All posts in the Rants category

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 http://ianmclean.edublogs.org/2011/05/11/libby-gleeson-on-i-am-thomas/ 

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.

To typo or not to typo

Published December 1, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

I absolutely love the post I read this week about typos, and it is so relevant as I have been asking myself about that very same thing since I began this blog. One of the first people to read my blog was a teacher librarian friend of mine whom (or who, I’m not sure) I adore, but she has this comic book super hero ability to spot typos at 50 paces.

I thanked her kindly for pointing them all out to me, and was left wondering if she’d found anything I said even vaguely interesting (fortunately Kate Forsyth did so that was something really special).

Obviously my TL BFF is way out of date, and so am I having only just come across the post – Penelope Trunk wrote this  in 2008! A cyber-century ago.  Were iPads even around then? When I tried to re-find the post I discovered 14,400,000 results for typos.  And ebay was even trying to sell them to me.

However, if I learned anything from my time with the Children’s Book Council it is that there are people out there who love to make a meal of the details. And these are people in positions of power within the world of children’s literature.

I have to side with the let-typos-be-in-blogs camp. I am a working mother of two preschool aged children and I am about to start studying for a Master’s Degree.  As if that wasn’t enough I have also started a frikking fantastic blog which requires 500-1000 words of inspiration per day.  I read blogs, and I notice that there are quite a few typos that make it through, but I am sure that there are plenty that I never even notice. 

The ones I do notice are the grammatical mistakes. 

I’m sorry to say this, but maybe you and I need to slow down a bit, and read lovingly what we expect others to lovingly read.  It does bother me when I see mistakes, and the ones that show you have barely glanced at your own work are the ones that irk me. 

And this is a good time to bring up something that has been bothering me quite substantially.  If you have read my earlier posts you will know that Oliver Phommavahn is someone I consider a master of the written and spoken word. However, and I take a deep breath before I say this because I actually know Oliver and think he is wonderful . . . HOWEVER . . .  I almost stopped reading his latest book Con-Nerd at page . . . I can’t findwhich page it was and I have to finish this and get ready for school tomorrow so you’ll just have to accept that it was right at the start . . . because there were already two grammatical mistakes!  This was in a published book.  I can, and do, accept it in a blog, but not in a book, you naughty little bird.  Penguin, pull your finger out.  There.  I said it.  And I feel so much better.

While blogs and self published ebooks can get away with it, I don’t think publishers should.

I am glad I finished Con-Nerd.  There were only three glaring errors I came across, and the book was more than worth it in the end.

I also recommend you check out Oliver’s website in the links to the right.

If there are any typos, spellos or grammos in this or any other post on ELECTRICBLUEGALOO etc please address your complaints to the gremlins in my computer.

On Boys and Reading

Published November 30, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

I received a comment to my post yesterday saying

That teen is different from many others.. i must say.

And it got me wondering.  Did she mean the fact that he attends literary functions, that he reads and will discuss literature?  So I wanted to point out that while James, 14, does do these things he also plays representative rugby union, basketball, terribly violent video games, picks on his sister and thinks anyone over the age of 16 is senile.

Earlier this year I was very privileged to attend the Newington Literary Festival, and was further privileged to enter a discussion about boys and reading with Oliver Phommavahn and Tristan Bancks.  I am a firm believer that the best way to get kids reading is to be a reader.  Kids copy what they see adults doing.  They revile against what they perceive as “Do as I say, not as I do”, and so they should. 

 Tristan is the father to 2 small boys and while he immediately agreed that it is easy as pie (or is that easy as Pi?) to read to preschoolers, it is really difficult to engage high school boys in reading, and nigh impossible to get them to talk about it.  Yes it’s true, but impossible is wonderful.  I have yet to read 6 Impossible Things (it’s on my to do list), but I like it as a quote from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland in which Alice says she likes to do six impossible things before breakfast.  Or follow Kate Forsyth’s advice, aim for the moon.

Another wise Kate, my crazy cousin Katie, also has great quote “You’ll never do it younger”.  Age is such a good excuse!  No it is not!  Just yesterday I heard the mother of a kindergarten child tell me why she can’t read with her daughter.  You have to make reading a priority, for yourself, and for your kids.

In our family we still read and recommend books to parents, our children and our grandchildren.  Why?  We have established a literary community within our own family, and even my 18 month old joins in.

I was surprised and amazed to hear Tristan, just 20 minutes after disagreeing with me, advise the assembled audience of parents of private high school boys that they should read with their sons.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  It was good advice. 

Please, if you haven’t read with your son since he could tie his shoe laces,  don’t go shoving Harry Potter, Gone or The Coolhunters under his nose and expect him to read it.  What you do is choose a book YOU want to read, sit back on a Sunday afternoon and read it.  If your son (or daughter) sees you doing this you smile, say “How ya going?” and go back to your book.  You are MODELLING READING.  You are modelling being so caught up in an imaginary world that you can’t put the book down.  If you catch your offspring reading, say “Whatchya reading?”, hopefully they’ll answer.  You say “Cool” and walk away. 

Don’t push it. 

Keep modelling. 

Maybe one day, not too far from now, they’ll ask what you’re reading and, again – don’t push it, you have the beginning of a literary conversation. 

It can also work with magazines, newspapers and blogs (Go on, practise looking interested right now!)

I would also like to point out that James did not go willingly to his first Poetry Slam.  I told him I was taking him for a special treat for his birthday, but refused to tell him where.  When I did eventually reveal his “treat” he groaned.  However, it was, and continues to be such an amazing event that I officially never have to think of different birthday present again.  He wants to go every year for the rest of his life – success!

DISCLAIMER: CC Katie is a science nerd and has forced me to rearrange Kate Forsyth’s saying to be more “astronomically correct”.  If you catch me writing “Aim for the stars:  If you don’t reach them at least you’ll fall amongst the moon”, please blame Katie!

Interview with a teenage reader

Published November 29, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

So you know I took 14 year old James to The Australian Poetry Slam finals for the fourth year in a row and he loved it. Great, a teenage boy who loves the language arts, and he does, but this is how the interview started:

ELECTRICBLUEGAL: Hey, can I interview you for my blog?
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: Ok. So, are you reading anything at the moment?
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: How do you choose a book to read?
JAMES: I dunno. Look at the cover and see if it looks interesting.
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: So what makes a cover interesting?
JAMES: I dunno. Hey, why does this thing say it’s recording?

Fortunately he opened up a bit after two and a half hours of lyrical magic at the Slam.

ELECTRICBLUEGAL: What makes you want to stop reading a book?
JAMES: If it gets boring.
JAMES: Like, Harry Potter. Man, that book was boring.
(I have to point out here that I never would have read Harry Potter if it wasn’t for James loving the movie at the age of 5, which I personally think is too young to watch it.)
JAMES: I gave up, I just couldn’t believe there was 300 pages where nuh-thing happened. And I gave up in the same place when I watched the movie.
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: (shocked) but have you seen it all now?
JAMES: yeah, my friends said it was good, but just really boring. But I don’t agree.
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: That it was boring?
JAMES: That it was good. I mean the whole of The Deathly Hallows: Part 1. . . when they’re in the forest was so boring.
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: I’ve heard people say that, but for me one of the bits when they’re in the forest was the most compelling. And in the book too. When the werewolves walk past with the body if the little boy I got goosebumps, and I wasn’t even a mum when I read it.
JAMES: I guess they just did the best with the material they had. The book was just so boring.
ELECTRICBLUEGAL: But what else could she have done? I know some bits were a bit tedious, but I think they were necessary. What would you have had here leave out?
JAMES: The whole first half of the book.

And there you have it, folks, from the mouths of babes: Apparently, Harry Potter is boring.
He did, however, recommend one book. Gone. What’s it about? People who go. Sounds riveting.

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