Unbelievably Good – Strange but True Mid-Grade Reads

Tweens and teens love dipping into the world of fantasy. The more quirky the premise, the more unbelievable the outcomes, the better. These middle grade novels serve up a mind-bending mixture of almost too-whacky-to-believe storylines showcasing time travel, ghosts and gigantic invisible felines. Strange but delightfully, true.

Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase by Peter Helliar and Lesley Vamos

A forever morphing, triple paced collision of Doctor Who meets Top Gear is one way of describing Pete Helliar’s first foray into writing for kids. His enthusiastic use of wacky, over the top metaphors is a touch extravagant at times but oh, do they provoke some face-wrinkling chuckles.

Francis (aka Frankie) Fish’s race against time back into time has all the hallmarks of a mega time travelling adventure with one difference; he is making the journey in desperation to preserve the existence of the Fish family line of which he may or may not still be a part of (it all depends on the battery!). And he’s doing it with his very grumpy, slightly geriatric, grandfather.

Continue reading Unbelievably Good – Strange but True Mid-Grade Reads

Fantasy and Adventure – Novel Escapes

 

The golden age of reading begins when youngsters develop their reading confidence around the age of seven or so, and extends into their early teens where suspension of belief is still strong and stories featuring fantasy and adventure rate robustly on the their reading radars.

It is no wonder then that junior and middle grade novels are in such high demand. These three are definitely worth adding to your list.

Trouble and the New Kid by Cate Whittle and Stephen Michael King

Trouble first flew into Georgia’s life early last year. He stole their home inadvertently absconding with her baby brother, Godfrey. Since then, he’s barely been able to stay on the good side of the behaviour books, after run-ins with Mrs Jones and her cat, Tibbles in The Missing Cat. Now, Trouble is back in all his glorious dragon-green unruliness in, Trouble and the New Kid.

Continue reading Fantasy and Adventure – Novel Escapes

Doodles and Drafts – Nick Earls reveals his Top Secrets

word-hunters-and-nick-earlsA few years ago, I had the supreme pleasure of joining a world of word nuts who allowed me to accompany them on hair-raising adventures through time and reason; I discovered the Word Hunters – a trilogy of etymological enigmas by author Nick Earls and illustrator, Terry Whidborne. I carry on a bit about the awesomeness of their series, here. Although Word Hunters is more than satisfying and a dozen other superlatives to boot, I was left wanting more as many exhilarating experiences are wont to make you feel. And so, the trilogy has expanded with the launch of the Top Secret Files.

Top Secret Files is a sort of compendium of loosely connected thoughts and verbal exploration. It’s a journal of notes and taste bud temptations. It’s an explanation of even more philology through brief crisp narrative and pages of eye-catching sketches, drawings, and diagrams. It’s the journal of the great word hunter, Caractacus entrusted to the ancient librarian, Mursili who perhaps a little misguidedly assigns it back to our dauntless duo, Earls and Whidborne.

Today we have the auspicious pleasure of welcoming Nick Earls to the draft table to learn a little more about the custodian of the Word Hunters and how he is dealing with his Top Secret Files.

nick-earls-2017Welcome Nick!

Who is Nick Earls? Describe your writerly self.

Twenty-six books into the job, he’s an unkempt work in progress, growing into the thought lines etched deep into his forehead and still trying to get better each time he writes.

In a former life, your quest was to serve and protect or at least, make people feel better. How does your current occupational goal as a writer compare?

I now wear my underpants on the inside and don’t have a cape. Each job hinges on a connection with people. In medicine, it’s getting to understand them on their terms, so that the story they tell makes as much sense as possible. In writing the kind of fiction I mostly do, it’s about tapping into characters who, when read, feel as though they can’t have been made up. With Word Hunters there are other objectives too – there’s an adventure to be had and a world of mind-blowing words facts to play around with. My goal as the writer of this series is to entertain, but also be part of opening minds to the possibilities of history and the fascinating workings of the language. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of saying that English is a crazy language that makes no sense, but the more you grasp its 1500-year history (plus some back-story) the more sense it ends up making. And the more powerfully you can use it. ‘Night’ and ‘light’, for instance, aren’t spelled that way by chance, or because someone threw darts at a board – there’s a reason for it, and a really interesting one (featuring a now-lost letter), so we wrote about that in the new book.

wisdom-tree-novellasName three titles you have created that you are particularly proud of and why.

It’s not a thing I feel about anything I write. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s all awful – it’s just that ‘pride’ isn’t really the feeling. I love the process of exploring the story and its characters, and how they’ll all work, and then the job of working hard to get the details right and delivering them in a compelling way. If someone gets it, I feel good. It feels as if all that work was worth sharing. Okay, one example: Gotham, the first novella in the Wisdom Tree series. I had two story ideas that I wanted to give to one character, and I thought I could make them work together in an interesting way. So, the first two acts are essentially one of those story ideas, with seeds being sewn for the third, then act three really takes you somewhere, delivers something (I hope) you’re not expecting, and also casts new light on the earlier part of the story. It’s worked just as I hoped it would for quite a lot of people now, and I have to admit that’s gratifying, since I love it when fiction works that way in my head.

top-secret-files-word-huntersIt’s been nearly three and a half years since the Word Hunter series hit our bookshelves. Was a follow up compendium like Top Secret Files always on the cards? If not, what evoked the idea and need for it?

It was Terry’s idea, and he put it to me when we were driving between two schools, doing our live Word Hunters show when the third book came out in 2013. He wanted to do something more visual and less dependent on a big new narrative, and he wanted to explore some of the gadgets we’d included. In that conversation, I realised I’d found some excellent word stuff that I hadn’t been able to include in the other three books, and we came up with the idea of a kind of manual, or ‘a compendium of devices and methods’ as Caractacus rather self-importantly puts it. Living in the Dark Ages and seeing the consequence of knowledge loss, Caractacus puts a premium on knowledge and, unlike the rest of us, has a pipeline to the future. So, this is him trying to keep track of the info future word hunters bring back to him, some of which he adapts for use in his own time. Some of that presented a fascinating challenge. In book three, he’s created lightweight 21st-century ceramic armour for the hunters to fight in, and for Top Secret Files I had to work out how it was made, then work out how to adapt that to processes someone could use on a Dark Ages pig farm. I have to say, that stretched me. Then we paired that with the fun activity of making your own medieval armour from cardboard, using the fascinating terms for each piece.

What can Word Hunter fans expect from Top Secret Files?

Expect the unexpected. You’ll come out of this dressed in armour from the 15th century, making bread from 3000 years ago and able to navigate using the Ancient Phoenician alphabet (or, more correctly, abjad). And who doesn’t want that set of awesome skills? You’ll also understand why we score tennis the way we do, where cricket fielding positions got their names, and how our alphabet found twelve new letters and lost nine of them!

Top Secret Files reads as a combination of loose jaunty exchanges and solid historical fact. At times if feels even more revealing and fantastical than the Word Hunters storylines. (Are all those words that couldn’t be saved as part of the English language real? Sorry had to ask; I’m too lazy to research every groke, fudgel, and curglaff) Why did you choose this style of delivery over straightforward narrative?

Some of the most improbable things in the book are true including, yes, those words that couldn’t be saved (even the one that involves doing a distinctly weird thing to a part of a horse that’s best left alone …). When I was tunnelling around for material, I wanted the facts to be weirder than the fiction, so that the fiction seems all the more plausible.

We had this kind of style in mind from the start, for two reasons. First, not having to build a massive narrative to slip in one brilliant word fact gave us licence to include lots more stuff and focus on it. It would have taken several more of the original books and a lot of complicated storytelling to have created opportunities to use everything we got to use here. Also, Terry was very mindful of creating a different way into the word hunters’ world. This was deliberately compact, really visual and in short sections (with an overarching concept but not an overarching narrative) to provide a way into the world for kids not immediately drawn to 40-60,000 words of narrative.

We wanted to make the original three books accessible by telling the most engrossing time-travel adventure story we could, but this book is designed to increase the accessibility even more. We wanted to create something for, say, 9-10-year-old boys not yet hooked by reading big stories (while at the same time offering fascinating content for people who are). If they get into this, maybe they’ll pick up book one, and then book two and book three. And by the end of that, maybe they’ll have felt that buzz in their head that only books can put there, and they’ll want more. I got into reading as a kid, but Terry didn’t, and this is Terry coming up with the kind of book he thinks might have made a difference to him at that age.

word-hunter-sketchesIllustrator, Terry Whidborne receives equal airplay alongside you, Lexi and Al throughout this journal. What was the dynamic like working with him? How did it influence and or benefit this production?

Terry’s great. We met working on an advertising campaign in 2002. We’re friends and I’m also in awe of his skills as an artist – another reason to do this book: I want publishers and others to see just how talented Terry is.

We each bring very different things to a book like this, and I think that helps make us a great team. We also had a very clear shared vision of what we wanted the end result to be. And it was always clear that we would have the freedom to suggest possible topics to each other, and throw in ideas to get the other one thinking. Terry would say things like, ‘I reckon there would be some kind of portal-sniffing device,’ and I’d have to rummage around for the science to sort-of back it up.

And I’d often say, about something I was working on, ‘I don’t know what this looks like – could you show me?’ and he would. Or I’d say, ‘here’s some great content I want to use, but how do we make it visual?’ and Terry would say, ‘How about a map?’

And he’d hide small things and see if I’d find them. Once you find, say, the ink smudge that’s also a map of Iceland – in context – you realise this book has more Easter eggs than Coles in March. It’s a slim book, but there are about a zillion tiny details in there, and they reveal themselves in different ways.

What inspires you to include or exclude words for discussion in the Word Hunter books? What external forces such as travel for example, influence your writing direction?

This time, I got the chance to use things that had amazed me, but that I wasn’t in a position to devote 20,000 words of narrative to. So, that was fun.

It was very interesting plotting the big story that runs across the first three books, and that create the world that the Top Secret Diary lives in. I needed each of the first three books to be an entire satisfying story, but also part of a whole, and I knew each one would feature three word quests. I also knew I wanted to follow a bunch of different pathways – English is what it is because of that – so I needed a mix of Germanic and Norman French/Latin words and words with very different origins. And I needed to get the characters to certain places at certain times to tell the big story we were telling. That was an awesome puzzle to try to solve. In the case of the last word in book three, I decided I needed something that would take us to the earliest-known book in English, link with an epic Dark Ages battle and get there via Shakespeare and one other interesting step. No easy task. I got there though.

Whose genius was it to include the interactive app, LAYAR for kids to utilise? Do you think this is the way of future storytelling?

That was Terry. The moment he discovered LAYAR, I got fanatical about it. It’s perfect for this book. Perfect. Again, it’s a great way in for someone not rushing to read lots of text, but for whom the idea of using a gadget to reveal hidden content appeals. And no one had more potential hidden content than me. I instantly knew it’d add massively to the reading experience, and I’d get to use a lot more great stuff.

Is it the way of future storytelling? It’s part of it, I’m sure. Technology gives us more tools than we’ve ever had. We just have to be smart enough to use them judiciously. LAYAR would be a gimmick or a distraction for some things, but it’s ideal for this.

On a scale of Never-Do-It-Again to Most-Exhilarating-Audience-To-Write-For-Ever!, how do you rate writing for tween readers? What is most appealing about writing for this age group?

I’m still learning, I think. I’m maybe a more natural writer for adults, but with the right material, time and smart editing, I can end up with something that works for the tween brain, and I’m getting closer to some of the techniques becoming instinctive. Two things are massively appealing about this age group. It’s a huge buzz when a kid comes up to you and raves about their Word Hunters experience and starts sharing some great etymology they’ve dug up. There’s a 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old whose grasp of English, you know, has been altered for the better. I love that. The other thing I really love is going round the schools and doing Word Hunters events. We’ve come up with a show that we can do together or solo that includes loads of visuals, props, games and a lot of noise, and It’s way more fun doing it than I ever thought. Every time I front up to a school with all my Word Hunters’ gear, I’m excited.

word-hunters-the-lost-huntersNow that you and Terry have been entrusted with Caractacus’ archive of Word Huntery (and really really interesting recipes!) thanks to Mursili, and blatantly ignoring all warnings to the contrary, have exposed it to the world, what plans do you and Terry have for the journal? Are more copies likely to appear? In short, what is on the draft table for Nick?

I have a PhD to finish, so no new fiction this year, but in the meantime, I want to make the most of the new material we’ve added to our show and take it around the place. I know that’s technically part of the job, because it might sell some books, but I actually want to do it because of the fun we can have and because of the way it opens a roomful of minds to the prospect of actually looking at our language and how it works, understanding it better and ultimately using it with greater power than most of us grew up being able to. I’ll also be putting in some effort to avoid the wrath of Caractacus. He’s not one to understand that this stuff was just too good to keep hidden.

Just for fun question (there’s always one): Describe a guilty pleasure (of yours) incorporating three words that did not exist before the last century.

Brilliant question. I’ll go as recent as I can. I regularly google (2001, as a verb) idle factoids (1973, invented by Norman Mailer, though the meaning has evolved since) using Bluetooth (1997).

Super! Thanks Nick.

If you reside in Queensland,  you can catch Nick and Terry putting in some effort to avoid Caractacus’ wrath and share their Top Secrets at one of this year’s Book Link QLD’s Romancing the Stars events during March. For details on where they will be appearing (there are Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast venues), and how to book, visit the Book Links site, here.

The Word Hunters Series including the Top Secret Files is available, here.

UQP December 2016

Doodles and Drafts – Halloween guest post by Karen Foxlee

a-most-magical-girlHalloween is a time of frights and treats, tricks and magic, guises and remembrance – All Saints’ Day Eve. A fitting time to indulge in a little fantasy and fun. Karen Foxlee’s latest mid grade novel, A Most Magical Girl combines all of these things and will have primary aged readers biting their nails in delicious anticipation. Utterly charming, frightful in places and marvellously magic in others, this is an adventure both girls and boys will find spell binding.

Annabel Grey is a proper little lady of the Victorian times. She devoutly attempts to follow the sermons delivered by Miss Finch’s Little Blue Book, a bible of Victorian social etiquette and expectations but her good intentions derail after she is sent to live with her two aunts in London. They are Shoreditch witches and apart from being Annabel’s new guardians, unlock a heritage Annabel had no idea about, her ability to perform magic.

However, Annabel has no time to dispute their proclamations because her unusual abilities allow her to foresee a terrible future for London and all who dwell there. Mr Angel, evil warlock of the underworld has built a sinister device to use with his black magic to destroy all of the good magic in the world and those who practise it. Only a most magical girl can stop him.

Foxlee’s use of language is bewitching. Annabel’s adventure is fast paced and divinely otherworldly both in spirit and in setting. I thoroughly adored flying along on her desperate quest with Kitty and her strong-willed broomstick. I’m sure children will find A Most Magical Girl just as enchanting.

karen-foxlee2016Today Karen joins us at the draft table to reveal the magical places A Most Magical Girl sprung from.

Welcome Karen! Tell us a bit about kids, authors and story ideas…

The Big Leap

I love to tell my young audiences that kids and authors are pretty much the same when it comes story ideas.  They always look dubious at first.  Authors surely have a special library of previously unused ideas I can see them thinking.  It’s locked away somewhere at the top of a turret beside their quills and their perfect first drafts.

“It’s true,” I assure them.  “You tell me where you get your ideas from and we’ll see if we’re the same.”

Their hands shoot up: from life experiences, from dreams, from things you see! From things you read, things that happened a long time ago, from things you hope for, from television! Story ideas start from things you overhear, from facts, from songs, from comic books, from movies, from computer games, from mixing your own life with the life of book characters that you love! From day-dreaming!

I always love hearing that one.  It validates all my hours spent lying quietly day-dreaming. “Oh my goodness,” I cry, ticking off each one. ‘How weird! My ideas come from all these places too! They come from everywhere!”

Authors let ideas come, we day-dream, we are open to them.  We store them away in our brain machine never knowing when we might need them.  We put an idea from a year ago with an idea from today.  We percolate ideas.  We write them down without knowing what they mean.

But, I tell them, there’s also another way that authors and kids are the same when it comes to story ideas. Their dubious expressions return.  I clamber up onto a table.  Now they start to look down-right worried.

A Most Magical Girl came about as a combination of several ideas I explain.

  1. From an experience (a visit to a museum many years before)
  2. From a life-long love of history and from reading lots books with historical settings
  3. From a love of magic and heaps of little ideas about how magic works

And

  1. A good old-fashioned daydream.

I was lying on my sofa thinking about a museum I’d visited a decade before.  This museum was in London and it contained a recreated Victorian era street, where I wandered for hours.  Years later, on my sofa, I closed my eyes and day-dreamed a carriage arriving on that street.  I imagined a girl stepping down.  She was pretty and a bit posh and also, I knew as I watched her, the owner of a secret.  She stood before a shop window and read the words printed there. Miss E & H Vine’s Magic Shop.  Wow, I thought.  Magic.  I love Magic. This seems good. What’s going to happen here?

“What do you think authors do when they have some ideas that excite them?” I ask from my table top perch.  “What do you do?”

A chorus of replies: Just start! Just start writing! Just start even if you don’t know the answer!

“Do you just LEAP into the story?” I ask.

“Yes!” they shout, because they really want to see an author jump off a table.

And so, because it is the absolute truth about authors and ideas and how they really are not much different to children, I LEAP!

Fastastical, thanks Karen.

kids-reading-guide-2016-2017You’ll find A Most Magical Girl in the new Kids’ Reading Guide, here!

Allen & Unwin September 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is such a heartwarming WWII story! My cold dead heart warmed like a whole 3 degrees and that is amazing. I loved the visual writing and the copious amounts of scones (!!!) and the adorable protagonist, Ada. British books are always delightfully pleasant. And I do see why this book has won the Newberry award! It’s so beautifully written (if very slowly paced) and definitely a classic to get middle-grade children into reading about the second World War.

9780803740815What’s It About?

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn t waste a minute she sneaks out to join him. So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother? This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity a classic in the making.

It’s an child evacuation story, featuring Ada and her little brother Jamie. They’ve been horribly abused by their mother because Ada is crippled. Her mother finds her repulsive and disgusting and is so cruel to her. Be prepared for some horrible scenes where the mother locks her in cupboards and cuffs her and denies her any happiness. I think the representation of PTSD was spot on. The repercussions of being unwanted your whole life? Ada was forever flinching away and kindness towards her was often met with meltdowns because she had been so unloved her whole life.

Ada also has a clubbed foot. I’ve never read that before! She spent the first 9 years of her life crawling in the dirt because her mother was so disgusted with her disabilitity. Ada’s bravery and strenght are totally to be admired. And it’s understandable that this drove her to a lot of bitterness and anger. This could’ve made her into an unlikeable character who is hard to read about…but it did not! I 100% loved and rooted for Ada.

Ada and Jamie are sent to live with Miss Smith in the English countryside. It reminded me a bit of Good Night Mister Tom and also The Chronicles of Narnia! I loved Miss Susan Smith. She was really snappy and kept claiming she was “not nice”…but the wonderful things she did for those children! It was so heartwarming. I love how she taught them manners and cleanliness and stood up for them when they got into trouble. And also fed them copiously. What a wonderful women. Her growing love for the children was just my favourite thing.

The children also have plenty of adventures in the countryside. There’s horse riding and spies to catch and school to attend. And lots of scones and tea, luv, because this is a British book.

All in all: it was a delightful WWII story with a totally winning protagonist. If you haven’t read much WWII stories, then this is a good one to start with! It’s definitely suitable for ages 9+ I’d imagine. There is parental abuse at the beginning, but it’s not graphic. There’s also death, but this is history. (Plus that is also not graphically described or anything.) Thanks for warming my old soul, little delightful book.

[purchase here]

YA, NA and MG Fiction Defined With Recommendations

Most readers will be familiar with the genre of books referred to as YA, but what about NA and MG?

Young Adult (YA)Eleanor & Park
YA fiction generally contains novels written for readers aged in their teens, or more specifically between the ages of 13 and 20. The stories feature teenage protagonists and often explore themes of identity and coming-of-age. Having said that, YA novels can be from any genre, science fiction, contemporary, fantasy, romance, paranormal etc. Some popular YA novels include the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games series, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Middle Grade (MG)
MG novels are generally written for readers aged between 8-12 years, with main characters less than 13 years of age. Themes can include: school, parents, relationship with siblings and friends, being good or misbehaving. Just like every genre, some MG books can have an underlying message (e.g. be kind to animals).

Some examples of popular MG novels include: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

New Adult (NA)A Court of Thorns and Roses
NA fiction is a relatively new genre in publishing, and in my opinion grew from the popularity of adult audiences reading and enjoying YA novels (Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars). The genre is situated between YA and adult fiction and protagonists are generally between 18-30 years of age. Themes include leaving home, starting university, choosing a career, sex and sexuality.

Some popular NA novels include: Slammed by Colleen Hoover (called CoHo by her fans), The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternA Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas and The Elephant Tree by R.D. Ronald.

On my TBR ListInheritance
I have a number of books on my to-be-read pile from the genres mentioned above, including: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition by Jacob Grimm, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes and 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson. What’s on your list?

Whether you enjoy MG, YA or NA fiction, the most important thing is that you don’t allow yourself to become pigeon-holed. Enjoy your reading, keep an open mind and explore new authors. You never know where your next favourite book might come from.

A Pet is for Life – Sandy Fussell on Sad, the Dog

Sandy Fussell‘s new picture book had a most timely arrival, with Christmas around the corner it comes as an important reminder that responsibility for pets is for a life time, not just for one season. Already having success with her middle grade books, including the popular Samurai Kids series and her award winning novel, Polar Boy, Sandy Fussell‘s venture into picture book territory is exciting, and certainly most welcomed.

I look forward to sharing our interview with you as the talented, animal-loving Sandy Fussell talks about her career and her gorgeous new title, Sad, the Dog.

imageFor me, and my daughters, Sad, the Dog has had a lasting affect on us. Having always had (spoilt!) dogs in our family, it is unimaginable the level of ignorance and treatment that Mr and Mrs Cripps place on their dog; an unwanted ‘nuisance’ they were given for Christmas. Starved for affection, and even a name, this little pup, who’s spirit is inexorably crushed, calls himself ‘Sad’ – unfortunately, an apt name. But when the grouchy owners up and leave, without so much as a bat of an eyelid, poor Sad is left to fend for himself. In a seredipitous turn of events, Sad is united with a new friend, a new family, a new name, and a new spirit.

Fussell’s eloquent language, together with Tull Suwannakit‘s characteristically arresting illustrations, have the irrefutable power to elicit a full range of sensations with every read. I honestly can’t remember many books that have had me bubbling with rage, sorrow, optimism and pure joy all at once. Through the sadness, though, you’ll find those pops of warmth and love.

Sad, the Dog is emotionally and visually striking, highly memorable and absolutely endearing that any child (and adult) would be ‘lucky’ to own.

Read Dimity‘s insightful review here.

Walker Books, Oct 2015.

Thank you, Sandy for talking with me today!

You’ve been successful with your middle grade fiction, and in particular your best-selling ‘Samurai Kids’ series. What made you venture into the world of picture books and how would you compare your processes between the different writing styles? Do you prefer one style over the other?

imageI never intended to write a picture book and if anyone had asked me, I would’ve insisted it would never happen because I don’t look at the world through “picture book eyes”. But one day, I accidentally looked that way, and the story of Sad the Dog appeared inside my head (450 words complete with a plot hole!).

My approach to middle grade and picture books is exactly the same. I let the story tell itself. When the sense of place and character is strong, the story always follows. While I don’t prefer one over the other, I find middle grade a lot easier to write (the picture book eyesight problem again).

What I did find very different and quite wonderful, was that with a picture book, I was never on my own. Whatever I was doing, Tull Suwannakit (who illustrated Sad) was keen to share and support and vice versa. When you write a picture book there is always another person who loves it exactly as much as you do.

‘Sad, the Dog’ is loosely based on a true story of a neighbouring family in your past. What does this story mean to you? What significant messages do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?

This question of messages in books interests me – Are they really there? Do they matter? What if readers get them wrong? I’ve heard many authors (especially adult fiction) say they don’t write with books with a message. For me, that’s not possible. A writer brings many themes to a story – from their passions, beliefs and experiences – they’re story building blocks. And themes inherently contain a message. The reader may find completely different themes and messages depending on their life experience and perspective, and I’m fine with that too.

Sad the Dog, is about hope. Life can be very sad, but with a little help, it can be turned around. There’s other messages too. If we help others we make the world a happier place. Owning a pet involves an emotional responsibility as well as providing the physical needs of food, water and somewhere to sleep. I could probably find even more messages if I went looking. My world view seeps into all my stories, long or short.

What have been your most rewarding and challenging aspects of creating books, and in particular, ‘Sad, the Dog’?

For me, the story itself is a wonderful reward. I suspect I am a very selfish writer. I write the stories I want to tell and the stories I want to hear. The challenge is convincing others these stories are worth reading and sharing.

School visits are the ultimate challenge and I’m always up for that. If I can inspire one child in every school to look at books more positively – that’s a huge reward.

The other big reward I associate with creating books is meeting book people – whether they are readers, writers, librarians or booksellers – anyone who wants to talk books is an instant friend. I’ve been part of the Oz literary landscape for a few years now but writing a picture book introduced me to even more book people.

imageThe artwork by Tull Suwannakit is quirky, compelling and absolutely sublime. What do you like about his work and how do you feel his illustrations compliment your text? Do you have a favourite image from the book?

I have to admit when I was first shown a drawing of Sad, I shook my head and said “Sad doesn’t look like that.” But the truth was, as I soon discovered, I didn’t know what Sad looked like and luckily for me, Tull did. My image was a memory of Cassie, the floppy-eared soulful-eyed spaniel type dog who was the inspiration for the story. What I didn’t realise was after I reworked the inspiration into a story, it wasn’t about Cassie any more. It was about Sad. And Sad didn’t look like Cassie, he looked like himself. Which is what Tull knew right from the beginning. His illustrations were a perfect fit.

I love Tull’s artwork and I love how art pervades his life. I feel lucky to be part of it. RMIT did a short film about Tull and his art. One of my Sad, the Dog favourite things is the birthday card Tull drew for me – Sad has a big grin and mouth full of sausages. My favourite illustration – and it’s so hard to choose – is the front cover with Sad sitting in the leaves – the colours are glorious and the fallen leaves, while leaving the tree bare and barren, remind me it will grow green again.

imageIn a wonderful coincidence of life imitating art, a friend on Twitter sent me this picture of her dog (who wasn’t sad but very happy).

How did you find your publishing experience with Walker Books? How did you go about approaching them with your ‘Sad, the Dog’ manuscript, and how have they supported you in the process?

I read an extract from White Crane at a meeting of writers that included Sue Whiting who had, unknown to everyone there, just been appointed Commissioning Editor for the new Walker Books Australian list. Prior to that Walker Books Australia was a distributor of Walker Books UK and Candlewick US titles. Sue asked me if I would send her the manuscript when it was finished. I did and I’ve been sending Sue manuscripts ever since.

By the time I had the idea for Sad, the Dog I had already published five middle grade titles with Walker Books, whose name is synonymous with beautiful picture books. So I was thrilled when they accept Sad for publication.

How have you found the response to ‘Sad, the Dog’ so far? Any stand-out moments or particular comments that have resonated with you the most?

The response to Sad has been overwhelmingly positive and I’ve had lots of messages and pictures sent to me via social media. Samurai Kids is a popular series and I’m fortunate enough to still receive fan mail seven years after the first book – but they’re always email. Many responses to Sad are more spontaneous – photos and shout-outs. I’ve wondered if it’s a “picture book thing.” Adult picture book lovers are a vocal group – whether they love the book personally or because their child does – they seem more inclined to tell the world about books they love.

I’m rather partial to these lines from a review on Brona’s Books blog: When I read picture books I tend to wear two hats – my preschool teacher’s hat (will a rowdy group of preschoolers like this book? What are its educational possibilities?) and my book lovers hat (do I love this book?) In recent years I have also added a third and fourth hat – my bookseller’s beret (will this book sell? Who to?) and my blogger beanie (does this book have review potential?) Sad, the Dog by Sandy Fussell is one of those special picture books that I can answer YES, YES, YES to all the above. What author wouldn’t love to hear that said about their first picture book?

Do you / have you owned a pet of your own? What special moments with your pet/s can you recall the most?

imageCurrently I have two chocolate-point Burmese cats (Bree and Tega) and a green tree frog called Fat Boy Slim. Over the years I’ve had many pets – some have been rescues and returned to the bush (Mouse, the baby possum given to me by a Ranger when I worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Robert the cockatoo with an injured wing) as well as numerous parrots (Robert liberated those), tankfuls of tropical fish (discus and hatchet fish are my favourites), a budgerigar, ducks, chickens, a lizard, a turtle, snakes and three Scottish deerhounds.

My pets, especially the dogs and cats, are family members, much more than just animals that live in my house and yard. Sad, the Dog was inspired by my indignation that anyone could abandon their dog to the new owners of their house, as if a pet was some sort of inanimate home fixture.

Have you always wanted to be a children’s writer? What motivated you to pursue this career? How did you get your break?

I always loved reading but I never wanted to be an author of any kind. I was into mathematics and IT. Finding I wanted to write for children was an accident. My avid-reader 10-year-old decided overnight he wasn’t going to read any more. I’ve always believed the key to kids reading is finding the right thing to read (which may not be a book). I managed to convince him to write me a story that he would like to read. He insisted I transcribe it, because while storytelling was fun, writing it down was hard work (he was right about that). It was the most random story I’d ever heard and I kept interfering. So he sent me away to write my own story. By that time, I was hooked.

I kept writing because I loved it. I wrote nine middle grade stories before I decided I wanted to share them. A chance meeting with Di Bates, who is one of most generous and knowledgeable people in the OZ children’s literary industry, fast-tracked my path to publication. Di encouraged me, improved my work and made sure I was standing in the right spot when opportunity found me. One of my career highlights is the speech I gave at the NSW CBCA dinner where Di was presented with the Lady Cutler Award for Services to Australian Children’s Literature.

What valuable writing and publishing tips have you learned along the way that have been the driving force to getting you to where you are today?

I’m a list lover from way back – so here’s My Top 6 Takeaways from Becoming a Published Author
1 Writing is a habit. Write and the story will come.
2 Words are the musical notes that make a story sing. Choose every one of them carefully and polish sentences until they shine.
3 Writers need other writers. And illustrators. And book people. Because they understand.
4 A writer needs to read widely inside and outside their comfort zone to develop their writing potential.
5 Your editor is your story’s best friend. Trust her (him) with it.
6 It’s important to give. It’s good for the soul. It makes for a better person and a better writer.

You juggle your time between writing, blogging, presenting, and running several literary initiatives including The Story Crowd and The Reading Stack. What are your secrets to managing all these jobs?

I think the truthful answer might be a bit boring. I’m not a good sleeper so I have more hours in my day than most people. I know it’s not supposed to be healthy to sleep 5 ½ hours a day but despite my efforts, I can’t change that pattern. My mother and grandmother were the same so perhaps it’s genetic. I’m also a very efficient person and the theory of productivity fascinates me. I’m always reading articles about it. I’m very focussed – some would say fixated and obsessed– and always full of ideas. I tend to act on a lot of them when I think most people have equally wonderful ideas but just keep thinking about them. If I’m not doing two things at once, I’m looking around for something else to do.

Finally, tell us something about yourself that not many people would know!

I spent years learning the violin. I’m still not very good at it so perhaps that’s best kept secret.

Thank you so much, Sandy! I’m sure your violin skills are superb! May you and your family enjoy a safe and prosperous Christmas! Looking forward to seeing you in the New Year! 🙂

You can find more on Sandy Fussell at her website and facebook page.

*** Find this post on the Just Write For Kids Australia page for your chance to WIN a copy of Sad, the Dog! ***