Australian literature is the best. Over Christmas I’ve indulged in reading the literature for adults I can’t easily justify reading during the year (but read anyway) when I am focusing on YA and children’s lit for work – and also pleasure.
I’ve been reading a mix of Australian and international fiction. I have to say that the Oz books are better. Highlights have included Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins Australia), Marcus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay (Picador, Pan Macmillan, reviewed here), Gail Jones’ The Death of Noah Glass (Text Publishing) – the best literary fiction I read last year by probably my favourite writer for adults – and I have just finished Flames by Robbie Arnott.
The cover is an abstract, reimagined Tasmanian wonderland, designed by the talented and charming W. H. Chong from a lithograph by Harry Kelly. It evokes both place and the elements of each chapter: Ash, Salt, Sky, Snow and Wood … Flames smoulder and taunt or empower the characters.
The tale begins with the return of Edith McAllister two days after her ashes were spread over Notley Fern Gorge. “Now her skin was carpeted by spongy, verdant moss and thin tendrils of common filmy fern. Six large fronds of tree fern had sprouted from her back and extended past her waist in a layered peacock tail of vegetation.” She is one of several McAllister women to appear after cremation, causing her grieving son Levi to commission a coffin for the eventual death of his twenty-three-year-old sister Charlotte in the hope that this will alleviate fear of her own reappearance after death.
As well as Levi’s viewpoint, the author shares the perspective of Charlotte, who escapes to remote southern Melaleuca; Karl, who bonds with a seal to hunt the Oneblood tuna (and witnesses the most harrowing and unforgettable scene in the novel); and his daughter Nicola who loves Charlotte. Other characters include the coffin-maker (whose derangement is largely shown through his letters to Levi); the “Esk God” water rat; the farm manager who cares for the wombats; the gin-swilling female private investigator and the enigmatic Jack McAllister. The entwined lives of these characters are skilfully explored.
The setting will be familiar – and not – to those who know the Tasmanian landscape. Place is wrought superbly. Images are unique and expressionistic. Flames are volatile.
Flames has deservedly been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards fiction prize, alongside The Death of Noah Glass. Australian literature is flourishing.
Solli Raphael is a phenomenal Australian slam-poet. I was fortunate to meet him at a Penguin Random House roadshow. He is a personable, thoughtful young man with an enormous talent. He is only thirteen.
Solli is the youngest Australian to win the all-age poetry competition, the National Australian Slam Poetry Finals, held at the Sydney Opera House in 2017. This led to a TEDx solo live poetry performance at Sydney’s International Convention Centre in front of 5000 people and a solo performance at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in front of 35,000 people (with millions watching here and around the world) in 2018.
He has a vision that sees people caring for all humanity, as well as for our environment. He writes and delivers his poems with thoughtfulness and engagement. You can view some of his performances online (links below). He presents his important themes and issues with developing tone and pacing, enhanced by thoughtful, apt facial expressions and gestures.
And now he has written a book, Limelightwhere he introduces slam poets as people who “use their personal experience to tell a poetic story”, often employing rhyme. Repetition, alliteration and assonance also feature in Solli’s work. Solli and his fellow slam poets aim to raise awareness on issues such as the environment or racism.
In Limelight Solli shares his experiences of some of his formative performances and gives writers’ tips. These include his creative discipline of brainstorming ideas at the same time each day and how he counteracts writers’ block. He explains some of the figurative speech he uses, such as similes, metaphors and idioms.
There are over 30 poems (in a range of forms) and slam poetry in the book. The title poem, ‘Limelight’ is a combination of slam poetry and song. ‘We Can be More’ is a paean to protect the planet: “realise that your litter is a bitter pinch to the earth”. Solli’s performance of ‘Australian Air’ has been viewed 3.5 million times online and is a highlight of the book. Its play on “air” and “heir” challenges us to act to save our country. Its refrain, “We breathe in, we breathe out” gives us space to physically breathe in and out and recognise the essential nature of air and breath: something we can’t survive without and we ignore at our peril. Other poems include ‘Media Literacy: Fake News’ and ‘Evolution’.
Solli has a list of upcoming appearances on his website. He is worth seeing as well as reading.
Slam and similar poetry are of particular appeal to young readers but Solli Raphael offers creative, intelligent, challenging ideas, all wrapped in hope, for everyone.
Marcus Zusak exceeds expectations in his new novel Bridge of Clay. This is an epic Australian tale awash with masculinity: the masculinity of deep, beautiful men. It is a story full of heart, intelligence and sensitivity. Its men are mates, brothers and family and they are men who love and cherish women. The Dunbar men are athletic, physical and even hard, yet tender and loyal. They are a “family of ramshackle tragedy”.
The structure is sophisticated. Matthew, the eldest of five Dunbar brothers, is typing the story of “one murderer, one mule and one boy”. Each chapter begins in typewritten font before settling into Goudy Old Style. The typewriter itself is part of the narrative and family heritage. The boy who Matthew writes about is the one “who took it all on his shoulder” – the fourth Dunbar boy, Clay.
Early on we know that the boys’ mother has died and their father has fled. We are forewarned about the long backstory about the mule, Achilles, only one of a number of past tales that enrich this book. These strands are elemental and seamless, and we are swept up in each.
We learn of the boys’ mother, Penelope – the Mistake Maker, the pianist, the teacher, the refugee from the Eastern Bloc. She grew up steeped in the ancient Greek classics of The Iliad and The Odyssey and shared them with Michael Dunbar and their children.
When she dies, the boys call their father “the Murderer”. After years away, he returns asking for help to build a bridge on his property. Clay, the quiet smiler, the runner, the boy who sits on the roof, the one who loves Carey and shares the book, The Quarryman with her, is the son who goes.
Zusak draws the female characters with love, respect, admiration and affection, even old neighbour Mrs Chilman, a minor character. Carey is a ground-breaker, an independent, aspiring female jockey.
There is a strong sense of place: the racetrack, The Surrounds and house in Archer Street in the city; Featherton, the town where it all began; and the bridge itself, the overarching metaphor. The writing is uniquely Zusak: idiosyncratic (“cars were stubbed out rather than parked”, “The furniture all was roasted.”); humorous, enigmatic and prophetic.
Bridge of Clay is published by Picador, PanMacmillan Australia. It is a contemporary classic.
I enjoyed Karen M. McManus’s One of Us is Lying (Penguin Books) so much I read her second novel Two Can Keep a Secret (Penguin) as soon as I received an advance copy. I’ve had to wait impatiently until now that it is published to review it and, because Karen’s style is so addictive, I’ve added a mention of One of Us is Lying as well.
In Two Can Keep a Secret, teen twins Ellery and Ezra have just moved to Echo Ridge, Vermont, to stay with their Nana. Their mother, Sadie was also a twin. She was homecoming queen, left home when she turned eighteen and is now in rehab and too unwell to care for her children. Homecoming queens seem to be the target of tragedy in Echo Ridge, particularly in the theme park Murderland, recently renamed Fright Farm.
A popular young science teacher is found dead on the road, another girl goes missing and the disappearance twenty-three years earlier of Sadie’s twin Sarah seems to hang an ominous cloud over the present. Within three weeks Ellery and Ezra have “reported a dead body, gotten jobs at a murder site, and been targeted by a homecoming stalker…” Secrets are rife.
The narrative is told from the point of view of Ellery and Malcolm – who lives with his mother, stepfather and hot stepsister – and likes Ellery. His older brother Declan was the boyfriend of a murdered girl and his return to town coincides with more trouble.
This is a place where “anything different stands out a mile.” Diverse characters are Ezra who is queer and their new friend Mia who is Korean and has “her hair buzzed short on one side and streaked red on the other”.
The setting in a town shrouded in murder and Halloween-theme park where many of the local teens work delivers chills.
Karen McManus’s first novel, One of Us is Lying, poses the fascinating conundrum of five students sent to after-school detention. One, Simon, dies there and the other four become suspects. Bronwyn is a brain who doesn’t break rules. Addy is a beauty. Nate is a bad boy. Cooper is a jock and Simon ran the school gossip app and was about to post secrets about each of the suspects.
“Not far from where you’re sitting right now, there exists a country called Kalia… The shore shimmers gold, the land opens like an emerald quilt, and the Kalian mountains rise up as giants to greet the sky.”
The wondrous land of Kalia and its twelve princesses come from the imagination of Jessie Burton, who wrote The Miniaturist and The Muse for adults. The Restless Girls (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) is a re-imagined fairy tale inspired by The Twelve Dancing Princesses about girls who circumvent their powerless state. It is told in sumptuous picture book form and is a perfect Christmas gift.
The twelve princesses are introduced in The Restless Girls in order of birth: Frida is clever, ambitious and wants to fly a plane; Polina could read the stars; Lorna is kind and wise; Ariosta paints; Chessa sings; Bellina speaks five languages; Vita is happy and has a quick wit; Mariella is gifted with numbers; Delilah has green fingers; Flora is always reading; Emelia wants to be a vet and Agnes wants to be a writer.
When their mother, Queen Laurelia, dies in her racing car, King Alberto (who didn’t grow up with any females and so doesn’t understand them) curtails their artistic and other pursuits because he wants his daughters to stop thinking and prepare to be housewives. They wilt when he locks them in a small room with no distractions apart from their imaginations, their stories and a portrait of their mother. One day this picture is tilted and the princesses discover a door with a staircase behind it.
Music and light lead them across an underground lagoon and forests of silver, gold and diamonds. They discover something even more amazing and beautiful inside a tree when a sheet of vines and diamonds falls to the ground.
The princesses meet a range of animals including a fox, a peacock with a leather book and a lioness. The girls are “brave, resourceful, clever and kind” but their worn-out shoes enrage the king.
The classic style and beautiful fairy tale form makes The Restless Girls a timeless, empowering, gift.
Magabala Books are going from strength to strength. They are perhaps most well-known at the moment for publishing Bruce Pascoe’s books for adults and children such as Dark Emu, Mrs Whitlam and Fog a Dox but Magabala has a strong backlist across age-groups and genres with great new books coming all the time.
Two new titles are standouts.
Black Cockatoo is of comparable quality to Bruce Pascoe’s writing for young people. It is written by Jaru and Kija man Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler, illustrated by Dub Leffler (Once There Was a Boy and Sorry Day). It is a memorable story about an Aboriginal family living in the Kimberley.
Thirteen-year-old “Mia, her skin unblemished, radiated optimism and hope.” Mia loves her Country but sometimes wants more. Her grandmother tells her that she lives in both worlds. “You will be strong both ways.”
Although she is a spirited character she must show respect to her older brother. However fifteen-year-old Jy’s anger ripples “under his scarred skin”. He disrespects the family’s past and is killing birds, including Mia’s totem the dirrarn. Mia protects the injured bird for as long as she can.
Education is valued by the family and language, particularly used for bird names, is included.
Both Black Cockatoo and Blakwork are insightful, confronting literary works.
Blakwork by Gomeroi woman, poet Alison Whittaker (Lemons in the Chicken Wire) spans genres. It is poetry, memoir, critique, fiction and satire for adults or mature young adults.
‘a love like Dorothea’s’ is a reinterpretation of Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘I Love a Sunburnt Country’ and is positioned sidewards on the page. “I love a sunburnt country. That is mine but not for me.”
‘outskirts’ is a chilling tale about a woman who worked in an abattoir and ‘killwork’ is non-fiction set in the same place. ‘vote’ addresses refugees and intermarriage where “blakness” is “a code embedded in your bones – it didn’t bleed through you, it constituted you, so there was no letting out.”
‘tinker tailor’ is a satire about Blacktown in Western Sydney. There are different stories behind the naming of Blacktown such as, “‘They call this place Blacktown because it was given to two Aboriginal men.’ Seemed weird to me that the whole continent wasn’t Blacktown.” The National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern on Gadigal land is considered in ‘futures. excellence’: “For people so put out on the fringes, we blaks love the centre”. In ‘the last project’ a note on the Centre says “We’re coming back, daught. There’s work to do.”
‘bathe’ is set at Maroubra Baths. “This is a poem about not suffering.”
‘The History of Sexuality Volume III’ is a poem about desire: “two blak women [who] love each other”.
Language is used in ‘’palimpsest’ and there is some superb writing in ‘rework’. “Pull over here, watch some spinning nightly fights reach across a highway’s ribs. At the Kamiloroi Highway’s spine two signs rise and speak and re-speak…”
Blakwork has just been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Both it and Black Cockatoo are strong, significant works.
There’s deservedly a big buzz about this novel. It’s for middle readers – what age group is that?
We’re finding the novel appeals to anyone from 9 to 109! It’s found in book stores and libraries on the ’middle reader’ shelves as it is published for that age, but it is suitable for anyone in upper primary to tweens, young adults and adults alike.
How is this book different from your other works?
My other stories each features a species of vulnerable Australian wildlife, and a young person trying to save them. Written for 7-10 year olds, they’re completely fictional adventure stories, (although based on real animal issues), plot driven and very animal focussed. My new story is based very much on my own family’s experience of living with a young person with a disability and the story is more character focussed. The plot allows a unique insight into a moment in time in a family’s life, and as such, probably appeals to a wider reading age and is a more emotional, heartfelt story.
Could you tell us about the major characters in Everything I’ve Never Said?
Everything I’ve Never Said is about a fictional character, Ava, an eleven year old with Rett syndrome who can’t talk or use her hands to communicate. Based on my own daughter, Charlotte, who suffers with Rett, the fictional Ava lives with her nearly fourteen year old sister, Nic, and her mum and dad, but struggles to tell them what she wants and how she’s feeling. Through Ava’s inner voice, the reader hears what she wants to say, even when her parents and sister don’t understand her. It takes the arrival of her new carer, Kieran for the family to work out a way to help her.
How do you show the authentic relationship between protagonist Ava and her older sister Nic?
My eldest daughter, Beth, helped me a lot with the relationship between the two girls. Despite having raised my daughters, and watching them grow up together, I found it hard capture their relationship on paper. Like many siblings, it’s not all hugs and love – there’s rivalry and jealousy, but when the chips are down, true love is exposed. It was important to me to accurately show how Nic would respond to her sister in various situations. I didn’t want to show the typical eye rolling teenager. For example, when I asked Beth what Nic would say when Mum wanted to put Ava in respite, she very quickly replied, ‘She’d say no, Ava would hate that!’ This wasn’t the reaction I expected. I thought Beth would think Nic would love time without her annoying sibling, rather than consider her sister’s feelings.
Why did you write the book as fiction rather than non-fiction?
Ava’s voice was very powerful when I began writing, but having never heard my own daughter speak, I could only imagine what was going on inside her head. Right from the start, I had to use poetic licence to interpret what was happening for Ava, which meant the book naturally became a work of fiction. Many of the raw, difficult experiences in the book are based on true events, for example, being placed on hold for hours with Centrelink, Ava having a melt down in the hospital, the embarrassment of Nic and the exhaustion of Mum, but there were some things about our life I wasn’t ready to share.
Ava starts at Rosie’s Cottage, a respite home. In your experience, how accessible and worthwhile is respite care for those with a disability?
We’ve always struggled with respite. Having a non-verbal child means they can’t tell you if everything is as it should be when they stay somewhere else overnight. Also, because our daughter is so physically fragile, the other clients were often not a good match. She’d be knocked over, or just left sitting on a couch all weekend. If it is a good service, respite can be very worthwhile as it gives the person a chance to make their own friends and have experiences they would never have with their own family. For example, we’ve never taken Charlotte to Dreamworld, but she’s been with respite. We currently don’t have a safe, enjoyable overnight respite place for our daughter, so we pay carers to care for her one-on-one in our home, so she feels safe and protected when we’re not there.
How helpful is art for young people like Ava?
Art can be incredibly soothing. In the story, Ava’s colours in her paintings to reflect her mood, and I think my own daughter would do the same. But more than that, the art teachers and music teachers we’ve encountered with Charlotte seem to have a way of bringing out the best in their students. Perhaps it’s accessing that other side of the brain? I’ve got a feeling that would be the same for people with or without disabilities. Art and music are very therapeutic.
Many people don’t treat those with a disability well, e.g. substitute teacher Wendy. What is something you would like people to know about how to treat someone with Rett syndrome?
I often ask people to consider Stephen Hawkins. Bent and twisted in his wheelchair, how would we ever know what he had to say if he couldn’t use a speech device? So, I try and tell people not to judge a book by its cover. People with Rett syndrome and any disability are just like us. They may not be able to communicate, they may look a bit different, but talking to them like any other person, smiling, and asking how their day is going, will make them feel less isolated and more included as part of the community. Empathy is so important.
What parallel have you created between Ava’s life and what happens to her father?
In the story, Ava’s dad falls unexpectedly ill in Ava’s presence. This creates a situation where Ava feels her lack of communication more keenly than ever. She can’t help him, or even call for help. I see this in my own daughter when she tries so hard to say something; her eyes shine and her lips make the shape of a word, but no words comes out. It’s incredibly hard. Creating a situation where Dad can’t communicate for a while gives him a true understanding of what it’s like for Ava, and helps the family advocate more strongly to find a way to help her.
How has your family reacted to the story?
My husband was surprised at first, saying, ‘Is that what you really think is going on inside Charlotte’s head?’ He said the book has helped him understand her more and make more of an effort to try and understand her subtle ways of communicating. Both daughters, Charlotte and Beth, are very proud of the book, with Charlotte grinning all through the recent book launch, and any time I talk about it.
Your books have received recognition in many awards. Which has meant the most to you and why?
Recognition from your peers is so important. I’m incredibly proud and grateful for any award nomination as we have so many talented authors in Australia. I think, in particular, when my first book, Smooch & Rose was voted in the Readings Top 5, and shortlisted for the Qld Literary Awards, it really help me believe I should keep writing. More recently, winning the Environmental Award for Wombat Warriors was pretty fantastic!
What do you hope for Everything I’ve Never Said?
I hope my story will shed some light on people living without a voice. People who can’t speak up, whether they have a disability, or are shy or too scared to say what they think, need to know we do care about what they have to say. I also hoped people with Rett or other disabilities, families, siblings, carers, friends would feel less alone. We’re in this together, and while it might not be ‘Italy’, it’s a very special type of ‘Holland’ where, even with its ups and downs, we live lives full of unexpected treasures.
Thank you so much for giving us even more insight into Rett syndrome and living with disability, Samantha. It has been a privilege.
Thank you, thanks for the opportunity!
(Everything I’ve Never Said is published by University of Qld Press)
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Michael. You have an incredible, and awarded, body of work for children and young adults.
I remember first reading The Running Man as a proof copy and knowing that this was an Australian classic; literally falling off my chair with laughter when I read Don’t Call Me Ishmael; and judging the Qld Literary Awards when Just a Dog won best children’s book.
Could you please tell us about these and some of your other books?
I often get asked at school visits which of my books is my favourite. Of course, a bit like choosing between your children, it’s probably an impossible question to answer. I’m happy to say that I love and am proud of everything I’ve written and each book has something that makes it special for me. I would never have the nerve to send them off to my publisher if that wasn’t the case.
The Running Man of course will always be special to me. It made me a published author, won the CBCA Book of the Year and changed my life in ways that I’d only ever dreamed about. It also says some things that are important to me – like how we often judge and label people and put them in a convenient box, without really knowing them or seeing the human being behind the label. I was writing it back in the early 2000s when the issue of refugees was very much in the news and they were being demonised by some. Sadly not much has changed.
Some people might think it strange, but of all the things I’ve written, I’m probably most proud of the Ishmael trilogy. I’d happily be judged as a writer just on the basis of those three books. I love the mix of comedy with more serious moments and the way the characters grow and develop and reveal different aspects of themselves as the series unfolds. I’m also pleased with how the series ends and that ultimately it’s all about the saving power of love and friendship. It was a sad day for me when I wrote the final scene and said goodbye to characters I loved. I have a special place in my heart for readers who take the time to follow the journey of Ishmael and his friends all the way from year nine through to graduation. Some of the loveliest emails I’ve received are about these books.
I loved writing Just a Dog. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to write a powerful story in the simple language of a young boy. It took quite a few drafts to get there but I was really pleased with the way it turned out. A number of Corey’s and Mr Mosely’s stories were based on childhood memories of dogs I grew up with. The response to this book has been overwhelmingly positive and beautiful but because of the serious and ‘more adult’ issues it also touches on, it’s had a bit of a polarising effect on readers. One lady said after reading the book that it was going ‘straight in the fire’! I remember when I submitted it, my publisher asked me who I thought the story was for. My answer was, ‘I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just for me.’
Like I said at the start, I could give reasons why each of my books is special to me – but don’t worry I won’t do that! However I have to mention what a joy it was to work on the Eric Vale and Secret Agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale series with my beautiful (and genius!) son Joe. (AND you can check out Joe and wife Rita’s ARTSPEAR ENTERTAINMENT YouTube channel to see for yourself why this super-talented couple have 1 MILLION subscribers.)
Where are you based and what’s your background in children’s and YA literature?
I’m based in Brisbane. I’ve lived most of my life in the suburb of Ashgrove which was the setting for The Running Man. We now live in the bordering suburb. Look how far I’ve come!
I was a secondary school teacher of English and Economics for quite a few years and dreamed of being a writer. I had what amounted to a quadruple major in English Literature from Qld Uni but my awareness and depth of knowledge of children’s and YA literature was quite limited until I got a job at Marist Ashgrove (the school St Daniel’s is based on in the Ishmael books). The wonderful English co-ordinator there who interviewed me and who was ultimately responsible for me getting the job, said I needed to know more about what young people were reading. She handed me a stack of YA and middle grade novels to read over the Christmas holidays. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of stories.
How are you involved in this community at the moment?
I’m very fortunate living in Brisbane as we have a very vibrant, active and enthusiastic writing and illustrating community. It’s a large and supportive group and I’m often in contact with other local writers and illustrators through book launches and other literary function and events. My involvement comes about mainly via such organisations as the Queensland Writers Centre, ASA, Book Links and the local branch of the CBCA. I’m also a member of the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust where I’m on the selection committee for their Fellowships and Residencies.
Well if you insist! The Things That Will Not Stand is a YA novel set over just nine or so hours at a University Open Day for senior school students. It is told in the first person, present tense by a year eleven boy called Sebastian, who is attending the day with his best friend (and perhaps mentor) Tolly. Sebastian is a bit of a lost soul as well as a romantic and when he has a brief encounter with the ‘perfect girl’ he can’t help himself hoping and dreaming that they might make a connection and his day will pan out like some feel-good, rom-com movie. Instead, he meets Frida – the ‘wrong’ girl – and his and Tolly’s day takes a very different and much more unpredictable, turn.
It’s a story about two teenagers who are both hurting and damaged in their own way. It’s about the stories they tell, the secrets they keep and the courage and faith it takes to share their real selves. The novel is a mix of comedy and drama because as Sebastian says about life, ‘It’s never just one type of thing … It’s all over the place. One minute it’s tears. Next minute it’s laughter. Then, just when you think you’re headed for a happy ending, the monsters turn up.’ I hope readers enjoy spending the day with Frida and Sebastian and Tolly. I certainly did.
How important is an opening scene and how did you write it here?
An opening scene is crucial. First impressions count, as they say. I think a good opening scene feels like the curtains are suddenly drawn back and you find yourself as the reader in the centre of someone else’s world. A world that hopefully draws you in and hangs on. TTTWNS opens with Sebastian standing in a cinema foyer staring at a set of big sliding doors, hoping and praying that soon they will glide open and the girl of his dreams will walk through. I chose to start here because it’s a dramatic and pivotal moment that could go either way. It also a scene that reveals a lot about Sebastian’s character and personality.
How does Sebastian represent a “Very Ordinary Guy”?
This is Sebastian’s description of himself and it reflects the doubts and lack of confidence a lot of young people – both male and female – have about themselves, especially when they compare themselves to others around them and (unfairly) to larger than life celebrities. In that way he is an ordinary teenager because like most teenagers, he doesn’t see or appreciate the extraordinary and admirable qualities he actually does have. But I’d like to think that readers will see them.
Frida has a sharp wit. How did you form her dialogue?
I enjoy writing dialogue and I loved creating the exchanges between Frida and the boys. I can’t explain the process of writing the dialogue or where the ideas come from. I think knowing the character well and seeing them as real people helps. Because of Frida’s connection to Frida Kahlo I imagined her as someone who was creative, fiery, intelligent and strong-willed but also with a sense of fun and humour and compassion. I tried to channel that. Writing for me is often like picturing a scene in my head and watching it like film and then trying to capture in words what I see and hear.
I think everyone loves humour but it’s so difficult to write. It’s something you do well! How do you pull it off?
I often get asked how I come up with the jokes and humour in books like the Ishmael series and the Eric Vale series. I can never answer those questions. I sometimes do workshops on writing humour and talk about how the key to all humour is ‘surprise’ or the ‘unexpected’ and how you can apply this to creating surprising and unexpected characters, situations, storylines and language use. But I must admit that I don’t have a conscious process I go through or a formula in my mind when I’m writing comedy. I just try to think of things that I find funny. Pathetic explanation, I know! I was never extroverted or a ‘class clown’ at school, but I could always make my friends laugh. I think it helps that I’ve loved comedy and have devoured funny movies, TV shows, cartoons and books ever since I was a little kid. One of the strengths I think I have as a creator of stories, it is that I often see connections and links between things. Perhaps being able to see surprising and unexpected connections between words and ideas and situations, helps with producing humour and witty dialogue.
What is the significance of the movie Casablanca and other movies in the novel?
Like The Big Lebowski, Casablanca is one of my favourite films. Best dialogue ever. It’s significant in the novel because as a love story it stands in contrast and challenges Sebastian’s happy ending rom-com fantasies. The final scene of Casablanca shows that love is not a selfish thing, that sometimes it involves pain and sacrifice. After watching the film together, Frida comments jokingly that Sebastian is nothing like Bogart’s character Rick in the film. I like to think that by the end of the novel she might not be so sure.
How are Sebastian and his mate Tolly actually not Ordinary Guys, but superheroes?
Aren’t most superheroes ordinary people most of the time until those crucial moments when they are called on to reveal their alter-ego? Sebastian and Tolly don’t have superhero costumes but they do have those moments when they reveal who they are through their words or actions – such as when Tolly takes on Frida’s tormentor in the lecture theatre. But they’re not your classic superheroes. If they do possess any ‘superpowers’ it’s just their essential decency and empathy.
The Things That Will Not Stand is an engaging read that, at first, conceals scars and depths in the character’s lives. How do you unpeel these layers?
Every time you have a character in a scene they are revealing something of themselves – how they act, their appearance and mannerisms, the words and images they choose to use, how they react to other characters, other situations and ideas, their thoughts and feelings and attitudes – all of these things and more help readers’ build up an understanding and appreciation of a character. Even if the character is trying to hide or disguise who they are, their real nature can be shown to seep through.
Sometimes in TTTWNS hidden layers are exposed when cracks and inconsistencies appear in a character’s story. More importantly, layers are peeled back when trust grows between the characters – when they feel brave enough to place some of their secret pain and hurt in someone else’s hands. The various events of the day provide the opportunities for the trust and connection between Sebastian and Frida to grow and strengthen.
What is the significance of the title?
The title is a line from the movie The Big Lebowski – a big favourite of mine. The main character in the film, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) says at one point, ‘This aggression must not stand, man.’ In the book the statement ‘It will not stand’ is used by Sebastian and Tolly as a declaration of intent, a call to action against some perceived wrong or injustice or any unacceptable situation. A bit like how recently all those amazing school kids around Australia saw the lack of commitment by our country’s leaders in dealing with Climate Change and took to the streets. To my mind, that was a big ‘It will not stand’ moment. I could well imagine Sebastian and Frida being there, with Tolly leading the way.
What are you writing next?
There might be a sequel to Rodney Loses It. I hope so anyway. Winning the CBCA award this year as well as the Speech Pathology of Australia award and sharing that success with the amazing Chrissie Krebs has been such a great thrill. I’m pottering around with some ideas and verses at the moment, but I won’t submit anything to my publishers unless I think it’s up to the standard of the first book.
The main thing I will be writing next year is a serious YA novel (my first completely serious book since The Running Man). I was very fortunate recently to receive a Queensland Writers Fellowship to support this project. The working title of the book is Gaps and Silences. Like The Running Man, it will be set in Ashgrove, but further in the past. There might also be some slight connections between the two stories. Haven’t quite worked that out yet. There’s still a lot of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of find and assemble before I get a clear idea of the full picture.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I have a blog/webpage at michaelgerardbauer.com and I’m on Facebook at Michael Gerard Bauer Author, Twitter @m_g_bauer and Instagram at mgbauerpics.
Thank you, Michael, for your generous and insightful responses.
Michael writes across age-groups – so seek out his works for Christmas gifts. I highly recommend The Things That Will Not Stand for teen readers.
It was a great privilege to attend the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in Canberra yesterday. I was on the judging panel of the Children’s and Young Adult categories and we were thrilled with both our shortlisted and winning books.
It was wonderful to see the value that Prime Minister Scott Morrison placed on Australian literature in his speech, citing David Malouf’s Johnno, for instance, and the importance of children’s books.
All of our Children’s shortlisted authors and illustrators attended as well as a number of our YA authors. It was such a treat to speak with Lisa Shanahan and Binny Talib, creators of the highly engaging and layered Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! (Hachette); and Sarah Brennan and the legendary Jane Tanner (Drac and the Gremlin, The Fisherman and the Theefyspray, Isabella’s Bedroom and There’s a Sea in My Bedroom) – creators of Storm Whale (Allen & Unwin); and the winners of this category – some of children’s lit loveliest and most talented people – Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King for the stunning Pea Pod Lullaby (Allen & Unwin). This is a lyrical directive to everyone to care for refugees and anyone needing help.
Scholastic Australia was very well represented, with a table full of shortlisted authors and illustrators hosted by publisher Clare Halifax. Beautiful picture book Feathers was written by the ever-smiling Phil Cummings (Ride, Ricardo, Ride!, Bridie’s Boots, Boy, Newspaper Hats) and illustrated by Phil Lesnie (Once a Shepherd).
Rising star Tamsin Janu was again awarded for her Figgy series set in Ghana. This time for Figgy Takes the City. Her novel Blossom, about a girl who looks after an alien, was also entered and she has another original work due to be published next year.
In the YA category, Bruce Whatley’s extraordinary graphic novel, Ruben, was shortlisted. Bruce was accompanied by his exuberant wife, Rosie Smith (My Mum’s the Best).
And Scholastic published the winning YA work: the delightful Richard Yaxley’s originally-constructed holocaust novel, This is My Song.
Authors don’t know in advance if they have won so it was an emotional time for all as the winning books were announced.
I also loved catching up with some of the poets, such as eminent writer Judith Beveridge; genre-crossing Adam Aitken, shortlisted for Archipelago (Vagabond Press); and Brian Castro who won with Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria (Giramondo) and appropriately read a poem-speech. His prose work, The Bath Fugues, is a personal favourite.
Gerald Murnane, winner of the fiction category for Border Districts (another winner for Giramondo) is known as a recluse. He tried hard to get to Canberra but just couldn’t manage the distance. It is great to see his work recognised further with this prestigious award.
The ceremony was a very special and memorable event. Sincere thanks to the awards committee.
The First Adventures of Princess Peony is sub-titled ‘In which she could meet a bear. But doesn’t. But she still could.’ This adds intrigue to the tale because bears don’t feature at all as the story is set up. Instead we get to know the ‘dear little girl called Peony’ but it is Peony who is telling us that she is a ‘dear little’ girl. She is actually very bossy and one of her favourite things is ‘being obeyed!’. Peony is an unreliable narrator, full of personality, who addresses the reader at times.
Lucinda Gifford’s lively black, grey, white and pink illustrations tell another side to the story as well. Princess Peony tells us that she lives in a castle with her dragon Totts but the pictures show something else. She says that princesses ‘never lose their temper when things go wrong’ but the pictures show her looking far from serene.
She has trouble with Prince Morgan the Troll who is always interrupting, pats the Dragon under its wings and is building a bear trap. This is the catalyst for Princess Peony’s possible encounter with a bear. The illustrations again add to the humour with expressive eyes and partly hidden bears peering from the hedge. A chook also has a lively cameo.
This is a book to read multiple times. It is so engaging children will want to rush through it the first time but it is also a book to savour. The plotting, characterisation and humour are superb. It is a wonderful place for young readers to share and develop imagination and revel in pretend-play and role-play alongside Princess Peony. The First Adventures of Princess Peony is fun and exciting and has a most satisfying story arc. It is a triumph.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books Blog, Nikki.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
Thanks so much for reading Liberty, Joy, and for these wonderful questions … here goes.
I am based in Terrigal, just north of Sydney. I love being a part of the YA writing community and have made some dear friends. Currently a writer friend and I are putting together a Central Coast writers’ group to offer each other support and encouragement. It’s easy to feel isolated as a writer so community is important.
I was swept away by your new novel Liberty (University of Queensland Press). What else have you written?
I’ve written two memoirs and Liberty is the second of a series of three books in a loose trilogy called The Systir Saga. Hexenhaus was first released in 2016 and Liberty will be followed by Saga in 2019. The books can be read in any order or as stand-alone books but work well as companions or ‘sister’ books.
How did you select the three story strands and protagonists in Liberty? Could you give an outline of each?
I chose the historical characters of Betsy Gray and Jeanne Laisne after extensive searching for girls who could fit my agenda. They were chosen because they were strong and courageous, standing up and out in times of conflict and raising their voices for themselves and the women who came after them. History has overlooked women’s stories of valour in favour of ‘hero’ tales and I wanted to lift these girls’ stories from the footnotes and shine a spotlight on them. In Liberty, Frenchwoman Jeanne Laisne leads an army of women against a hostile invading force in the late 1400s; Irish Betsy Gray rides beside her brother and sweetheart in a rebellion against the English; and Fiona McKechnie marches for peace and freedom in the anti-war movement in the late sixties in Brisbane.
Which are based on historical figures?
Betsy and Jeanne were real historical characters while Fiona is a fictional composite of some of the strong women in my own life (grandmothers/mother/aunts).
How have you used romance in the stories?
There is romance in each of the stories but I made sure that none of my girls were defined by the men in their lives. Each broke with the traditions of their time. Arranged marriage was the norm in France at that time but Jeanne wanted to marry for love. Betsy was in no hurry to settle into butter-churning and domestic servitude and Fiona wanted to ‘be’ a lawyer as opposed to her father’s hope that she might ‘marry’ a lawyer.
How do you show female powerlessness and oppression in these tales?
During each of the eras, women faced significant powerlessness and oppression. Women were largely seen as property or ‘helpmates’ to their fathers and husbands. My three characters feel suffocated by this and seek to break those bonds and assert themselves as individuals.
How do you highlight the power and agency of women in the novel?
Power and agency were not on offer to my three girls; they had to wrest it for themselves with great strength and determination. Each took the harder path and refused to let society dictate who they were and what they were capable of. They had to break some old rules to make way for new ones.
Female bloodlines are shown, even leading back to Jeanne d’Arc/Joan of Arc. Why have you included these?
The female bloodline, written in the mysterious Systir Saga book, a matrilineal family tree that spanned many centuries, is the life-force of Liberty and the other books in the trilogy. While there are actual historical female figures in this book, including Joan of Arc, it really is symbolic of the global sisterhood – a force that runs beneath the surface of movements such as #metoo. We have the liberties we do today because of women like Betsy and Jeanne and Fiona who raised their voices, which allowed those that came after to raise theirs.
All three protagonists have missing mothers and none want to disappoint or dishonour their fathers. Why these missing mothers?
My characters have no mothers in their lives. This is interesting because I think being raised by fathers shaped the girls, to a certain extent, but all felt compelled to make their late mothers proud of them and they sought to right the wrongs that had taken their mothers from them too early. In Fiona’s case, she wanted to attend university because that had not been an option for her own mother.
How does Jeanne query the predestination of fate?
Jeanne does question the concept of predestination. Her fate was to be ‘sold off’ and married to a cruel man she did not love because the Captain of her town made decisions about her life and not even her father could prevent that. Jeanne, as a poor peasant girl, felt miserable about not being able to make her own life choices and so she seized her moments when they presented themselves and managed to change her destiny. This is true for all of us. No matter how trapped we feel, we always have choices.
Betsy’s heroine was Mary Ann McCracken. Who is yours?
I love that you ask who my heroine is. I have so many. I actually do a daily visualisation and have an imaginary council of strong women that includes Michelle Obama, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Queen Elizabeth the First, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Malala Yousafzai. I know that sounds a bit wacky but it works for me.
Your novel title is ‘Liberty’. What liberty do you hope for?
I have a great desire for true liberty for women in our world. This would mean that women felt safe to walk at night; safe in their workplaces, schools and in their homes. Equal pay would be a reality and women would sit in equal measure in boardrooms, governments and in every walk of life. Women would be valued for themselves and respected for the great human beings they are.
What are you writing next?
I have just finished writing Saga, the third book where I introduce three new heroines. Hexenhaus has three women accused of witchcraft, Liberty has three warrior women and in Saga I have three young women who change the world through words.
Thanks very much Nikki and I greatly look forward to reading Saga.
I heard her in conversation with popular author Sally Rippin at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre last year and blogged about it here. She spoke about her 2016 publication Raymie Nightingale, an unforgettable tale about three girls, Raymie, Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana Elefante, who enter a beauty pageant.
Louisiana is, of course, the star of DiCamillo’s new novel, Louisiana’s Way Home (Walker Books/Candlewick Press). Told in first person through Louisiana’s written account of what happened when her Granny whisked her away in the middle of the night, we experience her confusion and angst.
The family story begins when Louisiana’s magician great-grandfather sawed her great-grandmother in half and refused to put her back together again. Louisiana’s Granny believes that the day of reckoning has arrived and they must leave to confront the curse and face their destiny.
Louisiana frets about Archie her cat and doesn’t believe that Granny has left him in good hands. When they run out of gas on the Florida-Georgia state line we learn that Granny not just imposes on people but borrows or steals. Her desperate need of a dentist forces 12-year-old Louisiana to drive the car and find help.
They recuperate at the Good Night, Sleep Tight motel and, even though Granny absconds, Louisiana finds varying degrees of goodness in people’s hearts: in some hearts, many hearts and even most hearts. Bernice, the motel manager, is hostile and suspicious but others such as dental patient Carol Anne, give Louisiana cookies and the boy with the crow, Burke Allen, gets her peanuts from the vending machine and makes her bologna sandwiches. “He was the kind of person who, if you asked him for one of something, gave you two instead”.
Louisiana believes that she must rescue herself. Granny trained her to be resourceful and capitalise on her gifts, such as singing.
The tale of Pinocchio with his nose growing when he lies; the Blue Fairy who appears at the darkest times; and the singing cricket Pinocchio kills at the beginning of the story and who then reappears as a ghost, reflects some of the circumstances and emotions of Louisiana’s journey. This may be a tale of desperation and despair but Louisiana loves stars and sees beauty in the world. Like many of Kate DiCamillo’s works, hope and forgiveness prevail.
Liz Anelli and Sheryl Gwyther will be sharing their knowledge and experience of writing and illustrating with aspiring children’s book creators and other interested people in an event organised by CBCA(NSW) this week, the Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program.
Liz Anelli has been achieving recognition for her distinctive illustrations. Her picture books include Desert Lake, written in Pamela Freeman’s assured text. It’s published as part of the Walker Books ‘Nature Storybook’ series and shows how Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre changes when the floods arrive using texture, pattern and colour. It has been shortlisted for several awards, including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Educational Publishing Awards.
Ten Pound Pom, written by Carole Wilkinson (Black Dog Books, Walker Books), is another well-designed book from the illustrated ‘Our Stories’ series. It is a Britain-to-Australia immigration story. Liz Anelli has created authentic detail, even using fabrics from her family to fashion the clothing.
Maddie’s First Day, written by Penny Matthew and also published by Walker Books, looks at the evergreen subject of a child’s first day at school.
Grace and Katiewritten by Suzanne Merritt (EK Books) is a wonderful vehicle for Liz’s skills as she shows the differences between these twin sisters. One is creative and messy. The other is ordered and tidy. Their map-making is a triumph.
Sheryl Gwyther is an incredible support to the Australian children’s literature world. I know Sheryl from my years living in Brisbane and she is a wonderful advocate of children’s book organisations and those who are part of them. She is an active member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators), an excellent organisation for children’s book creators.
Her books include the engrossing Secrets of Eromanga (Lothian Books, Hachette) about Australian dinosaur fossils andSweet Adversity(HarperCollins), a historical novel set in Australia during the Great Depression with Shakespearian and theatrical touches.
Both Liz Anelli and Sheryl Gwyther will be speaking tomorrow night (Thursday 8th November) at an event for aspiring writers at HarperCollins in Elizabeth St, Sydney. Full details and booking information are in the flyer below or follow the link.
HarperCollins keeps our Australian children’s book heritage alive by continuing to publish and promote the works of May Gibbs and Norman Lindsay.
They recently published Emily Rodda’s The House at Hooper’s Bend, a brilliant book, which has been shortlisted for several awards including the 2018 CBCA Children’s Book Awards and the Qld Literary Awards. It is followed by His Name Was Walter, which I look forward to reading.
My other recent favourite from HarperCollins is Jackie French’s Just a Girl. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Belinda Murrell is a much-loved author of children’s series fiction and time-slip and historical novels. Her series include ‘Pippa’s Island’, ‘Lulu Bell’, ‘The Sun Sword’ trilogy and ‘The Timeslip’ series. Her books are warm and rich with appealing characters and captivating storylines.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Belinda.
What is your background and where are you based?
I grew up on the North Shore of Sydney in a rambling old house full of books and animals. I studied media, writing and literature at Macquarie University and worked for many years as a travel journalist and corporate writer, before becoming a children’s author. Now I live with my family in a gorgeous old house, filled with books, overlooking the sea in Manly.
What led to your writing books for children?
About 14 years ago I started writing stories for my own three children, Nick, Emily and Lachlan. Some of these stories became The Sun Sword Trilogy, a fantasy adventure series which was published about 12 years ago. I’ve been writing for children of all ages ever since.
What else do you enjoy doing?
My favourite things to do include walking my dog along the beach, riding my horse at my brother’s farm, skiing, reading books and travelling the world having lots of adventures with my family.
What themes or issues appear across some of your books?
Finding your courage, being brave and kind, standing up for what you believe in, accepting people’s differences and the importance of family and friends are all themes which I explore in my books. Another issue which is very important to me is creating strong, inspirational female protagonists which girls can relate to. When my daughter was younger, I was disheartened by the number of children’s books which always had boys as the heroes. “You cannot be what you cannot see” and so I strive to create lots of different, interesting and aspirational female characters.
Could you tell us about your books, particularly your latest series, ‘Pippa’s Island’?
The Lulu Bell series is about Lulu and all her animal adventures, living in a vet hospital, inspired by my own childhood as the daughter of a vet. The 13 books have been hugely popular with younger readers, aged about 6 to 8.
My new series, Pippa’s Island is for readers about 8 to 10 years old, and includes five books about friendship, families and seaside adventures. Pippa and her family move halfway across the world to start a new life on gorgeous Kira Island, where Pippa’s mum has the crazy idea of buying a rundown old boatshed and turning it into a bookshop café. Pippa makes friends with Charlie, Cici and Meg, and they form a secret club, called The Sassy Sisters, which meets after school in the tower above the boatshed. Their motto is “Be Brave. Be Bold. And be full of happy spirit.”
For older readers, aged about 10 to 14, I have written a series of seven historical and time slip novels, such as The Ivory Rose, The Lost Sapphire and The Forgotten Pearl – each with a modern-day story woven together with a long-forgotten mystery or family secret from the past.
What is Pippa dealing with in the new ‘Pippa’s Island’?
Pippa’s noisy family have been living crammed into a tiny caravan in her grandparents’ back garden and money has been super tight. Pippa’s can’t wait to move into their new apartment right above the Beach Shack café but the builders are taking forever! Pippa’s feeling frustrated until she comes up with a genius plan to make some pocket money: Pippa’s Perfect Pooch Pampering. With a lot of help from her best friends, Pippa starts her own dog walking business. Soon she has her hands full with adorable but pesky pups. What could possibly go wrong? Puppy Pandemonium!!
Which character has most surprised you in ‘Pippa’s Island’?
I absolutely fell in love with my main characters – Pippa and her best friends Charlie, Cici and Meg, who are all so different yet so caring of each other. Yet I also enjoyed discovering how some of my other characters developed over the series. Pippa’s arch rival is Olivia, who is good at everything, whether it’s winning the class academic prize, gymnastics or dancing. Olivia is popular and a natural leader but can be very competitive. At first, Olivia and Pippa seem like they will be friends, but when Pippa tops the class in a maths quiz, Olivia feels threatened and tries to exclude her. Over the course of the series, the girls have a prickly relationship but gradually they work out their differences and learn to appreciate each other.
The ‘Pippa’s Island’ books are full of delicious cupcakes. What is your favourite flavour?
Initially my favourite was Cici’s lemon cupcakes in book one, but then at a Pippa’s Island book launch, a gorgeous librarian baked dozens of divine strawberry cream cupcakes. They were heavenly, and of course starred in book 2!!
Who are your core readers? Where do you have the opportunity to meet them, and have any of their responses been particularly memorable?
My core readers are girls aged between 6 and 14 and it’s been lovely to see readers growing up reading my books, starting with Lulu Bell, then Pippa’s Island and then the time slip books. One of the greatest joys of being a children’s author is meeting kids who love my books at schools, libraries, bookshops and festivals. They get so excited! Every year I spend about four months visiting schools and book events all over the country. This year I’ll visit schools in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Tasmania, all over Sydney as well as many regional areas.
The most memorable and humbling experiences have been hearing from readers, particularly of my time slip novels, who feel that my books have changed their lives. A year 12 student wrote a heartfelt letter to thank me for writing her favourite book, The Ivory Rose, that “she’d held so dear for so long”, that helped her decide what she wanted to do with her life. Another 18-year-old girl wrote to say that the adult she’d become and the values she treasured were inspired by my books that she’d read over and over. These letters are so beautiful and make me cry.
What is the value of series fiction, particularly in comparison with stand-alone works?
Kids love reading a whole series of books because they have the chance to really get to know the characters and see how those characters develop and change. It is also comforting for younger readers to know what to expect in a book – that they will love the setting, the style and the writing, so it’s much easier for them to become lost in the story. A series that you love can be completely addictive, whereas a stand-alone book, even a brilliant one is over too soon!
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
For my book club, I’ve just finished reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which I’ve been wanting to read for ages. It was fantastic – so funny, witty and moving. I absolutely loved The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell, set in a crumbling old English mansion, about a modern-day character called Maggie, trying to discover the secrets of her grandmother’s mysterious past. Another historical book which I loved was The Juliet Code by Christine Wells, about Juliet Barnard, a British spy parachuted into France during World War 2, to help the French Resistance in occupied Paris and her turmoil in dealing with these experiences when the war is over.
What are you writing about now or next?
I have two completely different and new projects that I’m very excited about. The first is a middle-grade children’s fantasy novel set in a world inspired by Renaissance Italy. I’m in the early stages of writing the story and am heading to Tuscany in the New Year to explore tiny fortified hill towns, medieval towers and secret tunnels. The other project is very special – a book which I’m writing with my sister Kate Forsyth, to be published by the National Library of Australia. It is a biblio-memoir about growing up in a family of writers and the life of our great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Atkinson, who wrote the very first children’s book, published in Australia in 1841.
Thanks Belinda, and all the very best with your books.
Children adore funny stories so thanks to the publishers who are commissioning them and authors who are writing them.
Penguin Random House Australia has recently published the brilliant Oliver Phommavanh’s new novel Natural Born Leader Loser; Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Fight Back by Tim Harris, where the exploits of Mr Bambuckle and his class continue; and Total Quack Up!, an appealing anthology edited by Sally Rippin and Adrian Beck.
Pan Macmillan Australia has extended its popular comedy series with Laugh Your Head Off 4 Ever, illustrated by Andrea Innocent. Highlights here include Felice Arena’s ‘Dad Dancing’ about Hamish’s dad who dances cringeably at the end-of-year formal. Bully, Craig Dickson, films it on his phone until the music changes … Penny Tangey’s ‘Use Your Words’ is about the power of words and could also be used in schools to illustrate this in a fun way. James Roy’s ‘Evil Genius’ is a clever comeuppance featuring jelly snakes. Lisa Shanahan has an alien tale in ‘Harriet’s Spacey Friend’. And Andy Griffiths’ ‘Runaway Pram’ has been published previously but is a superb slapstick piece. The bright yellow cover with contrasting pink makes this book stand out.
Another anthology is Total Quack Up! It’s edited by Sally Rippin, much-loved writer of ‘Polly and Buster’, ‘Billie B Brown’, ‘Hey Jack!’, awarded picture book The Rainbirds (with David Metzenthen) and stunning middle-grade novel Angel Creek; and Adrian Beck, author of the ‘Champion Charlies’ and ‘Kick it to Nick’ series. It’s illustrated by James Foley of My Dead Bunny fame. Deborah Abela uses the hills hoist to dramatic effect in ‘How to be a Superhero’. Tristan Bancks has a funny take on a football game in ‘The Pigs’. Jacqueline Harvey will scare anyone off pet sitting in ‘Pet Sit Pandemonium: Operation Snowball’. Using a clever play-on-words Sally Rippin shows what could happen to disobedient children in ‘Do Not Open’. The hilarious R.A. Spratt has another funny Nanny Piggins story in ‘Pigerella’. And Matt Stanton has a selfie-inspired cautionary tale in ‘What Hippopotamuses and Sharks Have in Common’. The only story published previously is Paul Jennings’ ‘A Mouthful’. It’s a very funny Dad tale.
Tim Harris’s ‘Mr Bambuckle’ stories (illustrated by James Hart) are incredibly popular. In Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Fight Back we meet his class of 15 students again. They get the better of horrible teachers and Scarlett has an original plan to get rid of the dire Miss Frost. Mr Bambuckle inspires creative ideas, such as asking students to think of “a ridiculous use for a cake” and “an imaginative way to enter the classroom”. As a bonus, books with illustrations are championed as a way of managing the terrible behaviour of a kindergarten buddy. It’s followed by Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables Go Wild.
Raymond in Oliver Phommavanh’s Natural Born Leader Loser is a memorable character to whom children will relate and cheer on. He is in Year 6 at apathetic Barryjong Primary. Bullies run rife. New principal, Mr Humble who looks like a retired wrestler, wants to change the culture and selects four prefects: energetic soccer star Zain; forthright, hijab-wearing Randa; artistic Ally and Raymond who believes he’s a nobody. He doesn’t want to be in the spotlight but he does want to make the school better. As he challenges, and dares, himself he starts to make more difference than he could have imagined. The process is agonising at times but also full of fun, wildly creative ideas, jokes and wonderful emerging and changing friendships. I would love to see all children in primary school, including quiet achievers like Raymond, read this book. It could change negative cultures and transform the timid into confident leaders without spoiling their natural personalities.
Author-poet Lorraine Marwood won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction in 2010 for Star Jumps. Her new verse novel Leave Taking (University of Qld Press) is just as good. Both are set on a farm and are for primary-aged readers.
Leave Taking refers to both the title and Toby’s experiences as he and his parents pack up their dairy farm and the belongings of Toby’s younger sister, Leah, who recently died from cancer. Of course, such weighty themes are sobering but grief is recognised and faced through the natural rhythms of Australian rural life, Toby’s steps around the property and loving memories of Leah’s tangible and intangible footprints.
The map of the farm on the front endpaper has changed by the end of the book as Toby revisits and labels special places: the machinery shed where both children scratched their initials in the concrete; the old red truck where Leah wrote pretend bus tickets during their last game there; and Memorial Hill where they buried pets and other animals and birds.
Toby camps at significant places on the property but is always close enough to the farmhouse to help with the cows or have a quick check in with his mother. He is also comforted by the company of his dog Trigger.
Leah was a gentle girl who loved stories and taking photos, shared jobs, delighted in April Fools’ jokes and left so many drawings that some will be taken to the new farm and the rest placed in the heart of the bonfire – which would have made her happy.
The writing is often sensory and poetic, beginning with a contrast between the light of the “faint silver of dawn” and the dark shadows outside Toby’s tent. The author sketches the natural world of magpies and native trees and gumnuts with evocative strokes. She uses figurative language to describe the huge milk vat purring “like a big-stomached cat” and personifies the bonfire as a dragon.
There is a supportive, although laid-back, sense of community and hope of new life with the imminent birth of a new baby as Toby maps his goodbye to his home and much-loved sister.
The cover illustrations and line drawings are by Peter Carnavas, who has just won the Griffith University Children’s Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. After creating a number of thoughtful picture books, Peter illustrated his first novel, The Elephant, a brilliantly executed study of a family’s grief and path to healing. I will always remember this outstanding novel when I see jacaranda trees in flower.
Fleur Ferris has endorsed Lili Wilkinson’s latest novel After the Lights Go Out (Allen & Unwin) with the words, “A terrifying yet hope-filled story of disaster, deceit, love, sacrifice and survival.” These words could also apply to her new book Found (Penguin Random House Australia). Both Australian YA novels have intriguing titles and are classy examples of thrillers set outside country towns in hidden bunkers. They complement, and could be read alongside, each other.
After the Lights Go Out begins with an absolutely riveting scene where homeschooled Pru and her younger twin sisters Grace and Blythe have to escape from their house on an isolated property on the edge of the desert to a hidden underground bunker. Their father, a mining engineer, built it in secret and named it the Paddock after Winston Churchill’s WWII bunker. We learn quickly that he is paranoid, anticipates secret government conspiracies and that he is a doomsday prepper. This is a training drill.
Later, when the lights go out, the girls know that this is The Big One and they execute their exhaustive training and protocols such as Eat perishables and Exchange worthless currency for supplies. Tension ratchets because Pru is anaphylactic, there has been an explosion at the zinc mine and her father is missing, and the girls aren’t sure whether they should share their supplies with the townspeople of Jubilee.
Bear, Elizabeth’s father in Found is also highly protective and intimidating. He wouldn’t be happy about her kiss with Jonah but he doesn’t witness it – he’s been taken by unknown people in a white van. When her mother realises what has happened she whisks Beth out of town and through a cross-country route along channels across the paddocks to a bunker under a dry dam on their farm. This bunker is made from shipping containers and is as well-equipped as Pru’s. Their flight is also just as original and exciting.
The reason for Beth’s family’s dangerous plight is quickly revealed and the story then steams ahead with help from Jonah (who shares the narration) and Trent, a bad boy who may be trying to reform. The stakes are raised even higher when Beth’s mother is shot.
Both Fleur and Lili describe their very Australian rural settings with authenticity and care. Lili’s diverse characters range from a British Asian church minister to warm-skinned love interest Mateo who has two mums. Found is action-packed and heartbreaking and will be relished by all high school readers who love a fast-paced, filmic read.
Other highly recommended books by these authors include:
Leaf Stone Beetleis written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Gaye Chapman. Its publisher Dirt Lane Press is a ground-breaking new publishing company based in Orange, NSW. They believe in creating quality literature and are publishing books by some of Australia’s best, including Matt Ottley, Ursula Dubosarsky and Gaye Chapman.
Leaf Stone Beetle is a deeply-considered, poignant tale telling the interlinked stories of leaf, stone and beetle. The book’s physical small, almost square shape is ideal for small hands and, along with its understated cover and ink and woodcut style illustrations, signals that it belongs outside the usual. Thoughtful, perceptive readers of all ages will find Leaf Stone Beetle resonant.
Little leaf is the smallest and greenest leaf on the tree. When the other leaves change colour and are tussled away by the wind, it stays behind until swept by a gentle breeze to a stream. A stone lies on the bottom of the water and notices the changes in tree, weather and stars without expecting any transformation itself. When a storm moves the stone near the gnarled roots of the tree, it is terrified.
Beetle is different from the other beetles. Without haste she absorbs the minutiae of her world. “She looked at the tiny purple flowers. She looked at a slip of golden pollen that fluttered by in the wind”. The other beetles realise that a storm is coming and scurry away. Beetle then has no one to follow home.
The stories intersect when Beetle is kept safe by leaf and stone in completely natural ways. They are all accepting of their transient safety, recognising their ultimate role in nature’s cycle. With interest and without angst, readers glean that change is an inevitable part of life.
Leaf Stone Beetle is a unique construct of narrative science and story in words and illustrations. It is simple, yet philosophical and profound.
Some books, amongst many, written by Ursula Dubosarsky include Brindabella, The Blue Cat, The Golden Day, The Red Shoe, The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy.
Other books published by Dirt Lane Press include The Sorry Tale of Fox & Bear by Margrete Lamond, illustrated by Heather Valence. This wily, nuanced tale was shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary awards. The Dream Peddler by Irena Kobald and Christopher Nielsen is published this month.
The Storm Keeper’s Island draws on wild, Celtic-inspired magic and antagonism between the light and dark to create a dense, darkly atmospheric tale for middle grade.
Eleven-year-old Fionn and his thirteen-year-old sister Tara are sent by their unwell mother to stay with their grandfather on the island of Arranmore. Fionn never met his father, who had strong ties with the island and died in the sea surrounding it. Fionn resembles him physically and wonders if his mother may be rejecting him because of this. He believes that he lacks courage and is afraid of the sea but wants to be his own person.
When they arrive Tara joins her boyfriend, Bartley, and his friendlier sister Shelby in excluding Fionn while they search for the Sea Cave. The Cave is dangerous and is reputed to grant a wish to the one who can enter. Bartley desires to be the next Storm Keeper, the one who controls the elements using the island’s power.
Island lore explains that ancient sorcerers, Dagda and Morrigan, fought for supremacy. After defeating Morrigan, Dagda left magic gifts behind to protect Arranmore: the Sea Cave; the Whispering Tree; the Merrows and Aonbharr, the Winged Horse.
Fionn and Tara’s aging grandfather is the current Storm Keeper and his cottage is crowded with candles. These contain memories of past times and, in an unexpected form of timeslip, can take those who light a candle back to the storms and times enclosed within it. He and Fionn travel into memories together where his grandfather is a strong, powerful man but he often returns aged and forgetful, signalling his descent into Alzheimer’s disease.
Arranmore reveals whispers of magic. The island holds secrets and is restless with layers of ancient, elemental magic peeking through. It behaves differently for Fionn and he wonders if he is meant to inherit the role of Storm Keeper despite his reluctance and fear. He learns that often the most difficult journeys are inside ourselves.
When Fionn is fainthearted his grandfather advises him to “live a life of breathless wonder, so that when it begins to fade from you, you will feel the shadow of its happiness still inside you and the blissful sense that you laughed the loudest, loved the deepest, and lived fearlessly”.
This mystical, original high fantasy is atmospherically reminiscent of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. It is both enticing and reflective.
The Storm Keeper’s Island is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The sequel will be published in July 2019.
The Goat will appeal to both thoughtful children and young adults, as well as adults looking for an uplifting read. It could be a great read-aloud across age-groups.
The premise of a mountain goat living on a New York skyscraper near Central Park suggests that this is a fabulist tale, but all is revealed in satisfying mode and time.
Characters living in and near the building span the titular goat as well as a cast of two children and a range of adults. Kid and her parents have arrived from Toronto to look after a dog named Cat. Her mother has written and is about to perform in an Off-Broadway show: Hockey Mom: The Musical. Lisa is a quirky character, with funny ways of showing both her nerves and her love towards her family. Kid is shy and avoids looking at people‘s faces but soon strikes a rapport with Will, who can’t bear windows since his parents were killed in the exploding Twin Towers. His grandmother, retired chemist and writer Dr Lomp, home-schools him and keeps a close eye on him. The two children love exploring museums and there is some thoughtful discussion between them and others about the Towers and Ground Zero.
Doris is an elderly woman who cares for her husband, Jonathan, who has suffered a stroke but doesn’t want his wife to know that he can do more than he shows. He enjoys watching the goat eat Doris’s wheatgrass without her knowing why it doesn’t grow.
The goat traverses the building looking for food but is reluctant to cross the “clangy black cliff … the noisy tree-ish creatures that roamed the ledge … the river of giant moving clumps” to where he can see abundant food. He loves to gambol even though he never feels completely safe.
Kenneth P. Gill is an enigmatic character who leaves hay outside his window. Joff Vanderlinden is a blind skateboarder and famous young writer. He also loves playing chess in Washington Square Park and longs for another encounter with the woman who beat him, called him “buckaroo” and hasn’t returned.
All these strands begin to intersect when Kid and Will knock on every door in search of someone who could confirm that a goat lives on Kid’s building. Backstories about both the goat and human characters are revealed with poignancy and tenderness, leading to an intertwined, heart-lifting finale.
The Goat by Anne Fleming is published by Pushkin Children’s (Faber Factory Plus) Allen & Unwin
Since the CBCA shortlist was announced I have been blogging about the 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week this month.
Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries (Scholastic Australia)
Boy is a morality tale about conflict and misunderstanding; understanding & communicating. It covers issues of deforestation, fighting and living in harmony and peace.
The trees on the mountain are destroyed by a powerful dragon, which illustratively evolves from threatening to cute during the tale.
People are blaming others and fighting. Boy can’t hear the fighting but perhaps he can understand the situation better than anyone because of his hearing loss.
Might the boy be unnamed because the book is aimed at all boys or for all children?
The digital illustrations are an unusual colour palette of mauve, brown and blue tones.
The endpapers could be copied and used for the card game ‘Happy Families’.
The cover is tactile, with the word ‘BOY’ written in sand. Boy communicates by drawing pictures in sand. Children could write an important question in the sand (sandpit or sandtray) e.g. ‘Why are you fighting?’ alongside a picture.
Children could further develop awareness and affirmation of the hearing impaired. This could include learning some Auslan and also saying ‘Thank you’ ‘with dancing hands’ like Boy does.
Children could look at the endpapers to see how the children at the start become adults by the end. They could draw themselves as a child and then as an adult, imagining a possible future.
Onset and rime in the rhyming text include ‘day/stay’ ‘small/all’ ‘yet/vet’ ‘far/star’ and ‘strife/life’ (others are more difficult for very young children).
Many countries are represented in the book e.g. Syria, China, Afghanistan and Italy.
The refrain, ‘How about you?’ could be answered by readers and they could also suggest which countries are not represented; which Australian capital cities and other places are mentioned and what are some missing Australian places?
Children could show or make flags for countries represented by students in the class or school.
The story settles into a rhythmic security to precede a chilling page:
Sadly, I’m a refugee –
I’m not Australian yet.
But if your country lets me in,
I’d love to be a vet.
Australia’s refugee situation is political, and far more complex that this, but I’m Australian Too will no doubt influence children’s attitudes towards refugees.
Rodney Loses It! by Michael Gerard Bauer, illustrated by Chrissie Krebs (Omnibus Books)
The title has a double meaning and the book is humorous in words and pictures.
It’s unusual that readers are able to see the missing pen and other objects, a mark of slapstick. Rodney Loses It! is slapstick in book form.
The illustrative style is cartoon-like; lively, bright and shows active body language.
The writing shows good word choice and maintains a successful rhythm.
Children could compare the endpapers, which are different.
Rodney loves drawing but loses his favourite pen, Penny.
The illustrations show the pen and other missing items.
The message or moral is that we can love doing things but not get around to them because of distractions.
In the story, Rodney could have used other colours but he was fixated on one pen and one colour so he missed out on doing what he loved.
Children could draw pictures like Rodney’s or make Rodney using play dough and LED lights for his eyes or pen.
I have been posting about the CBCA 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week in August.
This picture book is imaginative and exciting. It is also humorous, for example the teacher’s funny but apt name – “Mrs Majestic-Jones”; Ruby Lee is the best at announcing “Hark, it’s me, Ruby Lee!” – an unusual gift; and tactful George Papadopoulos even suggests that Ruby Lee be quiet and still but then she even loses him.
Ruby Lee loves helping. Young readers could compare and contrast her with helpful Debra-Jo in the Little Lunch TV series and books.
The letters ‘P‘ and ‘H’ could be taught or reinforced. Ruby Lee loves pockets, peaches, puddles and polka dots. (P)
She loves humming and hopping and handstands at night. (H)
Vocabulary is interesting and extending, e.g. hark, intrepid, valiant, ingenious.
The illustrations are in a cartoon manga style where the heads are large in proportion to bodies and the eyes are big and exaggerated. Children could view online how-to-draw tutorials and construct their own characters in this style. They could colour them using the colours in the book.
Children could act out some of the things Ruby Lee does; collect things she loves and invent fictitious creatures like she does.
Gilbert the penguin falls into another world (almost like into a rabbit hole) – the ocean. He must find where’s he comfortable, at home and can fly.
It is a fictional narrative but also an accessible information book, particularly about penguins, without being forced. It utilises many verbs and active language: waddled, flapped, waddled and flapped; slipped, tripped, stumbled; slipping Spinning Stumbling Tumbling; tumbled, bubbled and sank.
The book’s message is that everyone is different and everyone must find their own strengths.
Before reading, children could suggest what a second sky might be.
Children could make a model of Gilbert and possibly one that moves using rubber bands.
This is a clever, funny book for babies and those who read to them. It is carefully structured in 2 parts: firstly, where the animals are reported lost; and then when they reappear in the park.
The book begins with observations of baby noises, which people mistake for animal noises. There are carefully placed visual clues that prompt the baby to make an appropriate noise e.g. stripy sleep suit, on rocking horse.
Florette written & illustrated by Anna Walker (Penguin Random House Australia)
Mae moves to a new home, an apartment. She is sick of all the packing boxes but draws on many of them, particularly drawing daisies. She misses gathering things for her treasure jar. After going to the park, she finds a forest inside a florist but it is closed. A ‘stalk of green [is] peeping through a gap … a piece of forest’. It becomes a treasure for her jar. She goes on to grow a plant for her new (shared) garden.
Themes include moving home; making new friends; the importance of greenery, trees, gardens; and natural and built environments.
Children could compare and contrast the endpapers (there are different creatures in each).
They could consider the meaning of Florette and related words such as florist and forest.
Garden They could make a terrarium or a green wall – a vertical garden or area covered in ivy or vines, dotted with flowers including daisies, model toadstools, other foliage and small model or toy creatures e.g. rabbit, turtle, bird, ladybird.
Children could do some of what Mae does:
Decorate treasure jars and find precious items to fill them, perhaps a plant like Mae’s
Chalk drawings on asphalt or cardboard boxes
Set up a picnic
Use pebbles to make daisies
Mae’s movements could lead to making a story map – on paper, cardboard, or using an app.
Other books by Anna Walker include Today we have no Plans, Go Go & the Silver Shoes, Peggy, Starting School and Mr Huff.
Mum went to buy gumboots but she returned with a rabbit called Gumboots. His attributes are described positively at the start but the illustrations show otherwise
This is a cumulative tale with people joining in like in Pamela Allen’s Alexander’s Outing. There’s even a nod to the fountain of that book.
Humour Examples of humour include Gumboots who doesn’t stop to chat with anyone while escaping; the mother chasing him in towel; and the illustrations that sometimes tell a different story.
Illustrations Media: watercolour, pencil and oil paint
Freya Blackwood uses her signature spotted clothes and domestic details e.g. an ironing board. Red is used as a ‘splash’ colour and there is a worm’s eye view of the underground tunnel.
Themes community; simple outdoor pleasures; friends (even for rabbits); and how rabbits multiply.
Setting The creek scene is a peaceful interlude, a moment in time, shown by a bird’s eye view. ‘Mrs Finkel’s forehead uncrinkles’ there. The trees are described as a simile: ‘They are like giants with their long legs stuck in the ground.’
The endpapers of this picture book are like a board game, which children could play on.
Children could look at a doll’s house where the front wall is removed. They could make a cutaway diagram (where some of surface is removed to look inside) showing the inside of the house and tunnel (as in the last double page spread). Or they could make a model inside a shoebox lying on its side.
This tale is taken from the ballad of Swan Lake, a tragic love story of a princess transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer. The women are swans by day and humans by night. The princess plans to meet the prince at midnight at the ball. The sorcerer’s daughter is disguised as the Swan Queen and the prince chooses her as his bride.
The book is described as passion, betrayal and heartbreak in the Murray-Darling. Children may be able to identify the region from images of the area and the book.
The book is structured/played in III Acts, like the ballet. The written text is followed by pages of illustrations.
Children could listen to some of the ballet music e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Theme; Saint-Saens’ The Dying Swan.
Ballet in pictures They could view some of the ballet.
Visual Literacy The colours are mainly monochromic, with red as a splash (feature) colour.
Camera angles show some variety: from underneath – red queen; from above – fleeing girl.
There are close-ups of the swan face and neck; black bird of prey.
Texture Children could emulate the texture through printmaking using leaves and sticks.
This picture book is Carole Wilkinson’s memoir of immigrating from Britain to Australia as part of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, so it could also be regarded as an information book. Detail is shown to give verisimilitude.
Migration Carole Wilkinson packed her 101 glass animals and even tried to pack soil to take to Australia. Imagining they are migrating, children could be asked what treasured possessions they would take.
Compare/contrast Children could compare and contrast migration in the 1950s and 1960s with other ways of migrating to Australia in the past and present. They could use Popplet (a mind mapping tool http://popplet.com/ ) to organise their ideas.
Poem Carole Wilkinson wrote a poem about her empty house. Children could write a similar poem, including their circumstances and their emotions if leaving home.
Illustrator Liz Anelli says: ‘So much of her (Carole Wilkinson’s) tale rung true with my own journey and made it a delight to delve into. I loved researching details for the cruise ship they travelled on and especially enjoyed being able to ‘dress’ the characters in Anelli fabrics, sourced from my grandparents’ photo album.’
Some of her illustrations pay homage to John Brack’s paintings in style & colour and some of her other books are One Photo and Desert Lake.
Mopoke is structured using black and white alternating pages. The pages are well composed with the mopoke carefully positioned on each. The style is static, with a picture of mopoke in different poses. This style can also be seen in Sandcastle by the author/illustrator; and the Crichton shortlisted, I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon.
Humour appears throughout Mopoke e.g. ‘This is a wombat.’
The book can also be dark e.g. ‘Nopoke’, where both pages are black.
Children could perform the text as a performance poem (see the work of Sollie Raphael, teen Oz Slam Poetry champion, who has a book, Limelight).
Safe styrofoam printing (like lino cuts) Children could select one of the mopoke pictures or design their own to make a printing tool. They could cut the rim off a styrofoam plate; etch the mopoke shape using a blunt pencil, pen or stick; etch some texture; add paint; place the paper on top and press.
Poster Making The bold, striking illustrations reflect current trends in graphic design so children could make a poster of a mopoke in this style.
There’s an interesting relationship between Grandad and (possum-like but actual cat) Iggy. Iggy doesn’t want to emulate Grandad; he seems more aware, while Grandad often seems oblivious to what they see in the bush.
The author/illustrator has a detailed eye for natural bush sights and sounds such as plants, animals and birds and silhouettes and shadows are executed in a light colour. The style is reminiscent of Roland Harvey.
The bushland setting is an integral part of A Walk in the Bush. To enable children to experience this, teachers or parents could find an area where there is some bush. It may be part of a State Forest, nearby bushland or a bushy area within a local park or the school playground.
Sensory Wheel Students look, listen and use other senses to note the sounds, sights and other features of the bush e.g. eucalyptus leaves to crush and scribbly marks on trees. They could record sights, sounds, smells, feel/touch, taste (where safe) on a sensory wheel.
Children could create literary texts by selecting one of the senses to focus on. They write a brief sensory description of the bush using language generated from their experiences in the bush.
They could write this description onto a piece of paperbark (if accessible without causing damage to trees) or onto recycled paper or wrapping or scrapbooking paper that emulates the colour, content or texture of the description. (NB paperbark is also available from some kitchen suppliers)
Soundscape While in the bush, could listen to and identify bush sounds.
They create then a soundscape by listing five of the sounds and recording these. The free recording tool Audacity could be downloaded to create soundscapes http://www.audacityteam.org/download/.
You’re most welcome and thanks so much for having me.
What is your background and where are you based?
I’m based in Melbourne. I lived in Greece as a child but came to Australia as a non-English speaking migrant at around eight years old.
My work background is mostly journalism. I was a reporter at various newspapers (five years at the Herald Sun) and then a communications strategist for the union movement for five years. Since having kids I have had to take a step back from that sort of high-octane work.
How involved in the YA literary community are you?
I first became aware of the LoveOZYA community through author Nicole Hayes. I was a member of her writing group and as my manuscript progressed she spoke to me about where she thought it might fit and how wonderful and supportive people were.
I love reading YA, especially Australian YA, and following other writer’s journey on social media. I’ve found the LoveOZYA community inspiring and vibrant. I love being a part of it. There’s a real effort to support each other and this makes the sometimes insecure life of a writer easier. We celebrate each other’s wins and commiserate with difficulties.
Stone Girl (Penguin Random House) is a searing, unforgettable story. Could you tell us about the protagonist Sophie and the symbol of a ‘stone girl’?
As I write my second novel I realize that I’m interested in the triggers and experiences in life that change as. What needs to happen to transform a person from one thing to another? As a journalist, reporting straight news, I would be stunned by the things people did and wonder how they grew from a kid into this adult. What forms their decision making and choices?
Stone Girl follows Sophie’s life from 12 to 16 years old as she becomes someone society typically judges, despises and ultimately dismisses. The persona of Stone Girl is her survival mechanism in a world where there’s no one to rely upon but herself. Sophie soon comprehends her place and makes a number of decisions about who and how she must be in response. It’s about resilience. She toughens up, she becomes Stone Girl, and this is both positive and negative.
Hardening herself, especially against adults, serves to both protect her and isolate her because stony self-preservation cuts both ways. She doesn’t trust anyone. Doesn’t ask for help even though she often desperately needs it. Her Stone Girl persona is what she uses to hide her vulnerability. When she lifts her chin against the world then she can shut out the things that have happened to her. She uses her anger to protect her. But in the end, it’s what she does with the Stone Girl facade that makes this a story of redemption.
Most of us have a mask we wear in order to fit in and protect ourselves. It just happens that Sophie has to wear hers 24 hours a day.
Could you tell us about some significant other characters?
Gwen is one of my favourites. Girlfriends have been the backbone to my life. They’ve saved me many times over, from my sister to the besties I’ve known over the years. I love the closeness and trust that grows between some women. The friendships in the homes Sophie moves through are formed as fast as they must be abandoned but in Gwen, Sophie finds a true ally. It’s a friendship that underscores everything else. It doesn’t just disappear because there’s a love interest.
I think of it like an old western when there’s a shoot-out and friends protect themselves by standing back to back. Gwen and Sophie bond in the knowledge that, despite appearances, adults actually have no idea what they’re doing.
Spiral came to me when I was at the Varuna’s Writer’s House. I knew Sophie needed someone, possibly a love interest, but I couldn’t figure out who would be strong enough break through to her.
Then, as I strolled through Katoomba, Spiral’s form became clear. I saw what he looked like, his motivations and that, like Sophie, in a world of broken promises, he too needed someone to trust.
Writing about Spiral was fun, especially at first. He’s gorgeous! A fiery and enigmatic character that I was drawn to completely – his name serving as prophesy.
I’ve always loved books with gritty honest characters that both shock and charm and I try to write this way.
How did you create such authentic experiences in the homes Sophie had to live in and her spiral into such terrible situations?
This is fictional novel but I have borrowed heavily from my time as a teen growing up in group homes.
I tried to write the real story but felt unable to. Fiction freed me up and images and events appeared quite clearly to me; the rooms, the feelings, the flavor of being of being someone who lived that way. I put myself easily into Sophie’s shoes.
When I lived in the homes there were many younger kids and I’ve thought about them so often since. Sophie is how I imagined one life.
You’ve made drug-taking very appealing at times, e.g. chapter 22? How did you weigh up the risk of including this?
The truth is that before drugs destroy you, they feel good. That’s the trick. That’s why people keep taking them. If I pretended they were terrible all the way though then this would not be the realistic trajectory of addiction. It could be dismissed and then this would not be a true cautionary tale. Protectionism is not helpful for most teens, especially when you consider the type of world we live in right now.
How important is Sophie’s racial background to the story?
Her racial background and her estrangement from her Greek family contribute to her feeling of dislocation. She doesn’t belong there. She has no family here. She must let go of the past and carve her own way through the world.
Like Sophie, I grew up in Greece and left family behind. My Greek heritage and the memories of leaving my first home have significantly contributed to who I am today and I found it quite cathartic to include this in Sophie’s life.
What does she learn about family and others?
When she first goes into the homes Sophie is hopeful that she will once again find family, either with a social worker or with her Baba. However this is not to be. Sophie soon understands that in a world where the only constant is change, she can only rely on herself.
With the kids in the homes there’s a unique bond that makes them a kind of family – albeit temporary.
Could you explain what turned her situation around towards the end of the novel – and why have you chosen this form of redemption?
The fight to survive that carried Sophie through is her saving grace. I actually didn’t know how it was going to end until three or four drafts in. I just kept thinking, this is not the story of a victim. And finally I realized what had to happen.
Kids in care, people with addictions and the homeless are either viewed with pity or fear and I wanted to show how we should never underestimate anyone. People are amazing! They want to survive and many can achieve much given a chance.
You thank God in the Acknowledgements. Why have you done this?
Doing something you love, answering a calling to the self, which is what writing feels like to me, can mean many sacrifices in other areas of life. Financial, physical, mental; you turn yourself inside out. I found myself praying more. Especially after writing I feel quite close to ‘God’. This isn’t in a religious way but more a universal spiritual one.
Who would you particularly like to see read your novel?
Everyone. I need to fund my next novel.
But seriously, I guess if I was choosing readers based on getting the message across then I’d hope people from the world that deals with kids like these. Social workers, kids in care, etc.
I’ve also loved the responses I’ve received from those who are surprised about this world. I would like there to be a common understanding about the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of kids live this way right now in Australia. A public conversation about kids in care could finally bring change to this difficult, misunderstood and largely ignored section of Australian society. That, for me, would be a dream come true. I’d love to know that others wouldn’t feel the way I did when I was living in government care in the early 1990s.
Have you already had any memorable responses from readers to Stone Girl?
A redit post my husband put up went viral and I was shocked and amazed by the response. Social workers, lawyers, ex homes and foster kids from around the world commented and it solidified what I had always suspected. Despite the fact we don’t often acknowledge the plight of kids without parents, the situation matters to many. It’s a private pain. Or a job they really care about. Or they don’t know how to help someone… Some of them contacted me after reading Stone Girl, sending quite heartfelt messages. As an author, this is the best feeling in the world.
Putting aside the issue of kids in care, I wrote this book because gritty subjects, love at ‘the edge of a cliff’, characters living dangerously is what I find interesting to read. I’ve been floored by the generous reviews so far, especially those where people say they couldn’t stop reading. The number one reason for writing a fictional book has to be entertainment, doesn’t it?
This was the first review I received and I remember the relief I felt. Rob at Lamont Books really got what Stone Girl was about.
Wow! This is a must read novel for older teens, but a word of caution – it is definitely a YA title aimed at teens 15 years and older.
It took me back to my school days reading Go Ask Alice, which I found totally confronting, but at the same time an educational and inspirational cautionary tale. Stone Girl is certainly that as it takes us on Sophie’s downhill journey through institutional care as a ward of the state from when she is 12 until she is 16.
It is written with a real understanding and depth of character, as it is inspired by the real life experiences of the debut author, journalist Eleni Hale. Many dark topics are covered including death, poverty, heartbreak and substance dependence. But shining through the story is identity, survival, resilience and ultimately a coming of age empowerment.
I will not give the story away but suffice to say you cannot help but be swept along by the incredible Sophie, as the world continues serving up crap to her. She often stumbles and is so very nearly broken, but we continue to hold out hope for her throughout the story.
Stone Girl will change the way you look at the homeless, and hopefully enlighten young minds as to the plight of wards of the state.
This is a brilliant debut, but as it does contain extreme language, mature themes and substance abuse, it is suited to older teens, 15 years and up.
How can we protect young people and help if we encounter someone in a situation like Sophie’s or someone at risk?
From memory and for reasons I can’t really explain, kids in care seemed to be treated differently, like no-hopers. I don’t know if it was the way we dressed or looked. Maybe we were too loud or other times we seemed too quiet and uncommunicative. I just know that people changed towards you once they knew you were a kid who lived like that. From cops, to teachers, to people on the street, I was often hyper-aware of being a ‘lesser other’.
So in terms of talking to them in an encounter, simply show respect even if you don’t understand them, hold your judgment before you really know them (perhaps after as well) and don’t assume the worst.
Also important is to support the organizations set up to help them such as the ‘Make It 21’ campaign that seeks to extend support from 18 years old to 21. This could lessen the shocking number of government kids who end up homeless, drug addicted and/or mentally ill.
It’s really hard to get through to someone like Sophie once they hardened up. They guard strictly against pity and judgment. The communication channels are nearly closed. Improving their experiences in the ‘system’ is obviously an important way to avoid their slide into the margins of society.
I don’t have all the answers for this – I don’t think anyone does – but talking about it publically is a good start. Don’t let their lives be our society’s dirty secret any longer. Let their issues matter the same way that other’s kid’s problems are discussed regularly in public forums.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing the sequel to Stone Girl. What happens after you leave the home system and your support is cut off? What will Sophie do now that she is out in the world and responsible for herself in every way? She has no family and must scrape together the money she needs to live. Where will this new fight for survival lead her?
This book is structured chronologically with a focus on inventors and aviators we’ve heard of including Lawrence Hargrave, Nancy Bird, Charles Kingsford Smith, Rev John Flynn of the Flying Dr Service; and those we may not have heard of such as Dr William Bland (who appeared before Hargrave) in the 1850s.
The structure and writing styles provide variety: words in the aviators’ voices; 3 Amazing Facts about most aviators; and ‘Did You Know?’ columns. The book acknowledges difficulties for women in the past who wished to fly.
Some interesting information from the book:
George Taylor In 1909 he flew a glider from Narrabeen, NSW. His wife Florence also flew, tucking her long skirts into her bloomers. At age ten Taylor wrote an essay, ‘The Future of Flying Machines in Australia’. He was a cartoonist and suffered from epilepsy.
Bert Hinkler In 1921 he flew the nine hours from Sydney to Bundaberg wearing a suit and tie. His RAF flying instructor was Cpt W.E. Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.
Like Lawrence Hargrave, children could make box kites. The ‘e-how’ website could be helpful. It suggests using dowel, bendy straws and a plastic/vinyl tablecloth. https://www.ehow.com/how_4882168_make-box-kites.html Alternatively they could make gliders or paper planes.
Decorative Patterning is used for sections such as J is for Jail and N is for Nurture. Children could select an alternative description for one of the letters e.g. C is for Convicts (instead of Cook) and create decorative patterning in Bern Emmerichs’ style.
Like last year’s shortlisted book by this author, Gigantic Book of Genes, this is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of left and right with clear examples for children to understand.
It includes a clever idea where children hold their hands out in front and touch their thumbs. Their left hand forms an L shape (helping them remember which hand is left).
The author recognises that it is easy to mix up left and right and looks at situations where right may connote good and left signify weak or bad. For example, in Albania it has been a crime to be left-handed.
It features symmetry, spirals, clockwise and anticlockwise, and the compass.
The author includes incredible information, such as ‘Nearly all kangaroos are left-handed… Parrots use their left feet to pick up food.’ ‘Female cats tend to be right-handed, and male cats … left’. And when driving, island nations tend to drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact, so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her.
I know from comments by a young family that this tactile, interactive book about microbiology has great appeal. The title is provocative – tempting and almost urging children to lick the book. Min the microbe guides the reader through the informative content, which is well designed with bright comic style illustrations and high-quality photographs. The information is clever, irreverent and quirky. It probably reflects the creators – a team consisting of writer Idan (quiet loud thoughts), Julian (who likes comics and toast) and Linnea, the scientist.
Children could consider, ‘Where will you take Min tomorrow?’ Like the book, they could take Min on a journey using a mix of photographic backgrounds, cartoon characters and written text.
Hygiene is taught and encouraged using reverse psychology. Teachers and parents may use the book to reinforce good hygiene (without losing the text’s inherent appeal).
Koala by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Walker Books)
Koala is most appropriate for the very young. It traces the experiences of a young koala achieving independence.
The writing is both literary and factual: providing parallel texts which are particularly useful for children who prefer one style over the other and to expose readers to both forms. The illustrations are distinctive for their rounded lines and shapes.
Koala is part of Walker Books’ excellent ‘Nature Storybooks’ series. Others include Claire Saxby’s Big Red Kangaroo, Emu and Dingo; and Sue Whiting’s Platypus. This could also be a good opportunity to introduce the classic Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall.
The Big Book of Antarctica by Charles Hope (Wild Dog Books)
This is another big, glossy production from Wild Dog Books. The photos are exceptional. There is minimal written text and key words are shown in large coloured font.
Antarctica is studied in the Australian curriculum and this book covers explorers, scientists, transport, ice, plants (moss, algae, plankton), and much about animals and birds, e.g. giant petrels who vomit on anything they think is a threat (page 37). Climate change and global warming also feature (page 60)
Ice is looked at on page 22. There are many experiments about ice in other books and online to extend this subject.
More information on this and the other shortlisted books will be available soon on an online CBCA platform.
Ideas for the English Classroom
Four types of writing are used in the novel 1. Writing in the voice of each protagonist 2. Wellness Journal entries (italics) (Students could analyse differences in voice from both these types of writing) 3. Wellness Worksheets 4. PSST – the source of cyber bullying
Wellness Journals give further insight into the three protagonists as they describe how they’re feeling; as well as what they think about the other girls. This gives another perspective. Read a selection of these entries.
Students write three journal entries from the point of view of Iris, Clem’s twin sister, or another character.
Wellness Worksheets Complete one of these e.g. self-esteem scale, page 147; Lou Reed’s song Perfect Day page 218; letter to future self, page 428.
Read other novels by these authors.
The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The Secret Science of Magic was longlisted for the Indies awards. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.
This novel has an equally strong male and female voice.
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Magic Joshua is a magician who is trying to grain Sophia’s attention. Sleight of hand and, particularly, timing are the magician’s most important tools.
Students could try to replicate some of Joshua’s magic tricks in reality or using technology.
Playing-card optical illusions, pages 30, 40
Igniting a paper rose, page 82
Showing a Doctor Who Christmas special on a vintage movie projector, page 110
These tricks culminate in an illusion at school, where Joshua makes the school disappear.
Use Plotagraph (which creates a moving image from a single still graphic image) in Adobe Photoshop or other tools to demonstrate this or another magic trick.
Drama Sophia is forced to take Drama. The class studies All’s Well that Ends Well, page 74 – a prescient play title for this novel. Read the play.
Read other novels by Melissa Keil: Life in Outer Space and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl
Several places are mentioned to show that this novel is set in Sydney, including ‘Sydney eats’, page 106, a group that feed the homeless. Meredith also helps them by running a Street Library, pages 69,121,222.
Meredith believes: ‘Books can save anyone. If they’re the right ones.’ page 164
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Poems for each other Nola gives a poem to Tiny and vice versa. Read Nola’s poem for Tiny, page 97, and Tiny’s poem for Nola, page 133. In pairs, students write poems to give each other.
Writing Group The writing group at the homeless shelter tries the following activities, which students could do also.
Writing a group story using the Dada, Surrealist technique where each person writes a line and passes it on to the next person to write the next line to see where the story goes, page 108.
Use a ‘real-life media story you pick out to start your own story … Write it as a sequel, action adventure, poem, dialogue’, page 110. Only allow 20 minutes max.
Open Mic Night: Eddie performs his poem ‘Clean’ about his father’s death, pages 171,177. Students could write and perform their work, including poems, at an open mic night or similar event. (Read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo about a girl who writes heartfelt poetry and performs at a poetry slam.)
The fact that all of this year’s CBCA shortlisted Older Reader novels are written by women reflects who is currently writing Australian YA. As a consequence, many of the novels have female protagonists, including Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl. However, debut novelist Charlie Archbold (who is female) has written Mallee Boys, a novel that epitomises masculinity.
-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
Ballad for a Mad Girl has been longlisted for a Gold Inky Award—(Australian titles) and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature: Young Adult category and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in 2018.
It is Vikki Wakefield’s fourth novel, a gothic Australian thriller, a murder ballad and lament in prose. It explores the effect of grief and loss on Grace, who is trying to mask her vulnerability.
It walks a tightrope – literally and psychologically as it balances the genres of contemporary realism with elements from the supernatural ghost tale.
Grace is the “mad girl” of the title but her madness springs perhaps from her struggle with anger and grief rather than mental illness; although the barriers may be permeable.
At times the writing is crystalline to show the shattered mirror-pricks of Grace’s rage; as well as sharp images of birds: living swallows butted against tiny bird sketches. Grace’s elusive childhood “dandelion” dreams as well as echoes from a past generation are sculpted into an aching ballad of melancholy and terror. The past and present also ultimately lay the path to a “bright and unbreakable” future with some signs of hope and grace.
Film An early scene where extreme prankster, Grace Foley, freezes at the pipe challenge crossing over the quarry at night is a pivotal scene in Ballad of a Mad Girl. It sets the confronting, haunting tone.
In small groups, students film a re-enactment of Noah, private school poster boy, breaking Grace’s record as he crosses the pipe over the quarry and then Grace crossing after him and freezing when she is distracted by thoughts of Hannah Holt – rumoured to have been killed by William Dean and buried in the gully below. Headlights are dimmed and stones are thrown.
Film Grace’s friends and the onlookers in their private and public-school factions.
Use different camera angles, particularly to give the illusion of the pipe over a height. NB don’t use a pipe high above the ground.
Film an establishing shot; the camera can scan characters and show close-ups of their facial expressions.
Use filters to create a night-time setting and lights to emulate the headlights. Show them dimming when Grace crosses. Include sound effects.
Ballad Students could write a ballad or murder ballad (lyrics that tell the story of a murder).
Not many readers seemed to be aware of this book until it was CBCA shortlisted. Feedback has since been very favourable.
It is set in the Murray Mallee area of South Australia and told by two brothers. Sandy is fifteen and a good student although dreamy. In an early scene, slapstick and terror merge when he’s almost drowned by a swollen dead cow. His older brother Red has left school and seems suited to life on the farm with his dog, Ringer. He is suffering from guilt, believing he contributed to the death of their mother.
Masculinity is explored with sensitivity and credibility, particularly relationships between father and sons. The author writes with warmth and humour and shows that rural men can be gentle and compassionate.
Mallee men/Mallee wood Mallee men are described as mallee wood. They are ‘men from any time … like stumpy mallee trees: nuggetty and resilient. A heritage of hard work’ (page 100)
Rhopalic Verse After reading about Mallee males, students write rhopalic verse to explore their characteristics of strength and endurance with mallee wood. In rhopalic verse, each word in a line has 1 more syllable than in the prior word e.g. ‘to avert dangerous situations’. The poem could be quite short, perhaps 5 lines, each with 4 words per line. (This is guide only.)
Country & City podcast Differences between life in the country and city are mentioned in the novel: e.g. in the country old and young mix. In the city ‘people stick to their age bracket’, page 119; in the country – people make inventions, page 124.
Students could use a microphone and smart phone to make a 1-episode podcast about the differences between country and city.
Bren MacDibble/Cally Black has blasted onto the Australian literary scene for youth with How to Bee for younger readers and In the Dark Spaces for YA. She is a fresh, authoritative talent; writing outside the mould.
-about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)
How to Bee won the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & was shortlisted for the Griffith University Children’s Book Award (Qld) and Children’s Literature Award – Adelaide Festival Awards. Read a synopsis and the NSWPLA judges’ report here.
The novel circles around the importance of bees, children and community. The title is a pun with a double meaning. Some of the characters’ names reflect the almost-idyllic country setting where the story begins: Peony, Magnolia, Applejoy, Pomegranate …
The writing is sensory where it describes white cockatoos, fruit, a ‘face puckered like a burr on a tree trunk’ and Peony’s flawed Ma as a lemon, ‘You think it’s gotta be good coz it’s so big and has perfect skin but when you cut it in half you find out its skin is so thick there’s just a tiny bit of pulp inside and that it just ain’t got enough juice to go around’.
Students could write about other characters or people in their own families, describing them as fruit in lyrical style.
Themes & Issues
Domestic violence, making this novel most appropriate for mature, older children.
Wealth, deriving not from money but from loving people and family and living in community – a concern also of In the Dark Spaces
Hive/bees/pollination – another concern of In the Dark Spaces
Families or schools could investigate setting up a bee hive, particularly with native stingless bees. Compare the taste of commercially and local, unrefined and unheated honey.
Cycles There are a range of cycles within the tale: ‘the farm’s full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit … all overlapping circles.’; seasons, places (from which characters leave and return); and a death is replaced by a new baby.
Concrete Poetry: Circle Shape Poem Children could write a Circle Shape poem about one of these or another cycle, where each line has an extra word, then decreases to make a circle shape.
In the Dark Spaces by Cally Black (Hardie Grant Egmont)
In the Dark Spaces has been longlisted for the Inkies award, highly commended by the Victorian Premiers Literary Prize, won an Aurealis Award, has been shortlisted for the Ditmars and shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premiers Awards,
It is a sci-fi thriller/ hostage drama set in future space. Tamara lives in hiding on one of the intergalactic freighters. These are named after songs e.g. Lucy in the Sky, Jolene, My Sharona and Delilah. Her freighter is attacked by Crowpeople/Garuwa and she is kidnapped after witnessing mass murder because she is able to communicate with the Crowpeople. Through Tamara, we learn to understand the Crowpeople, who only take the resources they need to nurture the hives in their ships, which in return feed the inhabitants. Unlike humans who sell excess for profit.
Cally Black’s voice here is original – raw, strong and captivating.
Dinkus When I interviewed eminent Australia author Isobelle Carmody recently, I was excited to learn about the ‘dinkus’.
The simplest way to indicate a section break within a chapter is to leave a blank space between paragraphs, but designers often prefer to use a symbol or glyph. These are often three horizontally placed asterisks but asterisks can be replaced with other symbols.
Crowpeople in In the Dark Spaces have three ‘shiny talons’ (page 41) sticking out from their boots. This symbol is used as a dinkus in the novel e.g. on pages 183,270.
Students find the talon dinkus in In the Dark Spaces, and then look for symbols or glyphs in other novels.
Lightgraff Art (or lightgraffiti) is drawing or writing with light. It combines photography and calligraphy. It can be a live performance or recorded on video or time-lapse photographic stills. It is often used to embellish settings by highlighting or enhancing elements of the scene with colour, line, shape or script (using light).
Examples can be seen by searching online for ‘lightgraff images’.
The Elephant has also been shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Read a synopsis and the judge’s report here. It is Peter Carnavas’s first novel, after an impressive output of picture books, and he has illustrated it with black and white line drawings.
Tree & Paper Planes Like Martine Murray’s two shortlisted books, a tree is a symbol here. It is Olive’s ‘thinking spot’. Her grandfather cares for her since her mother has died and her father become incapacitated by grief. Grandad makes and flies paper planes with her. Children could make coloured paper planes, write positive messages onto them e.g. ‘You have a wonderful laugh’ and tie them to a jacaranda (or other) tree to emulate some of the events in the story (see pages 125,142).
Other Symbols in the novel are the elephant, tortoise and the dog.
Elephant The elephant is the major symbol. Olive’s mother had made a clay elephant which is now broken.
Soap carving Children could make a soap carving of an elephant: Materials coloured and/or patterned rectangular soaps (note descriptions on page 138), scrapers & peelers can be safe for child use e.g. plastic knife, potato peeler, paper clip, teaspoon, pencil, paper. Method Trace around the soap onto paper. Draw and cut out the elephant on paper. Trace around the shape onto the soap. Cut away excess soap with plastic knife. Cut away more with paperclip. Etch details and texture with pencil. ‘MetKids’ have a useful video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y17RweezGi8
Typewriter (page 38) Grandad typed poems for Olive’s mother. Students choose or write poems and type them using a typewriter.
School Olive’s school is celebrating its 100-year anniversary, so the students are studying old things. Children could show and talk about old things that are important to them
Side by Side song. Grandad and Olive love this song. Children could also listen to it and sing along.
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler by Lisa Shanahan (Allen & Unwin)
The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler won the Griffith University Children’s Book Award (Qld). I interviewed Lisa Shanahan about the novel for the bog here. Read the QLA judges’ report here.
Drawing Worry Henry is a worrier and describes worry as a ‘big round grey tumbleweed of dust, with skinny black-and-white-striped legs poking out of and red boots’, pages 10-11. Children could draw their own visual interpretation of worry.
The Beach using Green Screen Technology
The beach is the setting of many Australian holidays and is integral to this story.
Children could create freeze frames of characters superimposed over a green screen beach setting.
Students select a character e.g. Henry, his two siblings or his new friend, Cassie. Choose three scenes where they appear in the book.
Green Screen Superimpose students in their freeze frame poses onto virtual backgrounds or animated digital backdrops of the beach.
Equipment: iPad (a 1-stop movie-making device), green screen (could be made of green fabric or paper), lighting, tripod (opt), Veescope, Green Screen Pro or other apps for background videos, iMovie or equivalent. A useful resource is
Parents are important in the novel. Henry’s parents have different personalities. His mother is an introvert – understanding with some anxiety. His father is an extrovert – exuberant (page 47), with a big, wild love (page 141).
If completing the activity about the beach (above) at school, include the children’s parents by giving them the opportunity to upload the beach film using the ‘Seesaw’ app or equivalent.
– about the books and some ideas on sharing them with young readers –
Henrietta & the Perfect Night
by Martine Murray(A&U)
Henrietta is a big thinker. She’s a great go-getter, determined, adventurous, endearing and exuberant. She has a strong young voice. Yet she’s shy.
The book is well designed and is illustrated by the author.
It contains short stories – which are quite sequential but stand alone.
In the stories Henrietta’s mother is pregnant; she starts school; has a sleep over; stars in the school play; and awaits the birth of her new sibling. Henrietta pretends to be a spy; does ‘rescues’ e.g. a bee and the other new girl, Olive; and she stands up for ‘small things’.
She is patient; truthful; a good friend; and kind like Joey in Marsh & Me
Henrietta and Olive peg Olive’s brother’s pyjamas in the tree. Children could cut and decorate paper pyjamas, perhaps using a template provided by a teacher or parent, and peg these onto a tree branch standing in a pot.
Seasons are addressed as Henrietta waits for the baby and the tree shows how the seasons change.
The class play is about Noah’s Ark. Read about Noah’s ark from a children’s Bible or other book. The children could then perform a play – a number of scripts are available online if you search for plays, puppet plays or skits about Noah’s Ark. If possible, include a bat in the performance because Henrietta had a role as bat – ‘special and mysterious and different from regular animals. Which is a bit like me.’ (page 66)
Previous Henrietta stories are being republished in a 3 in 1 volume.
Marsh and Me by Martine Murray (Text Publishing)
I’ve not long finished reading Marsh and Me (Text Publishing), and couldn’t wait to write about it. It is a beautifully written, dense and imaginative work brimming with thoughtful and important ideas.
Joey believes that he is a nice, ordinary boy who wants to skip puberty. He doesn’t like the word ‘puberty’, thinking it ‘slightly pushy’ but he does like the word ‘luminous’. He’s shy and sensitive, a ‘noticer of feelings’ and has one friend, Digby, who likes science.
When Joey climbs the hill one day he finds someone occupying the treehouse. Marsh is a ‘wild girl’ and the ‘Queen of Small Things’. She has secrets and tells the story of the Plains of Khazar which may be history, fairy tale or folklore. She sings to Joey and the first note ‘rings like a golden bell’.
Even though Joey doesn’t always like Marsh, he is intrigued and concerned for her and realises that he must reveal more of himself in order to make friends and deepen relationships. The novel soars when they create music together using voice and guitar. Both characters are profoundly drawn.
Poems Joey’s mother sticks poems on the fridge. One is by Rumi.
Children could take excerpts from other Rumi poems or poems by other poets that they like or remind them of Marsh and Me and display them.
An example is from Rumi’s I Am Wind, You are Fire:
Oh, if a tree could wander
and move with foot and wings!
It would not suffer the axe blows
and not the pain of saws!
Nature Play Both Joey and Marsh love spending time in nature, particularly in the treehouse in the peppercorn tree. They listen to bird calls and other sounds and plant an acorn.
It seems that many children today don’t have the time or opportunity to play in natural environments, especially where there are trees. Parents or teachers could provide unstructured (or structured) opportunities for children (including primary aged children for whom this book is written) to improve their emotional, mental and physical health by spending time in the natural world. They could build treehouses, climb trees, watch the clouds and shadows, record natural sounds or plant a seed found in the local habitat.
Reading Both Marsh and Me and Martine Murray’s companion book Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars feature a tree. Another lovely link between the two novels is the character of Pim Wilder. (I reviewed Molly and Pimhere.)
After reading Marsh and Me, it could be worth reading or re-reading Glenda Millard’s ‘Kingdom of Silk’ series, another thought-provoking yet tender and sensory exploration of childhood. All these literary works bring magic into the real world.
The shortlisted books for the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers is a very strong list. Some have already won or been shortlisted for other literary awards. Shortlisting in the CBCA awards is prestigious, increases awareness of each book and dramatically impacts sales.
The long lead time between the announcement of the shortlist and the winners and honour books in August’s Book Week provides a wonderful opportunity to explore these books.
I will look at the 30 shortlisted titles in a series of blog posts.
The Younger Reader books are:
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (UQP) Also shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards
How to Bee by Bren MacDibble (A&U) Also winner of the Patricia Wrightson Prize – NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & shortlisted for the Children’s Literature Award – Adelaide Festival Awards
It is interesting to note that Martine Murray has been shortlisted twice in this category. Lisa Shanahan has also been shortlisted twice. Her other book Hark, it’s Me, Ruby Lee! is shortlisted in Book of the Year: Early Childhood.
There are four novels and one book of short stories shortlisted in this category.
The first I’ll look at is
The Shop at Hoopers Bend by Emily Rodda (HarperCollins Australia)
-about the novel and some ideas on sharing it with young readers-
Jonquil’s parents died when she was a baby. She’s now eleven and in the care of Aunt Pam who farms her out to boarding school and camps. She leaves the train unexpectedly at Hoopers Bend and is befriended by Pirate, a white and black dog. Jonquil is drawn to the shop at Hoopers Bend and Bailey, the older lady who has inherited it. Jonquil spins a tale and stays on, helping Bailey rent out the shop to different businesses for a short time. The shop exudes an ‘everyday’ magic.
Jonquils The protagonist’s name is Jonquil (shortened to Quil) and Emily Rodda chose this name deliberately because they’re unobtrusive with a ‘delicate beauty’ to suit a ‘reserved and sensitive’ character.
Plant jonquils. To compare these with other bulbs – daffodils, snowdrops and others could be planted as well.
Match these flowers with different personality and character types.
Stardust Quil invents a game, Stardust. She believes that all things, including people, contain the dust of long-dead stars and thinks that people whose stardust composition match closely have an instant affinity with each other. Conversely, people with very different stardust are unlikely to be friends.
Palaris – are people like Quil & Bailey; Aginoth – practical and confident; Broon – cheery but boring’ Kell – prickly but interesting; Derba – calm and reliable with no sense of humour …
After reading the novel, children could look more closely at the star names and corresponding personalities. They could use these names to categorise book characters from the shortlisted novels or other books (and maybe even themselves). As a group, they could compile results into a Stardust chart.
Bookplate Bookplates are an artform. Show children different bookplates. Examine the designs including space for name and possible date. Children design their own bookplates onto a sticky label (not post-it notes but labels that resemble bookplates from good stationers) to reflect themselves and their reading taste.
I attended two standout sessions at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. Forest for the Trees is run by Writing NSW (until recently NSW Writers’ Centre) and Poetic Threads by Red Room Poetry (in conjunction with the Art Gallery of NSW).
‘Forest for the Trees’ is an annual seminar run primarily for writers but valuable for others in the industry. It’s a one-day forum held at the State Library.
Julie Koh gave an enlightening keynote titled ‘My Path Through the Forest’. Some of her short stories sound like my favourite books – experimental literary fiction with magic realism and speculative elements. She recommends that emerging and other writers attend festivals, courses and literary social events, use social media and subscribe to professional organisations such as Australian Society of Authors. “The longer I’m in the literary world, the more I realise it’s about connections”. She acknowledged that authors are often introverts (who generate energy from being alone) and should balance their time with others and their book publicity with time alone writing and re-energising.
Julie quoted The Sound of Music: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window” as a reminder to “scatter seeds everywhere” to find opportunities to promote work, only ask once and keep trying something new re publicity. Her published books arePortable Curiosities and Capital Misfits. She’s currently writing the libretto for an opera and, with Ryan O’Neill, Jane Rawson and others, is part of the exciting, audacious writing collective Kanganoulipo.
In ‘Staying on the Path’, Charlotte Wood (whose The Natural Way of Things I have written about a number of times on the blog) explained that she must “follow the energy” – have curiosity and interest in the work she’s writing itself; and, to maintain longevity in the industry, have tenacity and perseverance and behave professionally by treating everyone with respect and with humility.
In the session ‘Going Further Afield’, Kirsty Melville from US-based Andrews McMeel Publishing (who publish Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and other books of poetry) told us that poetry is generated by the political environment and “people are looking to the arts to express their creative selves.” She has recently signed three emerging Australian poets, Gemma Troy, Courtney Peppernell and Beau Taplin.
The highlight of the festival was ‘Poetic Threads’, three poetic performances inspired by ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ medieval tapestries. It was curated
It’s an exciting literary week in Sydney, beginning with the announcement of the winners of the prestigious NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the State Library.
I was honoured to judge overall Book of the Year, as well as the Patricia Wrightson children’s book category.
Taboo by Kim Scott won both the Indigenous Writers’ Prize as well as Book of the Year. This is the third consecutive year that an Aboriginal writer has won Book of the Year, with Leah Purcell winning with her play script, The Drover’s Wife last year and Bruce Pascoe with Dark Emu in 2016.
Taboo (Picador Australia) is an exceptional work: dense, skilfully composed and darkly lyrical with some mystical elements. It traces the reunion of people affected by a horrific past massacre in a Peace Park. Teenager Tilly is the daughter of deceased patriarch Jim. Her backstory is confronting, intimating she has been treated like a dog. Twins Gerald and Gerrard may be her allies or threats. Multiple characters are introduced effectively and some unlikeable characters are rendered with affection and understanding.
Symbols of the curlew and other birds are powerful and I particularly appreciated the representation of words from the ‘ancient language’. They are alluded to but not shared on the page. Some can even animate objects. As Wilfred says, “Words, see. It’s language brings things properly alive. Got power of their own, words.”
Another multi-awarded title is Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (Text Publishing). It won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the People’s Choice Award. It is a holocaust novel which reads like non-fiction and includes transcripts of the author’s letters and replies with black and white photos. Ideas about the Museum of the Extinct Race, The Story of The Book of Dirt and images of dirt as the clay Golem’s heart will endure.
A clay Golem figure, Riverman, is also a feature of Zana Fraillon’s Ethel Turner Prize Young Adult winning book, The Ones That Disappeared (Hachette Australia). This is a salutary warning about child trafficking and slavery in Australia and elsewhere told in sensory language, with a sometimes-magic realism style. (I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here.)
The winner of the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry is Argosy by Bella Li (Vagabond Press). This is an exciting combination of words and exquisite, thought-provoking colour collage in evolving styles.
Congratulations to these and the other winners, as well as the creators of the shortlisted titles and thanks to the State Library of NSW, the coordinator of the awards.
Here is the link to the winning books and shortlists.
I clearly remember meeting Michael Wagner in Brisbane when I was consultant for an Indie bookstore there. Penguin Books were taking him around to talk about his unique series ‘The Undys’. I loved the games that the father and son played in these books and the love, as well as pathos, in their life and relationships in the housing commission apartment where they lived.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Jane and Michael.
What are your professional roles in the book world?
We’re both full-time authors and part-time publishers. I (Michael) have my own small imprint, Billy Goat Books, which allows me to dabble in publishing by releasing a book or two a year, while Jane freelances for a couple of different publishers.
What have you written together and how do you help each other with your work/writing?
MW: We’ve actually only collaborated once, on the picture book Bear Make Den, the text of which is about 50 words, so much of our effort went into reducing the number of words in the text. It’s funny, you might think that two authors would double the prose, but in that instance, we helped each other create the most economical prose possible.
But we’re also slowly working together on a series of early readers. It’s an idea that I came up with, that would probably work as a series, but which really plays more to Jane’s strengths (i.e. her understanding of very young children), so it makes sense for us to work on it together.
When we’re not working together, we help each other with feedback and encouragement. It’s hard for ‘life-partners’ to be too critical of each other’s work – we’re meant to be our number one supporters, really – but whenever we get stuck, we seek help from each other.
What other literary/illustrative partnerships do you have and what books have these produced?
MW: There are actually too many of these to list, but an author-illustrator partnership I’m particularly enjoying right now is with my friend Wayne Bryant in the creation of the So Wrong series. He and I both love Mad Magazine, and we’ve created something similarly subversive and naughty, but in book format, and aimed more squarely at primary kids. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved, although I know many would wonder why. J
JG: Anna Walker and I have created 6 picture books together, and we’re working on our seventh. I am also Anna’s publisher of her books that she writes and illustrates herself, so we are quite connected! I feel very lucky to have the partnership with Anna. We have become good friends through working and exploring ideas together, and I think we each have an understanding of how the other works, and sees the world.
I’ve also made 3 books with Andrew Joyner, and we’re working on a couple more at the moment. I love working with Andy – he is a genius at character and gesture, and he’s also very insightful with text, and gives great advice and feedback about the narrative and story. He’s interested in the words as well as the visual world of the story.
Alison Lester and I have collaborated in many ways as well. I’m her publisher, we’re great friends, and we’ve made many books together in Aboriginal communities with the kids and sometimes with the adults, too. Recently we collaborated in creating a picture book called The Silver Sea, which we made with young patients at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. This was a really wonderful project to be involved in, and all proceeds go to the Education Institute at the RCH.
My friend Davina Bell and I have also collaborated in various ways. Together we created the Our Australian Girl series when we were both working at Penguin. Davina and I have also co-written two books, and both have been illustrated by Freya Blackwood. The three of us really enjoy working together, and usually this involves a trip to stay with Freya in Orange, where Davina and I camp in her beautiful studio.
Could you give us examples of your books across age-groups and forms, from picture books to series and novels.
JG: I’ve written picture books, junior novels and also stand-alone novels for middle readers and teenage readers. I wrote many titles in the Aussie Bites and Aussie Nibbles series, and over the past 10 or so years it has been mainly picture books. Part of the reason for this is that I adore the picture book genre – it fascinates and inspires me – and the other part is that I had a very busy and demanding job as a publisher so never had the time to write novels. Now that I’ve left Penguin, I’m working on longer stories as well as picture books.
Which of your books’ longevity in print are you particularly pleased about?
MW: I’m most thrilled about the Maxx Rumble series, which, so far, has been in print for 14 years. It was my first proper attempt at writing for children and remains my most enduring work. I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it, which I think, is why it’s worked so well. J
JG: I’m pleased that the novel I wrote over 10 years ago now, Falling From Grace, remains in print and is set at Year 8 level in secondary schools. I still receive letters about that book from readers both here and in the US, so I feel happy that it’s still being enjoyed and hopefully hasn’t dated too much!
When in Brisbane, Michael and I also talked about his being in a band and about Jane’s YA novel Falling from Grace (2006), which I loved and have kept all these years. I still have the post-it note on the cover, which I wrote recommending it to one of my twin sons, who was then 14 years-old. The key character for me, Kip, was also 14 in the book, looked older than his years, played music, had given up swimming even though he was a champion and suffered anxiety – all like my son. He seemed like such a real person.
If I recall correctly, Michael mentioned that Jane had written the character with the help of their son, Wil.
After all these years, Falling from Grace is deservedly still in print and I highly recommend it.
JG: Oh, that’s lovely, Joy – thank you. Wil didn’t help me with the actual writing, but I was certainly observing him and his world when I was writing that book!
It’s perhaps not surprising that the son of such a creative couple is now the lead singer, lyricist and muso in famous Oz band, The Smith Street Band.
How did you nurture Wil as a writer? Which song of his are you most proud and why?
JG: Wil was always interested in music and rhythm, from a very young age. He was also always interested in language. He spoke at a very early age, and also loved reading and books. I read to him a lot, until he was quite old! A passion for music is also something that Wil and Michael share. I’m proud of a lot of his songs, and I have my favourites. A sentimental favourite is My Little Sinking Ship, which is a song he wrote for his sister, our daughter Lizzie, when they were both teenagers. I also love Laika, which is a very sad but beautiful song about vulnerability, really, based around the story of the Russian dog that was sent into space. Lizzie and Wil have actually collaborated on both those songs – Lizzie made a little animation film clip for My Little Sinking Ship when she was in secondary school, and they made a handmade book, illustrated by Lizzie, for Laika. We printed a limited quantity and they sold it at gigs. Recently, Wil received an email from a teacher at a Melbourne primary school, who said that her grade 5 and 6 students studied the Laika song, and it really inspired them in different ways. I found this very moving.
MW: All I can add to what Jane’s said is that I’ve been semi-obsessed with music since I was in primary school and I think that sort of passion from a parent is often absorbed by his/her children. I was also in a band that almost became famous, so perhaps Wil is living out a part of my life that was never quite fulfilled. I should also say that I never consciously pushed him in that (or any other) direction, we just responded to his interests, whatever they were at the time.
Which literary award has meant the most to you?
JG: I won the QLD Premier’s Award with my first novel, and this probably meant the most because it was very affirming when I was just starting out.
What are you reading and enjoying at the moment or recently?
JG: I’m reading George Saunders’s short story collection The Tenth of December. I recently read Lincoln in the Bardo and loved it, so I’m reading everything else of his now! (Wil is also reading the same book, btw!) I recently read Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. I love her writing, and can’t wait for her next book to come out.
MW: I’m almost always reading books about psychology, philosophy or human nature. I guess I’m hoping to become wise some day.
What are you writing now or next?
MW: I’m writing a few different picture books at the moment, but also trying to master a middle-reader series idea I’ve had hanging around for about five years. It has a catchy title and some decent enough plot ideas, but I’ve never been able to find the main character’s voice. Luckily, I think I’ve just started to find it recently. I sure hope so!
JG: I’m writing lots of picture books, and also a novel.
There do seem to be many books rushed through publication at the moment, particularly novels with misprints and with plots, characters and structure that could benefit from more care. This is actually preventing books from being shortlisted for awards. Why is this rushed writing and publication process happening and is it going to improve?
JG: When I remember back in the dark ages when I was working as an editor, we had a lot more time to work on each title. We could give each book, and each author, the time they needed. Many publishers and editors still really try to do this now, but the world of publishing and the economics of publishing have changed so much, and books often tend to be rushed through.
What would you both like to be remembered for?
MW: As someone who did his best. And perhaps made the world slightly better – be that through my books, or talks and workshops, or even through our children.
JG: I like Michael’s comment here, so I’ll echo that, I think – as someone who did her best!
Ellie Marney’s new YA novel, White Night (Allen & Unwin)has an authentic Australian feel. It is warm-hearted with a welcome edge of rawness. Male protagonist, Bo, is a triumph, with his blend of masculinity, compassion and love.
Where are you based, Ellie, and how do you spend your time?
I live near Castlemaine, in north-central Victoria. I usually spend my time writing or reading! But I also have four kids, and a couple of day jobs, so life can get pretty busy.
How are you involved in Australia’s YA community?
In 2015, when the ALIA lists came out and OzYA was barely a a blip on the radar, a group of lit sector professionals – authors, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, publishers – got together to form the #LoveOzYA movement, to advocate for and promote Australian YA, and I was lucky enough to be at that first meeting. I’ve never really stopped flag-waving for OzYA since then!
Oz YA is thriving but why do there seem to be few Australian novels written for males at the moment?
I actually think Australian YA caters pretty well to males! There are plenty of great YA books written by male YA authors, or featuring male protagonists. But I also believe it’s good for boys to broaden their horizons (and maybe learn something new) by reading books with female protagonists, or written by female authors – I certainly encourage my boys to pick up books by authors of all stripes, with a range of protagonists. We don’t seem to worry so much about girls reading books written by men, or focusing on boys – Harry Potter, for instance – which makes me think it’s a bit of a double standard.
Could you tell us about your other books, particularly your very popular ‘Every’ series?
The Every series is based around the question of ‘What would a contemporary teenage Sherlock Holmes be like?’ (or as the tagline says, ‘What if Sherlock Holmes was the boy next door?’) and is my most popular series to date. People liked my take on Young-Sherlock-and Girl-Watson-in-Melbourne so much I wrote a companion novel, No Limits, which I self-published last year – Harris Derwent, one of the secondary characters in the series, had his chance to shine in a darker-edged story about drug crime and high-stakes romance in regional Australia.
Now this year I’m releasing White Night, and in a few more months, Circus Hearts, a 3-book YA romantic crime series set in a circus – the first book, about a teenage trapeze artist and an apprentice strongman on the run from a terrible crime, will (if all goes to plan!) be out in September.
What is the significance of the title of your new novel White Night?
It refers to a a number of things actually – I’m glad you asked! White Night is the name of the lightshow festival that the students in the book want to stage to raise funds for their local skate park; it’s based on the worldwide festival of lights that has taken off so well in Melbourne. But ‘White Night’ also has darker connotations: in the Jonestown Peoples’ Temple cult, the name was a code for the ‘revolutionary suicide’ practise runs that Jim Jones forced all his followers to perform to prove their loyalty.
But also – and this is a little Easter egg for readers! Because my brain is funny like that – there are a lot of references to the Sleeping Beauty story in White Night. The names of the characters (Bo and Rory – in the old legends, it was Prince Beau and Princess Aurora), the idea of a handsome suitor who rescues a damsel from a tower (in this case, an ideological tower) which is surrounded by greenery… So White Night is a play on the old references to a ‘white knight in shining armour’. I liked threading little bits of the story into the book, and flipping the idea too, with a headstrong princess who sort of rescues herself…
Could you tell us about your major characters, Bo and Rory, including their relationships with their parents?
Bo is sixteen, and focused on footy, friends and family – his dad, Aaron, his pregnant mum, Liz and his younger brother, Connor. Bo’s parents are strict but fair, and he feels like he’s cruising along – except for some nagging concerns about what he’s going to do at the end of high school. Rory, on the other hand, has no plans, because her life isn’t lived in a conventional way – she lives in Garden of Eden, an off-the-grid radical environmentalist commune with a very alternative family arrangement. This is her first attempt at real high school and ‘outside’ life, and when she meets Bo, the two of them rub up against each other in curious, life-changing, spark-creating ways.
I think I’d better leave it there – if I give too much away, I’ll be sharing spoilers!
Which of Bo’s school friends would you like to write about further?
Hm, that’s a hard question! Bo’s best mate, Sprog Hamilton, starts out as a total bogan footy bloke and then evolves to have so many layers – Sprog has a wonderful story arc, and I do love Sprog as a character. But Bo’s other friend, Lozzie D’Onofrio, is equally lovely – and maybe has a lot more backstory to explore… I’d happily write about either one of them!
You’ve mentioned the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in White Night. What environmental messages do you want to share?
When I was researching White Night I read an incredible book: The World Without Us by Alan Weismann – it poses the thought experiment of how would nature recover and go on if all the humans in the world just disappeared overnight? That book was mind-blowing and fascinating, and threw out lots of amazing and terrifying facts about the impact of human beings on the planet. I’d love more young people to think hard about the environment and contribute ideas for solutions to some of the problems – it’s their planet too, and I think young people have much to give on this issue, considering they’re so invested in it. We just need to start listening, and acting on their ideas, before things get too urgent.
Oh, that book is so great! Every single one of my sons has read The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, which is the first book in the Ranger’sApprentice series. That series… It’s so good! And it seems to really appeal to my kids, especially the idea of being a boy (like Will) with an older male mentor (like Halt) and learning all the survival and craft skills necessary for living on the land. I just thought it was a natural fit for Bo and Connor’s story, with echoes of what it’s like being a young boy growing up and searching for male role models.
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve actually been so immersed in writing I haven’t had much reading time – but when I’ve had a break, I’ve been reading Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (O.M.G. that whole series is so incredible!), LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff (I have an ARC! Yes, it’s just that good, I had to steal it from the Allen & Unwin offices!) and also a few books I’m reading for #LoveOzYAbookclub – Gap Year in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor, and Valentine by Jodi McAlister.
And of course, I often grab a romance read when I’m tired or flat – I love Penny Reid, Sarah Mayberry, Kylie Scott and Sarina Bowen. Those ladies bring all the feels!
Thanks very much, Ellie, and all the best with White Night. It will no doubt find a wide and appreciative readership.
Thanks Joy! I hope people enjoy it, and thank you so much for having me to visit!
Jessica Watson is well known for sailing non-stop and unassisted around the world as a 16-year-old – the youngest person to achieve this feat. She also captained the youngest crew ever in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, has been awarded an OAM and was named Young Australian of the Year in 2011.
Her memoir True Spirit (2010) gives further insight into her indomitable character and her latest literary work is a novel, Indigo Blue (Lothian, Hachette Australia).
Where are you based, Jessica, and how do you spend your time?
These days I’m based in Melbourne, although I consider the entire east coast of Australia to be home. I’ve just finished studying an MBA and love to go sailing on the weekends.
How does writing resemble sailing?
The main way writing resembles sailing is the importance of persistence!
What is the significance of the title of your novel Indigo Blue?
Indigo Blue is the name of the little run-down yacht that the main character Alex buys, and sets about fixing up.
Could you briefly tell us about your major characters, Alex and Sam?
The main character Alex is independent and practical so she’s pretty surprised when she stumbles into an unlikely mystery.
Sam is an apprentice to the local sailmaker, he’s reserved and there’s something a little bit odd about him.
When Alex first starts at her new school in Year Twelve, her experiences are not what she hopes for. Have you had similar experiences and, if so, how did you cope?
Alex’s experiences not feeling very welcome at a new school are partly drawn from my own experience but as I spent so much of my high school years off sailing I did have to lean quite heavily on the experiences of friends and family.
John, who sold Alex her boat, is patronising at first. Has this been part of your own experience?
The character John is based on a lot of experiences I’ve had, as well as my older sister who works on boats. We’ve both come across my older guys like John who just don’t understand how much girls are capable of. But like John and as frustrating as they are, many of these guys aren’t completely terrible just a little narrow minded.
What age-group have you written your novel for?
Indigo Blue is for anyone aged 9 upwards.
Could you describe any significant response from young people when you’ve presented either of your books to them?
The responses that I’ve most enjoyed are those who say that they’ve been inspired to give sailing a go. It’s also been lovely to receive requests for a sequel.
Of all the places you’ve sailed, where would you be least surprised to find a merperson?
It’s so easy to imagine mythical sea creatures when out to sea surrounded in every direction by empty horizons, but whenever I’ve visited Lake Cootharaba I’ve always wondered what might be lurking beneath the mysterious dark tea-tree coloured waters.
As part of solving a mystery, Alex reads Captain Emanuel William Vance’s historical log and comments about him, You should have been a writer rather than a ship’s captain. What do you admire in writing?
I admire beautiful descriptions, but it’s most important to me that writing sparks curiosity and inspires a spirit of adventure.
What have you been reading recently?
Now that I’ve finished study and don’t have a never-ending list of textbooks to read I’m really enjoying having more time for novels again. I like picking up books of all kinds, but at the moment I’m particularly loving stories with a little history that give me a taste for another time and place.
Thanks very much, Jessica, and all the best with your future literary and other careers.
I was fortunate to facilitate a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016. I had been following their literary careers by reading their writing as published and have continued to be absorbed by their exemplary work.
Inga Simpson sees the world through trees and hopes to learn the ‘language of trees’. Understory: A Life with Trees (Hachette Australia) is nature writing in the form of a sensory memoir. It traces her life in ten acres of forest in the Sunshine Coast hinterland alone and with N and her two children.
The book is beautifully and aptly structured as parts of the forest. ‘Canopy’ includes chapters on the Cedar, Grey Gum, Rose Gum and Ironbark; ‘Middlestorey’ features Trunk, Limb, She-oak and Wattle; and ‘Understorey’ focuses on Sticks and leaves, Seedlings and Bunya, amongst other natural elements.
Inga Simpson lived in the forest for ten years. As ‘tree women’ and ‘word women’, she and N wanted a ‘writing life’. They referred to themselves as ‘entwives’, a term from Tolkien, and named the writing retreat they established, ‘Olvar Wood’, from Tolkien’s The Simarillion. The retreat was an oasis for writers but, along with financial and other problems, its demise is foreshadowed throughout the memoir. We celebrate and agonise with the author through the refurbishment of her lovely cottage despite ongoing leaks and mould; the acceptance of her debut novel Mr Wigg, the completion of Nest and the winning of the prestigious Eric Rolls prize.
Readers are welcomed into the forest through the author’s words: ‘these small acts of tending … [tell her] story of this place’. Also memorable are the author‘s acts of tending the forest: clearing weeds, cutting timber and replanting. She recognises and absorbs ‘Indigenous concepts of country [which] include a responsibility to care for the land’.
Once her eye becomes attuned, she discovers flame tree seedlings and young cedars that were already in plain view. She learns to take time to look for the ‘details and patterns and signs just waiting for my eye to become sufficiently attuned’. As part of this process the author develops ‘nature sight’, where living creatures such as sea turtles and sea eagles, reveal themselves to her.
Inga Simpson concedes that she may not have achieved her desire to become ‘fluent’ in ‘the language of the forest’ but she has become ‘literate’ and literate enough to share her knowledge and understanding through lyrical, unforgettable words.
The 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have just been announced. I’m enamoured of literary works across ages but am here featuring the books in the two youth shortlists because I’ve already read them all. And I’ve read them, not just because I chaired the judging panel of the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature with insightful co-judges Robin Morrow and Tohby Riddle, but because these are books worth reading.
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T Rudd (Hachette Australia)
The Patchwork Bike is a stunning, ground-breaking picture book; an exuberant fusion of words, colour and texture. It has already won a CBCA Honour book award and I’ve mentioned itseveral times on the Boomerang Books blog.
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (University of Queensland Press)
The profound theme of a child grieving for a parent is told in finely crafted words and images, with simpatico black and white line drawings.
Blossom by Tamsin Janu (Omnibus Books for Scholastic Australia)
Tamsin Janu has been shortlisted twice in the Patricia Wrightson category this year. Blossom is an exciting, original novel set seemingly in the real world but with subtle sci-fi content. It brilliantly alludes to the plight of aliens and refugees.
Even though very young, Tamsin Janu is an old hand at the NSW PLA. Since her first novel Figgy in the World co-won the Patricia Wrightson award a few years ago, her two subsequent Figgy books (all set in Ghana) have also been shortlisted.
Tamsin Janu will be speaking in Strathfield, Sydney, on Saturday 7th April at an IBBY event.
A timely and thoughtful dystopia set in the near future when bees have become extinct. It is engaging for children as well as being a fine piece of writing. The issue of domestic violence makes it most suitable for older children.
Bren MacDibble is also shortlisted as Cally Black in the Ethel Turner Prize.
A consummate thread of magic realism, including a golem creation, runs through this novel to diffuse the horror of the important and harrowing issue of child trafficking. I reviewed it for The Weekend Australian here.