Recent reads – October 2016

Some recent reads from the ever-growing book stack:


The Hate Race


I powered through Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race (and think you should too!). A memoir about growing up in the whitewashed Sydney ‘burbs of the 80s and 90s – a heartbreaking look at racism and its effects (with the best pop culture references – Lucy’s party on Degrassi!).

You'll Grow Out Of It


A fun, New Yorky, zeitgeisty book of essays by Jessi Klein (head writer of Inside Amy Schumer), spanning all the things (life/love/gender). If you zipped through the other recent memoirs of smart, funny ladies (Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham et al), You’ll Grow Out Of It will likely resonate.

Adult fiction

The Girls

Atmospheric, moody, menacing – The Girls paints a picture of an isolated (and quite frankly, feral) California ranch, where floaty girls flock around its leader, Russell. Loosely based on the followers of Charles Manson, and unputdownable.


Becoming Aurora

The debut YA novel of Queensland author Elizabeth Kasmer, Becoming Aurora is a powerful tale of a girl who has lost her way. Aurora is running with the wrong crowd, and after they vandalise a restaurant in a race-related turf war she’s sentenced to community service. Her interactions with ex-boxer Jack who she tends to in a nursing home, and her burgeoning relationship with Essam are woven beautifully together, culminating in a truly touching ending. I loved this.


Picture books

They All Saw A Cat

They All Saw A Cat is a buzzworthy debut by Brendan Wenzel, presenting the vastly different perspectives of a cast of creatures.  For more, see my review for Buzz Words here.


Captain Sneer

A rollicking, rhyming tale of a boastful pirate, Captain Sneer the Buccaneer is a fun picture book to read aloud. Author Penny has been super busy with readings around Sydney as well as popping up in all the kidlit internety places – in character, no less! And Gabriel Evans’ illustrations are so detailed and clever.


Molly & Mae

I keep re-reading this new release by Danny Parker & Freya Blackwood, who last teamed up on another gorgeous picture book, Perfect. Molly & Mae tells a tale of the ups and downs of friendship via the backdrop of a train journey. Stunning.

A round-up of writerly things: May-July 2016

CYA Conference 2016


There have been so many fun, inspiring writerly things in the last couple of months, from writers’ festivals and conferences, to competitions, courses and (I think) Australia’s first Twitter pitch-fest!

Alice Pung & Sofie Laguna, Sydney Writers’ Festival
In May, I saw authors Alice Pung and Sofie Laguna in conversation at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Their discussion spanned writing from different perspectives, whether it be from a child or teen’s point of view, to a character who thinks in a different kind of way – a voice Sofia Laguna nailed with The Eye of the Sheep’s narrator, Jimmy. I loved hearing about Alice Pung’s own background and how it informs her stories (with more than a touch of her life experiences drawn on in her YA novel, Laurinda), and how Sofie came to set The Eye of the Sheep in Melbourne’s industrial outer suburbs. (I highly, highly recommend this book by the way!) Their chat pretty much reinforced my fangirl love for both of these authors, and guaranteed I’ll purchase anything else they write!

Twitter pitch contest
Then there was the Twitter pitch contest, a mainstay of the US writing scene but pretty much non-existent here – until now. Children’s author and organiser extraordinaire Aleesah Darlison initiated the comp (held by the NSW Writers’ Centre, enhanced by their GIF superpowers), where you basically had to pitch your book in 140 characters or less for an agent to sift through and shortlist. I loved the challenge of distilling a story into such a compact form, and it was just as fun reading all the other pitches. Excitement levels peaked when some of my critique group members (Kate Simpson and Catherine Pelosi) were shortlisted. The eventual winners were Selene G for her YA pitch, and Laura Greaves, who was fast tracked to the live pitching session at the Kids and YA Festival for her picture book.

Pitching seminar @ NSW Writers’ Centre
I then attended a pitching seminar with freelance editor Laurel Cohn at the NSW Writers’ Centre. One of the most fascinating aspects of the session was seeing some examples of real-life successful pitches that lead to publishing deals. One of them was for Samantha Turnbull’s junior fiction series, The Anti-Princess Club – she was contacted by Allen & Unwin TWO HOURS after submitting it to their Friday Pitch slushpile(!) Ultimately, Laurel’s advice was to distill your story to an ‘essence sentence’ and build on it from there to develop a blurb, a 1-3 sentence response to ‘what are you writing about?’ and a longer synopsis. While the session was probably more applicable to written pitches, there was advice that could be applied to other pitch types too (verbal, Twitter etc.).

Kids & YA Festival, NSW Writers’ Centre
The Kids & YA Festival is held every two years at the NSW Writers’ Centre. This was my second time at this day long inspiration-fest. Again, Aleesah Darlison did a great job of curating panel sessions on everything from picture book publishing to overseas rights, to all things YA and what publishers want. The day began with a keynote address by author Tristan Bancks, a hilarious and engaging speaker passionate about inspiring kids to write their own stories, traversing the digital world (exploding chicken-off, anyone?) and spreading the book love to developing countries via his charity work. His anecdotes about tapping into his own childhood stories to use in his My Life books was lots of fun.

The picture book panel featured EK Books author Katrina McKelvey, who spoke about her random ideas at the worst possible times (apparently there are waterproof notebooks for shower-thinking, who knew?!), Andrew Daddo on the often drawn-out path to publication (his first book took five years), to the lovely Meredith Costain and Aleesah Darlison. All of these speakers were down to earth, and I was particularly impressed with how, well, normal Andrew Daddo came across. It’s easy to be dubious about the celebrity-turned-children’s book author, particularly if it’s clearly a one-off, ego/CV boosting project, but Andrew came across as the real deal, committed to writing books and grappling with similar issues to the rest of us.

The overseas rights panel demonstrated the importance of backing yourself. Jacqueline Harvey self-funds international trips to promote her Clementine Rose and Alice Miranda books, while Michelle Worthington is very driven when it comes to social media marketing. Susanne Gervay is all about both, and emphasised the importance of having industry contacts. Sophie Masson shared some fascinating insights into different markets, such as Korea being a much more receptive market to overseas kids’ books than Japan, for example.

Next was a seminar about industry networking with children’s authors Sandy Fussell and Susan Whelan. They discussed how immersing yourself in the industry in the forms of volunteering, book reviewing, mentoring, critiquing and social media networking can all be beneficial – not only for your own contacts, but for giving back and getting to know fellow writers. They both came across as such warm, genuine people with a passion for kids’ books and the industry in general.

The YA panel featured the ridiculously accomplished Steph Bowe and Will Kostakis, who were first published as teens, more from Tristan Bancks and insights from Dave Burton. Chaired by Adele Walsh of the fabulous Twitter handle ‘@snarkywench’ the panel touched on everything from tapping into the turmoil of the teen years to achieving longevity as a writer.

The publishing panel was a popular one, featuring Anouska Jones of EK Books, Holly Toohey of Penguin Random House, Rochelle Manners of Wombat Books and Tara Wynne of literary agency Curtis Brown. Topics included how they approach their slushpiles, hot topics in children’s books, what they like to see in submissions, and the upcoming titles they’re looking forward to. All very insightful, and at times, amusing (do not send ‘wombat’ books to Wombat Books!). Also – Tara Wynne believes people are born with an X factor, and will blacklist for errors in submissions (no pressure, people!). I just love listening to these types of panels – you gain insights into the personalities and quirks of publishing people. All very insider-y.

CYA Conference, Brisbane
This year’s CYA Conference was bigger, brighter and buzzier than ever, from the record number of attendees to the winning light box and balloon props. Along with the whole learning aspect, CYA is such an amazing event for connecting with other writers and creators. It was so nice to chat with some writers IRL who I knew (or knew of) from orbiting the same patches of kidlit cyberspace, like the lovely Dimity Powell and Kaye Baillie. And I met a fellow student from my MA course at Deakin, Melbourne-dwelling YA writer Alex Fairhill – so fun to connect after critiquing each other’s work and chatting online during our course!

We heard hilarious anecdotes from author James Phelan (hipsters, tanks – you had to be there, really, but I was doing that thing where you realise you’re laughing more than anyone around you), an in-depth look at picture books with author Katrina Germein (the key is rule-breaking!), and a super-intriguing ‘first page’ panel where publishers revealed what would or wouldn’t compel them to read a manuscript further.

The CYA Competition results were also announced, for manuscripts and illustrations across categories ranging from pre-schooler picture books to YA novels. It was exciting to see a bunch of people from my writing group represented. Kim Astill and Catherine Pelosi both came 1st (PBs and JF, respectively), and Nat Amoore came third for her MG novel. And I came 3rd for a non-fiction picture book! Also, yay for Rachel Noble and everyone else who placed. Encouraging all-round!

What’s next?
Next on the event agenda is the Sydney-based SCBWI Conference in September. Like the Kids & YA Festival, this one’s only held every two years. It’s my first time attending – cannot wait! In the meantime, it’s back to obsessing over all the books and writing a thing or two.

KidLitVic 2016 (Part 2)

There were so many thought-provoking topics discussed at KidLitVic (see Part 1 for an intro), from gender and diversity in children’s books to what publishers are looking for. Did you know:

  • Picture books are submitted to publishers in far greater quantities than other types of kids’ books (junior fiction and beyond). For example, Melissa Keil of Five Mile Press said for them, it’s around a 30:1 ratio.
  • There is a need for more children’s books featuring female protagonists. From Melissa Keil: only 1 in 11 of their current picture books feature a female lead character(!)
  • There are exceptions to every ‘rule’. For example, picture book authors are commonly told the publisher will source the illustrator, however in the case of Scribble (a new imprint by Scribe), publisher Miriam Rosenbloom said they actually like being approached by an author/illustrator pair.

More from the panels:

  • Other interesting revelations from the Picture Book panel (Melissa Keil, Miriam Rosenbloom and Maryann Ballantyne from Black Dog Books) included picture book word lengths not always mattering (i.e. you don’t necessarily have to stick to the under 500 word guide most often mentioned). You can also submit 2-3 manuscripts at once.
  • The Chapter Book/Middle Grade panel, featuring Clare Hallifax (Scholastic), Marisa Pintado (Hardie Grant Egmont) and Michelle Madden (Penguin Random House), discussed the idea that boys will read chapter books featuring girls, but may feel social pressure to hide it. All revealed their penchant for publishing non-gender specific characters and concepts, however Clare Hallifax commented that young readers often want something gender specific. ‘I hate it, but it is a reality,’ she said.
  • Marisa Pintado and Michelle Madden prefer chapter books that are part of a series, however Clare Hallifax doesn’t mind standalone titles, especially if they can later be packaged with other books by the same author.
  • For illustrators, showcasing your work on websites like The Style File is invaluable. The Illustration panel (Jacinta di Mase (literary agent), Kimberley Bennett (Random House) and Suzanne O’Sullivan (Lothian/Hachette) mentioned they visit this for ideas and sourcing talent.
  • In the world of YA, paranormal is out. Lisa Berryman of HarperCollins said she receives ‘too much fantasy and paranormal’, while Elise Jones of Allen & Unwin said ‘publishers and booksellers are sick of dystopian’, even if readers aren’t yet.

There is so much more I could tell you – but if you write or illustrate children’s books, you might just have to come to the hotly anticipated 2017 event! A few more attendees have done some fabulous write-ups too:

  • Sylvia Morris includes some helpful links on permission protocols if writing from a cultural perspective that’s not your own (with some specific advice relating to indigenous content)
  • Ramona Davey features some great snapshots of what each of the presenters like (oh, and a pic of our lovely critique group too :-) )
  • Megan Higginson has a detailed, fly on the wall account that will make you feel like you were there, even if you weren’t

KidLitVic 2016 (Part 1)

Chapter book and middle grade panel at KIdLitVic 2016

I thought I’d recap some highlights from KidLitVic 2016 before I descend into a post-conference, hot chip and gravy scoffing pile of exhaustion *may be too late*.

This was the first ever KidLitVic conference, also known as ‘Meet the Publishers’, put on by children’s authors Alison Reynolds, Dee White and Jaquelyn Muller, and illustrator Nicky Johnston (who all did the most amazing job). Held in Melbourne’s State Library on 7 May,  it was a day full of insightful panel talks on everything from picture books through to YA, featuring some of Australia’s top children’s publishers. There was an illustrator showcase, one-on-one feedback appointments with editors/publishers/an agent plus pitching sessions, all followed by a cocktail party. So, what did we learn? Gazillions of things (like, hardly any guys come to children’s writing festivals, haha!), but I came away with a few strong overall messages:

Think commercially

This was reiterated again and again. Your writing might be good, but if your book’s not marketable it won’t be picked up. As a writer (or illustrator) you have to think beyond the story you want to tell to whether it will sell. This is the reality of publishing. So, the more insights you can gain into what publishers and the market want, the better.

You are your brand

Self-promotion in the form of social media and everything internet, along with events like writers’ festivals, school visits etc. are all part of being an author. Clare Hallifax of Scholastic said ‘you do become a brand’ and ‘there is a huge need for authors to be self-promoting’. Michelle Madden from Penguin wants ‘a person who can empathise with gatekeepers’.

Write all the books

Publishers are not interested in one hit wonders. Many said that they want to know you have (and can) write lots of books – that you’re worth investing in. Marisa Pintado of Hardie Grant wants ‘an author ready to write lots of books’. Publishers want career authors, not someone who’s rustled up a manuscript and just wants it published, with no intention of a book-creating future.

More to come in Part 2!

On the reading pile

February reads


The reading pile of late includes:

Lonely Planet South India & Kerala – for trip planning in progress! Yes, there are travel apps and e-books and travel sites galore for such things, but I still have an enormous place in my heart for ‘real’ travel guidebooks. Something about flipping through the pages instead of scrolling down a screen… not to mention bookshelf appeal. Kerala’s mix of tropical backwaters, spice trade history and mountainous tea plantations sound amazing – I can’t get there fast enough.

Withering-By-Sea – a captivating middle grade read that I was lucky enough to win from a recent NSW Writer’s Centre giveaway. Australian author Judith Rossell has created a beautifully written Victorian-era adventure story featuring an orphan named Stella, who lives in a seaside hotel with three awful aunts. It’s full of intrigue and a little dark – story perfection for my inner 10 year old.

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert’s guide to ‘creative living beyond fear’. I’ve yet to crack this open but I’m anticipating a mega dose of inspiration and motivation…

SCBWI Bulletin – a quarterly mini-mag issued by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. This is a major children’s writing body with branches all over that I recently joined. With articles on everything from editing, characterisation, meditation for writers and the ins and outs of critique groups, it’s a great little membership perk.

Finding Monkey Moon – a beautiful picture book by Elizabeth Pulford and Kate Wilkinson (Walker Books) that is right up my heartfelt/emotionally driven PB alley. It’s about a little boy’s search for his lost favourite toy, and ultimately about bravery as he has to search deep into a dark park to find it.

Reading pile aside… we now have a rotating reading shelf (bookshop/library style) thanks to the best roadside rescue of all time!!! The kids’ current reads and library loans can now be easily seen and obsessed over. Here it is:

Rotating shelf

Happy reading!

Picture book love: The Rabbits

The Rabbits


The Rabbits, written by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan, Lothian Books, 1998

A sparsely narrated yet immensely powerful text, The Rabbits depicts a long ago invasion echoing white settlement of Australia. It emphasises the differences of an unrelenting stream of rabbits arriving by ship to a desert-like land, with those already inhabiting it depicted as kangaroo-like creatures. The rabbits’ unstoppable nature is stated in a clear, matter of fact tone, yet Tan’s complex illustrations delve deeper into their dominance and their impact. The grey-toned industrial scenes and use of black space in many of the later pages depict a harshness, as though colour has been replaced. The final statement and image offers little in the way of hope. A haunting, thought-provoking book that breaks the children-only boundaries of the perceived picture book audience.

Picture Book Idea Month 2015



Because NaNoWriMo isn’t enough of a writing challenge each November, there’s a simultaneous challenge particularly for picture book writers. Enter PiBoIdMo, the brainchild of US picture book author, prolific blogger and motivator of all the picture book people, Tara Lazar.

The premise sounds simple on the surface – think of an idea for a picture book each day in November (and perhaps win prizes like books and manuscript critiques in the process) – yet in practice, conjuring ideas on demand (well, good ones) is no easy task. If you succeed, you’re left with a bank of ideas to refer to over the following months to develop into manuscripts. After loving last year’s challenge I’ve signed up for a second round, and if even one good idea shines through, it’ll be worthwhile.

Picture book love: A bear and a tree

A bear and a tree


A bear and a tree, written and illustrated by Stephen Michael King, Viking/Penguin Group, 2012

In A bear and a tree, a kind bear about to hibernate helps his friend Ren understand why a tree has lost its leaves. Seasonal changes and the passing of time are depicted largely through the illustrations. Gentle watercolour images reflect the soft, heartfelt narrative, and white space is utilised to highlight moments of action. Some double page, full frame spreads feature few or no words, allowing for quiet contemplation of Ren and Bear’s journey. A satisfactory resolution is reached when the bear helps Ren attach remnants of each season and their adventures to the tree, suggesting themes of team work, friendship, creativity and reassurance. This is a poignant story with a gentle strength, by one of my favourite author/illustrators.

Snapshots 20.08.15

Luna Park

Daytripping – Luna Park fun


August so far has seen hot weather hopefulness with trips to the beach, lots of good reads, much picture book love and some delicious Sydney food finds for good measure.

Kids’ books

We are fully aboard the Andy Griffiths train in this house, with the obligatory purchase of the latest Treehouse book (made all the more exciting after meeting Andy at the Sydney’s Writer’s Festival this year!). Here are a couple of great articles post 65-Storey Treehouse release: the importance of humour in kids’ books, and why Andy Griffiths thinks many children’s stories are boring.

Other favourite kids’ reads right now: Lulu by Georgie Donaghey, Lisa absolutely loves art by Sophie Norsa, The Cleo Stories by Libby Gleeson, The Colour Thief by Gabriel Alborozo and Why I love Australia by Bronwyn Bancroft (you can read my review for Buzz Words here).


Kids books we love - August


Lulu author Georgie (who signed her book for my kids at the recent CYA Conference) sent us a lovely package of Lulu-themed craft and fun things (like chocolate) – the kids were super impressed to receive something in the mail from a real-life author!


All things Lulu


Other reads

I recently devoured Bejing Tai Tai by Tania McCartney, an expat memoir of the now kids’ author (and brains behind Kids Book Review, one my favourite go-to kids’ book sites) on her expat years in Beijing. I felt swept up in her story as it was so relatable, There were many things that mirrored my own time living in Asia in the late 2000s – everything from maid dramas and navigating expat friendships, to cultural differences and bringing up kids ‘elsewhere’. It’s humourous, warm, insightful – a bit like reading someone’s diary. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of expat or travel non-fiction.

Current reads

I’ve also just read Motherhood and Creativity by Rachel Power, a collection of stories by Australian women who grapple with juggling motherhood with a creative career, whether it be acting, art or writing. It was so interesting to read insights into these women’s lives, especially admired writers like Sally Rippin and Nikki Gemmell. Such a great read for anyone balancing all things kids with a passion pursuit.

Now, I’m reading Emily Bitto’s The Strays (loving so far), with a side detour into YA for uni (Risk by Fleur Ferris and Just_a_Girl by Kristen Krauth – both engaging yet chilling in their own ways).


Weekend wanderings // Sydney



Daytrips, food loves and fun things of late have included:

+ an exploration of the far northern beaches (winter denial), including a pitstop at a great Avalon cafe, Smalltown (like a slice of the inner-west, transported to beachland)

+ Luna Park on a blue sky day, with a side serve of Americana at Batch burgers in Kirribilli

+ a sushi train restaurant with iPads for ordering (new favourite city sushi)

+ oysters at The Gretz and dinner at Hartsyard (balancing all the ‘heartiness’ – ahem, fried chicken – with their amazing broccoli dish)


Wanderlust wishlist

+ this cafe

+ this hotel

+ this restaurant