to be dead.

Something about Boson isn’t quite right but everyone pretends it’s nothing – until he dies and they are forced to acknowledge his differences. Boson’s affliction is never stated, but it’s there in the background, a shadow threaded through the story like the whisper of the wind.

In her quest to discover what really happened to her brother, Fermion discovers startling truths about the town in which she lives, and about herself. Voices in her head tell her that the truth about Boson can be found on “the Other Island, the one that everyone says is bristling with gods and monsters.”

Fermion goes there accompanied by her faithful dog, Mungo, but will they make it back?

This book has everything – tension, beautifully drawn characters, a compelling story and a lilting style that carries the reader along gently, even though the content is quite stark at times.

Tantony is in the Secrets of Carrick series. I have to admit I hadn’t read the first book, Merrow but I certainly intend to, now. Tantony is definitely a stand alone book that you can enjoy without having read the first book in the series.

Tantony is for young adult readers and is published by Black Dog Books.

 

TANTONY AND ITS CREATOR

Ananda Braxton-Smith is visiting Kids’ Book Capers today to talk about being a writer and her extraordinary new book, Tantony and how she created it.

 

How did you become a writer?

I haven’t always worked as a professional writer, but I’ve always written. I wrote my first stories at about eleven; stories I chose to wrote, that is, not stories I had to write for school. My first paid gig, when I was sixteen, was writing scripts for Let’s Join In and Storytime, two radio (!) broadcasts for primary schools in the seventies.

I became an author by not giving up … and by not really being good for anything else. And by always writing even if I wasn’t being paid, thereby getting better at it and being ready for my opportunity when it came.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

I have to say I really do love the research. For instance, to write Merrow I had to find out how skeletons fall apart over time, what creatures live in the Irish sea, what skin disease could give you scales, and find somebody who knows the language the Vikings spoke. As well, I had to read lots of stories about mer-people, kraken, water-horses and other legendary beings. It was great!

I also love the surprises that turn up while I’m writing. The characters say and do such unexpected things sometimes.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

The sitting there alone, day-after-day, week-after-week, tippy-tippy-tapping at my keyboard, with a sore back and racked with uncertainty, while outside the sun is shining and people are going out to lunch and talking to each other.

What were you in a past life (if anything) before you became a writer?

I was a bad-tempered doctor in Victorian Edinburgh.

And before that, a bad-tempered monk in ancient China.

And before that, a spiky sea urchin.

Just a guess.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

Everything I finish feels like a great achievement.  And everything I manage to turn out that is something like I first imagined it in my mind. I had never thought of writing novels (I like writing short stories best) so conceiving and writing Merrow was a surprising achievement even to me.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m researching the Natural History of the seashore for a third novel in the Secrets of Carrick series. Merrow is the first in that series, and Tantony is the second. I am already half in love with anemones. And did you know sea-stars are carnivorous?

Do you have any tips for new writers?

You have to really, really want to write. Not be a writer, or be published, or be paid; just to write. You have to do it because you love it and it’s what you do. If you do it to be a writer or be published you’re likely to suffer. After that, I would say don’t make characters talk to each other unless they have something definite to say.

And write weather. Weather’s good.

Do your books have any consistent themes/symbols/locations. If so, what are they?

At present I’m preoccupied with the way characters grow out of their landscapes. So the Natural History of my settings (sea, bog etc) is a big theme, and all of nature just bristles with symbolism. Understanding where my people live helps me understand who they are, why they are as they are, and what form their supernatural creatures will take.

How many books have you had published?

I have three books out there. The first was a YA history of the bubonic plague called The Death: the Horror of the Plague. It covers 500 years of the plague in Europe up to the discovery of the microbe. The research for that was both fabulous and revolting.

ABOUT TANTONY

What inspired you to write this book?

At the end of Merrow one of my more nosey, prying characters mentions the ‘twins down in Strangers Croft, poor things’. Well, that just got my own curiosity up about them. Tantony is a result of that curiosity.

What’s it about?

It’s hard to say in a few words what my books are about. This story concerns a pair of twins and what happens when one of them sickens and dies. The remaining twin must work out a way to live on, and help her family live on as a new kind of family … one now without one of its members. She takes a sea-journey out to an appearing/disappearing island and while out there finds many remarkable things. Some of which help, some of which don’t. But she learns how to go on without her other ‘half’. I guess it’s about becoming a whole person.

What age groups is it for?

Officially it’s for middle years readers, but as with Merrow it’s secretly for everybody.

Why will kids like it?

I’m hoping they’ll like the world of the islands, their characters and creatures, and will recognize the main character’s journey as she tries to make sense of life and death and families. Also, its got whales, gods and monsters … and a spooky bog.

Can you tell me about the main character and what you like/dislike about him/her?

The main character, Fermion, has just lost her twin brother. He has been sickening a long time and she’s had to grow up very fast to look after him, and to take on his duties at home. I like everything about her, even her initial extreme sulkiness. She’s a very determined person with a clear eye for other people’s feelings, though she’s a bit dim about her own. I like the way she lightens up, warms up, over the story as she learns to let her brother go.

What did you enjoy most about writing Tantony?

Researching the Natural History of bogs and their creatures. Finding out about the wacky and marvelous adaptations of life is always a pleasure to me. Then fitting the characters into that landscape so they were a bit like Natural History themselves was fun. And I liked it when suddenly I knew what was going to happen next. It sounds strange but often I had no idea.

What was the hardest thing about writing Tantony?

Not knowing what was going to happen next! It drove me crazy.

As far as the story went, writing the increasingly sad decline of the mentally ill twin was very hard indeed. And the increasing desperation of his sister as she tries to save him. I had dreams about them, poor things.

Tomorrow we’re reviewing Tantony here at Kids’ Book Capers.