YA, NA and MG Fiction Defined With Recommendations

Most readers will be familiar with the genre of books referred to as YA, but what about NA and MG?

Young Adult (YA)Eleanor & Park
YA fiction generally contains novels written for readers aged in their teens, or more specifically between the ages of 13 and 20. The stories feature teenage protagonists and often explore themes of identity and coming-of-age. Having said that, YA novels can be from any genre, science fiction, contemporary, fantasy, romance, paranormal etc. Some popular YA novels include the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games series, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Middle Grade (MG)
MG novels are generally written for readers aged between 8-12 years, with main characters less than 13 years of age. Themes can include: school, parents, relationship with siblings and friends, being good or misbehaving. Just like every genre, some MG books can have an underlying message (e.g. be kind to animals).

Some examples of popular MG novels include: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

New Adult (NA)A Court of Thorns and Roses
NA fiction is a relatively new genre in publishing, and in my opinion grew from the popularity of adult audiences reading and enjoying YA novels (Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars). The genre is situated between YA and adult fiction and protagonists are generally between 18-30 years of age. Themes include leaving home, starting university, choosing a career, sex and sexuality.

Some popular NA novels include: Slammed by Colleen Hoover (called CoHo by her fans), The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternA Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas and The Elephant Tree by R.D. Ronald.

On my TBR ListInheritance
I have a number of books on my to-be-read pile from the genres mentioned above, including: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition by Jacob Grimm, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes and 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson. What’s on your list?

Whether you enjoy MG, YA or NA fiction, the most important thing is that you don’t allow yourself to become pigeon-holed. Enjoy your reading, keep an open mind and explore new authors. You never know where your next favourite book might come from.

List of books with the word ‘boy’ in the title

I enjoyed writing the blog post Books with the word ‘Girl’ in the title so much, I thought I’d do one for books that have ‘boy’ in the title. At first glance, I thought this one might be easier, but let’s see how I go.The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The first book that comes to mind for me is The Boy In The Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. Now a very well-known motion picture film, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is definitely unforgettable, but did you know it is rumoured that author John Boyne wrote the entire first draft in two and a half days? Amazing!

As you might expect, there are a number of YA titles with ‘boy’ in the title, beginning with Boy – Tales of Childhood by none other than Roald Dahl. Published in 1984, Roald Dahl recounts his days as a child growing up in the public school system in England and the living conditions in the 1920s – 1930s.

Boy Roald DahlMany of us will remember reading Storm Boy by Australian author Colin Thiele at school and might even admit to crying at the end (I think I had something in my eye). It’s a story about a boy and his pelican and was part of the school curriculum when I was growing up.

Another Australian contribution to this list is Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. Set in a mysterious museum, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a modern day fairytale about the power of friendship, courage and love and of course, never giving up.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf is such a familiar story with a powerful message – we all know it – but when you look up the title in any directory you’ll see a swag of authors and can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. The edition I’ve selected for this collection is The Boy Who Cried Wolf with The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs illustrated by Val Biro, primarily because it’s marketed as Aesop’s Fables for Easy Readers. Perfect right?

For those who enjoy delving into non-fiction, there’s The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog And Other Stories From A Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook – What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing by Bruce Perry and Maia Azalavitz.About a Boy Nick Hornby

Getting back to adult fiction, there’s About A Boy by Nick Hornby, an entertaining read about ladies man Will Freeman (played by Hugh Grant in the 2002 adaptation) who picks up women by attending single parent groups. His life takes a turn though after he meets 12yo Marcus.

So, how many of these books have you read? What have I missed?

Christmas Classics you’ve read to you kids – Christine Bongers

Little Golden Books The Night Before ChristmasFellow Boomerang Blogger, Romi Sharp recently congratulated me on hitting my first century. Gob smacked! I mean I don’t even own a cricket bat, let alone know how to hold one. She meant blogs of course. I hardly noticed. They rack up and slip by like birthdays these days. Nonetheless, even numbers deserve celebration (especially ones with many zeros), so while I wait for Boomerang to deliver the gold-embossed book prize and bubbly, I thought I’d pass the time with another lady who knows how to rack em up with infinite style and humour.Chris Bongers 2

Celebrated Brisbane YA and kids’ author, Christine Bongers is no stranger to bedtime reads, having indulged in this past time with her own four children over the years. Today we discover some of the classics the Bongers family pulled out to share together at this time of year. (I’ll go the extra Christmas Bon Bon please Christine – I think it might be a while before the bubbly arrives!)

Christine’s Christmas Classics

Hubba huMother Goosebby and I read to our four kids from the time they were babies: nursery rhymes, Mother Goose, and truck loads of Little Golden Books that we had left over from our own childhoods. I loved picture books – Edwina the Emu and Wilfrid Gordon Macdonald Partridge stand out in my memory – but have to say that our kids were making their own reading decisions by the time they could talk and we had precious little say in the matter!

Wacky Wednesday by Theo LeSieg* celebrateWacky Wednesday

It all began with that shoe on the wall. A shoe on a wall . . . ? Shouldn’t be there at all!
Then I looked up. And I said, “Oh, MAN!”
And that’s how Wacky Wednesday began.

After twenty-odd years, I can still recite those opening lines from memory. That’s how many times I read this madcap romp to our eldest. Preschoolers love pandemonium and spotting the twenty wacky moments captured in New Yorker cartoonist George Booth’s illustrations never got old for the wacky funster in our family.Wacky Wednesday illo

[*A bonus Christmas bonbon for anyone who recognised author Theo LeSieg as a wacky version of Theodore Geisel – or as he is more commonly known, Dr Seuss!)

 The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey

Our youngeCaptain Underpants 2st adored Captain Underpants, so good old Santa could be relied on to pop the latest offering into his Christmas stocking each year. By the time he was in Grade Three he had eight volumes jockeying for position on his shelf and I swear by all I hold holy that we read each and every one of them at least one hundred times before he moved on to Harry Potter.

 The BFG by Roald Dahl

Our youngest daughter revelled in Dahl’s subversive tales (particularly Matilda with the eye-wateringly awful headmistress The Trunchbull), but it was the simple giant with the deep insights, dream collecting and jumbled and inventive turn of phrase that she returned to again and again. And why not, I say. What’s not to love about little girls doing great things in league with a giant?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. LewisThe Lion Witch and Wardrobe

This was our big girl’s favourite childhood read ever (along with The Hobbit). Narnia has provided a magical escape, not only for Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, but for children everywhere for more than half a century and its appeal hasn’t diminished with BFG illothe years. As a matter of fact, I’ve just got my hands on a beautiful boxed set – a happy Christmas present for a certain little Lucy in my own extended family. So what books will be in your Christmas stocking this year? 

Good question Christine. How big is my Christmas stocking allowed to be?

I’ll be asking the same thing to other inspiring authors in the next few weeks. Get ready to flex your reading memory muscles.

Add more of Christine’s entertaining work including the recently released gripping YA read, Intruder to your new classics lists by visiting here.

 

Bancks and Bongers

Two authors from the creative arc which encompasses northern NSW and SE Qld have had YA novels published recently.

two wolves

Tristan Bancks’ Two Wolves (Random House Australia) and Christine Bongers’ Intruder (Woolshed Press, Random House) both look at teens who have family problems and are struggling because of their parents and yet are able to work through these issues and strengthen their own characters.

Thirteen-year-old Ben Silver in Two Wolves has parents who are culpable. They have allowed him to grow up spending hours watching screens and to eat so poorly he is overweight. Their business dealings are suspect and the novel begins with Ben and his seven-year-old sister Olive being thrust into their car and on a ‘holiday’. Ben wants to be a detective and he is dubious about what’s going on, especially when he finds a bag of money in the cabin where they are staying.

While keeping the narrative exciting and fast-paced, Bancks poses moral dilemmas and choices which increase the depth and literary worth of the novel. Should Ben be a detective or thief? Should he warn his family when they are at risk? Should he run or surrender? Should he capitulate to the bad wolf of pride, jealousy and greed or follow the good wolf of kindness, hope and truth?

 intruder

Set in a Queenslander (Qld’s quintessential timber house) in Brisbane, Intruder explores a difficult situation where Kat’s musician father must leave her alone at night so that he can work. Her mother has died from cancer and neighbour, Edwina (who Kat seems to despise) looks out for her. Like Two Wolves, Intruder opens with a bang – Kat is awakened by an intruder. Whilst remaining in the same geographical location, this novel embarks on a literary journey as Kat makes friends at the dog-park and untangles and resolves the secrets of her past.

Both books refer to other literature: Kat has her selection of Roald Dahl books Matilda, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach. The protagonists in these books seem to resemble Kat because their parents are either not present or uncaring. Ben’s adventures remind him of Sam Gribley, the protagonist of Jean Craighead-George’s My Side of the Mountainbut he feels inadequate about his survival skills, especially when compared with Sam’s achievements.

In spite of traumatic situations, Ben and Kat make good decisions which will place them positively for the future. They are flawed, realistic but positive role-models for their teen readers.

It’s Roald Dahl Day – What’s your favourite Roald Dahl book? Here’s my Top 5

mm_logoThe official Roald Dahl Day takes place every year on the birthday of the World’s No. 1 Storyteller. This year Roald Dahl Day coincides with Friday 13th – the perfect excuse for even more mischief and mayhem than usual.

9780141346434The fantastic thing about Roald Dahl’s books is you can literally grow up with them, from his picture books like The Enormous Crocodile to first chapter books like The Twits to books like Matilda until you reach his autobiographies and adult short stories. And what would a Roald Dahl book be without the illustrations of Quentin Blake?

In celebration of Dahl Day here are my top 5 Roald Dahl books. Let us know 9780141346342your favourites

1. Danny The Champion of the World

A fantastic story about a father and son, pheasant poaching and an ingenious plan.

2. Matilda

The story of a very smart girl and her very dumb parents full of all the dark humour we love from Roald Dahl.9780141346397

3. The Twits

The most disgusting couple you’ll ever meet who eventually get their comeuppance. This was just as fun reading to my daughter as it was when I was her age.

4. The Witches

9780141346410Witches who eat children, the best way to hide from them is not to wash and boy gets turned into a mouse. What’s not to love?

5. Fantastic Mr Fox

The clever Mr Fox must outwit farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Plus Wes Anderson made a fantastic film

9780141346441Here’s a list of Roald Dahl’s books.

What are your favourites?

 

On My Bedside Table – # 2

Bedside table 2Does your bedside table feature nothing more than a sedate, sleek bedside lamp and the latest eReader? Or is an outrageous collection of self-help, kids’ lit, how-to, YA, book club, must-review-reads piled unceremoniously on top of each like mine?

I tried reading one book at a time. Found it just wasn’t for me. I now prefer the heady experience of flitting from one world to another. It’s a little chaotic and bewildering at times I admit. But the crazy excitement of reading so many varying titles simultaneously keeps me entertained and enlightened beyond words. It’s a bit like heading down Edgware Road, atop a London double-decker bus, at night. Boisterous, sublime, sensory saturation. You really should try it sometime.

Here are a few more our brightest and best Aussie authors who have and are…

Angela Sunde ~ Gold Coast based children’s author and illustrator of picture books, short stories and Pond Magic, with a strong penchant for apples.

A Small Free Kiss in the DarkI’m currently reading A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, by Glenda Millard. A beautiful evocative voice which reminds me of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Then’ series. It could possibly be one of my favourite books.

I am re-reading the Puzzle Ring, by Kate Forsyth, looking carefully at structure this time.

I’m also reading Pen on Fire, by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett – a busy woman’s guide to igniting the writer within.

At the top of my teetering ‘to be read’ pile are: Citadel by Kate Mosse and The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth.

On my coffee table you will find Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen. This is a photo book based on Cohen’s blog, Advanced Style. The images portray fabulous women and men of New York who are all silver-haired individualists. I find it inspiring and also a useful reference for characters.

Also on the coffee table is Australian Voices, edited by Ariana Klepac and John Thompson. It is a collection of extracts from diaries, letters, photos and recollections, ranging from the First Fleet to the Great War. There is a story waiting to be written on every page.

And there are many more….

Kate Forsyth ~ internationally best-selling, award-winning author of adult fiction and children’s literature from picture books to fantasy novels, with a strong penchant for fairy tales.

WonderstruckI’m reading ‘Enchanted April’ by Elisabeth von Arnim at present, and then I have on my bedside table to read:

‘Scarlet in the Snow‘ by Sophie Masson

‘The Ashford Affair’ by Lauren Willig

‘Chalice’ by Robin McKinley

‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ by John Green

Dark Road to Darjeeling‘ by Deanna Raybourne

‘Wonder Struck’ by Brian Selznick

I may not read them in this order.

Tania McCartney ~ acclaimed children’s author, editor, publisher and reviewer, with a strong penchant for photography and raspberries.

Eric Vale, Epic Fail: Super Male by Michael Gerard Bauer (Scholastic). I want to review this . . . if I can prise it out of my son’s monkey grip.

Warp: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer (Puffin). I am most embarrassed to admit I’ve never read any of Colfer’s books; am desperate to read Artemis Fowl but I would need another week in my day in order to do this right now. So, until then, I am determined to read and review this first book in the WARP series for Kids’ Book Review.

Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo: A journey around Canberra by Tania McCartney (Ford Street). My first advance copy. I literally haven’t had time to go through it yet!

1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro (Faber + Faber). It’s a very patient book. It’s been sitting on my bedside table unopened for about six months.

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock (Harper Press). Andy Griffiths recommended this to me but don’t tell him I haven’t even started it yet. It’s calling to me . . ..

What's Wrong With the Wobbegong What’s Wrong with the Wobbegong? by Phillip Gwynne, illustrated by Gregory Rogers. It’s not out till June so I can’t review it yet, but I just need to keep Gregory Rogers close right now

 

Stephen Michael King’s Baker’s Dozen – Classics you’ve read to your kids

Every now and then it’s nice to reflect and remember the golden moments of yesterday. And nothing conjures up warm, snugly memories better than a magic word or two, shared and cherished with those you love.

Stephen Michael KingWhen I asked children’s illustrator author, Stephen Michael King, what his reading list looked like, he trumped the idea with a list of classics reads, dredged up from his recollection of days spent reading them with his children.

Have a look. Do you recognise any of your favourites? Perhaps you’ve shared one or two of them yourself…

One dozen classic stories I’ve (Stephen Michael King) read with my children.

It was going to be ten but I had to add two more. Whoops three more . . . the title should read thirteen classic books I’ve read with my children. Here’s his baker’s dozen.

The Terrible underpants The Terrible Underpants – (with voices) You can’t say the name Wanda Linda without doing a silly voice. Kaz Cooke – Penguin Books

Green Eggs and Ham – I had to read every page in one breath. It’s lots of fun as the text grows and my face turns blue. Dr Seuss – HarperCollins

 Mr Magnolia – I love it, so my children had to love it too. Simple problem/perfect solution! I’ve read it easily three hundred times. It didn’t worry me if my children were already asleep. Quentin Blake – Random House UK

My Uncle is a Hunkle – My daughter asked me to read this at her preschool. I used my best ever cowboy voice. We must have read this book together about a hundred times. I feel like crying when I imagine her laughing in my arms. Lauren Child – Hachett Children’s Books

Where the Wild Things Are – I read this hundreds of times too. Its story and art are timeless but its design is what hypnotises me every time. Maurice Sendak – Harper Collins Inc.

The Hobbit – I read this to my son when he was in primary school and we were both so proud we read it together before the movie was released. My daughter read it to herself a few months before the movie’s release. She’s equally satisfied. JRR Tolkien – HarperCollins

Peter Pan – I read this with my daughter and we both loved how Peter killed pirates and yelled “Cock a Doodle Doo”. We love the movies but the book is an earthy adventure not to be missed. J M Barrie – Vintage

hover-car-racerHover Car Racer – My brilliant wife suggested I read this. If you want to introduce your son to books and you need to twist his dad’s arm to read . . . then this is the book. I had a lot of work on at the time but this book kept me connected. I read it once to my son, then to my daughter, and then my son asked me to read it again. Matthew Reilly – Pan Macmillan Australia

The Importance of Being Ernest – (with voices) Who would have guessed! What an experience! Father and daughter magic! I had a different voice for every character. Occasionally I would use the wrong voice or say a random stupid word. It was so much fun. Oscar Wilde – Penguin Group

Danny the Champion of the World – What can I say? I own an autographed copy. When I first read this book I wished I lived like Danny in a caravan with my dad. A Message to Children Who Have Read This Book – When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important: a stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY. Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl– Random House UK

Midnite Midnite – (with illustration by Ralph Steadman). My Mum gave me this book. I read it when I was eight, nine or ten. Can’t remember exactly when! It was a joy to dust off the old copy and read it again. Over forty years after it was written, father and son had a rollicking good time! Randolph Stow – Penguin Books

Nicabobinus – I read this in a dusty corner when I worked in a children’s library and had to contain my laughter. Both my children read this book on their own steam. I heard waves of freeform laughter coming from their rooms. Terry Jones– Penguin Books

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – I first read this because I admired the old ink illustration. I then chose to read it to my daughter because it has a great girl character and wolves. Joan Aiken – Vintage Children’s Classics

Thanks to SMK for this beautiful list, and Roald Dahl for his sage advice as always.

In future Classic Reads with your Kids posts, we’ll try to feature even more ‘classic Aussie reads’ too! Keep on reading.

 

I Do Like Mondays (Well, This One Monday At Least)

April Fool's DayMondays aren’t normally days one celebrates, but I’m prepared to make an exception in this case. Monday 1 August marks the release of 26 brand-spanking-new Popular Penguins. You know, the cute-as-a-button, budget-priced, iconic-orange titles? Yeah, those ones (I’ve helpfully copied and pasted the list of newbies for you below).

  1. Accidental by Ali Smith
  2. Another Country by James Baldwin
  3. April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay
  4. Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
  5. Boy by Roald Dahl
  6. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  7. Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
  8. Falconer by John Cheever
  9. Fight by Norman Mailer
  10. Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  11. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. High Window by Raymond Chandler
  13. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  14. Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
  15. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
  16. Meditations by Aurelius Marcus
  17. Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell
  18. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  19. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  20. Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  21. Pearl by John Steinbeck
  22. Prince by Machiavelli
  23. Ragtime by E.L. Doctrow
  24. Spy In The House Of Love by Anais Nin
  25. Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  26. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

A quick skim of the list reveals that I:

  • have read three
  • have sitting on my bookshelf (in non-Popular Penguins formats, of course) but haven’t read two
  • want to read 13
  • want to re-read (and re-buy, because my copies have gone AWOL) two
  • haven’t heard of (but in my defence, have heard of their authors) 11.

BoyHmmm, those aren’t exactly impressive figures given the popularity of these titles and well read-ness with which I like to consider myself. Still, it resolves the issue of my previous blog, which was that I was drawing a blank on which books to buy with my $120 Boomerang Books voucher (Sorry Clayton, you’re going to have to keep writing out the cheques).

First on my list of buying (technically re-buying) will be Bryce Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day and Roald Dahl’s Boy (yes, I’m aware that’s not an orange cover to the left, but I had trouble locating that one, so colourful cover it is).

Both were deeply influential reading during my childhood, and after finishing each, I quickly devoured both authors’ oeuvres (that’s a fancy word for ‘back catalogue’ and some of you reading this blog will get the in joke).

On some level, both books set me on the course of being a writer, and in particular a creative non-fiction writer interested in tackling the issues of the world. So yeah, they’re kind of big on my list of books to read before you die.

Coincidentally, I had been thinking how I’d like to revisit April Fool’s Day after hearing a Conversations with Richard Fidler interview with a woman who comes from the largest haemophiliac family in the world.

Her family’s tale is as tragic as Courtenay’s family’s own, with almost 10 of her uncles first being debilitated by haemophilia and second contracting and dying of AIDS (or AIDS-related illnesses, for those of you semantics out there) after being infected by contaminated blood transfusions. Like Courtenay’s son, they had to deal with not only the ravages of the illness, but of the stigma, assumptions of homosexuality, and subsequent homophobia that accompanied it.

Not perhaps the most uplifting of tales, I know, and this hooray-for-new-books blog has taken a turn for the serious. But these books importantly highlight the injustices of the world and the danger of ignorance and, with the same themes popping up in over and over in our lives in various forms, it’s clear we’re not really learning the lessons.

So, hooray for the release of 26 new Popular Penguin titles that I may or may not yet know but hope to tackle. And hooray for releasing two incredible and seminal books, in particular, that, at this budget price, might find and inspire a whole new readership.

Roald Dahl: the BFG (Big Fat Genius)

*Taps pen against chin*

Hmmm.

How to possibly write a post commemorating one of the most amazing authors of all time, that will actually do him justice.

I can’t.

But I can profess my undying love for Roald Dahl, a day AFTER Roald Dahl Day. Yes, dear readers, I was meant to write this post yesterday, 13th September 2010, on RD’s birthday. Life gets in the way, though, and before you know it 24 hours has past and it’s already the 14th. I hope he won’t mind this belated birthday message – from me to him.

Dear Mr R. Dahl,

This is a half-birthday card, half-love letter, from Yours Truly.

Most people will remember you for your awesome children’s books: The BFG, The Twits, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox. I know I always cross the street when I see a woman with ugly square-toed shoes, just in case she is a witch.

And your collaboration with Quentin Blake (aaah! Revolting Rhymes!) is a particular masterpiece I hold close to my heart, long after the primary school memories have faded. I’ve always wondered: how many people WERE disgusted, when Cinderella’s panties busted?

I know, Mr Dahl, that you tried your hand at some more ‘mature’ works, and I’m sure they are very fine. But my very favourite of yours is a lesser-known picture book, gifted to me very young, by my very favourite uncle. The Minpins filled my childhood nights with dreams of finding ripe red strawberries in back woods, in the Forest of Sin. I wished I was Billy, and I wished I had come across those miniature little people and saved them from the hot breath of the Gruncher. I think you must have known that the monsters surrounded by fiery breath (so you can never get a proper view of what they actually look like) are the scariest of all. I always wished for a pet swan like Billy’s, that I could ride on up into the clouds. And I remember how devastated I was the day Billy got too big to be carried by the swan. I guess girls and boys have to grow up sometime. But still, did you have to put that bit in, Mr Dahl?

In short, I think every child should own a copy of The Minpins, and I hope you don’t mind me marketing it so blatantly on my Boomerang Books blog…

Anyway – what I’m trying to say is – you’re the best. Happy birthday, Mr Dahl. Wherever you are. May your endless days be filled with golden tickets, everlasting gobstoppers, swan rides, and the best strawberries you’ve ever tasted, straight from the forest floor.

Lots of love and blue spit, xxxxxx

Interview with JAMES ROY

Earlier this year, I was invited by the Children’s Book Council Australia (NSW Sub-Branch) to speak at their 2009 Triple-A Event, where we reflect on a year of children’s releases and toast the shortlist when it’s announced at midday. I was the Older Readers speaker, which meant I had to read every entrant in the Older Readers category. That meant I had to read the copy of James Roy’s Hunting Elephants that was sitting in my bookshelf. Despite having met the author a few times and my general feelings of guilt stemming from not actually having read any of his books, I’d been putting off reading it, because, frankly, the blurb didn’t appeal to me. Vietnam vets, a rural wedding… to say I was dreading it would be to understate the fact. Significantly.

I won’t sugarcoat it – I read it because I was forced to. Well, I started reading it because I was forced to. I finished it in a day because I absolutely loved it. It was mature, it didn’t talk down to its readers, but at the same time, it showing off. It was just genuinely well-written. That’s the key to its broad appeal – and I handed the book to Mum when I finished. She loved it, and this is the woman who’s only finished reading one other book in the past fifteen years: my own.

I selected Hunting Elephants as one of my picks for the CBCA Older Readers Shortlist, and I was really disappointed when it didn’t make it. But not being on the Shortlist  doesn’t mean a book isn’t deserving of your time, and Hunting Elephants is certainly deserving of your time.

We’re continuing our tradition of exclusive author interviews here at Boomerang by sitting down with James Roy, author extraordinaire and avid olive hater.

First off – why the hate for olives? I mean, granted, I’m Greek, but surely, no one can hate them enough to mention them in jacketflap bios AND on their website?

I don’t rightly know. Maybe it’s because they’re so bold and intense and singular (almost un-subtle) in their flavour, although I’m sure there are aficionados who will accuse me of being a trog for saying that. But I mean, even if you don’t like artichokes, they’re still a bit ‘pick ’em off if you can be bothered’, and if you get a bite of gherkin in your burger, you barely notice. But olives are almost aggressive in their boldness of flavour. I just don’t like them. Is this really what we’re going to be talking about?

Hahaha… You know my priorities: olives first, literature second. 🙂 Now, literature: 2008’s release, Hunting Elephants was one of my favourites of the year. What I loved most was the way you approached representing cystic fibrosis, and didn’t blatantly try to manipulate the audience into “feeling for the sick kid”. There was a certain understated realism to its portrayal – was it based on a personal experience… or just a lot of research?

First, thanks. And that’s more like it. Sure beats the olives question…

When I worked as a registered nurse on the adolescent unit of a major children’s hospital, there were several issues I didn’t feel I wanted to discuss in my writing, mainly because I was dealing with that stuff every day. Dying kids, mental illness, cancer, eating disorders and cystic fibrosis. But I was still observing it, and biding my time as a writer, and I wrote about other things. Then, when I stopped doing that job, I was ready to write about some of that stuff. In Town, I included a character with anorexia nervosa, and in Hunting Elephants it was CF. I saw one boy die exactly the way Joel did in Hunting Elephants, and it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately many kids with CF are getting transplants nowadays, but it’s still a tough life. So here’s my soapbox moment: tick the organ donor card on your license renewal form, people, and support CF fund-raisers. There is a cure out there somewhere.

We’ve had heaps of requests that we ask authors about their process… so, how did you go about writing Hunting Elephants? Are you a planner? What was the biggest change that came out of the editing process?

I’m not a planner. Any time I try to plan, I end up getting impatient and frustrated and just getting on with the writing. I fly by the seat of my pants, and let the book come out of asking one question, which was first said by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing).

And Studio 60… and I think I’m the only person on the planet who preferred / watched the short-lived Studio 60

Well, he said that his characters come out of asking this: “What do they want?” Lili Wilkinson goes one step further, and suggests we also ask: “What do they need?”, remembering that sometimes the want and the need are in opposition. And once you know what a character wants, you make it almost impossible to get it. That’s the conflict, right there. So this is a question that I’m asking, almost subconsciously, the whole time I’m writing.

Hunting Elephants was going to be about a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War, full of creepy stories and adventures. But when I researched and interviewed, I learnt that there is the clichéd, typecast view of the Vietnam vet – angry, sullen, traumatised, unwilling to open up – and then there are all the others. Plus one guy who didn’t in fact do very much during the war, but was more comfortable letting people believe he saw and did traumatic stuff, rather than acknowledge that his experience wasn’t in fact all that harrowing. I found his story much more interesting.

A caveat to that: this is not to say that the support guys who were based at Nui Dat weren’t  fought against, but simply that what we believe we see and what we actually see and what we’re allowed to believe are often three completely separate things.

What about it are you most proud of?

The structure. Flashback isn’t something I’ve always done well, so I found that the way it worked in Hunting Elephants was quite pleasing. I’m also quite proud of the cystic fibrosis stuff, because it feels like something of a tribute to the kids I nursed over the years, and their families, who are confronted with emotions and challenges no one should ever have to face.

You mentioned Town earlier and it’s something we have to talk about. A friend and fellow blogger, Adele Walsh, over at Persnickety Snark, picked this quotation from it that made my morning:

“And to Mr Richard Foster who is joining our geography and maths facility. He’s apparently quite the cyclist, so those of you wanting a good hard ride might like to track him down.” p.15

Town received a lot of award attention (insert dramatically long list of accolades here, including the NSW Premier’s Award [Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature 2008]), did you write it thinking it’d be so well-received, or did its reception surprise you?

Strangely, when I finished it, I felt incredibly satisfied. With almost everything else I’ve ever written, I get a serious case of cold feet once the final proofs have gone back to the publisher, and it’s now out of my control. I agonise about whether I rushed it, whether I could have sent away a better book with another six months at it, and I doubt whether it will even get bought, much less get good reviews. And shortlists and awards are the furthest thing from my mind. But with Town, I knew that it was a good book. That sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it to be. I just felt very, very satisfied, and didn’t feel that I would have changed a single word even if I’d had another year at it. Which is ironic, because on the first reprint, we had to change several words that were typos.

Did its reception surprise me? A little, I guess. I felt it was the best book I could produce, but when it got a five-star review in Australian Bookseller and Publisher, I was a little stunned. In a good way. A very good way. And when someone tells me that they’ve read it (it’s not even necessary that they’ve enjoyed it – having read it is enough) I’m still a little surprised and flattered. I think this is because after years of writing books that got good reviews, I still felt slightly invisible. I still haven’t seen someone reading one of my books on a train or a bus, though. But I have seen someone reading Loathing Lola. True story.

Tempted to use that to a segue-way to a conversation about me… but I won’t. I know you keep churning out novels, what’s next on the horizon? Tell us about them.

Earlier this year was The Gimlet Eye, in the Quentaris series. As my first proper fantasy book, that was a lot of fun. And in the US was Max Quigley, Technically Not a Bully, which was a rebadge of Problem Child.

Later this year is Edsel Grizzler: Voyage to Verdada, which is Book 1 in a trilogy for middle-grade readers. It’s a kind of existential sci-fi thing about a boy who is transported to Verdada, the land of lost things. It’s all happy happy, joy joy in Verdada. Or so it appears…

And very early in 2010 is Anonymity Jones, a YA book about a girl whose life is in something of a tailspin, and the drastic measures she takes to regain some kind of control. I know, that’s never been done before in a YA book, has it? What’s different for me with this book is that it’s quite short, so I’ve had to be very direct and (hopefully) elegant in my prose.

And after that? The remainder of the Edsel Grizzler trilogy, and another collection of linked short stories like Town, only set in the city. The working title? City, obviously. I’m pretty excited about that one.

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature 2010 mayhaps?… Working on anything at the moment?

Always. I’m just tidying up the end of Anonymity Jones, plus working on a couple of commissioned pieces. Plus I’m putting notes aside for some of the ten or so projects I’ve got slated for the future.

Ever considered writing another Mack book?

I was planning to, but every plot point I tried seemed too convenient or coincidental, and a little opportunistic. Never say never, but at the moment I don’t think so.

What inspired you to write The ‘S’ Word? A frustrating puberty?

Ha! Nice try!

Actually, yes, kind of. My sex education was largely from World Book Encyclopaedia. In fact, I think my mother thought I was going to be a fashion designer, because every time she came into my room I was reading about Sewing Machines. Of course, this was only a page or two over from Sex.

But to be completely serious, there were so many books for girls about their ‘changing bodies’ and ‘relationships’, but very little for boys of 10-14. There were books for much older boys, and for little kids, but I wanted middle-grade boys to be able to open my book and get answers to what was worrying or confusing or interesting them without feeling intimidated by the language, or patronised by the level of information.

I also wanted to emphasise to the next generation of young men that sexual development isn’t about the mechanics of sex, but about relationships and mutual respect. This is why I dedicated whole chapters to discussing how we talk to girls, how to behave on dates, etc. I felt a little stung by a review that said this book was potentially detrimental to relationships, because that was EXACTLY what much of the book was about. I’m still not convinced that reviewer even read the book.

I also want to acknowledge Gus Gordon for his fantastic illustrations. I asked him for a chapter header, and one illo per chapter, two illos for the longer chapters. He came back with complete cartoons, each of which tells a proper little story. He was worried that a couple of them had gone too far, but I don’t think we rejected a single one.

On your website, you mention you hate authors who take themselves too seriously, or refer to themselves in the third person… Are you willing to name-drop?

Mmm, nice try. No, although I think they – and you and your readers – know who they are.

I will say this, though. Any published writer who begins to believe that their success is a birthright or an inevitability needs to be very careful, because they’re possibly destined for a nasty surprise. I am a big believer in the sliding doors principle, where tiny circumstances can affect later outcomes. I would never argue that I am a better writer than every unpublished author, nor would I argue that I am a worse writer than some hugely successful authors. I feel privileged that I get to do this as a full-time job, and of course there needs to a be a bit of ability and truckloads of hard work. I am blessed with both those things. But there also needs to be good fortune. Consider this: had the editor to whom I sent my first book been having an off day, or had just filled her 1996 publishing schedule that morning, or simply not liked my writing, or I’d sent the wrong sample chapters, I could still be writing cover letters and filing rejection slips in my scrapbook. And that situation could come back any day.

As I say, I feel immensely privileged to be able to make stories up for a living. I filled out an online form a couple of days ago, and under occupation, I clicked on Arts/Communication. And under that was a list of about twenty jobs. Writer wasn’t on there. So few people get to do it. Yeah, I feel lucky.

So to the authors who get to smug about their success, I’d say this: be wary of believing your own publicity. There’s that old saying – ‘Be nice to the little people on the way up, because you’ll probably hit them on the way back down.’ Panel-beat that however you like for this scenario, and it still holds true.

Of your books – which one has the best opening line?

Can I have three?
“It was the last time I saw her.” (Almost Wednesday)
“Harry was dying.” (Hunting Elephants)
“Once, in a street not very far from yours, there lived a girl, whose name was Anonymity Jones.” (Anonymity Jones)

I like the last one best… Who do you prefer to write for, children or young adults?

Both. I know that sounds glib, but I really do love both, for different reasons. My imagination was somewhat snap-frozen at 10-13, thanks in no small part to the place I was living at the time, so I love writing about that time in kids’ lives, when things are simpler in many ways, but complex in others. Life’s a little more optimistic then than it is once true adolescence hits, perhaps. And yet I love being able to stretch my legs a little more when I write for older readers.

As far as speaking goes, I absolutely love getting up in front of an audience of Grade Fives and Sixes – their enthusiasm is so much fun, and they respond in a really fresh way. High school audiences can be a bit more of a challenge, but when it works, it’s incredibly rewarding.

The most frustrating thing about being a writer?

When I was a registered nurse, I had a staff room. I had colleagues. I had peer support. Writers don’t get that every day. So the loneliness – or perhaps I should say solitude – of writing can be challenging.

But I think my biggest personal frustration is that after thirteen years and almost twenty books, I still have to do as much schools work as I do, because for the most part, good reviews don’t necessarily ensure good royalties. I love schools work, but once in a while I’d like to be able to call my agent and say ‘I’m not doing any school gigs for the next three months – I’ve got some writing I want to do and I need some uninterrupted time’, and know that I can still pay the mortgage.

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

Easy. Roald Dahl. Some authors can write funny, some can write gross, some can write important and moving. Roald Dahl did the lot. Plus he wrote some pretty good stuff for grownups.

If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

I’m tempted to say Mein Kampf, but I don’t know how widely it’s read. So probably Twilight. I think it and its companion books set the liberated woman back by about thirty years, nothing much happens, I’ve read fan fiction that is better, and I think it’s dishonest in its description of many Western teens and their attitude to sex.

Last Australian book you read?

Into White Silence by Anthony Eaton. Brilliant, creepy, chilling, and I wish I’d written it.

And the last non-Australian book I read was Tamar, by Mal Peet. It won the Carnegie Medal, and is such a fantastic blend of history, mystery and young adult angst.