Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Code Breakers - Billie Mystery 2

One thing you may not know about me is that I used to be a detective. From about seven to nine years old, my friends and I kept a faithful watch over our neighbourhood, to make sure things were running just the way they should. At this time, I was living in Perth, Western Australia, in the supposedly quiet suburb of Mount Lawley, but you have no idea how many astonishing things went on under the inattentive gaze of our parents; things that went missing, unexplained noises in the night, mysterious stains on our clothing that would appear out of nowhere. I can tell you, if my friends and I hadn't been keeping careful watch over our parents and younger siblings, who knows what tragedies may have struck.

Obviously, when you're a detective, you can't have everybody knowing this. It's very important to remain undercover and to find ways to communicate with your fellow neighbourhood detectives in a way that is indecipherable to others. So, my friends and I would develop new languages and complex codes, that sometimes became too baffling to even decrypt ourselves.

Something as simple as Meet Me In The Park After School would become:



Teemay emay inay ethay arkpay afteray oolschay

or, worse still (because numbers were never my forte)

13-5-5-20 13-5 9-14 20-8-5 16-1-18-11 1-6-20-5-18 19-3-8-15-15-12

Often, to my chagrin, by the time I had cracked the code the meeting would be well and truly over.

Fortunately, Billie and her friends work together a little more constructively than my friends and I ever did and manage to crack a series of curious codes that appear one after the other in little envelopes all around their neighbourhood. The code in each envelope relies upon a child's particular skills; Mika's ability to read other languages, Alex's talent for numbers and Jack's technique for memorising tricky words. Billie begins to despair that she may never crack a code herself, but the last note they find requires a particularly imaginative thinker and Billie is able to work it out, thanks to a few clues she has gleaned along the way. They follow its instructions which lead them to discover something completely and unexpectedly glorious, hidden in Billie's very own backyard. Something just perfect for a Secret Mystery Club to ponder their next impending mystery.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

100 Story Building* launch

A great deal of people have crazy, beautiful dreams, but very few of them have the tenacity or enthusiasm to actually realise them. Yesterday, many years of hard work came together in one glorious moment when the 100 Story Building's actual building was launched.

I remember Lachlann Carter and Jenna Williams sitting at my kitchen table several years ago, fresh out of Melbourne Uni, telling me their dreams of starting a writing centre for kids inspired by the Valencia 826 model Dave Eggers had begun. Yesterday the doors to that centre were finally opened. Standing amongst the crowds of people who had turned up for the launch, I felt as proud as a mother hen.

Here are a few highlights of the launch in photos:

Lachlann gave a tour of the building, which you can see mapped out on this builder's blueprint below.

He explained that the other 99 stories were still in construction and while they were accessible through this trapdoor in the ground, it was still a dangerous work in progress so warned people to steer well clear.

Other than strange noises and smells coming from below, the only sign of the other residents were the occasional note they left each other on this pin-board.

Out front, storyteller extraordinaire, Bernard Caleo, entertained the crowds with a traditional Japanese tale on chalkboard, and did a tremendous job, especially as he was competing with the noise of the Ethiopian new year festival only 500 metres along.

Soon it was time for the formal proceedings. We heard first from Lachlann, then after the Welcome To Country...

we listened to a radio play put on by students...

then heard from the delightful Alice Pung, fellow ambassador and board member.

Co-founder, Jess Tran, cut the ribbon around the bookcase to declare the building officially open, only to discover it  swung open to hide a secret room - and access to the bank vaults next door! They left the money in the vaults for now, but handed out lucky-dip books to the kids instead...

who then went back to the activities set up for them...

which included drawing comic strips...

and pitching story ideas to the editorial team of Early Harvest including the brilliant and beautiful Davina Bell, wearing her bespoke paper editorial glasses.

It was a truly beautiful launch, so much love in one small building, and such a testament to all the hard work that Lach, Jess and Jenna have put in over the years. I know they have an extraordinary future ahead of them.

I couldn't be prouder to be associated with such a fine bunch of people.

* Now with 100% more building!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Aki in Melbourne!

I am very excited to let you know that the fabulous Aki Fukuoka, illustrator of the Billie B Brown series, will be in Melbourne for one very busy week in August. She will be joining me at the Melbourne Writers Festival to help launch Spooky House the first of the Billie B Mysteries. If you haven't had the chance to see Aki draw live - you are in for a treat! From rabbits in top hats to dinosaurs in trousers, I have yet to find something she can't draw.

As well as the writers festival, Aki and I will have three bookstore events over the week where you can come and see her draw and be among the first to hear me read from Spooky House. We will also have lots of prizes and fun things to give away. Hope you can come! 

Here is a list of our public events:

- Saturday 24th August: 

The Reading Hour, The Edge Federation Square, 4pm

- Sunday 25th August:

Drop in and Draw, Artplay, 2.30pm.

- Monday 26th August:

The World of Billie and Jack, ACMI Cinema 1, 11.15am.

- Tuesday 27th August

Creating Characters, Artplay, 10am (this one is just with Aki).

- Wednesday 28th August

- Thursday 29th August

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Little Varuna Magic

Well, it's been a long time since I've picked up a pencil to draw - years in fact, as I have been so very busy tapping away on my computer for the last three or four years. I have had a beautiful manuscript in my bottom drawer for a long time, written by my dear friend Whitney Stewart, regularly postponed by me or our publisher, until finally I knew it could be postponed no more. So, feeling apprehensive about not having illustrated for so long, I booked myself a week at Varuna, The Writers' House, to see if in the stillness of the Blue Mountains I could find that quiet drawing mind again.

There is nowhere else I know of where I can be so focussed and productive as at Varuna, sharing the house with four other writers tapping away quietly in their rooms, coming down for a meal by the fire in the evenings, thoughts turned inward from being so completely lost in their work all day. As the director says, the gift of Varuna is not just that it takes away all interruptions to your work, but that it takes away the fear of interruption.

As this is a picture book on meditation for children, I decided that each morning I would pick a meditation exercise to try out before I sat down to work. I struggle to find a still mind, like most of us do I imagine, and easily fall into the trap of wanting to fill empty space with words, spoken or written, any moment I am not busy. So, the combination of meditating in the morning and then illustrating all day in this quiet yellow house was like a balm to my restless, scratchy mind.

I began by working in pencil to find the mood of the illustration, then when I was happy with my sketch I would place it on a lightbox under a sheet of watercolour paper to trace it in ink. To my delight, the characters revealed themselves easily: an elephant to represent our heavy bumbling mind, and a monkey to represent our mind at its most skittish. I chose a limited palette to colour them with because I will add the backgrounds later with the designer once we have worked out how the words will fit across the page.

This is just a sneak peek of some of my favourite drawings. Later, after I have been working with the designer, I will post some full-colour pages-in-progress. Until then, 'Om' to you for your day.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Billie B Brown Treasury!

Here is a little treat for any Billie B Brown fans, which will arrive just in time for Christmas. A hardback full colour collection of ten Billie stories! I have only seen the cover so far, and a sneak peek of a few of Aki's illustrations in colour - but what I have seen so far looks gorgeous!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Winter days and meditation with elephants

As the weather grows colder I am bunkering down with my laptop, busy with work. Over the long weekend I finally finished the first draft of Book Four of my contribution to the Our Australian Girl series. I have loved writing Lina and feel slightly wistful about winding up my time with her, though it's been great to start hearing from my young readers.

I sometimes forget, because I am still so involved in writing the series, that my first two books are already out there, and only this week I visited a school where a group of girls came up to say how much they love Lina, which was a delightfully unexpected thrill. I feel very lucky to be writing for this series because there are already so many great authors on board and the books are already so well-loved by children and adults alike.

My third book in this series, Lina at the Games, comes out next month, and I think it might just be my favourite. Lina meets a boy on a bus who, with a single letter, changes the whole future of the Olympics. If you are interested in coming along to hear more about Lina and the Our Australian Girl series, I will speaking at the Northcote Library at 4pm on Thursday, June 20th.

Other exciting news, which I will post in more detail later, is that the fabulous Aki Fukuoka, illustrator of the Billie B Brown series, is coming to Melbourne for the Writers Festival. We will be appearing together at MWF on the 24th, 25th and 26th of August, then doing some bookstore events later that week. I will keep you posted - so watch this space if you'd like to see Aki in action! Hopefully there might even be a few previews of our new Billie Mysteries.

Lastly, I have finally begun sketching out ideas for a picture book I am illustrating for New Orleans author, Whitney Stewart, with whom I worked on Becoming Buddha: the Life of Siddhartha. Whitney has written a beautiful text on meditation for children which I can't wait to begin. It is warm and child-friendly but also has some wonderful ideas for meditation exercises that I'm keen to try myself. Other than the odd dabble at the end of a yoga class, I have never had much luck developing an on-going meditation practice, even though I know it's EXACTLY what I need, but these exercises make me think that even an easily-distracted, restless, over-thinker like myself could possibly manage them at home.

To get myself into the right frame of mind, I have booked myself a week at Varuna, the Writers' Retreat in July, where, in the foggy quietness of the Blue Mountains, I hope to meditate my way back into illustrating again - having not illustrated anything in over two years! I have also enlisted the help of designer extraordinaire, Regine Abos, who I worked with on Gabrielle Wang's The Race For The Chinese Zodiac. We have already met once to discuss how to combine my old-fashioned hand-drawn/painted artwork with her groovy design skills, in the way we did with the Zodiac book, even though we are planning on a very different look to accompany Whitney's text. Think Saul Bass meets Bruno Munari and a little bit of Eric Carle thrown in. With elephants! (Because who doesn't love elephants?) Will post pics-in-progress when I can. Wish me luck! I hope winter is treating you well and you are somewhere warm doing something you love.

* This is an early sketch from Mannie and the Long Brave Day, by Martine Murray

Thursday, May 16, 2013


I've been holding off sharing this exciting news for as long as possible but have finally received the go-ahead to spill the beans. So here it is! A brand new Billie B Brown series - for older readers!

Over the last couple of years, I have been noticing older girls in book signing queues, who tell me while they know the Billie and Jack books have become too easy for them to read, they're not quite ready to let them go. I have also come across young girls who are such great readers that they read a whole Billie book while waiting in line! So, if you know a little girl or boy like this - this series is for you!

There will only be six books in this series, and they follow Billie B Brown and her friends; Jack, Mika and Alex, all of them now a few years older. They decide to start up a Secret Mystery Club and scour the neighbourhood looking for mysteries to uncover, beginning with the haunted house at the end of their street. The books will be triple the length of the existing Billie books with a much more complex writing style and story structure for older readers, but still maintain the accessibility and child-friendliness of the original series. The wonderful Aki Fukuoka will be illustrating them again and this is a sample cover. What do you think?

I have just finished writing the first book, which will come out in September, the second not far behind in November. Each story will link up with the others though they can be read in any order. I am really excited about this series, I hope you will love them, too!

*NB: originally this book was going to be titled Haunted House - but we changed it to Spooky House at the last minute, so if you see books online advertised as Haunted House, you'll know it's the same book, they have just used the old cover image *

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sydney bound

Next week I will be at the Sydney Writers Festival as a part of the Schools Program and then running a workshop on Writing For Children on the 25th. At the festival I will be mainly talking to upper primary children, but for any Billie B Brown and Hey Jack! fans, I will be touring schools and bookstores the following week.

Here is a list of public events if you want to come and say hi or have your book signed:

Monday 27th May:
The Children's Bookshop
6 Hannah Street
4.30 - 5.30pm

Tuesday 28th May:
Shearers Bookstore
Shop F6, Market Place
122-138 Flood Street
4pm - 5pm

Wednesday 29th May:
Better Read Than Dead
265 King Street
4.30 - 5.30pm

Saturday 1st June:
Kinokuniya Books (Costume Party!)
The Galleries, Level 2
500 George Street.
12.30 - 1.30pm

Bloomin Books
1/153 Denman Avenue,
2.30 - 3.30pm.

Okay I am excited enough about going to Sydney for two weeks but guess what? Molly Ringwald is a guest of the SWF! I will have to hope I don't run into her in the lift or I may just faint. The Breakfast Club is still one of my all-time favourite teen flicks.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Autumn travels

I have just recently returned from two weeks of school visits in Singapore and Malaysia where I was thrilled to discover that the Billie and Jack books have already found themselves a little following over there! This was partly due to the brilliant preparation put in by the librarians who booked me to visit their schools, but also because, luckily for me, the books were already available to buy in both these places. Often international schools have to order my books in from overseas so this was a lovely and unexpected surprise. One delightful children's bookstore in Singapore had even put them in her shop window! Of course I HAD to take a photo.

I love visiting South-East Asia, not only because I spent a big part of my childhood there, but also because my mother now lives in Kuala Lumpur, so my week in schools there was a great chance to get to spend some time with her, too. I love the hot humid weather, the food, the people, and I love speaking in international schools where the kids come from so many different backgrounds and have already lived such fascinating lives at such a young age. My last three days in Kuala Lumpur were in a really lovely smaller international school, where there were turtles in the gardens and the girls wore quite possibly the most adorable school uniform I have ever seen.

The students were wonderful, so engaged and switched on and SO enthusiastic about my visit. Every lunch time I was visited by dozens of students in the library who wanted to chat with me or have me sign autographs. I had been instructed by the librarian, as I often am in schools, not to sign scraps of paper, only autograph books, so one little girl who was determined not to miss out on my signature, dashed off and came back in a few minutes with this.

I thought she deserved extra points for her creative genius and told her so.

Now I am back home and back at work. My latest Hey Jack! has arrived in the mail and I'm about to start the next draft of book four of my Our Australian Girl series, before I have to head off to Sydney in a few weeks for the writers festival and another book tour. I am also working on something very new and exciting for any Billie B Brown fans, but I can't say yet as it is all still Top Secret! Hopefully I will be able to give you some clues in my next blog post.

Until then, I will dream of spicy Indian-Malay breakfasts while I eat my very boring muesli back in Autumnal Melbourne, where the leaves of my young mulberry tree are just starting to fall and I am happy to be home.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hey Jack - the risk taker.

I realise I have neglected Jack a little on this blog, forgetting to mention when a new book appears on the shelves like this one on the left, which has been out in bookstores since the start of February. Perhaps this is because Jack is a harder character for me to write.

Jack was originally designed as Billie's side-kick, and he is quiet and calm to balance out her impulsive, fiery nature. But a quiet, introspective character is much harder to write than someone who constantly creates conflict, as most stories require conflict to create momentum.

As a child I was much more like Billie, so finding the right emotions to flesh out her character comes easily to me, whereas Jack comes from my more rational and wary side, which isn't always as fun to write. However, the more I write Jack, especially now that I have taken a break from writing Billie, the more I am becoming interested in his complexity.

I am finding that while Jack can be wary he can also be brave. While he is sometimes shy and often dominated by Billie, he also has a quiet confidence that appears when he needs it most. I have enjoyed finding moments where Jack can stand up for himself, or discover something new about himself, and this happened while writing this story, The Circus Lesson.

I remember as a child how exciting, but also frightening it could be when adults didn't act the way I thought they should. Yet, it was these adults, the ones who lived differently, took risks and didn't feel the need to conform that ended up being the ones who inspired me the most and who, just by being themselves, encouraged me to to do the same. Without them, I am pretty certain I never would have been brave enough to follow my dreams.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lina is launched!

Cam's Cafe at the Abbotsford Convent has never looked busier or brighter as it did this Sunday past. The rain stopped, just as I'd asked, and dozens of young girls and their families crammed into the cafe to celebrate Our Australian Girls old and new.

All the authors of the published OAG books were there: Sofie Laguna, Gabrielle Wang, Alison Lloyd, Sherryl Clark, Davina Bell and Penny Matthews, who was also there, all the way from Adelaide, to launch her second character in the series, Meet Ruby, along with my first OAG Meet Lina. Most exciting of all, the series illustrator, Lucia Marsciullo came down, all the way from Brisbane, to attend the event and spoke beautifully of her experience of being a relatively recent Australian Girl, having only arrived in Australia from Italy a few years ago.

Jane Godwin, the publisher and series creator with Davina Bell, thanked the enormous team of people who have worked hard to make the series such a success and then prizes of charms and bracelets were given out to girls in the audience, before we all rushed back to the cupcakes and pink champagne. It was a whirlwind kind of a day, so many lovely familiar faces, many I didn't get the chance to say hello to, and also a wonderful opportunity for me to meet many new young readers.

In my speech, I had lots of people to thank, of course, and spoke a little about the people who inspired the Lina stories, but most of all it was my young readers I wanted to thank. So, if you are one of my readers and you weren't able to make it to the launch and missed out on my thanks, my message to you is this:

Every word I write I have you in mind. You are the reason I love what I do and that I am able to do what I love. You make me want to be the best writer I can be and I will always try my hardest to please you. So thank you, thank you.

And happy reading!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Learning to Read

If you were fortunate, you will have essentially picked up reading by osmosis like I did. I was a voracious reader and, as a result, found writing, spelling and communication easy and accessible. My two eldest sons picked up reading in much the same way and are still great readers at nineteen and sixteen. Up until recently, I hadn’t believed adults who despaired of getting their kids to read. “Surely everyone picks up reading eventually,” I would scoff, “if only given the right books.”

This was until my third child arrived, nine years ago, as bonny and bright a baby as you could possibly imagine. He was slow to speak and even at three years old was still using baby talk, which I put down to being the youngest and most adored child and never really having to articulate his needs. In Prep, his teacher approached me halfway through the year with concerns about his level of literacy. I refused to listen. “He’s in Prep, for goodness sakes!” I would tell my friends. “He should be playing with sand and water not sitting at a desk! Everyone learns to read at different ages, he’ll pick it up eventually.”

But he didn’t. Despite both his parents being writers, having read to him every night from the day he was born and growing up in a household of books, my son just couldn’t seem to pick up reading. By the middle of grade two his confidence plummeted. He began saying he was stupid and hated school. Every subject required reading and so he found he was good at nothing. Even maths, which he had previously managed easily, now consisted of written problems, not numerical. Eventually I was forced to admit that we were going to have to do something. My hands-off, let him take his own time approach was obviously not working. 

So, we started looking for help. Kumon, SPELD, computer programs, tutors, therapists, doctors. You name it, we tried it. Our son inched forward, but ever so slowly. But what was most frustrating was that while his classmates were discovering the joys of Tashi, Andy Griffiths and Harry Potter, my son was stuck with school readers that were so mind-numbingly dull that even I had sit on my hands to prevent myself from gouging my eyes out! 

At around this time, I was approached by a publisher to begin a new series for early readers. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. She mentioned that her research had shown that there was a lack of good material around for young children learning to read. I could have kissed her. We agreed we needed to focus on strong characters and exciting storylines to give struggling readers the incentive they needed to keep turning the pages. We decided we wanted them to feel real. There were a lot of stories around at the time featuring princesses and fairies, spies and pirates, but little that reflected kids’ own lives. 

That afternoon, I went home and pulled out all my old Dr Suess books. My son had declared he had outgrown them because “picture books were for babies”. He was desperate to be seen reading novels like his friends were. So, the challenge as I saw it, was to write something that looked like a short novel but was almost as easy to read as The Cat In The Hat

In case you’re unfamiliar with the story behind The Cat In The Hat, in 1954, a magazine published an article on illiteracy, which suggested that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. A publisher, William Spaulding, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr Suess) to write a book using only those words. Nine months later, using only 236 of these words, Geisel handed him the manuscript for The Cat In The Hat. It retained all the imagination of Geisel’s earlier books but could be read by early readers. 

The next set of books I dusted off were my childhood copies of Richard Scarry. I studied these books carefully to work out what had so appealed to me and decided it was Scarry’s unusual use of second person. “Doesn’t Lowly Worm look lovely in his hat?” he would write and I remember answering “Yes!” and being quite thrilled that my opinion had been sought. Looking through these books as an adult I realized this was an incredibly simple yet effective way of connecting with my young reader.

The last series I drew upon for inspiration were the Milly Molly Mandy books begun by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the 1920s. I couldn’t find my old copies but remembered them as being very simple stories about the life of a young girl. They contained no wizards or dragons, or even family tragedies to contend with, yet I still remember finding them utterly gripping. So, inspired by Seuss, Scarry and Lankester Brisley, I decided my stories would begin in second person, contain the language of a school reader and stick to the simplest day to day occurrences of a six to eight year old. Simple? Ha!

Over the next few weeks I wrote two stories using these limitations and tested them out on my son. He listened, which was a rarity at that time, and when he fidgeted or seemed to lose track of the story, I made notes in the columns to trim back or change the wording. I figured if I could keep my son interested I could keep any kid interested. After much to-ing and fro-ing with my publisher, paring back the text and cutting sentences even shorter, we arrived at our prototype: Billie B Brown, The Soccer Star. The character was feisty and tom-boyish and her best friend was a boy, which I hoped meant that even though the series was initially aimed at girls, boys might want to read them, too. An illustrator was found who, though living in New Zealand, had been born in Japan, and her slightly Manga-style illustrations gave the books a contemporary feeling I couldn’t have achieved had I illustrated them myself. We then worked on the second book, Billie B Brown, The Bad Butterfly, and had both ready to launch at the beginning of 2010.

The series grew from six books, to twelve, to twenty, with a spin-off series for boys. Three years down the track, my publishers informed me that the Billie B Brown series had sold its millionth copy. Obviously, this news is thrilling, but I wanted to tell you about something else that has been even more rewarding for me.

Every book signing I meet these parents. I recognise them straight away. Their faces are full of emotion and they are usually pushing a very shy and awkward young child ahead of them. “Tell her,” they whisper. “Tell her!” And they gently prod their beloved offspring to speak to me. The child, now even more uncomfortable, clams up even further, forcing their desperate parent to blurt out on their behalf, “My child hated reading before she found your books. She couldn’t read a thing and now she won’t put them down! I can’t tell you how grateful I am you wrote this series. I can’t tell you what it means to see her reading.”

I want to tell them, “I know. I really and truly know. I am you and I totally understand what you have been through and what you’re going through. I couldn’t feel more honoured and privileged to have been a small part of something that will offer your child a lifetime of joy and respect and ease.” But all I can manage is a simple “Thank you!” because I am trying not to mess up the spelling of their kid’s name in the book and there’s a queue of a hundred restless kids behind them and almost as many equally emotional parents. 

It’s so hard to see your kid struggle and miss out on all the things you were able to take for granted. Sometimes I feel so sad that my son will never know Charlotte or Mr Tumnus or Mowgli or the BFG as intimately as I did at his age. It’s hard to know that he will always struggle with reading even though every single night we still sit beside him and force him to read about the lifecycle of a slug or the way steam trains work and other things that frankly bore me to tears. He is getting there, slowly, slowly, and I can’t tell you how much I have come to appreciate comics over the last few years, being the sole thing he will read for pleasure. 

But the best thing, the thing that is the most rewarding of all, is that these days, when I go into his classroom, my son says proudly, “That’s my mum, she writes the Billie B Brown books and I help her!” and his friends look at him with the respect of kids who truly love books. And I feel comforted by the thought that one day he might love them, too.

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Victorian Writer 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The End of Summer

Today is the last day of summer and even though it's been a hot and dry one, I always feel a little sad to see it end. The long cicada-filled evenings, picnics by the creek and lost days on the beach - I find everything about summer so languid and glorious and I'm yet to be convinced of the virtues of winter. Give me a cotton dress over a woolly jumper any day.

However, before winter there is Autumn, and I am looking forward to seeing how all the young trees I have planted in our new garden perform and which will put on the brightest show of colour. There are daffodils to look forward to and enough rain to make the creek swell and creep out over its banks to flood the bike path. And lots of writing to do. My garden is a much less distracting place when the clouds loom grey overhead and the wind is too bitey to venture outdoors. LOTS of writing - and hopefully even a book of illustrations to squeeze in, if I can manage it.

There seems to be a sudden burst of book launches over the next few weeks, as if all us writers in our self-inflicted solitude are desperate to capture a little bit of summer spark before we all hunker down to our winter's nest of many, many written words but very few spoken. I am looking forward to Melissa Keil's tonight, but sad to be missing Simmone Howell and Kate Constable's next Wednesday. Nick Place has written a GROWN-UP book and will be launching it next Tuesday and Susanne Gervay will be coming down to Melbourne especially to launch her new picture book next Saturday. Lili Wilkinson will be launching her new book at Readings on the 21st which I can't wait to read.

So, if that's not enough bookish love for you, can I let you know about a little Meet Lina preview I have lined up at Readings Carlton on the 7th March. I'm very excited about it and have been collecting all sorts of 1950s treasures to share with you. Bring along a primary-school aged girl to share Italian treats and she will take home her own home-made diary to record all her secrets in. I will read a little from Meet Lina and chat about the book and all things 1950s - you may even see me in a 50's style frock! (Weather permitting) It should be a really lovely event, from 4.30 - 5.30pm, organised by the delightful Emily Gale, and very different to the big OAG bash to be held at the convent later on. Hope to see you there!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Story of my Book

The Story of my Book – Sally Rippin on Our Australian Girl: Meet Lina.
From the Readings blog Feb 7, 2013

There is an imaginary laneway off Rathdowne Street, probably not far from the Readings Carlton store, where, fifty-seven years ago, Lina Gattuso would have played cricket with her brothers. When it began to get dark, the four of them would have stashed the old plank of wood they used as a cricket bat behind the dented garbage bin they used as stumps. Their precious ball, a faded red six-stitcher, would have been safely tucked away in someone’s pocket to be pulled out again the following day.

I have been working on Lina’s story over the last couple of years, wandering through the streets of Carlton, imagining what it would have been like to live there fifty years ago. Carlton was a very different place in the 1950s, a refuge for migrants, first Jewish, then Italian, making a new life for themselves in the crowded little terrace houses, often crammed with several families and sometimes no proper bathrooms. Wealthy Melbournians looked down on Carlton as a filthy slum and there was pressure to have it razed to the ground. Others joked that by the late 1950s it was so heavily populated with Italians that you needed a passport to enter Lygon Street!

It was Carlton’s Italian history that I particularly wanted to explore in my writing. My partner’s family is from Italy and came out to Australia in the early 1950s, living in Carlton when they first arrived. When I met Raffaele, his family would regale me with stories of their early lives; some hilarious, others heartbreaking, but all of them so different to the childhood I’d experienced. When I was asked to write for the Our Australian Girl series I knew instantly that I wanted to write about an Italian-Australian girl growing up in Carlton as I already had so many great stories to inspire me.

The year 1956 was a big one for Melbourne. Not only was it the year we hosted the Olympic Games, the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, but it also marked the arrival of television. I was particularly thrilled that these two momentous occasions happened to coincide, as I am embarrassed to admit I’m not a huge sports fan, but I am fascinated by the history of television! Another lovely thing about having 1956 as my designated year is that there are still plenty of people around I can talk to about this era (including a couple of very helpful Readings staff members!) I collected many stories orally but there was also a lot of information available on the internet including original footage of the Melbourne Olympics and our very first television broadcasts.

The Immigration Museum and the National Sports Museum at the MCG were also great sources of information and I found some fabulous books on the history of Carlton. My favourite was Per l’Australia: the story of Italian migration published by a division of Melbourne University Press with heart-breakingly beautiful photographs from the archives of the Italian Historical Society (Co.As.It). However, when I was touring schools in Darwin last year, I happened to mention to a teacher-librarian I was researching the 1950s and the next day she brought me a whole stack of women’s magazines her husband had found under the linoleum in a house he was renovating. Of all the documents I had come across, these were the most revealing of Australian life at the time.

I am still only a third of the way through the series, editing book three and about to embark on book four, but already Lina and her family have become such a big part of my life. I can’t wander through the streets of Carlton without seeing things through Lina’s eyes and every time I look at an Italian woman in her sixties I picture her as a young girl, like Lina. All my characters in all the books I have written feel real to me as I am writing them, but having spent so much time with Lina and her family and having lost myself so completely in the research, I would have to say Lina feels the most real of all. I know I will be relieved, but also a little sad, when I finish book four as it’s hard to leave a character’s world when you have spent so much time there. I have loved getting to know Lina, I hope you will love getting to know her, too.

Friday, February 8, 2013


Champagne, cupcakes, charm bracelets! What more could you want? Come! It will be fun, I promise!

Here are the details if you can't read the invite:
3 - 5pm, Sunday March 17th
St Heliers Street Store, Abbotsford Convent
RSVP by March 10 to

Friday, February 1, 2013

Happy not-so-new year and other lovely things

I don't know about you, but I always feel like my year begins properly on the first of February, rather than the first of Jan. My kids are back at school, I can begin to get stuck into work again and start to cross things off my list of things to do.

February is also the time new books come out, to coincide with the beginning of the new school year - at least in the southern hemisphere. This month, I am excited to have two books released into the wild, on opposite sides of the world. Meet Lina arrives in bookstores across Australia today and Angel Creek should be making an appearance on bookshelves around the UK any day now. I have my fingers tightly crossed that these books will find readers who love Jelly and Lina as much as I do.

There are three more Lina books on the way, but meanwhile, here is an interview I did with a UK publication about Angel Creek. Happy not-so-new year!

1. What sparked the idea of ‘creek angels’?

One summer, I had been grappling with a longer, older novel that was causing me much anguish, when I was contacted by a newspaper to write a fiction story for children. To clear my head and get some ideas, I took my youngest son for a long walk along the Merri Creek, which runs not far from our house. We started chatting about what a mystical, magical place the creek was and what incredible things might be lying in its muddy depths without us knowing. I wrote a short story for the paper about some children finding an angel in the creek, then tried to turn my attention back to my novel. To my delight, over the next few weeks I received so many wonderful letters from children about my angel story that I decided to abandon my angsty novel for good and instead began writing what eventually became Angel Creek.

2. What process did you go through in creating your ‘angels’, which are very unlike the traditional images of angels?

Even though I read a lot of literature about the depiction of angels through the ages, it was very important to me to create something new and unique. I love the idea of nature being wild and unpredictable, full of beauty but also frightening at times, so I decided to make my angel become a reflection of its earthly surrounds. Rather than the ephemeral celestial beings traditionally depicted in art and literature, my angel is mangy and feral, voiceless and terrified, with breath like dirty vase water. But it is worth noting that the angel the children find is only a baby angel, yet to develop its full powers – unlike the force that eventually comes looking for it.

3. Why did you want to include this fantasy element alongside very real issues such as starting a new school, family, bullying and illness?

Though I admire writers who can create whole worlds from scratch, I like to work with something familiar and add a fantastical twist. I didn’t intentionally set out to cover a list of particular issues, these are just things I remember being important to me as a child and I imagine are very recognizable to most children. My aim is to create the most believable characters I can so that my readers might ask themselves, ‘What would I do in that situation?’

In some ways, the angel in my book can be read as an allegory for the natural world; scientists are still discovering creatures they could never have dreamed existed, so why not a baby angel? One of the questions in my mind when writing Angel Creek was if you were to find something wild and beautiful would you leave it alone and perhaps risk it dying, or would you interfere with the delicate balance of nature and then face the unknown consequences of your actions?

4. You explore the transition from childhood to early teens – what interests you about that age range?

I remember as a child being fascinated by the story of Puff the Magic Dragon and could never understand how Jackie Paper could abandon something so wild and magical. Of course as an adult I understand that he was giving up his childhood to become an adult. While there is obviously much to be gained by growing up, there is also an enormous amount lost, in particular the creativity, imagination and a deep sense of wonder that we are all born with but eventually dies if we forget to feed it. Often this happens during that transition period from childhood to teenager, when we become so quick to scoff at things that had once been so fundamental.  Then, as an adult, we can only strive our whole lives to try to gain some of this back again. As Picasso famously said: ‘We are all born artists, the only difficulty is how to remain one’.

5. You also explore how actions and even thoughts have consequences – do you feel that learning this is an important part of this transition?

Oh boy, this is something I think we never stop learning. I wish I could have learnt all that I needed to know about this when I became an adult but I’m afraid I still have a long way to go! The idea that we can change our thoughts to change ourselves, not just mentally but also physically, is something that is both inspiring and daunting.

6. There are quite profound questions around death in Angel Creek – how hard did you find it to tackle this in a way that worked for children?

I think we often underestimate how much children think about death – I was certainly more preoccupied with death as a child than I am as an adult, but often as much out of curiosity as fear. I don’t believe there are any areas that are necessarily out of bounds in writing for children, as long as this is done with sensitivity and insight. Birth and death are fascinating themes to explore for all writers, whether literally or metaphorically, and most authors I admire would never shy away from tackling profound questions just because they are writing for children. In fact often these momentous themes are explored more directly and with more honesty than in adult literature.

7. Your favourite character?

Jelly, naturally comes to mind first, because she is the protagonist and we see the whole story through her eyes, but I also have a deep fondness for Gino and Pik. Gino, because he is trying hard to work out what it is to be a man while growing up in the shadow of his bullying father, and Pik, just because he is adorable.

8. Is the book reminiscent at all of your own childhood?

Everything I write for children stems initially from my own childhood then takes on a life of its own, often fed by the experiences of my own three children. Beginning with my own experience helps me write from a child’s perspective with authenticity and not trivialize what might seem unimportant now. However, unlike Jelly, I spent much of my childhood living in South-East Asia, moving almost every two years because of my father’s job. Even though we mainly lived in apartments in very big cities, my father still managed to find us scraps of nature to explore and instilled in me a deep love of the natural environment that I think comes out in Angel Creek.

9. You are both an illustrator and writer – how visual are you when planning / writing stories for older children, as well as your picture books?

Being able to visualize my story is very important to me. I know things are working when I can see the setting and characters as if they were real and my job is only to write down their story.

10. What are your links with Italy, as you feature Italian characters in your stories?

My partner was born in Melbourne, Australia, but his parents were born in Calabria, Italy. They speak little English and remain very traditionally Italian even though they have been living in Australia for almost fifty years now. I love being a part of Raffaele’s big, loud extended family as they are so different from mine and many of the characters in Angel Creek are inspired by his family.

11. How does your writing day go – any bad habits?

I am an awful procrastinator. I begin my day by spending way too much time on Facebook, reading stuff on the internet and feeling sick with guilt about wasting time. Then, when half my day is gone and it is almost time for my kids to get home from school, I’ll have a sudden burst of productivity and usually just be getting into a flow by the time they come through the front door, wanting my attention. Occasionally, if I have a deadline I might make myself go to the public library where I can’t get onto the internet and force myself to concentrate solely on my novel.

12. What do you do to relax when you’re not writing?

Spend time in the garden, walk along the Merri Creek, visit friends, hang out with my kids. Bungee jump – (no, not really. I hate heights!)

13. What are you writing now?

I am writing a series of historical fiction novels set in Melbourne in 1956 – a big year as it was the year of the Olympic Games and also the arrival of television. My character is a twelve-year-old girl called Lina whose parents have recently arrived from Italy. I am also always busy writing more books for my Billie B Brown and Hey Jack series for younger readers.

14. There are a number of very inspiring Australian writers – what did you read as a child / teenager (I remember reading My Brilliant Career then), and which writers were most inspiring to you?

I think I read mainly American and English books when I was growing up. I loved Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton when I was younger, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel as a teenager. I never really got into The Muddle-Headed Wombat or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, though I do remember loving Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy. Really, I only came to appreciate Australian authors when I began to write myself. A publisher I first approached at Penguin in the early 1990s, handed me a stack of Australian YA including Sonya Hartnett, Gillian Rubinstein, Melina Marchetta and Robin Klein, and from then on I was hooked. Now, many of my favourite authors are Australian and I think the children’s writing scene here is a particularly exciting one to be a part of.