Thursday, August 20, 2009


In Wake in Fright, one of the images that promise freedom to the teacher who feels he is stranded so far away from everything he understands is that of the tumbling surf off Sydney's coast. And many Australians take coastal living so much for granted that they forget there are kids who have never swum at the beach and that pre-schoolers in remote areas might ask their teachers to bring them back a wave in a bottle as a souvenir of their Christmas holidays.

So Bear and Chook by the Sea arrives in the mail like a refreshing whump of a wave and will delight young and old readers alike with both anticipation and memories.

I was lucky enough to be one of Lisa Shanahan's publishers and she sent me the manuscript Bear and Chook a long time ago. It's a Laurel-and-Hardy story about a bear who is a big galumphing romantic - into everything, no boundaries - and a thin-beaked sidekick chook, who is more cautious and has to pick up the pieces, when reality brings the bear's adventures to a sudden halt every time.

I had started to work with wonderful Emma Quay and knew straightaway that she was the right illustrator. Fortunately, she did too and Bear and Chook was a huge success. Instant classic. Then Lisa sent me a second adventure for the pair. Meanwhile, both her career and Emma's had really taken off. Emma was doing books she had written herself and was working with Andrew Daddo; Lisa was working on picture books with Wayne Harris and on her fiction. But they had become close friends and of course wanted to repeat the happy experience of working together.

I left Hodder Headline to work for the ABC and to freelance - and six years later here is the book we all started out on, which they've done with the guidance of one of Australia's best publishers, Helen Chamberlin. Making picture books takes time and patience! And Lisa and Emma have done a terrific job.

Over that time they have both changed. The words and the pictures are more richly textured and I love the irony that this time Bear is not quite as resilient and wants to go home when he gets dumped in the surf.

Young readers will love to read aloud all the sounds the two friends make as they hike to the beach and back. And there are some lovely visual jokes in Emma's pictures - especially in the exhilarating scenes where we find out exactly what Bear has been carting around in his beach bag.

Like Emma, my father was born in England and although he loved Australia, in later life he suffered the ravages of the hot sun on his pale northern skin. So when I saw that at the beach Chook wears on his head a white handkerchief, knotted at each corner I laughed at the image. My father wore one every weekend as he poured concrete and dug the garden. What did thousands of workers like him think that it did for them? Bear's big straw sunhat might not be as macho, but there's nothing macho about skin cancer. Images like this in Emma's illustrations make me smile at our frailty.

I love this book!

Opening Bear and Chook by the Sea is like that first deep breath of salty air as you finally plonk your things down on the sand in summer, and it will be a hugely popular book this Christmas, so don't miss out.

Once more in the conclusion there's the hint of a further adventure. Emma likes to strike out in new directions with every book, though, so I'm not sure that she would want to go back to the same illustration style yet again. And it's always smart to exit on top and leave the audience wanting more.

But you never know...

Monday, August 10, 2009


I have no connection with this book and haven't even discussed it with my friend who published it, Linsay Knight at Random House. So this is simply a fan letter. RA Spratt's Nanny Piggins is one of the funniest novels I have read for a long time.
I was doing some work for Scholastic Australia's Core Library project, where we choose forty books, for in this case middle primary readers, and provide suggestions that will help both teachers and students extend their appreciation.
And we were all surprised to find how much there was in this new Australian title.
Mr Green isn't like Mr Sheffield! He doesn't particularly care about his children and he goes for Nanny Piggins because she is cheap, available and he doesn't have to advertise. Only slight problem is that she is literally a pig.
Where the literary stereotype is about running away from home to join the circus, Nanny Piggins has run away from the circus and finds herself employed by the Greens.
That turns out to be great as far as the kids are concerned, because she recommends the eating of chocolate at every possible opportunity and couldn't care less about homework.
The opening page is a very funny parody of the opening page of Seven Little Australians, where the author tells us that we need to abandon all our preconceptions about what we might be going to read, because Australian books always break the rules.
The great thing about children's specialist booksellers is that they actually read the books they sell. They see it as part of their job. (This applies to independent sellers of adult books too!) So when I dropped in to the always busy Lindfield Bookshop across the road from Scholastic and asked them about this book, they said it had divided the market. I can always depend on them to know their customers and their stock.
Some readers thought it was terrific; others thought it was meaningless fluff. When adults tell me that a book for young readers is silly, it is usually a good sign that the writing is on target. Comedy generally does divide the audience.
I'm intrigued by the names: RA Spratt is the author; Gypsy Taylor is the illustrator. Their websites tell me they are real and well known (I need to get out more!), but they would probably enjoy the fact that the layers of joking in this book made all of us suspicious.
Anyway, give Nanny Piggins to any readers over 8. Teens will enjoy subtleties in the text that won't bother their younger brothers and sisters. I've given a copy to my 95-year-old mum and she is loving it. Give it a go yourself. I can't wait for Nanny's next adventures - but I hope there won't be too many books in the series. Even Fran Drescher didn't know when we'd had enough of a good thing.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


When Megan Drinan at ABC Books asked me if I would like to write the text for The ABC Book of Christmas, I knew it was a risk, because on traditional stories every reader has an opinion - let alone a traditional story from the Bible. If I got it wrong, people would denounce me for messing around with the source of their beliefs. Dangerous stuff! But I wanted to have a go.
I was also a bit afraid of being typecast. However unconventional, my previous book, God Is was obviously about God and the one before that, Tomorrow, although not religious was about our journey through life.
My fears seemed justified when the first bookseller I told said, 'And what's the book after that?' and the next one said, 'Is the next book going to be different?' Ah well, several books following had nothing to do with religion, so maybe the typecasting would be temporary.
I knew the story of the birth of Jesus, but I reread five or six versions of Matthew and Luke and then tried to forget them. I wanted to be able to retell the story in language that young listeners as well as readers would understand.
First problem, what to do with King Herod. Retellings for children often leave him out. I started that way, because the star of this anthology was going to be the collection of illustrations and I didn't have much room on the page to play with. But the travelling to Egypt and back didn't make sense without him. So he was in, but I tried to tone down his murderous response and relate it to the jealousy that even the smallest toddlers would recognise. They can hear about the true horror of his actions from someone else when they are ready.
Second, that word 'manger'. I argued that if we restored the sense of a feed box, or hay cradle to the story, then we would be renewing the symbolic ordinariness that is an important part of the meaning. Although the sense of Jesus feeding his people has indicated for some people the violence of Judaeo-Christian cultures, to me the simplicity of the great leader being a baby and eventually an executed victim, and in between a source of spiritual nourishment or nurture for his people, is powerful.
So 'feed box' it was, and to me the slight roughness was not disrespectful at all. However at the last minute someone got cold feet, it was changed back to 'manger' and by the time I was told it was too late to argue. Not that as the writer I had any power to influence the outcome anyway!
And there were 14 illustrators to think of too. If the publishers were right and 'feed box' would discourage many book buyers, then everyone's income would be affected. I know some readers have a romantic view of the book as art, but the book as rent-payer needs to be taken into account too, and those who refuse to do so perhaps have no such concern in their own lives.
I feel a bit disappointed that Christmas buyers apparently weren't ready for this tiny bit of realism, but The ABC Book of Christmas is still an absolutely beautiful book and I feel privileged to have been asked to write some words for the illustrators to work with.
Look out for it in September.
The illustrators are Gaye Chapman, Bettina Guthridge, Wayne Harris, Sally Heinrich, Ann James, Stephen Michael King, Caroline Magerl, Beth Norling, Cheryl Orsini, Sally Rippin, Greg Rogers, Judith Rossell, and Anna Walker. I wouldn't tell you my favourite, even if I could, but there are some wonderful surprises in there!


How's this for friendship? I was chatting with my wonderful friend the writer Christine Harris and said my new book probably wouldn't be reviewed by the metro media because of the title, God Is. And her immediate response was, 'I'll interview you for my blog.' Although to the kids she's a celebrity, like so many other writers for children in Australia, Christine could always do with some publicity herself, but her first thought was to be generous.

Check out her website and her new books about Audrey of the Outback. They're terrific! And this is how the interview went:

Mark, you’ve had many roles in children’s publishing. You have been editor, publisher, reviewer and now writer. How do you switch from one to the other and what are the differences?

MM Because from the age of ten I was writing for and editing whatever paper or magazine was being published for my fellow students, I think it was a conversation I was having with myself - and I'm still having it. My goal has always been to listen to the unique voice of the writer, hear it at its best, and then take that as the standard. I'm not interested in imposing my voice on another writer.
One of the two writers I will never work with again said to me, 'You editors just can't wait to get your grubby little hands on what I write.' Well - yes, I can. I've never felt that I was a frustrated writer. If I want or need to write, I do.
Editing is an opportunity to use whatever information I have gathered over the years to help another writer. It is also a bit of a game. Unlike many literary friends, I hate crosswords and jigsaw puzzles because the outcome is so anticlimactic. I know, I know - it's about the process! But editing is about the process, and it also produces a fantastic result if you both play the game effectively.
Editing teaches me new tricks, too, so the teaching and learning process is mutual.
And to be honest, when I was a young father of three with a mortgage, it paid more than writing. Later I discovered that for some people writing paid way more than editing ever would, but I knew the limits of my talent.
To be a good writer, you have to take risks and run with the unconscious. Editing is far more conservative and conscious, but it has made my writing sharper. While I was publishing inhouse, I kept most of my writing to myself. But intimations of mortality have made me less cautious. And I don't care as much as I used to whether people like me and what I do. So I've come back to putting what I write Out There. I still have to edit to keep the electricity flowing, though.
All aspects of producing and consuming books - writing, editing, publishing, selling, reviewing, choosing, buying and more - can be creative if you're willing.

Was writing your picture books easier because you know the industry, or more daunting – why?

MM I started out as a poet and I think writing a picture book text is the most like writing a poem. It has to start with a compelling idea or image, and if you're going to maximise the energy in the finished text, you can't waste words. Of course, when this turned out to be my main interest, I thought I'd lost it. What a time to get into picture books! Every publisher has found them tough going. But the opportunity to reach younger imaginations, and to combine my love of the visual arts with words was irresistible. And in any case, you can't determine whatever talent life has given you. Well - I suppose you could ignore or repress it, but the world has more than enough bitterness and guilt. Who wants to add to it!
Being a part-time bookseller for many years was more daunting than either reviewing or lecturing. As I shelved the stock, I would read the back cover blurbs and become increasingly depressed. Brilliant, innovative, heartwarming, uncompromising, bestselling, will change the course of the twenty-first century. An hour of reading such accolades was enough to persuade me that no one would ever attach these words to anything I wrote and that I should give up immediately. I just had to remind myself that one of my first paid jobs in publishing was to write those blurbs, and that Angus & Robertson gave me ten dollars for each one.
Unfortunately, although as a publisher I have tried to be generous and constructive, and I have always been aware of how little I actually know, I also know that as a writer a few people will be waiting for me to fail. But that's their problem. I expect to have to earn any success that might eventually come my way.

Tell us about the place you wrote GOD IS. Was it significant to the story?

MM I was chatting to one of my adult children and mentioned God. It was so natural and I thought of no consequence that I don't even remember the context. Then she said, 'Oh, Dad, I don't know if I believe in God anymore.' I know perfectly well that people can lead happy and fulfilling lives without belief in God. But her response shocked me. Not because she didn't have the right to take a different path from the one I was on, but because we've always been close and I felt bad that I hadn't noticed this change. I wrote God Is not long after that.
A writer friend who is an atheist said to me once in one of those mellow after-midnight conversations, 'It must be good believing in a god, because it would answer so many questions.' That's a common misconception. I think belief starts more questions than it resolves. Take that old phrase 'the problem of evil'. Why is it a problem? Why would 'When Bad things Happen to Good People' be a catchy title? Such questions start from a belief in goodness or God, and - believe me - they don't come to an end.
I know there's a lot of romantic mystification about the writing process and I have always hated writers saying 'it wrote itself', but the truth is that the text for God Is came easily, in one go. I had to add a whole scene when it was pointed out to me that I had miscalculated the number of pages. Ironic, when knowing such properties of the picture book has been my profession for many years. But writing that scene came easily too. In a way I feel bad that I can't say I sweated over it.

What are the differences between the reactions of adults and children to the text?

MM Children love Kirrily's pictures as much as I do. And I notice that reading the book aloud has a calming effect on them. (I don't think it's sleep!) They like the humour in her work, and you can still convey to Australians some pretty serious ideas by using humour - even though I suspect that we've lost a lot of our traditional ability to laugh at ourselves.
The first time I read God Is to adults I was nervous, because I was worried that the deliberate repetitions would bore them, but they clapped at the end of the reading. The poet Mark O'Connor once wrote a nifty poem exploring the use of intonation in English. It starts with the line 'What is this thing called love?' and simply repeats it five times, each time emphasising a different word in the line. It's clever and funny. And it showed me very early on that in English you can use your voice to achieve subtle variations of meaning in even the most obviously repetitive structure.
So the fact that every scene in my text starts out 'God is' and ends with 'And more' was a challenge. Somehow, it can work.
Adults ask what age the book is meant for. They think the pictures signal very young readers, but that some of the images in the text indicate older. No one is fooled by the apparent simplicity of Leunig's work into thinking that it is not for adults, and Kirrily's work reminds me of Leunig and also of The Little Prince.
Unlike reading in a classroom, when you read at home, you have children of different ages listening and looking on. So to me the wide age range is useful. Children of primary school age are the main audience I had in mind for God Is, but older readers and adults seem to like it too. Pre-schoolers enjoy the pictures, but parents tell me you have to talk around the ideas in the text, rather than expect them to understand the words fully. And that's fine by me.

The minimal, yet emotive artwork allows the words to resonate. How closely did you work with the illustrator, Kirrily Schell?

MM Kirrily and I haven't met yet - but I can't wait. She lives in Melbourne and I don't get down there as often as I used to or would like. A publisher is like a marriage broker - or a couples counsellor - and sometimes you work with the partners separately. That's how it was with God Is.
Writers who are new to picture books are often quite difficult, because they are not used to teamwork. If you want total artistic control in a project, the picture book is not for you. Luckily I learnt teamwork in television and in teaching. I'm glad that my publisher Belinda Bolliger did not get Kirrily and me together, because it meant that Kirrily could make the story her own. I had the opportunity to give feedback early on, and I suggested that because her characters were wonderful, she should celebrate them and not feel obliged to include much background storytelling. But my experience as a publisher has made me wary of becoming too involved in the illustration part of the process, so I've been happy to stand back. And I love the result.

The story includes moments of wonder, the spaces between people and nature, where marvellous things are experienced. Tell us about your moments of wonder.

MM A couple of publishing friends immediately liked the scene about friends needing no words to tell the story of a perfect afternoon, and that is one of my repeated moments in life. I love communication by silence. It is a Taoist ideal and as a Quaker I place a high value on silence too. Sitting with a friend by a river or looking out onto the ocean, or enjoying the wind and clouds - some of my best times have been spent that way. That's especially true when at other times the friend is an enthusiastic talker, as I am myself. I appreciate the irony.
Children approach the world with wonder, and I think childhood probably stops when we lose that sense. That's why although God Is looks like a children's book, I hope it can reach people of all ages. Some of my oldest friends have never grown up, and they'll have me to deal with if they ever try to!