Let the games begin!

No, no, no, not those games! The Kill Your Darlings Great Aussie YA Championship has begun!

I mentioned the Championship a few days ago, and now the list of 11 great YA books from the past 30 years has been announced. The posts will begin on Monday, and you can vote for your favourite of the contributor’s books (pick me! pick me!) plus they will also be running a people’s choice competition, where you can vote for whatever book you like.

As you will see from the list, I chose to write about Joanne Horniman‘s 1997 novel Loving Athena. I have been a fan of Joanne’s novels forever, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to revisit this gorgeous book. I’m not sure when my post will be up, but you can RSS feed the Killings blog, or subscribe to their mailing list for updates.

And while you’re at the blog, check out the recent post What does YA mean to you? A discussion about definition. And don’t forget to leave a comment and contribute to this question, and the whole Championship discussion!

Finding readers finding books

I met a young woman today—a girl, really, a young teenager—who I’ll call Jessica. I was at the Mount Druitt Hub for a work event—we had an author talk and book launch with Ambelin Kwaymullina, and her first young adult novel, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.*

In the room opposite, an exercise program for children was running, and the parents and carers of the kids were out in the foyer area discussing exercise and nutrition and so on with a health worker. Jessica was kind of mooching around, looking at the posters on the noticeboard but mostly looking to be at a bit of loose end (I discovered later her younger brother was in the exercise class) and so I struck up a bit of a conversation with her.

She was a quietly spoken girl, a bit diffident, not very confident, I would guess, and I found it hard to catch her voice. I asked her if she liked to read, as we had a book launch happening. “Is it the Wolf book?” she asked—she’d seen the posters. “It looks a bit scary,” she said when I confirmed it. It’s not so scary, I reassured her, although it has a lot of action and adventure. Do you like to read? She shook her head. “Not all that much.”

I very nearly left it there. I didn’t want to be the creepy book lady, pushing paperbacks on the unwilling, but something made me think, what the heck. I had a spare complimentary copy of Ambelin’s book, so I ducked in and got it, and took it out to Jessica. Would you like this? I asked her. I have a spare. And if you like, you can come and meet the author and she’ll sign it for you.

“Oh, but I haven’t read it yet,” Jessica said, stroking the cover, as if somehow an unread signed book would be a spoiled thing. That’s OK, I said. Ambelin will sign it for you anyway,and you can keep it and read it and you’ll have your own copy signed by the author.

To be honest, I’m not sure she completely got what I meant. But she came with me anyway, and I introduced her to Ambelin. “Are you the author?” Jessica asked, a tiny bit awestruck. Ambelin beamed—Yes, I am! and they chatted a little, and Ambelin signed the book.

Jessica went back out to the foyer and as we were still waiting for people to arrive for the launch, I was popping in and out of the room and the foyer. I was glad to see Jessica was reading the book. And then suddenly, she stood up, and took herself back into the room where Ambelin was, made her way over to her, held out the book and said,

“This is really good.”

It was like she just had to tell her. There was a quiet urgency about it—this is good, and I have just discovered this, and I have to tell someone. And on this day, just because of a confluence of events, Jessica just so happened to have the chance to tell the author.

I don’t have to tell you that I was thrilled. For people like me, who believe passionately in the truth that life is simply better with books (by which I mostly mean stories) there’s just nothing to compare with the feeling of having made that connection for someone. And I’m really pleased, and lucky, that my day job allows me this opportunity from time to time—to find readers finding books.

But I’m certainly not suggesting that I made a reader tonight, because despite her initial hesitance, Jessica was clearly not really a non-reader at all.

After the launch was over, I went out to introduce myself to her mum, so that she’d know where (and who) this book came from, and I met Jessica’s younger brother, who I’ll call Sam, who, it has to be said, was looking at the book with what can only be called booklust. (Oh, how he wanted that book! And he wasn’t shy like his sister!)

I spoke with their mum, and she said their dad was a big book person, and that she liked to read, and that they always had books for the kids. She was really pleased about me having given Jessica  copy of Ashala Wolf, and I gave her information about the day job, and how soon we’re going to be publishing kids’ book reviews on our website, &tc and so on—and I hope we hear from them.

But I know quite well that my pleasure in the encounter was more my own sense of connection and having done something concrete and practical in the way of putting that book in those hands—and that’s fine. We all need a little reminder of why we do what we do, and a little personal fillip to keep us on track. But nor do I want to overplay the encounter beyond my own personal pleasure from it, and the things I value that it reminded me of.

Because the more important point is that this is the work that teachers and librarians (and especially teacher-librarians), do every single day. It’s one of those remarkable and important things about the role of the teacher and the librarian that can’t be measured by budgets, NAPLAN results (whatever the pollies will tell you) or esoteric arguments about the future of the book. It requires people; people making connections, taking chances, having conversations. People saying, hey, have you read this? People—grown up people—saying to less grown up people, people in a position of trust using that trust to say, hey, I think you might enjoy this, if you’d be willing to give it a try.

People more or less bumping into one another in that random and sometimes astonishingly fortuitous (but perhaps also actually mostly rather prosaic) way that may happen between strangers (like me and Jessica) but which more often and more easily happens between people who have a reason to know one another—like teachers and librarians and kids.

So however it happened in this instance, I hope Jessica (and all the other Jessicas out there) is tucked up in bed and is halfway through Ashala Wolf by now (and that tomorrow Sam—and all the other Sams—will steal it from her and devour it), and that after that she’ll go to her school or local library, she’ll talk to her English teacher or her T-L, she’ll say, “I read this amazing book, and I wonder…” and she’ll find (and be helped to find) another book, and another…

and the next time someone asks her if she likes to read, she’ll nod and smile and say, quietly, confidently,

Yes, I do.


*The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a terrific book, by the way, and Ambelin is a new talent in Australian YA fiction to watch—of which, more later in another post, but in the meantime—thank you, Walker Books, for this evening!

Remembering Margaret Mahy

I am so heavy of heart to write this post.

We’ve lost so many people in the children’s book community this year—big names like Maurice Sendak, lesser known but well-loved folk like blogger and writer Peter Sieruta, both from the US. Here in Australia, recently, we lost dear Jean Chapman, a writer and champion of children’s books and reading (and the only person—so far!—to ever dedicate a book to me!), and illustrator Pamela Lofts.

And now, we’ve lost Margaret Mahy.

I’m often asked about my favourite children’s and young adult authors, and for years and years now, I’ve often answered by saying, well, when I grow up, I want to be Margaret Mahy.

You know I have other favourite children’s authors, most notably Diana Wynne Jones, and now we’ve lost both her and Margaret. And as I write this, I keep remembering all the connections between their work—Chants and Changeovers and so on.

I’m more than a little bit heart-broken.

Margaret was one of the first international authors I heard speak, and I’ve always remembered (as anyone who heard it can attest) the absolute thrill of hearing her perform her incredible poem (later published as a glorious picture book) Bubble Trouble. (I looked for a video of Margaret performing Bubble Trouble without success—perhaps someone else knows of such a thing out there on line?) Margaret’s rhyming picture book texts (see also Down the Back of the Chair) set the highest benchmark possible for that most difficult of arts—poetry for children. (Don’t believe me? Read your way through the awful doggerel that passes for rhyming texts for children that make up a good whack of any publisher’s slush pile.)

I have so many favourite Margaret Mahy picture books—Margaret was a friend to cats, and I adore The Three-Legged Cat, but also check out The Great White Man-Eating Shark and so many others. Her junior fiction is also as good as it gets—funny, smart, subversive and about as child-friendly as you could ask for. The Great Piratical Rumbustification and The Very Wicked Headmistress were staples of The School Magazine when I worked there back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they were also wonderful playgrounds for illustrators.

But for many readers, it is Margaret’s older children’s and young adult fiction that will live with us forever. The Changeover ranks high on the favourite books list of so many readers and writers, and I love it too (one of the great books about nascent teen sexuality ever written, no?), as I loved The Catalogue of the Universe, Memory and Underrunners, but my very favourite of all her novels is The Tricksters.

It’s quite a long time now since I’ve read The Tricksters, but so many of its moods and images continue to cast a long, welcome shadow over my reading (and writing) life. Harry’s secret novel. Those three creepy brothers. Family secrets. The mysterious Teddy Carnival. The sea… the sea…

We Australians have a habit of claiming New Zealanders as our own, and there has been many a time over the years that my colleagues around the world have assumed Margaret was an Australian. She wasn’t—she was essentially a New Zealander, but I think there’s a shared colonial, antipodean culture and world view that we share, and it goes some way to explaining why we hold Margaret and her books so dear. Or maybe we just recognise good writing, like anyone.

Because we’re clearly not alone in our love and reverence for Margaret. Already on child_lit and Twitter and Facebook, friends and colleagues around the world are expressing their great dismay and sorrow at the loss of this incomparable woman and writer.

And yes, I did know her. Not well, but I was so fortunate to have met her several times over the years, and to have published not one, but two interviews with her. She was warm and generous, circumspect and respectful. And funny.

The last correspondence I had with Margaret was after the June 2011 Christchurch earthquake, when I fielded many questions about her safety. She was grateful for the enquiries, and asked me to pass on the message that she was safe and well and staying with family.

And now she’s gone.  How we will miss, and remember her.


The Great YA Championship—Kill Your Darlings!

Why yes, I have been busy lately!

A few weeks ago, I received a very thrilling email from one of the editors at the terrific literary journal Kill Your Darlings. KYD’s online editor, Estelle Tang, contacted me to ask if I’d like to be part of a celebration of Australian YA fiction on KYD’s blog Killings. The inspiration for this came from the (most) recent resurgence of interest in Australian classics, spearheaded by Text Publishing‘s classics list. The good folk at KYD decided that it was time to look back at the great history of Australian young adult books, by asking YA enthusiasts to choose a great Australian YA book from the last 30 years to write about.

Well, ooh! How exciting! And I immediately knew my own shortlist of books I wanted to write about. I thought that this was an amazing opportunity to bring back into the light some wonderful novels, favourites of mine, that have been neglected or forgotten or were never properly acknowledged at the time of their publication. I sent my shortlist through, and waited to hear back which one they wanted me to write about. And I was really pleased that their first choice was my first choice.

It was all embargoed and a bit hush-hush until a few days ago, when the announcement was made on Killings, so now I can tell you all it’s happening! Well, will be, from July 30. And you can be part of it—because you can vote for the books we contributors write about, to come up with a top 3. And there are prizes, too, of—what else! YA book packages, donated by Penguin, Allen and Unwin and Hardie Grant Egmont.

My secret hope is that the Championship might even see some of the books—those, like the one I’ve written about—come back into print.  Or at the very least, encourage people to seek them out in libraries and second-hand bookstores. (Of course, some, perhaps many of them, will still be in print—mine isn’t, and I so wish it were, as my copy is looking decidedly well-loved!)

I am, by the way, permitted to reveal which book I wrote about, and if you’re my friend on Facebook (and if you aren’t why aren’t you?), then you may already know—we played 20 Questions the other night. But I’ve decided to maintain a little mystery for now, in the hope that you’ll add Killings to your reader and wait with bated breath for my offering!

But in the meantime, here are some clues:

Red insects. Muses and goddesses. Poetry. Pottery. First love. First loss. Family.

Let the celebrations begin.


Isobelle Carmody and the Great Ebook Debate

A few months ago, the lovely Isobelle Carmody wrote to me and asked me if I’d like to be part of a new online venture she was undertaking, to coincide with the e-publication of her wonderful 1997 novel Greylands. The purpose of the site—only intended to be live for a month—is to celebrate the launch of the ebook, but also to play host to a lively “edebate” on book formats and reading in this rapidly changing world.

Many of you will have already visited the site (which you can find here) and enjoyed the lively discussion that has developed over the dozen or so posts in The Great eBook Debate that have been published so far, in both the essays posted and the conversations in the comments threads. There’s a terrific range of contributors—writers, librarians, academics—and me! Mine’s coming up tomorrow (July 16), and I’m really honoured that it will appear on the day that the Greylands ebook is officially launched.

As you’ll see, the eBook debate posts range from the highly personal through the technical, across the business side of epublishing to the academic. What unites us all—whether we’re for the traditional paper book or all about the ereader(or somewhere in between) is a love for story and a passion for whatever it takes to make sure that as many people can access books and stories whatever the format.

The site has caught the eye of more than Isobelle’s considerable fan base, or even just those of us fascinated (and somewhat terrified!) about the changes in hand and ahead for publishing. I’m told that the the contents of the site will be archived (details to follow), which is great news and a reminder that online content like this need not be ephemeral.

So if you haven’t already, then check out the site and join in the conversation. I’ll look forward to the comments that my own post elicits tomorrow—although I expect it will be (rightly) overshadowed by the book launch! (Dying to know who the mystery launcher is to be? Me too! I’ve had a hint but only time will tell…)

So, whatever you or I might feel about ebooks (and you’ll have to wait until my post is up to know for sure!) I don’t think anyone could argue that the fact that a fine book such as Greylands is going to be available to new readers, and to existing fans to explore and enjoy all over again.  Congratulations, dear Isobelle! And hurrah for Greylands!

Me and Isobelle at the 2008 CBCA Conference in Melbourne.




Do you trust me, too?

This is a bit of sightly old news, now, but even belatedly, I am pretty happy to share it with you. Sometime last year, I received an email from Paul Collins, from Ford St Publishing, asking me if I would be interested in writing an introduction to their new anthology, to be called Trust Me Too. The book was to follow on from a previous collection, called Trust Me, which featured an impressive range of Australian writers for young people, and which was enormously successful with readers, and taken up enthusiastically by many schools around the country.

Well, I was a bit chuffed, as you can imagine. I’ve known Paul for a long time now—and his partner in life and business, Meredith Costain even longer*—and I’ve watched their growing success at Ford Street with interest and pleasure. (It’s always nice to see friends do well, and especially with an independent publishing house in these difficult times!) So I immediately said yes, and looked forward to the great big pile of manuscripts—short stories, poems and even illustrations—that was soon on its way to me.

And again, what a treasure trove of Australian writing it proved to be. So many wonderful writers (and illustrators!), and such a diversity of themes and imaginings to be found. I admit it was a bit of a challenge to write the introduction—each writer was given a free hand to contribute whatever they wished, so there was no overall theme, as such, for me to pick up on. So instead I chose to address the form, the form of writing short prose pieces and poetry, and the particular challenges that presents. And off I sent me introduction, happy to contribute, but not really expecting much beyond that self-satisfaction. Because really, who reads introductions?!

So you can imagine the enormous pleasure I took when I received my advance copy of the book and saw there, on the cover, my name in glorious yellow type. My first cover credit! My name, alongside Paul’s, and Isobelle Carmody‘s**! I can’t tell you the thrill.

Not that I can take credit for the contents, so it seems a bit of a cheat that I am so notably credited, but I won’t complain. Here’s the cover, in case you haven’t seen it—the book has been out for a few weeks now, and is getting some terrific reviews, so I understand:











Possibly even more thrilling is that we’re going to have a Sydney launch of the book at my old high school (OK, one of them—I went to three), Parramatta High, on July 20. I’m really proud that I can go back to that school and show off this modest achievement.

So there you are. I’m really pleased and excited to be part of this publication, and I hope you might seek out the book and find something—much!—to enjoy in its many and varied contents. And maybe you’ll sneak a peek back at the cover and be pleased for me, too.


* Meredith and I have long joked that we are twins separated by a few years—our lives have had a remarkable number of parallels, and we share a temperament and a sense of humour, I think. She’s a top gal, our Meredith, and I’m proud to call her Near-Enough-Twinny!

** What I didn’t know at the time was that it was in fact the lovely Isobelle who suggested me as the writer of the introduction to Trust Me Too. So now I am triple-chuffed! And look out for a Misrule post about Isobelle’s new online venture, to which I also play a small part, in the next day or two.