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

Saturday 27 February 2016

Fetcher's Song

Tasmanian children's author, Lian Tanner reflects on how a series is born and the sparks that can spur a story into life.
One of the questions I am often asked in schools is where the idea for a book came from. It’s not always an easy question to answer, and Fetcher’s Song (#3 in the Hidden series) is one of the hardest to explain – mainly because it grew out of an odd sentence that was floating in my head when I woke up one morning.
‘It was New Year’s Eve, and the last of the fortune-telling ducks was dead.’
Was it the tail end of a dream? A suppressed longing for waterfowl? Or just a fragment of nonsense from my unconscious mind? I have no idea, but I wrote it down, just in case, in the notebook I keep beside my bed.
In the last six years I’ve written two complete fantasy trilogies, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that each series comes with its own problems. The greatest problem I faced with The Hidden series was that it wasn’t originally meant to be a series. When I wrote the first book, Ice Breaker, I had in mind a stand-alone novel, and it wasn’t until some time after I’d completed the manuscript and handed it in that I realised I wanted to write more about twelve-year-old Petrel and her world.
That’s when it became a series – with the built-in challenge that I didn’t yet have an overarching idea for the three books. However I realised fairly quickly that I wanted to follow the fortunes of three different children, all of them hiding from the fanatical Anti-Machinists who had taken over the world; all of them bent on protecting a particular type of knowledge.
It seemed to me that most people, if they saw a new Dark Age approaching, would want to save scientific and medical knowledge. That covered the first two books, Ice Breaker and Sunker’s Deep, and the first two children, Petrel and Sharkey. But what about the third child? Who was she, and what on earth was she trying to save?
That’s where the odd sentence came in.
‘Fortune-telling ducks’ sounded to me like a small travelling circus, or a group of entertainers. Once I started developing the idea, the ducks didn’t last long, but the entertainers remained – mainly because one of the things that real-life fanatics like the Taliban and Pol Pot seem to loathe is any sort of frivolity or enjoyment.
So, in my imaginary world, the Anti-Machinists had outlawed songs and stories. And Gwin Fetcher and her family, a small group of travelling players, were trying to keep those things alive.
As Professor Serran Coe says, at the very beginning of Fetcher’s Song, ‘There is history – true history, not the curdled sort the Anti-Machinists want us to teach – and there is science and medicine and the making of machines. But there is another sort of knowledge too, just as valuable. Lin Lin and I are trying to save the mind of the world. You will save its heart.’
Like the first two books in the series, Fetcher’s Song is about friendship, the messiness of life, and those difficult moments when you have to step out of the shadows and stand up for what you believe.
But more than any of those things, it’s about songs and stories, and how important they are to us. Particularly in hard times.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Tove Jansson

Patsy Jones recalls the place of the Moomins in children's literature and their return to the book shelves for a new generation of readers to enjoy.

Recently, as I was browsing in one of Hobart’s bookshops, my eye was caught by a name I remembered – Tove Jansson. I remembered her as the author of a series of children’s books about the Moomins, of which my daughter had been a great fan. Somehow or other I had never been captivated by these books as my daughter had, but it seemed as if it was time to consider their impact on a grandmother……

Tove, born in Finland in 1914, lived through two European wars and great changes in her homeland. At the time of her birth the Grand Duchy of Finland was a part of the Russian Empire, but through the twentieth century became an independent nation-state. Tove’s family belonged to the part of the Finnish population that were Swedish-speaking, so her books were first published in Swedish (the Finnish language is linked with the Hungarian language rather than Scandinavian languages).

Tove was highly regarded as a writer, not just in Finland and Scandinavia, but by the world. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award gold medal for writing in 1966, and in 2004 she featured on the Finnish Children’s Culture commemorative coin.

The first Moomin book was The Moomins and the great flood, published in Swedish in 1945 but only recently published in English. It appears to have the characteristics of many initial books in a series, not enjoying the great popularity of later books about Moomins, most of which were published in English by Puffin, soon after their initial publication in Swedish, and which my daughter read with enthusiasm.

The publisher of this first book, Sort of Books, has also published Sculptor’s daughter: A childhood memoir. This, published in Swedish in 1968, contains several short stories and was written ‘specifically for adults rather than children’ according to the introduction by Ali Smith, and initiated Tove’s move to adult fiction.

Patsy Jones

CBCA(Tas) Treasurer, retired librarian, retired teacher

Editor's note: Tove Jansson is also recognised for her pioneer work as a female comic book artist and a new animation series is on the storyboard.

Saturday 13 February 2016

How do we really know what children want to read?

Image result for children reading booksDuring my career as a teacher, I have often bought books for my students to read. Yes, the library at school can purchase the books but I have bought them in response to conversations we have had about their book interests and the books stay in our classroom for them to access all the time. I have also bought books knowing that they will only appeal to one or two students and therefore would not be purchased by our library because the material had such a limited audience. So, having bought many books for my students over the years, I would like to think that I have a fairly good idea of children’s reading preferences.

This brings me to the wider question that when a book is being commissioned or published, who decides what children want to read? Is it the publishers in response to the talent of the writers they promote with their preferences for genre and content or the requirement to fulfil a contract with another story? Is it the authors who have children and/or work with children and think they know what will engage a reader or just write about topics that interest them but pitch it at a younger audience? Perhaps it is current events, such as the focus on the Gallipoli centenary last year that led to saturation levels of children’s books on World War 1 being printed? Do teachers and parents make these decisions based on their childhood favourites ensuring ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’ remains in print? Are the interests and needs of readers being directed by everyone except the children themselves?

Last year I had my Year 5 students write a fairy tale for an audience and they chose the Kindergarten students. Despite my suggestions and encouragement to speak to their audience, they wrote away merrily without ever having spoken to a student from their target audience nor did they spend time reading books the Kindergarten students borrowed from the library, so they could develop a picture of their preferences, i.e., get to know their audience.

When they gave me their stories to read I said that before I marked them they needed to do a final edit after reading their story to a Kindergarten student. They did this and the results were illuminating. Rather than the younger students just saying the story the older student read to them was good, they were quite eloquent in what really mattered to them. In fact, one student became so loquacious that the older student had to get a pencil and pad to make notes.

The feedback the Kindergarten students gave to the older authors ranged from: “The story is okay but the sentences are not very interesting.” and “The trees don’t look the same as the story sounds. They need more leaves.” to “I really liked the story but you have too much white on the page around the pictures.” Needless to say, there was much rewriting (and colouring-in) at a frantic pace.

I wonder if my classroom experience mirrors the big, wide world.

Helen Rothwell is a primary school teacher.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Lessons from New Scientist

Recent readings of New Scientist have inspired, and perhaps excused, this week’s blogger Nella, from some reading habits that she connects too.

Lesson One:  The power of stories
The irresistible lure of the con artist” by Maria Konnikova New Scientist 23 Jan 16 pp28-41

In our social media driven world where personal stories are shared globally, Konnikova considers what drives fraudsters to like at the expense of others. To quote:
“Nothing compels us so receptivity quite like an emotional, relatable narrative.”
“A good story consistently blurs our judgement.”
The article explains how a strong relationship between trust, intelligence, health and happiness is more likely to see someone fall victim to a fraud (e.g. disgraced blogger Belle Gibson). It also explains that the more someone is absorbed in a story, the fewer false notes are noticed. 

Recently I’ve been involved in discussions about specific books. I noticed that I identified more with characters with Greek/Lebanese/Chinese backgrounds than my colleagues. I could admit that reflected my own NESB, but I couldn’t really discern how much that “bias” made me miss any flaws in the writing. A win to “relatable narrative”.

Lesson Two: Willpower “The force of habit” by Teal Burrell New Scientist 16 Jan 16 pp30-34

Burrell argues that you can make a habit of anything if  you leave your brain on autopilot.
“Willpower comes in limited supply, and gets used up during the day.” 
That’s the best excuse I’ve had for purchasing books – willpower quotient for the day had been used up!
Some examples of “depleted willpower” purchasing follow.

Nella Pickup
Reader and book buyer.