Julie Hunt, the imagination behind KidGlovz

When reading a book by Julie Hunt I feel like I’m entering into an uncanny world, where imagination seeps into the interstices of reality. Julie is the author of The Coat (illustrated by Ron Brooks), which won CBCA picture book of the year in 2013.

Her other major books are Precious Little (illustrated by Gaye Chapman), the Little Else series (illustrated by Beth Norling) and KidGlovz, which features in this interview. These books are published by Allen & Unwin.

Quality graphic novels for children are extremely rare and should be cherished. KidGlovz, written by Julie Hunt and illustrated by Dale Newman over four years, is an outstanding example of the form. It won the 2016 Queensland Literary Award and Dale was shortlisted for the 2016 Crichton Award as a debut book illustrator. Although sophisticated, reluctant readers also enjoy it.

The title of KidGlovz derives from the saying, ‘handle with kid gloves’. The protagonist, KidGlovz is a talented, fragile boy who is being raised for profit rather than nurtured. With insufficient food and while virtually a prisoner in his room, he is visited by tightrope walker, Shoestring, who frees him from avaricious guardian Dr Spin, exposing him instead to an external world of danger and adventure.

I met Julie at the State Theatre Café in Hobart last week. It seemed like a fitting, although subconscious, choice by Julie because KidGlovz begins as a theatre performance by the young precocious pianist. Fittingly, the Hobart theatre and café also adjoins a bookshop.

This was the perfect time for an interview because Julie has just had the go-ahead from her publisher Allen & Unwin (great supporters of the graphic novel) for Shoestring, the companion book to KidGlovz. Julie actually wrote it as a sequel soon after completing KidGlovz. It’s now less a sequel than a discrete work even though the characters of KidGlovz and, of course, Shoestring reappear and Julie is rewriting it so that it will become an illustrated, rather than ‘graphic’ novel. She is translating potential visual images and jokes into words but there will still be 100 pictures.

Shoestring will be published in 2018 and a third book will then be in the pipeline, featuring Sylvie Quickfingers, a stolen child prodigy who has a cameo at the end of KidGlovz.

Even though writing is ‘arduous and difficult’, Julie is ‘only interested if the work excites me’. When I asked Julie if her editor and publisher need to restrain her creative brain with its original perspective and perhaps prevent her from straying too far into a wondrous strangeness, she replied that they are formative, ‘They encourage me to go further’.

Julie’s picture book The Coat has been greatly acclaimed. Its illustrator, Ron Brooks, happens to live across the river from Julie, but The Coat was not a collaborative work – Ron illustrated Julie’s story after she wrote it.

Julie’s subconscious seems to be continuously at work, with the gloves being a recurring motif in both The Coat and KidGlovz. She’s often ‘not aware of this stuff till a bit later.’

Music is another motif rising throughout Julie’s books such as Song For a Scarlet Runner, winner of the inaugural Readings Children’s Book Prize and shortlisted for multiple prestigious awards. Julie studied the trumpet and sang Bulgarian folk music, which took her to ‘another realm’ and showcased her ‘larger than life self’ when she was on stage.

Secondary characters such as Splitworld Sam from KidGlovz and Siltman from Song For a Scarlet Runner are both otherworldly figures. Names, such as in Julie’s junior series Little Else, illustrated by Beth Norling, are important to Julie. She knows she’s not on the right track if she doesn’t have the right names for her characters.

It was a pleasure to meet this extremely talented author. Julie is a delightful person, with a generous  smile and laugh. As a writer, Julie feels like the tightrope walker in the famous postcard by Quint Buccholz. She steps out and ‘hopes for the best’.

Australian Graphic Novels for Christmas

KidglovzGraphic novels for children and young adults are not just comics. Many do have the highly visual elements of comics: multiple panels on a page and text in speech bubbles; but graphic novels are books rather than magazines and come in diverse forms. Many picture books include what I regard as the fundamental element of a graphic novel: framed (or even unframed) panels.

Some book buyers may be wary of buying graphic novels for children, assuming that the content may be ‘graphic’. Of course, content in graphic novels can be ‘graphic’ in the sense of ‘explicit’ but graphic also implies ‘visual’ and it doesn’t take long to flick through a graphic novel aimed at children to check that the content is age appropriate.

How the SunBob Graham is known as one of Australia’s best picture book creators for children. Have a look at most of his books and you’ll notice that many pages are composed as framed panels (pictures inside boxes). Graham’s most recent book is How the Sun Got to Coco’s House (Walker Books). By the second double page, Graham’s story splits into a framed and unframed wide panel showing the sun over an icy horizon. Then it becomes a full double-page spread to show the immense size of a whale, before breaking into three different-sized panels. Graham’s masterful composition and form create a unique reading and viewing experience.

boy bear

Another Australian master of the graphic novel in picture book form is the incomparable and fondly remembered Gregory Rogers. His award-winning ‘Boy’ series, beginning with The Boy, the Bear, the Baron and the Bard (Allen & Unwin) has recently been published as a trilogy. Encourage young readers to explore Rogers’ Shakespearian London and Renaissance Europe. His colour, verve, humour and innovation are breath taking.

TeddyNicki Greenberg is also recognised as a world-class Australian creator of graphic novels. Her latest book, Teddy Took the Train (Allen & Unwin), is intended for younger readers than some of her others such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Great Gatsby, and is ably reviewed here by Dimity Powell.

Australian publisher of Indigenous literature, Magabala Press, is publishing Australia’s first Indigenous graphic novel trilogy. It’s by Brenton E McKenna and begins with Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix.Ubby's Underdogs

This has recently been followed with Ubby’s Underdogs: Heroes Beginnings. The stories are set in Broome and will particularly appeal to readers in upper primary and junior secondary school (about 10-14 years). McKenna is a very popular and dynamic figure at writers’ festivals.

KidGlovz (A&U) is written by Julie Hunt and illustrated in black and white by Dale Newman. This is an exquisite collaboration about a young musical prodigy, Kidglovz, who is virtually a prisoner of his uncle and forced to practise and perform the piano. He hears sounds as music and is befriended by tightrope walker, Shoestring, who tries to help him. Kidglovz stands alongside Brian Selznick’s books such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck  and The Marvels.

Review – The Coat

Once there was a coat, stuffed with straw and languishing in a field all alone. The coat is a proud coat – and it’s also angry. Angry to be nothing more than a quasi-scarecrow in a field. “What a waste of me!” it cries to the sun and the sky.

Soon, a man walks by. He becomes intrigued by the coat and when he puts it on, it’s far too big for him. Nonetheless, the coat says “splendid” and so does the man.

The coat also tells the man he wants to go to town, where the two feast on a beautiful café meal of Rare Glissandro and Bass Magnifico. Alas, they have no money to pay for the meal, but the coast insists they earn their supper by entertaining the patrons.

Donning a pair of white gloves and taking an accordion in hand, the previously totally untalented man becomes a masestro musician, his fingers flying across the keys of the accordion in a white blur.

The man and the coat play together – a feast of music that entrances the audience, and as they play, the man grows into his coat, his voice becomes richer and the colours on the book’s pages become more active, more vibrant and colourful.

This is a fable-like book, with a strange and magical feel to it. The book has no real ending, but perhaps therein lies the mystique, as the man and the coat disappear to who-knows-where, ready to weave another major musical spell.

Illustrations by the award-winning Ron Brooks are a fusion of reed pen, brush, ink and shellac on watercolour paper, making for a lustrous set of images. I particularly love the endpapers and gorgeously monochromatic earlier vignettes of both city and country.

The Coat is a picture book ideal for older readers, aged 7+. It’s published by Allen & Unwin.