Back from the Brink

Eastern Barred Bandicoot

About 12 or 13 years ago, I worked on a local council election as an electoral worker, counting and recounting votes. It’s a mostly casual workforce and the workers come from all walks of life. There’s a wide variety of ages and backgrounds and it can be fascinating to hear the stories people bring with them (it’s often a very long day).

On this day, one of the people I met was a doctoral candidate, who was working with Eastern barred bandicoots (EBB), a species on the brink of extinction on mainland Australia. She was working in a variety of places around western Victoria including a fenced site south west of Melbourne. There she was tagging and tracking these delightful little characters. As they are nocturnal, the data collection took place between sunset and sunrise. I was lucky enough to be able to join the research program on two occasions as a volunteer, night time tracking. This involved big torches, portable antennae and radio receivers. Also cross-country tramping in the dark.

I was fascinated both by the EBB and also by the people and processes involved in trying to understand this species and establish programs that might help them survive.

I pitched the project to several different publishers in different forms, and although there was interest, none of these projects ever eventuated. It was this project though that opened up the opportunity to submit to Walker Books Aus Nature Storybook (NSB) series. Big Red Kangaroo was my first NSB title and Great White Shark is my most recent.

I was very pleased to read in the Age recently that the EBB’s status has been downgraded from threatened to endangered. This shy little marsupial used to be found widely throughout the plains west of Melbourne. With the help of scientists and volunteers there are now several populations established in places safe from predators.

You may never see an eastern barred bandicoot in the wild, but it’s fabulous to know that they are out there, living their quiet life, thanks to science and scientists. Bravo!

A new page

This is the scariest thing in a writer’s life. A blank page.

Or is that just me?

I have many a beautiful notebook that remains in pristine state, because I’m too scared to make a mark on a page. I’m much better with exercise books, where tearing out a page because what’s on it is rubbish is a much more realistic prospect.

Who am I kidding. I don t throw out any pages! There may be a gem there that may not show its brilliance for years, yet while I have the notebook, the possibility is there.

Today, I’m beginning a new project and have a new exercise book. And I’ve passed the blank page stage and have started scribbling. The story that emerges may be wildly different to the one that begins here, but at least it’s begun.

That’s the scary bit done, Right?

Great White Shark is in the house … ahem … ocean

In the depths of a deep Melbourne winter, a book was released. Great White Shark (GWS), beautifully illustrated by debut illustrator but painter extraordinaire, Cindy Lane, and published by Walker Books Australia, is part of the Nature Storybook series. GWS is the story of an individual shark as she journeys the ocean.

Great whites terrify many people, and the 70s film Jaws has a lot to do with that. The reality is that sharks are at much higher risk of death from humans than the other way round. Yes, they are big and have perhaps more teeth than seems necessary (although of course they are necessary) but the chances of encountering one in the wild is very low and getting lower. They are fascinating creatures, from their ability to navigate accurately across oceans, to the way they use only 10 % of their muscle mass in cruising. Hopefully, books like this one will help people to see the wonder and understand the importance of sharks.

I have folders – both virtual and physical – full of fascinating GWS information that would not fit into this book. But that research is far from wasted. It peppers every presentation (my family might say ‘every conversation’) I share with young people. ‘Did you know … ‘ is a frequent sentence opening!

It’s not ideal to release a new book into lockdown, but books are not just for a minute, and sharks have been in our oceans for millions of years, so there will be time, hopefully not too far away, when I can shark talk.

For now, I’m very grateful for the support of the interweb, teachers, librarians and booksellers in sharing GWS. I work at The Younger Sun in Yarraville and I’m particularly grateful for their support. It was so lovely to see GWS in the window, swimming with some other sharks.

Window to another world

When clearing out a family home before lockdown, we discovered many, many interesting things. There were some old children’s books, some wonderful woodworking tools, a wooden wheelbarrow (constructed using some of those wonderful woodworking tools) and three diaries.

The oldest of these was from the 1880s and written in Flemish. We’re still working out how we can get this one translated.

The next one was written in the early years of WWI, by my teenaged great-uncle, a refugee from Brussels living temporarily in England, within walking distance of Harefield, Australia’s hospital base.

The third begins in January 1917 in French and then halfway through, in late 1918, switches to English, includes a (very brief) mention of Armistice Day and continues through to the end of February 1922 when he arrives in Australia.

I’ve discovered a biscuit company that was once the biggest manufacturer of biscuits in teh world, and learned that opera houses were sometimes given over to showings of ‘the pictures’. I’ve discovered that recovering soldiers were grateful for the company of a teenager and his sisters in a ‘normal’ home.

The diary is mostly written with a dip pen, although there are later sections in pencil. There are a couple of images – which I think are copies of political cartoons. The handwriting is beautiful but sometimes hard to decipher. It’s hard to know whether that’s because English is not his native language, and certainly there are some spelling, punctuation and grammar oddities, but sometimes the change in handwriting is showing his emotions. In the sample above, he has just been given approval from his father to travel to Australia and the writing is excited and very easy to read. At other times, when he is sad, or grumpy, the words gallop or fall across the page with letters omitted, capitals dropped and punctuation almost non-existent.

There are sections where it’s clear he feels compelled to write something, anything, and others where he waxes lyrical and includes poetry. There are also times it feels a little uncomfortable to be reading his written-down thoughts.

I never met this great-uncle, although I met his three children in their later lives. I know stories of his later life via them and via my father, his nephew. All my knowledge of him has been filtered through others. This is something quite different.

He was brother to my lovely grandmother, and friend to my soldier grandfather. Through his words, I meet my grandparents as they meet and get to know each other. Ahead in the pages, is the story of their marriage. It’s quite a lot to take in, really. So I’m taking it slowly.

Great White Shark

Books, as I may have mentioned in the past, take a long time to take form. There are so many people involved, there are so many elements to consider. But it’s so fabulous when they finally get here. I have just received the rest of my author copies of Great White Shark and that means there is stock in the warehouse, ready to ship. Official release day is 14 August which is less than a month from today.

I can’t wait to share this book with readers. Cindy Lane‘s art is fabulous, beautiful and evocative. Our oceans are so magnificent and so important for we land-dwellers. Every ocean animal plays a role from the tiniest zooplankton to the enormous whales. Sharks are vitally important to the health of our oceans, and in the shark world, Great White Shark is the apex predator.

Sharks are awe-inspiring animals and endlessly fascinating. Did you know that great white sharks have roamed our oceans for many millions of years and their shape has changed very little.

Great White Shark is a new title in the Nature Storybook series from Walker Books Australia. You can see more titles in this series here

Mina and the Whole Wide World

Verse novels are having a bit of a moment and it’s lovely to see. I’ve long been a fan of this story form and of Sherryl Clark’s work. Poetry is often seen as a complex form, inaccessible to all but those who have the right decoding tools. While it is true that there traditional poetry can require some understanding of the tools to get the most from it, much of contemporary poetry is much simpler to read, much simpler to gain meaning from. It is no less skilled in the writing, but much easier to read. As with all writing, it’s the right words in the right order, and in the case of verse novels, its the right line breaks that make great stories.

‘Mina and the Whole Wide World’ introduces Mina who is super-excited about moving from the room she shares with her pesky younger brother into a room of her own. In her own room, she can keep her treasures safe from Georgie, she can dream about the world she will explore. Then Mum and Dad tell her that Azzami is coming to stay for a while – in her new room. And then they tell her that she is to watch out for him at school. Injustice upon injustice. And it’s not as if Azzami is helping at all – he hardly says a word. Slowly, Mina discovers Azzami’s story and her resentment melts away.

A wonderfully warm and empathetic story about family and refugees. ‘Mina and the Whole Wide World‘ with illustratons by Briony Stewart and published by UQP is perfect for newly independent readers.

Happy World Oceans Day!

How wonderful are our oceans? From the beach to the rock pools to the deep dark trenches, there is so much to love, so much to wonder at. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that the ocean has been a feature of many of my books.

It’s also appropriate that this is the day that another ocean-connected book advance copy arrived in my letterbox. Great White Shark (Nature Storybook), illustrated by Cindy Lane, published by Walker Books Australia, is an introduction to the wonder of sharks in general and this one in particular. It’s also a reminder why we should be less scared and more in awe of these wonderful creatures. Out August 4, 2021.

Iceberg was released in February and is set entirely at sea. Treasure! released in April, is set in a lighthouse surrounded by sea.

Here are some more of my ocean-connected books:

A Clean Desk

… well, to be perfectly honest … a clean-ER desk.

… but nowhere near as clean as this one.

I’ve just submitted a picture book manuscript and now the waiting begins. This story nearly killed me! Dramatic? A touch, perhaps, but I found it very difficult to find the voice, the starting point and the ending. What DID I have? I had the ‘colour’. I had a single image that encapsulated the world I wanted to write about, but I really struggled to find my way in.

I read books. I watched videos. I researched online. But like a bubble of mercury, the idea kept slipping away from me, while also enticing me with shiny ‘what ifs?’.

I drafted. Redrafted. And so on. I think I had done ten complete drafts (well when I say complete, I mean not-quite-complete-but-exhausted-partials) when I decided to put the project away for a few days. I was not going to think about it. La-la-la fingers-in-ears not listening/thinking/trying. I was even beginning to entertain the idea that I should abandon this project altogether, even though I desparately wanted to do it.

And it worked.

Once I let it go, and stepped away, I found my answers. I found my voice. I won’t say the writing was easy from then on, but progress was steady and now it’s done. It’s out of my hands both literally and figuratively.

Hence the cleaner desk.

Now to decide which of the projects that were waiting in the wings to spend time with. Whichever way I go, I know my desk will soon return to its much more familiar messy state. And that’s okay. When I’m in the middle of a project, peripheral mess is somehow invisible.

That’s my excuse anyway.

Treasure!

Pirates and octopuses, parrots, hats and boats. Families and more pirates.

Today, I did a reading of Treasure in the beautiful Williamstown Botanic Gardens courtesy of their fabulous Friends group. There are so many corners and little nooks in these gardens that we were able to set up in the least windy spot. This is not to say that the wind didn’t find its way down paths and through garden beds, but it mostly waited until the end of my session.

Participants were encouraged to turn up dressed as pirates and that they did, one with a hook hand and another with both a parrot and an octopus! Such riches! We speculated what a pirate might look like and a few hardy souls donned jacket, stripy trews that I’d brought with me.

After the reading, we made hats and then, using the simple magic of paper folding, turned them into boats.

I told two new pirate jokes and I collected a few more.

Sail on Treasure!