Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Monday, 26 August 2013

A bit of everything ... and a happy ending

I don't know about you, but I just love a happy ending. Over the years I've read far too many books, including those for children, that end as badly as they started. So I was delighted to recently read David McRobbie's Vinnie's War.

Vinnie is an orphan who has nothing and as a result faces daily complex challenges. During the war he is evacuated along with a lot of other children, from the London he knows to a country village he doesn't. And there he is forced to get to know new people. Some of them aren't all that enthusiastic about his arrival so Vinnie has to face a whole lot of new challenges.

But Vinnie has a certain amount of luck on his side, and he's resilient. Eventually he not only meets those challenges, he exceeds everyone's expectations including his own. It's a truly uplifting story.

Reading Vinnie's War got me thinking about other books I've read where children, particularly boys, have faced adversity due to either being orphans or being removed from their families. Their circumstances are dire, but somehow they have the strength of spirit to face their challenges and make a success of themselves.

Two such titles immediately come to mind, both of which stand proudly on my bookcase. The Ship Kings: The Coming of the Whirlpool by Australian Miles Franklin winner Andrew McGahan, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the brilliant graphic novel by Brian Selznick. The first is set in a mysterious magical land where the people live and die on the water. The second is set in a railway station in Paris. They couldn't be more different, but I really felt for both Dow Amber and Hugh Cabret as they faced their challenges, and I celebrated with them when their lives finally took a turn for the better.

I know authors have different motives for writing; some want to educate us, some want to help us escape to exotic or unusual places. Others want to make us laugh or cry, and still others want to imprint a message upon our hearts. But personally, I like a book that has a bit of everything ... including a happy ending. What about you?

Penny Garnsworthy

Sunday, 18 August 2013

How childhood experiences influenced my writing

I was born in Tasmania more than sixty years ago and went to Princes Street Primary School.  There weren’t a lot of children living along our windy bush road so a grocery bus picked us up at six in the morning and we waited for it after school. The kids on the bus had to deliver newspapers in the morning and groceries in the evening, as we bumped our way to school and home again, often sitting on provisions, packaged in brown paper and tied with string. 

Back then, our neighbour drove a horse and cart to Hobart once a week, and there wasn’t a public bus to take people into town.  The government, however, provided a library bus that visited our neighbourhood once a week.  My mum would walk me down to the bus to borrow a book.  It was a real treat.  I was particularly impressed by an entire row of books about myths and legends from all over the world.  I just loved reading (we didn’t have TV) and I would fly to magical worlds through these books and hear about wondrous creatures like unicorns, witches and evil trolls.  So my fascination for magic, myth, and mystery probably influenced my popular girls’ series, The Faraway Fairies

I was a lucky kid because my parents raised me using the ancient, practiced art of benign neglect.  This custom has largely been lost today.  Also, I was the only girl in the area so I learned to box, play footy, cricket and British bulldog (British bulldog is now banned and children aren’t allowed to play it, but my parents didn’t seem to mind if I got squashed, had my knees skinned and was covered in bruises afterwards).  For my eighth birthday I was given a sheath knife and a bow and arrow set.  My brother and I soon became American Indians and found good use for the knife, scalping my little sister’s dolls.  We ran wild through the bush and my parents never saw the risks we took, climbing cliffs, shooting those arrows and leaping amongst branches and occasionally sneaking off and bare-back riding various local horses, without the owners’ permission.  I also loved the ocean and learned to surf and sail.  When I wrote my series The Dragon Blood Pirates, as Dan Jerris, I drew on these experiences.

My grandfather had a shack at Clifton with a locked gate across the only access road. There were aboriginal middens behind the sand dunes and my brother and I found old axe heads and flints amongst the cracked shells and bones around the fireplaces.  We loved the idea of being aboriginals and formed our own tribe.  We collected shellfish and ate them, threw spears, took sacred vows, and read everything we could about the mysterious people that once walked on the land where we now played.

These experiences further developed my love for history and artefacts.  Later, I was lucky enough to travel widely, through Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and explore ancient monuments and see for myself all the wonderful things I had read about as a child.  My brother also developed a fascination for aboriginal history and became an archaeologist.  He has just been involved in the new ABC documentary, First Footprints, about the history of the Aboriginal people.  He’s also had some amazing experiences and been caught in storms, tsunamis and earthquakes. 

I believe these influences have helped me create my latest books, Arky Steele, The Cursed City and Arky Steele, Guardian of the Tomb, which are about two boys having exciting archaeological escapades in Mongolia and South America.

Underpinning my writings, I believe that children should feel safe, so my stories have happy outcomes.  Parents are never far away and, in the case of Arky Steele, his parents are venturesome and caring. Perhaps they are a little like my parents, they let Arky play and explore, fall, take risks, encourage him to get up again when he makes mistakes, and give him the ability to think freely and see adventure as a way of life.

Eleanor Coombe (aka Dan Jerris)

Sunday, 11 August 2013


A blurb probably isn’t as useful as we tend to think it is. My boss never used to read them, saying they “spoiled the story.” He would go straight to the beginning and decide if he wanted to read more from there, and lately I think I’m starting to agree with him. The real truth about a book is best found in the author’s own words, with that opening line.

Often the opening line is the part of the book that stays with me. I will never forget that the Dursleys at number four, Privet Drive, are perfectly normal, thank you very much. I will never forget the bright cold day in April when the clocks struck thirteen, or that in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

This year’s shortlisted books have offered up some corkers, too.  Sonya Hartnett’s glorious opening line: She heard it: footsteps in the dark. I love Vikki Wakefield’s: My life has been told through campfire tales—stories that spill over when the fire has burned low and the silence must be filled.

A great opening line is as much about what it doesn’t say as what it does say. The best introduce us to a character and an action - driving us forward because we must know more about this place, this person, and these things that are happening. A perfect opening line gives us exactly enough information to know that something here is different to what we might normally expect, but if we want to know more we will have to keep reading.

That’s why, I think, the best opening line ever (so far) is from my favourite novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Even typing it sends a shiver up my spine. Perfect. A big picture in very few words, like a photograph of one of the bricks in a sprawling, monumental tower. Calling you to see the rest.

So let’s take a moment to notice the places where we start these incredible journeys. Go on, what’s your favourite opening?

Lyndon Riggall

And from Patsy Jones, who puts the blogs up – Lyndon has referenced five opening lines – let’s see if you can write me a comment telling me the names of the books and their authors – I promise I won’t publish your answers until next week…. (of course Neil Gaiman’s book is not one of them – he told us all about it!)

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Are we experiencing a Fairy Tale Revival?

Recently I participated in a book group that undertook an exploration of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Well I guess we all know about Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and all the other well known stories of childhood, but this series of discussions made me realize there is so much more to fairy tales than this. I contemplated the place and importance of this genre in our literary heritage and how much, if any, of this heritage is being passed on.

I began by wondering how many of these traditional tales are actually known to current generations of children.  With the volume of beautiful new books published each year and the surge in children’s involvement with technology; television and film, I wonder if fairy tales have gone the same way as other pieces of traditional childhood literature like ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, bible stories, ‘Aesop’s Fables’, ‘The Just So Stories’ to name a few.  When searching second hand book stores for fairy tales I came across many different publications but compared to the many new books available not many of  the fairy story publications are attractive or user friendly for younger readers.

I recall the era of intensely serious discussion about the violence in fairy tales and nursery rhymes and the criticism of political incorrectness in some children’s stories like the golliwogs in ‘Noddy and Big Ears’.  Did all this adult angst and moral affront precipitate the traditional stories to fall from favour and unfortunately slip quietly out of our children’s literary experience?  From the number of cast off fairy tale books in the op. shops, it’s obvious that grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents do buy them for their children but how many are kept as treasured reading or even read at all?

I have fond memories of Roald Dahl’s ‘Revolting Rhymes’ that turned the traditional into humorous poetry even more blood thirsty than the originals, and I have a slim volume called ‘Kid Rotten’s Tales for Rotten Kids’ which presents Red Riding the Hood as a much less genteel and gracious young lady than the traditional story does.  There is also the politically correct version of ‘Red Riding Hood’ that has the wolf and Red Riding Hood turning on the wood cutter because he had ‘assumed that womyn (not women) and wolves could not solve their own problems without a man’s help!’

However, the important question is, can one appreciate these modern variations on the traditional tales if one has not first experienced the original stories?

Serendipitously, since engaging in this fascinating study, I came upon the work of German author, Cornelia Funke, and read ‘Reckless’ and its sequel ‘Fearless’.  The stories are set in Mirrorworld where the hero, Jacob Reckless, is a treasure hunter seeking out fabulous treasures such as the glass slipper and the magic table that are an important part of traditional fairy tales.  Mirrorworld is of course peopled by fairies, dwarves, elves, witches et al. but also has some of the trappings of the industrial era, making this genre an interesting amalgamation of history and magic much as steampunk links history and fantasy.  I’m not sure if there is a label for what Funke produces but it certainly is an attractive mix.  Every time there is a reference to a fairy tale connection, the knowledgeable reader receives a double hit of reading satisfaction.  Or at least I did.   Would this happen if I had not been familiar with the traditional stories?  I doubt it.  While I don’t doubt that anyone could read Cornelia Funke and enjoy Jacob Reckless’ adventures, it’s that extra depth that turns a good read into a great read.  Hence my concern that young readers, deprived of reference to fairy tales and other traditional literary experiences, might be missing out on some of the new and exciting variations available.

I have also noticed a recent television series called ‘Once Upon a Time’.  I haven’t watched it yet but wondered if it was a similar variation on the fairy tale theme.  It certainly sounds promising and something that brings a renewed interest in traditional fairy stories could win my vote, as long it has a genuine connection.  I am aware of other programs with fairly tenuous links to the real thing. I am not sure about the worth of the current series ‘Beauty and the Beast’.  Perhaps ‘Once Upon a Time’ should be my next stage in rediscovering traditional fairy tales.

And by the way, I can’t wait to start reading Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ series.

Carol Fuller