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.
Pictures were an important part of my research process while I was writing and rewriting Out of the Cages. I wrote the first draft while I was living in Pokhara, Nepal, way back in 2006. I remember taking my camera and heading off for a long slow walk around the familiar places, photographing the ordinary and everyday things.
I wanted to remember the little things. The colour of the bananas in the fruit stand, the way bangles were displayed in the corner shop, the smell of singed chickens at the poultry butcher, the curtain in the tea shop.
For me, it was these little details that would help bring my story to life. That would remind me of what it felt like to be in Nepal, and to miss it.
Later, when I was privileged enough to visit India to continue my research, I did a similar thing. I wanted the capture the scope of Mumbai, the colour of the moon, the surprising sights, the fleeting images from a train.
Yes, I took notes, and I wrote in my journal recording sights and sounds and smells and the stories of the amazing people we met. But my photos captured the sense of the place and allowed my memory to tap back into those places, hunting for details to bring my story and its characters to the page.
We sat around a coffee table laden with supper treats. I held my mug of tea with two hands. My copy of Out of the Cages lay hidden in the bag beside my feet. A photo album next to it. The room filled up until all the seats were occupied and then there was a hush. A pause. A waiting. A few copies of my novel appeared, and then they asked me – ‘What inspired you to write this book?’
It was my friend’s Book Club. I’d been invited as the ‘guest speaker’ and ‘visiting author’. The group seemed a little nervous to have me there: apparently they’d never had an author join them before.
But I was nervous too.
After all, I’d written a YA novel and this was a room full of adult readers with questions and opinions and bookshelves full of titles I probably haven’t even heard of. And what if they didn’t like my book? Would they have to pretend they did because I was there? Wouldn’t it be easier to let them discuss it without me?
But I needn’t have worried. Like when I visited the Penrith YA Book Club earlier in the year, who would readily admit they preferred fantasy and dystopian type genres, I was warmly welcomed. (Maybe it’s a book lover thing?) Conversation flowed and meandered and relaxed. A few people bravely admitted they hadn’t wanted to read my book, and weren’t sure if they’d finish it. But they did. And they were glad they had. Others told me how angry they had felt while they were reading. Another wanted to know how much of the story was true. So I told them. I pulled my photo album out of my bag and answered as best I could. And then I asked them some questions. (And we posed for a photo.)
So often, as an author, I sit at my desk only imagining the responses a reader might have to a situation I write, or an emotion I have attempted to weave into a story. It was wonderful to be able to interact with the readers and listen to how they found the story, their take on it and what stood out the most for them. What a treat!
If you could have any author you liked come to your Book Club, who would you invite? And what would your number one question be?
My son is something of a Shaun Tan fan. (If you are not familiar with Shaun Tan, he's an Australian illustrator of picture books.) So when we happened to see a poster advertising Shaun's recent visit to Sydney coinciding with the launch of his new book, my Z was keen to attend. So I checked my diary and then thought, why not? We could do this. Drive into the city, figure out where to park, try out that sushi restaurant we'd been eyeing off for years and make an evening of it. Yep - I could support my son's interests this way.
But what I wasn't expecting was for the event to inspire me too. I'd thought it would all be about art and painting and drawing. I figured I'd just be the taxi driver. The dinner buyer. The friendly companion in lines at the door. I didn't count on having my heart tugged by wonder and the humble perspectives of creativity.
The event was hosted by Kinokuniya Book Shop and was a conversation between Shaun Tan and artist Nick Stathopoulos. The two of them talked about Shaun's art work, his habits, his interests, the stories behind the tales he tells (his most recent work is a collection of short stories and artworks called Tales from the Inner City).
I was struck by Shaun's humility, his thoughtful responses and the sense of wonder he carried with him about his craft. Although I'd thought I was there to support my son, I found myself inspired and encouraged in my own creative work (even though I work primarily with words).
My Z, himself a budding illustrator more often than not found hunched over his desk drawing, also loved it. Nothing better to inspire creativity that to hear someone you admire talk honestly about the very same struggles you are facing, and to offer their perspectives on how to keep going!
So, with sushi for dinner, listening in on the two artists in conversation, some of Shaun Tan's wonderful images floating around in our minds and a scenic detour in the city on the way home (otherwise known as 'getting lost') Z and I had an unexpectedly joyous time.
I'd recommend an evening like that any day!
I have to admit, one of the things I love most about being a children's and YA author is the opportunities it brings to visit schools and speak with students about writing, reading, books and stories!
Sometimes it's a simple assembly presentation. Sometimes it's a series of Book Launch visits. But this year I was invited to one particular school for an extra special visit. One where I wasn't even the star of the show!
It was for an awards ceremony, for the Picture Book of the Year Award run by the inspirational library team at one senior high school I'd visited this year.
I had first been invited to this school much earlier in the year, to teach a workshop for a small group of interested students from years 11 and 12. Working with students of this age group, I knew what a privilege I'd been given. It was great fun talking through the elements of picture books, the challenges of keeping a story under 600 words and exploring the magical interplay between illustrations and text.
After I'd left, many of these students then entered the picture book competition run by their library to celebrate Book Week. I was able to admire the results of all their hard work at the awards celebration. It was amazing to see how individual students, and some pairs working together, had taken the 2018 Book Week theme of 'Find your Treasure' and come up with unique and beautiful ways of telling a story.
The winner's book - which she both wrote and digitally illustrated - was wonderful. She'd exploited the strengths of the picture book form and told an inspiring story at the same time. I was thrilled to be a part of this Awards day, and will look forward to reading more from this budding group of authors in the future!
It was just over twelve years ago that I finished the first draft of the novel that was to become Out of the Cages. I was living in Nepal at the time and as my family prepared to return to Australia, I was cramming in research trips and writing days.
Since then, the research has continued, the writing turned to rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. But finally, on the 1st July, Out of the Cages was published and last weekend amid friends and family, and a number of anti-trafficking organisations, we officially launched Meena's story into the world.
The launch was lovely. We had supper - including some delicious Indian sweets and hot, spicy chai - and I was able to share some of what I learned as I researched this book. Katrina Roe, a fellow author and writing friend of mine, launched the book for me.
One of my favourite parts of the night - though it was also rather nerve wrecking - was the opportunity to actually read from the novel. I ummed and ahhed over which sections to read but finally decided to begin at the begining and read the prologue, followed by chapter three. Later, after Katrina had formally launched the book, I read a small section from chapter twenty eight where Meena, for the first time since escaping the brothel, begins to rediscover the power of her voice.
It's been a long journey for this book to come to print, but it's finally here. It's Meena's turn now; to tell her story, to represent the voices of those who have been trafficked and sold into slavery.
And although I doubt I'd sit back and do nothing, I'm excited to see where this book will end up.
Out of the Cages can be purchased via the publisher's website, your favourite local bookshop or by doing a quick online search.
We're 10 days away now. From the release date of Out of the Cages: the 1st July 2018.
How do I feel?
Like I've been holding my breath. Like dropping over the finish line of a race I never thought I'd finish. Like a kid, one hand in the popcorn bucket, waiting for the movie to begin.
It's exciting and oddly surreal too.
We're holding the official launch of Out of the Cages on the 7th July, at 7pm, in the Big Hall of St Marys Anglican Church, in St Marys, NSW.
We'll have book signings, chats, chai tea, and supper. And I'll share some of the journey behind this book; the research, the writing and what I learned along the way.
I'd love to have you there!
RSVP's are great (to assist with the supper preparations) and can be made by sending me an email, or via the Facebook event.
The countdown is well and truly underway for my new novel, Out of the Cages. Over the last month I've been doing those final little (and not so little) tasks that editors send my way: like slowly reading through the uncorrected proof and double checking details. The novel will be off to the printers soon, if it hasn't been sent off already. July 1 is the official release date.
I'm looking forward to planning a really special launch for this book - it's been so long in the making and so many people have supported me over the years and encouraged me to keep going. I'm excited to be able to share the celebration of this book with those who have helped along the way!
If you haven't yet read the blog Rhiza Edge asked me to write for their website, you can find it here. I share a little more about where the story for Out of the Cages came from.
And if you're a Goodreads member, you can now add Out of the Cages to your 'Want to read' list!
Can you see him? The tiny gecko? Hanging by his toes?
I'd been doing some jobs around my parents' home while they were away. Watering the pot plants on the deck, checking the fish were still swimming and clearing the post from the letterbox etc. It was time to add some scraps to the worm farms, so I lifted the heavy brick that had been keeping the worm farm lid secure. And I saw this little guy. So tiny. His chubby fat gecko toes gripping the black plastic. He glanced up at me with those big shiny eyes and made a run for it!
'Careful!' I called after him (yes, I have a habit of talking to lizards). But he didn't listen. he just panicked and leaped off the worm farm - dove off into oblivion - or at least that is what it must have seemed for a little guy that small.
He's dead, I thought. Surely he's dead. But I looked closer. Bent on my knees and there he was. Gripping for dear life by his back feet to the stalk of a stubborn wild violet.
Never have I been so impressed by such a small creature!
I wonder if we grab the opportunities we hurtle past with such incredulous faith?