I have pondered long in the land I love
What the land I love can be
And the greatest gifts we can give each child
Are courage… and history.
(With apologies to Henry Lawson)
It has been a summer of magic and beauty and happiness: a small boy explaining to his friends that ‘the police can’t come onto Grandma’s whatever we do so that’s why we don’t have to wear seat belts’ (a few hundred metres down the drive, at about 1 km an hour, between two adults). I can just imagine his school wondering if Grandma has a meth lab in the garage or is an international jewel thief.
Actually the police did arrive at the property next door — 50 of them, raiding a $9 million illegal tobacco crop, using a drone to follow the foreman as he fled into the bush where they found and arrested him, arresting all the others too. The valley is still eager for the next instalment of the melodrama. But by then the kids had gone home, so that story, at least, won’t be told in ‘what I did on my holidays’, though the dead chook and the dead fox might feature. I did try to keep the kids from the tragedy in the chook house (all the other hens flew up high and survived) but the kids all dashed to see their favourite chooks before we could stop them. ‘Cool!’ they yelled at both the fox and the dead chook – not any their favourites: Snowy, Freckles, Roo Roo, or Policeman Guard Rooster; who bravely fought the fox off.
There were also a lot of stories, and games, like Santa-Claus-is-attacked-by-a-horde-of-dinosaurs-but-saved-by-a-racing-car; and tree climbing and fruit picking-and-eating and egg collecting and throwing-sticks-into-the-creek-to-see-which-floats-fastest, and rock climbing in the creek too. But I have a feeling that none of those can beat the ‘no police, whatever we do’ and the dead chook and fox.
January began with the raid and then sudden quiet, which is always for me the best time to write — 144,000 words in three weeks. It is the ‘last’ in the Matilda series, except the series is going to go back to 1814, with short stories about Jed and Scarlett et al. Lisa at HarperCollins has read it — it is always a nail biting time before she reads the mss. And she likes it — loves it — was enthralled by it. And I am deeply, incredibly relieved because I knew it was either very good or unintelligible, spanning 100 years, and the entire Matilda series, and attempting to show the essence of our nation, our culture and our land. And if Lisa is right (Lisa is always right, and life is always better when everyone accepts this) it is the best of the series, and, possibly, the best I have written. One of the consolations of getting older (as well as the joy of seeing wonderful new generations) is that if you are a writer your work gets better; deeper; more threads drawn together, more craft, more love. A bit like cooking, really. (The Christmas pudding this year was the best ever. So was the lemon slice).
In Praise of Lounging
I’ve become an inadvertent lounger. Surgery gone wrong means one of my legs needs to be above waist level for most of the day. At first I was worried that my subconscious would think ‘aha, propped up on pillows. Brain will now go into relax mode and shut down.’
But it didn’t. To my surprise I found I was working longer. My body wasn’t as strained after eight hours of writing as it would be on a chair, as lounging also means you move around more often, sometimes cross-legged, sometimes in the type of odd pose a yoga instructor might possibly name ‘flying wombat aiming for the sky.’ Then there was the lovely New Scientist article that said that subjects solved puzzles 13% faster when they did them prone.
I have a feeling my desk days are done. Even if I could manage to sit at a desk all day now, I think it is laptops and lounging for me. As to the ‘why’, I have finally had to accept that the knee surgery has left me unable to walk much, or stand for more than a minute without agony or collapse, and yes, it is time to accept wheelchairs if I want to cook or nurse a baby. But I am deeply lucky, as I can work with my legs up and escape to the most wonderful worlds. I can spy on wombats from the sofa and still laugh with friends.
Life is different now, but I will not let the consequences of that surgery shape the depth of my life, only the fringes.
New Books (and books out soon)
There are an embarrassing number of books coming out this year. This hasn’t been due to increased productivity, just varied hiccups or traumas that mean that books scheduled two or three years ago haven’t come out till this year.
And they’re good. I don’t think I have ever said that confidently before. They are all extremely different, and all somewhat wonderful, and I am proud of them.
By Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, concept by Ben Smith Whatley
Age range: 3+
Dippy is a delight, a picture book with Bruce Whatley based on an idea by his son Ben, based 100,000 years ago in the age of megafauna, which gets missed out, but is as fascinating for kids as dinosaurs.
Dippy is a diprotodon, the BIGGEST, friendliest wombat, who lived 100,000 years ago.
All Dippy wants is happy friends, a place to sleep and lots to eat.
Who knew that could be such an adventure?
Age range: 7+
This fifth title in The Secret Histories series uncovers the secrets that the colonial government hid for over 200 years.
Frog is an orphan, a pickpocket, starving on the streets of Parramatta in 1804.
But when the tall, commanding Irish rebel Mr Cunningham talks of freedom from tyranny and the lash, Frog creeps out to join the rebels, the 10,000 convicts who will take over the colony and proclaim the Republic of New Ireland.
Will farmers like Barney and Elsie Bean join the battle against the corrupt New South Wales Corps? For the fate of the colony – and Australia – will be decided at Castle Hill.
The Secret of the Youngest Rebel is possibly the most real and most well-based account of the Vinegar Hill rebellion you will find, and, written as fiction, hopefully the most exciting as well as accurate. (Tip: Major Johnson lied about what happened that day, as he broke the law and would have been liable for prison or even hanging in Britain. Also we may already be a republic…)
Age range: 14+
Out: April 2019
1929: Jazz, parties and an endlessly rising stock market. But an insignificant politician called Adolf Hitler plans blackmail – and even murder – to snare Miss Lily, her espionage network — and the British royal family.
The Lily in the Snow is enthralling and you will not expect any part of this book, the third installment in the Miss Lilly series. It is The Crown meets James Bond but with deeper history than either.
Illustrated by Anne Spudvilas
Age range: 8+
Out: March 2019
When the War is Over with Anne Spudvilas is so moving I cannot read it without tears at the beauty Anne has created. It is not about wars, but the endings of those wars, from 1918 until today.
Now the war is over
And they say the world is free,
Though somewhere guns are snarling,
You've come back to me.
War may never truly end, but there can be homecomings.
Age range: 14+
A body has been found in the burned-out wreckage of the church at Gibber's Creek — with older skeletons lying beneath it.
The corpse is identified as that of Ignatius Mervyn, the man who attempted to kill Jed Kelly and her unborn child.
Newcomer Fish Johnstone is drawn into the murder investigation, convinced that the local police are on the wrong track with their enquiries. But as she digs beneath the warm and welcoming surface of the Gibber's Creek community, more secrets emerge.
And Fish must also face her own mystery — the sudden appearance and then disappearance of her father, a Vietnamese refugee she never knew.
The Last Dingo Summer is the eighth book in the Matilda saga. The one that comes out at the end of this year will be the last in the series, set in the period 1869–1989, except that I will really be going way back and beginning the series again, in 1814… and a book or dedication to the first reader to guess why it will begin there, and whereabouts precisely, and why that might possibly lead to the founding of what would become the town of Gibber’s Creek.
Books Out Now
Age range: 14+
As grass dries and the hot wind howls, Gibber’s Creek will burn. But if you love your country, you will fight for it.
This is the next installment in the sweeping Matilda saga: a heartbreaking and powerful story of the triumph of courage, community and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can erode it.
Set in the late 1970s, Facing the Flame tells the story of a small rural community suffering through a debilitating drought. When bushfire catches and spreads, the people of Gibber’s Creek must come together to defend their home and all that they have worked for, a dangerous struggle that many Australians must face each year.
Lu Borgino has been recently blinded, but she battles flames to save a racehorse, even though her dreams of being Australia's first professional female jockey have been destroyed.
Scarlett O'Hara risks her hard-won life at medical school and the new love of Alex Romanov, to save a child.
Flinty McAlpine draws on the local knowledge of tens of thousands of years to protect her valley. All the while Jed Kelly must escape not just bushfire, but the man who plots to kill her with its power.
There have been fires before, but not like this.
Facing the Flame is for both teenagers and adults.
Age range: 10+
Who was Mary of Nazareth, the most famous woman in all of history? In 72 AD, as the Roman army pillages Judea and destroys its villages, killing and enslaving its inhabitants, fourteen-year-old Judith hides with her younger sister, her great-grandmother Rabba, and an unwilling goat in a cave used for storage. Judith is 'just a girl', but her skills will save them — and help an escaped Roman slave, Caius, survive as well. Wolves – and humans – threaten them all during that long, icy winter, but there are feasts of stored, and scavenged food to enjoy as they listen to Rabba tell stories of her youth; of her wealthy marriage in Jerusalem and her life in Nazareth as a child. But there is one story Rabba will not tell, no matter how much they coax her. It is the story of Maryiam, her beloved friend who faced the scandal and shame of an unwed pregnancy and the anguish of seeing her son crucified. Yet the example of the woman Maryiam, who showed how pain and humiliation can become the most joyous story in the world, will give Judith, her younger sister and Caius the courage to step beyond their refuge. Because like Judith, 'Maryiam of Nazareth' was never 'just a girl'.
By Jackie French & Sue deGennaro
Age range: everyone!
Millie Loves Ants, with the glorious Sue deGennaro, is a story we dreamed up a few years ago watching her daughters explore the valley.
By Jackie French & Bruce Whatley
I remember when rain stopped, When day by day
the water dropped...
All across a sun-bleached land, Drought spread its
Age range: 14+
World War I is over, but can there ever truly be peace?
Sophie Higgs, Australian heiress, faces the revolutionary turmoil of Europe to rescue her fellow student, Hannelore, the Prinzessen von Arneburg.
And what of the mysterious Miss Lily? Can she ever return?
Even love seems impossible, as the women who helped win the war are expected to forget all they achieved on the battlefields. Sophie is torn between her very different feelings for Nigel, Earl of Shillings; Dolphie, patriot and enemy; and ‘John’, the man who carves stone crosses on Sophie’s Australian property for every man who has died under his command.
This is the second in the Miss Lily series, a cross, perhaps, between James Bond and 'Downton Abbey', as well as following not just the changing role of women, but how we see ourselves.
Age range: 14+
A tale of love, espionage and passionate heroism. Inspired by true stories, this is a take on how the ‘lovely ladies’ won a war, the first in a new series that shows the changing concepts of what it means to be a woman – and a fulfilled one – beginning in 1913
Age range: 7+
Barney Bean now has his dream, his own farm. But when Elsie suddenly falls desperately ill, the secret of why she will not speak is revealed.
This story reveals more of the secrets of our past: the French invasion ordered by Napoleon, and the women like Jeanne Barre who disguised themselves as men to take part in great scientific adventures on voyages across the world.
By Jackie French, illustrated by Matt Shanks
Age range: 3+
Some bears wear pants and live in cottages in the woods ... but this koala is out to prove to the world that he is BARE!
And that never, ever, ever can a koala be a bear...
Age range: 12+
The sixth book in the Matilda series, written for young adults 12 and upwards. This is Australia from 1972–1975, with the Whitlam government sweeping away twenty-three years of Coalition tradition as seen through the eyes of a country town. It was a time of intense idealism throughout the nation – even if many of those ideals differed deeply. In Gibbers Creek, Jed must choose between her old love, Nicholas, who is the new Labor Party MP, and Sam from the Half Way to Eternity commune; Scarlett dreams of becoming a doctor, despite her wheelchair; Ra Zachariah waits for the end of the world and the coming of a new one – and is prepared to be ruthless to make sure it arrives. And Matilda Thompson will see her father’s political dream from the 1890s made real; she will see mistakes, conspiracies, anguish and elation; and finally be proud that, even as the nation is torn apart in the Dismissal, no blood stained the wattle.
Age range: 10+
Passion, betrayal, battles and love: a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, true to the play, but told from the viewpoint of Annie, a village girl who became a lady-in-waiting at the castle of the local thane. Here the play is stripped of its superstitions; integrity and kindness are able to triumph over hatred; and for some there may be a happy ending.
Age range: 11+
This is the best book I have written and the most deeply important. It is a book that matters — and I have never said that about my work before. Goodbye, Mr Hitler is the third in the loose trilogy that began with Hitler’s Daughter and Pennies for Hitler. It is the story of Johan, of Heide who has now become Helga Schmidt, and Georg’s mother.
The book still has too powerful a hold on me to write about it. If I could summarise it I wouldn’t have needed to write it. Perhaps this quotation from the last chapter might say what I can’t about the book, and why it is one that so many need to understand now, today, as the world begins another insane spiral that, as a historian, I recognise too well:
The world has many ogres. Some, like Mr Hitler, do not even know that they are ogres, but dream they are the hero of the story.
But I have learned this in the years since I was ten years old: when you see injustice, stand beside each other and seize your spears. My spears are made of words. Yours may be different. But do not hesitate or look away. If too many look away, the ogres win. To be mostly deeply human we must risk our lives for others. Only when we stand together can we be truly free.
It is not easy fighting ogres. No one who fights an ogre comes away unscarred, even if you cannot see the wounds. And so you owe the ogre hunters this.
When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst.
When you understand, forgive.
And then stand up, and live.
Schedule for the next six months
13 – 16 February: Tathra bushfire renewal talks, with cooking schools and give-aways of books from the wonderful 'Book Love for Tathra' appeal (see last year's May blog), Tathra, NSW
28 February – 1 March: Australian Children's Laureate Summit, Sydney
22 March: Gundagai school talks, NSW
23 March: Jugiong Writers' Festival, NSW
28 March: Playgroup Conference, Melbourne
4 April: Currie Lecture, Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), Canberra
6 April: Creative Kids Tales Writers' Festival, Sydney
7 April: Launch of This is Who We Are book of poetry for young people created with the brilliant Tania McCartney at the Australian National Library, Canberra
5 May: Panel on ‘Why We Must Remember’ with Morris Gleitzman and Marcus Zusak at the Jewish Museum of Australia
The Summer Garden
Magic Micro-Greens for Happy Munching
They’re tiny, tasty, and make the best salads in the universe. They’re ‘micro-greens’— baby leaves picked before they have time to turn tough or bitter; and it’s very very easy to grow your own.
In three weeks you can be munching home grown salads too — and your micro greens will keep on giving you salads well into next spring.
Cheap and simple
Take a polystyrene foam box; make sure it has drainage holes. Fill with good potting mix. Sow seeds of cos or rabbit’s ear lettuce; or spicy watercress, mustard, or rocket.
A Touch of Class
Fill a giant hanging basket with seeds for tiny crisp iceberg lettuce. Useful hint: hang it up BEFORE you fill it with potting mix; keep in semi-shade, in very hot times.
Green and Elegant
Buy the most beautiful pot you can find, or paint tin cans bright colours or patterns, then plant with green- and red-spotted freckles lettuce, or punnets of any ‘salad mix’.
Frill and Froth
Sow seeds of frilly red lettuce and mizuna; add red-leafed mustard seeds for a bit of bite.
Forever Green (and Red)
Plant any of the containers above with seeds of perennial ‘improved’ dandelion and Italian red-stemmed chicory for a ‘salad box’ you can pick for years to come.
In all cases, sow seed thickly — a teaspoon of seed for about half-a-metre of garden. Keep soil moist; feed plants with dilute liquid fertiliser, according to directions on the packet, once a fortnight. If you pick often you need to feed and water often too.
Put the pot/basket etc. in the warmest, sunniest spot, especially through winter. Then just keep snipping till the plants go to seed.
What to do in February
• Plant a blaze of colour to see you through winter: primulas, pansies, polyanthus, and poppies
• Buy and plant spring bulbs like heat-tolerant 'Erlicheer' daffodils (jonquils), and Monet tulips
• Cut back roses for a stunning autumn display
• Give pot plants and hanging baskets a soak all Saturday in a tub of water, to help them soak up moisture after being baked to concrete
• If a thunderstorm is predicted, run – don’t walk – to scatter plant food about the garden, including the lawn, then get back in quick before the lightning starts. (Plant food may damage dry roots).
Plant of the Month: Chocolate Cosmos
Annual cosmos can become a weed. This darling is perennial — it will bloom for you every summer, with rich, red-brown velvet flowers and a scent like a box of 'milk' and 'dark' assorted chocolates. Plant in full sun and keep weed-free and mulched till growing strongly.
A Few Recipes
As Broccoli Bill says in The Last Dingo Summer, you can never have too many zucchinis.
Just Add Sour Cream
This is a 1960’s secret – just add sour cream. Until the ‘60s in Australia though you either needed a cow and patience, or a touch of vinegar and crossed fingers. Then square cartons began to appear in the new-fangled supermarkets: sour cream. A splodge in canned tomato soup made your reputation at a dinner party; even more stirred into beef stew and you could call it stroganoff, or add paprika and it was goulash. We went mad for sour cream.
My favourite is still the simplest, and the secret of it all is slow cooking, the kind of slow cooking that warms up a winter kitchen and fills the house with scents of that best of all consequences of cooking with sour cream: the crusty bits at the edges.