Friday, May 27, 2011

Swimming With Stories

This time next week I hope to be munching on dumplings in the steamy city of Shanghai with Leigh Hobbs, Alison Lester, Ann James & Ann Haddon (the fabulous Books Illustrated crew). It will have to be very quick munching though, as Ann and Ann have jam-packed our week with school bookings, teacher information evenings and, most importantly, lots of workshops with local kids at the Shanghai Children's Museum. Over the weekend of the 4th and 5th of June, the Anns will be showcasing a broad range of Australian illustrators at an exhibition at the museum called Swimming With Stories, while Leigh, Ann J and I run illustration workshops. Shaun Tan's 'The Lost Thing' will also be showing at the museum, just in case the Shanghainese weren't already impressed enough with all our Aussie talent on display. Goodness, I almost feel an oi! oi! oi! coming on! If I can squeeze in a free moment between dumpling-gorging and work, I'll try and post some pics.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Father's Plea

Last night, along with 700 others, I braved the rain and the cold to go to RMIT's Storey Hall to hear Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish interviewed by Jon Faine. Dr Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor who was living in Gaza and practicing in a hospital in Israel treating both Israelis and Palestinians. In January 2009, three of his daughters were killed when Israeli tanks shelled their upstairs bedroom. (Click here to read more).
Despite his personal tragedy, Dr Abuelaish is a passionate advocate of peace. Listening to his heart-breaking story, this is the part that was the most profoundly moving. As my sister and I made our way out of Storey Hall to our tramstops in the cold wind and the drizzle, we agreed the most important message we could take away from Dr Abuelaish's powerful address was that the wish for peace wasn't a naive one. Despite feeling overwhelmed and powerless in the face of war and all the hate that rages throughout the world, Dr Abuelaish called on every one of us in that hall to hope for peace and to spread this message, to educate ourselves and our children and to make our votes count.
As Dr Abuelaish signed my book, wanting to find some small way to connect with this awe-inspiring man, I asked him if he would manage to squeeze in a little bit of a holiday while he was here. He looked up at me with weary eyes and said no, all he wanted was to get back to his children. Back home, walking quietly through my sleeping house, I lingered longer in the doorways of my own.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sugar and Spice or Frogs and Snails? What Are Little Boys Made Of?

Robyn and Alison both left very interesting comments on my last post and I found myself writing a very long and drawn-out reply, so I thought I may as well write another post in response. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and to continue this discussion.

Both Robyn and Alison wondered if the Billie books had been published with more gender-neutral covers if they may have attracted more boy readers. I discussed this with my publisher recently and she conceded that without the covers the Billie books may have been more appealing to boys, as Aki's internal illustrations are not particularly 'girly', nor are my stories.

But the more I think about this the more I am unsure if this would have made much difference.

All the research shows (and this includes the research I do with my own three sons!) that if there is a female on the cover - no matter what the colour scheme, design etc, many boys still won't pick it up. And publishers are very aware of this. For example, Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' trilogy offers two alternative covers: one with Katniss (the female protagonist) and the other with Peeta (her male sidekick) to make sure they don't lose any prospective male readers. The Hunger Games trilogy is jam-packed with action and violence - themes usually associated with 'boys' fiction' - but has been hugely popular with both sexes.

So, in relation to this, the main question for me is why is it OK for a girl to be in touch with her 'masculine side' but not ok for a boy to be attracted to more 'feminine' things? Why is it that a little girl can wear pants and climb a tree but a little boy can't wear a skirt and play with dolls? And who determines what is a 'boy thing' and what is a 'girl thing' anyway?

My 8 year old son recently told me he was told off by his friends in class for using a pink texta and they insisted he change it to black. Is our cultural homophobia so great that an 8 year old boy can't even use a pink texta!? For me, this is where the true problem lies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is the Hungry Caterpillar a boy or a girl?

Tune into the Book Show on Radio National* next Monday morning to hear Leigh Hobbs and I interviewed for a story on gender imbalance in children's literature.
This is an article that ran recently in the Guardian. To be honest, the story was an eye-opener. I have been reading a fair bit in blogs recently about gender imbalance in the adult publishing world (see Rachel Power's excellent post here) but hadn't considered it might be happening in children's publishing too.
As a children's author I aim to create strong female characters and sensitive boys to balance out the gender stereotypes that can often appear in kids' lit. Billie B Brown is probably the most obvious example, though looking over my body of work I notice that this combination appears regularly. As a mother of three sons, Billie is as much based on their childhoods as mine, though infuriatingly my 8 year old son explains that while he loves the stories he wouldn’t be caught dead reading them in public because there is a girl on the front cover (see Melvin Burgess’ comment in the Guardian article – a well-known truism among children’s authors). Admittedly, this is also partly due to the packaging and marketing of the Billie series, which is primarily directed towards girls.**
Returning to Burgess' comment, and in defense of the children's publishing industry, I think it is important to recognise that there has definitely been a recent push to try get boys hooked on books as, in general, girls are more inclined to read - and continue reading - whereas boys are often more reluctant. This might partly explain the disproportionate amount of males in contemporary children’s literature, even if it doesn't necessarily make the findings in the above article excusable. However, it's also important to remember that research shows that the most powerful way to get young boys reading – even more than creating books that “boys will like” or identify with – is for them to see their father reading. Or at least other males. Reading needs to be seen as something blokes do. Sadly, without this, boys will continue to assume that reading is a ‘girls’ activity and the children's publishing industry will have to continue to bend over backwards to try to attract boy readers any way they can.

*Or click here and I will add a link to the podcast after Monday.

**To counteract this I am currently in the process of creating a series of books from Billie’s best friend, Jack’s, point of view, which will still explore very similar themes, but from a boy's perspective. I will let you know my son's verdict when they come out.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

More Aki sketches and a new Billie

Click here for more gorgeous Aki sketches. I don't know about you but I never get sick of seeing Aki's work in progress. Thanks Aki for posting.
And here is a glimpse of the next Billie book due out next month.
"Billie has broken her arm! It's going to be the best story ever for Show and Tell. Especially if she adds in a crocodile..."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ode To My Son

Tomorrow my oldest son will turn eighteen. In honour of this momentous occasion I would like to share a few things I have learnt along the way:
1) Teenagers are not as scary as they look.
Having started young, most of my friend's children are still toddlers or in primary school. They ask me, "What is it like having a teenager?"
I answer, "It is still your child, just in a different body."
2) It doesn't matter how cool or young or hip you think you are, in your teenager's eyes you aren't. The sooner you accept this the better.
3) Even though he is now twice my height and shaves he still wants cuddles.
4) A houseful of boys soon becomes a houseful of men. (!)
5) Despite having birthed him and bathed him and fed him, and having lived with him for the greater part of the last eighteen years, I realise I only know, and can only ever know, one small part of my son.
This was brought into stark reality last Saturday night when, after eighteen years of avoiding the inevitable, I decided it was time for my son to have a proper birthday party. My son let me know that he would like to invite fifty (!) of his nearest and dearest, and as our home is a small as a matchbox (see point 4) we hired a dance studio above a Mexican Restaurant.
From the sidelines, I watched my son in awe as he chatted, danced (my son dances!) and later made a speech. Watching him speak in front of all his friends allowed me, for the first time, a glimpse of who my son is in the world. He was so funny and smart and confident. His friends laughed and cheered all throughout the speech and then embraced him at the end.
And I realised, at that moment, while there are times where I have been everything to him, there will also be times where I can only watch him from the sidelines, and hope that I have done enough things right for him to go out into this world without me.