Review – Fire by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Fire, Jackie French (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Scholastic Press, 2014.  

fireHarsh weather conditions are terrifying enough at the best of times, but what about when Mother Nature plays a hand in the wild and extreme that gamble with actual lives?
Award-winning author and Australian Laureate, Jackie French, together with the unequivocally talented illustrator, Bruce Whatley, have joined forces in producing a gripping and stunningly haunting book of adversity; ‘Fire’. Just like their previous book, ‘Flood’; depicting the horrendous Queensland floods in 2011, ‘Fire’ is another efficacious story of courage and strength in the face of a natural disaster.

Throughout the book are amazing, succinct verses that take your breath away with every word. The story begins with a serene outback set amongst golden hills and limp gum tree leaves. Upon turning the page, we are faced with the sudden impact of ferocious orange flames and black smoke, sending a once peaceful cockatoo fleeing for its life. Ramifications advance, affecting the people who live amongst the burning trees as the fire engulfs the land in a thunderous, cackling roar. Pretty soon, whole page spreads bleed with blood-red paint across the atmosphere, and thick grey ash that forces inhabitants to quickly escape the “gulping smoke and singed debris.”
Fire book imageNext, a gut-wrenching image of the oven swallowing houses, trees, the land. What about the aftermath? Loss, grief, disbelief. But the bravery of the firefighters and the safety of loved ones is what is appreciated most. From pain comes the strength of the Australian spirit, as we see the CFA tending to sick animals, and read of those friends who give love and help rebuild a world burnt bare. And eventually, the Earth is reborn once again.  

The final page details Jackie French‘s personal experiences with fighting bushfires and its effects on the land, and how best to manage its dangers. Bruce Whatley also gives appreciation for the courage of those dealing with these terrors, and his account of his illustration process. It is fascinating that he felt the erratic nature of the fire was the hardest thing to capture, because looking at his daubs, flicks, bleeding outlines, reds and yellows amongst their surrounding darks certainly creates intensely evocative and impactful imagery in my eyes.  

‘Fire’ is a powerful, poignant and moving story of real life truths; a devastingly beautiful, poetic rendition of a tough facet of nature. It is a book about life, love, friendship, hope and the human spirit that is so brilliantly captured in its words and images. ‘Fire’ is suited to primary school children, and is deservingly shortlisted in the CBCA’s 2015 Picture Book of the Year awards. Just phenomenal.

Interesting background information on Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, as well as fantastic teaching ideas based on the book, ‘Fire’, can be downloaded from Scholastic here:
http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourceFiles/8219103_8176.doc

Writing Queensland

The name ‘Queensland’ conjures up images of tropical beaches and suntanned surf goers, but not so much vibrant, industry-leading writing community. After all, writers tend to be kind of pale, not so sporty, and spend copious hours agonising over blank pages. But there is a strong writing community here that is, through some fantastic leadership, only getting stronger.

Bizarrely, I don’t consider myself a Queensland-based writer—I don’t consider myself a writer based anywhere in particular. I’m someone who has a laptop and a mobile phone and who, as long as I have an internet connection, can work from wherever.

Which is precisely what I do, travelling light and often, with much of my work completed in random places quite literally all over the country and sometimes all over the world. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that more of my Book Burglar blogs have been written outside of Queensland than in it.

But each time I return to the state, I’m impressed at how much is going on in its writing sector and how much I want to be a part of it. My unsubstantiated guess is that not having had traditional publishing models (there’s really only one or two publishing houses here) means that Queensland’s well positioned to take advantage of emerging technologies and opportunities.

Combined with leaders who recognise the potential of them (instead of focusing on what’s being lost and not understanding what and why things are changing) and who want to develop the industry, there’s a lot to like about the Queensland writing sector.

I might not consider myself a wholly and solely Queensland-based writer, but it is where I most often visit/stay, that I’m most excited about, and that I most want to be a part of. I’ve been asked to contribute to a plan of action to help shape and grow this sector, which is why I’m asking you for help too. There are seven (reasonably tricky—or at least significant thought-requiring) questions I need to tackle, listed below.

1. What will success for the writing sector in Queensland look like in five to 10 years’ time?

2. What kind of products and services will writers be creating and providing in the next five to 10 years?

3. How can the sector capitalise on the opportunities digital technologies are bringing about?

4. Can Queensland provide leadership for the writing sector nationally and internationally?

5. What kind of investments in the writing sector will make the most difference in the next five to 10 years?

6. What roles do individuals, organisations, businesses, and government potentially have in leading development of the sector locally and beyond?

7. What can be achieved by the Queensland writing sector working more collaboratively to leverage current and future investments?

I realise not all of you will be based in Queensland, but the questions and issues the questions raise speak to broader writing sector issues and opportunities. If you replace Queensland with your location of choice, is there anything you’d like to share or recommend for each or any of the questions? Who knows? Maybe one day the word ‘Queensland’ will conjure up images not just of sun and surf but of an innovative writing and inclusive writing community.

The Flood

The FloodBrisbane is back on its feet, relatively speaking, but spend any time in the city and you’ll quickly realise that the recent flood is still very much on residents’ minds.

Conversations which are entirely unrelated veer back to the flood. Complete strangers share their own stories or offer condolences and sense of shock and awe. And cafes and restaurants that were flooded but that are now up and operating, pin snaps of the floods to their industrial-sized coffee-making machines—that’s, of course, the direction in which the waiting-for-coffee conversation flows.

I’m part of those conversations, having been evacuated from a client’s at West End, which was badly affected, to my own home at Windsor, which was flooded too. There’s no need to recount my tale here, because I blogged about my experiences at the time. This time I’m blogging about others’ accounts of the floods that affected the greater part of the supposed Sunshine State.

Thanks to HarperCollins, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an advance copy of Flood, a book that they put together in partnership with the ABC. It contains a foreword by Premier Anna Bligh, whose accomplished handling of the event and rousing speeches—not least the cheesy, but precisely what we needed tenet that ‘we’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again’—warmed our hearts, raised our spirits, and had many calling for her to be PM.

The books’ royalties go to the Premier’s Flood Appeal, making its purchase feel good as well as, frankly, kind of like a keepsake of an event that will be etched as strongly on this generation’s memories as the ’74 floods were on the previous ones’. But the real winner for me is the fact that the accounts within it are written by ABC journalists I’ve come to know and love.

I navigate my days by the likes of Richard Fidler and Spencer Howson, and their calmness and information-rich ABC Radio efforts steered me and many others through the floods (refreshingly absent of some of the hysteria and ratings grabs that gripped some of the commercial media). What we didn’t get from many of them was their personal accounts and reflections. This book, a few months and the need to communicate weather, tidal, and clean-up-volunteering information immediately removed, gives them that chance.

Most striking, though, are the images of flood-affected Queensland. My first-hand experiences were confined to Brisbane, and even then to the few streets around my home. Some friends of mine did some sightseeing and, while we were all discouraged from doing so, I also understand why they did.

I didn’t and couldn’t leave my home, so this is the first time I’ve seen some of these images. They’re incredible and almost inconceivable—even to someone who waded through water, shifted sludge by hand, and who still looks out her kitchen window the high-tide stain on her neighbours’ house. If there’s anything I’m learning, it’s that there’s no such thing as too many images of the floods.

I’m not sure whether it was because I was personally affected, having to sandbag my home and watch the floodwaters rise and swallow the first few feet of it for days, but I got a little teary leafing through this book. It brought back some of the memories and emotions that were so raw that week, but it also made my heart swell with pride at Queenslanders’ (indeed Australians’) no-nonsense pragmatism and stoicism.

But that’s not selling the book well, and I should note that some of the images made me chuckle—it seems you can throw a disaster at Australians, but you can’t wash away their sense of humour. This book reminded me of the floating walkway, the aptly named Drift restaurant, the little tug boat that saved the day.

It also reminded me that we (and I mean Brisbane, not Grantham or Toowoomba) got off relatively lightly, especially when you compare our flood to the recent earthquakes in Christchurch and earthquakes, tsunami, and near-nuclear disaster in Japan. Relatively light or otherwise, the 2011 floods will be etched on our collective consciousness for years to come, and Flood goes a long way to documenting and commemorating it. It’s one worth investing in to both capture the moment and to contribute to Queensland’s rebuilding process.