Susanne Gervay’s Elephants Have Wings

susanne-gervay-2010Susanne Gervay is an award-winning author, speaker, recipient of the Order of Australia and all-round dynamo. She rushed into my life last year at the Central Queensland Literary Festival. I had the pleasure of sharing an apartment, and lots of stories with Susanne during our week-long visit to schools in Rockhampton and Emerald. Her energy was infectious whether we were visiting schools, snorkelling at Great Keppel Island or discussing stories.

Today she joins me to chat about her beautiful new picture book, Elephants Have Wings, which explores the humanity in all of us. The book is illustrated by award-winning illustrator, Anna Pignataro, who has created more than fifty books for children. 

JF: Congratulations on your new picture book. Tell us about the inspiration for Elephants Have Wings?

Elephants Have WingsSG: Inspired by my journey to India and South East Asia where I spoke in Delhi, Goa and Singapore, I returned imbued with the cultures and spirituality of India and Asia. I experienced the Baha’i Temple in Delhi where I was part of a service under the open-air lotus roof of the temple. Five young people read from their holy books from five different faiths.

I also became aware of mystical stories. One was the parable of the blind men and the elephant which is part of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism. Another was in Hindu mythology, that during the monsoon rains which refresh the earth, the clouds are regarded as the wings of elephants.

Young people today are overwhelmed with media reports of terrorism and religious conflict, and it is time to reach out and create a safer world for our kids. Elephants Have Wings came out of this. It would be a gentle, nurturing picture book celebrating family, inter-generational story, beliefs in a world that is both beautiful and threatened, opening discussions of harmony, inclusion and peace.

As the daughter of refugees, action for inclusion and peace are personal. I was privileged that Anna Pignataro, also the daughter of refugees, would go with me on this journey.

JF: This is your third picture book. What appeals to you about this type of writing?

SG: I used to write poetry as a child and also adult. Writing picture books is like a return to this old love. An idea grabs my mind and heart, and with careful words laden with meaning, character and narrative, I use this spare form of writing to create story.

Gracie and JoshHowever the real gift of writing picture books is working with a talented illustrator. Anna Pignataro and also Serena Geddes (illustrator for Gracie and Josh) bring their narrative story to my words, making the picture book richer, expanding and extending ideas, bringing in their own narrative as well.

JF: It’s your second book with illustrator Anna Pignataro, can you give us an insight into that relationship?

Anna Pignataro and I collaborated closely on both Ships in the Field and Elephants Have Wings. Both are very complex books thematically. Ships in the Field is about a refugee family finding home, while Elephant Have Wings is the search for truth and harmony.

We discuss every aspect from ideas, design, symbolism, colour, characters, without constraining each other’s creative style. It is a wonderful collaboration.

JF: Apart from being an immensely successful writer, you are also heavily involved with literacy organisations and foundations. What is the reason for this?

SG: So much of what I write and do are driven by my refugee background. I deeply understand disempowerment. Without literacy there is little hope of a future. I am very proud to be a Writer Ambassador for Room to Read which has reached more than 9 million children in the developing world with literacy. My 4th and final I AM JACK book – called BEING JACK partnered with Room to Read to advocate for literacy for all children. I am also proud to be a Role Model for Books in Homes which takes books to indigenous and disadvantaged Australian children.

Being JackJF: Most of your work has a deeply personal side. Do you ever worry about sharing too much of yourself?

SG: I have great respect for young people who feel so much but have little experience or power to deal with life’s challenges. When I inform my books from personal experience, I risk criticism. That hurts sometimes. However, young people sense truth in what I write, and they find friends in my books, their own answers and pathways forward. They are worth the risk.

JF: What’s next for you? I know you’ve been working on a film script. Can you give us any details?

SG: I have contracted with the wonderful TV producer who did ‘Round the Twist’ and Animalia’. However that will take several years to eventuate.

However the adaptation of my I AM JACK into a play by Monkey Baa Theatre has been extraordinary, touring across Australia and the USA since 2008. There will be another Australia wide tour in 2015 and a USA tour. I was on part of the USA tour this year which was hugely successful and a great experience where I spoke to many thousands of kids and teachers about I AM JACK, did a lot of media and hung out with the Monkey Baa theatre team.

My new project is a children’s series called The Tales of Harry at The Hughenden Hotel. Since my children grew up in The Hughenden and I have spent so much of my life here, there are so many funny, sad, moving stories to explore.

JF: Thanks for visiting, Susanne, and good luck with Elephants Have Wings.  The Central Queensland Literary Festival crew

www.sgervay.com

www.sgervay.com.com/blog

In Rockhampton: Michael Gerard Bauer, Elaine Ouston, Krista Bell, Julie Fison, Meredith Costain, Judith Rossell, Royce Bond, Susanne Gervay, Paul Collins and Kevin Burgemeestre. 

Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River series for young readers, Choose Your Own Ever After, a pick-a-path series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.

 

 

 

FRIDAY BOOK FEATURE – ALWAYS JACK

There were so many things I loved about Susanne Gervay’s new book, Always Jack, just released this month by HarperCollins.

Jack is an irresistible character. He’s kind and funny but with the normal insecurities of a boy who comes from a blended family, wondering if his stepfather Rob loves his own son, Leo more.

But Jack doesn’t dwell on it too much. He has great friends, a family who loves him and a house full of quirky pets.

This all comes crashing down when his mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and Jack realizes that there are more important things to worry about than his stepbrother Leo, who really isn’t such a bad guy.

Mum and Rob’s wedding is postponed while she undergoes treatment for the cancer and it takes Jack’s sense of humour and all his courage to cope with what’s happening.  Like everything in his life, Jack deals with the situation with optimism and honesty. He also draws on the support of his good friends, Christopher and Anna.

Susanne Gervay tackles a difficult subject on a level that kids will relate to and without sentimentality. Her honesty and the authenticity of the character’s feelings and reactions are what make this story so poignant.

Always Jack is an extraordinary story about ordinary people. It’s a simply told story, but far from simple, delving into a difficult issue in a way that kids will relate to and will make them think ‘it’s okay to feel this way’.

I hesitate to put an age range on Always Jack because it’s the sort of book that could be read by ten to twelve-year olds, but older kids and even adults will also get a lot out of it.

Cathy Wilcox’s amazing cartoons scattered throughout the book help balance the intensity of the subject matter.

The author draws on her own experiences of surviving cancer and as the Cancer Council NSW says,  Susanne Gervay’s Always Jack makes it safe for  children, parents and the wider community to talk about cancer.

If you enjoyed reading about Jack you might also like his other stories, I Am Jack and SuperJack.

TAKE A JOURNEY WITH JACK

Author, Susanne Gervay admits that writing her latest book, Always Jack has been a hard ride.

When I first was diagnosed with breast cancer and my kids were 6 and 9 years old, I was overwhelmed by the thought of leaving my children. They were part of the journey , but it was hard to deal with their needs, when I faced tough surgery and post operative complications.

Then when I got it again when my kids were in their teens, it was even harder. They were in that middle of search for identity and I had to survive.

I got beast cancer again recently. It was time to write Always Jack for kids and parents and also to invite the school and community into the journey. Story journey is such a powerful way to engage young people and empower them to make positive choices.

I led the Relay for Life with my family at Centennial Parklands Sydney this year celebrating and commemorating those touched by cancer.

ABOUT ALWAYS JACK

It’s about a great kid Jack who was nspired by my great son, Jack-Jamie. He’s like all kids – tells jokes, laughs, plays sport – surfs, does his special things – inventing. He has a great younger sister – inspired by my daughter. There’s his step-Dad is around and a Nanna who’s aging and is loving and deaf and there for them. There’s Mum (me) and then there’s the crisis, breast cancer.

Always Jack is about giving kids’ feelings validation, working out it out, as a family and community.

WHY KIDS WILL LIKE ALWAYS JACK

Because they are Jack or his sister or their friend. Kids know Jack. It’s a story they can jump into and feel and laugh with Jack’s jokes or be amazed at his inventions or help their grandparent. It’s their story and it’ll give their emotions an outlet and make life OK.

I LOVE Jack. He’s the everyman of kids –he’s funny, annoying, helpful, unhelpful, emotionally there for his family and friends – he’s a great kid.

TEACHERS NOTES AND CANCER HELPLINE

Teachers notes are available incorporating school curricula, activities and information from the Cancer Council. Importantly there’s the Cancer HELPLINE contact details:- phone 13 11 20

According to Susanne, there’s a missing link in communicating with kids when their parent is touched by cancer.

Always Jack opens its arms to young people and parents making it OK to talk.

The Cancer Council and National Breast & Ovarian Cancer Centre endorsements are very special.

The Cancer Council has such a strong ethos to reach young people with care and hope– Always Jack is now part of that ethos.

Having written Always Jack from her own experiences, Susanne says that it was a difficult but emotionally beautiful ride.

I laughed with the kids about how ‘dumb’ the Mum was at times; and cried with the kids and the Mum too.

Always Jack was written for 9-12 years but adults can read the other story within the text.

Tomorrow at Kids’ Book Capers, I’ll be reviewing Always Jack.

Boomerang @ Bookfeast 2009

Whenever William the author is invited to an event, William the Boomerang Blogger gets indirectly invited too. On Wednesday, NSW authors and illustrators braved the orange dust storm, and headed into the CBD for this year’s Bookfeast, a great event organised by Haberfield school librarian Michael Fraser.

Some Boomerang Books Blog alums were there, including Deborah Abela, Belinda Murrell, Richard Harland and Kate Forsyth. Also there was Susanne Gervay, whose I Am Jack’s stage adaptation by MonkeyBaa is on until October 2 at the Seymour Theatre and is the talk of the town, Duncan Ball, Sue Whiting, Jenny Hale, and my current favourite (and the insanely funny) illustrator Sarah Davies, who was just awarded Best New Young Illustrator by the CBCA for the powerful Mending Lucille.

Now, pictures!