Australian YA: Meet Frances Watts, author of The Peony Lantern

Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books about The Peony Lantern, Frances.

It’s my pleasure.

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

I’m based in Sydney. I’ve been involved in the children’s lit world for many years now, through membership of the Children’s Book Council of Australia NSW, IBBY and the Australian Society of Authors – and of course I love the opportunity to meet authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, booksellers and (most importantly) the readers – i.e. kids – at festivals, libraries and schools. I’m new to YA lit, with my first YA book (The Raven’s Wing reviewed here) published last year, and I’ve been really inspired by the passion, commitment and support of the YA community for each other and the genre. The #LoveOzYa movement is a great example of this. (And it’s introduced me to some great books!) I’m also involved with Books in Homes (as a Role Model) and the Reading Hour.

What is the significance of your title, The Peony Lantern?

The Peony Lantern’ (ABC Books, HarperCollins) is actually the title of a traditional Japanese ghost story; Japan has a rich tradition of ghost stories which I drew on in the writing of The Peony Lantern. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling a big twist!

How did you create the Japanese historical setting?Peony Lantern

I began by reading about the historical period – the book is set in 1857, which was a particularly tumultuous time in Edo (now called Tokyo) – to establish the social and political background for the book, before gradually narrowing my focus down to the specifics of setting: a samurai mansion in Edo, an inn in the remote Kiso Valley. Then I moved on to dress, architecture, cuisine, culture. What I really want to convey – because it is what I am interested in myself – is the daily life of the characters. Once I had a general idea of the main settings, I then travelled to Japan and visited the places I intended to write about. That gave me a richness of detail; the scent of the trees in the Kiso Valley and the number of steps to the village shrine, local legends and culinary specialties…In Tokyo there are a few museums that recreate the streets and buildings of the Edo period, so visiting them was invaluable. The research is one of my favourite parts of writing historical fiction. I’m completely obsessed with Japan now!

How did you create the character of Kasumi?

I wanted a character who was observant and to put her in a situation in which she was a ‘fish out of water’ as it were – in this case, a girl from a humble background who finds herself living in a samurai mansion. So she is in a position to observe differences in class as well as the differences between urban and rural lifestyles.

How important is writing about girls for you?Sword girl

It’s extremely important to me; in writing about girls from different times and places – whether it’s Claudia from Rome 19BC in The Raven’s Wing, Kasumi in The Peony Lantern or even Tommy from my junior fiction series ‘Sword Girl’, set in a medieval castle – I’m hoping to inspire readers to consider the position of girls and women in our own society.

Ikebana is a feature of Kasumi and Misaki’s time. Can you do it?

I’m afraid to say my attempts were rather embarrassing! I did a class at a famous ikebana school in Tokyo. I love flowers, so I was rather hoping I might display some hitherto-undiscovered flair, but…no. It was definitely a useful experience, though; it turns out that Kasumi’s own efforts at flower-arranging also lack that essential refinement!

Tell us about your other books.

Goodnight, MiceI began my writing career with picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson). [Frances modestly hasn’t mentioned that Goodnight, Mice! won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction. Her other books have also won awards.]  I then started writing junior fiction (such as the Sword Girl series), also extending the storytelling to upper primary (with the Gerander trilogy), and now I’m writing YA historical fiction. I’m still writing in each of these genres – I love them all – so I’m covering from birth to young adult. I sometimes joke that my motto should be: Grow up! with Frances Watts.

How else do you spend your time?

It probably won’t surprise you if I say reading. I also love travelling, cooking and running.

What have you enjoyed reading?

Fiona Wood’s new book, Cloudwish. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms (reviewed here). And I’m currently devouring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. I’ve just started the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and I am completely in its thrall.

All the best with The Peony Lantern, Frances. I feel like reading it all over again after hearing your responses.

Parsely rabbit

Don’t Forget Dad! – Picture Books for Father

A picture book may not be every dad’s ideal Fathers’ Day gift, especially if he is really counting on more socks and jocks. But think about it, what better vehicle than a picture book to share some real short but sweet moments of physical and emotional connection between a father and his offspring.

Tossing a footy around together is cool too. Whipping up a Book Week costume is a definite contender (the male’s job in our realm). However, very little compares to a snuggly story-time session. It’s gorgeous to behold and enriching for the participants (granddaddies included).

My Dad is a BearConcentrating on the littlies this time is Nicola Connelly’s and Annie White’s My Dad is a Bear. Charlie has something to share, his dad is a bear, or at least his dad displays the same traits as a bear: ‘he is tall and round like a bear’, he ‘has big paws like a bear’, and ‘he even sleeps like a bear’.

In just twenty-eight pages, Charlie manages to describe what I’d wager is the vast majority of ‘typical fathers’. However, it is not just senseless physiological satire. Connelly thoughtfully includes a few more active pursuits like fishing and climbing to enhance Charlie’s metaphoric revelations and thus broaden the typical father figure image. All are adeptly aided by the bearily beautiful illustrations of Annie White.

Like Kisses for Daddy, I love how there is not a single human in sight which makes the twist ending all the sweeter. Pre-readers will gain much through the shared interactive reading this book promotes while beginner readers should have little trouble mastering the straightforward sentence structure and similes. New Frontier Publishing August 2014

Another bear book bowling off the New Frontier shelves is Peter Carnavas’s, Oliver and George. Like his previous picture book, Jonathan!, Oliver and George will find its mark with younger readers aged 2 – 6 years.

Oliver, a box-hat wearing, skDSC03037-001ydiving, sword-wielding young boy is ready to play. He has his playmate sights set firmly on George (represented be a glasses-toting brown bear). To Oliver’s dismay, George is too busy to play. He is engrossed in his book and no amount of cajoling or niggling by Oliver annoys him enough to turn away from it, not even a bowl of porridge tipped over his head!

Oliver is crestfallen, but like all young children bent on their egocentric missions, he quickly recovers and tries again to gain George’s attention, this time resorting to the most arresting action he can think of to thwart George’s enjoyment of his book.

Although George and Oliver’s subtly implied father and son relationship may seem obvious, Carnavas’s anthropomorphic use of a teddy bearish ‘older other’ cleverly intimates many typical child / parent situations: parent, carer, or teacher.

Oliver’s lament is familiar; his obsessive desire to be with George overrides all else, until he is finally rewarded with George’s attention then promptly forgets his former fever. This scenario of precious determination and contrariness is so typical of kids; it makes my heart dance.

Peter Carnavas 2Carnavas never over complicates his tales, nor are they ever overtly visually overblown. Yet they deliver maximum impact with a mere sprinkling of words and a few ingenious strokes of the brush. Oliver and George is no exception.

It will be interesting watching how children react to this witty portrayal of themselves. Utterly beguiling and a subtle reminder for us bigger people to spend more ‘now’ time with our little people. Due out September 2014.

Stayed tuned for more beaut Fathers’ Day reads you can share with your child. Till then,

Happy Fathers’ Day!

Review – The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box

The Fearsome Frightening Ferocious BoxDo you remember those Magic Eye (random dot autostereograms) 3D puzzles of the late 80s? The ones where if you stare long and hard enough at them and go into a cross-eyed kind of trance, you’d mysteriously see a world or picture in unimaginable depth and detail? Personally, I loved them and spent a lot of the early 90s staring into pages of pixelated patterns.

David Legge and Frances WattsThe Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box is reminiscent of these puzzles but in a much better, beguiling way. This picture book by the team that brought us Kisses for Daddy and Captain Crabclaw’s Crew, invites you to think deep, look hard and be brave!

It all begins innocently enough. One day an innocuous looking box appears. No one knows where it comes from. No one knows what is inside. And of course not knowing is the spur of all great endeavours; as any child will tell you; curiosity must be sated at all costs and in this case, that means the box must be opened.

Monkey is the first to attempt it but is thwarted when the box begins to moan. A spine chilling couple of stanzas provide clues as to the potential occupant of the box and is followed by a cautionary, ‘open the box if you dare’ warning. This becomes the box’s mantra and pattern of riddles throughout the book.

We are also advised that our eyes may play tricks on us and that in each of the illustrations accompanying the riddle, the occupant could be one of six creatures secreted therein.

This is where the fun starts. Finding all six of the illusive animals artfully hidden within the scenes is harder than you’d imagine. It took the eyes of two adults and one seven year old to locate each of the animals and I’m ashamed to say, in spite of years of Magic Eye practise, I’m still searching for some! The animals are not in random dot stereograms by the way but hidden as craftily.

Frances WattsThe Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box is utterly compelling. While I found alternating use of rhyming verse and animal narrative a little jarring at times, Frances Watts is spot on with her use of descriptive clues and creates the perfect amount of suspense and tension to keep readers guessing and searching. Watts cleverly guides us through a myriad of scenes from the wetlands, arid desert wastelands, woodland forests and even the Arctic ice floes, as we attempt to find the answer.

The fantastically detailed illustrations of David Legge allows us to linger in each scene, exploring the environment of the creatures who lurk and dwell within at least until we discover them. The drawings are bold, expressive and panoramic in their design and feel. I love the textured, stippled effect used throughout the book too, which gives the characters more tactile warmth.

As each riddle emitted from the box is solved, the creature portrayed steps up to be the one brave enough and fearsome enough to open the box. But none of them quite cuts the mustard especially when faced with a warning from the box that it will attack if they dare open it.

It finally dawns on our crew of beasties that they are collectively terrifying in their own right and if they open the box together, they will outmatch whatever is inside.

Now I’m not going to divulge the box’s contents. You’ll have to puzzle that one out for yourself. But if you are a fan of Parsley Rabbit, you are going to adore The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box and its chuckle out loud ending. My seven year old certainly did.

This is more than a simple picture book. It’s a gripping, enigmatically visual, educational experience. It’s a journey through the diversity of our natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s Deadly 60 meets Graeme Base.

Does curiosity finally kill the cat? Open The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box and find out for yourself.

Recommended for the very brave of heart and 5 to 50 year olds.

ABC Books, HarperCollins Publishers Australia 2013

And just for fun:

Magic Eye Mental floss