Books for Boys with Felice Arena & Tristan Bancks

Felice Arena and Tristan Bancks have both written extremely exciting, atmospheric books for boys this year (and girls like them too).

I’ve interviewed them both for the blog and here are Felice’s replies. (Tristan features in the next post)

You both have distinctive first names. Where are they from?

I was named after my grandfather – a longstanding tradition for many first-born sons in Italian families. Felice is pronounced Feh-LEE-che. Imagine growing up with that name in Country Victoria! Felice actually means ‘happy’ in Italian. And it pretty much reflects who I am – happy by name, happy by nature. My family and friends these days just call me ‘Fleech’ for short. Occasionally I get Felix, which is the English version of Felice (but that just makes me think of the cartoon cat).

Where are you based at the moment?

Melbourne.

You have both written an enviable backlist of books for boys. Could you mention some of these titles? 

The Specky Magee series, Sporty Kids, the Andy Roid series, Whippersnapper, and The Boy and the Spy.

I really enjoyed your gripping books published this year. Could you tell us about them – Felice about The Boy and the Spy and Tristan about The Fall (in the next post)?

The Boy and the Spy is a fast-paced WW2 adventure set in Sicily. A twelve year-old Antonio, an orphaned boy, has a chance meeting with an injured American spy hiding out in a grotto, the story launches into a heart-stopping story with action aplenty. Readers are kept in suspense as Antonio helps the spy evade German soldiers and gangsters, make contact with the Allies, and try to find a way to escape the island alive. An important theme carried throughout the story is the notion of family and how we define it.

What genre are they?

Historical-action novel.

Where are they set and how did you create the sense of place?

Wartime Sicily. My mother comes from that Italian isle and I still have relatives there. I’ve been to Sicily several times so I have a real sense of the terrain, which helped when writing the story. As far as the specific time period goes, that took a little more research, but I was able to consult with some family members to help authenticate the tone and settings in the book, and to capture 1943 in the dialogue, details from everyday life, and conditions related to the war.

How do you hook readers quickly into your story?

I love writing movement and action in my stories. A fast pace from the outset can engage some young reader who might not have the patience or attention span to read a slower unfolding plotline weighted down in meandering development. Adding a little movement with a sense of jeopardy or obstacles to overcome early on in the story is a good way to hook young readers quickly. Once they’ve connected with the characters in this way they’re more willing to pay attention to the deeper undercurrents of the story as they emerge farther along in the narrative.

Who are the major characters and why are they in this predicament?

There’s Antonio, an orphaned boy who is frowned upon and pretty much invisible in his seaside town. WW2 is the backdrop to his story, but for Antonio his daily battle is with prejudice. So when he meets a man who has literally dropped from the sky and talks to him as an equal and is desperate for his help, Antonio’s sees a chance to prove himself and deepen his own sense of self-worth. But with this unlikely alliance comes danger – the man is technically the enemy and Antonio is putting his life at risk to help him.

How is the writing style different from some of your other work?

This book heralds a new writing path for me. I’m known for writing contemporary sports-themed stories, and usually in third person. This book and my next book are written in first person and play out in a specific historical time and setting. I’ve wanted to write in this style for a long time, and I’m happy that it’s resonating with readers.

What do you think about each other’s book?

 I loved it. And I’m not just saying that because I know Tristan. What I admire about Tristan’s writing in this story, The Fall, (and Two Wolves) is that he never talks down to his reader. He doesn’t dumb it down. It’s smart and sharp writing, and it’s visual. I think Tristan and I share a love of cinematic storytelling. We both come from TV/film backgrounds, and I think this definitely comes through in our writing.

These books are both published by Penguin Random House. Do you cross paths because of that? Share editors? Go to meetings together?

We don’t share editors or go to the same meetings but we’ve attended the same events and festivals  – and have also shared the stage. Last year for PRH we gave a reading performance of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox at Federation Square in Melbourne. We’ve talked about doing more events together. 

What other books for boys would you recommend – recent and older?

Anything written by Michael Morpurgo, Neil Gaiman, Frank Cottrell Boyce, John Flanagan, David Almond, Gary Paulsen, Brian Selznick, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Newton, Adrian Beck, and… Tristan Bancks.

What are you writing about now or next?

I’m putting the final touches to another historical action story set in Paris in 1910 called Fearless Frederic. It’s about friendship, adventure, and what it means to have courage. It’s due to be published by Penguin Random House Australia April 2nd 2018.

What is significant to you about meeting your readers – as individuals or in a large group setting?

It’s incredibly significant. There’s no other joy like watching young readers hang onto every word you say as you read aloud to them. I would never pass up the opportunity to help jumpstart a love of reading in our next generation of book lovers. It’s also a chance for me to garner feedback and test out ideas – kids are brutally honest and will let you know if they like something or not.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to say thanks to those who have read any of my books and have reached out to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed them. This means a great deal to me. And if you’re just discovering my books for the first time, I hope you’ll also enjoy them.  Oh, and feel free to let me know over at instagram.com/fleech or www.felicearena.com

Thanks Felice, and all the best with The Boy and the Spy and your other books.

Doodles and Drafts – Jess Black Paws for Thought

Jess Black, author of the new Little Paws series joins us at the draft table today to share her inspiration behind these heartwarming story lines. Puppies, chewed shoes and big responsibilities are all part of training a guide dog puppy. The Little Paws series has them all plus buckets of cute puppy appeal to boot. Here’s what Jess has to say:

Writing the Little Paws series was a very positive experience for me. The story lines are fun, there’s plenty of puppy mischief, it’s a family friendly story line but most importantly the kids in the stories are in charge and at the forefront of the story.

Of course, what’s at the heart of the stories is bringing a gorgeous little puppy into your home and committing to raising it on behalf of guide Dogs. This meant that the series involved my spending lots of time with puppies in training with Guide Dogs Australia, understanding what it takes to be a Guide Dog and the impact that having a dog has on the life of a client. This added depth and meaning to writing the stories.

Continue reading Doodles and Drafts – Jess Black Paws for Thought

Christmas is Coming – Picture Books this Season

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it the sound of excited squeals on Christmas morning? Is it the smell of freshly baked cookies? Is it the sight of twinkling fairy lights around your Christmas tree? Or perhaps that satifying feel of a bloated belly after you’ve tasted every gourmet delight! Here are a few picture books for this coming Christmas to help elicit all those fond memories, create new ones, and enrapture all the senses.  

imageWhat Do You Wish For?, Jane Godwin (author), Anna Walker (illus.), Penguin Random House, 2015.

This one is a little bit special. Perhaps even more so for me because I attended the book launch, and met the superlative duo, Jane Godwin and Anna Walker, whose winning books always put a smile on every face and a glow in every heart. And ‘What Do You Wish For?’ is no different. It’s that all kinds of fuzzy warmth, peace and togetherness that Christmas time really represents. As Jane Godwin said herself, a ‘wish’ signifies more of a statement of fear of loss or of something that will not happen, and her intention for this book is for readers to understand that this time of year is, and should be, one of gratitude.

There is an excited buzz in the air every Christmas. Ruby and her friends always put on a special show in the park, and write a wish to hang on the tree. This year, all the children imagine the most wonderful sentiments, including hopeful dreams of teachers getting married and lego coming to life! But Ruby’s wish is too big to write on a little piece of paper. Her wish is of spirit; it’s made of smells of baking, candlelight amongst the dark, wonderful surprises and quality family time. But most of all, her Christmas wish is one of complete serenity, and a warm sparkle in the sky.   
                                                                                            
imageThe combination of Godwin’s inspiring, tender words, and Anna Walker’s beautifully dreamy illustrations is simply divine. I adore the gentle features and cool colour palette with touches of red, and the intricacy of the individually cut paper, watercolour and print spreads. (See Anna’s process here).

‘What Do You Wish For?’ is the most magical treasure for any young reader and their family to cherish this Christmas.  

imageSanta Claus is Coming to Town, Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots (authors), Nathaniel Eckstrom (illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

The Christmas song ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, written by Haven Gillespie and John Frederick Coots became an instant hit in 1934. Still widely played to this day, it is a tune that families know and love. Including a CD track performed by our Aussie talent, Human Nature, and the retro tones and classic-look illustrations by Nathaniel Eckstrom, this is a warm book reminiscent of the good old times, and just being good.

Five cheeky jungle animals are getting ready for Christmas Day. Organising cards and presents for one another isn’t always so simple. Neither is riding their bikes to the jubilee. But if the young ones can remain cool, calm and happy, and remember the all-important event, Santa Claus will come to town and distribute gifts to those most deserving.  

Parents will definitely appreciate this timely reminder to their kids, but particularly will enjoy the lyrical melody and smooth voices of Human Nature. And the humorous, playful illustrations will certainly be absorbed by any preschool-aged child. ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is a must-have for your stocking this Christmas!  

imageWe’re Going on a Santa Hunt, Laine Mitchell (author), Louis Shea (illus.), Jay Laga’aia (performer), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

A sure-fire way to get kids engaged in a story is to add a dash of jingle, a splash of rhyme and the ‘presence’ of familiarity. In this jolly Christmas adventure, the bonus music CD with the voice of Play School’s Jay Laga’aia, and the structure of Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, (see similar titles by Laine Mitchell), all mixed with the gaiety of the festive season makes for a guaranteed hit with its readers / listeners.

‘We’re Going on a Santa Hunt’ takes five adorable arctic animals on a mission to deliver their letters to the ‘jolly one’. They bound through dark train tunnels, tinsel and swishing trees, herds of reindeer, the elves workshop, and sooty chimneys, because of course they couldn’t go over or under them! But upon catching a glimpse of the figure in black, white and red, it’s a frantic bolt back through the elements and straight into bed!

Energetic, vivacious, fun and full of thrill, ‘We’re Going on a Santa Hunt’ is a preschooler’s literary and musical delight that is bound to create excitement (and perhaps some havoc) this Christmas time.  

imageChristmas For Greta and Gracie, Yasmeen Ismail (author, illus.), Nosy Crow UK, 2015.

Greta is Gracie’s older (and bigger) bunny sister. She is also extremely chatty, a little bit bossy and a lot impatient. The girls love everything about Christmas, but especially Santa. Gracie is meticulous, quiet and little, but she has a big curiosity. When she asks her sister all about Santa, Greta always has the answer (or so she thinks!). On Christmas Eve, whilst Greta catches zzz’s, Gracie creeps out of the room – slowly, quietly, sneakily. Who does she find busily working in her living room? And how does she silence her normally loud, talkative sister?

I love the casual, quirky feel with its watercolours and rough edges, and the handwritten dialogue in pink and yellow speech bubbles to represent each character. I also love how the language used clearly identifies the ages of these children; being curious in nature, with an element of egocentricity and brutal honesty.

‘Christmas For Greta and Gracie’ is gorgeously engaging, witty and sincere, perfect for young readers from age three. There are clear themes of sibling relationships, self expression, differences and acceptance, all the while including the magic and imagination of Christmas and its related traditions.  

For more great titles to explore this Christmas, check out Boomerang’s Kids’ Reading Guide 2015 – 2016, and Dimity’s Stocking Stuffer Suggestions.