Spectacular Singapore

I have just returned from steamy, spectacular Singapore, full of gratitude, wonder and chilli tofu. I was the final writer in an exchange between Singapore and Western Australia, featuring folk who contributed to Near and Dear, a collection of short stories edited by Ken Spillman and supported by the Department of Culture and the Arts and writingwa (here) and the National Arts Council (there). So far, 3000 copies of the book have been distributed to keen young readers and writers, a bunch of whom I met on my tour.

Writing and literature have to fight their way into a crowded curriculum, in Singapore as everywhere else, and I was particularly impressed with the determination of the teachers I met to make sure their students get the exposure to creative endeavours, and to practice them. Apart from all the benefits reading for pleasure gives academically (see here), it also helps us understand each other: books give you the singular opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to walk in their shoes, to inhabit their skin. In a world where the effect of intolerance is everywhere, this is a rare gift.

I was also reminded of the warmth of the children’s literature community everywhere, being reacquainted with the Singapore chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators over a delicious Indian banquet. (Delicious is a redundant description of Singaporean food, because it all is, but nevertheless, indulge me!) Thank you, SCBWI folk!

So, thank you to the people who got me there: Department of Culture and the Arts, the National Arts Council of Singapore (especially Christie Cheng and Felix Cheong), the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and Literary Lions. And thank you to all the schools who hosted me, my most excellent minder Dhava, David Liew for his characteristically brilliant recording of my session, William Phuan from The Select Centre, and Rosemarie Somaiah. It was enriching in both directions, and I look forward to my next encounter with Peranakan food, among the many other excellent things in Singapore.

 

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And very special thanks to Sharon Flindell and the writingwa crew!

Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell

Forgetting Foster

On Monday night, at Boffins in Perth, I was honoured to launch Dianne Touchell’s latest novel, Forgetting Foster (Allen & Unwin). It was a special event fitting for such a special book.

Here is an excerpt from the launch speech, in case you haven’t already pre-ordered a copy and need any reasons (apart from the fact it’s Dianne Touchell’s latest) to buy it:

Foster is seven years old, and his adored, adoring father, the teller of stories, the General to his troops, is changing.

He is not just forgetting things – he is forgetting who he is.

The horribly typical path of early onset Alzheimer’s – a disease that hits as indiscriminately as cancer, but has no illuminating hope of cure – is shown here from a child’s eyes.

We see the personality change, the collapse of personhood, the loss of dignity, happening to Foster’s dad.

When he leaves bacon burning on the stove.

When he uses his story voice – the voice he uses for all the stories he tells his son – to his clients over the phone.

When he cries at the dinner table.

He displays behaviour that could be seen as funny – from putting on the wrong socks, to saying out loud the things that are normally kept to yourself – to behaviour in which the loss of dignity is shown, like pissing himself in church – an act misattributed to poor Foster, who suffers being blamed by his classmates until he finally is forced to betray his father to save himself.

Dianne brilliantly describes Foster’s dad as having ‘a hole in his head’, one that was ‘becoming bigger and bigger until even a reminder could no longer nudge the forgotten thing back into place.’

The effect of his father’s illness on Foster is described pithily:

‘[Foster] was unprepared for how much a change in someone else could wilt the pieces of himself he thought he knew best.’

Dianne shows not only the wrenching changes inside the family, but the way they are misunderstood and unrepresented outside of it.

We see the lack of understanding from children and the adults who should know better.

We see people who prey on the family’s vulnerability, from the meddling, uninvited sister, through to the neighbour who is cruel to Foster and his father, but who presents herself as only wanting to help.

We see a world in which the services provided by aged care don’t fit the family: when Foster looks at pamphlets from the service providers Foster sees ‘pictures of well-dressed, happy old people doing craft and playing board games. It occurred to Foster that there were no people in the pictures like Dad.’

Like early onset Alzheimer’s itself, a story about Alzheimer’s is never going to have a happy ending.

But this story is made not only bearable but radiant by Foster himself, who is something I thought I would never say about a Touchell character – sweet and appealing, as well as smart and uncompromising.

His innocent negotiation of his father’s illness is rendered through Dianne’s impeccable prose.

Foster’s father has taught him well: rituals help make sense of the unfathomable.

It is the loss of the rituals that mean most to Foster which provide the emotional knot at the heart of this novel.

But the ritual that does endure, through the loss and the confusion, from symptoms of early onset to its diagnosis, is the ritual of telling stories.

At the beginning of Forgetting Foster, we have the father wielding the power of narrative in the Foster’s classroom:

[Excerpt from p 5 of the novel]

This excerpt also shows Dianne’s remarkable facility with the perfect simile, embedded in the prosaic, making the language both literary and accessible, and showing that those qualities are not mutually exclusive.

The father has given the gift of storytelling to his son, and Forgetting Foster closes with the son returning the gift to his father.

It is a redemption of sorts for the bystanders of a disease for which no redemption is possible.

I don’t know how Dianne wrote this book without breaking into a million pieces.

There has been an inexplicable rise in early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Australia.

More than 25,000 people under 65 have been diagnosed with it, and there are concerns that many others are misdiagnosed with stress and depression, or alcoholism, or other types of mental illness.

There are about 5000 people in aged care facilities – services that are often not equipped to deal with younger people with Alzheimer’s.

This increasing incidence of early onset, combined with later average ages of parenthood, means that Foster’s story is going to become more common.

Which makes this beautiful book even more vital.

It will change the way we think about the children of parents with early onset.

It will begin a conversation we have not yet had in this country.

But you don’t have to buy this book for political reasons.

Buy it because it is quite simply Dianne Touchell’s best novel yet.

Asian Festival of Children’s Content – it’s a wrap

The book creators’ part of the AFCC is over for another year. I have heard about Japanese picture books, the state of children’s literature in Ireland and Africa, content controversies in the Philippines, Singapore and the States, why you should never post your book to a reviewer, and met (and re-met!) a bunch of passionate children’s book people from the world over. It is a warm, friendly and mind-opening conference. It is an important cultural exchange of ideas, and reinforces the fact that people who love writing, creating and sharing books for young people have a common language, no matter where we come from.

I’m off to do a writing workshop for The Writers Centre now, and to find the durian mousse recommended in this post, so here is my summary of the festival in pictures.

I am grateful to writingwa, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – West, and the Department of Culture and the Arts for making it possible. I am also grateful to the organisers of the AFCC, Alycia Teo and especially Mr Rama – you have done a stellar job in bringing people together and getting us talking. It is a remarkable thing you have created.

 

 

Day One, Asian Festival of Children’s Content

How I love this festival.

In one day, I’ve heard Calef Brown talk about the development of his warm and witty illustrative style, and show us why nonsense books (‘Pure folly that makes sense’) are so enduringly delightful.

I’ve heard Cynthia Leitich Smith talk about why fantasy raises the bar for the suspension of disbelief, and how teenage readers identify most strongly with characters from fantasy novels.

I’ve heard Felicia Low Jimanez, Gabriela Lee, Cathy Hirano and Edmund Lim discuss the role of parents (or the absence of parents), as well as the role or desirability of books in promoting ‘good moral character’ in children, the influence of religion on content, and the current state of play with these and related matters in Singapore, the Philippines and Japan.

And I’ve heard Leonard Marcus, Dr Murti Bunanta and Deborah Ahenkorah talk about the role of awards in promoting particular types of children’s literature and illustration, and the ‘unprecedented experience’ book juries are looking for.

I’m about to go and set some illustrators to duelling. More to come.

Before takeoff

I am writing talks, packing bags and preparing my chili palate ahead of my departure to Singapore and the Asian Festival of Children’s Content next week (thanks to writingwa, the Department of Culture and the Arts and SCBWI West). I will be narrating for duelling illustrators Soefara Jafney and Gabriel Evans; talking about controversial content in children’s lit with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Mariko Nagai, chaired by Nury Vittachi and talking about obsessiveness, creativity and young people. I cannot wait.

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It’s been four years since the launch of Losing It (see here for a read excerpt from the night). I am delighted it is still getting some attention – most recently on the Stella Prize blog here, by  the splendid Danielle Binks.

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Anyone vaguely interested in books, writing and creative industries generally will have noticed the short shrift the latest Productivity Commission’s  latest report is getting from anyone vaguely interested in books, writing and creative industries. Tim Winton (who opines about the technocrats wanting to piss all our cultural achievements up against the wall) and Richard Flanagan (who says ‘This is a government that despises books and views with hostility the civilisation they represent’) fire the latest salvos. Write a submission if you will: the link is here.

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In terrible news, the marvellous Gillian Mears has died. The tragic loss of a wonderful woman and unique voice.

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Western Australia has got a good showing in the CBCA Shortlist.

Congratulations to my fellow writers, here and elsewhere. Congratulation to you/us all, shortlistees or not. Doing the work is the thing. Remember this.

Marvellous May

  • Everyone is talking about diversity in children’s books, it seems. The Asian Festival of Children’s Content is an annual event that more than talks about diversity – it is an opportunity for children’s content creators from all over the world to meet and find out what is going on in different countries. The organisers originally wanted it to be the Bologna of the southern hemisphere: my guess is that it’s already beyond that. I was lucky to attend in 2012, and I can’t wait to see how it’s changed and grown. This year, the country of focus is Japan. (Thanks to writingwa, SCBWI West and the Department of Culture and the Arts for making this possible.)
  • I got an advance copy of The Book That Made Me yesterday, edited by the wonderful Judith Ridge. It doesn’t launch til September, but I am proud to be among this bunch of luminaries, including Shaun Tan, Markus Zusak, Fiona Wood, James Roy, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Simone Howell and more. All proceeds go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Here is a sneak peak:
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Bookmark some reading time in September for this

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Left: me pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • The Cambridge Youth Network Young Writers Competition is now open: deadline is 24 July. Download an entry form and further information from facebook.com/Cambridge.YAC
  • Here, for no particular reason, is a photo of our Jack Russell. As well as featuring as a major character in my new YA novel, to by published by Penguin Random House in February 2017, he really, really doesn’t like being bathed.

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    Hecta the bath-resisting dog

 

 

 

Busselton bliss

Last week, thanks to Beth and her crew at Dymocks Busselton, seven(ish) writers and illustrators descended on Mary MacKillop College (also in Busselton) for a new festival called Seven Rooms, Seven Stories. The day and everything surrounding it was an unadulterated delight, from rocking up in a 1960 Chevy to our willing and able helpers to the fab food and coffee to the cracking sessions with keen kids. I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever had such responsive and enthusiastic audiences – especially from my last session, attended by 60 ten year old girls who were just brimming with warmth, stories and acting talent. (It also didn’t hurt our discussion of The Flyaway Girls that most of them were gymnasts!)

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A J Betts being awesome at MacKillop

 

We stayed at Beds by the Bay, a B&B (this could start getting very alliterative) which held the visiting crew in comfort and style. Beth (of the festival) and Mike (of the Chevy) couldn’t have done more to make us feel welcome.

 

There may also have been ABBA and dancing, but that would be telling.

The next day we fronted up with replenishing juices and more coffee to sign books for the enthusiastic kids and bemused passersby who wondered what was going on.

Thank you to Beth and the team for a brilliant day, and let’s hope the one off becomes a Busselton tradition.

The Flyaway Girls: what Paula thinks

As a jiggly-bottomed girl who can’t do a cartwheel, reviewing a novel that focuses on competitive gymnastics drew some trepidation and perhaps a wobble around my middle.

But the The Flyaway Girls is a well paced story for young girls aged between ten and fourteen. I read it one sitting. It flows beautifully like a rhythmic ribbon touching on the nature of friendship, competiveness and self-acceptance.

Chelsea is a devoted hard working gymnast who at the ripe old age of eleven has to work out although hard working and dedicated she is not naturally gifted or exceptionally talented. She does not have the right stuff. Chelsea is steaming mad when an untrained new comer Telia, apparently rips her dream position on the coveted National team from her grasp.

Chelsea’s focus becomes so intense and driven that it begins to cause her all sorts of problems particularly with her friendships and family.

Her obsession to get to the Olympics over rides life. The competitive nature of sport and coaching is called into question.

After a knee injury, she is rude to her two friends, Rosie and Gemma who don’t understand her ambition and single mindedness. They are devoted to their musical instruments but choose to enjoy it and take a more moderate approach.

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s Dad has chosen to live in Canberra with his new partner and that’s got to hurt. In fact, it is revealed that Chelsea channels her negative feelings to overcome her fear of the vault. It’s a tip she gives Telia who is having problems with this one piece of equipment.

Telia is a naturally adept at all sports but doesn’t have that drive and prefers to have fun. Ironically, it is in Telia’s company that Chelsea enjoys herself but the green-eyed monster gets in the way and bridges have to be built.

It’s all pretty intense and a little bit alarming that by the end of primary school the girls have worked out their limitations and accepted them. Telia drops out to enjoy the next sport and Chelsea realises she is great at supporting and teaching gymnastics. The two combine their skills and zest for fun to come up with The Flyaway girls, their dance gymnastic display rocks the end of the year concert and a compromise is found.


The themes of the natural verses the hard worker, of self-acceptance and seeing where you fit into the big picture of things are well drawn and totally accessible and relevant to the young pre/teen girl.

Reviewed by Paula Hayes, Creative Kids Tales

Shameless plugs, various

My Booked Out profile has been updated – see here for details.vI’ve got more scope for school visits than I have for some years, so please contact the Booked Out crew for details. I’m hoping to be in Melbourne before or after Book Week, too.

Also, the Flyaway Girls is fitting for primary kids in an Olympic year. Just saying.

Perth Writers Festival Schools Day and Inspired Learning Program is on this week (eek! I’ve written many, many questions for my illustrious panellists, but I feel I need more). See here for more details.

In other news, the Perth International Arts Festival has started. Every Brilliant Thing was my first show: I saw it last year in New York and seeing it a second time was just as delightful and thought-provoking. See it if you can.

Next week, the fabulous James Berlyn’s show, I Know You’re There. It’s the hottest ticket at PIAF: get in if you can.

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished a substantial edit of my new YA novel coming out next year. This is one that Matters. When I can share more, I will.

 

The Flyaway Girls: what Wendy thinks

From Good Reading magazine, February 2016

Four stars

‘… In Chelsea we see a character who is determined and goal-oriented to the point of obsession. It’s the sort of drive that an elite athlete needs, but sometimes, no matter how hard the person words, the goal isn’t achieved. We feel Chelsea’s distress when her dream is shattered. But we’re also delighted when she learns that family and friends should never take second place to their own ambitions. It’s a story for those of us with dreams and for those of us who live with someone who has a driven personality.’

Wendy Noble