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Saturday, August 01, 2015

The award Nim would be most proud of

The environment and children’s literature are two things I care about passionately, so I was absolutely thrilled last Tuesday night when, at a lovely event at the Melbourne’s Little Bookroom, Rescue on Nim’s Island was awarded the Widlerness Society’s Environment Award for Children’s Literature (fiction) ­– and the inaugural Puggles (children’s choice) award as well!
The Little Bookroom, photo by Elise Jones

When I first wrote Nim’s Island, I didn’t set out to make Nim a wildlife warrior. She just ended up one because if you live in a pristine natural environment, you have to care about keeping it pure. If you have a friend who’s a sea turtle, you care about whether she and her babies will survive. If you live on a small island, you know that every part of the island works together, and if you damage any part of it, it will damage the whole. We live on a big island in Australia, and other continents are bigger still, but the principle is the same.
Hollyburn School, Vancouver, using Nim as an environmental hero, 2008

But the good news is that every good thing you do for the environment can have big effects too ­– and it’s important to remember that we need to start with what’s right around us. You can sign a heap of petitions to save whales, but if you plant the rushes that indigenous butterflies breed in, you can help to save a species in your own garden. 

And that’s really what Nim does. You don’t have to be quite as dramatic as she is – it’s probably best not to look for dynamite to defuse, but I guarantee that you can make a difference. If you read the books on this list, you might find surprising ways to do it. I'm reading one of the shortlist right now: The Vanishing Frogs of Cascade Creek, by Emma Homes, and I'm learning lots! 
With illustrator Geoff Kelly, photo by Coral Vass
With author Emma Homes

for the whole list and more pictures of the great evening, hosted by the lovely Leesa Lambert, with an inspiring keynote speech by Morris Gleitzman. And a special thanks to Coral Vass for allowing me to use her photographs.
Meeting Rescue on Nim's Island illustrator Geoff Kelly for the first time,
photo by Coral Vass

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Lost and found lion friends

It’s happy book birthday for the new paperback editions of Wanted! A Guinea Pig called Henry, and Abandoned! A Lion Called Kiki. Harry the Rescue Dog is celebrating with an updated post on the origin of the lion story – because believe it or not, that’s the truest story in all the Rainbow Street Animal Shelter series (the Rainbow Street Pets book in Australia).

Can you imagine getting a phone call from an airport to say, “You’ve got a parcel here!” – and when you get there, finding out that a friend has sent you a lion cub? That’s what happened to friends of my parents when I was a kid, living in Colorado.

The cub was a lioness, and she was named Cappy. Her father was a cross-eyed lion named Clarence, who starred in Daktari, a TV series set in Africa, but I’m not sure why someone decided to send this cub to our friends – who already had six dogs and a three-legged goat! (And can you imagine how excited my brother and sister and I were when they came to visit us? The cub even met our horse!)

Our friends took wonderful care of Cappy, but of course she grew into a lion, not a big pussy cat. In the end they realized that the best thing for her would be to take her somewhere where she could live more like a lion. It was as heartbreaking as it would be to give up any pet. They chose the zoo at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, although she was later sold to the Topeko zoo in Kansas. They visited her there a couple of years later, and she seemed to remember her name when they called her.

That was the happiest ending that little lion could have had in 1967, but when I wrote the story I set it in the 1980s and so was able to make it even happier. I used a wildlife refuge in Zambia because when I phoned the Melbourne Werribee Plains Zoo to ask some questions, I spoke to a vet who was about to return to Zambia to set up a wildlife refuge to look after lions and other native animals.  

It also struck me that if the memory of the visiting lion cub had made such an impression on me, it would have had a much bigger effect on a child who'd been given it. So as authors do, I used some bare bones of truth, and fleshed out a story that explains why the Rainbow Street Shelter manager Mona has dedicated her life to animals.

And thanks to my original post when the book first came out, we’re back in touch with the friends who were surprised by that parcel so long ago. A lovely bonus to the story.

Harry's hoping to interview a guinea pig rescuer in a later post. (I don't really trust him to interview guinea pigs…)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Asking questions to turn thoughts into story ideas

Eleven year old Maddison wants to be a writer and has asked where I get ideas from. That’s a great question because every story has to start with an idea!
Ideas come from thoughts, and thoughts come from all our senses, as well as our emotion and everything we remember and imagine. That can add to millions of thoughts a day (I just made that figure up – maybe it’s thousands. A lot, anyway.) How do we turn some of those into ideas that can be built into a story?
The answer is: Questions! The first questions are usually, ‘What if?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ or ‘What happened?’
To show you what I mean, I gave myself a challenge to find some new ideas on my morning walk.
Here’s a not-very-great picture of a nest fallen on the ground. To turn this into a story I’d ask:
What happened here?
1) What happened to the baby birds? Had they already flown away?
(I really hope so, and I think they had, because the nest looks old - but that wouldn’t  make a story. So for the rest of the questions we’ll say that the eggs or baby birds were still in there.
2) How did it fall out of the tree?
 Possible answers:
a) The wind.
b) A predator bird or animal.
c) A bad person - why are they doing it?
d) An alien - what do they think the eggs are?
e) …..
3) What happens next?
 a) The protagonist (hero) tries to rescue them and put the nest back in the tree. How do they do that? Climb the tree? What happens if they fall out? Or meet an eagle? Or get into trouble because someone thinks they’re trying to steal the nest?
b) The birds are an endangered species – so a poacher is going to raise the birds and sell them to zoos. Now how does the hero try to stop them?
c) The aliens are going to hatch them…
3) Where is the nest? What's on the other side of that fence?

Questions & answers for writing Raven's Mountain
(Facing the Mountain)
So, you just keep on asking questions.  Remember that there aren't any wrong answers - there are only answers that will lead to better questions to make the best possible story. 

Of course I saw lots of things on my walk: blackberries – not much of a story there, but what if you put blackberry bushes under the tree that someone’s climbing to steal or rescue the nest?
What about the sisters I heard arguing?
Or the sign for the school fete?

Or the empty holiday house – where one day my dog ran away and went in the dog door. The dog door was locked from the inside so that he couldn’t get out… There are lots of chances for a story there!
The island that gave me the first idea for Nim's Island

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Harry the Rescue Dog Talks Animal Shelters: Debra Duel and the Washington Animal Rescue League

Harry the Rescue Dog's Rainbow Street Post:

Although Harry might look as if he's dozing after an exhausting ball play, he's actually contemplating his first of a series of blog posts to celebrate rescue pets, animal shelters like the one he was adopted from, and the release of the beautiful new editions of The Rainbow Street Animal Shelter series with Square Fish.

Lost! A Dog called Bear  and Missing! A Cat Called Buster are out today. (The books are out - I hope the animals are safe at home!)

If you'd like to share the story of your rescue pet or an animal shelter - or any amazing animal story! - you can contact Harry by commenting on the Rainbow Street Pets Facebook page (it would be great if you wanted to like the page too) or through the email link on wendyorr.com. But to start off, here's Debra Duel, the Director of Humane Education at the Washington Animal Rescue League, with the interview from June 2012, when Lost! A Dog Called Bear was first published.

Debbie has more than 25 years of experience in humane education—leading classroom programs and professional workshops.  She is the author of the book, Nigel, a popular Operation Outreach-USA (www.oousa.org) title.  I had never heard of a role like this until I received this email:
"I just read Lost! A dog Called Bear.  Thank you for writing a book for early readers that not only paints animal shelters, and their staff and volunteers, in a positive light, but stresses the importance of micro-chipping AND is a really good story.   The humane education program that I administer is literacy based. We provide classroom teachers with humane-themed books for their classroom libraries, and whenever possible, give every student In the class a book of his/her very own.  I am going to add Lost! A Dog Called Bear to my list and can’t wait to get Missing!  A Cat Called Buster.

I also wanted to let you know that I believe  that the strongest message in your book, and there are many without preaching a single one, is when Hannah decides not to adopt the guinea pig!    That is such an important, and often lost, message."

Debbie's childhood friend Teddy

How would you describe your job? .
Lots of fun, but with a serious message.   I actually get paid to spend every day with my wonderful dog, Nigel, and children who care about animals!  My job is to share information about animal welfare with students  so they can strategize ways in which to help animals and make a real difference.  I tell them, you don’t need to live with an animal to help them.  Animal welfare is everyone’s  responsibility.

What was the path - or the passion(!) -  that led you to working to animals in general, or this job in particular?  
I couldn’t find a job when I graduated college in 1981, so I started volunteering with the local animal welfare organization in Tallahassee, Florida.  That led to a job in the adoptions department at the shelter.   I didn’t feel like I was doing enough to prevent animal cruelty and make a real dent in the overpopulation crisis in that position, so I started a volunteer humane education program for children, and that eventually led to paid position.  Now I visit students in D.C. area schools.  The students and I explore ways to end animal suffering including spaying and neutering cats and dogs, lobbying for stricter animal protection laws, and  emphasizing responsible animal care school-wide.

Did you have pets as a child? 
Debbie's Dad with his "Black Hill Sheepdog"  Ted
We adopted our first cat when I was 9-years-old.  That was a big deal because my mother was scared to death of cats.   I’ve lived with cats ever since.  Later, my family added a puppy to the family.   The card on his cage at the shelter said shepherd mix.  But Teddy, a fluffy black puppy grew into a very handsome 60 pound shaggy dog that didn’t resemble a shepherd at all.    People would stop us and ask what kind of dog he was.  My dad made up a name, he would say, “Ted is a Black Hill Sheepdog.”  People would often reply, “Wow, he’s beautiful, I’ve never seen one of those before,” or “You don’t see many of those in south Florida, do you?”  “No, you don’t, “ my dad answered.  

Do you have an animal companion now?
My dog, Nigel, came to live with my family 7 ½ years ago.  He is a black Labrador retriever, who neither swims nor retrieves (characteristics associated with retrievers).  My son, Max, who was seven when we adopted Nigel wanted a dog more than anything in the world.  Since I worked in a shelter, I saw dogs every day, but none of them were the “right” dog.  Eventually, one of our humane officers brought in a very friendly, but terribly emaciated black dog.   The veterinarian who examined him said that he had been nearly starved to death.  Nigel, now a very handsome 75-pound dog, weighed just 48 pounds the day he was rescued.   For me, it was love at first sight.   Nigel comes to work with me at the Washington Animal Rescue League, and he visits students in Washington, D.C.   I wrote a book about him shortly after I adopted him and we give the book to every student we meet.   Nigel and I also live with three shelter cats, Micky, a Morris-the-cat look-alike, Merl a brown tabby named for a cat in one of favorite picture books, My Big Dog,  by Susan Stevens Crummel and Janet Stevens, and Charlotte Tibbs, our most recent addition.

What would your pet tell us about you?  
 Charlotte would complain that I refuse to let her go outside.  She is very curious and is always trying to escape out the front door.  I explain to her that she is much safer as an indoor only cat (and so are the birds!), but she is not very accepting of this reasoning.   She is young and fearless; scratching posts and toy mice are not nearly as thrilling to her as towering maple trees and real-live rodents!

Any advice for people wanting a pet?  
An animal companion is a HUGE financial and time commitment, but if you are sure that you can, and want to commit to both, you will have a true BFF!

Favourite animal books? 
I have so many and I love sharing them with students.   Right now the first two books in the Rainbow Street Series are my absolute favorites for young chapter book readers and Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata and The Nine Lives of Travis Keating by Jill MacLeanis  are my must-read picks for fifth and sixth graders.  I think both of those would make great movies!  I have way too many favorite animal picture books to name, but I list many of them on my blog, warlkids.blogspot.com.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Happy Lunar New Year - and a book excerpt.

As a little gift for the Year of the Goat, I'm posting the first chapter of Across the Dark Sea, which begins with the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. If you prefer, you can download it from my website:

The book has lovely illustrations by Donna Rawlins, but you'll have to imagine that for this excerpt!

Like a cricket to freedom
It started on the first day of Tet, in the middle of the fun and firecrackers, when they put old pants and shirts on top of their New Year clothes and took a bus from Saigon to Uncle Huan’s near the sea. Or before that, when Ma sold everything they owned so nothing was left but the furniture and Trung’s bamboo cage for his fighting crickets. Or maybe it started two years before, on that rainy day in 1976 when the soldiers took Ba away because he was a doctor for the army that lost the war.
Whenever it started, it happened the night they crept out of Uncle’s house in the middle of the night, Mai on Ma’s back and Trung carrying his parcel of new clothes.
A man was waiting on the path to the river. Trung froze so still his breath didn’t come, but his mother hurried forward as if she didn’t know how to be afraid.
‘It’s Ba,’ she whispered.
Every morning for two years Trung had prayed to see his father again. This man was thinner and older, with his two front teeth missing, but when he held out his arms, Trung exploded into them like a cricket escaping to freedom.
Mai couldn’t remember so long ago; she thought Ba was an ancestor in a photo. She started to cry.
‘Sh!’ whispered her mother, and they hurried on to the river through the moon shadows and strange night noises.
A crowd of people were waiting on the bank – men and women, children and grandmothers – and even though they jostled and stared, even the babies stayed quiet as a secret. Trung had so many questions he didn’t know what they were, but he held tight to his father’s hand while a voice inside his head chirped like a happy cricket, ‘Ba’s here and we’ll be all right! Ba’s here, we’re together again!’
Ma and Mai came up behind them. Mai started to cry again till Ma turned around. ‘Silly Mai!’ whispered Trung. ‘It’s Ba!’
Then, from the darkness of the river, Trung saw three dragon shapes gliding towards them. He tugged Ba’s hand hard – then a wave of people pushed them to the water, and the dragons turned into sampans with a boatman poling each one.
Trung stumbled as the river snatched him. His feet skidded, his arms waved, and he splashed face-first into the water. His parcel of clothes floated away.
Ba grabbed him and dumped into a sampan. More people tumbled in: a bigger boy landed on his foot and someone’s elbow was in his back.
Ba turned around for Ma and Mai.
The boatman lifted his pole. ‘No more!’
‘Ba!’ croaked Turn, his throat so dry with fear that his voice didn’t work.

His father grabbed the sampan and slid inside.
The night was black and the river was blacker, but blackest of all was the big fishing boat ahead of them, with the line of people scurrying up its side like ants up a honey jar. Then their sampan bumped against it too, Ba hoisted him up to a ladder, and the other boat started poling back to the shore.
To get Ma and Mai, thought Trung, as hand by hand, foot by foot, he climbed the prickly rope ladder to the deck.
The half –moon came out, its crescent of light shining on the calm sea.
It shone on the soldiers who burst out of the woods, and on the sampans racing up the river to hide.
It shone on the shore where Ma waited with Mai, while the fishing boat with Ba and Trung sailed out to cross the sea to Australia, 6000 kilometres away. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Thirty years in the making – where did Nim come from?

The wonderfully zany and multi-talented author Tristan Bancks said I had to write a blog post about my character or he’d never speak to me again. I mean, he invited me to be part of a character blog hop. You can meet his character Tom Weekly here.
Since it’s quite a long time before you’ll the character who’s taken over my life and computer right now, I’m going to introduce Nim. Even if you’ve met her, you might find out something new.

1) What is your character’s name?
Nim Rusoe.

2) Is Nim based on you?
Of course she is! She’s brave, adventurous, resourceful. A bit hot-tempered too, but I had to make some things up.
But Alex Rover, the agorophobic adventure writer is based on me too. Maybe I should say that Nim is based on how I’d have liked to be when I was her age. In fact, when I was writing the first book, Nim's Island, Nim didn't come to life until I remembered how I'd felt when I was 9 year and  wrote a story about a little girl who runs away from an orphanage to live on an island. I wasn't a particularly brave or capable kid, so I created a character who could be all the things I wished I was. Thirty years later, that character and her story grew into Nim. 

3) How old is Nim?
Abigail Breslin as Nim
I never wanted Nim to have a specific age. When I wrote the first book I wanted her to be whatever age the reader wanted her to be – and because she didn’t go to school or have human friends, it was easy to do that. But when you see a movie you know how old the actor is, so in the movie Nim’s Island, Nim was 11, as the actress Abigail Breslin was at the time. In Nim at Sea she was between 11 and 12, but in the film of that book, Return to Nim’s Island, Bindi Irwin was 14, so Nim was too. In Rescue on Nim’s Island, I think she’s close to 13 – but she’ll be older in the film.
Bindi Irwin as Nim

4) What should we know about Nim?
She’s really just a normal kid whose life has made her become braver and more self-reliant than she might have been if her parents had worked in the city and sent her to school. But after meeting other kids in Nim at Sea and Return to Nim’s Island, she does want to have human, kid friends as well as her animal friends. She has to learn to do that in Rescue on Nim’s Island (as well as discovering fossils, blowing up caves, etc.) Learning to get along with the other kids and figuring out what’s going on is the hardest thing she’s had to learn!

5) What are Nim’s personal goals?
I don’t know if Nim would say, ‘saving the planet’, but in some ways that is her aim. She certainly wants to save her island and all the species on it.
And she wants the horrible twins Tiffany & Tristan to like her. (Sorry, Tristan!)  And for Edmund to really like her.
And for Selkie and Fred to stay happy and healthy forever.
And I think she has a secret wish about her dad and Alex Rover…

6) Where can we find out more about the books? 
Just click the links below. Nim's Island is the first, and Rescue on Nim's Island is the newest - it just came out last year. 

Nim's Island                                                                  Nim at Sea      

          The Nim Stories                                                    Rescue on Nim's Island


And now I'm going to nominate Sheryl Gwyther and Kathryn Appel to introduce their characters. Check their blogs next week or so and see if they've taken up the challenge!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday season story starters - using the stories, emotions and memories triggered by objects

The holiday season can be joyous: all that family, expectation and tradition –  but it can also be difficult: all that family, expectation and tradition. Usually it's both. If you're a writer, that tension and drama means a huge source of potential inspiration. 

So [ay attention to the thoughts, memories and emotions that come up with various triggers at this time of year, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, or nothing at all. Remember that there are no rules about what you should feel – if a beautiful ornament reminds you of sibling rivalry, or a Christmas carol leaves you feeling excluded, those are great story starters. All you need is that one trigger; the story may end up a long way from the object, the memory, or Christmas.  

I’ve chosen a few of my own Christmas ornaments and will share some of the thoughts that come up for me. They may be prosaic, but all that any prosaic idea needs is a twist to inspire a story.

Every year when I pin this tiny hanging to a wall, I am transported back to my eight year-old self in a prairie town in Alberta, Canada. It was a gift from a young Danish woman who was living with my family because her husband, an Air Force trainee, wasn’t supposed to be married. So as well as the warmth of remembering ‘my Danish sister’ when I handle it, I feel a slight sense of intrigue and mystery that I loved to embellish – she may have lived in the basement because there weren’t any spare bedrooms upstairs, but a story-telling mind could always wonder whether it was also to keep her hidden….

This paper maché bell came from New Delhi, 

when I was there for the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival. Of course it reminds me of that, the people I met there and the whole mind-boggling experience. It also makes me wonder about the person who made it, their life and emotions while making it. Did they wonder where some of their little bells would end up?

I made this rather bedraggled angel on my first Christmas in Australia. I’d just turned 22 and had been married nearly a year; it was my first Christmas away from my own family. I desperately wanted some of the traditions I’d grown up, including an angel on the Christmas tree. (Which that year was simply a branch.) We had no money at all, but I found a plastic skittle, an old lace glove and a torn doll’s dress in a shed on my parents-in-law’s farm…

One of my favourite ornaments was a gift of a bread-dough snowman from by a Jewish friend’s son when they spent Christmas with us. (Yes, we had a kosher chicken as well as the turkey.) There’s no picture because the dog ate it last year. But that could be a story in itself…