I recently spent two weeks travelling around the stunning island of Tasmania. If you haven’t been you must! Highlights for me are definitely the seaside town of Stanley, the fruit farm cafes, the lavender farm outside Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Bruny Island, Hobart and let’s just say the whole place really.
One of the things on my to do list other than canyoning and ziplining (I love adrenaline), I couldn’t wait to see the wildlife. I saw echidnas cross highways, pademelons bound out of bushes, wombats and their babies feeding in the open. As I live in suburban, south east Queensland this is not a usual sight for me. It was great to see Aussie animals in the open and wild just roaming around. I spotted seals and dolphins at Bruny Island and watched fairy penguins return from the ocean to their burrows at night time in Bicheno. But I had to go to Platypus House to see this elusive animal.
High on my list though was seeing the Tasmanian Devil. Why? Well, other than it having Tasmania in its name, the devil is a main character in a children’s book manuscript I’ve been working on. I’ve done a lot of research online and wanted to see it in person.
I visited Devils@Cradle to learn about this mysterious creature for a night-time feeding session. Getting there at twilight, I was able to watch the devils run around. They made tracks around their pen, similar to dog paths in your backyard. I also heard their piercing devil cry. I saw two devils tackle each other, which made me jump with fright.
When it became dark, I heard about the plight of the devils as an endangered species. The main issue is devils are dying from Devil Facial Tumour Disease, an aggressive cancer that has spread rapidly throughout the population and drastically killed off many of them. As devils are now only found in Tasmania, the animals all have a close genetic pool and don’t have a strong resistance or immune system to fight the disease. To combat this, sanctuaries like Devils@Cradle are sending devils to other sanctuaries for breeding to expand the genetic pool of the species.
I watched the devils devour and crunch through bone and meat of a carcass. I even got to see the remains of some Tassie Devil faeces (poo!), which had animal fur in it.
Interestingly, Tasmanian Devils are solitary creatures in the wild, however in captivity they don’t mind sharing a pen with each other. Also, devils will not hurt humans. I think they’ve been feared for too long because of its piercing scream, which is how it got its name. Listen to a recording of a devil scream. It really does sound like that!
They prefer to scavenge their food. Devils are fast movers. One that was tracked had travelled one-third of Tasmania in a couple of weeks.
What I learned? We need to protect this Australian species and save it from the same ill fate as the once feared Tasmanian Tiger, which was hunted to extinction by early settlers.
Australian literature can play its part in spreading the word literally for the plight of this precious animal and teach our children about how to save the Tasmanian Devil.
Here are some great children’s books featuring Tasmanian Devils. Even if you can’t find these, there are ample fiction and non-fiction books about this creature that you can buy at a bookstore or borrow from your local library.
A Devilish Tale, by Alice Hansen features Nevil the devil as he searches for his family in the Tasmanian wilderness. Sales from the book raise money for the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease fund.
Little Devils, story by Rebecca Johnson and photographs by Steve Parish. Steve Parish books are favourites with both children and adults.
Taz, the Looney Tunes character.
Rare Earth: Saving Tasmanian Devils by Dr Mark Norman.
Tasmanian Devils: Life Cycles of Australian Animals by Greg Pyers. I have used these books in my classroom to help children learn about Australian animals.
Honey Bee Books also recommends these titles featuring Tasmanian Devils.
Last year I sat front row when Mem Fox presented at Black Cat Books, Brisbane. It is my favourite bookstore in Brisbane because of its large collection of Australian children’s literature, events, coffee shop and gorgeous deck, garden and rotunda out back. Black Cat Books + Mem Fox = I was there.
Sitting beside two of my writing buddies, Caylie and Sam, we soaked in all the magic that is Mem Fox. Everyone loves listening to Mem Fox. Besides she exemplifies magic, think The Magic Hat and of course, Possum Magic. You can even hear Mem read aloud on her website.
What a character. She oozes wit, intelligence, passion for quality children’s writing and reading, warmth and she takes her audience on an emotional rollercoaster as she reads her books. She held the entire room captive for a few hours, a room full of adults and she even reduced my friend Caylie to tears from a reading of Koala Lou. Read Caylie’s account of meeting The Divine Ms Mem. Mem shared the behind the scenes stories of writing her books. It’s no wonder she is children’s writing royalty in Australia and worldwide.
Even my grade 3 class last year still loved hearing me read Where is the Green Sheep? and gush over meeting Mem Fox. They knew who she was straight away and were equally impressed by my signed copy. They’ve heard Mem Fox for years and still joined in on, “But where is the green sheep?”
One true gem Mem shared was how her books are now primarily aimed at the early year's picture book market and when I thought about this it made sense. Her classic picture books like Possum Magic and Koala Lou fit in the older picture book segment, while her newer works like Where is the Green Sheep? and her latest Baby Bedtime are aimed at the 0-4 age group.
So around the same time as this event in November 2013, I lay on my bed one afternoon and a wash of words drifted into my head, brought on the afternoon summer breeze. Maybe it was a sprinkling of the Mem Fox magic still hanging around. Luckily I had a notebook nearby and I wrote down a jumble of words all to do with the wind. (Excellent writer tip: Always carry a notebook with you so you don't forget those magic words that appear in your head.)
These words became the basis for my first early year’s picture book. All my efforts until now had mainly sat in the older picture book market.
Mem spoke of how the words for Baby Bedtime poured forth from her when sitting beside her grandson Theo’s crib in the neo-natal hospital ward. He was born 8 weeks premature and in loving this beautiful little boy the first verse for Baby Bedtime came to her. Not long after this, Mem had crafted the entire poem. Four years on the book has been published by Penguin and the illustrations are wonderfully captured by Emma Quay with a mother and baby elephant.
So with a little more of the Mem Fox magic still in the air I took these notebook scribbles, toyed with the words and turned it into the first draft. After showing it to my writing group and getting some more critiques, I have continued to play with the words of the text.
Mem revealed that the text for Where is the Green Sheep? took her 7 months to write. She painstakingly laboured over the right words, all one syllable mind you, except for two in the whole text. Most of these books sound simple and many think are easy to write. It is the opposite. With so few words, each one counts and must be exact.
At moments, on my holiday in the last two weeks, I wrote down which words would fit best in my manuscript and asked my mum, my travel buddy for input too. So many sw, tw, wh words swirled in my head.
I tried different words, combination of words, I changed the order and I read my work aloud until I was happy with my final version. After toiling over my many manuscript drafts and query letter, I have sent it off to a publisher. Hopefully with some virtual Mem Fox magic! Fingers crossed.
At Christmas I caught up with one of my best friends from high school who was visiting from Adelaide. She asked how my writing was going. I mentioned I’d seen Mem Fox recently. She excitedly told me that she knows the area where Mem Fox lives in Adelaide. Next time I visit my friend in Adelaide, she suggested we take a stroll on the beach near Mem's house. Maybe a little more Mem Fox magic will come my way.
Don't worry, I won’t be knocking on your door Mem. But, you may see me at another event you’re at. (Just a huge fan!)
Mem, I hope you continue to delight everyone with your writing magic for many years to come. Never stop!
Mem Fox website http://memfox.com/
Caylie Jefferies website http://www.cayliejeffery.com.au/
Sam Sochaka website http://samsochacka.com/