With so many memorable children’s books flooding our bookshelves, it’s easy to allow one title to melt imperceptibly into the next. This collection of stories however possesses qualities that make them virtually unforgettable. Embrace these haunting experiences that will linger with you long after the final page.
This graphic novel rendition of Ellis’ acclaimed novel, The Breadwinner (US name of Parvana), moved me to tears. Emotionally charged and visually gratifying, this graphic novel ignites a need to know more and venture further.
I have not read The Breadwinner yet but was so enamoured by this portrayal of Parvana’s story that I am now compelled to do so. There is a movie rendition too although I may not have to see it. This sombre tale about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to make a living in the stricken city of Kabul to support her family and reconnect with her imprisoned father is so convincingly expressed through Elllis’ stirring narrative and dramatic artwork (from which this version was adapted) that it leaves nothing wanting apart from a desire for Parvana’s salvation.
The muted colour palette of dusty browns and ominous greys belie the hope that blossoms below the veneer of fear and repression. Orange flowers (the colour of hope) appear in many of the frames featuring Parvana and most strikingly, on the last page where they are seen springing from the crust of the desert. Parvana’s vibrant red blouse, the one she has never worn, representing hope and love, and a desire to be free of fear, is the catalyst for change.
Dramatic, poignant and inexplicably beautiful, like Afghanistan’s people, this story is itself complete and will appeal to many even those (children) who are unaware of the historic atrocities leading up to Parvana’s story. Especially useful for those resistant to learning about history and reading full scale novels.
Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Meand Between Usare memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.
Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!
How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?
TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.
Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here. How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?
I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.
To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?
I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.
What is the significance of the cover?
The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.
How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?
I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.
How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?
Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.
You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?
How have you differentiated between their voices?
Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…
Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.
Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.
Which character would you like to write more about?
I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.
I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?
I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.
You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?
I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.
They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.
Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?
I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.
Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.
Illustrator-icon Anne Spudvilas is known for The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin (my teacher notes are on the Reading Australia site), Woolvs in the Sitee (written by Margaret Wild) and her first book The Race by Christobel Mattingley which won the Crichton Award for Illustration and was a CBCA Honour Book. Her new interpretation of Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) is a sumptuous gift book. It is a retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet set on the Murray-Darling. The lavish illustrations are textured and allusive. Spudvilas features black and white with occasional limited shades of yellow, and red for a few sparse dramatic and accentuated moments.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr
Stepping Stones (UQP) was published earlier in the year but remains timely with the ongoing issues in caring for and resettling refugees. Margriet Ruurs saw Syrian, Nizar Ali Badr’s stone and pebble artwork online and worked hard and inventively to contact him and gain permission to use his art to highlight the plight of those escaping the horrors of war. The text is written in Arabic and English.
Another unusual and fascinating picture book is Drawn Onward (Fremantle Press), a palindromic text which can be read forwards and backwards . Meg McKinlay, who is most well-known for her multiple awarded dystopian novel, A Single Stone, uses the palindrome form to rephrase negative phrases and thoughts into positive. She calls it “optimism training for our kids”. The design is appropriately subtle and enigmatic.
Like the other books reviewed here, colour is used efficaciously in Danny Blue’s Really Excellent Dream (Lothian Children’s Books, Hachette). The story begins “Once in a blue moon, everyone has a really, really excellent dream.” Danny’s world is coloured blue and his father’s factory makes every hue of blue paint. After Danny’s dessert of blueberries one night, he dreams, not in blue, but of a red whale. Blue continues to dominate his life until he decides to create his dream colour in paint. It takes until Day 99 when “Not – Blue” appears and, even though people are suspicious, Not-Blue starts showing up where it’s not expected. This is a wonderful book about being different, dreaming and persistence in creativity.
There are times in every small person’s life, when they are faced with taking the plunge, striding into the unknown, and just striking out into that adventure called life. It’s not always easy, sometimes it’s downright wrenching, but who says it can’t be fun. Here are a cluster of recently released picture books that will enlighten and inspire in those darker and daring times.
I adore the sinuous artistry of this incredible picture book team. A picture book with their names on the cover promises great subtlety and infinite pleasure. Crusts is no exception. One third graphic, two thirds regular, this picture book grabs the most frustrating habit a maker-of-lunchbox-lunches has to contend with – the uneaten crust and flips it on its head.
Jacob is your typical crust-eating refusal expert. His mum is your typical eat-your-crusts enforcer. Neither is willing to give any ground, which is unfortunate because in a galaxy far far away, a tiny planet is crumbling into nonexistence and has had to jettison three explorers to Earth in an attempt to locate and transport planet-saving crusts back to them. At first, it seems the mission is doomed to fail as Jacob squirrels away crusts by the bin load and scribbles away at plans the explorers feel are useless to their cause. Turns out, there is more to Jacob’s distaste in crumbs and ingenuity than meets the eye.
Parker’s narrative is always spot on, poetic and soulful. Ottley’s fanciful illustrations strike the perfect balance between droll fantasy and tragic normality. Crusts is a crowd pleaser even for those unwilling to swallow one physically. It accentuates the values of tenacity, humanity, selflessness, and kindness and comes highly recommended for lovers of invention and space travel.
I love the plucky audacity and determination shown by Zelda the chook. Zelda has a dream, ‘to be the first chook in space.’ However, the road to the Milky Way is long and arduous and none of her coop-mates is willing to lift a primary wing feather to help her achieve her ambitions.
Undaunted, she strikes out alone and finally launches herself into chook history. When she eventually comes home, her fickle-feathered friends agree Zelda’s tenacity and drive are by far the best examples of how to get anywhere interesting they’ve ever encountered. With her appetite for space exploration sated, Zelda concedes adventures are always more fun when shared with friends. This is a fun, easy to read, easy to share picture book encouraging perseverance and courage. Great for pre-schoolers and early primary readers and chook lovers like me.
Like his previous titles, The Story Machine and The Cloudspotter, Up, Up and Away warms the very cockles of your heart and is guaranteed to cheer you. Unlike Zelda who travelled far into space to find her first planet, Orson, a boy who loves to make things, prefers the challenge of making his own. And he does.
At first, the new planet is slow to find its position in Orson’s universe but slowly with a lot of tending loving care from Orson, his planet grows up and even develops its own gravitational pull. That is when Orson realises, that he must let his beloved planet find its true place among the stars. Under five year olds will relate to this on a number of levels; pets growing up, butterflies dying, outgrown shoes and so on. Adults will be reminded that one day their own tiny planets will eventually have to orbit elsewhere, too.
This whimsical picture book describes the sometimes unavoidable necessity of letting go of things you love the most in order to set them free. McLaughlin elevates this difficult life lesson to a place of beautiful reason and logic in spite of the nonsensical notion of mixing up a planet from scratch from ‘a cup full of rocks and a dash of water’.
Powerful and smart, Up, Up and Away is about accepting and recognising challenges and change.
Sometimes taking on new challenges is not always a matter of choice. Out is a stunning debut picture book by George, which tackles the unrelenting struggles of refugees and their emigration attempts. We never learn the real name of the young asylum seeker in this story, but she is recognisable as a girl with much heart and soul and deep pools of courage. Together with her mother, they endure a treacherous journey from their homeland to Australia. Life is very different, and it takes a while for them to assimilate to the music, dancing, and language. Everything is a new challenge for she and her mother and yet throughout their ordeals, she always retains the thinnest, most fragile tendrils of hope, as depicted by a bright yellow ribbon she carries everywhere.
Written with frank solemnity Out resonates with positivity and a belief that good will always prevail. Swan’s gentle muted illustrations convey emotion and compassion and allow the characters of the story to stand out when they are surrounded by so many others that are in exactly the same boat as they, as it were.
Persuasive and compelling, Out will suit readers four and above and help them realise the strength of the human spirit whilst appreciating the various paths they can take (or must make at times) to reach their goals.
I want to frame this picture book and hang it on my wall. To label Teacup as having bucket-loads of appeal for audiences familiar with and sympathetic to displacement, migration, social disruption and family change strips away the myriad of other sophisticated, elegant qualities this book deserves to be described by. It is simply sublime.
Teacup by Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley is a timeless story of a boy fleeing his home to ‘find another’. We know not where from nor why but immediately warm to his story after learning that amongst the meagre possessions he takes with him is a teacup which holds some earth from where he used to play.
Unlike any other creature on earth, the need to retain ones past in order to make ones way better into the future is strongest in we mere humans, especially in times of dramatic change. Therefore, the boy sets off across seas sometimes kind and friendly, other times wild and testing. Along the way he has time to contemplate all that he has left behind; his home, his sense of place, his beloved family and the naivety of childhood. The clouds that swirl above him may not be permanent but his memories remain secure as does his hope, until one day that hope takes root in the form of a sapling apple tree.
This symbolic tree of life sustains him until the day his is able to build his life anew; older, wiser, a better receptacle for change, just like his teacup.
The beauty of this story is its incredible scope. It could be describing loss or the dislocation of refugees. Others will interpret it as a story of a search for love and belonging. Whatever journey Teacup takes you on, Young’s eloquent use of words and symbolic imagery massage your emotions to the point of quiet reverence. The narrative bobs gently upon these thematic eddies, always moving forward, into the unknown.
Even more arresting than the text are Ottley’s illustrations. More like a collection of fine art, they are jaw-drop beautiful, each a breathtaking portrait of the boy’s journey. Dense in texture and meaning, Ottley’s illustrations reflect sky and sea, at once both soothing and uplifting.
Teacup is a picture book to treasure for its undiluted beauty and the subtle way it transcends moralising on human rights and condition, thus making it an important and exquisite reading experience for youngsters aged four and above.
History is written by the victors, or so the saying goes, so it’s rare but eye-opening to read the version written by those not celebrating the spoils. And none are more eye-opening than the memoir of convicted people smuggler Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’, which shows ‘queue-jumping boat people’ and the people who smuggle them in a light that differs vastly from that cast by our popular vote-seeking politicians.
Written by Sydney filmmaker Robin de Crespigny over three years and myriad hours of interviewing Ali (I’m going with ‘Ali’ because I’m unsure whether to use ‘Al Jenabi’ or just ‘Jenabi’ and don’t want to cause offence), The People Smuggler is written in an imperfect but credible first person. It’s as if Ali himself, who only recently learnt English, is telling the tale.
It’s a smart decision because it both makes your connection to the tale more personal and intense and because, well, it helps you realise that such incredible awfulness not only happened, it happened to one person.
The People Smuggler is a fabulous, must-read book, but I won’t deny that it made me simultaneously heart-swellingly impressed at the triumph of the human spirit to keep getting up when it’s being nothing but repeatedly steamrolled and despondent at the horror the human race deliberately, unconscionably inflicts on itself.
Ali’s tale begins with his happy childhood in Iraq, which changes forever when at school he accidentally blurts out a phrase his father says in the privacy of their home: ‘Saddam is a bastard.’ His father disappears the very next day, and thus begins the family’s plunge into the murky world of incarceration, torture, mental health issues, and near starvation.
As the oldest son, but still a young child, Ali is nonetheless tasked with rescuing the family. This continues for the next 20 (or more) years, as he first earns them money at the markets, then graduates to working at a tailor’s, and later gathering intelligence for the resistance movement. In between, he himself is repeatedly captured, locked up, and tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, emerging as one of its few survivors.
In danger, on the run, and with his family too in mortal danger, Ali is forced to leave Iraq. The journey beyond is equally harrowing as the homeland horrors he’s attempting to flee. Call me naïve, but I was shocked at how hard it was to leave or stay anywhere. Ali’s refugee journey didn’t involve a relatively linear leaving of Iraq, arriving in one or two places, then landing in Indonesia as a gateway to Australia.
Instead, his escapes were repeatedly thwarted and he was forced to double back or was captured and repatriated to the places from which he’d come, let down by those who and those organisations which were supposed to help, before desperation forced him forward again.
How many times can one person survive this? I kept wondering. That one person has even one of these things much less all of them, happen to them seems utterly unfair. Which is how Ali came to be in Indonesia, ahead of his under-threat family, under threat himself, penniless, and desperate to bring them to safety.
Double crossed on top of being double crossed on top of being double crossed, Ali is cheated more than once out of his scrounged money and promised safe passages to Australia. Which is how he comes to be a people smuggler—one with a conscience. By controlling the process, he reasons, can put his family on a boat to Australia.
The People Smuggler pieces together the events and terror that force people to take their chances on rickety boats. It fleshes out and humanises the people the politicians would rather we didn’t identify with and that the 30-second sound bites cannot ever capture.
It forces us to re-think the government’s ‘children overboard’ scapegoating version of events, the actual ways to ‘stop the boats’ that significantly differ from politicians’ postured but ultimately empty promises. It highlights the farcical and inhumane systems we have in place for processing—or not processing, as the case often seems to be—refugees we turn into detainees.
Ali sums up the situation well:
This is the first time I have heard of queue-jumping. I try to imagine this queue. What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, ‘Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?’
He also writes:
It is unclear why Australians are so strangely concerned about asylum seeks arriving by airplane; maybe because there’re no pictures in the paper or on TV. But they are so afraid of the two percent who come by boat that they lock them up like criminals. As with the Jews in World War II, the refugees’ pitiful plight inspires irrational fear. If Australian people only knew the strength it takes to get on one of these boats, to keep holding onto life after the horrors these people have been through, they would be filled with awe and admiration.
That’s exactly what I’m filled with after reading The People Smuggler. I have a good mind to post copies to our not-so-esteemed ‘leaders’, especially the blustering, ‘I’ll stop the boats’ one who has a penchant for wearing budgie smugglers.