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.
I hope it is the beginning of a trend but there are a couple of excellent Australian YA psychological thrillers around. It reminds me of former glory days when Victor Kelleher’s inimitable Del Del was published.
Margot McGovern’s Neverland (Penguin Random House Australia) is an invigorating, assured debut which blends fascinating, yet threatening, fantasy tropes; and elements from Peter Pan, into the risk-taking activities of Kit and some of her fellow ‘Lost Ones’.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Books Blog, Margot.
My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I’m from Adelaide and recently moved back after living in Melbourne and Perth for a number of years. I always wanted to be a writer and was accepted into the BCA writing program at Flinders University after finishing school, then continued on to do a creative writing PhD. I moved to Melbourne while finishing my thesis and worked for a (now defunct) cycling magazine. After graduating, I went part-time at the magazine to try my hand at freelancing and start work on Neverland. When my husband’s job then took us to Perth, I switched to writing full-time and also joined the book blogging community (although my blog’s been a tad neglected since my daughter was born last year).
What is the significance of the title Neverland?
My protagonist, Kit, is seeking a way back to the magical childhood of her memory; however, the harder she tries to relive that time, the more distorted and nightmarish her memories become. So with the title, I wanted to evoke the sense of a dream-like place that may or may not be real and remains just beyond reach. The story pays homage to J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and I was very taken with the way Barrie describes his Never Neverland as a place we forever yearn for but can never return to: ‘On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.’
How does the cover hint at the treasures inside?
I’m still pinching myself over the cover! It was designed by Chista Moffitt and the beautiful illustrations are by Eveline Tarunadjaja. Kit’s romanticised childhood memories are based on the stories and myths her dad invented about the island where she grew up and the illustrations represent key symbols in those stories.
Why have you set the story on an island?
There were a few reasons. I wanted to reference to Barrie’s Never Neverland and to give my characters a place where they could take a time out from the wider world. But I also wanted to isolate Kit within a specific geography imprinted with layers of memory and story. And then, because the narrative is about a girl renegotiating her relationship with her past, I wanted a landscape where I could mix in some of my own nostalgia, and being a beach kid, an island seemed a fitting choice.
Could you tell us about Kit, Doc and some of your other characters?
I have a soft spot for so-called ‘unlikeable’ and unreliable narrators, and Kit reflects that; she’s prickly and self-destructive. But she’s also deeply vulnerable—a character in crisis who is trying to figure things out but making mistakes along the way.
Her uncle and guardian, Doc, is almost the opposite. However, he was forced to grow up too quickly and is consequently quite reserved. He and Kit were once very close but there’s been a lot of miscommunication between them and they’re struggling to salvage their relationship.
Doc’s looked after Kit since her parents were drowned in a sailing accident when Kit was ten. He’s also a psychiatrist and has turned their small family island into a boarding school for troubled teens. Among the students at the school are Kit’s two best friends, Alistair and Gypsy, and a new boy named Rohan who shares Kit’s desire for make-believe.
Your main characters are about to leave school. Is this the age group of your intended readers?
The story is very dark in places and and deals with suicide, self-harm, and mental illness, so I was aiming for the upper end of YA.
Neverland has some important underpinning themes and issues. Could you share any of these.
The original idea for the story grew out of a sense of misplaced nostalgia. I was feeling apprehensive about the future and decided to comfort myself by rereading Peter and Wendy, which I’d loved as a kid. However, the book was much darker and more violent than I remembered and I started thinking about how, in times of uncertainty and upheaval, we often yearn for a romanticised version of the past and how this kind of nostalgia can prevent us from finding a way forwards.
I was also interested in the idea of who gets to tell a story, and what is reframed or omitted in the telling—and particularly in the fact that historically, women’s voices have often been silenced or ignored and their roles diminished. So I wanted to write a story where a young woman is forced to question the mythology of her world and her place within it.
How have you paid homage to other authors and literature in your plot, setting or characters?
In the months before I started working on Neverland and while I was writing, I reread a lot of old favourites—Peter and Wendy, Treasure Island, The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby—and the story, in part, grew out that process of rereading, so it felt important to give those texts a place in the manuscript. They helped inform the story’s key themes, but also gave Kit a library to draw on as she struggles to find her voice and a way to tell her story. Then because nostalgia, and particularly a nostalgia for stories, is such an important part of the narrative, I looked for opportunities to work in little references to other favourites as well.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
Well, now you’ve opened a can of worms! I’ve been reading some incredible home-grown YA: Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza, The Centre of My Everything by Allayne Webster, Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell and Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood. Also, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert from the US. And for something completely different, I’ve gone back to Daphne du Maurier (an old favourite) to read The House on the Strand and absolutely loved The Radium Girls by Kate Moore, even though I cried most of the way through.
I can’t wait to get lost in your next work. What are you writing at the moment? Would you write Kit’s dad’s Kingdom by the Sea as a companion piece – perhaps with illustrations?
That’s an interesting idea (especially the illustrations part), but Kit’s world feels closed to me for the time being. That said, I loved working on the thread of magic realism in Neverland, so I’m taking that a giant leap further and currently working on a YA urban fantasy with mythological roots.
Thanks Margot, and all the best with Neverland. Your next books sounds just as fascinating.
In ground-breaking publishing, two versions of a children’s picture book will be published simultaneously in English and Chinese by a mainstream Australian publisher. Found in Melbourne is written by Joanne O’Callaghan, illustrated by Kori Song, and the Chinese edition translated by Kevin Yang. It is published by Allen & Unwin.
The two hardcover books have identical illustrations, but one has a text in English and the other in ‘Simplified Chinese’. It is set in Melbourne and further afield with locations such as Luna Park, the State Library of Victoria, the Great Ocean Road and Puffing Billy Railway. These places and further information about them is also given at the end of the books.
Beginning or ESL readers are assisted by the simple rhyming text. For example, ‘4 Four bicycles on the path by the bay. A trip to Tasmania sailing away… 10 Ten clocks at the station where we meet for the train. Bring an umbrella, it could start to rain!’
As well as exploring Melbourne, these are counting books. Young readers have the opportunity to learn or practise numerals from 1 to 12, then the big numbers 100, 1000 and 1,000,000.
There are many interesting details such as one of Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly paintings which makes an incognito appearance in the scene set at the National Gallery of Victoria. The girl and boy protagonists have red and black hair respectively.
Part of the rationale behind the books is that Victoria recently had almost 600,000 Chinese people visit annually, the Chinese population of Melbourne is increasing and over 75,000 schoolchildren are learning Mandarin in Victoria.
I was excited to see a new picture book by Essex-based Kes Grey, funny man creator of laugh-out-loud Billy’s Bucket and many other books. Oi Cat! (Hachette) is another picture book where Grey collaborates with illustrator Jim Field. It follows Oi Frog! and Oi Dog!
Like Found in Melbourne, Oi Cat! uses a rhyming text that is perfect for young readers. The rhyme, humour and anticipation will keep children reading and their vocabulary and spelling will be extended along the way, particularly by some of the animals’ names such as ‘alpaca’ (which rhymes with ‘cream cracker’), ‘armadillo’ (which rhymes with ‘pillow’), ‘dingoes’ (which rhymes with ‘flamingos’) and ‘gnats’, which cats sit on here instead of on ‘mats’. The narrative follows the dilemma of what cats could alternatively sit on and this creates playful reinforcement of the ‘-at’ *rime. There is also sly discussion about what hogs and mogs sit on: generating many ‘-og’ words such as ‘clog … cog … jog’ and a surprise and somewhat painful-looking ending.
*rime Separate phonemes in a syllable can normally be broken into two parts. The rime is a vowel and any subsequent consonants (for example, in the word ‘cat’ the rime is /at/). Word families can be constructed using common rimes such as /at/ in ‘cat’, ‘pat’. (from the Australian Curriculum)
Sue Whiting is a stalwart of Australian literature for young people. She writes across categories, including picture books, non-fiction and novels for children and young adults and has had a successful career in publishing for Walker Books Australia. Her most recent work is Missing, a novel for middle grade.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Sue.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I am based in a small coastal village about an hour south of Sydney. I started my working life as a primary school teacher, specialising in literacy education and Reading Recovery. In 2005, I left teaching to pursue a career in publishing and was Publishing Manager and Senior Commissioning Editor at Walker Books for ten years.
What led to your career in children’s books and what are some highlights?
I developed a passion for children’s books as a young teacher and this eventually led me to want to write my own books. It took me about ten years before I was brave enough to give this writing caper a crack though. Editing, well, I fell into editing by extreme accident – through submitting a manuscript to a small start-up publisher and ending up with the job as editor of their children’s list – but once I started working in this field, I found that I loved this side of the process equally as much as writing. And I learnt a heck of a lot about writing along the way too!
Highlights! Wow, that’s really tricky, because there have been so many. Holding your book baby for the first time is always very special, but the unexpected letter or email or message from someone who has been touched by your work in some way is without doubt the best feeling ever. Just last week, I received a video message from a three-year-old boy telling me how much he loved one of my early novelty books. That was pretty awesome.
In terms of my publishing career, I think nurturing the early careers of wonderful writers such Meg McKinlay, Sandy Fussell and Anna Branford, to name but a few, stands out as a highlight and what I am most proud of.
Could you tell us about some of the books you’ve written?
I write across many age groups and genres, from picture books through to YA. My bestseller is The Firefighters, illustrated by Donna Rawlins. It celebrates its tenth year in print this year, which is wonderful, as books don’t tend to stay in print for very long these days. My award winner is A Swim in the Sea, illustrated by Meredith Thomas and my last published book was the nonfiction picture book, Platypus, illustrated by Mark Jackson. It was such a joy to write because I was able to write lyrically about this unique Australian animal. The Firefighters, Platypus and my YA novel, Portraits of Celina have all been published in the US and Platypus has just recently been published in Korea. Missing is my first middle grade novel since Get a Grip, Cooper Jones, which was published eight years ago.
What genre is your new book Missing and what is the significance of its title?
Missing is a contemporary mystery/suspense novel for readers 10+. The story revolves around the disappearance of the mother of my central character, Mackenzie. So the title refers directly to the fact that Mackenzie’s mother is missing. But the word “missing” has many connotations. I love that it also relates to Mackenzie missing her mother, her missing out on so many things because her mother is missing and also her quest to find the missing pieces in the puzzle of her disappearance.
Could you tell us about your protagonist Mackenzie and some other characters?
Mackenzie is a pretty typical twelve-year-old girl. She lives in southern Sydney and is caught up in the excitement of the last weeks of primary school when her mother goes missing. She loves art, particularly working in black and white.
Maggie da Luca is Mackenzie’s mother. She is a bat biologist and academic who works for a scientific magazine. She often travels to remote corners of the globe to study and photograph bats for the magazine.
Joe is Mackenzie’s father. He is an insurance salesman. He falls to pieces when Maggie goes missing. He is a man with many secrets.
Lois Simpson is Mackenzie’s gran. She is a scientist and academic and is the person who Mackenzie leans on as she tries to deal with this tragic situation. She too has secrets.
At high school, Mackenzie befriends Billie. Billie is lively and impetuous and a great foil to Mackenzie’s grief. In Panama, Mackenzie meets Carlo. Carlo is fourteen and helps his uncle at the hotel Mackenzie and her father is staying at. His indifference infuriates Mackenzie, but she eventually discovers that he is someone she can trust.
Why have you given Mackenzie a gift for art?
I wanted Mackenzie to have a passion that was in opposition to her mother and grandmother’s love of science. Art was the obvious place and very early on I saw Mackenzie, in my mind’s eye, sketching bats. A trip to the NSW Art Gallery where I happened upon a sculpture of fruit bats hanging from a washing line was the moment that sealed the deal.
Much of the story is set in the jungles of Panama. It’s hard to believe you’ve never been there. How did you create such an exciting and authentic-seeming setting? What was your most surprising discovery about Panama?
I have to admit to feeling a tad guilty that I didn’t jump on a plane and spend weeks in the country to ensure I got it right, but truthfully, I just didn’t have the funds to do that. So I resolved to do everything I could to bring Boquete and Panama to life on the page through diligent research from afar. I researched Panama for about a year – mostly through the Internet. Boquete is a tourist town, which also has a large expat community, mostly American retirees. This worked in my favour as there were many blogs and vlogs I could access depicting everyday life in the town.
I also had two really lucky breaks. One was making contact with Dianne Heidke (sister of Australian author Lisa Heidke) who has lived in Boquete for a decade or more. Dianne was able to answer those questions I couldn’t find answers to on the Internet, and was able to give me access to that all-important local knowledge. She also read the final manuscript and acted as my sensitivity reader.
My second lucky break was the discovery that the local council streamed 24-hour feed of Boquete’s main square live on the Internet. I was able to watch the comings and goings across the square day and night. It felt slightly creepy and very stalkerish, but it really helped me to understand the rhythms of the town.
My most surprising discovery was the lack of resources of the police force in Boquete – to the point that sometimes they don’t have enough petrol to run their police car!
Why have you structured the story as ‘then’ and ‘now’?
Initially, I chose to structure the story this way so that I could move the story on from those early days when the family had just learned of the disappearance and when their grief would be too raw and impossible to bear. But as the story idea progressed, I quickly realised that the ‘then’ and ‘now’ structure was allowing me to create suspense and tension in an intriguing way. It was challenging to maintain, but I loved slotting in key information at just the right places.
How have you used bats as a symbol?
I used bats more as a link between Mackenzie and her mother than as a symbol. It was Mackenzie’s way to stay connected with her mother and her mother’s passion. However, bats do symbolise our ability to see our way through even the darkest times. Mackenzie and her family have to navigate through some very dark days through much of the story, but by the end, I hope to show them stepping out into the light. This was a happy accident that gave extra meaning to the final pages in particular.
During the novel you tantalise characters and readers with mention of gelatos. What’s your favourite flavour?
The gelatos were a nod to my time at Walker Books. There was an excellent gelato bar at the bottom of the building and we often had Gelato Fridays. My favourite was definitely salted caramel Greek yoghurt.
You are known for promoting your books in interesting and skilled interactions with children. How will you be promoting Missing?
Thank you for that! I love sharing my books and stories with groups of kids – it’s my favourite part of my job.
I am about to embark on a schools tour of Brisbane and Sydney, so have been busy preparing my presentations. My reasons for writing the story and my research and how I have used it will be the centre of my talks, as well as some scene-setting with a bit drumming, a lot of drama, and concluding with a “breaking news” report. I will also be doing writing workshops in Sydney and Melbourne – exploring how to create suspense in stories.
Small Spaces is such a riveting, scary story, I was worried that I would still be reading when night fell. I was still reading … but had to keep going even though I knew I would be terrified. Congratulations on your stunning thriller, Sarah, and thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog.
Thanks so much! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I live in Melbourne, which has a thriving bookish community. There are always so many fantastic events, book launches and meet-ups happening, and I try to get along to as many as I can because I always come away feeling more connected and inspired. I’ve also been involved with the online YA community for the last decade, which is how I’ve met some wonderful critique partners and writing buddies, as well as participating in online conferences and pitching contests. Facebook groups and Twitter have been a fantastic way for me to connect with other kidlit writers and readers, not just in Australia but internationally.
What is the significance of the title, Small Spaces?
For Tash, the protagonist of the story, it’s a very real phobia stemming from incidents that happened to her as a child. But from the opening lines of the novel it’s clear that it also refers to Tash’s psychological state and whether she can trust her own mind – the small space inside her head. In broader terms, it’s a reflection of how we all can sometimes feel isolated, lonely and vulnerable in our own small spaces, and forging connections and trusting others can often be challenging and scary.
You’ve used a distinctly Australian setting. Where is it set and why?
The story is set in two fictional locations – the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, and the rural area of Greenwillow and Willow Creek – which are about an hour’s drive apart on the NSW mid north coast. When I’m brainstorming a novel, I picture scenes very cinematically and start writing before I know exactly where the story is going to be set. Then I have to stop and start researching areas that tick all the boxes of my fictional setting and can feasibly accommodate all the major plot points and any secondary locations that are referenced in the story. I was born in NSW and wanted to set a story there, and having visited the mid north coast a number of times, it really helped me narrow things down, and became the perfect setting for the story.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Tash is seventeen and in her final year of school, craving independence and planning her future at an interstate university. But earning her parents’ trust is difficult because of childhood behavioural issues that seem to be cropping up again. Sadie is Tash’s best friend, the one who knows her best and her fiercest ally, trying to help Tash navigate through her phobias and unsettling memories. Two of those unsettling memories return in the form of Morgan and Mallory Fisher, a brother and sister who shared a disturbing day at the carnival with Tash nine years ago during a summer holiday at her Aunt Ally’s house. And then there’s Sparrow, Tash’s imaginary friend from childhood who looms heavily throughout all aspects of the plot, past and present.
Why have you given Tash an interest in photography and Morgan a gift in the visual arts?
This stems from my own creative background and the design degree I completed at university which included both visual arts and photography. I knew I wanted Tash and Morgan to collaborate on a project that played into the themes of the novel, and art was such a huge part of my life when I was a teen. It came very naturally to give Tash, Morgan and other characters in the story a creative outlet to express themselves.
Could you tell us about the ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ structure?
As soon as I started writing, I knew a large number of flashbacks would be required to properly explain what happened in Tash’s past. But I didn’t want to tell all of these in the passive past-tense voice of Tash recollecting them, because I felt this would dilute the tension and affect the pacing. Instead, I wrote these chapters in present tense using Tash’s childhood voice so the reader can see how things played out in real-time through her eyes. I also introduced therapy session transcripts and newspaper articles written in a clinical tone, so readers can form their own theories about what happened based on other evidence that isn’t skewed by Tash’s point of view.
As you wrote, how were you able to lay out the plot without giving too much away?
It wasn’t easy! I really had to think about the order I wanted snippets of information revealed because of how the past and present chapters feed into one another. There was a lot of shifting scenes and chapters around, and I had a large colour-coded plot outline which I’d lay out across my desk to give me a clear overview of what was happening and where. I had to pare back scenes and dialogue in revisions so as not to be too obvious, but at the same time reveal enough so that readers wouldn’t become frustrated about the storyline being too vague. It’s a real balancing act, and some days I cursed myself for choosing such a complicated narrative structure.
Without causing you to give away spoilers, which part of the plot, characterisation or symbolism was difficult to resolve?
I found the climax the most challenging part to write – I wanted it to do so many things while at the same time be fast-paced and absolutely gripping. I think endings are always tricky – they need to feel completely satisfying for the reader while tying up all the loose threads and illuminating the story’s themes. I never start writing a story until I know how the ending is going to play out. Then my challenge is figuring out how I’m going to get my characters there.
Carnivals and funfairs are some of my favourite locations in literature. They’re supposed to be fun but often are the opposite. What is so creepy about these places and what gives them (particularly derelict ones) such potential for horror?
I think for me the crowds and bustle of a busy carnival always poses the threat of a lost child, or the potential for someone to be swallowed up by it all before their companions even notice they’re missing. There are so many nooks and crannies to lurk and hide in! The noisy rides and all the squealing is so distracting and jarring, and there’s always exaggerated character art leering at you everywhere you turn. Carnivals are a bit too much of everything all at once, which makes us feel a bit queasy and disorientated. Derelict places add a whole other layer of creepiness because they conjure up ideas about ghosts and dead things. Plus, they’re deserted, so if anything bad happens, nobody’s coming to help!
What sort of movies do you watch?
I don’t read a huge amount of science fiction, but I absolutely love watching sci-fi movies! I also love anything with zombies, ghosts or aliens. I’m a big fan of bingeing a good Netflix series, and mostly enjoy intriguing supernatural shows like Stranger Things and The OA. I also love Nordic crime thrillers. I have a tendency to lean towards darker content.
Who have you written this book for?
It might be a cliché, but I definitely wrote this book for teenaged me. This is exactly the sort of story I was craving when I was a teen but had difficulty finding – something twisty and gripping, but with characters my age and themes I could relate to. I loved Christopher Pike’s books but struggled to find them in my school library and local bookshops (which was my whole world since the internet and online shopping didn’t yet exist), so I read a lot of adult crime and horror novels in my teens. But many of those stories were a hard slog with themes and situations that were very adult. I wrote this novel for teen readers who enjoy thrillers and creepy stories, but want characters and situations they can see themselves in.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I recently finished The Dry by Jane Harper and Wimmera by Mark Brandi, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since I am working on another suspenseful mystery set in a small Australian town. I’m currently reading two #LoveOzYA novels: The Fall by Tristan Bancks and Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell. My favourite genres to read are contemporaries, thrillers and domestic noir, and I have Sarah Bailey’s Dark Lake and A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window next up on my reading pile.
Thanks for your illuminating answers, Sarah and all the best with Small Spaces (Walker Books Australia) and your next book.
Thanks so much, Joy. Great questions! I’ve really enjoyed answering them.
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Eliza.
Where are you based and what are your interests?
I’m based on a little farm in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. I love gardening – particularly growing and preserving our own food. I love knitting, yoga and have two horses that I compete a little bit in dressage. I also adore reading,
Could you describe your writing process?
I’m a very haphazard writer – I write fast in big chunks and then will take time away from the story to percolate ideas. Sometimes I’ll be really happy with the idea for a story, but the characters won’t fit. Or sometimes the characters will be really vivid, but it takes me a while to find a story for them.
How are you involved in the literary community?
I’ve never been asked this question before! I’ve taught creative writing at community centres, judged quite a few short story competitions, spoken a festivals, libraries and bookstores and do my best to support other writers by buying books and requesting them at libraries. I have also worked briefly as a bookseller and interned at a publishing house. I think the most important way I’m involved in the literary community is through being a reader – readers are the lifeblood.
What is your experience of being part of writers’ festivals?
I love it – writing and reading are generally quite solitary activities and there’s something so magical about being part of an event where everyone comes together to celebrate their love of stories.
I wrote In the Quiet quite quickly and without a lot of expectation. It’s the easiest story I’ve ever written – it just flowed. It’s narrated by a woman who’s recently died, watching her family on their rural horse property. It’s not sci-fi or fantasy or anything like that. She’s just watching and reflecting and hoping.
My other novel, Ache, is focused on the recovery of an unconventional family after a bushfire ravages their community.
I’ve also written quite a few short stories and articles – most of my writing deals (in various degrees) with trauma and grief.
How has this led to having your YA novel, P is for Pearl (HarperCollins) being published?
I’ve written a manuscript every year since I was fourteen – that’s a lot of novels! Pearl was the story I wrote as a sixteen year old and then tucked away in a drawer because I was convinced it wasn’t good enough. If I hadn’t had my adult fiction titles published, I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence to go through my old stories.
What genre within YA fiction is it?
P is for Pearl is contemporary YA fiction.
What is the significance of the title?
The title has gone through some changes since I was sixteen (back then it was called Wade’s Point – bit boring, hey?!). P is for Pearl fits it perfectly – Pearl is Gwen’s middle name and it symbolises her grabbling with who she actually is versus who she thinks her mother wanted her to be.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Gwen is the main character in P is for Pearl. She doesn’t realise it, but she’s still recovering from the trauma that her family went through years ago. She’s obsessed with running and is often confused and feels conflicted about what she should be feeling.
Loretta is Gwen’s best friend. She’s fiercely intelligent, fiery and protective.
Gordon is Gwen’s other best friend. He’s quiet, funny, very artistic and often bickers with Loretta as thought they’re an old married couple.
Ben’s the new kid in town and Gwen’s crush – clever, kind and insightful, he’s intrigued by Gwen but also distracted by his own family secrets.
What is the importance of the setting?
Setting is very important in all my novels. P is for Pearl is set in a small (fictional) town on the west coast of Tasmania. The rugged coastal landscape is crucial to the plot.
Who have you written this book for?
I wrote this book when I was sixteen and – if I’m honest – I wrote it for myself. It was a cathartic book for me to write. Reworking it into the novel it is now, I wrote it for young people who perhaps are grappling with what mental illness looks like and how to reconcile the reality of the people you love experiencing mental illness.
I know P is for Pearl is very new, but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from early readers?
I’ve had people getting in touch to tell me that the family and representations of mental illness really resonated with them – which means a lot to me.
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m working on my next adult fiction novel.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)? At the moment I’m reading Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden and absolutely adoring it.
Thanks Eliza and all the best with P is for Pearl.
The Harper Effect has caused even a non-tennis aficionado such as myself to develop an interest in tennis, particularly in the lives and commitment of tennis players. The Harper Effect (Pan Macmillan Australia) is Taryn Bashford’s debut YA novel. It has already had an ‘effect’, I can’t get it out of my head …
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Taryn.
Thank you very much for having me 😊
As a debut novelist, how were you able to acquire a publishing contract?
My book deal came about after I had a few fingers in pies, and a couple of them came up with plums 😉 I had entered the Varuna House Publishing Introduction Program which was run in conjunction with Pan Macmillan. I was one of the winners which meant I got to stay at Varuna House for a week and work on my manuscript with a mentor. However, at the same time, Curtis Brown, a literary agent in Sydney, took me on board. I had submitted my novel to them some months before, following a meeting at the CYA Conference in Brisbane. They sped up the process so that I didn’t have to wait for the residency before knowing if Pan Macmillan would publish my novel. I got to use that residency for the second book instead, as Pan Macmillan offered a two-book deal.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Although we’re far from Brisbane, I belong to the SCBWI and attend meetings down there whenever I can. I enjoy meeting people there, and particularly sharing what I’ve learnt on the road to publishing. I also attend meetings of the SCBWI sub-branch on the Sunshine Coast for similar reasons. It’s great to share experiences, stories and talk all things books. I also put together a writing group after meeting various writers at Varuna House or at conferences like Brisbane’s CYA Conference. We all live in the local area, so it was meant to be! We meet regularly to critique each other’s work and we also support each other in all aspects of the publishing and writing process.
Which well-known professional tennis player do you most admire and why?
I’d have to say Serena Williams because her recent media activity about sport being a way of empowering girls is very close to my heart. Research shows this to be true, and it also shows that girls in sport have much better self-esteem and better body images of themselves. This is so important now that our teens are exposed to photoshopped images of movie stars, actresses and singers – and can never hope to be that perfect.
What tip to playing better tennis can you give us?
You’re probably better off asking my brother that question. He’s the tennis star in our family. However, having been a part of his journey, I believe the key differentiator to being a great tennis player and being a brilliant champion tennis player is how you play the mind game. This is evident in The Harper Effect too when Harper falters, but put simply, if you don’t believe in yourself, and if you don’t have that instinct to win whatever it takes, or have mental tools to help you deal with losing a point, then you’ll often choke when the pressure turns up.
Why have you written a YA novel about tennis? Why tennis rather than another sport?
The Harper Effect was first written when I was 14 and my brother had recently won Nationals at Wimbledon and then won a scholarship to the Nick Bollettierri Academy in Florida. At the time, tennis was a big deal in our house. Obviously, I’ve re-drafted the novel several times since then, and my focus was on highlighting teens that go above and beyond the norm, and contrasting that with the fact that they’re still teens. This means they’re making mistakes, still wrangling with teen issues like boyfriends and sibling rivalry and school, but they’re on a world stage so the consequences of bad choices are often greater.
I’m really impressed with how you incorporated this into the novel, but could you also tell us here something readers should know about the lives of professional athletes, particularly tennis players. It sounds like such a struggle and sacrifice.
I’m glad you got that message. The world of any professional athlete is not glamorous, even if it seems that way on TV. If you read Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, this is again highlighted. The training, sacrifices, focus and hard work are all needed every day and that’s tough, but then the rewards if you make it big are massive. I’m talking specifically of tennis when I say that. Some sports are not as lucrative, but I believe the highs of winning, of travelling, of breaking records and proving yourself, are worth the hard work and having to sacrifice that beef burger 😊
What is the significance of the title, The Harper Effect?
The effect that Harper has on Colt is an important part of the plot. She draws him out of himself so that he’s less robotic in his tennis and he becomes more ‘human’ in his personal life. This in turn helps his game. The effect she has on him is also that his ‘mental game’ improves – he’s able to stay strong and face the pressure head on. Harper’s effect on Jacob and Aria are less admirable, but her actions do result in Aria spreading her wings and going on to bigger and better things in Rome, and to Jacob having a wake-up call about his drinking and the need to grow up and leave behind his childhood.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Harper Hunter is a 16-year-old tennis player who’s just turned professional and is struggling with the extra pressure that puts on her game. This results in her coach of 5 years dumping her, and telling her she doesn’t have what it takes. Harper has been on the junior circuit for five years by now. As a result, she’s missed a lot of her childhood and it’s meant her sister and best friend, Jacob, someone she’d fallen in love with, have become romantically involved. It’s this situation that shows Harper at her weakest, because she’s yet to learn how to deal with the situation in a mature way and so she makes some bad choices. It’s through her understanding of Colt and his life, and through helping him, that she grows up enough to eventually make the right choices in her life.
Aria Hunter is her sister. She’s another high achieving teen but in the music arena. Her dream is to go to the Sydney Conservatorium with her boyfriend, Jacob. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but ultimately, she gives up her dream after Harper betrays her. Luckily, she finds a bigger dream to chase.
Colt is the 17 year old tennis pro who becomes Harper’s mixed doubles partner and training partner. He appears to be a cold, closed-off person at first, but we learn that it’s because he’s hiding some family secrets in order to make it in the world of tennis. His personal issues affect his game, but it’s Harper who helps him to the other side of an ocean of choices.
Jacob is Harper and Aria’s next-door neighbour. They’ve been friends since kindergarten. With Harper on tour from a young age, their friendship trio was tested, and he becomes romantically involved with Aria. Then he realises he is with her in an attempt to get back a piece of Harper, the girl he’s truly in love with. He’s also somewhat spoilt by his neglectful parents who tend to buy his happiness with money and gifts. This impacts his personality as he’s used to getting what he wants. When he can’t have Harper, he truly goes off the rails.
How could Harper and Aria’s parents have predicted their passions when they named them?
The girl’s names are more an extension of the parent’s interests and loves before they were born. Their mum is a music buff, and so she got her choice for their first child. Their dad was a high achieving tennis player and was keen to name his child after his tennis idol. In my mind, he got his choice since he’d not got it for the first child. In the end, the girls reflected their namesakes – I guess I could’ve swapped them over to confuse things!
What’s your favourite colour and what is the significance of purple in the novel?
My favourite colour is cerulean blue. It’s just so pretty and makes me feel relaxed when I see it. Purple is significant in the novel because it represents different things as the characters grow up. At first, it represents their childhood and that’s represented by the Purple Woods where they spent most of the childhood playing games and just being kids. The Purple Woods then become part of what helps Harper deal with her on-court pressure. She’s told by her coach, Milo, to go somewhere in her mind where she feels relaxed and happy and somewhere that has a calming effect on her. Purple Time is then born. It helps Harper to win. But when she loses Purple Time, after everything back home goes wrong and the woods no longer represent that happy and safe place, it shows that she’s grown as a player as she no longer needs Purple Time to win. She is able to find the resources within herself to deal with the pressure. As we near the climax of the novel, we find Jacob is still lost in the Purple Woods, unable to leave them behind. He’s got a way to go before he grows up. Harper, on the other hand, no longer wishes to be there. She understands it’s time to leave them behind and face the world as an adult. Aria has spread her wings and flown to Rome, so she has also let go of her childhood.
What happened at the launch of The Harper Effect?
I had an amazing time at the official launch of The Harper Effect on the Sunshine Coast. One of my hopes for my book is that teens and in fact people of all ages are inspired to both chase their dreams (sporting or not), but to also stay in sport and even achieve professional levels in sport. So I put together a panel of young elite athletes as examples of real life Harpers. I wanted the audience to see that no matter their dream, these girls were living proof that with hard work and dedication, self-motivation and focus, you can achieve what you set out to. I’m also very keen to give our teens new role models in our literature. Instead of giving them images of beauty to live up to, let’s give them sporty, confident and successful heroines in books to look up to. The panel were living and breathing role models too.
For whom have you written this book?
The book was dedicated to my brother. He played the professional circuit before becoming a professional tennis coach. He coached young players like Amelie Mauresmo and Marcos Baghdatis, who were at the time in their teens. While The Harper Effect is not based on him or his experiences, as the story is completely fictional, the facts and details that I learnt from him are an important part of the authenticity of the setting of the novel.
I know it’s only just been published but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from readers?
Yes, the main ones being that everyone loves Colt and Milo and that the tennis part of the book surprised them. Many readers found the setting of the world of professional tennis to be very interesting. They reported that they looked at the play at the recent Australian Open through new eyes. That was very gratifying. They also felt inspired to follow their dreams or meet their goals.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I’m currently re-reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. She is one of my favourite American YA writers. The book before that was Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. I’ve not come across a Margaret Atwood book I don’t love 😊 Looking at my list (I keep a list that highlights my thoughts on the books I’ve read, and I also make a note of the publisher), the book before that was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – also a re-read because his writing is so dense you need to re-read it so you don’t miss any of his gorgeous phrasing!
Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Meand Between Usare memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.
Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!
How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?
TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.
Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here. How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?
I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.
To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?
I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.
What is the significance of the cover?
The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.
How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?
I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.
How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?
Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.
You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?
How have you differentiated between their voices?
Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…
Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.
Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.
Which character would you like to write more about?
I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.
I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?
I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.
You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?
I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.
They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.
Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?
I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.
Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.
Geekerella by Ashley Poston (Penguin Random House) is a contemporary Cinderella story told by both Danielle (Elle) as the Cinderella character and 18-year-old actor, Darien Freeman as her potential love interest.
Elle’s father had established ExcelsiCon cosplay before he died. Elle now lives with her stepmother, a wedding planner, and stepsister twins Chloe (who is nasty) and Calliope (whose attitude towards Elle may be softening). Elle works part-time at the Magic Pumpkin food truck with Sage, who also makes costumes.
Darien is a former soap actor who is now starring as Prince Carmindor in Starfield, the new movie version of a cult sci-fi show. He is actually a fan of the show and wants to ‘do the fandom justice’ even though Jessica, his female co-star is really only using it for publicity and as a stepping stone to an academy award career. Jess thinks that Daren is cute, ‘equal parts dorky and sexy’. They are supposed to be dating.
Darien wants to do his own stunts, is a ‘pretty boy’ swamped by fans, but is actually vulnerable and a bit shy. His overbearing but distant father is his manager; Gail, is his slightly older, inept but caring minder; and Lonny his new bodyguard.
Without having met him, Elle despises Darien. She doesn’t realise that he is the person who contacted her through the phone she inherited from her father and is now texting constantly. At the same time, her blog posts against Darien playing the role of Carmindor go viral. When they meet in person they despise each other.
The plot builds to the cosplay convention and ExcelsiCon ball. Elle’s parents had been the king and queen of cosplay – her father dressed as the Federation Prince, Carmindor, and her mother as beautiful Amara. Elle decides to attend the ball and Sage alters her father’s costume for her. But Chloe, as ugly-natured stepsister, steps in and steals the Amara silk dress and glass shoes for Cal to wear to the ball and ruins Carmindor’s coat.
Subplots about leaked details about the Starfield movie, Darien’s stalker and interference in Darien and Elle’s texts add intrigue.
This reimagined fairy tale about hidden and mistaken identities is great fun. Its premise of the famous guy yearning for an unknown girl is also explored in the equally engaging Unrequited by Sydney writer Emma Grey about a girl pursued by the famous lead singer in boy band.
‘Common’ in Tony Birch’s new collection of short stories, Common People (University of Queensland Press) could allude to the commonality – shared traits and unity – of people, or the working-class roots of many of his characters. Either way, these stories are unflinching accounts of Aboriginal, poor, vulnerable, victimised or depraved characters. Many have fine hearts despite their disadvantaged circumstances.
Birch employs recurring symbols and themes such as stars; drugs and drug dealing; unwell, collapsing men and positive girl figures throughout the tales. He tells stories through the eyes of young or child narrators here – and across much of his fiction.
The first story, ‘The Ghost Train’ is a memorable, seemingly despairing account of two women who work their first night shift at a meat packing factory. And yet the word “HOPE” is inscribed on Maria’s T-shirt, albeit on a picture of Barack Obama’s face.
‘Harmless’ is one of several stories featuring a positive, proactive, young girl. An old hermit-like man living alone in a hut helps the girl narrator – who has a certain freedom and agency from riding her bike – care for another young female, abused 14-year-old Rita. This tale evokes the roaming boys in Birch’s Ghost River and their encounters with a group of old men. (I have previously blogged about Ghost River.)
‘Death Star’ integrates two of Birch’s prevalent concerns in this collection – drugs and stars as a symbol. Young Dominic doesn’t go to his older brother’s funeral. His brother was a car thief and died in a car accident. He also loved stars.
‘Liam’ is a powerful recount about Liam who was locked up at the age of 16 for robbery. The young narrator’s religious Catholic family took him in and, as a charismatic storyteller, Liam became a loved family member. However, his pet dog, Sally Ann, became aggressive when something terrible happened.
‘Sissy’ also appears in The Best Australian Stories 2017, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke. Sissy is chosen by the nuns to have a holiday with another family. She becomes uneasy after her friend Betty tells her of a girl she knows in a similar situation who didn’t return from her holiday.
Viola, a Madam, breaks her own rules to care for young Gabriel when he is brought to her brothel in the eviscerating ‘Frank Slim’.
A company tries to return cremated remains to their next of kin in ‘Raven & Sons’; a reformed (or not) alcoholic grandmother looks after her grandson for the first time in ‘Worship’; grown men are ailing in ‘Paper Moon’, ‘Joe Roberts’ and ‘Painted Glass’; and Aboriginal characters feature in ‘The White Girl’ and ‘Colours’.
Australia Day (Text Publishing) by Melanie Cheng is worth highlighting as the 26th January draws near. The celebration of Australia Day is currently under fire and this work explores life in Australian society and on Australia Day itself from the viewpoints of characters from a range of backgrounds and beliefs. It is perhaps shaped more as a commentary than a criticism of Australia and Australia Day, although its smooth yet sharp edges niggle the reader to ponder about the diverse lives of those who live in Australia and what Australia Day may mean to those of non-Anglo (particularly Asian-Australian) heritage.
This book of short stories was the Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It was then shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Fiction in 2017 and is currently longlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction. Australia Day is Chinese-Australian Melanie Cheng’s debut literary publication. She lives in Melbourne where she works as a general practitioner.
The first story is ‘Australia Day’, a sweltering account of Stanley Chu’s uncomfortable visit to fellow medical student Jess’s family home. Hong Kong-born Stanley is out of place amongst the family’s form of celebration, epitomised by Jess’s father’s ignorant racism.
Syrian au pair, Leila, visits the Northern Territory in ‘Big Problems’. South African woman, Ellen, repeats that there are “big problems” caused by non-White races, without seeming to notice or recognise Leila’s heritage.
Tania carries capsicum spray, expecting abuse as she works at the car registry in ‘Ticket-Holders Number 5’ and Deepak, a doctor, is victimised in ‘Fracture’, giving another side to this issue.
My favourite story is ‘Muse’, about old Evan whose wife Lola has died, and his bossy daughter Bea who keeps an eye on him. Evan’s life changes when Bea brings her partner, Edwina, to dinner. Edwina is an artist who was “highly commended in the Archibald” art awards. Edwina introduces Evan to life-drawing and he becomes obsessed with the model. As the narrative moves forward, the author also offers glimpses into Evan’s past, particularly his affair with Ana from the milk bar, who wasn’t beautiful like Lola, but “didn’t slip out of my hands like silk when I held her”. A grandson completes Evan’s transformation.
‘Mrs Chan’ encapsulates the book with a tender portrayal of an old woman from Hong Kong cooking for her grandson’s twentieth birthday on Australia Day. This completes a thought-provoking cycle.
Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?
The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.
What genre are they?
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.
What are you writing about now or next?
I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them. Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com
Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spyand your other books.
I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Tristan’s replies. (Felice features in the next post)
You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?
Tristan was one of the knights of the round table. It can mean ‘noise’ or ‘boldness’ or ‘sorrow’. Certainly, there are notes of boldness and sorrow in my novels and my teachers always told me I was unnecessarily noisy.
Where are you based at the moment?
You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles?
I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Tristan about The Fall and Felice (in the next post) about The Boy and the Spy
THE FALL is inspired by a crime scene I visited doing work experience with a news crew when I was in high school. A man had stolen a woman’s handbag, run through a park, jumped over a fence at the back of the park and didn’t realise that the park was built on top of a multi-storey carpark which was built into the hillside. This and my love of the Hitchcock thriller REAR WINDOW collided to inspire the story.
What genre are they?
THE FALL is a kind of crime, mystery, suspense, thriller. But it’s not just characters servicing plot. I try to write characters that you care about and I want to explore big ideas that are relevant to middle-grade readers. THE FALL touches on mortality, rites of passage for kids and what it means to be a good human and family member, to make good choices.
Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?
Most of the book is set in a single apartment building over the space of twenty-four hours. I set myself that challenge and it makes the book quite intense. The building is in Sydney, very much like a building a friend of mine lives in, which is only about 100 metres from the crime scene that I visited back when I was sixteen years-old. It’s also influenced by the apartments I stayed in while travelling in England and Europe for four months during the writing of the second draft.
How do you hook readers quickly into your story?
THE FALL begins at 2.08am in a fifth-floor apartment with Sam waking to hear two men arguing in the apartment overhead. Moments later he witnesses a crime. The perpetrator of that crime realises that Sam is the sole witness and comes after him. This sets the drama in motion, with Sam becoming increasingly entwined in the crime as the story progresses.
Books need to start with a bang but, when they do, as an author you need to ensure that the rest of the story lives up to the opening and that the end is even better.
Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?
Sam Garner is twelve-going-on-thirteen. He has never met his father before this week. He grew up in the Blue Mountains (not unlike myself) and his father left before he was born. His mother has never wanted him to see his father and his dad hasn’t exactly been breaking his neck to get in touch either. But, after having an operation on his knee (as I did when I was thirteen), Sam’s Mum has to work and she finally allows Sam to go and stay with his father, Harry, a newspaper crime reporter, for a week while he recuperates. On his second-last night, he witnesses the crime.
How is the writing style different from some of your other work?
It’s very different to my younger, funnier illustrated short stories in the Tom Weekly books. There is humour in THE FALL but it’s darker, more thrilling and it explores bigger ideas. It’s more in the vein of TWO WOLVES.
What do you think about each other’s book?
I hate Fleech’s book. Kidding. It’s actually my favourite book he’s written. I really like SPECKY MAGEE but I think ‘THE BOY AND THE SPY’ is another step up. It has a thrilling opening scene but the book isn’t just about action. The characters are rich and believable and it’s told against the backdrop of an important and exciting historical moment. My fourteen year-old son just devoured it a few days ago, too.
These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?
We see each other a few times a year at dinners and festivals and when I’m in Melbourne I’ll see if Fleech is around for a catch-up. We have a shared history in that we both started out as TV actors, both lived in the U.K. for a few years. In fact I interviewed Felice when I was presenting a TV series in the U.K. and he was performing in a musical. He is a super-energetic entertainer and we both like the idea of using video and performance to bring books to life for kids.
What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?
Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
Runner – Robert Newton
Okay For Now – Gary D Schmidt
Joey Pigza Loses Control – Jack Gantos
Once series – Morris Gleitzman
What are you writing about now or next?
I’ve just finished the next book of short stories in the TOM WEEKLY series and Gus Gordon is illustrating it now. It’s out in 2018 and features stories in which Tom tries to eat a car, his guinea pig is taken hostage, his grandmother involves him in a plot to steal a prize fruitcake, he is attacked by a gang of killer possums and he believes that he and his bum have the potential to save the world.
I’m also writing a new crime-thriller called DETENTION about a kid involved in a school lockdown who comes face-to-face with the threat. I imagine it’ll be out either 2019 or 2020. I like to let the novels breathe so they take a few years to evolve.
What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?
It’s a great complement to the writing work. Writing is intensely personal and sometimes lonely. I love going out and trying new stories and ideas on readers. I love visualising the stories and bringing them to life with anecdotes and images and video and music. It’s fun mucking around with ideas, hearing what readers respond to and hopefully inspiring kids to pick up a book or create their own stories.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks Joy. Hi Fleech. Fun chatting to you. And don’t forget to put a book into your child / grandchild / niece or nephew / brother / sister / friend / random kid in the street’s Santa sack this Crimbo. 😉
Thanks Tristan and all the best with The Fall and your other books.
Where are you based and what is your current role, Darren?
I live in Vancouver. My current role is husband, father, provider and fiction scribbler.
How involved are you in the YA community?
Not as much as I used to be when I was a teacher. My 16 year old twins keep me connected to today’s kids, though.
Could you tell us a little about your early books?
Well, they’ve all disappeared, sad to say. However, I’m proud of them and each one was notable in its own way. My first novel, The Procrastinator, got my first personal, positive rejection (still one of the very best feelings I’ve ever had in my career); my second novel, Most Valuable Potential, was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; my third novel, The Umbilical Word, secured my wonderful literary agent; and my fourth novel, Kindling, picked up my first contract with a major trade publishing house (Hachette).
Thank you for your kind words, Joy. The protagonists of AYSM are twins, Justine and Perry Richter. Justine is smart, well read, neurotypical and the sole carer of her brother. Perry is smart, sensitive, neurodiverse and hopeful of “freeing” his sister. Perry makes three appearances in the new novel, Exchange of Heart. It was a real treat to connect with him again.
What is the significance of the clever title of your powerful new novel Exchange of Heart?
Exchange of Heart captures what this novel is all about, both literally and thematically. There’s a lot to unpack; it makes sense at a surface level then becomes deeper and richer the further you delve into the story.
Why is this book important?
Like all good fiction, I need to have told a good tale in order for the work to be assigned any importance. If readers feel I’ve told a good tale then there is some food-for-thought that can be discussed. PTSD in young adults, treatment of the intellectually disabled, use of the R-word, mental health of refugees, among others. In some ways, Exchange of Heart is a political YA novel. I embrace that label.
Could you tell us about your complex major character, Munro Maddux?
I love Munro. I think he’s the best character I’ve ever put down on the page. So many qualities about him that I admire – his honour, his tenacity, his nuance, his care. I love his wounded heart. Unlike many other characters I’ve written, he’s not an open book. He’s not ‘all the feels’. That’s very commendable in this day and age.
Who is the Coyote?
The Coyote is less a ‘who’ and more a ‘what’. It’s a voice in Munro’s head that’s constantly at him and it’s the most debilitating symptom of his PTSD-infused grief over the loss of his younger sister, Evie. Why Coyote? In North American First Nations/Aboriginal lore, Coyote represents ‘trickster’ medicine; it is a deceiver, not to be trusted. It was the perfect motif for Munro’s nemesis.
What is the significance of the “-er” words?
I was actually looking to create something self help-ish that was a bit cheesy. And the students of Sussex High, Rowan in particular, see it that way. In Munro’s case, though, his ‘er’ word – ‘better’ – was right on the money.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the assisted-living community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
It changes every day! Today, I’ll say Bernie because she seeks to protect her fellow Fair Go residents from discrimination and oppression. We need more Bernies in the world!
What would you like to see change or improve for those in assisted-living communities in the near future?
The programs that served as inspiration for my fictional Fair Go – Youngcare in Australia and Bittersweet Farms in the US – are wonderful examples of what is possible with assisted living. If there is one thing I would like to see in all situations of supported care, it is residents having a say in their work, their play, their passion, their collaboration. Generally, having agency in their lives.
Having lived and been flooded in Brisbane myself, your descriptions of place such as Walter Taylor Bridge and South Bank resonated strongly. Where is a significant place in Brisbane for you?
There’s a few. Mum and Dad’s house in Mitchelton. Milpera State High, where I taught for almost ten years. Lang Park (I still can’t call it Suncorp Stadium). My grandmother’s house in Hawthorne which, sadly, no longer exists.
The Tolstoy quote, I felt, summed up Exchange of Heart perfectly. The love of others is the catalyst for Munro to forgive himself and heal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fascinating story for me, not the least of which for its commentary about the treatment of the intellectually disabled.
Magabala is a Broome-based Indigenous publisher. It publishes Bruce Pascoe, the award-winning author of Black Emu (for adults) and Fog a Dox, Seahorse and Mrs Whitlam for children. Magabala’s Greg Dreise’s Mad Magpie has just won the Indigenous category of the national Speech Pathology awards. Deadly D and Justice Jones by David Hartley and Scott Prince is an appealing series which I’ve reviewed for the blog previously and Brenton McKenna’s graphic novels, Ubby’s Underdogs are full of appeal.
And one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen is published by Magabala – Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler.
Big Fella Rain
A suburb new picture book is Big Fella Rain by Beryl Webber. It traces the natural world’s wait for rain in northern Australia. The illustrations by Fern Martins are impressive and one appears above as the feature image for this post. They are lovely, evocative works of art.
Mrs White and the Red Desert
The red cover of Mrs White and the Red Desert by Josie Boyle, illustrated by Maggie Prewett, represents the overshadowing power of the desert sand to explain in an amusing way why the children’s homework is always smudged with red. This is a highlight in Magabala’s list.
On the Way to Nana’s
Red ochre colour also sets the scene of On the Way to Nana’sby Frances and Lindsay Haji-Ali, illustrated by animator David Hardy. This is an accomplished, extremely appealing, tale of travelling to Nana’s house. Things the family see on the way, from flowers to anthills, goannas, brumbies and boabs, are counted backwards from 15 to 1, which is very useful for children who are learning to count. The numbers are shown as numerals and in words. Some of the text is repetitive, “I’m on the way to Nana’s house. What will I see?”
Molly the Pirate
The first picture book from Magabala’s Indigenous Creator Scholarship is Molly the Pirate by Lorraine Teece, illustrated by Paul Seden. Molly lives far from the sea but imagines she is a pirate. Paul Seden takes the challenge modelled by the lively text to create vibrant, gloriously-coloured illustrations. He also does a great job with camera angles, particularly from above and below the hills hoist clothes lines.
Based on the song by Lorrae Coffin, Free Diving looks at the role of Indigenous free divers. It is a poignant insight into history, illustrated by Bronwyn Houston.
At the Zoo I See
At the Beach I See
Two board books for the very young from the new “Young Art” series are At the Zoo I See by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (the team behind Steve Goes to Carnival) and At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh, who uses black linework with wash backgrounds.
Robert Ingpen was born in 1936 and is the only Australian illustrator to have won the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen award. He is a virtuoso of painterly artwork and has illustrated Australian stories such as Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, Mustara by Rosanne Hawke, Ziba Came on a Boat written by Liz Lofthouse, The Poppykettle series and The Afternoon Treehouse and a long list of children’s classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (hence the title of this tribute to his work), Peter Pan and Wendy, The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The Nutcracker, The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol will be perfect books for Christmas. Ingpen has also designed Australian postage stamps.
His most recent books include the awarded outback-based Tea and Sugar Christmas and Radio Rescue! (both written by Jane Jolly). Wonderlands gives a generous insight into these books and others. It is a must-have celebration of children’s literature through the lens of our maestro, Robert Ingpen.
The School of Music by Meurig and Rachel Bowen, illustrated by Daniel Frost (Wide Eyed Editions, Allen & Unwin)
Music is important for the pleasure it gives and because it’s good for the brain and can lead to unexpected friendships and opportunities. Enjoyable and useful to use in homes, schools and music schools, The School of Music is a lavish compendium of music, musicians and instruments in picture book form.
Musician characters (such as Diva Venus, a star singer, Ronny ‘Beethoven’ O’Reilly, a composer and Roxy Mojo, a percussion specialist) are introduced at the beginning of the book and feature strategically throughout to explain concepts. Section 1 looks at different types of music and instruments and how music connects with film, maths, architecture and other disciplines. Section 2 offers a musical toolbox, which enables children to write music, beginning with fun graphic scores using pictures and symbols. Section 3 is about children making music themselves. The book suggests diverse ways such as making a kitchen orchestra as well as playing a conventional instrument or singing. It concludes with tips on performing and composing.
There are bonus music samples accessed by the QR code at the end of the book and children could dip in and out of this book or use it as a Christmas holiday music appreciation and education course, ideally even alongside learning a musical instrument.
Illustrator-icon Anne Spudvilas is known for The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin (my teacher notes are on the Reading Australia site), Woolvs in the Sitee (written by Margaret Wild) and her first book The Race by Christobel Mattingley which won the Crichton Award for Illustration and was a CBCA Honour Book. Her new interpretation of Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) is a sumptuous gift book. It is a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet set on the Murray-Darling. The lavish illustrations are textured and allusive. Spudvilas features black and white with occasional limited shades of yellow, and red for a few sparse dramatic and accentuated moments.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
Stepping Stones (UQP) was published earlier in the year but remains timely with the ongoing issues in caring for and resettling refugees. Margriet Ruurs saw Syrian, Nizar Ali Badr’s stone and pebble artwork online and worked hard and inventively to contact him and gain permission to use his art to highlight the plight of those escaping the horrors of war. The text is written in Arabic and English.
Another unusual and fascinating picture book is Drawn Onward (Fremantle Press), a palindromic text which can be read forwards and backwards . Meg McKinlay, who is most well-known for her multiple awarded dystopian novel, A Single Stone, uses the palindrome form to rephrase negative phrases and thoughts into positive. She calls it “optimism training for our kids”. The design is appropriately subtle and enigmatic.
Like the other books reviewed here, colour is used efficaciously in Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream (Lothian Children’s Books, Hachette). The story begins “Once in a blue moon, everyone has a really, really excellent dream.” Danny’s world is coloured blue and his father’s factory makes every hue of blue paint. After Danny’s dessert of blueberries one night, he dreams, not in blue, but of a red whale. Blue continues to dominate his life until he decides to create his dream colour in paint. It takes until Day 99 when “Not – Blue” appears and, even though people are suspicious, Not-Blue starts showing up where it’s not expected. This is a wonderful book about being different, dreaming and persistence in creativity.