You may know N.J. Gemmell as Nikki Gemmell, author of seven novels and four works of non-fiction for adults, and a regular columnist for The Weekend Australian’s ‘Saturday’ magazine. Under the name of N.J. Gemmell, she has also written books for children, including The Kensington Reptilarium, her first book for children, and The Icicle Illuminarium, which continues the adventures of four Aussie bush kids in London. She talks to Better Reading about getting kids off screens and on to books, and about writing and illustrating for children.
BR: Your new series, Coco Banjo, was inspired by your search for appealing and appropriate books for your daughter. What do you consider “must-haves” in a book for your daughter?
NJ: I’m writing the Coco Banjo series to encourage Aussie primary school readers – to get them reading and keep them reading. To lure them away from those wretched screens (I’ve got four kids, and the screen thing drives me bananas. If I could throw them out the window I would – except on a deadline when I need some peace and quiet!) But seriously, I want to give primary kids the satisfaction of finishing books about the school world they’re in, and craving more – but I also want to give older readers a good old giggle of recognition.
My daughter is seven and went from reading the Billy B series to Treehouse and Wimpy. There was nothing in between that she grabbed on to, nothing that she liked that was set in her immediate world of the typical Aussie primary (and she’s not keen on anything that looks too “girly” or “princessy”). So I thought bugger it, I’ll write a series that she’ll hopefully gulp, and not be able to put down. It’s worked, with her and all her mates – from ages 6 to 13 so far. The Coco Banjo series has school assemblies, bush tucker gardens, stinky toilets, convict history lessons, helicopter parents, a scary principal’s office, Reconciliation Week and Canberra camps – and school gate mummy traumas. I’ve had two kids graduate from a typical Aussie primary, another in the thick of it and another about to start – so I feel like I’ve got a lot of rich material there. But most of all, I wanted the series to convey a real love of the Aussie primary school.
Plus, I wanted books that aren’t too challenging for kids in this screen obsessed age. I tried giving my daughter all the classics I had loved – Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables etc etc – but the writing was so dense and tiny that she wouldn’t even start them. I needed something more fun and zippy and easy on the page for her – hence Coco Banjo’s text, which is interspersed with fun fonts and illustrations. I didn’t want it to be a slog of a challenging read, but a satisfying and hopefully addictive read.
BR: You’ve written two other books for children, The Kensington Reptilarium and The Icicle Illuminarium. Are there unique challenges in writing for children?
NJ: Well, I can’t be “fancy” with my writing, like I can be with my adult books. Narrative pace is all in the kid’s world, because if they’re bored they’ll just put the book down and never pick it up again. It’s a great discipline as a writer, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from diving into kids’ fiction. It’s a real discipline. You have to seduce them. Hook them, and keep on hooking them. With humour most of all, I think. You have to make the young reader turn the page and keep on turning. The aim is books that kids can’t put down, to the point that they’re wanting to read under the doona with a torch. Now of course I’m becoming greedy, and want that intensity of reading experience with my adult fiction too!
PS: The concluding book in the Ken Rep trilogy, The Luna Laboratorium, is out at the end of the year. The Caddy kids finally make their way back to Australia, for a local adventure that wraps everything up.
BR: What were some of the books that influenced you at an early age?
NJ: I loved the Silver Brumby and Jill’s Gymkhana series because I was horse-crazy. Gulped Anne of Green Gables and the Little House books (loved a good series). Then as I progressed into high school I moved on to Jane Eyre, My Brilliant Career and The Getting of Wisdom. And because I had older brothers I also loved books like White Fang, and, er, Richie Rich and Mad Magazine comics. Basically, I’d read anything I could get my hands on.
BR: Tell us about your experience illustrating the Coco Banjo series.
NJ: Well that was terrifying – but exhilarating too. Art had been my most beloved subject in high school but I’d let it all go as an adult, in the belief that I had to have a “proper” career. It felt so strange and wonderful to pick up the drawing pens again after three decades. It was deeply satisfying using a different part of my brain – a wonderful circuit breaker to the intensity of doing all my adult writing. I’d be literally giggling away as I drew Coco Banjo’s world on her secret island and absolutely loved it.
BR: Where do you do your writing and illustrating?
NJ: I started on the dining room table in the kitchen area, but that was very confronting let alone messy – and all the kids and their mates had free rein on the commenting (my little monkeys were extremely critical, especially if the kids didn’t look “cool” enough.) So last Christmas, for the first time ever in my writing career, I treated myself to the most deliciously proper, wide and glorious writing desk. I love it so much I could lick it. I don’t have a room of my own to work in, alas, but it sits in a corner of my bedroom looking gorgeously Scandinavian and retro at the same time, with dinky little hidden drawers and nooks for all the drawing pens and pencils and rubbers and rulers and ink bottles and oh, everything else! It’s my favourite possession by far, and it’s only taken me three decades to acquire it (before, I’d usually write propped up in bed with a red plastic tray table from Ikea, or in an armchair in the corner of the loungeroom with a paint-splattered wooden plank across the arms). Finally, I feel like a proper writer. It’s the only purely “me” space I’ve got in the entire house (even the sanctity of my underwear drawer is invaded – by hidden screens. It’s the one place they won’t go!)