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BOOK LIST: Best Australian children's books chosen by Kate Constable

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When I asked Kate Constable, the author of the award-winning CROW COUNTRY,  to be a guest on my blog this week, I asked her if she'd write me a post about her favourite Australian children's books. She had a confession to make, however ...

Even though I was born in Australia, and I have been an avid reader all my life, it is a strange but true fact that when I was growing up, I didn't read Australian books.

Though I was born in Melbourne, I spent most of my childhood in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, in a tiny town called Mt Hagen. My father worked there as a charter pilot, flying light planes in and out of isolated mountain villages, carrying all kinds of passengers and cargo - everything from cattle to coffins, sacks of coffee beans to cans of fish.

Mt Hagen was a very small town in those days - now it's the third largest city in PNG - but for some reason it had an excellent public library, in a dark little building near the market. It seems so unlikely that such a well-stocked library could possibly exist that I've tried to research how this could have come about, but I haven't been able to find out, and the library doesn't seem to exist any more. My best guess is that it was the result of some philanthropic impulse or charitable exercise - send a library to the Highlands!

Whatever the case, I was the beneficiary. I read my way through shelves of wonderful children's authors: Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Ransome, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E. Nesbit, Leon Garfield, PL Travers, CS Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge and so many more. I've spent many rewarding years since, trying to recreate that library via second hand bookshops, with some success! (These are many of my favourite children's authors too!)

With no television, few shops or recreational facilities, there wasn't much to do in Mt Hagen except to read, and I read everywhere: at the table, under the blankets, sitting in trees. Like may children, I read my favourite books over and over again. Sometimes I borrowed the books just to put them under my pillow at night; I loved them so much and knew them so well that there was no need to open the covers.

I was especially drawn to books about magic, ghosts and time travel, memories and dreams. Some of my particular favourites were Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, CS Lewis's Narnia books, and A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. Many of the books I loved best were by English authors, and when my family travelled to the UK (so my father could visit his family for the first time since he was twenty), I felt an immediate and intense bond with the English countryside.

I instantly felt that I knew this landscape, deep in my bones: the damp green fields, the spreading trees and sheltering hedgerows, the stone cottages and bluebell-filled woods. This was home, this was where I belonged, and when we left a few weeks later, I cried for days.

Weirdly, I felt no such connection to the Australian landscape when we returned to Melbourne on leave, even though I'd been born and spent the first six years of my short life there. I wonder now whether, after reading all those English books, the landscape of England had seeped into my imagination as a place brimming with magical possibilities. 

In contrast, the few books I read by Australian authors all seemed to be sternly realistic, about girls with ponies in sun-scorched paddocks, or, terrifyingly, about children surviving bushfires or plane crashes alone. There didn't seem to be a space in the Australian landscape of those books for magic, or fantasy, or time travel; no ghosts, no history; nothing for me to hold onto.

How wrong I was!

Of course there were books, Australian books, that knew about magic; but for some reason, I never managed to find them. It was only as an adult that I discovered wonderful books by Australian authors that might have given me the same sense of wonderful, mysterious power that I'd gleaned from those English fantasy stories. One of  the reasons I wrote Crow Country was to try to add to that list, and help a new generation of readers to realise how much magic and power lies in our own landscape.

Here are three of my favourite Australian books for children and young adults from the era of my youth, books I wish I'd found:

1. Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park
How did I manage to miss this book? It was published in 1980, when I was 13, but for some reason it took me another thirty years to read it! The time travel element, so hard to get right, is handled expertly, and the scenes of early Sydney are wonderfully evocative. The love story is poignant and perfectly pitched. 

2. Pastures of the Blue Crane, by Hesba Brinsmead
Not a magical story as such, but the descriptions of northern New South Wales are so gorgeous that the writing thrums. The story of aloof Ryl's discovery of her inheritance and her gradual connection with her estranged grandfather is very moving. The book's handling of racial issues was radically progressive at the time, though it seems awkwardly dated now; but this is still a beautiful book. (I have not read this one, so its gone straight on to my ever-growing TBR shelf - thanks, Kate!)

3. The Rocks of Honey, by Patricia Wrightson
Wrightson's books were the books I needed to read, but somehow never found at the right time. Her sensitive handling of Aboriginal mythology was revolutionary at the time; although she was criticised more recently for appropriating cultural content, many Indigenous leaders applauded her work, and she introduced generations of children to Aboriginal magic. I could have chosen half a dozen Wrightson titles, but The Rocks of Honey was one of the first I read and it remains special to me, a simple but subtle tale of magic and misunderstanding.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy Belinda Murrell's list of Favourite Australian Children's Books 


BOOK REVIEW: Crow Country by Kate Constable

Monday, January 20, 2014

Title: Crow Country

Author: Kate Constable

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Age Group & Genre: YA Timeslip 

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

Source: The book was given to me by Allen & Unwin quite some time ago – thank you!

The Blurb:
From the author of the Chanters of Tremaris series comes a contemporary time travel fantasy, grounded in the landscape of Australia.

Beginning and ending, always the same, always now. The game, the story, the riddle, hiding and seeking. Crow comes from this place; this place comes from Crow. And Crow has work for you.

Sadie isn't thrilled when her mother drags her from the city to live in the country town of Boort. But soon she starts making connections—with the country, with the past, with two boys, Lachie and Walter, and, most surprisingly, with the ever-present crows. 

When Sadie is tumbled back in time to view a terrible crime, she is pulled into a strange mystery. Can Sadie, Walter, and Lachie figure out a way to right old wrongs, or will they be condemned to repeat them? 

A fantasy grounded in mythology, this novel has the backing of a full consultative process on the use of indigenous lore.

What I Thought: 
I am in such admiration of Kate Constable’s bravery and delicacy in writing this beautiful book, which draws upon Aboriginal mythology and Australian history to deal with themes of injustice, racism, truthfulness and atonement. 

As a child, one of my favourite Australian authors was Patricia Wrightson. Many of her children’s books draw upon Aboriginal mythology and Australian landscapes, creating stories filled with beauty, mystery and strangeness. 

However, when I studied children’s literature in my undergraduate degree in the late 1980s, Patricia Wrightson was lambasted for her so-called ‘cultural appropriation’; indeed, for a kind of imperialist exploitation. I have struggled with this for a long time. I loved Patricia Wrightson’s work and, as a result of reading The Nargun and the Stars and The Ice is Coming, I have been fascinated by Aboriginal mythology and art ever since. 

I have long wanted to write a book set in Australia which drew upon Aboriginal history and stories, but I have been held back by my desire to be sensitive and respectful to those of Aboriginal descent. Crow Country has shown me that perhaps it is possible for a non-indigenous Australian to write a novel filled with the magic and mystery of this ancient land while still being sensitive to the sacredness of those beautiful old stories and songs, and to their vital importance to the voices of Australian indigenous cultures. 

Crow Country is a simple book, simply told, but that is part of its great strength. It tells the story of Sadie, an unhappy teenager who moves to the country with her flighty but loving mother. One day she stumbles across an Aboriginal sacred site, and a crow speaks to her – she is needed to right a wrong that occurred many years earlier. So Sadie slips back in time, into the body of one of her ancestors, and observes a crime that is covered up. 

The novel encompasses three generations of families living in the small country town of Boort in Victoria, and their different responses to racism. In the contemporary tale, the three families are embodied in Sadie, Lachie (son of the white farmer who owns the property on which the sacred site is found), and an Aboriginal boy, Walter. Their relationships are complicated by the past history of Sadie’s mother, Ellie, who – as a teenager – dated both Lachie and Walter’s fathers, and stirred up dormant racism in the town. 

Somehow, Sadie must find a way to make amends for the past and help the town and its inhabitants heal and grow closer together. 

A quote from Crow Country: “The Dreaming is always; forever... it's always happening, and us mob, we're part of it, all the time, everywhere, and every-when too.”


BOOK LIST: Books Read in October 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

This month, I’ve read something old, something new and something blue – partly as a consequence of having visited Hay-on-Wye in Wales in September, the town said to have more second-hand bookshops per square mile than any other town in the world. I adore rummaging around in second-hand bookstores and always come home with bags of old treasures (that I then have to lug all the way back to Australia). 

1. A Cotswold Killing – Rebecca Trope
I always like to read books set in places where I am travelling and I love a good murder mystery, so I grabbed ‘A Cotswold Killing’ by Rebecca Trope while I was over there. This is the first in a popular series of murder mysteries featuring the amateur detective Thea Osborne. Recently widowed and trying to begin a new life for herself, Thea decides to try house-sitting in the beautiful Cotswold village of Duntisbourne Abbots. She is woken in the middle of the night by a piercing scream, but does not get up to investigate and is horrified to find a body in the her pond the following day. Guilty and troubled by the murder, she begins to investigate …
‘A Cotswold Killing’ is a quiet, thoughtful and rather melancholy murder mystery, with as much space given to Thea’s interior life as to the events of the murder. I would have liked a much stronger sense of place and a faster pace, but the first in a series is often the worst and so I’m willing to try another of the series, perhaps next time I’m in the Cotswolds. 

2. Jo of the Chalet School – Elinor M Brent-Dyer
One of the treasures I found in Hay-on-Wye – a third edition of ‘Jo of the Chalet School’ by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published in 1936, with illustrated bookplates intact. This is the second book in the famous series about a girls’ school in the Austrian Tyrol, but was the first one I ever read. I had found a box of them in my grandmother’s attic while staying there on Christmas holidays, and read my way through them. Years later, I asked my grandmother if I could have that box of books and she said she had thrown them in the bin. If only she had known how much they are worth now! A first edition of ‘Book 1: The School at the Chalet’ is now worth a cool $3,600. Brent-Dyer wrote 59 books in the series in total, and they are the longest-surviving series of girls’ school stories every published, having been continuously in print for more than 70 years. More than 100,000 paperback copies are still sold every year. This one was first published in 1926 and is full of quaint expressions and old-fashioned values, but the setting and time is marvellously created and the story is full of charm and humour, just like I remembered.

3. The Barons’ Hostage – Geoffrey Trease
Geoffrey Trease is one of the authors I read as a child that gave me my lifelong love of historical fiction. He combined meticulous research with exciting, action-packed story lines that brought history vividly to life. He was remarkable for his ability to make his characters live on the page and, because he was careful to never use any archaic language like ‘prithee’ or ‘I troth thee’, his books are very readable and lively and have lasted the test of time extraordinarily well. I have collected his books for years but since he published 113, I still have quite a few to hunt down.

‘The Baron’s Hostage’ was first published in 1952 – the copy I bought in Hay-on-Wye is a first US edition, published in 1975.  Like all of his books, the narrative is shared between a young man and a young woman, in this case Michael and Arlette, who are caught up in the civil war known as the Baron’s War in the late 1200s. A rattling good read.

4. Julius and the Watchmaker – Tim Hehir
An action-packed timeslip adventure for boys, that brings together a Dickensian cast of characters with a dash of humour and playfulness. The hero, Julius, is a bullied boy who lives in genteel poverty with his grandfather who owns a bookshop. One day he meets Jack Springheel, a charming rogue, and finds himself on the run with a magical watch and a host of villains on his heels. The magical watch has the ability to transport the owner back and forth and even, perhaps, sideways, in time. These convolutions could be, perhaps, confusing for a child reader (and I would have liked a far more active female character), but the book is funny and fast-paced enough to keep the reader’s interest. A great debut for the author. 

5. The Tea Rose - Jennifer Donnelly
A fabulous, big, fat, epic historical novel! The Tea Rose tells the story of Fiona Finnegan who flees a life of poverty and hardship in the docklands of East London, 1888 (a place where Jack the Ripper lurks and ruthless employers keep their workers half-starved) to make a new life for herself in New York. Love, desire, grief, betrayal, revenge … this novel has it all. Although it weighs in a massive 675 pages, the book never felt anything less than compelling reading. A hugely enjoyable read.

6. Faking it To making it – Ally Blake
I love historical romance but rarely read contemporary romance, for reasons unknown. I met Ally Blake at the Australian Society of Authors’ National Congress, where we were both speakers. She writes ‘fun, fresh, flirty romance’ for Harlequin Mills and Boon and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide which is most impressive. She was kind enough to give me a copy of one of her books (they are so slim she easily carry them around in my handbag while I’d dislocate my shoulder if I tried to heave copies of my books around with me). I read it in the bath that night and enjoyed it immensely. ‘Faking It to Making It’ is a sexy and funny contemporary romance set in Melbourne and would make a great rom com – I hope Hollywood comes knocking on Ally’s door!

7. Thornspell – Helen Lowe
New Zealand writer Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. Prince Sigismund has grown up in a castle whose gardens and parklands are surrounded by a deep, tangled forest. He is kept locked away from the world, and so longs for adventures like the ones in the stories he loves so much – fantastical tales of knights-errant and heroic quests, faie enchantments and shape-shifting dragons.  
One day a beautiful and mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, and Sigismund's world begins to change. He dreams of a raggedy girl trapped in thorns, and a castle that lies sleeping … soon he is caught up in an adventure as perilous and strange as that of any story he had ever heard …

I absolutely adored this book! I love fairy tale retellings, especially ones that are full of magic, peril, and romance, and ‘Thornspell’ is one of the best I’ve ever read. It reminded me of Robin McKinley’s early books, which are still among my favourite fairy tale retellings. ‘Thornspell’ very deservedly won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best YA Novel – it’s a must red for anyone who loves fairy-tale-inspired YA fantasy. 

8. The Storyteller & His Three Daughters – Lian Hearn

Lian Hearn is the author of the gorgeous bestselling ‘Tales of the Otori’ fantasy series for adults, set in an alternative feudal Japan, as well as a number of children’s books published under her true name, Gillian Rubenstein. The first book in the Otori series, ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’ is one of my favourite novels, the medieval Japanese setting being utterly fresh and fascinating.

‘The Storyteller and His Three Daughters’ is a departure from her other Lian Hearn books in many ways. The setting is Japan in the 1800s, and from many references to true historical events and people, it is clear that this is not an alternative world fantasy but rather a historical novel. The main character is a middle-aged storyteller named Sei who is struggling to keep alive traditional tales and storytelling techniques in a culture that is being increasingly dominated by Western values and customs. He finds himself out of joint with the times, and unable to write anymore. However, he cannot stop observing and speculating on the lives of the people around him and finds himself creating a tale of love, jealousy, murder, treason and betrayal that seems as if it might be all too true.
Drawing upon Japanese storytelling techniques, ‘The Storyteller and His Three Daughters’ is an ambitious and unusual meditation on the nature and meaning of art. 

9. The Nargun & the Stars – Patricia Wrightson
Patricia Wrightson was my favourite Australian author when I was a child, and ‘The Nargun and the Stars’ was one of my favourites of her books. I found myself giving a very impassioned speech about her at an event on ‘Writing Villains for Children’ at the NSW Writers Centre in late October, which led into a long conversation with members of the audience afterwards. I came home, went straight to my bookshelf, got down my old copy of this book, and read it again that night. It’s as wonderful as I remembered. 

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