Picture book love: Gaston

Gaston

 

A favourite spread from Gaston

Gaston, written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson, published by Simon and Schuster UK, 2015.

When Mrs Poodle gives birth to four adorable puppies, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston, one is a little different to the rest. And as he grows, it’s undeniable that Gaston is a different breed. But that doesn’t stop him from trying super hard to fit in, and to succeed at everything he’s taught. When the family meet Mrs Bulldog and her puppies Rocky, Ricky, Bruno and Antoinette, Antoinette looks suspiciously poodle-like. It seems there’s been a puppy mix-up!

What happens next offers valuable lessons around not judging by appearances, belonging and acceptance. It’s also an interesting look at nature vs. nurture, with Antoinette preferring to be ‘tough’ like the bulldogs, and Gaston to be ‘tender’ like the other poodles. The overarching messages are woven through in a way they don’t feel too didactic, though, with fun, sparkly language and a wonderfully bossy omniscient narrator who insists we see each family of pups several times each. In addition to the writing, I love the illustrations in this book, from the still visible brushstrokes to the striking retro style. There’s a follow-up title, Antoinette, that I now must track down!

Literary fun times and new cafe crushes

KidLitVic illustrators' cards

KidLitVic 2017

Pictured above: a few favourite cards picked up at KidLitVic, a fabulous writers’ conference now in its second year. My card stash features the work of illustrators (from top left, clockwise): Allison Langton, Caitlin Murray, Nicky Johnston, Luisa Gioffre-Suzuki, Irene Tan and Tania McCartney. Aren’t they all amazing?! One of my favourite parts of the conference was checking out the illustration portfolios on display (so much talent, sigh!).

The publisher panels offered the inside word on all things kids’ books, the atmosphere was fantastic, and the organisers (author Alison Reynolds and team) once more did an amazing job pulling everything together. Industry insights aside, meeting up with other writers and talking all things books and publishing was undoubtedly a highlight. Especially when debriefing afterwards over delicious Malaysian food! I stayed at my friend and fellow conference attendee Cat’s place, and we managed to squeeze in some Melbourne must-dos (like Readings Kids!) into our whirlwind of a weekend.

Readings Kids

Melbourne wanderings

With Cat and her kids as tour guides, we hit Lygon Street in Carlton for a cannoli fix at the treat-laden Brunetti’s, before a book-ish droolfest at Readings Kids. I so wish there was a carbon-copy in Sydney! Packed with all things kids’ books, from picture books to the latest #LoveOzYA reads, you can easily spend hours here (and lots of $!). I came away with a small stack of new books, including some titles from my kids’ current favourite series, Truly Tan and Isadora Moon, about a half-vampire, half-fairy (super cute!).

You're Five series launch

Book launch: The You’re Five series by Shelly Unwin

Along with some other writer friends, I attended fellow critique group member Shelly’s book launch at The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft. It was the first of several events launching her You’re Five series, with a book celebrating each age from 1 to 5. A great concept, and a beautiful package complete with Katherine Battersby’s charming illustrations. After introductions from bookshop owner Paul MacDonald and guest author Jacqueline Harvey of Alice Miranda fame, Shelly ran a fun storytime session followed by the perfect accompaniment – birthday cakes!

Natasha Lester author talk

In other bookish news, I went to a fascinating talk at Five Dock Library by Perth-based author Natasha Lester, with a focus on her latest historical fiction novel, Her Mother’s Secret. She filled us in on everything from her publishing story, her writing routine and the in-depth research she conducts for her books. Her latest release is set in 1920s and 30s Paris, and centres around the birth of the make-up industry. I love the way Natasha’s books weave historical events with issues concerning women’s fight for equality (highly recommend her previous book too, A Kiss for Mr Fitzgerald, set in 1920s New York). Natasha is such a warm and open presenter, and it was so nice to meet a writer whose work (and advice-filled blog) I hugely admire.

Sydney Writers' Festival

Sydney Writers’ Festival

More books, more authors, more literary fun times! This year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival featured an amazing program, and their family day was no exception. We took our kids to see UK Children’s Laureate and Charlie and Lola creator Lauren Child, who talked about her influences and creative processes. Even Quentin Tarantino movies form the inspiration behind her beloved children’s books. We also saw the always hilarious Andy Griffiths, with glimpses of his upcoming 91-Storey Treehouse book, followed by a session with picture book creators Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys. They shared the stories behind their stunning picture book, Under the Love Umbrella, from initial idea to napkin scribbles on a Brooklyn-bound train, to the intensive illustration process. In other SWF news, I did a children’s writing masterclass with R.A. Spratt (Friday Barnes/Nanny Piggins). As well as being highly entertaining, she offered some great tips from plotting to using IRL observations of conflict as story fuel (recommended: a Saturday trip to Ikea!).

Goodbye Horses

Goodbye Horses

Cafe Crushes

And to accompany all things books – coffee, of course! So many cafes … so many crushes. A few on my radar lately:

~ Concrete Jungle in Chippendale, for their super health-packed bowls

~ The perfectly tiny Glider (in the same laneway), with the cutest coffee coasters, like mini-wooden pallets

~ And new Summer Hill cafe, Goodbye Horses – great coffee, music and staff (and plants!), and a backroom that feels just like a dining room in a terrace house

YA review: The Impossible Story of Olive in Love

Olive In Love

 

Seventeen-year-old Olive is plagued by a gypsy curse that’s made her invisible to all but her future true love. She has a blind best friend, Felix, a ‘perfect’ sister, Rose, and an estranged childhood friend, Jordan, who just knew that Olive was real, much to the annoyance of her family. Add in AWOL parents, a job writing a gossip column, and a newfound love interest, Tom (who can – gasp – actually see her!) and you have all the ingredients for a fast-paced, emotional rollercoaster ride of a read.

The invisibility factor takes all the angst and uncertainty of relationships in the teen years and amplifies them by a billion (at least!). Olive manages to use her invisibility to her advantage on her rocky road to true love (think stealing phones, stalking ex-girlfriends and revenge face slaps – well, wouldn’t you?!) but inevitably, it throws up lots of obstacles too, particularly while out on dates with Tom or having to meet his family. As for whether Tom really is her true love, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

Olive is one of the funniest, feistiest and most adorably flawed protagonists I’ve come across in ages. There were so many moments I laughed out loud while reading this story (often in public, no less). Olive’s sarcasm and full-on personality provide so much scope for hilarious dialogue, altercations, meltdowns and poignant moments that I don’t even care about her sometimes screwed-up logic, I love her anyway!

This is a book with that all-elusive ‘voice’ in spades – a voice I first encountered when reading chapters from the second Olive book at the writers’ group I just happen to be in with Tonya (yay!). So after loving the bits I’d seen of book two, it was super exciting to go back to the beginning and find out how Olive’s story began. Book two, please come out soon – sneak peeks aside, I still need to find out what happens next!

The Impossible Story of Olive in Love, by Tonya Alexandra, Harlequin Books (HQ Young Adult), 2017

Bookish Highlights: March 2017

Under the Love Umbrella

Inside Under the Love Umbrella – look how gorgeous!

Picture Book Love

Some picture book reading highlights this month include the absolutely gorgeous Florette by Anna Walker – the charming story of Mae who moves to the city and pines for her old garden, then comes up with the perfect solution while on a walk. It’s inspired by the creator’s time in Paris, the illustrations are stunning, the prose is sparse yet touching, the endpapers are lush and jungle-y and it’s perfect in every way! Anna Walker is a firm favourite, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Also on my picture book radar this month were two more Australian titles, Under the Love Umbrella (by Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys) with its swoonworthy neon illustrations (seriously – this book will have to win all the illustration awards, amazing!), and the poignant One Photo (Ross Watkins and Liz Anelli) about memory and loss, with the most touching ending.

Unicorn Think's He's Pretty Great

Raining cupcake endpapers! From Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great

On the lighter side, I also enjoyed library find Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great, by American author/illustrator Bob Shea. A goat is jealous of the new unicorn in town, with his fantastical feats like making it rain cupcakes. Then unicorn discovers something goat can do – make his own cheese! Competitiveness and mayhem ensue until the two team up. I love the quirk factor this book brings in major doses – so much fun!

Then there was P. Crumble’s The Cat Wants Custard, illustrated by Lucinda Gifford, who I enjoyed hearing speak at the SCBWI conference last year. I love the attitude-laden voice of this cat who will stop at nothing for a bowl of creamy custard – until he actually tastes it, that is! This book has become a series, so I can’t wait to read the other titles!

And speaking of cats with attitude, there was the super cute I Don’t Know What To Call My Cat by Simon Philip and Ella Bailey. A difficult to please cat arrives on a girl’s doorstep one day, and doesn’t suit any of the names she comes up with. Then it leaves! I won’t ruin the ending for you, but let’s just say it gets a very suitable name in the end. A fun ‘extra’ is the pictures of all the cats on the front and back covers, each with names appropriate for their appearance.

The Secret Science of Magic

New YA

Other reads beyond non-stop PBs included new YA novel, The Secret Science of Magic, by Melissa Keil. The story features Sophia, a science whiz and Joshua, a magic lover and slacker, navigating their last year of school and Josh’s longstanding crush on Sophia. Sophia turns to logic and science to explain everything, especially when things seem out of her control. The book is told via both character’s points of view, with non-stop smart and sassy dialogue. The entire time I had my fingers crossed for them! I have a review of this book coming up on BuzzWords’ blog sometime soonish.

Adult fiction

Then there were my latest book club reads – The Dry by Jane Harper, and Relativity by Antonia Hayes. Both by Australian authors, both incredible. The Dry is a rural crime page turner and I was hooked from the start. Based in the fictional country town of Kiewarra, a city-based cop has returned to investigate the supposed murder-suicide of an old high school friend. Secrets from the past unravel the further he digs, and it’s lots of fun trying to guess the culprit. Addictive!

Relativity feels so raw and real, with the author drawing on her own situation where her child suffered from shaken baby syndrome at the hands of a partner. The aftermath is completely compelling and heartbreaking, but with many moments of warmth and hope throughout. I loved the familiar Sydney setting too, with real-life landmarks around Glebe and the city.

Picture book love: latest from the library

Here are four stand-out picture books from the current mountain of library loans (actually, the mountain is more like a river, cascading over every surface of the house!):

 

Teacup

Teacup (written by Rebecca Young, illustrated by Matt Ottley, Scholastic Press, 2015)

A hauntingly beautiful story with a wonderful message of hope, Teacup follows the boat journey of a lone boy. Where he’s from or where he’s going isn’t stated, giving it a fable-like quality, though I see it as an age-appropriate introduction to the plight of refugees.  The illustrations veer from dreamlike pastels to dark tones, mimicking moments of hope and dangerous encounters. The idea of the teacup holding earth from home and the new life it provides is truly magical.

 

The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade

The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade (written by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys, Scribe Publications, 2015)

This is a repeat borrow – I absolutely love this book and this clever pairing, and can’t wait to read their second book together, Under the Love Umbrella. The blue and orange toned illustrations have a striking, retro feel, and the emotional journey of Alfie (who doesn’t feel brave enough to be Captain Starfish in a school parade) is so realistic and relatable. It’s a wonderful book to share with children to show they’re not alone – anxieties about seemingly small things are so very real – and from a writer’s point of view it’s a fabulous mentor text.

 

Seagull

Seagull (written and illustrated by Danny Snell, Working Title Press, 2015)

Seagull’s freedom to fly is at stake as he becomes tangled in some rubbish on the beach. No one seems to be able to help despite their efforts, until a small but kind gesture is just enough to set Seagull free. This is a gentle yet touching book with some important themes, from caring for the environment to noticing and helping those in need. The changing colours of the sky reflect the story arc – a beautiful touch.

 

The Cloudspotter

The Cloudspotter (written and illustrated by Tom McLaughlin, Bloomsbury UK, 2015)

Franklin is a loner with a big imagination, and, you guessed it, spots all manner of things in the clouds. Actually, not just things but ‘adventures in the sky’ (love!). When Scruffy Dog comes along and joins in the fun, Franklin is far from impressed and plots to get rid of him. But cloudspotting is a lonely affair, and perhaps two cloudspotters are better than one! So full of charm and fun, with vibrant illustrations, The Cloudspotter is for dreamers of all ages.

Picture Book Love: Pandora

 

Pandora

 

Pandora, written and illustrated by Victoria Turnbull, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016

Pandora is one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve come across this year.

It’s a sparse and emotional tale about a sweet little fox called Pandora, who lives alone and repairs lost and broken things. One day a bird falls from the sky, and Pandora looks after it until it’s well enough to fly. The bird then brings back gifts each time it returns, except one day, it doesn’t come back.

Pandora is so beautifully written and illustrated, and (spoiler-ish alert) ultimately so uplifting. It’s about kindness, preservation and hope. Not only are the contents divine, but the cover is actually coated in a silk-like fabric, the perfect touch for such a special book. Love, love, love. I can’t stop re-reading it.

Recent reads – October 2016

Some recent reads from the ever-growing book stack:

Memoir

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.

YA

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