Kookaburra Flies

I wrote the first complete draft of Kookaburra in late 2017, but not before I had delved deep into kookaburra physical, social, environmental information.

I learned about their amazing monocular and binocular vision.

I learned that females are just a little heavier than males, which is related to the energy required to produce eggs.

I learned that adolescent kookas can be quite clumsy in a nest.

I learned the reason fledgling kooka feathers remain sheathed until the last possible moment.

None of that makes it explicitly into this dual narrative, narrative non fiction picture book. But I need to know all of this to before I can begin to write. These facts support my story as surely as foundations stop houses falling down. Invisible but essential.

photo Barb Wilkins

Tannya Harricks has again taken my words and added her special palette of magic to give life and colour to Kookaburra. Her work sings.

Kookaburra is a new title in the Nature Storybook series from Walker Books Australia. I am ever grateful to Walker for helping me share our wonderful Australian animals with readers around the world.

The first sighting of the actual book is always very exciting. In book evolution terms, nearly three years is not so very long, but it does feel it.

Welcome, Kookaburra. (cue kooka-song)

Release date 1 August 2020

Stories are everywhere

We went to the beach today, for tomorrow we lock down again for six weeks. Point Cook Coastal Reserve has a long shallow beach front that stretches for many kilometres. The sky was blue, the tide was low, the seagulls were dancing in the water margins.

Wait, what?

Yup, the seagulls were dancing. Advancing to the very margins of water/sand and doing a quick two-step patterpatterpatter, then pouncing on whatever they disturbed. If the numbers there and the squawking is anything to go by, it was the equivalent of an easter egg hunt. They were exuberant!

But that’s not the story I started to tell …

Further along the beach we wandered from the sand to the gardens of the Point Cook Homestead. This was a beach house for the Chirnsides of Werribee Mansion. It would have been so much cooler in summer to be right there on the beach. We wandered around the garden and outside the house and other buildings. There we encountered a grandfather and his grandson.

Grandfather had lived in the area all his life. His grandson had clearly met this man before, and was calming sitting waiting for him to finish his tale, his chatter. It took a while, so after a few minutes I wandered over to the boy.

‘There’re some shoes in the tree,’ he told me.

So there were. I asked him who he thought they belonged to, but that was too big a question so I started again.

‘How old was the owner of the shoes?’

At first he shrugged. Then I guesstimated with my fingers and set them close to his shoes.

‘Mine are bigger,’ he said.

‘A bit,’ I agreed. ‘How old are you?’

‘Six.’

‘Do you think the owner might have been five?’

He nodded enthusiastically. ‘Yes.’

And so began our storymaking. We decided that the boy’s shoes had become wet while playing at the beach and his teacher had hung them in a tree to dry while they lunched at a nearby table. They had then forgotten them when they left.

Story done.

But then, as grandfather kept chatting, we investigated some other storylines. Could they have been blown into the tree? Could they have been there for fifty years? We examined each scenario in detail. There would have had to have been a hurricane to blow the shoes so high and that was unlikely. The style of shoe suggested they were less than fifty years old, but the wear patterns suggested they weren’t brand new. We agreed that the fading colours of the uppers could be misleading.

We then started to wonder at a set of gates that stood alone in the middle of the grass. We found the road that used to lead to the gate, and another that now bypassed it. We decided that perhaps it was a horse paddock for the horses that then slept in the stables nearby.

Then grandfather called him and he was gone. Apparently grandfather brings him to a nearby forest too – just beyond the homestead.

A forest! That’s where we’ll be heading next time.

Aussie Stem Stars – TA-DA!

How do you catch a star and pin it down?

Or rather, pin HER down.

That’s been my challenge for this recent project with Wild Dingo Press in a new series called Aussie STEM Stars. Georgia Ward-Fear is a wildlife warrior, a reptile biologist, conservation ecologist, a goanna wrangler, a traveller, a conservationist, an adventurer, an educator, a scientist, a Superstar of STEM (the integrated study of science, technology, engineering and maths).

Georgia lives in Tasmania, works in the Kimberley, has family in NSW and Queensland, speaks at conferences around the world. It was never possible to know just where she might be when she read my emails, or answered a phonecall. It may be true that her mother used to call her Mistress Mayhem, and that the name may still fit …

Georgia’s story is one of three titles in this new series from Wild Dingo Press. Dianne Wolfer has written the story of Munjed Al Muderis, surgical inventor. Cristy Burne tells Fiona Wood’s story. Hop on over to Cristy’s and to Dianne’s website for more about these talented writers. Each title offers the opportunity to get to know a scientist, including how they came to be leaders in their respective worlds. All three are set for release on Sep 1.

Georgia’s PhD involved teaching goannas to avoid eating cane toads. But you don’t just wake up one morning as a child and decide that you’re going to try to save goannas from toxic toads. How did she get there? What was she like as a child? Who helped her along the way? Why did she make the decisions she did? Did she get everything right always?

The Aussie STEM Stars series is written for 10- 13 year olds. It does show young people some potential pathways into STEM careers by detailing the journeys of three inspiring scientists. But first and foremost, each story is intended to be a great read about fascinating individuals. Settle down and dive in. Why not collect all three?

Out September 1, 2020.

Portable Magic

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to be interviewed by friend and fellow writer, Sue Lawson. Now, Ms L has had a diverse and varied career in addition to writing, and one of those was as a radio interviewer. And she’s really good at it! It’s just like having a chat, even when it’s via Zoom.

Today, Sue posted our interview here. In it we journey back to where it all began for me, and I may or may not reveal gross habits of some of our most iconic Aussie animals.

Sue is building up a collection of interviews with people in the book world, and the interviews cover various topics, but are all fascinating. You can subscribe to Portable Magic, and never miss an interview.

Formerly Nee

A little while ago I was asked to play with clay, an invitation to contribute to an exhibition about female antecedents and how their lives were affected by the roles they were expected to play.

There is also a video and a poem.

The project is the brainchild of Jacqui Gordon, a local Melbourne visual artist. It has been Covid-shaped, and is now totally online. Participants range from historic to contemporary, the emotions range widely, wildly. Their work, their interpretations, their words are fascinating.

You can view the exhibition here

A very coolish draft

I love taking pictures, particularly of gum flowers and gumnuts. There are so many different shapes, sizes and colours. Even on the same tree there can be different shapes and sizes, like the gumnuts here. I have no idea whether there are male and female, or why the smaller ones have longer stems.

But, you guessed it, I’m going to link this pic to storywriting. In the time directly after submitting a ms, I come up with a million brilliant story ideas. Hilarious, that one! Fascinating. Compelling. But for all sorts of reasons, unknown to me, the vast majority of these ideas fail to bloom. (watch out, there could be more of these … )

There are so many stories, but they float through the air like a wisp of fragrance half-smelt or appear and disappear before I can make out the form they might have. It’s frustrating, no, downright annoying sometimes.

Perhaps it’s part of the writing process. A percentage game. Yano, 50 ideas for one first draft or something?

So here’s the connection to the title.

Ideas are wonderful. Awesome. Fabulous.

But they alone, do not a story make.

A story needs an idea explored, ripened, extended, flipped, ripped apart and more.

And right now, I think I’ve finally hit upon a very coolish first draft. Which is a rubbish draft, but enough of an idea to get my teeth into.

That’s a very big PHEW! from me.

Over and out. Time to warm up.

Filling the Well

Writing can drain your brain. Well, it certainly can drain mine. I try to keep topping up during a project, but when I’ve handed in a project, or finished editing I find that it’s helpful to consciously refill the well. That means walking and really looking at what happens around me. Whenever I find myself worrying that I’ll never have another workable idea, I look intentionally. It’s one of the reasons I take photos. I want to look at the everyday, the otherwise invisible and see just how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Or what we take for granted.

Okay, this set of stepping stones is never ordinary. I just love the way they seem to float in the 3m water. They’re rock solid (see what I did there?) and big enough for giants.

Sometimes there’s too much noise, too much to look at, to be able to see anything. It’s just the same in story. Too much detail can swamp a story, and I find it useful to really think about how much of a story is enough. What is left out or taken out is as important as what is left in. Rather than crop this photo, I framed it with the tree. The picture is within the picture. Inside the frame is more important for this image than what’s outside. For this picture. This story.

Autumn has offered us the most amazing sunsets this year. This wasn’t the best picture I took, but it’s the one that really sets the cars on fire and that was interesting to me. I’m not sure why, but it just was.

In this in-between-story-well-filling time, I had the chance to be part of an art project. Each participant was given some clay and some pigment powder. The idea was to represent their grandmother/s or a significant female in their life. The results, a photo of the clay and the explanation for the piece will be part of an online exhibition through Kingston Council. I used some handmade lace from my one of my grandmothers (representing the finework she made, and the strength inherent in the delicate frame) and strong seams from my other grandmother (who made suits and could be very direct).

I’m not quite sure why I like this picture, and perhaps it would be a face if I rotated it, but the knots look like they are pupils in the middle of crusty eyes – perhaps a monster, perhaps just a reminder of how trees work when they lose branches.

I take pictures sometimes only discovering afterwards just how marvellous things are. Look at these ants! I didn’t even see them when I framed the shot, but I think they’re quite happy not to be noticed. I’d been entranced by the curling, the unfurling, the flame colours. The ants are a bonus.

I often write at the junction between fiction and non fiction. My inspiration comes from reality and the spinoffs it allows me.

And at the end of the well-filling, I’m looking forward to starting a new project. It’s nothing to do with stepping stones, trees, sunsets or flowers, but it’s inspired by them all.

Ta-da! Dingo and Kookaburra

That sounds like the title of a book, don’t you think? Perhaps I need to write it, but in the meantime, it’s actually about two books.

dingo                   kookaburra

Dingo will be released in paperback with a gorgeous new cover on June 1 and Kookaburra, also illustrated by Tannya Harricks will be released on 1 August. Because of the virus that has already had too many mentions, there are no teacher or librarian conferences to showcase new titles and Walker Books have been gathering videos from authors and illustrators with upcoming titles. Take a look here to see who’s been doing what and how fabulous their work is. My video is here.

Another visitor! It’s Beyond Belief

It may not be ideal to launch a new novel in the middle of a pandemic, but there are worse things. Like being a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Paris in WWII. Dee White’s new middle-grade novel, ‘Beyond Belief’ introduces us to Ruben, who is living that troubled life.

So, I invited Dee to come along and answer some questions about the writing of ‘Beyond Belief’. But because it’s my blog, I get to tell you a bit first. 🙂

beyond-belief.jpg

In Paris, 1942, 11 year-old Ruben is hiding from the Nazis inside the Grand Mosque in Paris. His parents have fled south to Spain, but it’s too dangerous for a child like him to travel with them. For now, Ruben must abandon his Jewish heritage and take on a new identity. He must learn to be Muslim while he waits for someone called ‘the Fox’ to fetch him and take him to his parents and his sister. But it’s taking too long. Each day, life becomes more dangerous for him and for the community hiding him. When the Nazis raid the mosque yet again, Ruben can no longer wait for the Fox to arrive. He flees Paris, determined to find his family.

There are many, many novels written about WWII, but ‘Beyond Belief’ tells a less-familiar story. Based on a true story, Dee White constructs a compelling narrative about good people resisting and fighting evil. Though their faiths might be considered very different, the people of this Muslim community put their own lives in danger in the protection of Jewish children. This is a story of secrets and dangers, of sacrifice and kindness. Ruben moves from childhood innocence to adolescent understanding, from the safe world of his immediate family, to a larger global family determined to help those who need it and to do the right thing. ‘Beyond Belief’ is a captivating story about compassion and bravery. Published by Omnibus Books

Okay, now it’s Dee’s turn.

Welcome Dee.

This is not a story that is well known, or perhaps it is more accurate to say I’d never heard about this story. How did this story find you? What was the impetus and/or entry point?

I was working on a middle grade historical adventure called Paris Hunting (still a work in progress) and was doing WW2 research and I stumbled across the story of Muslims at a Paris Mosque who saved Jewish people during and after the Vel D’hiv roundup in July 1942. It was such a fascinating and inspiring story and I had to tell it. During my research I discovered a number of instances where Muslims had saved Jews during the Holocaust. I was very moved by these stories of people helping people regardless of race or background.

Once I’d found the premise, I needed a character. My father had escaped Nazi occupied Austria with his parents and we had talked often about his WW2 experiences so this could be why Ruben appeared as a boy in my mind, and claimed this as his story.

Apart from Ruben, who is your favourite character and why?

That’s a tricky question, like asking a parent to name their favourite child. All the characters are special in their own way and they became like family as I was writing their story. But I must admit that Amra holds a special place in my heart. She’s a lot like me at twelve. She’s clumsy and exuberant, a bit like a bull at a gate sometimes. But she’s clever and courageous and I love her sense of humour.

You spent a month in Paris researching ‘Beyond Belief’. Can you talk a little about the research process for this story – both in Paris and at home? 

The month in Paris was amazing. I walked in Ruben’s shoes. I spent three days at the mosque but I didn’t speak French or Arabic so although I could immerse myself in the atmosphere and tapestry of the mosque, I wasn’t able to talk to the people there about the history. Then I went on a tour of the Paris sewers and was given an amazing interpreter, Laetitia who happened to be Muslim and also spoke Arabic. She was fabulous. She helped me to verify the historical authenticity of the story.  She also knew a Rabbin so was able to get me into a synagogue. But it was very opulent and not at all like I’d imagined Ruben’s synagogue. In my last week in Paris an orthodox Jewish man came up to me and asked if I was Jewish. I explained to him that my grandparents were married in a synagogue but I hadn’t been raised in the Jewish faith. He showed me his synagogue, ‘the 17’, the oldest one in Paris and as soon as I walked in there I knew that this was Ruben’s synagogue.

I also did a lot of research online and connected with a group called, I am your protector who share stories of people who have saved or been saved by someone who would have been a ‘traditional enemy’ and it has completely changed their attitude towards that race.

I found this myself … that stories like these can really change people’s thinking. I spent some time at the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne and they were very helpful and interested in the story I was writing. They connected me with two Paris Holocaust survivors, Esther Wise and Paul Grimwald who spoke to me about what it was like to be a Jew in Paris in 1942. They both read my manuscript for cultural and historical accuracy and provided some important details. At first, Esther couldn’t believe that Muslims would have helped Jews, but my story completely changed her thinking.

Does research stop when writing begins? What sort of planning/drafting process did you follow? 

No, I don’t think the research ever stops until the novel is written. You constantly have to find things out, and check and recheck details. For instance, I had to find out what vegetables would have been grown at the mosque in summer and autumn of 1942. I needed to know when Ramadan was and Rosh Hashanah. I needed to make sure that Ruben’s escape from Paris was plausible in the weather conditions of the time.  I needed to find out which way the Seine flowed and where the sewers went under it. Every part of the journey for my characters involved more research. But I loved immersing myself in it.

Once I discovered the historical story of the Muslims saving the Jews, I had to create a character to ‘tell’ that story. Ruben is purely ficttitous, but was inspired by a number of people in my life. I think his story was inspired by my father, but his personality is a combination of my eldest brother and my two sons.  This was a very emotional book to write. Some of the research was heartbreaking. At the Shoah Memorial in Paris and at the Holocaust Centre in New York which I visited, the magnitude of what was done to these people is overwhelming. And to see photos of young children who were taken to concentration camps is heartbreaking. I wanted to capture this innocence and vulnerability with my character, Ruben.

The historical story came first and then the character, Ruben and then I planned his story, but only in general terms. I think I knew how it would end quite early on, but how Ruben got to that point did change a little. Some things changed as a result of new information I uncovered during the research process. Other things changed because of the actions of the characters and how they responded to what was happening to them.

Rosa, Ruben’s sister is based on an actual historical figure so her journey didn’t change a lot.

Once I had a rough plan, I just sat down and wrote … and rewrote. There were probably about ten drafts of the story. I got it to a certain point, with all the essential elements and then my fabulous editor, Kristy Bushnell helped me shape it into the finished book.

How is writing historical fiction different to writing contemporary fiction like ‘Letters to Leonardo’?

To be honest, I don’t think it was that different. Letters to Leonardo involved a huge amount of research as well because I wanted to accurately represent the mental illness suffered by Matt’s mother and the consequences of it. I also did heaps of research into the works of Leonardo da Vinci so that I could incorporate them in my story. I guess that’s how I write though. I love to do in depth research and hang my story on the gems that I uncover.

How long from idea to book?

Four years. The idea came to me in 2016.

Who do you think is the ideal audience for ‘Beyond Belief’

Booksellers are shelving it as a 12 + book. It’s something that could be read and discussed as a class novel or at home. But adults are really liking it too, which is fantastic! One adult reader wrote to me and said, “I loved the book: despite the suffering and loss experienced by the children, there was such courage and an underlying spirituality and wisdom passed on to them by their parents and the Muslim community. This imbued them with amazing strength.”

I didn’t really think about the age of my readers when I was writing Beyond Belief. I just wanted to create something that might change the way people think and make them question their own preconceptions.

Thanks for stopping by, Dee. I wish you the best with getting ‘Beyond Belief’ into the hands of many readers.

For more about Dee and her work, pop over to her website. To purchase her books, contact your favourite independent bookseller, or mine. 

 

No Small Shame

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‘From the harshness of a pit village in Scotland to the upheaval of wartime, No Small Shame tells a moving story of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.’

In ‘No Small Shame’ Mary travels from Scotland to Australia as the world moves towards war. She travels from childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood, compelled and not always supported by family. Dreams are such tricky things to keep hold of.

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I was really looking forward to attending the launch of this book, but of course it was unable to proceed as expected. I’ve known the author, Chris, for a long time, and this launch has been a long time coming. I really wanted to be able to celebrate this achievement.

Undaunted (or perhaps daunted but even more determined), the launch was transferred online. And it was a brilliant launch, with launcher and author in their own homes, and questions typed in and then answered live.

I ordered ‘No Small Shame’ from my local bookseller once it became clear I wouldn’t be able to get it at the launch. I held off reading it until after the launch because I wanted to hear Chris talk about it first.

And then I held off again. I couldn’t articulate why, but I’ve heard from other bookish types that they too have not been reading at their usual rate during this pandemic.

And then I began. And continued, with only meal and sleep stops, until the last few chapters. I slowed down, because I was so invested in the lives of Mary, Liam and Maw. I knew what I thought was going to happen, and I was terrified it might not. Suddenly, I found I had time to make that really simple apple cake/slice that’s doing the FB rounds. I cleared another cupboard. I had checked to see where the story ended (and acknowledgements began) to make sure I didn’t arrive unexpectedly.

Finally though, I needed to read those last chapters and close the book. Enormous congratulations, Chris, for showing the same determination and tenacity as Mary. It’s a wonderful story, full of timeless struggles between love and loss, bravery and responsibity. Thank you.