Perhaps one of the most fulfilling perks of writing for kids is the time spent flitting around in my imagination. It’s a weird, boundless place, which allows me to harness old memories and reinvigorate them into wondrous dreams-come-true. These next few picture books are glorious examples of tapping into imaginative flights of fantasy and exploring the possibilities.
When I was a kid, I trussed up my trusty bicycle with the dog’s lead so that I had my very own ‘horse’ to ride around the backyard. I jumped my Malvern Star-steed in Gymkhanas, rode for days through dusty paddocks and occasionally found a hut high in the Snowy Mountains to hunker down in and ride out a storm. A remarkable amount of miles covered for a 12-year-old.
Young MacDonald, son of the much loved, Old Mac, is no different. We first meet Young Mac after he gets his own little red bike. To the familiar refrain of this well-known nursery rhyme, Young Mac goes a ting-a-linging everywhere on his bike. Encounters with a variety of vibrant characters on the farm, slowly transform his bike into a bike-digger-pirate-ship-chopper-sub-rocket that fills his day with ‘fantastical adventure’ (albeit no ponies but there you go).
I attended two standout sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. Forest for the Trees is run by Writing NSW (until recently NSW Writers’ Centre) and Poetic Threads by Red Room Poetry (in conjunction with the Art Gallery of NSW).
‘Forest for the Trees’ is an annual seminar run primarily for writers but valuable for others in the industry. It’s a one-day forum held at the State Library.
Julie Koh gave an enlightening keynote titled ‘My Path Through the Forest’. Some of her short stories sound like my favourite books – experimental literary fiction with magic realism and speculative elements. She recommends that emerging and other writers attend festivals, courses and literary social events, use social media and subscribe to professional organisations such as Australian Society of Authors. “The longer I’m in the literary world, the more I realise it’s about connections”. She acknowledged that authors are often introverts (who generate energy from being alone) and should balance their time with others and their book publicity with time alone writing and re-energising.
Julie quoted The Sound of Music: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window” as a reminder to “scatter seeds everywhere” to find opportunities to promote work, only ask once and keep trying something new re publicity. Her published books arePortable Curiosities and Capital Misfits. She’s currently writing the libretto for an opera and, with Ryan O’Neill, Jane Rawson and others, is part of the exciting, audacious writing collective Kanganoulipo.
In ‘Staying on the Path’, Charlotte Wood (whose The Natural Way of Things I have written about a number of times on the blog) explained that she must “follow the energy” – have curiosity and interest in the work she’s writing itself; and, to maintain longevity in the industry, have tenacity and perseverance and behave professionally by treating everyone with respect and with humility.
In the session ‘Going Further Afield’, Kirsty Melville from US-based Andrews McMeel Publishing (who publish Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and other books of poetry) told us that poetry is generated by the political environment and “people are looking to the arts to express their creative selves.” She has recently signed three emerging Australian poets, Gemma Troy, Courtney Peppernell and Beau Taplin.
The highlight of the festival was ‘Poetic Threads’, three poetic performances inspired by ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ medieval tapestries. It was curated
It’s an exciting literary week in Sydney, beginning with the announcement of the winners of the prestigious NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the State Library.
I was honoured to judge overall Book of the Year, as well as the Patricia Wrightson children’s book category.
Taboo by Kim Scott won both the Indigenous Writers’ Prize as well as Book of the Year. This is the third consecutive year that an Aboriginal writer has won Book of the Year, with Leah Purcell winning with her play script, The Drover’s Wife last year and Bruce Pascoe with Dark Emu in 2016.
Taboo (Picador Australia) is an exceptional work: dense, skilfully composed and darkly lyrical with some mystical elements. It traces the reunion of people affected by a horrific past massacre in a Peace Park. Teenager Tilly is the daughter of deceased patriarch Jim. Her backstory is confronting, intimating she has been treated like a dog. Twins Gerald and Gerrard may be her allies or threats. Multiple characters are introduced effectively and some unlikeable characters are rendered with affection and understanding.
Symbols of the curlew and other birds are powerful and I particularly appreciated the representation of words from the ‘ancient language’. They are alluded to but not shared on the page. Some can even animate objects. As Wilfred says, “Words, see. It’s language brings things properly alive. Got power of their own, words.”
Another multi-awarded title is Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (Text Publishing). It won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the People’s Choice Award. It is a holocaust novel which reads like non-fiction and includes transcripts of the author’s letters and replies with black and white photos. Ideas about the Museum of the Extinct Race, The Story of The Book of Dirt and images of dirt as the clay Golem’s heart will endure.
A clay Golem figure, Riverman, is also a feature of Zana Fraillon’s Ethel Turner Prize Young Adult winning book, The Ones That Disappeared (Hachette Australia). This is a salutary warning about child trafficking and slavery in Australia and elsewhere told in sensory language, with a sometimes-magic realism style. (I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here.)
The winner of the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry is Argosy by Bella Li (Vagabond Press). This is an exciting combination of words and exquisite, thought-provoking colour collage in evolving styles.
Congratulations to these and the other winners, as well as the creators of the shortlisted titles and thanks to the State Library of NSW, the coordinator of the awards.
Here is the link to the winning books and shortlists.
Neverland by Margot McGovern is part homage to the famed Peter Pan tale and part a story of mental illness and learning when to let go and when to hold on. I’m a huge fan of Peter Pan, so I was excited to see the influences swetp through this (although it’s not so much a retelling as just lots of references). Kit calls her childhood-island-home “Neverland” and it’s been converted into a mental illness type hospital for kids at risk. The entire book is about mental health and it can get pretty dark at times, and it’s about facing your monsters.
The story follows Kit Learmonth has had a pretty tumultuous childhood. From parents who didn’t really take care of her, to struggles with health, to an overactive imagination which she often retreats into instead of facing her past. After a suicide attempt at her boarding school, she returns to her childhood island home, nicknamed “Neverland”, where her favourite uncle runs a lowkey psychiatrist hospital for kids who aren’t quite sick enough for a mental institution but who definitely aren’t coping in the real world. The island functions as part school, part hospital, and there’s plenty of chances for the teens to sneak around the laws and enjoy the wonders (and self-invited dangers) of the island. There are some definite illegal nighttime adventures, as well as the more above-board sailing, school, and close friendships. Then Kit meets a new resident: Rohan. He’s very quiet and charming and Kit falls to his friendship…except he might be more sinister than he seems. All the while her suppressed childhood memories are poisoning her inside and out, while she prefers to “play Peter Pan” where life will all turn out okay so long as you keep flying and don’t deal with your problems. That…isn’t going to work out, Kit.
I did so like the setting with the island vibes with a dash of mystery and adventure! Although I didn’t find the island completely believable because it seemed extremely well funded (who could afford to send their kids here?!) but at the same time extremely badly supervised! The amount of times the teens sneaked off to drink and do drugs was downright impressive. Welcome to fairyland as well. But I do think it’s nice to acknowledge that it’d be great of there were places like this for at-risk teens! They definitely needed help and support and the island did provide them with a chance to help themselves…if they chose.
It also explores different types of mental illnesses. I felt it did it quite well. Kit, the narrator, has depression and she severely self harms. Her friend (with benefits) is Alister and he’s a psychopath. Then Gypsy has a severe eating disorder and is recovering from a bad relationship. It doesn’t exactly diagnose Rohan but he had a lot of underlying issues going on. It also portrays therapy in a positive light! We get to read about therapy sessions and some coping mechanisms and some really gritty conversations etc. It definitely attempts to deal with diagnoses instead of just dishing them out.
Kit’s also really big on telling verbal stories too. This is definitely one of her coping mechanisms: tell a story and avoid the real world! Not…healthy, um, Kit. But I did like the magical feel it gave the book, which is definitely a solid contemporary, but with Kit talking about faeries and selkies and Peter Pan, it just added that layer of enchantment to the story.
Kit herself was an interesting character, who definitely spent a lot of the book growing. She makes a sheer bucket-ton of mistakes and a lot of the time she’s downright awful as she battles her own illness and the denial of how serious it is to cut herself. The psychology behind why she did what she did was very clear, even though it was difficult to feel for her when she was so mean to her loving uncle and caring friends. But it’s so important to explore this “unlikeable” part of mental health, because it DOES affect those with it so so much and it’s a topic that needs unpacking.
Neverland is definitely a story that is part fun and whimsy, part darkness and warnings. It’s not a light read by any means, although I think it does show sunshine through the darkness.
Carolyn Denman was a horse-loving child who grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, inventing all sorts of fantasy worlds in her mind. She completed a Bachelor of Science and worked in finance before realising her love of writing, which very soon became an addiction.
Carolyn’s debut The Sentinels of Eden speculative fiction series grounds a refreshing blend of Australian and Aboriginal heart with biblical roots in a thrilling and transcendent fantasy allegory, with elements of real life compromise and sacrifice. In Book One: Songlines, the journey to Eden is marked with the discovery of secrets and supernatural powers that begin a changing fate for a cast of complex characters; navigating the prosperity and protection of two sacred, opposing worlds. Denman explores the symbolism of Eden and the realities of adolescence, identity and lust through her fictional fantasy in a sensitive, tasteful way. These engaging page-turners and nail-biter endings will leave their young adult readers wanting more.
Carolyn has generously answered some questions about the series for Boomerang Books readers. 😊
How did you come to be a writer?
Where most writers say that they’ve been writing since the day they could hold a pen, that’s not my story. I wrote one awesome short story in Year 7 that my teacher hated and that was the end of that, at least until that day a few years ago when I told my daughter I’d help her write a story. She got bored after the first couple of chapters. I got addicted. Seriously, I started pulling books from my shelf to remind me when you were supposed to do things like start the next line when writing dialogue. I’ve always been an avid reader, but never taken much notice of technique. Thank God I have some really gentle beta-readers. Some of them are even teachers, which is handy, and they’re nice teachers.
What is the significance of your series’ title; The Sentinels of Eden?
As you’ll see from the third book, the series isn’t just about Lainie. It’s about the long history of the Cherubim who have made sacrifices for Eden. This series is about the ones who stand guard over the land. Who hold it sacred and are born to serve it. Yeah, there’s a metaphor there, but I have no right to tell those stories. I can only try to honour them with my little allegory. That’s what makes the series title significant.
The star of Songlines (Book 1) and Sanguine (Book 2) is young teenager, Lainie. What can you tell us about her? How have you developed her intriguing personality and her special secrets?
Lainie has become a great friend, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the world through her eyes. She’s really made me explore what it would be like to live in a world with no tears. Sure, paradise sounds great, but what would it really mean for someone who has grown up in our world? Throughout the course of the series, Lainie has grown up and yet in some ways has also become more child-like. The duality of her journey has been a wild ride, and one that everyone should think through. Growing up shouldn’t mean becoming boring. There should always be room for whimsy, and I wish I could be more like her.
All of the Sentinels books in the series deal with navigating adolescence and identity, loss, truth and protecting the environment. What other themes / issues underpin these books?
I feel that there is an underlying exploration of the nature of free will in each story. Some people don’t believe in the concept at all, which is fine, but whether we are the sum of our free choices or the inevitable product of our previous choices, we must still grapple with decisions. Especially when we’re faced with completely unexpected situations. If you want to delve even deeper, I could discuss the concept of shame. That ‘unsolvable problem’ that goes beyond guilt and underpins so many mental health issues (although I’m certainly not implying there’s a simplistic cause for any of those). There is no room for shame in Eden. In fact, it’s the one corruption that the Tree of Life can’t simply heal, which is why ‘tainted’ humans aren’t allowed in. Shame is a complex issue, and I’ve only brushed across the surface of it as a theme, really.
How do each of the covers reveal a snippet of the magic inside the books?
Each of the covers has an image which symbolises an important concept in that story. The Tree of Life, the eagle, the shell – all these hold meaning to the main characters and represent their journeys. The illustrator also gave the covers an opalescent feel. Opals are the perfect mix of earth and hidden fantasy, don’t you think?
You’ve written a short prequel to Songlines, called Barramundi Triangle (read more here). Can you tell us a bit about that?
Barramundi emerged from a throw-away line near the start of Songlines. Lainie mentioned that she’d always been a little bit afraid of the police sergeant, ever since ‘that incident with Noah and the ride-on mower’. I couldn’t help it. I had to find out what insane situation Noah had got them both into that involved a mower and the police.
Also, as a debut author I felt it wasn’t fair to expect people to take a risk on buying my book if they hadn’t read anything I’d written, so I wrote something for them to nibble on first.
To see more from Carolyn Denman and to celebrate her third and most recent book in The Sentinels of Eden series, Sympath, you can join her blog tour here.
The amount of empathetic, engaging titles that surface each year to commemorate ANZAC Day never fails to impress me. Touching, sympathetic stories like those below permit young children to open their hearts and minds to the true essence of courage and sacrifice, allowing them to connect with a history that for the sake of humanity, we should never forget. There is a huge number of praise-worthy picture books to share with your youngsters this ANZAC Day. Here are a few newer titles that are also excellent for classroom inclusive discussion.
Thousands of care packages were sent to our Aussie Diggers during the Great War of 1914. Dozens upon dozens of hand-knitted socks made up a part of these packs not only providing warmth and comfort for ‘war-weary feet inside heavy boots’ but reminding our troops that their loved ones at home were thinking of them.
Tammy learns how to knit socks to send overseas. She tucks special messages into the toe of each sock for the soldiers to find. One message, written especially for her Daddy serving at the warfront, returns with a reply from Lance Corporal A McDougall who was the recipient of her heartfelt gift. His reply connects her with her father, fills her with pride and instills a hope that someday soon he will return safely to her.
This story highlights the female wartime effort in the most glorious and tender way. Baillie’s narrative is affectionate and informative; addressing younger audiences in a way that is both direct and appealing given that many of them might struggle to understand the concept of caring for others in such an express, person-to-person way. Joy’s collage inspired illustrations are a mosaic of love and charm, layered with texture and colour so persuasive and rich, you’ll want to reach out and stroke each golden strand of Tammy’s hair. It’s this depth of sensory allure that draws you back to this story again and again, making it the perfect book to honour the centenary of the end of WWI. A must share.
I clearly remember meeting Michael Wagner in Brisbane when I was consultant for an Indie bookstore there. Penguin Books were taking him around to talk about his unique series ‘The Undys’. I loved the games that the father and son played in these books and the love, as well as pathos, in their life and relationships in the housing commission apartment where they lived.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Jane and Michael.
What are your professional roles in the book world?
We’re both full-time authors and part-time publishers. I (Michael) have my own small imprint, Billy Goat Books, which allows me to dabble in publishing by releasing a book or two a year, while Jane freelances for a couple of different publishers.
What have you written together and how do you help each other with your work/writing?
MW: We’ve actually only collaborated once, on the picture book Bear Make Den, the text of which is about 50 words, so much of our effort went into reducing the number of words in the text. It’s funny, you might think that two authors would double the prose, but in that instance, we helped each other create the most economical prose possible.
But we’re also slowly working together on a series of early readers. It’s an idea that I came up with, that would probably work as a series, but which really plays more to Jane’s strengths (i.e. her understanding of very young children), so it makes sense for us to work on it together.
When we’re not working together, we help each other with feedback and encouragement. It’s hard for ‘life-partners’ to be too critical of each other’s work – we’re meant to be our number one supporters, really – but whenever we get stuck, we seek help from each other.
What other literary/illustrative partnerships do you have and what books have these produced?
MW: There are actually too many of these to list, but an author-illustrator partnership I’m particularly enjoying right now is with my friend Wayne Bryant in the creation of the So Wrong series. He and I both love Mad Magazine, and we’ve created something similarly subversive and naughty, but in book format, and aimed more squarely at primary kids. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved, although I know many would wonder why. J
JG: Anna Walker and I have created 6 picture books together, and we’re working on our seventh. I am also Anna’s publisher of her books that she writes and illustrates herself, so we are quite connected! I feel very lucky to have the partnership with Anna. We have become good friends through working and exploring ideas together, and I think we each have an understanding of how the other works, and sees the world.
I’ve also made 3 books with Andrew Joyner, and we’re working on a couple more at the moment. I love working with Andy – he is a genius at character and gesture, and he’s also very insightful with text, and gives great advice and feedback about the narrative and story. He’s interested in the words as well as the visual world of the story.
Alison Lester and I have collaborated in many ways as well. I’m her publisher, we’re great friends, and we’ve made many books together in Aboriginal communities with the kids and sometimes with the adults, too. Recently we collaborated in creating a picture book called The Silver Sea, which we made with young patients at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. This was a really wonderful project to be involved in, and all proceeds go to the Education Institute at the RCH.
My friend Davina Bell and I have also collaborated in various ways. Together we created the Our Australian Girl series when we were both working at Penguin. Davina and I have also co-written two books, and both have been illustrated by Freya Blackwood. The three of us really enjoy working together, and usually this involves a trip to stay with Freya in Orange, where Davina and I camp in her beautiful studio.
Could you give us examples of your books across age-groups and forms, from picture books to series and novels.
JG: I’ve written picture books, junior novels and also stand-alone novels for middle readers and teenage readers. I wrote many titles in the Aussie Bites and Aussie Nibbles series, and over the past 10 or so years it has been mainly picture books. Part of the reason for this is that I adore the picture book genre – it fascinates and inspires me – and the other part is that I had a very busy and demanding job as a publisher so never had the time to write novels. Now that I’ve left Penguin, I’m working on longer stories as well as picture books.
Which of your books’ longevity in print are you particularly pleased about?
MW: I’m most thrilled about the Maxx Rumble series, which, so far, has been in print for 14 years. It was my first proper attempt at writing for children and remains my most enduring work. I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it, which I think, is why it’s worked so well. J
JG: I’m pleased that the novel I wrote over 10 years ago now, Falling From Grace, remains in print and is set at Year 8 level in secondary schools. I still receive letters about that book from readers both here and in the US, so I feel happy that it’s still being enjoyed and hopefully hasn’t dated too much!
When in Brisbane, Michael and I also talked about his being in a band and about Jane’s YA novel Falling from Grace (2006), which I loved and have kept all these years. I still have the post-it note on the cover, which I wrote recommending it to one of my twin sons, who was then 14 years-old. The key character for me, Kip, was also 14 in the book, looked older than his years, played music, had given up swimming even though he was a champion and suffered anxiety – all like my son. He seemed like such a real person.
If I recall correctly, Michael mentioned that Jane had written the character with the help of their son, Wil.
After all these years, Falling from Grace is deservedly still in print and I highly recommend it.
JG: Oh, that’s lovely, Joy – thank you. Wil didn’t help me with the actual writing, but I was certainly observing him and his world when I was writing that book!
It’s perhaps not surprising that the son of such a creative couple is now the lead singer, lyricist and muso in famous Oz band, The Smith Street Band.
How did you nurture Wil as a writer? Which song of his are you most proud and why?
JG: Wil was always interested in music and rhythm, from a very young age. He was also always interested in language. He spoke at a very early age, and also loved reading and books. I read to him a lot, until he was quite old! A passion for music is also something that Wil and Michael share. I’m proud of a lot of his songs, and I have my favourites. A sentimental favourite is My Little Sinking Ship, which is a song he wrote for his sister, our daughter Lizzie, when they were both teenagers. I also love Laika, which is a very sad but beautiful song about vulnerability, really, based around the story of the Russian dog that was sent into space. Lizzie and Wil have actually collaborated on both those songs – Lizzie made a little animation film clip for My Little Sinking Ship when she was in secondary school, and they made a handmade book, illustrated by Lizzie, for Laika. We printed a limited quantity and they sold it at gigs. Recently, Wil received an email from a teacher at a Melbourne primary school, who said that her grade 5 and 6 students studied the Laika song, and it really inspired them in different ways. I found this very moving.
MW: All I can add to what Jane’s said is that I’ve been semi-obsessed with music since I was in primary school and I think that sort of passion from a parent is often absorbed by his/her children. I was also in a band that almost became famous, so perhaps Wil is living out a part of my life that was never quite fulfilled. I should also say that I never consciously pushed him in that (or any other) direction, we just responded to his interests, whatever they were at the time.
Which literary award has meant the most to you?
JG: I won the QLD Premier’s Award with my first novel, and this probably meant the most because it was very affirming when I was just starting out.
What are you reading and enjoying at the moment or recently?
JG: I’m reading George Saunders’s short story collection The Tenth of December. I recently read Lincoln in the Bardo and loved it, so I’m reading everything else of his now! (Wil is also reading the same book, btw!) I recently read Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. I love her writing, and can’t wait for her next book to come out.
MW: I’m almost always reading books about psychology, philosophy or human nature. I guess I’m hoping to become wise some day.
What are you writing now or next?
MW: I’m writing a few different picture books at the moment, but also trying to master a middle-reader series idea I’ve had hanging around for about five years. It has a catchy title and some decent enough plot ideas, but I’ve never been able to find the main character’s voice. Luckily, I think I’ve just started to find it recently. I sure hope so!
JG: I’m writing lots of picture books, and also a novel.
There do seem to be many books rushed through publication at the moment, particularly novels with misprints and with plots, characters and structure that could benefit from more care. This is actually preventing books from being shortlisted for awards. Why is this rushed writing and publication process happening and is it going to improve?
JG: When I remember back in the dark ages when I was working as an editor, we had a lot more time to work on each title. We could give each book, and each author, the time they needed. Many publishers and editors still really try to do this now, but the world of publishing and the economics of publishing have changed so much, and books often tend to be rushed through.
What would you both like to be remembered for?
MW: As someone who did his best. And perhaps made the world slightly better – be that through my books, or talks and workshops, or even through our children.
JG: I like Michael’s comment here, so I’ll echo that, I think – as someone who did her best!
Ellie Marney’s new YA novel, White Night (Allen & Unwin)has an authentic Australian feel. It is warm-hearted with a welcome edge of rawness. Male protagonist, Bo, is a triumph, with his blend of masculinity, compassion and love.
Where are you based, Ellie, and how do you spend your time?
I live near Castlemaine, in north-central Victoria. I usually spend my time writing or reading! But I also have four kids, and a couple of day jobs, so life can get pretty busy.
How are you involved in Australia’s YA community?
In 2015, when the ALIA lists came out and OzYA was barely a a blip on the radar, a group of lit sector professionals – authors, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, publishers – got together to form the #LoveOzYA movement, to advocate for and promote Australian YA, and I was lucky enough to be at that first meeting. I’ve never really stopped flag-waving for OzYA since then!
Oz YA is thriving but why do there seem to be few Australian novels written for males at the moment?
I actually think Australian YA caters pretty well to males! There are plenty of great YA books written by male YA authors, or featuring male protagonists. But I also believe it’s good for boys to broaden their horizons (and maybe learn something new) by reading books with female protagonists, or written by female authors – I certainly encourage my boys to pick up books by authors of all stripes, with a range of protagonists. We don’t seem to worry so much about girls reading books written by men, or focusing on boys – Harry Potter, for instance – which makes me think it’s a bit of a double standard.
Could you tell us about your other books, particularly your very popular ‘Every’ series?
The Every series is based around the question of ‘What would a contemporary teenage Sherlock Holmes be like?’ (or as the tagline says, ‘What if Sherlock Holmes was the boy next door?’) and is my most popular series to date. People liked my take on Young-Sherlock-and Girl-Watson-in-Melbourne so much I wrote a companion novel, No Limits, which I self-published last year – Harris Derwent, one of the secondary characters in the series, had his chance to shine in a darker-edged story about drug crime and high-stakes romance in regional Australia.
Now this year I’m releasing White Night, and in a few more months, Circus Hearts, a 3-book YA romantic crime series set in a circus – the first book, about a teenage trapeze artist and an apprentice strongman on the run from a terrible crime, will (if all goes to plan!) be out in September.
What is the significance of the title of your new novel White Night?
It refers to a a number of things actually – I’m glad you asked! White Night is the name of the lightshow festival that the students in the book want to stage to raise funds for their local skate park; it’s based on the worldwide festival of lights that has taken off so well in Melbourne. But ‘White Night’ also has darker connotations: in the Jonestown Peoples’ Temple cult, the name was a code for the ‘revolutionary suicide’ practise runs that Jim Jones forced all his followers to perform to prove their loyalty.
But also – and this is a little Easter egg for readers! Because my brain is funny like that – there are a lot of references to the Sleeping Beauty story in White Night. The names of the characters (Bo and Rory – in the old legends, it was Prince Beau and Princess Aurora), the idea of a handsome suitor who rescues a damsel from a tower (in this case, an ideological tower) which is surrounded by greenery… So White Night is a play on the old references to a ‘white knight in shining armour’. I liked threading little bits of the story into the book, and flipping the idea too, with a headstrong princess who sort of rescues herself…
Could you tell us about your major characters, Bo and Rory, including their relationships with their parents?
Bo is sixteen, and focused on footy, friends and family – his dad, Aaron, his pregnant mum, Liz and his younger brother, Connor. Bo’s parents are strict but fair, and he feels like he’s cruising along – except for some nagging concerns about what he’s going to do at the end of high school. Rory, on the other hand, has no plans, because her life isn’t lived in a conventional way – she lives in Garden of Eden, an off-the-grid radical environmentalist commune with a very alternative family arrangement. This is her first attempt at real high school and ‘outside’ life, and when she meets Bo, the two of them rub up against each other in curious, life-changing, spark-creating ways.
I think I’d better leave it there – if I give too much away, I’ll be sharing spoilers!
Which of Bo’s school friends would you like to write about further?
Hm, that’s a hard question! Bo’s best mate, Sprog Hamilton, starts out as a total bogan footy bloke and then evolves to have so many layers – Sprog has a wonderful story arc, and I do love Sprog as a character. But Bo’s other friend, Lozzie D’Onofrio, is equally lovely – and maybe has a lot more backstory to explore… I’d happily write about either one of them!
You’ve mentioned the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in White Night. What environmental messages do you want to share?
When I was researching White Night I read an incredible book: The World Without Us by Alan Weismann – it poses the thought experiment of how would nature recover and go on if all the humans in the world just disappeared overnight? That book was mind-blowing and fascinating, and threw out lots of amazing and terrifying facts about the impact of human beings on the planet. I’d love more young people to think hard about the environment and contribute ideas for solutions to some of the problems – it’s their planet too, and I think young people have much to give on this issue, considering they’re so invested in it. We just need to start listening, and acting on their ideas, before things get too urgent.
Oh, that book is so great! Every single one of my sons has read The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, which is the first book in the Ranger’sApprentice series. That series… It’s so good! And it seems to really appeal to my kids, especially the idea of being a boy (like Will) with an older male mentor (like Halt) and learning all the survival and craft skills necessary for living on the land. I just thought it was a natural fit for Bo and Connor’s story, with echoes of what it’s like being a young boy growing up and searching for male role models.
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve actually been so immersed in writing I haven’t had much reading time – but when I’ve had a break, I’ve been reading Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (O.M.G. that whole series is so incredible!), LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff (I have an ARC! Yes, it’s just that good, I had to steal it from the Allen & Unwin offices!) and also a few books I’m reading for #LoveOzYAbookclub – Gap Year in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor, and Valentine by Jodi McAlister.
And of course, I often grab a romance read when I’m tired or flat – I love Penny Reid, Sarah Mayberry, Kylie Scott and Sarina Bowen. Those ladies bring all the feels!
Thanks very much, Ellie, and all the best with White Night. It will no doubt find a wide and appreciative readership.
Thanks Joy! I hope people enjoy it, and thank you so much for having me to visit!
White Night by Ellie Marney is a slowly uncoiling tale of highschool and first-love and lowkey cults and the realisation that growing up is very out of your control. I will always and forever be in love with Marney’s writing, and her Sherlock Holmes retellings, Every Breath, Every Word, and Every Move, are some of my absolute favourite Aussie literature. White Night definitely doesn’t disappoint, with a good serving of Australian outback life and the complications of falling for a girl in a cult.
The story follows Bo Mitchell, who is just a typical boy, although slightly internally warring between wanting to please his dad and be a footie star and…well, he also loves to cook. His life consists of the drudge of highschool and farm chores, amongst a backdrop of his mates who love to mess around, and are currently on a fundraising rampage to save the local skate park. But then life shifts a little as a new girl comes to school: Rory Wild. She’s from a local self-sustained closed community that believes humans are ruining the world and they just want to live in peace in their gardens. Rory tiptoes into school searching for something more and while she’s met with hostile bullying for her wild clothing and weird mannerisms and beliefs, she does find Bo. And Bo falls a little bit in love with her free and unhindered way of living too…until he learns what sinister things are going on under the surface of this supposed “Eden”.
It was definitely a book I couldn’t look away from! The pace at the beginning is rather meandering and quiet (but always interesting) but by the end, you have this sick feeling rising and just keep flipping pages wondering if it’ll end in your worst nightmares.
Bo’s narration is a fantastic collision of contrasts. He’s torn between being super blokey to please his farmer dad, and his slang is very typically your outback Aussie, but he also likes taking care of people and he’s interested in food and organic things. He’s so open minded! And this was really refreshing to read?! WE get this 16-year-old boy who’s realistic and makes mistakes and has messy reactions to family strife…but underneath it all he’s the driving force of his own character development. SUCH good news.
Bo also meets this super nice girl called Rory who’s part of a local self-sustaining hippy community. Rory was homeschooled but she decides to try school and Bo becomes besotted with her. It’s slow and sweet and there’s so many “will they/won’t they” moments and I loved their relationship.
The community is called “Garden Of Eden” and it was really interesting. At first it seems such a harmonious and idealistic place, very calm and nice, and everyone was so welcoming…but the further the book progresses the more you see the cultish undertones. The community grows their own food. Uses solar. Makes pottery and weaves and makes anything they actually need. Rory is fantastic person who’s equal parts whimsical and free-spirited, but also realistic and full of deep and complex feelings. You can’t help but root for her to have a good life…even if that might not be the one she’s living now?
The book isn’t a raucous action/adventure, but I did love the quiet feel. There’s lots of school, pottery making, conversations, frolicking about in gardens, bike rides, etc. etc. Bo had family drama, but it wasn’t life-or-death so I wasn’t too strung up about it. I loved his bogan friends, particularly Sprog, who is presented first as a total clown and potential low-life…but he actually has ambitious and ends up picketing the council for a chance to keep the local teen hang-out of the skate park open. His character development was so good I really wish he got his own novel!
White Night is a fantastic story from a not-to-be-missed Aussie author! The ending is a slow build up of intense excruciating feelings and the writing is just delicious and so engaging.
Jessica Watson is well known for sailing non-stop and unassisted around the world as a 16-year-old – the youngest person to achieve this feat. She also captained the youngest crew ever in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, has been awarded an OAM and was named Young Australian of the Year in 2011.
Her memoir True Spirit (2010) gives further insight into her indomitable character and her latest literary work is a novel, Indigo Blue (Lothian, Hachette Australia).
Where are you based, Jessica, and how do you spend your time?
These days I’m based in Melbourne, although I consider the entire east coast of Australia to be home. I’ve just finished studying an MBA and love to go sailing on the weekends.
How does writing resemble sailing?
The main way writing resembles sailing is the importance of persistence!
What is the significance of the title of your novel Indigo Blue?
Indigo Blue is the name of the little run-down yacht that the main character Alex buys, and sets about fixing up.
Could you briefly tell us about your major characters, Alex and Sam?
The main character Alex is independent and practical so she’s pretty surprised when she stumbles into an unlikely mystery.
Sam is an apprentice to the local sailmaker, he’s reserved and there’s something a little bit odd about him.
When Alex first starts at her new school in Year Twelve, her experiences are not what she hopes for. Have you had similar experiences and, if so, how did you cope?
Alex’s experiences not feeling very welcome at a new school are partly drawn from my own experience but as I spent so much of my high school years off sailing I did have to lean quite heavily on the experiences of friends and family.
John, who sold Alex her boat, is patronising at first. Has this been part of your own experience?
The character John is based on a lot of experiences I’ve had, as well as my older sister who works on boats. We’ve both come across my older guys like John who just don’t understand how much girls are capable of. But like John and as frustrating as they are, many of these guys aren’t completely terrible just a little narrow minded.
What age-group have you written your novel for?
Indigo Blue is for anyone aged 9 upwards.
Could you describe any significant response from young people when you’ve presented either of your books to them?
The responses that I’ve most enjoyed are those who say that they’ve been inspired to give sailing a go. It’s also been lovely to receive requests for a sequel.
Of all the places you’ve sailed, where would you be least surprised to find a merperson?
It’s so easy to imagine mythical sea creatures when out to sea surrounded in every direction by empty horizons, but whenever I’ve visited Lake Cootharaba I’ve always wondered what might be lurking beneath the mysterious dark tea-tree coloured waters.
As part of solving a mystery, Alex reads Captain Emanuel William Vance’s historical log and comments about him, You should have been a writer rather than a ship’s captain. What do you admire in writing?
I admire beautiful descriptions, but it’s most important to me that writing sparks curiosity and inspires a spirit of adventure.
What have you been reading recently?
Now that I’ve finished study and don’t have a never-ending list of textbooks to read I’m really enjoying having more time for novels again. I like picking up books of all kinds, but at the moment I’m particularly loving stories with a little history that give me a taste for another time and place.
Thanks very much, Jessica, and all the best with your future literary and other careers.
I was fortunate to facilitate a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016. I had been following their literary careers by reading their writing as published and have continued to be absorbed by their exemplary work.
Inga Simpson sees the world through trees and hopes to learn the ‘language of trees’. Understory: A Life with Trees (Hachette Australia) is nature writing in the form of a sensory memoir. It traces her life in ten acres of forest in the Sunshine Coast hinterland alone and with N and her two children.
The book is beautifully and aptly structured as parts of the forest. ‘Canopy’ includes chapters on the Cedar, Grey Gum, Rose Gum and Ironbark; ‘Middlestorey’ features Trunk, Limb, She-oak and Wattle; and ‘Understorey’ focuses on Sticks and leaves, Seedlings and Bunya, amongst other natural elements.
Inga Simpson lived in the forest for ten years. As ‘tree women’ and ‘word women’, she and N wanted a ‘writing life’. They referred to themselves as ‘entwives’, a term from Tolkien, and named the writing retreat they established, ‘Olvar Wood’, from Tolkien’s The Simarillion. The retreat was an oasis for writers but, along with financial and other problems, its demise is foreshadowed throughout the memoir. We celebrate and agonise with the author through the refurbishment of her lovely cottage despite ongoing leaks and mould; the acceptance of her debut novel Mr Wigg, the completion of Nest and the winning of the prestigious Eric Rolls prize.
Readers are welcomed into the forest through the author’s words: ‘these small acts of tending … [tell her] story of this place’. Also memorable are the author‘s acts of tending the forest: clearing weeds, cutting timber and replanting. She recognises and absorbs ‘Indigenous concepts of country [which] include a responsibility to care for the land’.
Once her eye becomes attuned, she discovers flame tree seedlings and young cedars that were already in plain view. She learns to take time to look for the ‘details and patterns and signs just waiting for my eye to become sufficiently attuned’. As part of this process the author develops ‘nature sight’, where living creatures such as sea turtles and sea eagles, reveal themselves to her.
Inga Simpson concedes that she may not have achieved her desire to become ‘fluent’ in ‘the language of the forest’ but she has become ‘literate’ and literate enough to share her knowledge and understanding through lyrical, unforgettable words.
The 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have just been announced. I’m enamoured of literary works across ages but am here featuring the books in the two youth shortlists because I’ve already read them all. And I’ve read them, not just because I chaired the judging panel of the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature with insightful co-judges Robin Morrow and Tohby Riddle, but because these are books worth reading.
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T Rudd (Hachette Australia)
The Patchwork Bike is a stunning, ground-breaking picture book; an exuberant fusion of words, colour and texture. It has already won a CBCA Honour book award and I’ve mentioned itseveral times on the Boomerang Books blog.
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (University of Queensland Press)
The profound theme of a child grieving for a parent is told in finely crafted words and images, with simpatico black and white line drawings.
Blossom by Tamsin Janu (Omnibus Books for Scholastic Australia)
Tamsin Janu has been shortlisted twice in the Patricia Wrightson category this year. Blossom is an exciting, original novel set seemingly in the real world but with subtle sci-fi content. It brilliantly alludes to the plight of aliens and refugees.
Even though very young, Tamsin Janu is an old hand at the NSW PLA. Since her first novel Figgy in the World co-won the Patricia Wrightson award a few years ago, her two subsequent Figgy books (all set in Ghana) have also been shortlisted.
Tamsin Janu will be speaking in Strathfield, Sydney, on Saturday 7th April at an IBBY event.
A timely and thoughtful dystopia set in the near future when bees have become extinct. It is engaging for children as well as being a fine piece of writing. The issue of domestic violence makes it most suitable for older children.
Bren MacDibble is also shortlisted as Cally Black in the Ethel Turner Prize.
A consummate thread of magic realism, including a golem creation, runs through this novel to diffuse the horror of the important and harrowing issue of child trafficking. I reviewed it for The Weekend Australian here.
I hope it is the beginning of a trend but there are a couple of excellent Australian YA psychological thrillers around. It reminds me of former glory days when Victor Kelleher’s inimitable Del Del was published.
Margot McGovern’s Neverland (Penguin Random House Australia) is an invigorating, assured debut which blends fascinating, yet threatening, fantasy tropes; and elements from Peter Pan, into the risk-taking activities of Kit and some of her fellow ‘Lost Ones’.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Books Blog, Margot.
My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I’m from Adelaide and recently moved back after living in Melbourne and Perth for a number of years. I always wanted to be a writer and was accepted into the BCA writing program at Flinders University after finishing school, then continued on to do a creative writing PhD. I moved to Melbourne while finishing my thesis and worked for a (now defunct) cycling magazine. After graduating, I went part-time at the magazine to try my hand at freelancing and start work on Neverland. When my husband’s job then took us to Perth, I switched to writing full-time and also joined the book blogging community (although my blog’s been a tad neglected since my daughter was born last year).
What is the significance of the title Neverland?
My protagonist, Kit, is seeking a way back to the magical childhood of her memory; however, the harder she tries to relive that time, the more distorted and nightmarish her memories become. So with the title, I wanted to evoke the sense of a dream-like place that may or may not be real and remains just beyond reach. The story pays homage to J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and I was very taken with the way Barrie describes his Never Neverland as a place we forever yearn for but can never return to: ‘On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.’
How does the cover hint at the treasures inside?
I’m still pinching myself over the cover! It was designed by Chista Moffitt and the beautiful illustrations are by Eveline Tarunadjaja. Kit’s romanticised childhood memories are based on the stories and myths her dad invented about the island where she grew up and the illustrations represent key symbols in those stories.
Why have you set the story on an island?
There were a few reasons. I wanted to reference to Barrie’s Never Neverland and to give my characters a place where they could take a time out from the wider world. But I also wanted to isolate Kit within a specific geography imprinted with layers of memory and story. And then, because the narrative is about a girl renegotiating her relationship with her past, I wanted a landscape where I could mix in some of my own nostalgia, and being a beach kid, an island seemed a fitting choice.
Could you tell us about Kit, Doc and some of your other characters?
I have a soft spot for so-called ‘unlikeable’ and unreliable narrators, and Kit reflects that; she’s prickly and self-destructive. But she’s also deeply vulnerable—a character in crisis who is trying to figure things out but making mistakes along the way.
Her uncle and guardian, Doc, is almost the opposite. However, he was forced to grow up too quickly and is consequently quite reserved. He and Kit were once very close but there’s been a lot of miscommunication between them and they’re struggling to salvage their relationship.
Doc’s looked after Kit since her parents were drowned in a sailing accident when Kit was ten. He’s also a psychiatrist and has turned their small family island into a boarding school for troubled teens. Among the students at the school are Kit’s two best friends, Alistair and Gypsy, and a new boy named Rohan who shares Kit’s desire for make-believe.
Your main characters are about to leave school. Is this the age group of your intended readers?
The story is very dark in places and and deals with suicide, self-harm, and mental illness, so I was aiming for the upper end of YA.
Neverland has some important underpinning themes and issues. Could you share any of these.
The original idea for the story grew out of a sense of misplaced nostalgia. I was feeling apprehensive about the future and decided to comfort myself by rereading Peter and Wendy, which I’d loved as a kid. However, the book was much darker and more violent than I remembered and I started thinking about how, in times of uncertainty and upheaval, we often yearn for a romanticised version of the past and how this kind of nostalgia can prevent us from finding a way forwards.
I was also interested in the idea of who gets to tell a story, and what is reframed or omitted in the telling—and particularly in the fact that historically, women’s voices have often been silenced or ignored and their roles diminished. So I wanted to write a story where a young woman is forced to question the mythology of her world and her place within it.
How have you paid homage to other authors and literature in your plot, setting or characters?
In the months before I started working on Neverland and while I was writing, I reread a lot of old favourites—Peter and Wendy, Treasure Island, The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby—and the story, in part, grew out that process of rereading, so it felt important to give those texts a place in the manuscript. They helped inform the story’s key themes, but also gave Kit a library to draw on as she struggles to find her voice and a way to tell her story. Then because nostalgia, and particularly a nostalgia for stories, is such an important part of the narrative, I looked for opportunities to work in little references to other favourites as well.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
Well, now you’ve opened a can of worms! I’ve been reading some incredible home-grown YA: Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza, The Centre of My Everything by Allayne Webster, Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell and Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood. Also, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert from the US. And for something completely different, I’ve gone back to Daphne du Maurier (an old favourite) to read The House on the Strand and absolutely loved The Radium Girls by Kate Moore, even though I cried most of the way through.
I can’t wait to get lost in your next work. What are you writing at the moment? Would you write Kit’s dad’s Kingdom by the Sea as a companion piece – perhaps with illustrations?
That’s an interesting idea (especially the illustrations part), but Kit’s world feels closed to me for the time being. That said, I loved working on the thread of magic realism in Neverland, so I’m taking that a giant leap further and currently working on a YA urban fantasy with mythological roots.
Thanks Margot, and all the best with Neverland. Your next books sounds just as fascinating.
In ground-breaking publishing, two versions of a children’s picture book will be published simultaneously in English and Chinese by a mainstream Australian publisher. Found in Melbourne is written by Joanne O’Callaghan, illustrated by Kori Song, and the Chinese edition translated by Kevin Yang. It is published by Allen & Unwin.
The two hardcover books have identical illustrations, but one has a text in English and the other in ‘Simplified Chinese’. It is set in Melbourne and further afield with locations such as Luna Park, the State Library of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road and Puffing Billy Railway. These places and further information about them is also given at the end of the books.
Beginning or ESL readers are assisted by the simple rhyming text. For example, ‘4 Four bicycles on the path by the bay. A trip to Tasmania sailing away… 10 Ten clocks at the station where we meet for the train. Bring an umbrella, it could start to rain!’
As well as exploring Melbourne, these are counting books. Young readers have the opportunity to learn or practise numerals from 1 to 12, then the big numbers 100, 1000 and 1,000,000.
There are many interesting details such as one of Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly paintings which makes an incognito appearance in the scene set at the National Gallery of Victoria. The girl and boy protagonists have red and black hair respectively.
Part of the rationale behind the books is that Victoria recently had almost 600,000 Chinese people visit annually, the Chinese population of Melbourne is increasing and over 75,000 schoolchildren are learning Mandarin in Victoria.
I was excited to see a new picture book by Essex-based Kes Grey, funny man creator of laugh-out-loud Billy’s Bucket and many other books. Oi Cat! (Hachette) is another picture book where Grey collaborates with illustrator Jim Field. It follows Oi Frog! and Oi Dog!
Like Found in Melbourne, Oi Cat! uses a rhyming text that is perfect for young readers. The rhyme, humour and anticipation will keep children reading and their vocabulary and spelling will be extended along the way, particularly by some of the animals’ names such as ‘alpaca’ (which rhymes with ‘cream cracker’), ‘armadillo’ (which rhymes with ‘pillow’), ‘dingoes’ (which rhymes with ‘flamingos’) and ‘gnats’, which cats sit on here instead of on ‘mats’. The narrative follows the dilemma of what cats could alternatively sit on and this creates playful reinforcement of the ‘-at’ *rime. There is also sly discussion about what hogs and mogs sit on: generating many ‘-og’ words such as ‘clog … cog … jog’ and a surprise and somewhat painful-looking ending.
*rime Separate phonemes in a syllable can normally be broken into two parts. The rime is a vowel and any subsequent consonants (for example, in the word ‘cat’ the rime is /at/). Word families can be constructed using common rimes such as /at/ in ‘cat’, ‘pat’. (from the Australian Curriculum)
Sue Whiting is a stalwart of Australian literature for young people. She writes across categories, including picture books, non-fiction and novels for children and young adults and has had a successful career in publishing for Walker Books Australia. Her most recent work is Missing, a novel for middle grade.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Sue.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I am based in a small coastal village about an hour south of Sydney. I started my working life as a primary school teacher, specialising in literacy education and Reading Recovery. In 2005, I left teaching to pursue a career in publishing and was Publishing Manager and Senior Commissioning Editor at Walker Books for ten years.
What led to your career in children’s books and what are some highlights?
I developed a passion for children’s books as a young teacher and this eventually led me to want to write my own books. It took me about ten years before I was brave enough to give this writing caper a crack though. Editing, well, I fell into editing by extreme accident – through submitting a manuscript to a small start-up publisher and ending up with the job as editor of their children’s list – but once I started working in this field, I found that I loved this side of the process equally as much as writing. And I learnt a heck of a lot about writing along the way too!
Highlights! Wow, that’s really tricky, because there have been so many. Holding your book baby for the first time is always very special, but the unexpected letter or email or message from someone who has been touched by your work in some way is without doubt the best feeling ever. Just last week, I received a video message from a three-year-old boy telling me how much he loved one of my early novelty books. That was pretty awesome.
In terms of my publishing career, I think nurturing the early careers of wonderful writers such Meg McKinlay, Sandy Fussell and Anna Branford, to name but a few, stands out as a highlight and what I am most proud of.
Could you tell us about some of the books you’ve written?
I write across many age groups and genres, from picture books through to YA. My bestseller is The Firefighters, illustrated by Donna Rawlins. It celebrates its tenth year in print this year, which is wonderful, as books don’t tend to stay in print for very long these days. My award winner is A Swim in the Sea, illustrated by Meredith Thomas and my last published book was the nonfiction picture book, Platypus, illustrated by Mark Jackson. It was such a joy to write because I was able to write lyrically about this unique Australian animal. The Firefighters, Platypus and my YA novel, Portraits of Celina have all been published in the US and Platypus has just recently been published in Korea. Missing is my first middle grade novel since Get a Grip, Cooper Jones, which was published eight years ago.
What genre is your new book Missing and what is the significance of its title?
Missing is a contemporary mystery/suspense novel for readers 10+. The story revolves around the disappearance of the mother of my central character, Mackenzie. So the title refers directly to the fact that Mackenzie’s mother is missing. But the word “missing” has many connotations. I love that it also relates to Mackenzie missing her mother, her missing out on so many things because her mother is missing and also her quest to find the missing pieces in the puzzle of her disappearance.
Could you tell us about your protagonist Mackenzie and some other characters?
Mackenzie is a pretty typical twelve-year-old girl. She lives in southern Sydney and is caught up in the excitement of the last weeks of primary school when her mother goes missing. She loves art, particularly working in black and white.
Maggie da Luca is Mackenzie’s mother. She is a bat biologist and academic who works for a scientific magazine. She often travels to remote corners of the globe to study and photograph bats for the magazine.
Joe is Mackenzie’s father. He is an insurance salesman. He falls to pieces when Maggie goes missing. He is a man with many secrets.
Lois Simpson is Mackenzie’s gran. She is a scientist and academic and is the person who Mackenzie leans on as she tries to deal with this tragic situation. She too has secrets.
At high school, Mackenzie befriends Billie. Billie is lively and impetuous and a great foil to Mackenzie’s grief. In Panama, Mackenzie meets Carlo. Carlo is fourteen and helps his uncle at the hotel Mackenzie and her father is staying at. His indifference infuriates Mackenzie, but she eventually discovers that he is someone she can trust.
Why have you given Mackenzie a gift for art?
I wanted Mackenzie to have a passion that was in opposition to her mother and grandmother’s love of science. Art was the obvious place and very early on I saw Mackenzie, in my mind’s eye, sketching bats. A trip to the NSW Art Gallery where I happened upon a sculpture of fruit bats hanging from a washing line was the moment that sealed the deal.
Much of the story is set in the jungles of Panama. It’s hard to believe you’ve never been there. How did you create such an exciting and authentic-seeming setting? What was your most surprising discovery about Panama?
I have to admit to feeling a tad guilty that I didn’t jump on a plane and spend weeks in the country to ensure I got it right, but truthfully, I just didn’t have the funds to do that. So I resolved to do everything I could to bring Boquete and Panama to life on the page through diligent research from afar. I researched Panama for about a year – mostly through the Internet. Boquete is a tourist town, which also has a large expat community, mostly American retirees. This worked in my favour as there were many blogs and vlogs I could access depicting everyday life in the town.
I also had two really lucky breaks. One was making contact with Dianne Heidke (sister of Australian author Lisa Heidke) who has lived in Boquete for a decade or more. Dianne was able to answer those questions I couldn’t find answers to on the Internet, and was able to give me access to that all-important local knowledge. She also read the final manuscript and acted as my sensitivity reader.
My second lucky break was the discovery that the local council streamed 24-hour feed of Boquete’s main square live on the Internet. I was able to watch the comings and goings across the square day and night. It felt slightly creepy and very stalkerish, but it really helped me to understand the rhythms of the town.
My most surprising discovery was the lack of resources of the police force in Boquete – to the point that sometimes they don’t have enough petrol to run their police car!
Why have you structured the story as ‘then’ and ‘now’?
Initially, I chose to structure the story this way so that I could move the story on from those early days when the family had just learned of the disappearance and when their grief would be too raw and impossible to bear. But as the story idea progressed, I quickly realised that the ‘then’ and ‘now’ structure was allowing me to create suspense and tension in an intriguing way. It was challenging to maintain, but I loved slotting in key information at just the right places.
How have you used bats as a symbol?
I used bats more as a link between Mackenzie and her mother than as a symbol. It was Mackenzie’s way to stay connected with her mother and her mother’s passion. However, bats do symbolise our ability to see our way through even the darkest times. Mackenzie and her family have to navigate through some very dark days through much of the story, but by the end, I hope to show them stepping out into the light. This was a happy accident that gave extra meaning to the final pages in particular.
During the novel you tantalise characters and readers with mention of gelatos. What’s your favourite flavour?
The gelatos were a nod to my time at Walker Books. There was an excellent gelato bar at the bottom of the building and we often had Gelato Fridays. My favourite was definitely salted caramel Greek yoghurt.
You are known for promoting your books in interesting and skilled interactions with children. How will you be promoting Missing?
Thank you for that! I love sharing my books and stories with groups of kids – it’s my favourite part of my job.
I am about to embark on a schools tour of Brisbane and Sydney, so have been busy preparing my presentations. My reasons for writing the story and my research and how I have used it will be the centre of my talks, as well as some scene-setting with a bit drumming, a lot of drama, and concluding with a “breaking news” report. I will also be doing writing workshops in Sydney and Melbourne – exploring how to create suspense in stories.
Small Spaces is such a riveting, scary story, I was worried that I would still be reading when night fell. I was still reading … but had to keep going even though I knew I would be terrified. Congratulations on your stunning thriller, Sarah, and thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog.
Thanks so much! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I live in Melbourne, which has a thriving bookish community. There are always so many fantastic events, book launches and meet-ups happening, and I try to get along to as many as I can because I always come away feeling more connected and inspired. I’ve also been involved with the online YA community for the last decade, which is how I’ve met some wonderful critique partners and writing buddies, as well as participating in online conferences and pitching contests. Facebook groups and Twitter have been a fantastic way for me to connect with other kidlit writers and readers, not just in Australia but internationally.
What is the significance of the title, Small Spaces?
For Tash, the protagonist of the story, it’s a very real phobia stemming from incidents that happened to her as a child. But from the opening lines of the novel it’s clear that it also refers to Tash’s psychological state and whether she can trust her own mind – the small space inside her head. In broader terms, it’s a reflection of how we all can sometimes feel isolated, lonely and vulnerable in our own small spaces, and forging connections and trusting others can often be challenging and scary.
You’ve used a distinctly Australian setting. Where is it set and why?
The story is set in two fictional locations – the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, and the rural area of Greenwillow and Willow Creek – which are about an hour’s drive apart on the NSW mid north coast. When I’m brainstorming a novel, I picture scenes very cinematically and start writing before I know exactly where the story is going to be set. Then I have to stop and start researching areas that tick all the boxes of my fictional setting and can feasibly accommodate all the major plot points and any secondary locations that are referenced in the story. I was born in NSW and wanted to set a story there, and having visited the mid north coast a number of times, it really helped me narrow things down, and became the perfect setting for the story.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Tash is seventeen and in her final year of school, craving independence and planning her future at an interstate university. But earning her parents’ trust is difficult because of childhood behavioural issues that seem to be cropping up again. Sadie is Tash’s best friend, the one who knows her best and her fiercest ally, trying to help Tash navigate through her phobias and unsettling memories. Two of those unsettling memories return in the form of Morgan and Mallory Fisher, a brother and sister who shared a disturbing day at the carnival with Tash nine years ago during a summer holiday at her Aunt Ally’s house. And then there’s Sparrow, Tash’s imaginary friend from childhood who looms heavily throughout all aspects of the plot, past and present.
Why have you given Tash an interest in photography and Morgan a gift in the visual arts?
This stems from my own creative background and the design degree I completed at university which included both visual arts and photography. I knew I wanted Tash and Morgan to collaborate on a project that played into the themes of the novel, and art was such a huge part of my life when I was a teen. It came very naturally to give Tash, Morgan and other characters in the story a creative outlet to express themselves.
Could you tell us about the ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ structure?
As soon as I started writing, I knew a large number of flashbacks would be required to properly explain what happened in Tash’s past. But I didn’t want to tell all of these in the passive past-tense voice of Tash recollecting them, because I felt this would dilute the tension and affect the pacing. Instead, I wrote these chapters in present tense using Tash’s childhood voice so the reader can see how things played out in real-time through her eyes. I also introduced therapy session transcripts and newspaper articles written in a clinical tone, so readers can form their own theories about what happened based on other evidence that isn’t skewed by Tash’s point of view.
As you wrote, how were you able to lay out the plot without giving too much away?
It wasn’t easy! I really had to think about the order I wanted snippets of information revealed because of how the past and present chapters feed into one another. There was a lot of shifting scenes and chapters around, and I had a large colour-coded plot outline which I’d lay out across my desk to give me a clear overview of what was happening and where. I had to pare back scenes and dialogue in revisions so as not to be too obvious, but at the same time reveal enough so that readers wouldn’t become frustrated about the storyline being too vague. It’s a real balancing act, and some days I cursed myself for choosing such a complicated narrative structure.
Without causing you to give away spoilers, which part of the plot, characterisation or symbolism was difficult to resolve?
I found the climax the most challenging part to write – I wanted it to do so many things while at the same time be fast-paced and absolutely gripping. I think endings are always tricky – they need to feel completely satisfying for the reader while tying up all the loose threads and illuminating the story’s themes. I never start writing a story until I know how the ending is going to play out. Then my challenge is figuring out how I’m going to get my characters there.
Carnivals and funfairs are some of my favourite locations in literature. They’re supposed to be fun but often are the opposite. What is so creepy about these places and what gives them (particularly derelict ones) such potential for horror?
I think for me the crowds and bustle of a busy carnival always poses the threat of a lost child, or the potential for someone to be swallowed up by it all before their companions even notice they’re missing. There are so many nooks and crannies to lurk and hide in! The noisy rides and all the squealing is so distracting and jarring, and there’s always exaggerated character art leering at you everywhere you turn. Carnivals are a bit too much of everything all at once, which makes us feel a bit queasy and disorientated. Derelict places add a whole other layer of creepiness because they conjure up ideas about ghosts and dead things. Plus, they’re deserted, so if anything bad happens, nobody’s coming to help!
What sort of movies do you watch?
I don’t read a huge amount of science fiction, but I absolutely love watching sci-fi movies! I also love anything with zombies, ghosts or aliens. I’m a big fan of bingeing a good Netflix series, and mostly enjoy intriguing supernatural shows like Stranger Things and The OA. I also love Nordic crime thrillers. I have a tendency to lean towards darker content.
Who have you written this book for?
It might be a cliché, but I definitely wrote this book for teenaged me. This is exactly the sort of story I was craving when I was a teen but had difficulty finding – something twisty and gripping, but with characters my age and themes I could relate to. I loved Christopher Pike’s books but struggled to find them in my school library and local bookshops (which was my whole world since the internet and online shopping didn’t yet exist), so I read a lot of adult crime and horror novels in my teens. But many of those stories were a hard slog with themes and situations that were very adult. I wrote this novel for teen readers who enjoy thrillers and creepy stories, but want characters and situations they can see themselves in.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I recently finished The Dry by Jane Harper and Wimmera by Mark Brandi, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since I am working on another suspenseful mystery set in a small Australian town. I’m currently reading two #LoveOzYA novels: The Fall by Tristan Bancks and Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell. My favourite genres to read are contemporaries, thrillers and domestic noir, and I have Sarah Bailey’s Dark Lake and A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window next up on my reading pile.
Thanks for your illuminating answers, Sarah and all the best with Small Spaces (Walker Books Australia) and your next book.
Thanks so much, Joy. Great questions! I’ve really enjoyed answering them.
We’re well and truly in to the school routine now, although some mornings seem to lack that ideal, perfect-world motivation and drive. But with these following picture books at the ready, your kids will be inspired to remember their purpose and excitement for the day ahead.
Time for School, Daddy is a gorgeously humorous role reversal-type situation, in the same as essence as the previous title by Dave Hackett, Time for Bed, Daddy. Most often than not it is in fact us parents struggling to get out of bed, greeted each morning with the bombardment of children eager to get the day started. And here, this is no different. The little girl wakes a dozy, grumbling Daddy so they can get ready for school. She gives him his favourite breakfast, which always ends in a mess. She washes and dresses him in his work clothes, not without a bit of chaos. She packs him a mighty fine lunch, a tad of grooming and then it’s time to walk out the door. But who’s going to school today?
Tonnes of energy emanate from both the text and the images, with an innocently grown-up voice from the girl’s perspective as she guides her father through the hectic routine. The bright and vibrant cartoon illustrations work beautifully in a simplistic, obvious focus on the actions, which are the perfect linchpin for the irony that makes this book so witty. Time for School, Daddy is adorable, motivating fun for children from age four.
The school or public library may just be the best place to get inspired, excited and transported (figuratively) during a normally busy day. So for anyone who loves to read, a chance to dive into books would be plenty of motivation to leave the house in a hurry in the morning. But for one little girl, there is one book in particular that she can’t get enough of. Lucy’s Book, written by Natalie Jane Priorand illustrated by Cheryl Orsini, is one special story that follows one special story on many adventures as it is shared by Lucy to all her friends.
Lucy and her mum visit the library every Saturday. The enchanted red book, of which we speak, is recommended by Mrs Bruce and borrowed a multitude of times from the library. Lucy loves it so much, all her friends are dazzled by its charm and it makes its way into their hands too. The book is escorted on holidays to Honeycomb Bay and China, to the zoo, and even made into a banana sandwich. But what happens when the book is no longer available for borrowing? Do you believe in destiny?
Just like the premise of this story, the lively illustrations pronounce a real community feel; one of shared values, togetherness and spirit. With influences from real people (Mrs Bruce is a friend of the author and also the image of Megan the librarian at the local school), Lucy’s Book feels like a real-life fairytale where everyone gets to be involved in the swirl of magical bookishness and where fate is a reality. Dreamy for book lovers of any age.
Ruby Lee is a highly enthusiastic student with a big imagination. But when it comes to being chosen as classroom helper, she’s not always the most efficient. Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee! is a wild and animated tale of learning patience, working to your skillset and being yourself.
Award-winning author Lisa Shanahan, together with graphic illustrator Binny, provide a linguistic and visual treat with their eccentric blend of humour and design. Shanahan’s quirky names are just the beginning of the literary goodness, with dialogue that perks in all the right places, and a storyline that is so authentically realistic despite all the crazy and creative figments Ruby Lee imagines in her mind. And flawlessly, Binny’s fantastical, detailed illustrations with blocks of colour and line work add that extra depth and meaning to both Ruby Lee’s real and made-up worlds.
Preschool and early years children will adore being taken into Ruby Lee’s school life as messenger as she discovers not how to be like someone else, but where her own strengths lie. Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee! plays out like a set of comical and whimsical scenes that will be requested to be delivered over and over again.
Today we invite Robyn Osborne to the draft table. Robyn has a penchant for pooches and writing for kids. Fortunately when she combines the two, magic happens.
Her latest picture book release, My Dog Socks is a winning combination of pure doggy delight. Robyn’s lyrical prose works in perfect harmony with Sadami Konchi’s animated illustrations. Together they gambol and scarper through the book filling every page with barely suppressed energy and exuberant colour. Pleasing alliteration, satisfying rhythm and an enticing parallel visual narrative invite readers into Sock’s secret world, where he is anything and everything in the eyes (and imagination) of his young owner. Konchi’s representation of Socks suggests an Australian Shepard type breed, however Sock’s irrepressible benevolent doggy nature could be any little person’s best four-legged friend. My Dog Socks is a winsome celebration of young people, dogs, the ineffable attachments they make and the incredible joie de vivre they both possess.
Grab yourself a copy, soon – here (paperback available next week). Now grab a cuppa and settle back with Robyn.
Being a Piscean, secrets and small spaces do not faze me much. I’m one of those little fishes who loves a bit of enigmatic seclusion and the stimulation of guesswork, which is why I absolutely, nuts and crackers enjoyed the following titles. Each possesses a fluidity of story and cast of characters so cleverly crafted, I felt like I was sharing their experience as if it were my own. These books take you in deep, which for me makes them terrifically satisfying and just a little be frightening – in a can’t-get-enough-of-way.
Fire – both compelling and repelling. Catastrophic and cleansing. This sums up the sweep of emotions and characters Weetman explores with Clem Timmins. Clem’s secret begins with a flicker but soon ignites into something she struggles to contain upon losing everything after her house burns down – her clothes, her treasures and her mum. Timmins and her pre-pubescent peers totter on the edge of change with remarkable poise and a raw, heart-wrenching genuineness that will bring the sting of tears to your eyes and a smile to your lips. They clutch at various emotional straws, each wanting happy outcomes but in Clem’s case, too frightened of losing even more, thus retreating into secrecy. This is good old honest storytelling, where enigmatic poignancy tempers robust reality.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Eliza.
Where are you based and what are your interests?
I’m based on a little farm in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. I love gardening – particularly growing and preserving our own food. I love knitting, yoga and have two horses that I compete a little bit in dressage. I also adore reading,
Could you describe your writing process?
I’m a very haphazard writer – I write fast in big chunks and then will take time away from the story to percolate ideas. Sometimes I’ll be really happy with the idea for a story, but the characters won’t fit. Or sometimes the characters will be really vivid, but it takes me a while to find a story for them.
How are you involved in the literary community?
I’ve never been asked this question before! I’ve taught creative writing at community centres, judged quite a few short story competitions, spoken a festivals, libraries and bookstores and do my best to support other writers by buying books and requesting them at libraries. I have also worked briefly as a bookseller and interned at a publishing house. I think the most important way I’m involved in the literary community is through being a reader – readers are the lifeblood.
What is your experience of being part of writers’ festivals?
I love it – writing and reading are generally quite solitary activities and there’s something so magical about being part of an event where everyone comes together to celebrate their love of stories.
I wrote In the Quiet quite quickly and without a lot of expectation. It’s the easiest story I’ve ever written – it just flowed. It’s narrated by a woman who’s recently died, watching her family on their rural horse property. It’s not sci-fi or fantasy or anything like that. She’s just watching and reflecting and hoping.
My other novel, Ache, is focused on the recovery of an unconventional family after a bushfire ravages their community.
I’ve also written quite a few short stories and articles – most of my writing deals (in various degrees) with trauma and grief.
How has this led to having your YA novel, P is for Pearl (HarperCollins) being published?
I’ve written a manuscript every year since I was fourteen – that’s a lot of novels! Pearl was the story I wrote as a sixteen year old and then tucked away in a drawer because I was convinced it wasn’t good enough. If I hadn’t had my adult fiction titles published, I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence to go through my old stories.
What genre within YA fiction is it?
P is for Pearl is contemporary YA fiction.
What is the significance of the title?
The title has gone through some changes since I was sixteen (back then it was called Wade’s Point – bit boring, hey?!). P is for Pearl fits it perfectly – Pearl is Gwen’s middle name and it symbolises her grabbling with who she actually is versus who she thinks her mother wanted her to be.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Gwen is the main character in P is for Pearl. She doesn’t realise it, but she’s still recovering from the trauma that her family went through years ago. She’s obsessed with running and is often confused and feels conflicted about what she should be feeling.
Loretta is Gwen’s best friend. She’s fiercely intelligent, fiery and protective.
Gordon is Gwen’s other best friend. He’s quiet, funny, very artistic and often bickers with Loretta as thought they’re an old married couple.
Ben’s the new kid in town and Gwen’s crush – clever, kind and insightful, he’s intrigued by Gwen but also distracted by his own family secrets.
What is the importance of the setting?
Setting is very important in all my novels. P is for Pearl is set in a small (fictional) town on the west coast of Tasmania. The rugged coastal landscape is crucial to the plot.
Who have you written this book for?
I wrote this book when I was sixteen and – if I’m honest – I wrote it for myself. It was a cathartic book for me to write. Reworking it into the novel it is now, I wrote it for young people who perhaps are grappling with what mental illness looks like and how to reconcile the reality of the people you love experiencing mental illness.
I know P is for Pearl is very new, but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from early readers?
I’ve had people getting in touch to tell me that the family and representations of mental illness really resonated with them – which means a lot to me.
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m working on my next adult fiction novel.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)? At the moment I’m reading Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden and absolutely adoring it.
Thanks Eliza and all the best with P is for Pearl.
The Harper Effect has caused even a non-tennis aficionado such as myself to develop an interest in tennis, particularly in the lives and commitment of tennis players. The Harper Effect (Pan Macmillan Australia) is Taryn Bashford’s debut YA novel. It has already had an ‘effect’, I can’t get it out of my head …
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Taryn.
Thank you very much for having me 😊
As a debut novelist, how were you able to acquire a publishing contract?
My book deal came about after I had a few fingers in pies, and a couple of them came up with plums 😉 I had entered the Varuna House Publishing Introduction Program which was run in conjunction with Pan Macmillan. I was one of the winners which meant I got to stay at Varuna House for a week and work on my manuscript with a mentor. However, at the same time, Curtis Brown, a literary agent in Sydney, took me on board. I had submitted my novel to them some months before, following a meeting at the CYA Conference in Brisbane. They sped up the process so that I didn’t have to wait for the residency before knowing if Pan Macmillan would publish my novel. I got to use that residency for the second book instead, as Pan Macmillan offered a two-book deal.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Although we’re far from Brisbane, I belong to the SCBWI and attend meetings down there whenever I can. I enjoy meeting people there, and particularly sharing what I’ve learnt on the road to publishing. I also attend meetings of the SCBWI sub-branch on the Sunshine Coast for similar reasons. It’s great to share experiences, stories and talk all things books. I also put together a writing group after meeting various writers at Varuna House or at conferences like Brisbane’s CYA Conference. We all live in the local area, so it was meant to be! We meet regularly to critique each other’s work and we also support each other in all aspects of the publishing and writing process.
Which well-known professional tennis player do you most admire and why?
I’d have to say Serena Williams because her recent media activity about sport being a way of empowering girls is very close to my heart. Research shows this to be true, and it also shows that girls in sport have much better self-esteem and better body images of themselves. This is so important now that our teens are exposed to photoshopped images of movie stars, actresses and singers – and can never hope to be that perfect.
What tip to playing better tennis can you give us?
You’re probably better off asking my brother that question. He’s the tennis star in our family. However, having been a part of his journey, I believe the key differentiator to being a great tennis player and being a brilliant champion tennis player is how you play the mind game. This is evident in The Harper Effect too when Harper falters, but put simply, if you don’t believe in yourself, and if you don’t have that instinct to win whatever it takes, or have mental tools to help you deal with losing a point, then you’ll often choke when the pressure turns up.
Why have you written a YA novel about tennis? Why tennis rather than another sport?
The Harper Effect was first written when I was 14 and my brother had recently won Nationals at Wimbledon and then won a scholarship to the Nick Bollettierri Academy in Florida. At the time, tennis was a big deal in our house. Obviously, I’ve re-drafted the novel several times since then, and my focus was on highlighting teens that go above and beyond the norm, and contrasting that with the fact that they’re still teens. This means they’re making mistakes, still wrangling with teen issues like boyfriends and sibling rivalry and school, but they’re on a world stage so the consequences of bad choices are often greater.
I’m really impressed with how you incorporated this into the novel, but could you also tell us here something readers should know about the lives of professional athletes, particularly tennis players. It sounds like such a struggle and sacrifice.
I’m glad you got that message. The world of any professional athlete is not glamorous, even if it seems that way on TV. If you read Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, this is again highlighted. The training, sacrifices, focus and hard work are all needed every day and that’s tough, but then the rewards if you make it big are massive. I’m talking specifically of tennis when I say that. Some sports are not as lucrative, but I believe the highs of winning, of travelling, of breaking records and proving yourself, are worth the hard work and having to sacrifice that beef burger 😊
What is the significance of the title, The Harper Effect?
The effect that Harper has on Colt is an important part of the plot. She draws him out of himself so that he’s less robotic in his tennis and he becomes more ‘human’ in his personal life. This in turn helps his game. The effect she has on him is also that his ‘mental game’ improves – he’s able to stay strong and face the pressure head on. Harper’s effect on Jacob and Aria are less admirable, but her actions do result in Aria spreading her wings and going on to bigger and better things in Rome, and to Jacob having a wake-up call about his drinking and the need to grow up and leave behind his childhood.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Harper Hunter is a 16-year-old tennis player who’s just turned professional and is struggling with the extra pressure that puts on her game. This results in her coach of 5 years dumping her, and telling her she doesn’t have what it takes. Harper has been on the junior circuit for five years by now. As a result, she’s missed a lot of her childhood and it’s meant her sister and best friend, Jacob, someone she’d fallen in love with, have become romantically involved. It’s this situation that shows Harper at her weakest, because she’s yet to learn how to deal with the situation in a mature way and so she makes some bad choices. It’s through her understanding of Colt and his life, and through helping him, that she grows up enough to eventually make the right choices in her life.
Aria Hunter is her sister. She’s another high achieving teen but in the music arena. Her dream is to go to the Sydney Conservatorium with her boyfriend, Jacob. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but ultimately, she gives up her dream after Harper betrays her. Luckily, she finds a bigger dream to chase.
Colt is the 17 year old tennis pro who becomes Harper’s mixed doubles partner and training partner. He appears to be a cold, closed-off person at first, but we learn that it’s because he’s hiding some family secrets in order to make it in the world of tennis. His personal issues affect his game, but it’s Harper who helps him to the other side of an ocean of choices.
Jacob is Harper and Aria’s next-door neighbour. They’ve been friends since kindergarten. With Harper on tour from a young age, their friendship trio was tested, and he becomes romantically involved with Aria. Then he realises he is with her in an attempt to get back a piece of Harper, the girl he’s truly in love with. He’s also somewhat spoilt by his neglectful parents who tend to buy his happiness with money and gifts. This impacts his personality as he’s used to getting what he wants. When he can’t have Harper, he truly goes off the rails.
How could Harper and Aria’s parents have predicted their passions when they named them?
The girl’s names are more an extension of the parent’s interests and loves before they were born. Their mum is a music buff, and so she got her choice for their first child. Their dad was a high achieving tennis player and was keen to name his child after his tennis idol. In my mind, he got his choice since he’d not got it for the first child. In the end, the girls reflected their namesakes – I guess I could’ve swapped them over to confuse things!
What’s your favourite colour and what is the significance of purple in the novel?
My favourite colour is cerulean blue. It’s just so pretty and makes me feel relaxed when I see it. Purple is significant in the novel because it represents different things as the characters grow up. At first, it represents their childhood and that’s represented by the Purple Woods where they spent most of the childhood playing games and just being kids. The Purple Woods then become part of what helps Harper deal with her on-court pressure. She’s told by her coach, Milo, to go somewhere in her mind where she feels relaxed and happy and somewhere that has a calming effect on her. Purple Time is then born. It helps Harper to win. But when she loses Purple Time, after everything back home goes wrong and the woods no longer represent that happy and safe place, it shows that she’s grown as a player as she no longer needs Purple Time to win. She is able to find the resources within herself to deal with the pressure. As we near the climax of the novel, we find Jacob is still lost in the Purple Woods, unable to leave them behind. He’s got a way to go before he grows up. Harper, on the other hand, no longer wishes to be there. She understands it’s time to leave them behind and face the world as an adult. Aria has spread her wings and flown to Rome, so she has also let go of her childhood.
What happened at the launch of The Harper Effect?
I had an amazing time at the official launch of The Harper Effect on the Sunshine Coast. One of my hopes for my book is that teens and in fact people of all ages are inspired to both chase their dreams (sporting or not), but to also stay in sport and even achieve professional levels in sport. So I put together a panel of young elite athletes as examples of real life Harpers. I wanted the audience to see that no matter their dream, these girls were living proof that with hard work and dedication, self-motivation and focus, you can achieve what you set out to. I’m also very keen to give our teens new role models in our literature. Instead of giving them images of beauty to live up to, let’s give them sporty, confident and successful heroines in books to look up to. The panel were living and breathing role models too.
For whom have you written this book?
The book was dedicated to my brother. He played the professional circuit before becoming a professional tennis coach. He coached young players like Amelie Mauresmo and Marcos Baghdatis, who were at the time in their teens. While The Harper Effect is not based on him or his experiences, as the story is completely fictional, the facts and details that I learnt from him are an important part of the authenticity of the setting of the novel.
I know it’s only just been published but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from readers?
Yes, the main ones being that everyone loves Colt and Milo and that the tennis part of the book surprised them. Many readers found the setting of the world of professional tennis to be very interesting. They reported that they looked at the play at the recent Australian Open through new eyes. That was very gratifying. They also felt inspired to follow their dreams or meet their goals.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I’m currently re-reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. She is one of my favourite American YA writers. The book before that was Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. I’ve not come across a Margaret Atwood book I don’t love 😊 Looking at my list (I keep a list that highlights my thoughts on the books I’ve read, and I also make a note of the publisher), the book before that was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – also a re-read because his writing is so dense you need to re-read it so you don’t miss any of his gorgeous phrasing!
Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Meand Between Usare memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.
Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!
How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?
TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.
Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here. How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?
I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.
To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?
I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.
What is the significance of the cover?
The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.
How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?
I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.
How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?
Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.
You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?
How have you differentiated between their voices?
Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…
Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.
Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.
Which character would you like to write more about?
I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.
I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?
I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.
You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?
I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.
They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.
Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?
I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.
Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.
Summer holidays in Australia is a time to explore, discover and engage in the recreation of all the wonderful features, landscapes, flora and fauna that this country has to offer. And with Australia Day just around the corner, it is also a time to reflect on the past and show appreciation and respect for the way our nation has been shaped. The following picture books include an ode to the sacred sites and traditions of the Indigenous people, as well as some humorous and unique nuances.
Beginning with the multi award-winning title that has the nation on its feet, A is for Australia (a factastic tour) by Frané Lessac is literally a national treasure, with this current edition printed in a beautiful paperback format.
Explore this geographical wealth of gems from A to Z as you travel and learn exciting facts about sights, people and animals around Australia. Each page gloriously illustrated in vibrant, scene-appropriate colours and a perfectly naive style that makes this pictorial encyclopaedia so accessible to all its readers. The text is congruously dispersed and proportioned around the spreads for easy readability.
Amazing and studiously researched facts that will entice international newcomers and excite local citizens to race towards a most pleasurable tour and cultural education of our fascinating land, Australia.
I love the ironically oblivious know-it-all in A Walk in the Bush; an interesting yet remarkably witty bushwalk through nature whilst appreciating the ones we love. Gwyn Perkins writes this tale with an interactive dialogue spoken by Grandad to cat Iggy that so clearly imitates a typical grandparent (or parent) lovingly and knowingly sharing an experience with his little one. Her illustrations also expressively characterise these personalities and add plenty of humour with their facial expressions and body language and funny little surprises to look out for.
Who will spot the wildlife first? Can Grandad distinguish between the songs of magpies and kookaburras? What will he teach Iggy about trees, eucalyptus leaves and scribbly marks made by a caterpillar in the bark? A Walk in the Bush is a fun, and funny, way to encourage togetherness and appreciate the enchanting facets of the Australian outdoors.
Colour Me by Ezekiel Kwaymullina, illustrated by Moira Court, is a beautiful representation of the amazingly colourful world we live in and what makes us diversely human. Forging a love and respect for the differences in people, creatures and scenery around us is an important message emanating from this story.
Told in a playful manner readers can also be encouraged to imagine their own creatively colourful world by brainstorming what they would be if they were a particular colour. For example, “If I was orange I’d be as wild as the flickering fire. And I’d dash through the bush with daring dingos.” These lyrically whimsical phrases continue with each hue in the shape of a rainbow, illustrated with vibrant silkscreen prints from hand cut stencils.
Tolerance and diversity are at the heart of this tale, with a wonderful Aussie flavour including some of our unique fauna and landscapes. A beautiful read for preschool-aged children.
Here’s a gorgeous story of a little girl with a brimful of excuses as to why she can’t go to the park, and a Grandpa with a bucket load of creative problem solving solutions. Sally Morgan expresses The Perfect Thing in the most authentic and evocative language, whilst illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina perfectly captures this lively spirit through her bold and dynamic varied layouts.
When the dog ate her sneakers, Grandpa finds the ‘perfect thing’ for Lily girl with his thongs that can act as whale flippers. When the cat shredded her raincoat, Grandpa suggests that Lily pretend to puff up a plastic bag like a balloon and float to the park. Finally at the park, Lily contributes her own innovative resourcefulness for a ‘perfect’ day out together.
Featuring Australian animals and characteristically artistic Indigenous traits, The Perfect Thing is a refreshing and wonderfully imaginative story for early childhood readers to share with their elders.
This hilarious rhyming romp sets straight any misunderstandings about the official specification of our beloved national icon; the koala. Jackie French, legendary laureate behind the Diary of a Wombat series, together with talented illustrator Matt Shanks, present this clarifying tale of Koala Bare.
There’s no denying, this koala is unapologetically dead set against being called a bear. And he’s not afraid to express his view. He is not a picnic-loving teddy, nor a bamboo-eating panda, a fish-gnawing polar bear or a honey-sucking bear from a fairy tale. He certainly doesn’t wear clothes. He is BARE, and he is an individual, and that’s the way he likes it. Koala Bare exposes the most energetically adorable watercolour illustrations and such a headstrong attitude. It is so loveable and persuasive that its young readers will be readily spreading the message to all of their friends.
‘Common’ in Tony Birch’s new collection of short stories, Common People (University of Queensland Press) could allude to the commonality – shared traits and unity – of people, or the working-class roots of many of his characters. Either way, these stories are unflinching accounts of Aboriginal, poor, vulnerable, victimised or depraved characters. Many have fine hearts despite their disadvantaged circumstances.
Birch employs recurring symbols and themes such as stars; drugs and drug dealing; unwell, collapsing men and positive girl figures throughout the tales. He tells stories through the eyes of young or child narrators here – and across much of his fiction.
The first story, ‘The Ghost Train’ is a memorable, seemingly despairing account of two women who work their first night shift at a meat packing factory. And yet the word “HOPE” is inscribed on Maria’s T-shirt, albeit on a picture of Barack Obama’s face.
‘Harmless’ is one of several stories featuring a positive, proactive, young girl. An old hermit-like man living alone in a hut helps the girl narrator – who has a certain freedom and agency from riding her bike – care for another young female, abused 14-year-old Rita. This tale evokes the roaming boys in Birch’s Ghost River and their encounters with a group of old men. (I have previously blogged about Ghost River.)
‘Death Star’ integrates two of Birch’s prevalent concerns in this collection – drugs and stars as a symbol. Young Dominic doesn’t go to his older brother’s funeral. His brother was a car thief and died in a car accident. He also loved stars.
‘Liam’ is a powerful recount about Liam who was locked up at the age of 16 for robbery. The young narrator’s religious Catholic family took him in and, as a charismatic storyteller, Liam became a loved family member. However, his pet dog, Sally Ann, became aggressive when something terrible happened.
‘Sissy’ also appears in The Best Australian Stories 2017, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke. Sissy is chosen by the nuns to have a holiday with another family. She becomes uneasy after her friend Betty tells her of a girl she knows in a similar situation who didn’t return from her holiday.
Viola, a Madam, breaks her own rules to care for young Gabriel when he is brought to her brothel in the eviscerating ‘Frank Slim’.
A company tries to return cremated remains to their next of kin in ‘Raven & Sons’; a reformed (or not) alcoholic grandmother looks after her grandson for the first time in ‘Worship’; grown men are ailing in ‘Paper Moon’, ‘Joe Roberts’ and ‘Painted Glass’; and Aboriginal characters feature in ‘The White Girl’ and ‘Colours’.
Australia Day (Text Publishing) by Melanie Cheng is worth highlighting as the 26th January draws near. The celebration of Australia Day is currently under fire and this work explores life in Australian society and on Australia Day itself from the viewpoints of characters from a range of backgrounds and beliefs. It is perhaps shaped more as a commentary than a criticism of Australia and Australia Day, although its smooth yet sharp edges niggle the reader to ponder about the diverse lives of those who live in Australia and what Australia Day may mean to those of non-Anglo (particularly Asian-Australian) heritage.
This book of short stories was the Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It was then shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Fiction in 2017 and is currently longlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction. Australia Day is Chinese-Australian Melanie Cheng’s debut literary publication. She lives in Melbourne where she works as a general practitioner.
The first story is ‘Australia Day’, a sweltering account of Stanley Chu’s uncomfortable visit to fellow medical student Jess’s family home. Hong Kong-born Stanley is out of place amongst the family’s form of celebration, epitomised by Jess’s father’s ignorant racism.
Syrian au pair, Leila, visits the Northern Territory in ‘Big Problems’. South African woman, Ellen, repeats that there are “big problems” caused by non-White races, without seeming to notice or recognise Leila’s heritage.
Tania carries capsicum spray, expecting abuse as she works at the car registry in ‘Ticket-Holders Number 5’ and Deepak, a doctor, is victimised in ‘Fracture’, giving another side to this issue.
My favourite story is ‘Muse’, about old Evan whose wife Lola has died, and his bossy daughter Bea who keeps an eye on him. Evan’s life changes when Bea brings her partner, Edwina, to dinner. Edwina is an artist who was “highly commended in the Archibald” art awards. Edwina introduces Evan to life-drawing and he becomes obsessed with the model. As the narrative moves forward, the author also offers glimpses into Evan’s past, particularly his affair with Ana from the milk bar, who wasn’t beautiful like Lola, but “didn’t slip out of my hands like silk when I held her”. A grandson completes Evan’s transformation.
‘Mrs Chan’ encapsulates the book with a tender portrayal of an old woman from Hong Kong cooking for her grandson’s twentieth birthday on Australia Day. This completes a thought-provoking cycle.
Holiday time is playtime and what better way to indulge in the joy of life than with a playful picture book or two. I could wax lyrical about all of these titles all year long, so if you love animals behaving badly in picture books that crack you up, check out these recent releases before summer is through.
It’s not mandatory, but pop on the bonus CD of this cheerful tale about a determined musical maestro as you read this picture book, and you’ll soon be jazzing around the lounge room. Catchy verse by Field and the most sublime illustrations by Suwannakit bring Stanley, his sister, Fran and the entire crazy band alive with pulsing alliteration and an underlying message of when at first you don’t succeed, look for an alternative. Fulfilling your potential and finding your true talent are old themes drummed into exuberant new life with Stanley. Little musicians from four upwards will love jiggling to this.
Keep your ears and eyes tuned on reliable rhyming verse as you escort ladybird on another action-packed holiday. Yes, she’s off again, full of glorious glitter (on every page, as promised), this time to the London Zoo. There’s the usual cacophony of interesting sounds to experience until she spies two old foes and overhears their dastardly wicked plan to kidnap a monkey and coerce him into stealing the Queen’s crown. In her quietly indomitable way, ladybird alerts the zoo’s menagerie and cleverly foils the crime. Who says being small and quiet would never amount to anything! This is a longish but lavishly illustrated and executed picture book to share with 3 – 5-year-olds.
Chaotic unfortunate, Rodney has but one overriding desire, to draw. He lives and breathes it, even does it in his sleep. There is only one thing Rodney loves more, Penny Pen, his penultimate writing companion and perhaps the most treasured thing in his universe. So imagine the immense, blood-draining, trauma he endures when Penny goes missing! We’ve all been there; that frantic, irrational, world’s-end place we find ourselves in when we can’t find … a pen, never mind a favourite pen. When Penny disappears, Rodney loses it – big time. Thankfully, as with most cases of gross- oversightednesstitis, Rodney and Penny are eventually reunited, enabling Rodney to carry on with his life’s vocation. Written with Bauer’s usual witty observation and playfully illustrated by Krebs this is a supremely silly and joyful story encapsulating a common creative crisis that pre-schoolers and anyone who ‘loves nothing more than drawing‘ will appreciate.
Most of us are well acquainted with the recalcitrant pug, Pig. He is nothing if not one to ever shy away from the lime light. In fact, he obstinately refuses to give it up in this instalment of pug-mania after he and Trevor are invited on a big photo shoot. Fame and adulation transform the repugnant pug to even greater (or lower) levels of nasty until a talent scout recognises the true star of the show. Thus begins Trevor, the sausage dog’s prima ballerina career. Will Pig allow Trevor his moment to shine? That is the question for future Pig tales and one I bet Pig fans can’t wait to find out.
I adore this picture book team. They collaborate without preamble and with pure comic purpose. This tale exemplifies the sublimely ridiculous situation of a mouse swallowed by a wolf only to discover he is not alone inside the wolf. Duck resides there with all the contentment of one whose life is now without woes and worries, like being eaten by wolves. Duck and Mouse enjoy an indulgent lifestyle within the wolf’s belly until one day a hunter threatens their existence. Together they work to restore calm although, for Wolf, his debt to them subjects him to nightly anguish, thus the howling wolf. Subtle, hilarious and as ever, ingenious, this tale of making the best of your situation and living with others is destined as another Barnett Klassen classic.
Another classic in the making is by the talented Bunting husband and wife team. Superbly sparse and blunt to the point of overwhelming shortness and sweetness, I absolutely adore this tale of one errant koala’s quest to find something more palatable to eat than boring old gum leaves. While it’s true koalas are notoriously hard to please, eating only a specific few species of gum leaves, this rebellious marsupial bunks that idea after a gluttonous episode of ice cream guzzling. And, like all young kids who have had too much of a good thing, soon lives to regret it. Delectable linear drawings and bold contemporary text make this one hard to resist. Highly recommended for pre-schoolers and nature lovers everywhere.
Anh Do does silly with remarkable sincerity. Along with McKenzie’s action-crammed slapstick illustrations, this latest zany title epitomises the crushing need to pee and not being able to. A bonus CD lets you sing-a-long to little bear’s demise when a big green frog lands in his toilet making this a nutty take on the red-back-on-the-toilet-seat situation. Frivolous fun sure to win a seat for three-year-olds and above and people with frog fetishes.
It’s so exciting – being on the cusp of Christmas. If you are still anxious about the book-sized gaps left in your children’s Christmas stockings though, worry no more. Here is my final list of cracking good Chrissy reads for the year. We’ve covered meaningful and moving, so here are some just for fun titles, to fill you with all the merriment the season entails. If they don’t quite make it to you in time, save them for next year; there’s nothing like getting ahead with Santa! I hope you’ve enjoyed our Kids’ Book Bests this year and can’t wait to share even more fabulous titles from the world of children’s books with you in 2018.
We’ve met Sage and her sassy cooking-based series before but this one takes the cake, or rather Pavlova! Frolicsome fun ensues after Sage and her celeb chef parents arrive in Western Australia to record a world-record attempt by Chef Myra to make the world’s largest ever pavlova. In spite of the fiercely debated origins of this quintessentially Christmassy summertime dessert and some irksome ghostly going ons, Sage eventually wades through gallons of meringue to save the day – and the record attempt. Best bit, of course – the delicious pav recipe in the back. A jolly addition to any Christmas stocking.
Well it wouldn’t be Christmas without mentioning this little ripper now, would it. Can Sam and Tobii save Santa’s reputation and Sam’s kidnapped little sister before the Delivery Book is closed for the year? This light-hearted Christmas mystery, chockers with elves, weird smells, stolen Christmas wishes, nasty rashes and disappearing mailboxes is a spirited stocking filler ideal for 7 – 10 year-olds that is guaranteed to sustain the magic of believing. Just ask the author if you don’t believe me!
This picture book is positively exploding with festive fun. Based on the popular memory game and akin to the Twelve Days of Christmas, this story begins with a young boy who, with his new glasses, spies an outlandish assortment of Christmassy things including penguins, reindeers and snowballs. With a faint acknowledgement of beloved Christmas pantomimes, this is a jolly crowd pleaser great for 4 – 7 year-olds.
It’s gratifying see good old Santa in his boardies catching waves albeit a little unconventional. This is, after all, the way many Aussie kids picture Christmas. Crumble’s bonzer rhyming ditty starts with one hot grumpy Santa throwing a major wobbly. He abandons his red suit and boots for boardies and zinc cream leaving poor, barely qualified, emergency Santa, Trevor to recruit a new sleigh-pulling team (a flock of beady-eyed Emus if you don’t mind) and commission a new sleigh (obligatory rusty ute) with which to complete the Southern Hemisphere deliveries, which he does, brilliantly. It’s a jovial win win situation freeing up more surfing time for Santa every year. Littlies and surfers alike will warm to this chipper tale.
Ruby is back in all her glorious glittery naughtiness. It’s not that she deliberately tries to derail Christmas; it’s just that Ruby’s intentions always end up a little askew. This year, she is determined to get a head start with the deliveries but inadvertently gets horribly, hilariously sidetracked. It’s not until she is centre stage in a school musical that she remembers there was something important left undone. Delightful mayhem for fans of this ruby red-nosed reindeer.
Pig the pugnacious Pug is back, this time competing with his little mate Trevor for Santa’s affections. Actually is not affection Pig is after at all, but rather sackfuls of presents. His greed and overt excessive selfishness is what makes Pig so utterly unlikeable and yet so fantastically addictive. I have used this book in early childcare centres and Kindergartens where it has huge crowd appeal. An excellent example of naughty and nice and how you may only end up with ‘just desserts’ if you are too greedy. Obnoxious hilarity in the highest degree, recommended for pre-schoolers and above.
This cheerful collection of predominantly animal inspired Christmas tales will make a gay addition under any Christmas tree. Popular children’s authors and illustrators have created stories that neighbour tales from not so well known writers yet are all redolent of that delicious Christmas spirit. From wombats to pudding making bears, turtles to curious sausage dogs, this anthology of short stories is lusciously illustrated and ideal to read aloud with younger readers or as a meaningful gift for more confident readers. Heartedly recommended reading.
This book declares that Christmas is far too important to leave in the hands of Santa and a bunch of elves. It urges you to ‘take control of your festive destiny’, and what better way to do so than to cut, colour and construct your OWN CHRISTMAS! I love the premise of this definitely-not-boring activity book. Every single colour-saturated page is packed with things to make and do. Advent calendars, decorations, Chrissy cards, Christmas crackers, party hats, gift tags, Santa launchers – it’s all here in with instructions to make mess and have FUN! Just what you need to keep them occupied for longer than it takes to baste a turkey. Have fun with it, this Christmas.
UNEARTHED by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner is a completely fun space adventure, featuring codes, puzzles, aliens, ancient tombs, and some epic gun fights! I’ve heard it pitched as “Indiana Jones in space” and you know what? That is not wrong. It could also be called a YA book version of the iPhone game Temple Run. So that’s exciting. It’s such a fun story, not super deep or scary but with plenty of twists and booby traps and the occasional burst of witty snark.
The story follows two dual narrators, Jules and Amelia, who end up stuck together on a wild adventure to find an alien temple even though they kind of hate each other. They have very very different goals. Amelia needs to steal some alien tech to sell so she can rescue her sister. And Jules is a studious genius scholar child who needs to prove his father wasn’t wrong about the aliens and get him out of prison. They’re such opposites, but after running for their lives from bloodthirsty raiders, they end up tangled in the complex puzzles of the alien temple. Are the puzzles here to save them or kill them?
I loved the raiders and scavengers in space story line! It was really different for me, ergo exciting. We totally have that moment where the geeks are like: “OH AN ANCIENT AMAZING TEMPLE.” And the raiders follow up with: “wow sorry ok but I just blew it up.” This is so true to the heart of Indiana Jones. See something precious and archeological? Ruin it. Such a human thing to do.
There was also that “learning how to survive” curve since Jules is a nerdy academic and tries to go on an action adventure and bring everything (including the kitchen stove) and also probably irons his pants. Amelia has a lot to sort out with him.
Both our narrators were super winning. It was really easy to root for them, even though their goals clashed so much. There’s a lot of lies and sneaking about as each tries to manipulate the other. I particularly loved Jules who was the kind of guy who knew how to spice up boring ration food because, yes, he brought spices with him. He kept his clothes neat and was forever scribbling in his notebook while trying to solve alien puzzles. He’s a super genius and super dork.
Amelia was hilarious and clever. She was kickass but also had emotion and wry humour and even though we never meet the little sister she’s trying to save in this volume, I really cared about both these sisters and the fact that Amelia will literally go to a strange planet with dubious amounts of air to breathe to get money to save her family?! Amelia is best.
The dialogue and banter were fantastic! I do wish there’d been more because there was quite a lot of monologuing and description, but it was still great to get into both characters’ thought processes.
The entire plot was pretty wild. We get everything from gun battles to running-for-your-life-through-an-uncharted-temple to booby trapped rooms where if you don’t think fast, you’ll end up dead. Not to mention add in spaceships and forgotten civilisations. I loved that old musty vibe of the tomb-like temple. The plot was forever pushed forward too by the enemy raiders who would almost definitely not hesitate to dump a couple of kids down a ravine. It’s a highstakes adrenaline race!
UNEARTHEDis a really fantastic start to a new sci-fi series that’ll make you foam at the mouth a little in anticipation for the sequel. It’s from the same duo who gave us the These Broken Stars duology too!
There’s nothing like an Aussie Christmas than the fresh scent of Summer mixed with a fragrance of fond memories and the savour of new ones. That’s how the following picture books will entice their readers, both young and old – with peace, unity and joy as we pleasure in the warmth of the festive and summery holiday season in Australia.
Corinne Fenton and Robin Cowcher return with another stunning ‘Little Dog’ story. From the iconic Melbourne in the previous, magical Christmas tale, Little Dog and the Summer Holiday takes Jonathan, Annie and their precious Westie, with caravan in tow, on holiday to the idyllic sites of Sydney. Immediately, Fenton paints a gloriously detailed adventure full of evocative language that is sure to bring about that nostalgic cue of wonderful family trips of yesteryear. Passing legendary landmarks such as the Dog on the Tuckerbox and Sydney Harbour Bridge, paddling at Bondi Beach and rattling “down the mountainside on the steepest scenic railway in the world” all make for an exciting, memorable holiday with family, friends, and of course, beloved pets.
Cowcher’s whimsical illustrations add a pleasurable sense of romanticism that capture the beauty and evocation of holidays like this. Parents and children will equally delight in Little Dog and the Summer Holiday, either reminding of the good old days, or enthusing a predilection for future family vacations. A beautiful book.
Summer – peaceful, tranquil, cheerful and contentment. Words that describe that special feeling of rest, fun and togetherness during the sunny season. And words that describe the special feeling emanating from this book by June Factor and sublime creator Alison Lester. Thirty years in print and Summer still feels as good as a homemade steamin’ puddin’ on a balmy Christmas Day.
Factor’s simple, silky and smooth Aussie voice shines through with robust rhyming character as we are swept up in a temperamental mix of family antics, Summer nuances and changing weather during the hot festive season. Lester’s legendary scenic art and winsome characters keep us occupied throughout with all the glorious combinations of farmyard outlooks and high-spirited busyness, respectively. From flies a gatherin’ to early morning rises, kin gatherin’ and present opening, pork a cracklin’ and raising glasses, clouds gatherin’ and making a bolt for cover, and finally napping and playing ‘til the stars are gatherin’ in the night sky.
Summer is a book of leisure, affection and ambience that will remain a classic to treasure and indulge in all the year round.
The tinsel is hung, the carols are sung. Tchaikovsky’s, The Nutcracker courses merrily in the background and hope hovers amidst every batch of gingerbread cookies. There’s no doubt, Christmas is well and truly upon us. However, if you are still in search of a meaningful Christmas tale to share with your young ones, consider these. They are all full of heart and soul and more than just a little good old-fashioned Christmas magic.
If you are ever in need of a little magic, if you ever find yourself questioning reason, if your festive spirit is ever waning, hope is here, with Matt Haig. This is superb storytelling for midgrade readers all the way through to 99-year-olds. Following on from Haig and Mould’s first collaboration, A Boy Called Christmas, this tale works so well at suspending belief and infusing hope, you’d be forgiven for feeling you’ve already met Father Christmas. Maybe you have. Haig takes what we have already been led to believe and crystallizes it into one big fat tangible beautiful believable Christmas miracle. Mould’s illustrations enhance an already magical tale with strokes of Dickenson brilliance. A Christmas must read – every year. Sublime to read aloud to little people or to cherish alone as you would the last fruit mince pie. Read, A Boy Called Christmas first to truly fortify your Christmas spirit, then Father Christmas and Me.
Do you have an emerging confident reader keen to fill their newly acquired ravenous literary appetite? Youngsters between 5 – 9 years are discovering at this age that stories can occur in the most wildly absurd wonderful places and that junior novels, like these, are their invitations to new words and new adventures. By feeding them regular healthy doses of junior fiction, you will nourish their love for reading and keep them satisfied well into the holidays. Here are some suggestions:
Bold, bright and busting with high-action adventure, this series is brilliant for early readers. Controlled use of vocabulary, illustrations and diagrams all contribute to wicked reads with Books 1 – 6 released this year and more to follow in 2018. Kids will love following Hunter Marks on his dino hunting missions after he wins a computer game and becomes a member of D-Bot Squad. High-energy fun.
This whacky series is decidedly visual with full colour illustrations dominating each page. Text is minimal but enhanced with varying font sizes for emphasis and wow factor. Each book examines a particular Mooper character of Moopertown, the first being Dramatic Dom. The stories encourage kids to get to know each individual better and appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. The notion that everyone is special in his or her own special way is the theme that meanders throughout this collection.
This jolly attractive little hardcover book is part of the Read & Bloom Books series, which invite youngsters on wondrous adventures with lovable wily characters, like Stinky Spike, using mindfully sparse narrative and beguiling illustrations. Colourful and merry, these are the type of stories that really do plant the love of reading!
Who could resist a golden puffball of fluff with a tail? This heart-warming series is about puppies that train to become Guide Dogs. Each story is about a puppy, like Harley in the first book, and the families that train them. Lightly illustrated with Evan’s charming drawings and full of puppy pranks and incidents, this series is sure to sate your cuteness quota. Buying these books also helps puppies like Harley become fully fledged Guide Dogs. Win win!
I love this quirky cooking orientated series about 10-year-old Sage, daughter of celebrity chef parents with an insatiable passion for…wait for it…food! Together they travel the globe encountering more than their fair share of not so nice-tasting situations and characters. Murphy cleverly combines every day normal with generous dollops of extraordinary. The latest titles include a sojourn to Singapore and a Literary Launch for this delectable character. Delicious fun for girls and culinary creators alike. And the best bit? A recipe in each book. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
Squishy is the instantly likeable, utterly loveable heroine of this spirited series about dysfunctional blended families and all the glorious ‘normal’ zany events that occur within their orbits. Fast paced, age-clinching narrative is interspersed with illustrations that induce drama and humour. The first book, Bonus Sisters, introduces us to Squishy’s family members and her unquenchable need to question – everything! Creative, curious, charmingly optimistic and just a touch naive, Squishy is just the type of hero little girls will love to emulate.
I’m not sure what the scientific explanation is for the fascination kids of this age possess for all things dinosaurs but my little miss did, too. Palaeophiliacs (lovers of dinosaurs and pre-historic thingies) will revel in this series, a few years old now but young in comparison to a Diplodocus, when you think about it. Stomping-mad fun made all the more believable by Flowers’ hilarious illustrations. Pletosaurauses in the bathtub, Diplodocuses in the tepees – Jack and Toby have all these and heaps more dino dilemmas to cope with on Saurus Street. It’s like the age of the dinosaurs never ended.
Definitely one for the girls, this series is Tom Gates meets Dork Diariesfor young girls. Interwoven with themes of friendship, teamwork, ponies, dancing, fashion, bullies and a whole year of diaries’ worth more, these stories will appeal to girls and their BFFs. Ella is utterly addictive thanks McDonald’s fantastic illustrations, just the sort of wiggles and pics and notations young girls are wont to scribble alongside their deepest most inner thoughts. Fun, airy and tots on the money. Highly recommended.
Stunning spacey foil covers give way to equally scintillating storylines centring on space probing, Jake and his whacky team of mates and robots.
This series features galaxies of intergalactic fun sporting space-aged adventures mid-primary school kids can really get carried away with – providing they have their space suits on. There are six in the series, which gives young readers plenty of time and incentive to explore the entire universe! Did I mention the covers are truly out of this world!
I LOVE an exciting pick-a-path-you-choose-the-path story! Having written one myself, I know how tricky it can be producing a convincing multi-ending story. It can also be colossal fun! Heath’s series adds a new dimension to 30 possible adventure storylines – a countdown. YOU the reader only have 30 minutes to choose the right path to survive. These stories are humming with danger, ethical decisions, survival dilemmas and plenty of problem solving, ideal for the inquisitive, questing mind. Written in second person, as most choose your own adventure stories are, this series plants you smack bang in the middle of the action and you only have yourself to blame if things go horribly wrong. What’s not to love! Highly recommended for grip-the-edge-of-your-seat reading.
This expansive series is another choose your own adventure styled collection, which I just can’t get enough of. Ivanoff has created an amazing array of stories, each pulsing with high levels of interactivity. Again, YOU the reader must decide which options to take when faced with a dizzying selection of alternatives. Despite the choice, each chapter is concise enough to follow and complete within a relatively short timeframe, or even, to read aloud without confusion. Coupled with Hart’s explosive illustrations, it’s all very brilliant and, at times, just a little on the dark scary side. Pack some in your Christmas stockings this season – there’s a new release nearly every month!
Christmas is a great time for plum pudding and tinsel and muted panic about trying to find the right gift for everyone. So the best and most logical option is obviously to just buy everyone you know a book. And what could be better than an Aussie book!? It goes really well with plum pudding. Total guarantee.
Today I want to list some really great Aussie Young Adult books that have been published in 2017 and might suit someone in your family’s fancy. Or just, you know, gift it to yourself. Christmas is a time for giving after all. (Even to yourself, shh, this is fine.)
BEAUTIFUL MESS BY CLAIRE CHRISTIAN
This is definitely one of my new all time favourite books and it’s about two teens struggling with depression. It involves slam-poetry and a kebab shop and healing and learning to accept you’re not broken, but rather love yourself and let other people help you on your journey. Gideon is an absolute sweetheart and you’ll adore Ava’s determination not to collapse under her grief.
THIS MORTAL COIL BY EMILY SUVADA
This is a brand new book that’s just hit the shelves and it’ll hit all your sci-fi cravings SO well. It’s about a dystopian world where a virus is wiping everyone out, and a genius scientist’s daughter is suddenly left alone after her dad is kidnapped by a dark organisation. Catarina has to crack the code to release the antidote to the world, with the help of a super-soldier named Cole and her own intelligence in science and technology. Definitely features lots of guns and running and small explosions.
GAP YEAR IN GHOST TOWN BY MICHAEL PRYOR
This book is just downright hilarious, so if you’re looking for something that captures Australian wit and humour — like just drop everything and buy this book. Probably buy it for yourself too. It’s just so so funny. It’s about Anton who’s family is a long-line of ghost hunters. They help them move onto the afterlife as quietly and calmly as possible…until a girl from the “elite” British branch comes over and tries to shake things up with her sword and more violent but effective way of controlling ghosts. Mysteries unravel about the different ghost-hunting groups and there’s an extra spiteful rise in malevolent spirits. Except swords and bucket loads of coffee and quips in the face of death and a lot of ghosts.
NIGHT SWIMMING BY STEPH BOWE
This is such a sweet and lovely contemporary set in a small outback Australian town where Kirby is set for a boring existence until the most beautiful new girl moves into town. Kirby’s best friend, Clancy, immediately is ALL eyes for this new girl (options are limited okay) and Kirby promises to help play matchmaker…but the problem is she’s falling for Iris too. The book is the actual cutest thing and features quirky writing and goat soap and delicious Indian food and a protagonist who adores books which is, quite frankly, relatable.
QUEENS OF GEEK BY JEN WILDE
Now this book is set in the USA, but it features 3 Australian teens who travel to a supercon to embrace all their nerdy glory. It swaps points-of-view between Taylor, who is an anxious booknerd with autism, and Charlie, who is a bisexual indie movie star trying to ditch a horrible ex-boyfriend (also, unfortunately, a costar) while she crushes hard on a local youtuber. The book takes place over 3 days and it’s full of action and amazing character devleopment and tons of pop-culture references. It’s super fun and you’ll root for Taylor and Charlie to get their dreams and speak up to their crushes. Definite must-read for all nerds and geeks!
Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?
The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.
What genre are they?
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.
What are you writing about now or next?
I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them. Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com
Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spyand your other books.
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Tristan’s replies. (Felice features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
Tristan was one of the knights of the round table. It can mean ‘noise’ or ‘boldness’ or ‘sorrow’. Certainly, there are notes of boldness and sorrow in my novels and my teachers always told me I was unnecessarily noisy.
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Tristan about The Fall and Felice (in the next post) about The Boy and the Spy
THE FALL is inspired by a crime scene I visited doing work experience with a news crew when I was in high school. A man had stolen a woman’s handbag, run through a park, jumped over a fence at the back of the park and didn’t realise that the park was built on top of a multi-storey carpark which was built into the hillside. This and my love of the Hitchcock thriller REAR WINDOW collided to inspire the story.
What genre are they?
THE FALL is a kind of crime, mystery, suspense, thriller. But it’s not just characters servicing plot. I try to write characters that you care about and I want to explore big ideas that are relevant to middle-grade readers. THE FALL touches on mortality, rites of passage for kids and what it means to be a good human and family member, to make good choices.
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Most of the book is set in a single apartment building over the space of twenty-four hours. I set myself that challenge and it makes the book quite intense. The building is in Sydney, very much like a building a friend of mine lives in, which is only about 100 metres from the crime scene that I visited back when I was sixteen years-old. It’s also influenced by the apartments I stayed in while travelling in England and Europe for four months during the writing of the second draft.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
THE FALL begins at 2.08am in a fifth-floor apartment with Sam waking to hear two men arguing in the apartment overhead. Moments later he witnesses a crime. The perpetrator of that crime realises that Sam is the sole witness and comes after him. This sets the drama in motion, with Sam becoming increasingly entwined in the crime as the story progresses.
Books need to start with a bang but, when they do, as an author you need to ensure that the rest of the story lives up to the opening and that the end is even better.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
Sam Garner is twelve-going-on-thirteen. He has never met his father before this week. He grew up in the Blue Mountains (not unlike myself) and his father left before he was born. His mother has never wanted him to see his father and his dad hasn’t exactly been breaking his neck to get in touch either. But, after having an operation on his knee (as I did when I was thirteen), Sam’s Mum has to work and she finally allows Sam to go and stay with his father, Harry, a newspaper crime reporter, for a week while he recuperates. On his second-last night, he witnesses the crime.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
It’s very different to my younger, funnier illustrated short stories in the Tom Weekly books. There is humour in THE FALL but it’s darker, more thrilling and it explores bigger ideas. It’s more in the vein of TWO WOLVES.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I hate Fleech’s book. Kidding. It’s actually my favourite book he’s written. I really like SPECKY MAGEE but I think ‘THE BOY AND THE SPY’ is another step up. It has a thrilling opening scene but the book isn’t just about action. The characters are rich and believable and it’s told against the backdrop of an important and exciting historical moment. My fourteen year-old son just devoured it a few days ago, too.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We see each other a few times a year at dinners and festivals and when I’m in Melbourne I’ll see if Fleech is around for a catch-up. We have a shared history in that we both started out as TV actors, both lived in the U.K. for a few years. In fact I interviewed Felice when I was presenting a TV series in the U.K. and he was performing in a musical. He is a super-energetic entertainer and we both like the idea of using video and performance to bring books to life for kids.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
Runner – Robert Newton
Okay For Now – Gary D Schmidt
Joey Pigza Loses Control – Jack Gantos
Once series – Morris Gleitzman
What are you writing about now or next?
I’ve just finished the next book of short stories in the TOM WEEKLY series and Gus Gordon is illustrating it now. It’s out in 2018 and features stories in which Tom tries to eat a car, his guinea pig is taken hostage, his grandmother involves him in a plot to steal a prize fruitcake, he is attacked by a gang of killer possums and he believes that he and his bum have the potential to save the world.
I’m also writing a new crime-thriller called DETENTION about a kid involved in a school lockdown who comes face-to-face with the threat. I imagine it’ll be out either 2019 or 2020. I like to let the novels breathe so they take a few years to evolve.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s a great complement to the writing work. Writing is intensely personal and sometimes lonely. I love going out and trying new stories and ideas on readers. I love visualising the stories and bringing them to life with anecdotes and images and video and music. It’s fun mucking around with ideas, hearing what readers respond to and hopefully inspiring kids to pick up a book or create their own stories.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks Joy. Hi Fleech. Fun chatting to you. And don’t forget to put a book into your child / grandchild / niece or nephew / brother / sister / friend / random kid in the street’s Santa sack this Crimbo. 😉
Thanks Tristan and all the best with The Fall and your other books.
I confess, I am not impressive with a bat or ball. Playing sports has never really been my thing. What I have discovered however, is that reading about sports is far more satisfying for me and if even if you don’t have a footy-mad under nine-year-old or even a book-crazy child, the following sports books may be just the ticket to igniting an appreciation for both, this Christmas.
This is an alphabet picture book with a lovely difference – it appeals to footy fanatical boys and girls who love AFL but also enjoy the thrill and anticipation of team play. Superb alliteration and spirited illustrations take readers from A to Z, through a wet and wonderful day on the field. I love the exaggerated use of letter repetition used to reinforce and introduce new word sounds. Sensational squelchy fun.
This is a gorgeous pretty in pink story about prima ballerina, Michaela DePrince. Abandoned in a Sierra Leone orphanage, then adopted by the DePrinces, it tells of Michaela’s rise from poverty and despair to attaining her dream of dancing on her toes and flying through the air after seeing a picture of a woman with pink shoes on her feet on a magazine cover. Poignant and gently inspirational. Highly recommended for those with a dancing dream of their own.
Uncomplicated text and a sizzling storyline make these tales of friendship perfect for early primary readers. There are a few titles in this series about twin brothers, Thomas and Cooper, which will claim the attention of little lads but the premise of these identical troublemakers pulling pranks wherever and whenever they can has universal appeal.
Where are you based and what is your current role, Darren?
I live in Vancouver. My current role is husband, father, provider and fiction scribbler.
How involved are you in the YA community?
Not as much as I used to be when I was a teacher. My 16 year old twins keep me connected to today’s kids, though.
Could you tell us a little about your early books?
Well, they’ve all disappeared, sad to say. However, I’m proud of them and each one was notable in its own way. My first novel, The Procrastinator, got my first personal, positive rejection (still one of the very best feelings I’ve ever had in my career); my second novel, Most Valuable Potential, was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; my third novel, The Umbilical Word, secured my wonderful literary agent; and my fourth novel, Kindling, picked up my first contract with a major trade publishing house (Hachette).
Thank you for your kind words, Joy. The protagonists of AYSM are twins, Justine and Perry Richter. Justine is smart, well read, neurotypical and the sole carer of her brother. Perry is smart, sensitive, neurodiverse and hopeful of “freeing” his sister. Perry makes three appearances in the new novel, Exchange of Heart. It was a real treat to connect with him again.
What is the significance of the clever title of your powerful new novel Exchange of Heart?
Exchange of Heart captures what this novel is all about, both literally and thematically. There’s a lot to unpack; it makes sense at a surface level then becomes deeper and richer the further you delve into the story.
Why is this book important?
Like all good fiction, I need to have told a good tale in order for the work to be assigned any importance. If readers feel I’ve told a good tale then there is some food-for-thought that can be discussed. PTSD in young adults, treatment of the intellectually disabled, use of the R-word, mental health of refugees, among others. In some ways, Exchange of Heart is a political YA novel. I embrace that label.
Could you tell us about your complex major character, Munro Maddux?
I love Munro. I think he’s the best character I’ve ever put down on the page. So many qualities about him that I admire – his honour, his tenacity, his nuance, his care. I love his wounded heart. Unlike many other characters I’ve written, he’s not an open book. He’s not ‘all the feels’. That’s very commendable in this day and age.
Who is the Coyote?
The Coyote is less a ‘who’ and more a ‘what’. It’s a voice in Munro’s head that’s constantly at him and it’s the most debilitating symptom of his PTSD-infused grief over the loss of his younger sister, Evie. Why Coyote? In North American First Nations/Aboriginal lore, Coyote represents ‘trickster’ medicine; it is a deceiver, not to be trusted. It was the perfect motif for Munro’s nemesis.
What is the significance of the “-er” words?
I was actually looking to create something self help-ish that was a bit cheesy. And the students of Sussex High, Rowan in particular, see it that way. In Munro’s case, though, his ‘er’ word – ‘better’ – was right on the money.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the assisted-living community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
It changes every day! Today, I’ll say Bernie because she seeks to protect her fellow Fair Go residents from discrimination and oppression. We need more Bernies in the world!
What would you like to see change or improve for those in assisted-living communities in the near future?
The programs that served as inspiration for my fictional Fair Go – Youngcare in Australia and Bittersweet Farms in the US – are wonderful examples of what is possible with assisted living. If there is one thing I would like to see in all situations of supported care, it is residents having a say in their work, their play, their passion, their collaboration. Generally, having agency in their lives.
Having lived and been flooded in Brisbane myself, your descriptions of place such as Walter Taylor Bridge and South Bank resonated strongly. Where is a significant place in Brisbane for you?
There’s a few. Mum and Dad’s house in Mitchelton. Milpera State High, where I taught for almost ten years. Lang Park (I still can’t call it Suncorp Stadium). My grandmother’s house in Hawthorne which, sadly, no longer exists.
The Tolstoy quote, I felt, summed up Exchange of Heart perfectly. The love of others is the catalyst for Munro to forgive himself and heal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fascinating story for me, not the least of which for its commentary about the treatment of the intellectually disabled.
Magabala is a Broome-based Indigenous publisher. It publishes Bruce Pascoe, the award-winning author of Black Emu (for adults) and Fog a Dox, Seahorse and Mrs Whitlam for children. Magabala’s Greg Dreise’s Mad Magpie has just won the Indigenous category of the national Speech Pathology awards. Deadly D and Justice Jones by David Hartley and Scott Prince is an appealing series which I’ve reviewed for the blog previously and Brenton McKenna’s graphic novels, Ubby’s Underdogs are full of appeal.
And one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen is published by Magabala – Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler.
Big Fella Rain
A suburb new picture book is Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber. It traces the natural world’s wait for rain in northern Australia. The illustrations by Fern Martins are impressive and one appears above as the feature image for this post. They are lovely, evocative works of art.
Mrs White and the Red Desert
The red cover of Mrs White and the Red Desert by Josie Boyle, illustrated by Maggie Prewett, represents the overshadowing power of the desert sand to explain in an amusing way why the children’s homework is always smudged with red. This is a highlight in Magabala’s list.
On the Way to Nana’s
Red ochre colour also sets the scene of On the Way to Nana’sby Frances and Lindsay Haji-Ali, illustrated by animator David Hardy. This is an accomplished, extremely appealing, tale of travelling to Nana’s house. Things the family see on the way, from flowers to anthills, goannas, brumbies and boabs, are counted backwards from 15 to 1, which is very useful for children who are learning to count. The numbers are shown as numerals and in words. Some of the text is repetitive, “I’m on the way to Nana’s house. What will I see?”
Molly the Pirate
The first picture book from Magabala’s Indigenous Creator Scholarship is Molly the Pirate by Lorraine Teece, illustrated by Paul Seden. Molly lives far from the sea but imagines she is a pirate. Paul Seden takes the challenge modelled by the lively text to create vibrant, gloriously-coloured illustrations. He also does a great job with camera angles, particularly from above and below the hills hoist clothes lines.
Based on the song by Lorrae Coffin, Free Diving looks at the role of Indigenous free divers. It is a poignant insight into history, illustrated by Bronwyn Houston.
At the Zoo I See
At the Beach I See
Two board books for the very young from the new “Young Art” series are At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (the team behind Steve Goes to Carnival) and At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh, who uses black linework with wash backgrounds.
Robert Ingpen was born in 1936 and is the only Australian illustrator to have won the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen award. He is a virtuoso of painterly artwork and has illustrated Australian stories such as Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, Mustara by Rosanne Hawke, Ziba Came on a Boat written by Liz Lofthouse, The Poppykettle series and The Afternoon Treehouse and a long list of children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (hence the title of this tribute to his work), Peter Pan and Wendy, The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The Nutcracker, The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol will be perfect books for Christmas. Ingpen has also designed Australian postage stamps.
His most recent books include the awarded outback-based Tea and Sugar Christmas and Radio Rescue! (both written by Jane Jolly). Wonderlands gives a generous insight into these books and others. It is a must-have celebration of children’s literature through the lens of our maestro, Robert Ingpen.
The School of Music by Meurig and Rachel Bowen, illustrated by Daniel Frost (Wide Eyed Editions, Allen & Unwin)
Music is important for the pleasure it gives and because it’s good for the brain and can lead to unexpected friendships and opportunities. Enjoyable and useful to use in homes, schools and music schools, The School of Music is a lavish compendium of music, musicians and instruments in picture book form.
Musician characters (such as Diva Venus, a star singer, Ronny ‘Beethoven’ O’Reilly, a composer and Roxy Mojo, a percussion specialist) are introduced at the beginning of the book and feature strategically throughout to explain concepts. Section 1 looks at different types of music and instruments and how music connects with film, maths, architecture and other disciplines. Section 2 offers a musical toolbox, which enables children to write music, beginning with fun graphic scores using pictures and symbols. Section 3 is about children making music themselves. The book suggests diverse ways such as making a kitchen orchestra as well as playing a conventional instrument or singing. It concludes with tips on performing and composing.
There are bonus music samples accessed by the QR code at the end of the book and children could dip in and out of this book or use it as a Christmas holiday music appreciation and education course, ideally even alongside learning a musical instrument.
Illustrator-icon Anne Spudvilas is known for The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin (my teacher notes are on the Reading Australia site), Woolvs in the Sitee (written by Margaret Wild) and her first book The Race by Christobel Mattingley which won the Crichton Award for Illustration and was a CBCA Honour Book. Her new interpretation of Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) is a sumptuous gift book. It is a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet set on the Murray-Darling. The lavish illustrations are textured and allusive. Spudvilas features black and white with occasional limited shades of yellow, and red for a few sparse dramatic and accentuated moments.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
Stepping Stones (UQP) was published earlier in the year but remains timely with the ongoing issues in caring for and resettling refugees. Margriet Ruurs saw Syrian, Nizar Ali Badr’s stone and pebble artwork online and worked hard and inventively to contact him and gain permission to use his art to highlight the plight of those escaping the horrors of war. The text is written in Arabic and English.
Another unusual and fascinating picture book is Drawn Onward (Fremantle Press), a palindromic text which can be read forwards and backwards . Meg McKinlay, who is most well-known for her multiple awarded dystopian novel, A Single Stone, uses the palindrome form to rephrase negative phrases and thoughts into positive. She calls it “optimism training for our kids”. The design is appropriately subtle and enigmatic.
Like the other books reviewed here, colour is used efficaciously in Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream (Lothian Children’s Books, Hachette). The story begins “Once in a blue moon, everyone has a really, really excellent dream.” Danny’s world is coloured blue and his father’s factory makes every hue of blue paint. After Danny’s dessert of blueberries one night, he dreams, not in blue, but of a red whale. Blue continues to dominate his life until he decides to create his dream colour in paint. It takes until Day 99 when “Not – Blue” appears and, even though people are suspicious, Not-Blue starts showing up where it’s not expected. This is a wonderful book about being different, dreaming and persistence in creativity.
Thank you, Joy! And many thanks for having me on the blog.
But first, where are you based and what is your background?
I live in Sydney, with my husband and our three sons, not far from where I grew up as a kid. I initially studied Communications straight out of high school at UTS, where I majored in writing and media theory, before then going on to train as an actor at Theatre Nepean, UWS. Towards the end of my acting training, I taught drama to a group of kids out at Mount Pleasant and I wrote them a play. It was then that it finally dawned on me that I didn’t want to be an actor after all, that in fact I wanted to be a writer but for young people, rather than adults. So not long after, I enrolled in a writing course with the acclaimed children’s author Libby Gleeson. That course felt both like a complete revelation and a homecoming. It was there that I workshopped a picture text I had written on my honeymoon of all places, about a little boy and his ice cream van driving dad. Libby Gleeson was a wonderful teacher and she instinctively knew how to draw out the possibilities of both a writer and a text and because of that early encouragement, here I am sixteen books later.
Do you give many presentations to children? How do you make them interesting? Have there been any particularly memorable responses?
I’ve spoken to thousands of kids over the years, presenting talks and writing workshops. In my general talks, I’ll often share funny stories about my life, what kind of kid I was growing up and especially some of the funny stories about bringing up my boys. There’s lots of acting and hilarity, especially when I share the inspiration behind stories like Sleep Tight, My Honey or My Mum Tarzan. I always bring along some of my writing journals and I usually explore the growth of at least one book in detail, from first seed to final story. I’m keen for kids to hear about the writing process but I’m also especially passionate for them to grasp how curiosity about ordinary moments can lead to the creation of juicy stories.
Funnily enough, some of the loveliest moments happen when I’m not speaking at all, when little clusters of kids sidle up at the end of a session to confide about a book they’ve been writing, or how they’re going to go out and buy their own writing journal that very afternoon, so they can write about the idea they have for a funny story about their own crazy mum, grandpa or dog. Because just as much as I want kids to love my books, at the end of the day, I want to inspire them even more so to discover the beauty and worth of their own stories.
I adore your laugh-out-loud YA novel My Big Birkett (it’s one of my all-time favourites) and love reciting parts about the animals that mate for life, The Tempest and gorgeous Raven and the meals he makes using mince; as well as your wonderful picture books. Could you tell us about some of these books?
Thanks Joy! It makes me especially happy to know that you are a Raven fan!
I’m often asked what I prefer to write most and I always say I love writing both picture books and novels and that I couldn’t choose between them. The best part of writing picture books for me is the absolute thrill of collaboration. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many brilliant illustrators over the years and each one has taught me so much about the power of the visual text. Some of my picture books that have been especially well-received include the Bear and Chook books, illustrated by Emma Quay, Gordon’s got a Snookie, illustrated by Wayne Harris and Big Pet Day, illustrated by Gus Gordon, who was also on the QLA shortlist too, for his gorgeous picture book, Somewhere Else. My most recent picture book is Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! illustrated by Binny Talib. This was such a tough text to illustrate, mainly because of the fairly swift juxtaposition of the scenes of school life, with Ruby Lee’s fervent imagination. I’m just so delighted at what a marvellously beautiful job Binny has done.
I will say that one of the unforeseen joys of my writing life has been the steady, heartfelt emails I have received over the years from teen readers regarding My Big Birkett. These emails about Gemma and Raven and the De Head family have been incredibly sincere and poignant and they have often left me with a huge lump in my throat.
I know this is a tricky question but how do you incorporate humour into your writing?
This is a tricky question! As a kid, I looked into books like they were real windows. The books that spoke to me most were always the ones that captured acutely the laugh-out-loud jumbly nature of life, alongside the bittersweet ache. In terms of writing humour, I always keep an ear out for those little things that will make kids laugh. Not so long ago, my sister told me a story about how her four-year old son crept into her bed in the middle of the night and snuggled up tight to her, saying, ‘I love you so much Mummy, I want to shoot you out of a cannon!’ When I tell that story to kids, they roll around on the floor, laughing their heads off. But at the same time I know they recognise the vehemence of that kind of love, because they’ve felt it rocketing around in their own chests. I think humour has this remarkable capacity to encourage true connection and I’m always keen to incorporate it in my work, because it radically paves the way for readers to engage more fully and tenderly not only with a character’s dreams, fears, hopes and sorrows but also perhaps, with their own.
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler (A&U) has just won the QLA Griffith University Children’s Book award. The judge report says:
“The Grand Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler is structured as a quintessential Australian beach camping holiday but the exceptional storytelling soars to welcome the reader into both the setting and young Henry Hoobler’s rites of passage. We are given a heart-warming insight into introspective Henry. He is a genius at noticing things, surprising his fellow campers with his success in board and card games. He is also ‘Mr Worst-Case Scenario’, dreading the bugs, stingers and sharks of the beach but, most of all, dreading learning to ride his new silver bike. The bike is a symbol of fear, but its significance changes as Henry discovers courage and freedom. Courage can be found when friends are ‘straight-up and true’, embodied by free-spirit Cassie. This tale reminds us that everyone is different and everyone has gifts. Some, like Henry, prefer to learn quietly but even extroverts can be fearful.
The writing is literary and metaphorical, encompassing a vast emotional range whilst being utterly engaging for children. It is rare to encounter a novel for mid-primary children characterised by such perception and cadence.”
What was your reaction when you realised you had won?
I was astonished and delighted. It took quite a few days for it to truly sink in. Then I was just overcome with immense gratitude that the judges had seen something special in Henry.
It was wonderful to meet your young son, Rohan, at the awards presentation in Brisbane (and others there loved seeing him reading The Hobbit as the night wore on). Why was he there and what was your dual experience of the awards evening?
One of the initial nudges for writing Henry Hoobler was watching Rohie develop as a reader. After a slow start, he had a very sudden and rapid acceleration over a single year and I knew he was in this slippery in-between stage, where the books he was capable of reading were still quite a huge stretch for him emotionally. I began to wonder if I could write something that would speak directly to his life. As I wrote Henry, I read chapter after chapter out loud to Rohie. When I had finished the book and before it had been published, he persuaded his class teacher that I should come to school and read some chapters to his whole class as well. I dedicated the novel to Rohan because I wanted to acknowledge just what an incredible gift it was to have his enthusiastic encouragement along the way.
Rohie is an avid bookworm and so hanging out at the QLA awards ceremony for him was suddenly like meeting all of his people, all at once. He was especially touched that I mentioned him in my speech and I was especially touched when Rebe Taylor, the winner of the QLA History Book Award asked him to sign her copy of Henry. I can safely say that if Rohie’s class teacher had seen that handwriting, he would have been granted his official pen licence on the spot!
What is the significance of the title The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler?
Early in the novel, Henry discovers that his rather unique talent for noticing things, makes him almost unbeatable when it comes to playing cards and board games. After Henry convincingly and unexpectedly smashes all the men and the older boys at games, Patch, his rather begrudging older brother finally acknowledges that Henry might be bit of a grand genius. It’s the beginning of a radical shift in the way Henry sees himself. Although Henry has replayed every worst case scenario in vivid detail regarding his camping holiday, what he has never considered is all the ways this summer might turn out to be the best one yet, the grand, genius summer of all summers.
Could you tell us about your protagonist Henry and some other characters?
Henry is a sensitive, imaginative and thoughtful nine-year old boy. He is the middle child, slotted right in between his athletically gifted, funny, know-it-all fifteen-year old brother Patch and his rambunctious, My Little Pony obsessed younger sister Lulu. Both Henry and his mum share some anxious traits and tend towards self-reflection and to feeling things deeply. Henry is very keen to please his exuberant dad, who is a real enthusiast for life. But Henry is filled with dread at the idea of learning how to ride his new bike without training wheels, especially in front of prickly Reed Barone, another boy who is close to Henry’s age and who is prone to sneering. Eventually, Henry meets ten-year old Cassie, who lives onsite in a caravan with her Pop. Cassie is a free spirit and alive to the world in ways that astonish Henry. Finally, Cassie’s straight up and true courage rubs off and with an unexpected Lulu intervention, Henry learns how to summon up his own courage and to do a whole series of adventurous things that he never imagined.
For what age-group is this novel intended?
Henry is intended for 7-11 year olds. I’ve been really pleased though by the numbers of reviewers that have also recommended it as a read-aloud for the whole family or the school classroom too.
How did you balance fine literary writing with the other elements of the narrative?
I was keen to write in a way that was hospitable to all kinds of middle grade readers, those that were confidently independent and those newly finding their feet. As a result, the story contains lots of snappy dialogue, which helps to give the text an easy, engaging flow. In terms of metaphoric imagery, I kept in mind some feedback given to me around another novel, regarding the importance of restraint. I was conscious that any poetic moment really had to serve the story and forward the action. At the same time, I wanted the novel to contain a certain richness of vocabulary because something the American writer Madeleine L’Engle once said has stayed with me for years, ‘We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.’ So balancing all of these elements was challenging, a little like prancing across a highwire tightrope.
As well as being good fun to read, Henry Hoobler has some important underpinning themes. Could you share some of these?
I’m always a little cautious when discussing themes because I know the writer is sometimes the least insightful person on that subject! With Henry though, I was keen to explore the nature of courage, the way one young boy discovers how to be brave over the summer, by learning how to make a tiny bit of room for the worry in his life, without giving it the whole house. The novel examines the transformative nature of unexpected friendship, the contagiousness of courage, the way we need one another in order to learn how to become brave and the way courage always arrives through the actual taking of considered risks. The novel celebrates the importance of family and community and the value of perseverance, forgiveness and kindness. I was keen to write about the beauty of the natural world and how to recognise and treasure the true significance of small ordinary moments.
Which awards have had particular significance for you?
Whenever a book of mine is either shortlisted or receives an award, I’m always extraordinarily surprised and grateful. I know it’s such a hard job to make those kinds of choices, especially when there are so many equally deserving and beautiful books out in the world. Writing a book does take a significant investment of energy and time and winning an award always means that a book will have a much greater chance of being widely read. I was particularly thrilled in 2010 when Bear and Chook by the Sea won the CBCA’s Book of the Year for Early Childhood, not just because it was a moment I got to share with my good friend the illustrator Emma Quay but also because as a kid, I drew a poster every single year for Oatley Library’s celebrations of the Children’s Book Council’s Book of the Year Awards. I was desperate to win a book prize in that poster competition, never dreaming that I would one day write a book that would win an award from such a long-established and hallowed institution.
What are you writing next?
I’ve been writing a series of picture book texts and I’m just returning now to a novel for teenagers that has been patiently waiting it’s turn.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve loved Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, Karen Foxlee’s A Most Magical Girl, James Rebanks The Shepherd’s Life, Brian Doyle’s collection of essays Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies and the picture books Oi, Frog by Kez Gray and Jim Field and Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge.
Thanks so much for having me on the blog and for asking such astonishingly good, stretching questions. It was lovely to take the time to reflect and ponder.
Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful responses, Lisa and all the very best with your excellent novel, The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler, and your other works. We greatly look forward to what your imaginative mind will bring us next.