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Picture books

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.

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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.

TREASURES AT THE CBCA CONFERENCE

20 May 2014

Last weekend at the CBCA Conference was one of the most wonderful experiences I have had yet as a writer. I met old friends and new, had wonderful conversations with intelligent, creative people, ate dinner in the War Memorial under the fighter planes, met so many inspiring teacher librarians passionate about reading, drank lots of bad coffee, was part of the ‘Local Treasures’ panel where we spoke about the crazy juggling act of being both a writer and a mother (more on that in another post), and laughed and laughed and laughed. I’m still trying to process everything that happened and have no idea how to capture it all in just one short post. So I thought that I would pick out some of the featured authors and share a few of my favourite books.

Glenda Millard_Tracey Hawkins_Michael Gerard Bauer_Irma Gold_Tania McCartney

Glenda Millard, Tracey Hawkins, Michael Gerard Bauer, Irma Gold, Tania McCartney

I have to start with Glenda Millard because I was a little star struck meeting her. In person she was beautiful — gently spoken, dressed in bold colours. Two of her picture books in particular have been treasured favourites in our house — Heart of the Tiger, which always makes me want to weep,  and Kaito’s Cloth which was Miss Ten’s favourite book for the longest time and still sits on her bookshelf despite the fact that she says she is far too old for picture books. Kaito’s Cloth was also important to me after I was told by both a publisher and an agent that they couldn’t sell Megumi and the Bear ‘because of its snowy setting’. At the time we were reading Kaito’s Cloth daily; it has snow on every page. If Glenda can do it, I thought, so can I. Thankfully the incomparable Walker Books agreed. I was too shy to tell Glenda how much she has inspired me at the conference, but maybe next time.

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During one plenary session Glenda and Stephen Michael King spoke about their collaborative process. I adore Stephen’s work — seriously ADORE! — and they clearly have a very special relationship. Glenda explained how when she is writing a book and thinking about the illustrations she has ‘no idea what I’m desiring, I just know that they’re Stephen’s’. Their latest picture book, The Duck and the Darklings, is extraordinary — for adults as much as children.

I missed most of Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood talking about their process because I was doing post-panel stuff (signing books, etc), but I adore their work, separately and together. I recently went to a workshop with Libby and she handed us all a copy of her first picture book, One Sunday. Master Two has been inseparable from it ever since. Even if we are just driving five minutes to pick up the older kids from school, One Sunday has to come. We almost left it at a café and it just missed being dropped into a puddle. Thankfully it has survived, unscarred, and is read daily.

For Freya my pick is going to be The Terrible Suitcase. All her illustrations are to-die-for but this is Emma Allen’s (incredible) debut book and I met Emma for the first time this weekend, having no idea that she was a local girl. Like me she has young children and is juggling lots of balls. I can’t wait to see what she creates next.

Julie Vivas spoke candidly about developing her illustrations and about how she is ‘always disappointed in herself’ when she finishes a book because she can see where she could have done better.  Freya Blackwood related, revealing that she thinks some of her books are terrible and she’s glad people haven’t noticed. I can’t imagine which books Freya could possibly consider terrible, but I understand the mindset, as I’m sure all creative people do. Freya believes she has only created one perfect book, Amy and Louis (with Libby Gleeson). Vivas named Possum Magic as her most successful achievement.

bob graham ex2

Bob Graham’s desk, recreated at CMaG

I’m not going to pick one Bob Graham book (a seriously impossible task) but instead encourage you to go to a mind-blowing retrospective of his work at CMaG. The conference crew went along to opening night and I’m going to go again with my kids. The exhibition is on until August and I would encourage you all to visit. I particularly loved the recreation of Bob’s working space, complete with paints, pencils and post-it notes.

Illustrator of over 100 books, Robert Ingpen was scheduled to appear at the conference but sadly had to cancel. Nevertheless his latest with author Jane Jolly, Tea and Sugar Christmas, was launched there. It is such an evocative book that I had the good fortune to edit. The story is woven around the train that serviced settlements along the Nullarbor Plain during the 1900s, and has a young Indigenous girl, Kathleen, as the main protagonist — such a rarity. Jane got a shock when she first saw Robert’s illustrations. Without knowing it, he had drawn a girl who looked exactly like a student Jane once taught. The launch itself held another surprise when author Phil Cummings — a long-time friend of Jane’s — announced that his brother used to drive the Tea and Sugar train and one of his mates handed out the tea and sugar. Phil had never previously thought to mention this to Jane!

In a funny way Kathleen leads me to Nadia Wheatley’s My Place, which at the time of its release was seen as a radical book. It is now a school staple, but during the 1988 bicentennial—when we were celebrating an invasion — Nadia’s book was seen to be unAustralian. The depiction of migrants and Indigenous people in picture books was controversial.

Nadia Wheatley Christina Booth Stephanie Owen Reeder Sheryl Gwyther Irma Gold Tania McCartney

Nadia Wheatley, Christina Booth, Stephanie Owen Reeder, Sheryl Gwyther, Irma Gold, Tania McCartney

In fact, My Place won one award under a category for ‘migrants, Aborigines and girls’ which was designed to encourage the publication of these neglected subjects. On hearing this news the audience collectively gasped, and yet the reality is that these three categories are still underrepresented, even that of girls because the accepted view is that boys won’t read books about girls. We still have a long way to go.

Michael Gerard Bauer is beloved by Master Seven. When he found out that I had met Michael he immediately sat down and wrote him a card (complete with illustrations). I was given strict instructions to deliver it the following day. Michael subsequently wrote Master Seven some lovely messages on one of his Eric Vale books and a laminated cover proof of the next yet-to-be-released Secret Agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale book. Needless to say Master Seven was beside himself. He spent the evening copying the cover and then, in the absence of Michael’s story, wrote his own!

Another of Master Seven’s idols, Andy Griffiths presented on humour in children’s books and how adults often don’t ‘get’ the things kids find funny. By way of example he mentioned Barky the Barking Dog from the treehouse books. All three of my kids think Barky is utterly hilarious and having just been to the 13 Storey Treehouse at the Playhouse, that very night they were telling my parents all about Barky. As if to prove Andy’s point, my dad was utterly baffled: ‘Why is this funny?’ and yet my three kids (aged three to ten) kept dissolving into fits of giggles trying to explain what Barky does (barks at things, of course). The treehouse series has captivated kids everywhere, and we are counting down until 52 Storey comes out.

I’m going to finish with one of my favourite people who I finally got to meet, Choechoe Brereton. Choe was one of 22 authors in an anthology of miscarriage stories that I edited, The Sound of Silence (2011). We’ve been emailing ever since and her debut picture book, A House for Donfinkle (coincidentally published by Walker Books, so we are now publishing house buddies) was launched at the conference. Choe is a gorgeous person and this is a gorgeous book illustrated by Wayne Harris. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

I haven’t even mentioned Jackie French, Morris Gleitzman, Barry Jonsberg,  Brownyn Bancroft, Belinda Murrell, Sally Murphy or my panel posse (Tania McCartney, Tracey Hawkins and Stephanie Owen Reader) to name just a few of our most glittering treasures, but here I must end (for now — ramblings on our Motherhood and Mayhem session to come). In short, it was a glorious weekend and massive congratulations must go to the team who pulled together such an inspiring event.

Storytime fun

5 November 2013

Irma Gold_Tania McCartney_Jackie FrenchOn Saturday I got to spend the afternoon with authors Jackie French, Tania McCartney and a bunch of book-loving children. Frankly, it doesn’t get much better than that. Here we are just hanging out in front of a gorgeous window display of our books, as you do.

Electric Shadows Bookshop was made cosy with fluffy rugs and lots of cushions (my daughter appointed herself chief stylist). And it turned out to be an afternoon filled with wonderful stories and lots of laughter.

Tania was up first and read her latest releases, An Aussie Year and Riley and the Jumpy Roo. My two year old is so obsessed with this Riley book (the fifth in the series) that for Halloween he dressed as a roo (except that he got so over excited bouncing everywhere that he broke his ears and then had to settle with being a random zebra instead).

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My turn next. I read one of my two Bugs and Beasts books, published by the National Library of Australia, which was great fun. And then my latest book, Megumi and the Bear. Whenever I read this story the crowd descends into silence. There’s something about the sadness and longing of Megumi, so beautifully expressed in Craig Phillips’ watercolours, that takes the audience into a quieter, reflective space. Tania declared it ‘a lovely pause of beauty and enchantment’. I like it!

Finally, Jackie read Wombat Goes to School. I’ve never seen Jackie read one of her wombat series and I felt like a big kid, giggling with the rest of them. These books have been a favourite with my kids and they are such fun to read. Jackie helped the children discover if they were wombats in disguise (here they are checking if they have furless noses). Now, if only I could scratch my ear with my foot (like some of the wombats in disguise could).

Jackie FrenchWe wrapped up the afternoon signing books and chatting with readers young and old (always one of my favourite parts of any event). The kids gorged themselves on sugary treats (there were so many that while we packed up my daughter took it upon herself to hand out leftover honey joys and biscuits to passersby!). A big thank you to Electric Shadows Bookshop for hosting, and to my fellow authors, Tania McCartney and Jackie French, who made it such a pleasure.

For more photos visit my Facebook page here. And if you’d like to read Tania McCartney’s take on the event and check out all her fabulous piccies click here.

Taking stories into schools

30 August 2013
Narrabundah

At Narabundah Early Learning Centre

I’ve just wrapped up three days packed with school visits for Megumi and the Bear. It has been exhausting but exhilarating. There’s nothing quite like reading to a roomful of kids so involved in the story their mouths are hanging open. Or hearing that your visit has left them so inspired they all started writing their own books. Or at the end of a session when the teacher says, ‘So who wants to be an author?’ and you’re met with a sea of hands.

Some highlights included a Kindy student asking me if I ‘sounded out my stories’. How gorgeous is that! And the Year 1 student who said, ‘I love your book. Can I have your phone number?’ Later she prompted, ‘Do you know your phone number? Because I really need to get it.’

But perhaps the most amusing moment occurred when a Year 3 student asked me when my first story was published. When I replied ‘1998’ the kids—all 100 of them—let out a collective ‘wooooah’. That was, like, back in the olden days! Later their teacher told me they had been planning to ask me what year I was born until she explained that would be rude. Lucky she headed them off. They may well have needed resuscitation.

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Then there are the moments that confirm how important it is for authors to go into schools. At Wanniassa Hills Primary a Year 2 student told me about the chapter book she is writing, adding sheepishly, ‘I don’t know where it’s going until I write it.’ I told her I’m exactly the same and that a famous author (Roger McDonald) once said to me that if you write knowing the ending it often doesn’t work (in his words, ‘it’s a dead hand’). The look on her face at receiving that validation just made my day.

At Palmerston Primary a Year 4 student told me about the series she has been writing and asked me how to find a publisher. She was articulate and determined. It was a great moment to be able to offer her both encouragement and advice. I may very well have just met a future author.

Megumi coverAnother pleasure is being asked questions that really make me think, or listening to the children’s thoughtful observations. For example, on the front cover Megumi and the Bear lie in the snow holding hands, making an ‘M’ shape. M for Megumi. I’d never noticed that before. But a seven-year-old at Narrabundah Early Childhood School did.

At Turner Primary I launched their Artists’ and Writers’ Festival with three sessions. The eight-day festival is playing host to an impressive line-up of artists, including bestselling writer Anthony Hill and cartoonist David Pope. Not surprisingly, the school was bursting with budding writers. When I told them about how I started writing books at home when I was six, they got very excited and told me about all the books they were writing. What a joy that was. I would love to see more primary schools developing similar programs that allow kids to engage with books and reading in such a dynamic way. The best learning happens when everyone’s having so much fun it doesn’t feel like ‘learning’ at all.

I could keep raving about what a wonderful time I’ve had these past few days but I’m going to finish with this. A Kindy student who came up to me at the end of my session and said, ‘I LOVE your story’ and threw her arms around me. It doesn’t get better than that.

The Megumi and the Bear drawing competition is now underway. Download the sheet here for your child’s chance to win one of eight prizes, including teddy bears, books, a tea party for four, a baking pack, and book vouchers. Craig Phillips will be judging the competition with me. Entries close Friday 6 September.

Megumi and the Bear Sydney launch

24 July 2013

On a foggy Saturday morning with Canberra due to reach just eight degrees we packed our kids into the car and headed for Sydney and its positively balmy 21 degrees. Some three hours later we rolled into the CBD. My bloke managed to drive up a bus-only road but then scored a street-side park just around the corner from Kinokuniya. A miracle frankly, or, if I was superstitious, a sign that it was going to be a good day. I’m not, but it certainly was.

AAIMG_0357As Allyx from Kinokuniya said when introducing us, it’s not often that you get both the author and illustrator in the same room. Especially given that Craig (once a Sydney-sider) now lives in New Zealand, and I’m down the highway in Canberra.

Craig kicked things off by talking about the back story. If you haven’t heard about Megumi and the Bear’s long and strange road to publication you can read about it in The Canberra Times here. I followed up with a reading of the book (a lovely hush descended over the room).

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Irma Gold_Megumi and the Bear launchAnd then Craig gave a show and tell that revealed the evolution of the artwork. Craig explained that the original bear (pictured below) was based on his friend, Zimzam, who had a mohawk. When Walker accepted the book for publication they asked Craig to make the bear more realistic. Needless to say Zimzam wasn’t pleased, but Craig was glad Walker made the call. I love our final (terribly sweet) bear but I still feel attached to his endearing teddy-like predecessor who inspired my story.

Then it was time for a tandem book signing. It’s always fun meeting readers and my favourite moment was writing a dedication to a baby born that very morning. I even got to see a snap of the gorgeous little man.

While the parents queued and we signed, the kids got busy with craft, making bear masks and decorating bear biscuits and cupcakes. Most of the kids used the technique my six-year-old self would have employed – cramming on as much icing and as many silver balls as possible. I’m sure my two-year-old son consumed more sugar in that one hour than in his lifetime thus far.

And that’s a wrap! My two older kids declared it ‘the best launch ever’, though truth be told they said that about the Megumi Canberra launch and will probably say it about whatever book launch we go to next. Afterall, what’s not to love about books and food and fun?

Special thanks must go to my bloke who did a damn good job of snapping these pics while wrangling our sugar-high, sleep-deprived toddler. And to all the sponsors who donated items for the launch to help make it such a special occasion: National Library of Australia, The Teddy Bear Shop (Canberra), Walker Books, Kinokuniya Bookstore, and The Art of Teddy Bears.

For lots more photos of all the Sydney launch shenanigans head to my Facebook page.