'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Almost Librian - Talking Early Childhood Education with Valerie Baartz

Who is this person? Valerie Baartz

What does she do? She's a Youth Services Librarian.

Where can you take a gander at her stuff? almostlibrarianat.blogspot.com

What's her story? I currently reside in a Chicago suburb with my husband and two children, Charlie, age 5 and Heidi, age 3. My background is in early childhood education, but I have been a stay-at-home mom for just over five years.

When Charlie was about a year old, I was participating in a story time at our local library and a bell went off. All of a sudden I realized that this is what I want to do when I go back to work. So I began a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science at Dominican University. I graduated in December 2009 and will begin working as a youth services librarian on February 1st.

Why is she so impassioned about literacy and children’s literature? I’m mostly impassioned about early childhood education and I feel that early literacy plays a critical role. I feel that early literacy touches on almost every aspect of a child’s development. And from that, children’s literature is an extension of that passion.

By using a broad range of high quality children’s literature materials with young children, any caregiver can help provide a high quality early literacy environment for their children. The early years set the literacy stage for the future. Young children who develop within a high-quality early literacy environment are more likely to have future success in school and every child deserves the chance for these successes.

What inspired her to create The Almost Librarian blog? I started the blog in January of 2009. At that time, I was about three-quarters the way through my degree and I was antsy to get started in the industry. I knew that I couldn’t go back to work yet, but I wanted to find a way to bring my early childhood education background in combination with my children’s literature studies to the forefront.

Additionally, I had heard comments from other mom-friends that they found searching for children’s books difficult. They indicated that with such a broad range of books available, it’s impossible to know which ones are any good. They also said that libraries are overwhelming. So my purpose was to create a blog that would organize early childhood and early literacy information so that parents, caregivers, and teachers could access quality resources quickly. This information turned into book lists by theme, spotlights on web based resources and a few other articles and ideas.

What does she hope her blog provides readers? My hope is that readers know they can access the resources and information quickly and with confidence that the information provided is of high quality. I have one friend who mentioned that she prints out the book lists to bring along to the library to find her books – you’ve got to love that!

What has been the best thing about creating this blog? I have several ‘best things’ which is cheating. I use the resource myself. It’s become a catalogue of sorts for me to refer back to. I also love the people whom I have met worldwide who share a common interest in literacy and children’s literature. If I had not started the blog, then I wouldn’t know them or all of the resources that they provide. I also am happy to have helped people and I’m excited to have a venue to share my passion for children’s lit.

What is the best thing about being a librarian? I’m just getting started in the field, so I’ll have to check back in for this question in a few months. My hope, though, is that I’m going to find a career in which I am able to go to work every day to make a difference in people’s lives by sharing my advocacy for early childhood education and literacy in general.

There has been a lot of chatter recently that the library as a place will cease to be relevant in society, but I firmly believe that isn’t true. Libraries provide a common meeting place in communities and help to even out the access to information that every person needs. And for children, libraries can be a wonderful place to meet up with friends, find books and media materials that interest them, and develop lasting and positive relationships with the librarians.

Has modern children’s literature changed in the past decade? My experience is that children’s literature has exploded. The industry is huge. There are more books being published than could possibly be read. So in my opinion this comes with the good and the bad.

There are amazing pieces of literature being created and shared – books that will stand the test of time and become tomorrow’s must-read classics. Alternately there are also many titles being published that are not worthy of bookshelf space. So you take the good with the bad and hope that you have the time to sort through and find those amazing books that will make a real impact and difference.

What does she enjoy most about children’s books? I am constantly astounded at how clever many of the books are. I desperately wish that I could be a children’s picture book author, but as I read so many books, I find that I’m not nearly as creative and imaginative as the authors are. So while I am enjoying sharing mountains of these books with my children, I also get to just enjoy them myself.

I also find the moments of sharing books with my children to be priceless. I love observing the connections and observations that they make. I laugh along with them when they all of a sudden find humor in a book and I get to spend quality, one-on-one time with them. Just us and the story. Doesn’t get better than that.

How does she encourage reading in children? When I was a teacher for young children and even now when I’m at home with my own children, I find that just picking up a book and starting to read it out loud draws in the crowd. No formal pronouncement that you are now going to read – you just start. I also believe that setting routine times of the day for reading encourages more reading. And setting an example as a reader by reading the paper, a magazine, or my own book also inspires children to want to be readers themselves.

What books did she read as a child? As a young child, my parents used to read to me every night - AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh poetry, Dr. Suess, Corduroy, and all the books that I brought home from the library.

As an independent reader in elementary school and junior high, I didn’t think of myself as an literature/writing kid; I was a math/science kid. But I never considered how much I read outside of school. I poured through books by Beverly Cleary, EB White, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume, Ann Martin, Lois Lowry, Cynthia Voight, Paula Danziger and later Michael Crichton and Dean Koontz.

What are some of her favourite kids' books of all time? My Goodreads Account has 217 picture books on my 'Favorites' shelf.
1. The Napping House by Audrey Wood
2. Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
3. Library Lion my Michelle Knudsen
4. A Good Day by Kevin Henkes
5. Titch by Pat Hutchins

Would she like to write a children’s book herself one day? I would love to. I just need to find my voice, I suppose.

What five words best sum her up? Kind, helpful, an old-soul, always learning, creative.

What advice would she have to help encourage reading and literary saturation for kids? My advice, which is stressed so often, is to read out loud every day to your young children. This is the single most important thing you can do as a parent to help develop literacy skills for your child. And you don’t have to be an amazing reader to do this. Use your library to help you find books that you are comfortable with and that will interest your child and then just keep practicing. You will get better reading aloud.

Not only is this time valuable for literacy development, but reading aloud also gives quiet time dedicated every day for you and your child to slow down and spend time together.

What’s next for Valerie? My new role as a youth services librarian is new and very exciting! And then we’ll see what comes down the pike next!

Don't miss Valerie's wonderful blog, where you can enjoy an insightful journey into the world of books and early education.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Interview: Kids Literacy Aficionado Susan Stephenson

Who is this person? Susan Stephenson

Who is she better known as? Madame Chook

Where can you take a gander at her stuff? thebookchook.blogspot.com and Literacy Lava

What's her story? I’m an Australian with more than 25 years experience teaching in New South Wales primary schools. I have also taught English in China. Right now, I share my love for children’s literacy and literature via The Book Chook blog and write children’s fiction.

I live with my husband and son, about as far east on Australia’s coast as you can go without falling into the ocean.

Why is she so impassioned about literacy and children’s literature? I would like to tell you it’s because I believe literate kids will be happier and more successful in whatever life path they choose. And I do believe that! However, I think a more truthful answer is that I love all forms of creativity and communication and can’t bear to think of kids missing out on the joy it brings.

Despite my silver hair, I don’t think I ever really grew up. I so enjoy reading wonderful kids’ books, playing with online story editors, finding new ways for kids to learn – I don’t think I could NOT be involved in children’s literacy and literature.

What inspired her to create The (very popular) Book Chook blog? Once I narrowed my focus to children’s fiction, I knew I needed to start building my platform as a writer. Prior to that, I had a simple web page that listed my published articles and stories. I decided to start writing a blog about what I knew and loved, because I figured that love would keep me going. I guess you could say it worked.

The Book Chook blog has taken over my life to the point where I often have to carve back fiction-writing time. Sometimes I think of it as the Blog Monster, with an ever-open maw. But it brings me such pleasure too, particularly when I get positive feedback. That truly makes the hours of work worthwhile.

What on earth is Literacy Lava? Literacy Lava is a free PDF that is published on my website four times a year. Writers keep their articles short because we know how busy parents are.

The articles present different perspectives on children’s literacy from reading aloud to babies through to motivating kids who are not yet enthused about reading and writing. The emphasis is on reading, writing and communicating with creativity. One thing I know deep in my heart is that people are happiest when they are able to create.

What motivated this wonderful magazine? Literacy Lava came about because I saw so many great ideas in many different blogs for incorporating literacy activities into family life. I thought parents might be interested in reading an ezine with a literacy focus, something that brought different bloggers together. With one blog, you mostly get one voice. With Literacy Lava, you get articles written by different bloggers and covering different age groups, interests and topics.

Why does she do all this? I’ve always loved reading, writing, all forms of communication really. I taught drama for many years, and love the less well-known aspects of literacy like storytelling and improvisation. Most of my students loved them too, and I saw them blossom as their literacy skills increased.

Trust me, if I could make every kid in the world happy, I would. Thus far, I haven’t been elected Boss of the World, so the next best thing is to try to share my love of literacy with other parents. Once they start using the ideas in Literacy Lava in their own family life, I truly believe everyone will be better off.

How long has she been writing? Once I returned to Australia from China in 2003, I decided to re-invent myself as a writer. I’d always loved to write, but I decided to get serious about it, and learn enough so I could be published.

At first, I wrote travel articles and was published in magazines like Transitions Abroad and Australian Traveller. I also wrote articles about parenting and the craft of writing, and sold stories to anthologies like The Ultimate Teacher. Once I proved to myself I could be published, and paid for it, I realised that wasn’t enough. I wanted to be published in the sphere I admired most of all: children’s fiction. I guess I’ve been focussed on that genre for nearly four years.

During that time I’ve learnt lots about children’s fiction. I’ve also learnt lots about myself. Owing to the prompting of some very good writing friends, I finally decided that I must start submitting to Australian publishers, instead off assuming they will reject my manuscripts.

So, 2010 for me is the Year of Submitting. And if I only receive rejections, all that will logically prove is that my manuscript didn’t hit the right desk at the right time. Come back and ask me if logic is enough at the end of 2010!

What does she enjoy most about writing for children? This is such an interesting question! The very best thing about writing for children for me is knowing I have successfully communicated with an audience. To be able to weave words in such a way as to make kids feel something is incredibly satisfying.

So far, I have had two of my short stories published on Rainbow Rumpus (rainbowrumpus.org/htm/k_story.htm) and I write a column for children about writing in Alphabet Soup magazine (alphabetsoup.net.au). I would love to have one of my books published. Most of all, I would love to know I have made kids giggle, think and love reading. Wouldn’t that be cool!

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? A chicken. Probably not possible, so I’ll give you my next choice: a graphic artist. Unfortunately, it is about as likely as becoming a chicken, because I can’t draw to save my life.

Has modern children’s literature changed in the past decade? I think modern children’s literature HAS changed in the past decade. There are issues being explored, particularly in YA, that we wouldn’t have seen ten years ago.

I also think writing styles have changed – there is less description, and more emphasis on showing through action and dialogue. But a good story is still a good story. Some books that were published ten or forty years ago are excellent and have definitely stood the test of time, while I confess there are some more modern books that I personally dislike.

What does she love most about encouraging reading in young children? Hearing the giggles and guffaws, seeing the light in a child’s eyes when he realizes he 'gets it' and can read, knowing they are on the pathway to a world of reading pleasure – those things make me incredibly happy.

What books did she read as a child? We didn’t have many books, so I read a few over and over. Pookie Puts the World Right, Bambi, Kipling’s Just So Stories I can remember, and also that the lady next-door used to let me borrow their Milly Molly Mandy books.

My first chapter books were The Swiss Family Robinson, What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables. I guess I read them hundreds of times.

Can she name five of her favourite children’s books of all time? I truly can’t. Not five, or even twenty. I can tell you I happen to think Australian children’s writers are among the best in the world.

What is it about children’s books that fascinates her so much? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s that getting kids interested in literature opens them up to a world of learning and entertainment, makes it possible for them to dream, encourages them to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

If children’s books can start that for kids, then it is not only fascinating, it’s fantastic! And I just appreciate children’s literature so much as an art form. Take a picture book – one of the most difficult books to write and illustrate really well, but when it works, it is like a song or poem that you never forget.

What five words best sum her up? Passionate, direct, sensitive, silly and spontaneous.

What advice would she have for parents on helping encouraging reading and literary saturation for their kids? Read to your kids every day from when they are babies. Don’t stop just because they learn to read independently. Let them see you reading, writing, creating and enjoying it.

Encourage them to choose their own books as well as the ones you choose for sharing. Value literacy. Make friends with your local librarian. Check out some of the great internet sites that promote reading and writing. Ask your kids questions that encourage imagination and creative thinking. Listen to your kids and get to know what they like.

What’s next for Susan Stephenson? I’m currently enrolled in two online courses that I hope will increase my expertise in using technology to promote literacy. I am also enrolled in a Photoshop course, which starts February. Being a student seems to be my focus for the next few months, as well as honing my writing skills and submitting manuscripts to publishers.

Learn more about Susan at susanstephenson.com.au.

The next issue of Literacy Lava (no. 4) will be published March 1, 2010. Don't miss it.

There will be a Literacy Blog Tour known as 'Share a Story - Shape a Future' from 8-14 March 2010. Susan will be hosting Day 2 at The Book Chook, which is entitled 'Literacy My Way/ Literacy Your Way', and she will be linking to articles by other bloggers about all sorts of creative ways to involve kids in literacy. See shareastory-shapeafuture.blogspot.com for more.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Review: Princess Party Cookbook

Not being a particularly ‘pink’ mother of a nine-year-old daughter, I’m ever skeptical of anything ‘princess’, unless it’s done a little tongue-in-cheek or with extreme originality. It was with a smidgen of royal scepticim, therefore, that I opened the new Princess Party Cookbook, preparing for a sugary overload of tizz.

Author and kiddie foodie Annabel Karmel of The New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner fame, has penned a book that’s definitely high on pink fluff, but also resplendent with beauty, quality, delectable recipes, fun party ideas and style.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them/Quidditch Through the Ages

Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them/Quidditch Through the Ages

Author: J.K. Rowling

Publisher: Bloomsbury, A$13.99

Format: Softcover

Language: English

ISBN: 9781408803011 / 9781408803028

For ages: 8+

Type: Junior Fiction

About: Having voraciously read all the Harry Potter books, I must admit it didn’t even dawn on me to pick up a copy of the companion novelettes – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages.

I guess I thought they were really reserved for Pottermaniacs (okay, so I’m also a Pottermaniac but certainly not to the degree of those of lesser age than mine - I do like to mix it up with Italian cookbooks and seventeenth Century history). As both books have been recently re-released with brand new covers, I thought it high time I launched myself into their pages.

And lo – it was fun in there.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a textbook written for the Hogwarts students by Newt Scamander, is a beastly good read. With a foreword by Albus Dumbledore, a brief history of Muggle awareness of magical beasts, Ministry of Magic classifications and a comprehensive A-Z listing of all manner of paranormal creatures, any aspiring wizard would be adequately armed against any manner of beast from the Flobberworm (rating X) to the Chinese Fireball dragon (rating XXXXX).

Pre-warned is certainly pre-armed, but learning more about these various creatures is also quite entertaining and will provide plenty of fodder for discussion over a butterbeer or pumpkin juice.

Did you know, for example, that the centaurs voluntarily requested to be classified as ‘beasts’ rather than ‘beings’ due to their unwillingness to share ‘being’ status with such undesirables as hags and vampires? Did you also know that the song of the Fwooper bird will eventually drive a listener to insanity?

A really lovely thing about this particular edition of Fanastic Beasts is that it has been released complete with legitimate scrawlings by Potter, Weasley and Granger. A true keepsake, if there ever was one.

Quidditch Through the Ages by Kennilworthy Whisp, I must admit, was not really my fortĂ©. I do prefer to watch Quidditch from the sidelines and wouldn’t dream of participating, however I did, nonetheless, find it interesting to read about the game’s rules and how the game formed over the centuries.

Of particular interest was how Quidditch spread worldwide. Did you know that Quidditch was believed to have reached Australia sometime in the eighteenth Century? The Thundelarra Thunderers and the Wollongong Warriors are said to be our finest teams, having dominated the Australian League for the past 100 years.

It was also interesting to see the game morph from the archaic to the modern. For example, the Golden Snidget, a protected species of bird, was first used in place of the Golden Snitch, though its use was soon outlawed when the bird was brought to the brink of extinction (beating the bird to death was how you won the game).

Other Quidditch equipment has also morphed over time, as well as the style of broom used in play – with the Nimbus remaining the ultimate racing broom.

All in all, regardless of whether you are magical, a Muggle or just a wizard wannabe, these textbooks are sure to bring a little bit of magic to your world.

This review first appeared, in part, at Australian Women Online.

Author website

Teachers' Notes for Quidditch Through the Ages

Teachers' Notes for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Literacy Lava Erupts with Literary Treasure

Wonderful to stumble across the glorious online magazine - Literacy Lava. Edited by the literary-loving and talented Book Chook (Susan Stephenson), the magazine is a reading/writing/children's literacy-lover's delight.

Literacy Lava supports reading, writing and communicating with creativity. It aims to promote a rich and varied environment through reading, talking, writing, singing and playing - and is packed with articles on doing just this with your kids.

Issue 3 of the magazine covers how to make books with your kids, incorporating reading into shopping trips, adding literacy to game-playing, the value of picture books, incorporating writing into your family's life, library 101, and even fighting night terrors with literacy.

There's even resources and activity pages, all in a beautifully laid-out format.

Brilliant. You don't want to miss it.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Review: The Bears' Picnic

This review by Riley (6).

What is the book called? The Bear’s Picnic

Who is the author/illustrator? Stan and Jan Berenstain

Who is the publisher? Random House

What is this story about? The daddy bear told mum to put her apron away then they wanted to go on a picnic. So they went off to a picnic place. They picked a place that the mum and dad picked when they were young. But then a train came into the beautiful spot.

So they found another picnic spot – just between some trees. They sat on a bench, then actually it was a big picnic today and everyone came to the picnic and they left because all the people came and there were too many people.

Then they went through the wheat – the big mother and the baby and the dad and then all the mosquitoes came to the bears. They went onto a boat and paddled all the way to a different picnic spot then Dad said “Hooray, at last, we are going to eat,” but actually, it was a dump place!

After lots of bad places to picnic, they went back home then he saw their house and they had a picnic spot at their house!

Who are the main characters? Little brother, Dad and Mum.

What problems do these characters face? They went to a picnic spot then there was bad things.

What is the climax of the story? When the lightning went on Dad’s bum.

What was your favourite part in this book? My favourite part of the book is when Dad had a zap on his bum.

Is there anything you didn’t like about this book? The train next to the wonderful spot when Mum and Dad was young.

What other books do you love?
The Bear Scouts
The Big Honey Hunt
He Bear She Bear

This book is available online:

Fishpond - A$18.98 (hardcover)
The Nile - A$15.49 (hardcover)

Teacher's notes

Author website

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Fantastic Book Sites for Kids and Teens

Love this new list of 100 fantastic book sites for kids and teens. There are some gems here, so get hunting.

Divided into sections like 'Reading Motivation for Children and Teens', 'Online Libraries' and 'Book Reviews', there's also sites specific to age-groups.


Interview: Author David Harris

Who is this person? David Harris

What does he do? He's an author

Where can you take a squiz at his stuff? davidharris.com.au

What's his story? I’m a mad keen writer/historian who fell in love with Mummies (the stinky wrapped in bandages 4000 year old sort – ooops, does that sound like someone you know?) when I saw my first one in a museum coffin when I was about seven or eight.

I grew up in country towns of South Australia where enormous skies, mountains and the sea made me homesick for places I longed to discover.

I live in the Adelaide Hills with my amazing wife (the fabulous author Christine Harris), who’s written the Audrey of the Outback series and the Spy Girl series which has been translated into so many languages, and lots and lots of other books. christineharris.com

How long has he been a writer? Since I was failing English at school, but my teacher asked me to write my stories for him in a special notebook which he gave back to me after I’d failed the exams and said, ‘I enjoyed these.’ The first one was about a drunk parrot on Mars, so you can see why exams were an alien world to me.

What genres has he written in? I love real life stories, like the Time Raiders series, where I tell the stories inspired by famous archaeologists. I’ve also written for newspapers, TV and film. All of these genres have taught me so much about writing.

How did you come up with your Cliffhanger series? The Cliffhangers were tremendous fun because I could pretend they were fiction. In fact, the places and the people were from my childhood. Fiction gave me the chance to really tell the truth. Why did I write them? Because I’d just done some histories and biographies and was so fed up with all the lies I was told.

Why does he write? Because there is so much more to discover about the world and writing. And because it gives me an excuse to climb volcanoes, crawl about in tombs and find bones, get lost in deserts, freeze in blizzards and call it Work.

What made him decide to write children’s books? A publisher asked me to write my first book - a long-forgotten text book for schools. It did okay, so the publisher asked me to write a collection of short stories. Drunk parrots on Mars? I can do that. So I made up a ghost and people believed it because it was in a book and they conduct ghost tours there now.

Really, my childhood brain had been deranged by all sorts of wonderful characters in books: pirates, mummies again, evil villains, astronauts, young heroes with amazing courage and imagination. I wanted to write like that.

What does he love most about producing books for children? Writing stories which give children so much room to imagine things that they are my co-authors. I hope that everybody who reads one of my books reads their own story.

How has the children’s literary scene in Australia changed in the past decade and where is it headed? It’s become more corporate. Once upon a time, an editor would like my story and give it to the money-counters. It was a nasty shock when one of my manuscripts went to the accountants first, to make sure there was enough profit in it.

Hey ho, nobody has the faintest idea where literature is headed. Market researchers least of all. That is wonderful. One of my heroes is Prince Serendip, who set out on grand quests and always ended up somewhere completely unexpected.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles he has experienced on his writing journey? Making the time to dream and write.

What advice does he have for those interested in writing children’s stories? Do it. Think of something impossibly difficult and go out and do it. Don’t just write what you’re good at. That makes you a one-trick pony. Write about what you don’t know.

Does he remember the first story he ever wrote? See above. The drunk parrot.

If he couldn’t be a writer, what would he be? An artist, a glass-blower, a musician, an explorer, a vague sort of wanderer who’d blunder into fantastic adventures.

What books did he read as a child? Classics: Kidnapped, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, King Solomon’s Mines, Sherlock Holmes, Ray Bradbury’s SF novels... lots of cartoon books.

What are some of his favourite children’s books of all time? Arthur Mee’s Encyclopoedia, Wind in the Willows, Coles Funny Picture Book, Treasure Island, The Mystery of the Mews.

What else does he have interest in, other than writing? My psycho family, food, swimming, dreaming, the unknown.

What would be his perfect day? This one. Coffee and toast in the garden with Christine. Writing a chapter of my next book (the fifth draft), then a friend called in so we had lunch of homemade soup, then chunky bread with olives, roasted almonds and fresh pineapple cut up. Then a walk down the street to do the shopping. Now writing this. Bliss.

What five words best sum him up? One of my heroes is Scrat from Ice Age because he never gives up on the agonised striving for his acorn. I know that's more than five words, but that says it all.

What’s next for David Harris? New, exciting ideas that will drag me over the horizon and off the edge of the world.

Any last words? If there’s somebody reading this who dreams of being a writer or any sort of creative person, then do it, or you’ll join those sad ones who sit in a dark wardrobe and moan, ‘If only, I’d tried... If only.’

See more of David's amazing and super exciting adventures at davidharris.com.au, where you'll also find tips on writing and literary information for parents and teachers.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Literary Awards

If you are an author or illustrator looking for an amazing web resource for literary awards, then look no further than literaryawards.com.au. A 'global gateway' to more than 250 awards in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, US and Canada, there is enough here to really get your heart racing.

You'll also find information on past winners and lots of news.

Another site that's a great resource for awards is at the Department of Education's (WA) website, which offers info on both Commonwealth and international awards.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Interview: Author Christine Harris

Who is this person? Christine Harris

What does she do? She’s an author.

Where can you take a squiz at her books? christineharris.com

What’s her story? I live in the Adelaide Hills, married to writer David Harris (‘Cliffhanger’ series and ‘Time Raiders’ series, and more ...). We have five grownup children between us, and thousands of kids we have ‘adopted’ for an hour or so when we visit schools. No pets – we are away too much.

I was a late bloomer – didn’t know what I wanted to do, really. Did odd jobs over the years, while writing away in private. Then my life changed when that writing became public.

How long has she been writing? Since I could first string sentences together. My first published book - ‘Outer Face’, came out in 1992.

What genre does she write in? All genres for young readers. I think it’s good to have a go at all types of writing. You don’t know what you’re good at until you give it a go.

How did she come up with her fabulous Audrey of the Outback series? Audrey is the young cousin in ‘Outback: The Diary of Jimmy Porter 1927-1928’, published by Scholastic Australia. People liked her so much she ended up with a series of her own, but it’s set two years later in 1930.

The original book was part of the ‘My Australian Story’ series about episodes in Australian history, written in diary form. I chose the time when the Flying Doctor Service was just established in the Outback.

Audrey is a combination of people: a bit of me, my own children and little snippets from the thousands of children I’ve met in schools over the years.

Why does she write? Good question. On bad days, I wonder that myself. But there are extraordinary highs when things go well. Writing allows me the freedom to work at home, I can choose my own hours (which is good because I am a rotten sleeper and keep weird hours).

Writing has led me to many countries and friendships I would otherwise not have experienced. It is exciting (I hate being bored or doing nothing). And I love the interaction with fans/readers. That is exciting and fascinating too.

What made her decide to write children’s books? I enjoy the kinds of stories for younger readers. A child will rarely read a book simply because it is on a best-seller list. They will only read it if it captures their imagination. I like that. I am the same, and I’m bored by stories that drag on.

I also discovered that I seemed to have a talent for it. A voice, if you like, that connects with children. Once I visited a Darwin school and a boy there was totally shocked when I walked into the classroom because he thought I would be ‘twelve years old’. Which is a real compliment.

Does she remember the first story she ever wrote? I probably shouldn’t confess this, but when I was in primary school we were asked to write a story about ‘The Golden Rule’ (treat others as you would like to be treated). I had no idea what that was and was too shy to ask, so I wrote a story on gold mining. I also wrote a short book, featuring Tarzan, when I was nine and up a tree.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles she has experienced on her writing journey? Over-editing by some editors, which makes a writer lose confidence in his/her own abilities. Sharing ideas too soon – before they make sense and they evaporate. Emotional baggage and interruptions from everyday life.

What does she love most about producing books for children? The interaction with readers. I had an email from a girl who told me that her father had died of cancer, that her mother was ‘very, very ill’ and the girl thought she ‘will lose her soon’. But the girl said that reading my books made her feel better.

How has the children’s literary scene in Australia changed in the past decade? It has become more corporate. Years ago, publishers could take a gamble on a writer in whom they saw talent and they would nurture them along. Now, each book has to stand on its own, make lots of money for the publisher and be in ‘fashion’. I was horrified when a publisher explained a series to me a couple of years back by saying, ‘We know this series is junk food in a pretty wrapper’. I declined the job.

However, I believe that we have more good quality Australian writers and the respect for children’s writers had risen, although not nearly as much as it should. Hence the current call for an Australian Children’s Laureate to promote reading and books to our children.

What advice would she have on writing children’s stories? Don’t give lectures or sound off about morals. Kids will turn off. The results of behaviour, good and bad, are better shown by what happens to characters. Read a lot in the genre, talk to and listen to children, watch children’s TV shows. Write from the heart, not just the head.

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? A gardener or photographer.

What books did she read as a child?
Anne of Green Gables
Swallows and Amazons
Martin Rattler’
A Wrinkle in Time
Stories and Songs from Many Lands (which was a whole set)

Of all her books, what are her favourites?

This is difficult because I only write books I can feel passionate about, but here goes:

Foreign Devil (which won Best Horror Novel 2000 in the Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction)

Audrey Goes to Town (CBC Notable Bk, winner of Children’s Peace Literature Award)

Jamil’s Shadow (CBC shortlisted, also published in Japan)

Spy Girl: Secrets (I like the whole series of five books, but I had to pick one so I simply chose the first – Shortlisted for YALSA, American American Library Association, Quick Picks for Young Adult Readers, published in Australia, Thailand, Japan, Brazil, USA, Canada...)

What else does she enjoy doing? Writing, knitting, walking, discovering new ideas, listening to my grandson try to talk.

How has her passion for travel and photography influenced her writing? Everything we experience influences our writing, but it is so good to have other cultures and perspectives on which to draw. Travel stimulates our senses in a way that doesn’t happen at home. It’s all new and different and raw and we take it all in.

What would be her perfect day? Ooh, I’ve never been asked this before. OK, here goes:

David, my husband, wakes me with a hug, tells me something nice (which he does every morning), he cooks pancakes for breakfast (which he does most mornings), I have an uninterrupted morning to write, it is 22 degrees C with a light breeze from the south, I spend an hour or so in my garden, walk for another hour with David, put on some world music and cook a big meal which I will share with our grownup children and their children. We will light candles, sit outside to eat and laugh a lot. And before bed, I will watch two episodes of Dr Who (starring David Tennant).

Oh, and could I please have a shoulder massage too?

What five words best describe her? Curious, enthusiastic, private, uncertain, confident. (Yes, I know some of these are contradictions – that’s how humans are.)

What’s next for Christine Harris? Lots of striving for the perfect day, as described above.

New writing projects, still in the early stages so I can’t really say anything about them. But a little of the old and a lot of the new – as far as ideas.

Being early in the year, things are just shifting into place workwise, but the next book will probably be a picture book about ‘Audrey of the Outback’. The words are written and Ann James will begin the illustrations this year. Hopefully, the book will be published in 2011.

You can learn more about Christine’s amazing collection of books at her website.

This year, she will be talking at ‘Voices on the Coast’ festival and a writers’ festival in Gladstone – both in Queensland.

For upcoming news, check out her Audrey blog where you’ll also find fun activities for Audrey fans and Audrey’s diary.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

To the Top End: Our Trip Across Australia

Ooh – I love a good travel book and this hardcover picture book by esteemed Aussie illustrator Roland Harvey, takes kids on an absolutely delectable lollop across our wide brown land from Tasmania, across Bass Straight, through the High Plains, via the Riverland, into the Flinders Ranges and over the great deserts of middle Australia.
Readers visit an incredible cacophony of famous desert landmarks before taking a cool dip at the Great Barrier Reef and its stunning islands, then continuing on to the lush rainforest and coastal marshes of the Top End.

With glorious, scattered, kid-like prose and featuring absolutely stunning and eye-swamping illustrations and the most deliciously curly text, wrapping its way around rivers, mountains and rocks – I have to say this is one of my favourite books to appear on the market in recent times.

Told in the voice of the travelling kids, the text is gloriously unwound through the eyes of children. Funny, detailed, packed with wonderful Aussie flora and fauna, I dare any Australian to read this book without puffing their chests out in home-grown pride.

An Aussie must-own.

Title: To The Top End: Our Trip Across Australia
Author/Illustrator: Roland Harvey
Publisher: A & U Children, A$24.99
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781741758849
Publication Date: Nov 2009
For ages: 6-10
Type: Picture Book

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Angel Cake by Cathy Cassidy

Title: Angel Cake

Author: Cathy Cassidy

Publisher: Puffin (Penguin), A$14.95

Format: Softcover

Language: English

ISBN: 9780141325170

For ages: 8+

Type: Junior Fiction

About: It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a young fiction novel. So long, in fact, that when I finished reading Angel Cake by British author Cathy Cassidy, I felt thirteen again. Really. It was like stepping back in time, feeling all those adolescent emotions once more. It also felt wonderful to be reminded of the raw power of friendship in the teen years – a commodity that can become so complicated and delicate as we age.

Admittedly, Angel Cake isn’t aimed at 40-something women. It’s aimed at 9 to 14 year old girls, yet the book was oddly compelling to this over-the-hill reader. Indeed, Cassidy recently told Australian Women Online that she frequently receives emails from older teens and even parents, complimenting her books – something the author says is a bit of a buzz.

“It’s a real privilege to get such direct feedback from my readers,” said Cassidy, who says her website – cathycassidy.com – has become a real vehicle to connect with her readers. “It’s very interactive. [Readers] can post reviews, ask questions, send in artwork of a fave character, post a poem or enter the writing comp and check out my tips for young writers.”

Cassidy admits the best part about this website interaction is that she gets to know how kids feel about her books. “Kids are very honest and direct, so their comments mean a lot to me.”

This popular author’s latest fan offering follows the tale of a young Polish girl who moves to Liverpool, England under the promise of a new job for her father. Of course, like most upheavals, things don’t run smoothly for Anya. Her younger sister Kazia seems to be faring fine, but Anya hates her new high school. The students are disrespectful, have accents as thick as mud and have little patience for Anya’s English skills.

It seems the only way Anya can cope is to withdraw into her own world, one which is touched by the appearance of the long-lashed and rebellious Dan, who treats teachers with irreverence, sets the classroom on fire, and disappears on long sabbaticals from school. But is Dan really an untamable rebel or just a regular guy whose unruly actions are a subtle cry for help?

When Anya and her new friend Frankie spot Dan in a pair of angel wings handing out cupcakes for his mum’s new cake shop, the truth about Dan’s family life begins to unfold, and an unlikely romance blossoms – one that may just help Anya settle into her new life after all. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Anya is in for a few more challenges along the way – is Dan really the boy he appears to be?

The relationship between teens is a focus in Cassidy’s latest book, and it’s something both parents and kids can relate to and learn from. Angel Cake is a neat balancing act for readers in the vastly divergent world that is tween/teendom. Penned with enough prickles and hooks to keep teens interested, and enough clean innocence to attract tweens, the book is fun, entertaining and thought-provoking, especially in regard to the subject of ‘fitting in’.

As the mother of teenagers, Cassidy understands how important friendships are to the wellbeing of this age group, especially those who are not part of the ‘in’ group or who are different in some way.

“At that age more than any other, we want to fit in, to be accepted, and for those kids who are on the outside, it can be very hard,” admits Cassidy. “I like to create eccentric, unusual characters that encourage children to look beyond the obvious… the ‘popular’ kids are not necessarily the right kids for you!” Cassidy believes that being yourself is what really counts, and this is how kids can form strong and lasting friendships, no matter their age.

In fact, the friendship theme runs through all of Cassidy’s books, and her commitment to helping readers understand the importance of healthy friendships extends to her website where she’s encouraging kids worldwide to sign up to her ‘Friendship Charter’.

“It involves signing up online to keep six basic promises to keep your friendship strong. They are simple ideas, but important – and signing up is a great way to say ‘no’ to bullying and ‘yes’ to the power of friendship.”

It’s clear that Cassidy is an author committed to her work. She began her writing journey early – at the age of eight, she penned her first picture book for her little brother, about a very tall sunflower.

“It lasted about a day and then he chewed it up…” recalls the author. “He was only two!” The author also loved making comics featuring picture stories, features and competitions, which she’d try to sell to friends at school. “[This was] before the days of photocopiers, so I never exactly made a fortune!” she laughs. “I love art almost as much as writing and did a degree in Illustration at Liverpool Art College, which was cool.”

Cassidy has worked as a fiction editor for Jackie magazine and has also been an art teacher and agony aunt, but it’s writing that she loves best and she does that so well, a 13-year-old girl recently asked her the most amazing question – ‘How do you know what it feels like to be me?’

“I’m not sure I know the answer,” laughs the author, “But it’s partly that I remember well how it felt for me to be that age, and I have teens of my own and have always worked with the teen/tween age group. I care, I suppose. And I love to create a character and step into her shoes and see and feel and experience the world as she would.”

The inspiration for Cassidy’s stories come from the every day life. “From little experiences, conversations and events that start me thinking and dreaming about a particular idea or theme,” she says. “Having said that, the books are very definitely fiction… I love creating new characters and looking at the world through their eyes.”

Asked why she began writing for this particular age group, it becomes clear that the author just enormously values kids in the teen age bracket.

“They are just so inspiring, not children any more but not adults either – their whole lives are spread out before them and anything and everything is still possible.” Cassidy says she didn’t have a clear plan to write for that particular age group; it was just the way the stories come out. “Maybe I never quite grew up?” she laughs.

It must be so much fun having a mum that never quite grew up. Cassidy’s own children greatly enjoy her books and are always the author’s first readers, giving their mum fantastic feedback.

“If they suggest changing something, I change it. They are the experts on teen culture, after all!”
In a slight departure from the norm, Cassidy has recently released the first in a new series of books aimed at younger children, aged 7 to 11. Shine On Daizy Star will be out in Australia and New Zealand this July and is the first book Cassidy has illustrated herself.

“It’s kind of special to me,” she told AWO. “There’s also quite a bit of the 10-year-old me in the main character, Daizy – crazy, creative, chaotic – but full of big dreams.”

Cassidy’s very first book, Dizzy, was published in 2004 after the author felt driven to write something to inspire her kids.

“My daughter used to be a very picky reader,” she says, “So she was in many ways the reader I had in mind when I started my first book five years ago. I wanted to write something she wouldn’t be able to put down, something that would hook her in but also make her think, dream, ask questions, and maybe even understand life a little more.”

Cassidy’s daughter is an avid reader now, and still loves her mum’s books. As a writer’s kids are possibly their harshest critic, this is testament to a great read indeed. Now with almost a dozen successful books under her belt, it seems this talented author is truly having her angel cake… and eating it, too.

Read more about Cathy Cassidy’s books at cathycassidy.com, where you can sign up for the Friendship Charter!
This article was first published on Australian Women Online.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Review: Edie Amelia and the Monkey Shoe Mystery

Title: Edie Amelia and the Monkey Shoe Mystery

Author: Sophie Lee

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, A$12.99

Format: Softcover

Language: English

EAN: 9780330424189

For ages: 7+

Type: Junior Fiction

About: I have always enjoyed reading Sophie Lee's work and it was with pleasure that I dove into her first children's chapter book - Edie Amelia and the Monkey Shoe Mystery - a mouthful of a title that's fit for a suitably plot-woven story.

I really enjoy a junior fiction novel that doesn't skimp on a relatively intricate plot or sophisticated wordage, with colourful characters, lots of action and maybe even a little silliness. Wonderfully, Lee doesn't do any skimping in Edie Amelia.

With bizarre parents - an out-of-work inventor for a dad and a writer of macrobiotic cookbooks for a mum - Edie Amelia has become awfully good at containing chaos, coralling clutter and keeping order in a house oft piled high with scientific renderings and sweet and sour tofu balls.

When prepping for her birthday party (during which time her mother begins decorating the birthday marquee with salmon skins...), Edie Amelia is horrified to discover one of her treasured monkey shoes missing. How on earth can she attend her upcoming birthday party without said adornments shodding her feet?

That's when the real fun begins. With the aid of her adorable pup, Mr Pants, and reluctant friend Charisma (a.k.a. Cheesy Chompster, so called because of the masses of cauliflower cheese she eats on a regular basis), Edie Amelia embarks on an intrepid search for her monkey shoe that takes her from the curiously treasure-filled rubbish tip to the depths of Chinatown, where Edie uncovers more than a missing shoe mystery.

With lovely visual descriptions, fun, quirky and amiable characters (one also develops a real affection for the main character, which is not always a given), this fanciful book has certainly prepped Lee for more Edie Amelia adventures. I, for one, would be keen to see what this delightful and whimsical character gets up to next.

This book is available online:

Fishpond - A$12.99
QBD - A$12.99
SeekBooks - A$11.69

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Review: Riley and the Dancing Lion

Many thanks to Vicki Stanton of Buzz Words for kindly allowing publication of this review on my site. Buzz Words, an incredible industry newsletter on children's and young adult literature, is a must-subscribe for anyone interested in children's books. Thanks also to Louise Baker!

Riley and the Dancing Lion is the second book in the Riley travelogue series by Tania McCartney. In this second adventure, Riley travels to Hong Kong, in search of the traditional dancing lion of the Chinese New Year. Having read the first book in the series, in which Riley visited Beijing, I was excited to learn that Tania had released a new book featuring her delightful, adventurous traveller, Riley.

This story introduces the young reader to some magnificent highlights of the city of Hong Kong, from Victoria Harbour, into Kowloon, down the South to Aberdeen and to St Paul’s in Macau. The book features black and white photographs of the city, along with a series of dancing lions; from a rapper, to a ballerina and a highland flinging Scotsman. Kieron Pratt has produced a vast array of colourful illustrations, to complement the photography. The detail of the drawings, featuring highly accessorized lions, is sure to catch the attention of young readers.

The story is well written and the language used is clear and articulate and appropriate to a young age group. The layout is easy to follow with large lettering and plenty of balance between type and illustration.

I particularly liked the last page which features a hand drawn map and shows the reader the places where Riley has travelled. Tania will be releasing the next book in the series in 2010, which will take the reader to Sydney and it would be great to see a map in future years well filled with the travelling adventures of young Riley.

Riley and the Dancing Lion by Tania McCartney, illustrated by Kieron Pratt (Tania McCartney Press, 2009)

RRP $16.99

Reviewed by Louise Baker for Buzz Words

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Review: The Boys' and Girls' Holiday Book

As a parent, I just love the sound of this - 'Boredom Escape Kit' and 'Great value, heaps to do' - all promised within these fab new books from Allen & Unwin.
If you have a boy, how do these descriptives snag you - spooky story, sand fort, treasure map, pool games, car rally boardgame? And if you have a girl, what about these pullquotes - surfer girls, perfect postcards, freaky food, beach sudoku, mind games?