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

Getting Serious about Series # 3 – Word Hunters

Word HuntersAll right, so it’s taken me a few years to share these ones but here are three of my favourite books of all time. I can’t even properly explain why but when a tale ticks multiple boxes so satisfyingly and engrosses you so completely whilst doing so, you can’t help but be muted into humble reverence. Ok, perhaps I’m trumpeting up the Word Hunters trilogy somewhat and confusing my metaphors but I reckon this series by charismatic collaborators, Nick Earls and Terry Whidborne deserves a little repeated airplay.

Therefore, from their cloistered position on my bookshelf, I reach for Word Hunters, The Curious Dictionary, the first in this divine trinity. Although in paperback, the book(s) has an alluring, timeless quality to it thanks to the cleverly designed leather-look cover and gilt bordering. But enough about aesthetics. Delve inside and you are immediately met with poetic riddles, dares, and definitions. You get the feeling you are entering hallowed ground, a place where time might lose itself, history may be rewritten and anything you say or do could alter anything you’ll end up saying or doing.

Nick Earls 2Confused yet? Well fear not, for Earls has enlisted the help of 12-year-old twins, Lexi and Al Hunter; to help save the English language and make sense of the fascinating etymological expedition they unwittingly embark on.

The Curious Dictionary, an ancient dictionary created by a chap called Caractacus and used for the last 1500 years by word hunters to protect word history, is the twins’ new Lonely Planet guide. With it they zip back and forth through the ages, hunting down words at risk of disappearing from the language and carefully tracking every step of their evolution in the past in order to keep them alive in the present (the words that is). The time travelling alone is enough to cause a bad case of chundering (the first new fact of many I learnt about time travel) and continually upset Doug, Al’s pet mouse. However, the sharp focus on the at-risk-words is what truly commands attention.

Word Hunters PegThe Dictionary’s definitions of endangered words are benignly simple as are some of the proffered words, hello and water for example. Thankfully (although at times regrettably), we are not over-flooded with threatened vocabulary which allows Lexi and Al plenty of time to visit ancient cities, meet great inventors and survive harrowing situations like the Battle of Hastings. In short, experience a really ripper world tour full of lumps and bumps and strange old men and curious gadgety golden peg things.

These books are pure essence of adventure for tween readers, enticing them into an historical literary experience they might not even recognise being in; the journey is so littered with quintessential Earls’ irreverent wit it is hard to believe we are learning something so vital, at least I felt I was. The historical detail is phenomenal. Moreover, it’s not just about the words.

As Lexi and Al hone their hunting skills and learn to cope with the time-slipping nausea, we are drawn into the engrossing world of UPPER and lower case, the timeline of printing, letter formation and so much more relating to etymology and philology. Now colour me dull, but I found this anything but dull!

Word Hunters Lost HuntersThe Lost Hunters involves more words, more battles, and alarmingly, a search for their grandfather who it turns out, is the lost hunter. Fortunately Whidborne’s beguiling illustrations heavily featured throughout the twins’ travels serve to lighten the mood, and push Earl’s acerbic historical observations (and some very gory situations) merrily along, albeit not so merrily for Doug the rat who firmly entrenches himself in my list of favourite characters in this volume. His contributions to sensory detail are Terry Whidbornepure brilliance.

By the third and final instalment, War of the Word Hunters, Al and Lexi are in full training mode owing to their impending battle with the armed and dangerous grey-robes, rogue hunters determined to thwart word history and so alter its course and irreversibly undo people and their cultures.

Word Hunters War of the Word HuntersThe Word Hunters series is not just a collection of etymological explanations and revelations, (although this was enough to captivate me long into the night), it is a gripping, exhilarating quest through time that at times makes your guts churn with dread and discomfort. The rest of the time, they’ll be dancing because you’re laughing so hard.

I loved all the characters: the good, the bad, the alive, the dead and the ones with unpronounceable names. I loved Earls’ wry union of our sometimes-inglorious past and our social-media ridden present. I loved Whidborne’s flamboyant execution of whimsy (and rats). And I loved the serious provoking of thought Word Hunters conjured and the passion for preserving words it stirred up in me. As Grandad Al said, ‘Every one of us is the consequence of a million flukes of history Word Hunter sketches– who met whom and where they went and what they did.’

It is kind of mind boggling but then, so is the Word Hunters series. Perfect for history buffs, word nerds, 9 – 13 year-olds and rat lovers.

Find all books, here. #ByAustralianBuyAustralian

UQP July 2013

 

 

Brilliant Brisbane Writers Festival 2015

The BWF shone again. Jon Ronson’s opening address wooed everyone and we bought a copy of The Psychopath Test on the spot. What a funny, clever man.

CollinsI realised on opening night that this was my 10th consecutive year moderating sessions at the BWF. What a privilege to have conversed with writers such as Booker shortlisted authors Abdulrazak Gurnah and Michael Collins over the years.

Another past highlight was when I chaired the phenomenal Andy Griffiths speaking to an adult audience. He morphed into Vincent Price and Struwwelpeter. I’ve never seen him as funny. I chaired a couple of sessions with Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author, John Boyne the same year, and he got to share the electricity of the stage with Andy for that memorable panel. John’s upcoming Boy at the Top of the Mountain is incredible, by the way. It will be published in October.Mountain

Other years it was a privilege to speak with Hungarian holocaust survivor Peter Lantos, and to listen to Gabrielle Carey and Linda Neil share how they grieved for their mothers.

I almost swooned when invited to facilitate the session with the brilliant Margo Lanagan and Marianne de Pierres. And Morris Gleitzman and Gabrielle Wang were another unforgettable pairing.

The incomparable Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak one-on-one with an author I have admired greatly for years. He was such a gentleman. NZ writer Kate di Goldi was delightful and, last year, Nick Earls was a load of laughs. Mem Fox (Possum Magic) was the very first author I chaired at the BWF, back in the days of tents. There have been many, many special sessions, a number of which I was called in to chair at late notice and had to wing.

A final past highlight was ‘African Stories’ with Caine Prize winners EC Esondo Waiting, and Kenyan Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This session was recorded by ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bookshow/brisbane-writers-festival-african-stories/2973532

RosieThe 2015 sessions were right up there too. I was thrilled to moderate three separate sessions with one author in each, beginning with the inimitable Graeme Simsion talking about The Rosie Effect. Graeme delighted in his audience and met many of them in the queue beforehand and then in the auditorium before the session began. He even beat me to it and jumped on stage to introduce me! I loved how he answered the questions with clarity and stayed on topic. I won’t give away his excellent tips on how to write comedy. The Rosie Effect also deals with big issues. The audience loved him. So did I.

Forever YoungMy second session was with 2014 PM Literary Award co-winner Steven Carroll. I was quaking because his new novel Forever Young is the best literary fiction I’ve read this year and he is such an eminent author (see *below) but we hit it off straight away with a shared interest in art and music (even though I disgraced myself on stage with an innocent question about the song Please Please Me. Unfortunately Steven wouldn’t sing the Dylan version of Forever Young but in every other way he exceeded expectations with his answers to my questions. This was a session of profound insights as well as lots of laughs. I’m now reading through the rest of his stunning Glenroy series.

ShiningMy last session was with Somali refugee Abdi Aden. Abdi enthralled the audience with his powerful story in Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man, which tells how he escaped from soldiers in Somali and his torturous journey to a refugee camp in Kenya and then to Romania, Germany and Australia. I have never seen an audience with such anguish in their faces as they listened to Abdi speak about what it’s like to be a refugee. Abdi recognises the generosity of the Australian people in giving him the opportunity to shine here.

 

Other authors I admire and had a moment to speak with in passing were Cass Moriarty, Briony Stewart, Felicity Plunkett and Christine Bongers (too quickly!) and I know I have forgotten to mention some – apologies.

I also met Richard Glover when I inadvertently mistook him for an *eminent writer of literary fiction. I’ll be hearing Richard speak about Flesh Wounds soon and know he will be hilarious.

Thank you to the wonderful publicists from the publishing companies and the staff and volunteers of the BWF who looked after us all so well. Our minds are now wide open!

G Simsion

Struggling Book Children

BirrungSome thought-provoking Australian novels for children have appeared recently. Standouts include New Boy by Nick Earls (Puffin), Run, Pip, Run by J.C. Jones (Allen & Unwin), Dropping In by Geoff Havel (Fremantle Press), Birrung the Secret Friend by Children’s Laureate, Jackie French (Angus & Robertson) and Plenty by Ananda Braxton-Smith (Black Dog Books, Walker Books).

Nick Earls uses some of his own experiences as an Irish boy moving to Australia in one of his best works for children so far, New Boy.

New Boy

Earls’ character, Herschelle moves to Australia and has to deal with bullying and racism as a white South African who speaks English. His teacher looks Chinese but speaks with an Australian accent. Herschelle was popular and sporty but is now paired with Max, who looks like a nerd. Humour, and embarrassment, is derived from misunderstanding of Australian slang and idioms, such as ‘bring a plate’. This book is a very clever twist on the usual refugee story. Displacement comes in many forms.

Run Pip RunRun, Pip, Run by newcomer J.C. Jones is quite a hard-hitting story about a 10-year-old girl who lives with an old man and tries to manage alone when he is taken to hospital. Her teacher, Mr Blair, is intuitive and tries to help her, endangering his own position. Pip is an engaging, resourceful character. This novel makes important points about child welfare and children at risk.

 

I loved the humour in Geoff Havel’s The Real Facts of Life when I read it years ago. He has created more appealing characters in his latest novel for children, Dropping In.Dropping In

Stick and Ranga are adventurous and include new boy, James, who has cerebral palsy, in their stunts. A girl, Jess, also joins their group, and Stick isn’t quite sure how he should act around her.

Jackie French has begun a new series for younger readers with Birrung the Secret Friend.

Sydney’s early European colony is brought to life through the eyes of Barney who is welcomed into the home of clergyman, Richard Johnson and his wife when he is starving. Aboriginal girl, Birrung, also lives there. Johnson’s love and care, even at the risk of his own health, for the people around him is told through the likable lens of Barney’s eyes and voice.

 

PlentyAnd Ananda Braxton-Smith’s story, Plenty about 10-year-old Maddy who has to move to the country is a stunner. Maddy loved her home and friends but gradually falls under the spell of her Nana’s indigenous orchids and learns what home and sanctuary really are from Sudanese refugee girl, Grace. The writing and imagery is first-rate.

 

Let’s hear if for the boys! – Chrissy Classics you’ve Read with your Kids

Grinch ChristmasAs we romp ever closer to that special night of the year, don’t forget to take a moment or two to sit with someone small and share some magic. You never know, it may extend into a lifetime of golden memories.

Nick EarlsToday’s classics you’ve read with your kids starts out with multi-talented SE QLD writer, Nick Earls and despite his difficulty connecting with frost-bite and using the oven in 30 C degree plus weather to roast a traditional meal for three days, I believe is definitely on the right track with these all time favourites.

Nick Earls’ sugar plum delights…

Stick ManOkay, Christmas. I have to admit it doesn’t take up a huge part of our library. Maybe I’m more of a Grinch than I realised. Books are big in our house – my son is five – and a dinosaur Christmas book could really get some traction. In lieu of that, I think we’re looking at Polar Express  by Chris Van Allsburg and Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffer. Perhaps Christmas books aren’t a big feature for us because we don’t connect with the religious side of it, or all the snow and cold-climate traditions?

Pat FlynnNext up, popular kids’ author, mad keen surfer and more than adequate tennis player, Pat Flynn shows us that we need look no further than our own glorious coastline for hilarious and meaningful Christmas inspiration, Aussie-style!

Pat Flynn’s Aussie flavoured Christmas Classics…

The other day my four-year old looked up at me with big, solemn eyes. ‘Dad, is it “Santa” or “Father Christmas?”’

‘Umm, I think you can use both.’

‘Okay.’ She thought for a bit. ‘Do you think Santa and Father Christmas will bring me a pony?’

It’s that time of year again, and what would Christmas be without stories of snow and reindeer during sweltering nights? Fortunately, there are some Aussie Christmas books to reflect our experiences down under, and these tend to be the ones I read to my own children. Here are some favourites.

 

12 Days of Aussie Christmas The 12 Days of Aussie Christmas by Colin Buchanan and Glen Singleton.

With half a dozen snags, five rusty utes and four footy fans, what’s not to love? Comes with a great song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_4IlcGyosw

  The Down Under 12 Days of Christmas by Michael Salmon

There is always plenty of detail in a Michael Salmon boDown under 12 days Christmasok to help enjoy a second or third reading.

 An Aussie Day Before Christmas Kilmeny Niland

and

An Aussie Night before Christmas An Aussie Night Before Christmas Yvonne Morrison and Kilmeny Niland

Any books that link Christmas with fairy bread and lamingtons are all right with me. Frivolous and funny.

Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King.

Beautifully written and illustrated, this book reminds us that while we’re often battling nature at Christmas time, we’re at our best when we help each other through the tough times.

 856-20141023120845-Cover_Mr-Darcy-and-the-Christmas-Pudding_R Mr Darcy and the Christmas Pudding by Alex Field and Peter Carnavas.

Peter Carnavas is my favourite illustrator (mine too Pat, mine too) and this Mr Darcy Christmas book sees him having a quaking good time drawing Mr Darcy the duck, Lizzy Duck and her sisters.

Well that should keep you well and truly satisfied this Festive Season. As I continue to crank up the silly season spirit in readiness for celebration and cheer-sharing, I want to say to every body who’s ever visited and read these posts, who’s ever ended up trekking down one of the many wonderful stories for kids I’ve tried to share with you over the past year – Thanks! Wishing you all a very very Merry Christmas! Dimity

Santa reading

 

 

Brisbane Writers Festival Dazzles

Analogue MenThe  2014 Brisbane Writers Festival had an inspiring launch on Thursday night when author/publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What – about the lost boys of Sudan) told a full tent  about the genesis of McSweeney’s publishing company and its 826 Valencia Writing Centres. The tutoring behind these pirate, superhero and other themed storefronts has helped countless children with their writing. Groups doing similar work in Australia are Sydney’s Story Factory with its Martian Embassy, Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, and Book Links in Queensland is working towards its own centre.

My next session was ‘Dangerous Allies’ where Robert Manne interviewed Malcolm Fraser in front of a capacity crowd. The insights about Australia’s alliance with the US were provocative and chilling.

‘Zen and the Art of Tea’ was a light-hearted exploration of tea by Morris Gleitzman and Josephine Moon. Josephine’s tip about brewing lavender, garlic or basil to make teas sounds worth trying and Morris – a literary Geoffrey Rush – was hilarious. He personified coffee as a bully, and tea as a whispering lover.

David Hunt was in fine form discussing his Indies Book winner, Girt which is a retelling of Australian history with a comedic eye.

It was fun to cross paths with David Malouf (for the second time in two weeks), Jennifer Byrne, Will Kostakis, Pamela Rushby and Tristan Bancks. If only there was more time for more sessions … I would have loved to see YA writers such as A.J. Betts, Isobelle Carmody and Jackie French but they were either offsite or clashed with my events. Andy Griffiths was so popular he had his own signing area after the other children’s writers’ part of the program had finished. Chairing Andy and John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) a few years ago was one of the funniest times of my life.

Forgotten Rebels of EurekaThis year I was privileged to moderate sessions with Clare Wright on The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) and Nick Earls on Analogue Men (Vintage). Clare must be the world’s most informed person in her field of women at Eureka. Her book deservedly won the Stella Prize this year. It is compulsive, engaging reading, notwithstanding its 500+ pages.

Nick was as funny as expected and revealed a secret about Analogue Men. We learned that his favourite Dr Who is Jon Pertwee and his favourite tech device Bluetooth. I explained how I laughed out loud repeatedly over one scene that I read on instant replay and Nick implied that my brain is like that of a goldfish. But no – it really was the skilful writing. It was wonderful to hear the laughing throughout this session and see the animated audiences in both these events.

Many thanks to the authors involved in the Festival, particularly Clare and Nick, and to the incredible BWF staff and volunteers led by Kate Eltham.

The D Publishing furore, exciting Earls news and if:book’s ebook

So, surely the digital publishing world is winding down for Christmas? The list of announcements and industry stoushes must be coming to an end? Nope, not if the buzz around D Publishing’s contracts, Exciting Press’s Nick Earls deal and if:book Australia’s first ebook are any indication.

According to Crikey’s new Lit-icism blogger, Bethanie Blanchard, the furore over Dymocks’ D Publishing venture’s author contracts continues. She provides an excellent analysis here. D Publishing is a new venture for the book retailer, launched only a few weeks ago. Bookish social media users have been in a flap ever since with warnings for authors over what has been described as “Australia’s worst publishing contract”.

I haven’t seen one of the contracts, but would argue that any author can negotiate with any prospective publisher, and if that publisher won’t budge on clauses of concern, then they’re probably not going to care much about the author and their book/s in the future either, so the author should look elsewhere. Smashwords might be a good start, though it is possible to go it alone too. Services like BookBaby and Lulu are other options to consider.

If they’ll have you, the mainstream publishers still seem to be the best bet in terms of creating a professionally edited, well-designed and marketed product, though Australia’s own Nick Earls has just spurned the legacy publishers to sign a 12-book digital distribution deal with a small US start-up, Exciting Press. Bet they’re excited!

Meanwhile, the good people at if:book Australia have just published a free ebook, Hand Made High Tech, containing ten essays from Australian writers on the future of books and reading in a digital world. It’s edited by if:book Australia manager Simon Groth, and published using the WordPress-powered PressBooks platform. You can download it free for Kindle, as an ePub file for your e-ink reader, as a PDF, or read it online. There’s a hashtag, #ifbookessay, so you can join the conversation while reading too.

The opening chapter is by Associate Professor Sherman Young, author of The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book (UNSW Press 2007) and Media Convergence (Palgrave, 2011). I haven’t yet read the latter, but recommend the former to anyone who is interested in the future of the book. Sadly, it is not available as an ebook, but you can order the print version. It’s a very beautiful object as far as printed book go.

I’m looking forward to reading the second chapter, by Australian publishing veteran Peter Donoughue, the former managing director of John Wiley & Sons Australia blogs about industry developments at Pub Date Critical. It was one of his posts that finally helped me get my head around the wholesale versus agency models for book distribution.

The other essayists are author John Birmingham, founder and CEO of Norg Media Bronwen Clune, digital poet Jason Nelson, journalist, novelist and podcaster Myke Bartlett, comics guru Jackie Ryan, writer and game developer Paul Callaghan and author of the Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living Christy Dena.

Inside a Dog

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Who would have thought that these words, uttered by the legendary Grouho Marx, would have gone on to inspire a website for young readers?

Inside a Dog was originally launched in May 2006 by the State Library of Victoria’s Centre for Youth Literature. Since then is has hosted many ‘writers in residence’ on its blog, published hundreds of book reviews by teenagers and given birth to the Inky Awards. Its purpose is to encourage reading amongst young people and to promote Australian writers and their work.

Recently, the dog had a facelift. Actually it’s more than just a surface spruce-up and redesign. The new site has a lot of additional functionality, including forums, book clubs and teacher resources. I was lucky enough to go along to the re-launch of the site, hosted by The Age, on Tuesday 8 March.

As well as all the things you would expect at such a launch, speeches from people at the Centre for Youth Literature and The Age, and a tour of the website and its functions, this launch also included a key note speech from writer Bernard Beckett.

I’ve got to admit that I’d never heard of Bernard Beckett prior to this event. But I was seriously impressed by his speech. As well as being a writer, he is also a teacher, and he spoke about engaging students with reading. He talked about the importance of encouraging the enjoyment of reading, and he did so with passion, insight and a great deal of wit. All those attending received a copy of his latest book, August, which I have now placed in my must-read-soon stack.

So why am I telling you about the launch? It’s simply an excuse for me to encourage you all, be you young or young at heart, to visit the Inside a Dog website. If you’re a parent or teacher, browse through the reviews to see what kids are reading and the find out what they really think of books like Twilight and Harry Potter. If you’re a young person, register on the site and share your opinion of the books you are reading. And everyone should check out the Writer in Residence blogs. The current Writer in Residence is Brian Falkner, author of Brainjack and The Tomorrow Code. Past writers have included Daniel Ducrou (Byron Journals) and Nick Earls (True Story Of Butterfish).

It’s certainly not too dark to read inside this dog!

Tune in next time as J.E. Fison drops by on the blog tour for her latest Hazard River books.

Catch ya later,  George

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