From Lunch With The Stars to One Book One Pen

The second half of 2017 brought more highlights in this writer’s life. On the 12th of September, I attended the uniquely wonderful CBCA Lunch With The Stars at the ICMS in Manly (as often commented, a more serendipitously Hogwartsian locale in Sydney could not be found). Organised by the Northern Sydney Sub-Branch of the CBCA and the extraordinary Belinda Murrell (author of unrivalled generosity and talent), this was a wonderful opportunity for young readers, teacher-librarians, authors and illustrators to meet over a meal in magnificent surrounds to discuss our favourite books.

At my table, I had the pleasure of joining the students of the Mosman Church of England Preparatory School and their Curriculum Co-ordinator, Donna Gibbs. Engaging with this group of fine young minds was a delight! They were particularly intrigued when my friend Dr Leonid Petrov appeared to inform us of the poltergeist haunted room located somewhere just above our heads!

It was wonderful to catch-up with author and illustrator friends old and new, and I thoroughly enjoyed the heartwarming and thoughtful keynote address from Australian genius Gus Gordon. There is always so much to learn from each other. Thanks to the good people of the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge, the event was beamed live to thousands of students who could not make it on the day.

Without hestitation, I would rate the CBCA Lunch With The Stars up there with The Somerset Celebration of Literature as one of the best author events in Australia. Let’s be honest, it’s not every day that working authors and illustrators, let alone children’s authors and illustrators, get to feel like stars of any sort! But this was better than Oscars night (not that I’ve been to Oscars night … but I have my suspicions). Heck, you’re not going to get to chat over Nespresso to Susanne Gervay, Tim Harris, Yvette Poshoglian, Deb Abela, Jules Faber, Kate Forsyth, Jacquie Harvey, Oliver Phommavanh, and so many other great Australian authors at Oscar Night.

Soon enough, maybe. Hollywood, we’re coming.

Santa Sabina College in Strathfield is a school with an incredible Head of English in Rachel Duke, and I have been thrilled to be invited back there several times since the publication of Empire of the Waves, both to talk about my creative writing, but also about North Korea. In late November, I had the honour of appearing at Santa Sabina’s inaugural literary festival.

Entitled One Book, One Pen, the festival organisers drew upon the words of young Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. In a stirring rebuke of the Taliban who had shot her for challenging their ban on women’s education, Malala declared to the the UN General Assembly:

… let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.

One Book, One Pen thus put the idea of women’s voices and women’s education at the centre of Santa Sabina’s inaugural literary festival. In Empire of the Waves, young Anni Tidechild is the last custodian of an all-but-forgotten library on the floating city of Pel Narine at a time of rising violence and obscurantism. As the endless Pirate Wars rage across the surface of Salila, the tyrant Filip Able consolidates his power at the price of his people’s ignorance. Anni knows that the answers to the terror that envelops her may be found in books, yet she cannot find those answers alone…

Indeed, I wrote Empire of the Waves as a novel for our times, the endless Pirate Wars an allegory for our endless War On Terror, a war so often empowering to demagogues and terrorists (Wavelords and pirates, in my case) at the expense of the civilian lives caught in between. In times such as these, children often emerge as the conscience of nations, and yet their voices are all too often forgotten and marginalised. Malala Yousafzai stands tall as a startling exception. And yet, even now, even in her own country, there are those who would silence her.

Joining me at the festival were three other amazing authors and teachers. Eileen Chong workshopped Mothersong: Writing Women’s Stories, J.C. Burke spoke to the students about “tough” storytelling, how to bring difficult stories to life, and Tony Britten delivered a workshop entitled, Creating Female Characters in YA Fiction: Beyond the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Love Triangle. I didn’t dare ask Tony if he thought my Anni Tidechild passed the Britten Test … but I like to think she would!

It truly was an extroardinary day, with a brimming schedule, and rooms full of inspiring and engaging young minds. Congratulations to Rachel Duke and the teachers and students of Santa Sabina College, Strathfield!

With no word on when Empire of the Waves will continue, the rest of 2017 was spent in writing mode, and I was in almost total lock-down for three months drafting a brand new novel. Entitled Occupation Zone, this freshly hewn novel is a dystopian YA sci-fi thriller set in a divided Australia some twenty years in our future. The young female protagonist of Occupation Zone is fifteen-year-old Mirren Tran, and she too must face a world in darkness.

The world right now does feel dark at times – and is – but, as Malala said to the UN General Assembly, “we realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced.” May 2018 be the year in which we see light, and hear forgotten voices raised above the silence.

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