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Sunday, April 22, 2018

A To Z Blogging Challenge: T Is For P.L Travers and Shaun Tan

Today’s Aussie children’s writers are P.L Travers and Shaun Tan.

  You have very likely read one or more of the Mary Poppins books in your childhood, or seen the movie. You may even know the author was Australian, though she spent her career in England, but a lot of Australians in those days still referred to England as “Home” anyway, and her father was actually British. 

P.L Travers was born in Queensland in 1899 and lived to be 96, so if you’re older than 22, the author of Mary Poppins was still around in your lifetime. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff, but later changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers as a stage name, so she could pursue a stage career of which her family didn’t approve. She was a professional Shakespearean actress, among other things. She was a fan of J.M Barrie, the author of Peter Pan and, interestingly, her first publisher was one of Barrie’s wards, who inspired the characters in Peter Pan. (I know how you must have felt, Pam! I remember when my first book sold to Allen and Unwin, the original publishers of the amazing author J.R.R Tolkien! Yay!). 

Book cover, not remotely like Julie Andrews!

It would be nice to say that Travers was a sweet lady who told stories to children, but no. She was a HUGELY grumpy person I’m not sure I would have wanted to hang out with. It took twenty years for Disney to get the rights to Mary Poppins, and when he did, finally, she hated the film, especially the animation. Really, what was she expecting from a Disney film? No animation? 

It is true that the novels are darker than the film. Not dark, so much, as that you will never see the book Mary Poppins dancing with chimney sweeps or singing to cute birdies. She arrives unexpectedly, leaves when she says she will and never, ever admits that any of the children's over-the-top adventures have actually happened. 

Someone has put up a YouTube video with snippets from the movie and scary music, suggesting that, looked at a certain way, the story of Mary Poppins can be nightmarish! 

I do recommend the film Saving Mr Banks, a Travers biopic with Emma Thompson, showing some of her early life in Australia, suggesting a relative might have inspired the Mary Poppins character, but mostly about the making of the film. During the end credits, you get to hear actual recordings of the author’s voice while she was in America, so don’t leave or switch off before they are finished. It’s a feel-good movie, though it doesn’t mention that her behaviour totally put Disney off making any more films in the series. It does tell you, correctly, that she wasn’t invited to the premiere, but went anyway. 

Shaun Tan says that adults and children alike can enjoy his work, and it’s true, we can. But again, we come back to things like Asterix, enjoyed by kids and their parents alike - children see one thing, adults another. 

Shaun comes from Western Australia, though he now lives in Melbourne. He has worked both as an illustrator and an author-illustrator. His first cover was for SF semiprozine Aurealis when he was only  sixteen! He has come a long way since then and won awards, including the Astrid Lindgren Award, the world’s biggest award for children’s literature, and, in Australia, the CBCA Award for Best Picture Book, in 2007. 

A number of his picture books have been dramatised. The animated film of The Lost Thing won him an Oscar.  It is a story which might just be “what I did on my holidays” except that the Lost Thing is a huge, red - thing. I’ll let Shaun Tan tell you about it himself. In fact, his web site tells you in great detail what he had in mind with each piece, so go and have a look and I’ll tell you instead about Shaun Tan and me. Such a nice man, by the way. The evening I had my book signed by him, he was looking at a portfolio of drawings by a young fan who was just ahead of me, and giving her his time despite the queue. They were very good; I may see her work in print some day. 

The most recent of his books I have is The Singing Bones, which I bought one evening at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and had him sign for me. In it, he tells snippets of fairy tales, but the most amazing aspect of it is that, instead of illustrations, he has created 75 clay figurines and photographed them. Here is one.

Hansel and Gretel

He has done some books with plenty of writing in them, such as Tales From Outer Suburbia, and illustrated the work of John Marsden, The Rabbits, an allegory about colonisation. He did the cover of Ford Street’s Rich And Rare anthology and a delightful short story in it. (I have a story in there too!)

But his book that resonated most with me had no words at all. It is The Arrival. I first saw bits of it at Swancon, the Western Australian annual science fiction convention, where Shaun did a presentation about it. I was enchanted! 

I bought it for my library because it was on the CBCA Shortlist for that year(it won). My school got some copies for the senior students because there was a lot to discuss in it. I remember my library technician and I “reading” it together when we bought it. It took us about an hour, quite a long time for a book that told its entire story without a single word of text. 

What is it about? It’s a story about immigration and being a refugee. A man flees a country where dreadful things are happening(dragons seem to be involved). He comes to another country, which could be anywhere, though again there are hints - a giant statue, and a hall inspired by the one at Ellis Island, though it may simply be because that’s what we think of when we think, “Immigration”. He settles in, meets fascinating people and adopts a pet which is no animal we know in this world and, eventually, brings his family out to join him. A beautiful, moving  story and not a word in it. In fact, it became a play, which I went to see, and that didn’t have a single word in it either, just music and sounds, and the way people looked and moved. Check out this Youtube video . There are more, but this will show you the books breathtaking art.

A wonderful Aussie children’s author! Go check out his web site(see above)and then buy his books from any book web site or your local bookstore. You won’t regret it. 

And here is the Amazon page for Mary Poppins, though you can also get it on iBooks and  buy from other sites. I bought the whole collection under one cover on iBooks.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A To Z Blogging Challenge: S Is For Seven Little Australians

Want to know about an Australian children’s book that has been around for over a hundred years and never been out of print? Actually, a hundred and fourteen years. In 1994, it was the only Australian book continuously in print for a century. It’s Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner. She wrote forty novels, including some sequels to Seven Little Australians and set up her own journal at the age of eighteen and wrote a children’s column for the newspapers, but this is the book that made her immortal. And she was only twenty-one when it was published, barely older than the young stepmother, Esther, in the novel, and had been writing and publishing since she was eighteen.  Her own family, before she left England at the age of six, was huge; her widowed mother married a much older man, who already had six children of his own. She had a baby, Rose, and there were nine children! When he died, Ethel’s mother took her own three children, Ethel and her two sisters, Lillian and Rose, and left for Australia, where she married again. Ethel was young when she came here, but she must have remembered what it was like to live with a big family like the one in Seven Little Australians. The original title, by the way, was Seven Pickles

So, what is the book about? The middle-class Woolcot family live in Sydney, in a home called Misrule. Dad is an army captain, a stiff man who doesn’t understand his children or get on with them. His second wife, sweet Esther, is only twenty, with a baby of her own and six mischievous stepchildren to cope with all by herself, because her husband isn’t doing it. 

The children are: Meg(16), who just wants romance and pretty things and can’t get them, Pip(14), who gets into mischief, Judy(13, real name Helen), the real heroine of the novel, who gets into trouble, both with Pip and all by herself, Nell(10), Bunty(6, real name John), Baby(4, real name Winifred) and Thomas, Esther’s child, who is known affectionately by his siblings as the General. 

All the children have their own personalities and the novel begins with an introductory description of the Woolcot children, warning the reader that if they think they’re going to get a story in which the kids are little angels with maybe a bit of mischief, they are going to be disappointed. These are Australian children! Things are different in the Antipodes. 

I think we all fell in love with the rebellious Judy. She got on the wrong side of her Dad, but was a good kid, really - and he deserved the cheekiness! 

When Judy goes too far, as far as her father is concerned, he sends her off to boarding school in the BlueMountains outside Sydney, which she hates enough to run away. She comes home, after her long journey, very sick and finally her father relents. The children go on a visit to Esther’s parents out in the bush to help her recover, and we are taken into another world. Esther’s parents have a farm. They have been through bad times as well as good, and suffered from attack by bushrangers when Esther was very young. They have Indigenous Australians working for them, and here it gets interesting. The author treats them with respect - and there is a passage in the first edition of the book that, for some reason, was cut until 1994. Esther’s father is telling the children a story told him by Tettawonga, one of his Indigenous workers who saved Esther and her mother from the bushrangers. While he is about it, he comments wryly about this happening before Tettawonga’s people were colonised by European settlers. Certainly we have had a lot of racism in this country, but why did it take a hundred years to put this passage back in? It was certainly unusual for the time, and in those days there was nobody to sneer at "political correctness". In fact, why not read this post by a descendant of the author, talking about this scene? 

I won’t tell you how it ends - spoilers! - but read it. If you want to give it to your children, it’s not too hard reading, though probably best for good readers. It doesn’t have the stiffness you expect from a lot of Victorian era books and you never forget this is happening in Australia. 

It has been dramatised a number of times, though the only one I have seen was the television version with Leonard Teale, a well-loved Aussie actor, as Captain Woolcot. 

If you want to see the original hand written manuscript, here it is, digitised by the State Library of NSW.  You can find this novel easily on line, including in Project Gutenberg. Go get it! 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A To Z Blogging Challenge 2018: R Is For Gillian Rubinstein

Gillian Rubinstein writes for children and teens. You may have heard of her under her pen name of Lian Hearn, under which she wrote the Japanese-themed Tales Of The Otori series. I do hope so - this British-born Aussie author’s YA series has sold four million copies!  

But back to that presently. 

I discovered her with a children’s book, Space Demons, which was the first of a trilogy, though, really, it worked perfectly well as a stand alone novel. We used the class set for Literature Circles, because it was very readable and had plenty of meat for discussion. The kids came up with some brilliant, scary and menacing book trailers as their creative responses. Here's the cover. That blonde boy looks uncannily like my nephew Mark when he was a teenager!

Space Demons is a computer game. A young boy, Andrew, receives a prototype copy from his father, who has been in Japan. He shares it with his friends. They discover that shooting a particular gun at a person will throw them into the terrifying world of the game, where the Space Demons lurk, but you really have to hate the other person while you’re scooting at them. When four children are stuck in the game together, they find they must co-operate to get out. 

It is, perhaps, a little out of date(published in 1986) when you consider how elaborate computer games are these days, but the themes still work and my students enjoyed it. 

She has done quite a lot of books, both for older readers and younger. Foxspell was set in South Australia, where the author lives, and involves shape changing fox spirits. Foxes are an introduced species in Australia, but that point wasn’t made in this book. I found it intriguing that the introduced-species olive trees you find in South Australia also had their spirits - Greek, of course! 

I have just realised that she was the author of a picture book which my nephew loved as a child and has read to his own children. It’s called Prue Theroux: The Cool Librarian, about an amazing teacher librarian who makes the kids wildly enthusiastic about reading. While she is absent for a while, her replacement makes the children really miss her! My nephew, Mark, has told his sons that I am Prue Theroux! Very flattered! But I have to admit that, unlike Prue, I don’t dress up as Xena for Book Week(I’d look awful!). All the same, Gillian Rubinstein, you may visit my library any time you like! 

Galax-Arena involves children who have been kidnapped, apparently to perform dangerous gymnastics for aliens. There is more to it than this, but I can’t say more, because spoilers! I see that there was a stage play version and there was going to be a film, but nothing seems to have happened yet. 

Tales Of The Otori, starting with Across The Nightingale Floor, followed by Grass For His Pillow and Brilliance Of The Moon, then two more novels published later, is a YA historical fantasy series, set in an alternative feudal Japan. You may have heard stories about the powers of the ninja in old Japan. Certainly, there were people in the days when ninja lived and worked in Japan who believed they had magical powers. What they really had was the kind of skills you can only get by being taught from childhood, as a member of your clan which specialises in them. You’d also need to be able to do a day job to help you as a sleeper agent. The “nightingale floor” of the title refers to squeaky floors set up in Japanese castles to give away anyone who tried sneaking across them to assassinate the lord - as if that would stop a determined ninja! 

So, this series asks, “What if ninja actually did have magical powers?” What a great idea! 

As she is so very prolific, I’m going to give you the link to her Wikipedia page, which lists them all, here: I gather she is still writing things Japanese, not surprising given how much research she did for Tales Of The Otori!

And here are her pages on Amazon, Booktopia and Book Depository. The Amazon page has both names under Gillian Rubinstein. I have chosen the Lian Hearn page for the other two because they don't have many books under her own name. Prue Theroux may be out of print, but worth checking out, even if you have to go to AbeBooks!

Buy and enjoy! 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A To Z Blogging Challenge: Q Is For Quest Of The Sunfish And Quentaris

Today’s post is about series titles rather than author names.  Q is for Quest of the Sunfish   and Quentaris Chronicles. 

Quest Of The Sunfish is a trilogy by Mardi McConnochie. It begins with Escape To The Moon Islands. It is set in a post climate-change future where the planet has become a water world, after efforts to fix the problem artificially went horribly wrong. 

Twins Will and Annalie live with their inventor father Spinner in a grubby part of town, although Annalie has been attending a boarding school for a while, so isn’t there when their father disappears suddenly, leaving them only with a parrot, Graham, who has a chip allowing him to think as well as talk, and a highly advanced boat, the Sunfish. Annalie has been visited in her boarding school by an agent of the ruling Admiralty, trying to find out where her father is. The twins, a schoolfriend of Annalie’s and a boy they find stranded on a rock at sea set off on a quest to find Spinner, followed by the Admiralty agent, who was once a colleague of Spinner in a team of scientists, now scattered and hidden. What they invented could cause disaster to the world - already has, in fact - but some vital bits of information are missing, and the Admiralty wants them. Wants Spinner...

 I have read and reviewed two of the trilogy, but not yet had the chance to read the final volume. However, the two I have read are thoroughly entertaining and exciting. It’s an old-style adventure with modern technology. The covers are very Enid Blyton in style, but thankfully the stories are missing the odious Julian(Famous Five) and the girls don’t have to want to be boys to be accepted as equal. Annalie’s schoolfriend does do the cooking, but mainly because at the time this is all she can contribute, as the twins have the skills to run the boat. In the second book, she does find another skill she can use. Graham the parrot is the closest we get to the dogs in Enid Blyton’s adventures. 

The Quentaris Chronicles are a shared world fantasy series for children published by Lothian, before it was taken over by Hachette, edited by Paul Collins and Michael Pryor. Alas, the series was scrapped after the takeover, though three more books were published by Ford Street Publishing, although these had the fantastical city of Quentaris whisked off into space Space 1999-style. I hate to say this, but I didn’t enjoy those as much as the originals, though the authors were excellent - the idea of Quentaris in space just didn’t appeal to me. I was very annoyed when the series ended, by the way, because I had just been commissioned to write a Quentaris novel and I had such a great idea for it! And hard as I tried, I just couldn’t fit it into my own universe, so, until I do think of a way, that novel will not be seeing the light of day. 

However, the good news is that you can still buy them, in ebook, audiobook and, if you’re quick, paperback, from  all the usual sites - Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository... 

So, what is Quentaris? It’s a city a bit like Renaissance Florence, ruled over by a man sort of like Terry Pratchett’s Patrician. Actually, there is something very Ankh-Morpork about Quentaris. There are guilds, though not, as far as I recall, an Assassin’s Guild. There are feuding upper class families. There is a woman, Storm, running the City Watch. She rides a big black stallion and has fun and games keeping the peace. The heroes and heroines of these books are usually kids who are apprentices or, in one case, a street sweeper. And there is a thing called the Rift, which can take you to and from other worlds, requiring guides(one of our young heroes is an apprentice in that profession). Pretty much anything can come out of that Rift, including leprechauns(Anna Ciddor’s Prisoner of Quentaris). 

The series was fun and light-hearted and written by some of Australia’s top children’s writers. Some of them have been mentioned in this A to Z series of post. Others included Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn series, Jenny Pausacker(now moved to England), Lucy Sussex(who created my favourite character, Storm the police chief), Sean McMullen(better known for his adult SF books, but a wonderful children’s writer as well)... 

It did well in my library, boys and girls alike enjoying it. If only it had lasted long enough for me to be a part of it...

Check out all of these on Amazon, Booktopia and Book Depository. Quest of the Sunfish is also available on the Allen and Unwin web site.

A To Z Blogging Challenge P is for Park, Phommavanh and Pryor

Today, four fabulous Aussie children’s writers, two of them with the surname Pryor! 

Ruth Park is not actually known as a children’s writer, but as the author of a lot of classic novels for adults, set in Sydney in the early twentieth century. However, there are some children’s books and two YA novels I’ve read with her name on them, both fantasy. My Sister Sif  involves two sisters living in Sydney, at boarding school. They aren’t quite human. They are sea people - pretty much mermaids, without the fish tails. It’s not as good as the next one I’m going to mention, but worth a read.

Playing Beatie Bow is a beautiful time-slip story you might enjoy if you like Kate Constable’s time-slip novels. It became a delightful film. 

Abigail is a girl living in Sydney with her mother. She can’t understand why her mother might be willing to take back the father who left them. And then she time travels, via a piece of lace she finds in the sewing basket of her neighbours. 

Her neighbours’ ancestors are a Scottish immigrant family living in the Rocks, a seaside area of Sydney that, nowadays, is populated by the well-off, but in the nineteenth century was very different, filled with all sorts of people, rich and poor alike. The Bows have a sweet shop. The father is a former soldier who has PTSD issues and needs constant looking after. Beatie Bow, whose name was used in a scary skipping rhyme, is the young daughter of the family who has herself been time travelling to modern Sydney. The grandmother has the Sight, and recognises Abigail as a prophesied one who will save a member of the family. And Abigail falls in love... When she returns to her own time, she has come to understand her mother better because of that. 

Oliver Phommavanh is a Thai Australian writer and performer. He started life as a primary teacher, so is able to understand what children enjoy. In fact, in his novel Thai-Riffic! the young hero’s whacky, over-the-top teacher is very much the author. I saw him performing at the State Library once and couldn’t stop laughing. 

Albert Leng is a Thai boy whose parents run the local Thai restaurant. He wants to eat Australian food, dammit, and be Aussie. Pizza, not Thai food. This multicultural business sucks! However, everyone else thinks  being Thai is cool, and loves his parents’ food. What’s a boy to do? There was a short story in Growing Up Asian In Australia in which the school orders Thai food from the restaurant for a school multicultural day and Albert makes sure it’s very hot and spicy in hopes that his friends will be put off. No such luck - everyone loved it! 

There are other novels about Albert, and other children, all funny. Oliver Phommavanh's books all did very well in my school library.

Boori Monty Pryor is an Indigenous Australian writer, the first Australian Children’s Laureate. He has one picture story book to his credit, Shake A Leg, (illustrated by Jan Ormerod)in which some boys get hungry on a hot summer night and go to a pizza parlour run by an Indigenous man who looks suspiciously like the author. The pizzas are unusual shapes, connected to Australian myths and legends. The shop owner tells them stories and there is a lot of dancing. A beautiful, joyous book! It won a well-deserved Prime Minister’s Literary Award. 

His novels are co-written with Meme McDonald. They are My Girragundji, The Binna Binna Man, Njunjul The Sun, Flytrap, plus an autobiography, Maybe Tomorrow. I’ve read them all except for Flytrap, but that sounds like it might be enjoyable. The first three are different times in the life of a young Indigenous boy. As he grows up, the books change from children’s to YA. The first one is about a boy and his frog spirit. It is funny and charming. The Binna Binna Man has the family driving to a funeral. Sad as the funeral might be, the story is not without gentle humour - and the authors sneak themselves into the story as characters! 

In Njunjul The Sun, Mr Pryor also appears as a character. The young hero is sent to stay with his wise and likeable uncle in Sydney after having a run-in with racist police. His family feel that he will heal from his stress with some time away. The uncle, like Boori Monty Pryor himself, makes his living through school visits and working with children to help them understand Indigenous culture better. He performs for them, with music and dance, and takes his nephew along, to heal... Even in this story there is gentle humour, as in all his books. 

My final Aussie children’s writer for today is Michael Pryor. Michael is the author of around twenty-five speculative fiction novels for children and teens. The most recent one, which I’m reading now, is Gap Year In Ghost Town, set in Melbourne, where the author lives. So far, very funny! And that’s the thing about Michael Pryor - he’s funny! The last book of his I read was Machine Wars, a hilarious novel about a boy on the run from a web-based being that has become self-aware after some work by his vanished scientist mother. It reminded me of the Jon Pertwee Dr Who story “Terror Of The Autons”. In those days, the most common thing was plastic and there was a character who was swallowed up by an armchair! In this era, what’s the most common thing? The internet. Pretty much everything has internet connections, so our hero is pursued by everything from a photocopier to a pool cleaner. That one was a stand-alone book. Mostly, he writes series.

My favourite Michael Pryor series was the delightful YA steampunk “Laws of Magic”. These six novels are set in an alternative  universe Edwardian era, where you can study magic at school, there is a Sorcerer Royal and women may not have the vote yet, but they can be scientists, artists and many other things they had trouble doing in our world. The female characters in this series are all strong, including Aubrey’s mother and grandmother. The hero, Aubrey Fitzwilliam, and his two friends,  sensible George and kick-ass Caroline, are working hard to prevent the Great War(World War I) which is being set up by the villain so he can use the energy from all those deaths for his power. In one of the novels, our heroes are fighting dinosaurs in Paris! (Paris is Lutetia in this universe) Oh, and Aubrey, a brilliant magic practitioner, is dead. Technically, anyway. He played around with death magic before the first novel began, while at school, and as a result is having to literally hold body and soul together till the problem can be sorted out. 

How can you resist a book that begins “Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead. It made things much harder than they needed to be”?

Any P authors I have missed? 

With four authors on this list I will leave you to look up where to buy their books. They are all available on Amazon, Booktopia and Book Depository on the authors' name pages - go check them out! 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A To Z Blogging Challenge: O is for Wendy Orr

Today's Aussie children's writer is the wonderful Wendy Orr!

Okay, Wendy Orr is Canadian. However, she has lived here for a very long time, since she was twenty-one, and long enough to have spent twenty years raising dairy cattle with her husband here, so I’m going to consider her an Aussie. 

Wendy Orr has written a lot of books for children, but is probably best known for her middle grade Nim novels, two of which have been made into Hollywood movies. 

In Nim’s Island, the heroine is a girl who lives on a peaceful island with her scientist father and some animal friends, using a satellite dish for her internet connection. When her father disappears on his boat, Nim must get help. She contacts her friend Alex Rover, a travel writer. In the next book, Nim At Sea, the problems begin with a tourist ship... The two films were not quite like the books,  but were good fun anyway. The travel writer, played by Jodie Foster,  became the author of Indiana Jones-style adventures, in which the hero was played by the same actor who played as Nim’s father. And she was agoraphobic, so travelling to help Nim was terrifying to her. 

Read the books or watch the films - you’ll enjoy both. Or buy them for your middle grade children. They will certainly enjoy them! 

I remember finding the Nim books quite a change from her first book, a YA novel called Peeling The Onion, which was published in 1996. I think I read that when it came out because it was on the CBCA shortlist in the Older Readers category. It was about a girl who had been an athlete and found herself badly crippled after an accident, learning to deal with the fact that she would never walk again, let alone compete in athletics. I liked Peeling The Onion, but have liked her later books better. However, I see it has won or been shortlisted for quite a few awards. 

And just as I was getting used to her quirky stuff, she went and wrote Dragonfly Song, a beautiful novel set in the Minoan era, in which a girl who is suffering from elective mutism becomes a bull dancer in Crete. It moves between prose and verse, strange but beautiful anyway. I won’t go into too much detail now, because I have interviewed the author. Check it out here

However, it was an Honour Book in the CBCA shortlist(Younger Readers) and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature, plus being shortlisted for several other awards - deservedly so. 

I’ve only recently discovered something else while rereading Trust Me Too!, a Ford Street anthology in which I too had a story: there was a story in it, “The Snake Singer”, which must have been the basis for this one. It has a heroine, Aysha ,who, like Aissa of Dragonfly Song, doesn’t realise she can “sing” snakes until she has to do it. There are other bits of this story that make it feel like a basic outline for the novel. 

Wendy Orr returns to the Minoan era - post Thera explosion - in her next book, Swallow’s Dance, but it won’t be out till June, dammit! 

I’m keeping an eye out for it - what about you?