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

Sunday 20 June 2010

My CBCA Conference Experience

Day One

My first ever Children’s Book Council of Australia conference was an absolute dream. A little overwhelming but highly enlightening and truly book bliss for any author, illustrator, publisher, teacher, librarian or literary specialist, not to mention anyone who just loves books!

Entitled Imagine This! Imagine That! the conference was held over two days at the Menzies Hotel in the heart of Sydney, attended by 400 delegates and some rather meaty Australian literary talent.

After waking at 4.30am to catch an early bird flight to Sydney from Canberra, I arrived at the Menzies just after 8am to register, grab a nice cuppa and take a sneak peek at the publisher trade displays and Book Shop, stacked to the rafters with books by speaking author/illustrators and others. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to sell my own Riley books at the bookstore, which, astoundingly, and much to my delight, sold out completely by lunch time on Day Two!

Some early scenes at the bookshop - this lovely librarian was loaded to book capacity!

By 9am, I was settled in to the main conference room for the first sessions. I met two lovely teacher librarians – Liz and Dani – from Leeton and Broken Hill, respectively (who made me want to travel to both destinations, post-haste).

Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Governor of NSW, opened the conference with a beautiful and impassioned speech, which was quickly followed by an enlightening and emotive talk on the Indigenous Literary Project, presented by Kristin Gill and author Andy Griffiths, who is the ILP Ambassador.

We were entranced by their journeys to remote indigenous Australian communities, where they spend time talking with and donating a plethora of book packs to kids, whilst simultaneously highlighting the importance of literacy amongst Aboriginal children… only one in five of these children can read at an ‘acceptable’ level, an appalling statistic that is worse than most developing countries.

You can learn more about this enormously important project at indigenousliteracyproject.org.au, where you can get personally involved, or rope in your school, community or business organisation.

Next we were given a glorious keynote address by talented Australian author and literacy advocate Libby Gleeson AM, which was followed by morning tea and the chance to meet up with faces old and new. It was a real thrill to finally meet authors Dee White and Sandy Fussell after connecting on the internet for so many months, and also to meet Rebecca Newman of Alphabet Soup magazine, who shares my deep passion for reviews, news and literary musings. If you haven’t checked out her wonderful magazine, you must do so immediately.

After morning tea, we were swept up in star struck splendour with three back-to-back sessions on picture book partnerships between author and illustrator; something that is dear to my own creative heart.

Firstly, we were spoiled rotten to have Libby Gleeson and illustrator Armin Greder take us through their amazing picture book collaboration, revealing the way they have worked together to create some beautiful picture books … focusing on The Great Bear and An Ordinary Day. It was an amazing treat to see initial draft illustrations of Armin’s work on The Great Bear and to learn how he develops his work, in tune it the narrative.

Next was Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas – oh I had stars in my eyes! Watching their work unfold together – seeing Julie’s roughs, learning how Margaret first conceived her storylines, was such a thrill. It was remarkable to be taken through the production process for both Puffling and Let the Celebrations Begin.

Then came my own personal love – Jackie French and her partner in spectacular creation – Bruce Whatley, who delighted us with images and tales on the creation of Diary of a Wombat. It was hilarious to hear Bruce read production emails between Jackie and the publishers and Harper Collins regarding picture book Emily and the Big Bad Bunyip. The emails related to the debacle over what kind of instrument Emily the Emu could possibly play – seeing that she only had teensy little wings, the team finally settled on a tuba. Wonderful, enlightening stuff.

Learning how famous book collaborations are formed, developed and retained, was a joyous thing for this author, and these sessions were a highlight for me.

After lunch, where I managed to catch up with lovely author Aleesah Darlison, we were treated to a fascinating talk by impassioned book lover and literacy dynamo Paul MacDonald, who owns The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft, Sydney. Paul spoke to us about the rise and importance of Graphic Novels from K to 12, and his arguments were strong and enlightening. One of my regrets was not getting to meet Paul, who so kindly featured Riley and the Sleeping Dragon in one of his well-populated presentations on books-to-look-out-for, in Sydney last year.

Following Paul was a conference highlight – an hour with author/illustrator (and now film maker!) Shaun Tan who delighted everyone with a powerpoint presentation on his magnificent artwork, regaling us with his thought processes behind his ideas. Intelligent, introspective, philosophical and glorious to witness, Shaun also showed us a sneak peek of his new short film, based on his book The Lost Thing. It was amazing.

I also met and thoroughly enjoyed chatting to children's book aficionado Peter Williams, who collects first edition books and art - and actually owned one of the original paintings Shaun displayed during his talk. Such a lovely man and so impassioned about the work of Australian authors and illustrators.

Shaun Tan boggles us all with talent

Following afternoon tea and clutching books signed by Jackie French, Bruce Whatley and Shaun Tan (who are all just gorgeous people!) Melina Marchetta appeared to an entranced crowd, which I, alas, missed, as I was feeling a little under the weather.

After a rest in my room and a long bath, I managed to attend the cocktail party to launch Queen Victoria’s Underpants by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley. The bubble-sipping crowd was entertained by the appearance of Queen Victoria herself, dressed in her finest regalia and bearing the most illustrious pair – and she didn’t hesitate to make them known to everyone in the room – of bloomers.

Jackie (who is looking fabulous!) chats to the cocktail party crowd

Her Majesty regaled us with the journey from knickerless monarch to be-knickered modern woman, changing the future of undergarments for women everywhere. It was such a treat.

Alas, I wasn’t feeling well and a glass of bubbles probably didn't help, so after a quick catch up with lovely author Karen Robertson, I headed off to bed and slept a good ten hours, dreaming about an incredible day.

Day Two

As if this conference could get any better, we started the day with an emotional (for me, anyway, and it seems for many other delegates) conversation between publisher Margaret Hamilton and authors Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King. Although I’m not yet overly familiar with Glenda’s work (that is about to change!), I am a great Stephen fan and he was every bit as down to earth, warm and beautiful as his books. His focus on purity and simplicity in his work, and his own personal mantra on adopting kindness in his world, had me in tears. Later, at morning tea, I did the old stupid star struck thing and introduced myself to him and said something along the lines of “I love you!” before scurrying away. The poor man.

Enormously successful author Markus Zusak was next - it was fascinating to hear him talk about The Book Thief and how he discovered that writing for himself – and not trying to please everyone who would ever read the book – was the only way he could possibly get through a manuscript that trebled in size by completion.

At morning tea I met some gorgeous teacher librarians – Sue and Kate – and we chatted over scones with jam and cream before the launch of Libby Hathorn’s new book The ABC Book of Australian Poetry. With an introduction by Margaret Hamilton, Libby spoke to us about her passion for poems and introduced us to this magnificent and important new collection.

A book signing soon followed, then it was into some fabulous concurrent sessions, beginning with Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle, who took us through the construction of their incredible work – The Word Spy, which focuses on the origins and structure of the written word.

Ursula and Tohby do their literary thing

It’s absolutely shameless that I had yet to dip into The Word Spy – it was just yet another of many books I’m yet to add to my groaning children’s book pile – and as the story for their book unfolded, I was horrified to realise this book is so completely me and everything I love – well… how could I have lasted this long without it? On the way home later that night, I searched every airport bookstore for it and managed to snaffle the last copy at Borders in Canberra the next day! and of course – it’s heaven.

Big regret – not having the chance to meet Ursula and Toby – those book signings were crammed with queues and sold-out books and not enough minutes before new sessions began. Regrets regrets.

The next concurrent session was really eye-opening for me – I had not read verse novels for many many years and fell in love with them all over again after reading Sally Murphy’s Toppling recently. Sally and I have liaised by email since her Snowy’s Christmas picture book was published last year and it was just so lovely to hear her speak on her passion for poetry and verse – focusing on her CBCA shortlisted book – Pearl Verses the World.

It was also a real thrill to hear successful verse novelist Sherryl Clark talk about her verse and poetry work, and to become re-enthralled with a form of literature that seems to have lost its popularity over the last few decades. That is about to change with these talented authors bringing such zest and emotion to these fabulous books.

The third session was run by authors Sandy Fussell and Dee White – and was absolutely fabulous. Packed with priceless and informative information on authors and in the internet, Dee and Sandy are two very active, dynamic and passionate authors who have Facebook and Twitter firmly in hand, with their very impressive and interactive websites and blogs. Sandy, an IT professional, has a comprehensive and amazing site for her popular Samurai Kids series, and Dee’s website is quite mindblowing in its content and resources for other authors – I have no idea where she finds the time to write her books on top of all that she shares and coordinates for others.

After a bite of lunch with some more fabulous people, I hotfooted it to more book signings where I finally met the lovely Sally Murphy, after all this time and then said a quick hello to gorgeous author Jacquie Harvey, who has been featured on Kids Book Review with her fabulous Alice-Miranda book series.

Alas, I wasn’t feeling well, so after a quick rest, I joined a fascinating and lively discussion on E-Books between publishers from several high-profile organisations, including Dyan Blacklock, Linsay Knight, Laura Harris and Leonie Tyle, in discussion with Mark Macleod. It was incredible to hear their thought and opinion on where e-books are headed and the imminent ‘demise’ of the hardcopy book. (A bit like the ‘paperless office’, I suppose!)
I then ran into fellow local Canberra author Tracey Hawkins and had a wonderful natter with her and also author Mo Johnson. In finishing an incredible 48 hours of book bliss, we were treated to an appearance by amazing and most beloved book creator Bob Graham (why doesn't Bob have a website???), who took us on a biographical romp through his working and personal life, complete with powerpoint ‘slide show’. This was rounded off by a magnificent musical tribute to Bob’s work, performed by a talented group of musicians, conductor and singer.

Bob Graham humbles us all with talent

Just before the tribute finished, I had to hightail it to catch my flight, but leaving early was no consolation prize. I left feeling warmed, fulfilled and enormously grateful for this extraordinary experience – one I know all of us will be talking about and sharing for many weeks and months to come.

Huge kudos to the CBCA NSW team for this incredible two days. Special thanks to conference convener Gail Erskine and her team for coordinating such an enormous event and for making this such a pleasant and beautifully constructed literary work of art.

Personal thanks to Mary McNally and the bookshop staff for having my books on sale and for providing a book-lover’s nirvana – I know how the hard work they put into this. And lastly, thank you to our amazing Aussie talent – our authors, illustrations, publishers, teachers, librarians, literary specialists … for without you, there would be no books to open and no literary beauty to behold.