authors, interviews

Meg McKinlay on Bella and the Voyaging House


Meg McKinlay is an award-winning children’s writer and poet based near Fremantle, Western Australia. She has published eighteen books for young people from picture books through to young adult fiction. Today we’re thrilled to chat to Meg about her latest book Bella and the Voyaging House, a sequel to Bella and the Wandering House, both illustrated by Nicholas Schafer.

From the publisher:

Bella’s house likes to travel, setting sail across the ocean while everyone sleeps. Bella’s parents don’t mind as long as the house is home by daylight. One night, Bella has a wonderful idea for her grandfather’s birthday. She wants to find a figurine he made of her grandmother, lost overboard in an accident. Bella and the house go in search, but things don’t quite go according to plan . . .

Bella’s house is drawn to the sea. Is sailing something you like/have liked to do? Did you go sailing for the writing of Bella and the Voyaging House?

I have no interest in sailing myself but I do love watching sailboats, which is what I was doing when I got the idea for Bella and the Voyaging House. I didn’t need to go sailing as research for the book because the descriptions of the house sailing aren’t technical at all. I just needed to know enough to get the feeling right, and I’ve been on boats enough to have that covered.

I do have a deep love of the ocean though – I love swimming and wave-staring and just generally floating about. Actually, it was after finishing this second Bella book that I realised that in many ways, the house is me. As a child growing up in a carless family in Central Victoria, the ocean was a kind of mythical place to me. On rare visits, my father, who grew up on the coast in WA, taught us to bodysurf, and my older brother and I made a quiet pact – that whenever we were near the ocean, we would hurl ourselves into it, regardless of the weather, conditions, or whether or not we had bathers. These days, I live a 10-minute bike ride from the beach and have vowed never to move away from it. I may not be made from the wood of an old boat, but I think I’m made from my father’s love of the ocean, and long to be near it, just as the house does.

If your own house could wander/sail off to somewhere, where would you hope it would take you?

Hmmm. I think I’d quite like a trip to Antarctica. I love the idea of the white and the silence and the solitude. I generally find that the further I am away from the noise and clutter of life, the happier I am. I’d also love to see a penguin sliding on its belly!

This book is the sequel to Bella and the Wandering House. Did you find it a quicker (or slower) project to write a sequel?

Well, the first book took about 12 years from first draft to final manuscript* so I can confidently say the sequel was quicker. It still took about 18 months though; no matter what I do, I just can’t seem to write quickly. In writing the sequel, it did help that I already knew the characters and the world of the story so I didn’t have to build everything from scratch. On the other hand, my love for the characters may have slowed me down a bit; I really wanted to make sure I wrote a story that would do them justice and give them room to shine.

(*This includes 10 years when the manuscript sat in a drawer, abandoned. I’d written it as a picture book but it wasn’t working and I didn’t know how to fix it, so I eventually gave up. Ten years later, I realised it needed to be a chapter book and rewrote the whole thing; it was published about two years later.)

Will there be any more books in this series?

I have no plans to write any more. Then again, when I wrote Bella and the Wandering House, I wrote it as a standalone book, with no intention of ever writing a sequel. Then again again, I love the way Bella and the Voyaging House ended – that final image feels very satisfying to me – and I think I’d be very happy leaving Grandad, Bella, and the house right there.

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

I’m working on an odd sort of picture book at the moment. I say ‘odd’ because it’s not really a story but more like a series of instructions or guidelines. It’s hard to explain but I think it’s going to be great. It’s called Always Never Always, at least for now, and will be illustrated by Leila Rudge, who I’m very excited to be working with again.

I’m also in the home-ish stretch of the sequel to A Single Stone, and once that’s finished, I’m pretty keen to jump into some shorter novels that have been percolating for a while. They’re both fun and whimsical and I think I’m going to really enjoy writing them.

Bella and the Voyaging House is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.


Read a sample chapter of the book

Download the Teachers’ Notes

Read a 2015 review of Bella and the Wandering House (Book 1 in this series) by Matilda, age 9.

Bella and the Voyaging House by Meg McKinlay illust. Nicholas Schafer
Book reviews by kids, Book reviews by Matilda

Book review: The Cleo stories

The Cleo Stories: The Necklace, and The Present by Libby Gleeson, ill. Freya Blackwood, Allen and Unwin, ISBN 9781743315279

The Cleo stories (cover)


A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

This book has two stories — ‘The Necklace’ and ‘The Present’. It’s about a girl who’s 6 years old, playing and present wrapping and drawing. The characters include an uncle, her Mum and Dad, and Nick (Cleo’s friend).

‘The Necklace’ is my favourite because Cleo wants a necklace but her birthday is ages away and she solves the problem all by herself. Cleo reminds me of my friend’s little sister because she’s so imaginative and she’s adventurous in her own backyard.

I also like how Cleo wears different headband ears — cats and rabbits. And I really like the endpapers too because it shows Cleo’s town.

Five to eight year olds would enjoy this book. I’d like to read more stories about Cleo and Nick.

Matilda is one of our regular book reviewers. Her most recent review (if you don’t count this one) was of  Rescue on Nim’s Island. If YOU would like to send us a book review, check out our submission guidelines. Happy reading!

Book reviews by kids, Book reviews by Matilda

Book review: Annie’s Snails

Annie’s Snails by Dianne Wolfer, ill. Gabriel Evans, ISBN 9781921720635, Walker Books Australia

annie's snails (cover)


A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

At the Perth Writers Festival I went into a tent to see the author and the illustrator of this book. At their talk I saw how the author got the idea of the book based on a girl who was a neighbour who loved snails and I saw that neighbour at the talk too. So when I was sent a copy of this book a grin spread across my face.

Annie’s Snails is a book about a girl who loves snails. She finds some and she names them. She paints the first letters of their names on their shells and then she notices they can spell words. The snails are good spellers. She finds out that snails don’t like living in the container she’s keeping them in because it’s too hot and snails like water too so they don’t dry out. But she still wants to keep those snails — it’s a problem.

The illustrations are grey and white and there are pictures on every page so it’s a bit like a picture book but also it’s a chapter book. This book has three chapters about Annie and her snails. I really like snails like Annie does so I really liked this book.

I think Annie’s Snails would be good for 4 to 9 year olds. But 4 and 5 year olds might need a parent to read it to them.

Matilda is one of our regular book reviewers. Her most recent review (if you don’t count this one!) was Anton Can Do Magic.  If YOU would like to send us a book review, check out our submission guidelines. Happy reading!

Book reviews by Rebecca

Book Review: Jake’s Concert Horror

Jake’s Concert Horror by Ken Spillman and illustrated Chris Nixon. Published by Fremantle Press ISBN 9781921888755.

A review copy of this book was sent to us by the publisher.

Jake's Concert Horror (cover)

When Mrs Paul announces that the class will be putting on a musical play, Jake imagines himself in all sorts of cool roles—a pirate, a monkey, a robot with a silver-painted box over his head.

But when he hears what the play will be, he’s not impressed.


Yuk, Jake thought. Why couldn’t she choose something about pirates?


But it’s even worse when he finds out what his part is in the play. As the date of the performance gets closer he gets more and more worried.

This is another book in the Jake series—and, as usual, you’ll find Chris Nixon’s fun illustrations on every page. These books are great for kids who are just starting to read chapter books. If you’re already a fan, you’ll love this next book in the series (but you don’t have to read the other books in the series before reading this one. It’s great on its own.)

Everyone worries about something. Jake’s Concert Horror is a book about overcoming your fears.

© May 2012 “Review of Jake’s Concert Horror by Ken Spillman & Chris Nixon” by Rebecca Newman (Alphabet Soup magazine)

Look here for a review of an earlier Jake book, Jake’s Great Game.

Book reviews by Rebecca

Book review: Jake’s Great Game

Jake’s Great Game by Ken Spillman, ill. Chris Nixon, Fremantle Press, ISBN 9781921888502

A review copy of this book was sent to us by the publisher.

Jake's Great Game (cover)We are already fans of the Jake books, so we were excited to see the next book in the series, Jake’s Great Game.

Jake decides he wants to start playing soccer and his dad takes him to buy some boots—Jake likes the silver ones, and he’s sure he’ll be a soccer star. Then he finds soccer is not as easy as he thought it would be. Dribbling the ball is tricky … and everyone else seems to have the hang of it. The team has a game coming up. How can Jake be a soccer star if he can’t even dribble the ball?

Jake’s Great Game is a fun story for kids who are starting to read books with chapters. Chris Nixon’s black-and-white illustrations are on every page. You don’t have to have read the other Jake books to enjoy this one but if you have read the others, you’ll probably want to read this one, too—especially if you like books about sport.

A fun read!

Find out more about the Jake series on the dedicated website. Check out our January 2011 interview with the author and another with the illustrator. And check out what the illustrator used to read after ‘lights out’ when he was growing up!

© October 2011 “Review of Jake’s Great Game by Ken Spillman, ill. Chris Nixon”, reviewed by Rebecca Newman (Alphabet Soup magazine)
Book reviews by Rebecca

Book review: Mr Tripp Smells A Rat

Mr Tripp Smells a Rat by Sandy McKay, ill. Ruth Paul, Walker Books Australia ISBN 9781921529061

A review copy of this book was sent to us by the publisher.

"Mr Tripp Smells a Rat (cover)"Lily is in Room 5 at school and Mr Tripp Smells a Rat has three stories about the teacher Mr Tripp and his class. Lily thinks Mr Tripp is awesome—he tells jokes and he has a clever nose for sniffing things out.

Story 1: Mr Tripp Smells a Rat

Mr Tripp has to sniff out a pet rat who has escaped from another classroom. Mr Tripp hates rats, but he has to be brave because all his students are peering in the window watching him!

Story 2: Mr Tripp Eats Some Fish

Mr Tripp tells the class he has been on a diet—eating lots of fish and fruit and vegetables to lose weight and stay healthy. His birthday is coming up and the class want to throw him a surprise party. But what sort of cake can you make for a teacher on a seafood diet?

Story 3: Mr Tripp Finds a Nit

Eww! Room 5 learns about headlice and how to get rid of headlice and nits! This bit made me laugh:


Suddenly everyone started scratching because when you talk about things living in your hair it makes you itchy.


(Doesn’t that make you feel like scratching your head, too?) At the end of 2 weeks, Mr Tripp checks everyone’s hair to see if the class is headlice-free. And he makes a horrible discovery …

There are great illustrations on every page of Mr Tripp Smells a Rat. (I like the one where Mr Tripp puts his finger on his nose and goes cross-eyed.)

The stories are fun and include lots of riddles. There are even three bonus pages at the end of the book with more of Mr Tripp’s favourite riddles. If you are starting to enjoy chapter books, this is a great book to add to your reading pile.

© July  2011 “Review of Mr Tripp Smells a Rat by Sandy McKay, ill. Ruth Paul”, reviewed by Rebecca Newman (Alphabet Soup magazine)
teachers' resources

Meet Ken Spillman – author of the Jake books


"Jake's Gigantic List""Ken Spillman"

Our visitor today is Ken Spillman, author of many books, including Jake’s Gigantic List and Jake’s Monster Mess. The third book in the series Jake’s Balloon Blast will be out in March 2011.

What made you become a writer?

Quite simply, a love of stories.  That developed early and by the age of 8 I was a keen writer, even during school holidays.  When I was 15, my English teacher told me to keep writing.  He forgot to tell me to stop writing, so I’m still going.  It’s all his fault.

Was it easy to get your first book published?

It was, actually, but before that I’d published a lot of short stories and poems, while having quite a few rejections as well.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I had many, including adventure stories like Robin Hood and Tom Sawyer.  But an enduring favourite was – and IS – The Little Prince.  That always gets me thinking – I can revisit it every year and learn something new!

Where do you get your ideas/inspiration?

It’s very difficult not to get ideas – so the trick is to give some time to the ideas you do have.  For me, watching and listening leads to imagining, and that’s where story begins.  After that, it’s all about work.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?"Jake's Balloon Blast"

I like to read!  But I also love sports and enjoy swimming or kicking a ball around.  Travelling is also great, and recently I’ve enjoyed talking to big groups of Jake fans in Asian countries.

Are you working on a book at the moment?

I’ve always got a few books on the go.  Chris Nixon is illustrating the fourth Jake book – with a sporting theme – and I’ve written two more.  I’m also working on a picture book for Scholastic and a new series for release by Puffin India later this year.

When you are writing the Jake books, do you work closely with Chris Nixon, or do you finish the text and then leave him to do the illustrations?

I finish the story first, but since the first Jake book I’ve been able to imagine what Chris will be able to do with it as I go along.  He nailed the Jake character straight off, so I know he’s always going to really ‘get’ what I write.

Do you have any advice for young writers?

First and foremost, have fun.  What a magical thing it is to create whole worlds – with just paper and ink!  If you enjoy writing, you’ll do it often – and that’s the second thing … work!

Book reviews by Rebecca, teachers' resources

What we’re reading: Hanging Out by Catherine Bateson

"Hanging out (cover)"

Hanging Out, by Catherine Bateson, illustrated by Adam Carruthers,  Omnibus Books for Scholastic Australia, 2010

Weston is coming for a visit while his parents are on holiday, and Ben is worried.  Last time Ben saw Weston, Ben made up lots of stories about his life in Melbourne, and now Weston will find out he wasn’t telling the truth. Ben tries to make his mum change her mind.

I remembered everything I had said.

“Mum, he really can’t come here.”

The only true thing I’d told Weston was that we lived near Puffing Billy. We can hear its whistle blow from our house.

As soon as Weston arrives, he’ll start asking about all the activities Ben bragged about. What will Ben do?

This is an early chapter book in the ‘Mates’ series. The colour illustrations by Adam Carruthers are fun. My favourite is a drawing of Miss Phillips on page 35, but I can’t tell you why because it will spoil the story. 🙂

Do you think Ben should tell Weston that he made up most of the stories about his life in  Melbourne?

Reviewed by Rebecca Newman. Our review copy was sent to us by Omnibus Books.
authors, teachers' resources

Meet the author: Laura Dudgeon!

"Laura Dudgeon, author"
Laura Dudgeon. Photo courtsey Fremantle Press.

Have you ever thought it’s too hard to be a writer when you are still growing up? Keep writing, and don’t give up! We’re thrilled to have teenager, Laura Dudgeon, visiting us today. Her first book, Lilli and Her Shadow was published earlier this year. Laura Dudgeon was born in Darwin in 1993 and is descended from the Beniol Bardi people from north of Broome.

Before we begin, here’s a bit about the book.

Lilli and Her Shadow is a first chapter book about a girl whose family is moving to the city from the bush. Lilli is not looking forward to it and knows she’ll miss everything about the bush, including her cousins and especially her nan. But when she gets to the city, she discovers Nan has sent her something to help her settle in to her new place. A secret Shadow …

Lilli and Her Shadow is part of the Waarda series, a new Indigenous children’s series published by Fremantle Press. (Waarda is Nyungar for talking and sharing stories and information).

Lilli and Her Shadow was co-written with your aunt, Pat Dudgeon. How did you come to write the book?

I have been writing short stories ever since I was 8, so when Aunty Pat got this opportunity she asked me if I would like to be a co-author with her.

Is the character, Lilli, like you?

Yes she is. Lilly’s experiences and emotions where based on my own when I moved from Darwin to the big city of Perth when I was 8.

What do you love best about being a writer?

I love how I have no limits to the creation of a story. I have always had a wild imagination and putting it on paper and sharing it with others brings me great joy.

Is there any ‘downside’ to being a writer?

When you do something you love and get paid for it there really isn’t a downside.

When do you find time to write?

On the weekends and after school if I don’t have much homework.

What was your favourite book when you were younger?

Where’s Wally? I was interested in the adventures and trying to find Wally.

What sort of books do you like to read now?

Adventure books, scary books and books that I can relate to and give you something to think about.

Do you have any pets?

Yes, a miniature Fox Terrier crossed with a Jack Russell, named ‘Monty’.

"Lilli and Her Shadow"Where did you get the idea for Lilli and Her Shadow?

It was based on my own experience when I moved with my family from Darwin to Perth, the feelings I had to deal with leaving family especially my nana and the difficulty changing schools and making new friends.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Just being a normal teenage girl, shopping and hanging out with friends.

Do you prefer to write on paper, or on a computer?

A bit of both, but mainly computer because I can’t lose it.

Lilli and Her Shadow is a chapter book for early readers. How important do you think it is for children to have access to books with Indigenous characters in them?

I think that it is very important. Children growing up from all nationalities need to feel they are important enough to be written about. Through inclusion we are all important and this is a step forward to get rid of issues such as racism.

What is positive and what is challenging about co-writing a book?

Co-writing allows you to grow your ideas through brain storming and building of the creativity of each other. I think at the end of the manuscript you have a greater story.

Are you working on another book?

I have been co writing with my Aunty Pat another book about a young girl’s secret struggle which is expected to be released later this year. Besides this I am always writing short stories especially when I am in a creative mood to challenge my imagination and when I have an important topic to talk about. One day I hope to be able to use these materials in other stories.

Do you have any advice for young writers?

Keep a diary, this is where you can write down everyday events that affect you emotionally. At this real time you can feel and express on paper with greater accuracy and therefore relate to real events and real readers about an issue or something that you feel passionate about. Later on you can use this material in your stories.

Also have a book that you write down brilliant ideas as soon as they come into your head as they can be quickly lost, then you can also use this book to stimulate your creativity when writing.

Thank-you for giving me the opportunity to share my story and give other kids ideas for writing.

Thanks for answering our questions. We loved having you here!

Lilli and Her Shadow, by Pat Dudgeon and Laura Dudgeon, ill. by Tracey Gibbs and Sally Morgan, published by Fremantle Press.

Book reviews by Rebecca

Good books: Kumiko and the Dragon by Briony Stewart

Kumiko and the Dragon, by Briony Stewart, University of Queensland Press, ISBN 9798 0 7022 3619 8

Kumiko is afraid of going to bed. She is afraid because of the dragon who waits outside her bedroom window every night. One day, she decides to write the dragon a letter asking him to go away. But even this doesn’t make her feel braver.

She says:

“And when I am supposed to be doing my schoolwork all that fills my head is: Oh I am to be eaten for sure!

What happens to Kumiko next is thrilling—in one night she learns a great deal more about dragons, her family, and being brave. Will the dragon eat her, or is this the beginning of a great adventure?

This book was an exciting read, and I loved Briony Stewart’s illustrations scattered throughout the chapters.

If you like stories about dragons and courage and magic, you will love Kumiko and the Dragon. (There will be a second book in the series—Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret, out in August 2010. I can’t wait to read that, too!)

Review by Rebecca Newman, Editor, Alphabet Soup

Rebecca borrowed this book from her local library. Ask if they have it at yours, too!