Chook Doolan is Back

Award-winning author James Roy and talented illustrator Lucinda Gifford are back with another four sensational books in the popular series for junior readers, Chook Doolan. It is a witty and warm-hearted series suited to sensitive young souls navigating their way through challenging feelings of uncertainty and apprehension.

I reviewed two previous titles here (#3 and #4), outlining these creators’ ability to capture the heart, emotion and relatability sublimely to fit their emergent reader audience. Supportive language structures, short chapters and engaging illustrations allow children from age five to achieve success whilst absorbing every moral and humorous fibre of life within the pages.

Early primary-aged readers will relish the joy and culture shining from the pages in Let’s Do Diwali (#5). Venturing into unknown territory with a tradition he doesn’t know and a crowded event is a daunting prospect for timid Chook – aptly nicknamed for his tendency to scare easily.
When paired with the quietly-spoken Praj on a school task, Chook is presented with the opportunity to learn about Diwali. He is, however, apprehensive about attending the Hindu festival of lights, and subsequently performing well on the class talk. But by embracing the spirit of the culture by wearing a kurta, trying the Indian cuisine and engaging the happy crowd, Chook’s feelings of fear dissolve into excitement. He even feels confident at school to deliver his speech about the ‘awesome’ time he had at the Diwali festival.
This is a valuable story about understanding and welcoming other traditions, and overcoming feelings of anxiety with clearly accessible and supportive practices. Let’s Do Diwali is a jubilant celebration to revisit frequently!

On the Road (#6) is about a family trip to Aunty Liz’s home in Mount Frederick. Chook is unsure about spending time with his younger twin girl cousins. He worries about other things, too, like leaving his pets behind, and having to spend three hours in the car with his taunting older brother, Ricky. Luckily, Chook finds a mutual connection with one of the girls, Evie, through his favourite activity of chess.
This book provides a gentle encouragement that shows serendipitous moments can arise in a safe and supportive environment. A little bit of courage to interact with new or unfamiliar people can lead to some wonderful relationships.

In Un-Happy Camper (#7), Simon Henry Doolan; or Chook, expresses a range of emotions from anxiety to frustration to acceptance and relief. Finding out that his class will be attending a school camp, Chook is no more than unenthusiastic. Snakes and getting homesick are not his cup of tea. All he needs is a few gentle pushes from his mum to convince him that it will be alright. This sensitive, persuasive approach and positive attitude helps Chook through his anguish, and he thoroughly enjoys the school camp…even though they didn’t really go anywhere!
The focus on Chook’s feelings throughout his psychological journey is written effectively to help readers understand their own, sometimes mixed, emotions, and finding ways to ease those discomforts. At the same time the story is injected with humour and intuitively sharp black and white illustrations.

In Up and Away (#8), Chook has been given a school assignment to explore a job he might like to pursue as an adult. Naturally, he is drawn to the job of his father – a pilot. But, there are things about being a pilot that are scary, such as visiting new places and meeting new people. In a cleverly fun way, Chook’s dad teaches him a little about the structure and physics of a plane, which is somewhat reassuring. Whilst waiting for his dad in the Club Lounge, Chook is granted an opportunity to quash his own fears, and impart his knowledge, to help another in need.
This book beautifully showcases the fact that ‘ knowledge is power’, and stepping out of your comfort zone leads to a sense of empowerment and personal growth. Once again, relevant, entertaining and encouraging, young readers will delight in this gratifying story of developing independence.

The Chook Doolan series for junior readers, and in particular young boys developing their literacy skills, is absolutely addictive. These stories of overcoming internal struggles and developing self-confidence are highly relatable, uncomplicated and transparent, as well as pleasantly engaging. Five to eight year olds will definitely be clucking for more!

Author James Roy

Illustrator Lucinda Gifford

Walker Books Australia, June 2017.

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NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & SWF Indigenous Voices

As always, the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May was an amazing week.

The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced on the Monday night and I was thrilled to meet the Patricia Wrightson (children’s book) winner for the surrealist mystery Iris and the Tiger, Leanne Hall (who I interviewed for the blog here), photographed below with shortlisted Tamsin Janu and shortlisted Ethel Turner YA author Lili Wilkinson.

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The winner of the Kenneth Slessor Poetry award was Peter Boyle for the inimical Ghostspeaking, an intriguing mystery of finely woven stories and poems. The richly constructed characters are brought to life with interlaced poems. It evokes Borges’ Labyrinths with the brush strokes and ideas of artist William Robinson and the clear bold outlines and strokes of Matisse.

Congratulations to James Roy (who I interviewed for the blog here ) and Noël Zihabamwe, whose One Thousand Hills won the Ethel Turner award and all the other shortlisted and winning authors, including overall winner, Leah Purcell for The Drover’s Wife play script.

At the SWF, I was privileged to be in conversation with Dr Anita Heiss and Witi Ihimaera for the ‘Indigenous Voices’ sessions at the Wharf in Walsh Bay and at Parramatta Riverside Theatres. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss Anita’s new The Race for Reconciliation, a novel for children that celebrates Aboriginal hero Cathy Freeman and shares truths that many Australian children don’t know about stolen children, National Sorry Day and other aspects of Aboriginal recent history.

Anita has also shown Aboriginal women in contemporary Australian literature in new and important ways such as in Barbed Wire & Cherry Blossoms. This compares the WW2 Prisoner of War camp near Cowra in central NSW when Japanese soldiers broke out, with the local Wiradjuri people who also virtually lived under prison conditions – and had less food than the Japanese prisoners.

Also in this session was revered Maori writer Witi Ihimaera. He was the first Maori author to have both a novel and short stories published. In his memoir, Maori Boy, Witi uses a unique and powerful spiral thread structure. He also uses myths in his work.

Witi is well known for his book and movie from the book, Whale Rider and also now, Mahana. At times he wished he was brought up more in Maori traditions and he wasn’t great at the haka. But he was destined to do another kind of haka.

Anita and Witi made a fine team enlightening us about indigenous voices.

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James Roy and One Thousand Hills

jonesJames Roy has a strong pedigree in the world of children’s and young adult writing. His stand-out books in my opinion are Town, sophisticated interlinked short stories; Problem Child, about bullying from the bully’s point of view; and his intriguing, wrenching YA novel, Anonymity Jones.

James’s new YA novel One Thousand Hills was published by Scholastic Australia this year.

It’s a powerful, important story, shared by Rwandan, Noël Zihabamwe and has won the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize this year.

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, James.

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

I live in the Blue Mountains, but I travel broadly in my work as a schools presenter, as well as in my pursuit of a cracking story. I am heavily involved with WestWords, a Western Sydney youth literature initiative, and I try to be supportive of (and seek the support of) other kidlit/YA creators.

What’s your background and how else do you spend your time?

I was raised in a Seventh-day Adventist missionary family, and I think that upbringing gave me two great gifts – a love of story, and a love of music. Writing ticks the first box, and playing in various bands ticks the other.

mackI remember seeing a fantastic version of your children’s book Edsel Grizzler as a Bookgig at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Which one other of your works would you like to see in a different form?

I’m currently working on a screen adaptation of Captain Mack, which excites me (although I’m still looking for a producer – hint hint…). I think Town would make an interesting stageplay or film, and of course One Thousand Hills.

Why did you write One Thousand Hills?

As a child, my friend Noël lived the story of One Thousand Hills. In a sense this book was written to honour him and the countless other children living through the hell of civil war and tribal violence. I hope it also serves as something of a cautionary tale – this is what happens when hatred, ignorance and bigotry is left unchecked.

Is it a novel for children or young adults?

It was written for young people. It is very carefully structured to allow younger readers to appreciate it without being too confronted. But anyone – adult or young person – who comes to it with any foreknowledge of the events is left in no doubt that this was a brutal and nightmarish event.

Could you tell us about your main character?hills

Pascal is very much like Noël, who was nine at the time of the genocide. He’s a normal kid with siblings, parents, friends, teachers. He’s a normal kid who one day encounters the unimaginable.

How do you know and can write a character like this?

Societal and cultural detail was obtained through my conversations with Noël. Beyond that, Pascal is just a kid. If I’ve learnt one thing from twenty years of speaking with kids all over the world, it’s that the same things motivate, excite and worry them no matter where on earth they live.

Have you received any responses from readers about One Thousand Hills that particularly resonate with you?

The most interesting one I’ve read was on GoodReads, where someone said they really didn’t like it – that it made them feel physically ill – before going on and listing all the ways it had affected them, and talking about how much they had learnt and processed from reading the book. I took that as a win.

What are you working on at the moment? chook

I’m finishing the latest of the Chook Doolan books, and also putting together some ideas for an adult novel that will form part of my Masters dissertation. In the meantime, a sequel to One Thousand Hills seems quite likely.

What have you recently enjoyed reading?

I’m currently re-reading Moby Dick, in preparation for my dissertation. I’m also about to get back into Old Yeller forty years after I first read it. I have a multitude of tissues at the ready.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Would it be too political to suggest that we #CloseTheCamps?

Thanks for your answers and all the best with One Thousand Hills, James.

The Latest in the Chook Doolan Series

Award-winning author James Roy has successfully developed this series particularly with boys’ literacy development in mind. The Chook Doolan series have been created with a most likeable and relatable character, themes of friendship, family and courage, and plenty of humour and action to captivate its emergent reader audience. With seven or eight short chapters, easy-to-follow language and support structures, and exuberant, witty black and white illustrations by the talented Lucinda Gifford, these books are winners for children aged five and up.

imageSimon, better known as Chook, is not very brave. That is, he is chicken. InChook Doolan Saves the Day’ (Book #3), we are privileged with Chook’s emotional conscience and his honest thoughts towards things such as his dislike for sports. His friend, Joe offers to teach him to play soccer to prepare for their school lessons. But in particular, Chook needs to learn to brave the unyielding stampedes of Ashton Findus and Marty Petrovic. Despite his woeful excuses, a pep talk from big brother Ricky encourages Chook to listen to his angry rooster head-voice (as opposed to his scared chicken head-voice), and he miraculously manages to save the day (the ball, that is!). However, although overcoming this huge battle; both on the field and inside his head, somehow I don’t think Chook Doolan will be changing his reluctant ways any time soon.

imageIn ‘The Tiny Guitar’ (Book #4), Chook’s busker friend, Eddie Two-hats, sits on the same corner every day singing and playing his ukulele. But one day, Eddie Two-hats is taken away by ambulance and Chook is left confused and extremely concerned. To be able to help out his friend, Chook needs to make some money so that Eddie can eat. With his new ukulele gift from Dad, many hours of video instruction and practice, and a whole bunch of courage, Chook delivers the musical busking performance of his life. It may not have been flawless, nor have generated much income, but his efforts proved successful in more ways than one…even if it was only a one-time show.

Young readers will easily identify with the feelings associated with sudden change, being challenged to learn a new skill, and one’s internal insecurities. These books also inject the comically relatable advantages and pitfalls to sibling support (or lack thereof), as well as highlighting the encouraging nature of a good friend.

The Chook Doolan books are complete with a smooth stream of emotional trials, sound messages of compassion, hope and triumph, as well as plenty of winsome humour to capture the hearts of all sensitive souls like Chook.

Walker Books, August 2016.

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Powerfully Poignant – Historical MG reviews

Courage to CareBeing part of the human species is not always a club I’m proud to belong to. We can be pretty awful to each other sometimes even though most of us, most of the time err on the side of kindness. History allows us to mark the good times and the kind people. More frequently however, it serves as a reminder of the inglorious periods of our human existence. We cannot and should not hide from them if we want humanity to evolve, which is why these next three books make for such fundamental reading. All would complement the historical fiction shelves of young readers aged between 11 and 15. All encourage us to recognise discrimination, understand its origins, and be brave enough to fight its ugly consequences. All invite us to care in a powerfully poignant way.

One Thousand HillsOne Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noel Zihabamwe

This book is devastating. Powerful and wrenching yet achingly beautiful. Roy and Zihabamwe have given one ten-year-old boy a voice among an ocean of hundreds of thousands that were silenced without reason or mercy. Written with understated force and crisp, almost child-like clarity, One Thousand Hills traces the tension fraught days leading up to one of the most despicable acts of genocide the world as ever known, the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Pascal lives in Agabande, close to Kigali, in the heart of Rwanda. His life is simple and idyllic despite the taunts of his older brother and annoying traits of his little sister, Nadine. His parents work hard, worship what is good and Godly, and provide for their family as devoutly as the rest of the villagers who reside in the verdant mountainous countryside. They are a mixed family of Hutu and Tutsis, yet they share the same brutality and sheer ‘awfulness’ of this crime against humanity, born of fear and a need to sustain power with over 800,000 other Rwandans.

This novel does not sensationalise the violence nor does it dwell on the political legitimacy and shortcomings of the world’s nations who at first refused to acknowledge the genocide and certainly did nothing to prevent or end it. Instead, readers are shown how Pascal, via his vivid and eloquent narrations to a counsellor in Brussels some five years later, survived the ordeal and how his experiences changed him.

His voice rings loud and pure yet is tragically and irreversibly altered by what he has seen and had to do to save himself and Nadine. The final picture is not a straightforward prediction of how the previously pious and life-loving Pascal will evolve. He is at the endpoint, painfully sad and despondent; we, like the counsellor are incredulous and shocked that he has emerged with any sense of hope at all.

Despairing and gut wrenching, yes, however rather than fuelling hatred and disgust, this poignant tale promotes understanding and hope ‘to prevent children having to hide or run in fear from conflicts that have nothing to do with them.’ (Paraphrased from James Roy’s dedication.)

Powerful, essential reading.

Hanna My Holocaust StoryMy Holocaust Story: Hanna by Goldie Alexander

This is the first title in the Holocaust series aimed at upper primary readers and at first glance, I had mixed feelings about curling up to read this one. On one hand, I find the potency and importance of this subject terribly arresting but on the other, if handled oafishly instils depression and worse, a kind of muted blasé trance – we’ve-heard-and-seen-it-all-before kind of attitude. Happy to report, Hanna exhibits none of the latter and is an excellent introduction of the Holocaust and its impact for young readers.

Peppered with edgy characters, spirited narration, and well-paced drama, Hanna is another title that skilfully addresses the atrocities of ethnic cleansing without bogging young minds previously unexposed to the grim details of WW II.

Hanna Kaminsky is a Polish Jew forced into hiding with her family, then surviving in the Warsaw Ghetto at the onset of WW II. Like Pascal, she can almost taste the rising tension of political unrest but is too absorbed by her love of gymnastics, her best friend, and her warm family life to comprehend the danger it represents.

Pascal’s refuge was an old disused water tank. Hanna’s is reading. Throughout her nerve-destroying confinement she clings to the one novel her mother allowed her to flee with, The Scarlet Pimpernel. She begins to mirror her survival on his character and adopts the mantra ‘pluck and audacity’ to make it through each moment of escalating horror. In spite of her own hardships, Hanna shows spunk and fortitude in the face of adversity, using them to help others in dire need.

Alexander’s historical notes give this story depth and dimension describing the staggering loss of life associated with the Holocaust, millions being children, but again are presented in a balanced, informative way. For there is no need to over-describe the tragedy of these events.

It’s interesting to note this title is endorsed by Courage to Care, an organisation devoted to educating and challenging young people to stand up to injustices rather than just being passive bystanders.

Inspiring and purposeful.

Paper Planes by Allayne L. Webster

This did not pull me as much as the title and cover promised it might owing to continued overzealous exposition however, it is nonetheless a fascinating account of the conflict thPaper Planesat divided a nation and its people for nearly half a decade. Ashamedly, I knew very little about the Civil War that savaged the former Yugoslavia in the early 90s in spite of the fact that I was living and working in Europe at the time.

Paper Planes traces the plight of one family in Sarajevo through the eyes of the quite naive 12-year-old Niko and his eventual escape from the city under siege. Flecked with historic accuracies, this story does prick the emotions and beggars the belief as to how we humans are (still) able to fight our fellow man in such prehistoric ways for so little substantial reason.

Recommended for mid-grade readers, Paper Planes is another story about a terrible war and cultural genocide, the sufferers of which are often the innocents; the children and the people who never wanted it in the first place and like all war-torn tales, it is based on real historical facts and the lives of those who lived them.

Find all books here.

Scholastic Australia March 2015 – March 2016

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Best YA Novels for 2015 and looking into 2016

a single stoneAustralian YA writing is powerful, fresh and imaginative, creating spaces for thought and wonder. The finest novels from 2015’s field in my view are Meg McKinlay’s A Single Stone, an exquisitely written dystopia about lean girls who tunnel through stone. Younger readers in upper primary school can also read it and I hope that it finds a niche as a contemporary classic.

Lili Wilkinson’s Green Valentine is a hilarious tale about popular girl Astrid and how she and Hiro transform their ugly suburb through guerilla gardening. Humour is difficult to write and Wilkinson shines in this, as well as inspiring readers to beautify their surroundings with nature.

The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams is another urban caper loosely based on the real-life theft of a Picasso painting. Books about the arts often rank highly with me, as do books with an interesting structure.

Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish centres on Vietnamese-Australian scholarship girl Vân Uoc Phan who adores Jane Eyre. The story becomes magically surreal when she wishes that she “fascinates” Billy Gardiner.

Truth about Peacock BlueRosanne Hawke (interviewed here) writes hard-hitting yet compassionate stories based on young people in dire situations, often in Pakistan. Her latest, The Truth About Peacock Blue follows Christian girl, Aster who is accused of blasphemy by her Muslim teacher. Her life is at risk. A number of topical issues are raised with sensitivity and balance.

Trinity Doyle’s Pieces of Sky is an exciting debut. Doyle is part of a group of female Australians who debuted with a splash in 2015. (I’ve interviewed many Australian authors on the blog.)

My international picks are award-winner Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which follows the kids who aren’t in the cool group.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead is about Bridget whose friends seem to be growing up faster than she is. Stead always does something to surprise and parts of this novel are told in 2nd person. It’s clever and intriguing.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy is a (mostly) feel-good story about a big girl who enters a beauty pageant.

Cat with the coloured tailHighlights for younger readers are Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray, The Cat with the Coloured Tail by Gillian Mears, illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera, and Star of Deltora by living “imaginarium” Emily Rodda.

I can’t wait to read novels coming for young people in 2016, including Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, A Tangle of Gold by the luminous Jaclyn Moriarty and James Roy’s new YA novel.

The return of Edsel Grizzler

Now here’s a post that I’ve been doing my best to avoid writing. I reviewed Edsel Grizzler Book One: Voyage to Verdada a while back (see Catching up with Edsel Grizzler), and I followed it up by doing a two-part interview with its author James Roy (see Catching up with James Roy and More James Roy). In those posts I mentioned how much I was looking forward to reading and reviewing books two and three. Well, I did enjoy reading them very much, but I’m not going to enjoy reviewing them. Why? Because, despite liking them a great deal, I didn’t think they were quite as good as book one.

Okay, let’s start with the plot. Book Two: Rescue Mission involves Edsel returning to the mysterious land of Verdada which he left at the end of book one. Something has gone terribly wrong. It is no longer a land of “forever fun”. The mysterious Mira who had controlled Verdada have gone, and a boy named Ben has taken over. But Ben is not quite how Edsel remembers him from his previous visit. Edsel ends up setting off on a mission to retrieve his friend Jacq, who has passed on to another mysterious place called Widen.

In Book Three: Ghostly Shadows, Edsel and Jacq end up in a place called Grand City, home to the mysterious Mira. Here they find out the truth of what has happened to Verdada and a plan is formulated to restore order. Edsel must return to Verdada alone, for only he can set things right.

Let me start off by saying that these two books are as inventive and engaging as the first. Edsel and the other characters are believable and interesting, and the story exciting. I particularly loved Edsel’s interaction with his adoptive parents in book two. The awkward moments and the emotions feel genuine. Those scenes are a joy to read. The character of Ben is also convincingly developed as he is taken in a very different direction from the first novel. The conclusion wraps things up nicely while still retaining a sense a mystery. All good!

My problem with these two books is a structural one. They felt like one book artificially divided and slightly padded out. I can’t help but wonder if this was a decision based purely on the popularity of the trilogy format, rather than on what the story required.

Book one was a complete story with an epilogue that teased the reader with the possibility of more to come. Not so with book two. I was really enjoying it, when suddenly I came to the end… but the story wasn’t finished. There was no closure. So I moved on to book three, and while I did enjoy it, there were scenes that I felt dragged on too long — particularly in the journey from Widen to Grand City and then the stay in Grand City.

Reaching the end of book three, I thought to myself how much better it could have been if the two books had been joined together and tightened up.

Now, having said that, please don’t let me put you off reading these books… Because they are so definitely worth reading. As I mentioned in my earlier review, book one is pretty damn brilliant. And books two and three are still VERY good. My advice would simple be to read the latter two together, as if they were one book.

Has anyone out there read these books? If you disagree with my assessment (after all, what the hell do I know?), please feel free to berate me in the comments section below.

Catch ya later,  George

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More James Roy

Last post, I interviewed Australian author James Roy about his Edsel Grizzler novels. James has written a whole bunch of other books and won a whole bunch of awards. Today, he returns to talk a little more about his writing…

Quite a few of your books have won or been shortlisted for various awards. Town, in particular, has done well, winning a NSW Premier’s award. Has becoming ‘an award-winning author’ put extra pressure on you, or is it something you don’t really think about?

Actually, being recognised in that way relieves pressure more than it builds it. It gives you confidence, and helps you recognise that maybe you are OK at this writing thing, rather than being the fraud that most writers’ internal monologue tells them they are. I suspect that a great many artists spend a lot of time worrying that they’re going to be caught out, and exposed as pretenders. Winning a big prize helps to quiet that annoying little voice of doubt, at least for a while.

The only real pressure I feel is that of a major deadline. As an example: the German edition of Town was recently shortlisted for the German Youth Literature Prize, which has already opened doors into the European international schools, as well as the international publishing market. This means that the follow-on from Town (another collection of short stories, called City) needs to be written, and soon.

And to answer the last part of your question, someone once said that while they know that money won’t make them happy, they’d still prefer to be rich and miserable than poor and miserable. Pressure or not, I’d much prefer to be able to put “award-winning author” after my name than not.

You wrote The Gimlet Eye for the Quentaris series of books, created by Paul Collins and Michael Pryor. What was it like writing in someone else’s universe?

It was fun, and open-ended enough to allow me some real freedom. What was more difficult was working with the characters that had been created and handed on to me. I’m predominantly a character-driven writer, so using someone else’s cast was occasionally a little tricky, but it was an exercise which forced me into a more plot-driven approach.

You’ve written for young adults as well as kids. Do you approach the books in different ways?

Not really. I start with a character, chuck stuff at them until they react, and watch the carnage unfold. I know that that sounds fairly flippant, but at its core, it’s exactly what we do as writers. To some extent the age of the character, and the nature of the stuff I chuck at them, determines what audience the book is for. Obviously the language changes a little depending on who it’s for, but for the most part I just go with it rather than squeeze it into one shape or another.

What’s next for James Roy?

I have to finish City before I go to Frankfurt for the German Youth Literature Prize announcement. After that, I’ve got a book called Miss Understood for middle readers that is developing nicely, and a humourous book with Gus Gordon. I’m hoping to be doing some study next year, so whatever the work linked to the thesis turns out to be will be my next thing after that, I think. But who knows? The best part of doing this for a living is that it’s just one big adventure.

George’s bit at the end

A huge thank you to James for answering my questions. I’ve just finished reading Rescue Mission and I’m about to start the final Edsel Grizzler book. I’ll review the two of them together in a future post. In the meantime, check out James’s website for more info about him and his writing.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Catching up with James Roy

Last week I reviewed Voyage to Verdada, the first book in the Edsel Grizzler trilogy by James Roy. And today I get to talk to James about this trilogy…

The concept of Verdada, a place for lost things, is really fascinating. How did you come up with it?

This is a question that has plagued man for millennia. When you lose your socks, where do they go? Who decides whether you find them again or not?

OK, so maybe it’s not one of the great philosophical conundrums, but it’s still something I used to think about as a kid. Then I began to take it one step further: what if there are people — kids — whose job it is to make those arbitrary decisions about whether you get your iPhone charger, your socks, your gloves, your bike, your lunch money back? And what if those kids are lost things themselves, either because they’ve fallen through the cracks in society, or because they’ve lost their sense of perspective, or have lost their original birth parents for whatever reason. I have a friend who was adopted from overseas as a baby, and he had no hope of ever finding out who his birth parents were. But then, one day, he did find out, and he got to meet his birth mother, who was lost to him, just as he was lost to her. Of course that was the beginning of a much more complicated kind of very different journey, but it did make me think about the nature of fate and loss and belonging.

Edsel Grizzler is an odd name. Why did you choose it as a name for your protagonist?

Edsel’s name came from a car model, the Ford Edsel (Henry Ford’s son’s name was Edsel). This is the kind of car that almost runs over the baby Edsel Grizzler in his cardboard box in the front driveway when he is left for his adoptive parents to find. I ultimately abandoned the box idea because JK Rowling used that in Harry Potter, and even though I’d written that part of Edsel Grizzler before HP came out, I knew that no one would believe that I wasn’t just a big old plagiarist, so I changed that. But I still thought the name was interesting enough that I should keep it.

Why a trilogy?

This was originally going to be a stand-alone book. But once I got into the story, I began to see that there was a much larger story to tell. Good characters go on a journey, and while the first book does do that for Edsel, I felt that there was a longer and more interesting character arc to follow. I wanted Edsel to go from a slightly disconnected loner to someone with friends, as well as someone who understands who he is a little better, just as we all would like to do.

This isn’t to say that it was easy. I’m not a traditional plotter — I tend to be a “pantser”, as in I fly by the seat of my… This usually works for me, except when I hit book three of this series and began to wish I’d foreshadowed some of the plot points I was now developing back when I wrote the first two. But just as I always do, I scratched around and fumbled along, and I’m really happy with what I ended up with.

On the media release for Ghostly Shadows you are quoted as saying “If a kid were to read my book and, as a result, begin to think about how they can find joy in the everyday, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.” Was this something that you consciously had in mind while writing the book?

It wasn’t the main point — I’m not really into “morals”, as such. But I also believe that we only get one life, and if we spend that wishing for something better, we miss the opportunity to “smell the roses”, as they say. This is hard for young people to understand, since the size of their future is much greater than that of the sum of their memories, but as I say, if a child reads my book and goes, “My life isn’t all that bad, even though I don’t have the latest generation of the latest gadget”, I’d think that was a bit of a win. There’s an internet meme called “first world problems”, such as “I was all warm and snuggled up in bed before I realised that I hadn’t plugged in my iPad charger.” I’m aware that I’m a bit of a bleeding-heart lefty, but those sort of problems, when compared with what’s happening in places like Somalia and the Middle East, seem rather shallow. I think that story is a very powerful way to express that idea.

George’s bit at the end

James has written a whole lot more than the Edsel Grizzler books. To find out a little bit about his life as a writer, tune in next time for part two of this interview. In the meantime, check out his website.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Catching up with Edsel Grizzler

To celebrate the release of Ghostly Shadows, the third book in the Edsel Grizzler series by James Roy, I decided to read the first one. How did that happen? Well, I got a review copy of the new book, and because I had not read any of the series, the lovely people at UQP also sent me a copy of book 1.

With a mile-high pile of review books, it was my intention to read the first book, to get the gist of the series, and then skip over to book 3. But I just couldn’t do it. I loved the first book way too much to miss any of Edsel’s adventures. In fact, I was halfway through that first book when I hopped online and ordered book 2, Rescue Mission. And because I then finished the first book on the same night, I now find myself waiting impatiently for book 2 to arrive. Dammit! Why can’t the postal system be instantaneous?

Anyway… on to book 1, Voyage to Verdada.

Edsel is not a happy boy. He doesn’t have any friends, he’s not allowed to do anything that is even remotely dangerous and his parents are super-embarrassing. He is sick of his life and desperately wants to escape. The opportunity to escape is presented is a rather odd way — a large egg-shaped thing, big enough to fit a seated person. The egg wisks Edsel away to the land of Verdada — a place full of kids, and fun and food and friends… and lost things. It’s a never-never land where Edsel can stay forever young.

“Forever young in a place of forever fun.”

But, of course, things are not quite as they seem. Verdada is not as real as it first appears and there are mysterious entities in control of it. Even though kids are enticed into staying with the promise of receiving their “heart’s greatest desire”, happiness may not necessarily follow… especially not for Edsel.

I thought I had this book pegged after reading the back cover. As I started reading the actual book, I was sure I knew where it was going and how it would get there. I was wrong. Every step of the way, James Roy managed to surprise me and take me in directions I did not expect to go. There are not many books that manage to do that.

I was expecting Edsel to get transported to Verdada fairly promptly, so the adventure could get going. But the author takes his time, giving the reader the opportunity to get to know Edsel and his parents. Rather than delay the adventure, it grounds it and makes Edsel’s decisions understandable.

There’s a lot to like in this book, but what stands out for me are the characters. Edsel is a wonderfully realised character. He could easily have been a whinging stereotype… but he’s not. He feels real. He is easy to sympathise with. He is easy to care about. And I found myself caught up in his personal journey as well as in his extraordinary adventure. The other characters, from his parents to his new friends in Verdada, are equally well written. I found his parents particularly poignant — their love for their son and their tragic past coming together to make them so over-protective, so difficult for Edsel to understand and to love, and yet so caring and, well… understandable.

Voyage to Verdada is the first book in a trilogy. It is complete in itself, giving the reader closure and a definite conclusion. But the epilogue is a teaser that sets things in motion for the next book. I can see that epilogue hooking the kids in and making them desperate to get their hands on the next book. It’s certainly done that to me. 🙂

I will report on books 2 and 3 after I’ve read them. But tune in next time as I interview James about the Edsel Grizzler series.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK: Sandy Fussell

White Crane “…Why don’t you write proper books?” I’m often asked by friends.

I write on the frontier of Australian story telling. It’s a wild and woolly place. A little bit dangerous even. There are Dragonkeepers and Ranger’s Apprentices. A Book Thief and a Bugalugs Bum Thief. You can go Hunting Elephants or into the Teenage Underground. There’s even a Pencil of Doom and my own Samurai Kids.

I’m a children’s author.

We’re raising the imagination stakes, encouraging a love of reading and opening the door to critical thinking. We’re always entertaining, sometimes educating and often making our readers laugh.

Children and young adults are not easy to write for. They won’t tolerate a story that doesn’t immediately engage their attention nor will they read a tale with an overt lesson. Their own ideas rival the most fantastic of storylines. They have widely ranging reading abilities, life experiences and interests. The youngest of readers need to be handled with care and the older readers exposed to new thought. It’s an enormous challenge and a lot of fun.

When I write for children, I get to tell the stories I want to hear. Another children’s author once told me you write for the age you are inside. So I’m somewhere between ten and fourteen on any given day. I think that’s about right. I also enjoy being able to regularly interact with my readers in their classrooms, the library and the wider community. Children want to meet their authors and listen to their stories. There are no barriers or pretensions. I know from experience kids will ask almost anything!

Sometimes I get the big reward. “Your book was the first one I ever liked. I’m going to read another one.” The storytelling frontier is an exciting place where things are growing all the time. As a children’s author, I’m helping to grow enthusiastic readers and maybe writers as well. I love it!

Owl NinjaWant to win copies of the books in Sandy Fussell’s Samurai Kid’s series? All you have to do is email me a review of the last children’s book you read. You could’ve read it last night, last year, or even back when you were a kid. The catch? Your review has to be 20 words or less. In your email’s subject, be sure to write: ‘FICTION NOVELS FOR AGES 10+’

The Teen Reviewer

Steph Bowe, blogger extraordinaire returns to give her teenage perspective on two of the hottest new releases for kids. For more of her musings, click here.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks

Nina has been fifteen since 1973, when she was infected by a rogue vampire, but instead of the glamorous, superhuman life that television and Nina’s novels suggest, her life as a vampire has been boring and sickly so far.

Then Casimir, the vampire responsible for infecting half of the reformed vampire support group he’s a member of, is found dead in his coffin – staked and reduced to dust – and the boring life Nina loathes is suddenly threatened. With a vampire-slayer at large, the support group holes up at Nina’s house, in spite of her ageing mother’s protests, and the resulting quest to find and stop the killer (or at least convince him that they aren’t a menace to society), reveals the courage behind their reluctant, pallid exteriors.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group puts an original spin on a familiar concept. I deeply enjoyed this novel; the fact that it’s set in Sydney and distinctly Australian was refreshing, and the quirky humour and dry wit sprinkled throughout the novel sparkled. Nina, Dave and the rest of the support group, as well as the villains, were characters with personality and quirks, each with their own motivations.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group was deeply involving, and impossible to put down. The plot was extraordinary, but deftly handled by the author. It was simplistically but beautifully written. Next to other recent vampire novels I’ve read, The Reformed Vampire Support Group stands out for its originality. A novel well worth reading, and reading again – my new favourite.

Worldshaker by Richard Harland

Col lives on the Upper Decks of the juggernaut Worldshaker, a mobile city as big as a mountain. He has been chosen as next Supreme Commander – but then a girl Filthy escaped from Below appears in his cabin. ‘Don’t let ’em take me!’ she begs. Will he hand her over, or will he break all the rules? Col’s safe, elite world is about to fall apart.

Though I don’t usually read fantasy (I think Worldshaker classifies as ‘steampunk’, which is an incredibly irrelevant genre name that imparts absolutely no information about the novel, but sounds really awesome), I really enjoyed Worldshaker. I was slightly frustrated by Col’s naivety, but he was a character who was easy to empathise with the deeper I got into the novel. I found the plot believable, and the ending satisfying and conclusive.

The world within which Col lived on the juggernaut, separated into the Upper Decks and the Filthies Below, made for a fantastic setting – dark and a little bit sinister, and very alternative to our own world but at the same time with many similarities. The characters within Worldshaker fit very much with their surroundings, and there were many weird and wonderful personalities who you were never quite sure were on Col’s side or not.

Richard Harland spoke on the fantasy panel at the NSW Writer’s Centre Kids & YA Festival about the history in Worldshaker. It’s explained in the novel how it came about that everyone is living on juggernauts, and the Filthies are living below, and the world in Worldshaker’s history is very much the same as ours, until Napoleon made a different decision, and juggernauts slowly became possible in their world. I liked the thought of it being entirely possible that maybe we could be living on these ridiculously large earth-ship things, and I thought of it again when I read James Roy’s Sliding Doors post on my blog, and how different things would be if people in power had have made different decisions however many years ago (though it is very, very improbable, it’s an interesting thing to think about).

I also have to mention, I absolutely love the cover of Worldshaker. It has got to be one of my favourite book covers of all time.

NSW Writers’ Centre: 4th Kids and YA Literature Festival (July 4-5)

Excitement is ramping up for the upcoming NSW Writers’ Centre’s two-day event, the 4th Kids and YA Literature Festival, held July 4-5. The Festival’s bringing together some of the best Australian authors and illustrators, publishers, scriptwriters and industry advocates in what has been dubbed “a celebration of story and the special world of Children’s Literature”.

I was lucky enough to have been invited as a guest speaker, but honestly, I’m far more excited about the company I keep, which includes Melina Marchetta, Garth Nix, Kate Forsyth (check out our interview here), Libby Gleeson, James Roy (check out our exclusive interview here), and Ursula Dubosarsky.

It’s shaping up to be a dynamic weekend. The Saturday is the day for the traditional Festival goings-on, speeches and panels, while the Sunday is dedicated to workshops, industry consultations and manuscript assessments with some of the best in the writing community.

So, Sydneysiders, if you’d like to meet me and other (read: more important) figures in the Australian Children’s literary landscape, there’s more information here.

Interview with JAMES ROY

Earlier this year, I was invited by the Children’s Book Council Australia (NSW Sub-Branch) to speak at their 2009 Triple-A Event, where we reflect on a year of children’s releases and toast the shortlist when it’s announced at midday. I was the Older Readers speaker, which meant I had to read every entrant in the Older Readers category. That meant I had to read the copy of James Roy’s Hunting Elephants that was sitting in my bookshelf. Despite having met the author a few times and my general feelings of guilt stemming from not actually having read any of his books, I’d been putting off reading it, because, frankly, the blurb didn’t appeal to me. Vietnam vets, a rural wedding… to say I was dreading it would be to understate the fact. Significantly.

I won’t sugarcoat it – I read it because I was forced to. Well, I started reading it because I was forced to. I finished it in a day because I absolutely loved it. It was mature, it didn’t talk down to its readers, but at the same time, it showing off. It was just genuinely well-written. That’s the key to its broad appeal – and I handed the book to Mum when I finished. She loved it, and this is the woman who’s only finished reading one other book in the past fifteen years: my own.

I selected Hunting Elephants as one of my picks for the CBCA Older Readers Shortlist, and I was really disappointed when it didn’t make it. But not being on the Shortlist  doesn’t mean a book isn’t deserving of your time, and Hunting Elephants is certainly deserving of your time.

We’re continuing our tradition of exclusive author interviews here at Boomerang by sitting down with James Roy, author extraordinaire and avid olive hater.

First off – why the hate for olives? I mean, granted, I’m Greek, but surely, no one can hate them enough to mention them in jacketflap bios AND on their website?

I don’t rightly know. Maybe it’s because they’re so bold and intense and singular (almost un-subtle) in their flavour, although I’m sure there are aficionados who will accuse me of being a trog for saying that. But I mean, even if you don’t like artichokes, they’re still a bit ‘pick ’em off if you can be bothered’, and if you get a bite of gherkin in your burger, you barely notice. But olives are almost aggressive in their boldness of flavour. I just don’t like them. Is this really what we’re going to be talking about?

Hahaha… You know my priorities: olives first, literature second. 🙂 Now, literature: 2008’s release, Hunting Elephants was one of my favourites of the year. What I loved most was the way you approached representing cystic fibrosis, and didn’t blatantly try to manipulate the audience into “feeling for the sick kid”. There was a certain understated realism to its portrayal – was it based on a personal experience… or just a lot of research?

First, thanks. And that’s more like it. Sure beats the olives question…

When I worked as a registered nurse on the adolescent unit of a major children’s hospital, there were several issues I didn’t feel I wanted to discuss in my writing, mainly because I was dealing with that stuff every day. Dying kids, mental illness, cancer, eating disorders and cystic fibrosis. But I was still observing it, and biding my time as a writer, and I wrote about other things. Then, when I stopped doing that job, I was ready to write about some of that stuff. In Town, I included a character with anorexia nervosa, and in Hunting Elephants it was CF. I saw one boy die exactly the way Joel did in Hunting Elephants, and it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately many kids with CF are getting transplants nowadays, but it’s still a tough life. So here’s my soapbox moment: tick the organ donor card on your license renewal form, people, and support CF fund-raisers. There is a cure out there somewhere.

We’ve had heaps of requests that we ask authors about their process… so, how did you go about writing Hunting Elephants? Are you a planner? What was the biggest change that came out of the editing process?

I’m not a planner. Any time I try to plan, I end up getting impatient and frustrated and just getting on with the writing. I fly by the seat of my pants, and let the book come out of asking one question, which was first said by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing).

And Studio 60… and I think I’m the only person on the planet who preferred / watched the short-lived Studio 60

Well, he said that his characters come out of asking this: “What do they want?” Lili Wilkinson goes one step further, and suggests we also ask: “What do they need?”, remembering that sometimes the want and the need are in opposition. And once you know what a character wants, you make it almost impossible to get it. That’s the conflict, right there. So this is a question that I’m asking, almost subconsciously, the whole time I’m writing.

Hunting Elephants was going to be about a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War, full of creepy stories and adventures. But when I researched and interviewed, I learnt that there is the clichéd, typecast view of the Vietnam vet – angry, sullen, traumatised, unwilling to open up – and then there are all the others. Plus one guy who didn’t in fact do very much during the war, but was more comfortable letting people believe he saw and did traumatic stuff, rather than acknowledge that his experience wasn’t in fact all that harrowing. I found his story much more interesting.

A caveat to that: this is not to say that the support guys who were based at Nui Dat weren’t  fought against, but simply that what we believe we see and what we actually see and what we’re allowed to believe are often three completely separate things.

What about it are you most proud of?

The structure. Flashback isn’t something I’ve always done well, so I found that the way it worked in Hunting Elephants was quite pleasing. I’m also quite proud of the cystic fibrosis stuff, because it feels like something of a tribute to the kids I nursed over the years, and their families, who are confronted with emotions and challenges no one should ever have to face.

You mentioned Town earlier and it’s something we have to talk about. A friend and fellow blogger, Adele Walsh, over at Persnickety Snark, picked this quotation from it that made my morning:

“And to Mr Richard Foster who is joining our geography and maths facility. He’s apparently quite the cyclist, so those of you wanting a good hard ride might like to track him down.” p.15

Town received a lot of award attention (insert dramatically long list of accolades here, including the NSW Premier’s Award [Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature 2008]), did you write it thinking it’d be so well-received, or did its reception surprise you?

Strangely, when I finished it, I felt incredibly satisfied. With almost everything else I’ve ever written, I get a serious case of cold feet once the final proofs have gone back to the publisher, and it’s now out of my control. I agonise about whether I rushed it, whether I could have sent away a better book with another six months at it, and I doubt whether it will even get bought, much less get good reviews. And shortlists and awards are the furthest thing from my mind. But with Town, I knew that it was a good book. That sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it to be. I just felt very, very satisfied, and didn’t feel that I would have changed a single word even if I’d had another year at it. Which is ironic, because on the first reprint, we had to change several words that were typos.

Did its reception surprise me? A little, I guess. I felt it was the best book I could produce, but when it got a five-star review in Australian Bookseller and Publisher, I was a little stunned. In a good way. A very good way. And when someone tells me that they’ve read it (it’s not even necessary that they’ve enjoyed it – having read it is enough) I’m still a little surprised and flattered. I think this is because after years of writing books that got good reviews, I still felt slightly invisible. I still haven’t seen someone reading one of my books on a train or a bus, though. But I have seen someone reading Loathing Lola. True story.

Tempted to use that to a segue-way to a conversation about me… but I won’t. I know you keep churning out novels, what’s next on the horizon? Tell us about them.

Earlier this year was The Gimlet Eye, in the Quentaris series. As my first proper fantasy book, that was a lot of fun. And in the US was Max Quigley, Technically Not a Bully, which was a rebadge of Problem Child.

Later this year is Edsel Grizzler: Voyage to Verdada, which is Book 1 in a trilogy for middle-grade readers. It’s a kind of existential sci-fi thing about a boy who is transported to Verdada, the land of lost things. It’s all happy happy, joy joy in Verdada. Or so it appears…

And very early in 2010 is Anonymity Jones, a YA book about a girl whose life is in something of a tailspin, and the drastic measures she takes to regain some kind of control. I know, that’s never been done before in a YA book, has it? What’s different for me with this book is that it’s quite short, so I’ve had to be very direct and (hopefully) elegant in my prose.

And after that? The remainder of the Edsel Grizzler trilogy, and another collection of linked short stories like Town, only set in the city. The working title? City, obviously. I’m pretty excited about that one.

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature 2010 mayhaps?… Working on anything at the moment?

Always. I’m just tidying up the end of Anonymity Jones, plus working on a couple of commissioned pieces. Plus I’m putting notes aside for some of the ten or so projects I’ve got slated for the future.

Ever considered writing another Mack book?

I was planning to, but every plot point I tried seemed too convenient or coincidental, and a little opportunistic. Never say never, but at the moment I don’t think so.

What inspired you to write The ‘S’ Word? A frustrating puberty?

Ha! Nice try!

Actually, yes, kind of. My sex education was largely from World Book Encyclopaedia. In fact, I think my mother thought I was going to be a fashion designer, because every time she came into my room I was reading about Sewing Machines. Of course, this was only a page or two over from Sex.

But to be completely serious, there were so many books for girls about their ‘changing bodies’ and ‘relationships’, but very little for boys of 10-14. There were books for much older boys, and for little kids, but I wanted middle-grade boys to be able to open my book and get answers to what was worrying or confusing or interesting them without feeling intimidated by the language, or patronised by the level of information.

I also wanted to emphasise to the next generation of young men that sexual development isn’t about the mechanics of sex, but about relationships and mutual respect. This is why I dedicated whole chapters to discussing how we talk to girls, how to behave on dates, etc. I felt a little stung by a review that said this book was potentially detrimental to relationships, because that was EXACTLY what much of the book was about. I’m still not convinced that reviewer even read the book.

I also want to acknowledge Gus Gordon for his fantastic illustrations. I asked him for a chapter header, and one illo per chapter, two illos for the longer chapters. He came back with complete cartoons, each of which tells a proper little story. He was worried that a couple of them had gone too far, but I don’t think we rejected a single one.

On your website, you mention you hate authors who take themselves too seriously, or refer to themselves in the third person… Are you willing to name-drop?

Mmm, nice try. No, although I think they – and you and your readers – know who they are.

I will say this, though. Any published writer who begins to believe that their success is a birthright or an inevitability needs to be very careful, because they’re possibly destined for a nasty surprise. I am a big believer in the sliding doors principle, where tiny circumstances can affect later outcomes. I would never argue that I am a better writer than every unpublished author, nor would I argue that I am a worse writer than some hugely successful authors. I feel privileged that I get to do this as a full-time job, and of course there needs to a be a bit of ability and truckloads of hard work. I am blessed with both those things. But there also needs to be good fortune. Consider this: had the editor to whom I sent my first book been having an off day, or had just filled her 1996 publishing schedule that morning, or simply not liked my writing, or I’d sent the wrong sample chapters, I could still be writing cover letters and filing rejection slips in my scrapbook. And that situation could come back any day.

As I say, I feel immensely privileged to be able to make stories up for a living. I filled out an online form a couple of days ago, and under occupation, I clicked on Arts/Communication. And under that was a list of about twenty jobs. Writer wasn’t on there. So few people get to do it. Yeah, I feel lucky.

So to the authors who get to smug about their success, I’d say this: be wary of believing your own publicity. There’s that old saying – ‘Be nice to the little people on the way up, because you’ll probably hit them on the way back down.’ Panel-beat that however you like for this scenario, and it still holds true.

Of your books – which one has the best opening line?

Can I have three?
“It was the last time I saw her.” (Almost Wednesday)
“Harry was dying.” (Hunting Elephants)
“Once, in a street not very far from yours, there lived a girl, whose name was Anonymity Jones.” (Anonymity Jones)

I like the last one best… Who do you prefer to write for, children or young adults?

Both. I know that sounds glib, but I really do love both, for different reasons. My imagination was somewhat snap-frozen at 10-13, thanks in no small part to the place I was living at the time, so I love writing about that time in kids’ lives, when things are simpler in many ways, but complex in others. Life’s a little more optimistic then than it is once true adolescence hits, perhaps. And yet I love being able to stretch my legs a little more when I write for older readers.

As far as speaking goes, I absolutely love getting up in front of an audience of Grade Fives and Sixes – their enthusiasm is so much fun, and they respond in a really fresh way. High school audiences can be a bit more of a challenge, but when it works, it’s incredibly rewarding.

The most frustrating thing about being a writer?

When I was a registered nurse, I had a staff room. I had colleagues. I had peer support. Writers don’t get that every day. So the loneliness – or perhaps I should say solitude – of writing can be challenging.

But I think my biggest personal frustration is that after thirteen years and almost twenty books, I still have to do as much schools work as I do, because for the most part, good reviews don’t necessarily ensure good royalties. I love schools work, but once in a while I’d like to be able to call my agent and say ‘I’m not doing any school gigs for the next three months – I’ve got some writing I want to do and I need some uninterrupted time’, and know that I can still pay the mortgage.

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

Easy. Roald Dahl. Some authors can write funny, some can write gross, some can write important and moving. Roald Dahl did the lot. Plus he wrote some pretty good stuff for grownups.

If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

I’m tempted to say Mein Kampf, but I don’t know how widely it’s read. So probably Twilight. I think it and its companion books set the liberated woman back by about thirty years, nothing much happens, I’ve read fan fiction that is better, and I think it’s dishonest in its description of many Western teens and their attitude to sex.

Last Australian book you read?

Into White Silence by Anthony Eaton. Brilliant, creepy, chilling, and I wish I’d written it.

And the last non-Australian book I read was Tamar, by Mal Peet. It won the Carnegie Medal, and is such a fantastic blend of history, mystery and young adult angst.