Monday, December 27, 2010

Look! draw a story competition.

Recently, I have had the extremely pleasurable (but also extremely difficult) task of judging the first round of winners for the Look! draw a story competition, along with author/illustrator Anna Walker and author/publisher Jane Godwin. Each month from December to April there will be another line of the story released for children to illustrate and a winner will be chosen from three age groups. Have a look HERE at some of the entries so far - and you'll see why it was so hard to choose a winner!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fairytales: not for children!

Last night I watched the movie of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Even though I first read this book at school (many years ago!), I hadn't realised until watching the film again last night how much of an influence this story has had on me. As a writer, when I think of the books that draw me to them the most, they are often narrated by a child protagonist and give a child's perspective on a fairly grim world. 'I'm Not Scared' by Niccolo Ammaniti, 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak, 'Jasper Jones' by Craig Silvey and 'Carry Me Down' by MJ Hyland are classic examples of these, though if I put my mind to it I could think of at least a dozen more. I am fascinated by the mix of childhood innocence with the bleakest aspects of adult life: the result for me being the most starkly contrasting shades of dark and light possible. (There are movies that do this for me, too: the recent German film 'The White Ribbon' and the 1955 film 'The Night of the Hunter' being two of my favourites.)
There is a scene in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' where a lynch mob arrives in the night to break into the prison where lawyer, Atticus Finch, is guarding Tom Robinson, a black man, who is held in there for supposedly raping a white girl. Atticus' six-year-old daughter, Scout, recognises one of the men in the crowd as the father of a school friend of hers and blithely chats with him about his son, which eventually shames him into calling the mob away. This is such a powerful example of childhood goodness and innocence overcoming adult bigotry and cruelty; light overcoming dark. For me, this is also the essence of so many traditional fairytales: the innocent Red Riding Hood vanquishing the wicked wolf.
Interestingly, when I started to look up some of the details of this book and its author Harper Lee, online, I read an article which finished with the words: 'a book every twelve-year-old should read'. This is another area I feel compelled to explore: why is it that if a book has a young protagonist in it adults immediately assume that it's for children?
Like many teenagers, I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in high school. I was a 'good reader', I had no trouble absorbing the words, but the story was so far from my comfortable middle-class Australian world that I only realise as an adult how little of it I really understood. As a teenager, I was hungry for Judy Blume: stories of boyfriends and periods and pimples, THAT was my life, not 1930s Alabama. Of course I could feel empathy for Scout, Atticus, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, I wasn't completely heartless, but it is only upon rereading this book as an adult that I can truly understand the whole historical and social context of the story. As a twelve-year-old? I doubt it.
Perhaps I was particularly narrow-minded or naive as a teenager, but having travelled extensively all throughout my childhood, I would be surprised if I was more so than any other teenager of my generation. Perhaps teenagers today, with access to the internet, are more worldly, who knows? All the same, I would hesitate to call 'To Kill a Mockingbird' a children's book. Or any of the other books I've mentioned above.
I recently gave a talk at a seminar for adults who teach extra classes in English to children after school hours. Many of those children and teenagers have English as a second language. One of the tutors put up her hand to ask me how she could get one of her teenage students to read more 'literary' novels. She'd tried him with 'Huckleberry Finn', but he just wasn't interested. I explained that I'd only recently read Huck Finn for my book group. As an adult. Huck Finn was no light read. For a start, the dialect and language, while fascinating to me as an adult, could seem possibly Shakespearean to a young boy. And, while it's true that Huck has many wild adventures, essentially the story is about a black slave trying to escape from his 'owners' to get back to his family and avoid being killed. There are some incredibly adult themes in this book, yet because it is narrated by a child people assume it is a children's book.
I suggested to the woman to perhaps try some contemporary Australian authors: we have some brilliant writers here writing stories for contemporary teenagers. He might find them more relevant to his every day life. Her student would seek out Huck Finn for himself when he was ready for it. As well as all those other brilliant books we are made to study in high school: Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, My Brother Jack. I mean, how as a sixteen-year-old girl was I possibly able to understand the life of a unhappy journalist lusting after his brother's wife when I hadn't even experienced a long term relationship, let alone a marriage?
I'd really be interested to know what other people's thoughts are on this. I notice many of these books are still studied at school in place of contemporary YA fiction, some of which is as well written as any of the 'classics'. Then again, perhaps if we never studied the classics at school we'd never read them at all? Who knows? And, while I acknowledge I could have only understood some of the themes present in these books, I am the first to admit that the stories still stay with me today, gently unfolding in my mind as my collective life experience permits me to understand them at deeper and deeper levels.
So, perhaps in the end to call books 'children's', 'YA' or 'adult's' doesn't mean anything anyway. Adults read Harry Potter and enjoy it and primary school kids read Twilight (gulp!). Perhaps you just find the story that speaks to you. Perhaps you understand as much of it as your life experience and compassion allows you. And perhaps, like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' has done for me, it will continue to influence you long after you've read it, and each time you go back to it you will understand it at a deeper level.
After all, when they were first told around the fireplace, fairytales weren't meant for children either.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ahem. And what about the kids' books?

I have noticed quite a few bloggers are listing their favourite YA books for 2010, or the ones they are looking forward to reading this summer (for southern-hemisphere dwellers)*

So, I thought I'd put a good word in for the kids' books - as I do think they get a little overlooked in blogsphere. (Which might have something to do with the fact that 8 year olds aren't all that big into blogging. Yet.)

Here are some of the fabulous children's books I read in 2010:
- 'When You Reach Me' by Rebecca Stead (I know some people are claiming this as YA - but I'm sorry, I'm going to shelve this in the kids' section - so there!)
- 'People Might Hear You' by Robyn Klein (Not a new book, I know, but wow! Thanks Kim Kane for insisting I read it.)
- 'James and the Giant Peach', 'The Magic Finger', 'The Witches' - basically anything by Roald Dahl. (What a joy to read them to my seven year old this year and be reminded what an incredible storyteller RD is - and how it's OK to be scary and subversive when you're writing for kids. The illustration above is by one of my favourite illustrators, Quentin Blake. He and Roald Dahl go together like pudding and custard.)
- 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series, by Jeff Kinney - I was so prepared not to be impressed by these. How much do I love to be proven wrong! I defy anyone of any age not to laugh when they read these books.
- Anything by AA Milne - I read these regularly to remind me how beautiful language can be.
- 'The Naming of Tishkin Silk' by Glenda Millard. What a gorgeous family - I can't wait to read the rest.

Some great Australian children's books by on my bedside table that I am looking forward to reading over summer:
- 'The Museum of Mary Child', by Cassandra Golds
- 'Teensy Farlow and the Home For Mislaid Children', Jen Storer
- 'Star Jumps' by Lorraine Marwood

And some classics I have recently bought that unbelievably I STILL haven't read:
- 'A Wrinkle in Time', Madeleine L'Engle
- 'Bridge To Terabithia', by Katherine Paterson
- 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', by Joan Aiken
- 'The Moomintroll' series, by Tove Jansson

That's all I can think of for now - though I'm sure I've missed dozens. Any good kids' books I've overlooked? Old or new? I'd love some suggestions. What were your favourite books as a kid? Or now?

Also, I was most thrilled to see my book 'Angel Creek' on a couple of bloggers lists for most anticipated YA read for 2011. For all those lovely people: I have a small confession to make. While of course I would love you to read my book, I have to warn you it is absolutely NOT YA. Very squarely children's, I'm afraid. I know it is confusing because the last book I published with Text is YA, but this one is not. Not one bit. All the same, I'm very touched that someone is/was looking forward to reading it!

And anyway - YA, kids, chick-lit, sci-fi, fantasy: they're only labels so that publishers and booksellers know how to market a book. A good story is a good story, I say.

*For any northern-hemisphere readers of this blog: yes, sadly, many of us do spray fake snow on our windows and eat a full roast dinner in 35+ degree heat, down here in 'upside-down land'. Guess you can take the girl out of England but not England out of the girl, hey?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hello Summer!

I love summer. Everything about it. The heat, the cicadas, the fruit on our trees, the tomatoes in our veggie patch, daylight saving, and especially that quiet time between Christmas and New Year, where everyone is away, or thinks you're away, or they're just too hungover to surface.
Last summer was a very creative and productive time for me. Over those few quiet weeks I wrote the first draft of my novel, Angel Creek. By the end of this summer it will be published.
This summer will be a little busier - I have more Billie books to write and the proofs of my novel to go through. I am also writing a children's story for the Summer Age which will be published in January some time. Not sure when.
Late summer, I will be running Chinese painting workshops for kids on the 13th and 20th of February at the State Library as a part of their exhibition 'Look! - the art of Australian picture books today.' If you are at all interested in children's picture books, particularly illustrations, you have to get down to see this show. It is truly wonderful. And take a child, if you can. All the artwork is hung at child height, and the exhibition space is full of hands-on activities and games, which of course you'll feel much more comfortable playing with if you have a token child with you. (I have a few spare if you don't have your own.) You have plenty of time to get there as it will be in Melbourne until the end of May, but seriously, why would you wait in the queues to see the Myer windows with screaming kids in tow when you could just wander up the road and take a look at some seriously beautiful artwork for children. (Sorry, that's just my humble opinion...)
The image above is of my 'Summer Billie'. It will be in (all good) bookstores in January.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Save Collected Works - pass it on! (thanks Kirsty Murray)

Thanks Kirsty Murray for alerting me to this. I thought I'd post it too, just to get it out there as far as possible. Collected Works is such an important Melbourne institution. It would be terrible if it closed down. Show your support and pop in there this week. I used to have a studio in the Nicholas Building just down the hall from this wonderful bookstore and have very fond memories of afternoon cups of tea and wonderful conversations with the owner, Kris Hemensley. He was even kind enough to launch my book 'Becoming Buddha' many years back. Just as Kris has always shown his support for the Melbourne writing community by stocking small press books, backlists and, of course, shelves and shelves of poetry, let's return the favour by supporting him in return. If you can't get in this week, drop in when you can. Here are the details of where to find him. And you'll get a chance to have a peek into the marvellous Nicholas Building, another Melbourne icon, while you're there! (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So you want to write a novel?

This is a brilliant video on writing. SO funny and astute.

And, because I'm not really sure of internet etiquette, here is the address of the guy who made it:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Billie en francais = Lili!

Very excited to recently get an email with THIS cover attached. I can't wait to receive my copies of the books. It will be interesting to see what other changes the French language edition will have to make to my stories. I was more than happy for the publishers to change 'Billie' to 'Lili' for a French audience, but I will be fascinated to see how they deal with all the 'B' words in translation...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lunch with the PM

Well, I put on a frock and got myself down to Fed Square today for my lunch date with Ms Gillard. Today, the winners of the PM literary awards were announced.

I was 99.9% certain that I wasn't going to win because I was convinced that the winner would be given some notice to prepare a speech, despite being told by the organisers that this wasn't the case and to prepare something anyway. Which, of course, I didn't.

When the winner of the Fiction Award, Eva Hornung for Dog Boy, was announced (my pick!) she wasn't there to collect it (apparently too busy collecting hay) so her publisher, Michael Heyward from Text Publishing accepted the award on her behalf. He had a very well-prepared speech on hand, which only convinced me even further that he already knew that Eva had won.

But THEN, when the non-fiction award was announced, the winner (Grace Karsken for The Colony: A History of Early Sydney) was standing not far from me and the look of genuine shock on her face chilled me to the bone. It wasn't possible: surely they couldn't just spring it on someone like that? That's a heart attack waiting to happen! You're talking $100,000 here - not a rose and a handshake. In my world, that's life-changing stuff! (Or at least mortgage-denting.) However, despite being almost in tears, Ms Karsken pulled a very well-prepared speech from her handbag and read it out beautifully, even remembering to thank the PM and to call the minister for the Arts, Minister Crean, instead of just Simon, as I no doubt would have done.

This is when I went into panic mode. If the winners genuinely didn't know they'd won, then I was still in with a chance! What was worse was that Martine Murray (the author of our shortlisted book) still hadn't arrived and there was a very strong possibility that I would have to stumble up there on my own. At this stage I was thanking God I hadn't worn heels. If my name was announced and I didn't black out on the spot I would surely stumble walking up the stairs to the podium. And fall. On national television. Right into Our Julia!

When the YA winner (Bill Condon for Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God) was announced and his wife, Di Bates, squealed in excitement, the terrifying possibility of appearing with Ms Gillard on national television with no speech prepared loomed even closer. At that moment I tried frantically to recall all the names of people I would have to thank and, of course, not a single one came to me. My editor! She was standing just there! What was her surname, for god's sakes? I had worked on THE BOOK with her for blooming months but my mind was a total blank. I could barely remember my partner's name, and he was standing right next to me.

Then there were the other dilemmas that came flashing through my mind: do I take my handbag, or leave it? Do I offer my sweat-drenched palm to the PM or wipe it on my frock first? What was Mr Crean's title again? Where was Martine, for goodness' sakes? Was it too late to text her to see how far away she was? What if I was texting when they called my name. Oh, Lordy!

So, when Lorraine Marwood's name was announced for her children's novel Star Jumps, and I saw all the panic and shock rip through her body as she tried to decide whether or not to take her handbag to the podium, and whether on not she had time to fish around inside it for her camera, to be honest, even though the one hundred thousand tax-free dollars would have come in handy, all I could think of at that moment was: 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

So, it was terribly lovely to be shortlisted, lovelier still to be at a fancy lunch with the PM (who didn't stay to eat - she does have a country to run) but I tell you what, if I'm ever shortlisted for something again, I'll be prepared!

Congratulations again to all the winners!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tomboys, jazz and the importance of imagination

This is an excerpt from an interview on the Billie B Brown series that will be published at at the end of November. I have just pulled out my favourite bits.

KL: Is Billie’s name, and the spelling of it, intentional?

Yes. In writing books for children I love to create strong girls and sensitive boys. For me, this is a very efficient way of creating a well-rounded character that doesn’t slip into stereotype.

I studied painting in China for several years as a young adult and I am still very interested in Chinese philosophy, particularly its dedication to creating balance in life. The term ‘Yin and Yang’ is bandied about a lot these days, and the symbol is used on everything from Chinese medicine to surfboards, but basically it illustrates the balance of life ie; that in all black, there must be a touch of white, and in white there is always a touch of black.

So, for me to create a well-rounded character, I like to make sure that my boys are in touch with their feminine side and my girls have a little bit of boy in them. ‘Billie’ was the perfect name for
my character because obviously it makes you think of ‘Billy’, the boy’s name, first of all, but then it also might make you think of Billie Holiday, the beautiful, strong and gorgeously feminine jazz singer from the 1940s and 50s.

KL: How does Billie differ to the accepted stereotype of girls her age?

To be honest, being a mother of three boys, I haven’t read many books for girls published recently, but I could tell you anything you want to know about Spiderman!
However, I am keenly aware of how girls are treated in the media and, I have to say, sometimes it turns my stomach. I am a strong advocate not only of desexualizing young girls but also for allowing kids to stay kids for as long as they need to be. Childhood seems to get shorter and shorter and with that also disappears the terribly important ‘doing nothing’ time where imagination is allowed to flourish.

As an author and illustrator, imagination is one of the key aspects of my job, but, if you think about it, imagination and creativity are essential to all areas of life, whatever your job or interests are. I believe that the seeds to developing a strong and healthy imagination are planted in our early life and this grows best by simply allowing children regular opportunities for unstructured play. Once kids break through the ‘I’m bored’ barrier and are left to their own devices, that’s when their imagination really starts to kick in.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Here it is!

The cover for Angel Creek! It's still AGES before I'll have the finished book in my hands but seeing the cover makes me feel like it's SO much closer.
What do you think?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Play Tag

I saw this on Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog, it's brilliant - so funny! And perhaps the best argument I've seen yet for encouraging Free Range play.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A 1970s Childhood

Have you ever noticed how in many of the best books for children the author removes the parents from the picture as soon as possible? Whether it's children slipping through a portal into Narnia or Hogwarts, or simply sending Mum out for the day when a Cat comes to play? (Or if you are the ever-subversive Roald Dahl, you just kill them off on page one!) There's a very good reason for this. Think back to your own childhood. How present were your parents in the most exciting periods of your life? I don't know about you, but mine were always very much on the periphery. I'm sure they were watching me from some distance away (or at least checking up on me from time to time) but all of my 'adventures' were always played out very much in my private child's world, with parents just kind of like an annoying fly to be swatted away, buzzing in my ear every now and then to go and take a bath or eat some food - right when I was in the most important part of my game! Like many people of my generation, I imagine, (OK - I'm a seventies child!) I was given an enormous amount of freedom by my parents. I walked to school from grade 3 with my friend from across the road and our younger siblings in tow. We would hang out at each other's houses without consulting our parents, go to the park by ourselves and down to the milk bar to buy mixed lollies. We climbed trees, played in mud, waded in creeks. And survived.

These days, in many places, this is unheard of. A friend and I went to see a talk at the Wheeler Centre on Monday evening called ‘Free Range Kids’ by American journalist, Lenore Skenazy. Lenore published an article a while back in the US about letting her nine-year-old son use the New York subway on his own. Within twenty-four hours she was officially labelled 'America's Worst Mom' and found herself defending her decision on countless TV and Radio talkback Shows.

Lenore was a fabulous speaker (and incredibly funny!) and gave us some terrifying examples of how obsessive contemporary society has become in 'protecting our children'. She said an obvious example of how much childhoods have changed over time can be found by watching the original episodes of the educational children's TV show Sesame Street, where kids used to play in vacant lots and eat cookies and generally do their own thing (with the adults either absent or very firmly planted on the periphery). Nowadays when you watch one of these original episodes, apparently they come with the warning: UNSUITABLE FOR CHILDREN! I find this horrifying. And sad.

Lenore explained why, as contemporary parents, we are so much more frightened of allowing our children the same freedoms we enjoyed. Along with the fear of being disapproved of by other parents and the money made by selling us protective gadgetry we don't need, our 24/7 sensationalist media is the most obvious culprit. While statistics have proven that crime rates in the US and Australia are continually going down (and most crime committed towards children comes from someone they know) we are constantly being bombarded by terrifying news stories and Crime-based TV shows. The result being that people are becoming afraid to even step out their own doors. Surely it is much safer to keep our children locked inside on the computer, playing Nintendo games or watching TV? We all know the result of this on our children's physical health, but what about their mental health? What about the health of their imaginations? Creativity? And sense of community?

I was very inspired by Lenore's talk. My family and I are fortunate to live in a great community where many of the local kids walk to school, know their neighbours and play in the local parks. All this month, for example, my youngest son and I have been watching this little nature strip garden bloom and grow. It stands all alone on the street, in front of no house, yet some one has planted all these beautiful flowers just for everyone who passes by to enjoy. It may only be a small, simple gesture, but to me it represents all the good and beautiful things about an open, trusting and generous community and how there are many more good things out there than bad, if we dare to look for them.

(PS Thanks to Cath Crowley for inspiring me to write this post after posting a gorgeous clip on Facebook of Paul Simon on Sesame Street.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Novel on its way - finally!

After way too long (and way too much heartache), my next novel looks as is it will finally see the light of day early next year. I had thought this novel writing gig would get easier, but I'm afraid the reverse might be true. This novel began as upper YA, then shifted down to mid-YA and now it is quite firmly planted in children's (8- 12 year olds), which I am beginning to think might be my preferred audience anyway. I have tested it out on friends, children, friend's children, and children's friends and now it is in the safe and most competent hands of my wonderful editor at Text who is massaging it into shape for me. Buffing it, polishing it into the diamond we hope it can be. Here is a draft of the blurb I received today. Along with a gorgeous cover sketch the designer sent through to me, I am beginning to imagine this thing finally becoming a book after all.
"In her new falling-down home, in her new street, in her new suburb, Jelly waits for high school to begin. She feels happy in only two places: up in the branches of the old apricot tree, and by the creek over her back fence. One night, Jelly and her cousins spot something in the creek's dark waters—the faintest pearly smudge. At first they think it’s a bird, but it isn’t…it’s a baby angel with a broken wing. And they decide to keep it. But soon things start to go wrong, and Jelly discovers that you can’t just take something from where it belongs and expect that it won’t be missed…
Sally Rippin's Angel Creek is a book about growing up: being brave and selfish and tough and scared. It's a book about an angel. But not the sweet variety. And it's about the adventures you can have in the streets around your house in the middle of summer."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Writing Billie...

There are times in your life when something absolutely marvellous just seems to fall into your lap. Billie B Brown has been one of these things.

Hilary Rogers, the publisher at Hardie Grant Egmont, took me out for coffee one day and told me that she wanted to begin a new series of books for young readers (primarily girls) but with a strong female lead – a tomboy, I suppose – to balance out all the fairy and princess books that seem to heavily dominate the younger reader market these days. She asked me – would I like to write for the series – or write the series? (The catch obviously being very tight deadlines.) Well, what you have answered? Really, that’s like asking my seven year old if he’d like lollies for dinner!

I had a million things on, as I always do, and my sensible mind was saying, Sally, you really can’t cope with writing a whole series right now! What about the overdue novel and that set of illustrations you are halfway through? And aren’t you about to begin marking hundreds of assignments from all of your RMIT students? But obviously the offer was way too tempting to even begin to be overrided by my sensible mind and I set to work that very night putting together a whole list of ideas for Hilary to consider. Fortunately, I have a very strong memory of myself at Billie’s age, and so once I started coming up with story ideas, I just couldn’t stop! As luck had it – Hilary loved my ideas and we spent the next few weeks to-ing and fro-ing about how the series would evolve.

Billie went through many incarnations – at one stage I even called her Ruby Rose – without any idea that there was a famous MTV star who went by that name. (Fortunately the Hardie Grant staff are much hipper and groovier than I am and were able to (kindly) let me know!) We talked about the length of the stories (short) and the kind of language and sentence structure I should be using (very simple and pared-back for beginning readers – much harder than it looks!) Then, there was the troublesome dilemma of illustrator. I am also an illustrator and for quite a while we toyed with the idea of me illustrating the series even though we all knew deep down that there was no way I was going to be able to write and illustrate the books as quickly as Hilary wanted to publish them. So, with great difficulty, I handed over a little piece of my baby to be illustrated by someone else.

This is the first time I have done this, and I now know what trepidation and excitement picture book authors must feel when they wait to see what an illustrator has done with their precious words. As it turns out, the Hardie Grant team found the perfect illustrator, in a young (very gorgeous) Japanese-Kiwi woman, called Aki Fukuoka. Aki has created a Billie even more wonderful than I could have imagined (let alone illustrated). Super-groovy, fabulous dresser, feisty, messy – gorgeous! When I look at the series now I can’t imagine Billie any other way. And along with the gorgeous sherbet-y cover colours, the books look almost good enough to eat!

The team at Hardie Grant have been a joy to work with right from the start. And I don’t use the word ‘team’ lightly here. I am only a small part of the enormous success the Billie series has had so far, even though it has only been on the shelves since April. Everyone has worked so hard to get this little girl up and running, and the response to the books has been amazing. I have never received so much fan-mail in my life! Not only from little girls, but parents and teachers, too, thanking me for finally creating a character their girls can relate to.
Writing this series has been so delightful, really just one of those wonderful fortuitous things that comes along just at the right time. I really feel very lucky to have had such a great writing career so far, but I have to say creating the Billie B Brown series has definitely been the icing on the cake.

*This article first appeared on the Kids Book Review blog.
*The above image is the cover of The Perfect Present, to be released November 1, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chenxi in German!*

Wow - it never rains but it pours. THIS is also super exciting. I LOVE the cover, and the new title translates as 'The Silk Painter'*. Gorgeous! The best thing about the German translation is that now the 'real' Chenxi will be able to read it, in what has now become his second language (I don't think it will be ever published in China any time soon, considering much of what the novel is about has been banned from the Chinese media.) Soon after I left Shanghai, Chenxi left China to live in Austria where he has now become a successful artist. We keep in touch - but haven't seen each other since we were teenagers. This would definitely be a good excuse to meet up again to celebrate.
*since I posted this, my German publishers have now changed the title to Shanghai Love Story. A German edition, but with an English title. See cover on right.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Many many monkeys

Like many other children's authors around Australia, I was in schools all last week celebrating Book Week. I love visiting schools but do find it's quite a different energy to the quiet, introspective, creative place I need to be in to write. For me, it feels much more like a performance - a One Woman Show. Not having the strongest of voices, by the end of the week, despite being energised, inspired and excited by all the wonderful children, librarians and teachers I meet, I'm also pretty worn out.
Lately I have been running drawing workshops with primary students where I talk to them about developing some of the characters in the picture books I have illustrated. Then I take them through a step-by-step drawing of a baby monkey from a book I illustrated for Margaret Wild a few years ago called Too Many Monkeys. I have run this workshop with students of all ages, but today was the first time I have done it with kindergarten students. Here are some of their drawings.
The photos aren't that great because I took them on my phone, but you can still see how beautiful the drawings are. Even though each of them copied exactly the same drawing from the whiteboard, each drawing is so exquisitely unique.

Click here for a video on the Booked Out website to see an example of this drawing workshop.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chenxi en francais!

THIS is very exciting!
I remember when I lived in France, over ten years ago now, in the countryside just outside of Bordeaux, I was desperate for any books in English, and there was only one English-language bookstore in town. One day I went in there and asked if they had any books by Australian authors, being a Penguin bookstore, I assumed that this would be a reasonable enough request. The shop assistant told me that she was sorry that not only were there none, she wouldn't be able to order any in for me either. She explained (and I will never forget this) that English and European readers weren't really very interested in Australian stories.
I was gobsmacked. And unfortunately way too timid back then to let her know all the indignant thoughts that were whirling around in my head. Is there even such a thing as an Australian story, for goodness sakes? Isn't the very act of storytelling universal, whatever culture or setting becomes its background?!
Anyway, as the old saying says, don't get mad, get even. I wish I could find that bookseller now...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Melbourne Writers Festival

This year I have three sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
For bookings, go to

Wednesday September 1st
Chicks with Sticks!
Alice Pung, Sally Rippin
ACMI 2, 12.30pm - 1.15pm, Tickets $6
For Alice Pung, growing up Asian in Australia was a constant process of navigating who she was and how she fit in. For Sally Rippin, growing up as an Australian in China, the process was just the same… in reverse.
Meet Sally and Alice as they talk culture-clashes, family identity and whether being a teenager anywhere can possibly be easy.

Thursday September 2nd
Where am I?
Sally Rippin
ArtPlay, 11.15am - 12pm, Tickets $6
Where you set a story can be the key to whether your readers believe it or not. As an illustrator and an author, Sally Rippin uses beautiful drawings and perfect descriptions to communicate setting to her readers.
Today, Sally talks about capturing the essence of a particular place and how to recreate it on the page.

Saturday 4th September
Wordplay @ Artplay
Carole Wilkinson, Sally Rippin
ArtPlay, Birrarung Marr
10am - 3.15pm
Beginning at 10am each day is packed with different workshops launches and meet the author sessions, so you children can enjoy the full festival experience, all under one roof.
Each day you can write, illustrate and publish your own book in a day with the wonderful Victoria Ryle, as well as enjoying storytelling sessions from the Storyteller's Guild.
We'll be joined too by the Children's Book Council of Australia, who'll be on hand to give free, informal seminars for parents to help you guide your child around the world of books.
On 4th September our featured events are:
Carole Wilkinson – Author Presentation
Carole Wilkinson has the answer to every dragon-related question, in every dragon-related story, you could imagine asking!
Sally Rippin – Illustrator Workshops
Sally Rippin will present workshops on how to illustrate in the style of Chinese painting!
Wordplay is aimed at children from ages 6 - 13 and day tickets cost $21. Parents or guardians attend free of charge.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

Speaking of amazing author/illustrators, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see Shaun Tan's animation The Lost Thing at the Melbourne Film Festival two weekends ago. Like all Shaun's work, this was a labour of love - many years of work for only ten minutes of viewing - but the result is exquisite. There is so much detail in every scene, full of Shaun's gorgeous painterly textures and colours, curious characters, signs and symbols, that I wanted to go back and freeze each frame just to absorb it all. Plus, on screen, the story seemed even more moving than I remembered.
If you missed The Lost Thing's only Melbourne viewing, don't despair, as DVDs will be available for sale in November - just in time for Christmas! Meanwhile, here is the trailer, as a taster, and don't forget to visit the website for more information.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oliver Jeffers

Here's a great little video on Oliver Jeffers, one of my favourite picture book creators, talking about his work. You can visit his website here and while you are there you just might want to subscribe to his newsletter, which is always full of interesting little tidbits like this one.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Billie B Brown drawing competition

A school I visited recently ran a Billie B Brown drawing competition. Here are some of the entries. Aren't they gorgeous!?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Billie five and six!

Only ten more sleeps until the next two Billie books hit the stores on August 2nd. I have some lovely new advance copies and if you (or any little girls you know) would like to get your mittens on one before anyone else does, email me at and tell me which is your favourite Billie B Brown book and I'll throw in some stampers for your trouble. I only have a few to give away so be quick!
In other Billie news, the first six books have already sold into French-Canada and will be published there later this year. I can't wait to read in Billie in French!
Here is a nice review from the August edition of Bookseller and Publisher:
The Extra-special Helper: Billie B Brown
Billie B Brown’s class is off to the zoo and Billie couldn’t be more proud as she’s going to be her teacher’s extra special helper for the day. Billie needs to make sure that everyone behaves and that no-one gets lost—but is she up to the task? This cute little reader is the latest addition to Sally Rippin’s series for emerging readers that revolves around what the ‘B’ in Billie B Brown really stands for—this time, bossiness. Rippin’s aim is to offer an alternative to fairy and princess readers, and she carefully challenges gender stereotypes through the characters of Billie and her best friend Jack. This story develops their friendship particularly well as Billie learns to juggle her responsibilities as both a friend and helper. Illustrator Aki Fukuoka does a great job of capturing Billie’s quirky and defiantly messy character, complementing the overall bright, modern and friendly series design. Children will want to pick these books up and give them a try—and the layout, with its generous type and fun use of emphasised words, will help keep them going. Short and sweet, this engaging reader for children five years and up also makes a great accompaniment to a first school excursion.
Meredith Tate is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer who has worked for a children’s publisher

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Coming home to some good news

Oh, it's hard to come home. Back in the freezing Melbourne winter it's hard to imagine I was looking out this very window over the rooftops of Paris only weeks ago. Maybe I was Parisian in another life? Or perhaps from Southern Italy where we spent the last few days of our trip eating, sleeping, swimming, and then eating some more. I love the way Italian and French life revolves around food. I can't imagine a nicer way to spend your life than your biggest dilemma of the day being what to eat at your next meal. 'Hmm...will we we eat at the seafood place down the road or stroll along the beach to that pizza restaurant in town? It's been at least two hours since I've had a gelati, I wonder if I could go another? Or should I crack open that goat cheese?' c'est la vie!
Anyway, my return to Melbourne was rather softened by the exciting news that Mannie and the Long Brave Day, by Martine Murray and illustrated by me, has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards, in the Children's Fiction category. At this stage I've no idea when the winner is announced but you'll certainly hear about it if it's Martine and me!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fromages Francais

Ooh la la! They say there is a different French cheese for every day of the year and I would have to say I think I am coming pretty close to having eaten every one of them - even the ones that smell like feet. Is there nothing more sublime than a glass of red with a blob of camembert on a piece of crusty baguette? Throw in a seventeenth century Parisian apartment with the morning sun streaming in and I am in heaven. This week is flying by and we are already dreaming up ways of how we can possibly come back (or never leave?) There are still two whole wings of the Louvre I didn't get to see! (Though they say  it would take nine months to see every single thing in the Louvre. I could handle that. Nine months here would suit me fine.) 
You'll be happy to know I can now go sockless, which means we almost fit in here now, could almost pass as Parisians, except that my seven year old insists on hanging all his Eiffel Tower keyrings off his jumper. But that's OK. It could be just a statement ironique - in a kind of Andy Warhol/Marcel Duchamp kind of way.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Brrr...Summer in Paris!

Hmmm... Summer in Paris? Yesterday it was freezing! Am I glad I threw in a jumper at the last minute! Just in case you're even slightly interested, today should be a little bit warmer, then by Wednesday it should be 25 and sunny. 
I've noticed that one of the differences between Melburnians and Parisians (I'm sure there are thousands but this is one I discovered yesterday) is that Parisians don't obsess about the weather the way we do (we do? I do?). I asked three people what the weather was going to be like this week and not one of them had any idea or showed any interest whatsoever! Cheez, in Melbourne I even know how many millimeters of rain there is going to be! 
How can I possibly know what to wear if I don't know what the weather is going to be like? It's hard enough looking 'Parisian chic' when I have to wear all my summer clothes on top of each other and socks with my thongs!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Travel reading

In two more sleeps we head off for Paris! Two weeks in France and two weeks in Italy. It goes without saying that I am BESIDE myself with excitement. So, on my bed I have a suitcase crammed with clothes, a printout of my novel-in-progress and a stack of kid's books to keep my youngest entertained. Now the biggest dilemma is which books to take for me? It is so hard to whittle down that towering pile by my bedside table, and then there are all those tempting bookstores at the airport!
Do I take light and breezy or earnest? Travel stories or short stories? Award-winners or money-spinners? Research or fun? Already the two Lonely Planet guides take up almost half the suitcase and weigh a ton! Help! Suggestions anyone? What's something fabulous I can take that I will gaze at fondly on my bookshelf for years to come, dust it off, remove the Metro ticket bookmark and remember that this was 'the book I read in Paris'?

Friday, June 11, 2010


OK, any Billie fans out there, here's a competition for you!
It's a little hard to read the poster, so here are the details:
Do you know what the B in Billie B Brown stands for?
-Lots of different things!
Billie can be BRAVE sometimes, other times she wants to be a BALLERINA. Some days she wants to do something BIG and sometimes she can be a little bit BOSSY!
Want to win a full set of the first four Billie B Brown books?
Just tell us what you think the B in Billie B Brown could stand for.
You can draw, collage or write your entry - the more BOLD and BEAUTIFUL the BETTER!
There are TEN sets to be won!
Send your entries to:
The B in Billie B Brown Competition
Private Bag 1600, South Yarra, VIC 3141
Don't forget to include your name, age and address so we can send you a prize!
Entries close 30/06/2010
The winner will be contacted by mail before 12/07/2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Premier's Reading Challenge blog

Next week (June 7 - 11) I am The Age newspaper's Premier's Reading Challenge blogger. Below is the introduction that will run in this Sunday's Age to encourage kids to go online and chat with me as a Premier's Reading Challenge ambassador about reading, writing, or anything really. If you don't get The Age you can you can access the blog by going to and selecting 'ERC blog' from the top navigation bar or via this link:
Hope to see some of you there!
Story ideas.
Often when I am running writing workshops with students the first thing I will be asked is how to come up with an idea for a story.
Here is an exercise I get them to try.
Think of a character. Then think of your character’s ‘every day’ or ‘normality’. Then think of an interruption to your character’s normality. This is called an ‘inciting incident’.
It can be a big, fantastical interruption to your character’s every day life:
Every day Gus took the tram to work. But one day the tram braked suddenly. Gus looked out the window, and there on the tram tracks was a spaceship!
Or, it can be a small, more realistic interruption:
Every day Samantha checked the letterbox, but it was always empty. One day, when she opened the box, there was a letter waiting for her.
Whatever your interruption, it should spark questions in your mind that help you progress with the story.
Who is in the spaceship? How did they get there? What is going to happen next?
Who is the letter from? Why has Samantha been waiting for it? What will be in the letter?
Asking, then answering, these kind of questions can be a good way to come up with ideas for a story.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Creativity and Doubt

So, if Peter Carey can doubt himself: here and even the great Eric Carle can have an attack of creative crisis: here, I guess it's just something that I have to accept as part of the job!
Here are another couple of inspiring speakers who talk about these very same things. The wonderful Sir Ken Robinson, who has written a book about finding your passion: here and Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I am yet to read) here.
There is something so vulnerable about making your creative life your professional life, as if your job demands you to turn yourself inside out, all your tenderest most intimate thoughts and ideas on show for all the world to see and judge. But would I have it any other way? There have been times when I have wondered. But then the realisation that I am in the incredibly rare and privileged position of making a living from something I am passionate about, in a situation where I am working almost every day doing something that I love, overrides all the possible downsides, and, once again I am grateful for what I have.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

After your first novel - then what?

I have been working on my current novel for three or four years now (I've lost count) and it has been a grueling process. Recently I have been thinking a lot about something Antoni Jach, teacher and mentor of countless writers all over Melbourne, once said: 'You get your first novel for free.' At the time I didn't completely understand what he meant by this but now I think I do.
When I think back to when I wrote my first novel Chenxi and the Foreigner, in my mid-twenties, it's like I am different person (other that I am obviously much older and alas not always wiser). I'm not saying that my first novel was any easier to write - I still had to slog out numerous drafts over several years - it's more that I wrote with a kind of weightlessness that seems harder to conjure up the more I am published.
I am definitely a more professional writer now; more aware of what I am doing and why I am doing it, who my audience is and even the kind of book I am writing. I edit my work better, I plan better, structure better, probably even write better, but by gaining all this control over my writing, I lose a certain enviable out-of-controlness that comes from blindly finding your way through your first novel.
As an art student, I loved the unpredictability of printmaking. Unlike drawing (unless you draw blindfolded or with your left hand) with printmaking you could never be one hundred per cent sure of what the outcome would be. I guess that's the closest analogy I can think of to describe the difference between writing my first novel to writing the one I am working on now.
I remember once listening to Sonya Hartnett talk on a panel with a hip young first-time novelist and at the time thinking how weary and cynical she sounded. The hip young novelist had so much fire and excitement and enthusiasm and was comparing writing his novel to riding a bucking bronco. Sonya rolled her eyes and said something like, 'That's because you're still a virgin. Just wait til you try to write the next one.'
Even though I would hate to ever feel weary or cynical about my work, at times it definitely does feel tamer. I carry more weight and I know well the hard road ahead of me. I'm also more likely to dismiss my work as crap whereas in the beginning I was overjoyed just to string a few words together and to watch something be created from nothing.
These days I can still have moments like that. Little breakthroughs like cracks in a wall where the light gets in (thank you Leonard Cohen for that beautiful analogy). This weekend I had a good weekend, an uninterrupted long weekend perfect for writing. My partner and I both work from home and take turns looking after our youngest son so the other can work. I wrote in the mornings then walked along the Merri Creek with my son in the afternoons. With him, I can often rediscover that sense of childish awe about the world, that slow daydreaming time so essential to creativity. Then in the evenings I would read through the day's work. I didn't hate all of it. I was amazed to discover that some of it I even liked.
I don't want to jinx myself or count my chickens before they hatch or let the cat out of the bag or any of that other proverbial nonsense, but I'll just say that my novel has changed considerably over the last three/four years. From starting out as an angsty teen novel about identity and acceptance (yawn), I think now it is beginning to simplify and crystallize into something younger, lighter and more full of awe. While I began with something complex and complicated and convoluted, now I have decided just to tell the story of a bunch of kids who find an angel in the creek.
Picasso strove his whole life to recreate the simplicity and lightness of his childhood drawings and, like him, it may take me a lifetime to do the same. But perhaps the more time I spend walking along the creek with my young son, the easier it will be for me to get there.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Billie in the Younger Sun Bookstore

THIS is very exciting! When you walk into the fabulous Younger Sun Bookstore in Yarraville this is the first thing you see. I was asked by the wonderful Kate O'D to come in and sign some Billie books this week and had no idea what a treat awaited me! Thanks Kate and everyone at the Younger Sun for all your support!
Any other bookstores stocking Billies who'd like me to come in and sign copies, just let me know. I have a car and I am prepared to drive any (reasonable) distance for any Billie fans out there!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sneak Peek - Books 5 & 6

Here are the gorgeous covers for the next two Billie books, due for release later this year.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Billie B Brown Launch

Here are a couple of photos from Saturday's Billie B Brown launch. Andy did a wonderful job launching the series and Borders were great hosts. Some of the kids dressed up - the theme was the letter 'B' so of course I am dressed as Billie. (I'm not normally known for galavanting about in pigtails and a tutu!) It was lots of fun and it was wonderful to see so many friends, relatives and Hardie Grant people at the launch, many of them with kids in tow. Obviously, we missed Aki, the illustrator, but as she lives in New Zealand it was a little far for her to come just for the weekend!
There are two more Billie books on the way and I'll be posting a sneak peek soon.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bonnikins - Short & Scary

This is a story I recently had published in Short & Scary - a new collection of short stories by Black Dog Books. It is an old story of mine, but still one of my favourites.


By Sally Rippin

Come for a wander with me, sproggin. I have a special place to show you. It’s not far, but we have to walk through the woods. Your mammy told you never to walk through the woods, did she? Well, sprog, I wouldn’t worry about your mammy. She’s not around now, is she? There’s just me. Now, come along.

It’s dark in the woods, is it deary? Well, don’t you worry, your peepers will soon become accustomed. Look now, the clouds have rolled back and there shines the moon, all fullsome, upon our path. Just keep walking. It’s not far now.

What’s that sound, you say? Well, that be the wolves, my child. Wolves are always a-howling when the moon comes out. Don’t let it fear you. Those wolves may be hungry but they’re far, far away. And anyways, you be safe with me.

Keep up now, child. Don’t want to be losing yerself among the leafy-tallings now, do you? The woods is no place for a child on its own. What’s that? You want to go home? There now, child, that’s not the voice of the sprog I know. Come along. We be nearly there. There’s no going back now.

There. You see it? There. Between the leafy-tallings. Dainty innit? That be my snuggery. And a cosy one at that. But that’s not what I wanted to show you. No, child, what I want you to see waits inside. Come along now, don’t tarry. Ah, yes, there tis. See how it the light beckons? All friendly-like? Ah, it’s good to be home.

Not that I don’t like yer ma and pa. No, child, it’s not that. They be fine people, for sure. But I got my own sprog to care for, too. You didn’t know that? Well, of course, my child. Why do you think I work so hard for yer ma and pa? You think I clean their house for fun, my sprog? No, child. I have my own sprog to feed. Yes, child.

Here we are. Come along my inchling. I hear my babe a-callin. He be hungry fer sure. Don’t be fearsome, child. Why, your face be turnin’ white as a bone! I thought you had more courage in you than that. What’s that? You don’t like that sound he’s makin? He’s but a babe! Sure he be noisy, but he’s howlin’ with hunger. You be howlin’ too if you had a hunger like that.

In you go, my fingerling. Shhh! Yes, dear just like that. You don’t want me to lock the door? But we must lock the door, dear. Keep the hungry beasties out. No dear, yer ma won’t be calling you. She’s having a nice tea now with yer pa. In a fancy dining place, innt she? She knows yer safe with me. I says to yer ma, now don’t rush back, dear, yer fine sprog be safe with me! No, child, your ma and pa won’t miss you for quite a bit longer.

Come along now, child. Don’t pull yer hand like that. Of course it’s going to hurt your wrist if you keep pulling away like that. Just be still, would you child? There’s no sense in making a fuss. There! All yer kicking and screaming’s upset my babe. Oh dear, child. You know it’s not good to upset him. He gets awful cranky-like when he’s upset. Come here, child! Don’t tug. Come see my little darlin’.

Now that’s not a very nice thing to say about my baby, is it? Sure he be big, but he be no monster. He’s my belov’d, aren’t you, Bonnikins? Bonnikins is hungry, aren’t you darling? He’s just drooling because he’s hungry, poor miserable thing. Look child, he’s happy to see you, isn’t he? There, there Bonnikins, that’s better. Don’t cry. Bonnikins has been waiting for his ma to come home with his dinner, hasn’t he?

Mind those bones, child!

Monday, March 29, 2010

April 10 launch of Billie B Brown by the wonderful Andy Griffiths - hope you can come!

If you can't make it to the launch I will be signing books at Angus & Robertson bookstores on both these days:
Wednesday 7th April 3-4pm Highpoint Shopping Centre
Friday 9th April 1-2pm Melbourne, CBD Cnr Bourke & Elizabeth Streets
Hope you can drop by.
Meanwhile, check out the new website, it's bbbrilliant!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Race For the Chinese Zodiac

Gabrielle Wang and I worked on a book together published by Black Dog, called The Race For the Chinese Zodiac. Gabi recently interviewed me for her website and I have posted the interview here. You can also check out her website for more about her other books:

(Gabi) What was the very first thing you did after you received the manuscript for The Race for the Chinese Zodiac?

(Me) I often start by looking at lots of other books with interesting illustration styles and think about what kind of style would best suit the text.

What were the various stages you went through when illustrating the book?

I tried a few styles to begin with that didn’t work, including collage. Eventually I asked Black Dog if I could bring their designer, Regine Abos, on board to collaborate with me from the start so I could combine my hand-done illustration techniques with her contemporary computerised ones. We decided that I would do the loose Chinese brushwork and she would drop in the texture and colour behind it with the computer. I’m very happy with the result.

How did you create the Chinese chops?

Initially I thought I would pay someone to carve them all in stone but it was going to cost a mint and take way too long. Then it occurred to me that I could achieve the same effect with linocuts. So that is what I did. I copied each character backwards onto the lino and carved around them to make each print. Of course afterwards I realised I didn’t really have to do them backwards at all, we could have reversed the image on the computer, but anyway I enjoyed the challenge.

Was The Race for the Chinese Zodiac different to other picture books you have illustrated?

Yes, very different in the sense that I worked with a designer right from the start. Usually in Australia the designer just comes in at the last minute to add the text and place the images. Recently I met David Mackintosh, the designer for all Lauren Child’s books, at a picture book conference in Singapore, and he gave a talk about the way designers work in the UK. I realised after listening to him speak that a designer can do so much more than just lay out text. He and Lauren work together right from the beginning with her roughs and lay the book out together. I think this is a wonderful idea as both the designer and the illustrator have very different ideas and skills they can bring to the finished book. Regine and I were given a lot of freedom by Black Dog and were both able to bring something of ourselves to the illustrations and I think the end result shows.

What medium did you use?

Chinese ink and Arches paper. Plus linocuts for the chops.

How long did it take to paint one picture?

The actual brushwork is quite quick – what took the most time was sourcing the image, doing the sketches then the finished drawing. After all this I would lay the finished drawing on the light box, place a piece of watercolour paper over the top and try to do the black outline in as few brushstrokes as possible to keep that minimal Chinese calligraphy feel.

How many roughs did you make before you decided on the actual painting to use?

Usually around four or five pencil sketches. Some of the ink paintings I redid but most of them I was happy with first off. Particularly if I was in a ‘painting mood’ that day (ie; calm and centred).

You told me you work fairly quickly. How long did The Race for the Chinese Zodiac take to complete?

The thing that usually takes me the longest is the planning, thinking about the book and working out what kind of illustration style I am going to use. This can take many months, but it is a very important part of my creative process – it’s the germinating period you could say. The actual working with paper part is comparatively quick because I already have a strong idea of what I want to do. So I probably completed the finished artwork for the Zodiac book in a matter of weeks.

Where did you study Chinese painting and for how long?

I studied for three years in China. One year at the Shanghai College of Art, then two years at the China Art Academy in Hangzhou (Gabi studied there too!)

What is your favourite medium to work in?

All types. I do love brush and ink for its strength and spontaneity but I also love collage, watercolour, charcoal, gouache – each gives a different mood to the artwork and it depends on the look and feel I am going for.

Which is your favourite page in the book?

I think the piggy lying on her back. It makes everyone chuckle. She looks so blissfully happy. But I am rather proud of my dragons, too – having never drawn a dragon before!