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.
Children have their whole lives ahead of them to do and be whatever they desire. Whether or not those wishes seem achievable, let’s encourage their dreams and aspirations and teach them that obstacles are an important part of the journey. Here are a couple of inspiring picture books that support the notions of following your heart and striving to reach your goals.
Eric the Postie by Matt Shanks is an adorable story about a little echidna stamping his mark on the small township of Wattleford in outback Australia. His ancestors, as seen in Eric’s own Hall of Fame-type gallery, had all achieved greatness in their own right. However, Eric’s dream is to be the best postie in town, and he has all the perfect attributes to prove it – dog protection, a really long tongue for licking envelopes, a sharp beak for opening the residents’ mail, and the ability to keep the letterboxes pest free. But when he realises he has no actual mail to deliver, Eric abounds an inventive delivery scheme that ensures a successful postal experience for everyone.
Matt Shanks’ ingenious story is heartwarming, lively and simple, and his illustrations on white backgrounds equally match the gentle, charismatic and uncomplicated nature of the book. I love his placement of the characters’ off-the-face eyes, and the endpapers are pretty special, too!
If you’re looking for a book that will get the seal the approval from your preschooler, then this one delivers! With sheer determination, tenacity and ambition, Eric the Postie addresses them all.
Nothing says, ‘I’m the queen of the world!’ like the majestic stance of the small rhinoceros on her boat that graces the front cover of this book. And rightly so. In Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge, this little powerhouse impresses us all with her spirited resolve as she achieves her dreams of seeing the world.
Against the belief of the other rhinoceroses, who only trust in mud wallowing, grass grazing, tree scratching and sun bathing, the small rhinoceros doggedly, yet stoically, fashions up a boat, waves goodbye and sails away into the distance. With the dreamy wording by McKinlay and Rudge’s equally dreamy watercolour, pencil and collage illustrations, we are allowed to share in the protagonist’s wonderfully dreamy and exotic adventures to “faraway lands and beyond.” The rhinoceroses are typically unimpressed with her stories on her return, but perhaps there is still hope for one inspired ‘littler’ soul.
This small character with big might is clear in her resistance to the adult’s pressures and expectations, without all the fuss. She is impressively composed, curious and adventurous, and doesn’t fall into the trap of accepting the everyday monotonous routine. So, take her example and create your own story… Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros is inspirational for all living beings, great and small.
Laugh Your Head Off Again(Pan Macmillan Australia) is a very funny book of clever stories by top Australian writers such as Andy Griffiths, Morris Gleitzman, Meg McKinlay, Frances Watts, Sally Rippin, Jaclyn Moriarty, Katrina Nannestad, Tony Wilson and New Zealander, Alan Brough. It’s ideal for primary school aged children and would be a good Christmas present.
Meg McKinlay answers my questions (and makes me laugh out loud):
Can you write funny stories because you come from a funny family? What’s something funny about your family?
I’m not sure where my sense of humour comes from but I do think all families are funny in their own way. Mine has recently developed a habit of replacing photos in other family members’ houses with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and seeing how long it takes them to notice. I find this pretty amusing.
What’s something funny about you?
It takes me an average of 78 days to notice that a photo of a cherished family member has been replaced with a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What are your other books? What’s something funny in them?
I’ve published thirteen books, ranging from picture books all the way through to a poetry collection for adults. Some of my best-known books are No Bears, Duck for a Day, and A Single Stone.
One of my favourite funny moments is in Definitely No Ducks! – the sequel to Duck for a Day – when Max the duck disguises himself as a penguin in order to take part in a class assembly, and things go chaotically wrong.
What everyday experience have you been able to turn into something humorous? How did you do it?
I once drove past someone sitting at a bus stop and – due to their long limbs and black clothing – briefly mistook them for a speed camera. I turned this into a poem called ‘Walter’, about a boy with ‘unnatural angles’ who deliberately sets out to trick motorists. As for how I did so, I just let my brain think the weirdest thoughts imaginable and ran with them. I consider this to be a very sound policy at all times.
My story is called “Corn Chip Belieber”. It’s about two boys who find a corn chip that looks like Justin Bieber and come up with a get-rich-quick scheme, only to be thwarted by a kamikaze seagull. It was a ridiculous amount of fun to write but has complicated my love of corn chips.
Thanks very much Meg and all the best with this new book and your other work.
Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books Blog, Meg. I reviewed A Single Stone as YA lit for the Weekend Australian in August and chaired the QLA children’s book panel – with the wonderful Megan Daley and Maree Pickering, which it has just won. Why do you think it could be classed as either YA or children’s literature?
It’s an interesting question. When I started writing the book, I thought it would be YA, but along the way found myself resisting some of the tropes you might expect in a book of this genre for that readership. By the time I finished, I was thinking of it as more junior fiction, extending into lower YA.
The bottom line, of course, is that the boundary between children and young adults is not clear cut – either in literature or in life. Since the book’s publication, I’ve had positive feedback from readers as young as 9 and teenagers of all ages. As with most things, I think it depends on individual readers but there are certainly elements in the book itself that mean it can more readily straddle that range.
For example, the main character, Jena, is 14, which is sort of on the cusp of the two categories, and even though conventional wisdom holds that readers prefer to ‘read up’, I think that’s a generalisation. If a character is strong and compelling, a reader will want to follow them regardless of age. I also think the ideas in the book are complex enough for YA readers while still being accessible to younger readers, and at the same time there’s no content that might be considered problematic for that younger age group. That was in no way by design – it’s simply a function of what the story did and didn’t call for – but I do think it’s helped extend the book across a broader range. The only time that’s really a problem is when a firm classification is needed – for awards entries, library/bookstore shelving, and so on. I’ve been a little concerned about whether this might see the book fall through the cracks between categories, but so far that doesn’t seem to have been a problem.
Did you attend the awards ceremony in Brisbane? What happened?
Yes, I was fortunate to be able to make a flying visit to Brisbane for the ceremony. It was a wonderful evening shared with a room full of fellow writers and booklovers; there was a real sense of celebration across the whole event and I felt privileged to be part of it. I’m a fairly relaxed public speaker but as the announcement approached, I found myself feeling unexpectedly wobbly. There was something about the occasion that was quite overwhelming!
What is A Single Stone about?
A Single Stone is the story of 14-year-old Jena, who lives in a village which is enclosed within a valley; it’s encircled by an impassable mountain range and cut off from any notion of an outside world. In this closed society, which suffers very harsh winters, a mineral known as mica is essential for survival, but it can only be found deep inside the mountain.
Girls who are small enough, and skilled enough, will eventually join the line of tunnellers who harvest the mica from deep inside the mountain; this is work which is highly prized and for which every girl longs to be chosen. It is not an option for boys, who aren’t permitted inside the mountain.
For this reason, girls are kept as small as possible. There are various strategies for this, all of them closely monitored by the Mothers, a group of women who hold most of the power in the village. It isn’t always easy, but it’s the only world the girls know and they accept it as the natural way of things. That is until a tragedy leads Jena to a discovery – about the Mothers and the mountain – that leads her to question the world and beliefs on which she’s been raised, and sets in motion a chain of events that changes things in a fundamental way.
Have you based the characters on anyone in particular, or certain types?
None of the characters is based on anyone in particular, although on reflection I may have been thinking a little of Katniss and Rue from The Hunger Games in writing the relationship between Jena and Min.
I don’t think about character in terms of ‘types’ particularly, but I knew I wanted Jena to be someone who’s heavily invested in doing what’s ‘right’, in a way that threatens to blinker her to larger truths. Writing this now, I realise that there are some elements of my teenage self in her – conscientious and authority-pleasing, but with reasons for that, and also with a latent capacity to stand up and go against the grain if pushed to a certain point.
There’s a character in the book who’s a conscious counterpoint to Jena in some ways, and I’ve set this duality up in order to reflect a bit on the nature/nurture debate. I can’t say too much more on that without veering into spoiler territory, though.
The other characters I thought quite carefully about are the Mothers. I was very clear in myself that I didn’t want them to be simply antagonists; people are of course far more complex than that and I wanted the Mothers to reflect those ambiguities, the shades of grey.
You have created an intriguing, original setting and mood. How would you describe your writing style in this novel?
It’s very satisfying to hear these comments about the setting, because this is something I typically struggle with. I’m much more interested in the internal landscape than in where the action takes place in a physical sense, and often forget entirely about the literal setting.
In terms of style, I would describe my writing here as lyrical, measured and thoughtful, and hopefully all those things on the backbone of a compelling plot.
Could you tell us about the literary texts that helped inspire A Single Stone?
There are two that I’m aware of, but undoubtedly others whose footprints I haven’t yet recognised. The gnomes in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, which is my favourite of the Narnia series, made me think about what it would be like to be so at home underground, in tight spaces, that you had a horror of being outside.
The other book was Franz Kafka’s The Zurau Aphorisms, which is a collection of fragments and pithy observations about life and the human condition. One such aphorism tells of leopards breaking into a temple so frequently that they are eventually co-opted into its ceremonies. As a teenager in an Anglican high school, I was taken by this notion of how something inherently random and meaningless might ultimately become part of sacred ritual. And from there to wonder what the consequences might be when that ritual becomes utterly removed from its point of origin.
These are both texts whose influence came a long time ago – at the ages of about seven and fourteen respectively – and laid very early seeds for the story that became A Single Stone.
So many things! I like a book that makes me think, that shows me the world in a new or surprising way, and also one that treats language with care. I read a lot of literary fiction and poetry as well as children’s and young adult fiction. One of my favourite books in recent years is Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, a collection of startling short stories narrated by the souls of animals. On the plane home from Brisbane, I read Darren Groth’s young adult novel Are You Seeing Me?, which I really enjoyed, and I’m currently immersed in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.
Thanks for speaking to us, and all the best with this one, as well as your next book.
Tessa and Zachary have a cruisy, comfy, clean and calm machine. They use it to ride to school each day. It is climate-controlled, quiet and smooth. When it’s hot, they put on the aircon, when it’s cold, they put on the heat.
It’s comfort personified. No effort required. A lot like modern life in the West, actually, most especially for our kids, who both enjoy and live snugly in the concept of Comfort.
As humans, we strive for Comfort in life. But in our eternal quest to achieve it, we quickly miss out on Life.
We miss out on the huffpuffing strain of climbing mountains, the pulse-pushing agony of running marathons, the cold-bearing discomfort of finding the perfect snowflake or the heat-crushing agony of making it across a sizzling beach to the ocean.
And author Meg McKinlay totally gets this. She pushes her characters out of their machine and out of their comfort zone and into the real world where Things reside. Strange things. Challenging things. Breathtakingly beautiful things.
And her characters respond most excellently.
I totally appreciate Meg’s voice in this book – it’s gorgeously-crafted and a delight to read. Illustrations by Kyle Hughes-Odgers are strikingly different and as enticing as chocolate. With a folksy/block-print feel and stunning knack for pattern, Kyle uses acrylic paint and stain on wood panels which lend an authentic, earthy, ecological feel to this truly beautiful book.
A must-own – not only for its beauty, but for its subtle and important messaging.
I wasn’t going to blog today. I have some serious rewrites to do on my YA novel and author visits to prepare for later in the week. But I couldn’t help myself.
I had to share two wonderful new picture books that had me giggling uncontrollably in the car, (parked of course) attracting suspicious looks from other parents while I waited for my son at school pickup.
They say a picture tells a thousand words, and this is definitely true of Rufus The Numbat, David Miller’s new book from Ford Street Publishing.
There are very few words in this beautifully illustrated book, but they combine with the pictures to tell a big story about a very small numbat. And roles are reversed. Instead of man causing havoc in the numbat’s environment, Rufus manages to cause complete chaos in town.
Apart from the simple text and humour, readers will love the amazing illustrations and engage with the tiny Numbat who is “Just passing through”. Rufus The Numbat, is David Miller’s fourteenth picture book and the fifth that he has written. He makes intricate, colourful 3D paper sculptures and then photographs them for his pictures.
This lively picture book introduces young readers to the fragile relationship between humans and animals.
Another new “Laugh Out Loud” picture book is The Truth About Penguins, written by Meg McKinlay and illustrated by Mark Jackson
The animals at the zoo are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the penguins. None of them have actually seen a penguin before so they speculate about what the new inhabitants might be like. It’s like an exaggerated game of Chinese Whispers as the animals share their ‘knowledge’.
They are soon convinced that penguins fly south for the winter, eat pizza and wear cool bathers. The humorous text and detailed illustrations work in perfect harmony. I think my loudest guffaw was when the elephant declares, “My mother was a penguin”. Not only was the text hilarious, but the sight of the elephant leaning up against the tree ‘hand on hip’ and legs crossed added a new level of humour.
Fortunately, the zookeeper sets the zoo animals straight on what penguins are ‘really’ like. I love the way this book teaches readers so much about penguins, but in a funny and entertaining way.
I live on a rough winding road that goes for more than 10 kilometres and is peppered with bark, lizards and the occasional hopping kangaroo. So I was totally intrigued with the concept of Trudie Trewin‘s new picture book Wibbly Wobbly Street,and the idea that a road could be straightened or ‘made perfect’.
Beautifully illustrated by Cheryl Orisini, Wibbly Wobbly Street tells the story of the only street in Squareton that’s not straight and smooth and wide. It’s a street that doesn’t conform. Mayor Angle and his fellow councillors take some radical action to try and bring it into line with the rest of Squareton.
Trudie Trewin says the story was inspired by a friend of hers who had trouble remembering the name of a street she was talking about.
She ended up just calling it‘Wibbly Wobbly Street’ because of its hilly and twisty nature. It struck me as a fun name for a story, but it took me about four years, and many failed drafts, to come up with a plot to suit.
Wibbly Wobbly Street is a picture book for ages 3-6 and the ridiculousness of trying to physically straighten a street will appeal to their sense of humour.
Particularly as the street is obviously much more exciting than the rest of Squareton.
Trudie has also used fun words, like ‘wibble-extomy’ and ‘wobble-otomy’, which add to the appeal. She says she loved being able to use wibbly wobbly language in the book. “I loved using words like rectangle-fied, wobble-otomy, wibble-ectomy, hotch-potch, askew, squiggled, joggled.”
So, what’s unique about this book?
Celebrating individuality isn’t new, but I can’t think of another book where this theme has been approached from the point of view of a stubbornly twisted street.
Written by Meg McKinlay and illustrated by Leila Rudge
I’ll admit to complete bias with this book by Meg McKinlay. Firstly, I love ducks and secondly, I love the concept of class pets and think they add something special to any school room.
In Duck for a Day, Mrs Melvino brings a duck, Max into the classroom and Abby desperately wants to take him home for the night.
Abby lives in a spotless house where pets are not allowed because they might make a mess. A classroom pet visit is a temporary thing and Abby manages to persuade her Mum to let her bring the duck home. But this is only the first of Abby’s hurdles.
Next she must overcome the strict demands of Mrs Melvino who won’t let Max go home to an environment that is less than ‘duck’ perfect.
Streets also play an important role in this story because when Abby finally gets to take Max home, the duck disappears and waddles up the street to the park. Duck for a Day is a beautifully illustrated book for 7-9 year olds full of gentle humour and situations that kids will relate to.
Duck For a Day is published by Walker Books Australia – ISBN 9781921529283