The stories behind this year’s Children’s Books of the Year

The stories behind this year’s Children’s Books of the Year

What’s involved in creating an award-winning children’s book? We’ve taken a look at the stories behind some of the moving, beautiful and inspiring winners and Honour Books from this year’s CBCA Book of the Year list

Record breakers

libby-gleeson_the-cleo-storieslibby-gleeson_go-to-sleep-jessieirena-kobald_my-two-blanketsThe big ‘story’ from the CBCA Awards this year (and the one that received most media coverage) was the partnership between Freya Blackwood and Libby Gleeson. Freya Blackwood won Book of the Year in a record-breaking three categories (Younger Readers for The Cleo Stories, Early Childhood for Go to Sleep, Jessie! and Picture Book of the Year for My Two Blankets) and Gleeson won two (for the texts of The Cleo Stories and Go to Sleep, Jessie!).

While Blackwood has won CBCA Awards before, this is her first win in the picture book category. She told the Herald Sun that winning this category was extra special: ‘That is very exciting for me, because it has been traditionally won by some extraordinary Australian creators, Shaun Tan, Ron Brooks and Bob Graham.’

Blackwood decided to branch out into book illustration while working as an effects technician on the Lord of the Rings films, and collaborated with Gleeson on the 2007 book Amy and Louis. She told the Australian ‘I’ve always looked up to Libby and it was a coup to be offered that first book with her,’

‘I love the characters she writes — they feel like my own family — and I like that the endings of her stories can be a bit ambiguous. It means I have to work out what the ending should be as drawing, which gives me a little bit of authorship.’

Their Go to Sleep, Jessie!, has been compared to a (G-rated) version of Go the F*** to Sleep, which puts the child at the centre of the story. Gleeson told the Australian: ‘My attitude is, bugger the parents, what is the poor child going through? I always try to put myself in the position of the child.’

Depicting our convict history

simon-barnard_a-z-of-convicts-in-van-diemens-landThis year’s winner in the Information Books category was The A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, a large format, beautifully illustrated book. Why create a lavish book on this topic? Author Simon Barnard, who is originally from Launceston, says ‘It’s something I felt I would have liked growing up in Tassie. When I was a kid we didn’t know what convicts looked like, what they wore, what soldiers wore.’ (The Mercury)

At the time of the CBCA shortlist announcement, Angela Briant, chair of the National Council of the CBCA, told the Sydney Morning Herald ‘I bought a copy and a number of people picked it up from my kitchen table, both adults and children …Information books have really got the capacity to engage children. It’s about story too, connecting readers with people of another time…Children can find facts and figures on the internet, though they might not always be accurate, so a book has to engage and provoke an emotional reaction.”


Victoriana for modern kids

judith-rossell_withering-by-seaRecently Better Reading Kids interviewed Judith Rossell about Withering-by-Sea, which is an Honour Book in the Younger Readers category. She told us about her inspiration for the book: ‘I’ve always loved Victoriana, and writers like Wilkie Collins, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle. I wanted to write a scary, funny adventure story for children, set in Victorian England. Stella Montgomery lives at the Hotel Majestic with her three dreadful Aunts. One day she is hiding in the conservatory, reading her beloved atlas, and she sees something she shouldn’t have, and is plunged into an adventure.’

Rossell is an illustrator as well as a writer and commented that ‘illustrations can help children figure out the meaning of what they are reading, and they make a page of text look more attractive and less daunting. For children who are learning to read, it might be the illustrations that draw them into the story, and encourage them to persevere with it. In Withering-by-Sea, the illustrations help develop the slightly dark, gothic atmosphere of the story. In Victorian times, many books, including those written for adults, were illustrated. I think it would be great if more books were illustrated today!’

Like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, with a twist

lesley-gibbes_scary-nightOne of the Honour Books in this year’s Early Childhood Category is Scary Night by Lesley Gibbes, illustrated by Stephen Michael King.

King was shortlisted for three titles, including The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard (which he describes as ‘playful and dark – it has everything.’) and Snail and Turtle are Friends, which he wrote and illustrated.

Scary Night is former school teacher Gibbes’ first book, and King says he enjoyed portraying the rhythm and suspense of her text: ‘It reminded me of the iconic book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, but with a twist.’ (Manning River Times)


Portraying war

david-metzenthen_one-minutes-silenceThis year, nineteen different books on the theme of war were entered in the Picture Book category of the awards (this category incorporates illustrated books for a wide age range, from little ones to teens). One Minute’s Silence, by David Metzenthen and Michael Camilleri, was an Honour Book in the category.

Metzenthen has said:

‘The idea for this book came about when I was thinking about the hour we lose when daylight saving begins…I wrote a picture book text about times past and people gone, which [my publisher] didn’t publish – but together we decided that I should try and write a story about the One Minute’s Silence we observe for our fallen soldiers…this magical minute of reflection. I was walking my dog thinking about this, and came up with the concept of what we can imagine in one minute’s silence…and what we might find more difficult to imagine – although it really did happen…And so the story of the Aussies and Turks who fought at Gallipoli is presented, asking the reader to imagine the battle from both sides as they went about the business of trying to kill each other…With Michael Camilleri’s beautiful artwork adding a dimension that I could never achieve in my wildest dreams, One Minute’s Silence is now a work of words and pictures presenting an aspect of our history in World War I.’

Michael Camilleri used an extensive range of reference photos and research, including many images and objects from the collection of the Australian War Memorial, in preparing the illustrations for this book.

He explains that the Australian class depicted in the book is based on the 2013 Year 12 class from Sophia Mundi Steiner School in Melbourne. His partner was their English teacher in real life. They were chosen because ‘Year 12 students are around 18, which was the minimum legal enlistment age in Australia during WW1. Though men up to 35 were enlisted at the start of the war, and up to 45 from mid-1915, it’s known that plenty of boys under legal age also managed to sign up. This class has modern equivalents of the fresh young faces seen in so many WW1 photographs.’

Where did the idea of using a whole class come from? ‘Originally One Minute’s Silence was to be illustrated in a more conventional way. I was going to find someone to play one main Aussie character, and someone to play one main Turkish character, and the reader would follow these two characters throughout the book. When I asked the author, David Metzenthen, whether he had ideas about the way the Aussie ought to look, he sent me a photo from the war museum. Something about the look of [one of the boys in the photo] reminded me of one of my partner’s students…I started to wonder what it might be like for the reader to see everything through a contemporary boy’s eyes. They might find it more immediate to empathise with someone they recognise, someone they could see on the street… Eventually the idea evolved to include the whole class.’

Metzenthen has written an extensive illustrator’s commentary with details about many of his reference images, which you can find by following the link from this page on the publisher’s website.

Imagining sisters

claire-zorn_the-protectedTo keep a teenager engaged with a book, the characters must ring absolutely true. So what’s involved in creating a strong character?

Claire Zorn, author of The Protected, this year’s Book of the Year for Older Readers, writes about the inspiration for the book and the sisters at its centre:

‘The inspiration came from a few areas. Firstly, the (sometimes) fraught nature of sibling relationships. Just because you share a gene pool doesn’t mean you understand each other. It certainly doesn’t mean you like each other. As is my habit with writing stories, I took a character and put her to the test: what if she has a sister whom she loves but doesn’t like and that sister is killed?

‘The story also grew from an interest in how high school communities deal with death. The high school I went to had a student die in every year group but my own and multiple students had to cope with family tragedies. The result of this was a school community that time and time again had to deal with pain, grief and guilt. It would be lovely to say that these things built a strong, loving and close student community, but the reality was far more complex than that.

‘Central to the story is the relationship between Hannah and her sister Katie. I don’t have any sisters, so my insights into sisterhood were gleaned from the observation of close friend’s sisterly relationships and asking lots of questions. For the first few drafts I majorly underestimated the importance of Katie’s character, perhaps because she only existed in flashbacks. The story wasn’t working because, while Hannah was well fleshed out, Katie wasn’t, so there was no emotional pull. It wasn’t until I really understood Katie that the story started to work.’

Which books on this year’s CBCA list inspire you the most? Please tell us in comments below. And if you like this story, please consider sharing it using the social buttons.

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