Browsing Tag

Picture books

Literary adventures

21 June 2018

This month I thought I’d bring you a newsy post about my latest literary adventures. First up, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with two brilliant writers, Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, for their new podcast, The First Time, which is launching in August. Katherine has recently signed her novel, The Helpline, and the podcast is part reality show, following Katherine’s journey through the publication process, and part masterclass as the pair interview writers about their experiences of publishing a book for the first time. It’s such a brilliant idea and I had way too much fun recording the podcast. The first ep comes out in August but in the meantime you can follow the podcast on Twitter and Insta.

Later that night we met up again for an event hosted by the ACT Writers Centre in the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS). It was rainy and stupidly cold (please hurry up, spring) but CCAS was deliciously warm and there was a lovely audience waiting for us. With Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, we chatted about writing and publishing. Jack revealed that with his first advance (as a teenager!) he bought a pair of outrageous boots that he wore to school visits. Sadly, my first advance was swallowed by dull things, like bills. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re all grown up and sensible, but I’ve resolved to buy something indulgently wonderful with my next advance.

Following us were Rosanna Stevens who read a brilliant new essay that had us laughing and wincing, and Jacqueline de-Rose Ahern who spoke about the overwhelming experience of having her first picture book published. There was also a panel of visual artists talking about their processes which I found fascinating. I particularly loved Jodie Cunningham’s ‘Talking to the Tax Man About Poetry’ series which converts eight artists’ lives from stats into sculptures, examining the balance of time for creating art versus doing work that pays the bills. I’m sure all the writers in the room could relate to the struggle to reconcile the two.

Continue Reading…

Our panel continued chatting afterwards over dinner, and can I just say how much I appreciate having such intelligent, thoughtful and just generally lovely writers around me? Well there, I have.

Kate Mildenhall, Jack Heath, Karen Viggers, me, Katherine Collette

The following day I threw a bag into my little car, fuelled up on coffee, and headed down the Monaro to Merimbula to present a workshop on writing picture books for the Writers of the Far South Coast.

The drive there is stunning — yellow baked plains, violet hills, huge blue skies. I listened to podcasts and snacked on chocolate and generally enjoyed not having to entertain three children. I arrived a little early so I ate lunch on the beach, digging bare feet into sand. The one thing that I miss about living in Canberra is the beach, and on this day the ocean was dead flat, completely at peace.

There was an enthusiastic crowd at the workshop and I had a great time chatting all things picture books. I wish I’d taken a piccie of the lovely writers who came  but we were so busy that I completely forgot. Instead here’s me in a quiet moment before everyone arrived, looking longingly out towards the ocean. I mean, if Canberra had a beach it’d be perfect.

After two days of writerly goodness I was smashed, so that evening I crashed in my cute little Airbnb place and ate a takeaway pad thai and drank prosecco and watched bad TV and caught up on emails. Ah, the glamorous life of a writer! In the morning I spent one blissful hour walking an empty beach before heading back home.

I want to now step back in time, by a few weeks, to  mention a particularly special launch of the Sorry Day picture book by Coral Vass and Dub Leffler. It’s always a lovely moment when a book that you’ve edited is released, but the Sorry Day launch was a particularly moving experience. Anita Heiss did the official duties and there were several speeches that left me feeling quite teary. This is such an important book and it was a privilege to be involved as editor. Sorry Day allows us to open up conversations with our young people about a terrible part of our history in an age-appropriate way. I hope it makes its way into every school and home around this country.

Well that’s it for now, but there are more literary adventures ahead. Onward!

Reading memories

6 June 2017
One of the perks of being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is visiting schools to talk about my favourite topic—books (duh). This week I headed to Holy Trinity Primary to meet the Year 1s and 2s. Here we all are getting a bit crazy together.

Talking about reading got me thinking about my own special reading memories, and one teacher in particular. Her name was Miss O’D and she was my Grade 6 teacher. She wore blue mascara and shoulder pads and was every kind of eighties cool. She was young, not that long out of university, and she made everything fun. And I mean everything. It was the only year that I enjoyed maths as we played ‘The Footy Game’ to learn our times tables. It involved an actual footy and four teams and much laughter. That year everyone’s understanding of maths skyrocketed.

Continue Reading…

But for a booklover like me it was the literary activities that got me all shiny-eyed. Every week Miss O’D wrote a Poem of the Week on our blackboard and illustrated it with Dr Seuss-style characters. We would copy out the poem (using smelly glitter pens) and create our own illustrations. I still remember the time I got a rare and coveted 10 out of 10 for my work. ‘Perfect!’ she wrote, and my feet did not touch the ground for the rest of the day. She also constructed a haunted house reading corner from a massive crate painted black. It was full of cushions and dangling streamers and clearly sent one message: reading is fun. But best of all, she got us to write, illustrate and ‘publish’ our own picture books. I had been writing stories and making my own books at home for as long as I could remember, so the opportunity to create a shiny hardback (well, more laminated cardboard) had me practically salivating. I still have those two books and I often take them with me on school visits, as I did to Holy Trinity, to encourage kids to make their own.

So as all the Reading Challenge Ambassadors head out for their school visits, I thought I’d ask them about their own special reading memories. Here’s what they had to say.

Jack Heath: At Lyneham Primary School I had a wonderful teacher librarian named Kay Pietsch. When I missed school due to a crippling ear infection, she hand-picked books for me to read during my recovery. Thanks to her I discovered Claire Carmichael, Jackie French, Brian Jacques and many others. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t behind my classmates. I might even have been ahead.

Harry Laing: There’s a nursery rhyme that’s always stuck in my head with a particularly vivid quality. I think my grandmother read it to me (and I’m sure my mother and maybe a favourite great aunt). I think it was probably just before I was reading properly so the words had that talismanic quality…

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark
Beggars are coming to town
Some in jags, some in rags
And one in a velvet gown.

Listening to this as a child gave me a delicious shiver. Something to do with the wonderfully tight and expressive sounds and rhymes of hark/bark and jags/rags. It was scary to think of the beggars coming to town, and their power to provoke the dogs with their rags and then the really scary last line ‘and one in a velvet gown’. What did that mean? I’m sure I barely understood what velvet was or even a gown but it was such a smooth and sinister phrase. I still get the same feeling 50-odd years later. I can go back and look at Mother Goose and there’s the nursery rhyme with illustration but it’s the sound of the words that lingers. And how precious that is, to be able to go straight back to being five years old with nothing in-between. Mind you I did have to look up the meaning of ‘jags’ (tatters, rags).

Tracey Hawkins: As a child I owned a boxed set of Golden Press books, Wonderful World of Walt Disney. There were four books in the set, Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, America and Stories from Other Lands. My favourite was Stories from Other Lands. Turning the pages took me to a world far away from the small coastal town I lived in. Books provided knowledge and escapism, and fascinated me. Reading fed my imagination as I unearthed the mystery, myths, legends and cultural diversity of other countries. I read thousands of books as a child, but I believe it was this book led me on my future path as an adult to explore and travel the world.

Tania McCartney: One of my earliest and most precious reading memories is with my mum, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The intriguing thing about this persistent memory is that it’s not the actual story I remember. It’s the warmth of her lap. It’s her arms around my shoulders and the rumble of her voice, resonating from her diaphragm into my back. It’s the smell of her clothes and the smoothness of the book’s pages. I can still feel my little toddler fingers poking through the holes in the page as the caterpillar eats its way through a multitude of delicious treats, and how the paper scratched my skin. I can also feel the rumble in my tummy, wanting to join the caterpillar for cherry pie, watermelon and a lollipop. It’s all those tactile elements, yes, but it’s also the less tactile—that envelope of love, that feeling of belonging, that parental attention and sheer enjoyment of story. And that, my friends, is how children fall in love with books.

Just look at all those hands! Such enthusiastic little readers!

As Ambassadors we all hope that our school visits will inspire kids to explore many more books and develop a lifelong love of reading. So I was so thrilled to receive a stack of letters from Holy Trinity with beautiful words of thanks and equally beautiful illustrations. I wish I could include them all here but since there’s not space here’s my lounge room carpeted in them, and one of my favourites from Lachy. His exclamations (‘Your visit…OH! I loved it. Please come again!’) brought a big grin to my face. Also, I am ‘awsem’. That’s the best bit of being an author right there.

 

On reading and the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge

2 June 2016

One of the coolSouthern Cross things about being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is that you get an extra excuse to do school visits. Last week I headed out to Southern Cross Early Childhood School to meet a bunch of Kinder students. Let’s face it, Kinder is the most adorable school age, and these kids were so enthusiastic about books and reading that it made my heart sing.

Chatting to their executive teacher afterwards it was pretty clear why. The school’s approach to teaching their kids to read is to use as much ‘real literature’ as possible (as opposed to just home readers), and to let the kids choose whatever they want. No limits. The teacher shared that one child who is struggling to read, desperately wanted to borrow a chapter book and was then so thrilled with herself when she could correctly identify some of the words. She was reading a chapter book!

There are two things that I love about this. Firstly, mention home readers to any group of parents and teachers and a collective groan will erupt. The home readers most schools have are years old and deathly boring. They have no plot, two-dimensional characters, insipid illustrations and dull subject matter. Nothing to engage a child on any level. They send children the message that reading is boring, or worse, sheer hard work. For the children who have a home life that is rich in exciting reading experiences they will no doubt come out the other side of home readers. But for many children home readers, at that very crucial formative stage, come to define the reading experience.

Continue Reading…

The second thing that I love about Southern Cross’ approach is that they don’t tell the children what they can and can’t read. I am a firm believer that children should be allowed to read whatever interests them. If they only want to read comics or manga or books about zombies, that’s totally fine. As soon as you tell a child that they can’t or shouldn’t be reading what they are interested in, you run the risk of damaging their relationship with books.

Serious readingThere was a time when my daughter obsessively read the Geronimo Stilton series and another series about fairies (the name of which it seems I have deliberately blocked from my memory). This was at a time when I still read to her (now she is 12 and will not be read to, thank you very much), so this meant that I got to share in this never-ending stream of awfulness. But I never let on, because she loved them. She is still a voracious reader (witness the sign she recently posted on her bedroom door during a weekend session, with spelling corrected by her younger brother who clearly has the editor gene). Some of her book choices resonate with me, others don’t. But they are her choices. And that’s important.

When my son was in Year 3 he desperately wanted to borrow books from a shelf that was forbidden because it was for the senior students. The well-meaning school librarian told him that these books were above his comprehension level and tried to direct him to a range of other ‘more appropriate’ books, all of which he thought were ‘boring’. Every week he came home with ‘appropriate’ books that he didn’t read. The forbidden books were by authors like Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman, and we had already read most of them at home. These books were most definitely not outside of his comprehension level, but even if they were that would have been okay. He would have made the choice himself to put that book down and move on to something else. As it was, after several emails he was granted access to these books, though the other children weren’t.

Southern Cross_smlThe worst thing we can do is to censor our children’s choices. When we tell children that they are only permitted to read a certain kind of book that doesn’t appeal to them, we run the risk of turning them off books completely. I liken it to me being prevented from reading anything but Dan Brown novels. Pure torture! If Dan Brown was the only thing on offer, I’d never read again. He is my version of a home reader.

Many schools are adopting the same kind of approach as Southern Cross, but there are still many more that aren’t. We need children to associate books with pleasure. And what we now know is that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at school than their peers who don’t (Melbourne University study, 2013). We also know that the single most important indicator of how well a child will do at school directly correlates to the number of hours that they were read to as a toddler. So books are absolutely fundamental. Thank goodness for initiatives like the Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge which puts a spotlight on books as fun and exciting places to be.

Kids need (good) books. They allow kids to dream big and make new discoveries and go on adventures and grow their imaginations. As adults we need to find ways to get books into kids’ hands as often as possible.

THE GOOD STUFF

6 December 2015

Working in publishing is full of ups and downs, and it can be easy to dwell on the ‘downs’, allowing them to taint, or even eclipse, the ‘ups’. So in the spirit of celebrating all the good stuff, I thought I’d put together a newsy post about the ups of the last couple of months.

First up, the big news. I recently signed a contract for my next picture book, Seree’s Story, with Walker Books (publisher of Megumi and the Bear). Getting the call from your editor to give you the thumbs up is The Best. Let’s just say there was much dancing around the house and celebratory mid-afternoon champagne.

As a self-confessed elephant nerd, this book is very close to my heart. The manuscript has emerged from the culmination of many experiences, beginning with a trip to the circus at age seven. I started writing the book at 3.30 one morning when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening line popped into my head. By 5.30 I had a first draft. Then came an artsACT-funded trip to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, which saw a complete rewrite, and now a book contract. I’ll save the full story behind the book for another time since it won’t be out for two years, but the story itself is about a captured baby elephant, forced to work in the circus, who is eventually rescued and brought to a sanctuary.

Picture books take a long time to come together (painfully long for the author who can do nothing but wait). One thing most readers aren’t aware of is that the publisher, not the author, chooses the illustrator. At this stage an illustrator for Seree’s Story has not yet been finalised, but Walker has such an incredible stable of talented illustrators to draw upon that I am awaiting the decision with great anticipation.

Continue Reading…

Another call came at the end of last month from CAPO (Capital Arts Patrons Organisation) with exciting news of a different kind. The organisation has awarded me a travel grant to research a new full-length work. It’s a fledgling thing at the moment and a grant like this means everything in allowing me to develop it. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage, except that I’m grateful to CAPO for believing in its potential.

On to more tangible things, and the publication of a couple of new short stories in Westerly and Contrappasso literary journals. Westerly is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected literary journals, and is always chock full of good stories and poetry. So I’m stoked to see my story, ‘Rescuing Chang’, in its pages. It’s set in Chiang Mai and features tuktuks, elephants, ladyboys and a magnetic attraction. It was pretty much the most fun I’ve had writing a story in recent times. ‘Hose’, on the other hand, which appears in Contrappasso is a much darker tale. It features alongside a Nobel Prize winner, no less. In fact, the line-up in this issue is crazy, with writing from China, Malaysia, Iraq, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Ireland, England, Argentina, the US, New Zealand and, of course, Australia.

I must also give a shout-out to Duncan Felton and the Grapple Annual which has just picked up a MUBA. This award is close to my heart as Two Steps Forward was shortlisted for its inaugural award, but Grapple Publishing has gone one better and actually won the thing. It’s great news for publishing in Canberra, and I’m so pleased to have a short story included in what is now a multi-award-winning publication. Look out for the next annual which is due out before the end of the year.

Still on short fiction, the ACT Writers’ Centre invited me to run a six-week short story critique group which turned out to be even more enjoyable than expected, largely because I had such a lovely group of emerging writers to work with. I’m told feedback was entirely positive (a rarity, apparently — so how nice is that?) and I’ve been asked to run another next year. So if you’re a writer with some stories in your back pocket keep an eye out.

As always I’ve been working on all of the above around editing books for various publishers. November has been editing madness with two novels, two picture books, one non-fiction book, and five novellas all at various stages. There’s lots to be excited about but I’ll mention just two. The first is a stunning picture book by Coral Vass called Sorry Day (out with National Library of Australia Publishing 2017). This is a heartfelt and beautifully-written story about the Stolen Generation that moves so cleverly between past and present. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on this book, and I’m sure it’s going to become a staple of schools around the country. The second is really five, that is five novellas by Nick Earls (out with Inkerman & Blunt 2016). There’s a lightness to these stories that is so enjoyable, but then they sneak up on you to reveal deep truths about families that are struggling in different ways. Working with Nick on these novellas has been such a pleasure, and I really hope they do well; they certainly deserve to. So look out for the Wisdom Tree series, launching early next year.

As we head into December I’m looking forward to getting back to my own writing (I have barely put down a word during this madly busy November). I still have another three books to finish editing before Christmas but then come January I’m jetting overseas on a writing adventure! And my littlest is off to preschool in February, which means two-point-five days to write and edit and read! I know I’m imagining that I can pack in way more than I actually can (the literary version of eyes being bigger than the stomach) but nevertheless it’ll be the first time in 13 years that I won’t have to fit in everything around full-time mothering. And that, my friends, is thrilling.

MOTHERHOOD AND MAYHEM: CBCA CONFERENCE 2014

23 May 2014

I was thrilled to be invited to talk on a panel of local authors — billed as ‘local treasures’ no less — at the National Conference of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Motherhood and Mayhem was our topic — with three kids aged three to almost 11 could there be any literary panel more perfectly aligned with my life?

What any of us said on the day is a bit of a blur. There were lots of laughs, I remember that. And it was a joy to share the stage with Tania McCartney (Chair), Stephanie Owen Reeder and Tracey Hawkins. I somehow managed to cleverly position myself in front of the wine (what we all need at the end of the day) and perhaps not so cleverly in front of Tracey’s body parts (she’s an ex-cop and has been known to take inspiration from her former life).

I’ve never seen a panel on this topic before but last year when the four of us started discussing what we might do it seemed like an obvious choice. There are so many women out there trying to balance the need to write with the needs of family. And both are needs. If only the washing did itself, or writing paid enough to hire an in-house chef. One can dream.

Continue Reading…

The question we all constantly get asked is, ‘How do you do it?’ I’m still not sure that I have an answer. What I do know is that I never stop. And I’ve got very good at wearing blinkers to shield me from the housework when I have a precious hour or two in which to write.

The response to the panel was wonderful (and to the lady who said that I don’t look old enough to have an 11 year old — bless you a thousand times!). We knew when we were planning our topic that everyone could relate in some way or another to the challenges of multitasking. Lots of the teacher librarians came up to say that the whole juggling act was familiar territory managing classes of children. And then there were the mother/writers who sat in the audience nodding in recognition.

I stumbled across this summary of the conference and love that we get a mention under the heading ‘Cool Canberra author chicks’! Angela Moyle goes on to say, ‘What a revelation!…These awesome ladies…have inspired me to make the time to write, and stop making excuses!’ Well now, that just makes me happy.