Saturday, December 22, 2012

She's here!


A little bit of exciting news to squeeze in before Christmas. The advance copies of my first book in the Our Australian Girl series arrived this week. I am SO excited - and I can't WAIT for you to meet her! The first book comes out in February 2013 and the following three books, every two months after that. I am currently editing Book Two and about to start writing Book Three in January, so it is such a lovely treat to be able to hold Book One in my hands.

My girl is called Lina and the book is set in Carlton in 1956 - the year of the Melbourne Olympics AND the arrival of television. Lina's parents have recently arrived from Italy and they live in a tiny terrace house in a little lane way off Rathdowne Street with Lina's grandmother, their four children and an uncle. Lina has had a happy childhood, playing cricket with her brothers in the streets, helping her grandmother around the house and occasionally accompanying her parents down Lygon Street to do their shopping. Carlton has been Lina's whole world, the place where she feels like she belongs, until the year she wins a scholarship to an expensive private school in a far off suburb and her eyes are opened to a way of life she had never known existed. For the first time she begins to feel ashamed of the house and the family she had once loved. She makes new friends but she also makes enemies and life is no longer as simple as it had once been.

The books in this series are particularly dear to me as some of the stories are loosely based on my partner's family when they first arrived in Melbourne from Italy. I have so loved writing these books. I hope you will love reading them, too.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reflections on a fortunate year.


Last Friday night, at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards dinner, sitting in the grand reading room of the NSW Library, I was overcome with an incredible sense of gratitude. Less than twenty years ago, when I was first starting out, the thought of being in a room with some of Australia's finest writers and being flown up to attend this dinner because one of my very own books had been shortlisted, would have been inconceivable. I still remember standing in front of my bookshelf thinking 'Imagine! Imagine having my very own book up there. My words in a book on somebody's bookshelf!' That was my greatest ambition. To have book published. Everything from there on has been gravy.

Listening to Clive James' moving address recorded from his home in London as he is now too unwell to travel, it struck home how much I should savour every moment and take nothing for granted. Especially when there were times, not that long ago, I came so close to tossing it all in. This has been an incredible year. I have travelled overseas to attend conferences and book festivals and had a residency at the Melbourne Zoo. I have won awards and been shortlisted for others and sat at tables with writers I have admired my whole lifetime. My books have been taken up by publishers in other countries and I have received messages from readers the world over. By Christmas, according to my publishers, I will have sold a million Billie B Brown books. I still can't quite believe it. From where I stand right now, I couldn't imagine a more fortunate life.

I remember hearing on a radio program once, years ago, that the secret to happiness was gratitude. That in everyone's life there will be ups and downs but if you can bring to mind the things you are truly grateful for, this will buoy you through the hardest times. I have so much to be grateful for; my friends and family of course will always be my brightest light, but I am also incredibly grateful that I am able to do something that I love on a daily basis - and make a living from it. For this I have to thank not only my publishers, who have been brilliant, but all those people out there who have supported me in different ways: the booksellers, the teachers, the librarians, the parents and anyone who has put my books into the hands of a child. I also feel so grateful for the incredibly generous and supportive community of Australian children's authors and illustrators that I am so lucky to be a part of.

This has been an amazing year, and I have so many more exciting things to look forward to in 2013, including four books in the Our Australian Girl series for Penguin, a picture book with Windy Hollow, and a brand new Billie series for slightly older readers. I will keep you posted. Until then, I hope that you get a ton of books for Christmas and that you have all the peace you need to read them over the break.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What do kids think about?

I love my youngest son's school. I love everything about it: the teachers, the principal, the art room, the library, and the playground with it's veggie patch and mulberry tree for climbing. I couldn't think of a nicer place for my son to spend his days acquiring life skills and his '3 Rs'.
Often there are some really fabulous artworks and installations done by the kids throughout the school. This one (main photo) is a piece of sticker art, on the side of a portable, which has transformed it into a 'Wonder Wall'. Each of those little squares of paper contains a question from a child like: 'I wonder why the sky is blue?' and 'I wonder what makes the birds sing?' and other such charming philosophical questions.
Lately, though, I've noticed the questions have begun to degenerate. I couldn't stop giggling when I read some of the more recent additions to the Wonder Wall, especially because they seemed so much more like the kind of questions I reckon my kids would really ask.
Here are a couple, I particularly liked:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Some good news for Billie B Brown readers

I've had a few emails recently from parents/grandparents/other relatives, desperate to track down the first Big Book of Billie for Christmas. It actually sold out last Christmas, but yesterday I received this happy news from my publisher:

"Due to overwhelming demand we've just hit reprint on the Big Book of Billie #1! It's actually a Big W exclusive until December 1st. After that it should be available from all good bookstores and leading department stores including Big W, Kmart and Target."

So, a nice little stocking filler for anyone who's already finished reading the Big Book of Billie 2?

There has also been a little confusion as to which stories the two big books contain. So, to set the whole story straight, here is a list (you will see there are four stories that double -up.)

Big Book One: The Bad Butterfly, The Soccer Star, The Midnight Feast, The Second-best Friend, The Extra-special Helper, The Beautiful Haircut, The Secret Message, The Big Sister, The Birthday Mix-up, The Best Project, The Little Lie, and The Spotty Holiday. Also includes bookmark and activity pages.

Big Book Two: The Birthday Mix-Up, The Little Lie, The Best Project, The Spotty Holiday, The Cutest Pet Ever, The Copycat Kid, The Pocket Money Blues, The Deep End, The Night Fright, The Missing Tooth, The Bully Buster and The Perfect Present. Also includes activities and a paper doll.

Happy reading!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Zoo talk at the Wheeler Centre

Sadly, my zoo residency is drawing to a close. At the end of this month the only garden I will have to wander through is my own treeless backyard, the only animal sounds I will have to write by will be those of my neglected children.

But, fear not, dear reader, the happy news is that Cate Kennedy, Estelle Tang, Judy Horacek and I will be sharing our zoo stories on a panel at the Wheeler Centre next Wednesday night! Do not miss it. We will be wearing animal suits. (Maybe)

*I cannot guarantee that the photo above is of this year's Zoo Fellows.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Exciting news and baboon's bottoms


Well, lots of good things have been happening to me at the Melbourne Zoo lately, but one of the most surprisingly lovely of them all happened early last week, during feeding-time for the baboons. I had been marvelling over their red bottoms, as we all do, when I received a phone call from Text Publishing to let me know that Angel Creek has been shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. Sometimes my life feels so supremely marvellously absurd.

I am so wonderfully, gratefully thrilled that this little book has not gone completely un-noticed as it's a very special book to me. Today, doing a bit of an internet-search/procrastination, I found these judges comments, which provided a little more bubbly excitement for a dreary Monday morning. I will be flying up to Sydney on Nov 30th for the awards night, so be sure to tune in after that to hear about all the glitz and glam.

JUDGES' COMMENTS
Jelly is disheartened that her family has moved ten suburbs away from her friends.  Even worse, she must endure another dreary visit from her relations over Christmas. But then Jelly and her cousins discover something in the local creek that changes everything. A bird?  No, it seems to be an angel — a baby angel with a broken wing. Suddenly there is a magical focus for their enforced time together, and, in caring surreptitiously for the enigmatic creature, they find a different way of being together — and of growing up.

Told with evocative prose, this well-paced original story blurs beautifully between realism and fantasy: is the angel real or not?  Perhaps readers never know for sure, but there is no doubt about the well-drawn characters and the believable family dynamics in this quietly compelling novel. A myriad of relationships subtly criss-cross the narrative like the strands of a spider’s web, practically invisible, yet giving the writing a quiet strength and integrity. As the story gently addresses issues of responsibility and different kinds of love and care in relationships, it pulls readers along with a compelling, suspenseful story.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Waiting For Butterflies

As most of you probably know by now, I am currently Writer-In-Residence at the Melbourne Zoo. Earlier this week, I was asked to turn up for a photo shoot with the meerkats for the Herald Sun, along with the three other writers involved. As it happened, my son's school was closed for a teacher's strike, so I decided to bring him along to meet the meerkats, then spend the rest of the day with me at the zoo.

'OK,' I said, once the photo shoot was over. 'I'll follow you. It's midday now and the zoo doesn't close until 5pm. Here's the map - we'll go wherever you want.'

I feel like I'm always rushing my youngest, so every now and then, if it's at all possible, I like to let him go at his own pace. We began by wandering through the elephant trail, then on to the butterfly enclosure. It was a very hot day, and the butterfly room was steamy, so once I saw my son wasn't in a hurry, I found a bench and sat down to watch him.

'How are you going?' I asked after a few minutes. 'Ready to move on?'

He was standing arms out, waiting for a butterfly to land on him. He shook his head gently. 'No,' he said in a quiet voice. 'I can only move when a butterfly lands on me.'

Really? I thought, already battling feelings of impatience. 'Hey look, there's one on your hat!'

My son rolled his eyes upwards. 'Nup,' he said, barely moving his lips, lest he scare off the butterfly. 'That doesn't count. It has to land on my arms.'

Now, there are many things I can learn from my son. The first of them would obviously be patience. I like to think I had it as a kid, too, but I sure could do with a top-up every now and then. I decided this would be a perfect zen practice for me. I wouldn't check my phone, I wouldn't rush my son, I would just sit and be at one with the butterflies - for as long as it took. After all, if a nine-year-old boy could do it, surely I could?

An hour and a half later, still ensconced in his butterfly game, my son had only rounded the first corner. There were three more corners to go. I am ashamed to admit that he had beaten me. I made some lame excuse about needing to go to the toilet or needing a drink or something like that, and tried not to lose my temper when he vehemently protested, 'But I'm not even halfway!'

I have no idea how long it would have taken us to get through that damn butterfly enclosure if I hadn't rushed my son. Maybe he might have given up in his own time? Maybe we'd still be there now? Me, dozing on the floor amongst all those broken butterfly wings. My son still waiting patiently, arms outstretched, like some blooming zen master showing up all my inadequacies.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ghouls in the Hood

There seemed to be a teensy bit of Halloween Grinchness going around Facebook last night. Seriously guys, from a kid's perspective, what is there not to love? Dressing up? Lollies? Wandering the streets with a gang of buddies on your own? (Or at least with a parent at a discreet distance away to give you the impression you are on your own.)
We have only been in our new neighbourhood for six months. We'd seen a few kids in the street, but not officially met many of them. Last night they came crawling out from everywhere. For my son, who can be a little shy, it was a perfect opportunity. Wearing a monster's mask, he was welcomed right into a gang of ghouls and I trailed happily behind watching them swap lollies and knock on doors with welcoming pumpkins out front.
Who cares where Halloween originally comes from and whether it's commercial or any of that other stuff - for a nine year old boy on a warm spring evening it was pure magic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Treehouse of the Brave


My nine-year-old son has a friend at school who invents the most incredible things. His mother tells me he is continually foraging through junk heaps and hard rubbish and sees possibility in everything. The other day, when I went to pick my son up from their house, he insisted I go into the backyard to see his friend's latest invention. I had been hearing a lot about his friend's 'treeless tree house' recently, as we have not long ago moved into a 1950s house without a single full grown tree in the garden - a constant source of despair for my youngest son, who gets antsy if he doesn't have something to climb. When he had told me that his friend had built a tree house that wasn't even in a tree, I had pictured a couple of turned over dining chairs with a sheet draped over the top. This (above photo) is what lay in wait.

As you might be able to see from the photograph, the house has been built over a wood heap and hovers perilously a good shin-breaking distance from the ground. To enter, you have to clamber over all this wood, full of rusty nails and thumb-sized splinters, to reach the ladder which takes you up to the house. The platform itself is propped up by varying lengths of wood and even a wheelbarrow, which you might see wedged in there on your left. If you were thinking this might possibly the most dangerous treehouse in history, I suspect you wouldn't be far off.

But it is also the most incredibly inventive and exciting and creative thing I have seen made by a child in a long time. This is the kind of treehouse my father would have made as a boy, the kind of treehouse I would have loved to make as a child, had I been clever enough or brave enough.  However, I have to say that for me, while this kid is quite obviously a child-genius, kudos must also go to his mum. In an era where you almost need to sign a permission form for your child to use a pair of scissors, I reckon she is a pretty fabulous mum to let her son create something like this. Apparently without even hovering around, shouting out well-meaning projections of fear in the way that I may have.

I would like to think I could be so brave...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Eavesdropping at the zoo

'Hello, Melbourne Zoo...Sheep?...You mean live sheep?...No, no, I just wasn't sure that's what you meant...Um...let me put you on hold for a minute while I ask our director. (Hand over mouthpiece, calls out to the next room) ...Er...there's a man on the phone, says he's got some live sheep he'd like to donate to the zoo for our lions. Can we take them?'
'No.'
'Hello? Yes, thanks for waiting. I'm afraid we can't take them. We have strict quarantine laws about what the animals can eat and all that sort of thing. Thank you very much for the offer all the same.'

This is just one of the fascinating conversations I've been pretending not to eavesdrop on from my desk at the zoo. I am near the door, in the main office, along with the executive assistant to the director whose job it is to field these kind of phone calls. Apparently they get some doozies! People offering up their pets ('er, sorry, we don't take terrapins') to people asking for advice on snake bites ('I think you should probably call the hospital').

Forget the 'behind-the-scenes' for animals, I am loving the 'behind-the-scenes' for the staff! Being close to the door, I meet lots of keepers as they come in to chat with the director. They introduce themselves as 'Dave, from Hawks' or 'Jenny, from Primates'. I have a morning tea date soon with the butterfly keepers and I have been instructed to bring chocolates.

Then, if this was not exciting enough, I'd like you to think of three of the most amazing things you could put together in one sentence. How would food, animals and Michael Palin sound to you? Yep, thought so. Probably couldn't get much better. As a current 'Zoo Fellow', I received an invitation to THIS yesterday and literally squealed with excitement.

And here is a koala for your viewing pleasure:




Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Desk at the Zoo

My job as a children's author has taken me to some interesting places. I have had residencies in the Blue Mountains, Beijing and Ghana. This month I have a residency at the Melbourne Zoo. In collaboration with the Wheeler Centre, Cate Kennedy, Estelle Tang, Judy Horacek and I have been offered a 'behind-the-scenes' artist-in-residence experience to celebrate the zoo's 150th birthday.

Today, I took my laptop in to work at the desk that has been set aside for us to use. I share an office space with the director of the zoo and his assistant, who has promised us all kinds of exciting animal experiences which I am looking forward to enormously. But for now, as I have a deadline at the end of this week, I planned to keep my head down and plug away at my novel. As there is no internet access, no loads of washing to put on, or garden to procrastinate in, I decided it would be the perfect working environment.

That was until I allowed myself a lunch break and a little wander. Well, someone should have warned me that the meerkats had just had babies! Who could possibly concentrate on restructuring a novel when there are meerkat babies to watch? Really, they were just too adorable for words. So here is a video:

video

What did I tell you? Mesmerising, aren't they? Perhaps working at the zoo is going to be more distracting than I first thought...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Winner of the Billie B Brown drawing competition


Hardie Grant Egmont ran a Billie B Brown drawing competition recently and had the extremely difficult task of choosing a winner. Eventually they chose this entry from 'Karen in New Zealand'. Isn't is great? I'll have to drop into HGE HQ some time soon to see all the other beautiful drawings that were sent in.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's here!


The Big Book of Billie Number Two! Twelve Billie stories and a paper Billie B Brown doll at the back! With little paper outfits you can cut out and stick on! I'm in little girl heaven.

The Big Book comes out in October and to celebrate I will be doing some book store signings at these places:


Thursday 4th October 1 - 2pm
Collins Bookstore
Shop W004 Northland Shopping Centre
Preston

Friday 5th October 1 - 2pm
Collins Bookstore
Shop 67 Puckle Street
Moonee Ponds

And if you are lucky enough to be down on the lovely Bellarine Peninsula...

Saturday 13th October 12.30 - 1.30pm
Book Grove
1/73 The Terrace
Ocean Grove

Saturday 13th October 4 - 5pm
The Bookshop
30 Hesse Street
Queenscliff

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Castlemaine children's literature festival

Come up to beautiful Castlemaine during the October holidays and be part of their children's literature festival. Martine Murray, Simmone Howell and I will be speaking on a panel on writing for children. Here are the details:


So you Want to Write for Kids …
September 26th
7.45pm
$2
Castlemaine Word Mine: Anglican Church Hall, 8 Mostyn St Castlemaine

Stimulating and fascinating panel discussion with Sally Rippin and Martine Murray focusing on writing and illustrating books for children, chaired by Young Adult author Simmone Howell. Your questions welcome, plus a chance to win a framed Shaun Tan print and author signed books in the raffle.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ten Days in New Zealand

This week I returned from ten days in New Zealand, appearing at the Storylines Festival across the country and visiting schools in between. This was my first time in New Zealand and the first time I have ever toured with my very own publicist and boy, did I feel spesh!

Jen and I landed in Dunedin on the Friday night. From the plane, the mountainous surrounds of Dunedin were breathtakingly beautiful, but on the tarmac it smelled of cow poo! Definitely a glorious mix of heaven and earth.

Here is the view from my hotel window when I woke up on Saturday morning with the mist rolling in:


After the Dunedin Storylines Festival, we flew up to Wellington, which I think might have to get my vote as favourite city of New Zealand. I loved it. Like Dunedin, it was very steep, and driving along the winding coastline, we saw houses perched precariously on the sides of mountains, some so high off the road they had their own private cable cars to get to their front doors. I thought they were the coolest thing I'd ever seen though our guide assured us they were a pain if you had to make several trips up a cable car with loads of shopping. 

The Wellington schools I visited also had some of the most spectacular views I've ever come across. Imagine overshooting your basketball in this playground:


At one Wellington school we visited, Jen and I were presented with LOLLY LEIS. Which beats a pen or a mug any day. Maybe not a bottle of wine though. Oh dear, listen to ungrateful me!


Wellington was very beautiful, very groovy, and had the most fabulous shoe store just near our hotel where I bought an inexcusable amount of shoes. (They were on sale!) And was punished by having to lug my ridiculously heavy suitcase on to Auckland a few days later.

I think the reason I loved Wellington a teensy bit more than Auckland was that it felt quite different to Melbourne, whereas Auckland, being a bigger, flatter city, felt quite similar. Which is not a bad thing, obviously, Melbourne being as fabulous as it is. Having said that, Auckland has a 'big spike', as my son called it. He and my partner joined us on our last weekend in New Zealand and we ate at the top of the 'big spike' in the revolving restaurant which gave us a great view of Auckland but also made me feel slightly queasy. Plus, at the end of the evening, we discovered my handbag had dropped off my chair and made its way halfway round the restaurant before one sharp-eyed waitress spotted it and rescued it from the revolving bit. Actually the non-revolving bit. We were moving, my handbag stayed still. Anyway. You get what I mean...

(Not my photo)
The highlight of my whole trip happened in Auckland. On the Thursday afternoon, my sixth day in, I had already spoken at two festivals, six schools and two bookstores in three cities, and was beginning to feel pretty weary and bored of the sound of my own voice. The first talk of the day had fallen a little flat and I was starting to miss my family. I was even starting to wonder whether all this touring stuff was really as much fun as I'd hoped it would be. Surely, I could just talk to all these kids via Skype and stay at home in my pyjamas? 

Then, at the last school of the day, I received a traditional Maori welcome.

I don't have great photos unfortunately, because it didn't really seem appropriate to be whipping out my iPhone, so I will try to describe it as best as I can, though I'm pretty sure I won't do it justice. It began with the principal ushering me out of the hall once all the kids had sat down, explaining that they had prepared a surprise for me. As we were walking out the side exit towards the front entrance he whispered that I was going to receive a traditional welcome. At that moment a young boy jumped out at me with a big stick, poked out his tongue and rolled his eyes. I would have got an awful shock had I not received the principal's warning. 

The boy shouted some words in Maori, then placed a fern leaf at my feet. The principal whispered for me to pick the leaf up without losing eye contact with the boy. Then, two girls, in traditional dress and painted chins began to sing me into the school hall, in the most hauntingly beautiful voices I have ever heard from such young children. I followed them and as we entered the hall another group of children began to dance and sing traditional songs. Songs so beautiful and with such sweet earnestness that I had tears in my eyes by the end of their performance. I have never received a more beautiful or moving welcome. And to think that I'd been doubting my purpose there.


One of the things that struck me during my travels throughout New Zealand was how respectfully integrated Maori culture seemed to be and how proudly New Zealanders of all backgrounds claimed it as their own. Not once did the gestures towards Maori traditions feel tokenistic or awkward. In fact, the school that sang me the Maori welcome didn't even appear to have any obviously Maori students. But those children performed that traditional welcome with as much pride and ownership as if it had been passed down from their very own ancestors. This is what impressed me the most.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two new Billie books for September



I read The Missing Tooth at nearly all the schools I visited in New Zealand* last week and afterwards all the kids wanted to tell me their tooth stories. Then, a few days into my tour, I received a whole package of tooth stories and drawings from one of the teachers. They were adorable. I guess losing a tooth is something that resonates with EVERYBODY. 

Not everybody has stood up to a school bully, however. But Billie, being brave AND bold, finds that even bullies aren't always what they first seem. I hope you like these two new Billie stories.

For anyone Williamstown way, I will be doing a signing at Book and Paper  at 4pm, next Thursday September 6th. Hope to see you there!

*I'm hoping to do a New Zealand post soon, I just have to get hold of some more photos. Stay tuned!



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

New York - City of Books, Art and... homeless people.

So, I'm writing my New York post back in cold, grey Melbourne, the only compensation being that our smelly pup is snoring away happily on my knee once again as I type.

New York was all that I had hoped it would be - and more. We only had three full days, but managed to cram as much in as we possibly could, including The Lion King on Broadway and a requisite ferry ride to Staten Island to see the Statue of Liberty and the equally impressive skyline on our return.

We stayed in the fabulous Library Hotel, a skinny Art Deco building within walking distance from the public library (pictured above). For the crazy book-lovin' people my beloved and I are, it was as if we had died and gone to heaven. Except instead of fluffy clouds and annoying angels playing on harps, we had a reading room with a grand piano and floor to ceiling bookshelves.

Each room in the hotel is given a theme according to the Dewey Decimal System and even the chocolates on our pillows had literary quotes upon them. Like I said: Book Nerd heaven.

A few highlights:

- Central Park: you could pretty much spend your whole holidays here as it's almost the size of a small village (provided you were happy just to live off hot dogs and super-sized bagels). Plus, in summer there is so much going on from outdoor cinemas to yoga to concerts, and if you want your portrait done (which of course our son insisted upon) there are dozens of overqualified artists from Eastern Europe and China all over the park who can do an expert sketch of you in five minutes with an enormous head on a Spider Man torso - what more could you want?

- The bookstores: it goes without saying that for a family of book obsessives we ended up returning with suitcases we could barely lift any more. I would have loved to spend more time exploring all the book stores around New York, and finding all the second-hand ones, too, but we would have had to pay the price of another plane ticket to bring any more books home with us. Next time!

- The galleries and museums! Oh lordy. MoMA NY had almost ALL my favourite artworks in it. All of them together - on one floor! It also had a wonderful kids audio program and fabulous activity sheets. Once again, it definitely needed more time than we could give it. Sigh... And we didn't even dare venture into The (incredibly enormous) Met. We may never have been seen again!

 (Self-portrait looking wistful that I can't visit MoMA every day!)

Lowlight:

- The homeless. They seemed to be on every corner, most of them so sad and vulnerable. Or maybe I was just acutely aware of them because I was walking around with my youngest son. He wanted to know everything about every one of them. 'Why don't they have a home? Why don't they have any money? Where are their mothers?'

On our last day, on Madison Avenue, not far from the Tiffany windows where diamond-encrusted butterfly brooches glittered in the windows, we saw a bird-like woman lying in a muddle of blankets, mouth open and tears streaming down her face. She broke our hearts. When my son walked up to her and offered her some money, she looked up at him as if into the face of an angel. 

That afternoon, we walked back without speaking, hand in hand, to our expensive hotel, past all the shiny shops and fancy restaurants, feeling very humbled. 


Saturday, August 11, 2012

New Orleans - City of Music and Voodoo


After the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, we flew down to New Orleans to visit my friend Whitney Stewart who is the author of 'Becoming Buddha', which I illustrated in 2005. Whitney and I met at my very first SCBWI Conference in Paris in 1999 and became great friends even though we have only met up three times since then. Next year we will have another picture book published on meditation for children.

Whitney gave us a tour of the French quarter where we stopped at the famous Cafe du Monde and had beignets with cafes au lait, then proceeded to the equally famous Madame Laveau's House of Voodoo where I bought WAY too much voodoo stuff to take home. But hey, everybody loves voodoo, right? If you need a love potion, magic crystals or simply a doll to stick pins in, I'm your gal.

Later we drove through areas that had been devastated by the floods following Hurricane Katrina where all that remained of many houses were the concrete steps that had lead up to their front doors. They were a desolate sight and reminded me of the brick chimney places that were left in the blackened landscapes after the Black Saturday fires. We saw the housing projects that Brad Pitt has funded to try to rebuild some of the poorer flood-affected areas of New Orleans (just in case you weren't already enough in love with Ms Jolie's husband). Unfortunately though many people who were evacuated haven't returned, either because they have settled elsewhere or don't have the money to get back, so despite some signs of life, the area still felt sad and empty.

Lastly, a visit to New Orleans wouldn't be complete without live music. On our last night we found one of the fabulous Marsalis brothers, Delfeayo, playing at a very groovy little bar called Snug Harbour with a full orchestra and we were in jazz heaven.

Gumbo, jazz and voodoo - what more could you want from a city? Especially if you could live in a house like this:

Sigh. There is much to love in New Orleans.

Next... New York!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

SCBWI Conference - the future looks bright!

Last weekend I attended my first international SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. I was extremely fortunate to receive funding to attend this conference from CAL, so I shall do my very best to report back all that I learned as well as the conference highlights for me.

1) The news is good! Editors, Publishers, marketing people report that the current vibe in publishing is 'cautiously optimistic'. Picture books, having suffered a slump in the US recently, are being picked up again and overall, children's books generated the strongest sales in all areas of publishing.

2) Arthur Levine (Scholastic USA) gave the opening address and was asked to speak on 'timeless' books he has worked on. Along with a few of the expected books (the Harry Potter series) he gushed over Shaun Tan's 'The Arrival', which of course made me very proud. ('I know him!' I whispered to the person sitting next to me.)

3) Tony Diterlizzi (co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles) gave a fabulous and amusing keynote, which made me think I really need to lift my game as a public speaker. Towards the end of the conference, I began to think Americans must have a gene that makes them naturally confident, articulate and amusing as soon as you put them on a stage in front of a microphone. After all there were 1234 people in the audience and even the DEBUT authors showed no sign of nerves!

4) After sitting in on a 'breakout' session with a Hollywood screenwriter-turned YA novelist on how to make my novel better by pitching 'High Concept' ideas to her I was starting to feel completely out of my depth. Fortunately, a later keynote I attended was given by a wonderful author called Patricia Maclachlan, who spoke of writing in the way that it has always been for me: sometimes frightening, occasionally exhilarating, often frustrating and always time-taking. To me, the speakers swung dizzyingly between the Hollywood-style-high-concept-self-marketing-get a book out every six months style to the slower-paced-angsty-self-doubty-'quiet book' that I am more familiar (i.e. comfortable) with.

5) And that was only the first day!

6) Saturday I attended an editors' panel, some more workshops and an incredibly moving keynote speech by Ruta Sepetys who spoke of researching her family's devastating story of life in Latvia under Stalin's reign. How she managed to have us first laughing then bawling then laughing again is beyond me. Later, she ran a great session on touring internationally full of practical details and useful advice that once again left me feeling very backwater.

7) That evening I wagged the 60s themed dance party. I wasn't feeling quite up to dressing up as a hippy and dancing with 1233 strangers so just watched the party from my balcony.

8) Sunday morning was another panel of editors. Apparently, as always, every publisher is just looking for "a good story well told". E-books haven't taken off in children's publishing as much as for adult books but one editor believes that the future of print books will be as beautiful archival objects. I liked that. When working with publishers, we were advised to be flexible and let go of our egos. Oh, and social networking is unavoidable. Everyone must do it. But BE PROFESSIONAL. One agent said she had turned down three prospective clients after looking them up on Facebook. So, untag those drunken party shots and hold back that bitching - someone out there might actually be reading you!

9) The Sunday afternoon marketing overview reiterated much of what the publishers, authors and editors had been saying, that children's publishing was still strong. Middle grade novels are currently in demand, after a glut of YA fiction. There is less interest in vampire and supernatural fiction and more interest in contemporary settings with characters that readers can relate to. BUT we were warned not to pay too much attention to trends. In the end you need to write the book you need to write.

10) Lastly, I will finish with a quote from Somerset Maugham given by author Karen Cushman that I think is probably the most relevant piece of information I took away from the weekend (and was grateful to be reminded of it after feeling extremely overwhelmed by all the conflicting advice I received). So, here it is:

"There are three rules for writing... unfortunately no one knows what they are."

In the end, writing is like riding a bike. You can study the manual, take courses in balance and aerodynamics, endlessly watch other people ride their bikes, but unless you get on that bike, and ride and ride and ride, you will never really learn it for yourself.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Los Angeles - city of stars


I've chosen this picture above as I think it best sums up my week in Los Angeles, the 'city of stars'. Whether you're already a star, on your way to becoming a star or just a star-in-waiting, it's easy to get the impression that star-spotting is what this city is all about. We started out by doing all the touristy things like visiting Universal Studios and Madame Tussaud's wax museum and got our photos taken with Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga. We took one of those double-decker tour buses around Hollywood, where the recorded guide pointed out where you could potentially spot a star, shop where the stars do, get a glimpse of where the stars live and even eat at the same hot dog stand where stars have been known to eat. After three days of touristy (nearly) star-spotting, I thought it was time to see another part of LA.

It was then that I remembered the fabulous Pigeons had told me the Valencia 826 crew had a branch in Los Angeles. If you don't know about Pigeons or Valencia 826, you really should. Valencia 826 was started by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco as a drop-in after school tutor centre run by volunteers, often local authors, to help under-priviledged kids with their homework and story writing. Our own lovely Pigeons' founders Lachlann Carter and Jenna Williams had done an internship at Valencia 826 in San Fran and are now in the process of beginning a similar project in Melbourne. I looked up the address, there were two in LA, the closest one in Venice Beach. So, we set our GPS coordinates and headed down Venice Boulevard.

At first we couldn't find it. I had expected a fancy store front - or at least a flashy big sign. In San Franscisco the centre is hidden behind a pirate supply store, in Sydney, the equivalent is tucked behind a store for martians. We pulled up outside an old police station, now run as a community Arts hub. A woman at the front desk directed us to the second floor where, all that showed us where the Valencia 826 people were to be found, was a little piece of paper on a door. Now you have to understand, this organisation has almost taken on iconic status around the world. Dave Eggers started it, Roddy Doyle opened one in Ireland, Markus Zusak is patron of the Sydney one - these people are all my heroes, so I was very humbled to see how simple these offices really were. 

A school holiday program had just finished so we were able to be shown around by a very kind volunteer. There was not much to look at other than a classroom and a simple office space. We bought a couple of books made by students, took some flyers, and that was it. Everything but flashy. On our way out, another volunteer suggested we check out the gallery downstairs, converted from the old jail at the back of the police station. The notice inside the doorway explained that the exhibition of poems and photographs on the white-washed walls was from a program to provide services for incarcerated young people and those reentering the community. 

It was a small exhibition, but incredibly moving. One poem was of a young man apologising to his mother for all the hurt he had caused her, another trying to understand how he had gone from a straight-A student to finding himself in jail. The average age of the writers was seventeen. Younger than my oldest son. I walked away from the community centre both touched and inspired that while I had glimpsed a part of LA that wasn't all money and celebrities, I had finally spotted some stars. Those volunteers at Valencia 826 and the community workers helping young people at risk, so that they might have the same opportunities as those who shop on Rodeo Drive.


Next stop: New Orleans. But I will try and squeeze in a post before on the awe-inspiring, overwhelming, truly gigantic SCBWI conference I attended over the weekend.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Exciting news

I just received the exciting news that Billie B Brown The Big Sister has won The Australian Family Therapist's Award for children's literature. I guess it goes without saying that I am truly thrilled. It's been a big year for Billie!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Billie B Brown drawing competition

For any Billie fans out there who'd like to get their hands on the whole collection!
All details at: http://bulletins.billiebbrownboard.com/
Good luck!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cal-i-for-nia here I come!

In just under two weeks, my beloved and I, along with our youngest, will be heading west to the sunny shores and bright lights of Los Angeles. I am an incredibly grateful recipient of a CAL Cultural Fund grant, which I received in order to attend the 2012 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles over the first weekend in August. I have been to one of these conferences before, in 1999, in Paris, when I was living in France, and it was an unforgettable experience. As a brand new author, I learnt so much and made some great friends, some of whom I am still in touch with today. (See below!)
Then, if that's not exciting enough, the three of us will be staying on to do a spot of travelling. After all, it's an awful long way to fly for a three day conference! While in Los Angeles we will take a day trip to San Diego to visit  Kane Miller the US publishers of the Billie and Jack series, to be released there in August. I do hope that American children will love Billie and Jack!
After the conference, we will visit my dear friend Whitney Stewart in New Orleans. I met Whitney at the conference in Paris and a few years down the track, we worked on a book together called Becoming Buddha, which was published both in Australia and the US. As we have another book in the pipeline I thought we absolutely HAD to get together to chat about it about over tea and biscuits. Or, would that be mint julep and crawfish? Email and Facebook are only so effective...
Lastly, we are spending a few days in New York. After all, you can't go to the US and NOT go to New York, can you? We are staying at the quaintly eccentric-sounding Library Hotel. ("Each of the 10 guestroom floors honor one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and each of the 60 rooms explore a distinctive topic within the category it belongs to." Book-nerdy enough for you?) While in New York we have booked to see The Lion King on Broadway for my youngest, mainly because I am always SO shocked at the prices of musicals in Melbourne I figured if he was only ever going to see one it better be a big one!
So, there's a brief itinerary for you. I guess it goes without saying that we are beside ourselves with excitement. I will try my best to post some touristy/funny/interesting things for your reading pleasure while we are away.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Taste of Things To Come


Over the last few months I have been busy working on a new series of books for Penguin as a part of their Our Australian Girl series. I'm really excited to be involved in this series written by some great Australian authors and full of such wonderful characters and stories.
I was lucky enough to be given the choice of era so have chosen to write about 1956 Carlton, Melbourne, and my character is from an Italian migrant family. This was an easy choice for me. My partner's family came to Australia from Italy in the 50s, and since I have known him I have loved listening to stories of their first years in Melbourne. There were some really tough times, but some beautiful moments, too, and I am always moved by his family's fierce loyalty created through having been through so much together. As far as they are concerned, even if you came from the same village you are family. Sadly, in the twelve years since I have known my partner, many of the older generation are no longer here and these stories shared over the table have become fewer and far between. I hope by writing this series I can preserve some of these stories and hand them down to the next generation who may find it hard to imagine their grandmothers/nonnas/yayas/nai-nais as young girls in skirts with hearts full of hopes and heads full of dreams.
I will be posting much more on this over the next few months so stay tuned.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The light that is Ms Archer


So Saturday afternoon, I went down to Fed Square, partner and child in tow, to open the third reading of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab as a part of The Light In Winter program directed by the fabulous Robyn Archer. Can I firstly say how much I am in love with Fed Square at the moment? It is jam-packed with so many beautiful, inspiring, fascinating, energising things going on that you could spend every day down there over the next two weeks and never see the same thing. Whether you are into Fred Williams or body art, book readings or hip-hop, there is something there for everyone.* How lucky are we in Melbourne to have snaffled Ms Archer from those Adelaidians?

I was very excited to meet Robyn and within the first few minutes of entering the room blurted out a story to her about the first time we had met when I was only a child. In the early 80s, my mother worked on a children's newspaper called Kids' Times. I was around twelve or thirteen, and already liked to think of myself as a budding author/illustrator. As they were often short on readily available children, my sisters and I featured quite heavily in the newspaper, occasionally even dressed up as boys to even up the gender imbalance. (My sister had very short hair at the time, and I guess if you squinted your eyes...)

Anyway, one of the perks of being the editor's daughter, other than having a cartoon column all to myself (I think they were a little short on contributors), meant I sometimes got to go along with my mother to interview children's authors for the newspaper. Remember, this was long before children's authors were in every school and at every festival, so this was a big deal for me. At that time, Robyn Archer and New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts, had collaborated on a children's book called 'Mrs Bottle Burps'. I loved Victoria's quirky illustrations, so happily went along to be the interviewer.

While I was thrilled to meet Victoria and have her do a little drawing in my book, it was Robyn who left the most profound impression on me. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't even really remember what we spoke about, only that she was so impressive, but equally so warm and generous in encouraging my aspirations to be a writer that I will be bold enough to say that along with my year seven English teacher who would read my stories out aloud in class and my year twelve Art teacher who took me to art exhibitions on weekends, Robyn's words, whatever they were, helped fan that little creative fire inside me.

Of course, Robyn didn't remember me, just as I am sure I won't remember all the wonderful children I meet on book tours and school visits, or who send me letters and emails, asking advice or confessing their writerly ambitions to me, but I guess I can only hope that I may have said something encouraging or helpful or sensible enough that perhaps ten, twenty, thirty years down the track a writer might look back and feel that I too could have influenced them enough to keep that fire inside them burning, the way that Robyn Archer did for me.


*If you go down there tonight, you will catch Alice Pung and guests at BMW edge on How We Read The World

Thursday, June 14, 2012

YABBA!


Hey there, I was very excited to receive the news today that Billie B Brown The Big Sister has been shortlisted for a YABBA* award. This is a kids' choice award, so it is extra thrilling to be on the shortlist and in the company of such wonderful children's authors. I am often asked by children 'Which is my favourite Billie book?' and honestly, I really don't know the answer to that question, but all the same, this one is pretty special to me.

This is the book when Billie's baby brother, Noah arrives, and Billie feels quite ambivalent about the whole thing. Aside from having expected a little sister, not a brother, Billie isn't sure she likes the idea of her mother going away to hospital - without her! Also, this is the book I was writing when my own dear publisher was very pregnant with her own little bundle of joy, so the book is dedicated to her and her baby daughter. Thanks Hilary!

*The full shortlist and more information about the awards can be found on the YABBA website, included in the link.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


I am lucky enough to be travelling to Queensland twice over the next two months. I love heading up north when Melbourne skies are grey. This week I will be appearing at the Voices on the Coast festival on Monday and Tuesday, including a session for teachers Tuesday evening, then on Wednesday, Christopher Cheng and I will be at various libraries around the Sunshine Coast.

Then, on July 10th I will be speaking at a PD session at Riverbend Bookstore on my children's novel Angel Creek, along with three other fabulous Text authors: Richard Newsome, Paula Weston and Paul Griffin. Here is all the information (below). Love to see you there!



Thursday, May 31, 2012

Billie B Brown - Childhood Fears




Two new Billie books for June!

The ideas behind these two Billie stories came from some of my childhood fears. I love swimming now, but didn't learn to swim until I was almost at the end of primary school, which, for some reason, seemed to be long after everyone else. I still remember that moment of panic when my swimming teacher (who seemed brutally cruel at the time) insisted I jump in and doggie paddle to the other side. Hard to believe that something that comes so naturally now could have been so terrifying for me as a child.

And how about scary movies? I still hate them, but as a child was never brave enough to say so when all my friends wanted to watch them. In fact, I never really got that 'being scared for thrills' thing: rides at the show, horror movies, going fast downhill on your bike. I also remember a period of time at primary school when I was plagued by recurring nightmares and worries. I was a very big worrier as a child. Probably even more so than now. Now, I can think my way out of my fears and worries in a way I wasn't able to as a child.

Adults often forget what a scary place childhood can be, we usually prefer to think of it as a golden time, but you only need to sit with your memories for a while to know that this isn't the case. Remembering these things, and remembering them without trivialising them through an adult's perspective, helps me not only empathise and understand the children in my life, but also the young characters I write about.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Light In Winter




Here's something delightful to do on a wintery Saturday afternoon:

The Weekend Read
As part of The Light in Winter, Fed Square are holding a Weekend Read where together with special guests, you’ll group read the ripping Victorian tale – The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Written by English writer Fergus Hume in 1886 and set in Melbourne, the novel was Australia’s first international bestseller. 
Imagine a cold winter Saturday afternoon, in a friendly venue, a warm drink and a bunch of people happy to hand the book around and each read a few pages until the mystery is solved on the last weekend of the Light in Winter.
 Register at fedsquare.com/weekendread-free event

It starts this Saturday, June 2nd 2.30 - 5pm and runs until June 29th. I have been asked to "open the reading" on Saturday 16th June, so come along and share a good book.