If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

y648This doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like, but I can honestly say that I loved this book! I’ve only ever really thought of Jackie French in terms of children’s and young adult fiction so was pleasantly surprised to see her grown up offering – If Blood Should Stain the Wattle.

Now it is probably the Australian in me, but I especially loved how Jackie uses famous Australian poetry and folklore that brought a ‘familiar’ spark to the story for me.

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle is full of wonderful, well established characters that have appeared in Jackie French’s earlier ‘Matilda’ series. I haven’t read any of these books yet but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this one; instead it made me want to experience them all.

There are fabulous strong female characters who are making their mark in Gibber’s Creek, finding love and setting their sights on conquering the world. Okay, maybe just Australia. Then we have the odd spiritual moment where they converse with ghosts and even manage to peek through time itself. But this is the seventies so the story wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a hippy commune on the edge of Gibber’s Creek and a ‘cult leader’ who is receiving messages from aliens. Did I mention that this is also the story of the Whitlam government coming to power?

Stop, come back! Don’t be put off by the inclusion of politicians and their shenanigans within the pages. Jackie French has cleverly woven the information into short excerpts from newspaper reports, and by having characters Jed Kelly and Matilda campaigning to support a Labor government. No boring political twaddle in sight; instead we get to experience first hand what it was like when the Whitlam Government came to power in early 1970s Australia and the subsequent historic dismissal of Gough Whitlam by then Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
This book really does have something for everyone and it won’t disappoint.

The Matilda series began as a trilogy, became a quartet. It was meant to be a history of our nation told from one country town, and the viewpoints of those who had no political voice in 1892, when the series begins: women, indigenous people, Chinese, Afghans.
But, by book four, I realised that history didn’t stop just because I was born, and that the series will continue as long as I live.” (Jackie French)

The quartet Jackie French is referring to is now a sextet – and who knows how many more there may be. So if you want to start at the very beginning the titles in order are:

  1. A Waltz for Matilda
  2. The Girl From Snowy River
  3. The Road to Gundagai
  4. To Love a Sunburnt Country
  5. The Ghost by the Billabong
  6. If Blood Should Stain the Wattle

Cover of A waltz for MatildaCover of the girl from Snowy Riverimage_proxy[3]Cover of To love a sunburnt countryCover of The ghost by the billabongCover of If Blood should stain the wattle

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460753118

Jackie French – WORD Christchurch

Jackie FrenchWhat do cheese, Juliet and wombats have in common? Australian children’s laureate and prolific storyteller Jackie French has written about all of them, and all were discussed in her session this morning along with history, Hitler and Hamlet. But most of all, she talked about the importance of reading.

When you have books, you have the power to create the future.

Reading to children

We need to keep reading to children past the point where they themselves learn to read; their understanding and their reading level are often mismatched, and there’s nothing that will put someone off reading more than being given simplistic, boring texts when they’re capable of understanding The Lord of the Rings. We need to read to them until they’re telling us to stop, it’s too embarrassing now.

With the best intentions, we could be giving our children the wrong books. What are the wrong books? (Is there such a thing?) Books that will put their children off reading, books that kids Should Read because it’s Good For You (what an attractive prospect), books, in short, that their children don’t want to read. Jackie suggested letting children find their own books — letting them loose in a bookshop or a library and seeing what fires them up. It doesn’t matter if it’s non-fiction or fiction or if it’s The Day My Bum Went Psycho or Jane Eyre, as long as they find a book that they can’t stop reading, that’s enough. They’re hooked. As an example she talked of a teacher who had tirelessly found and purchased books specifically to meet the needs of Jackie (and considering the way she inhales books, that’s impressive).

Hatred is contagious, but kindness can be, too.Pennies for Hitler - Jackie French

When discussing Pennies for Hitler and Hitler’s Daughter, she asked: How do you know what is good when you are 14? We’re a product of our society, our upbringing and our history. If you’ve been fed false information, how are you to know what is right without the benefit of wide reading and experience? And what happens when what your beliefs turn around to bite you?

Jackie mentioned Georg in Pennies for Hitler, passionate believer in the Aryan race, who upon the discovery of a Jewish ancestor must flee and hide his German identity and pretend to be first English and then Australian in order to escape persecution. When Japan joins the war on the other side he is overjoyed because now he, too, can hate something. They are all united in the hatred of the Enemy.

That’s pretty heavy stuff, how about wombats?

Jackie laughs:Diary of a Wombat

Everyone secretly wants to be able to get what they want by bashing up a garbage bin, but we can’t because we’re humans and we have to be nice. If you’re a wombat, you can. It’s the ultimate fantasy.

Books give us empathy, they give us hope, and they give us the imagination to create our own lives and decide what kind of people we want to be.

What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

Jackie French: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival is a mere few weeks away – it kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Jackie French (photo by Kelly Sturgiss)
Jackie French (photo by Kelly Sturgiss)

Jackie French – Australian Children’s Laureate

Jackie French is a remarkable writer with a career spanning 25 years, 148 wombats, over 140 books, 36 languages and over 60 awards. She is currently the Australian National Children’s Laureate for 2014 and 2015.

She is regarded as one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors, and writes across all genres – from picture books, history, fantasy, ecology and sci-fi to her much-loved historical fiction.

What (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

The extraordinary friendliness of NZ – every time I visit it is like meeting old friends, even if we have only just met, or feeling at home in places where I have only just arrived.

What do you think about libraries?

Have you ever wondered why we whisper in libraries? It’s because we know subconsciously that they lead to a million different universes. Use the power well – and borrow as many books as you can- and you will find joy and fulfilment and friendship and fascination. But libraries are places of true power, none the less.

PS This fact needs to be noted by anyone considering reducing library funding, hours or staff positions. You have been warned.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

 I once worked as an echidna milker. But the funding dried up, and so did the echidnas, so I turned to writing books for an income.

PS If you next question is ‘how do you milk an echidna, the answer is: carefully. But am happy to explain more about echidnas, wombat negotiation and the power of books at any of the sessions.

Cover of Down the road to Gundagai  Cover of I am Juliet Cover of Pennies for Hitler

Baby wombats, underpants and Ancient Greece

Cover imageJackie French is one of Australia’s most prolific children’s authors.  She puts out at least 2 books a year for a range of different age groups, from picture books to young adult novels, and she writes on all sorts of topics.  Historical novels for children are her speciality and she always includes some of her research at the end of her novels so that you can see where her ideas have come from.  She has written 3 brilliant books lately – Baby Wombat’s Week, Queen Victoria’s Underpants, and Oracle.

Baby Wombat’s Week is the hilarious follow-up to Diary of a Wombat, illustrated by long-time collaborator and one of Australia’s best illustrators, Bruce Whatley.  Baby Wombat’s Week follows a week in the life of a baby wombat who (much like his mother) likes to sleep, eat, and generally create havoc.  He destroys the garden, tunnels into the house and makes friends with a human baby.  Parents will sympathise with the mother wombat and kids will love the cute baby wombat and his silly antics.

Queen Victoria’s Underpants is Jackie’s latest picture book collaboration with Bruce Whatley.  This charming and witty tale is the story of how the very first pair of royal underpants were made for Queen Victoria.  During Queen Victoria’s reign, few women wore underpants, but the Queen requests some to be made for her.  But what sort of underpants would she want? Silk or linen, lace or frills, long, short or knee-length?  The story is witty and the illustrations are stunning.  I particularly like the expressions of the characters that Bruce Whatley always does so well.

Oracle is Jackie French’s latest novel and once again, it’s a historical novel, but set in a very different time and place from her earlier novels – Ancient Greece.  Nikko and his sister Thetis live in a small village in the mountains, but one day they are taken from their hard life into a world of luxury.  They are trained as acrobats to perform for the King of Mycenae and soon forget their old life.  But Nikko’s sister is both cursed and blessed – if she speaks she must tell the truth.  When Thetis tells the King a truth about his future, their world comes crashing down around them.  Jackie’s historical detail is amazing and her descriptions of life in Ancient Greece (the sights and smells) were so clear in my mind.

Authors descend on Gold Coast for Somerset Festival of Literature

While others are gearing up for the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Festival in Wellington, I’m counting down the days to the Somerset Festival of Literature at Somerset College on the Gold Coast from 17-19 March.  This festival brings together some of the top Australian authors and illustrators for children and young adults, such as Jackie French, Melina Marchetta and Markus Zusak, as well as some of my favourite international authors, Patrick Ness and Derek Landy.

The Festival consists of three days of author talks with primary and secondary school students, book signings, book launches and other entertainment on the Somerset College grounds.  There are loads of sessions I can’t wait to go to including Patrick Ness, Derek Landy, Jackie French, James Moloney, Anthony Eaton, and Markus Zusak.  If you have any questions that you’re dying to ask these authors, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to ask them on your behalf.  I’m hoping to set up some interviews with a couple of the authors and I’ll be blogging from the festival so you’ll be able to hear all about it.

My only problem will be lugging a suitcase of signed books home with me again!

Great new picture books

Here’s just a small selection of some great new picture books that have arrived at the library lately:

Fearless is a new picture book by Colin Thompson who has written some very funny picture books for older readers.  It’s a book about how the names of people (and animals) sometimes don’t quite match their personality.  A family called the Claybourne-Willments, who should have been called the Smiths, get a little puppy called Fearless. “It seemed like a good name for him.  Except Fearless wasn’t.”  Fearless is a bulldog who has a “tiny, nervous brain” but a huge heart and loves everyone he meets. However, when a burglar breaks into their house can Fearless live up to his name and protect his family?  The story is hilarious and I loved the illustrations, especially the one when a fly lands on his nose.

I know there are plenty of fans of Jackie French’s fantastic picture book Diary of a Wombat, where we follow the life of Mothball the wombat over the course of a week.  Most of the Mothball’s week involves sleeping, eating, and looking for food but Jackie French’s words and Bruce Whatley’s illustrations make for a funny read.  I was excited to discover that they have just written a sequel called Baby Wombat’s Week which is just as good as the original.  This new story is told in the same format as the original, where we follow Mothball and her baby over the course of a week.  Baby wombat gets bored very easily and goes off in search of food while his mother sleeps, and he bumps into a human baby who becomes his friend and they play together.  The text is very simple and so a lot of the story is told by the pictures, making this a perfect picture book.  Much like Diary of a Wombat, this book will appeal to both adults and children.

Spot It! by Delphine Chedru is a new look-and-find book that is great for young children.  Each of the pages in the book is a colourful repeating pattern (flowers, trees, swirls) similar to a wallpaper design, but hidden in each page is an animal or object to find, such as a leaping dragon, a lost chick, and a butterfly with five spots.  There is only one thing to find on each page making it easier for younger children, but they are cleverly hidden amongst the pattern.  I like it because it’s something different from the  I-Spy books, but still challenging for younger children.

Shaun Tan scoops another award

The Children’s Book Council of Australia Book Award winners were announced last week and Shaun Tan, an amazing illustrator and author scooped one of the top awards.  Shaun Tan is one of those illustrators that appeals hugely to adults as well as children and his artwork is absolutely stunning and quite surreal.  My mum, who has introduced me to so many great books since I was born, doesn’t like him because he’s a little too weird for her tastes, but it is this quirkiness that really appeals to me.  One of the main things I love about his illustrations is that they are quite different from book to book.  His latest book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is the book that has won the Older Readers category of the CBCA Awards and it is the best example of his different styles.  It is a collection of  short stories that he has written and illustrated, some funny and some slightly disturbing.  Definitely check out his work, even if you don’t normally read picture books.

Although some of the other finalists in the awards did not win their category, several of my favourites got an Honour Award including The Big Little Book of Happy Sadness by Colin Thompson (in the Picture Book category) and A Rose for the ANZAC Boys by Jackie French (in the Older Readers category).  You can check out all the winners on the Children’s Book Council of Australia website which also has some links to the websites of Australian authors and illustrators.