Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Inkys

So the Inkys are over for another year, after setting a new record for the most votes. And after a very close race, the Golden Inky was awarded to Where the Streets Had a Name, by Randa Abdel-Fattah, while the Silver Inky went to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which beat out some stiff competition, not least of all Exposure by Mal Peet, Paper Towns by John Green, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

My book Town won the Golden Inky last year, and the most gratifying thing about winning this prize was that it is voted for by teenage readers. And while good reviews are great, being affirmed by the audience for which one writes is even better. At risk of sounding corny, it's what makes us keep doing it.

It's also wonderful to see an organisation like the Centre for Youth Literature generating such interest amongst teen readers. I remember fondly one of my fellow judges, Steph Bowe (who was fifteen at the time) taking issue with someone in the audience at the NSW Writers Centre Writing for Children Conference, when this person attested that 'young people aren't reading anymore'. Steph turned around and publicly put her straight. And the ongoing success of the Inkys supports the view that young people are reading, and doing so in a discerning way.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tolkien the fan-fiction writer

A question, from WikiAnswers: "Where did Tolkien get the story of The Hobbit from?"

Perhaps the person who asked this question had heard that Elvish was in many respects derived from Finnish, and assumed that folklore lent itself to Tolkien's book. And in fact Beowulf is considered to have been something of an influence. There is no such thing as a new idea, really. Heck, Romeo and Juliet is just an earlier rip-off of Titanic.

But to the cynic in me, it seems to me that implicit in the above question is the idea that Tolkien lifted the idea from someone else, in much the same way various writers are now releasing books about vampires and swooning girls, or about wizard academies. (And we shouldn't forget that Stephenie Meyer owes a huge debt to Bram Stoker, and Rowling a similarly large debt to Ursula le Guin.)

Has fan-fiction and wholesale idea-poaching now become such a part of our literary landscape that we assume a great, ground-breaking and iconic work of fiction to have been pinched?

Or am I reading too much into this? I have been known to do this from time to time...

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Monday, November 16, 2009

'Brown Skin Blue' by Belinda Jeffrey


This isn't Belinda Jeffrey's first book, but it is her first published novel. And it's wonderful. It's assured, it's gripping, and in Barry Mundy it's got a character I ached for.

A lot of characters in young adult fiction are misfits. It's a common place to start for the YA writer, and for very good reason. Adolescence is tough. Teenagers seem to enjoy feeling bereft and angsty. So that's what we do to them in our novels. It makes the characters relatable.

But so often protagonists in YA novels aren't satisfied with internalised angst. Oh no, they whine. They whine and they whinge. They complain about their parents, their siblings, their schools, their teachers, their towns, their lack of prospects, their goddamn friends. And it gets so freaking boring. How do I know this? I could hold up several of my own books as Evidence for the Crown.

Barry doesn't do this. His life isn't perfect – his childhood hasn't been by a very long shot – but I don't think I felt a single shudder of self pity in his story. He's got a lot of serious shit to get through, but he doesn't wallow. He gets angry, sure, and he feels confused and lost for words, but at no point does he ask the reader to feel sorry for him. It's very refreshing.

But more than that is the language in this book, both in terms of the dialogue – the Top End Strine is pitch-perfect – but also the narrative voice. One review of this book described this book as having a 'sureness of touch'. I think that's something of an understatement.

The other thing I really admired about this book is the way the author managed to resist the urge to make it another 'issues' book. There are so many issues she could have latched onto: race, environment, a myriad of other matters of social conscience. But she allows these to colour the story (sorry, no pun on the title intended) rather than dominate it. It's a very impressive bit of writing.

(Brown Skin Blue is published by UQP.)

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Friday, November 13, 2009

A week in the bush

As I write this, I'm sitting in McDonald's, Parkes, enjoying their free Wi-Fi, which gives me an opportunity to reflect on the last week or so.

I've just spent the lat three days at Lake Cargelligo Central School. 'Lake', as it's known locally, is a town of 1,300 (give or take) a couple of hours west of Parkes.

Lake is tired. Everywhere around Lake is tired. The lake that the town is named for has shrunken, the foreshore now a hundred metres or so away from where the boatramp ends. The streets are dusty, the silos empty, and the people seemingly resigned. They're harvesting at the moment. Or to be more accurate, those who have crops to harvest are harvesting. Some aren't even bothering. They're talking in very small numbers – one to two bags per acre. I'm not sure how big a bag actually is, but Matthew from Year 7 told me that his dad is currently driving grain trucks at Coonamble, a few hours up the road, where they're getting twelve to fourteen bags per acre. Last night on Prime, the news talked about the record harvest in Coonamble. They had shots of locals drinking up in the pub, smiling, grinning, celebrating. They got rain just at the right time.

I ate at one of the two Lake pubs most evenings. No one was celebrating in those pubs. One evening it rained, and the small number of locals who bothered to go outside to have a look didn't seem all that surprised to see that the shower lasted for a full fifteen minutes, then slunk away.

The kids at Lake Cargelligo Central School are like country kids everywhere. They're easy to engage, but difficult to get a response from. And you only have to strike up a conversation with their elders to know why this is. They don't need to impress anyone. And as a result, they aren't easily impressed. They just are.

The other things these kids are is older and wiser than their city cousins. I had to remind myself several times that I was speaking to Year 7s and 8s, not 9s and 10s. The teachers tell me of how overwhelmed these kids are when they go to the city for excursions. But I can't imagine there's much else that overwhelms them. Not when boys and girls in Year 6 and 7 tell me very matter-of-factly about going piggin' with their pig-dogs, or fishing for 60cm carp with a compound bow.

I love getting out on the road, and opening up the throttle a bit, both literally and metaphorically. I do love the bush. I was born in Trundle, which is about 45 minutes west of where I now sit.

I dropped in at Trundle other day. It felt familiar, but not like home. And when I introduced myself to the kids from Lake, I was very clear: I was born around here, but I'm not from around here. To make that claim would be to devalue the uniqueness of their growing-up experience. And that's the last thing I want to do.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

"This is why you're fat."

I keep getting spam (at least I hope they're spam) emails, with this as their subject line.

I don't need to be told. I know the reasons: they're twofold, and they're very clear.

1. I like food.

2. I dislike exercise.

As they say in the classics, "You do the math."

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

The AJ cover flat

(click on it for a better look)

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The first Anonymity Jones review

By Denise Muir, Head of English Domain, Upper Yarra Secondary College.

Anonymity’s life is unravelling, like the seam of “...the cricket ball she once found under the azalea bush...and she’d found the end, picked at it, and began to unwind it.”

Her life seems to be going nowhere, her home life, her friends and the relationship she once valued with her art teacher. Her life seems to be in a continuous loop, but unlike the neighbour’s dog her yelps and wails are ignored. The novel explores her strength in dealing with the hardships in her life. It explores her insight into what is right and wrong and the courage to make her own mark in life. Anonymity stays true to herself and takes control rather than becoming an anonymous bystander as her name suggests. Beautifully written with a mix of wit and humour it is honest and gritty, whilst at the same time sensitive and insightful. It is refreshing to read a book with such a strong female protagonist and that deals with confronting issues openly and realistically. This is definitely a book that older teenagers will relate to and will want to read in one sitting, as I did. I would recommend this novel for mature teenage readers (Year 10) as it requires a maturity to understand the complexities of the issues being explored and their consequences.

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Names changed to protect the bloody rude.

Today Vicki and I went into Sydney for a meeting. And around lunchtime, we went for a walk. And we went to a book store.

It's a crowded little independent store, full of all the usual kinds of books – literary, trash, non-fiction, travel, cookery, all the usual. And a children's section, which featured a fair range of kids books. In a number of cases, they had four or five copies of books that you might not ordinarily expect to find in multiple numbers.

I've had a lot more joy lately finding my books in stores (even the chains), so I thought it might be safe to look for my titles. I didn't expect to find the entire backlist , just a couple, perhaps. I'm not greedy, but I do think that selling books is somewhat reliant on bookstores stocking them.

There weren't any. Not one. Since this is nothing particularly new, I thought I'd go and talk to the lady who owned the place, and introduce myself. Most booksellers really like it when authors do this. It creates an oft-missing connection between the author and the person who sells the book to the person for whom the book is written. It's not an exercise in ego – it's an exercise in mutual benefit.

'Hi,' I said. 'I'm wondering if you have any copies of Edsel Grizzler, by James Roy?'
'No,' she said, without even looking it up on her computer. 'We don't have it.'
'I see. Have you ever had it...? You sold out, perhaps? Because I wrote it, you see, and I like to check the shelves of local---'
'No, we've never had it. Who published it?'
'Right. No, I don't have it.'
'Well, it was featured in a double-page spread the Sun Herald a few weeks ago, so it's quite possible that someone who read that piece might come in looking for that specific book.'
'Look,' she said, 'I've only got thirty-eight square metres of space in this store, and I have a lot of books to shelve, but I can't be expected to stock everything that's published.'

At this point, she turned away to cut some ribbon for the books she was gift-wrapping for a rather embarrassed-looking customer. Conversation over.

I couldn't resist a parting shot. 'Well, you seem to have multiple copies of a lot of books by other children's writers, so I'm sure you could find space for one of mine. Thank you.'

The fact is, I always expect to find none of my books in bookshops. It's safer that way – it can avoid real disappointment. And I also assume that the owner has never heard of me, or any of my books. And I'm sad to say, this woman confirmed my assumption. But I have to wonder, would she have been as dismissive – no, let's say it the way it was – rude to a buying customer? I very much doubt it.

An author/illustrator friend had a similar experience himself recently, when he went into another independent store not that far from where we were today, and asked for his book by name (without mentioning that he was the author). While the young shop assistant was looking up the title, her boss asked my friend, 'Are you going to order it in if we don't have it?'

'Probably not today,' my friend said.

At this, the boss turned to his employee and said, 'Stop. Stop looking. If they're not going to order the book, don't search past the title.'

Good to see that customer service is alive and well. I've had better service in the big, impersonal chains, and that's really saying something.

Oh, and by the way, Lady from ******* Bookshop, if you find a pile of books in the entirely wrong section of your store, they're the $200 worth of books we were planning to buy, but ended up putting down. Sorry, couldn't do it.

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