It has always been on my wish-list to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair while at the same time continue learning Italian, so in March this year that’s what I did.
I booked via Airbnb, a one bedroom apartment in S. Petronio Vecchio, a lovely quiet colonnaded street 15 minutes from Piazza Maggiore the main square in the centre of Bologna. It was a light-filled top-floor apartment with views over the red tiled rooftops of the old town.
There were many things to like about my little home away from home. For one it was out of the tourist centre. It had great natural and overhead lighting which was especially good for illustrating. There were books in almost every room, and balconies, lots of them.
Also, it was very close to a mini mart which sold lovely fresh fruit and vegetables. The fruit and vegetables in Bologna tasted like they used to when I was a kid! I like cooking when I’m away so having a grocery store close by is important. Italian spinach is my new favourite vegetable and as we have a veggie garden, I found the same brand of Italian seeds sold in Bologna online from an Australian supplier. I’m looking forward to having lots of delicious home grown spinach this winter.
Bologna is a city of culture. It has the oldest university in Europe founded in 1088. Many of the museums were once university buildings.
Being a university town, students are everywhere. It was graduation time. Graduating students wear fresh laurel wreaths on their heads and walk around the old town with family and friends. It is such a lovely tradition.
The region is also famous for its food like Parmigiana Reggiano cheese, Parma prosciutto, Modena balsamic vinegar and Barilla pasta.
THE LANGUAGE SCHOOL
For anyone wanting to study Italian, I cannot recommend Madrelingua highly enough. The teachers were wonderful, and fun, which is an important part of language learning especially when it comes to Italian grammar. What’s more the school is conveniently located in the middle of the old town close to Azzoguidi tower on the left in the photo below.
Four hours of class each day for two weeks improved my language skills ten fold. I even felt confident enough to go into shops and try out what I’d learnt. I did test out some words for real though when I had my wallet stolen on the bus. Words like thief, credit card, drivers license and wallet came in handy at the police station.
Bologna Children’s Book Fair had its 55th year. It just goes to show how important children’s books are all around the world.
According to the International Publishers Association there were –
1,278 exhibitors, 24,038 sqm of exhibition area, 26,000 visitors and more than 100 countries represented.
China was 2018 guest of honour.
The fair takes place over four days but by Thursday morning, quite a number of stands have already packed up. The fair finishes around 2.30 on that day.
My first day was spent getting my bearings.
There are 5 halls and each one is huge. In the end it’s about being selective. Apart from the various appointments I had lined up, I made sure I saw the Illustrators’ Exhibition and visited my publisher Penguin Random House Australia. I also visited the SCBWI stand who do a great job internationally supporting children’s authors and illustrators.
Hello! from Australia stand run by Ann James and Ann Haddon of Books Illustrated was my home base.
This year, the Hello! From Australia stand combined with 13 independent Australian publishers: Affirm Press, Allen & Unwin, Berbay Publishing, EC Press, EK Books, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Little Pink Dog Books, Magabala Books, Melbournestyle Books, MidnightSun Publishing, Quirky Kid, Scribble and Windy Hollow Books.
For the week of the fair, I shared an apartment with the lovely ladies in the photo above. We stayed right in the heart, in Via Clavature, a charming laneway off Piazza Maggiore.
I was one of the Australian illustrators who took part on the Creators’ Table.
I thought I’d be nervous painting in front of people, but it was fun. Someone remarked how mesmerising it is to watch someone paint. I think that’s exactly the right word.
The other illustrators on this year’s Creators’ Table were:
Lee Burgemeestre, Mike Dumbleton, Gus Gordon, Bronwyn Houston, Ann James, Jedda Robaard, Anne Ryan, Owen Swan, Kori Song
One thing about being on the Creators’ Table is the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world. Many I discovered were Italian primary school teachers who come every year. How lucky are they? Others were illustrators or people in education. The publishers and agents are too busy with appointments and don’t have time to walk around.
THE ILLUSTRATORS WALL
As you come through the front entrance of the fair there are walls filled with illustrators’ business cards, postcards and posters. It’s a place to put up a little piece of yourself. You never know what might come out of it.
THE ILLUSTRATORS’ EXHIBITION
One thing not to miss is the Illustrators’ Exhibition.
Here are some of my favourite illustrations.
The fair is about 30 minutes by bus from the old centre. There are special buses for fair goers in the morning which can be caught from the bus stop outside Zara in Via Indipendenza, the main street of Bologna. At the end of the day these buses are also available. Otherwise Bus Number 28 will take you there but be careful of pickpockets especially if the bus is crowded. They come into the Bologna specifically to pick the pockets of tourists and fair goers. The bus driver warned us in Italian and in English about pickpockets as we boarded the bus. I should have paid more attention to the warning. So watch your bags on buses and in the fair too.
Is it worth going? Definitely. If I was solely a children’s author, I’m not sure what I would have gained professionally though. After all it’s a fair for publishers and agents to make book deals. For illustrators it is indeed inspiring. The picture book is alive and well.
I’m already thinking of going again next year especially now that I’ve found a great language school.
Maybe I’ll see you there!
Here’s a delightful video which will give you a taste of the 2018 fair.
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This is a diagram showing the process each of my major novels go through – from spark, to birth, to crisis/self-doubt, to calm, to completion. What will never change is that dreadful moment of crisis and self-doubt. My mind goes through mental torture at that stage. But then I push through that and get to work again.
Who knows? Maybe that crisis is a necessary part in the whole creation process.
What a fun weekend us illustrators had at Anne Spudvilas’ place on the Murray. The River House was the perfect setting to share ideas, relax and illustrate. Anne gave us a workshop where we made a concertina book on watercolour paper.
Here’s the finished book laid out to dry in the sun.
So I’ll now show you the process.
Here are some of the leaves we used. They are from trees in the garden.
We folded watercolour paper into a book and inserted leaves between the pages.
Then we put the books between tiles and clamped them while we bound them tightly with twine.
Then into the boiling copper it goes.
After 24 hours it was ready for the unveiling.
I’ve removed most of the leaves in this photo and am about to take off that green leaf top left. The patterns and colours left behind are amazing. This was such an exciting moment. My face shows it all.
Anne runs the River House as an Airbnb. I stayed in the Airbnb room and it’s great. Very private and even has its own entrance and balcony where you can sit and watch the bird life and the lazy Murray River go by.
Anne on our walk to show us where the Darling and the Murray meet.
Farah Kausar and myself at Minaret College. I received so many hugs from the children after my talk it was lovely.
Visiting schools during Children’s Book Week which falls in August is an essential part of being an author and illustrator. I love meeting my young readers and spending the time in the school libraries.
I would like to use this post to thank the teachers, librarians and the students who made me feel so welcome.
The school community is always so generous.
Thank you to:
Balwyn North Primary School (Victoria)
Kingscote Area School (Kangaroo Island SA)
Parndana Campus (Kangaroo Island SA)
Penneshaw Campus (Kangaroo Island SA)
Linden Park Primary School (SA)
Campbelltown Library (SA)
East Marden Primary School (SA)
East Torrens Primary School (SA)
St Aloysius College (SA)
Mount Carmel College (Tasmania)
Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar (Vic)
Korowa Girls’ School (Vic)
Minaret College (Vic)
De La Salle College (Vic)
Serpell Primary School (Vic)
Luther College (Vic)
St Columbus College (Vic)
In appreciation I gave each library an “I love my library” poster.
Last Sunday I attended the Historical Novel Society of Australia Conference at Swinburne. I was on a panel with fellow authors, Felicity Pulman, Wendy Orr, Pamela Rushby and Alan Tucker. We discussed the very important question of why we write for children rather than adults.
My answer to that is – why would I write for any other group of readers? It is in primary school that we discover our love of reading and books. For me it was The Magic Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven. I owe so much to Enid Blyton.
It was fun catching up with fellow authors. From left to right, Wendy Orr, Pamela Freeman, Janeen Brian, Sheryl Gwyther, Lorraine Marwood and Claire Saxby.
To finish, here is a happy pic of Billy and Maru who live on Kangaroo Island with my childhood friend, Wendy.
This giveaway is to celebrate school and public libraries throughout Australia.
Librarians and libraries need all the support we can give them so I made this poster for them.
If you are a library and would like a poster to hang on the wall please email me and I will send you one, two or four if you like.
I will have to charge for cost of printing, packaging and postage though.
The Posters are A3 in size and cost $2.60 each plus postage and packaging.
It has been a tumultuous few months with the death of my lovely mum who was 92 years old.
She lived a long and healthy life, and an exciting one too. You can read her adventures in my YA novel Little Paradise .
Mum’s secret to longevity she said was to laugh a lot and have a good sense of humour.
My mother also had an amazing mind in that she was extremely open minded and kept up with technology. She had the latest Mac, was on Facebook and Instagram and even posted Gifs from her hospital bed.
She surrounded herself with young people which I believe also kept her young at heart.
I love this photo of my parents taken in Melbourne in the early 1940’s with their whole lives ahead of them.
I have learned a lot from her and I hope I can carry on her wisdom through my books and my art.
It was a very happy day on Sunday for the launch of The Beast of Hushing Wood. Thank you to everyone who came and to those who couldn’t make it but sent their well wishes, thank you also.
The Beast of Hushing Woods is set in a world that weaves together a variety of mythologies. Were there any particular myths or cultures that inspired the story?
A trip to Morocco planted the seed for this story. The landscape, the colours, the people so filled my imagination that I knew one day a novel would emerge. What I didn’t know, however, was when an idea would come.
Morocco is awash with tales of the jinn (or ‘djinn’). They are part of everyday life, and the rich and fascinating world of the jinn goes far beyond the ‘genie in the bottle’ trope. In earlier drafts of the novel, my jinn was a one-dimensional antagonist, just plain bad. But successive drafts revealed his back story and with it the reasons for his evil ways.
There are two main characters in the book—Ziggy Truegood and Raffi Tazi. Raffi is the outsider, the foreigner, feared by the small conservative town of Dell Hollow. Although Morocco is never mentioned in the novel, in my mind’s eye Raffi is a Moroccan boy.
Ziggy is a girl dealing with some major challenges. Do you feel a responsibility to balance the darker elements with lighter scenes when writing for children?
I’m not conscious of balancing dark scenes with lighter scenes and do not feel a responsibility to do so. The only given is a happy ending. After 16 novels perhaps the balance comes naturally.
Although my novels are written for children aged eight to 13, the stories are never simple plot-driven stories but deal with the problems that many children face: death, loss, bullying, family breakups, feelings of alienation, of being ‘the other.’ I never shy away from writing about the darker side of life. Novels can be powerful things. They have the ability to transport a child to another place and bring them back with renewed inner strength.
The novel is a mix of both the problems that might come out of small town life, combined with something more mystical. What appeals to you about writing in the magical realism genre?
Growing up as a Chinese-born Australian, I am fortunate to have two ways of looking at the world. There is the saying ‘seeing is believing’ but I think really it’s the other way around: what you believe is what you see. For example, the ancient Chinese belief that strange beasts existed in the mountains led to the classic Guideway Through Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing) This book was written as a guide for travellers to safely navigate the areas these creatures inhabited. Europe had similar texts, as we know from Borges. Who’s to say that the ancients got it wrong? Maybe we have blinded ourselves to realms existing only an arms-length away, as it were. The Moroccans and many other nations certainly live that reality even today. So it is not so much that I choose to write in the magical realism genre, it is more true to say that this is how I experience the world.
You spent time in the Berkshire Woods in Massachusetts while working on the book, and it seems heavily influenced by this setting. Did Hushing Wood change before and after your time away?
Yes, it changed immensely. The early drafts for Hushing Wood lacked authenticity; the feeling of ‘the woods’ just did not emerge, because this type of landscape did not live inside me as do the forests, bush and scrub of Australia. When my publisher saw the first draft, she too was unable to get a sense of place. After some thought, it became clear that the only thing to do was find some woods, to live and breathe them.
I have a friend who lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with a house on a hill, a meadow in front and acres of woods around. I saw deer and a momma bear with her two cubs. There were humming birds and chipmunks. A groundhog lived under the house. Instead of eucalypts there were oak, birch, and sycamore. There were maple trees that bled real maple syrup.
I learned that if leaves turn over to reveal their silver undersides there will be a storm. I learned that the rows of holes on the trunk of a tree were made not by insects, but by woodpeckers. I dined in a log cabin by a stream full of brook trout. A tiny local school formed the backdrop for Dell Hollow Elementary.
Back home, I wrote about the woods with gusto. I now knew the animals, the smells, the sounds they made. I could write from the heart.
The book is also beautifully complemented by watercolour illustrations that you’ve drawn. Is a visual component a big part of your writing process?
I have always loved to draw and used to be a graphic designer. Later I lived in China and studied Chinese painting at an arts academy, both the fine-detailed painting called gong bi (‘labour brush’) and also the freer, more impressionistic landscape painting shan shui (‘mountain and water’). Being a highly visual person, when I sit down to write, the scene is as clear in my mind as if I’m watching a movie.
Once the story has been written and the novel is in its copy-edit stage, the illustration process begins. I go back through the story and look for scenes that inspire a painting. Brush and ink is the first stage, then watercolour.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I loved Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (various imprints), which I just finished. The book is better than the film, which deviates greatly from the original toward the end. It’s a classic in noir fiction, a psychological crime thriller, as much driven by character as it is by plot. I highly recommend it if you enjoy this genre.
I painted a fire rooster with two little dogs in attendance. They can’t wait for 2018 when it will be their turn. I do love painting dogs.
This year Chinese New Year falls on January 28th
Those born under the sign of the Rooster are easygoing and never shy. They like reading and travelling so they are very knowledgeable. They also have good memories and are brave, resilient, independent and lucky.
Rooster Years are: 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017.
I have to admit that I am very superstitious.
It goes hand in hand with believing in hidden dimensions and magic which is why I write the kind of books I do.
But when it comes to Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival or chun jie as it is called in China, I am pretty practical about it and only go with the traditions that are easy for me to follow.
1 Wear something red
If it’s your year wear red everyday until the year ends. This is not as hard as it sounds. I’m an Ox and when it was my year I wore a red silk thread around my wrist. Some people sew a red thread in their underwear.
2 Clean the house
Clean your house before Chinese New Year to sweep away all the negative energy. Don’t sweep on CNY day or you will sweep away all your good luck for the incoming year.
3 Pay back your debts
I like this one but of course it’s impossible to stick to in our society with mortgages and credit cards and the like. I do make sure I pay off my credit cards and any amount that I’ve borrowed from friends. It’s also wise not to lend money on New Year’s day or you’ll be lending money for the rest of the year.
4 A new and happy beginning
Don’t swear or say negative things or mention death or ghosts on CNY day. Everything you say should be directed towards a new and happy beginning.
5 Hair cut, wash and blow wave
Have a hair cut and wash your hair before CNY day or you will wash away your luck.
6 What to wear
Wear something new, preferably red. Red is a bright happy colour so it welcomes in a bright, happy and prosperous year. It is also a lucky colour which is why, traditionally, Chinese brides wore red. I usually wear something that has red in the pattern.
7 Give Red Envelopes (hong bao)
Give children and unmarried friends little red packets of lucky money. My children love this time of year as they receive quite a bit of cash.
8 Say nice things
Say something nice to the first person you meet. I like this custom. It should be a rule for everyday of the year.
9 Hearing birdsong
It is lucky to hear birdsong on CNY. Living in Australia, where we have so many birds, this is an easy one.
10 What to eat
Chinese like to make dumplings or jiao zi on New Year’s eve because they are in the shape of an ingot which used to be the ancient Chinese currency. A whole fish is also eaten. There is a saying, nian nian you yu which means every year there is fish. But nian nian you yu also sounds like every year there will be leftovers. It’s always good to have a surplus in the coming year. One thing you must not do is turn the fish over.
Xin nian kuai le! xx
Be kind and true. Let us celebrate diversity, nature, art, imagination and creativity and maybe the world will be a better place.