Forever Inspiring; Elizabeth Mary Cummings on The Forever Kid

Children’s author and poet, with a background in education and psychology, Elizabeth Mary Cummings is known for her sensitive attention to difficult topics including mental health and anti-bullying issues. Following titles, such as The Disappearing Sister and Dinner on the Doorstep, Elizabeth has recently released her picture book on grief, The Forever Kid. She has paid careful consideration as to celebrate the life of a family’s son and brother in a joyous way, rather than treat this story as a sorrowful tragedy. Johnny, their forever kid, is beautifully and authentically remembered on his birthday – an event they honour every year, despite his absence. Vince, narrator and younger brother, portrays a host of emotions, including sadness, guilt and joy as the family look both back and forward on life with and without their Johnny. A narrative genuinely thought-through via the child’s perspective. Equally, the illustrations by Cheri Hughes add an extra layer of depth with their angelic, water-wash qualities to represent the softness and tenderness of the emotion and the family’s  tradition of telling ‘cloud stories’, as well as the vivacity that reflects their strong memories of their loved one. The Forever Kid is undoubtedly a book that children from age four will strongly remember and gain solace in knowing there are positive ways to cope in difficult situations.

Big Sky Publishing, October 2018.

Elizabeth is here today to talk with us at Boomerang Books!

Congratulations on the release of your heartfelt picture book.

A powerful and beautiful story such as The Forever Kid would grip the hearts of any audience coping with grief or change. What was your motivation for writing it, and what do you hope is gained by readers?

The story came to me one night when my parents were visiting, I woke at about 2a.m. and the story was there and I wrote it down immediately before I lost it. The trigger was probably talking through family times as well as having at that time just lost a dear friend to cancer. The idea of grief was right at the surface of my emotions I guess and being with my parents had made my mind turn to the story of my father losing his younger brother who was a teenager at the time of his death.

What have you found to be effective strategies in dealing with grief? How does your book show the processing of such sadness and mourning in a positive way?

In dealing with grief there is more of an understanding that this is complex and that does not go away once time passes. For those who have suffered loss and grieving, it is a process but it is also a state in which they live after the initial loss.

In The Forever Kid, Vince and his family celebrate and remember Johnny on the day of his birthday. On talking to many families who have suffered the loss of a child I have found that this is common practice. Although sadness is certainly present this can be the day where there is a reflection on the life of the loved one. This celebration of life in itself becomes the positive coming together and of that opportunity to talk about that loved one.

For children it is vital that they have access to the truth as well as have a chance to be involved in the grieving process both around the time of death and after. It is important that [children] have a safe adult or older sibling or child to talk to about how they feel.

What is your involvement in the community regarding help with family and mental health situations?

I have no official role. I obviously write on the topic and am a great believer in narrative therapy.

Your previous titles (the Verityville and Elephant in the Room series) were all published independently. This time you have gone down the trade publishing route with Big Sky Publishing. How have your experiences differed in terms of support and marketing opportunities?

Well, when publishing independently one has all the control and all of the responsibility. It is a double-edged sword. Traditional publishers have bigger budgets, more control and wider reach. The decision as to how to publish (independently or trade) and who to publish (publisher selection) much be made in the light of what one is writing about and what one’s intention is for the story. As I have been working on my own marketing for almost four years now I understood the publisher’s considerations better than a first time author might. Publishing is no easy task and it takes a team to develop a book all the way through. Even when working independently I am working with others – designers, beta readers, editors and other professional services I may need to contract in to help produce a book as best possible.

Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?

Some of my new projects include: two poetry collections, a new picture book called The Green Striped Hoodie about bullying and resilience, finding a publisher for a project I have been working on to do with trauma and recovery as well as a couple of environmental projects and some more Verityville stories!

That’s all very exciting! Thanks so much, Elizabeth! It’s been a pleasure!

Elizabeth can be found at her website, and on blog tour here.

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Animals at Work – Picture Book Reviews

Kids are all too quick to grow up these days, but yet to realise the complexities and oftentimes, inequalities, that go with grown-up responsibilities. Sure, life in the playground can be tough, too. No doubt there will be times they feel under-valued, misunderstood or lonely. Whilst these references may seem quite grim, the following ‘adult-work-life’ picture books paint these dark hues to meet a bright and hopeful light at the end of the tunnel.

Ok. It will be called… Next award-winning picture book of the year. Phenomenal artist. Phenomenal storyteller. Shaun Tan wins over the masses with his latest picture book, Cicada. Considering its haunting themes, this book has a definite star-quality appeal that is sure to set a glow in every reader’s heart.

You heard it… ‘Tok Tok Tok!’. Time marches on for hard-working cicada. Seventeen years. Stuck behind his computer desk hidden amongst a concrete jungle of office carrels – hardly noticed, immensely unappreciated. Treated as sub-human, despite the fact he is not human at all. But honestly, his pay is docked for being forced to use the bathroom twelve blocks away! Work life for cicada is dire with no thanks, no living support (he lives in an office wallspace), colleague abuse and eventually a retrenchment with a figurative kick in the butt.

Seventeen years imprisoned in this grey, lifeless cell of despair. There’s nothing left… but to transform. And all you can do is laugh! Tok Tok Tok!

Cicada breathes intense concepts and colourless imagery that is far from dull, mixed together with sharp language spoken in a broken English. However, it embodies a fiery life within that speaks universally to humans about the power of self-worth, about courage and respect. An impressive, evocative picture book for older readers (5-9 years).

Lothian Children’s Books, June 2018.

Work life at Baggage Handlers United is pretty fun for Marvin. He loves the routine of putting things on and taking things off. He has friends that work there, too. But what happens when his ‘friends’ start laughing at his expense? Missing Marvin is a meaningful and sensitive story about the hurtful effects practical jokes can have when taken too far.

Sue deGennaro beautifully captures the heart and soul of this story through her gentle, multi-faceted illustrations and leading language that carefully directs readers to ponder the emotions being explored. When Barry, Shelly and Ivan set up what they think are amusing shenanigans, it is upon closer inspection that we see the heartrenching damage done to Marvin. “… he wonders if a joke is only a joke when everyone is laughing.” All too often, people (at work or at school) go about their day ‘pretending’ they are okay. And all too often, ‘the signs’ go unnoticed. Learning strategies to avoid emotional and physical isolation are nicely handled here when Marvin decides to come out of hiding (after succumbing to his bed) and open up to his friends about his feelings.

All it takes is a conversation. Missing Marvin brings about a light-hearted simplicity on the cusp of complex issues related to bullying and depression. Presented in a sweet and satisfying way, this book will help preschool-aged children find compassion, sensitivity and courage when needed most.

Scholastic, April 2018.

With a gorgeous setting based on the Greek islands of Andros and Mykonos, who wouldn’t love to live and work there? Originally from Greece, author illustrator Elena Topouzoglou paints a charming picture of friendship emerging out of loneliness.

In Mr Pegg’s Post, a little girl, Anna, longs for interaction from the outside world beyond her lighthouse home. The only visitor is Mr Pegg – the pelican postman. One stormy night, from the darkness Mr Pegg comes thumping into her life, serendipitously changing the world as she knows it. The ability to work effectively can be difficult when faced with a crippling injury. However, Anna’s eagerness to help deliver letters by boat serves them well in his recovery and her social connections. Anna receives more than just letters now. She has friendships, and a job!

The soothing blue wash of the water represents a beautiful link between the isolation of the lighthouse and the community spirit of the mainland. Mr Pegg’s Posts delivers a message of support, appreciation and value to the hearts of children from age three.

New Frontier Publishing, July 2018.

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Reviews – Pickle and Bree’s Guide to Good Deeds Books 3 and 4

The gorgeous Pickle and Bree’s Guide to Good Deeds series (by author Alison Reynolds and illustrator Mikki Butterley) continues from where it left off from The Birthday Party Cake and The Decorating Disaster (see previous interview). With another two exciting books on exploring social etiquette and positive behaviour now available, we can hardly contain ourselves! Here they are:

Gently reinforcing the value of kindness, The Playground Meanies is a delightfully explorative story into managing challenging social situations in the playground. The Reynolds and Butterley team once again draw us in with their engaging script and expressive illustrations that truly allow readers to connect with these relatable characters.

It is a common occurrence for preschoolers to experience some level of bullying, even at their young age. Knowing what is appropriate behaviour, whether the instigator or recipient, can sometimes be confusing and definitely emotionally confronting. Alison Reynolds approaches this concept beautifully with her easy-to-follow and humorous narrative, and empowering ‘guide to good deeds’ notes that tie it all together.

When Pickle and the sensitive Jason are teased about their big feet by two little bears at the playground, it is Bree who shows maturity and wisdom, reminding her friends not to stoop to their ‘mean’ level. But Pickle, being loyal yet impulsive, sympathises with Jason’s sadness, and protests his vexation. And the result of his boisterous actions causes a roll-on effect. Getting along with the meanies may seem like a slippery slide to manoeuvre, but Pickle and Jason do well to compose themselves and be kind, with an effective result.

The Playground Meanies opens doors for plenty of discussion and role play, teaching children about positive actions in a sensitive, safe and playful manner.

In The Big Snow Adventure, Pickle and Bree hit the ski slopes a-sliding with aplomb. In this action-packed escapade of tobogganing-chaos, skiiing-turbulence and snowballing-frenzies, the heedless pair need reminding to respect the rules.

It’s all too easy to be unaware of invading people’s space or neglecting to check their feelings when you’re in your own world of fun and competition. That’s certainly what happened to Pickle and Bree during their trip to the snow. All the excitement of ski lifts and ploughing down the mountain makes them forget about listening to and following instructions and respecting the given boundaries. Disowned by their friends following the path of snow-covered destruction eventually leads Pickle and Bree to realise their foolhardy ways, and an exhiliranting ending to the day is had by all.

I love the consistency between books; the gentle and humorous storylines that play out like a real life scene, the strongly defined characters and the adorable multi-textured illustrations that make these books so full of charm and authenticity.

The Big Snow Adventure and The Playground Meanies are both delightfully engaging ‘lessons’ in friendship, respect, compassion and morality. Admirably empowering children from age four to harness a peaceful world, one step at a time.

Five Mile Press, February 2017.

Alison Reynolds recently completed her blog tour for her Pickle and Bree series. See her post with Dimity here and the books’ development here.

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Doodles and Drafts – Blog Tour with Alison Reynolds

Writing a book about bullying or indeed, attempting to instill relevant social life issues into an entertaining format for kids, is always tricky to perfect. Alison Reynolds has managed to pull off this feat of meaningful storytelling with her captivating picture book series, Pickle and Bree’s Guide to Good Deeds. You can read Romi’s review of these two new titles, here.

Today she joins us briefly at the Draft Table to discuss just how she tackled the dicey subject of bullying with The Playground Meanies. This episode with Pickle and Bree is one of my favourites as we are reintroduced to Jason, the big footed, kind-hearted panda whose good deed not only saves the day but opens the pathways to friendship in a way very young children can’t help but connect with. Continue reading Doodles and Drafts – Blog Tour with Alison Reynolds

Doodles and Drafts – On Track with Kathryn Apel

KatApelAn aphorism by Will Rogers has been rattling around on my train of thought recently: ‘Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.’ One author who has not only found her right track but is chugging along it at an impressive pace is, Kathryn Apel. And with the recent release of her second verse novel, On Track just a year after her first, Bully on the Bus, Apel has certainly found her rhythm.

Both are extraordinary, breezy reads about not so light and easy life issues, eloquently told without a trace of tangled description. Each word reverberates with emotion, yielding characters of tremendous depth whose flaws are presented as poetically as their triumphs.

The thing you immediately notice about verse novels is their subtle power to deliver the weightiest message with consummate feather touch. Happy to report, both Apel’s novels reflect this promise.

Bully on the Bus follows the emotional downslide of seven-year-old Leroy, almost silenced into submission by the bully on his regular school bus route. Apel explores both the external extremes and internal conflict Leroy endures until he finally finds the courage to be a ‘bully-tamer’.

KatApelOn Track On Track looks at the relationship between siblings, Shaun and Toby; one with the ability to turn anything he touches into gold, the other a self-professed failure living in his brother’s shadow. Once the real reason for Toby’s weak links are identified however, he learns how to shine and in finding his own inner strength, ironically helps his brother, Shaun understand himself better too. Being imperfect is hard, but living up to the expectation of perfection is no walk in the park either, as this story so beautifully articulates.

There is plenty to cry over and love in these two novels. Apel allows her characters to endure uncomfortable situations that encourage them to hide behind bravado in order to cope or else withdraw into silence. Rather than let them flounder for the answers on their own, she nudges them in the right direction; shows them the safe places to head to for help and how to ask for it, so they are ultimately able to resolve their own problems. A purposeful message of empowerment if ever there was one.

Curious to know what keeps Kathryn Apel on track herself, I invited her to the draft table for quick chat. Here’s what she had to say.

Welcome Kathryn!

Who is Kathryn Apel? Describe your writerly self.

I’m that awkward balance of private person, public words. D.W. Winnicott said it so well, ‘Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.’ Writing is like peeling skin away to expose bones and pulsing heart – flaws and vulnerabilities. But I do it. Sometimes cringing. Always hoping that my words will resonate and make a positive difference.

What is your most outrageous writing goal (not yet achieved)?

Oh. Heh. Let’s go really outrageous and say book to movie. I don’t know if it’s a goal as such – more an impossible dream. But PlaySchool happened – and I’d never imagined that. (Kathryn’s picture book, This is Mud was read by Justine on Playschool in 2010! DP)

Why did you choose to tell Bully on the Bus and On Track in verse instead of straightforward prose?

KatApel Bully on the Bus Bully on the Bus started life as a chapter book. As I was mulling over it, I read my first verse novel – and loved it. Had to try one! I started writing what I dubbed (for many years) my ‘verse novel about training’, but had only written 139 words when I got a little overwhelmed and put it away. (I’m not a planned writer, so this ‘put it away’ stage happens frequently during my writing process.) It was at that stage that I took my ‘completed’ chapter book to my crit group. And there the strangest thing happened! A critter-buddy made a suggestion about the placement of some words in the text… and in that moment I realised that Bully on the Bus wasn’t the chapter book I had written, but the verse novel I wanted to write.

Turning the chapter book into a verse novel was one of the most exquisitely right things I have ever done. (So right, that I started at 10pm that same night, and kept going until my eyes wouldn’t stay open about 3am.) Once I started, there was never any doubt that it was meant to be a verse novel.

And I’m happy to say that the ‘verse novel about training’ did get there, and is now called On Track.

As to why verse? I love that writing in verse lets me find my voice and express things that I don’t think I could say, in a novel. My picture books tend to be quirky, humorous tales (though there are a few serious MSs in my files) – but my verse novels are all heart.

Do you find it natural writing in this style or is it harder to convey what you want in verse? What elements, if any do you have to sacrifice or conversely, incorporate to produce a winning verse novel?

I’m a very disciplined rhyming poet/picture book author. But rhyme can tangle your brains into a seething pot of worms – whereas free verse unravels the snarls and lets the story flow.

To me, there is no sacrifice in writing free verse. I often hear comments like, ‘After the first few pages I forgot it was a verse novel …’, or ‘Don’t be put off by the fact it’s a verse novel …’ – like it’s a bad thing to be a verse novel. But that’s usually followed by positive comments – that are perhaps twice as nice given their reservations in the first place.

As to what elements to include? Verse novels are almost illustrations with words. As in – your words ARE the illustrations. Consider your readers – their ability to make meaning from your words – but be adventurous. Let the words dictate placement and alignment, so that they speak for themselves. When I read verse novels, the words almost take shape in my mouth.

But don’t forget physical character descriptions. And setting. I say this, because I do. Forget them.* Often! I get caught in the emotions and character development, and forget about physical attributes/descriptions. And writing them in later feels very much like tip-toing through the kitchen with a soufflé in the oven.

* At which point I stop and think and realise there’s not a skerrick of character description in my current verse novel WIP … and it’s 7142wrds long. (?!)

This is MudMany of my farm raised relatives devoured crates of books each month as their main source of entertainment. As a country kid yourself, what stories from your childhood have stuck with you as an adult and how have they influenced the kinds of tales you want to share now as a writer?

I was over-the-moon elated when I found a tattered copy of ‘The Cow that Fell in the Canal’ at a library cull recently. I loved this story – and was given it on my graduation from Preschool. So sentiment was running high that day!

When I was in Yr 3 our teacher read ‘Emma’s Story’ by Sheila Hocken, to our class. I remember being very moved. I may even have sobbed. And been saddened for days. But I also remember it as a special story.

And I was an Enid Blyton girl. When I was in Yr 7, our Librarian culled all Enid Blyton books from the school library! I brought multiple Enid Blyton books to school and friends did the same, then we shared them amongst classmates to read in protest in the library – slumped around in beanbags and on the carpet. (For some, it was more about the protest, than the books, but their support was appreciated!)

I loved getting to know characters in a series – and having them stick around for a long while! Pollyanna, Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon and Elizabeth Gail were some faves. I think because of their ability to make a difference – for good.

I can’t believe I didn’t appreciate Dr Seuss until I was an adult … but it’s a sad truth.

What’s on the draft table for Kathryn?

Always so many things on the go – but the one that’s taking the most time at the moment is another verse novel for early readers – this one about friendships. On the surface it sounds sweet and light, but as with friendship it’s a balance of the good and bad.

And there’s another rollicking rural rhymer getting some attention, too.

Just for fun question (there’s always one!): If you could be any animal on the farm, what would you be and why?

The dog. Because dogs have such a joyful presence. They get in there and help, but their emotional engagement, affection and connection is their biggest asset.

Thanks for including me on the Boomerang Books Blog, Dim, and for the intriguing questions. I’m off to lightly sprinkle some character descriptions through that friendship WIP.

Fabulous, Kathryn! As are these books. Be sure to have a look soon.

UQP May 2014 & June 2015