Janeen Brian’s Hunger for Stories Leaves us Wanting More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for the privilege, Janeen! 🙂

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

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

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

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Three Types of Charm – Janeen Brian Picture Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

The Five Mile Press, 2016.

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

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

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

NLA Publishing, 2015.

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

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

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

Allen & Unwin, 2014.

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

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‘Balm for the Soul’ – Summer holiday Reviews

Parachute Nintendo gameSummer school holidays for me are childhood memories of searing hot days in a sun-shrivelled backyard, homegrown apricots cold from the fridge after a swim in the above ground pool, and losing myself for hours on end in stories. What are your perfect summer holiday memories? Chances are your children’s summers are crystallising into something unforgettable as we speak and although game-playing is much more sophisticated and consuming than my days on the old Game and Watch Nintendos (Go Snoopy Tennis and Parachute!), here’s hoping story books still play a significant role in their holiday adventures. Here are some outstanding titles that are perfect for sharing these holidays. Picture books, yes, but hum dingers they are!Perfect

For the freedom seekers…

I am falling more in love with and in awe of Danny Parker’s work with each new release. Perfect, illustrated by Freya Blackwood wildly perpetuates this love affair. As revealed in a recent seminar, Parker uses song-like nine syllabic rhyming verse (akin to kuji mantras) to eloquently describe three children’s summer place and activities. It’s superbly simple and concise yet captures each moment of the children’s life with astounding alacrity. They lounge in the sunshine, mix and make, break and create. They meander and breathe, soar and believe until storm clouds pen them indoors. Their days are full of scheming, with nights of ‘beautiful dreaming’.

Perfect Illos spread # 2 Perfect, quite simply…is. Crisp, clean and wholesome smudged with daring that belies the adventure of the children’s days. Summer essence is beautifully bound together with Blackwood’s timeless pencil and acrylic painted illustrations; delicate and creamy, exuding a fullness of spirit that only children with no restraint of time or imagination possess. A perfect portrayal of freedom and joie de vivre. Better than Nintendo! Read more about these two creators and Perfect in Romi’s post, here.

Little Hare Books Hardie Grant Egmont October 2015

Australian Kids through the YearsFor reminiscing…

Another better than perfect picture book to place up front and foremost on your bookshelves this summer is Tania McCartney’s and Andrew Joyner’s, Australian Kids through the Years. This is blindingly brilliant. At first, I had a niggling concern that the target audience (5 – 8) might suffer some disconnection with the past, it being so far away from yesterday for them and their collected reference frames, but I was happily wrong on this account. My Miss 9 adored every page, every era, every word, and every image (yes, even the 80s) of this unreal expose of kids’ lives from the very first inhabitants to present day. What they ate, wore, played, and Australian Kids Years illo spreadeven read is faithfully recounted in kid-friendly pictures and bubble boxes. There’s a real personal intimacy with the kids from each time period created by McCartney’s short and sweet vignettes so joyfully illustrated by Joyner. (His illustrations smack of Little Golden Book, old-world charm – a perfect match for the text).

So much more than a catalogue of that-was-then facts, Australian Kids Through the Years brings hysterically accurate information right back into our lives (hysterical because I still own a Walkman) and is absolutely brilliant to share with today’s Z Generation. My Miss Z revelled in the revelations. (Yes, Mummy really did love her dragster bike). A must for homes and schools, and late-20th Century tragics like me. You’ll be digging out your Nintendo after reading this, too!

Australian Kids Year illo spread # 2Timelines and listings of illustrations are all faithfully included, as well. Read Joy Lawn’s Aussie round up on good reads, here.

National Library of Australia October 2015This & That

For the littlies…

It’s been a little while since the Mem Fox / Judy Horacek duo joined forces. Not since their Where is the Green Sheep? have I read a picture book so many times in one sitting. Happy to report some fresh material is now available to rest your sheep-weary sensibilities and, ironically, Horacek’s iconic sheep make a fleeting cameo in, This & That.

Essentially a tale for the under fours, This & That is robust and short enough to go a few (dozen) rounds at bedtime. Fox focuses her balanced prose with simple rhyme and rhythm mixing fantastical improbabilities with silly acceptability. They are stories, made up for your amusement after all. Horacek’s clean-lined illustrations embellish the possibilities even further. I love her use of pinging colour and light and shade.

This & That has a vaguely familiar feel to it but it’s a formula that works a wonder, if Green Sheep is anything to go by. Not all of Fox’s work works for me but this one has been worth the wait. Guaranteed to be the new go-to bedtime favourite these holidays.

Scholastic Australia October 2015

For the thinkers…River Riddle

If you’re anxious about your kids’ minds slipping in a soporific summer stupor fear not, this fun picture book, River Riddle by first time team, Jim Dewar and Anil Tortop will keep them (and you) engrossed in many minutes of contemplative thought, or in my case many many many minutes. You see, this tale is based on the well-known kids’ logic puzzle and those two words (logic and puzzle) reside uncomfortably in my head. I just find this difficult! That is not to say, impossible. Dewar’s clever rhyming quatrains ably set the scene and pace for Jack whose aim is to make it to the market with his bag of hay…on the other side of a deep wide river.

River Riddle illosHis companions, a fox called Frank and a sheep called Dolly are not to be trusted on their own so in spite of a small boat being available for their river crossing, the dilemma of whom to row across first and whom to leave on shore till later arises. Turns out, Jack is smarter than I am and solves his river riddle but does he make it to the market in time?

Tortop’s kid-cute digi illustrations are boisterous, bright, and cheery. My primary schooler had loads of fun recreating this story and acting out ‘the crossing’ with her toys in a mathematical logical way; again, I had to leave the room so confused did I become. This is the kind of holiday pre-occupation you’d pay for, am I right. Great for small minds and big thinkers.

Scholastic Australia August 2015

If none of these holidays reads suit you, discover more here at the Kids Holiday Reading Guide 2015 – 2016.

To all who have read, wept and laughed at my words and those of so many others this past year, a heartfelt THANK YOU. Have a great Festive Season and a safe, story-filled New Year! I’m off to scoff a few fruit mince pies and of course, keep on reading!

 

 

 

 
 

 

The Hush Treasure Book and Australian Kids through the Years

HushThere used to be much anticipation and excitement about children’s annual book ‘treasuries’ and other compilations. Now we have The Hush Treasure Book (Allen & Unwin) to dip into. This book is special for two reasons. Firstly, it takes the Australian charity ‘Hush’ into the world of books. The specially composed Hush CDs have been bringing music to children in hospitals since 2000. There are now fourteen ‘albums of original music to bring peace and hope to patients and their families’. A CD also accompanies this book.

Secondly, The Hush Treasure Book is a ‘treasure’ of Australian authors and illustrators of children’s books, including the successful partnerships of Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King, and Mark Greenwood and Frane Lessac. Talented Karen Taylor has imaginatively edited the book with lovely attention to detail and Lee and Kevin Burgemeestre have designed the cover and title page. The book can be read through from beginning to end; or poems, short stories and other works could be chosen to suit the reader, an occasion or mood.

Short stories include ‘Doctor Maddie’ by Danny Katz, illustrated by Mitch Vane about sick Honey Bear, and ‘The Best Horse of All’ about a carousel, written by Margaret Wild and sumptuously illustrated by Julie Vivas.

My favourite story is the longest one, ‘Ghost Motel’ about a seemingly creepy motel, by Jackie French and Michael Camilleri.

Poems include ‘We can see the world from here’ written by Jane Godwin and illustrated by Anna Walker, which is apt for a child in bed; ‘Nothing to be scared of’ by Doug Macleod, illustrated from soaring bird’s-eye views by Craig Smith; ‘Oliver’s Town’ by Nick Bland; ‘Ward’ by Shaun Tan (complete with an illustration of an owl); and an exuberant, rhyming poem by Karen Tayleur and Ann James, ‘Dot the Tot’.

There is an amazing, beautifully constructed maze by Judith Rossell, which kept me fascinated till I completed it. What a clever addition to a book for children in bed.

There are also pieces by luminaries of Australian children’s literature Tohby Riddle, Alison Lester, Bob Graham and Jane Tanner; talented newcomers; and a wordless double page spread by Bruce Whatley, which seems to be paying homage to the style of Gregory Rogers.

KidsAnother wonderful book to browse through is Australian Kids through the Years, written by Tania McCartney with pictures by the inimitable Andrew Joyner, published by the National Library of Australia. This is a non-fiction text in picture book form. It looks at children from the first Australian Aboriginal children, the 1800-1840s, the 1850s on the goldfields, 1900-1909, the 1950s and each successive decade until the present. Many of the children come from different ethnic backgrounds.

Each era is described over two double page spreads, with an introduction to the children featured and then a double page of detailed illustration showing what the children, and those around them, are doing. The written text is minimal, often in speech bubbles and short lists; such as what children were reading in the early 1900s – Seven Little Australians, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, and playing in the 1990s – Rugby League, Power Rangers, Little Athletics, Tamagotchi and Super Soaker. It’s great to see 90s children reading Magic Beach by Alison Lester, not least because she features in Hush as well. Jackie French also appears in both books, here with Diary of a Wombat.Magic Beach

Children should be fascinated by changing Australia. No doubt extensive information has been carefully honed to make Australian Kids through the Years accessible and interesting. It is also very well designed.