Alex Ratt & Stinky Street Stories

Hi Alex Ratt, could you tell us about yourself and your alter-ego? 

That’s a very existential question! I have to decide which is me and which is the alter ego…Well, I was Frances Watts first, so let’s start with her—I mean me.

I have written twenty-two books, ranging from picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson) to historical novels for young adults (most recently The Peony Lantern, set in nineteenth-century Japan). And then there’s my less fragrant alter ego, Alex Ratt. I thought being someone completely different would allow me the freedom to write something completely different—hence Alex Ratt. (Also, Alex Ratt has a big bushy false moustache and Frances doesn’t. And who wouldn’t jump at an excuse to wear a false moustache?!)

Who is Jules Faber? 

Jules Faber, I’m delighted to say, has a much more straightforward identity: he is Jules Faber! He is also an extremely talented cartoonist and illustrator, well known for his work on Ahn Do’s Weirdo series and David Warner’s The Kaboom Kid series.

How important are the illustrations in this book?

The illustrations are integral. The Stinky Street Stories (Pan Macmillan Australia) should feel welcoming and accessible to all kinds of readers, whether they are confident readers or not, and the illustrations do so much to convey the humour that is inherent in the text. One thing I particularly loved about working with Jules on this book is his spirit of adventure. Whatever wacky image I can dream up, he is prepared to draw. A sculpture of a rocket ship made entirely of carrots? No problem!

What type of comedy do you write?

Despite the word ‘stinky’ in the title, I don’t actually see the humour in The Stinky Street Stories as focusing on the gross. To me, the real humour is in the absurdity of situations and images. And the challenge is to take the absurdity and, within the bounds of the story, make it logical.

How do you get your readers to laugh out loud (as I did about some carrots and a pumpkin head)?

I’m glad you liked those bits—that’s exactly what I mean about the humour being absurd rather than gross. That’s where I find those laugh-out-loud moments: in unexpected juxtapositions, in ideas pushed to ridiculous extremes, in characters who treat these hilarious scenarios seriously.

Brian is a very funny character. Could you tell us about him, his sister Brenda, and any other characters?

Brian (‘call me Brain—everyone does’) has a somewhat overinflated sense of his own intellectual prowess, which is why he is able to meet absurdity with seriousness. His friend Nerf is the perfect sidekick, being just ever so slightly dafter—but loyal and good-hearted. The real brain of the family is Brian’s sister Brenda. And in his heart, Brian knows it to be so, and calls on her in moments of crisis.

What is your favourite scene in The Stinky Street Stories? 

You picked it yourself: the pumpkin heads. Because within that particular story, ‘The Ripe and Rotten Reek’, it not only makes perfect sense for Brian and Nerf to be running across a field with pumpkins on their heads, it is a positively brilliant plan!

Who do you hope reads this book?

Everyone! By which I mean boys and girls. I had a lot of fun turning gender stereotypes on their heads. The (anti)heroes might be boys, but the girls have a strong, smart, sassy presence. And, as I said above, I hope the book is enjoyed by confident readers and reluctant readers—we (by which I mean the whole village that makes a book: the author and illustrator and publisher and editor and designer) were determined to make it a book that had something to offer every kind of kid and every kind of reader.

What’s next in Stinky Street?

The second in the series, 2 Stinky, will be published in August. There are smelly sewers, pongy penguins…and a house of (stinky) horrors!

What other humour have you written? 

All my books have humour in them—it’s just the way I’m wired—but the first overtly humorous books were those of the Ernie & Maud series, featuring trainee superhero Ernie Eggers and his trainee sidekick: a sheep called Maud. More recently I have contributed stories to two humorous anthologies, Laugh Your Head Off and Laugh Your Head Off Again.

How many aliases do you have?

Oh dear…You’re on to me, aren’t you?! The truth is, Alex Ratt is not my only pen name. Frances Watts is a pen name too. (Yes, my pen name has a pen name.) My real name is Ali Lavau, and I am a very serious book editor who hardly ever wears a false moustache to work.

Thanks very much, Alex, Frances, Ali …

Thank YOU! (I loved these questions.)

And – here is a video about the book! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wORzbpzfTzs&feature=youtu.be

Australian YA: Meet Frances Watts, author of The Peony Lantern

Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books about The Peony Lantern, Frances.

It’s my pleasure.

Where are you based and how involved are you in the world of children’s and YA lit?Raven's wing

I’m based in Sydney. I’ve been involved in the children’s lit world for many years now, through membership of the Children’s Book Council of Australia NSW, IBBY and the Australian Society of Authors – and of course I love the opportunity to meet authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, booksellers and (most importantly) the readers – i.e. kids – at festivals, libraries and schools. I’m new to YA lit, with my first YA book (The Raven’s Wing reviewed here) published last year, and I’ve been really inspired by the passion, commitment and support of the YA community for each other and the genre. The #LoveOzYa movement is a great example of this. (And it’s introduced me to some great books!) I’m also involved with Books in Homes (as a Role Model) and the Reading Hour.

What is the significance of your title, The Peony Lantern?

The Peony Lantern’ (ABC Books, HarperCollins) is actually the title of a traditional Japanese ghost story; Japan has a rich tradition of ghost stories which I drew on in the writing of The Peony Lantern. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling a big twist!

How did you create the Japanese historical setting?Peony Lantern

I began by reading about the historical period – the book is set in 1857, which was a particularly tumultuous time in Edo (now called Tokyo) – to establish the social and political background for the book, before gradually narrowing my focus down to the specifics of setting: a samurai mansion in Edo, an inn in the remote Kiso Valley. Then I moved on to dress, architecture, cuisine, culture. What I really want to convey – because it is what I am interested in myself – is the daily life of the characters. Once I had a general idea of the main settings, I then travelled to Japan and visited the places I intended to write about. That gave me a richness of detail; the scent of the trees in the Kiso Valley and the number of steps to the village shrine, local legends and culinary specialties…In Tokyo there are a few museums that recreate the streets and buildings of the Edo period, so visiting them was invaluable. The research is one of my favourite parts of writing historical fiction. I’m completely obsessed with Japan now!

How did you create the character of Kasumi?

I wanted a character who was observant and to put her in a situation in which she was a ‘fish out of water’ as it were – in this case, a girl from a humble background who finds herself living in a samurai mansion. So she is in a position to observe differences in class as well as the differences between urban and rural lifestyles.

How important is writing about girls for you?Sword girl

It’s extremely important to me; in writing about girls from different times and places – whether it’s Claudia from Rome 19BC in The Raven’s Wing, Kasumi in The Peony Lantern or even Tommy from my junior fiction series ‘Sword Girl’, set in a medieval castle – I’m hoping to inspire readers to consider the position of girls and women in our own society.

Ikebana is a feature of Kasumi and Misaki’s time. Can you do it?

I’m afraid to say my attempts were rather embarrassing! I did a class at a famous ikebana school in Tokyo. I love flowers, so I was rather hoping I might display some hitherto-undiscovered flair, but…no. It was definitely a useful experience, though; it turns out that Kasumi’s own efforts at flower-arranging also lack that essential refinement!

Tell us about your other books.

Goodnight, MiceI began my writing career with picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson). [Frances modestly hasn’t mentioned that Goodnight, Mice! won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction. Her other books have also won awards.]  I then started writing junior fiction (such as the Sword Girl series), also extending the storytelling to upper primary (with the Gerander trilogy), and now I’m writing YA historical fiction. I’m still writing in each of these genres – I love them all – so I’m covering from birth to young adult. I sometimes joke that my motto should be: Grow up! with Frances Watts.

How else do you spend your time?

It probably won’t surprise you if I say reading. I also love travelling, cooking and running.

What have you enjoyed reading?

Fiona Wood’s new book, Cloudwish. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms (reviewed here). And I’m currently devouring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. I’ve just started the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and I am completely in its thrall.

All the best with The Peony Lantern, Frances. I feel like reading it all over again after hearing your responses.

Parsely rabbit

What Were Girls Like?

I am JulietThree recent YA historical fiction novels by Australian women (all published by HarperCollins/ABC Books) inhabit times when girls had to bend to the influence of men and were comparatively powerless.

The Raven’s Wing is Frances Watts’s first novel for teens. It is set in Ancient Rome where fifteen year-old Claudia is strategically offered in marriage several times. Making an alliance which can best help her family is paramount. Primarily a romance, the book addresses Claudia’s growing awareness of human rights (here through the fate of slaves) which interferes with her sense of duty and makes her a much more interesting character than the docile cipher she is expected to be.

I am Juliet by Australian Children’s Laureate, Jackie French, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. French’s Juliet is a fleshed-out focal character. Superficially she shares some of Claudia’s privileged lifestyle features: attended by maids who wash and dress her and apply her makeup; elaborate meals; and protection behind high walls. Medicinal and other herbs and plants are a feature of their times; and Juliet and Claudia both face imminent arranged marriage, but are aware of a dark man in shadows. Their stories, also, contain a story within a story.

Jackie French has reinterpreted Shakespeare previously – in her excellent Macbeth and Son which grapples with the nature of truth. She has also addressed the role of women in history, perhaps most notably in A Rose for the ANZAC Boys

Ratcatcher's Daughter Issy, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Pamela Rushby’s The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, doesn’t share Claudia and Juliet’s privileged backgrounds. Set in a well-drawn Brisbane of 1900, Issy’s father is a ratcatcher during the bubonic plague. Issy is offered a scholarship to become a teacher but her family refuse it due to lack of money. The issue of the poor’s inability to take up opportunities that the rich assume is reiterated throughout the novel.

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter and I am Juliet include background notes about the historical period and other points of interest.

 These three books unite in their exploration of girls who are prepared to defy tradition to control their own lives, where possible, in spite of general lack of female empowerment. I hope that this really was possible and is not just a revisionist interpretation.

It is interesting that this crop of YA historical novels has appeared now. Are these authors finding a story-niche or reflecting current concern? Although surely girls today, particularly in a country such as Australia, are more fortunate in their freedom and choice. The Raven's Wing

 

Review – The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box

The Fearsome Frightening Ferocious BoxDo you remember those Magic Eye (random dot autostereograms) 3D puzzles of the late 80s? The ones where if you stare long and hard enough at them and go into a cross-eyed kind of trance, you’d mysteriously see a world or picture in unimaginable depth and detail? Personally, I loved them and spent a lot of the early 90s staring into pages of pixelated patterns.

David Legge and Frances WattsThe Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box is reminiscent of these puzzles but in a much better, beguiling way. This picture book by the team that brought us Kisses for Daddy and Captain Crabclaw’s Crew, invites you to think deep, look hard and be brave!

It all begins innocently enough. One day an innocuous looking box appears. No one knows where it comes from. No one knows what is inside. And of course not knowing is the spur of all great endeavours; as any child will tell you; curiosity must be sated at all costs and in this case, that means the box must be opened.

Monkey is the first to attempt it but is thwarted when the box begins to moan. A spine chilling couple of stanzas provide clues as to the potential occupant of the box and is followed by a cautionary, ‘open the box if you dare’ warning. This becomes the box’s mantra and pattern of riddles throughout the book.

We are also advised that our eyes may play tricks on us and that in each of the illustrations accompanying the riddle, the occupant could be one of six creatures secreted therein.

This is where the fun starts. Finding all six of the illusive animals artfully hidden within the scenes is harder than you’d imagine. It took the eyes of two adults and one seven year old to locate each of the animals and I’m ashamed to say, in spite of years of Magic Eye practise, I’m still searching for some! The animals are not in random dot stereograms by the way but hidden as craftily.

Frances WattsThe Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box is utterly compelling. While I found alternating use of rhyming verse and animal narrative a little jarring at times, Frances Watts is spot on with her use of descriptive clues and creates the perfect amount of suspense and tension to keep readers guessing and searching. Watts cleverly guides us through a myriad of scenes from the wetlands, arid desert wastelands, woodland forests and even the Arctic ice floes, as we attempt to find the answer.

The fantastically detailed illustrations of David Legge allows us to linger in each scene, exploring the environment of the creatures who lurk and dwell within at least until we discover them. The drawings are bold, expressive and panoramic in their design and feel. I love the textured, stippled effect used throughout the book too, which gives the characters more tactile warmth.

As each riddle emitted from the box is solved, the creature portrayed steps up to be the one brave enough and fearsome enough to open the box. But none of them quite cuts the mustard especially when faced with a warning from the box that it will attack if they dare open it.

It finally dawns on our crew of beasties that they are collectively terrifying in their own right and if they open the box together, they will outmatch whatever is inside.

Now I’m not going to divulge the box’s contents. You’ll have to puzzle that one out for yourself. But if you are a fan of Parsley Rabbit, you are going to adore The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box and its chuckle out loud ending. My seven year old certainly did.

This is more than a simple picture book. It’s a gripping, enigmatically visual, educational experience. It’s a journey through the diversity of our natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s Deadly 60 meets Graeme Base.

Does curiosity finally kill the cat? Open The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box and find out for yourself.

Recommended for the very brave of heart and 5 to 50 year olds.

ABC Books, HarperCollins Publishers Australia 2013

And just for fun:

Magic Eye Mental floss

HEROES OF THE YEAR – REVIEWED

The Ernie and Maud books are full of humour and heart for newly independent readers.

In Ernie and Maud’s latest adventure, Heroes of the Year, kids will relate well to MC, Ernie who has never won at anything…and Marvellous Maud, the ‘greatest sheep in history’.

Now Ernie has a chance to win something. As trainee Superheroes, he and Maud could be in the running to win the “Heroes of the Year”.

“Ernie’s eyes were drawn back to the centre of the photo. ‘That trophy,” he said. ‘Is that — is that what the Heroes of the Year get?” His mouth had turned dry. A ribbon was one thing, but a trophy? A trophy was better than a ribbon…A trophy was better than three ribbons! ‘I’ve never won a trophy before,’ he added shyly.

In Heroes of the Year, Ernie and Maud are on a quest to catch, Pencil Pete, a moustache drawing fiend who has ‘passed through Beezerville and wreaked havoc all over town.’

Of course there are plenty of obstacles standing in their way but the more Ernie sees of the trophy, the more he wants it.

“Ernie felt something stir inside him as he gazed at the glowing trophy. He could just imagine the look on Lenny Pascale’s face when he saw it. Suddenly, he wanted a golden trophy more than he’d ever wanted anything before.”

Ernie looks for clues in Super Whiz’s book, 100 Handy Hints for Heroing. Maud is happy to be involved in Ernie’s quest but she is a gymnastics enthusiast with a goal of her own – to be able to do the splits.

The two use masterful disguises and determination on their mission, but will it be enough to catch the clever Pencil Pete?

The humour, action and quirky characters make these books an enjoyable read. Although Maud seems to go against current publishing trends, I for one enjoyed meeting a talking sheep in a children’s book.

Frances Watt’s fun text is accompanied by hilarious illustrations from Judy Watson

Heroes of The Year is the fourth book in the Ernie & Maud series from ABC Books.

 

FRANCES WATTS, AUTHOR OF HEROES OF THE YEAR

Today, Frances Watts visits Kids’ Book Capers to talk about her journey and Heroes of the Year, the latest book in the popular Ernie & Maud series.

How did you become a writer?

The first step to becoming a writer was by becoming a reader, and falling in love with books and stories. That certainly inspired me to write my own. But it was really through writing my first book—Kisses for Daddy—that I developed the confidence to keep writing. And the act of writing one book unleashed a floodgate of ideas!

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

There are so many things I love about writing it’s hard to say what I enjoy most! I particularly like bringing characters to life, becoming so caught up in their stories that they seem real to me. And, of course, it’s wonderful when those characters become real to other people.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

It can be hard sometimes to make the words on the page live up to the ideal in your head. And the ideas don’t always flow when you want them to.

What were you in a past life (if anything) before you became a writer?

I was—and still am—a book editor, a job I find very rewarding. I work freelance and divide my time between editing and writing.

What is your greatest writing achievement?

I’d say that touching people with my books is the greatest achievement. Having parents tell me that Kisses for Daddy is a book the whole family loves and shares, or a teacher say that she uses Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books with her students, or a child tell me that the Ernie & Maud books are the funniest things they’ve ever read or that they can’t wait for the next book in the Gerander Trilogy. It’s when readers connect with my books that I feel like I’ve really achieved something.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on the final book in the Gerander Trilogy. It’s exciting to be revealing secrets I’ve held on to since the first book, The Song of the Winns—but also sad to be saying goodbye to characters who have been living in my head for a long time.

Do you have any tips for new writers?

Definitely I’d say: read. And think about what you’re reading, think about how the book is crafted. Then I’d say: write for yourself. Don’t try to write for a market or follow a formula; write because you have a story in you that’s busting to get out. Once you have written that story, find yourself a reader, someone who will give you honest feedback, and be prepared to keep working—rewriting and editing—until your manuscript really represents the best you can do.

Do your books have any consistent themes/symbols/locations. If so, what are they?

Because I write for several different age groups, on the surface they don’t necessarily have that much in common…Then again, I think there is a certain idealism, a certain quirky sense of humour—and there’s usually a talking animal or two!

How many books have you had published?

My new book, Heroes of the Year, is my tenth book.

What inspired you to write this book?

Heroes of the Year is the fourth book in the Ernie & Maud series. In each of the books in the series the main characters face a moral dilemma and, through their friendship, learn something about themselves. This book in particular was inspired by the idea of learning to accept that it’s okay to lose.

What’s it about?

Extraordinary Ernie and Marvellous Maud are two very unlikely superheroes—Ernie because he’s just an ordinary kid, and Maud because…she’s a sheep. In Heroes of the Year Ernie and Maud are in the running to win the Superheroes Society’s Heroes of the Year award. But when they’re faced with a terrible dilemma, they have to decide how far they’ll go in their quest for the prize…

What age groups is it for?

Ages 7-10.

Why will kids like it?

It’s full of false moustaches! I think kids will love the humour, while identifying with the characters. And Judy Watson’s illustrations are, as always, hilarious.

Can you tell me about the main character and what you like/dislike about him/her?

I love Ernie for his honesty and good-heartedness, and Maud for her loyalty and determination. (There is also a group of older superheroes who act as mentors to Ernie and Maud, and they are terrific fun to write, having very human flaws and foibles.)

Is there something that sets this book apart from others?

Did I mention the moustaches…?

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

It’s great to have the opportunity to revisit much-loved characters and see them grow and develop across a series. I also really loved plotting this book and working to achieve a humorous trajectory that ties together different threads in a satisfying resolution.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

See above re the humorous trajectory and satisfying resolution!

Thanks, Frances for visiting Kids’ Book Capers.

Tomorrow, Judy Watson will be here to talk about the illustrating process and in the afternoon we’ll be reviewing Frances and Judy’s new book, Heroes of the Year. Hope you can join us.