Little J & Big Cuz is the most important show on television

Kids are obsessive creatures. At the moment my five year-old is hooked on the ABC animation Little J & Big Cuz. If you don’t spend a lot of your time overhearing children’s television programs, let me explain: Little J & Big Cuz follows the adventures of the title characters, aged five and nine, in their outback community. Little J & Big Cuz live with Nana and Old Dog (who has caused debate amongst my kids as to whether he is actually talking out loud or the audience just happens to be privy to his musings). As described by its creators: ‘Little J and Big Cuz are busy with the ups and downs of playground and classroom. There’s always something surprising going on, whether it’s at school, in the backyard or beyond… With the help on Nanna and Ms Chen, Little J and Big Cuz are finding out all about culture, community and country.’  It is the first Australian animation aimed at an Indigenous audience with almost exclusively Indigenous characters. It was created by Indigenous director Tony Thorne and written by Indigenous writers from across the country. The cast features celebrated actors such as Deborah Mailman and Miranda Tapsell. actf_news_little_j_big_cuz_premiere

While the show may be aimed at a young Indigenous audience, it has picked up a significant number of non-Indigenous viewers like my son, who was introduced to it at preschool, where there has been a strong focus on Indigenous culture and history recently. For example, the kids recently experienced an Aboriginal smoking ceremony and now begin each day with an acknowledgement of country. My son doesn’t view Little J & Big Cuz as a show about Aboriginal people. He views it as a show about people. He doesn’t seem to have a partition between white and black cultures, instead he relates strongly to the character of Little J because they are both five and interact with the world the way five year-olds do. The show is important foremost because it gives Indigenous kids the opportunity to see themselves reflected in story, something intrinsically valuable to all children and young people, but its impact on non-Indigenous kids cannot be overstated.

Storytelling is vital to human experience because it gives the gift of empathy. It allows audiences to view the world through the eyes of someone else. It breaks down the barriers between ‘us and them’, barriers which cause unending amounts of suffering throughout the world and all human existence. It demolishes modes of dehuminisation.

While watching Little J & Big Cuz I cannot help but contrast my son’s childhood interaction and experience of Indigenous culture and history with my own. I, like many of us, was a kid in a time before welcome to country statements were introduced in a significant and widespread way. My first earliest memory of learning about Aboriginal culture is a lesson in year two about why there is an Aboriginal man on the two dollar coin, I don’t remember anything after that until year six when an Indigenous elder visited, showed us how to throw a boomerang and played the didgeridoo. He spoke about how men were allowed to play, but not women. Most of the student chatter afterwards was about how sexist he was.

Australian history was taught through the lens of white experience: Captain Cook founded our country, the ‘first settlers’ were a bunch of white blokes who arrived in boats and carried guns. In year eight  there was a brief module in history class about the suffering inflicted on the Indigenous population by the early settlers. It was an awkward, stilted chapter in our history textbook. (Fortunately it was my art teacher who gave the most powerful and vital insight into Indigenous history and experience. She did it through artworks, most significantly Gordon Bennet’s Outsider.)

By contrast, my son is taught about the impact of white settlement on Sorry Day, he is given the opportunity to be immersed in Indigenous stories and culture, he can recite the story of how birds got their colours whenever we see a rainbow lorikeet. He does not view Indigenous people as victims, instead he is educated in their history beyond the genocide which was suffered at the hands of white man. He sees Little J as like himself: a five year-old boy who likes adventures. He knows Little J’s life is a bit different to his own, but these differences bring curiosity rather than animosity in a way which can only be achieved through that most vital part of human experience: story.

The work in healing the wounds inflicted upon Indigenous people by white man is not done and probably never will be, but stories like that of Little J and Big Cuz are a vital ingredient to the process.

Little J & Big Cuz can be found on ABC2 and iView. More information can be found at https://www.littlejandbigcuz.com.au/

Hello Queensland! (I will not be wearing these leggings.)

If you are a savy reader of blog titles you may have realised by now that I am in Queensland and I’m not wearing pineapple leggings, although they would be appropriate because it is rather tropical here and I like to team with the theme.PineappleLeggings_05_1024x1024 First up, I have two days talking to high school students, then on Tuesday night I will travel to the Gold Coast to either attend the Somerset Festival of Literature OR compete in the Quicksilver Pro. (I’m going to retain an air of mystery by allowing you to guess which of these options is accurate.)

The best part of all of this is the buffet breakfasts which I will enjoy, closely followed by the opportunity to meet my beloved readers and sign books for them. I prefer to keep this activity to books I have written myself but I have also been asked in the past to sign books by Any Griffiths. I don’t know if this was because my hair looks like the kind of novelty wig Mr Griffiths may wear but I don’t let that stop me.

I do get nervous talking in front of large groups of people. It could be argued that the act of public speaking is the most challenging thing a writer could be asked to do aside from saving for a house deposit. But I am here and I have had two coffees, a stack of pancakes, some croissants, yoghurt, bircher muesli and a little packet of delicious organic butter – so if I am too nervous to eat for the remainder of my stay, at least we know I won’t starve to death.

CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers – THE PROTECTED

CBCA#1Yep, this is a thing that happened. I still haven’t seen the Book of the Year sticker on the actual cover of the book, maybe it will feel more real when I do! In the meantime here’s my acceptance speech….

I often say that I write for my seventeen year-old-self, right now my seventeen year-old-self is standing here saying ‘What the frig? How did this happen?’ I’m the kid who had a panic attack in the middle of her first HSC English exam and left. I’m not here because of the wonders of our education system, I am a glitch in the system. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of high schools recently and I’m not sure all that much has changed. When it comes to education we are very concerned with rankings and bell curves.  It’s worth noting that I was discouraged from taking on what was then called three unit Related English because my ranking wasn’t high enough. We want our kids to perform. We teach them to play Tchaikovsky by rote, but disable their ability to write their own music. I had teachers who fought against the obsession with marks and rankings and focused on nurturing my creativity, but I think that is like trying to light a candle in a cyclone, if you will allow me to get a bit Elton John.

I must thank my darling dad who told me over and over again that creativity was immeasurably valuable and must be held on to. I must thank my mum who gave the me stubbornness and determination required to pursue an artistic path.

Creative minds are vulnerable and mine has caused it’s fair share of problems, I would not have survived, much less written any books without the love and support of my husband, Nathan. Of course my thanks also go to my Publisher Kristina Schultz at UQP and my editor and coconspirator Kristy Bushnell.

I will finish by saying that this wonderful award does not qualify me to go into schools and give students the formula for a good piece of writing. I have no interest in improving their rankings. It does qualify me to visit high schools, look those kids in the eye — the off-beat ones, the weird ones, the ones who haven’t done that Biology assignment but have written 67,000 words, sometimes on their phones — and tell them that they will be okay.   To the Children’s Book Council: thank you for this award, I can not tell you how much this means to me, especially seventeen year old me.

Cutting the giant cake - a job I am well qualified for.
Cutting the giant cake – a job I am well qualified for.

Book Trailer Bonanza!

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Mount St Benedict College in Sydney to talk all things books and writing with some of the students there. It was pretty great because, not only were the girls delightful, but they also gave me cake.

As part of the activities leading up to the visit, the girls were invited to make book trailers for The Sky So Heavy, with the prize for the top three being lunch and cake-eating with me. I was also asked to pick a winner, which was tricky as they are all fabulous. Eventually I went with the entry by Grace Nicholson. I promised I would put links to the trailers up on my (much neglected) blog. So here they are. The first one is by Emily James. The second by Sarah Assaf. And finally, the winning entry by Grace Nicholson.

Enjoy!

Radio National review The Sky So Heavy

I’m quite the ABC Radio National fangirl, so to hear The Sky So Heavy reviewed on Books and Arts Daily (along with some other book called The Fault in Our Stars) was more than a bit spesh. 5528698-3x4-340x453

Follow the trusty link to have a listen…

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/book-review3a-young-adult-fiction-with-bec-kavanagh/5528660

 

In which I consider a career in hip hop. For realz.

Last time we met I mentioned that I go to the gym. This is true. I am one of these annoying people who is actually addicted to exercise, specifically I just love pumping iron. True fact. I love answering questions from the audience at writers’ festivals, but what I’m really waiting for is someone to challenge me to an arm wrestle.

The key to a good weights session (stay with me, the light’s coming, I swear.) Is music. As I previously wrote, I attend a gym largely patronised by blokes, many of them (so-called) professional athletes. This can be a touch intimidating. The weights room is completely male dominated. A lass can feel like she’s trespassing on some primitive male ritual. I stick out amongst all the bronzed, oiled (eww) biceps. I am a gangly, fluro-white girl in glasses. But like I said, I like doing weights and Fernwood is about twice as expensive as a mixed gym so I have developed an effective method for keeping my cool (I use this term only as strongly as can be applied to someone who works out in an old maternity bra and tattered ‘Overland literary journal’ t-shirt.) What’s my secret? Hip hop, peeps. Rap. That cray cray ghetto thayng. Mos def.

Yes, in order to feel on par with the super-tough titanium lifters (Do they lift titanium? Is it even heavy? Let’s leave that little illustration alone.) I recruit the help of the Beastie Boys, sometimes De la Soul, and more often than not, a heap of Gwen Stefani. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

I don’t feel intimidated if I have Mike D rapping in my ear. It makes me feel like I have a little posse following me around telling these annoying 20 year old posers to get off my leg press, man. Never mind that the remaining beasties are now in their late forties.

The problem is, I have run out of music. I have listened to Hollaback Girl 68 times in the last month and I now know every word of every Beastie Boys song that’s got a fast enough beat to elevate the heart rate. Massive Attack? I know every thought that ever entered Tricky’s mind. Same for Jurassic Five. I am in that weird place where I am out of the loop and don’t know what to listen to. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that I refuse to listen to anything misogynistic. That rules out about 70% of hip hop. Also, I have kids, so there can’t be too many expletives. Or if there are, they have to be easily masked as something else. For example, you can sing along to Hollaback Girl if you pretend Gwen is really passionate about her ‘ships’: ‘OooOoo that’s my ship, that’s my ship.’

So, I hear you say, why not try something else, there’s a lot of hip hop out there. Modern stuff: Jay Z? Kanye? That Snoopy Dog fellow?

Yeah. But the problem is, it all sounds very plastic, slick, sharp. I was a teen in the 90s. I cut my teeth on a grungy, fuzzy, rough-around-the-edges sound that comes from people making music it their parents’ garage. Without Pro Tools. I made the jump from guitar driven grunge to hip hop via the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, which owes more to Nirvana than it does N.W.A. That song was my bridge. I was able to ease myself in. I don’t want no computer generated, auto-tuned, slick sound. Also it seems that most people in the hip hop business today have lost their sense of humour. It’s all very earnest, either about popping caps or using hoes. It all sounds rather fake to me. The only caps I pop are Panadol and I use a hoe in the garden from time to time, but generally I just can’t relate.

I’m going to sound old now, but I remember De La Soul rapping about poor hygiene and the beasties mentioning their grandmas. Gwen Stefani had her tongue firmly in cheek on a permanent basis, as did Charlie Tuna. I miss those days. Now everyone seems super keen to prove how tough and mean they are and how much cash they’ve got.

What about Aussie hip hop? You may ask. The Pez Dispenser chappie? 360? Look, I’m going to be brutally honest, and I realise this is some cultural cringe thing I need to overcome, but I can’t stand rap with an Australian accent. I have an Irish friend who says I need to get over this. Easy for him to say, he’s Irish.

Recently I came across Iggy Azalea. She’s Australian, but you wouldn’t know it from her accent. She raps like Kelis or Nicki Minaj. She is clearly inhabiting an imaginary persona, but I don’t see the problem, musicians have been doing that for years. No one blames David Bowie for being fake because he never lived on a space station. Aside from the Minaj-esque accent, ‘Fancy’ sounds like it could be Gwen Stefani, so that’s a win. It’s also got a sense of humour about it. ‘I’m so fancy’ is a funny line, if for no other reason than it uses the word ‘fancy’. Iggy claims to be in the ‘murdder business’, but we know she’s making it up because she makes no secret of the fact she’s from Mullumbimby.

In fact, I like that song so much I bought the album. Trouble is, the rest of the tracks maintain the whole, ‘I was poor, now I’m a rich and l might shoot you’ narrative, funny for one song but tiresome over a twelve track album. Yes, yes, Iggy, you started out on your own with no friends and now you’re a success everyone wants to come around and drink your champagne. That aspect may be true, but it’s not entertaining. There’s nothing lyrically clever about it. While we’re talking white rappers, I have a lot of respect for Eminem. He’s a clever guy. But I can’t buy an album which glorifies beating up a woman and stuffing her in your car boot. No matter how linguistically sophisticated it is.

(It made me consider making my own hip hop. I would rap about books, a really nice skirt that I bought from Cue a few weeks ago and how much I love Spike Jonze movies. Maybe also horses and how expensive they are to maintain. But I’ve kind of committed to the whole writing thing for the moment and besides, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make a very convincing rapper.)

rapperIt seems that the only stuff around that doesn’t feature expletives does feature a fellow called Pit Bull, who is so manufactured he makes me want to shout expletives, which kind of defeats the purpose of listening to clean stuff in the first place. I have a big problem with music that’s marketed as family friendly and clean, but features a guy in a suit surrounded by gyrating semi-naked women. Call me picky.

On the upside, The Roots have released a new album, ‘And Then You Shoot Your Cousin’ which harks back to Faithless and other trip hoppy stuff like DJ Shadow, it even has a flavour of Portishead to it. It is largely a response to the shallow, braggy, materialistic hip hop which is so prevalent. If you want to read more about the comment it makes on hip hop and black America today, The Roots’ drummer, Questlove (he of the fantastic hair) wrote this piece for Vulture. It’s pretty freaking great. As for me I know it’s risky to cast any judgment over contemporary hip hop, both Lorde and Lily Allen have been accused of racism because of comments their music makes about mainstream hip hop culture. But that issue is another blog altogether.

 

Somerset: students, lamingtons and book cakes.

It’s taken me ten days to write this post because I have been having festival withdrawals. I find the weeks following a festival difficult. It’s hard returning to a life that does not include a buffet breakfast every day and constant book-centred conversations. You see, two weeks ago I was at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, held by Somerset College in Queensland. Basically the people of Somerset believe that books are so great they should be celebrated annually with three days of author talks, giant stationary sculptures and poffertjes (dutch pancake things that should probably be illegal.) There were also books made out of cake. In my opinion this is a feature grossly neglected by other literature festivals.unnamed-1

From the reactions of most of the students it’s fair to say they thought the whole thing was pretty freaking great. I agreed. The closest thing I ever experienced to something like this was when Mem Fox came to visit my school when I was in year one. I was so overwhelmed with awe that I couldn’t meet her, I just sat trembling in a corner gazing in her general direction in a way which is really only excusable if you are six.

To me, writers were like movie stars. In fact, if offered the choice between seeing Mem Fox or some megawatt Hollywood star face-to-face, I’m sure I would have chosen the woman who invented the disappearing possum.

Twenty six years later I am only marginally better at keeping it together in the company of authors. I find that I enter a surreal, hyper head space where I need little sleep and tremble constantly from excitement. I have come to know this as Festival Syndrome. Let’s be honest, I spend most of my time either alone staring at a computer screen or conversing with two small humans whose idea of a good time is to see how much spaghetti they can force up their noses. So any adult conversation is generally stimulation overload for me. At festivals these conversations tend to involve my favourite people: writers and readers. So yeah, my brain tends to go a bit haywire.unnamed

The thing that is so brilliant about Somerset (other than the book-cakes) is it’s all about the students. Most literary festivals have a couple of days worth of events for students before getting on to the real serious business of adult books for adult audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily talk to anyone about books and writing with a microphone. I don’t care how old they are, it’s a privilege. But my favourite people to talk about this stuff with are teenagers. The Somerset Celebration acknowledges the wonderful truth that the books we read as youngens can shape us for the rest of our lives. It acknowledges the fact that young people are important, their ideas are important, their brains are important. It also does something else quite wonderful in that it takes a group of writers and plonks them fair and square in the middle of the school’s life. We wander around between talks eating poffertjes and fairy floss and are encouraged to mingle with the students.

I didn’t get to casually mingle with authors when I was at school. I came to view them as  etherial beings with unobtainable literary super-powers and it took me a good seven years after school to even begin to imagine that I could be a writer. It seems to me that one of the things young, aspiring writers need most is encouragement. They need to know that people who do this for a living often write crap. They need to know that everyone finds writing stories difficult. They need to know they they don’t need special super-powers to be writers. There is no better way to learn these things than by asking an author face to face. (And if the said author is feeling brave enough, they may even share some of their early, particularly bad writing.)

But for me it works both ways. I get as much of a kick out of meeting readers as they get out of meeting authors.

The opportunity to meet with ones readers is pretty great if you are like me and still have trouble comprehending the idea that you even have readers. (This isn’t something that necessarily wears off, so Thomas (NAME DROP) Keneally told me.) It’s great to read positive reviews written by adults. But they aren’t really who I write for. Nothing quite compares with being told – in person- by a scruffy, surly teenager that your book is ‘heaps good’. From time to time I have entertained the idea of abandoning YA to focus on writing stories about adults for adults. But Somerset reminded me why I write for teenagers: because for some reason (probably only understood by psychoanalysts) it is their opinion which I value the most.

At Somerset I met some amazing authors, many of whom I have admired for a long time. But the highlight of the festival, for me, was meeting a small group who had travelled six hours on a bus from their remote town to come to the festival. They came to see me speak in the morning and then flagged me down when I was on my way to get more poffertjes. Some had read The Sky So Heavy and liked it enough to want photos. With me. They talked about their favourite characters with an affection that I haven’t witnessed in anyone other than … myself. It was magic. No adult could ever match the enthusiasm these kids had for the book. They gave me lamingtons.

And if you remember anything about Possum Magic, you will understand why this is significant.

 

Uncovered – On finding the perfect book cover and losing it

Twelve months ago I was going to do a blog about cover design for The Sky So Heavy. But I couldn’t because I was just feeling too many feelings. I’ve always found the process of book-cover design overwhelming. This goes back to high school days and ‘design the cover’ assignments. The expectation that I would put on myself would be crippling, so determined was I to get it perfect. I was a drawer and a reader, so it should have been my thing, right? RIGHT??!! To get it wrong was unthinkable. THE SHAME! The potential for me to produce a work of stunning insight was only equalled by the potential to fail. (I’m not sure that was as profound as I’d hoped it to be. See? I’m struggling. This is why I haven’t written about this before.)

When my own book is concerned it’s about a thousand times worse – if that’s even possible without full psychological breakdown. (First World Problems, anyone?) Imagine if you had to sit down and decide what you wanted your child to look like. That’s the kind of brain explosion I experience when it comes to discussions about cover concepts.

Image
If Fin got his shirt off more I could have had something like this for The Sky So Heavy. Shame.

Just to be clear, writers generally don’t design covers for their own books. (If you’re unsure as to why, check out the self-published book covers tumbler. Or just look to the left. There’s a reason professional designers have to go to uni for three years.) Book cover design is tricky and could well be the catalyst for a full-scale psychological breakdown if the level of neurosis exhibited by my fourteen-year-old self is anything to go by. But editors do have a discussion with the author about what they would like or any ideas they might have. As well as what they don’t want.

For The Sky So Heavy I really had no idea. I wanted to put it in the too-hard basket. I eventually nutted some vague ideas out with my editor and we ended up with something that I don’t love, but which seems to be selling well. Which means I’m finding my readers, so the cover’s done it’s job. It’s also worth pointing out that the process took place in the first year of my youngest son’s life, so it’s fair to say I had other priorities and only so much (read: very little) head space to devote to the whole thing.

Then along comes book two – not a sequel, but a stand-alone on which I have worked, off and on, for the last nine years. I have rewritten The Protected completely, not once, but twice. I guess you could say I’m kind of attached to it. (UNDERSTATEMENT.) I have also been far more emotionally present during the whole publishing process this time around, compared to The Sky So Heavy. I won’t go into details, but if you understand the level of pressure I put on myself when it came to designing an imaginary book cover when I was in high school, you can probably guess how my brain copes with the pressure of raising a tiny helpless baby. It’s not pretty. (There’s not going to be a trilogy as far as that narrative is concerned.)

The initial design the publisher sent to me for this next book was one they were very keen on, but I was not. My reasons for disliking it were partly to do with ideas about gendered book covers and partly to do with my aversion to dark close ups of pretty girls’ faces. My editor was gracious and understanding, so sent me another alternative. Which I absolutely loved. Really, truly, loved. We were in agreement, it was done. Over the last two weeks I have gazed at it on and off for long slabs of time in which I probably should have been doing other things.

But then my editor discovered another YA book, newly released in the US, with the exact same stock photo on the cover.

So it’s back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about cover design and the myriad of aesthetic travesties that have been created in its name I highly recommend Caustic Cover Critic. Here you will also find many examples of unfortunate cover double-ups that weren’t caught in time…