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.)