Well, that was a rather dramatic day.

There is one day of the year when Australian writers and illustrators of children’s and young adult books wake up tense and keep one eye – or possibly two – on social media and mobiles all morning.

It’s the day that the Children’s Book Council of Australia announces first its lists of Notable Books for the year, and later its shortlists for Book of the Year. (The NZ Post Book Awards finalists were released today too!)

Even if you don’t have a book out in that year, you still watch on behalf of friends, publishers, books you loved, and cheer or mope accordingly.

There’s no moping in this house.

The Sultan’s Eyes, like Act of Faith before it, was on the CBCA Notables list for Older Readers.


Image of book cover

I was about to give a lecture when the news finally came through and felt totally distracted for the rest of the morning.

Until, totally out of the blue, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were also announced halfway through the afternoon.  Turns out The Sultan’s Eyes is on the shortlist for the Ethel Turner Prize as well.

What a day.

And I have to say that both lists (and the CBCA shortlists) are crammed full of wonderful books – and there are many more that could have just as easily been included. I don’t envy those judges.

So congratulations to all the authors and illustrators, and our publishers, for getting through the roller coaster day and for creating books worth celebrating.


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Lately I’ve been…

Finishing Goddess.

How about that?

It’s going to print as I write this.


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What is historical fiction anyway?

Lots of people imagine that historical fiction is exclusively set in times where people wore armour or bonnets. In Ye Olden Days. And of course much of it is. Some readers and writers imagine that it also has to do with some attempt to recreate a contemporary voice in dialogue, so if there are lots of Prithees or Pray yous we know we are in the land of histfic. Other readers class books that were written about the author’s own lifetime as historical fiction, if that lifetime was a while ago – Dickens, say.

It wasn’t a label that defined Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for example, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement. They were seen as literary fiction (not that one book can’t be seen as several things).
But it seems to me that more recently, perhaps since the change in millennium (and that’s a theory I’m making up as I go along) that anything set in the previous century is now seen as historical fiction, and that the boundary is creeping ever closer.

The Historical Novels Review defines it as fiction ‘which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.’
And for the sake of classifications for awards or review pages, that’s a useful definition. Importantly, it’s the second part that brings the transition with it.

When I was teaching fiction last year, some of the undergrads wrote what they considered to be historical fiction – set in the 80s. I banned them from using the term for stories set in my lifetime. But it’s true – they were writing about a time they knew only from the music and the fashion, and we had a heated debate as to whether Billy Idol was genuinely punk, because they were judging by hairdo, not cultural impact or motivation. (“Punk!” I scoffed. “He was no more punk than Abba.” And they didn’t even believe me, because their classifications of music are much more sophisticated than those formed around the jukebox of the Duke of Windsor hotel late at night circa 1982. Apparently.)

Billy Idol

Then this week, I had the pleasure of listening to Eleanor Catton in conversation at The Wheeler Centre (what was life like without the Wheeler Centre? I don’t remember). Her The Luminaries won the Booker last year, as have several works of historical fiction recently, including Wolf Hall.

She’s a shy but entertaining speaker, and during the evening she came out with some terrific insights, particularly about the influence of children’s books on her life and writing – even today she reads many books written for children.


At one point she said, “I don’t think The Luminaries counts as historical fiction, because I made it all up. Hardly anything in the book really happened.”
Isn’t that interesting?

Is it only historical fiction if it contains historical events?
The Luminaries does: it is set on the Wild West coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the gold rush. It’s set is a real place (Hokitika) during a specific period of time when documented events took place. There was a gold rush, there were shipwrecks, the local prison was built with the forced labour of those it was intended to imprison. It is even written in a style that references the novels of the era – the research process must have been extensive.
The people are all made up and so are the events in the plot. But so are all of mine, with few exceptions.
In fact my most recent experience of writing about someone who really existed was completely different from any other process of writing fiction – in some ways much more difficult.

But it’s true – there is definitely a great deal of historical fiction that focuses on the lives of people who really lived, especially famous people (who are, after all, better documented and therefore most easily researched). Some of the great series in historical fiction set the tone for this, such as Robert Graves’ Claudius the Emperor series or the  Alexander novels of Mary Renault. The Tudors have a publishing industry dedicated to them – but don’t start me on that.

Maybe the focus on key players (or “forgotten” figures, such as Nicola Griffith’s majestic Hild) in history is linked in our minds with the Enlightenment view of history as progress, with the kings and queens and nobles – later presidents and prime ministers – and generals taking individual actions which affected history – with the cult of the individual as history-maker.

During the twentieth century, as social history in its many forms became more accepted, and growing levels of literacy enabled people to record and read about lives like their own, historical fiction became more egalitarian. Rosemary Sutcliff’s great books about post-Roman Britain, for example, were about innocent bystanders finding their way in a wrecked, war-torn world – just like the people of Britain during and after WW2.

Then there are time-slips (my favourite as a kid was Ronald Welch’s The Gauntlet), novels which switch between past and present (AS Byatt’s Possession is the best example), historical forms of crime and romance novels, fantasy novels inspired by history (even including Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), alternate histories and parallel universes (His Dark Materials).

So the definition of historical fiction is changing and deepening, as it has been for some time, and is a broad enough church to encompass books that might also be seen as literary fiction (Wolf Hall, Regeneration, The Luminaries), work that may be set in living memory of the author or members of their family (Atonement, Sarah Waters’ Night Watch), might involve real and imagined characters, and could even, at a pinch, encompass Billy Idol.

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Lately I’ve been …

Actually, I’ve been on holidays, which is why I’ve been rather quiet on here. But in my new post-PhD life, I’m actually getting to read some books – yes! Incredible as that seems, I am now able to read novels and books not about seventeenth century France.

So I am happily working my way through a very big backlog. I started with Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a novel based on the lives of three real Norwegian women who were the first women to travel to Antarctica (in the 1930s). Apart from being a splendid evocation of the time and the frustrations of these adventurous but constrained women, Jesse’s descriptive writing about Antarctica is gob-smackingly beautiful.

Then I finally caught up with Queen of the Night, Leanne Hall’s follow-up to This is Shyness, a YA novel I adored from a couple of years ago. Queen of the Night picks up the story of Wildgirl and Wolfboy and their next venture, after much misunderstanding, into Shyness – the suburb just a little bit like Collingwood, but where the sun never rises. Again, the world building is wonderful – familiar and yet not –  and the two main characters have even more spark, and sparks, than in their previous encounter. I’ve read several other YA and middle-grade adventure tales set in real or imagined exotic locations over the past few weeks, from graphic novels to steampunk to historical fiction, and I don’t think any of them are as complete a world as Shyness.

In a totally different vein, I went on to Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning The Luminaries, set on the wild west coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the Hokitika gold rushes. I read it in New Zealand, but about as far away from the wild beaches of Hokitika as you can get. There’s an awful lot to say about The Luminaries and I can’t do it justice here,  but I will say that as someone who thinks a great deal about historical fiction and voice,  I particularly admired Catton’s attempt – successful, I think – to recreate the feel and sound of one of the great Victorian novels, without bogging down the modern reader. You know where you are on the very first page, and that familiar Dickensian omniscient voice is sustained throughout this big book, without ever feeling weighty.

Speaking of gold rushes, I’ve also got sucked into rewatching Deadwood on DVD, in all its fabulously foul-mouthed Shakespearean glory. It’s a beautiful thing.

But now I’m reading my own book again – proofreading, to be precise. Goddess, the novel based on the life of Julie d’Aubigny, is due out in the middle of the year, and I have the typeset pages on my desk as we speak. So now it’s back to work.

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Songs of ice and wardrobes

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis, one of the most influential and thoughtful writers for children among a golden generation.

A few days ago, I listened to George R R Martin tell a sold-out event in Melbourne that he can’t remember much of his real life at the age of twelve or thirteen, but he will never forget the feeling of reading Tolkien for the first time.

I feel the same about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Can you remember the first time you read it? Remember the shock of falling into another world, the fear for your new best friends (even Edmund) in the face of such evil, the wonder at the world within the wardrobe and the miraculous creatures and especially Aslan.

Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

There was no adventure quite like it. Not then. The language  may have dated, and even in my childhood I got grumpy about the gender roles,  but I am still delighted by the that sustained flight of fancy, the tiny details of world-building, the compassion and the humour.

“I – I got in through the wardrobe in the spare room,” said Lucy.

“Ah,” said Mr Tumnus in a rather melancholy voice, “if only I had worked harder at geography when I was a little Faun…”

We all read it. And you see middle-aged faces light up at the thought of it even now. There are few books so universally loved by so many generations of children.

Lewis, like his friend and colleague Tolkien, was a careful, intelligent author who thought a great deal about how and why to write fantasy, and especially for young readers. Lewis wrote once that he knew of three ways to write stories for children: two good and one bad. The best way, he argued, “consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say … A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”*

Indeed they do.


* “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, Only Connect, 1980, Egoff et al (eds), Oxford University Press, Toronto.



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Lately I’ve been…

… too busy to blog. Sorry.

A crazy month or so. It started with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in late August which was great but pretty intense. Or maybe it started the week before that – Book Week! That was when I went back to my childhood public library in Nunawading, and talked to a lovely group of women of all ages about reading and writing. And then after the Festival, I spent a couple of exhilarating days as Writer in Residence at Kilvington Grammar School.

Since then I’ve been making final revisions to the manuscript of  Tragédie, the novel I’ve been working on as part of my PhD. It’s to be published by Fourth Estate in the middle of next year under the new title Goddess. It’s in the kind hands of my editors now.

I’ve also been teaching Writing Fiction this semester at La Trobe University which is stacks of fun – but a lot of work.

And as you may have noticed, The Sultan’s Eyes has come out recently too.

So I can’t report on all the fabulous books I’ve read lately because I haven’t had a moment spare for reading.

But it’s a great deal better than being bored.


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The magic of the story

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

- John Steinbeck


Filed under writing life

The voice

No. Not that Voice.

I’m reading Morris Gleitzman’s Once, told in the voice of a small Jewish boy, Felix, wandering wartime Poland in search of his parents. He’s unaware of  the scale and meaning of the Holocaust happening around him, and misreading all the signs – not just because he’s young but also because he is fundamentally good. Foreboding drips onto every page. It’s both gorgeous and dreadful to read.


Felix’s voice is very direct, speaking straight to young readers (and people of any age) so that you immediately attach yourself to Felix and see the world through his eyes, even though you – knowing what you know – also can’t, at the same time.  Gleitzman has said that the series was triggered by the  story of the life (and death) of his hero, the Polish doctor and author Janusz Korczak, and extensive research into contemporary accounts of and by child victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Once must work quite differently for young readers who don’t have information about what is happening in Felix’s world, but those who do know are still somehow conveyed into the world view of that small Polish boy – even though for us, being without knowledge of the Holocaust is realistically impossible to comprehend now that we do have that knowledge, now that the world has been changed by it.

As a writing feat, that’s tricky to pull off. (Another sublime example is Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room which, although not historical, requires the same balance of belief and disbelief at once. ) But it’s not just that which interests me. The ahistorical voice works particularly well for young readers. You’d think it’d be easy, but it isn’t. It’s not the same thing as writing in a modern voice, but is something else – based on a modern voice but with no (or few) jarring historical anachronisms. The modern voice – the author’s own transitory dialect – will date. The ahistorical voice will last a little longer.

The writing process requires deep research not just into historical events and details but also into contemporary speech patterns, vocabulary and world view so that they can be present without being visible. Hilary Mantell has explained how she does it: ‘I use modern English but shift it sideways a little, so that there are some unusual words, some Tudor rhythms, a suggestion of otherness… If the words of real people have come down to us, I try to work them in among my inventions so that you can’t see where they join.’  (1).

I reckon it was first mastered, especially for young readers, by people like Geoffrey Trease in those golden post-war decades, creating fiction that was different to what Trease called “costume drama”: that is, where there is a great deal of historical accuracy about details of food and dress and perhaps even words, but no contemporary empathy – no understanding of the essential world view of the characters. It’s one reason Wolf Hall is so fine, and some other Tudor novels filled with “prithee” and “pray you” not.

This is partly what I’m working on now, although I have a long way to go before my fiction lives up to my theory.

I’m on the side of V.A. Kolve who suggests: ‘We have little choice but to acknowledge our modernity, admit our interest in the past is always (and by no means illegitimately) born of present concern.’ (2)

And get on with it.

Can’t say anymore. Have to go find out what happens to young Felix.

(1) Mantel, Hillary, 'The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak', Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2012
(2) Kolve, VA (1998)'Ganymede/Son of Getron: Medieval monasticism and the drama of same-sex desire', Speculum, 73 (4), 1014-67.

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Filed under historical fiction, kidlit, reading, tips

Coming up

Winter in Melbourne. We should be huddled inside out of the cold, our hands cupped around mugs of hot chocolate.

But no. It’s festival time. (Although, let’s face it, it’s always festival time in Melbourne.) So instead we are shrugging on heavy coats, wrapping scarves theatrically around our necks, and heading out into the city.

Coming up in August is the Melbourne Writers Festival, our annual book fest.

The full program isn’t released for a while yet, but the teasers so far have been more than enough to entice me: New York storytelling troupe The Moth, London Review of Books, a local version of the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, and a whisper or two about a keynote by Marina Warner. I am so there.

But I’m also appearing in the Schools Program this year, and what a program it is. Deborah Ellis, Margo Lanagan, Cath Crowley, Shaun Tan, Scott Westerfeld – the list of local and international fabulousness just goes on and on. Teachers and school librarians – if you haven’t booked your school groups in yet, best get onto it soon.

It’ll all be terribly exciting, and in the middle of it I’ll be:

  • Talking about books that matter with Alison Croggan and Morris Gleitzman on 26 August (my plan is to let them say deep and wonderful things and just nod wisely)
  • Debating powerful female characters with the powerful Justine Larbelestier on 28 August
  • Getting geeky about research with Kate Forsyth on 29 August.

Again this year, the Festival is running Write Across Victoria, a terrific competition for young writers. Just choose one of our story starters, and make it your own. There are stacks of prizes to be won, and Cath Crowley and I will be at the Write Across Victoria awards event on 29 August, talking about how we got started as writers. Story competition entries close on 5 July, so get writing!

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A few thoughts on gender in YA

Was it only last week I spent days live-tweeting the 2013 Reading Matters conference? I didn’t have time or head space to add any thoughts of my own at the time, so here are a few now.

A great line-up of authors debated a wide range of issues but there were a couple of thorny topics that just wouldn’t go away – as usual, chief among them was gender.

A few questions almost always come up in conferences, seminars and conversations, especially with school or children’s librarians and teachers, such as:

  • How do we get boys to read?
  • Why don’t boys read books with female protagonists?
  • Why do the book covers aim at readers of particular genders?

I can’t pretend to be able to answer those questions, but I do want to reflect on how and why the questions and answers are framed.

Many times I’ve listened to an author try to answer the question ‘How do we get boys to read?’ I get asked it myself, all the time. I sympathise, I really, do, because I understand that it can be very frustrating for professionals and parents. But…

1. You are asking the wrong person. Just about every author ever asked that question answers something along the lines of: I just write the stories I need to tell. Some are aimed at boys, some are aimed at girls, some are neutral.

2. Some of the gendering is about the package - the cover, the blurb, the author’s gender or name, the marketing, the industry, socialised reader expectations, the context of both reader and book. Sometimes that’s perfectly appropriate. Often it’s not. Take a look at some examples in Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip experiment if you doubt it.

From the Coverflip experiment

3. Boys do read. They read all sorts of stuff. Even those who read according to strict gender stereotypes immerse themselves in narrative through games and movies; they may love non-fiction; they read basketball magazines or music blogs or comics; they read facebook and use the web and their phones; and they do endless amounts of homework. They might not read my books or other books with girls on the cover – which is a different question – but that’s not the same as not reading at all. Not everyone has to read the same thing.

4. There are actually many authors who do consciously write for boys. Without even reaching for names I can think of Keith Gray, Jack Heath, Brian Falkner, Richard Newsome – not to mention the bulk of the Western canon.

So here is the most important thing: The entire world is constructed for boys. Can we stop pretending they are some oppressed minority, stop asking us to arrange the stories we write and publish to their (perceived) narrow interests?

Suck it up, guys. As Gayle Forman asked at Reading Matters: “Why is it acceptable for a girl to enter a male world but not the opposite?”

Why do we accept that world-view so carefully constructed for them by society?

Why is it too much to ask a boy or young man to see through other eyes? Does it mean you can’t ask them to see through anyone else’s eyes – to read about anything outside their own experience? And if so, what does that say about how we are framing the future?

Are you telling me that a fourteen year-old boy can relate readily to a hobbit or an assassin or a forty year-old man, but not a girl?

I don’t believe that.

At Reading Matters, Libba Bray said: “There are not boy books or girl books. There are just books.”

I think that’s true, to an extent, although there are some stories and some authors who do aim their books at one gender or the other, just as we aim our books at certain age groups, quite consciously, depending on the story. Keith Gray writes for boys, hoping, he said at the conference, not to alienate female readers.

As Miffy Farquharson tweeted during the conference: “Teacher-librarians are good at ‘guessing’ what young people would like to read. Often it’s just ‘a good book’.”

Readers are always asked to make imaginative leaps – into fantasy worlds, or along ziplines between buildings, or into the past. We might be asked to read the story of someone we despise or can’t trust. Female readers constantly take the imaginative leap into the minds of male characters.  Kids who are queer may spend their entire lives seeing the world through the eyes of straight characters.  Happily, there is now a greater diversity in stories and characters than ever before, so that young readers from different cultural backgrounds or life experiences can find some stories that reflect their world. But much of the time, they’ll be reading about someone completely Other, and they relate – they find some imaginative or emotional connection with those characters, they see something in those lives that makes sense for them, they read to witness another world, another way of seeing. Vikki Wakefield noted in one panel: “Age and gender do not define a reader.”

The world is filled with different perspectives and readers get to experience those perspectives, to see the world through different eyes – to see new worlds, feel unfamiliar sensations and emotions. If boys don’t get to do that, never make those leaps, they’re missing out dreadfully. They can do it – of course they can. They do it all the time – even the most stereotypical readers or gamers or movie-goers imagine themselves into pirate ships or D-Day or Westeros. “If we do our job properly,” said  Morris Gleitzman on one panel, “boys will read girl characters.”

Calling for narratives that support that limited world view only perpetuates the problem – for the boys, and for the rest of the world. It continues to limit them, reduces their world view and doesn’t even echo back to them the world in which they live. Nor does it recognise the diverse lives and experiences of young males in our world, as if they are never outsiders, as if they are never readers, as if they don’t share the same fears and hopes and emotions as everyone else. It defines them as people who will only read The Guinness Book of Records or short action-driven stories (not that there’s anything wrong with either). But as Gleitzman noted: ‘There’s not a boy on this planet that doesn’t understand love gone wrong”.


Why do we always end up  here? What about discussing the girls who are struggling? The  boys who love to read? The girls who consume books? The girls who love to read adventures and war stories and fight scenes? The readers who read regardless of gendered covers or narratives or protagonists?

Why do we always end up here in spite of the fact that every available piece of research tells us that books featuring female protagonists and/or by women authors are less likely to be in the big prize shortlists; that they are less likely to be reviewed; that women are less likely to be writing the reviews; that in spite of the huge proportion of women authors, publishers, teachers and librarians, the people most often in the positions of decision-making power are men – totally out of proportion to the number of men in the industry (as is the case with most other industries where women are in the majority, such as teaching)?

Why, in spite of all that research, would someone perfectly sensible like Keith Gray suggest at Reading Matters that books for or about boys suffer discrimination due to the “female domination” of the book industry – and why would a whole lot of women in the audience agree? What is that about?

Final word to the brilliant Gayle Forman: “If Harry Potter had been about Hermione, it probably wouldn’t have been such a success.”

Case rests. For now.



Note: These are my views as a writer and reader, not in my capacity as a Library person.


Filed under kidlit, politics, rant, YA