Chasing the Legend

Ford Street Publishing has recently revised and re-issued ‘The Legend Series’ by Michael Panckridge. I remember how appealing it was for primary age children when I read it in 2003 and so was keen to re-read it. chasing-the-break-cover-e1474516051991

The Legends sports competition is held over the course of the year, beginning with surfing in February. The scoring for the winning Legend in each sport is based on skills, knowledge and a game or competitive session.

The first book in the series is Chasing the Break and it’s about surfing. Mitchell Grady is a new student and is immediately targeted by vindictive bully Travis Fisk. A strong (dirty) athlete like Travis is the perfect antagonist in a series like this.

Camp at the beginning of the year is dedicated to surfing, with the ironman and ironwoman competition held at the end of the week. The descriptions of surfing will capture the attention of young sports’ lovers, with an added thrill from Travis’s underhanded tactics.

Mitchell and his new friends work out a ploy to help Mitchell ‘find the flag’ in the traditional Aussie Nippers’ beach race. Jack tries to sacrifice his own chances of winning to help Mitchell in the race itself. Non-sporty readers may find an affinity with Bryce, who is skilled in using technology.

Mitchell is probably the best male surfer in the group but Travis is a strong swimmer and sprinter, so the ironman race is up for grabs. As a surfer, Mitchell knows the ocean, and uses it to his advantage.

Girls don’t miss out. Some of the best athletes are girls. Their talent in both surfing (such as Penny who has just returned from a surfing competition in Sydney) and cricket (the featured sport in Against the Spin, the second book in the series) can supersede the boys’ skill. The competition between the girls is also intense, particularly between Mia Tompkins, Katie Chan and Luci Rankin at the start. against-the-spin-500-h-cover

There is a hint of beginning romance between Mitchell and Luci, who shows an interest in Mitchell by talking to him and watching him surf. Mitchell has probably never spoken more than a few words to a girl before but he enjoys her attention.

Tennis follows cricket. Then there are some winter team sports before concluding with athletics and swimming. Each book has a slightly different feel because of the focal sport. There is a quiz about the sport at the end of each book.

Reading the series is fun with the points being added up not just in each book but also cumulatively throughout the series to find out who will become the Legend of Sport.

Who is Oliver Phommavanh’s The Other Christy?

olivercomic1Oliver Phommavanh’s new novel for children, The Other Christy has just been published by Penguin Random House.

It has a very appealing storyline and characters, voices some important issues with a light touch, and is told with the author’s trademark big heart and humour.

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Oliver.

No worries Joy.

Where are you based and how involved are you in the children’s lit world? (you often seem to be on a stage …!)

I’m based in Cabramatta, South-West Sydney. I’ve been fortunate to appear in many writers festivals and school literature festivals across Australia. I’m involved with organisations such as the CBCA Northern Sydney Sub branch and SCBWI as well. I’m also an ambassador for Room To Read, a non-profit organization that brings literacy to developing countries.

How is this related to being a stand-up comedian?

I love making people laugh, so I divide my time doing kids comedy in my books and adults comedy on the stage.

How else do you spend your time?

I’m a lifelong gamer so I try to play video games in my downtime. I also like jogging and hanging out with friends.

Tell us about The Other Christy.Other Christy

It’s a story of two girls named Christy in a class. It’s a friendship between a quiet girl with loud thoughts and a popular girl who discovers that she’s quite lonely.

Who particularly do you hope reads it?

Anyone who might feel a little strange or weird. I hear them, I want to be a voice for all those kids who feel left out.

Have you come across kids with the same name in a class or somewhere? How did people differentiate them? Was one called ‘the other Oliver’ or something similar?

I was the only Oliver in my primary and high school days, but Oliver’s a popular name now so I got lucky. I’ve taught classes with kids with the same name and we usually went with their last name, like Matthew Brown and Matthew Galway.

Is it more fun to write about the mean kids or the others?

I have fun writing about the other kids, especially the ones who blend in the background. Mainly because they usually have something unusual or strange about them.

I’ve read a memoir recently where the church was the most helpful group in helping new refugees. Someone from the church also helped Christy and her Grandpa find somewhere to live. How true to life or typical is this?

I drew from experiences from my own church, we are one of many churches out in south-west Sydney that have welcomed new arrivals and have helped them settle in the community.

Thai No MiteYou write a lot about food in this book. What’s your favourite food mentioned/not mentioned?

My favourite dessert is chocolate brownies, which is mentioned in the book. My favourite food is pizza, burgers and hot chips, which have been featured in my other books haha

What happened at the launch of The Other Christy? Was there good food?

It was a delightful afternoon with plenty of loved ones, friends and fans. You bet there was delicious food hehe. There were loads of sweet treats for our cake stall. My wife and extended family made a lot of the treats, so it was all made with love!

How is this book different from your others? Thai riffic

This is the first book with a main character that isn’t a part of me. It’s a story where I’ve had to draw from my own observations as a primary school teacher, teaching shy students like Christy.

Have you received any responses from readers about The Other Christy that particularly resonate with you?

I’ve spoken to many kids who are in a class with another person with the same name. Some become friends, others are more like friendly rivals. I’ve also had kids come up to me and can relate to Christy and her desire to find a best friend.

Which Australian authors do you admire?

My biggest influences are Morris Gletizman, Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths.

ConNerdWhat have you enjoyed reading?

I’m currently reading The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale. I’ve finished The Enemy series by Charlie Higson with the last book, fittingly titled ‘The End.’

Thanks and all the best with The Other Christy and your other books, Oliver.

My pleasure!

Getting Serious about Series # 3 – Word Hunters

Word HuntersAll right, so it’s taken me a few years to share these ones but here are three of my favourite books of all time. I can’t even properly explain why but when a tale ticks multiple boxes so satisfyingly and engrosses you so completely whilst doing so, you can’t help but be muted into humble reverence. Ok, perhaps I’m trumpeting up the Word Hunters trilogy somewhat and confusing my metaphors but I reckon this series by charismatic collaborators, Nick Earls and Terry Whidborne deserves a little repeated airplay.

Therefore, from their cloistered position on my bookshelf, I reach for Word Hunters, The Curious Dictionary, the first in this divine trinity. Although in paperback, the book(s) has an alluring, timeless quality to it thanks to the cleverly designed leather-look cover and gilt bordering. But enough about aesthetics. Delve inside and you are immediately met with poetic riddles, dares, and definitions. You get the feeling you are entering hallowed ground, a place where time might lose itself, history may be rewritten and anything you say or do could alter anything you’ll end up saying or doing.

Nick Earls 2Confused yet? Well fear not, for Earls has enlisted the help of 12-year-old twins, Lexi and Al Hunter; to help save the English language and make sense of the fascinating etymological expedition they unwittingly embark on.

The Curious Dictionary, an ancient dictionary created by a chap called Caractacus and used for the last 1500 years by word hunters to protect word history, is the twins’ new Lonely Planet guide. With it they zip back and forth through the ages, hunting down words at risk of disappearing from the language and carefully tracking every step of their evolution in the past in order to keep them alive in the present (the words that is). The time travelling alone is enough to cause a bad case of chundering (the first new fact of many I learnt about time travel) and continually upset Doug, Al’s pet mouse. However, the sharp focus on the at-risk-words is what truly commands attention.

Word Hunters PegThe Dictionary’s definitions of endangered words are benignly simple as are some of the proffered words, hello and water for example. Thankfully (although at times regrettably), we are not over-flooded with threatened vocabulary which allows Lexi and Al plenty of time to visit ancient cities, meet great inventors and survive harrowing situations like the Battle of Hastings. In short, experience a really ripper world tour full of lumps and bumps and strange old men and curious gadgety golden peg things.

These books are pure essence of adventure for tween readers, enticing them into an historical literary experience they might not even recognise being in; the journey is so littered with quintessential Earls’ irreverent wit it is hard to believe we are learning something so vital, at least I felt I was. The historical detail is phenomenal. Moreover, it’s not just about the words.

As Lexi and Al hone their hunting skills and learn to cope with the time-slipping nausea, we are drawn into the engrossing world of UPPER and lower case, the timeline of printing, letter formation and so much more relating to etymology and philology. Now colour me dull, but I found this anything but dull!

Word Hunters Lost HuntersThe Lost Hunters involves more words, more battles, and alarmingly, a search for their grandfather who it turns out, is the lost hunter. Fortunately Whidborne’s beguiling illustrations heavily featured throughout the twins’ travels serve to lighten the mood, and push Earl’s acerbic historical observations (and some very gory situations) merrily along, albeit not so merrily for Doug the rat who firmly entrenches himself in my list of favourite characters in this volume. His contributions to sensory detail are Terry Whidbornepure brilliance.

By the third and final instalment, War of the Word Hunters, Al and Lexi are in full training mode owing to their impending battle with the armed and dangerous grey-robes, rogue hunters determined to thwart word history and so alter its course and irreversibly undo people and their cultures.

Word Hunters War of the Word HuntersThe Word Hunters series is not just a collection of etymological explanations and revelations, (although this was enough to captivate me long into the night), it is a gripping, exhilarating quest through time that at times makes your guts churn with dread and discomfort. The rest of the time, they’ll be dancing because you’re laughing so hard.

I loved all the characters: the good, the bad, the alive, the dead and the ones with unpronounceable names. I loved Earls’ wry union of our sometimes-inglorious past and our social-media ridden present. I loved Whidborne’s flamboyant execution of whimsy (and rats). And I loved the serious provoking of thought Word Hunters conjured and the passion for preserving words it stirred up in me. As Grandad Al said, ‘Every one of us is the consequence of a million flukes of history Word Hunter sketches– who met whom and where they went and what they did.’

It is kind of mind boggling but then, so is the Word Hunters series. Perfect for history buffs, word nerds, 9 – 13 year-olds and rat lovers.

Find all books, here. #ByAustralianBuyAustralian

UQP July 2013

 

 

Books & Christmas with Anna Branford

I adore Anna Branford’s endearing character Violet Mackerel, who features in her own series for young girls, illustrated by Sarah Davis (Walker Books). Violet is written exquisitely and her empathy and kindness moves me even on multiple readings. The most recent instalment is Violet Mackerel’s Formal Occasion.Violet Mackerel's Formal Occasion

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Anna.

Such a pleasure!

Where are you based and how involved are you in the children’s lit world?

I live in Melbourne in a little apartment that looks down over a park. It is just about perfect for a writer as it’s very quiet but at the same time, I can see the world going by. As for my involvement in the children’s lit world, besides writing, I’ve been doing lots of school visits and touring this year and I’ve also had the opportunity to present at two writers’ festivals too, Brisbane and Melbourne, both of which were fantastic.

How else do you spend your time?

I lecture in Sociology at Victoria University, teaching on topics like childhood and religion. And I also love making things by hand, especially dolls and nests. I love knitting and felting and that kind of thing.

What inspired you to write the ‘Violet Mackerel’ series?Brilliant Plot

In a funny sort of way, the inspiration actually came through doll making. I was selling my dolls at an especially beautiful Melbourne country market, St Andrews, which is outdoors and starts very early in the morning. It was during the winter so it was still dark. There was a fire and some people were playing fiddles and flutes, and even though the sun was coming up there were still stars in the sky. It was a bit magical really. I noticed that some of the people setting up their own stalls had children with them still in pajamas and half asleep, watching the market forming all around them. And as I was wondering what they thought about it all, somehow Violet and her family popped into my mind.

Could you tell us something about your main characters? Are the children or adults modelled on real people?

One of the funny things about writing is that for me, I often don’t realise where my influences and ideas come from until after I’ve finished the story. Then, as I reread, I realise how very much like my sister Violet is, or how similar Violet’s mum’s reaction is to something I have recently felt myself. Retrospectively, I can usually see exactly where each trait and characteristic comes from, but it’s never intentional at the time of writing. I see my sister, my friends (especially young friends) and sometimes myself in the characters I write about.

I love reading about Violet’s family’s creativity and involvement with making things and going to markets. Do you also like these things?

I absolutely love them. I grew up with parents who often made things and who encouraged my sister and I to make things too. And for me markets, and especially craft markets, are places where you get to see newborn ideas, fresh from people’s minds and hands. I also feel a lot of love for handwork with small and slightly uneven stitches and unintended fingerprints in clay – all the evidence of the love of human hands.

How closely have you collaborated with illustrator Sarah Davis?

I love working with her. In some ways you could say we collaborate closely in that we are absolutely co-creators of Violet and her family. But at the same time, many of the ideas in the Violet stories come purely from Sarah and are a wonderful surprise for me when I first open a set of illustrations for a new Violet story. Lots of the humour especially! In the later books in the series, Violet’s teddy bear has become a hilarious side character in the stories, reflecting Violet’s emotions and thoughts. That is purely Sarah’s doing and I enjoy it as much as any reader of the series!

Why is a different illustrator used in overseas editions?Personal space

Violet has actually had four different illustrators in her different editions! I believe that is pretty unusual and I’m not sure of the reasons behind the choices publishers make about these things, but my best guess is that an ‘ordinary family’ like the Mackerels is actually quite a specific idea depending on the culture and society it is being portrayed for. It has been hugely interesting for me to see both the differences and the similarities in the way the characters have been created in their various incarnations.

Have you received any responses from young readers about Violet Mackerel that particularly resonate with you?

One thing I would never have guessed when I started out as a writer is the wonderful mail you begin to get! I’ve received beautiful handmade gifts from children and lovely stories from parents telling me that a Violet book was the first their child read independently from cover to cover. That just amazes me. I’ve heard from a few young readers that they think of Violet as their own friend, and that resonates with me a lot. When I was young my family moved very often and I always has to leave friends behind, so I know how important portable book friends can be for children.

What else have you written?

Lily the elfJust recently I have been working on my new series about Lily the Elf. Lily lives with her dad and her granny in an elf house under a bridge, with a moss garden and a huge (to her) dandelion overhead. So she is an urban sort of elf who exists, as lots of us do, in the city but also in an incorporated natural world. And although there is a lot about her life that is elf-specific, such as her tininess, she is a relatable character too, and deals with lots of the same troubles and delights that children her age do. I’m having a lot of fun creating this series in collaboration with Lisa Coutts, an illustrator who captures Lily’s world so beautifully that I secretly suspect she may be half-elf herself.

What awards have your books won or been shortlisted for?

I’ve been very lucky in this department over the past few years! Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot was Honour Book in the 2011 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, Younger Readers category. In 2013, Violet Mackerel’s Personal Space won the Young Readers/Picture Book Award category of the Australian Family Therapists’ Award and was short-listed for the 2013 Children’s Peace Literature Awards. And in 2014, Violet Mackerel’s Possible Friend was short-listed for the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, Younger Readers category.

What are you writing at the moment?

I’m working on two things at the moment, a new Lily the Elf story about the trickiness of parting with old things even though you don’t really need them any more. And another thing that is top secret!

What have you enjoyed reading?Wind in the willows

My favourite book of all time is Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I read it when I’m feeling sad and it is like an old friend. I read it when I get sick and it makes me feel better. I read it at Christmas and it fills the time with magic. I think there will always be at least a bit of happiness with me all my life, so long as I always have a copy on my shelves.

More recently I have been some of Banana Yoshimoto’s books and enjoying them very much and wishing I could travel to see some of the places she is writing about.

Christmas is coming. How do you plan to celebrate and what books would you like as Christmas presents?

Magic Beach

I absolutely love Christmas! This morning my sister, my mum and I are also taking my three-year-old niece to ride the Christmas train at Myer and to see a gingerbread village. In the afternoon I am going to choose myself a Christmas tree. I celebrate non-stop all through December. I can never sing enough carols, or see enough lights and gingerbread creations, or wrap enough presents or light enough candles! But for Christmas itself my partner and I will disappear up into the mountains and have a couple of very peaceful days together, which is one of my favourite things of all. This year I would love to start sharing Alison Lester’s beautiful books with my niece so I am hoping for a copy of Magic Beach.

Where can people find you and Violet on social media?Neville

I have a website, annabranford.com, and can also be found on facebook.

All the best with your books, Anna. I’m looking forward to spending more time with Violet and Lily and later discovering your top secret project.

Thank you so much!

2015 Qld Literary Awards Winner: Meg McKinlay

Single StoneI am thrilled that the news has now been released that Meg McKinlay’s A Single Stone (Walker Books Australia) has won the Griffiths University Children’s Book Award in the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards. I hope it becomes a contemporary classic. 

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books Blog, Meg.                I reviewed A Single Stone as YA lit for the Weekend Australian in August and chaired the QLA children’s book panel – with the wonderful Megan Daley and Maree Pickering, which it has just won. Why do you think it could be classed as either YA or children’s literature?

It’s an interesting question. When I started writing the book, I thought it would be YA, but along the way found myself resisting some of the tropes you might expect in a book of this genre for that readership. By the time I finished, I was thinking of it as more junior fiction, extending into lower YA.

The bottom line, of course, is that the boundary between children and young adults is not clear cut – either in literature or in life. Since the book’s publication, I’ve had positive feedback from readers as young as 9 and teenagers of all ages. As with most things, I think it depends on individual readers but there are certainly elements in the book itself that mean it can more readily straddle that range.

For example, the main character, Jena, is 14, which is sort of on the cusp of the two categories, and even though conventional wisdom holds that readers prefer to ‘read up’, I think that’s a generalisation. If a character is strong and compelling, a reader will want to follow them regardless of age. I also think the ideas in the book are complex enough for YA readers while still being accessible to younger readers, and at the same time there’s no content that might be considered problematic for that younger age group. That was in no way by design – it’s simply a function of what the story did and didn’t call for – but I do think it’s helped extend the book across a broader range. The only time that’s really a problem is when a firm classification is needed – for awards entries, library/bookstore shelving, and so on. I’ve been a little concerned about whether this might see the book fall through the cracks between categories, but so far that doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

Surface Tension by Meg McKinlay
Surface Tension by Meg McKinlay

Did you attend the awards ceremony in Brisbane? What happened?

Yes, I was fortunate to be able to make a flying visit to Brisbane for the ceremony. It was a wonderful evening shared with a room full of fellow writers and booklovers; there was a real sense of celebration across the whole event and I felt privileged to be part of it. I’m a fairly relaxed public speaker but as the announcement approached, I found myself feeling unexpectedly wobbly. There was something about the occasion that was quite overwhelming!

What is A Single Stone about?

A Single Stone is the story of 14-year-old Jena, who lives in a village which is enclosed within a valley; it’s encircled by an impassable mountain range and cut off from any notion of an outside world. In this closed society, which suffers very harsh winters, a mineral known as mica is essential for survival, but it can only be found deep inside the mountain.

Girls who are small enough, and skilled enough, will eventually join the line of tunnellers who harvest the mica from deep inside the mountain; this is work which is highly prized and for which every girl longs to be chosen. It is not an option for boys, who aren’t permitted inside the mountain.

For this reason, girls are kept as small as possible. There are various strategies for this, all of them closely monitored by the Mothers, a group of women who hold most of the power in the village. It isn’t always easy, but it’s the only world the girls know and they accept it as the natural way of things. That is until a tragedy leads Jena to a discovery – about the Mothers and the mountain – that leads her to question the world and beliefs on which she’s been raised, and sets in motion a chain of events that changes things in a fundamental way.

Meg McKinlay
Meg McKinlay

Have you based the characters on anyone in particular, or certain types?

None of the characters is based on anyone in particular, although on reflection I may have been thinking a little of Katniss and Rue from The Hunger Games in writing the relationship between Jena and Min.

I don’t think about character in terms of ‘types’ particularly, but I knew I wanted Jena to be someone who’s heavily invested in doing what’s ‘right’, in a way that threatens to blinker her to larger truths. Writing this now, I realise that there are some elements of my teenage self in her – conscientious and authority-pleasing, but with reasons for that, and also with a latent capacity to stand up and go against the grain if pushed to a certain point.

There’s a character in the book who’s a conscious counterpoint to Jena in some ways, and I’ve set this duality up in order to reflect a bit on the nature/nurture debate. I can’t say too much more on that without veering into spoiler territory, though.

The other characters I thought quite carefully about are the Mothers. I was very clear in myself that I didn’t want them to be simply antagonists; people are of course far more complex than that and I wanted the Mothers to reflect those ambiguities, the shades of grey.

You have created an intriguing, original setting and mood. How would you describe your writing style in this novel?

It’s very satisfying to hear these comments about the setting, because this is something I typically struggle with. I’m much more interested in the internal landscape than in where the action takes place in a physical sense, and often forget entirely about the literal setting.

In terms of style, I would describe my writing here as lyrical, measured and thoughtful, and hopefully all those things on the backbone of a compelling plot.

Could you tell us about the literary texts that helped inspire A Single Stone?Silver chair

There are two that I’m aware of, but undoubtedly others whose footprints I haven’t yet recognised. The gnomes in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, which is my favourite of the Narnia series, made me think about what it would be like to be so at home underground, in tight spaces, that you had a horror of being outside.

The other book was Franz Kafka’s The Zurau Aphorisms, which is a collection of fragments and pithy observations about life and the human condition. One such aphorism tells of leopards breaking into a temple so frequently that they are eventually co-opted into its ceremonies. As a teenager in an Anglican high school, I was taken by this notion of how something inherently random and meaningless might ultimately become part of sacred ritual. And from there to wonder what the consequences might be when that ritual becomes utterly removed from its point of origin.

These are both texts whose influence came a long time ago – at the ages of about seven and fourteen respectively – and laid very early seeds for the story that became A Single Stone.

What are your other books?

Definitely No Ducks
Definitely No Ducks! – one of Joy’s favourites

I’ve published 11 other books for young readers, picture books – No Bears, Ten Tiny Things, and The Truth About Penguins – and chapter books – Duck for a Day, Definitely No Ducks, Going for Broke, The Big Dig and Wreck the Halls – through to junior novels – Annabel, Again and Surface Tension. My latest release is Bella and the Wandering House, which is a chapter book for ages 5-9-ish. I’ve also published a collection of poetry for adults, entitled Cleanskin.

What have you enjoyed reading?

So many things! I like a book that makes me think, that shows me the world in a new or surprising way, and also one that treats language with care. I read a lot of literary fiction and poetry as well as children’s and young adult fiction. One of my favourite books in recent years is Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, a collection of startling short stories narrated by the souls of animals. On the plane home from Brisbane, I read Darren Groth’s young adult novel Are You Seeing Me?, which I really enjoyed, and I’m currently immersed in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.

Thanks for speaking to us, and all the best with this one, as well as your next book.

My absolute pleasure, and thank you right back!

Gillian Mears and The Cat with the Coloured Tail

Gillian Mears is an Australian writer, recognised for her award-winning literary fiction such as Foal’s Bread, The Grass Sister, Collected Stories and The Mint Lawn. It is well known that she battles crippling multiple sclerosis.Foal's Bread

She has now transferred her finely wrought writing to children’s books, beginning with The Cat with the Coloured Tail (Walker Books). This exquisite hardcover gift book is for children aged eight and older. It is a fable about love and healing and, although of great interest to cat lovers, it will appeal to a much wider readership, including adult readers.

The whimsical story, although with an ominous thread; as well as the memorable characters, are brilliantly brought to life by newcomer to children’s book illustration, Dinalie Dabarera dinalie.com. Despite the elegiac writing, this book would not be the exceptional piece of literature it is without these exquisite pencil-drawn illustrations. They seem to spring from an exemplary sensitivity and imagination. The combined writing and illustrations form a rare work.

Mr Hooper has a fanciful ice-cream van that resembles the full moon. He creates moon-cream ice creams with the intuitive help of The Cat with the Coloured Tail. This cat’s face is heart-shaped and, although his fur is usually silvery blue, his tail changes colour.

Together they love discovering heart shapes. Mr Hooper sings:

Hearts on footpaths, hearts in leaves.

Hearts in certain apple seeds.

Hearts in trees, in scabs on knees.

Heart-shaped whispers on the breeze.

They even find an ant’s nest in the shape of a heart and Mr Hooper leaves a tiny flag with his favourite colours of red and yellow to signpost the heart-shape to others.

They know which direction to take to sell their moon-creams because The Cat with the Coloured Tail’s tail points the way. But when the tail points upwards, they know that someone sad needs a free moon-cream. They find an old lady who needs a soft pink ice cream in the shape of an old-fashioned rose; an old man whose moon-cream looks like a lady beetle; a boy with a sea-loving dog whose moon-cream is so like waves lapping that it had even been a little salty; and bereaved twin sisters who receive fizzing firecracker moon-creams.

There is an ominous black heart of the world that The Cat with the Coloured Tail is following. This symbol casts a contrasting shadow over the positive itinerant healings, essential for dramatic tension and also for increasing the weightiness of the tale. The Cat with the Coloured Tail seems to sacrifice his own life to heal the heart of the world.

Australian poet, Geoff Page helped Gillian Mears with the cat’s songs, and Margaret Throsby interviewed the author on ABC Classic FM at

After reading this book you will feel like an ice cream, wishing it is a moon-cream, or quite possibly wanting to do something to show love to someone else.Mint Lawn

Chrissie Michaels – breathing life into history

Chrissie MichaelsIt was while researching the French explorer Nicolas Baudin that Australian children’s author, Chrissie Michaels came across one of those gems that every writer loves to find. It was the story of a young convict girl, who was transported to New South Wales for theft and ended up as a passenger on Baudin’s ship as he mapped Australia’s southern coastline.

Snippets of nineteenth century journals provided a glimpse of Mary Beckwith’s extraordinary life. From there, Chrissie Michaels filled in the gaps to offer an insight into conditions in the early convict days and the role of French explorers in Australia’s history. Convict Girl: The Diary of Mary Beckwith and Chrissie Michaels’ other intriguing story – Voyage to Botany Bay, are part of the My Australian Story series (Scholastic Australia).

Chrissie joins me today to chat about resuscitating characters from history.

You have two books in the My Australian Story series. I’m particularly intrigued by Mary Beckwith. Can you tell us a bit of the background to Convict Girl: The Diary of Mary Beckwith?

Convict Girl: The Diary of Mary Beckwith is my second novel in the My Australian Story series published by Scholastic Australia. It was while researching the French explorer Nicolas Baudin and his voyage of discovery that I came upon the story of Mary Beckwith. She sailed with Baudin when he left Port Jackson (Sydney) and is acknowledged as the first European woman to set foot in South Australia, at Kangaroo Island.

my-australian-storyConvict girlThe novel is written as a diary from Mary’s point of view and covers the times she lived through after she and her mother were transported to New South Wales for stealing some cloth.

Much of Mary Beckwith’s life remains a mystery. Apart from the Old Bailey trial, and the convict list giving her transportation details, there are only brief remarks made about her in some of the journals from the Baudin expedition. As well there is a reference to her in Matthew Flinders’ diary, made while he was a prisoner in Mauritius. We also know that Mary’s mother later married the colony’s Judge Advocate, Richard Atkins. This gave me great scope to breathe life into her character.

What appeals to you about historical fiction?

I have a thirst for knowledge about the past. Once I go down the road, I have to know what is going on. I turn every corner. You could say I am insatiably curious.

The novels I have written for Scholastic’s My Australian Story series draw upon a particular passion of mine for French history. Both novels feature a French navigator. In Convict Girl Baudin, his scientists and his officers made a wonderful contribution to world knowledge through their magnificent natural history collection. Voyage to Botany Bay similarly traces the earlier expedition of Lapérouse (aka La Pérouse) which touched on the shores of Botany Bay at the same time as the First Fleet arrived. I am pleased to think that my books may help to further our understanding and appreciation of the role that French navigators played in Australia’s history.

Where do find a voice for your characters?

When it comes to finding a character’s voice I think my right brain works better than my left! I tend to carry the character around in my head for quite a while, rather than make character profiles or lists. The characters themselves are shaped by the story, which these days always seem to come from a historical event that has piqued my interest. I try to walk in their shoes during the specific historical period; try to solve their problems for them as they come along.

In Lonnie's ShadowOnce I discover a character’s voice the writing definitely comes more easily. The characters begin to take on a life of their own. I like to see them grow, become more independent, not always accept what is happening to them. Perhaps that is why my choice is to have characters who often live on the edge of the law. I have to make some decisive value judgements about their actions. Take Lonnie McGuinness, who appears in my YA novel, In Lonnie’s Shadow (Ford Street Publishing). He was always going to be a larrikin. However, I knew he would stand apart from gangs like the Push, and the Glass and Bottle, who loitered around the Little Lon lanes and alleyways in 1890 Melbourne. Lonnie always wanted to be his own man. He was never going to be a follower. Like any modern day hero he tried to right the wrongs around him. He looked after his mates, even if how he did this was sometimes questionable.

How much research goes into building authentic characters?

I try to immerse myself in the era that I am researching. Because I tend to approach writing about people who have already lived with a sense of caution, I spend a lot of time cross-checking details. My coffee table collection is pretty impressive! And I spend a lot of time doing initial research via the Web.

There is always an opportunity to network and call on expert help! During my writing of Voyage To Botany Bay I was able to have an on-going correspondence with representatives from the Musée de Lapérouse in Albi, as well as with the late Mr Reece Discombe who was the rediscoverer of the Lapérouse shipwrecks in the 1960s. They clarified lots of details for me about landscape and place as well.

My research for In Lonnie’s Shadow began with a visit to the Melbourne Museum and grew from there. The artifacts from the archaeological dig at Little Lon, shown as part of their Melbourne Story exhibition inspired the narrative structure. Each chapter title is an artifact with literal or metaphorical significance to the storyline. It is only a short walk across town from the museum to the State Library. I spent many an hour immersed in ephemera and trawling through microfiche records of the period (pre TROVE).

my-australian-story-voyage-to-botany-bayThere is much relief in having others validate the accuracy of your own research. I can’t tell you how pleased I was when Martine Marin of the Association of Friends of Nicolas Baudin in France (Les Amis de Nicolas Baudin) recently wrote to me, referring to my latest novel Convict Girl as ‘very well documented’. She also devoted a page to Convict Girl in the association’s latest newsletter and gave it a strong recommendation to readers.

What’s next for you – more historical fiction?

Yes, I am currently researching and writing another historical novel based on an event I came across whilst researching Convict Girl. I hope to have the manuscript completed by early next year.

I also write teacher texts for primary and secondary English and History, and have a few things on the go in this area as well.

Thank you for visiting, Chrissie. Good luck with your next project. 

For further information about Chrissie Michaels’ novels and for teachers’ notes, visit Chrissie’s website.

Visit my blog again soon, or you call follow me on Facebook and Twitter at the addresses below.

Happy reading,

Julie Fison