Posts in Kids’ Books

Meet the locals: festival director Lisa D’onofrio

Lisa Donofrio teaching
Lisa Donofrio teaching

Last year, after pretty much just landing in Castlemaine, I went along to the Castlemaine Children’s Literature Festival. The kids and I saw innovative puppet shows and powerful Sudanese storytelling and song. All the sessions were booked out. Sometimes kids’ programming (at other festivals) can be lazy… so it was great to see so many hands-on sessions.

This year, the program is even more expansive. It’s a wonderful initiative, with a carefully creative program aimed directly at children from a wide range of age groups. It starts at the end of this week. For Melbournites, it’s worth a trip down to explore the options during the school hols.

I first met festival director Lisa D’Onofrio at Castlemaine Word Mine, a regular gathering of local writers here. She hosted a reading I did with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney on adult and YA fiction, and the crossovers between them.

I spoke to Lisa about the festival, that starts this weekend, and how she ended up landing in the Maine.

Why did you move to Castlemaine?

The short answer is we needed to settle somewhere fast, and Castlemaine had good schools, a train line and a rocking library. We also knew one person here!

Ajak Kwai launching last year's festival
Ajak Kwai launching last year’s festival

Why start a Children’s Literature Festival?

That’s a very good question, which I ask myself several times a day, especially in the lead up to the festival! When we first came to Australia around three and a half years ago, we did a bit of travelling. In Queensland I read about PL Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins series, and I wanted to do something that celebrated Australian children’s literature, so it grew from there. I’ve got a background in literature/literacy development, and a long history of facilitating arts projects so it seemed a perfect fit.

The CCLF is a unique festival which focuses on children and young people as creative producers and active participants, which isn’t the usual model for festivals, where the children’s program seems like an add-on, or is purely schools-based. Selfishly, I also wanted my own kids to have access to local, cheap but quality, arts-based activities in the holidays!

What are some of the highlights of this year’s fest?

So many highlights! Most of the performers/facilitators are local, which is wonderful, and we were very lucky to have  multi-award-winning author Melina Marchetta do some pre-festival workshops.

Johnny and Evie Danger developed their show Oceanic Daredevils for the festival, which has been booked out twice over.

I’m looking forward to Monsters in my Wardrobe, a production by Mark Penzac, which has had some input from Castlemaine North primary students, and the dance/word workshop with Thais Sansom on the Saturday, which I wish I was young enough to particpate in!

Monster Mash Up Rhyme Time is an annual favourite starring Jess Saunders, our library worker extraordinaire, which is always lovely — outside under the big tree in the beautiful surrounds of Buda.

Johnny and Evie Danger coming up at the CCLF
Johnny and Evie Danger coming up at the CCLF

The Wordy Wonder Day will be a cracker, including a sound walk led by the poet Klare Lanson and Luca Sartori, who runs a cafe in town, singing Italian tunes!

You can check out the program here and book here.

Festival events will take place in Taradale, Fryerstown, Maldon and Newstead as well as Castlemaine.

 

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK AS A CHILD?

Also check out:

  • Top 5 Australian Children’s Books to Re-Read Until You Go Mad
  • Meet the Locals: Castlemaine YA Author Simmone Howell

Talking Writing: an ebook featuring great Australian writers

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers' Centre
Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers’ Centre

I love having the flexibility to swing between freelance writing and editing. I’ve been commissioning editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, for a number of years now. I enjoy commissioning articles almost as much as writing them. There’s something about the ideas process, talking through possible articles with an editorial team, and then seeing writers respond to a theme and bring it to the page fully formed. More often than not, writers completely surprise me with what they bring back.

For an editor, working on a magazine composed by writers is a dream job. The writing that comes in is taut and well-shaped, with virtually no typos. I can just sit back end enjoy. For a writer, I’ve always got a lot to learn. Writing short stories. Or sci-fi. Or the love poem. I’m always keen to try new things. This ebook covers the gamut.

Newswrite has always been a members-only magazine, for those based in NSW. One of the frustrating things about editing each edition has been that I haven’t been able to use social media to share the articles that I find exciting and helpful for writers (and there are many).

So the Centre came up with an idea: we’ve produced our first ebook, Talking Writing, a collection of the best articles from the past couple of years. It was launched last week. Yes, it does cost money. But $9.95 is a pretty reasonable outlay for some of the finest writers in the country, both established and emerging.

My favourites from the book include:

  • John Safran on writing TV comedy. I went to uni with John. I was involved with making an early music video at RMIT of his song ‘Melbourne Tram’. His work has always fascinated me. Here, he berates writers for being so precious. To come up with ideas. Lots of them. 
  • Kate Holden on writing good sex. I’m intrigued by Kate’s evocation of the erotic in her nonfiction. She has lived it. Writing sex (that’s not cringe-worthy) is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Kate has some great tips.
  • Arnold Zable on writing as therapy. In the aftermath of the bushfire tragedy in Victoria, Arnold did workshops with some of the survivors. They wrote about what they had lost, shared, and remembered. It’s an article full of spirit and rejuvenation amidst the devastation.
  • Writer on WriterThe magazine has a regular column (that I get very excited about) where writers are asked to talk about the author who has had the greatest influence on them (writing practice and reading). It’s a wonderfully intimate space for reflection and featured writers include Emily Maguire (on Graham Greene), Benjamin Law (Zadie Smith), Jon Bauer (Ray Bradbury), Sam Cooney (David Foster Wallace) and Mandy Sayer (Ernest Hemingway).
  • And then there’s Rebecca Giggs on writing and the environment; Sam Twyford-Moore on writing and depression, James Bradley on blogging, Kirsten Tranter on the second novel and Geordie Williamson + Angela Meyer on criticism in the digital age.

If you’re an emerging writer looking for hands-on nuts and bolts help, this ebook will be useful to dip into. It covers a range of genres so teachers of writing can add it to their syllabus.

You can read it on your computer screen, iPad, Kindle or other e-reading devices.

This release is a bit of an experiment. If we get lots of digi-readers, the plan is to keep publishing Newswrite articles in a variety of formats. I hope you enjoy reading the articles as much as I have over the years.

Ampersand Project: new voices in YA

Melissa Keil, Life in Outer Space When you’re writing your first novel in any genre it can be challenging getting it into the hands of publishers. First, there’s the question of agents (to have or not to have?) and, then, how to stand out among the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts sitting in piles around editors’ desks.

So it’s always exciting when a new venture is announced that’s actually calling out for debut novels. The Ampersand Project emerged in 2011, a Hardie Grant Egmont scheme looking for first-time YA novels with a distinctive voice. In March, they release their first title, a nerdy romcom, Life in Outer Space.

I spoke to debut novelist Melissa Keil and Ampersand editor Marisa Pintado about how the project is encouraging and attracting dynamic new writers.

(This is the extended version of an article originally published in Newswrite magazine.)

Why did you decide to set up the Ampersand Project? Did you see a gap in the market?

Marisa Pintado: We felt that there was room in the YA market for more debut writers, more fresh voices, and really, more variety. When we were still dreaming up Ampersand, a few years ago now, there was a glut of paranormal romance and gritty dystopian fiction. This went beyond mere trends, as far as we were concerned — there was simply very little new fiction available for readers who were into different things. We wanted to create some energy around different kinds of stories, so in the first year we focused on contemporary real-world fiction — and we were thrilled with the response from writers.

At what stage was your manuscript when you heard about Ampersand? Did it inspire you in any way?

Melissa Keil: The manuscript was complete, and I had been workshopping and editing it for about eight months before I seriously started thinking about submitting it to Ampersand. I was at the stage where I had done the bulk of the structural work that I could do on my own, and was just fiddling and making very minor changes — but I still think I would have sat on it for many months more if I wasn’t given a shove by my writing group. I guess Ampersand inspired me to be brave and put the book out there!

From the piles of manuscripts on your desk, how do you know when one is a goer for publication?

Marisa Pintado: A manuscript shines because it combines a multitude of appealing elements — a beguiling voice, intriguing concepts, skilful writing, well-developed characters, an authentic teen-feel, and an understanding of classic story design. It’s rare to find these elements all in the one manuscript, but when you do, it feels like the heavens are opening.

What we really love to see is evidence of hard work in the writing; we can tell when writers are sending in their first draft, and when they’ve laboured over a story for months or even years, painstakingly threading through subplots, re-writing chapters and refining character trajectories.

How did your manuscript originally come about? Did you come up with the voice? Or various plotlines?

Author Melissa Keil
Author Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil: Definitely the voice, and the character of my protagonist, Sam, came first. It was one of those weird, writerly light-bulb moments, when I had decided to set aside the novel I had been working on and begin something new. I had no idea what the new ‘thing’ was going to be, but I was sitting with my laptop in a café when I saw a poster for the Melbourne Horror Film Society, and Sam’s voice, literally, just popped into my head. I wrote the first chapter that afternoon, and though it’s gone through quite a few rounds of edits, and I refined and redrafted it as I got to know him better, the outline I wrote that afternoon is pretty much the first chapter in the published book. The plotlines evolved as the various characters took shape.

What was it about Life in Outer Space that singled it out to be the first Ampersand novel?

Marisa Pintado: Life in Outer Space really took us by surprise. When we launched the Ampersand Project, we’d expected to go for gritty, boundary-pushing fiction — essentially sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, with some cutting on the side. And then Melissa’s manuscript landed on my desk, and it was like having a warm bath in the sunshine. She’d written this gorgeously geeky romantic comedy that shredded a stack of awful YA clichés and pop-culture tropes, and it was just an incredible achievement.

At first we wanted to wait until we’d finished reading all the Ampersand submissions before signing Melissa up. This decision lasted about two days, and then we caved and signed her up so that we could launch into the editorial process. We knew we didn’t want to let her go, and we were prepared to have more than one Ampersand author in a year, if it came to that. She’s an amazing talent, and we could tell that she’d been working really hard for a very long time. She was absolutely ready to enter the YA scene as a fully fledged author.

I’m so looking forward to introducing her to readers in March 2013. I’ve read Life in Outer Space about a million times during the production process, and it has made me cry with happiness. Every. Single. Time. I just love Melissa’s writing.

I notice you are part of a writing group. How did this help you shape the narrative?

Melissa Keil: I can’t overestimate how valuable working with my writing group has been; not only for their advice and feedback as the manuscript developed, but also because of the emotional support that only other writers can really provide. They were the first people to flag issues and to suggest solutions for problems, but also, the first people to offer genuine encouragement and praise when things were working. It’s quite an exposing thing to put your work-in-progress writing out into the world, and my writing group has really been the perfect combination of critique group and cheer squad.

There are many 80s references in the book but it’s a contemporary world. Why did you decide to step back in time for influence?

Melissa Keil: I knew that pop culture of all kinds was important for both of my main characters, but I also knew that saturating their story solely with contemporary references was going to confine it to a singular time and place; I guess I really wanted the story to have a ‘timeless’ feel, if such a thing is possible in YA contemporary! Also, Sam and Camilla are both quite ‘old souls’; the things that they love and that influence them come from all over the place, and lots of different time periods — having said that, yes, there are quite a few 80s references! There is something in the tone of the 80s teen movies I love that I wanted to invoke.

How do you see the current state of YA publishing in Australia?

Marisa Pintado: Australian YA publishing has gone through tremendous change since the glory years of the 90s, where writers like John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy, Robin Klein and Gillian Rubenstein turned out books of the most incredible calibre and enjoyed strong sales. I think as the market has become more enchanted with the blockbuster-sales model (usually books by international authors), and review space is increasingly limited, Australian novels can find it hard to elbow their own space on the shelves.

But I remain optimistic, because you look at the quality of writers who have established themselves over the last few years — Leanne Hall, Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Meredith Badger (also writing as Em Bailey), Chrissie Keighery, Myke Bartlett, Penni Russon — and you think, it’s OK! We still have amazing writers coming out of this country, and they’re writing brilliant books that do sell, and do well overseas. The Ampersand Project is all about finding more of these talented people, and giving them as much support as we can to establish their profiles and kick-start their writing careers.

How important are projects like Ampersand in helping emerging writers?

Melissa Keil: The current publishing climate being what it is, it’s becoming more and more difficult for publishers to take a risk on an unknown. Knowing that publishers are still actively looking for — and are excited by finding — new authors to support is amazing. And I think it’s so critical for new writers to have a great editorial team behind them. A project like Ampersand, with editors willing to work with a new author to help shape their manuscript into the best it can be, is crucial for any writer looking to build a career.

In 2013, what kinds of manuscripts/writing are you looking for?

Marisa Pintado: We’re opening up to all genres across YA, so I’m really keeping an open mind. My reading tastes are pretty broad, so I want to be surprised! At the moment I’m particularly keen on horror, thrillers, accessible sci-fi, high-concept drama and contemporary romance, but overall I’m hoping to find raw talent in writers who are hungry for development, and stories that I have to stay up late to finish because I’m so desperate to see how it all turns out.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? ARE YOU A YA WRITER LOOKING TO BE PUBLISHED? LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS…

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Top 5 Australian children’s picture books: to re-read until you go mad

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?
Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Having two children has taught me a lot about narrative.

With the first child (my boy, McCool, now almost four), we did everything by the book, so to speak. We settled on a bedtime routine quickly, milk and three books. He was read up to ten books a day (and still is). He is fascinated by story, able to sit still and focus on the words, the detail. He is usually reluctant to read a new book, preferring to have one on endless repeat until he has memorised it and can read it himself.

With the second child (my girl, GG, now 18 months), the routine flew out the window from day one. She has absorbed the books, as part of us reading to McCool. She now sits on her own for a long time, looking at them in the corner. She brings favourites over to me at all times of the day. She still gets at least ten books but usually in bursts of passion (mine and hers). She is more interested in turning the pages, in noises and flaps, in dashing to the last page to see what happens. The only way I can get her to lie still when I change her nappy is to give her a choice of books.

But there’s no doubt that, regardless of their very different personalities, they both are drawn again and again to the same books. Sometimes books I’m truly in love with (the classics: Where the Wild Things Are; The Very Hungry Caterpillar); sometimes books I wish I never had to lay eyes on again (most of the mass-marketed Wiggles variations).

We’re lucky in Australia to have access to such a wide range of wonderful children’s book writers and illustrators (and publishers willing to look after them). My favourite thing is emptying the children’s piggy banks and being left to my own devices in the picture book section of a bookstore like Gleebooks in Sydney to wander and browse.

Here are the top 5 books in our household that have stood the test of time — for both the kids and me. These are the ones where I’m still able (after hundreds of readings) to truly enjoy turning the pages, to discover something new each time I read it.

WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s book is a masterpiece of narrative. I’ve learnt that children love Q+A. As I read ‘But where is the green sheep?’ my daughter answers ‘Mmmmm’ each time, enjoying the to and fro between us. The simple images give lots of chance for singing and acting the fool (the clown sheep, the sheep swinging around a lamp-post) and build in momentum to a climax, a page with a riot of sheep — Ned Kelly, Carmen Miranda, the ‘narcissist’ sheep — offering me the chance to branch off into all kinds of other narratives, before I start to whisper, and we find the little green sheep, sleeping and peaceful. The publishers, in all their marketing glory, decided to sell a soft toy of the green sheep, but my kids would never touch it. I always like to think they preferred the green sheep to be lost, missing, in their imaginations; they didn’t want to see it on their shelves.

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES

Mem Fox (she has contributed to so many wonderful books) and Helen Oxenbury’s tale of inclusion holds absolute delight for babies and toddlers. GG’s favourite word of the moment is ‘baby’ and in this book she sees herself reflected on every page, especially when there are actual illustrations of hands, fingers, feet, toes that she can measure her own against. The repetition gives her a chance to learn, and also the opportunity to see kids from different cultures to her own (she loves the image of the child with the penguin in the snow; and the child with the chicken in the heat). The personal link at the end where the mother kisses her baby three times on the ‘tip of its nose’ gives me lots of opportunities to kiss and tickle too.

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy
Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

THE BOY AND THE TOY

Sonya Hartnett’s foray into children’s picture books is, like everything else she does, unusual, with beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo. It’s a melancholy tale of a boy on his own (his mum not mentioned, his dad away at sea). His father is an inventor and invents a toy for him, but this toy is jealous and starts destroying the boy’s world. The boy soon figures out there’s something not quite right and works out a way to trick the toy, creating a model of himself as a decoy. McCool has always loved this tale. He’s an independent boy, too, looking for answers, and this book elicits loads of questions: What is the toy doing? Where has the dad gone? What’s an inventor?

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight CatJOHN BROWN, ROSE AND THE MIDNIGHT CAT

This is my favourite children’s picture book of all time. I’ve no doubt handed down my passion, but both the kids love it. Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ narrative proves once and for all that the dark and mysterious have a place in children’s books, even those for very young kids. The glorious illustrations and the apparently simple narrative (that is, in the end, about approaching death) of friendship and loyalty means the book can be savoured on many levels. Just the opening page before the story begins is full of wonderful possibilities: the outside toilet (McCool is fascinated by this idea), the chicken coop, the tyre swing, the old car in the garage that doesn’t get driven, the black cat that’s always lurking. I have to hold back tears nearly every time I get to the page where John Brown, the sheepdog, is lying with Rose’s slippers, wondering why she won’t get up. It’s a lesson in pared-back, taut and controlled writing. Magnificent!

WHO SANK THE BOAT?

Pamela Allen, like Mem Fox, writes and illustrates classic after classic: the list is remarkable (others that we call favourites include the Mr McGee series, Black Dog, Shhh! Little MouseWaddle Giggle Gargle, Inside Mary Elizabeth’s House) and she makes it look easy (it isn’t, I’ve tried). Who Sank the Boat? again focuses on repetition and refrain, asking a question so that the kids can answer. All kids seem to be drawn to the tiny in narrative (the small creature, the speck of dust, the littlest battling against the biggest [us adults]) and the idea that it is the smallest of all (the mouse rather than the donkey) who causes the commotion, who sinks the boat, is a clever trick and source of wonderment that never seems to grow stale.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?
Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS? OR THE ONES YOUR KIDS LOVE?

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Birds and the bees, shooting the breeze

Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?
Peter Mayles, Where Did I Come From?

My son McCool is three years old. He has a baby in his tummy. The baby is coming out through his belly button one day soon. It is a little boy. And he’s excited to see him. And wants to share this excitement with me. We’re reading a bedtime story called There’s a House Inside My Mummy. We read it a lot when I was pregnant with GG. I’ve noticed McCool always chooses his reading material according to who is reading. It’s a clever tactic to keep the grown ups interested. I get John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat a lot (because it’s my favourite). Poor grandma gets The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (because she has the patience to read it). We fight over who won’t read Horton Hears a Who! ‘It’s too long’, we moan, ‘we need some more VOOOOM’. Who would have thought us literary types would try desperately to avoid Dr Seuss. But we’re all happy when we land Walter the Farting Dog.

I try to tell him that only women can have babies (even if this isn’t exactly correct) but he doesn’t want to listen. He likes the idea of a little one sprouting from his belly. He’s been asking a lot of questions about babies in bellies. He has a little cousin arriving soon.

I think that perhaps it’s time. To talk about sex. But, really, where do you start? I always thought it would be fairly straightforward. Just answer the questions down the line. But the questions are so curly. And the answers aren’t much easier. And now I realise the dilemma. McCool still finds it hard to distinguish between the real and the fantasy. At what point does cold hard reality have to come slamming down? Can’t we keep the boundaries blurred for just a little while longer?

My parents (hippies I used to say) believed in being direct. I can remember the first time I found out where babies came from. Even though I would have read hundreds of stories on my mother’s lap, it is this book I remember most clearly. I was around the age my son is now, I guess. 1976. Something about the tone, the conversation, must have set it apart. Important. To be remembered. I remember the delicate, almost technical, illustrations of a child inside a mother’s womb. The anatomy. I remember the precise wording of the pages. There was no passion. This was scientific. No room for questions.

It’s grade 2 and I’m in the school yard. I’m swinging on the monkey bars (we had those in the playground then). I’ve been talking to my best friend Christina for an hour. About sex. About who does what. And how it works. What goes where. She hasn’t said a word. I have her undivided attention. I feel like I’m an expert. I say it all in a matter-of-fact voice. As if it’s no big deal.

There's a House Inside My Mummy
There’s a House Inside My Mummy

The next day Christina’s big sister comes up to me in the playground. She’s in grade 6. She says that I shouldn’t talk that way. The way I talked yesterday. That it’s dirty. And disgusting. She says I’m too young to know things like that. And, as she leaves, she says, Oh, and my parents don’t want you playing with Christina any more.

I don’t know why but I feel ashamed. As if I need to be washed. As if I’m rubbing off on people. There’s a collision between the message I’m getting (from my mother) and the message I’m getting (from my peers). For some reason, it’s the children around me who have greater impact. I’m left confused. I don’t talk about this with my mum. I learn quickly that bodies, what they do, how they express themselves, should be hidden, that sex is something to keep secret.

But mum perseveres. Later in primary school we move on to Peter Mayles’ hilarious What’s Happening to Me? and Where Did I Come From?, two classics that answered all the key questions in a comic tone. Just seeing the illustrations again now makes me giggle. I remember my mother and I laughing at the page that had all different shapes of breasts and arguing over which ones would be best: the pendulous; the throw-over-your-shoulder; the pert and neat.

I wonder now if there are any new books that I can read to McCool. Has sex education moved into the digital sphere (there’s probably an App available somewhere they can stroke with their fingers)? Or do we still return to the classics?

LET ME KNOW. HOW DID YOU ANSWER YOUR KIDS’ CURLY QUESTIONS ABOUT WHERE BABIES COME FROM? AND WHAT AGE DO YOU THINK IS IDEAL TO START TALKING TO THEM?

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