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

Friday 31 May 2024

“Tell Me a Story”: Why Reading Aloud Still Matters

With National Simultaneous Storytime just behind us and CBCA Tasmania’s ‘read aloud to your child every day’ campaign in full swing, Lyndon’s post provides a perfect backdrop for the importance of reading from an oral perspective - hearing the words adds a further dimension.

Imagine, for a moment, that you don’t live right now—not in our time of Netflix and YouTube and Xbox and a hundred other things to distract and delight us—and that instead you find yourself, let's say, four-hundred years ago. What does fun look like to you? If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ve got your hands on a book of some kind. 

"First Lady Frances Wolf Attends a Read Aloud Event for Children at St. Paul’s
United Church of Christ in Dallastown, York County
by governortomwolf is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But what about those shared moments of joy, the ones that are so easily created in the modern world with everyone around the couch watching some kind of event episode of a favourite TV series, or a movie?

"News Muse: Reading the newspaper aloud in a
boardinghouse room. Washington, D.C., January 1943
by polkbritton is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The chances are that your 1600s self would find these common experiences by reading your book aloud, similar to Mr Collins being invited to share a novel with the family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (characteristically, he opts for a sermon instead). What’s interesting is that you would probably still read aloud even if no-one else was around. As Alexandra Moe notes in a recent article in The Atlantic, the contemporary image of the silent reader would be a real oddity, even going into some parts of the 20th Century. Indeed, we have historical precedent for this, with Saint Augustine finding it peculiar that Saint Ambrose sits in a garden and reads without speaking in Confessions. Reading out loud, it turns out, is hardwired into us.  Although there are studies that dispute whether it is significant in terms of our comprehension, it is clear that there is a measurable impact on the amount that we will recall later, even as adults, if what we are reading moves from our eyes and our minds to our mouths. The gift of punctuation—the breath-in pause of the full-stop and the quick rest of the comma, as so many teachers have reminded their students over the years—provides us with visual cues that might indicate the same rhythm and flow of human speech that the author intended in their thoughts’ transcription. Somewhere along the line they replaced the very thing they were created to represent.


In a recent article in The Guardian, Sarah Manavis admits something that many of her readers will find heart-flutteringly romantic, and others eye-rollingly lame. Beginning with a once-off performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol one frosty December night, she and her partner created a tradition where they read aloud before bed… a custom that has continued across seven years and a vast canon of the classics. A study by the University of Liverpool analysed the outcomes of a number of people living with chronic pain who joined a “shared reading” group. Alongside a number of positive effects that emerged from the experience, such as increased self-reported feelings of positive mood and quality of life, even when their reported pain had also increased, the study found that “literature was a trigger to recall an expression of diverse life experiences—of work, childhood, family members, relationships—related to the entire life-span, not merely the time-period affected by pain.” Many of us have always recognised that reading is a noble thing, but I have always worried that we sold it as if it were Brussels sprouts—something “good for us” to be quickly choked down so that we can get on to everything else. On one level, yes, the reading undertaken by these groups is operating as its own kind of medicine, but on another level, the data seems to indicate that reading aloud with a group—once we get past the nerves—is valuable because it’s fun. It exists, at its best, at the intersection between performance, writing and audience, and it gives us a shared vocabulary of story.


There are some of us who have not forgotten the skill that is in our DNA. I’m talking, now, to those of us who cannot cook without reciting the recipe, who chant the day’s tasks as we wander throughout the day like it’s a daily prayer; those of us who wouldn’t dare read a poem without at least whispering it under our breath to find the cadence and flow, or who must recite an email back to check for tone before sending it. I think of the wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett, in his struggle with Alzheimer’s, who woke up one day and accused his assistant Rob Wilkins of stealing the letters from his keyboard, but who found it possible to keep writing using dictation. There is nothing wrong with reading and working quietly, or even silently—especially in a busy world in which sometimes it is the only way to get things done in communal environments—but I wonder if overall the pendulum hasn’t swung too far… have we lost something in our calm insistence that the writer and the reader talk to each other only in their own minds?


Back in our modern world, we live in a landscape of inputs. Our TV screens and speakers, our headphones and handheld devices; all of them feed in far more than they ever feed out. The reader, in almost every instance, is the passive responder: a sponge, absorbing, absorbing, absorbing. Yet by the same token, how long have teachers been encouraging their students to read quietly to themselves when editing something, to catch the cadence of the phrasing, the flow of the sentences, and the little words that look right at first glance but reveal their lack of clarity or spelling the moment they are given breath? Reading aloud, of course, doesn’t have to be loud. It can be as soft as a whisper or a mutter, an almost-unnoticeable verbal acknowledgment of the true nature of the tale.

"SAKURAKO reads book aloud to a grandma." by MIKI Yoshihito.
is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It's what we’re hard-wired for. From the beginning, stories were always meant to not only be read, but heard.


Maybe it’s time for us to let them speak once more.


Lyndon Riggall is a writer, teacher, and co-president of the Tamar Valley Writers Festival. You can find him on social media @lyndonriggall and at http://www.lyndonriggall.com. 

Friday 24 May 2024

The Joy of Illustrating Dogs

Blue Mountain Dog
© Tony Flowers

It is delightful to have Tasmanian resident, Tony Flowers, as a guest blogger this week. Tony’s illustrations are true works of art that add layers of meaning to the stories that he so skillfully brings to life. And, of course, hunting for dogs across the many picture books that he has illustrated adds more fun to the reading experience.

One of my absolute favourite things to illustrate is dogs. I have 2 cats (Cleopatra and Miffy) and a Belgian Shepherd (Freya). I have always had cats and dogs. It is the special relationship that we build with our pets that has been the inspiration for many of the animal characters in my books. 

Freya features in a promotion for Scout and the Rescue Dogs
by Dianne Wolfer and Tony Flowers

One of my earliest memories is about the terror our family cat, Snowball, instilled in me. He was a total Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde cat, ready to draw blood without warning at any moment of the day or night. This kind of memory can help me build the tension in my illustrations between a cat and a character's reaction to it. While I do love drawing cats, there is something special about illustrating dog characters. I find drawing dogs with expressive body language, emotive faces and movement easy. It most likely has to do with my willingness to talk to my dogs and overlay complex two-way conversations.

Freya features in This Old Thing by Cassandra Webb & Tony Flower

During my discussions with my Freya, it is all about her response, generally in the form of a head tilt, tail wag, or a single eyebrow raise that always seems to imply the perfect answer to my comment or question. These body gestures are what I use to infuse life into my drawings; it doesn't matter if it is a dinosaur (Saurus Street), a dragon (Billy is a Dragon) or a dog, there is a little bit of Freya or one of my past dogs in there.

I love drawing dogs so much that I try to find ways to weave them into every book that I do. In my illustrated version of Advance Australia Fair, I placed a dog in every scene I drew for the books; I often refer to this book as Advance Australian Dogs.

Arctic dog featuring in Advance Australia Fair © Tony Flowers

The email asking if I was interested in illustrating Scout and the Rescue Dogs came at a time when I was looking to concentrate on picture books and graphic novels. While I love illustrating chapter books, I was working towards creating a new graphic novel series in which I am both the author and illustrator. But a project with 'dog' in the title is a bit of an Achilles heel for me. After a short conversation with Freya and Thor (my recently departed German Shepherd), I said 'yes'; not only was I delighted to have a project that allowed me to dive into the world of dogs again, but this charming story has worked its magic on readers around Australia and made its way onto the Young Reader's shortlist for the 2024 Book of the Year Awards.

Sample sketches of Dotty, Nellie, Freckles and Speckles
© Tony Flowers

Scout and the Rescue Dogs official book trailer by Eden Montgomery

Tony Flowers, dog-loving illustrator.

Web: https://tonyflowersillustrator.wordpress.com/  

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tony_flowers99/ 


Editor’s note: Take the time to check out Tony’s impressive website to explore the breadth of his talent and view him at work in the video clip.

Drawing stuff with Tony Flowers Cambodian Dog

Friday 17 May 2024

National Simultaneous Storytime 2024

This week’s timely post by teacher librarian, Anna Davidson, is full of inspiring ideas to tap into the fun and excitement of this annual event. 

It’s nearly time for the nation to pause and enjoy a shared reading experience as part of National Simultaneous Storytime (NSS). This year’s story, Bowerbird Blues by Aura Parker is a real delight. Bowerbird Blues is a gentle story, complemented by gorgeous illustrations. It has been the springboard for many ideas in our library and students have enjoyed engaging with the story in the first few weeks of term. In this post, I will share some of the accompanying experiences we are offering our students to connect with Bowerbird Blues and celebrate NSS.

Inquiry into Birds

In the lead up to NSS, our youngest students are engaging with an inquiry into birds. Currently, there appears to be an explosion of beautiful picture books and illustrated non-fiction books about birds and each week, it’s hard to choose which book to share. Each library lesson, we are exploring one picture book and one non-fiction book, which provides a gentle introduction to the features of non-fiction books in an informal way. It also provides some choice to the reading material; after an initial look at a non-fiction book, I’ll offer students a choice, ‘would you like to hear about bird beaks or what birds eat?’ and we read the page that most children vote for. 

The middle primary students are delving a little deeper into non-fiction titles about birds, conducting independent research to create a digital library display sharing their facts as well as creating a Kahoot quiz to share with the wider school community during NSS week.

TMAG Bird Specimens

Did you know you can become a member of TMAG, which allows you to loan animal specimens for display at your school?  This was a new discovery for me this term, but one well worth following up. For $54 for the term, we can borrow two specimens, swapping them over every two weeks. Currently we have a Pied Oystercatcher and four different honeyeaters in the library and they have provided a wonderful talking point for library visitors.

Bowerbird Collections

This idea has shamelessly been borrowed from Libraries Tasmania (they offer incredible ideas for engaging young people in the library). Students have been invited to take a jar and fill it with a collection of some kind. So far, we have collections of marbles, Lego, shells, socks, leaves, pegs and many other interesting items. This has been a really easy idea to implement, has been very popular and another great talking point in the library as students stop to admire the collections.

On the Day

On the actual day of NSS, we will take the opportunity to raise funds for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation through a ‘wear a touch of blue’ day as well as a ‘Count the Collection of M&Ms’ competition. At 12pm, classes are invited to the library to listen to the Principal read Bowerbird Blues aloud. We are grateful for the active support of the school leadership team who are always more than happy to participate in literary events around the school. 

Other Resources

NSS LibGuide

Book Creator book by the amazing Raff Grasso

Invitation to build a collection - template

Dress Up Day poster - template

Anna Davidson

Twitter - @davidsonteach

Junior School Teacher Librarian, avid reader (mad for Middle Grade Fiction), dog lover, yogi, nature lover, tea drinker

Editor's note: Are you set for NSS on May 22? Thanks Anna for great ideas and the very useful supporting resources you have provided. 

Saturday 11 May 2024

Writing a Novel is Like Running an Ultramarathon. Part 2

Last week, readers navigated
Part 1 of the marathon and this week the finish line is looming. Tasmanian author, Marie Heitz, concludes the journey, identifying further steps that explore both the ultramarathon and the writing process, that will help you reach the finish line. Are you up for the challenge?

8. Most of the work is invisible. 

The race is just the last part of the project. The first and biggest task is surviving the training. Not just  all the running. Sorting your nutrition, and hydration, the overuse injuries, the scheduling around life, testing the gear, and the thousands of kilometres of training, uphill training, downhill training, sand training, water crossings, and rocky technical training, without falling over, or with falling over. 

The words on the page spent years coming into being. Reading, reading, reading, writing emails and blogging and short stories, maturing your ideas, the novels that failed, finally this one: its first and second and fourteenth draft, the beta readers, maybe the paid editor, the submissions to publishers…..a shroud drawn over this…. WOOHOO the acceptance, the editing and drafts and editing and drafts, the changes you liked and didn’t and the proofreading and the proofreading and then suddenly the thing has escaped out into the world and has its own life now.


9. Somewhere along the way you will crash. 

Comprehensively. You’ll be absolutely sure you are gone. Not just your legs, every last muscle fibre is spent, and everything, everything hurts. Your mind’s forward push is spent, the last drop down the plughole. More than that: every so-called achievement of your life is worthless, you could just die right here and it wouldn’t matter to anyone, least of all yourself. The first time this happened to me, I was deep in the Tasmanian wilderness, miles and hours from the nearest checkpoint. Further from the nearest road. I would have given up if I could have, but I had to get to the checkpoint first. Solely to get there, I ate and drank and started walking. Slowly but forward. Eventually managed running, 50 steps at a time. I recovered.  And I finished. I discovered that sunk in a well so deep that all light is lost, I can still find the means to recover. Even when my body and spirit and soul have given up, my mind can keep going.

The story will traipse off track into mud, flounder ever deeper; your prose go limp, grey and lifeless. You are delusional that you ever thought anyone would be interested in the ideas. But. If the end is clear to you, keep going till you reach it. That’s what first drafts are for. 

Here’s where ultras and novels differ: Unfortunately, you can’t go back and rewrite that sentence where you trod on a wobbly rock and broke your ankle.


10. You have to avert your eyes from the totality if you want to finish. 

You can’t imagine yourself running all day, from before dawn, through everybody else’s breakfast, workday, sun travelling the whole sky, shadows swinging from west to east, sundown, people going home and having dinner, you still running. That’s ridiculous. You just can’t. So you don’t.

Do you believe you can write one arresting funny sentence? Yep, maybe. Write ten thousand? No chance. So don’t think about ten thousand. Just the next one. 


11. Whatever the weather. 

Rain, wind, scorching heat, hail, snow all happen outside. At some point, in some race, they will happen to you. So welcome the chance to train in horrible weather, because it gives you a chance to develop strategies to deal with it. Make it not scary. And the worse it is in training, the better chance that the race will be easier.

Marie during the Takayna Ultramarthon

If you want to finish your novel, you don’t just sit down to write when you’re cheery and well rested, the house is quiet and the muse is sitting on your shoulder, ready to share. You sit down, whatever your mental/emotional/life circumstances when sitting down to write. If you make excuses - not today because I’m tired, depressed, hungover, pimply, heartbroken - most days you’d never sit down at all. 


12. Your competitors are your comrades too.

Ultramarathons are races. But for many participants, that’s the least important thing about them. That’s true for all amateur running races but becomes ‘more true’ the longer the distance: Increasingly, it becomes not you versus all of them, it’s all of you in it together against the course. You share your fatigue, pain, doubt and laughter. And the vivid green prehistoric forest and the view of mountaintops stretching into a blue haze or lit up with dawn or sunset. You share food and bandages and Panadol and spare socks. Conversation to shorten the miles. Get lost together and back on track together. Help them search for the shoe that got sucked off in the mud.

Nobody gets what it’s like to write a novel unless they’ve tried to write one. They recognise the tyranny and terror of the blank page. And the thrill of filling it with something resonant. And they’re the best people to ask when you think your novel is misfiring because they know what goes on under the hood. All the authors I’ve ever met are generous.


13. It affects the lives of those around you.

Not just because you disappear for hours, out onto the mountain or into the cocoon you inhabit in your study or at the end of the kitchen table. It’s because of the additional hours you are present but effectively absent, because you’re working out how you can plausibly get your new lovers to split up in the haunted house. Or because you’re totally flogged; you left your brains and sense of humour - and your cooking and algebra-homework-assisting energy - somewhere out in 28kms of mud and march flies.


14. Crosstraining helps. 

For ultras its cycling, weights, pilates, paddling. Because when your core fails, everything crumbles. 

To build your novelist muscle, exercise the discipline, precision and punch of poetry. Write nonfiction to hone accurate, evocative description, opinion pieces for lucid development of ideas.


15. You can run/write a very long way feeling just awful.

All going well, the first 30km should be no effort, enjoyable. In the next 20k the “forward” voice starts its work. The body’s reply is “I’d really rather not, but ok.” Around 50k, the niggles have started, agility and spring gradually leach from your legs as they transition to lead pipes, the “forward” voice adds cajolery, bargaining and downright lying. Eventually the brain setting bottoms out on “grim.” Somehow you still keep stumping along, and your spirit is still open to beauty. My enduring memory of the Surf Coast Century is the last 10km on a beach under a sky brilliant with stars, the invisible immensity of Pacific ocean, the rhythm of the surf, the rush and the long white ribbons of surf that loomed and vanished.

The most useful description of novel writing I ever read was “Staring at a blank page until it bleeds.”


16. They’re good for you. Except when they’re not. 

It’s not a secret that exercise benefits virtually every aspect of living, but too much exercise provides a similarly broad choice on how to damage or kill yourself, not limited to hypothermia, hyperthermia, falling off cliffs or getting caught in bushfires, overstretching your heart muscle (yep “athlete’s heart” is a thing), kidney failure. Every tendon in my lower half has had legitimate cause to complain of abuse. (But no, it does NOT bugger your knees.)

Writing engages multiple, brain functions, memory, analysis, creativity, planning, visuospatial manipulation, play. It’s an exercise, a release, an escape, a meditation. I get a definite “high” when I come up with a phrase or a sentence I like, especially if it’s funny. Writing is brain exercise. 

However… Twice, I’ve had to stop and reassess where my novel was going when I realised I’d been depressed for weeks and the cause was my subject matter. In the first case my hero was drifting between coma and terror and pain, his team seeing no way forward except death and betrayal. The second was set in a dystopian future in which the only remaining non-extinct animals were the apex scavengers: rats, cats and crows which had evolved towards each other in shape and savagery. And skill in killing cockroaches. I had to stop. I couldn’t spend my days in those dark places. The second book had an arresting premise and my world-building was advanced. But I had to abandon it.


17. Coffee.

No explanation necessary.


18.  Encouragement.


12. – Your competitors are your comrades too.

17. - Coffee.


And to conclude, and in the struggle to think of a sentence to encapsulate this piece — something illustrative — nothing came to me. So I went for a run and found one…

The practical application of these correlations is that performing one activity prepares you for the other.

Marie Heitz

Author of The Diemen Alexander, and with a wealth of experiences in laboratories emergency services, and a host of outdoor activities (including running, of course!)

Editor's note: The takayna Trail (see image above) is an annual event in the rainforests of takayna / Tarkine in northwest Tasmania

Saturday 4 May 2024

Writing a Novel is Like Running an Ultramarathon. Part 1

The first in a two part marathon, Marie Heitz, author of the intriguing and edge-of-the-seat adventure The Diemen Alexander, reveals how endurance has fuelled her passion for extreme sports and writing. Her scientific endeavours shine through in this novel that explores genetics, palaeontology and biological change as well environmental and social issues.

How do I know that? Because I’ve done both. Often both at the same time. You don’t have to have done one to see some similarities. You do have to have done one to see how they are both a creation of the mind.

1.     You have to want to. 

Really really want to, because your pile of difficulties is ever replenishing and will heap up so high you can’t see over it. The road is long and seems longer. You will need to fight your way through swamps that weren’t on the map. You have to want that destination.

The flip side of wanting to, is that if you do, really really, want to, a novel or an ultra are doable. Almost always. Absolute requirements? A lack of disqualifying physical handicaps – one-leggedness, blindness, illiteracy – you could even get over those, though possibly not all three. You do need enough spare time after your day job and your kids/spouse/ailing parents. You don’t need to be a special person. Its not about whether you have gifts, though having them certainly helps. It’s overwhelmingly about your desire and application rather than your talent.


2.     And you have to know you can finish.

 Because you are up against the ravening monster of doubt with your plastic bow and arrow of confidence. You have to slay the monster over and over again. You get intermittently better at slaying it, with practice, but it never stays dead. It can still end the story by eating you.


3.     Just keep going.

It’s both as easy and as hard as that. At any point along the way, you only have to keep going to the next point. When you reach there, you keep going to the next. Repeat until you get to the end. One step, one hill, one checkpoint; one word, one sentence, one chapter. Followed by the next.


4.     Keep going forwards.

 As opposed to upwards or sideways. Children and fit non-runners have a spring. They bound into the air with every step. Uplifting. And inefficient. Lifting the body upwards takes far more energy than moving it forward. So don’t lift your body, or even your feet, any higher than you absolutely have to go forward. Over uneven terrain (most ultra’s - and all of mine, are run offroad) take the most direct route. With every single step. Because the whole 100km is made of single steps.

The other aspect of forwards is to have a mental hand pushing you forward, relentlessly, whatever the terrain, whatever else you’re thinking about (socks, salinity, fruit cake) or even your gait. Going through a bad patch? Walking? Walk forwards. Shuffling? Shuffle forwards. Limping? Limp forwards. When the mental hand stops pushing, you slow down.

Writing? Go forward. Be short, not breviloquent. Avoid expanding into bouncing bounding steps, athletic, leonine, tautologous, purple sentences. Even with pared-down sentences, you can get diverted in so many aspects of your novel. Fall repeatedly into bogs of research. Follow your butterfly of scene description into an enchanting and pointless forest. Wander offtrack into subplot after subplot which get you no closer to the finish. Your reader has long abandoned you.


5.     Pacing is crucial.

There is an ultra-runners’ dictum which instructs: ‘Start conservatively, then slow down.’ It takes Zen-like control not to start too fast, especially when nobody else can do it either and they all go streaming past you and scamper out of sight. If you have managed it better than them, they will have spent all their chips and you will overtake them all, hours or more hours later.

You can’t exactly follow that advice in writing a novel of course, unless you’re Proust or Henry James, but you absolutely need plot/character/thematic chips in reserve to dole out strategically along the way. And you – and your reader – need to be confident you’ve got them, otherwise the book and the race become a misery and you risk your reader becoming a DNF.


6.     They are best done in maturity, but not too much. 

The average ultra-runner is in their 40s and has been running for 15 years. You can’t run that far without years in your legs and in your brain. You can’t plan all the detail without having gone through all the things that went wrong. You can’t spend so many hours keeping on while your body is shouting at you to stop. Unless you’ve spent some years differentiating when it’s merely offering its whingy opinion from when it’s flashing a red stop light. 

You get better at avoiding injury, but with every year over 30 you get worse at recovery. And things that were thoughtlessly effortless in your 30’s become race and life-threateningly difficult: reading your map without the glasses you lost; opening your food or closing your jacket with cold-stiffened fingers.   

There are some successful young novelists but there aren’t many. There are some excellent first novels, but none of them, none, spring fully formed from a mind which hasn’t engaged in writing something: journalism, advertising, script writing, i.e. a million practices at writing a meaningful sentence.

I have half the words in my head as I had a decade ago. And they are much harder to retrieve. Next year I’ll have a few less. There is an age where the brain wears out. Always.


7.     Gear matters. 

You could be lucky and finish your ultra-wearing road running shoes, instead of trail shoes. Or you could pulp your feet, get blisters on your blisters and break toes on the rocks. Your notreallywaterproof jacket, in the rain could give you hypothermia, get you lost and derail your race. Or kill you. 

On the way down from Frenchman's Cap- a run with no socks - 
those white things on Marie's ankles are dressings!
Some writers might have all the words they need already filed away and an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything they’re writing about. I don’t. I need a good thesaurus and a search engine for research. Google earth for settings I can’t get to. My camera for recording the details of settings. A notebook I take with me absolutely everywhere. Most of my novel ideas happen on a mountain somewhere.

Marie Heitz

Marie in a Diemen Alexender t-shirt
that she made herself.
Meet Marie: Born in Switzerland, Marie went to school and Uni in Perth and - via Kakadu - now lives in Tassie. She has practiced medicine in laboratories and emergency departments, under river gums and in operating theatres. All of it has increased her respect for humanity. Her life has featured bicycles and motorbikes, surfskis, scuba tanks and yachts and swimming in 100 miles of open ocean, aeroplanes and parachutes, tubas and clarinets and symphony orchestras, pencils, birds and words, mud, mountains, (she loves mountains) and a lot of pairs of running shoes.