Young children don’t always notice differences in people, at least not in the passively aggressive way some adults are inclined to do. Sadly, the recognition of characteristics dissimilar to their own either physical or behavioural is largely a mindset learned from their environment. Picture books like these do a tremendous job of challenging erroneous mindsets and applauding individuality. They are charming and direct, yet subtle and entertaining enough to read repeatedly.
Dramatically different (pardon the pun) from anything else McLaughlin has produced before, this avant-garde picture book cleverly combines colour recognition (with emphasis on the primary colours), geometry and social acceptance all in one neat entertaining package. Several groups of differents converge into one community space but despise one another because reds, blues and yellows just don’t match. Rules are established and boundaries are enforced. Life is tense and restrictive. Until one day, quite unexpectedly, a really different different comes along, radically altering their perceptions and igniting a massive appreciation of how being different is actually better. Friendship prevails and happiness blooms.
This story told in few words and bold striking characters, relays a simple premise of live and let love. It suggests to children that you can be any shape, size, or colour and still have a voice. You can like any type of music and have friends who love oranges even if you do not. You are unique and therefore amazing. It’s that simple. A modern day classic that welcomes differences and embraces change. Magnificent. Timely. Recommended.
Australian NAPLAN advocates turn away now for this tremendous picture book blithely ignores language conventions and unapologetically dismisses sticklers for rules. I love how it also challenges every spell check on the planet.
Derived from the author’s own experience with dyslexia, My Storee is a beautifully refreshing expose of encouraging creativity for creativity’s sake by forsaking the bounds of perfect spelling and correctness; paradigms that can severely road block learning and advancement for a person afflicted with dyslexia.
A young boy is a master storyteller but is afraid to let his dragons loose at school for fear of grammatical reprimand. That is until a teacher with extreme foresight, long hair and very loud shirts breezes into his life and gives him permission to be who he is and shine. Thank you Mr Watson.
Full marks for this book, which screams thinking outside of the box, applauds alternative teaching approaches and champions creative verve to the nth degree. I love it, every word and every ridiculously bold bright illustration. Viva la Mr Watsons, wherever you are out there. We need more like you. My Storee is concrete reinforcement of embracing who you are and all that you have, or have not, with verve and positivity.
The Harper Effect has caused even a non-tennis aficionado such as myself to develop an interest in tennis, particularly in the lives and commitment of tennis players. The Harper Effect (Pan Macmillan Australia) is Taryn Bashford’s debut YA novel. It has already had an ‘effect’, I can’t get it out of my head …
Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Taryn.
Thank you very much for having me 😊
As a debut novelist, how were you able to acquire a publishing contract?
My book deal came about after I had a few fingers in pies, and a couple of them came up with plums 😉 I had entered the Varuna House Publishing Introduction Program which was run in conjunction with Pan Macmillan. I was one of the winners which meant I got to stay at Varuna House for a week and work on my manuscript with a mentor. However, at the same time, Curtis Brown, a literary agent in Sydney, took me on board. I had submitted my novel to them some months before, following a meeting at the CYA Conference in Brisbane. They sped up the process so that I didn’t have to wait for the residency before knowing if Pan Macmillan would publish my novel. I got to use that residency for the second book instead, as Pan Macmillan offered a two-book deal.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Although we’re far from Brisbane, I belong to the SCBWI and attend meetings down there whenever I can. I enjoy meeting people there, and particularly sharing what I’ve learnt on the road to publishing. I also attend meetings of the SCBWI sub-branch on the Sunshine Coast for similar reasons. It’s great to share experiences, stories and talk all things books. I also put together a writing group after meeting various writers at Varuna House or at conferences like Brisbane’s CYA Conference. We all live in the local area, so it was meant to be! We meet regularly to critique each other’s work and we also support each other in all aspects of the publishing and writing process.
Which well-known professional tennis player do you most admire and why?
I’d have to say Serena Williams because her recent media activity about sport being a way of empowering girls is very close to my heart. Research shows this to be true, and it also shows that girls in sport have much better self-esteem and better body images of themselves. This is so important now that our teens are exposed to photoshopped images of movie stars, actresses and singers – and can never hope to be that perfect.
What tip to playing better tennis can you give us?
You’re probably better off asking my brother that question. He’s the tennis star in our family. However, having been a part of his journey, I believe the key differentiator to being a great tennis player and being a brilliant champion tennis player is how you play the mind game. This is evident in The Harper Effect too when Harper falters, but put simply, if you don’t believe in yourself, and if you don’t have that instinct to win whatever it takes, or have mental tools to help you deal with losing a point, then you’ll often choke when the pressure turns up.
Why have you written a YA novel about tennis? Why tennis rather than another sport?
The Harper Effect was first written when I was 14 and my brother had recently won Nationals at Wimbledon and then won a scholarship to the Nick Bollettierri Academy in Florida. At the time, tennis was a big deal in our house. Obviously, I’ve re-drafted the novel several times since then, and my focus was on highlighting teens that go above and beyond the norm, and contrasting that with the fact that they’re still teens. This means they’re making mistakes, still wrangling with teen issues like boyfriends and sibling rivalry and school, but they’re on a world stage so the consequences of bad choices are often greater.
I’m really impressed with how you incorporated this into the novel, but could you also tell us here something readers should know about the lives of professional athletes, particularly tennis players. It sounds like such a struggle and sacrifice.
I’m glad you got that message. The world of any professional athlete is not glamorous, even if it seems that way on TV. If you read Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, this is again highlighted. The training, sacrifices, focus and hard work are all needed every day and that’s tough, but then the rewards if you make it big are massive. I’m talking specifically of tennis when I say that. Some sports are not as lucrative, but I believe the highs of winning, of travelling, of breaking records and proving yourself, are worth the hard work and having to sacrifice that beef burger 😊
What is the significance of the title, The Harper Effect?
The effect that Harper has on Colt is an important part of the plot. She draws him out of himself so that he’s less robotic in his tennis and he becomes more ‘human’ in his personal life. This in turn helps his game. The effect she has on him is also that his ‘mental game’ improves – he’s able to stay strong and face the pressure head on. Harper’s effect on Jacob and Aria are less admirable, but her actions do result in Aria spreading her wings and going on to bigger and better things in Rome, and to Jacob having a wake-up call about his drinking and the need to grow up and leave behind his childhood.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Harper Hunter is a 16-year-old tennis player who’s just turned professional and is struggling with the extra pressure that puts on her game. This results in her coach of 5 years dumping her, and telling her she doesn’t have what it takes. Harper has been on the junior circuit for five years by now. As a result, she’s missed a lot of her childhood and it’s meant her sister and best friend, Jacob, someone she’d fallen in love with, have become romantically involved. It’s this situation that shows Harper at her weakest, because she’s yet to learn how to deal with the situation in a mature way and so she makes some bad choices. It’s through her understanding of Colt and his life, and through helping him, that she grows up enough to eventually make the right choices in her life.
Aria Hunter is her sister. She’s another high achieving teen but in the music arena. Her dream is to go to the Sydney Conservatorium with her boyfriend, Jacob. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but ultimately, she gives up her dream after Harper betrays her. Luckily, she finds a bigger dream to chase.
Colt is the 17 year old tennis pro who becomes Harper’s mixed doubles partner and training partner. He appears to be a cold, closed-off person at first, but we learn that it’s because he’s hiding some family secrets in order to make it in the world of tennis. His personal issues affect his game, but it’s Harper who helps him to the other side of an ocean of choices.
Jacob is Harper and Aria’s next-door neighbour. They’ve been friends since kindergarten. With Harper on tour from a young age, their friendship trio was tested, and he becomes romantically involved with Aria. Then he realises he is with her in an attempt to get back a piece of Harper, the girl he’s truly in love with. He’s also somewhat spoilt by his neglectful parents who tend to buy his happiness with money and gifts. This impacts his personality as he’s used to getting what he wants. When he can’t have Harper, he truly goes off the rails.
How could Harper and Aria’s parents have predicted their passions when they named them?
The girl’s names are more an extension of the parent’s interests and loves before they were born. Their mum is a music buff, and so she got her choice for their first child. Their dad was a high achieving tennis player and was keen to name his child after his tennis idol. In my mind, he got his choice since he’d not got it for the first child. In the end, the girls reflected their namesakes – I guess I could’ve swapped them over to confuse things!
What’s your favourite colour and what is the significance of purple in the novel?
My favourite colour is cerulean blue. It’s just so pretty and makes me feel relaxed when I see it. Purple is significant in the novel because it represents different things as the characters grow up. At first, it represents their childhood and that’s represented by the Purple Woods where they spent most of the childhood playing games and just being kids. The Purple Woods then become part of what helps Harper deal with her on-court pressure. She’s told by her coach, Milo, to go somewhere in her mind where she feels relaxed and happy and somewhere that has a calming effect on her. Purple Time is then born. It helps Harper to win. But when she loses Purple Time, after everything back home goes wrong and the woods no longer represent that happy and safe place, it shows that she’s grown as a player as she no longer needs Purple Time to win. She is able to find the resources within herself to deal with the pressure. As we near the climax of the novel, we find Jacob is still lost in the Purple Woods, unable to leave them behind. He’s got a way to go before he grows up. Harper, on the other hand, no longer wishes to be there. She understands it’s time to leave them behind and face the world as an adult. Aria has spread her wings and flown to Rome, so she has also let go of her childhood.
What happened at the launch of The Harper Effect?
I had an amazing time at the official launch of The Harper Effect on the Sunshine Coast. One of my hopes for my book is that teens and in fact people of all ages are inspired to both chase their dreams (sporting or not), but to also stay in sport and even achieve professional levels in sport. So I put together a panel of young elite athletes as examples of real life Harpers. I wanted the audience to see that no matter their dream, these girls were living proof that with hard work and dedication, self-motivation and focus, you can achieve what you set out to. I’m also very keen to give our teens new role models in our literature. Instead of giving them images of beauty to live up to, let’s give them sporty, confident and successful heroines in books to look up to. The panel were living and breathing role models too.
For whom have you written this book?
The book was dedicated to my brother. He played the professional circuit before becoming a professional tennis coach. He coached young players like Amelie Mauresmo and Marcos Baghdatis, who were at the time in their teens. While The Harper Effect is not based on him or his experiences, as the story is completely fictional, the facts and details that I learnt from him are an important part of the authenticity of the setting of the novel.
I know it’s only just been published but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from readers?
Yes, the main ones being that everyone loves Colt and Milo and that the tennis part of the book surprised them. Many readers found the setting of the world of professional tennis to be very interesting. They reported that they looked at the play at the recent Australian Open through new eyes. That was very gratifying. They also felt inspired to follow their dreams or meet their goals.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I’m currently re-reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. She is one of my favourite American YA writers. The book before that was Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. I’ve not come across a Margaret Atwood book I don’t love 😊 Looking at my list (I keep a list that highlights my thoughts on the books I’ve read, and I also make a note of the publisher), the book before that was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – also a re-read because his writing is so dense you need to re-read it so you don’t miss any of his gorgeous phrasing!
Whether relaxing at home, on the road or in the air, or sitting by the side of the pool at a fancy resort, your kids will need some great reads to keep them chilled and entertained all summer. Here are a few funny books from popular series for middle graders that will have them enthralled from start to end.
Logie-award-winning television series by Danny Katzand Mitch Vane, Little Lunch is the perfect school-based comedy to read when school is out. Triple the Laughs, fourth in the illustrated book series, contains three immersing stories that will have kids snorting and chortling all the way through.
In ‘The Ya-Ya’, Atticus learns to appreciate his grandmother’s cooking after a long episode of avoiding the small, brown, smelly things in his lunchbox that look and smell like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe.
‘The Dress-Up Day’ is about Battie using the alias of superhero, Stretcho, to hide the fact that he is really scared of a lot of things, including moths, crabs, knees, and especially dogs.
The third episode involves Melanie being punished and unable to eat her piece of ultra-choco-happiness cake because Tamara has put ‘The Germblock’ on her following a visit to the toilets. But did Melanie really not wash her hands? Rory seems to know the answer!
Hilarious, authentically appropriate (and sometimes perfectly inappropriate) antics that readers from age seven will relate to or simply have a good old chuckle about, Little Lunch Triple the Laughsis a winner.
Number six in this comedic Timmy Failure series by Stephan Pastis is ‘The Cat Stole My Pants’. The injudicious boy detective is back with another mission to achieve Greatness, this time on an island in Key West, Florida, apparently NOT on holiday / honeymoon with his mum and new step-dad, Doorman Dave.
The graphic novel for tweens sets sail with a pair of missing (or stolen) pants whilst touring the house of famous author, Ernest Hemingway. It then takes us through a sea of laughter as Timmy’s scepticism and hypochondria are a consistent source of his ‘failures’. His social and relationship building skills are tested via interactions with Dave, and Dave’s nephew Emilio, which of course Timmy exploits, I mean, recruits as an ‘unpaid’ intern in his detective agency. Their mission is to solve the mystery of the mysterious note-dropper and a hidden treasure somewhere in the town, leading to a gloriously unexpected and emotionally imposing resolve. All the while, Timmy’s elusively illusive polar bear agent is apparently, according to Timmy, extorting money for a book report required for his summer school homework. But someone else more reliable is there to save Timmy from his unscholarly ways.
With its sarcastic and dry wit, quirkiness, unbelievable yet somewhat uncannily familiar circumstances, and comical illustrations, The Cat Stole My Pantsdelivers an unputdownable read packed with action, mystery and lessons in (perhaps how to not) handle new and estranged relationships. Set to steal the attention of children from age eight.
Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again!is the third in the super-charged, action-packed comedy series blessed with an unbelievably talented array of popular Australian authors. Featuring stories from the Treehouse’s Andy Griffiths, R.A. Spratt, John Marsden, Tony Wilson, Meredith Costain, Alex Ratt, Tristan Bancks, Deborah Abela and Alan Brough, plus fantastically funny sketches by Andrea Innocent.
Again, another ‘brilliantly coloured’ book; literally so eye-blindingly bright you can’t miss it on a bookshelf, but also contextually vibrant in nature to keep its readers totally entranced from neon-green chapter to neon-green chapter.
Nine stories cleverly unfold within the blood-orange cover containing a mix of the unexpected, frightening, enlightening and ridiculous. From a life-threatening shower ordeal, to three greedy pigs and a wolf pie, a psychotic childhood clown come back to life, a high-flying ‘Bum’, to an abandoned girl forging a life of cake and Royalty. Each one different, each with its own voice and level of intensity.
Recommended for middle graders, however make note, this edition is not for the faint-hearted! The authors have definitely turned it up a notch compared to the prequels in terms of ‘scare factor’ and complexity. Some truly nightmarishly frightening with others making you question who you can trust. But all in all, Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again!is a ludicrously entertaining collection of stories to thrill every sense of humour.
Now here’s a raucously Roman romp of colossal proportions! Julius Zebra: Bundle with the Britons! by Gary Northfieldis the second hysterically historical book in the series, brilliantly mixing fictional absurdity with non-fictional goodness. It is charged with a chariot-load of droll, and senseless, humour, and insanely wacky black and white illustrations neatly slotting into the storyline throughout. There is also the inclusion of authentically pertinent details of the ancient era with its Roman numeral numbered pages and facts on what the Romans brought to Britain at the closing.
This is the story of The People’s Champion, gladiator Julius Zebra, and his animal cronies on a mission for granted freedom. Emperor Hadrian, the villain in this tale, has promised this outcome on the grounds that Julius defeats the Britons, to win governance of the Roman Empire. Led by Septimus, the boss of the gladiator school, the animals are taken unwillingly to the far-off land of Britannia for a final shot at victory, only to realise their perpetuated slavery will remain unless they stand up for themselves. This does not come without a series of daft and imprudently courageous attempts to outsmart Septimus, their opponents and the Emperor.
Teamwork, friendship and loyalty are at the heart of this fast-paced scramble to freedom. Bundle with the Britonsis zany, zesty and zebra-tastic, seizing its middle grade audience with every rip-roaring joke and clanging bangs of energy.
Hi Alex Ratt, could you tell us about yourself and your alter-ego?
That’s a very existential question! I have to decide which is me and which is the alter ego…Well, I was Frances Watts first, so let’s start with her—I mean me.
I have written twenty-two books, ranging from picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson) to historical novels for young adults (most recently The Peony Lantern, set in nineteenth-century Japan). And then there’s my less fragrant alter ego, Alex Ratt. I thought being someone completely different would allow me the freedom to write something completely different—hence Alex Ratt. (Also, Alex Ratt has a big bushy false moustache and Frances doesn’t. And who wouldn’t jump at an excuse to wear a false moustache?!)
Who is Jules Faber?
Jules Faber, I’m delighted to say, has a much more straightforward identity: he is Jules Faber! He is also an extremely talented cartoonist and illustrator, well known for his work on Ahn Do’s Weirdo series and David Warner’s The Kaboom Kid series.
How important are the illustrations in this book?
The illustrations are integral. The Stinky Street Stories (Pan Macmillan Australia) should feel welcoming and accessible to all kinds of readers, whether they are confident readers or not, and the illustrations do so much to convey the humour that is inherent in the text. One thing I particularly loved about working with Jules on this book is his spirit of adventure. Whatever wacky image I can dream up, he is prepared to draw. A sculpture of a rocket ship made entirely of carrots? No problem!
What type of comedy do you write?
Despite the word ‘stinky’ in the title, I don’t actually see the humour in The Stinky Street Stories as focusing on the gross. To me, the real humour is in the absurdity of situations and images. And the challenge is to take the absurdity and, within the bounds of the story, make it logical.
How do you get your readers to laugh out loud (as I did about some carrots and a pumpkin head)?
I’m glad you liked those bits—that’s exactly what I mean about the humour being absurd rather than gross. That’s where I find those laugh-out-loud moments: in unexpected juxtapositions, in ideas pushed to ridiculous extremes, in characters who treat these hilarious scenarios seriously.
Brian is a very funny character. Could you tell us about him, his sister Brenda, and any other characters?
Brian (‘call me Brain—everyone does’) has a somewhat overinflated sense of his own intellectual prowess, which is why he is able to meet absurdity with seriousness. His friend Nerf is the perfect sidekick, being just ever so slightly dafter—but loyal and good-hearted. The real brain of the family is Brian’s sister Brenda. And in his heart, Brian knows it to be so, and calls on her in moments of crisis.
What is your favourite scene in The Stinky Street Stories?
You picked it yourself: the pumpkin heads. Because within that particular story, ‘The Ripe and Rotten Reek’, it not only makes perfect sense for Brian and Nerf to be running across a field with pumpkins on their heads, it is a positively brilliant plan!
Who do you hope reads this book?
Everyone! By which I mean boys and girls. I had a lot of fun turning gender stereotypes on their heads. The (anti)heroes might be boys, but the girls have a strong, smart, sassy presence. And, as I said above, I hope the book is enjoyed by confident readers and reluctant readers—we (by which I mean the whole village that makes a book: the author and illustrator and publisher and editor and designer) were determined to make it a book that had something to offer every kind of kid and every kind of reader.
What’s next in Stinky Street?
The second in the series, 2 Stinky, will be published in August. There are smelly sewers, pongy penguins…and a house of (stinky) horrors!
What other humour have you written?
All my books have humour in them—it’s just the way I’m wired—but the first overtly humorous books were those of the Ernie & Maud series, featuring trainee superhero Ernie Eggers and his trainee sidekick: a sheep called Maud. More recently I have contributed stories to two humorous anthologies, Laugh Your Head Off and Laugh Your Head Off Again.
How many aliases do you have?
Oh dear…You’re on to me, aren’t you?! The truth is, Alex Ratt is not my only pen name. Frances Watts is a pen name too. (Yes, my pen name has a pen name.) My real name is Ali Lavau, and I am a very serious book editor who hardly ever wears a false moustache to work.