Janeen Brian’s Hunger for Stories Leaves us Wanting More

imageJaneen Brian is the much-loved, award-winning author of over 90 books for children, many of which have been translated and distributed around the world. Some of her most popular titles include I’m a Dirty Dinosaur, I’m a Hungry Dinosaur, Where does Thursday go?That Boy, Jack, I Spy Mum!, Hoosh! Camels in Australia, Silly Squid! and Pilawuk- When I was Young. Janeen is also widely known for her wonderful contributions to the industry, winning the Carclew Fellowship 2012, being Ambassador for the Premier’s Reading Challenge, and presenting at a number of conferences and schools. It is an honour and thrill to have had the opportunity to find out more about Janeen and her latest gorgeous books, Mrs Dog, Where’s Jessie? and Our Village in the Sky (reviews here).

Where did your passion for books and writing children’s stories begin? Are there any particular books or authors that have played a significant role in where you are today?

I think the passion was always there. I can’t remember a time when words and stories didn’t fascinate me. The sound and power of words has always intrigued. However, we were a book-poor family. And I went to a book-poor school. It was just how it was. I now realise I’ve always carried that ache inside of me. So, I guess it had to come out somewhere, sometime. I’m grateful it did. I would probably credit becoming a teacher and having daughters of my own with the eventual, tentative, stepping out into the children’s writing arena. But I also had a couple of angels in my later adult life who gave me a nudge.
Without a childhood plethora of books or reading matter, I’m on a constant treadmill, trying to capture the thrill of books which are embedded in the psyche of many of my writing colleagues, for whom those books were friends. And so I swing; to read back to my childhood and forward to what is out there today. I’m constantly reading. At times, I wonder if I evaluate enough of what I read. It just seems that I’m hungry or thirsty for stories and poetry. So many authors affected me, but two who immediately spring to mind are Robin Klein and Ruth Park. Their writing touched me; it was full of exquisite detail, rich in character and expressive in language. And they spoke of our country and culture, and at times, our history.

Your writing style varies between heartrending poetry, to playful rhyme and informative and lyrical narrative. Do you have a preferred style of writing? How has your style evolved over the years?

I think once again it comes down very much to what pleases me, particularly aurally. I don’t have a particular favourite way of writing. I write in the style that suits the work. And I find it interesting that although the style might differ according to what I’m writing, people still say they can recognise my work when they see or hear it. I guess my style is like a maypole, with many ribbons attached – each one individual but connected. I think, or hope, that my style has become more honest and richer as it’s evolved. That would please me.

Some of your recent books, in particular Our Village in the Sky, Where’s Jessie? and Mrs Dog, all carry a timeless feel with their beautifully lyrical language and images, as well as encapsulating more sophisticated topics such as cultural differences, loss and survival. What draws you to write with these kinds of themes?

Although at times, I can feel like a suburban fringe-dweller, I have to remind myself that my life has been full of interesting twists and turns and often it is the idea of survival that is uppermost. I think that many everyday people are heroes, tackling life’s mountains. However, from different, and sometimes difficult challenges comes strength and confidence. The word used a lot today is resilience. I think I try and show that in my work. We all battle at times, in various ways, and sometimes we have to dig deep to find courage or strength to continue. Or to look at a situation in a different way. Often, too, help can come when one person takes the hand of another.
I love to see a world of real things; kindness, laughter, nature, play and creativity. I’m not much of an adult in the highly commercialised world.
I think all of this affects the kind of stories and poems I write – and the themes and language embedded in them.

Your most recent release, Mrs Dog, is a truly moving story of unconditional love, nurturing and courage, with elements of humour and adversity blended in the mix. Did this story emerge from a personal experience? What aspect of the story is most meaningful to you?

imageLike in most stories, Mrs Dog is a mixture of experience and imagination. Over a period of years I had collected two names. They sat around in my head for ages with no story. Over time I linked them to farm-style incidents told to me by my husband, and then changed the ideas during many drafts until the final story emerged. It certainly wasn’t one whole package to begin with. I really like the fact that when under pressure, a person/creature is often able to rise above their own expectations, as Baa-rah did in his effort to save Mrs Dog.

What has been the most insightful feedback or response to Mrs Dog so far?

The unconditional love and compassion shown within an unlikely inter-generational relationship.

Illustrator Anne Spudvilas has provided the spectacularly dreamy artwork for both Where’s Jessie? and Our Village in the Sky. How did the pairing come about? How do you feel her illustrations complement your words? Were you able to work closely on each book?

imageIn both instances, I was able to work closely with Anne, which is not the usual experience with author and illustrator. Often seeds are sown many years before eventualities and this was the case in our first collaboration, Our Village in the Sky. Anne and I had become friends through many creator-style catch-ups, and she liked the photos and experiences I told her of my stay in the Himalayan mountains. When I later applied for a Carclew Fellowship for the 2012 Adelaide Festival of Literature, I devised a picture book of poems as a potential project and asked Anne if she’d illustrate. Fortunately I won the award, and in a serendipitous situation, Anne took her sketches and several of my poems to Allen and Unwin, who subsequently published the title.
Anne was able to use images from my photos to create her scenes and characters and we worked closely on the layout and flow of the book, with me making several trips interstate.
In both books, Anne’s palette and style suit the stories perfectly and I am full of admiration for her work. It evokes both emotion and sensory appreciation.
Where’s Jessie? is a story triggered from the sighting of a real teddy bear that’d travelled to the outback on a camel. Because I’d earlier researched and written an award-winning information book, Hoosh! Camels in Australia, I was able to provide Anne with much visual material. Anne could also access the historical database of Trove in the National Library of Australia.
There was story collaboration, too, when Anne suggested changing the character of the person who eventually finds Bertie, from an Afghan camel boy to an Aboriginal boy.

Where’s Jessie? is based on the real life travels of Bertie the bear through the outback in the early 1900s. What was it about Bertie’s story that caught your attention? What was it like to research, and how did you feel meeting the daughter of Bertie’s owner?

imageWhile visiting a country Cornish Festival in South Australia in 2011, I entered a church hall to view a collection of historic memorabilia. The real Bertie bear was seated on a chair, looking slightly tatty but well-loved. The note attached mentioned two facts; he was 101 years old. And he’d travelled to Alice Springs by camel. What a thrill! I had no idea of what I might do with that information, but I was finally able to track down the now-owner, the daughter of the original-owner, who’d been a baby at the time she’d received the bear. I’d had enough experience in the outback (flash floods, included) as well as my earlier research with camels, so it was really the story I needed to work on. At the launch of Where’s Jessie?, the now-owner spoke movingly about how well-loved the ancient bear still is within their family; citing that he is still the comforter of sick children and the soother of bad dreams.

Our Village in the Sky is beautifully written in angelic language that reflects the perspectives of different hard-working, yet playful, children in a remote village amongst the Himalayan mountains. This book is based on your observations whilst living there. What else can you reveal about your experience? What was the most rewarding part about writing this story?

imageI felt compelled to write about this village, and particularly the children, because I was able to interact with them at the time, using sign language or games. Or I simply watched them. Only a few villagers spoke any English at all, and it was very minimal. Culturally, and because of the language barrier, it was not possible for me to ask about many things pertaining to women or family life. So my focus was the children. I noted and photographed. I wrote a diary of my feelings and thoughts. But, back home, when I came to write, it was the children I wanted to write about. The images in my mind decided that the ‘story’ would be a series of poems depicting their life, so different to children in the Western world. The most rewarding part was the connection I felt through the words, and that I had acknowledged my experience in that area of the world.

What do you hope for readers to gain from this book?

Curiosity. Understanding. Awareness. And being able to relate to the child-like aspects in each poem.

Can you please tell us about your working relationship with illustrator Ann James on the I’m a Dirty/Hungry Dinosaur books? Was this collaboration any different to any other of your author-illustrator partnerships?

imageAnn and I had been published together in a book called Dog Star, an Omnibus/Scholastic chapter book in the SOLO series and we’d become friends mainly through catch-ups at various festivals and so on. At one festival at Ipswich in 2009, I asked Ann to consider a poem I’d written. It was called I’m a dirty dinosaur. Over discussions, Ann agreed to illustrate it and with the poem and a few sketches the material went first to my agent, Jacinta di Mase, before it was picked up and published by Penguin Australia. (now Penguin Random House Australia) Ann and I chatted about the text and pictures throughout the process, just as we did with the second book, I’m a hungry dinosaur. Both books have been a lovely culmination and collaboration of ideas.

What were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of creating the ‘dinosaur’ books?

imageWorking with Ann is a joy. She is alive with ideas, energy and enthusiasm. We both enjoy the playfulness of the books, and the act of play and fun with language is important to both of us. Ann also likes to minimalise her line work to give the maximum effect and I think she’s done this brilliantly in both books. I also like to hone down my words so they shine without any extra unnecessary baggage.
There’s also an integral trust between the two of us, which is wonderful.
The challenge came in the second book. It’s not an unusual dilemma. The first is the prototype. The second must follow the format yet still have its own life. We believe we achieved that in I’m a hungry dinosaur!

If you could be any kind of dinosaur, what would that be and why?

I guess if I could be any dinosaur it would be the one Ann created!

As an experienced author, what advice would you give to those writers just starting out?

Apart from reading and writing, I think it’s interesting to write down passages from other authors’ books. Writing slows your thinking down. You might enjoy reading the passages, but when you write them down, you are considering the authors’ motivations and reasons for writing those particular words. You might notice more fully the effect those words have. You might feel the pull of a different style, which could loosen your own, stretch it or challenge it. Finding your own voice can often take a long time. But playing around with other people’s words can sometimes be quite surprising.
Work hard. Understand that writing is a craft. As such, there is always room for improvement. And improvement brings you closer to publication.

And finally, if you could ask our readers any question, what would that be?

Some authors write in a particular genre. Their readers know what to expect. However, I write in many different genres. Do you see this as problematic in your reading of my work? **

Thank you so much for the privilege, Janeen! 🙂

Thank you, Romi. Your wonderful, thoughtful questions were much appreciated.

Janeen Brian can be found at her websiteFacebook and Twitter pages.

** Please respond to Janeen’s question in the comments below, or head over to Twitter and join the thread at #JaneenBrianAsks

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Three Types of Charm – Janeen Brian Picture Book Reviews

Award-winning author Janeen Brian is well-known for her superlative poetry, fascinating research projects and of course, those cheeky dinosaur books. She also has a gifted ability to incorporate important, ‘real-life’ topics into her stories in the most pleasurable and engaging ways. From the farm to the outback and atop the Himalayan mountains, the following three titles encourage readers to open their eyes and senses to worlds other than their own, to perspectives they have never seen, all the while allowing themselves to drift into imaginative and emotional realms.

 imageMrs Dog, illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall, is a picture book that will undoubtedly inject a large dose of sentimentality into your heart. In this case of sacrifice, bravery, trust and unconditional love, this story will most certainly leave an ever-lasting soft spot for these good-natured characters.

At her ripe age, Mrs Dog has moved on from her role as sheep-herding working dog. So, it’s only natural that she take on a nurturing motherly role when little weak Baa-rah the lamb is discovered alone in the paddock. Not only does Mrs Dog nurse his physical strength, but also empowers Baa-rah with street smarts (or ‘farm’ smarts, rather) and a strong voice. In a tear-jerking near-tragedy, the little lamb triumphs over his fears and uses his newly developed skills to alert the owners, Tall-One and Tall-Two, of Mrs Dog’s fall into the Dangerous Place.

The endearing character names, touching story, and soft textures and warm tones all blend beautifully together to create an indelibly loveable book for all ages. Mrs Dog, with its combined heartrending and humorous qualities, is a sweet and memorable visual and language experience to share amongst the generations.

The Five Mile Press, 2016.

imageIn Where’s Jessie?, Bertie Bear faces his own challenges and braves the harsh conditions of the Australian outback. Based on a true story set in the early 1900s, we are carried along with the raggedy teddy as he is dragged upon camel, whooshed through dust clouds, nipped by wild creatures, and slushed in water. All the while he longs to be back in the warm arms of his beloved owner Jessie. And the reunion is nothing short of miraculous.

With fantastically descriptive language, and stunningly expressive watercolour bleeds and scratches by Anne Spudvilas, the action and emotion of this adventure is truly engaging. Janeen‘s fascination with and fondness of this real-life bear, as discovered at an exhibition at Kapunda, shines through in her words.

Where’s Jessie? is definitely a story worth exploring further, as well as being an absolutely uplifting treasure to cherish for centuries.

NLA Publishing, 2015.

imageHer first hand experience with the children and families in the Himalayan village led Janeen to explore this intriguing culture and lifestyle in her gorgeously fluid collection of short poems in Our Village in the Sky. Brilliantly collaborating with Anne Spudvilas, the visual literacy and language are simply exquisite.

The perspectives of various children intrigue us with the work, and play, they do in the summer time. For these ‘Third-World’ kids, imagination is at the forefront of their industrious lives. Whether they are using water tubs as drums, daydreaming in soapy washing water, turning an old ladder into a seesaw, chasing goats downhill or flicking stones in a game of knucklebones, chores like washing, cleaning, cooking, gathering and building are fulfilled with the brightest of smiles on the children’s innocent faces.

Our Village in the Sky is a lyrically and pictorially beautiful eye-opener to a whole new world that our Western children may not be aware of. With plenty of language concepts, cultural, social and environmental aspects to explore, there will certainly be a greater appreciation for the beauty, differences and similarities between our children and those in the Himalayan mountains.

Allen & Unwin, 2014.

For fascinating insights into the production of these books see my wonderful interview with Janeen Brian at the following link.

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Song, Poem and Rhyme Picture Books

Children connect with songs and rhymes. This innate quality allows young readers and listeners the ability to play and experiment with sounds with ease. Not only do these lyrical stories lend themselves to a range of engaging and interactive experiences, but their audience is also given opportunities to learn the mechanics of language, sequences and meaning of the text. The following few picture books explore some well-known tunes and traditional tales in new and innovative ways that will relate to their readers, both young and old. Some great for a giggle, some for a wiggle, and one for learning about things that jiggle!

The Croc and the Platypus, Jackie Hosking (author), Marjorie Crosby-Fairall (illus.), Walker Books, 2014.  

From the lyrical talent of Jackie Hosking, with the superbly detailed and dynamic acrylic paintings by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall, ‘The Croc and the Platypus’ bounds its way from outback Australia straight into our hearts.
To the age-old tune of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, here our water-loving, ‘Aussie’ pair set off, not to sea in their pea-green boat, but across the desert in their rusty Holden ute. Featuring typical Australian and Indigenous treasures and proper slang, including didgeridoo hullabaloos, sheep-shearing blokes, a cocky, lamingtons and the beauty of the Southern Cross above Uluru, the platypus and the croc embark on an extraordinary camping adventure.
‘The Croc and the Platypus’ is a charming Aussie rendition of the classic song with its romping, rollicking nature and perfectly suited sandy tones and animated characters. Primary school children will adore these unlikely mates and all that our native outback has to offer.  

8367940_ZSilly Squid! Poems about the Sea, Janeen Brian (author), Cheryll Johns (illus.), Omnibus Books, 2015.  

Following on from the ‘Silly Galah!’ poem book, award-winning Janeen Brian, together with illustrator Cheryll Johns, dive into more fact-finding fun with the wonderfully entertaining ‘Silly Squid! Poems about the Sea’.
Learning about underwater sea creatures in this book is far from boring. I love how Brian cleverly gets the reader involved. She doesn’t simply spill facts onto the page, but through a nicely cantered metre and interesting information, she encourages discussion with prompting, questioning and expression. Find out fascinating facts, like how a sea star regrows an arm, that a daddy leafy sea dragon helps the eggs to hatch, a squid is not silly because it can colour-change, and that fairy penguins don’t carry wands or grant wishes.
Discovering the world of sea life has never been more captivating with the fun poetry and vivid, bold acrylic paintings. ‘Silly Squid!’ is a valuable resource for primary aged children both in and out of the classroom.  

9781743623534The Cow Tripped Over the Moon, Tony Wilson (author), Laura Wood (illus.), Scholastic, 2015.  

A hilarious version of the old nursery rhyme, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, with a most persistent, hard-working cow and his ever-so supportive friends. ‘The Cow Tripped Over the Moon’ takes us back on the journey of how the cow ultimately succeeded in jumping over the moon. With exuberant rhyme and comical, distinct illustrations, it takes this hapless cow seven moon attempts before he finally conquers this mighty challenge. From tripping over, to hitting a hot air balloon, slow run-ups, riding meteorites and blazing bottoms, Cow hits an all-time low. But the encouragement of his dog, cat, dish and spoon mates sparks the determination in this fiesty creature, and the rhyme ends happily ever after.
Adorably whimsical and witty with clever plays on the classic rhyme, ‘The Cow Tripped Over the Moon’ is perfect for a snuggle and a giggle before a preschooler’s bedtime.    

Some other great song books to add to your list:

10-cheeky-possums10 Cheeky Possums, Ed Allen (author), Claire Richards (illus.), Scholastic, 2015.  

From the crazy silly series from Scholastic and Ed Allen, including ’10 Clumsy Emus’, ’10 Spooky Bats’ ’10 Hooting Owls’, ’10 Silly Wombats’, and ’10 Funny Sheep’, is the latest in the collection; ’10 Cheeky Possums’.
Each book contains the same rhythmic style and format, taking the reader from ten animals down to one, to the tune of ’10 Green Bottles’. There are always lively scenes and funny ways that the animals disappear from sight, like being inauspiciously swept off into the distance.
Whilst some unconventional phrasing to fit the verse, this series is an entertaining and interactive concept aimed at young preschoolers and the development of number recognition and counting skills. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for exploration and manipulation in the areas of numeracy and the arts.  

little-barry-bilby-had-a-fly-upon-his-noseLittle Barry Bilby had a Fly upon his Nose, Colin Buchanan (author), Roland Harvey (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.  

By legendary author and musician Colin Buchanan, and charismatic, witty illustrations by Roland Harvey, is the gorgeously humorous and charming ‘Little Barry Bilby had a Fly upon his Nose’.
Crafted from the classic ‘Little Peter Rabbit’ song, this Aussie version takes us bouncing and itching along as a group of helpless native animals escape the invasion of their bizzy buzzy bush bug pests by jumping into the creek.
With rollicking lyrics in three verses, repetition and alliteration, preschoolers can easily gauge the rhythm and language, allowing for a most appealing and engaging song (and dance) time experience. The bonus CD adds an extra dimension to the drama, particularly for those adults who may need some help staying on key!  

Review – The Croc and the Platypus

The Croc and the Platypus I commented recently on the Further Adventures of the The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Julia Donaldson and Charlotte Voake. Donaldson’s ineffable lyrical style does indeed take Edward Lear’s nonsense tale one step further and is a jolly expedition for the reader to navigate through. As you’d expect, it’s a very good picture book. Then I found an even better one.

Jacki HoskingWith ute-fulls of respect to Donaldson and Voake, Jackie Hosking’s and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall’s debut creation of The Croc and The Platypus is a very, very good picture book.

Fans of Lear’s will relish the lilting musical quality of Hosking’s verse as she transports us as effortlessly as Julia Donaldson through the Australian outback with as an incongruous couple as the Owl and Pussycat; Croc and Platypus.

Hosking is spot on with this ingenious retelling of a childhood classic however, somehow makes it feel much more loose and flowing and bizarrely, even easier to read than the original. Her narrative sings with a down-to-earth gritty realism but is delivered with Lear’s same congenial, nonsensical joie de vive. Hub caps ring and didgeridoos blow as Platypus and Croc ‘play up a hullabaloo…baloo.’

I love Hosking’s incorporation of recognisable Aussie icons; Uluru, tea and damper and lamingtons to name a few as Croc and Platypus trundle across the plains eventually camping under the Southern Cross after cleverly procuring their tent. For those not so familiar with ‘click go the shears’ terminology, there’s even a neat little glossary.

Extra applause must go to Marjorie Crosby-Fairall for her truly epic acrylic and pencilled illustrations. The outback is vast and engulfing as are the illustrations of this picture book with gorgeously generous helpings of full colour, movement and sparkle on every single page.

Hosking’s appreciation of, commitment to and finesse with the rhyming word are self-evident. She works them all to perfection in this richly Aussie-flavoured celebration about embracing unlikely friendships and sharing stellar moments with those closest to you whilst enjoying a good old Aussie road trip.

The Croc and the Platypus has every reason to glow proudly alongside The Owl and the Pussycat, and dare I suggest outshine it. Croc and Platypus launch invite June 2014

Discover and rediscover all three books here. For those in Sydney around early July, make sure you don’t miss Jackie’s launch of The Croc and the Platypus.

Walker Books Australia June 2014