Writers’ Unleashed Festival 2017

 

Writers’ Unleashed Competition – with Zoe Walton, Rebecca Sheraton and Sue Whiting (pic: Ramona Davey)

Exciting times at the Writers’ Unleashed Festival, a one-day writers’ fest in Sydney’s ‘The Shire’ – not only did I get to experience a day immersed in the world of books (and book lovers), but placed in a picture book comp! Somehow, twice!

The competition results were announced by the judges of the shortlist, Zoe Walton of Penguin Random House and Sue Whiting (ex-Walker Books, author and editor). The lovely Rebecca Sheraton was the winner, and two of my manuscripts placed second and third. A member of one of my writers’ groups, Colleen, was shortlisted too, adding an extra level of yay. It was an exciting (if knee-shaky) moment accepting our awards in front of the whole conference, especially when there was a paparazzi-like swarm taking our pics afterwards (mostly writers’ group friends, but still, SCARY!).

It’s funny, some people have asked me, ‘So, what was the prize?’ as though prompting for details about piles of sweet, sweet cash and a gazillion-dollar publishing deal, but the real prize (for me, anyway) is encouragement to keep going.

 

Pic overkill alert! Colleen, me and Rebecca (pic: Amelia McInerney)

Tips from the festival sessions

Aside from the comp announcement, there were some great sessions like Sandy Fussell‘s talk on all things tech and social media for writers (she’s a fan of apps like Trello, Feedly and buffer to schedule posts). YA author Sarah Ayoub spoke about creating relatable female characters, with a focus on identity and diversity. She made an excellent point about not taking away someone else’s chance to tell their story, but instead, weaving in diverse secondary characters. And there was a fantastic picture book masterclass held by Sue Whiting. Some of her key tips include recording yourself reading your manuscript aloud to discover the clunky bits, figuring out what your story is about at its core so every word can drive the story, and to be specific about details to develop your characters and make your story stand out (she used Gus Gordon’s Herman and Rosie as an example, where even a yoghurt flavour is mentioned). Children’s author and everyone’s favourite podcast host Allison Tait was there too, talking strategies on making time to write (which I sadly missed). By all accounts it was excellent. Overall, an inspiring (and encouraging!) day.

August Update

Recent reads (and what I loved about them)

 

Remind me how this ends

Remind me how this ends by Gabrielle Tozer

Milo and Layla are childhood friends reunited, and whether or not they’ll end up together keeps you hanging until the end. Authentic characters, tonnes of feeling, a believable dual narrative, and a trip back to that moment of change and uncertainty post-school, pre-the rest of your life.

 

The Secrets We Keep by Nova Weetman

A wonderful, realistic middle grade read revolving around 11 year old Clem, and the aftermath of a house fire. Heartfelt, empathy-inducing, and well-paced, with secrets withheld right until the end.

 

The Catawampus Cat

The Catawampus Cat by Jason Carter Eaton and Gus Gordon

A picture book about the effect of a crooked cat on a kinda boring town. I loooooove this book. Both the story and Gus Gordon’s amazing illustrations, incorporating collage and all things vintage. Quirky, comedic and cat-tastic. (Catawampus = lopsided, I had no idea!).

 

Boy + Bot

Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman and Dan Yaccarino

A boy, a robot, misunderstandings and friendship – this story is full of quirk and charm. Have been seeking out all books Ame Dyckman lately, so good!

 

Nevermoor

The current read:

Nevermoor by debut author Jessica Townsend – I miraculously (magically?!) found a review copy on a lonely patch of footpath! It’s not out until October and getting major buzz already, so it was pretty exciting to stumble across. As well as Nevermoor, I’m also reading Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell and the first Pippa’s Island book by Belinda Murrell.

 

What else is happening?

  • I’m going to the Writers Unleashed Festival later this month, a one-day event in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire with talks and workshops by Allison Tait, Sandy Fussell, Deborah Abela, Sarah Ayoub and more. Lots of favourites, lots of fab topics – can’t wait!
  • I’m partway through Scribbles, a creativity course run by children’s author and community-building, advice-wielding extraordinaire Jen Storer. It’s idea-generating, creativity-unblocking and I’m loving it.
Scribbles

Stuff for all things Scribbles!

 

  • Another bookish thing I’m loving is Picture Book Book Club, a monthly Twitter chat you can stalk or even better, participate in at #picbookbc. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions of the special guest author or illustrator, discover new PBs to seek out, and chat with a bunch of like-minded picture book obsessives.
  • I went to a SCBWI meeting at Woollahra Library the other weekend, and wow, what a library. It has envy-inducing plant walls, cool murals and even a slide! It was fun to catch up with friends, meet some new members and hear about Michelle Morgan’s foray into self-publishing. We also heard from Anna McFarlane, one of Allen and Unwin’s children’s publishers who gave us an inside look at what they’re publishing, interesting stats and more.
  • Other than that, I’m: plugging away with a junior fiction novel and several picture book manuscripts, thinking about the next JF idea, planning a Melbourne weekend (hooray!), eating too much kids’ party food(!!), obsessing over podcasts (try Literaticast if you’re looking for a new writing one), and dreaming of future, far-flung trips …

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.