authors, illustrator, interviews

Helen Milroy on Owl and Star

Dr Helen Milroy is a descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She was born and educated in Perth and has always had a passionate interest in health and wellbeing, especially for children. Dr Milroy is the author and illustrator of nine children’s books, including Backyard Bugs, Backyard Birds, and Wombat, Mudlark and Other Stories. Today we’re chatting to her about her stunning picture book – Owl and Star.

From the publisher:

Owl loved the sparkle of the stars. He would sit out on his tree at dusk and wait for them to appear. One evening, Owl became worried. His favourite little star had not shown herself. Owl searched far and wide. Where could Little Star be?


When creating your picture books, what comes first for you – the illustrations or the story?

Either. Sometimes I see something and I get images for a story, other times that image or thoughts about something I have noticed sets me off on the storyline first. I even go to sleep thinking about the story. Then when I start illustrating, it is like the images just fall out onto the page.

Owl knows the night sky so well that he notices even a small change. Are you a stargazer yourself?

I do love looking at the stars and wondering what it is like up there. I loved looking at the sky day or night as a kid. Making animal shapes from the clouds during the day or waiting to see a shooting star at night. I always thought the moon was a magical being and used to say hello when it was full and bright.

Can you tell us about your illustration process for Owl and Star?

In this case I had written the story before the illustrations so I wanted the illustrations to also tell the story even if you couldn’t read the words. Like two stories together. I spent a long time thinking and researching about owls before drawing any. It took me a long time before owl appeared properly on the page but once he was there, the rest was easy.

Do you have a tip for children who’d like to create their own picture book?

Yes just get started! Draw, write and tell stories, the more you do the better they get especially when they come from your heart. If you love what you are doing, it will show in the stories and images.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?

I am working on several projects at once. More birds, bugs and beasties from the bush, more tales from the bush mob and a new series about some neighbourhood pets that get together for some adventures!

Owl and Star is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or your local library.


AWESOME EXTRAS

Image shows the cover of a picture book: Owl and Star by Helen Milroy. The cover is dark blue with an owl at the centre. The owl is cradling a little star and behind him is a large yellow sun.

Take a peek inside the book

Download the teachers’ notes for this book

Watch a YouTube video of the author Helen Milroy reading another of her stories, ‘Dingo and Moon’

Visit Helen Milroy’s website for more about her and her books

authors, interviews

Shirley Marr on All Four Quarters of the Moon

Shirley Marr is an award winning author and a first generation Chinese-Australian living in sunny Perth. Shirley describes herself as having a Western Mind and an Eastern Heart and writes in the middle where both collide. Today we’re thrilled to be talking to Shirley about her latest middle grade novel, All Four Quarters of the Moon.

From the publisher:

Making mooncakes with Ah Ma for the Mid-Autumn Festival was the last day of Peijing’s old life. Now, adapting to their new life in Australia, Peijing thinks everything will turn out okay for her family as long as they have each other – but cracks are starting to appear. Her little sister, Biju, needs Peijing to be the dependable big sister. Ma Ma is no longer herself; Ah Ma keeps forgetting who she is; and Ba Ba, who used to work seven days a week, is adjusting to being a hands-on dad. How will Peijing cope with the uncertainties of her own little world while shouldering the burden of everyone else?


Peijing and her little sister, Biju, make a paper world of their own. Is this inspired by something you and your sister liked to do when you were growing up?

This is most definitely based on a true-life event! We would draw tiny animals, cut them out and then make homes for them. It was a true paper world of our imagination, which we kept inside a cardboard box. We were still learning to speak English back then, when I was seven and my sister was four, so sometimes we would act out what happened to us during the day when I went to primary school and she went to kindy. As we had just migrated to Australia and learning to adapt was hard, it felt safer to talk about our experiences this way. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk at all, just work side by side and that was a beautiful bonding experience in itself.

Your earlier novel  A Glasshouse of Stars was written in the second person, present tense, and All Four Quarters of the Moon is written in third person, past tense. When you start writing a new book, do you already know which point of view to adopt or does it change over subsequent drafts?

I believe that when you have a story inside of you, waiting to come out that the voice will find you. That when you start writing it, you will know if it sounds right or not. A Glasshouse of Stars needed to be second person, present tense. I wanted the reader to be able to walk in the shoes of Meixing, our young migrant protagonist, and see what the experience is like for her, as she experiences it. It took me a while to find this voice, and many abandoned drafts. All Four Quarters of the Moon on the other hand, as it contains a lot of Chinese myth, felt to me like an old-fashioned story that had already happened and which I was retelling in past tense. That one I nailed on the first go, so it’s case by case for me!

How do you choose the names for the characters in your books? 

Sometimes I look at baby name lists and choose something that has meaning, like Meixing which means beautiful star in Chinese. Sometimes I name characters after whoever happens to be sitting closest to me, like the teacher Mr Brodie is actually named after a little dog who happened to be at my feet so watch out! Then at other time I will name characters after real people – Ms Jardine in A Glasshouse of Stars is named after a beloved primary school teacher of mine. It’s only just recently that a keen-eyed reader asked if I had chosen the name because it means garden in French, as gardens play such a big part in the book. It’s a happy coincidence I swear!

Peijing loves the mooncakes Ah Ma makes with an egg yolk in the middle. Do you have a favourite mooncake filling?

This will be to little Biju’s disgust, but my favourite is lotus paste with double-preserved yolk!

Can you tell us something about what you’re working on next?

I have just submitted a brand-new middle grade manuscript to my agent! And she’s submitted it to my Australian publisher who I believe is looking at it as we speak – cross your fingers for me! If it’s good news, then it’s a completely different direction for me. Think contemporary sci-fi, time machines and ground control to Major Tom!

All Four Quarters of the Moon is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookstore or local library.


Image shows the cover of a children's novel: All Four Quarters of the Moon by Shirley Marr. The cover illustration shows two sisters with dark hair facing each other and holding hands around a tiny paper rabbit. Behind them is the night sky with a giant full moon.

AWESOME EXTRAS

Read an extract from the book

Discussion questions for book clubs and teachers

Read a 2021 interview with Shirley Marr about her junior fiction novel, Little Jiang

Visit Shirley Marr’s website for more about her and her books

authors, interviews

Ashleigh Barton on Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe

Ashleigh Barton lives in Sydney, Australia. She is the author of several picture books including What Do You call Your Grandpa?, What Do You Call Your Grandma? and What Do You Do to Celebrate? Today we’re pleased to have Ashleigh visiting Alphabet Soup to talk about her first children’s novel, Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe, illustrated by Sarah Davis.

From the publisher:

You’ve never met a vampire like Solomon Macaroni before – he’s friendly, polite and makes a mean tofu Bolognese. Understandably, when his parents go on a one-hundred-year cruise without him, Solomon is not impressed. Especially because it means having to stay in creepy Transylvania with his six cousins, who are the rudest and naughtiest vampires in existence. When his cousins venture into the spooky Wildwood on a dangerous mission, Solomon agrees to help rescue them. At least, that’s what he thinks he’s doing …


So … are Solomon’s cousins inspired by your own cousins?

Solomon’s cousins are probably inspired a little bit by my own family but not on purpose. I do have a lot of cousins (way more than Solomon does in fact – twenty-two first cousins in total!) and my siblings do love a good prank, but I didn’t intentionally base any of the characters on them. I’m sure some of their traits and our relationships growing up have probably showed up at least a little bit. Funnily enough, when one of my brothers first saw the cover, he thought the character illustrations were based on us. It was just a coincidence but I can see what he means – there is a bit of uncanny resemblance to our different personalities! (He thought Lucy, with her head in her book, was me.)

Did you suffer (or instigate) a memorable prank when you were growing up?

Looking back, pranking has definitely been a constant part of my life but fortunately nothing too traumatic. Everyone in my immediate family seems to love a good prank. My dad loved hiding our food if we left the room and once my brother stuck a fake spider high up on a wall to scare our dad when he got home from work. Poor Dad spent ages trying to get the spider down. A lot of my childhood friends and I loved pranking too. Some of the pranks we pulled were a bit naughty so I don’t want to share in case I give you ideas!

Which character in the book would you most like to spend an afternoon with?

Probably Uncle Dracula! He is a lot of fun and I’d be up for trying any of his whacky inventions, especially ones involving ice cream. It would also be amazing to listen to his stories and find out what life was like throughout the different centuries. Arrubakook – the wayfinding kookaburra – would also be a handy companion if I could hang out with her regularly because I can’t find my way anywhere.

Do you have a tip for children who’d like to try writing a novel?

One thing I’ve been having a lot of fun doing with kids in schools lately is coming up with a character to turn upside down the way I’ve done with vampires in Solomon Macaroni. The vampires in my story are completely different to traditional vampires – they don’t drink blood, they aren’t immortal (though they can live a really long time and age really slowly), they don’t have any powers or abilities and they can definitely eat garlic. This is because in Solomon’s world, magic has almost completely disappeared. The character of Dracula – a very well-known character from literature who is usually depicted as heartless and monstrous – is actually a very nice, caring and creative person. So, you could come up with your own character based on either a famous literary figure or a mythical creature and then completely rewrite them. Give them new characteristics and personality traits. You could even change their appearances, their family and friends, where they live and what they live for. It’s a great way to let your imagination run wild and then a story will often fall into place around this character you’re creating.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?

I’m always working on a bunch of things and constantly have ideas whirling around my head, but the project that I am properly working on now (or should be working on now) is the second Solomon Macaroni book. In book two, Solomon, his cousins and Uncle Dracula head to Paris for a family holiday that goes very, very wrong.

Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


Image shows the cover of a children's novel: Solomon Macaroni and the Cousin Catastrophe by Ashleigh Barton. The cover is black and Solomon and his cousins are drawn in grey, purple and orange. There are purple bats the top of the cover. Solomon looks like a vampire in a purple cape lined with orange, short black hair that comes to a point over his forehead and fangs. The cousin behind him is pouring orange liquid onto Solomon's head from a glass bowl. Twin girl cousins in purple pinafores are about to cut off Solomon's ear with a pair of scissors. A young cousin in a purple cap is lying at Solomon's feet tying his shoelaces together. A girl in a purple dress and necklace of beads is pointing an airhorn at Solomon. And a girl in a yellow striped shirt and hair in pigtails stands off to one side reading an orange book and looking over her shoulder uncertainly at the others.

AWESOME EXTRAS

Download the Teachers’ Notes

Visit Ashleigh Barton’s website for more about her and her books

authors, interviews

Ash Harrier on The Deadly Daylight

Ash Harrier has a great fondness for puzzles, scientific facts, birds and the smell of dried tea. Today we are thrilled to chat to her about her latest novel – The Deadly Daylight, the first book in the Alice England Mysteries series.

From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Alice England is curious, truthful and smart, but when you work in your father’s funeral home and you get messages from the dead, it can be difficult to make friends. When she comes across the peculiar case of George Devenish, who was allergic to sunlight, Alice is convinced there’s more to his death than meets the eye. With the help of George’s niece, ‘Violet the Vampire’, who shares her uncle’s allergy, and a boy named Cal, who has secrets of his own, Alice begins to investigate. It seems the truth of George’s death may never see the light of day – unless Alice and her companions can put the clues together and solve a mystery much bigger than anybody expected.


12-year-old Alice in The Deadly Daylight works in her father’s funeral home. Were you already familiar with a funeral home setting before writing the book or did you need to do some research before you began?

I didn’t grow up in a funeral home and I have never worked in one, so I had to do a lot of research to understand the kind of things Alice and her dad do each day. I started by reading articles about how funerals are planned and how bodies are prepared for funerals. I have also read documents and guidelines from the funeral industry, watched videos on Youtube and documentaries, and listened to podcasts. Some of the information is quite confronting – if you’re squeamish, you might want to avoid doing this sort of research for yourself. But I found it fascinating and enlightening.

The two main things I have discovered about the preparation of bodies for funerals are firstly that it’s highly scientific and secondly that it’s very important to funeral workers to be respectful of the dead. Because Alice England is an ongoing series, I generally have to refresh my memory or hunt for new information about death, bodies and funerals as I write each book.

Are you good at solving mysteries in everyday life too? (Do you channel your inner-Alice when unusual things happen or items go missing?) 

Now you mention it, I am a bit of an amateur sleuth! Like Alice, I’m extremely curious. I love looking into old, unsolved mysteries and trying to imagine what was likely to have happened. I also love trying to solve mysteries in movies I’m watching or books I’m reading, and I am absolutely obsessed with supernatural or paranormal mysteries. I take a highly skeptical approach and believe that, generally speaking, many “paranormal” mysteries can be explained as a hoax or something natural, but I’m intrigued and delighted when I come across things that can’t be explained. In my everyday life, I am the renowned “finder” of lost things at home, and if I suspect there is a little animal or bird rustling around in a shrub, I’ll always pause to try to find out what it is.

What’s different about writing the first book in a series compared to writing a standalone title?

I think the main difference is that you need  to know where the stories are going – you need a bit of a roadmap for the whole series, rather than just the one book. Although each book has its own mystery, there also needs to be one big overarching journey that the characters are going on. I think it would be a bit dull if there wasn’t a special, powerful story running through the entire series. Alice has some things to discover about herself and her past, and that thread runs through the whole series.

Do you have a tip for kids who’d like to try writing a mystery novel?

My biggest tip is not to take shortcuts when solving the mystery. You need to know “whodunnit” right from the start of writing the story. Otherwise, you will find yourself struggling to solve it at the end. That’s when it can be tempting to solve your mystery by having a great big coincidence happen – or even a confession. In real life, people would try to cover their tracks if they’d committed a crime. They would not, for example, leave a diary describing their burglary or murder for the sleuth to find! If you decide early on who committed the crime, then you can be looking for opportunities to drop in clues as you go, as well as working out how they have gotten away with it so far, and how you’re going to catch them.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?

Alice Book 2 is called The Eerie Excavation and it will be out next January. If you like archaeology, eerie histories or old witchcraft superstitions, then you’ll like it: 

It’s summer break in Damocles Cove and Alice, Violet and Cal are off to Archaeology Camp. Alice’s enthusiasm carries them away to the mysterious Malkin Tower on the edge of the spooky Pendle Woods. The work is hard and the findings are scanty, until the day a fellow camper turns up something shocking, and Alice is plunged into a puzzle from the past. Do curses really exist? Is a monstrous beast haunting Pendle Woods? And who is creeping around the tower after midnight? When camp ends and everyone is sent home without answers, Alice will need her logic, her unusual gift, and the support of her friends to reveal the secrets of Pendle Woods – and bring an end to a fatal family feud that’s gone on for far too long.

The Deadly Daylight is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


Image shows the cover of a children's novel, The Deadly Daylight by Ash Harrier. The image shows three children carrying candlesticks for light and behind them is the silhouette of a house and leafless trees. Across the top of the book's cover is a drawing of a plaque with the words 'An Alice England Mystery'.

Visit Ash Harrier’s website for more about her and her books.

Are you in Perth, WA? Meet Ash Harrier at the book launch of The Deadly Daylight! (3.30pm, 11 August 2022.)

authors, interviews

Dee White on Emma Johnston: Marine biologist and TV presenter

Dee White has published more than 20 books for children and young adults, and many articles, short stories and poems. Her writing and writing workshops have taken her all over the world and she’s prepared to go almost anywhere (even do a tour of Paris sewers) to track down a good story! Today we’re chatting to Dee about her latest book, Emma Johnston: Marine biologist and TV presenter, which is part of the Aussie STEM Stars series.

From the publisher:

Professor Emma Johnston is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney. From her earliest years growing up she has had a lifelong curiosity about the marine world and has a passionate commitment to finding ways to restore the health of damaged marine systems like the Great Barrier Reef.


How did you go about your research for writing about Emma Johnston?

The first thing I did was go online and find out as much as I could about Emma and the work she did. I watched a film she had made about her time in Antarctica, I read some of the things she had written about the environment, and I read her profile on the website of the university she worked for and interviews she had done about her amazing achievements.

From that information, I developed a series of questions that I asked her on Skype. We weren’t able to meet in person because of Covid restrictions and lockdowns.

I did a second Skype interview later to clarify some things she had told me and to get more information where I needed it. I also asked Emma to send me photos from when she was a child to help me imagine what life was like for her growing up.

What is your own favourite plant or marine creature?

I really love whales. I love the way they move and the way they interact with each other and with humans.

Emma Johnston shines a light on Earth’s precious underwater/marine environments. Did researching and writing this book lead you to change your own behaviour in any way? 

Researching this book gave me a much greater understanding of the marine environment and the dangers it faces, but also how nature is fighting against threats caused by humans.

Climate change has caused temperature layers to form in the ocean, trapping cold water and nutrients in the deep. When whales move through the water, they help blend the temperature bands, and also bring species like plankton up to the surface so they can get more light to help them survive.  We need plankton because they produce most of the oxygen we breathe.

This has actually inspired me to write a book about whales and how they help the world we live in.

One of the things that appealed to me about writing Emma’s story is that I’ve been concerned about the environment for a long time. We always compost at our house. We have solar panels to produce our electricity … and about four years ago, I changed to a plant-based diet.

Researching this book alerted me to even more things I could do to help the environment – particularly reducing my use of plastics and planting more indigenous trees and bushes at my house to provide an environment to bring back native birds, animals and insects.

Do you have a tip for children who’d like to try writing a biography?

If you can, interview the person you are writing about. In an interview, you can find out interesting facts that might not be available anywhere else in books or online. In an interview, you get to ask specific questions about the things you want to know about a person. You can email them via their website or the website for their place of work and ask if they would be happy to answer a few questions via email.

A COUPLE OF OTHER TIPS

  • Pick someone you’re really interested in writing about – someone who shares the same interests as you.
  • Find out as much as you can about them – then decide what to include in your biography. Pick out the most interesting parts about their life.
  • Think about what they might want to be remembered for and make this the theme or central idea for your biography. For example, with Emma Johnston Marine Biologist and TV Presenter, the theme or main idea is finding out about the marine environment so that we can help it.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?

I always work on lots of projects at once. At the moment, I’m developing a series of animal stories. I’m also working on a true story about a boy who climbed the Berlin Wall to escape from East to West Germany to go and live with his aunt. And I’m writing an action adventure about a boy who moves to Paris, uncovers a secret and sets out to find out the truth about his family.

Emma Johnston: Marine Biologist and TV Presenter is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


AWESOME EXTRAS:

Image shows the cover of a children's book, Emma Johnston Marine biologist and TV Presenter. The cover is predominantly aqua coloured and features a hand-drawn illustration of Emma Johnston in Scuba gear. Emma Johnston is shown with pale skin, and very short white hair. She is surrounded by doodle style drawings of a sea star, a fish, coral, bubbles and a glowing light bulb.

Watch a YouTube video with Professor Emma Johnston: ‘Can we Save the Reef?’

Download the Teachers’ Notes for this book.

Visit Dee White’s website for more about her and her books.

authors, interviews

Paula Hayes on The Vexatious Haunting of Lily Griffin

Paula Hayes is an Australian writer of magical realism for young people. This means she is good at making strange stuff up and setting it in real life. Her first novel, Lily in the Mirror, was a CBCA Notable Book in 2017. Then Lily in the Mirror grew and grew and turned into an omnibus, illustrated by Katy Jiang – a trilogy of Lily books! Today we chat to Paula about the omnibus, The Vexatious Haunting of Lily Griffin, launched in July 2022.

From the publisher:

When Lily Griffin finds a girl trapped inside a magic mirror, she uncovers a long-forgotten family secret and sets in motion a remarkable chain of events. Lily is a singular character, hilariously funny, sweetly poignant and deeply daggy. Plagued by social doubts and her own pecularities, she is the perfect person to investigate the many secrets of her grandfather’s house and, along the way, mend some family relationships, discover enduring friendships and learn to play netball.


Lily in the Mirror started out as one book on its own and now you’ve added two more books about Lily – bound up in one omnibus! Was there anything you found different about writing books two and three, compared to writing book one?

The wonderful thing about writing a series is that the characters are created in book one and then they are fleshed out able to grow and develop over the course of the two books. This makes writing the books easier because you know exactly how your character will react and what situations will show them off to their best advantage. For example, Linden, Lily’s older brother (AKA PigBoy) is quite a flat character, he is a trope of a nasty big brother but during the course of book two and three he is fleshed out, he develops, and changes and we come to understand his point of view much more.

Have you ever been in a haunted house yourself?

I haven’t been in a haunted house for reals, but in my imagination, I have! I have the sort of imagination that can turn noises into ghosts. My toys used to come alive in my bedroom at night as I sweated under the sheets. Again – imagination … or was it?

We follow Lily’s story as she writes updates in her journal. Did you keep a journal or diary when you were growing up?

During my late primary school days and early high school days I kept a journal every night. I had a great English teacher who encouraged me to write anything and everything, especially feelings. I found writing a way to clear my head and clarify my emotions. I would tie the note book up with a shoelace with complicated knots for safe keeping. At the end of high school, I had about seven big books and I threw them in the bin. I had processed all the events and big feelings and released it. I’m sure if Lily stopped at the first journal, her relationship with her brother would not be properly represented. It’s just a moment in time.

How did you go about researching information about the various time periods that pop up in the omnibus?

As well as being a word nerd, I am a history freak. I studied it at uni. My grandmother’s house was a time capsule for the 1910s to the 1990s and so I was lucky enough to see a lot of the things that are contained in the Rosy Room and the Little House. I love to read history books, biographies and collect old books. But when I want to know a specific fact, I google and go down a slippery rabbit hole where I get immersed in the past and I love it.

Do you have a tip for young writers who’d like to try writing a series or trilogy?

My advice to young writers is just to pick up the pen or your laptop and write. Write anything, you can cull and edit later. As for a series, you might like to map out how your plot is going develop over the course of three books unless you’re like me, I’m a pantser (I develop my story as I go … by the seat of my pants).  Once you know your characters well, they will start talking to you and you will know where to take them and how they will react. Writing a series gives you the freedom to explore themes and characters properly and that is an amazing feeling. Hopefully it’s amazing for your readers too!

The Vexatious Haunting of Lily Griffin is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


Image shows the cover of a children's novel: The Vexatious Haunting of Lily Griffin by Paula Hayes and Katy Jiang. The cover shows Lily standing at the bottom left of the cover. Lily is a young girl with dark hair in pigtails, wearing a white blouse with red collar and an orange skirt. Behind her are an old woman in an orange dress sitting in a wheelchair, a man with a moustache wearing a blue cardigan and brown trousers, a woman wearing a yellow dress being hugged from behind by a man in a white shirt. At the woman's feet sits a teenage boy in a green shirt resting his forehead on his hand. Above them all floats a teenage poltergeist in a red shirt and brown pants. At the top left of the cover is a spider in a web.

AWESOME EXTRAS:

Read an excerpt from the book on the publisher’s website

Download the teaching notes

Visit Paula’s website for more about her and her books

authors, interviews

Deb Fitzpatrick and Ajay Rane: Global crusader for women’s health

Deb Fitzpatrick writes for adults, young adults and children. She loves using stories from real life in her novels and regularly teaches creative writing to people of all ages. Deb lived in a shack in Costa Rica for four years where she became accustomed – well, almost – to orange-kneed tarantulas walking through her house, and sloths and spider-monkeys swinging in the trees outside.

Today we’re chatting about her latest book – Ajay Rane.

From the publisher:

Professor Ajay Rane is the Director of Urogynaecology at Townsville University Hospital and Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at James Cook University (JCU). Ajay has devoted his research and practice to treating women with severe childbirth injuries in the some of the world’s poorest countries.


How did you go about your research for the book?

First, I found every single article, interview and photo of Professor Rane online and printed it all out. As I read, I highlighted everything of interest. I had a big A4 notebook with me, which I filled with the most important information, best quotes and snippets from his life, and I tried to arrange the information in sensible ‘batches’, so that I could keep the huge amount of info manageable and sort-of orderly!

Then, once I felt I was across everything that was available about him in the public realm, I phoned Ajay and we had a lovely chat. I was SO nervous. He was SO lovely. And I asked him if I could start sending him questions about his life via email. Each email had about ten questions for him, and in asking these questions I was trying to fill in the gaps and ‘colour in’ the bits I didn’t know much about.

Despite being one of the busiest humans on the planet, Ajay was so patient and answered every single question, every time. He was an absolute champion to work with. 

Was writing a biography/nonfiction book very different compared to writing your fiction novels?

Writing Ajay’s story was certainly different in some ways to writing one of my novels, because there was an existing storyline I had to follow. And frankly, that was a relief!! As a fiction author, I’m used to having to make everything up, and that can be exhausting! So this was wonderful. Having said that, because Ajay Rane is a narrative non-fiction, there are many scenes in the book which I essentially did make up. The books are designed to read like novels, even though they are about a real person’s life, so all the dialogue, for example, is made up, based on what I understood about Ajay and his life. And, of course, Ajay read every single word and  I asked him to tell me if he felt anything wasn’t right. We were very careful to make sure everything felt true to life.

When you’re writing a nonfiction book requiring research, how do you know when it’s time to stop researching and begin writing?

Ha ha, well, deadlines help in that regard! I had four months to write this book and I can tell you it’s the quickest I have ever written any book! But once I had read everything I could lay my hands on, and chatted with Ajay, and seen photos of him as a child with his family, then I felt it was time to begin actually writing. And that was fun. Because, by that point, I realised how incredible this story was, and I was itching to share it with readers.

Ajay Rane is part of the Aussie STEM Stars series. What’s your favourite subject area when it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?

I would have to say science, particularly conservation biology. This is an area I’ve long been interested in and is very close to my heart. Did you know that feral cats eat about two billion animals a year in Australia? Reptiles, birds, frogs, mammals … it’s heartbreaking. It’s an incomprehensible number. The work that conservation biologists do to protect our native fauna is critical. We have seen animals literally brought back from the brink of extinction due to their incredible work.

Can you tell us a bit about your next writing project?

I always have a few manuscripts on the go! I have a children’s picture book text that I’ve been working on for a while and a junior fiction novel that I’m just editing at the moment before my agent sends it out. Of course, I hope very much that I’ll be able to talk to you about one or both of those books sometime in the near future!

Ajay Rane is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


Image shows the cover of a children's book: Ajay Rane, Global Crusader for Women's health by Deb Fitzpatrick. The cover illustration shows a hand drawn illustration of Prof Ajay Rane standing in blue hospital scrubs with hands on his hips and a stethoscope around his neck. Ajay has brown skin, short dark hair and wears glasses. Around him are doodle style drawings of the symbol for woman, a pelvis from a skeleton, and a glowing light bulb.

Find out more about the Aussie STEM Stars series here.

Find out more about Deb Fitzpatrick and her books: visit her website!

authors, interviews

Sharon Giltrow on Get Ready, Mama!

Sharon Giltrow grew up in South Australia and now lives in Western Australia with her husband, two children, a tom cat and a miniature dog. She works in Early Childhood Education and Teacher Education Support, working with Young Children with Developmental Language Disorder. Her debut picture book was Bedtime, Daddy!, illustrated by Katrin Dreiling. Today we’re chatting to her about her new picture book, Get Ready, Mama! illustrated by Arielle Li.

From the publisher:

Getting Mama ready for the day can be a challenge… you’d better watch out that she doesn’t sneak back into bed, try to distract you with cuddles, or … wait, is Mama watching TV?! 


Your first picture book was Bedtime, Daddy! Did you have the idea for a series of books about family members when you wrote the first book or did the idea for a companion book come after the first book was out?

Bedtime, Daddy! is a role reversal book where the child (actually a bear) has to put the daddy to bed. The idea came from my own family. Once I signed the contract for Bedtime, Daddy! I thought writing a series of books using the same structure but different family members would be a great idea. I wanted one about a mum and about the other end of the day, getting up, so I wrote Get Ready, Mama! which was recently published 3 ½ years after the first book. I also wrote a story about taking a grandma shopping and a grandpa to the beach. Those two will be published in 2022 and 2023. So, my picture book family series is now complete. (Wait a minute – what about the aunty and uncle?)

Are you a morning person or a night owl? (Do you spring out of bed in the morning yourself?)

I am a morning person or as a like to call myself an early bird, although at times I am also an exhausted pigeon. I don’t spring out as bed as quickly as I use to, it’s more of a slide, but I do like to get up before everyone else in the house. Then I can have a few minutes of ‘me’ time.

Did you work with the illustrator (Arielle Li) during the book’s creation?

Anouska, the editor at EK Books, encouraged Arielle and I to work together from the beginning of the publishing process. She shared Arielle’s initial character sketches with me and as a team we decided whether the characters would be guinea pigs or humans. We chose humans! I’m glad we did after seeing the child and mama’s amazing facial expressions in Get Ready, Mama! Then Arielle started working on the storyboard and again shared it with me. Throughout the whole process I was able to suggest changes. There weren’t many as Arielle did such a fantastic job interpreting my text. Once the changes were made, I put my text onto the storyboard to check how the story flowed. Finally, as a team we decided on a cover.

Do you have a tip for kids about writing illustrated stories or picture books?

After you have your idea, spend some time brainstorming the idea and in particular the characters. I do this for about 20 minutes every day for a week before I start writing. Here are some questions I use when I am brainstorming.

  • What does your character love or hate?
  • What is their nickname?
  • What kind of being are they?
  • What is their age?
  • What is their physical appearance?
  • Who are their family members?
  • Do they have any pets?
  • Who is their best friend/s?
  • What items do they carry in their backpack?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • What does your character want more than anything?
  • What are their fears?
  • What is their favourite food?

Can you tell us something about your next writing project?

I am currently writing my third book in my early middle grade series The Utility Belt. Books one and two release in 2022 and 2023. But I don’t want to give too much away.

I am also enrolled in a graphic novel course; I want to learn how to write (and possibly illustrate) a graphic novel. I already have a great idea, now to develop my characters – stay tuned!

Get Ready, Mama! is out now. Ask for it at your favourite bookstore or local library.


AWESOME EXTRAS

Image shows the cover of a picture book: Get Ready, Mama! by Sharon Giltrow and Arielle Li. The cover illustration shows a mother still in bed, cuddling her teddy. There's a child standing next to her bed in a school uniform and with neatly tied plaits. The child is holding a white button up blouse on a coat hanger. Next to the bed is a white dog with brown patches and a pink tongue lolling out. The mother in bed has tousled hair and doesn't look alert. The dog and the child look enthusiastic and full of energy.

Take a look at some pages inside the book

Make your own Get Ready, Mama! mini colouring book

Download the Teachers’ Notes for this book

Visit the author’s website for more about Sharon Giltrow and her books

authors, interviews

HM Waugh on Mars Awakens

HM Waugh is the author of books for children and young adults. She’s also an environmental scientist, and educator with a love of wild places and high mountains. This has led to icy feet and sunburnt cheeks in magical countries like New Zealand, Nepal, Bolivia and Switzerland. She has studied dolphins in New Zealand and rare plants in the Wheatbelt, and worked in mining and construction projects across Western Australia. Her latest book is Mars Awakens, the unputdownable first book in a duology.

From the publisher:

Raised in two colonies on Mars each long ago abandoned by Earth, Dee and Holt have been brought up to hate even the idea of each other. But when a mysterious object crash-lands on a far-flung plain, they are both sent to investigate and their fates intertwine. Together they must battle epic storms and deadly bioclouds while unpicking the web of lies they have been told about their planet.


What brought you to write a book set on Mars? Did you need to do much research before you began writing?

I love space and the idea of going to other planets, and we’re so close to being able to send people to Mars – kids reading my book could absolutely be a part of this – that one day the idea to write a book based on Mars just popped into my head. Mars is a real place, so I did have to do a lot of research. Not only about the Mars we know – like its gravity and size and moons and what it looks like from the surface – but also into the Mars we could create. The plants we would need to make wax and rope and clothing. To feed the population. To stabilise the planet. It was a lot of fun!

What’s your favourite unusual fact about Mars?

There are so many! I think one of my favourites is how rovers have been detecting strange levels of methane (like fart gas) on Mars. And recently they discovered rocks on Mars that contain substances that, on Earth, can be created by methane-producing bacteria. Did Mars once have life? Does it still?

Dee uses kites to travel long distances across Mars on her own. What gave you the idea? Did you test a prototype or put trust in your imagination?

The kites came from an epic brainstorming session. I knew Mars was too big to walk around, so I needed some low-tech way for Dee and her colony to travel long distances. And what did Mars have going for it? Much less gravity than Earth so you can leap higher and run faster, and some serious windstorms. And I thought about sailboats, and umbrellas in storms, and kite-surfers, and combined them all to create the Martian kites. I did not test this out! I’m not even sure they’d work on Earth? But I did use my experiences doing things like sailing, skydiving and ziplining to create the feel of kiting with the wind.

If there was a callout tomorrow for volunteers to move to Mars – would you be tempted to put your hand up?

Absolutely! Try out for all the things. What’s the worst that could happen? Either I don’t get selected and I’ve lost nothing, or I do get selected and get to decide whether to accept the place or not. If it was a one-way ticket I honestly think I’d find it very hard to say goodbye to my family. Maybe they could come with me?

Can you tell us something about your next writing project?

Well, obviously, my next project is Mars Book 2 and I’m not giving away any spoilers! Beyond that, I have ideas simmering away in my head for a new project and I’m just letting them develop. It can take a while for the right collection of ideas to come together, and then I suddenly know I’ve got the ingredients for a book.

Mars Awakens is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


AWESOME EXTRAS

Image shows the cover of a children's novel: Mars Awakens by HM Waugh. The cover illustration shows the silhouettes of two children, standing face to face. Behind them is a greenish sky over the red ground on Mars.

Enter the author’s short story challenge! The winner will have a character named after them in the sequel to Mars Awakens. (Entries close 31 May 2022.)

Do you live in Perth? Book a ticket to the 8 May launch of Mars Awakens. Meet the author! Eat crickets, like Dee!

Read our 2019 interview with HM Waugh about her first children’s novel.

Visit HM Waugh’s website for more about her and her books.

authors, interviews

Jeanette Stampone on Shadow and the Girl

Jeanette Stampone was born and raised in a spooky three-hundred-year-old English house. Jeanette now lives in a small country town in Western Australia with her husband and two boys. Shadow and the Girl is her debut picture book, illustrated by Demelsa Haughton.

From the publisher:

A giant girl towers over Shadow. Driven by fear, Shadow runs. And so does the girl. But can they really run from each other?


How long did it take to write Shadow and the Girl?

Nearly five years!

I first had the idea back in 2017. It was about a monster living under a child’s bed. I decided to change the monster to a shadow, but still had lots of trouble getting the story to flow.

So, I then completely changed the scene and took Shadow outside to a park. That’s when it really began to work. I sent the manuscript to a few publishers, but not many because I was worried the story was a bit too different. I eventually put it away and worked on new ideas.

But then in 2019, I saw Red Paper Kite were open for submissions. They were looking for quirky and unusual stories. I sent it in and … YAY! It got accepted. I feel like my story was just waiting for the right publisher.

Shortly after I signed the contract, coronavirus hit and the book release got delayed, which meant more waiting. But finally, in 2022, it was ready for print! It’s taken a long time but every stage has been exciting.

Did you have contact with the illustrator, Demelsa Haughton, while the book was being illustrated?

We really only made a few comments on each other’s social media posts. But other than that, no direct contact. My publisher worked closely with Demelsa and occasionally I was asked my opinion on her work, but that was very rare. I actually loved having no contact with her because it meant she was free to use her own creativity without me influencing it too much. She ended up making the book even better than I imagined!

How do you go about writing the first picture book draft?

So this is what normally happens:

  1. Random idea pops into my head.
  2. Idea swirls around my head, getting in the way of anything else I am trying to do!
  3. Get out my notepad and write a summary of the idea.
  4. If I am happy with the summary, I hop onto the computer and ‘grow’ the idea. I add more sentences and not worry too much about it being perfect. I just want to get the basic story down at this stage.
  5. Read through my story and chop, change, and polish until I’m reasonably happy.
  6. Finally, take the story to my critique group for feedback!

Do you have a tip for kids whod like to write their own picture book?

Imagine the illustrations as you write but try not to describe exactly what would be happening in the drawings. Let the illustrations tell one story and your writing tell another story.

So instead of saying something like, It was sunny and Ella smiled, you could describe her physical and emotional feelings like this: The sun warmed Ella’s face and her heart sang with joy.

Can you tell us a bit about what you!re working on next?

I have a book coming out with Wombat Books, The Dragon Guest Handbook. It’s a fun but meaningful story and I’m really looking forward to seeing it in print. I have been so busy with the release of Shadow and the Girl that I haven’t had a lot of time to work on new stories, but I do have a big list of ideas. Hopefully I can start working on a few of those soon because they’re all in the swirling around my head stage!

Shadow and the Girl is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


AWESOME EXTRAS

Shadow and the Girl by Jeanette Stampone and Demelsa Haughton. The cover illustration shows a girl with plaits, wearing a white dress and a red cap, sitting back to back with a shadowy figure. They both have their feet in water. Behind them are alpine-looking mountains with snow on their peaks.

Peek inside the pages of Shadow and the Girl on the publisher’s website.

Watch an animation by Jana Kaminski (this is a video on the publisher’s Facebook page)

Visit Jeanette Stampone’s website for more about her and her writing.