In Part 1of the ‘preparing for school’ series, we focused our attention on themes relating to new beginnings and gentle steps towards independence and new friendships. This post will include picture books with beautifully heartwarming sentiments of embracing our own and others’ individuality, uniqueness and personal preferences, what makes us human and advocating for equality. A value-driven start to the new year will set us all up for a peaceful, harmonious future.
Beginning with P. Crumbleand Jonathan Bentley’s new release; We Are All Equal, this issue-based, prevalent topic in today’s society is a terrific resource to introduce to youngsters right from the get-go. Actress, comedian and LGBTQIA rights activist, Magda Szubanski, gives it “A resounding YES!”Here’s a book that truly celebrates the richness of difference and the reinforcement of equality despite lifestyle, origin, wealth, ability, size, shape, or gender or sexuality preference. We Are All Equaluses its gorgeous illustrations of a range of animals to highlight our wonderful diversity without preaching didactic messages. Rather, it phrases each rhyming verse gently and with the opening of “We are all EQUAL…” It dispels the idea of bullying and performance-based pressures, and focuses on sharing our hopes and dreams, pride and sense of community. A must-read for children and adults globally.
Ann Stottand Bob Graham address another current topic of today in Want to Play Trucks?. Acceptance, compromise and negotiation are all qualities that make the friendship between Jack and Alex so special. Here are two boys with differing preferences that encourage us as readers to challenge common gender stereotypes. They are excellent role models for our young children who may come to the playground with already-formed preconceptions on what is ‘typical’ behaviour. The narrative involves heavy dialogue between Jack, who likes noise, action and danger, and Alex, who enjoys “dolls that dance and wear tutus”. Graham further reinforces the notion of ‘getting along’ in this diverse environment with his subtle illustrative references to culture, ability and lifestyle in and around the sandpit setting. Want to Play Trucks?shows us a very raw and real look into a non-stereotypical world of imagination and pretend play. Recommended for pre-schoolers and beyond.
The pairing of Nicola Connelly and Annie White come together again following the gorgeous My Dad is a Bearin this fun, light-hearted tale of diversity and inclusivity; it’s Is It The Way You Giggle?This is a sweet rhyming story with whimsical, soft-palette and energetic illustrations that ooze with the magical essence of joy in childhood. The narrative begs a thousand questions for the reader to ponder, beginning (and ending) with the essential premise – “What makes you special?” There are a multitude of qualities, skills and characteristics that make us all unique, and this book is a beautiful discussion starter to have with your little one upon entering the journey of new experiences – to be able to be proud of and confident in who they are, as well as recognising and welcoming the similarities and differences in others. From the colours of your eyes or skin, to the shape of your ears, the things you enjoy like singing and dancing, the way you giggle or wiggle, your interests in painting, writing, reading or swimming, or how you love your family. Big, small, common or quirky, this book allows us the freedom and celebration of being unique. Is It The Way You Giggle?is a feel-good story for preschool-aged children that will certainly bring a smile to their face.
Filthy Fergalcomes delivered in a whole league of its own when it comes to books on individuality. Sigi Cohenof the My Dead Bunnyfame, together with illustrator, Sona Babajanyan, unapologetically present this disturbingly witty rhyming tale of a filthy boy thriving in the repugnant squaller of rubbish and flies. In similar vein to the legendary classics of Paul Jennings, through grime and repulsion and gag-worthy moments, there is love and family and an all-important ‘twist’ that aims to melt your heart. The text’s dark humour matches perfectly with the illustrations’ ominous and grungy mixed-media, multi-layered techniques. Filthy Fergalmay not overtly promote good hygiene practices, but it does clean up in the areas of exploring belonging, commonality and difference, and being true to yourself. Suitably unsightly for school-aged children.
Solli Raphael is a phenomenal Australian slam-poet. I was fortunate to meet him at a Penguin Random House roadshow. He is a personable, thoughtful young man with an enormous talent. He is only thirteen.
Solli is the youngest Australian to win the all-age poetry competition, the National Australian Slam Poetry Finals, held at the Sydney Opera House in 2017. This led to a TEDx solo live poetry performance at Sydney’s International Convention Centre in front of 5000 people and a solo performance at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in front of 35,000 people (with millions watching here and around the world) in 2018.
He has a vision that sees people caring for all humanity, as well as for our environment. He writes and delivers his poems with thoughtfulness and engagement. You can view some of his performances online (links below). He presents his important themes and issues with developing tone and pacing, enhanced by thoughtful, apt facial expressions and gestures.
And now he has written a book, Limelightwhere he introduces slam poets as people who “use their personal experience to tell a poetic story”, often employing rhyme. Repetition, alliteration and assonance also feature in Solli’s work. Solli and his fellow slam poets aim to raise awareness on issues such as the environment or racism.
In Limelight Solli shares his experiences of some of his formative performances and gives writers’ tips. These include his creative discipline of brainstorming ideas at the same time each day and how he counteracts writers’ block. He explains some of the figurative speech he uses, such as similes, metaphors and idioms.
There are over 30 poems (in a range of forms) and slam poetry in the book. The title poem, ‘Limelight’ is a combination of slam poetry and song. ‘We Can be More’ is a paean to protect the planet: “realise that your litter is a bitter pinch to the earth”. Solli’s performance of ‘Australian Air’ has been viewed 3.5 million times online and is a highlight of the book. Its play on “air” and “heir” challenges us to act to save our country. Its refrain, “We breathe in, we breathe out” gives us space to physically breathe in and out and recognise the essential nature of air and breath: something we can’t survive without and we ignore at our peril. Other poems include ‘Media Literacy: Fake News’ and ‘Evolution’.
Solli has a list of upcoming appearances on his website. He is worth seeing as well as reading.
Slam and similar poetry are of particular appeal to young readers but Solli Raphael offers creative, intelligent, challenging ideas, all wrapped in hope, for everyone.
Marcus Zusak exceeds expectations in his new novel Bridge of Clay. This is an epic Australian tale awash with masculinity: the masculinity of deep, beautiful men. It is a story full of heart, intelligence and sensitivity. Its men are mates, brothers and family and they are men who love and cherish women. The Dunbar men are athletic, physical and even hard, yet tender and loyal. They are a “family of ramshackle tragedy”.
The structure is sophisticated. Matthew, the eldest of five Dunbar brothers, is typing the story of “one murderer, one mule and one boy”. Each chapter begins in typewritten font before settling into Goudy Old Style. The typewriter itself is part of the narrative and family heritage. The boy who Matthew writes about is the one “who took it all on his shoulder” – the fourth Dunbar boy, Clay.
Early on we know that the boys’ mother has died and their father has fled. We are forewarned about the long backstory about the mule, Achilles, only one of a number of past tales that enrich this book. These strands are elemental and seamless, and we are swept up in each.
We learn of the boys’ mother, Penelope – the Mistake Maker, the pianist, the teacher, the refugee from the Eastern Bloc. She grew up steeped in the ancient Greek classics of The Iliad and The Odyssey and shared them with Michael Dunbar and their children.
When she dies, the boys call their father “the Murderer”. After years away, he returns asking for help to build a bridge on his property. Clay, the quiet smiler, the runner, the boy who sits on the roof, the one who loves Carey and shares the book, The Quarryman with her, is the son who goes.
Zusak draws the female characters with love, respect, admiration and affection, even old neighbour Mrs Chilman, a minor character. Carey is a ground-breaker, an independent, aspiring female jockey.
There is a strong sense of place: the racetrack, The Surrounds and house in Archer Street in the city; Featherton, the town where it all began; and the bridge itself, the overarching metaphor. The writing is uniquely Zusak: idiosyncratic (“cars were stubbed out rather than parked”, “The furniture all was roasted.”); humorous, enigmatic and prophetic.
Bridge of Clay is published by Picador, PanMacmillan Australia. It is a contemporary classic.
The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde is a story about fame and misfortune, queer identities, and being true to yourself even when it’s terrifying. I really loved the author’s previous book, Queens of Geek, and how that one was an incredible geek-loving story featuring autistic and Australian characters from an Aussie author of our own! The Brightsiders definitely had a different feel, but if you like Wilde’s work, this is very much worth picking up still. (Although it is set firmly in America this time! Although the gang from Queens of Geek make a cameo which I thought was fun.)
The story follows Emmy King, a celebrity drummer with the rock band The Brightsiders. They’re trio of Alfie, Ryan and Emmy all exploded into fame fairly overnight and they’re still teens, trying to keep their heads above water and grapple with this intense fame, as well as make the music that they love. Emmy comes from a toxic partying family and unfortunately, when things get stressful, that’s where she slides back to. When the story opens, she’s been underage drinking and ends up in a minor accident, which the paparazzi and media gobble up like golden gossip: look at this teen celebrity falling apart. Emmy is determined to get her life back on track and she has an epic support network of friends…but she also has plenty of toxic people she needs to learn how to deal with. And as she starts slowly falling for one of her band mates (baaad idea) she has to ask if this is love or is she avoiding her own fears and anxieties?
Books centring around music, especially famous musicians, are always intensely interesting to me! It reminded me of Open Road Summer and I Was Born For Thisimmediately, with teens making messy mistakes…but now in such public view that it has huge repercussions for their careers. Emmy is a very earnest character and you quickly feel for her as she feels smothered by the media, haunted by her awful parents, and just wants to please people and have them like her. People Pleasing does nooot go well for her in this one.
It also explores the difference between toxic vs healthy relationships and friendships. This is such a good topic to unpack, because every teen faces that horrible decisions of not knowing whether to keep people in your life (you’re used to them, grown up with them, maybe even in love with them) or break away and take care of your own mental health. I loved Emmy’s gang, wither her team mates Ryan and Alfie being intensely supportive of her, and also her best friend Chloe, showing up to smack her back into reality. The book is totally friendship-centric. And very very queer! Almost every character identifies somewhere on the lgbtqia+ spectrum, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s really nice also reading books with a genderqueer love interest!
The Brightsiders is really a story about healing and friendship, with a forbidden and intense romance on the side. It feels more upper-YA with all the teens having finished school and now working their gigs without parents (or avoiding awful parents). And it’s so refreshing to read a book so unapologetically proud of its rainbow pride!
Magabala Books are going from strength to strength. They are perhaps most well-known at the moment for publishing Bruce Pascoe’s books for adults and children such as Dark Emu, Mrs Whitlam and Fog a Dox but Magabala has a strong backlist across age-groups and genres with great new books coming all the time.
Two new titles are standouts.
Black Cockatoo is of comparable quality to Bruce Pascoe’s writing for young people. It is written by Jaru and Kija man Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler, illustrated by Dub Leffler (Once There Was a Boy and Sorry Day). It is a memorable story about an Aboriginal family living in the Kimberley.
Thirteen-year-old “Mia, her skin unblemished, radiated optimism and hope.” Mia loves her Country but sometimes wants more. Her grandmother tells her that she lives in both worlds. “You will be strong both ways.”
Although she is a spirited character she must show respect to her older brother. However fifteen-year-old Jy’s anger ripples “under his scarred skin”. He disrespects the family’s past and is killing birds, including Mia’s totem the dirrarn. Mia protects the injured bird for as long as she can.
Education is valued by the family and language, particularly used for bird names, is included.
Both Black Cockatoo and Blakwork are insightful, confronting literary works.
Blakwork by Gomeroi woman, poet Alison Whittaker (Lemons in the Chicken Wire) spans genres. It is poetry, memoir, critique, fiction and satire for adults or mature young adults.
‘a love like Dorothea’s’ is a reinterpretation of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘I Love a Sunburnt Country’ and is positioned sidewards on the page. “I love a sunburnt country. That is mine but not for me.”
‘outskirts’ is a chilling tale about a woman who worked in an abattoir and ‘killwork’ is non-fiction set in the same place. ‘vote’ addresses refugees and intermarriage where “blakness” is “a code embedded in your bones – it didn’t bleed through you, it constituted you, so there was no letting out.”
‘tinker tailor’ is a satire about Blacktown in Western Sydney. There are different stories behind the naming of Blacktown such as, “‘They call this place Blacktown because it was given to two Aboriginal men.’ Seemed weird to me that the whole continent wasn’t Blacktown.” The National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern on Gadigal land is considered in ‘futures. excellence’: “For people so put out on the fringes, we blaks love the centre”. In ‘the last project’ a note on the Centre says “We’re coming back, daught. There’s work to do.”
‘bathe’ is set at Maroubra Baths. “This is a poem about not suffering.”
‘The History of Sexuality Volume III’ is a poem about desire: “two blak women [who] love each other”.
Language is used in ‘’palimpsest’ and there is some superb writing in ‘rework’. “Pull over here, watch some spinning nightly fights reach across a highway’s ribs. At the Kamiloroi Highway’s spine two signs rise and speak and re-speak…”
Blakwork has just been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Both it and Black Cockatoo are strong, significant works.
Books are the gift that just keep on giving, aren’t they?! They’re worth so much more than the latest toy that lasts a whole five minutes. Here’s a small roundup of some great books for kids that make for beautiful gifts and can be shared over the festive season and well into the holidays.
This is the fourth time this superlative duo have come together, following the successes of The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade , Captain Starfish and Under the Love Umbrella. Bell and Colpoys will be winning awards once again with this stunning picture book that is so intelligent in its own way. For all children wondering what their kind of smart is, this energetic rhyming guide reinforces a confidence that there is certainly more than one. From artistic endeavours to scientific explorations, using your imagination to skills in building, retaining important facts to showing compassion and empathy are all but a few. Coordination and music abilities, polite manners, ‘feeling scared but taking chances.’ The list is endless and these book creators have absolutely nailed it with their verve, humour, versatility and diversity. The language rolls off the tongue to perfection, whilst the neon colours draw your eye just the way an artist should. All the Ways to be Smart – adding much brightness to any child’s mind – in more ways than one.
What Do You Wish For? puts a smile on every face and a glow in every heart. It’s that all kinds of fuzzy warmth, peace and togetherness that Christmas time really represents. Godwin’s intention for this book is for readers to understand that this time of year is, and should be, one of gratitude. The combination of her inspiring, tender words, and Anna Walker’s beautifully dreamy, intricate illustrations, is simply divine. There is an excited buzz in the air every Christmas. Ruby and her friends always put on a special show in the park, and write a wish to hang on the tree. But Ruby’s wish is too big to write on a little piece of paper. Her wish is of spirit; it’s made of smells of baking, candlelight amongst the dark, wonderful surprises and quality family time. But most of all, her Christmas wish is one of complete serenity, and a warm sparkle in the sky. What Do You Wish For? is the most magical treasure for any young reader and their family to cherish this Christmas.
I always love books that encourage exploration of the imagination. In this one, it’s the walls, floors and windows that get to discover what the bear child is conjuring up in his mind – much to his family’s dismay. The little bear speaks a lyrical tongue as to what his crayon and pen scribbles represent. A red Santa makes an appearance above the fireplace, a green frog on the toilet, a black witch inspired by broomsticks, a blue frothy sea and yellow splotchy bumbley bees. It’s amazing what each colour of the rainbow can be turned into, and where they happen to turn up! But somehow, this cheeky bear is able to win over the family with his colourful, magical, whimsical, wonderful charm. A beautifully alluring, absolutely sweet, vivacious and child-centred book in its words and pictures. It’s Not a Scribble to Me is ideal for children from age three as a facilitator of self-expression, creativity and boundless possibilities.
I absolutely adored this book when it was first released back in 2016. Now I (we all) get to relive the magic once again with this much anticipated 2nd edition recently re-published. Australia Illustrated is a visual festive celebration, the ultimate pictorial encyclopaedia of our beautiful land. Tania McCartney’s expansive array of detail and design, even if only a snippet, takes us on a wonderful journey around the country exploring major attractions to pockets of hidden gems we may have otherwise missed. My kids loved traveling around Australia; spotting familiarities, discovering new mysteries of the unknown, and giggling along at the cute and quirky nuances. Vivacious watercolours and a mix of media showcase the well-known to the unique. From the BIG and beautiful Queensland Mango and Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, the diverse native animals, bush tucker, sports, slang and weather, and a taste of idiosyncrasies from State to State. A gloriously scrumptious edition to pore over with the kids at home or away.
And another exquisite book from Tania McCartney that is a piece of art in itself is Mamie. Published by HarperCollins, November 2018. With her large, round gumnut eyes and angelic face, Mamie shares her story of adapting to change, fairies, pixies, elves and friendship. Celebrating the life of renowned and much-loved Australian icon – author and illustrator, May Gibbs of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie fame, McCartney takes readers on a historical yet imaginative journey. She gently and expertly showcases the exceptional creativity, inspiration and achievements of Gibbs absolutely beautifully and with bunches of natural charm. Mamie is sure to win hearts abound, just as she has done over the past 100 years.
The attitude and tenacity of The Little Princess mixed with a quintessentially unique dialect like Lola (Charlie and Lola) together brings about this charming new face to the bookish world, Princess Peony. Partner that with the perfectly scruffy tomboy/girl-looking character in grey tones with pops of hot pink and you’ve got yourself a popular new series for girls (and boys) in the junior reader market. Princess Peony, the name which must be reminded to the audience every now and then, begins her fairy tale in front of her house, erm, Castle with her dog, no, Dragon; Totts. Her mission: to be Obeyed. But things take a wrong turn and her story is interrupted by Prince Morgan the Troll (aka, her big brother). Attempts to outsmart each other lead to some pretty hilarious events and a new mission to avoid child-eating bears. The text and pictures work brilliantly together providing plenty of visual literacy opportunities for readers to laugh about. And there is a remarkably True Princess Information and Quiz Sheet for all Princesses in Waiting to absolutely study and swear by. Just gorgeous! I will be buying The First Adventures of Princess Peony for my nearly six year old and all her friends!
The Tales of Mr Walker is inspired by a real-life Labrador named Mr Walker who is a Guide Dog Ambassador and helper at the Park Hyatt Melbourne. This is an adorable book containing four enchanting stories about life working at the grandest hotel in town. Targeted at independent readers from age eight, we are delighted with the adventures this canine companion takes us on, viewed from the dog’s perspective. ‘Tracy must like parks as much as I do’. With his Guide Dog training behind him, Mr Walker is very well disciplined and loyal. But naturally, he has certain things on his mind, such as chasing balls, and food. Romp along on the fun adventures with Mr Walker. He doesn’t disappoint. Fluid and bright illustrations bounce in and around the text. The cover is appropriately high-end with its linen bound spine and gold trimmings. Royalties going to Guide Dogs Victoria is just another excuse to pick up this book as a gift for someone you love, and someone who loves dogs.
There’s deservedly a big buzz about this novel. It’s for middle readers – what age group is that?
We’re finding the novel appeals to anyone from 9 to 109! It’s found in book stores and libraries on the ’middle reader’ shelves as it is published for that age, but it is suitable for anyone in upper primary to tweens, young adults and adults alike.
How is this book different from your other works?
My other stories each features a species of vulnerable Australian wildlife, and a young person trying to save them. Written for 7-10 year olds, they’re completely fictional adventure stories, (although based on real animal issues), plot driven and very animal focussed. My new story is based very much on my own family’s experience of living with a young person with a disability and the story is more character focussed. The plot allows a unique insight into a moment in time in a family’s life, and as such, probably appeals to a wider reading age and is a more emotional, heartfelt story.
Could you tell us about the major characters in Everything I’ve Never Said?
Everything I’ve Never Said is about a fictional character, Ava, an eleven year old with Rett syndrome who can’t talk or use her hands to communicate. Based on my own daughter, Charlotte, who suffers with Rett, the fictional Ava lives with her nearly fourteen year old sister, Nic, and her mum and dad, but struggles to tell them what she wants and how she’s feeling. Through Ava’s inner voice, the reader hears what she wants to say, even when her parents and sister don’t understand her. It takes the arrival of her new carer, Kieran for the family to work out a way to help her.
How do you show the authentic relationship between protagonist Ava and her older sister Nic?
My eldest daughter, Beth, helped me a lot with the relationship between the two girls. Despite having raised my daughters, and watching them grow up together, I found it hard capture their relationship on paper. Like many siblings, it’s not all hugs and love – there’s rivalry and jealousy, but when the chips are down, true love is exposed. It was important to me to accurately show how Nic would respond to her sister in various situations. I didn’t want to show the typical eye rolling teenager. For example, when I asked Beth what Nic would say when Mum wanted to put Ava in respite, she very quickly replied, ‘She’d say no, Ava would hate that!’ This wasn’t the reaction I expected. I thought Beth would think Nic would love time without her annoying sibling, rather than consider her sister’s feelings.
Why did you write the book as fiction rather than non-fiction?
Ava’s voice was very powerful when I began writing, but having never heard my own daughter speak, I could only imagine what was going on inside her head. Right from the start, I had to use poetic licence to interpret what was happening for Ava, which meant the book naturally became a work of fiction. Many of the raw, difficult experiences in the book are based on true events, for example, being placed on hold for hours with Centrelink, Ava having a melt down in the hospital, the embarrassment of Nic and the exhaustion of Mum, but there were some things about our life I wasn’t ready to share.
Ava starts at Rosie’s Cottage, a respite home. In your experience, how accessible and worthwhile is respite care for those with a disability?
We’ve always struggled with respite. Having a non-verbal child means they can’t tell you if everything is as it should be when they stay somewhere else overnight. Also, because our daughter is so physically fragile, the other clients were often not a good match. She’d be knocked over, or just left sitting on a couch all weekend. If it is a good service, respite can be very worthwhile as it gives the person a chance to make their own friends and have experiences they would never have with their own family. For example, we’ve never taken Charlotte to Dreamworld, but she’s been with respite. We currently don’t have a safe, enjoyable overnight respite place for our daughter, so we pay carers to care for her one-on-one in our home, so she feels safe and protected when we’re not there.
How helpful is art for young people like Ava?
Art can be incredibly soothing. In the story, Ava’s colours in her paintings to reflect her mood, and I think my own daughter would do the same. But more than that, the art teachers and music teachers we’ve encountered with Charlotte seem to have a way of bringing out the best in their students. Perhaps it’s accessing that other side of the brain? I’ve got a feeling that would be the same for people with or without disabilities. Art and music are very therapeutic.
Many people don’t treat those with a disability well, e.g. substitute teacher Wendy. What is something you would like people to know about how to treat someone with Rett syndrome?
I often ask people to consider Stephen Hawkins. Bent and twisted in his wheelchair, how would we ever know what he had to say if he couldn’t use a speech device? So, I try and tell people not to judge a book by its cover. People with Rett syndrome and any disability are just like us. They may not be able to communicate, they may look a bit different, but talking to them like any other person, smiling, and asking how their day is going, will make them feel less isolated and more included as part of the community. Empathy is so important.
What parallel have you created between Ava’s life and what happens to her father?
In the story, Ava’s dad falls unexpectedly ill in Ava’s presence. This creates a situation where Ava feels her lack of communication more keenly than ever. She can’t help him, or even call for help. I see this in my own daughter when she tries so hard to say something; her eyes shine and her lips make the shape of a word, but no words comes out. It’s incredibly hard. Creating a situation where Dad can’t communicate for a while gives him a true understanding of what it’s like for Ava, and helps the family advocate more strongly to find a way to help her.
How has your family reacted to the story?
My husband was surprised at first, saying, ‘Is that what you really think is going on inside Charlotte’s head?’ He said the book has helped him understand her more and make more of an effort to try and understand her subtle ways of communicating. Both daughters, Charlotte and Beth, are very proud of the book, with Charlotte grinning all through the recent book launch, and any time I talk about it.
Your books have received recognition in many awards. Which has meant the most to you and why?
Recognition from your peers is so important. I’m incredibly proud and grateful for any award nomination as we have so many talented authors in Australia. I think, in particular, when my first book, Smooch & Rose was voted in the Readings Top 5, and shortlisted for the Qld Literary Awards, it really help me believe I should keep writing. More recently, winning the Environmental Award for Wombat Warriors was pretty fantastic!
What do you hope for Everything I’ve Never Said?
I hope my story will shed some light on people living without a voice. People who can’t speak up, whether they have a disability, or are shy or too scared to say what they think, need to know we do care about what they have to say. I also hoped people with Rett or other disabilities, families, siblings, carers, friends would feel less alone. We’re in this together, and while it might not be ‘Italy’, it’s a very special type of ‘Holland’ where, even with its ups and downs, we live lives full of unexpected treasures.
Thank you so much for giving us even more insight into Rett syndrome and living with disability, Samantha. It has been a privilege.
Thank you, thanks for the opportunity!
(Everything I’ve Never Said is published by University of Qld Press)
Before you race out to spend a fortune on the latest toy this Christmas, check out these crazy Christmas books. They are more fun than a box of crayons and can be enjoyed individually or with a loved one. How’s that for value. And there is enough Christmas spirit in each one to jingle your Christmas bells well into the new year! Enjoy the roundup.
Each year the good folk at Christmas Press present an entertaining seasonal anthology for kids. This year, A Miniature Christmas explores the, you guessed it, miniature worlds of all things tiny from genies, mice, elves, fuchsia fairies, even app characters! Several well -known authors and illustrators share their short stories alongside new names in the children’s literary world, each crafting tales that intrigue, entertain and make you ponder. For example:
The Funactor by Oliver Phommavanh is a clever observation of our 21st obsession with apps.
Goblin Christmas by Ian Irvine combines urban social issues with fantasy that has a touch of Harry Potter mystic about it.
George the Genie by Dianne Bates has all the form, plot and cheeky wisdom of a classic fairytale whilst Small Creatures by Rebecca Fung is just plain good fun.
The stories are short enough to share with your child each night on the countdown to Christmas, with special drawings to enhance the magic of each tale. This collection would make a jolly Christmas stocking addition for young primary aged readers.
For me, this is the best of the Macca instalments by far. Funny, fast paced and full of Christmas cheer coupled with a warming message about the true spirit of Christmas, this seasonal romp with Macca the Alpaca reminds us that the best Christmases need not cost anything but love, friendship and goodwill. A cheerful lesson for kids (that is not the slightest bit preachy or forced) and a timely reminder for us big kids to slow down and regain seasonal perspective. Aztec bright and brilliant!
Today we’re joined by the remarkable Teena Raffa-Mulligan, author to a number of children’s titles including picture books, junior fiction and middle grade novels, as well as romantic reads for the adults. Always possessing a love of the imagination, magic, excitement and adventure, Teena has produced such engaging titles like Friends, True Blue Amigos,Mad Dad for Sale, amongst others, and her latest re-release edition of Who Dresses God? The latter is a gentle and touching story inspired by her daughter’s spiritual exploration of the practicalities of the higher being, that is, God. When years ago as a young child, this divine little soul sought philosophical insights into how God can hear, see and speak, how He transcends yet blends into everything, everywhere, without any physical connection. This is a tender and loving rhyming picture book that opens the gateways to enlightened discussion amongst families with preschoolers and beyond, and is particularly delightful to share around this holy time of year. And here’s Teena to share more with us…
Teena, you have had a long relationship with writing coming from a background in journalism. How did your path lead you to become a children’s author, and what do you love about the world of children’s books?
I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. Books opened a door into the wonderful world of imagination for me and from the time I learnt to read my head was filled with story ideas of my own. The journalism came about by accident rather than intention. In high school when the vocational guidance officer suggested I become a journalist I dismissed the idea as I thought it would be far too boring to write news stories.
My ambition was to be a ‘real’ writer and I had dreams of living a Bohemian life in Paris and writing serious literary novels. However a good looking surfer came onto scene and instead I married and we bought a home and started a family. I’ve always loved books, so I read to our baby son from the time he was a few months old. That’s when I decided I wanted to write for children. I knew nothing about the publishing industry and it was long before computers and the Internet, so it was a learning journey. I received some lovely feedback about my ‘beautiful writing’ and ‘engaging characters’ but all my early manuscripts were rejected by multiple publishers.
That’s when I decided it would be easier to get freelance articles published than children’s books – and it was. Editors bought my stories, requested more and I soon found myself doing – and enjoying – the job I’d dismissed as ‘boring’ in my teens when local papers came on the scene. General reporting and feature writing evolved into sub-editing and editing and I learnt some invaluable skills that I was able to use in my creative writing.
I never lost my dream of becoming a published author, so continued to write, submit and learn everything I could about writing for children. In time the acceptances began to come in. I love the world of children’s books because imagination is unlimited and possibilities abound. It’s a world of magic, wonder, excitement and adventure and the kid in me revels in having the chance to explore it through writing and reading.
You’ve written a mix of articles, short stories, poetry, picture books, juvenile fiction and adult titles. Do you have a genre you feel most comfortable with? What do you find are the most common themes or influences in your writing?
I’m happiest writing for younger readers, and that can be a poem, short story, picture book or chapter book. I’m a bit of a butterfly so staying focused on a novel is a bit of a challenge for me. Many of my stories have themes of belonging, family and friendship, though I don’t set out with that in mind. Essentially, I look on the brighter side of life and my stories invariably have a lightness and optimism about them.
You have recently re-released your gentle and loving story, ‘Who Dresses God?’, originally published in 2012. What can you tell us about this book and what is your aim for readers sharing it with family members, particularly around this time of the year?
The book was inspired by my younger daughter, who asked me that question as a child after a conversation with my mum. We weren’t a religious family so the question came out of the blue for me. I answered it the best I could, we had an interesting discussion and I didn’t give the subject any further thought until a few days later when my writers’ brain clicked into gear. I didn’t consciously set out to write a picture book. It was one of those ‘gifts’ that turn up from time to time in a writing life; a story, poem or scene from a larger work that arrives without warning and the only effort on the author’s part is to commit the words to the page or screen.
I hope the story will start a discussion between children and their family members and encourage young people to think about the world we share and whether there is more to it than there appears to be.
What kinds of strategies, discussions or activities would you suggest for parents and educators to engage in following the reading of ‘Who Dresses God?’?
These two awareness exercises are simple for young children to do:
1. Close your eyes. What do you see? How does it feel? Cover your ears with your hands. What can you hear? How does that feel? Close your lips and cover your mouth. Try to speak. Does it work? How does it feel when you can’t use your mouth and tongue to speak?
2. Go outdoors to a nature area such as the park, bushland or seashore. Stand perfectly still and look around you. What do you see? Listen. What do you hear? Can you feel anything? Then go through the same process, only this time with closed eyes and blocked ears. How much of the world around you are you aware of when you do this? NB. This can also be done in a suburban shopping centre or city street; also while travelling in a car, bus or train.
Here’s one for older children:
Imagine you have the amazing power to create your own world and everything in it. How would it look and how would things work? Write a description or draw a picture of your world.
You and illustrator, Veronica Rooke, have not only collaborated on the development of this and several other books, but also conduct school presentations together. What has it been like working with her on these projects?
I met Veronica when I was working for a local newspaper and she was producing a weekly cartoon strip for the publication, so our friendship goes way back. Our paths used to cross from time to time and I knew she was a talented artist but our creative collaborations didn’t start until she moved into the street where I live about 12 years ago. I was looking for someone to illustrate the new edition of my stranger danger picture book and saw her jogging in the street so stopped to ask if she’d be interested. As it turned out, she’d recently made an employment change and the timing was right.
I was impressed with the way Veronica worked, because I had no idea how to brief an artist. I simply handed over the manuscript and said, “See what you come up with. I’d like it to be bright and colourful with cartoony characters.” She asked the right questions, produced wonderful illustrations, designed the book and organised it to be print ready for the printer.
I still take the same approach when I commission Veronica to create illustrations or book covers, though occasionally I will suggest a particular style or mood. I was thrilled when Serenity Press commissioned her to illustrate my picture book, Friends, and encouraged a collaborative approach, because we work so well together. I give her space to interpret my stories artistically and she is always willing to make changes if there’s something I feel isn’t right.
As for dual presentations, it’s great for a writer to have an artist in the room. We take turns to show how we work, interact with each other and the students, and while I’m talking, Veronica can add pictures to my words in the background. We’ve also put together a joint workshop presentation that gives young people the chance to make their own picture book.
Fun Question: If you could dress God, what would you choose for Him to wear?
Hmm. This one’s tricky! Because God isn’t like you and me, I’d dress Him in a rainbow, a symphony of birdsong and the gentle caress of a spring breeze.
What does Christmas time look like for you and your family? What are your favourite festive traditions?
We always have a family get together at our house in the evening for our children and their families. The meal is buffet style, with contributions from everyone: a selection of salads, sliced chicken and turkey, vegan and vegetarian options, trifle and fruit salad for dessert. Every year I make the chocolate snowballs and chocolate fudge my mother-in-law used to make, and the bean salad and nut meat pasties that my mum made at Christmas.
After the meal there’s gift giving, followed by a walk to the beach just over the hill and a cricket game in the cul-de-sac opposite our house. I love that our family can be together at this time.
For many years there was another tradition on Christmas Day, and that was a visit to the Italian family home in Fremantle. It began in my childhood and long after my grandmother died my bachelor uncle continued to hold open house there. My father’s side of the family would all turn up at various times, gather around the enormous table that filled the big kitchen and catch up on all the news. Sadly, after my uncle died eight years ago the house was sold and that tradition is no more. I miss it.
Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?
I have a new picture book in production and scheduled for release by Daisy Lane Publishing in mid-2019. When the Moon is a Smile is about the special times a small girl spends with her dad, who no longer lives with them. I’m thrilled to be working with publisher Jennifer Sharp, who spent a week exploring London with me last year after we both attended the Serenity Press writers’ retreat at Crom Castle in Ireland. I also can’t wait to see what illustrator Amy Calautti comes up with for the illustrations.
Thank you very much for your time, Teena! It’s been wonderful learning more about you! 🙂
It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. You asked some great questions and the dressing God one put me on the spot!
Visit Teena Raffa-Mulligan at her website, and on her blog tour for Who Dresses God?here.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Michael. You have an incredible, and awarded, body of work for children and young adults.
I remember first reading The Running Man as a proof copy and knowing that this was an Australian classic; literally falling off my chair with laughter when I read Don’t Call Me Ishmael; and judging the Qld Literary Awards when Just a Dog won best children’s book.
Could you please tell us about these and some of your other books?
I often get asked at school visits which of my books is my favourite. Of course, a bit like choosing between your children, it’s probably an impossible question to answer. I’m happy to say that I love and am proud of everything I’ve written and each book has something that makes it special for me. I would never have the nerve to send them off to my publisher if that wasn’t the case.
The Running Man of course will always be special to me. It made me a published author, won the CBCA Book of the Year and changed my life in ways that I’d only ever dreamed about. It also says some things that are important to me – like how we often judge and label people and put them in a convenient box, without really knowing them or seeing the human being behind the label. I was writing it back in the early 2000s when the issue of refugees was very much in the news and they were being demonised by some. Sadly not much has changed.
Some people might think it strange, but of all the things I’ve written, I’m probably most proud of the Ishmael trilogy. I’d happily be judged as a writer just on the basis of those three books. I love the mix of comedy with more serious moments and the way the characters grow and develop and reveal different aspects of themselves as the series unfolds. I’m also pleased with how the series ends and that ultimately it’s all about the saving power of love and friendship. It was a sad day for me when I wrote the final scene and said goodbye to characters I loved. I have a special place in my heart for readers who take the time to follow the journey of Ishmael and his friends all the way from year nine through to graduation. Some of the loveliest emails I’ve received are about these books.
I loved writing Just a Dog. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to write a powerful story in the simple language of a young boy. It took quite a few drafts to get there but I was really pleased with the way it turned out. A number of Corey’s and Mr Mosely’s stories were based on childhood memories of dogs I grew up with. The response to this book has been overwhelmingly positive and beautiful but because of the serious and ‘more adult’ issues it also touches on, it’s had a bit of a polarising effect on readers. One lady said after reading the book that it was going ‘straight in the fire’! I remember when I submitted it, my publisher asked me who I thought the story was for. My answer was, ‘I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just for me.’
Like I said at the start, I could give reasons why each of my books is special to me – but don’t worry I won’t do that! However I have to mention what a joy it was to work on the Eric Vale and Secret Agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale series with my beautiful (and genius!) son Joe. (AND you can check out Joe and wife Rita’s ARTSPEAR ENTERTAINMENT YouTube channel to see for yourself why this super-talented couple have 1 MILLION subscribers.)
Where are you based and what’s your background in children’s and YA literature?
I’m based in Brisbane. I’ve lived most of my life in the suburb of Ashgrove which was the setting for The Running Man. We now live in the bordering suburb. Look how far I’ve come!
I was a secondary school teacher of English and Economics for quite a few years and dreamed of being a writer. I had what amounted to a quadruple major in English Literature from Qld Uni but my awareness and depth of knowledge of children’s and YA literature was quite limited until I got a job at Marist Ashgrove (the school St Daniel’s is based on in the Ishmael books). The wonderful English co-ordinator there who interviewed me and who was ultimately responsible for me getting the job, said I needed to know more about what young people were reading. She handed me a stack of YA and middle grade novels to read over the Christmas holidays. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of stories.
How are you involved in this community at the moment?
I’m very fortunate living in Brisbane as we have a very vibrant, active and enthusiastic writing and illustrating community. It’s a large and supportive group and I’m often in contact with other local writers and illustrators through book launches and other literary function and events. My involvement comes about mainly via such organisations as the Queensland Writers Centre, ASA, Book Links and the local branch of the CBCA. I’m also a member of the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust where I’m on the selection committee for their Fellowships and Residencies.
Well if you insist! The Things That Will Not Stand is a YA novel set over just nine or so hours at a University Open Day for senior school students. It is told in the first person, present tense by a year eleven boy called Sebastian, who is attending the day with his best friend (and perhaps mentor) Tolly. Sebastian is a bit of a lost soul as well as a romantic and when he has a brief encounter with the ‘perfect girl’ he can’t help himself hoping and dreaming that they might make a connection and his day will pan out like some feel-good, rom-com movie. Instead, he meets Frida – the ‘wrong’ girl – and his and Tolly’s day takes a very different and much more unpredictable, turn.
It’s a story about two teenagers who are both hurting and damaged in their own way. It’s about the stories they tell, the secrets they keep and the courage and faith it takes to share their real selves. The novel is a mix of comedy and drama because as Sebastian says about life, ‘It’s never just one type of thing … It’s all over the place. One minute it’s tears. Next minute it’s laughter. Then, just when you think you’re headed for a happy ending, the monsters turn up.’ I hope readers enjoy spending the day with Frida and Sebastian and Tolly. I certainly did.
How important is an opening scene and how did you write it here?
An opening scene is crucial. First impressions count, as they say. I think a good opening scene feels like the curtains are suddenly drawn back and you find yourself as the reader in the centre of someone else’s world. A world that hopefully draws you in and hangs on. TTTWNS opens with Sebastian standing in a cinema foyer staring at a set of big sliding doors, hoping and praying that soon they will glide open and the girl of his dreams will walk through. I chose to start here because it’s a dramatic and pivotal moment that could go either way. It also a scene that reveals a lot about Sebastian’s character and personality.
How does Sebastian represent a “Very Ordinary Guy”?
This is Sebastian’s description of himself and it reflects the doubts and lack of confidence a lot of young people – both male and female – have about themselves, especially when they compare themselves to others around them and (unfairly) to larger than life celebrities. In that way he is an ordinary teenager because like most teenagers, he doesn’t see or appreciate the extraordinary and admirable qualities he actually does have. But I’d like to think that readers will see them.
Frida has a sharp wit. How did you form her dialogue?
I enjoy writing dialogue and I loved creating the exchanges between Frida and the boys. I can’t explain the process of writing the dialogue or where the ideas come from. I think knowing the character well and seeing them as real people helps. Because of Frida’s connection to Frida Kahlo I imagined her as someone who was creative, fiery, intelligent and strong-willed but also with a sense of fun and humour and compassion. I tried to channel that. Writing for me is often like picturing a scene in my head and watching it like film and then trying to capture in words what I see and hear.
I think everyone loves humour but it’s so difficult to write. It’s something you do well! How do you pull it off?
I often get asked how I come up with the jokes and humour in books like the Ishmael series and the Eric Vale series. I can never answer those questions. I sometimes do workshops on writing humour and talk about how the key to all humour is ‘surprise’ or the ‘unexpected’ and how you can apply this to creating surprising and unexpected characters, situations, storylines and language use. But I must admit that I don’t have a conscious process I go through or a formula in my mind when I’m writing comedy. I just try to think of things that I find funny. Pathetic explanation, I know! I was never extroverted or a ‘class clown’ at school, but I could always make my friends laugh. I think it helps that I’ve loved comedy and have devoured funny movies, TV shows, cartoons and books ever since I was a little kid. One of the strengths I think I have as a creator of stories, it is that I often see connections and links between things. Perhaps being able to see surprising and unexpected connections between words and ideas and situations, helps with producing humour and witty dialogue.
What is the significance of the movie Casablanca and other movies in the novel?
Like The Big Lebowski, Casablanca is one of my favourite films. Best dialogue ever. It’s significant in the novel because as a love story it stands in contrast and challenges Sebastian’s happy ending rom-com fantasies. The final scene of Casablanca shows that love is not a selfish thing, that sometimes it involves pain and sacrifice. After watching the film together, Frida comments jokingly that Sebastian is nothing like Bogart’s character Rick in the film. I like to think that by the end of the novel she might not be so sure.
How are Sebastian and his mate Tolly actually not Ordinary Guys, but superheroes?
Aren’t most superheroes ordinary people most of the time until those crucial moments when they are called on to reveal their alter-ego? Sebastian and Tolly don’t have superhero costumes but they do have those moments when they reveal who they are through their words or actions – such as when Tolly takes on Frida’s tormentor in the lecture theatre. But they’re not your classic superheroes. If they do possess any ‘superpowers’ it’s just their essential decency and empathy.
The Things That Will Not Stand is an engaging read that, at first, conceals scars and depths in the character’s lives. How do you unpeel these layers?
Every time you have a character in a scene they are revealing something of themselves – how they act, their appearance and mannerisms, the words and images they choose to use, how they react to other characters, other situations and ideas, their thoughts and feelings and attitudes – all of these things and more help readers’ build up an understanding and appreciation of a character. Even if the character is trying to hide or disguise who they are, their real nature can be shown to seep through.
Sometimes in TTTWNS hidden layers are exposed when cracks and inconsistencies appear in a character’s story. More importantly, layers are peeled back when trust grows between the characters – when they feel brave enough to place some of their secret pain and hurt in someone else’s hands. The various events of the day provide the opportunities for the trust and connection between Sebastian and Frida to grow and strengthen.
What is the significance of the title?
The title is a line from the movie The Big Lebowski – a big favourite of mine. The main character in the film, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) says at one point, ‘This aggression must not stand, man.’ In the book the statement ‘It will not stand’ is used by Sebastian and Tolly as a declaration of intent, a call to action against some perceived wrong or injustice or any unacceptable situation. A bit like how recently all those amazing school kids around Australia saw the lack of commitment by our country’s leaders in dealing with Climate Change and took to the streets. To my mind, that was a big ‘It will not stand’ moment. I could well imagine Sebastian and Frida being there, with Tolly leading the way.
What are you writing next?
There might be a sequel to Rodney Loses It. I hope so anyway. Winning the CBCA award this year as well as the Speech Pathology of Australia award and sharing that success with the amazing Chrissie Krebs has been such a great thrill. I’m pottering around with some ideas and verses at the moment, but I won’t submit anything to my publishers unless I think it’s up to the standard of the first book.
The main thing I will be writing next year is a serious YA novel (my first completely serious book since The Running Man). I was very fortunate recently to receive a Queensland Writers Fellowship to support this project. The working title of the book is Gaps and Silences. Like The Running Man, it will be set in Ashgrove, but further in the past. There might also be some slight connections between the two stories. Haven’t quite worked that out yet. There’s still a lot of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of find and assemble before I get a clear idea of the full picture.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I have a blog/webpage at michaelgerardbauer.com and I’m on Facebook at Michael Gerard Bauer Author, Twitter @m_g_bauer and Instagram at mgbauerpics.
Thank you, Michael, for your generous and insightful responses.
Michael writes across age-groups – so seek out his works for Christmas gifts. I highly recommend The Things That Will Not Stand for teen readers.
It was a great privilege to attend the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Canberra yesterday. I was on the judging panel of the Children’s and Young Adult categories and we were thrilled with both our shortlisted and winning books.
It was wonderful to see the value that Prime Minister Scott Morrison placed on Australian literature in his speech, citing David Malouf’s Johnno, for instance, and the importance of children’s books.
All of our Children’s shortlisted authors and illustrators attended as well as a number of our YA authors. It was such a treat to speak with Lisa Shanahan and Binny Talib, creators of the highly engaging and layered Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! (Hachette); and Sarah Brennan and the legendary Jane Tanner (Drac and the Gremlin, The Fisherman and the Theefyspray, Isabella’s Bedroom and There’s a Sea in My Bedroom) – creators of Storm Whale (Allen & Unwin); and the winners of this category – some of children’s lit loveliest and most talented people – Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King for the stunning Pea Pod Lullaby (Allen & Unwin). This is a lyrical directive to everyone to care for refugees and anyone needing help.
Scholastic Australia was very well represented, with a table full of shortlisted authors and illustrators hosted by publisher Clare Halifax. Beautiful picture book Feathers was written by the ever-smiling Phil Cummings (Ride, Ricardo, Ride!, Bridie’s Boots, Boy, Newspaper Hats) and illustrated by Phil Lesnie (Once a Shepherd).
Rising star Tamsin Janu was again awarded for her Figgy series set in Ghana. This time for Figgy Takes the City. Her novel Blossom, about a girl who looks after an alien, was also entered and she has another original work due to be published next year.
In the YA category, Bruce Whatley’s extraordinary graphic novel, Ruben, was shortlisted. Bruce was accompanied by his exuberant wife, Rosie Smith (My Mum’s the Best).
And Scholastic published the winning YA work: the delightful Richard Yaxley’s originally-constructed holocaust novel, This is My Song.
Authors don’t know in advance if they have won so it was an emotional time for all as the winning books were announced.
I also loved catching up with some of the poets, such as eminent writer Judith Beveridge; genre-crossing Adam Aitken, shortlisted for Archipelago (Vagabond Press); and Brian Castro who won with Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria (Giramondo) and appropriately read a poem-speech. His prose work, The Bath Fugues, is a personal favourite.
Gerald Murnane, winner of the fiction category for Border Districts (another winner for Giramondo) is known as a recluse. He tried hard to get to Canberra but just couldn’t manage the distance. It is great to see his work recognised further with this prestigious award.
The ceremony was a very special and memorable event. Sincere thanks to the awards committee.
The First Adventures of Princess Peony is sub-titled ‘In which she could meet a bear. But doesn’t. But she still could.’ This adds intrigue to the tale because bears don’t feature at all as the story is set up. Instead we get to know the ‘dear little girl called Peony’ but it is Peony who is telling us that she is a ‘dear little’ girl. She is actually very bossy and one of her favourite things is ‘being obeyed!’. Peony is an unreliable narrator, full of personality, who addresses the reader at times.
Lucinda Gifford’s lively black, grey, white and pink illustrations tell another side to the story as well. Princess Peony tells us that she lives in a castle with her dragon Totts but the pictures show something else. She says that princesses ‘never lose their temper when things go wrong’ but the pictures show her looking far from serene.
She has trouble with Prince Morgan the Troll who is always interrupting, pats the Dragon under its wings and is building a bear trap. This is the catalyst for Princess Peony’s possible encounter with a bear. The illustrations again add to the humour with expressive eyes and partly hidden bears peering from the hedge. A chook also has a lively cameo.
This is a book to read multiple times. It is so engaging children will want to rush through it the first time but it is also a book to savour. The plotting, characterisation and humour are superb. It is a wonderful place for young readers to share and develop imagination and revel in pretend-play and role-play alongside Princess Peony. The First Adventures of Princess Peony is fun and exciting and has a most satisfying story arc. It is a triumph.
There is no denying it – the countdown is on. We’ve got you covered for Christmas, though. Discover the fantastic array of kids’ stories between these covers. Every week until Christmas, I’ll be listing a selection of new releases and top-rate reads for children from pre-schoolers to new young adults. Here’s a swag of super entertaining picture books just right for sharing this summer.
I detest the colour pink and princesses who like to adorn themselves in it. However, I LOVED this supremely funny tale about a little girl named Peony who lives in a castle with her dragon, pink bits and all. Beautifully told from Peony’s unabashed point of view and illustrated with striking tri-coloured drawings, this is a joyful read about giant imaginations, dogs, family and princesses, of course. Highly recommended for pre-schoolers, early primary schoolers, emergent readers and those of us struggling to accept the little princess within. Watch out for following titles in this illustrated series.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books Blog, Nikki.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
Thanks so much for reading Liberty, Joy, and for these wonderful questions … here goes.
I am based in Terrigal, just north of Sydney. I love being a part of the YA writing community and have made some dear friends. Currently a writer friend and I are putting together a Central Coast writers’ group to offer each other support and encouragement. It’s easy to feel isolated as a writer so community is important.
I was swept away by your new novel Liberty (University of Queensland Press). What else have you written?
I’ve written two memoirs and Liberty is the second of a series of three books in a loose trilogy called The Systir Saga. Hexenhaus was first released in 2016 and Liberty will be followed by Saga in 2019. The books can be read in any order or as stand-alone books but work well as companions or ‘sister’ books.
How did you select the three story strands and protagonists in Liberty? Could you give an outline of each?
I chose the historical characters of Betsy Gray and Jeanne Laisne after extensive searching for girls who could fit my agenda. They were chosen because they were strong and courageous, standing up and out in times of conflict and raising their voices for themselves and the women who came after them. History has overlooked women’s stories of valour in favour of ‘hero’ tales and I wanted to lift these girls’ stories from the footnotes and shine a spotlight on them. In Liberty, Frenchwoman Jeanne Laisne leads an army of women against a hostile invading force in the late 1400s; Irish Betsy Gray rides beside her brother and sweetheart in a rebellion against the English; and Fiona McKechnie marches for peace and freedom in the anti-war movement in the late sixties in Brisbane.
Which are based on historical figures?
Betsy and Jeanne were real historical characters while Fiona is a fictional composite of some of the strong women in my own life (grandmothers/mother/aunts).
How have you used romance in the stories?
There is romance in each of the stories but I made sure that none of my girls were defined by the men in their lives. Each broke with the traditions of their time. Arranged marriage was the norm in France at that time but Jeanne wanted to marry for love. Betsy was in no hurry to settle into butter-churning and domestic servitude and Fiona wanted to ‘be’ a lawyer as opposed to her father’s hope that she might ‘marry’ a lawyer.
How do you show female powerlessness and oppression in these tales?
During each of the eras, women faced significant powerlessness and oppression. Women were largely seen as property or ‘helpmates’ to their fathers and husbands. My three characters feel suffocated by this and seek to break those bonds and assert themselves as individuals.
How do you highlight the power and agency of women in the novel?
Power and agency were not on offer to my three girls; they had to wrest it for themselves with great strength and determination. Each took the harder path and refused to let society dictate who they were and what they were capable of. They had to break some old rules to make way for new ones.
Female bloodlines are shown, even leading back to Jeanne d’Arc/Joan of Arc. Why have you included these?
The female bloodline, written in the mysterious Systir Saga book, a matrilineal family tree that spanned many centuries, is the life-force of Liberty and the other books in the trilogy. While there are actual historical female figures in this book, including Joan of Arc, it really is symbolic of the global sisterhood – a force that runs beneath the surface of movements such as #metoo. We have the liberties we do today because of women like Betsy and Jeanne and Fiona who raised their voices, which allowed those that came after to raise theirs.
All three protagonists have missing mothers and none want to disappoint or dishonour their fathers. Why these missing mothers?
My characters have no mothers in their lives. This is interesting because I think being raised by fathers shaped the girls, to a certain extent, but all felt compelled to make their late mothers proud of them and they sought to right the wrongs that had taken their mothers from them too early. In Fiona’s case, she wanted to attend university because that had not been an option for her own mother.
How does Jeanne query the predestination of fate?
Jeanne does question the concept of predestination. Her fate was to be ‘sold off’ and married to a cruel man she did not love because the Captain of her town made decisions about her life and not even her father could prevent that. Jeanne, as a poor peasant girl, felt miserable about not being able to make her own life choices and so she seized her moments when they presented themselves and managed to change her destiny. This is true for all of us. No matter how trapped we feel, we always have choices.
Betsy’s heroine was Mary Ann McCracken. Who is yours?
I love that you ask who my heroine is. I have so many. I actually do a daily visualisation and have an imaginary council of strong women that includes Michelle Obama, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Queen Elizabeth the First, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Malala Yousafzai. I know that sounds a bit wacky but it works for me.
Your novel title is ‘Liberty’. What liberty do you hope for?
I have a great desire for true liberty for women in our world. This would mean that women felt safe to walk at night; safe in their workplaces, schools and in their homes. Equal pay would be a reality and women would sit in equal measure in boardrooms, governments and in every walk of life. Women would be valued for themselves and respected for the great human beings they are.
What are you writing next?
I have just finished writing Saga, the third book where I introduce three new heroines. Hexenhaus has three women accused of witchcraft, Liberty has three warrior women and in Saga I have three young women who change the world through words.
Thanks very much Nikki and I greatly look forward to reading Saga.
Liz Anelli and Sheryl Gwyther will be sharing their knowledge and experience of writing and illustrating with aspiring children’s book creators and other interested people in an event organised by CBCA(NSW) this week, the Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program.
Liz Anelli has been achieving recognition for her distinctive illustrations. Her picture books include Desert Lake, written in Pamela Freeman’s assured text. It’s published as part of the Walker Books ‘Nature Storybook’ series and shows how Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre changes when the floods arrive using texture, pattern and colour. It has been shortlisted for several awards, including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Educational Publishing Awards.
Ten Pound Pom, written by Carole Wilkinson (Black Dog Books, Walker Books), is another well-designed book from the illustrated ‘Our Stories’ series. It is a Britain-to-Australia immigration story. Liz Anelli has created authentic detail, even using fabrics from her family to fashion the clothing.
Maddie’s First Day, written by Penny Matthew and also published by Walker Books, looks at the evergreen subject of a child’s first day at school.
Grace and Katiewritten by Suzanne Merritt (EK Books) is a wonderful vehicle for Liz’s skills as she shows the differences between these twin sisters. One is creative and messy. The other is ordered and tidy. Their map-making is a triumph.
Sheryl Gwyther is an incredible support to the Australian children’s literature world. I know Sheryl from my years living in Brisbane and she is a wonderful advocate of children’s book organisations and those who are part of them. She is an active member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), an excellent organisation for children’s book creators.
Her books include the engrossing Secrets of Eromanga (Lothian Books, Hachette) about Australian dinosaur fossils andSweet Adversity(HarperCollins), a historical novel set in Australia during the Great Depression with Shakespearian and theatrical touches.
Both Liz Anelli and Sheryl Gwyther will be speaking tomorrow night (Thursday 8th November) at an event for aspiring writers at HarperCollins in Elizabeth St, Sydney. Full details and booking information are in the flyer below or follow the link.
HarperCollins keeps our Australian children’s book heritage alive by continuing to publish and promote the works of May Gibbs and Norman Lindsay.
They recently published Emily Rodda’s The House at Hooper’s Bend, a brilliant book, which has been shortlisted for several awards including the 2018 CBCA Children’s Book Awards and the Qld Literary Awards. It is followed by His Name Was Walter, which I look forward to reading.
My other recent favourite from HarperCollins is Jackie French’s Just a Girl. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Belinda Murrell is a much-loved author of children’s series fiction and time-slip and historical novels. Her series include ‘Pippa’s Island’, ‘Lulu Bell’, ‘The Sun Sword’ trilogy and ‘The Timeslip’ series. Her books are warm and rich with appealing characters and captivating storylines.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Belinda.
What is your background and where are you based?
I grew up on the North Shore of Sydney in a rambling old house full of books and animals. I studied media, writing and literature at Macquarie University and worked for many years as a travel journalist and corporate writer, before becoming a children’s author. Now I live with my family in a gorgeous old house, filled with books, overlooking the sea in Manly.
What led to your writing books for children?
About 14 years ago I started writing stories for my own three children, Nick, Emily and Lachlan. Some of these stories became The Sun Sword Trilogy, a fantasy adventure series which was published about 12 years ago. I’ve been writing for children of all ages ever since.
What else do you enjoy doing?
My favourite things to do include walking my dog along the beach, riding my horse at my brother’s farm, skiing, reading books and travelling the world having lots of adventures with my family.
What themes or issues appear across some of your books?
Finding your courage, being brave and kind, standing up for what you believe in, accepting people’s differences and the importance of family and friends are all themes which I explore in my books. Another issue which is very important to me is creating strong, inspirational female protagonists which girls can relate to. When my daughter was younger, I was disheartened by the number of children’s books which always had boys as the heroes. “You cannot be what you cannot see” and so I strive to create lots of different, interesting and aspirational female characters.
Could you tell us about your books, particularly your latest series, ‘Pippa’s Island’?
The Lulu Bell series is about Lulu and all her animal adventures, living in a vet hospital, inspired by my own childhood as the daughter of a vet. The 13 books have been hugely popular with younger readers, aged about 6 to 8.
My new series, Pippa’s Island is for readers about 8 to 10 years old, and includes five books about friendship, families and seaside adventures. Pippa and her family move halfway across the world to start a new life on gorgeous Kira Island, where Pippa’s mum has the crazy idea of buying a rundown old boatshed and turning it into a bookshop café. Pippa makes friends with Charlie, Cici and Meg, and they form a secret club, called The Sassy Sisters, which meets after school in the tower above the boatshed. Their motto is “Be Brave. Be Bold. And be full of happy spirit.”
For older readers, aged about 10 to 14, I have written a series of seven historical and time slip novels, such as The Ivory Rose, The Lost Sapphire and The Forgotten Pearl – each with a modern-day story woven together with a long-forgotten mystery or family secret from the past.
What is Pippa dealing with in the new ‘Pippa’s Island’?
Pippa’s noisy family have been living crammed into a tiny caravan in her grandparents’ back garden and money has been super tight. Pippa’s can’t wait to move into their new apartment right above the Beach Shack café but the builders are taking forever! Pippa’s feeling frustrated until she comes up with a genius plan to make some pocket money: Pippa’s Perfect Pooch Pampering. With a lot of help from her best friends, Pippa starts her own dog walking business. Soon she has her hands full with adorable but pesky pups. What could possibly go wrong? Puppy Pandemonium!!
Which character has most surprised you in ‘Pippa’s Island’?
I absolutely fell in love with my main characters – Pippa and her best friends Charlie, Cici and Meg, who are all so different yet so caring of each other. Yet I also enjoyed discovering how some of my other characters developed over the series. Pippa’s arch rival is Olivia, who is good at everything, whether it’s winning the class academic prize, gymnastics or dancing. Olivia is popular and a natural leader but can be very competitive. At first, Olivia and Pippa seem like they will be friends, but when Pippa tops the class in a maths quiz, Olivia feels threatened and tries to exclude her. Over the course of the series, the girls have a prickly relationship but gradually they work out their differences and learn to appreciate each other.
The ‘Pippa’s Island’ books are full of delicious cupcakes. What is your favourite flavour?
Initially my favourite was Cici’s lemon cupcakes in book one, but then at a Pippa’s Island book launch, a gorgeous librarian baked dozens of divine strawberry cream cupcakes. They were heavenly, and of course starred in book 2!!
Who are your core readers? Where do you have the opportunity to meet them, and have any of their responses been particularly memorable?
My core readers are girls aged between 6 and 14 and it’s been lovely to see readers growing up reading my books, starting with Lulu Bell, then Pippa’s Island and then the time slip books. One of the greatest joys of being a children’s author is meeting kids who love my books at schools, libraries, bookshops and festivals. They get so excited! Every year I spend about four months visiting schools and book events all over the country. This year I’ll visit schools in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Tasmania, all over Sydney as well as many regional areas.
The most memorable and humbling experiences have been hearing from readers, particularly of my time slip novels, who feel that my books have changed their lives. A year 12 student wrote a heartfelt letter to thank me for writing her favourite book, The Ivory Rose, that “she’d held so dear for so long”, that helped her decide what she wanted to do with her life. Another 18-year-old girl wrote to say that the adult she’d become and the values she treasured were inspired by my books that she’d read over and over. These letters are so beautiful and make me cry.
What is the value of series fiction, particularly in comparison with stand-alone works?
Kids love reading a whole series of books because they have the chance to really get to know the characters and see how those characters develop and change. It is also comforting for younger readers to know what to expect in a book – that they will love the setting, the style and the writing, so it’s much easier for them to become lost in the story. A series that you love can be completely addictive, whereas a stand-alone book, even a brilliant one is over too soon!
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
For my book club, I’ve just finished reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which I’ve been wanting to read for ages. It was fantastic – so funny, witty and moving. I absolutely loved The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell, set in a crumbling old English mansion, about a modern-day character called Maggie, trying to discover the secrets of her grandmother’s mysterious past. Another historical book which I loved was The Juliet Code by Christine Wells, about Juliet Barnard, a British spy parachuted into France during World War 2, to help the French Resistance in occupied Paris and her turmoil in dealing with these experiences when the war is over.
What are you writing about now or next?
I have two completely different and new projects that I’m very excited about. The first is a middle-grade children’s fantasy novel set in a world inspired by Renaissance Italy. I’m in the early stages of writing the story and am heading to Tuscany in the New Year to explore tiny fortified hill towns, medieval towers and secret tunnels. The other project is very special – a book which I’m writing with my sister Kate Forsyth, to be published by the National Library of Australia. It is a biblio-memoir about growing up in a family of writers and the life of our great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Atkinson, who wrote the very first children’s book, published in Australia in 1841.
Thanks Belinda, and all the very best with your books.
Children adore funny stories so thanks to the publishers who are commissioning them and authors who are writing them.
Penguin Random House Australia has recently published the brilliant Oliver Phommavanh’s new novel Natural Born Leader Loser; Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Fight Back by Tim Harris, where the exploits of Mr Bambuckle and his class continue; and Total Quack Up!, an appealing anthology edited by Sally Rippin and Adrian Beck.
Pan Macmillan Australia has extended its popular comedy series with Laugh Your Head Off 4 Ever, illustrated by Andrea Innocent. Highlights here include Felice Arena’s ‘Dad Dancing’ about Hamish’s dad who dances cringeably at the end-of-year formal. Bully, Craig Dickson, films it on his phone until the music changes … Penny Tangey’s ‘Use Your Words’ is about the power of words and could also be used in schools to illustrate this in a fun way. James Roy’s ‘Evil Genius’ is a clever comeuppance featuring jelly snakes. Lisa Shanahan has an alien tale in ‘Harriet’s Spacey Friend’. And Andy Griffiths’ ‘Runaway Pram’ has been published previously but is a superb slapstick piece. The bright yellow cover with contrasting pink makes this book stand out.
Another anthology is Total Quack Up! It’s edited by Sally Rippin, much-loved writer of ‘Polly and Buster’, ‘Billie B Brown’, ‘Hey Jack!’, awarded picture book The Rainbirds (with David Metzenthen) and stunning middle-grade novel Angel Creek; and Adrian Beck, author of the ‘Champion Charlies’ and ‘Kick it to Nick’ series. It’s illustrated by James Foley of My Dead Bunny fame. Deborah Abela uses the hills hoist to dramatic effect in ‘How to be a Superhero’. Tristan Bancks has a funny take on a football game in ‘The Pigs’. Jacqueline Harvey will scare anyone off pet sitting in ‘Pet Sit Pandemonium: Operation Snowball’. Using a clever play-on-words Sally Rippin shows what could happen to disobedient children in ‘Do Not Open’. The hilarious R.A. Spratt has another funny Nanny Piggins story in ‘Pigerella’. And Matt Stanton has a selfie-inspired cautionary tale in ‘What Hippopotamuses and Sharks Have in Common’. The only story published previously is Paul Jennings’ ‘A Mouthful’. It’s a very funny Dad tale.
Tim Harris’s ‘Mr Bambuckle’ stories (illustrated by James Hart) are incredibly popular. In Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Fight Back we meet his class of 15 students again. They get the better of horrible teachers and Scarlett has an original plan to get rid of the dire Miss Frost. Mr Bambuckle inspires creative ideas, such as asking students to think of “a ridiculous use for a cake” and “an imaginative way to enter the classroom”. As a bonus, books with illustrations are championed as a way of managing the terrible behaviour of a kindergarten buddy. It’s followed by Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Go Wild.
Raymond in Oliver Phommavanh’s Natural Born Leader Loser is a memorable character to whom children will relate and cheer on. He is in Year 6 at apathetic Barryjong Primary. Bullies run rife. New principal, Mr Humble who looks like a retired wrestler, wants to change the culture and selects four prefects: energetic soccer star Zain; forthright, hijab-wearing Randa; artistic Ally and Raymond who believes he’s a nobody. He doesn’t want to be in the spotlight but he does want to make the school better. As he challenges, and dares, himself he starts to make more difference than he could have imagined. The process is agonising at times but also full of fun, wildly creative ideas, jokes and wonderful emerging and changing friendships. I would love to see all children in primary school, including quiet achievers like Raymond, read this book. It could change negative cultures and transform the timid into confident leaders without spoiling their natural personalities.
Author-poet Lorraine Marwood won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction in 2010 for Star Jumps. Her new verse novel Leave Taking (University of Qld Press) is just as good. Both are set on a farm and are for primary-aged readers.
Leave Taking refers to both the title and Toby’s experiences as he and his parents pack up their dairy farm and the belongings of Toby’s younger sister, Leah, who recently died from cancer. Of course, such weighty themes are sobering but grief is recognised and faced through the natural rhythms of Australian rural life, Toby’s steps around the property and loving memories of Leah’s tangible and intangible footprints.
The map of the farm on the front endpaper has changed by the end of the book as Toby revisits and labels special places: the machinery shed where both children scratched their initials in the concrete; the old red truck where Leah wrote pretend bus tickets during their last game there; and Memorial Hill where they buried pets and other animals and birds.
Toby camps at significant places on the property but is always close enough to the farmhouse to help with the cows or have a quick check in with his mother. He is also comforted by the company of his dog Trigger.
Leah was a gentle girl who loved stories and taking photos, shared jobs, delighted in April Fools’ jokes and left so many drawings that some will be taken to the new farm and the rest placed in the heart of the bonfire – which would have made her happy.
The writing is often sensory and poetic, beginning with a contrast between the light of the “faint silver of dawn” and the dark shadows outside Toby’s tent. The author sketches the natural world of magpies and native trees and gumnuts with evocative strokes. She uses figurative language to describe the huge milk vat purring “like a big-stomached cat” and personifies the bonfire as a dragon.
There is a supportive, although laid-back, sense of community and hope of new life with the imminent birth of a new baby as Toby maps his goodbye to his home and much-loved sister.
The cover illustrations and line drawings are by Peter Carnavas, who has just won the Griffith University Children’s Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. After creating a number of thoughtful picture books, Peter illustrated his first novel, The Elephant, a brilliantly executed study of a family’s grief and path to healing. I will always remember this outstanding novel when I see jacaranda trees in flower.
I remember when I was a pre-schooler, the day our World Book Encyclopedia and Childcraft How and Why Library sets arrived. They lived in their own custom-built bookshelf and went with us whenever we moved house. I was contemplating selling them this year to free up space or failing that, surrendering them to the compost heap. Now, after spending time with Lenny and Davey, I’m not so sure. Like their Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia, each lettered volume holds countless childhood memories anchored in place by facts and figures now hopelessly out of date but somehow still completely valid. How does one discard their former life – a childhood of countless special moments and first-time discoveries – so decidedly?
Moreover, how does one describe Lenny’s story. Wrenching (you will need tissues – preferably 3 ply), soaring (pack your wings), absorbing (allow for a few sleepless nights spent page turning), tragic (get another box of nose-wipes just in case).
Lenny’s Book of Everything is a story with a heart as big as Phar Lap’s and gallops along at a pace that both rips you apart emotionally but is simultaneously restorative and mindful such is Karen Foxlee’s talent for powerful story telling. This story describes the relationship between Lenny, her younger brother who has a rare form of gigantism and their beleaguered mother. Theirs appears a drab ‘moon-rock’ coloured existence yet flashes of brilliance strike everywhere, everyday: their mother’s pink work uniform, the pigeons on their windowsill, Mrs Gaspar’s outrageous beehive, the ubiquitous letters from Martha Brent and of course, her regular dispatch of encyclopedic issues to them. All conspire to create warmth and hope and put the reader at ease while sweeping them ever closer to the inevitable conclusion.
Children love a splash of spook, a gash of ghoul and a dash of danger, but only if it’s laced with humour and courage. If you’re looking for some creepy crawlies, menacing monsters and terrifying trolls to give you the shivers this Halloween, then check out these wild picture books… don’t worry, they’re not actually so scary.
A Monster in my House is written by the internationally acclaimed comedians The Umbilical Brothers, so you know you’re in for an amusing feast rather than a nightmarish one. Their undeniably popular wit is clear with their multi-layered twists that pleasingly surprise. The first-person narration warns of the danger associated with having a different monster in each room of the house. However, upon inspecting the images, Berlin artist Johan Potma has done a brilliant job to capture a mix of the classic, old-style horror with a beautiful warmth and humour that just does the opposite of chilling. He neatly infuses newspaper collage with pencil sketching and oil paint in subdued browns, reds and greens with the loopiest of monster characters you’ve ever seen. And take note of the little mouse in each spread… it holds some very important clues! In a charming rhyming text, the suspense is thrilling, leading us to a conclusion that is totally unexpected.
A Monster in my House is a delightfully playful romp abound with some pretty cool characters that will simply warm your soul.
With a nod to the legendary We’re Going a Bear Hunt comes this exasperatingly satisfying Beware the Deep Dark Forest by Sue Whiting and Annie White. Sure, there are creepy bits, with carnivorous plants and venomous snakes and all. But that doesn’t stop Rosie from being the heroine in this suspenseful adventure tale. Braving it out through the sublimely detailed and juicy scenes, the young girl sets off to rescue her pup Tinky through terrifying obstacles, including a bristly wolf, a deep ravine, and an enormous hairy-bellied, muddy troll. But rather than shy away and run like the children did with a certain shiny-eyed, wet-nosed Bear in another story, Rosie stands tall and defiant proving her saviour qualities. Then she can squelch back through the deep and dark and muddy forest back home.
Beware the Deep Dark Forest captures just the right amount of creepiness with the rewarding inclusion of excitement and adventure and a strong female character determined to get her hands dirty and tackle the tough stuff. This is how you face your fears for children from age four.
Following the long-lasting success of The Wrong Book, Nick Bland has come out with this latest cracker, The Unscary Book. It follows a boy, Nicholas Ickle, suitably costumed in an alien / skeleton attire, attempting to introduce us to his ‘scary’ book. So, prepare to be frightened! However, each page turn sends readers into fits of giggles rather than a state of alarm. Poor Nicholas is more terrified at the nice-ness and bright-ness of what is revealed behind all his pre-prepared props. ‘But ice-cream isn’t scary, it’s delicious!’, he shouts. ‘I’m trying to scare people, not make them hungry!’. The brilliantly colourful and energetic (non-scary) book continues to amuse our young audience as Nicholas becomes more frustrated with things that are NOT spooky, terrifying, frightening, or horrifying. And just when you think he’s finally won, well, you’ll just have to read it to find out!
The Unscary Book has plenty of animation and visuals to pore over, as well as fantastic language and comprehension elements to explore. Comedic bliss that all went wrong in just the right way. No preschooler will un-love this one!
Not so much scary, but more like stinky! Which is actually helpful for scaring those unwanted pests away. Tohby Riddle has got this story spot-on with his knack for harnessing the powers of philosophy with humour and an understanding of human complexities – although in the form of bugs and critters. Here Comes Stinkbug! is completely captivating with its brilliantly simplistic plot and dry wit about the unpleasantness of a smelly Stinkbug. None of the other crawlies want to be around Stinkbug because, well, he stinks. They try to raise the matter with him, but that makes him worse. Until he tries to charm the others with a lot of effort. However, it seems Stinkbug has attracted the wrong sort… Maybe it’s best to just be yourself.
The aptly hued garden tones and textures combined with a mixture of typed narrative and handwritten speech bubbles elicit a nature that is both endearingly casual and candid. Here Comes Stinkbug! empowers readers to consider embracing who you are, playing to your strengths and being wary of those who might take advantage of you. Children from age four will find this book utterly and proposterously reeking with the sweetest kind of comedy, bugging their parents for more.
Befittingly released on the tail end of our Southern Hemisphere autumn, The Perfect Leaf is a glorious explosion of colour and joy. Smothered in hues of honey-on-warm-toast, this book oozes the golden splendour of autumn on each page, promoting friendship, imagination and creativity in a way adults often forget about but children naturally embrace.
In a world where imperfections are deemed as failures rather than avenues for alternative thought and being, this book serves as an important reminder for us all to rejoice in the small things in life and look for the unique beauties within them. Plant’s multi perspective illustrations saturate each page, providing the perfect backdrop for his syrupy prose. The Perfect Leaf is a lovely vehicle for discussion about nature, seasons, perception, acceptance and friendship. And, while more autumn hued than spring, worthy of treasuring as the days warm.
Fleur Ferris has endorsed Lili Wilkinson’s latest novel After the Lights Go Out (Allen & Unwin) with the words, “A terrifying yet hope-filled story of disaster, deceit, love, sacrifice and survival.” These words could also apply to her new book Found (Penguin Random House Australia). Both Australian YA novels have intriguing titles and are classy examples of thrillers set outside country towns in hidden bunkers. They complement, and could be read alongside, each other.
After the Lights Go Out begins with an absolutely riveting scene where homeschooled Pru and her younger twin sisters Grace and Blythe have to escape from their house on an isolated property on the edge of the desert to a hidden underground bunker. Their father, a mining engineer, built it in secret and named it the Paddock after Winston Churchill’s WWII bunker. We learn quickly that he is paranoid, anticipates secret government conspiracies and that he is a doomsday prepper. This is a training drill.
Later, when the lights go out, the girls know that this is The Big One and they execute their exhaustive training and protocols such as Eat perishables and Exchange worthless currency for supplies. Tension ratchets because Pru is anaphylactic, there has been an explosion at the zinc mine and her father is missing, and the girls aren’t sure whether they should share their supplies with the townspeople of Jubilee.
Bear, Elizabeth’s father in Found is also highly protective and intimidating. He wouldn’t be happy about her kiss with Jonah but he doesn’t witness it – he’s been taken by unknown people in a white van. When her mother realises what has happened she whisks Beth out of town and through a cross-country route along channels across the paddocks to a bunker under a dry dam on their farm. This bunker is made from shipping containers and is as well-equipped as Pru’s. Their flight is also just as original and exciting.
The reason for Beth’s family’s dangerous plight is quickly revealed and the story then steams ahead with help from Jonah (who shares the narration) and Trent, a bad boy who may be trying to reform. The stakes are raised even higher when Beth’s mother is shot.
Both Fleur and Lili describe their very Australian rural settings with authenticity and care. Lili’s diverse characters range from a British Asian church minister to warm-skinned love interest Mateo who has two mums. Found is action-packed and heartbreaking and will be relished by all high school readers who love a fast-paced, filmic read.
Other highly recommended books by these authors include:
Leaf Stone Beetleis written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Gaye Chapman. Its publisher Dirt Lane Press is a ground-breaking new publishing company based in Orange, NSW. They believe in creating quality literature and are publishing books by some of Australia’s best, including Matt Ottley, Ursula Dubosarsky and Gaye Chapman.
Leaf Stone Beetle is a deeply-considered, poignant tale telling the interlinked stories of leaf, stone and beetle. The book’s physical small, almost square shape is ideal for small hands and, along with its understated cover and ink and woodcut style illustrations, signals that it belongs outside the usual. Thoughtful, perceptive readers of all ages will find Leaf Stone Beetle resonant.
Little leaf is the smallest and greenest leaf on the tree. When the other leaves change colour and are tussled away by the wind, it stays behind until swept by a gentle breeze to a stream. A stone lies on the bottom of the water and notices the changes in tree, weather and stars without expecting any transformation itself. When a storm moves the stone near the gnarled roots of the tree, it is terrified.
Beetle is different from the other beetles. Without haste she absorbs the minutiae of her world. “She looked at the tiny purple flowers. She looked at a slip of golden pollen that fluttered by in the wind”. The other beetles realise that a storm is coming and scurry away. Beetle then has no one to follow home.
The stories intersect when Beetle is kept safe by leaf and stone in completely natural ways. They are all accepting of their transient safety, recognising their ultimate role in nature’s cycle. With interest and without angst, readers glean that change is an inevitable part of life.
Leaf Stone Beetle is a unique construct of narrative science and story in words and illustrations. It is simple, yet philosophical and profound.
Some books, amongst many, written by Ursula Dubosarsky include Brindabella, The Blue Cat, The Golden Day, The Red Shoe, The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy.
Other books published by Dirt Lane Press include The Sorry Tale of Fox & Bear by Margrete Lamond, illustrated by Heather Valence. This wily, nuanced tale was shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary awards. The Dream Peddler by Irena Kobald and Christopher Nielsen is published this month.
Dimity Powell, author of evocatively and beautifully written (and illustrated by Nicky Johnston) titles including The Fix-It Man (my review and interview) and At the End of Holyrood Lane (my review) is here to discuss the creation of the latter in an insightful interview. Dimity is a well-established presenter in Australia and overseas and a strong advocate for literacy as a workshop leader and Books in Homes Role Model. As you would be aware from her Boomerang Books reviews, Dimity has a flair for exquisite language, and her picture books are conveyed no differently. I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk with you, Dim!
Congratulations, Dim, on your newest, very special picture book, once again collaborating with the gorgeous Nicky Johnston!
Thank you, Romi!
Following your successful partnership on The Fix-It Man, was this second joint venture something you always planned or just a lucky coincidence?
It is something we both secretly always wished for – we adore working together – but was definitely more of a case of fate than design. When EK Books accepted Holyrood Lane, the first person publisher, Anouska Jones and I thought of to illustrate this story was Nicky. Her style was just right for projecting the type of feeling this work required.
Your story deals with a delicate topic on domestic violence and emotional safety through the metaphorical torment of a thunderstorm. We know Nicky has the knack for capturing the deep and true essence of a story. How do you feel she portrayed your intention? Was there much collaboration throughout the process?
She portrayed every intention brilliantly! Nicky has a phenomenal initiative grasp of the story behind my stories. It’s as if she has direct access into my head and is able to see exactly how I’d love the characters and their emotions be displayed. This occurs with little to no consultation at all, which stuns me. I can only paint with words. Nicky’s illustrations do all the rest of the work.
What I really enjoyed about working with her on this project was when I happened to be in Melbourne last year (for the Victorian launch of The Fix-It Man) and was invited into her work studio. Oh, what a sublime experience that was. She had a query about a certain spread of Holyrood Lane and invited me to offer solutions. Together we nutted through the various ways of portraying the message. It was a turning point in the story for the main character, Flick and for me. I have never experienced such joy working so closely with such a divinely talented creator as Nicky. I know this is not everyone’s experience so I feel very blessed.
As mentioned, At the End of Holyrood Lane is an intensely moving and powerful tale that prevalently and superbly brings an awareness to its readers. What was your motivation in writing this story and what do you hope your audience gains from reading it?
I hope first and foremost readers engage with Flick’s story in a way that is meaningful for them and leave it feeling more hopeful and reflective. I was prompted to write this book after a meeting with a prominent children’s charity founder, who proclaimed more mainstream, accessible picture books addressing this subject matter were needed. I rose to the challenge. But in doing so, had to clear tall hurdles. Most mainstream publishers felt this type of story was ‘too hot to handle’. Fortunately, for me, EK Books had the foresight and determination to take it on with me.
Did the story go through many re-writes? How did you perfect the language and level of emotional impact for an audience that may be as young as three or four?
Oh, yes! After several knock backs, I set about restructuring Flick’s story into a more metaphoric one, one that would appeal to children worldwide regardless of their situation and whether or not they were victims of abuse. If it wasn’t for the initial reactions and the feedback received from those publishers, I would not have had the impetus to fight on so determinedly nor explore my story from a different perspective. Reasons to be grateful for rejections!
Each rewrite brought me closer to that sweet spot, where words and emotions sing in perfect harmony. To ensure that the words matched the emotional maturity of my audience I sought the help of my erstwhile writing critique buddy, Candice Lemon-Scott. Normally when we assess each other’s work, it only takes one or two feedback sessions to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular manuscript. Working on this one was like slogging it through the finals of a tennis match; there was much back and forwarding, but finally after about six rewrites and months of massaging, I knew I had a winner.
What is the significance of the title? Is there a hidden meaning behind it?
Yes and no. I love the term Holyrood, having noticed it on my travels and always thought I’d love to incorporate it into one of my books one day. After rewriting Holyrood Lane a few times under the old working title of Holding On, I realised I needed something better, stronger and more meaningful. Holyrood has various religious connections, appropriated to be an ancient Christian relic of the true cross and was the subject of veneration and pilgrimage in the middle ages. It is also the placename of several notable locations throughout Europe. I liked the subtle spiritual connotations and the sense of venturing away from the norm into a potentially better unknown that this title evokes.
The excitement of your book launch in Brisbane is imminent! What do you have planned for the big day?
The launch is taking place at the Brisbane Square Library, which is smack bang in the middle of Brisbane on the 23 September – a Sunday – so hopefully young and old will be able to make it. In addition to the usual cupcake consumption (they’ll look and taste gorgeous I can assure you!), there’ll be kids’ activities, special guest speakers from various domestic violence organisations, book readings, signings and a raffle with over $1,040 worth of terrific book prizes to be won. Kids’ Lit guru, Susanne Gervay is also travelling up from Sydney to launch this book with me for which I’m eternally grateful. This industry thrives on the support from people like her so I look forward to celebrating this with everyone at the launch.
You are hugely active in the literary community with workshops, festivals, school visits and the like. What other kinds of events and presentations have you been involved in recently? What value do you see for authors presenting to children?
I’ve been facilitating and conducting a few school holiday kids’ writing camps this year in addition to bookshop appearances and workshops. I really love these camps because on a personal level they consolidate what it means to write and how to do it well. They are also heaps of fun and put me in touch with tomorrow’s writers in a very real and exciting way. I’m not really teaching them to write; it feels more like a privileged position of mentoring; guiding and nurturing young raw talent is unspeakably satisfying.
One of the camps I facilitate is the Write Like An Author Camps designed by Brian Falkner. The immense value of having published active authors presenting to kids is that validation they gain from linking facts, tips, tricks and methods with real world experience. We (authors) are the living proof of what we do and say!
Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?
My TBR pile is tall enough to crush an elephant should it ever topple which it has, toppled that is, not killed any elephants, yet. My Christmas wish would be for more time to read AND write. I’m bubbling with new picture book ideas but have been writing in snatches since entering pre-publication mode for Holyrood Lane. There are a couple more publications on the horizon for 2019 and 2020 though, which makes me happier than a bear with a tub of honey ice cream.
Things are also ramping up on the SCBWI front as we prepare for the next Sydney-based Conference taking place in February 2019. Bookings for this immensely popular conference have just opened and are filling fast. I have the enviable task of coordinating a dynamic team of Roving Reporters again next year whose job is to cover every inch of the conference and it share with the world. It’s another time gobbling occupation but a thrilling one nonetheless.
Thanks so much for chatting with me, Dimity! And congratulations again on such a special book! 🙂
Assimilating history into a palatable, meaningful tale for today’s children is no easy thing. Get it wrong and you risk children shunning not only a potentially great read, but learning about periods of our past that explain the character of our future as a people and a nation. A situation of unquestionable adversity, yet adversity has many advantages – ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’ after all. Get it right, and children will embrace history with gusto and every ounce of the here and now vigour that defines childhood.
Sheryl Gwyther’s ability to immerse young readers into worlds of yesteryear with such a clear strong presence of today is exemplary. Her narrative slides along as alluringly as a sweet mountain brook, mesmerizing readers with plenty of action and emotion. Sweet Adversity is exactly the type of book my 12-year-old-self would have lapped up with unbridled zeal, especially as it acquaints children with the wondrous words of Shakespeare, some of which adult readers will connect with of course, but which provide a beautiful rich new seam of learning for tweens.
Believing in yourself when all else around you is in a state of upset and confusion is an emotion children are more than capable of recognising. Keeping the faith when adrift in turbulent seas is not only testing and difficult at times, it also determines your future perspectives on life. These next few books that touch on the importance of keeping the faith in dire times provide intense and touching lifelines to children (and adults) of all ages.
Marwood is more than adept at distilling emotions into moving verse novels. Attaching emotion and memories to physical things is something humans are adept at, as well. This story deftly portrays a young boy’s heart-felt attempt to retain and simultaneously farewell everything he holds dear in his life as he and his family prepare to sell up and leave their family farm.
Since the CBCA shortlist was announced I have been blogging about the 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week this month.
Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries (Scholastic Australia)
Boy is a morality tale about conflict and misunderstanding; understanding & communicating. It covers issues of deforestation, fighting and living in harmony and peace.
The trees on the mountain are destroyed by a powerful dragon, which illustratively evolves from threatening to cute during the tale.
People are blaming others and fighting. Boy can’t hear the fighting but perhaps he can understand the situation better than anyone because of his hearing loss.
Might the boy be unnamed because the book is aimed at all boys or for all children?
The digital illustrations are an unusual colour palette of mauve, brown and blue tones.
The endpapers could be copied and used for the card game ‘Happy Families’.
The cover is tactile, with the word ‘BOY’ written in sand. Boy communicates by drawing pictures in sand. Children could write an important question in the sand (sandpit or sandtray) e.g. ‘Why are you fighting?’ alongside a picture.
Children could further develop awareness and affirmation of the hearing impaired. This could include learning some Auslan and also saying ‘Thank you’ ‘with dancing hands’ like Boy does.
Children could look at the endpapers to see how the children at the start become adults by the end. They could draw themselves as a child and then as an adult, imagining a possible future.
Onset and rime in the rhyming text include ‘day/stay’ ‘small/all’ ‘yet/vet’ ‘far/star’ and ‘strife/life’ (others are more difficult for very young children).
Many countries are represented in the book e.g. Syria, China, Afghanistan and Italy.
The refrain, ‘How about you?’ could be answered by readers and they could also suggest which countries are not represented; which Australian capital cities and other places are mentioned and what are some missing Australian places?
Children could show or make flags for countries represented by students in the class or school.
The story settles into a rhythmic security to precede a chilling page:
Sadly, I’m a refugee –
I’m not Australian yet.
But if your country lets me in,
I’d love to be a vet.
Australia’s refugee situation is political, and far more complex that this, but I’m Australian Too will no doubt influence children’s attitudes towards refugees.
Rodney Loses It! by Michael Gerard Bauer, illustrated by Chrissie Krebs (Omnibus Books)
The title has a double meaning and the book is humorous in words and pictures.
It’s unusual that readers are able to see the missing pen and other objects, a mark of slapstick. Rodney Loses It! is slapstick in book form.
The illustrative style is cartoon-like; lively, bright and shows active body language.
The writing shows good word choice and maintains a successful rhythm.
Children could compare the endpapers, which are different.
Rodney loves drawing but loses his favourite pen, Penny.
The illustrations show the pen and other missing items.
The message or moral is that we can love doing things but not get around to them because of distractions.
In the story, Rodney could have used other colours but he was fixated on one pen and one colour so he missed out on doing what he loved.
Children could draw pictures like Rodney’s or make Rodney using play dough and LED lights for his eyes or pen.
Being the leader of the pack is not a role everyone relishes, especially if you are that shy kid who never kicks a goal or that odd sounding, looking kid whose school lunches never quite fit the norm. However it is often the most reluctant heroes that make the biggest impact and save the day. Being at odds with yourself and your perceived persona is the theme of these books, so beautifully summarised in their paradoxical titles. What I love about these two authors is their inherent ability to commentate messages of significant social weight with supreme wit and humor. It’s like feeding kids sausage rolls made of brussel sprouts.
Raymond is stuck in a school with a reputation grubbier than a two-year-old’s left hand and choked with bullies. The best way he knows of fighting these realities is not to fight at all. Raymond is king of fading into the background especially when it comes to his friendship with best mate, Zain Afrani.
Zain is a soccer nut and self-confessed extrovert whom has a deep affinity for Raymond. He likes to flash his brash approach to bullying about much to the consternation of Raymond who happily gives up the spotlight to Zain whenever he’s around. Constant self-depreciation just about convinces Raymond that he’ll never amount to anything of much significance, which he is sort of all right with until their new principal blows his social-circumvention cover by appointing him as one of the new school prefects.
Raymond is as shocked as the rest of the school but reluctantly assumes the role along with a kooky cast of radically differing kids. Under the calm, consistent leadership of Raymond, this eclectic team not only manages to drag Barryjong Primary School out of its bad-rep quagmire by winning the hearts and minds of the students and faculty alike but while doing so, raises enough money for new air conditioners for every classroom.
I have been posting about the CBCA 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week in August.
This picture book is imaginative and exciting. It is also humorous, for example the teacher’s funny but apt name – “Mrs Majestic-Jones”; Ruby Lee is the best at announcing “Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee!” – an unusual gift; and tactful George Papadopoulos even suggests that Ruby Lee be quiet and still but then she even loses him.
Ruby Lee loves helping. Young readers could compare and contrast her with helpful Debra-Jo in the Little Lunch TV series and books.
The letters ‘P‘ and ‘H’ could be taught or reinforced. Ruby Lee loves pockets, peaches, puddles and polka dots. (P)
She loves humming and hopping and handstands at night. (H)
Vocabulary is interesting and extending, e.g. hark, intrepid, valiant, ingenious.
The illustrations are in a cartoon manga style where the heads are large in proportion to bodies and the eyes are big and exaggerated. Children could view online how-to-draw tutorials and construct their own characters in this style. They could colour them using the colours in the book.
Children could act out some of the things Ruby Lee does; collect things she loves and invent fictitious creatures like she does.
Gilbert the penguin falls into another world (almost like into a rabbit hole) – the ocean. He must find where’s he comfortable, at home and can fly.
It is a fictional narrative but also an accessible information book, particularly about penguins, without being forced. It utilises many verbs and active language: waddled, flapped, waddled and flapped; slipped, tripped, stumbled; slipping Spinning Stumbling Tumbling; tumbled, bubbled and sank.
The book’s message is that everyone is different and everyone must find their own strengths.
Before reading, children could suggest what a second sky might be.
Children could make a model of Gilbert and possibly one that moves using rubber bands.
This is a clever, funny book for babies and those who read to them. It is carefully structured in 2 parts: firstly, where the animals are reported lost; and then when they reappear in the park.
The book begins with observations of baby noises, which people mistake for animal noises. There are carefully placed visual clues that prompt the baby to make an appropriate noise e.g. stripy sleep suit, on rocking horse.
Less than a week ago, notable Aussie author / illustrator and prodigious writer for children, Rebecca Lim, release her latest action-packed middle grade series, Children of the Dragon. Book One: The Relic of the Blue Dragon promises magic, mystery and martial arts and I know for one already has young primary aged readers perched avidly on the edge of their seats.
Today we welcome Rebecca to the draft table to share a bit more about what drives her to write what she does and reveal her motivation behind Relic.
Florette written & illustrated by Anna Walker (Penguin Random House Australia)
Mae moves to a new home, an apartment. She is sick of all the packing boxes but draws on many of them, particularly drawing daisies. She misses gathering things for her treasure jar. After going to the park, she finds a forest inside a florist but it is closed. A ‘stalk of green [is] peeping through a gap … a piece of forest’. It becomes a treasure for her jar. She goes on to grow a plant for her new (shared) garden.
Themes include moving home; making new friends; the importance of greenery, trees, gardens; and natural and built environments.
Children could compare and contrast the endpapers (there are different creatures in each).
They could consider the meaning of Florette and related words such as florist and forest.
Garden They could make a terrarium or a green wall – a vertical garden or area covered in ivy or vines, dotted with flowers including daisies, model toadstools, other foliage and small model or toy creatures e.g. rabbit, turtle, bird, ladybird.
Children could do some of what Mae does:
Decorate treasure jars and find precious items to fill them, perhaps a plant like Mae’s
Chalk drawings on asphalt or cardboard boxes
Set up a picnic
Use pebbles to make daisies
Mae’s movements could lead to making a story map – on paper, cardboard, or using an app.
Other books by Anna Walker include Today we have no Plans, Go Go & the Silver Shoes, Peggy, Starting School and Mr Huff.
Mum went to buy gumboots but she returned with a rabbit called Gumboots. His attributes are described positively at the start but the illustrations show otherwise
This is a cumulative tale with people joining in like in Pamela Allen’s Alexander’s Outing. There’s even a nod to the fountain of that book.
Humour Examples of humour include Gumboots who doesn’t stop to chat with anyone while escaping; the mother chasing him in towel; and the illustrations that sometimes tell a different story.
Illustrations Media: watercolour, pencil and oil paint
Freya Blackwood uses her signature spotted clothes and domestic details e.g. an ironing board. Red is used as a ‘splash’ colour and there is a worm’s eye view of the underground tunnel.
Themes community; simple outdoor pleasures; friends (even for rabbits); and how rabbits multiply.
Setting The creek scene is a peaceful interlude, a moment in time, shown by a bird’s eye view. ‘Mrs Finkel’s forehead uncrinkles’ there. The trees are described as a simile: ‘They are like giants with their long legs stuck in the ground.’
The endpapers of this picture book are like a board game, which children could play on.
Children could look at a doll’s house where the front wall is removed. They could make a cutaway diagram (where some of surface is removed to look inside) showing the inside of the house and tunnel (as in the last double page spread). Or they could make a model inside a shoebox lying on its side.
This tale is taken from the ballad of Swan Lake, a tragic love story of a princess transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer. The women are swans by day and humans by night. The princess plans to meet the prince at midnight at the ball. The sorcerer’s daughter is disguised as the Swan Queen and the prince chooses her as his bride.
The book is described as passion, betrayal and heartbreak in the Murray-Darling. Children may be able to identify the region from images of the area and the book.
The book is structured/played in III Acts, like the ballet. The written text is followed by pages of illustrations.
Children could listen to some of the ballet music e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Theme; Saint-Saens’ The Dying Swan.
Ballet in pictures They could view some of the ballet.
Visual Literacy The colours are mainly monochromic, with red as a splash (feature) colour.
Camera angles show some variety: from underneath – red queen; from above – fleeing girl.
There are close-ups of the swan face and neck; black bird of prey.
Texture Children could emulate the texture through printmaking using leaves and sticks.
This picture book is Carole Wilkinson’s memoir of immigrating from Britain to Australia as part of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, so it could also be regarded as an information book. Detail is shown to give verisimilitude.
Migration Carole Wilkinson packed her 101 glass animals and even tried to pack soil to take to Australia. Imagining they are migrating, children could be asked what treasured possessions they would take.
Compare/contrast Children could compare and contrast migration in the 1950s and 1960s with other ways of migrating to Australia in the past and present. They could use Popplet (a mind mapping tool http://popplet.com/ ) to organise their ideas.
Poem Carole Wilkinson wrote a poem about her empty house. Children could write a similar poem, including their circumstances and their emotions if leaving home.
Illustrator Liz Anelli says: ‘So much of her (Carole Wilkinson’s) tale rung true with my own journey and made it a delight to delve into. I loved researching details for the cruise ship they travelled on and especially enjoyed being able to ‘dress’ the characters in Anelli fabrics, sourced from my grandparents’ photo album.’
Some of her illustrations pay homage to John Brack’s paintings in style & colour and some of her other books are One Photo and Desert Lake.
Mopoke is structured using black and white alternating pages. The pages are well composed with the mopoke carefully positioned on each. The style is static, with a picture of mopoke in different poses. This style can also be seen in Sandcastle by the author/illustrator; and the Crichton shortlisted, I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon.
Humour appears throughout Mopoke e.g. ‘This is a wombat.’
The book can also be dark e.g. ‘Nopoke’, where both pages are black.
Children could perform the text as a performance poem (see the work of Sollie Raphael, teen Oz Slam Poetry champion, who has a book, Limelight).
Safe styrofoam printing (like lino cuts) Children could select one of the mopoke pictures or design their own to make a printing tool. They could cut the rim off a styrofoam plate; etch the mopoke shape using a blunt pencil, pen or stick; etch some texture; add paint; place the paper on top and press.
Poster Making The bold, striking illustrations reflect current trends in graphic design so children could make a poster of a mopoke in this style.
There’s an interesting relationship between Grandad and (possum-like but actual cat) Iggy. Iggy doesn’t want to emulate Grandad; he seems more aware, while Grandad often seems oblivious to what they see in the bush.
The author/illustrator has a detailed eye for natural bush sights and sounds such as plants, animals and birds and silhouettes and shadows are executed in a light colour. The style is reminiscent of Roland Harvey.
The bushland setting is an integral part of A Walk in the Bush. To enable children to experience this, teachers or parents could find an area where there is some bush. It may be part of a State Forest, nearby bushland or a bushy area within a local park or the school playground.
Sensory Wheel Students look, listen and use other senses to note the sounds, sights and other features of the bush e.g. eucalyptus leaves to crush and scribbly marks on trees. They could record sights, sounds, smells, feel/touch, taste (where safe) on a sensory wheel.
Children could create literary texts by selecting one of the senses to focus on. They write a brief sensory description of the bush using language generated from their experiences in the bush.
They could write this description onto a piece of paperbark (if accessible without causing damage to trees) or onto recycled paper or wrapping or scrapbooking paper that emulates the colour, content or texture of the description. (NB paperbark is also available from some kitchen suppliers)
Soundscape While in the bush, could listen to and identify bush sounds.
They create then a soundscape by listing five of the sounds and recording these. The free recording tool Audacity could be downloaded to create soundscapes http://www.audacityteam.org/download/.
You’re most welcome and thanks so much for having me.
What is your background and where are you based?
I’m based in Melbourne. I lived in Greece as a child but came to Australia as a non-English speaking migrant at around eight years old.
My work background is mostly journalism. I was a reporter at various newspapers (five years at the Herald Sun) and then a communications strategist for the union movement for five years. Since having kids I have had to take a step back from that sort of high-octane work.
How involved in the YA literary community are you?
I first became aware of the LoveOZYA community through author Nicole Hayes. I was a member of her writing group and as my manuscript progressed she spoke to me about where she thought it might fit and how wonderful and supportive people were.
I love reading YA, especially Australian YA, and following other writer’s journey on social media. I’ve found the LoveOZYA community inspiring and vibrant. I love being a part of it. There’s a real effort to support each other and this makes the sometimes insecure life of a writer easier. We celebrate each other’s wins and commiserate with difficulties.
Stone Girl (Penguin Random House) is a searing, unforgettable story. Could you tell us about the protagonist Sophie and the symbol of a ‘stone girl’?
As I write my second novel I realize that I’m interested in the triggers and experiences in life that change as. What needs to happen to transform a person from one thing to another? As a journalist, reporting straight news, I would be stunned by the things people did and wonder how they grew from a kid into this adult. What forms their decision making and choices?
Stone Girl follows Sophie’s life from 12 to 16 years old as she becomes someone society typically judges, despises and ultimately dismisses. The persona of Stone Girl is her survival mechanism in a world where there’s no one to rely upon but herself. Sophie soon comprehends her place and makes a number of decisions about who and how she must be in response. It’s about resilience. She toughens up, she becomes Stone Girl, and this is both positive and negative.
Hardening herself, especially against adults, serves to both protect her and isolate her because stony self-preservation cuts both ways. She doesn’t trust anyone. Doesn’t ask for help even though she often desperately needs it. Her Stone Girl persona is what she uses to hide her vulnerability. When she lifts her chin against the world then she can shut out the things that have happened to her. She uses her anger to protect her. But in the end, it’s what she does with the Stone Girl facade that makes this a story of redemption.
Most of us have a mask we wear in order to fit in and protect ourselves. It just happens that Sophie has to wear hers 24 hours a day.
Could you tell us about some significant other characters?
Gwen is one of my favourites. Girlfriends have been the backbone to my life. They’ve saved me many times over, from my sister to the besties I’ve known over the years. I love the closeness and trust that grows between some women. The friendships in the homes Sophie moves through are formed as fast as they must be abandoned but in Gwen, Sophie finds a true ally. It’s a friendship that underscores everything else. It doesn’t just disappear because there’s a love interest.
I think of it like an old western when there’s a shoot-out and friends protect themselves by standing back to back. Gwen and Sophie bond in the knowledge that, despite appearances, adults actually have no idea what they’re doing.
Spiral came to me when I was at the Varuna’s Writer’s House. I knew Sophie needed someone, possibly a love interest, but I couldn’t figure out who would be strong enough break through to her.
Then, as I strolled through Katoomba, Spiral’s form became clear. I saw what he looked like, his motivations and that, like Sophie, in a world of broken promises, he too needed someone to trust.
Writing about Spiral was fun, especially at first. He’s gorgeous! A fiery and enigmatic character that I was drawn to completely – his name serving as prophesy.
I’ve always loved books with gritty honest characters that both shock and charm and I try to write this way.
How did you create such authentic experiences in the homes Sophie had to live in and her spiral into such terrible situations?
This is fictional novel but I have borrowed heavily from my time as a teen growing up in group homes.
I tried to write the real story but felt unable to. Fiction freed me up and images and events appeared quite clearly to me; the rooms, the feelings, the flavor of being of being someone who lived that way. I put myself easily into Sophie’s shoes.
When I lived in the homes there were many younger kids and I’ve thought about them so often since. Sophie is how I imagined one life.
You’ve made drug-taking very appealing at times, e.g. chapter 22? How did you weigh up the risk of including this?
The truth is that before drugs destroy you, they feel good. That’s the trick. That’s why people keep taking them. If I pretended they were terrible all the way though then this would not be the realistic trajectory of addiction. It could be dismissed and then this would not be a true cautionary tale. Protectionism is not helpful for most teens, especially when you consider the type of world we live in right now.
How important is Sophie’s racial background to the story?
Her racial background and her estrangement from her Greek family contribute to her feeling of dislocation. She doesn’t belong there. She has no family here. She must let go of the past and carve her own way through the world.
Like Sophie, I grew up in Greece and left family behind. My Greek heritage and the memories of leaving my first home have significantly contributed to who I am today and I found it quite cathartic to include this in Sophie’s life.
What does she learn about family and others?
When she first goes into the homes Sophie is hopeful that she will once again find family, either with a social worker or with her Baba. However this is not to be. Sophie soon understands that in a world where the only constant is change, she can only rely on herself.
With the kids in the homes there’s a unique bond that makes them a kind of family – albeit temporary.
Could you explain what turned her situation around towards the end of the novel – and why have you chosen this form of redemption?
The fight to survive that carried Sophie through is her saving grace. I actually didn’t know how it was going to end until three or four drafts in. I just kept thinking, this is not the story of a victim. And finally I realized what had to happen.
Kids in care, people with addictions and the homeless are either viewed with pity or fear and I wanted to show how we should never underestimate anyone. People are amazing! They want to survive and many can achieve much given a chance.
You thank God in the Acknowledgements. Why have you done this?
Doing something you love, answering a calling to the self, which is what writing feels like to me, can mean many sacrifices in other areas of life. Financial, physical, mental; you turn yourself inside out. I found myself praying more. Especially after writing I feel quite close to ‘God’. This isn’t in a religious way but more a universal spiritual one.
Who would you particularly like to see read your novel?
Everyone. I need to fund my next novel.
But seriously, I guess if I was choosing readers based on getting the message across then I’d hope people from the world that deals with kids like these. Social workers, kids in care, etc.
I’ve also loved the responses I’ve received from those who are surprised about this world. I would like there to be a common understanding about the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of kids live this way right now in Australia. A public conversation about kids in care could finally bring change to this difficult, misunderstood and largely ignored section of Australian society. That, for me, would be a dream come true. I’d love to know that others wouldn’t feel the way I did when I was living in government care in the early 1990s.
Have you already had any memorable responses from readers to Stone Girl?
A redit post my husband put up went viral and I was shocked and amazed by the response. Social workers, lawyers, ex homes and foster kids from around the world commented and it solidified what I had always suspected. Despite the fact we don’t often acknowledge the plight of kids without parents, the situation matters to many. It’s a private pain. Or a job they really care about. Or they don’t know how to help someone… Some of them contacted me after reading Stone Girl, sending quite heartfelt messages. As an author, this is the best feeling in the world.
Putting aside the issue of kids in care, I wrote this book because gritty subjects, love at ‘the edge of a cliff’, characters living dangerously is what I find interesting to read. I’ve been floored by the generous reviews so far, especially those where people say they couldn’t stop reading. The number one reason for writing a fictional book has to be entertainment, doesn’t it?
This was the first review I received and I remember the relief I felt. Rob at Lamont Books really got what Stone Girl was about.
Wow! This is a must read novel for older teens, but a word of caution – it is definitely a YA title aimed at teens 15 years and older.
It took me back to my school days reading Go Ask Alice, which I found totally confronting, but at the same time an educational and inspirational cautionary tale. Stone Girl is certainly that as it takes us on Sophie’s downhill journey through institutional care as a ward of the state from when she is 12 until she is 16.
It is written with a real understanding and depth of character, as it is inspired by the real life experiences of the debut author, journalist Eleni Hale. Many dark topics are covered including death, poverty, heartbreak and substance dependence. But shining through the story is identity, survival, resilience and ultimately a coming of age empowerment.
I will not give the story away but suffice to say you cannot help but be swept along by the incredible Sophie, as the world continues serving up crap to her. She often stumbles and is so very nearly broken, but we continue to hold out hope for her throughout the story.
Stone Girl will change the way you look at the homeless, and hopefully enlighten young minds as to the plight of wards of the state.
This is a brilliant debut, but as it does contain extreme language, mature themes and substance abuse, it is suited to older teens, 15 years and up.
How can we protect young people and help if we encounter someone in a situation like Sophie’s or someone at risk?
From memory and for reasons I can’t really explain, kids in care seemed to be treated differently, like no-hopers. I don’t know if it was the way we dressed or looked. Maybe we were too loud or other times we seemed too quiet and uncommunicative. I just know that people changed towards you once they knew you were a kid who lived like that. From cops, to teachers, to people on the street, I was often hyper-aware of being a ‘lesser other’.
So in terms of talking to them in an encounter, simply show respect even if you don’t understand them, hold your judgment before you really know them (perhaps after as well) and don’t assume the worst.
Also important is to support the organizations set up to help them such as the ‘Make It 21’ campaign that seeks to extend support from 18 years old to 21. This could lessen the shocking number of government kids who end up homeless, drug addicted and/or mentally ill.
It’s really hard to get through to someone like Sophie once they hardened up. They guard strictly against pity and judgment. The communication channels are nearly closed. Improving their experiences in the ‘system’ is obviously an important way to avoid their slide into the margins of society.
I don’t have all the answers for this – I don’t think anyone does – but talking about it publically is a good start. Don’t let their lives be our society’s dirty secret any longer. Let their issues matter the same way that other’s kid’s problems are discussed regularly in public forums.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing the sequel to Stone Girl. What happens after you leave the home system and your support is cut off? What will Sophie do now that she is out in the world and responsible for herself in every way? She has no family and must scrape together the money she needs to live. Where will this new fight for survival lead her?
This book is structured chronologically with a focus on inventors and aviators we’ve heard of including Lawrence Hargrave, Nancy Bird, Charles Kingsford Smith, Rev John Flynn of the Flying Dr Service; and those we may not have heard of such as Dr William Bland (who appeared before Hargrave) in the 1850s.
The structure and writing styles provide variety: words in the aviators’ voices; 3 Amazing Facts about most aviators; and ‘Did You Know?’ columns. The book acknowledges difficulties for women in the past who wished to fly.
Some interesting information from the book:
George Taylor In 1909 he flew a glider from Narrabeen, NSW. His wife Florence also flew, tucking her long skirts into her bloomers. At age ten Taylor wrote an essay, ‘The Future of Flying Machines in Australia’. He was a cartoonist and suffered from epilepsy.
Bert Hinkler In 1921 he flew the nine hours from Sydney to Bundaberg wearing a suit and tie. His RAF flying instructor was Cpt W.E. Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.
Like Lawrence Hargrave, children could make box kites. The ‘e-how’ website could be helpful. It suggests using dowel, bendy straws and a plastic/vinyl tablecloth. https://www.ehow.com/how_4882168_make-box-kites.html Alternatively they could make gliders or paper planes.
Decorative Patterning is used for sections such as J is for Jail and N is for Nurture. Children could select an alternative description for one of the letters e.g. C is for Convicts (instead of Cook) and create decorative patterning in Bern Emmerichs’ style.
Like last year’s shortlisted book by this author, Gigantic Book of Genes, this is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of left and right with clear examples for children to understand.
It includes a clever idea where children hold their hands out in front and touch their thumbs. Their left hand forms an L shape (helping them remember which hand is left).
The author recognises that it is easy to mix up left and right and looks at situations where right may connote good and left signify weak or bad. For example, in Albania it has been a crime to be left-handed.
It features symmetry, spirals, clockwise and anticlockwise, and the compass.
The author includes incredible information, such as ‘Nearly all kangaroos are left-handed… Parrots use their left feet to pick up food.’ ‘Female cats tend to be right-handed, and male cats … left’. And when driving, island nations tend to drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact, so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her.
I know from comments by a young family that this tactile, interactive book about microbiology has great appeal. The title is provocative – tempting and almost urging children to lick the book. Min the microbe guides the reader through the informative content, which is well designed with bright comic style illustrations and high-quality photographs. The information is clever, irreverent and quirky. It probably reflects the creators – a team consisting of writer Idan (quiet loud thoughts), Julian (who likes comics and toast) and Linnea, the scientist.
Children could consider, ‘Where will you take Min tomorrow?’ Like the book, they could take Min on a journey using a mix of photographic backgrounds, cartoon characters and written text.
Hygiene is taught and encouraged using reverse psychology. Teachers and parents may use the book to reinforce good hygiene (without losing the text’s inherent appeal).
Koala by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Walker Books)
Koala is most appropriate for the very young. It traces the experiences of a young koala achieving independence.
The writing is both literary and factual: providing parallel texts which are particularly useful for children who prefer one style over the other and to expose readers to both forms. The illustrations are distinctive for their rounded lines and shapes.
Koala is part of Walker Books’ excellent ‘Nature Storybooks’ series. Others include Claire Saxby’s Big Red Kangaroo, Emu and Dingo; and Sue Whiting’s Platypus. This could also be a good opportunity to introduce the classic Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall.
The Big Book of Antarctica by Charles Hope (Wild Dog Books)
This is another big, glossy production from Wild Dog Books. The photos are exceptional. There is minimal written text and key words are shown in large coloured font.
Antarctica is studied in the Australian curriculum and this book covers explorers, scientists, transport, ice, plants (moss, algae, plankton), and much about animals and birds, e.g. giant petrels who vomit on anything they think is a threat (page 37). Climate change and global warming also feature (page 60)
Ice is looked at on page 22. There are many experiments about ice in other books and online to extend this subject.
Laughter, mishaps, laughing at mishaps; these are the grist of good picture books. Throw in a few feathered birds, the odd duck and a penguin or two and you have the makings of hours of picture book fun pre-schoolers and avian lovers everywhere are sure to get in a flap about.
McKinlay’s predilection for waddling birds works a treat in this re-release paperback about an exciting new addition down at the zoo. Every animal is a-twitter and a-flutter because the penguins are coming only trouble is no one is exactly certain what a penguin is. Supremely illustrated pages depict each animal’s supposition of these new-comers, each description becoming more implausible and exaggerated than the last until even our accepted idea of a penguin is altered from boring little black and white bird to Hawaiian shirt wearing, pizza gobbling, party animal. The Zookeeper tries to set the record straight, supplying his charges and readers with sensible genuine penguin facts only to be ultimately comically upstaged. Oceans of fun and colour with plenty of apt facts and enough animal imagery to fill a real life zoo.
Sometimes curiosity can land you in trouble. But it is the being brave part that will ultimately lead to triumph. These few picture books show children that exploration is a healthy thing to help overcome fear or uncertainty. And they are a ‘hole’ lot of fun, too!
Be sure to also check out Dimity’s great list of Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts.
Squirrel starts the line up of dangling animals overly curious about a long-drop hole that lies in the middle of the track. Teetering on the edge of total panic about the presumed formidable, black-holed monster within, Squirrel cries out for help, only to drag Ostrich and three chattering monkeys into the lightly-suspended quandary. A brave and clever field mouse makes the call, ensuing a deep suspension of baited breath amongst characters and readers alike. Luckily, the ‘monster’ isn’t interested in animals for tea.
Brown’s delightful rhyming couplets come with a sensory feast of emotive and visual language to fill you with empathy, wonder, and even a few giggles. The illustrations by Lucia Masciullo are whimsical and witty in the face of perceived danger. The Hole is beautifully alluring, brilliantly enlightening and wonderfully heartwarming for children from age three.
I love the play on reality and literal meanings behind this story of rehoming a lost hole. Charlie doesn’t realise that picking up a hole and putting it in his pocket, and backpack, are the worst places to have a hole. So he boldly sets off to find it a new owner. Young readers will already be amused at the thought, ‘you can’t pick up a hole!’, and now they are left to wonder who would want it and how it could possibly be useful. Well, Charlie greets a whole lot of people who are clearly NOT interested in the hole, such as the arachnid and reptile store owner, the boat builder, the seamstress, gardener, and doughnut maker. So, who is?
Canby’s energetic, sharp and unconventional narrative paired with her cartoonish, fluid illustrations complete the story that allow children to open their minds to the absurd, and also assess some very real and practical concepts. The Hole Story makes for great discussion and learning opportunities, as well as a fun and wacky adventure of finding a place to belong.
Curiosity did not get the cat, in this case, because Scaredy Cat, as the name suggests, is too scared to face even the meekest of things. A little girl’s four-legged friend shies away from sight in every scene, only to reveal its white, fluffy paws and tail in a terrified, obscure stupor. Gallagher’s delectable repetitive rhyme cajoles us along chasing poor Scaredy Cat through bees, towering trees and Granny’s super-duper sneeze. Hoses, wandering noses and costumed kids, striking poses. Each verse beginning with, ‘Have you seen my Scaredy Cat? He’s afraid of this and afraid of that!’, eventually leads us to the climax where a proud, flexing little girl claims her gallantry and saves the day. Now the girl has revealed her true and brave identity, will Scaredy Cat?
With Tortop’s ever-gorgeous, enticing and infectious artwork charging with colour and energy, it would be no surprise if Scaredy Cat is chosen to play his hiding game over and over again. Preschoolers will adore this romping tale of friendship, bravery, pets and love.
More information on this and the other shortlisted books will be available soon on an online CBCA platform.
Ideas for the English Classroom
Four types of writing are used in the novel 1. Writing in the voice of each protagonist 2. Wellness Journal entries (italics) (Students could analyse differences in voice from both these types of writing) 3. Wellness Worksheets 4. PSST – the source of cyber bullying
Wellness Journals give further insight into the three protagonists as they describe how they’re feeling; as well as what they think about the other girls. This gives another perspective. Read a selection of these entries.
Students write three journal entries from the point of view of Iris, Clem’s twin sister, or another character.
Wellness Worksheets Complete one of these e.g. self-esteem scale, page 147; Lou Reed’s song Perfect Day page 218; letter to future self, page 428.
Read other novels by these authors.
The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The Secret Science of Magic was longlisted for the Indies awards. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.
This novel has an equally strong male and female voice.
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Magic Joshua is a magician who is trying to grain Sophia’s attention. Sleight of hand and, particularly, timing are the magician’s most important tools.
Students could try to replicate some of Joshua’s magic tricks in reality or using technology.
Playing-card optical illusions, pages 30, 40
Igniting a paper rose, page 82
Showing a Doctor Who Christmas special on a vintage movie projector, page 110
These tricks culminate in an illusion at school, where Joshua makes the school disappear.
Use Plotagraph (which creates a moving image from a single still graphic image) in Adobe Photoshop or other tools to demonstrate this or another magic trick.
Drama Sophia is forced to take Drama. The class studies All’s Well that Ends Well, page 74 – a prescient play title for this novel. Read the play.
Read other novels by Melissa Keil: Life in Outer Space and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl
Several places are mentioned to show that this novel is set in Sydney, including ‘Sydney eats’, page 106, a group that feed the homeless. Meredith also helps them by running a Street Library, pages 69,121,222.
Meredith believes: ‘Books can save anyone. If they’re the right ones.’ page 164
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Poems for each other Nola gives a poem to Tiny and vice versa. Read Nola’s poem for Tiny, page 97, and Tiny’s poem for Nola, page 133. In pairs, students write poems to give each other.
Writing Group The writing group at the homeless shelter tries the following activities, which students could do also.
Writing a group story using the Dada, Surrealist technique where each person writes a line and passes it on to the next person to write the next line to see where the story goes, page 108.
Use a ‘real-life media story you pick out to start your own story … Write it as a sequel, action adventure, poem, dialogue’, page 110. Only allow 20 minutes max.
Open Mic Night: Eddie performs his poem ‘Clean’ about his father’s death, pages 171,177. Students could write and perform their work, including poems, at an open mic night or similar event. (Read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo about a girl who writes heartfelt poetry and performs at a poetry slam.)
The fact that all of this year’s CBCA shortlisted Older Reader novels are written by women reflects who is currently writing Australian YA. As a consequence, many of the novels have female protagonists, including Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl. However, debut novelist Charlie Archbold (who is female) has written Mallee Boys, a novel that epitomises masculinity.
-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
Ballad for a Mad Girl has been longlisted for a Gold Inky Award—(Australian titles) and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature: Young Adult category and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in 2018.
It is Vikki Wakefield’s fourth novel, a gothic Australian thriller, a murder ballad and lament in prose. It explores the effect of grief and loss on Grace, who is trying to mask her vulnerability.
It walks a tightrope – literally and psychologically as it balances the genres of contemporary realism with elements from the supernatural ghost tale.
Grace is the “mad girl” of the title but her madness springs perhaps from her struggle with anger and grief rather than mental illness; although the barriers may be permeable.
At times the writing is crystalline to show the shattered mirror-pricks of Grace’s rage; as well as sharp images of birds: living swallows butted against tiny bird sketches. Grace’s elusive childhood “dandelion” dreams as well as echoes from a past generation are sculpted into an aching ballad of melancholy and terror. The past and present also ultimately lay the path to a “bright and unbreakable” future with some signs of hope and grace.
Film An early scene where extreme prankster, Grace Foley, freezes at the pipe challenge crossing over the quarry at night is a pivotal scene in Ballad of a Mad Girl. It sets the confronting, haunting tone.
In small groups, students film a re-enactment of Noah, private school poster boy, breaking Grace’s record as he crosses the pipe over the quarry and then Grace crossing after him and freezing when she is distracted by thoughts of Hannah Holt – rumoured to have been killed by William Dean and buried in the gully below. Headlights are dimmed and stones are thrown.
Film Grace’s friends and the onlookers in their private and public-school factions.
Use different camera angles, particularly to give the illusion of the pipe over a height. NB don’t use a pipe high above the ground.
Film an establishing shot; the camera can scan characters and show close-ups of their facial expressions.
Use filters to create a night-time setting and lights to emulate the headlights. Show them dimming when Grace crosses. Include sound effects.
Ballad Students could write a ballad or murder ballad (lyrics that tell the story of a murder).
Not many readers seemed to be aware of this book until it was CBCA shortlisted. Feedback has since been very favourable.
It is set in the Murray Mallee area of South Australia and told by two brothers. Sandy is fifteen and a good student although dreamy. In an early scene, slapstick and terror merge when he’s almost drowned by a swollen dead cow. His older brother Red has left school and seems suited to life on the farm with his dog, Ringer. He is suffering from guilt, believing he contributed to the death of their mother.
Masculinity is explored with sensitivity and credibility, particularly relationships between father and sons. The author writes with warmth and humour and shows that rural men can be gentle and compassionate.
Mallee men/Mallee wood Mallee men are described as mallee wood. They are ‘men from any time … like stumpy mallee trees: nuggetty and resilient. A heritage of hard work’ (page 100)
Rhopalic Verse After reading about Mallee males, students write rhopalic verse to explore their characteristics of strength and endurance with mallee wood. In rhopalic verse, each word in a line has 1 more syllable than in the prior word e.g. ‘to avert dangerous situations’. The poem could be quite short, perhaps 5 lines, each with 4 words per line. (This is guide only.)
Country & City podcast Differences between life in the country and city are mentioned in the novel: e.g. in the country old and young mix. In the city ‘people stick to their age bracket’, page 119; in the country – people make inventions, page 124.
Students could use a microphone and smart phone to make a 1-episode podcast about the differences between country and city.
Bren MacDibble/Cally Black has blasted onto the Australian literary scene for youth with How to Bee for younger readers and In the Dark Spaces for YA. She is a fresh, authoritative talent; writing outside the mould.
-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)
How to Bee won the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & was shortlisted for the Griffith University Children’s Book Award (Qld) and Children’s Literature Award – Adelaide Festival Awards. Read a synopsis and the NSWPLA judges’ report here.
The novel circles around the importance of bees, children and community. The title is a pun with a double meaning. Some of the characters’ names reflect the almost-idyllic country setting where the story begins: Peony, Magnolia, Applejoy, Pomegranate …
The writing is sensory where it describes white cockatoos, fruit, a ‘face puckered like a burr on a tree trunk’ and Peony’s flawed Ma as a lemon, ‘You think it’s gotta be good coz it’s so big and has perfect skin but when you cut it in half you find out its skin is so thick there’s just a tiny bit of pulp inside and that it just ain’t got enough juice to go around’.
Students could write about other characters or people in their own families, describing them as fruit in lyrical style.
Themes & Issues
Domestic violence, making this novel most appropriate for mature, older children.
Wealth, deriving not from money but from loving people and family and living in community – a concern also of In the Dark Spaces
Hive/bees/pollination – another concern of In the Dark Spaces
Families or schools could investigate setting up a bee hive, particularly with native stingless bees. Compare the taste of commercially and local, unrefined and unheated honey.
Cycles There are a range of cycles within the tale: ‘the farm’s full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit … all overlapping circles.’; seasons, places (from which characters leave and return); and a death is replaced by a new baby.
Concrete Poetry: Circle Shape Poem Children could write a Circle Shape poem about one of these or another cycle, where each line has an extra word, then decreases to make a circle shape.
In the Dark Spaces by Cally Black (Hardie Grant Egmont)
In the Dark Spaces has been longlisted for the Inkies award, highly commended by the Victorian Premiers Literary Prize, won an Aurealis Award, has been shortlisted for the Ditmars and shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premiers Awards,
It is a sci-fi thriller/ hostage drama set in future space. Tamara lives in hiding on one of the intergalactic freighters. These are named after songs e.g. Lucy in the Sky, Jolene, My Sharona and Delilah. Her freighter is attacked by Crowpeople/Garuwa and she is kidnapped after witnessing mass murder because she is able to communicate with the Crowpeople. Through Tamara, we learn to understand the Crowpeople, who only take the resources they need to nurture the hives in their ships, which in return feed the inhabitants. Unlike humans who sell excess for profit.
Cally Black’s voice here is original – raw, strong and captivating.
Dinkus When I interviewed eminent Australia author Isobelle Carmody recently, I was excited to learn about the ‘dinkus’.
The simplest way to indicate a section break within a chapter is to leave a blank space between paragraphs, but designers often prefer to use a symbol or glyph. These are often three horizontally placed asterisks but asterisks can be replaced with other symbols.
Crowpeople in In the Dark Spaces have three ‘shiny talons’ (page 41) sticking out from their boots. This symbol is used as a dinkus in the novel e.g. on pages 183,270.
Students find the talon dinkus in In the Dark Spaces, and then look for symbols or glyphs in other novels.
Lightgraff Art (or lightgraffiti) is drawing or writing with light. It combines photography and calligraphy. It can be a live performance or recorded on video or time-lapse photographic stills. It is often used to embellish settings by highlighting or enhancing elements of the scene with colour, line, shape or script (using light).
Examples can be seen by searching online for ‘lightgraff images’.