First and Last of 2013

The Clever Cats Book Club is my first release for 2013. I've always loved the Aussie Bites series of books for younger readers. It's taken me way too long to write one. Sometimes small books can present interesting challenges.

The Clever Cats Book Club evolved from listening to one of my aunts talk about a book club that she started when she was at school. I wish I'd thought to start a book club when I was a kid. I'm a member of two book clubs now and the members of those book clubs include some of my closest friends. Book clubs are s a great way to strengthen friendships and to share the love of books.

The Clever Cats Book Club is illustrated by a wonderful young artist who just happens to be my second cousin, Florence Boyd.  Florence has also done the illustrations for my upcoming August 2013 release, The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie.

But this post will be the very  last  blog post on As of this weekend, Magic Casements will move over onto my brand new website.  Eeek. Launching a new website is just as exciting as launching a new book!

The new website has bells, whistles, my Magic Casements blog embedded in the website and masses of new content. If you've been a regular or irregular reader of this blog, I'll hope you'll check out the new site.

Only Connect

Sometimes I'm asked when I am going to write a book for and about adults. The question is always posed by an adult, usually the sort of person who doesn't read children's literature or YA and doesn't understand that it is can be as professionally demanding and as satisfying as any other form of writing.

The plaque above was made for me by a boy called Brian. I met Brian when I visited his school in Singapore last year. In anticipation of my visit, Brian made this extraordinary gift for me. I love it. I keep it on a shelf in my office and it always makes me smile when I see it. More than a year later, on a wintery Melbourne evening, Brian's gift conjures that visit to Singapore and reminds me of what a privilege it is to write for young people. 

Yesterday, I received an email from a fourteen year old reader. She wrote to tell me how much she'd enjoyed reading India Dark. She closed her email with: "...thank you so much for writing this incredible novel, it will always be close to my heart." 

Writing is about connection. My sense of connection with young readers is so strong and so rewarding, I rarely feel driven to write anything that I can't share with them. 

Slash and burn

Manuscripts have seasons. The spring time blossom of first drafts, the long hot summers of rewriting, the autumn of copyediting, the neat pruning/proofreading of winter before the book reaches the printer.

The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie is my tenth novel and I'm finally at the stage of marking up the proofs before it goes to press in a week or two. But sometimes, in Winter, you discover a random branch you should have pruned months earlier.

My editor, Susannah Chambers, told me that Chapter 1 should go last year. Stubbornly, I hung onto it. After nine novels, I can find justification for anything and Chapter One fitted perfectly with many traditional ideas of how a story should be structured. But Susannah was right.

In marking up this final version of the novel I saw it clear as day. The first chapter was superflous. This afternoon I transferred a stray 80 words of information from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 (The new Chapter 1) and deleted 900 words. It felt so good. The minute I hit delete and the words disappeared, I knew the novel was much better for the cut. It was a thrilling, absolutely satisfying moment. I also felt grateful that my editors encouraged me to be so bold despite the lateness of the hour.

One of the nicest things about writing is learning to appreciate every aspect of the process. In the early days, I found editing difficult. Learning to trust your editor and your instincts means wrestling with both your prejudices and your manuscript. Though I spent the entire day agonising over 1,000 words, I left my desk feeling deeply satisfied that I'd lost most of Chapter 1. Every book deserves a new beginning.

Publishing in a Topsy Turvy World

\I'd forgotten that today was the day the Children's Book Council Awards shortlists were being announced when I noticed the notables listed on Twitter this morning. So it was particularly exciting to discover that Topsy Turvy World was not only a notable but, at midday, was shortlisted for the 2013 CBCA Book of the Year Awards for the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books.  
Topsy Turvy World is a book that belongs as much to its publisher, Susan Hall, and the staff of the National Library who helped bring it to life, as it does to me. In an era where self-publishing and online content feel like a viable alternative to mainstream publishing, it's easy to overlook the importance of traditional publishers. Books like Topsy Turvy World wouldn't exist without the commitment of a strong team.
Although I wrote the words and imagined every detail of the history of the fifteen native animals featured in Topsy Turvy World, I had plenty of back-up from the National Library to make sure every fact was verified by historians and naturalists. 
Topsy Turvy world was inspired by Penny Olsen's beautiful book for adult readers, Upside Down World, and is illustrated with 18th & 19th century illustrations from the collections of the National Library of Australia. 
Books like Topsy Turvy World wouldn't exist without the support and commitment of a strong team. Perhaps that's what is most important about any good book - that it brings people together to enjoy a shared vision of the world.

Great Books and Disagreeable Thoughts

What are you reading on International Women's Day?
I'm loving 'Girl Defective' by Simmone Howell. It's spunky, lyrical and extremely hard to put down.  I almost missed my station because I was reading it on the train into the city today. I'm hoping to finish it tonight and then jump straight into Kate Constable's latest novel, New Guinea Moon. These novels were launched jointly on Wednesday night at Readings Bookshop in Carlton. It was a great event; crowded and friendly with cupcakes, champagne and eloquent readings.

Last night, I attended the CBCA Claytons seminar held at Trinity College in Kew where four different authorities on literature for young people discussed books they thought might feature on the 2013 CBCA awards shortlist. The CBCA host Claytons nights in the lead up to the release of their shortlist but I'd never attended one before last night.  It was actually much more interesting than I'd expected. I'm sorry I've missed all the previous years. The speakers were fascinating and articulate, the food was delicious and it was a chance to catch up with lots of folk in the kid lit scene that I haven't seen for some time.

But on the way home, a disagreeable thought struck me. So many of the judges had spoken eloquently about beautiful books that should speak to all readers. On a couple of occasions, judges held up books with girls on the cover and commented that it was a pity that boys probably wouldn't read the book because there was so much to gain from the story. I started wondering how many boys will miss out on reading 'Girl Defective' and 'New Guinea Moon' simply because they are about girls, despite the beautiful prose and the great characters. We live in a gendered world where there are books for boys and books for girls.  Fair enough, to a point. Yet there are so many books, irrespective of the gender of the hero of the story, that speak to all readers. The most disagreeable thought that struck me was how boys are trapped, even more than girls, when it comes to reading.

I've had a boy reader tell me he had to put one of my books (Walking Home with Marie-Claire) in a brown paper bag so his mates couldn't see what he was reading a book with two girls on the cover. Another boy, who was vetting a cover for one of my novels, said that if the more feminine cover was chosen, he wouldn't be able to read the book in public. Boys fear ridicule if they are seen to be interested in girl culture. All this leads to the sad state of affairs we have in the adult world, where few men read books by and/or about women. Possibly it also leads to many of the other problems we have with violence and rage against women. When you don't understand someone, when their perspective is foreign to you, then you're more likely to feel afraid, less likely to empathise. In contemporary Australia boys have small opportunity to learn about female culture, to deeply empathises with women and girls, without being harassed. Girls, on the other hand, not only read about boys but are encouraged to do so.

Fiction is one of the best tools we have for inculcating empathy for 'the other'. If a white child refused to read books that have Asian or black child characters on the cover we would be alarmed by their racist response. But when a boy says he won't read book because it's about a girl, we shrug and say 'boys will be boys', effectively reinforcing his unease about female culture. Then the boys become the men who won't read books by or about women.

VIDA, an American organisation committed to supporting women in the literary arts, released some disturbing statistics this week about how books by men and women are received which illustrate exactly how gendered reading affects the lives of writers and readers.

You can't force boys to read books about girls when the whole culture tells them they are 'sissies' for reading about girls. Some of this fear of all things feminine springs out of homophobia, which is incredibly ironic when you consider that its the heterosexual boys who most desperately need to understand the gender they are destined to love. The straitjacket of masculinity is bad for boys and has devastating consequences for girls.

Women cannot overturn this state of affairs. We need our brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, male friends and lovers to set an example to the next generation of boys by being seen reading books about women and girls. Not every book, not all the time. It's nice to indulge in books about your own gender too. But if next International Women's Day every male children's author in Australia was photographed reading a book with a girl on the cover, if every father read his son a book with a female protagonist, if every male teacher shared a story with his class from a book with a girl on the cover, we might move a little further towards building a more confident and compassionate culture for boys and a safer, fairer world for girls.

How to be a jolly good fellow

Heritage wooden desks and chairs in the La Trobe Reading Room
Inside the La Trobe Reading Room beneath the SLV Dome

I'm sitting at my 'Hot Desk' at the Wheeler Centre and feeling a little bit guilty for writing a blog post as the reason I applied for this fellowship was so I could exclusively focus on my new YA novel - 'The Year it All Ended'.

I've been coming into the city four days a week to work on the novel which is a huge and convoluted epic set in 1919. It tells the story of four teenage sisters and what happened to them in the wake of WWI. The book is starting to come together, at last, though yesterday I slashed 5,000 words from it and wound up slumping home feeling stuck in the two-steps forward, one step back stage. But despite the odd setback, the Wheeler Centre fellowship has helped me focus my energy on this beast of a book and get it in harness. There are four other 'fellows' working on the 4th floor and when everyone is at their desks you get a powerful sense of the energy involved in creating new work.

The Wheeler Centre Fellowship has also given me the chance to spend a lot more time next door in the State Library of Victoria. There are so many fabulous treasures in the SLV, I never get tired of exploring the collection.

In 2006, I received a Creative Fellowship from the State Library of Victoria. It made it possible for me to write my novel 'India Dark' and deepened my love of the SLV. For me, the SLV is the heart of Melbourne.  Creative Fellows of the SLV receive funding to support a research project plus a dedicated space inside the library where they can work.

This year, I've been invited to be a member of the committee that will select the 2013 SLV Creative Fellowships. Yesterday, I met with other members of the committee in a meeting room overlooking La Trobe Street. It's exciting to be continuing my relationship with the SLV in a new way and I'm looking forward to reading the applications from prospective Creative Fellows. There are eight fellowships on offer plus, this year only, four special 'Dome Centenary Fellowships' to mark the 100th anniversary of the beautiful dome of the library.

Creative fellowships are open to Australian residents in any discipline or form of expression. New and digital media artists, visual artists, musicians and composers, writers in all disciplines and subjects, independent scholars and creators working either in collaboration or independently can apply to be jolly SLV fellows. It's a fantastic opportunity to enrich a creative project by accessing the resources of the State Library of Victoria.

Dome centenary fellowships are open to individuals and community groups.

Applications need to be submitted by 22 March, 2013.  

Old Self, New Self, Other Self

Warning. This blog post contains nepotism and a dose of nostalgia.

Tinning Street Gallery is a funky ex-factory turned gallery tucked away in a back street in Brunswick. On Friday night they opened a new show entitled 'Your Old Self'. The invitation to the opening was on our fridge for a couple of weeks because the inimitable Elwyn Murray (okay, my son, I have to admit my bias) has a work in the exhibition. The concept for the show was each artist had to create a new work based on a an artwork from their childhood. The artist on the invitation (below) is Lauz Rigbe. Every time I looked at the invitation I felt nostalgic for all my kid's childhoods.

I've squirrelled away mountains of artwork from my children's growing up. Cracked ceramics, foxed scraps decorated with scribbled drawings, yellowing butcher paper splashed with poster paint and chipped ceramics are all tucked away in boxes for the moment one of my kids want to come and unearth the archive. I was really pleased when Elwyn dug through the treasure trove for an image to inspire his new work. His childhood drawings were intricate, bold and sometimes bewildering.

Apart from Elwyn & Lauz, there were about twenty artists represented in the show, including Shaun Tan. Some of the work was distrubing, some of it beautiful, all of it intriguing. As we grow older are we always our old self reformed or do we become someone else again?