The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler & Lisa Shanahan

Thank you for speaking to Boomerang Blog, Lisa and congratulations on your recent win for The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler at the Queensland Literary Awards. We’ll talk more about that soon.

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? 

Lisa Shanahan, second from right, with judges

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.

Do you have a website?

www.lisashanahan.com

Anything else you’d like to add?

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.

Monstrous Mayhem – Picture Books for Halloween

Forget the spook and gore this Halloween! Try obtain the element of surprise with humour, fun and interactive giggles. Combined with themes on friendship, belonging, and challenging emotions, that’s what these brilliant picture books for young kids are all about.

This first one comes highly recommended for an entertaining, inspiring and innovative book experience. The Scared Book is cleverly constructed to communicate a range of emotions and strategies with its audience…literally! Author Debra Tidball uses leading language in her role as the animated, ‘scared’ book with dramatic statements, questions and invitations to help console its fears. The truth is, the book simply cannot tell its story without the assistance of its readers to disarm those pesky monsters protruding from its spine.

From requesting interaction to scratch a tingle, to rub away goosebumps, blow away giant butterflies, then flick, trample, shake and fan the last remaining remnants, the book is able to get some relief. Whilst helping to calm it down from all the excitement, the book is in fact providing some useful strategies for its readers to deal themselves with feelings of anxiety, fear and self doubt. And successfully, the book ends with a vote of encouragement and praise that readers can be proud of.

Kim Siew’s illustrations are certainly kooky, but in the most vibrant, energetic and guileless way. Preschool aged children will no doubt be better off having experienced this highly pleasurable book, becoming intrepid saviours in relinquishing The Scared Book’s, and their own, fears over and over again.

Hachette Lothian Children’s Books, September 2017.

Ok, the title sounds scary, the concept sounds scary, but I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon is downright hilarious. And by the look of those huge saucer eyes and stunned expression, the monster on the front cover is far from menacing.

Perhaps a little too impulsive, the speckled yellow egg-shaped beast is distraught at the fact that his good friend is now gone…because he ate him. So he searches for a new friend, only to discover the creatures he greets meet him with rejection after rejection. Whether they feel he is too big, too small, too scary or too slow, the monster feels hopelessly dejected. He reflects on his impulsivity, until a new friend emerges. Could this be a match made in heaven?!

Preschool kids will crack up with the joviality of the scenes and the sharp-witted and repetitive one-liners of the text. The cartoon-style, textured and bright characters on black backgrounds bring a sense of playfulness to the book’s ‘dark’ humour. I Just Ate My Friend is the perfect, quirky book that has the power for valuable discussion on friendship, belonging, and the possible effects of instant gratification, as well as being a fun resource for role play and definite repeat reads.

Allen & Unwin, July 2017.

The dialogue between narrator and Little Monster is utterly delightful in Sean Taylor’s I Want to Be in a Scary Story. When the toothless, purple monster requests to be the star of a scary story, he gets a bit more than he bargained for. The narrator sets him up at every turn, creating far more frightening scenes than the little mite can handle. But don’t worry, young readers will find them, and Little Monster’s reactions simply hilarious. Conversing further with the narrator, the monster decides he should do the scaring…on second thoughts, maybe a ‘funny’ story would be better! Fed up with his trickery, Little Monster finds a way to give the narrator the comeuppance he deserves…and it’s frighteningly funny!

Text and illustrations coincide clearly in identifying scenes between conversation and ‘in the story’ moments with the use of plain and coloured backgrounds consecutively. Speaking parts, which are gorgeously candid, are also colour coded, furthering interaction with readers whether taking turns or reading independently. Jean Jullien’s artwork is perfectly bold yet child-friendly with its thick line work and strong statement colours, adding the element of drama without the frightening factor. Preschoolers will revel in the spooky (but much more amusing) shenanigans of sabotage in I Want to Be in a Scary Story – just in time for Halloween.

Walker Books UK, September 2017

Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter

Lisa Nicol’s debut children’s novel is Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter, a charming, unpredictable story about Blue, a girl who can’t laugh and is trying to remedy this.

Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Lisa.

And thank you for blogging me. It’s blogging exciting to be here.

Where are you based and what is your background?

I’m in Sydney and have a background in documentary and TV. I also do copywriting and write for an educational publisher.

What sort of music do you like and do you play any instruments?

What sort of music don’t I like might be an easier question to answer. There’s not really any types of music I don’t get into. Well except Opera and music that involves men dancing in long socks with bells attached. Struggle with that a little.

Basically I like good music. And a lot of bad music too come to think of it! I just like music.

A lot.

But I don’t play myself.

I think Dr Boogaloo & The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter is my love letter to music. It expresses all my pent up love which I can’t express by playing an instrument. Kitchen dancing keeps it in check most of the time but sometimes it just needs to come out.

What have you learned about the importance of music?

I believe humans are musical beings. It’s an intrinsic part of who we are. We need music.

What led to you writing a children’s novel?

I started writing for children when I had my own. I kept getting ideas for books and when they slept I would rush upstairs to the attic and try to write. Unfortunately all my children were terrible sleepers so my output is hardly prodigious. Hard to write a book in 45 minutes. But I’m on a roll now!

Could you tell us about ten-year-old Blue, her horrible mother and some other characters?

 Ah the lovely Blue. I’m very fond of Blue. She has a quiet strength and she tries to keep her chin up no matter how hard things get. She’s not one to complain – unlike her awful mother. Blue’s mother is somewhat self-obsessed. She thinks having a daughter who can’t laugh is an absolute bummer! It’s ruining her life and simply must be fixed. If not she plans on shipping her off to a boarding school in Switzerland somewhere. One of those ones where they don’t come home in the holidays. Costs a bit more but well worth it obviously, under the circumstances.

Now, let me introduce you to the wonderful Dr Boogaloo and his glorious wife Bessie. They run The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures. You may not have ever thought of music as medicine but according to the Boogaloos, music can cure anything!

Of course, you need the right dose of the right music. No point listening to a jive if you’re in need of some boogie-woogie, and you can’t just substitute a hum for a chant, or an opera for a ballad, or a toot for a blow. Absolutely not! Musical medicine is an exact art. And it’s extraordinarily complicated. The way Dr Boogaloo explains it is this – everyone has their own tune but sometimes, for one reason or other, we get all out of tune. We lose the beat, you might say. Unfortunately, your tune is just like your fingerprint. No two are the same. Which is why fixing tunes is SUCH a tricky business!

Dr Boogaloo describes Bessie as the magic in his wand and it’s true they are a great team. Dr Boogaloo reminds me a bit of a brand new pencil – he’s very straight ahead – which is perhaps not what you would expect for a musical doctor. Bessie on the other hand is a little more eccentric. She reminds me of a rainbow caught up inside a tornado. Bessie looks after the Doctor’s instrument collection which is so enormous they keep it in a shed about as big as an A380 aircraft hanger.

I particularly enjoyed Blue’s introduction to the Snorkel Porkel Crumpety Worpel Laughter Clinic. Could you tell us about how people enter it and about some of the Laughter Detection Tests?

Well entry is via a giant slide with a vertical drop that would make your nose bleed – hence the need for padded pants to avoid a really good buttock burn –followed by the the tickle machine which helps sort out the wheat from the chaff in terms of laughter issues. Then, once you get past the lobby guy who has a seriously good aim when it comes to snot olives, you’re off to the testing rooms. They are very thorough at the Snorkel Porkel. There are not many places they won’t venture to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Can we just say, strange animal farts, blooper reels, hula-hooping cats in bikinis, Youtube videos of epic fails and a gentleman called Gassy Gus who can blow up balloons with his bottom! You did ask!

Music is important in your novel but what about colour?

Well Blue’s mother has a thing for colour. She goes through colour ‘phases’. You can probably guess what ‘phase’ she was in when she named Blue ‘Blue’. At this point in time, she’s in a white phase. Phases generally involve a lot of shopping, redecorating and pouring over paint charts. Blue is finding her mother’s white phase particularly challenging. Absolutely everything in the house is white so even finding the fridge can be quite tricky. There’s a lot of falling over the couch, that sort of thing.

Could you tell us about the role of musical imperfection?

Well I can only tell you what I’ve learnt from my time at The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures but according to Dr Boogaloo, imperfection is an essential ingredient in any musical cure. One of the many musicians who work’s regularly at the clinic is a Canadian called Neil. He’s famous for the perfect bum note or loose string and exactly when to drop one in. Quite a skill.

Have you paid homage to any other authors in your plot, setting or characters?

Not authors so much but songwriters and songs seem to be scattered about the place. That’s my silly love thing again. You don’t need to get the musical references to enjoy the story – I’m sure most of the kids won’t – but if you’re a music fan reading to your kids, hopefully they might amuse you. Some are obvious, others not. For example, Blue’s globetrotting, game-hunting father sends her a pair of high heels covered in diamonds. There’s even diamonds on the soles! And of course Bessie would name her pet pygmy pocket possums after some of her favourite singers – Dolly & Makeba. Tupelo trees, weeping songs, I’m wearing my musical heart on my sleeve I’m afraid….

Are you planning anything special for the book launch?

Of course. Blue’s mother’s favourite – bubbles. And my favourite – music. We have Gramophone Man coming along to play some very old tunes on his steam-powered turntables. That should give most people’s musical immune systems a jolly good boost before the silly season begins.

What are you writing about now or next?

My next book is called The Crumples of Shambolstown. It’s about some very crumpled folks who live next to some very Crisp folks. A gang of Crumple kids venture into Cripsville and things go very, very wrong. It’s a crumply thriller!

What have you enjoyed reading recently?

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

A lot of Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz.

Anything else you’d like to add?

No, I’m pooped.

Thanks Lisa, and all the best with Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter.

Jules Faber & Stinky Street Stories

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Jules and especially for your amazing bespoke Boomerang blog cartoon featured at the top of this interview.

Have you met Alex Ratt, the author of The Stinky Street Stories (PanMacmillan)? If so, what did Alex smell like?

I have met Alex Ratt and she smelled of success and lollipops.

Your illustrations for The Stinky Street Stories 1 & 2 add lots of wicked fun to Alex Ratt’s (aka Frances Watts) words. Which story did you particularly enjoy illustrating and why?

I think I had the most fun drawing Smelly Birthday To Me because I could draw a lot of animals, which I really like to draw.

How do you describe your style of illustration in these books?

Simplistic cartoons designed to highlight the funniest parts of the text (and there are lots of funniest parts!)

What else have you illustrated? How was your style different in these?

I’ve illustrated David Warner’s Kaboom Kid series, Michael Pryor’s Leo Da Vinci series, Damean Posner’s Helix and the Arrival, Andy Jones’s Awesome Book of Rap, Rhyme and Poetry and the Cat and Dog Stories series of short stories. Sometimes I just draw in my usual style but sometimes, as in the Kaboom Kid series, I re-imagine my style to better suit the story. It’s always important to make lead characters look very different from characters in my other books.

Have you met Anh Do, author of WeirDoanother series you’re illustrating? If so, what was your impression of him?

I’ve met Anh, yeah. He’s great fun and just as funny as he is on TV.

What work did you do for Disney?

I worked on a show called The Proud Family in the Background and Layout Department.

What awards have you won?

We won Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards for the first Weirdo and we’ve won three Honours Awards for Weirdo, Weirdo 3 and Weirdo 5 at the KOALAs.
I’ve also won three Rotary Cartoon Awards for my comic strip MiBraine.

What books have you enjoyed reading recently?

just re-read a fantastic book called Ready Player One about future life inside a 3D videogame. The movie comes out next year and I’m really looking forward to it.

Could you do a quick drawing for us at Boomerang Books Blog? It could be a sketch of Brian from the Stinky Street Stories encountering Boomerang Books Blog or whatever you wish.

Boomerang Boys

And here it is!

Thank you so much for your answers and cartoon, Jules, and we look forward to seeing more of your inimitable work.

Stinky Street Stories 2 available 12th September 2017.

Christmas Crackers – Picture Book Reviews

As we mark the first day of December, the Christmas countdown has officially begun. A time for snuggles, a time for giggles, a time for togetherness, a time for giving, a time for remembering and making new memories. Here are a few glorious picture books that have all the joy, laughter and magic of Christmas covered.

imageThere is Something Weird in Santa’s Beard, Chrissie Krebs (author, illus.), Random House Australia, October 2016.

Argh! It’s like The Dreadful Fluff in disguise! Yes, there is a dreadful, terrorising mutant refusing to depart the comfort of Santa’s beard. Created by tired and grotty Santa’s leftover crumbs of bubble gum, candy canes, French fries and mince pies, the hideous, squatting blob threatens to ruin Christmas. It devours toys from the workshop and snaps up the elves’ trap. Santa attempts to remove it but to no avail. At last, it is the skilled, king fu-fighting reindeer that save the day. All is well with Santa until he treats himself after a training session with a sticky ice cream.

Chrissie Krebs has written this story with the great gusto and rollicking rhyme that it deserves. I love the depiction of Mrs Claus, too – homely and caring, but let’s face it, everyone’s patience has its limits! With its slapstick comedy, unfaltering rhyming couplets and vibrantly bright and energetic illustrations, this book makes for a highly engaging and fun read-aloud experience.

There is Something Weird in Santa’s Beard will take your preschoolers on a belly-rolling, chin-tickling journey as Santa overcomes the most terrible experience imaginable. But you can count on poor, messy Santa reliving it over and over again, as he did in our household!

imageI Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, John Rox (author), Simon Williams (illus.), Scholastic Australia, October 2016.

Here lies the renewal of the classic 1950 song originally written by John Rox, and performed by a young Gayla Peevey in 1953, which resulted in the Oklahoma City zoo acquiring a baby hippo named Matilda.

The story subtly portrays a sweet innocence, yet the narrator is firm with complete conviction on why s/he should have a hippopotamus for Christmas. Written in first person with its irregular upper and lower case handwriting as the main text, this is a fun, lyrical narrative (with bonus CD by Indigenous singer Miranda Tapsell) perfectly capturing the magic of childhood and Christmas for its preschool listeners.

Simon Williams gorgeously ties in this magical essence with his own interpretation of the humour and playfulness through his whimsical illustrations. Pairing a ginger kitten as narrator with its ‘Hippo Hero’ is an inspiring move portraying a wonderful unlikely friendship. The kitten makes promises to feed and care for it, and is excited by the hope of being surprised by its presence on Christmas morning. No crocodile or rhino would do, “I only like hippopotamuses. And hippopotamuses like me too!”

Adorably energetic, bouncy and joyful, children from age three will be adamant that they want I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas for Christmas.

imageThe Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore (text), Helene Magisson (illus.), New Frontier Publishing, November 2016.

With illustrations that are soft with warmth, deep with texture and rich with love, this newest edition of The Night Before Christmas is truly one to treasure.

With the timeless poem by Clement Clarke Moore, talented illustrator Helene Magisson works her magic to create a stunning gift for any family celebrating Christmas. As Santa and his eight reindeer journey through the snow-speckled sky to below the snow-crested rooftop, we are soothed by the pale watercolour tones that beautifully contrast the outdoor shades of blues with the indoor hues of reds. I also love the little whimsical subtleties like Santa’s cheeky expressions, the playful cat and the koala toy for our Australian readers.

With a special story and exquisite illustrations that represent togetherness, comfort and the undeniable joy that is Christmas, The Night Before Christmas is a beautiful keepsake for children between four and six years old.

You can find more fantastic gifts in the Kids Reading Guide 2016.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee

spellingWriting an engaging story about a spelling bee could be a daunting task but Deborah Abela has done an excellent job in The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee (Random House Australia). India Wimple lives in the country town of Yungabilla and is able to spell all the words on the televised Spelling Bee. Her family would love her to participate in the competition but she has a problem with nerves, as demonstrated by her mortifying performance in the school play when she had the lead role in Matilda.

Her father tells stories about Ingenious India and Brave Boo but real-life India feels nothing like her brilliant fictitious counterpart with her daring plans and exceptional thinking.

The characters, especially the members of India’s family and community, are warm and kind and Summer Millicent Ernestine Beauregard-Champion, India’s show-off rival at the Spelling Bee, has a reason for her nastiness, which India uncovers. Other well-integrated issues include the effects of drought on rural and small town dwellers, the effect of childhood illness on the whole family and the role of a live-in grandparent. teresa

The book is perfectly paced: India learns to understand and deal with her fears and makes a new friend, Rajish; and the storyline has well crafted peaks, such as the way both the family and the community create practice opportunities for India and the increasingly high-pressured rounds of the competition, culminating in the final of the Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee at the Sydney Opera House. The foreshadowing about Boo’s asthma also ramps up the tension.

And the book is funny as well! India’s father is often paid for his handyman jobs in colourful hand-me-down clothes and Nana Flo brazenly appropriates free food. The town’s rendition of the Spelling Bee is unexpected and hilarious.

Teachers could no doubt adapt some of the book’s content into their classes in a fun, immersive way for children to learn interesting words, particularly by using the competition element along with some of the actual spelling words. Each chapter also begins with a spelling word that relates to India’s experiences (such as endeavour, perspicacious, trepidation, fortuitous, skulduggery), its meaning and how it’s used in a sentence.

jasperDeb Abela has written quite a backlist of books for children such as Teresa: A New Australian and the ‘Max Remy Superspy’ and ‘Jasper Zammit’ series, but I think The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee is her best yet.

This Australian novel for children will be a great Christmas present and holiday read for girls and boys.

Animal World Problems – Laugh-Out-Loud Picture Books

Simply put, the following three picture books contain high degrees of absurdity, personality and fervour that turn logic on its head. But these animals with major problems will make you laugh til your cheeks hurt. You have been warned!

imagePandamonia, Chris Owen (author), Chris Nixon (illus.), Fremantle Press, 2016.

‘Pandemonium’: Wild and noisy uproar, rumpus, commotion, bedlam.
‘PANDAMONIA’: complete and utter chaos, often following the disturbance of a blissfully sleeping panda.

Beware! Take heed! This is a pre-empted cautionary tale about the absolute madness that is sure to erupt in the animal kingdom should you ignore the warnings to leave the peaceful panda be.

All is calm and tranquil when we enter the zoo with the introduction of the single, sleeping panda. Slowly but surely, page colours become bolder and more intense, and spreads grow thicker and fuller with an increasing number of creatures rampaging before our eyes. A fast-paced, rollicking rhythm escalates the chaos as a grumpy panda would undoubtedly hype up hippos, torment the toes of elephants, cause bottoms to jiggle and gibbons to giggle, jabirus to jabber, bats to swing and raccoons to sing, and generally create a deafening din. With every specie on the planet predicted to be in a raucous spin, the last thing you want to do is wake the panda. Oops…

Pandamonia is as good as having a wild party in your own bedroom, where the music, rhythm and crazy shenanigans come alive. Absolute fun, hilarity and joy exude from this book, preschoolers will be warning their parents to never put it down.

imageDo Not Open This Book, Andy Lee (author), Heath McKenzie (illus.), Lake Press, 2016.

Another fun book of precautions!
Children are so good at falling on deaf ears, rebelling, generally not doing what they’re told! So naturally, this book perfectly taps into the mischievous side of our little, cheeky ones. Television and radio personality, Andy Lee, together with master illustrator of all things comedy, Heath McKenzie, brilliantly entertain with this wise-cracking, hysterical imploration that is sure to leave its readers demanding more.

This character has a problem. The blue, long-legged creature continues to plead with us not to turn the page, and we just can’t help ourselves. So, all kinds of manic mayhem break loose. We get yelled at, lied to, ignored, threatened, begged, bribed and taunted. The enlarged and scattered text work a treat, as do the vivid, overly dramatic illustrations to keep us eagerly engaged in this theatrical pantomime. If you want to know the creature’s logical reasoning behind his lunacy, you’ll have to read the book…or don’t, your choice!

Do Not Open This Book will literally be a hit for pre-and early primary school kids. Extreme in all manners of impolite and inappropriate ways to resolve problems, it’s a fine example of literary perfection in promoting strong values, reading enthusiasm and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. Highly recommended.

imagePenguin Problems, Jory John (author), Lane Smith (illus.), Walker Books UK, 2016.

I love the cynical sarcasm emanating from this book. I love the not-so-likeable-he’s-actually-likeable character grumbling across the pages. That’s what makes this book so endearing. That’s why we are hooked from start to end.

One penguin, who looks and acts the same as every other penguin on the ice, has his own unique and individual perspective of the world. It is one of complete and utter pessimism and apathy. It’s too cold, the ocean is too salty, leopard seals, sharks and orcas want to eat him, he looks silly when he waddles, he is totally confused by the identity of his peers. Until one day, a wise, philosophical, rambling walrus enables the penguin to change his views… for a while.

From two bestselling creators, the text is sharp, witty and full of personality, and the illustrations express the same verve and panache with their speckled texture, cooling tones and diverse perspectives of this busy character.

Penguin Problems allows for a glimpse of optimistic light to shine amongst the gloominess, even if only a glimpse. Preschool and early primary children will find a punch of humour in this book about individuality and enjoying (or not) the simple pleasures in life.

For more great gift ideas check out The Kids’ Reading Guide 2016.

Laugh Your Head Off Again

laughLaugh Your Head Off Again (Pan Macmillan Australia) is a very funny book of clever stories by top Australian writers such as Andy Griffiths, Morris Gleitzman, Meg McKinlay, Frances Watts, Sally Rippin, Jaclyn Moriarty, Katrina Nannestad, Tony Wilson and New Zealander, Alan Brough. It’s ideal for primary school aged children and would be a good Christmas present. 

Meg McKinlay answers my questions (and makes me laugh out loud):

 Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? What’s something funny about your family?

I’m not sure where my sense of humour comes from but I do think all families are funny in their own way. Mine has recently developed a habit of replacing photos in other family members’ houses with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and seeing how long it takes them to notice. I find this pretty amusing.

 What’s something funny about you?

It takes me an average of 78 days to notice that a photo of a cherished family member has been replaced with a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What are your other books? What’s something funny in them? ducks

I’ve published thirteen books, ranging from picture books all the way through to a poetry collection for adults. Some of my best-known books are No Bears, Duck for a Day, and A Single Stone.

One of my favourite funny moments is in Definitely No Ducks! – the sequel to Duck for a Day – when Max the duck disguises himself as a penguin in order to take part in a class assembly, and things go chaotically wrong.

What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? How did you do it?

I once drove past someone sitting at a bus stop and – due to their long limbs and black clothing – briefly mistook them for a speed camera. I turned this into a poem called ‘Walter’, about a boy with ‘unnatural angles’ who deliberately sets out to trick motorists. As for how I did so, I just let my brain think the weirdest thoughts imaginable and ran with them. I consider this to be a very sound policy at all times.

What is the title of your story in the book Laugh Your Head Off Again? Could you tell us something about the story?

My story is called “Corn Chip Belieber”. It’s about two boys who find a corn chip that looks like Justin Bieber and come up with a get-rich-quick scheme, only to be thwarted by a kamikaze seagull. It was a ridiculous amount of fun to write but has complicated my love of corn chips.

Thanks very much Meg and all the best with this new book and your other work. stone

Far Beyond Our Imagination – Picture Book Reviews

Reading is a pleasure that allows for a range of benefits – reinforcing critical literacy skills, fuelling the imagination, inspiring empathy, and for the sheer joy. I chose these picture books with the commonality of the out-of-this-world theme, and I love that each one surprises its readers with elements of humour, compassion, relationships and the unexpected! Books can certainly take you to great heights where you can explore much more than initially meets the eye.

imageSpace Alien at Planet Dad, Lucinda Gifford (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

A powerful story intertwining the fun of space adventure play with the reality of adapting to family changes. Jake always gets a thrill when he visits his Dad’s place (Planet Dad) every Saturday. The bond between them is extraordinary as they act out a series of intergalactic missions, build space stations and enjoy spaghetti and meteorite sauce on movie nights. Jake is no doubt like many kids who receive special quality time with their fun, single dad. But in truth, life doesn’t stay the same forever. When a one-eyed, green Space Alien is suddenly a permanent fixture at Planet Dad, Jake is, as to be expected, furious. The place now has a ‘woman’s touch’ about it, and no amount of invader-blasting, alien-repelling or meteorite-showering action can force her out. Eventually Jake finds things in common with the Space Alien after a trip to the museum and slowly he comes to accept this new presence in their home.

Space Alien at Planet Dad is a super, highly interactive and energetic book that also deals sensitively and cleverly with changes to family dynamics. It allows its young readers, particularly those in blended families, the opportunities to perceive new situations and household members in a different light.

imageOlive the Alien, Katie Saunders (author, illus.), The Five Mile Press, 2015.

Olive the Alien is another story based on the theme of accustomising to new, and strange, beings in the home. Understanding and accepting differences can often be challenging, particularly with no prior knowledge of the subject or their odd behaviour. In this sweet story of a little boy and his ‘alien’ baby sister, Archie eventually realises that her differences are not only endearing, but also that we all have (or had) the same inherent human nature. It’s difficult for Archie to comprehend the antics of his baby sister, Olive. She speaks another language, she cries VERY loudly, she makes a big mess, and she eats the most peculiar things. But worst of all, she makes really disgusting smells. She simply must be an alien!

Olive the Alien, with its beautifully soft, pastel shades and cute illustrations, is a humorous peek into the life of baby behaviour. Preschoolers with younger siblings will most certainly relate, but whether or not they admit to their own once-upon-a-stinky-nappy phase is another story!

imageMilo, a moving story, Tohby Riddle (author, illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2016.

Set in the early 1900s in New York, the story of Milo is certainly one of character, survival and good old-fashioned charm. For an ordinary life, Milo’s world is quite extraordinary, even if he doesn’t know it yet. He enjoys singing classics and playing quaint games with his canine pals, and every other day he delivers parcels within the quirks of the busy city streets. Then one day a blow up with his friend leads to a ghastly storm. Whilst the tumult rages inside his head, Milo and his kennel are also physically swept away to a most remarkable place above the clouds. Upon meeting Carlos, a plain-looking migratory bird, Milo’s mind clears and he comes to realise some important things:
1. The world is big and wide and there are many experiences to be had.
2. The power of friendship is strong and is to be valued.
3. Sometimes it takes an unusual, out-of-this-world adventure to understand and appreciate the little things in life.

Deep and profound on so many levels, Milo, a moving story is undeniably moving. From the intimacy of life in a kennel to the wide landscapes and perspectives, collages and real photographs of various locations. From the simplicity of old fashioned games and songs to the high-rising journey to the sky. The old-style sepia-toned hues contrasting with the mixed media cleverly and interestingly add a humble yet juxtaposed perspective. This book offers great scope for primary school discussions about development over time, on both literal and personal levels.

imageMoon Dance, Jess Black (author), Renée Treml (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2016.

Here’s another book to move you… Moon Dance is an unbelievably charismatic story to get you physically jiving at all times of the day or night. Rather than reaching out to space, in this lyrical fun-fest the moon comes to you. A group of Australian native animals gather together in Eucalypt Gully for a dance under the dazzling, full moon. Gorgeously hysterical terms and rhyming phrases add to the frivolity of the action.
“Wombat starts a conga, He wiggles his caboose!” We’ve got drunken blue-tongue lizards, clapping paws, cicadas on the timbals, a slow-dancing possum with a goanna, and a spry, moonwalking bilby.

Moon Dance celebrates the joys of togetherness and the wonderful benefits of music and dance. The illustrations are whimsical and lively, bursting with exquisite texture, detail and a glorious Australiana feel. This book will light up the night for children from age three.

imageThe Cloudspotter, Tom McLaughlin (author, illus.), Bloomsbury, 2015.

Sometimes we need someone to point us in the right direction… even if it is in plain view. The view Franklin likes to observe is the one in the sky… the clouds. He, alone, has amazing imaginary adventures with the clouds he spots, including swimming with giant jellyfish, driving racing cars and topping tall castle towers. That is why he is known as The Cloudspotter. But one day when a random Scruffy Dog tries to take his clouds, and ‘invade’ his cloud adventures, The Cloudspotter has a plan to rid the bothersome dog… and sends him off into the outer atmosphere. Soon he realises that what he was looking for wasn’t just the clouds, after all.

There is a refreshing illustrative mix of airy skies and bold foregrounds, with lots of visual clues to add depth and meaning. The Cloudspotter is perfect for preschoolers with wide imaginations, and the openness to the possibility of unexpected friendships.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Australian YA: Meet Lili Wilkinson and Green Valentine

 

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Lili

Where are you based and how involved in the YA literary community are you?

I’m in Melbourne, and I’m as involved as a lady with an eleven-month-old baby can be! I used to work at the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria, where I helped establish insideadog.com.au, the Inky Awards and the Inky Creative Reading Prize. I’ve just finished my PhD in Creative Writing, and I’m part of the #loveozya movement, as well as just being generally around on social media.

ScatterheartI’ve followed and admired your work for many years, in the past reviewing Scatterheart for the former version of Books+Publishing and writing teacher notes for Joan of Arc.

How has your writing changed over time?

Thank you! I’d like to think my writing has gotten better – I certainly feel like I’m always learning and trying to improve. I’m more confident now, and my writing process is more streamlined. I’m also becoming much more aware of the gaps in literature (my own and more broadly), particularly in the areas of feminism and diversity, and am trying to do a better job of filling those gaps.

What is the significance of your title, Green Valentine (Allen & Unwin)?

Titles are the absolute worst. Green Valentine was originally called Garden Variety, then Bewildered, then Bewildering, then Lobstergirl and Shopping Trolley Boy. Then the wonderful Penni Russon suggested Valentine, and it ended up Green Valentine. Valentine is the suburb where the protagonist Astrid lives – it’s an awful, grey, ugly suburb where nothing grows and everything is shabby and run-down. Astrid’s interest in environmental issues inspires her to bring some green back into Valentine. It also works on a couple of other levels – the name Valentine suggests at some romantic possibilities, and the ‘green’ part refers not only to actual green growing things, but also the environmental activism movement, as well as signifying jealousy.Green Valentine

I love Green Valentine, not least because it’s very funny. Humour is difficult to write. How have you done it?

I love humour, and it is tricky to get right. Mostly I just try and make myself laugh. You feel extremely conceited sitting there at the computer chuckling away at your own jokes. But it has to be done! For me humour has to be paired with heart – I think humour and romance go hand-in-hand.

Which of your other books have humorous elements?

The Not Quite Perfect Boyfriend, Pink, A Pocketful of Eyes, Love-Shy and The Zigzag Effect. I’ve been on a bit of a funny bender. My next book won’t be funny at all! It’s going to be dark and sad, which is actually quite a fun change of pace for me.Pocketful of Eyes

In Green Valentine you have paired Astrid with Hiro. How unlikely is this match?

I love unlikely matches. For this pairing I wanted to mess with a few tropes – the Romeo/Juliet starcrossed lovers thing, a comical take on the masked-ball-mistaken-identity thing, and a sort of genderflipped Cinderella, where the girl is in the position of privilege. And I really wanted to take that well-worn trope of the Popular Mean Girl and make her the protagonist of the story, instead of the villain. I like writing stories about how putting people in boxes is stupid.

How have you used other texts in the novel?

Being a reader, so many of my experiences are shaped by the books I’ve read and loved, and it makes sense for me to extend that to my writing. Green Valentine references heaps of different kinds of texts – from Pride and Prejudice to Tom’s Midnight Garden. But probably most significant is the use of comic books and superheroes. Hiro is a comic book fan, so he and Astrid frame their guerilla gardening activities through a superhero lens, using those characters as a kind of tool to interrogate their own actions and emotions. This was inspired by activist fandoms like the Harry Potter Alliance, who are motivated by literature to try and make the world a better place. I love the idea that stories can act like a kind of blueprint of how to change the world.Tom's Midnight Garden

Greening a community is such a wonderful premise. Is this something you try to do also, maybe even at home?

The whole book came about because I started a veggie garden and was so excited about growing my own food that I wanted to write about it. I have a relatively small little patch of backyard, but manage to grow a lot of fruit and vegetables due to careful planning and some solid permaculture principles. Next, I want chickens.

In the novel you refer to the Cuban Garden Revolution. What is it?

Cuba used to grow lots and lots of tobacco and sugar, and sold most of it to other countries. But to grow a whole lot of just one thing is difficult, so you need lots of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. After the Cold War, Cuba couldn’t get that stuff from the US any more because of the trade embargo, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba’s whole economy collapsed too because they had nobody left to trade with. They didn’t have enough food, medicine or petrol, which meant that all that sugar and tobacco just rotted away in fields, because there was no one to harvest or transport it. Plus, none of those fertilisers or pesticides for the next crop. They couldn’t import food the way they used to, because they weren’t earning any money from their exports. People were starving to death.

So in Havana, they started growing food in the city. They turned vacant lots and rooftops into gardens. Every school and small business had a little veggie garden. No more big petrol-guzzling tractors required, just people, wheelbarrows and a few oxen. When you grow lots of different things together, your biodiversity increases, and you don’t need any pesticides or fertilisers. They went back to ancient traditions of crop rotation and companion planting. They made compost and harvested animal manure. Today, nearly all the seasonal produce consumed in Havana is grown within the city, as well as all the eggs, honey, chickens and rabbits. They’re a world leader in worms and worm farm technology.

It’s really inspiring stuff, and as large-scale agriculture becomes more and more difficult as we face the challenges of climate change, these small-scale intensive urban farming projects are going to become more and more vital to our survival.

What are you enjoying reading?Cloudwish

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a stunning exploration of love and family and art. I read it when my baby was very small, and I actually looked forward to him waking up in the middle of the night so I could tiptoe into his room and feed him while reading it on my phone.

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood. Just finished this and adored everything about it. Beautiful writing, beautifully crafted story and character, handling diversity with a very sensitive and respectful touch.

Thanks very much, Lili. I hope Green Valentine finds an enormous readership.

Books about the English language with a dash of humour

Being a booklover and an avid reader, I occasionally enjoy reading and learning more about the English language. I’ve read some great books on the topic over the years and thought I’d share some of them with you below. Let’s start with two Australian books for those with a general interest in the origins and future direction of our English language.Aitch Factor by Susan Butler

The Aitch Factor, Adventures in Australian English by Susan Butler (Australian)
Susan Butler is the Editor at Macquarie Dictionary, having started there in 1970 as a Research Assistant. Butler regularly engages the community collecting new words, and providing advice on the correct spelling and usage of a variety of words. She’s even been consulted by politicians and has some funny and interesting anecdotes to share.

According to the blurb: “The Aitch Factor is the perfect book for word warriors, punctuation pedants and everyday lovers of language,” so you can’t go wrong.

Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History by Kate Burridge (Australian)
Kate Burridge is a Professor of Linguistics here in Australia, and covers many categories in her book, some of which include: slanguage on the move, shocking words, word origins, and pronunciation on the move. Burridge takes an amusing and insightful look at how the meaning of a word – as well as its pronunciation – can change over time, and I found it fascinating and educational.Gift of the Gob Kate Burridge

As in The Aitch Factor, Gift of the Gob comes with a dash of humour and looks at the language of the past and where the English language is taking us in the future.

Literally the Best Language Book Ever – Annoying Words and Abused Phrases You Should Never Use Again by Paul Yeager
Hopefully the title of Paul Yeager’s book captured your interest immediately, but if it didn’t, perhaps some of the chapter titles will hook you in: Illogical Words and Phrases, Excessively Trendy Words and Expressions, and Inarticulate Language.

Yeager writes about the cliches, buzz words and double speak that irritate him on a regular basis, and I was laughing out loud and wanting to share them with anyone who happened to be close by.

Amidst the humour, buzz words and misused phrases it’s hard not to learn something along the way. I realised I was guilty of committing one of his grammar errors early on, but was determined to press on, ever hopeful that would be the one and only offence.

Literally the Best Language Book Ever is a terrific read, and makes the perfect coffee table book.

Between You and Me by Mary NorrisOne book in this genre I haven’t read yet is the bestselling book from Lynne Truss called Eats, Shoots & Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. According to the blurb: “in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, former editor Truss dares to say, in her delightfully urbane, witty, and very English way, that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled.”

This definitely sounds like a book for me, but I haven’t read it yet in the fear that it could be a little too serious. If you’ve read it, what did you think?

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris is another on my radar at the moment, has anyone read it? Are there any in this genre you’d like to recommend?