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A Good Laugh
My partner MaryAnne was telling me that she was extremely shy in her early school days and would sit on a seat in the playground and hope that on one would notice her. It struck a chord with me and I told her about my first day at school as a five year old.
I did not like it at all.
At playtime there were kids everywhere, running, shouting and pushing each other. I longed for my little room at home where I could read my Rupert books in peace. I looked at the noise rabble and decided that it was not for me.
So I walked to the gate and headed for home. When I got there my mother tried not to look surprised and gave me a glass of milk. There was a knock on the door before I could take a sip. It was my new teacher who marched me straight back to school. I was made to stand on the platform and say, 'I'm sorry for running away from school, boys and girls.' But I wasn't sorry. I was shocked that she was making me tell a lie.
Few people who hear me telling outrageous or funny stories to an audience of five hundred people would think that I am shy. And even less of those who have seen MaryAnne doing a comedy routine on television would believe that she really does not like being recognised.
Two years ago, I said to her, 'I'm going to write a book about a boy who is shy and doesn't want to be noticed. The only problem is, I can't think of a good story arc.
'MaryAnne immediately said, 'What about a boy who is so shy that he can't stop himself from blending into the background like a chameleon?
''Fantastic,' I yelled. Then I felt a little guilty. I knew that an original idea like this one was to die for.
'You write it,' I said. 'It's great.'
But she wouldn't. She had other projects in mind. So I went to work with illustrator, Craig Smith and now the book is in the shops.
Craig has added a great deal of fun to my story with his brilliant pictures. Every time that the boy blends into the background Craig has illustrated the scene. But where is the boy? See if you can find him.
One of the first young readers to get the book asked me, 'Why did you make it a funny story?'
It's a complicated question to answer because the underlying theme is serious.
And I knew what he was getting at. We seem to be laughing at a poor unfortunate person. It's a bit like laughing at Charlie Chaplin's starving tramp in his movie, The Immigrant. It seems hard to justify laughing at someone who can't pay for the meal they have ordered.
Charlie himself described his movie character as: 'A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.'
The first thing I pointed out was that the story was told in the first person. The boy is telling the story about himself and really, in retrospect, is laughing at himself. But the second point is stronger. We are really laughing at our own fears. Everyone has had a first day at school. Everyone, even the most active extravert, has had moments where they wished they could blend into the background.
Laughing at what terrifies us empowers us.
Some kids don't want to be noticed. And that's ok. But the world is changing in such as way that it is more and more difficult to get by if you are shy. I know that The Unforgettable What's His Name is easy to read and a bit of a romp. But I do hope that it also says that the quiet people can have lives that are exciting and successful without having to ceaselessly promote themselves.
Rascal Reading Level
Reading difficulty is quite a complex matter and not solely due to the number of words on a page. Also involved are word size (number of letters and syllables), phonic complexity of the words(sounding out) and conceptual complexity of the words and sentences (ideas). Another factor of course is how interesting the story is as children will persist more if they are interested. Humour is another important ingredient.
Also used from time to time is repetition of particular words (the names of the dragons for example) or repeated phrases. Rhyming may also be used to make sentences and words easier.
I try to balance all these factors and I have let the books increase in complexity as the stories develop. The first book is by far the easiest - it had to be because I was setting up the three main characters and had to keep it simple (I also used repetition in this book). As the children go through the series I can introduce more difficult ideas words because I have a lot of known material to build on.
The stories are designed to be read to young children first. Then they can attempt the stories themselves.
The reading order is suggested in the books but I guess people who don't follow this might find the later books a bit more difficult if they start with them.
You might also refer to my book, The Reading Bug (Penguin) in which I explain my approach to the teaching of reading and also cite the Rascal series as an example of my ideas.
Working with Illustrators
Over the years I have worked with many wonderful illustrators, including Terry Denton, Craig Smith, Keith McEwan, Jane Tanner, Jeanette Rowe, Dean Gorissen, Bob Lea, Andrew Weldon, Glenn Lumsden and David deVries.
Each one of these talented artists have their own particular skills and ways of working with an author. Some respond to a detailed illustration brief where I request a particular drawing and spell out everything that I want. Others donít like this at all. One artist said to me, ĎPaul, Iíve read the story, youíve done your bit, itís my baby now. So you go away and let me do my bit and Iíll show you when Iím finished.í Because I respected this persons talent so much I went along with it, although it was difficult I can tell you. Some artists use reference a lot, meaning that they like to have an object or place to look at and work from. Some can create wonderful imaginary creatures but canít draw faces. Others prefer to draw cartoons and accompany their work with a wicked sense of humour. And then of course, there is the odd individual who can do just about anything.
Pictures in childrenís book serve different functions. For very young children the picture will often help the child to read the words and may in fact be an almost exact representation of the text. At other times the pictures may take over the story telling and my words are either taken out or not there in the first place.
At times I have worked with illustrators where we have met in a coffee shop or a pub and had lots of laughs and fun working out our latest project. At other times I have worked with illustrators who live in another country where we are connected by emails and telephone.
The publisher always provides a book designer and an editor who manage the development of the whole project. As might be expected, sometimes the author and illustrator do not see eye to eye. In these cases the editor may weigh in with a gentle opinion which will tip the balance. Creative people can be very passionate about someone else having an input, but I have always found the disagreements to be resolved happily.
I am always amazed by the imaginative contributions the artists make to our books. Sometimes I gasp in awe and surprise at the unique view they bring to a story. I am envious. I wish I could draw. But a stick figure is the best I can do.
The Bird Said Nothing - New Story - New eBook
Well, Iíve done it. A first for me. I have published a new book, The Bird Said Nothing, in eBook form only, unlike my previous 80 books which have all been released first by a major publisher. I have said previously that I prefer traditional paper books, and this is still true. However I have to accept that many people enjoy eBooks. There are also benefits for the author as one can obtain instant exposure in overseas markets such as the United States and the UK. And of course, I am in total control of the text, design and the publishing date.
Like most of us, I once ran away from home. When I was aged 5 I informed my parents I was leaving and they waved me off at the gate. I stopped about 200m from home where I reached the edge of my known territory, and shame faced returned home. In hindsight I have no doubt that my parents were keeping a distant eye on me but I remember it as a painful experience. I have heard of parents even packing lunch for the escaper and it is often seems to me, that it is cruel to gleefully remind a child of how powerless they are. I have sometimes wondered what would happen if a runaway landed in some happy place and chose not to return?
This reflection was the germ that led to my new story. Apart from this, I donít know where the bird who said ĎNothingí came from, and it was not until Iíd finished the story that I started to get a full appreciation of what I had written. Itís a fairy tale. And like all fairy tales it contains mysteries within mysteries.
One of the questions that publishers always ask when I give them a new manuscript is, ĎWho is it for?í. Usually I can answer this question easily. The Rascal books are for infants, The Nest is for older teenagers and The Reading Bug is for adults. But this tale has me perplexed and I can only answer with a question of my own.
Who is Red Riding Hood for? I just saw a recently released movie in which the Red Riding Hood story uses gothic horror and is definitely for adults only. I first read one version when I was six. Just as some stories reach to us through the ages, other stories reach all ages.
In the end itís for anyone who gets something out of it.
In the field of writing an established author is often torn between what he or she wants to say and what other people are wanting. Readers often want more of the same, publishers understandably want what sells and of course, most authors are also interested in earning money and making a living. I recently canvassed this issue in an interview with Josephine Rowe, author and journalist with Dumbo Feather magazine, to be published shortly.
Four publishers rejected my first book, Unreal saying either that children didnít like short stories, or teachers would not approve of the content. Penguin Books did approve and took the risk - they have now sold more than eight million of my books and I will be forever grateful to them for doing so.
My readers tend to favour my funny short stories and I continue to write these. But sometimes I have an idea which I know will disappoint some readers and be unpopular with publishers. What should I do? The following quotation has given me much food for thought.
ďMost people who advance their field must disagree with their predecessors to some extent and in some measure destroy the past; they must also disagree with their contemporaries and so increase chaos. Usually a field is least usefully active when it is apparently least chaotic.Ē
People like to give and receive books as presents. This is something that is rarely mentioned in the e-books versus real books debate. Books make wonderful presents and many people, like myself treasure books given long ago during childhood. Inscriptions by the giver may be a reminder of a friendship or relationship which existed long ago. Also treasured are volumes which have been signed by the author.
In recognition of this I am happy to announce that we are now selling books online from my website. Readers are welcome to request my signature and the inscribed name of the recipient of the book. I am more than happy to write ĎHAVE A GREAT TENTH BIRTHDAY JOHNí and sign my name to it. I will probably draw the line at something that I was once asked to write by an enterprising lad whom I had just met. He asked me to write ĎTO MY OLDEST AND DEAREST FRIEND JOHN SMITH Ė I NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT WITHOUT YOUí.
Click here to go to my Book Shop: /books.asp
In addition to writing, I am also passionate about preserving our natural environment. I am halfway through revegetating the fifty two acres where I work and live with indigenous plants. Some of it could now be accurately described as a forest. We have had our first koala and several wallabies in attendance, as well as scores of bird species.
As part of my agreement with Glenelg Hopkins CMA, Australian Government Funding and Hopkins Point Landcare Group, I am holding an Open Day along with my neighbour. It is on Sunday 20th March between 12noon and 3.00pm at 474 and 520 Hopkins Point Road, Allansford.
I will be in attendance and if you are interested in landcare preservation you are most welcome to visit.
Below is a photo of the first block of revegetation behind me, and now a forest. It is also where the koala visits.