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!)


- 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.