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Top 5 Australian children’s picture books: to re-read until you go mad

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Mem Fox + Judy Horacek, Where is the Green Sheep?

Having two children has taught me a lot about narrative.

With the first child (my boy, McCool, now almost four), we did everything by the book, so to speak. We settled on a bedtime routine quickly, milk and three books. He was read up to ten books a day (and still is). He is fascinated by story, able to sit still and focus on the words, the detail. He is usually reluctant to read a new book, preferring to have one on endless repeat until he has memorised it and can read it himself.

With the second child (my girl, GG, now 18 months), the routine flew out the window from day one. She has absorbed the books, as part of us reading to McCool. She now sits on her own for a long time, looking at them in the corner. She brings favourites over to me at all times of the day. She still gets at least ten books but usually in bursts of passion (mine and hers). She is more interested in turning the pages, in noises and flaps, in dashing to the last page to see what happens. The only way I can get her to lie still when I change her nappy is to give her a choice of books.

But there’s no doubt that, regardless of their very different personalities, they both are drawn again and again to the same books. Sometimes books I’m truly in love with (the classics: Where the Wild Things Are; The Very Hungry Caterpillar); sometimes books I wish I never had to lay eyes on again (most of the mass-marketed Wiggles variations).

We’re lucky in Australia to have access to such a wide range of wonderful children’s book writers and illustrators (and publishers willing to look after them). My favourite thing is emptying the children’s piggy banks and being left to my own devices in the picture book section of a bookstore like Gleebooks in Sydney to wander and browse.

Here are the top 5 books in our household that have stood the test of time — for both the kids and me. These are the ones where I’m still able (after hundreds of readings) to truly enjoy turning the pages, to discover something new each time I read it.

WHERE IS THE GREEN SHEEP?

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s book is a masterpiece of narrative. I’ve learnt that children love Q+A. As I read ‘But where is the green sheep?’ my daughter answers ‘Mmmmm’ each time, enjoying the to and fro between us. The simple images give lots of chance for singing and acting the fool (the clown sheep, the sheep swinging around a lamp-post) and build in momentum to a climax, a page with a riot of sheep — Ned Kelly, Carmen Miranda, the ‘narcissist’ sheep — offering me the chance to branch off into all kinds of other narratives, before I start to whisper, and we find the little green sheep, sleeping and peaceful. The publishers, in all their marketing glory, decided to sell a soft toy of the green sheep, but my kids would never touch it. I always like to think they preferred the green sheep to be lost, missing, in their imaginations; they didn’t want to see it on their shelves.

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

TEN LITTLE FINGERS AND TEN LITTLE TOES

Mem Fox (she has contributed to so many wonderful books) and Helen Oxenbury’s tale of inclusion holds absolute delight for babies and toddlers. GG’s favourite word of the moment is ‘baby’ and in this book she sees herself reflected on every page, especially when there are actual illustrations of hands, fingers, feet, toes that she can measure her own against. The repetition gives her a chance to learn, and also the opportunity to see kids from different cultures to her own (she loves the image of the child with the penguin in the snow; and the child with the chicken in the heat). The personal link at the end where the mother kisses her baby three times on the ‘tip of its nose’ gives me lots of opportunities to kiss and tickle too.

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

Sonya Hartnett & Lucia Masciullo, The Boy and the Toy

THE BOY AND THE TOY

Sonya Hartnett’s foray into children’s picture books is, like everything else she does, unusual, with beautiful illustrations by Lucia Masciullo. It’s a melancholy tale of a boy on his own (his mum not mentioned, his dad away at sea). His father is an inventor and invents a toy for him, but this toy is jealous and starts destroying the boy’s world. The boy soon figures out there’s something not quite right and works out a way to trick the toy, creating a model of himself as a decoy. McCool has always loved this tale. He’s an independent boy, too, looking for answers, and this book elicits loads of questions: What is the toy doing? Where has the dad gone? What’s an inventor?

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight CatJOHN BROWN, ROSE AND THE MIDNIGHT CAT

This is my favourite children’s picture book of all time. I’ve no doubt handed down my passion, but both the kids love it. Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’ narrative proves once and for all that the dark and mysterious have a place in children’s books, even those for very young kids. The glorious illustrations and the apparently simple narrative (that is, in the end, about approaching death) of friendship and loyalty means the book can be savoured on many levels. Just the opening page before the story begins is full of wonderful possibilities: the outside toilet (McCool is fascinated by this idea), the chicken coop, the tyre swing, the old car in the garage that doesn’t get driven, the black cat that’s always lurking. I have to hold back tears nearly every time I get to the page where John Brown, the sheepdog, is lying with Rose’s slippers, wondering why she won’t get up. It’s a lesson in pared-back, taut and controlled writing. Magnificent!

WHO SANK THE BOAT?

Pamela Allen, like Mem Fox, writes and illustrates classic after classic: the list is remarkable (others that we call favourites include the Mr McGee series, Black Dog, Shhh! Little MouseWaddle Giggle Gargle, Inside Mary Elizabeth’s House) and she makes it look easy (it isn’t, I’ve tried). Who Sank the Boat? again focuses on repetition and refrain, asking a question so that the kids can answer. All kids seem to be drawn to the tiny in narrative (the small creature, the speck of dust, the littlest battling against the biggest [us adults]) and the idea that it is the smallest of all (the mouse rather than the donkey) who causes the commotion, who sinks the boat, is a clever trick and source of wonderment that never seems to grow stale.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat?

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS? OR THE ONES YOUR KIDS LOVE?

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Tasting the erotic: Krissy Kneen

Author Krissy Kneen

Author Krissy Kneen

Inspired by all the media frenzy surrounding 50 Shades of Grey — and its even better spin-off, 50 Sheds of Grey — I decided to look into Australian erotic writing for the next issue of Newswrite (the magazine I edit for the NSW Writers’ Centre) and started speaking to a number of authors about how they create sex scenes.

Pretty soon I came across Krissy Kneen.

Based in Brisbane, Krissy is the author of two short collections of erotica, Swallow the Sound (see Angela Meyer’s review) and Triptych. She also writes regularly at her blog, Furious Vaginas.

The author Emily Maguire (who writes about sex brilliantly in her debut novel, Taming the Beast), describes herself as a huge fan of Krissy’s work:

 I rarely find her work ‘erotic’ in terms of arousal, but I think she writes about sex and the erotic in a deeply intelligent and empathetic way. I always come away from her work feeling warmer towards strangers and humanity in general. It’s like she uses the erotic to uncover the gorgeous, hugely varied vulnerabilities of human beings. She really captures the desperate need to be approved of in all our most private weirdness, to be touched and loved.

Intrigued by Krissy’s writing, and her appearance on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club (as part of a panel on erotic literature), I spoke to her about her favourite writers, the history of erotica in Australia, and how to write great sex when you’re not in the mood.

Who do you see as the most interesting contemporary Australian writers working in erotic writing (short stories / novels / nonfiction)?

I love Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers [see Wild Colonial Girl’s interview with Susan in the Writing Mothers series] and Rod Jones, Sonya Harnett and Frank Moorhouse do sex so well. I am not a big fan of most of the ‘erotic’ novels as a genre. It is rarely done well without relying on cliche. I prefer literary books that are not afraid of their sensuality.

I know there are a great many Australian writers working in romantic erotic fiction, paranormal erotic fiction and just general erotic fiction, and they do very well internationally, but I am afraid I am a sucker for literary fiction and so my reading in those areas is limited. I am currently reading Jeff Sparrow’s book about pornography, Money Shot, and finding that fascinating, and am also just starting Benjamin Law’s Gaysia — not exactly erotic books but important books about sex.

Landscape with AnimalsI still find Landscape with Animals by Cameron Redfern (Sonya Hartnett) to be my favourite Australian erotic book, although her genre is usually YA, so I think I’ll be waiting a long time for another from her. I recently re-read Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me and the sex bits are excellent, very funny, and it is lovely to see her wrestling with feminism and women’s friendships within the genre. I also love Kate Holden’s The Romantic for great writing about sex. Kate is a fabulous writer and I am very much looking forward to more. Nightpictures by Rod Jones is another one of my favourite erotic books.

Is there a history of Australian erotic fiction that you can trace back? Do you know of any early examples?

The academic who has written on this subject is Xavier Pons. His book Messengers of Eros is a really thorough look at sex in Australian fiction. The thing is, I haven’t read a lot of the early examples of Australian sex writing, but Pons has and shows us that there is indeed a long tradition of it, and although we associate sex writing with women now, it was a very masculine domain at one time. My real foray into sex writing in Australia began with Justine Ettler (River Ophelia) and Linda Jaivin (Eat Me). There was a big stir when Nikki Gemmel came out with the anonymous The Bride Stripped Bare and, although there was a lot of well-written sex, that book was so inherently conservative in its relationship to sex (if you have extra-marital sex you will die), I am not a fan. Her second book With My Body is an even less discreet ode to monogamy, even going so far as to say that the most sexy sex is that which is performed to conceive a child.

I personally love sex books that challenge us on our relationship to sexuality, that do not see monogamous or heterosexual as the default settings, and that allow sex to be something celebratory and not something to feel shame about. That is a rarity in sex literature and a very rare thing in erotic genre fiction, which is why I tend to steer clear.

How do you go about writing an ‘erotic’ scene? Does characterisation come first?

Krissy Kneen, TriptychIt is different for everything I write. If I am writing a novel, the character will always come first and their sexuality is just an expression of character, but with Triptych I was specifically setting out to write pornographic literature and as a result I thought about it in terms of sexual preference first and character second. I knew I wanted to write about transgressions and therefore picked three ‘perversions’ of sex (voyeurism, bestiality and incest) and worked back to character and story from there. In my short collection, Swallow the Sound, I just used sex scenes from novels I had written that had not been published. I worked those up into short stories — so definitely they came from the characters and the story.

What makes a scene ‘erotic’ for you? If it’s not working, do you ditch it or keep trying?

Some days I don’t feel like writing sex, but that is rare. Mostly the sex is the easy part. I have more trouble sustaining a plot for the length of a book. Structure is my difficulty and the sex is the fun easy part of the writing. It is rare that the sex isn’t working. Recently I had the experience of finding it very difficult to get an orgy started in a book I was writing. It was pages and pages later and they still weren’t even close to getting their clothes off. It took me the better part of a week to finally realise that one of the peripheral characters had all the power in the situation and all my protagonist had to do was confess to him that she wanted an orgy and he very quickly and easily made it happen. Sometimes, like that example, starting the sex is the hardest bit. Sometimes characters aren’t ready to leap into bed but often if you make them just do it and it is awkward and embarrassing, that makes for a great sex scene.

I can tell when a sex scene is really working. I can always feel it. It feels like you are riding a wave and you just have to stick with it till it comes to a natural end. It feels a bit like sculpting actually. It feels physical, like you are touching the shape of the scene. It is very sensual work. Every bit of writing feels like a Krissy Kneen, Swallow the Sounddifferent craft. I have recently been editing my book and that feels like sewing. It is exhausting and hurts your eyes and requires a lot of concentration but when it is done well you feel a sense of achievement seeing something that looks seamless, even though you know there is a lot of invisible mending in it. The sex scenes are definitely the sculptural component, where the other parts of the story feel a bit more like painting with oils, laying it on, and then going back when it is dry and adding more colour, taking it from a flat inert thing to something that gives the impression of movement.

I do enjoy the sex the best. I suppose that is why people respond to it in my work. It feels like my more natural craft. Still there is nothing like tackling the parts of a book that come less naturally to me and making them work. That feels like a real achievement.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT MAKES A PIECE OF WRITING EROTIC FOR YOU? DOES IT HAVE TO BE ABOUT SEX? HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO WRITE A SEX SCENE YOURSELF?

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Writing Mothers: Wendy James

Author Wendy James

Author Wendy James

One of the great things about writing a blog is the comments you get from readers, introducing you to new writers working in similar areas. Wendy James is a writer who, somehow, had flown under the radar for me. Short stories. Novels. She’s produced an impressive amount of work including Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. But I’d never heard of her. When I started immersing myself in her books, I realised it may have been a cover issue. I judge books by their covers. If a book looks too saccharine or girlie, I tend to shy away. If it looks like a family saga, I get nervous.

Wendy (as she explains later) has been punished by the publishers when it comes to covers. Her covers and titles are misleading. Rich, energetic and punchy, her text is intricate and soars off the page; the covers don’t reflect this. Reading her books has taught me about my own prejudices when it comes to reading and genre. Read more…

Writing Mothers: Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten TranterSydney-based writer Kirsten Tranter has published two novels in quick succession, The Legacy and A Common Loss, to international critical acclaim. While she has written widely about the trials and tribulations of writing a second novel, the setting of A Common Loss (the neon streets of Las Vegas) has distinguished her writing from other Australian contemporaries.

Angela Meyer, from Literary Minded, described the book’s appeal:

The complexity of Vegas — where people dream, work, gamble, are seduced, marry, play, and drink themselves to death in giant rooms under flashing lights — is the perfect setting for this book about a man, an intelligent man, an academic, who realises he’s not as aware (or even self-aware) as he thought he was. Eventually, in Vegas, he begins to see behind the surfaces to the wear and tear. Read more…

Writing Mothers: Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson

Author Susan Johnson has recently published her novel, My Hundred Lovers.

Susan Johnson is an author of seven novels, and also non-fiction, and has recently released her latest, My Hundred Lovers. She blogs regularly on all aspects of writing and the process of launching her book.

I remember reading an early work of hers, Flying Lessons, and revelling in its fierce characterisation and descriptions of Queensland. She was always a writer who excited and challenged me, and I kept an eye out for her latest works.

Susan describes Flying Lessons here:

The book, set in Australia, has two heroines, modern-day Ria Lubrano and her Edwardian grandmother Emma James. Ria Lubrano, who “came into the world with bones plotting mutiny”, suffering from a literal and metaphorical film over her eyes, is vegetating as a jingle-singer, a voice without an identity or even a complete song, her sense that life is just “a series of disengagements”. She is preoccupied with the loss of her brother Scott, who has drifted out of touch with his family and turned by degree into a missing person. She is also engrossed by the story of Emma, who married a Catholic boy and was renounced by her archetypal disciplinarian father. Read more…

Writing Mothers: Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder

I’ve been writing an essay for Island Magazine on the topic, Writing Mothers, where I’ve been looking at mother characters in Australian fiction (written by women), and talking to novelists and bloggers about how they even begin to juggle their writing with pregnancy and having children. I’ve also talked to writers (who are not mothers) about how they go about creating characters (who are mothers).

I’ve been surprised at how little research has been done on the topic (although the Australian Women Writers’ Network has been brilliant at giving me leads). It seems that mothers shimmy out of the limelight wherever possible. The article will be published in July but, in the meantime, I thought I’d start a series on Writing Mothers where I publish some of the interviews in full that I’ve quoted from in the article.

First up is Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (which won the world’s biggest prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize) and an outstanding debut novel, All That I Am (one of the best Australian novels of the past year, nominated for the Miles Franklin). She is one of Australia’s most exciting writers and here she talks about the challenges of writing when you have three children.

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?

Anna Funder, Stasiland

Anna Funder, Stasiland

AF: I was finishing Stasiland when I was pregnant with my first child. I think pregnancy is a wonderful state, in that it chemically blurs all kinds of anxieties about the (completely and utterly unimaginable ) future that is coming. That applies to both babies, and books — how can anyone have any idea what it’s going to be like with either? I think I expected to have a quiet time with my baby, which I did for a little bit, but then the book took off and I was travelling and talking a lot for a couple of years.

When my baby was two weeks old I went out and bought a three-piece set of matching luggage on a whim. My dear friend, a mother of four, said to me, ‘You have a two-week-old baby. Where do you think you’re going??’ I had no idea, but I ended up travelling all over the place with my daughter.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

AF: I wrote a lot of articles and speeches. I didn’t really have the mental wherewithal to nut out the architecture of a big novel — that came later. I found it hard to organise my time. My husband was overseas weeks at a time for about half the year, and I was in a city without much family support. I have three children now, and imagine I’m a bit better at outsourcing some of the care and making time to write. But truth be told, I put my novel All That I Am away for the first six months of my son’s life. I tried to have a break from it. Of course I wrote other stuff during that time.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

AF: I don’t find discipline so hard. I find writing hard, but I am more stressed out by not doing it than by doing it, so I organise my life to be able to work. What is not good for writing is sleep deprivation and lactation; the brain function that is important for writing — the wordy, analytical, associative, creative part of your mind — is shut down by prolactin I believe. This is so that grown women who are used to doing a great many things can stay seated the eight hours a day it takes to feed a newborn without going mad, so it’s a good thing.

Also, a mother’s focus is incredibly directed, and her emotional energy is absolutely heightened by having a baby. This intensity of living and loving — this experience of being part of a dyad — is a wonderful gift. Like all intense emotional experiences, it broadens you in the longer term, which can make you a better writer. Motherhood also makes you a whole lot more vulnerable to the world, you have a greater stake in the future, and in the little people you’re putting into it. That’s not bad for a human being, or a writer.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

AF: One woman whose story I wrote in Stasiland was separated from her baby by the Berlin Wall. I always found it a terrible story, but I realised much more shockingly after having a baby what she must have gone through. It wasn’t possible to do this solely by an act of sympathetic experience. I had to have the emotional receptors for it, and the only way to get those is –—in this instance — to have had a baby. I probably wouldn’t have written the story any differently. I still think it’s fine. But this experience is salutary for me. If what you do is work to enable people to understand and experience others, and other things through words, it makes you realise the limits of them.

Have you written about any mothers in your fiction before or after the birth? Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation?

AF: I do write about mothers. Often it is influenced more by my own mother, than by my experience of mothering. But I feel pretty well-equipped now, after three children, to write a convincing mother character. Or twenty.

Stay tuned for the next interview in the Writing Mothers series: blogger Bianca Wordley (isn’t that just the perfect name for a writer?).

Have you read Anna Funder’s Stasiland or All That I Am? What are your thoughts on these books?

Or are you a writing mother? How do you juggle your writing time with looking after the kids?

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