Writing involves a lot of waiting.
Waiting for ideas to grow. Waiting for time to write and drafts to brew (leaving a manuscript alone for a while before returning to it with fresh eyes). Writers wait for first readers to comment. For editors to respond. For edits to be made. For proofs to be set. And so on.
A writer inevitably learns to get good at waiting, or not.
I’m not sure which camp I’m in. Sometimes, I know these types of waiting are a quiet kind of action that improves how I put the words on the page and shapes the stories I tell.
Other times it just feels cruel. I buck up with indignant self righteousness, wishing this whole process wouldn’t take so long.
But maybe that’s why it does, and perhaps that’s one reason why, sometimes, it should.
Because there is a little question I’m constantly asking myself. And it is this: Does the world really need any of the words I write?
A tough question, to be sure.
But it's a true one. To be a writer does not necessarily mean I need to be published. Writing in and of itself is a worthy pastime, useful for nutting out the big issues, coming to grips with our emotions and the sake of pure enjoyment in the way words work together.
But to pursue publication, to write and wait for my books to reach shelves and the hands of young people and children, is a rather more scary endeavour. It’s not one I hope to ever take lightly. It’s a joy and responsibility I hope to live up to.
Does the world need more words? Probably not. So if I’m putting mine out there for someone to read, a little bit of waiting does me good. It keeps me humble, keeps me learning, keeps me trying my very best.
And so, today, I wait some more.
Diamonds, by Armin Greder is a book about diamonds. Not the dazzling beauty of them, but the very real nightmare that is often the untold story of the people behind the jewels we don for special occasions.
Like many of Greder's books, the artwork is dark and at times menacing. It tells the story of a young girl watching her mother prepare to go out, and the images that stalk into her dreams.
This isn't a light book for bedtime reading, and certainly doesn't tie the uncomfortable bits up neatly at the end. And yet - I really appreciate it. Diamonds is a book that makes us think. It makes us question the expected and consider our own decision making. I think we all need books like this to make us pause and remember the impact our decisions and voices can make.
Recommended for readers upper primary and beyond.
Short story stages.
March this year saw the release of Crossed Spaces, a young adult short story anthology published by Rhiza Edge and edited by Lynne Stringer and R.A Stephens. It is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy inspired stories by a variety of authors and my story The true written life of Ed Specolta was included. Here is an excerpt from the story...
Short stories can be a lot of fun to write. They provide you with the opportunity to explore ideas, characters and concepts in a shorter form than usual. For teachers and readers, they offer bite sized pieces of narrative to analyse, engage in and consider. Short stories open opportunities to think, discuss, imagine, critique and respond. I guess this is why I was excited when invited to collaborate with R.A Stephens in another anthology, this one due for publication in 2022.
Dust Makers will be a collection of stories for young adult readers, drawing on the theme of sustainability. We're deep in editorial mode at the moment, sorting through potential stories from a variety of amazing authors. It's really interesting being on this side of the editorial process in a publication project. It allows a chance to consider the themes that weave stories together and those that make them stand apart. On their own, short stories each have something to say. Together, there is another voice that can be heard, another comment. It's my job as part of the editorial team to draw this out.
It's August, 2021 and Sydney is in lockdown. Again.
BUT LOOK - it's a new book!
August the 2nd was the official release day of my newest picture book, One Potoroo: a story of survival. This beautiful book was published by CSIRO Publishing and illustrated by Western Australian artist, Alicia Rogerson.
The book tells the story of Australia's most endangered marsupial, the Gilbert's Potoroo and how the actions of conservationists are working to ensure the survival of this unique animal.
The story of this book began a number of years ago when I picked up a brochure from an Australian Geographic store. 'Hey you, save our potoroo!' the brochure said. It told about a devastating bushfire that had swept through the bush leaving only seven Gilbert's Potoroo remaining in their natural habitat. I began researching the story a little more and soon learned that if it wasn't for the efforts of a dedicated team of conservationists, researchers and volunteers this unique Australian animal might have disappeared altogether. Fascinated by the story, I began to write and One Potoroo is the story that came about.
But how do you launch a book in lockdown? Although there are some wonderful plans in the background, and we're still hopeful they can go ahead, the official release day was a lot different than expected. Locked down at home, I couldn't really throw a party. Still, I wasn't going to let that dampen my excitement for the release of this book.
So, we made the most of the day, starting with a private little book signing at home. This was photographed by my eleven year old during his break from online-school.
I then headed out for some essential errands, and took One Potoroo with me, of course! We made sure we remained COVID Safe and checked in wherever we went.
Back home again, we closed the lockdown school 'canteen' and shared some yummy treats. And of course no book launch would be complete without an author reading. I was thrilled to have such an attentive audience!
One Potoroo: a story of survival is available NOW from your favourite bookshop in store (where you can) or online. Signed copies can be ordered here. Welcome Potoroo!
This Little Piggy - an update!
This Little Piggy went to market
This Little Piggy stayed home...
Well, staying home is what a lot of us have been doing lately, this Little Piggy included.
BUT he's been having a great time staying home all over the place.
When I started this experiment I put out the word for families who were interested in hosting Piggy while they stayed at home. Piggy left my house in western Sydney in his travel sack, with his Travel Journal for company. He visited a few locations around greater Sydney and then headed north to Queensland. After that he hopped back in the post and has traveled all the way to Scotland!
As Piggy travels, the children and families he visits record details about his time with them. They also record their experiences of 'staying at home' as we face the pandemic, what they've enjoyed and what has been hard. I can't wait to read what's been written in his journal when he finally comes home again, but that won't be for a while yet. He's still got plenty more places to visit on his itinerary, and as the pandemic continues so does the normal of 'staying at home'.
If you'd like to follow Piggy's adventures staying at home, be sure to 'Like' my Facebook Page where I post regular updates as I receive them.
This Little Piggy
As an author, I’m often asked where I get ideas for stories. So I thought I’d share how one idea started and see if you’d like to help…
It all began with a certain health-related crisis that landed everyone at home, doing school and uni and work from our various desks and online spaces. All my peaceful, quiet writing time was swallowed up like the slops at the bottom of a pig pail and I was left with scraps and muddy footprints (the second part quite literally).
So, for sanity’s sake I pulled out my crocheting hook and decided to make something. And here’s what I ended up with. (You can find the pattern I used here.)
The idea was to crochet some little animals and post them to my friends as funny little gifts while we’re all stuck inside. But This Little Piggy ended up a lot larger than I expected and for a while just sat on my bookshelf (up there next to my writing craft books) waiting for me to think of who to post him to.
And then a cute little picture of a chubby little foot popped up on my Facebook feed, playing on the traditional rhyme of ‘this little piggy went to market, and this little piggy stayed home’. I had a chuckle, clicked ‘Like’ – yes, we should all be ‘staying at home’ I thought – and kept scrolling.
But the other night I couldn’t sleep. My idea brain was wide awake and working. It was knotting together links and connections and trying out possible stories. I got to thinking about This Little Piggy and what he’d be doing if he was ‘staying at home’ anywhere but here.
Where could he go? What could he do? Could I send This Little Piggy on a reconnaissance tour to research how other families are doing their time at home? What stories are they reading? What special things are they doing? What are the things they’ll never forget about these times stuck together in-side?
And that’s where this idea’s up to.
It’s obviously not finished yet. It’ll need a lot more work. But for me, stories start with questions. And maybe – just maybe- there’s a story here.
A story about This Little Piggy and you and me, and all our adventures staying at home!
So, starting next week, I’m posting This Little Piggy off to do some research. He’ll have a comfy travel sack and his very own travel diary. I’ll pop him in the mail and we’ll see where he’ll go. Which stories will he have read to him? What games will he play? What stay-at-home feasts will he watch?
I’m curious to see where this idea of mine goes.
AND if you’d like to join in and invite This Little Piggy to visit your family, just send me a message via my contact form and I’ll see if we can include your place in his travel itinerary! (But make sure you check The Fine Print below first.)
The Fine Print - If you and your family would like to be part of This Little Piggy’s travel adventures you'll need to make sure you are able to do ALL of following: a) provide me with your postal address b) email me a photo of Piggy at your home that I can use on social media c) fill out Piggy’s travel diary and read him a story and d) pay for and post Piggy to his next destination within a week of receiving him.
Book Launch Tour: re-imagined!
But I couldn't just let The Other Brother miss out on its party! Every new book deserves a celebration. Not to pat myself on the back or draw attention to myself, but because the release of a new book means the next part of a story's adventure - that part that is out in the world, without me - is about to begin!
So I had a bit of a think about how I could continue to launch this story if couldn't physically take the book to families. And that's when I came up with my Book Launch Kit idea!
Instead of simply allowing the opportunity to celebrate slip away, I got to work. I pulled together some colouring sheets (with original artwork by The Other Brother illustrator Heidi Cooper Smith), a page FULL of fun, story related activity ideas, a craft kit all ready to go and - of course - a hardback copy of The Other Brother ready to be signed.
And here it is: The Other Brother Book Launch Kit!
So whether you're stuck at home with the kids waiting out isolation or lockdown, or you're keen to be involved in the fun of a Book Launch right from the comfort of your home, this might be just what you need.
Happy Book Launch!
(And if you do order the kit and take a photo on the couch with your book, I'd love to see it! Please share and tag #pennyjaye or #theotherbrother )
Here it is - the beautiful front cover of my new picture book, illustrated by the incredibly talented Heidi Cooper Smith!
What I love about Heidi's work on this book is the way she's captured the emotional heart of the story.
Basically this book is a story about a little boy who thinks his family of five is perfect (that's Jayden James in the red). He loves the routines and the sense of belonging he's familiar with. He's happy and settled and at home. But that's all changed by the arrival of a new brother (Mitchell David in the white shirt). Jayden has to adjust, even when he doesn't want to. And in the end it's Jayden that holds the key to bringing his beloved sense of family back.
Stories like this can carry layers of meaning, which is why the picture book medium is perfect for them. One of the things I really wanted to communicate in Jayden's story is that sometimes change, even the most well intentioned change, can bring with it a sense of grief for those involved. And that grief is valid and worth recognising. But even when things don't turn out as we expect, or don't initially feel hopeful, there can be potential for growth. For us to learn about ourselves and other people and to be empowered to open our hearts (and families) to those who might need it.
That's a lot of meaning to fit in under 500 words of text! But Heidi's artwork gently takes these themes and weaves them in with compassionate authority. It's beautifully illustrated and the final illustration gets me every time.
Can't wait to share the book with you! Release date is 28th February. If you know of a school, preschool or playgroup that would like to be included in my Book Launch Tour - where I take the book out for a series of special author visits - please get in touch. Bookings are NOW OPEN, but places are limited.
How do you scoop up thankfulness and describe it in words?
That was the question I asked my friends on Facebook recently after Out of the Cages was named Winner in the Young Adult Category of the 2019 CALEB Prize.
Thankfulness is a difficult thing to put into words. It's gratitude and honour and indebtedness all rolled in together.
When I heard my novel had been shortlisted alongside novels by Cecily Anne Paterson (for Being Jazmine) and Rosanne Hawke (for Finding Kerra) I felt incredibly privileged. Both of these authors are writers I highly respect, and their books often tackle important issues. They have also been two people who have, at different times and in different ways, contributed to my own writing journey.
This book also owes a great deal to the courage and commitment of the publishing team at Rhiza Edge. And I cannot forget the ongoing, never ceasing, encouragement and support received by my family and friends.
There have been SO many people without whom this book would never have existed.
I'm thrilled Out of the Cages has been recognised in this way. Honoured to have received this award amid such company and on behalf of everyone who have stood behind this story all this time. But mostly I'm just thankful.
Scoops and scoops of thankful that is hard to put into words.
And the sprinkles on top?
Well, that was Out of the Cages receiving the award for YA Fiction on the same evening that Lily's Balloon, a BEAUTIFUL picture book by good friend and fellow children's book writer Katrina Roe, won the Children's Picture Book Category!
It may seem like a big leap, to go from workshopping children’s picture books to discussing solutions to modern day slavery, but they are oddly connected in my life as an author.
It’s not simply because as an author I write in both areas: I write picture books and I am passionate about the prevention of slavery so it often ends up as an issue in my writing.
Nor is it because I have a picture book contracted for publication in the next year or two that is set within the context of responding to slavery.
No, the two are frequently connected in my author life because when I’m invited to do an author visit for a high-school audience, these are the two areas I am most frequently asked to address. And, believe it or not, the flow between the two is not as disjointed as you might think.
Picture books are great fun to write, and also notoriously difficult. However, breaking down the process of writing picture books into a workshop encourages teen writers to consider a whole range of narrative tools: from story arc, to creative tension, visual literacy and poetic language, picture books are an exciting form of communication, storytelling and entertainment. (And they’re not just limited to the very young either). Picture book workshops are a fun, challenging and creatively inspiring time.
One of the most important considerations a writer makes when creating picture books is the needs and content match of audience to story. For a picture book this involves thinking about what a story is about, and how it will be communicated to maximise impact and reader engagement. When I come to talk about the writing of Out of the Cages, I find myself thinking about similar strategies. And I talk openly about these when I share about the book with young adult audiences.
I knew the novel would be about trafficking, but I also knew it needed to be about returning home. How does one put their life back together after being sold into slavery? How do we glean courage to live when we’ve faced such horrors?
The decisions about what to include, how much detail, the narrative arc etc. – it always came back to my audience. What was at the heart of Meena’s story? The trafficking was only part of it. How was I going to write her story (and the stories hers represent) in a way that would empower and not depress my future readers?
When I speak about Out of the Cages with high-schoolers it’s never just about the book. It’s about how we live in a world where these things happen. And how we can use our writing, and our stories, to make a difference. Writing is a powerful tool.
So whether I’m workshopping picture books or discussing the modern day slavery depicted in my novel, I know that writing is always about communication. And communication: writer to reader, it’s a powerful thing.
The connection between the two topics isn’t as odd as it might seem.
If you’d like me to come speak (or run a writing workshop) at your school check out the visits page of this website, or send me an email and get in touch.