Big Stories at Brisbane Writers Festival 2017

Brisbane Writers Festival has had a new lease of life with the appointment of CEO and Artistic Director, Zoe Pollock for the festival’s 55th anniversary. The festival was about “The big stories – and the little ones in between” and the biggest story of them all was probably the recognition of Indigenous literature and creators, particularly the tenth anniversary of Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin award. This was uniquely celebrated as an immersive dramatic and visual performance inside “Angel’s Palace”, a specially constructed “art-tent”, designed by Gordon Hookey.

The opening address was given by Alec Doomadgee, who spoke about “Indigenous knowledge creation”. He showed excerpts from his seminal film Zach’s Ceremony. Alec said that “reading books gives you a real history of the country you’re in”. He uses the arts and culture to tell stories and create change and urged us all to go away and do something for change. My family has something planned …

I was fortunate to moderate a panel session about “Connecting to Place” which explored how three authors create place as a character (or not – as we discovered) in their stories.

Melissa Lukashenko spoke about the significance of land in her beautifully written, award-winning novel Mullumbimby. Ashley Hay let us look inside a special Brisbane house, peopled over time by two vulnerable women whose lives interconnect. Her novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, has just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards. Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel, Skylarking, was one of my best books of 2016 for the Weekend Australian. It is set on a windswept, isolated cape and is a fine piece of writing about friendship between two young women. Kate is destined for big things in the literary world if she continues to write at such a high level.

I also attended a session about the Australian book industry, “Published in Oz”. It was exciting to hear how writing and reading is the biggest art form that people engage with in Australia. 20% of Australians attend a book event annually and Australia has the highest per capita attendance at writers’ festivals in the world. Reading books is the number 1 favourite leisure activity of Australians. Double the number of Australians enjoy reading books to attending sporting events, playing video games or other pursuits. Australia also has the world’s top independent bookseller market.

Another enlightening session was a workshop for adults on visual literacy by James Foley. He has illustrated Sigi Cohen’s, My Dead Bunny, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and other books.

The BWF also hosted “Word Play” an outstanding program for young people. My highlight was hearing Wendy Orr, author of the Nim’s Island series (the genesis of the movies), Peeling the Onion and the masterful historical fantasy based on the Minoan myths of bull-dancing, Dragonfly Song. This novel has also just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards.

Thanks to the organisers of the 2017 BWF and to those involved. There was a very special buzz in Brisbane.

Ideas for Book Week – CBCA Younger Readers, Part 3: Dragonfly Song & A Most Magical Girl

Now that the CBCA Short List has been announced, it’s time to start preparing for Children’s Book Week in August, when the winners are also announced.

This is my third post about Book of the Year: Younger Readers and I have already posted about Picture Books and books for Early Childhood. Teachers, librarians and parents may be interested in sharing these books with young readers. I have included a range of activity ideas.

Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr  Allen & Unwin

Dragonfly Song dances far back into historical fiction – to the Bronze Age in Crete where King Minos, the Bull King, demands an annual tribute of 13-year-old boys and girls. Aissa, named after the dragonfly, is born with extra thumbs and her father defies the gods by cutting them off. When he dies, the wise-woman takes the baby to a farm but her life there is destroyed and she becomes a ‘mute’ servant and then a bull dancer. Aissa summarises her life as a poem on pages 376-7.

The writing is a mixture of prose and poetry and these both extend the narrative. There is recurring dragonfly imagery and snakes are a potent motif. This is a crossover novel for younger and older readers. Could some read it as a literary Hunger Games?

Writing Children could write in the styles of both the prose and poetry.

Sculpture They could google images of sculptures of Theseus and the Minotaur (on which part of Dragonfly Song is based), or use the cover illustration, and twist thin, coated wire to replicate the human and other figure in action (science: force and gravity).

Dragonfly Jewellery Children could represent the dragonfly symbolism by threading coloured beads, particularly blue, onto wire to make brooches or other jewellery.

A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee  Allen & Unwin

Karen Foxlee continues the speculative fiction with A Most Magical Girl, a fantasy for 9-12-year-old girls (in particular) about Annabel Grey who is sent to live with her witch great-aunts in their magic shop in London. These women can bewitch broomsticks or make a potion to turn someone into a wolf.  At first Annabel doesn’t believe in magic, even though she can see visions in puddles, but she is enlisted into a quest to prevent Dark Magic and evil Mr Angel and his shadowlings and resurrection machine from overtaking London.

Kitty, the wild betwister (someone who goes between ‘this world and that world’), frequents Highgate cemetery and other crannies and is also full of magic. She is able to create a ‘heart-light’. Readers could contrast these two girls, as well as smelly, eye-twinkling troll Hafwen who longs to see the stars.

When Annabel and Kitty are sent ‘Under London’, they encounter trolls and a dragon. A map is somehow drawn onto Annabel’s skin. Children could read the descriptions about the map and use them to illustrate the visible skin of a paper figure or mannequin.

The girls must find the Morever or White Wand to save the people of London. As well as a rite of passage and story about friendship, A Most Magical Girl portrays the battle between dark and light.

Each chapter begins with an extract from Miss Finch’s Little Blue Book (1855) about manners for young ladies. These loosely correlate with the plot. Readers could write a brief alternate plot line to correspond with all or some of these extracts.

The UK setting is interesting because, until recently, Karen Foxlee seems to have been better known and appreciated in the UK and US than in her homeland. Hopefully this is changing. A Most Magical Girl is a very well imagined and constructed middle grade novel.

A Most Magical Girl is a beautiful hardback publication and is a great companion novel to Ophelia and the Marvellous BoyOlder readers should explore Karen Foxlee’s YA novel, The Midnight Dress. It is an exquisitely written, wondrous tale.

I will also write about the shortlisted books for Older Readers and the excellent Eve Pownall information books in upcoming posts.

Review – Dragonfly Song

Wendy Orr’s latest novel has the sweeping majesty of an epic novel and the thrill of a mid-grade fantasy that will win leagues of young new fans. Powerful, eloquent and moving, Dragonfly Song is a story you will never want to leave.

Dragonfly SongAt first glance, Dragonfly Song is not for the faint hearted, weighing in at nearly four hundred pages, however do not be disheartened for from the moment Aissa slips into existence, you will be enthralled and the pages will float effortlessly by. Aissa is the first-born daughter of the high priestess of an ancient island nation. She is however, imperfect and so is abandoned, thus determining not only her destiny but the fate of her island home and all its inhabitants, as well.

Aissa’s people are emerging from the time of flint and spears into the mythical Bronze Age. Her world possesses a strong Byzantine period feel for me at least, where hierarchy, occupation, and bloodline dictate survival. Having endured a childhood of servitude and persecution, Aissa is unaware of her own ancestry and link to the goddesses or even her true name until she is twelve years old. Her fellow islanders consider her the bad-luck child, a curse to all who cross her, and abhor her. Yet she is resourceful, curious, and oddly revered by the island’s animals (snakes, cats, bulls) and although mute from the age of four, she slowly begins to grasp the power she has to sing them to her biding.

It is this power that both exalts and alienates her to the Bull King and his Lady wife, the Mother. At the age of thirteen, Aissa finds herself in the land of the great Bull King, interned as a bull dancer, eventually dancing for her life and the freedom of further tributes (aka human sacrifices) against her island home.

Aissa is manOrr Wendy, preferred author photo, credit Roger Gouldy things: of pure blood, a priestess in the making, a talented bull dancer, spirited, obedient, loyal, a privy cleaner, displaced but above all, resilient. It is hard not to fret over her emotional well-being and want to call out encouragement for her. Her story is both bleak and horrifying at times but ultimately her tale of rising out of the quagmire of the downtrodden soars with optimism and promise.

Orr masters this with incredible ease. Her artistry with language is unforced and sublime. Part prose and part verse novel, I was utterly swept away by the beauty and tragedy of Aissa’s plight. The use of verse to relay Aissa’s internal dialogue and inner most dread and desires is genius and executed with such finesse I wished it never ended.

Dragonfly Song is an adventure story, a tale of daring and hope and a quest for love and acceptance that will have you weeping and cheering. Gripping, artful, and exciting, this novel has broad appeal for both male and female readers aged twelve and above.

03To discover the heart and soul behind the writing of this novel, see my Doodles and Drafts post with Wendy Orr, here.

Allen & Unwin June 2016

DOODLES AND DRAFTS with Wendy Orr on the inspiration behind Dragonfly Song

Dragonfly SongHang onto to your bronze daggers as you are in for ‘a riveting, mythic Bronze Age adventure’ –  we have the remarkable Wendy Orr at the draft table today, escorting us on her Blog Tour for her stunning new novel, Dragonfly Song. And like all terrific stories, there is usually an even more fascinating story behind it; how it came to light, what energies and events conspired to motivate its first heartbeat. Today, Wendy shares her inspiration with us.

Orr Wendy, preferred author photo, credit Roger Gould

 

Welcome Wendy! Tell us, what was the inspiration for Dragonfly Song?

Sometimes it’s easy to see where an idea’s inspiration has come from. Sometimes it’s not – and sometimes some of the things that inspire it don’t end up in the story. Dragonfly Song is one of those mysteries.

Certainly one thread comes from childhood and teenage reading of Greek myths and Mary Renault’s retelling of the Theseus myth, The King Must Die. (There are many stories about Theseus, a king of Athens with a typically complicated hero life. However he is best known for being one of seven youths and seven maidens sent as a tribute to King Minos of Crete. Minos sent them into a labyrinth to be devoured by the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur – but luckily, Theseus defeated the Minotaur instead of being eaten.)

04Then, about twenty-five years ago, I dreamed about a white robed priestess leading a long torchlight procession up a steep green volcanic mountain.  As a story grew around the dream, I started reading up on the intriging civilization that flourished in Crete around four thousand years ago.  The Minoans seem to have worshipped a mother goddess and been ruled by a priestess until they were taken over by the warlike Mycenaeans of mainland Greece. Their palaces had grand court02yards and stairways, flushing toilets, lightwells, and painted frescoes on walls, ceilings and floors. They had beautiful art, gold and jewellery; images of priestesses holding snakes and of young men and women leaping over the backs of giant bulls. What if these bull-leaping games had inspired the original myth of Theseus?

Although the rather melodramatic novel I wrote then was, luckily, never published, the images of that world never left me. Eventually I started playing with the idea of a completely new story set in the same era.

It started to take shape on a 2010 visit to New Delhi. Culture shock can be a great inspiration: new sounds and smells; beautiful buildings and overwhelming poverty. Home again, doodling with a fingerpaint app, I sketched a girl with a sad twisted mouth and tangled black curls. This wasn’t the direction I’d expected, but one evening in my tai chi class, the form of the story appeared in a luminescent blue bubble –  and no, I can’t explain it exactly what I mean by that, but it was powerful enough to bring me to tears. The next day I saw a dragonfly, the exact same colour as the bubble.

And dragonflies kept on appearing whenever I made a significant decision or saw something that helped to shape the story:  finding an offcut of chipped flint on a Danish island; visiting the mysterious deep blue source of a French river that would have seemed even more mysterious and holy in ancient timeDragonflySongBlogTourGraphics…

Ah the synchronicity of life…Thank you, Wendy!

Watch Wendy explain more, here. Catch up with her again as she continues her DragonFly Song Adventure and tour.

Stick around for my full review of Dragonfly Song coming soon. Meantime you can get it now, here, if you can’t wait to read it first!

Allen & Uwin June 2016