All posts for the month December, 2011

Brotherband: The Outcasts

Published December 20, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

No review of Brotherband: Outcasts would be complete without mention of the hugely successful Ranger’s Apprentice series that made John Flanagan a household name. The Ranger’s Apprentice is much more than a boy’s own adventure series. Flanagan’s masterful narrative style is engaging and unobtrusive while his character, plot and world building are beyond reproach – almost. By the end if the first book, Araluen and its inhabitants were fully formed and believable. They were the type of characters I was willing, nay, keen, to invest the hours required to read all 11 books in the series. 11 books is a fairly substantial commitment and the series almost pulled it off, if only it hadn’t jumped the shark at the end of The Emperor of Nihon-Ja. I really don’t think we read 10 books of adventure and daring just to end up with a royal wedding!
But John Flanagan is a clever, clear man. He squeezed every drop of adventure from the Will and Halt et al dynamic and has branched off to tales of an Araluen-Skandian lad whose ingenuity is set to rival or even surpass Will’s, and with a mentor who we’re sure will redeem himself as the series moves on.
I started reading Brotherband constantly distracted by really wanting to know what Will and the gang were up to, but a couple of chapters into The Outcasts and I was hooked.  It’s not that the Ranger’s Apprentice characters have been replaced, that could never happen, it’s just the next generation.  Degrassi High to Degrassi Jnr High, without the 80’s hair and teenage pregnancies, if you will.  Equal but different.

Just as exciting as anything else in the new series, Erak the Skandian Oberjarl plays a starring role.  Erak, like Froi*,  is one of those characters that you had to love from the beginning, even while he was running around kidnapping Will and Evanlyn and in the employ of the arch villan Lord Morgarath.  What would my world be like without curses such as “Gorlag’s beard”!?!  Erak is fierce, fearsome and fiery, but like all Skandians, his extreme outrageousness lightens the tension perfectly. 

This series is set to be another page turner, but I have just one criticism.  What is John Flanagan’s obsession with tall, slim blondes?  Ok, it would be a little unusual to have a brown-eyed girl as a love interest in a Viking inspired world, but what about strawberry-blonde.  I found it a little overdone in the Ranger’s Apprentice and was the only detail that made me groan in the new series.  Spoiler alert: Hopefully now that Hal and the crew are exiled from Skandia we lay the scene for a more rainbow cast of characters.

*Ok, maybe we didn’t really love Froi when we met him, maybe we only kind of liked him at the end of Finnikin of The Rock, but believe me, you will be cheering for him by the end of Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta.


Writer’s Groups: A Company of Writers

Published December 13, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

As a sometimes aspiring writer of children’s fiction I can say that being part of a writer’s group is just about the most productive thing you can do, and don’t just take my word for it.  Successful writers such as Libby Gleeson, Richard Harland and Oliver Phommavahn have spoken about the benefit of writer’s groups and keeping company with other writers.

In writer’s groups you are not only challenged to produce a piece of writing of at least 1000 words for each meeting, but you are also challenged to justify those words.   If you are lucky, you get a first peek at what might go on to be an international best seller, and realise that most writers in your position are asking exactly the same questions, and some have even found  answers.

In 2009 I was part of a writers’ group to which, among others, Oliver Phommavahn, Jenny Hale and Aleesah Darlison belonged.  At this time all three were officially unpublished but have now gone on to become successful writers.  If you are unaware of their work I recommend you Google them now.  The advice I received from this group was absolutely invaluable, but furthermore was the expectation that to be part of this group I must take my writing seriously and make the committment to write regularly, and to build on the suggestions of my fellow writers.

The writers’ group model is also very effective in classroom situations.  In the writer’s group we shared copies of our work and opened them up to critique.  It is amazing how many obvious flaws make it through even our toughest self editing, though we are so much more careful when we know a group will be reading and pointing out every typo and the like. 

As a teacher I have made it a practise to take writing seriously.  By this I mean, when I critique children’s work they understand that my suggestions are made to help them communicate their ideas more effectively.  It is also part of my regular practise to scan a child’s writing, display it on the interactive whiteboard and have the whole class point out things the child did well and areas for improvement. 

Unfortunately, in classes I visit children do not regularly share their drafts with others – this seems to be left only for “published” writing.  Often times I have seen students bring their book to the teacher who glances over the work and tells the child it is good, as if good is good enough.  The child then walks away without even having been asked what improvements they made to their draft.  The piece of writing is then shut away, never to see the light of day again. 

In the writer’s circle model, whether in the classroom or at the local library or writers’ centre, the work is analysed for potential improvements, with the idea of communication with an audience as central.  How can students be mindful of an audience if there is never any accountability?  If no-one other than the teacher ever reads the majority of their words? 

It is never to early to ask a child to share their work with the class, and have the class respectfully point out ways it could be further improved.  I always tell the students that Mem Fox re-drafted Possum Magic 40 times, so the least you can do is re-draft your own writing once or twice before you show it to me.  Spoken word artist and highly talented poet Miles Merril has the rather graphic analogy that when he is writing he vomits words out onto the page.  From that gloop of word vomit the writer must extract the dainty morsels that can be tidied up and served to an audience.  It is up to the writing teacher to explain to his or her students that it is not polite to serve raw word-vomit to your guests (possibly in a more polite manner so as to avoid complaints from parents).

I also get the students to use coloured pencil to show me where they have edited their own work, and if they bring it to me and there are still full stops missing or capital letters in the wrong place I will send them back to correct these simple errors till the cows come home.   Inspire the heck out of your class so they are dying to show you their writing, then demand they present it to you in a way befitting the masterpiece they have created.  These self editing skills are essential for lifelong learning and are quickly acquired when the students realise their peers will be reading their work.

Richard Harland wrote in The Company of Writers (p. 24, August/September 2009, Newswrite) that

The great thing about workshops is that it doesn’t matter who produces the ideas; everyone can learn from everyone else’s moves.

When you have your class thinking like that you aren’t just one teacher against an army of wildly apostrophe wielding youths with no regard for the proper use of capital letters.  When your class holds themselves and their classmates accountable to the conventions of written language you have yourself a company of writers.

The Doo-Doo’s in the Details

Published December 12, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

This week when I heard a ten-year old passionate writer tell her friend “I’ve written 16 pages and I’m not even up to the complication yet!” I thought it was deja vous.  This type of writing is only interesting to the writer, not to the reader.  They don’t know what’s going to happen after all this introduction. Why should they stick with it?

It sounded exactly the way I used to write.  That was until I met Mark MacLeod, editor and children’s author.

I met Mark at a publishing consultation at the NSW Writers’ Centre about a week after my first child was born.  I thought at the time that was why he was so gentle with my other baby – Isa Ines and the Monkey Man.  He was gentle, but I went home and murdered all my darlings.

In my first drafts of Isa Ines and the Monkey Man I lovingly laboured over every languid lexicon.  And then I forced my friends to read it.  I even made the pretence of leaving the room, but listened at the door as they ooh-ed and aaah-ed over my poetic potential.  I also made my students read it and they loved me so they said they loved my story.

And then Mark basically told me my writing was crap!

Well, not in so few words but I could tell from the pained expression on his face that I was going about it all wrong.  Actually, I’ll revise that.  I was going about it all old fashioned, and also a bit . . . well, crap.

Mark gave me two pieces of advice which have vastly improved my writing (I invite you to look at “My Writing” posts and decide for yourself).

1. Verbs increase the pace of the story and make it more interesting.  Adjectives slow it down.  I was drowning in adjectives.  I now know that you have to think about the effect you want to create.  Basically, I do the modern thing and only add adjectives if they serve a purpose. 

A great example of this is in John Flanagan’s The Burning Bridge in which he described a character as having blonde hair.  Ok, no biggie, lots of people have blonde hair.  But till that point his physical descriptions of characters had always been so purposeful – Will is little, Horace is big, Halt is shaggy and unkempt, and these all add to the plot in some way.  I will not spoil the story if you’re mad enough not to have read it yet, but let me say the blonde bit was perfectly positioned.

Sadly, I don’t think primary school teachers really understand this point.  When I teach creative writing the first thing I do is point to all the details and ask “Why?”.  Why have you told me this?  Why is this important?  Why can’t it be in the evening instead of the morning? If you can’t justify it, don’t waste my time with it.  Also, Stephen King makes a good point in On Writing when he says if you give too many details about whatever character you’re describing, you can actually destroy the mental image the reader was creating.  By the way, you must, must, must read On Writing no matter which genre you write, or teach other people to write.

2. The second jewel of advice from Mr MacLeod that day was dialogue.  This will help if you’re trying to use ” show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass” to argue against the first point.  Dialogue is fast, it is interesting and it shows moonlight in a much more interactive way than a string of adjectives any day of the week.  For a first class example of how this is done read the conversation between Harry and Dudly at the start of The Order of the Phenix and just about every other section of dialogue published in any book in the series.  I personally think this is why I was able to read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.

So in conclusion, don’t let the details make doo-doo of your darlings.

And please, if you teach passionate writers, ask them why?


Published December 8, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

A couple of days ago I was listening to Diary of A Wimpy Kid with another class of year 5/6 students and laughing my head off at all the inane humour (“Bad Fart up ahead” gets me every time) when a kid asked me “What the heck’s a 25-year-old woman doing listening to a kid’s book?”

After I recovered from the shock that he thinks I’m only 25, I explained to him that as a primary school teacher it’s part of my job to be aware of what children are reading.  But it’s so much more than that. 

Kate Forsyth put it best at a NSW Writers’ Centre festival in 2008  when she explained her own love for writing for children.  I’ll paraphrase what she said, “Adults who read can be so pretentious.  I’m so sick of black clad, waif thin literati coming up to me at festivals telling me they just love Proust. Rubbish,” she said.  “Kids never read anything just so they can show off.  If they think it’s boring they’ll just say ‘Nah, not reading this'”.

The difficult art of writing for kids has often been undermined, by those who haven’t tried it.  There’s a famous quote that when Maurice Sendak was asked why he wastes his talent writing for children his reply was “I don’t”.  Apparently I’m not the only one who finds writing for children quite a challenge!

So why do people do it?  It’s difficult, undervalued and unless you’re JK Rowling, not very well paid.  In researching for today’s post I have dug up old articles from the NSW Writers’ Centre, CBCA and assorted literary journals to find out what the masters say, and I have to agree with the Mel(a)inas (Farranda and Marchetta) who both talk about “hope”.  The fact that children’s and YA stories are full of hope is definately an attractive attribute.

I also happened upon  Maurice Saxby’s musings on Children’s Books in Australia: Two Hunderd Years of Social Life (Australian Literature in the Primary Classroom p5, published by the Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra, 1988).  He states that children’s literature “. . . records as no history book could, the changing relationship of Australians to their land, their institutions and to each other.”  Obvoiusly this is true of children’s literature from any culture or country because we as adults only want to pass on to our children that which we feel is of upmost importance, whether it be the deep and touching themes of Libby Gleeson’s writing or the side splitting humour of Bumface and The Cabbage Patch Fib, or even the combination as seen in Oliver Phommavahn’s Thai-Riffic and Con-nerd.

If you want a blatent example of how our mores have changed in under a century take a look at Mary Poppins. The portrayal of the mother alone changes dramatically from the book to the movie to the stage show.  In the book Michael Banks calls his mother ” . . . a very cruel woman,” and I must say I agree with him (Mary Poppins, PL Travers, 1934).  She shows no concern for the children’s loss when Mary leaves at the end of the book, and in the 1964 film version she is so distracted by the suffragette movement that she fails to give her children the attention they crave.  In the noughties stage version she is hamstrung by Edwardian customs, but is liberated by her determination and little song about jelly.

So though I might be ancient (I realise that’s what he meant by saying I was 25), I do love reading children’s books.  Not just because I was once a child, though that is part of the reason, and not just because I am a parent and a teacher, though that is also part of the reason.  I love children’s books because I am a thinker.  I love reading children’s and YA books because I have met a lot of children’s and YA authors and I know why they don’t waste their talents writing for adults. 

I also love reading children’s and YA literature because it plays with language in a way that very few adult novels do.  And on that note I offer you a link to one of my other passions – the work of Australian Poerty Slam Artist Simon Taylor (though I have to say it was 10, 000x even better live on stage).

Broken Hill ALOUD Dinner Speech 2010

Published December 7, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

This speech was written in 2010 for the CBCA NSW ALOUD Children’s Literary Festival (Broken Hill)

Welcome Gatekeepers and thank you for coming to our little literary festival dinner.

This festival dinner and the activities which have taken place over the past 2 days have been brought to the community of Broken Hill thanks to the work of volunteers with the Children’s Book council of Australia, NSW Branch and through funding from Arts NSW and ASLA NSW.

So who are the Children’s Book Council of Australia and what do they do? Well, the annual CBCA Awards and Children’s Book Week are the two most well known aspects of the national organisation, but there is so much more happening at a state and regional level.

I wonder how many of you here tonight can tell me what the slogan for the Children’s Book Council of Australia is?

The slogan is “Engaging the community with literature for young Australians”.

Whenever I’m at an event people ask me “So, what do the CBCA do?” and to me the slogan really sums it up. We engage the community, young and old, with literature for Young Australians”.

Throughout the year we provide opportunities for children and adults to meet and work with real live authors celebrating the wealth of amazing Australian children’s literature that many of us take for granted.

In NSW alone, our programs include writing masterclasses, author afternoon teas, a glitzy film award ceremony, celebratory dinners, annual mini-conferences, Frustrated Writer’s Mentorship Programs and of course travelling to a whole different time zone to make sure as many members of the community as possible are engaged with literature.

This word “engaged” stands out to me in particular after reading John Cohen’s editorial in the August 2010 Reading Time. In this editorial he lamented the browsing approach to reading that has developed through the use of internet and computer games. To quote John:

We live in a world of sound and reading bites that never challenge the reader to think in any depth. The information glut results in a demand for the quick summary of news items that rarely ask for any discrimination on the part of the reader, viewer or listener.

His suggestion that readers are lacking not only the skills, but also the opportunity to discriminate and to delve deeply into text is a concern.

Fortunately this ailment in society can be cured in the most enjoyable way.

By engaging in literature!

By engaging in literature we find we are not the only ones who think, feel and act a certain way. By engaging in literature we are challenged in the way we think, feel and act. By engaging in literature we learn that there are many ways to think, feel and act.

But the key here is the act of engaging with literature. Sure, I read every Babysitter’s Club book there was, and I believe there is a role for those pink fairy books as fodder for emerging readers who are developing fluency.

But don’t you remember those books that changed your life? Books like Letters From the Inside, Possum Magic, Amy and Louis and I Came Back to Tell You I could Fly? These are stories that really engage Young Australians.

These are stories that capture you and make you use a torch under the bedsheets because you couldn’t bear it if mum made you stop reading before the end. These are books that took us away, far across the storybridge. We can still remember what it was like living in that world, even for the briefest of times.

As a mother of two small children I am now looking at children’s literature from a new perspective. I am amazed at the way even the simplest of text and illustrations prepare children for the challenges that lie ahead.

Take for example Cheeky Monkey written by Andrew Daddo and Emma Quay. This was the first proper, paper-page book my daughter didn’t eat. For her this was a life changer, and the change came here: “Not how you like it, grizzly grump”. She realised she was not the only one in the world who hates having her hair brushed.

My daughter doesn’t know what the word literature means, but she doesn’t need to. She’s already engaging with it.

Along with “engage” and “literature” there is another word in the CBCA slogan that really stands out and that word is community. Without community what is the point of engaging in literature?

So I thank you again, gatekeepers, for coming along tonight because you are the ones who provide those all important Young Australians with access to the literature which will change their lives, and by helping them engage they will develop the skills to question and challenge the soundbites they are fed.

Now it is my great pleasure to introduce our guests, authors Libby Gleeson and Oliver Phommavanh.

Oliver will speak first tonight.

I first met Oliver about 2 years ago at a writing workshop. Our teacher, Robin Morrow, told us to write a story or story-outline for an object we had brought along with us. Oliver had brought, sorry to say this, a rather scruffy looking blue Care Bear pencil case. When he stood up at the front of the group to share his story-outline about the pencil case whose belches disturbed the whole class he literally had the rest of us in stitches.

And over the past 2 days Oliver has used a whole collection of soft toys, from the famous care-bear Grumpy to Mario, and even super-water-bottle-woman with the power to quench thirst, to delight, entertain and inspire Broken Hill children in their creative writing.

Oliver’s debut novel was launched in June this year, and it is a Thai-riffic read. He is a man of many talents, including stand up comedian, so I knew the book would be funny, but I should have also known it would be thoughtful, smart and very moving.

Having met Oliver as an unpublished author I feel an enormous pride and privilege to have attended his book launch and to be working with him as a professional writer.

I now hand over to Oliver Phommavahn, children’s author.

(Oliver’s Speech)

As preparation for this visit I have researched everything I could about “Libby Gleeson”, and I have come to two conclusions.

  1. Firstly, Libby is completely fabulous as an author, advocate for children’s literature, Indigenous literacy and literature, a voice for refugees, women, girls, Australians. She is a voice for freedom, empowerment, belief and most importantly a voice for children who cannot put into words the bittersweet beauty of having a best, best, best friend who lives on the other side of the world.
  2. The second conclusion I have come to is that Libby is far too modest. Libby is embarrassed when I probe her about her amazing achievements. But I am not the only one who recognises Libby’s outstanding talent as a storyteller and for her services to children’s literacy and literature.

So please indulge me just a moment longer as I very briefly list some of Libby’s achievements. Libby has been writing for 35 years and has 35 books published. The first of these, Eleanor Elizabeth, won the Angus and Robertson Writers for the Young Fellowship. Eleanor Elizabeth was also Highly Commended Australian CBC Awards, 1985 and Short listed South Australian Literature Award, 1985. She has been shortlisted or won state, national and international awards ever since, including being shortlisted 13 times for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards . Among the most prestigious of these is the Bolonga Razzi Award in 2000 for her incredibly powerful picture book The Great Bear (recently reprinted). Libby was the first Australian to win this award.

She has also been honoured for her services to children’s literature – receiving the CBCA Lady Cutler Award in 1997 and an Order of Australia medal more recently.

As I say, this is just a summary of Libby’s achievements so please do as I have and google Libby Gleeson, and ofcourse read as many of her books as you can.

Please welcome, Libby Gleeson, AM.

(Libby’s Speech)

To see and hear excerpts from both Libby and Oliver’s speeches join the CBCA NSW facebook group.  Apologies for the poor sound quality.

Jessica Francis, October, 2010

For a more recent discussion of Libby Gleeson’s groundbreaking work with Armin Greder please take a look at this link 

Harry Potter and the Great Copyright Conundrum

Published December 6, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

I’m typing this post in the line for the ‘Harry Potter’ exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum and there are about a thousand people in front of me.
Little tip: allow at least an hour for lining up.
The subject of today’s musings is copyright, plagiarism and originality, and how to help children understand these concepts.
I shall disclaim right now that nowhere shall I suggest that JK Rowling plagiarized or breached any copyright. What she has done, however, is very cleverly weave together lots of ideas that other people have also had over the years.

Many times I have taught creative writing to students who are so concerned with ‘originality’ that they completely forget how to communicate with their audience.  What JK Rowling has done is build an empire on centuries, and even millennia of myth and folk law, sprinkled with a heavy dose of real and raw emotions.

So why do I mention copyright and plagiarism?  As far as plagiarism is concerned I think we (teachers, parents and the community at large) must be doing something right because the students I work with are slowly coming around to the notion that you’re not supposed to copy great chunks of information from a website and paste it into your own document.  But I just don’t think kids get why you’re not supposed to.   Cynthia Karena wrote in her 2010 article All Their Own Work (pp34-35, Australian Educator Issue 67) that teachers are explaining why, but I don’t believe it is as simple as asking “would you like it if someone stole your ideas?”

We need to make it clear to students that if they plagiarise someone’s work, it is not just illegal, breach of copyrite and immoral, but they are not practising the art of communication.

I set what I thought to be an extremely easy task for a year 5 class last year.  We had been looking at Polar Boy and discussing the animals in the story, so I asked them to research one of the animals Sandy Fussell has mentioned.  I took note of Cynthia Karena’s advice that setting easier tasks would reduce plagiarism so all they had to do was find 3 facts and a picture in one hour, and copy and paste the addresses of any websites they used.  What the kids proudly showed me was pages of information copied straight from the web, no references and absolutely no idea what the information was about.

I had to start back at square one – “Read the information,” I said.  “If you find one interesting fact, write it down”. Lots of modelling later and they finally got the idea, but I would like to build on Cynthia’s points by adding that we must always reinforce that the purpose of completing an assignment is to communicate.  It is up to teachers to ensure that the question is structured so that the student can give an opinion, an opinion based on the evidence they gather.  Continually ask them what they have learned and if it is answering the assignment question.

 When you ask a child, or any student of any age really, to research and write an assignment you are not asking them to invent or investigate everything from scratch.  What they should be doing is looking at what is already out there, and putting it together in a way that communicates their own ideas or feelings in response to the set task.

ps if you can get your hands on a copy of the article All Their Own Work it is a very interesting take on the issue.

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