Did you know that there are only 14 species of Handfish that are found in Australian waters? The majority of the species are found in Tasmania, with the Spotted Handfish, Red Handfish and Ziebell's Handfish listed as critically endangered.
There are two new books for younger readers that share some interesting information about the unique Handfish.
Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish was shortlisted in the 2021 CBCA Eve Pownall award category of the CBCA Book of the Year Awards. It is a factual fiction book which tells us all about Handstand, a Spotted Handfish, who lives in the waters off Tasmania. He is tiny, just measuring 13 cms, and walks along the seabed on his hands (pectoral fins). He does not have a swim bladder like other fish so cannot always swim away from danger. The Spotted Handfish was one of the first marine species to be on the Threatened Species Red List as his habitat is threatened by introduced predators, climate change, fishing nets and dredging, pollution and rubbish as well as anchors from boats. This is a great read and the illustrations are vibrant and full of life. You will learn all about this amazing creature that has survived since the time of the dinosaurs.
Coco, the Fish with Hands is the first book in the Endangered Animal Tales series. It tells you the story of Coco, the Spotted Handfish, who goes on a long journey to find somewhere safe to lay her eggs. Coco usually lays her eggs around a sea squirts or sea tulips but the Northern Pacific sea star has eaten many of these plants so Coco must find somewhere else to go. Along the way she is in danger from crabs but she cleverly outwits them! Coco eventually finds a mate and lays her eggs in a safe place. The Spotted Handfish stays with her eggs until they are hatched. Did you know that the babies are called fry and are only 6mms long? How tiny! The illustrations are bright and colourful and this is a lovely story to learn some new facts about a very clever little marine creature.
What's happening to protect these unique fish?
The National Handfish Recovery Team (NHRT) was formed in 2014 and coordinates the research program for the three species of handfish in Tasmania. You can find out more about their projects here.
Year 4/5 students at St Joseph's School Tranmere came up with an interesting and unique way to celebrate this year’s Book Week theme.
They created these great displays of garden themed miniature worlds and labelled their works in Italian.
If anyone else would like to share their activities for Book Week, we’d love to see them.
‘Hollowpox – the hunt for Morrigan Crow' by Jessica Townsend. I love these kinds of books with magical realism and this series is simply fabulous.
What do you love about reading to children?
Their excitement, their reactions and how they will always expand upon the story in their own way – it’s priceless!
What was your favourite book when you were little?
I don’t recall having many books as a child, I can’t remember any to be honest. My most memorable books would be a very thick copy of A. A. Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ when I was 7 years old which I bought from the school book club, and the complete series of ‘The Black Stallion’ by Walter Farley.
When you’re working do you listen to music? Eat? Have a pet on your lap?
I generally have music playing and always two border collies at my feet.
Can you tell us a story about you researching for your story?
I love the research part of stories – talking to people, learning new things, finding inspiration when you least expect it. For ‘Lucy and Copper’ I spent a day with a little girl named Chiara and her pony Smudge. It gave me insights into their relationship, all the quirks that can’t be told in words. These inspired a lot of the images.
You see books as very important – I can tell that from your website. What would you say to parents just starting out - introducing stories and story time to their new baby?
Picture books open up a child’s world. They are never too young to start looking at books – they are the window to literacy. It’s how babies learn to associate the image of a cow with the word ‘cow’. Literacy today is about so much more than words and books are where it begins. The earlier a parent can start reading to their little ones the better. It not only builds their connection but also a child’s curiosity, imagination, knowledge, and confidence to explore everything the world has to offer.
When you are working, do you think back or check-in on when you were little?
No, but I do check back in on when my son was little and the different stages he went through growing up, and I ask his opinion a lot. Details for instance – children love details and it’s like they have a radar for homing in on things. I always make mock-ups when I start working on a new book, once the drawings are complete. With ‘Joey and Riley’ I had drawn cardboard rocket wings on the go-kart. This go-kart appears in two places – once on the farm and once after Joey has moved to the town. I had left them off the image from the town scene and my son picked it up when I read him the mock-up book. So of course, I had to put them in because I just knew then that another child somewhere would also pick that up. These are the little things that adults miss.
Do you ever make mistakes and have to start again? Do you do drafts?
Mistakes are basically learning opportunities, but deadlines don’t allow for too many of these! With every book I do I complete storyboards, character studies and complete drawings before commencing the finished painted artwork. With each stage I work very closely with my editor/publisher so any little changes can be made as it progresses. This avoids major changes at the painting stage.
Can you tell us one of the best things that has happened since you started your work with children’s books?
Being able to do author visits in schools and see children’s responses to my books first hand. To see how much children connect with my characters and stories, feel their enthusiasm and excitement, and know that what I do inspires a child’s own creativity. I recall a few years ago, I had two days at one particular school, speaking to every class. On the second day a teacher made a beeline for me and thanked me profusely. There was one student in a class on the first day who they had struggled for a very long time to communicate and connect with. After my session he started drawing and talking about what he was drawing – it unlocked a door that that teacher and others, hadn’t been able to get past. If I have to speak to 10,000 children to reach that one, it is so worth it. It is worth all the long days and late nights.
What is the best thing you have heard from a young reader?
Children come out with the funniest things sometimes like, ‘are you rich? Because I want a job that makes me lots of money’, ‘I can draw Valiants really well’, ‘can you draw a poo on the end of the elephant’s tail’, and ‘have you met Andy Griffiths?’ but honestly, the best thing is when they tell me they never want to put my book down – that’s heart melting stuff.
What’ya reading, Bren?
I'm reading The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne, which starts in post war Ireland and goes the whole lifetime of a young man from pre-birth to death. It's one of those novels where you don't really understand what you're reading when you set off but you understand that it's heartachingly honest and full of flawed people, and you slowly fall in love with many elements of it during the journey and when you finish, you feel like the character is an old friend and you just left his house for the last time.
What do you enjoy snacking on when you write?
Sesame curry peanuts. I'm addicted to them.
What risk have you taken with your writing that has paid off?
I took on environmental themes which are sometimes seen as scary for children, and I took on the challenge of telling these stories in unusual future voices. My stories are set in a very different future and I wanted them to feel like another time with a different kind of voice. The risk is that many readers have set ideas about what is appropriate for children, and how stories should be written.
Why did you choose to become an author?
It's a form of creativity that's always interested me, and I've tried other forms of creativity but always come back to writing. I just love to create stories. As a farm kid, having people sitting around telling stories after a long day of shearing etc. was one of my favourite things.
Is there a book by another author you would recommend everyone should read?
I really loved This is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield. I just love how she's captured the hopelessness of growing up in poverty, of having poor parenting, of how all encompassing poverty traps are. It's heartbreaking. I loved that novel.
In Dog Runner, did you envisage the Ella in a specific part of Australia, and if so, can I ask where?
I feel like it's somewhere between Shepparton and Wangaratta. Dookie, maybe. Shepparton is famous for canned fruit.
Were there any real-life dogs which you used for inspiration for the dogs in Dog Runner?
I went to a forest in Logan to see The Sled Dog Racing Queensland people practising running their dogs through forest trails, so that was wonderful. There was also a twitter account I followed where a girl had four malamutes, a brown, a grey, a black and a much larger one who was tall like an Alsation. So I kind of modelled the family dogs on three of her dogs. I've grown up with dogs and so I found it easy to write in the dogs.
What indigenous foods have you eaten and enjoyed which might surprise people?
Yams! I love all yams and sweet potatoes, give them all to me!
You’ve had considerable success writing about environmental themes. Was there a time, place or event that led you down this path, and do you think you will always weave these themes into whatever stories you write?
When I started out there weren't many environmental-based stories around but suddenly they're everywhere... so I think society decided it was important and that's where the success in these themes came from. I just write what I think is interesting, what I want to explore and what is on my mind. I like to focus on the future, on where we're going, like most people who write science fiction do, so I think I'll always be thinking about what comes next. Maybe it came from a childhood under the threat of the cold war and always being worried about the future. I see that same kind of worry in today's children about the environment and the need to explore what a changed future might look like.
Could you give your readers a sneaky hint at what your next book will be about?
I've teamed up with Zana Fraillon. We're each writing a character born 100 years apart. We're bringing you a novel set in a post-pandemic, post-city world, one where surviving humans have learned their lesson. But it turns out history truly won't stay buried.