WestWords is partnering with the Red Room Company to present 
The Poetry Object 2015


What is Red Room Poetry Object?

Red Room Poetry Object is a free poetry-writing competition for students in Years 3-10. Created by The Red Room Company, the project invites young writers and their teachers to submit poems inspired by objects that are special to them.

The School

In collaboration with Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and WestWords, The Red Room Company will run a special series of free Poetry Object workshops to spark the imaginations of students and produce beautiful and inspiring poems.

The Project

Award-winning poet Ahmad Al Rady will team up with The Red Room Company and WestWords in July to present a special series of workshops at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. With writing activities inspired by the Poetry Object learning resource, students will delve into the undiscovered magic of their favourite objects. During the workshops, celebrated comic artist Leigh Rigozzi will sketch students and their poetic inspirations. These workshops are free and spaces are limited so book early!

To find out more and book your places, contact Anney at Casula Powerhouse on

The Poet

Ahmad Al Rady

Ahmad Al Rady is a poet, university student, young community leader and social activist. At just 24 years old, his work has been showcased on the international and national stage; coming fresh off the “Speaking of Home” UAE tour, the Woodford Folk Festival, Sydney Writers Festival and the  “Write on the World” Australian inter-state spoken word tour. Ahmad is also the co-founder of Australia’s largest regular live poetry event, The Bankstown Poetry Slam (attracting an audience of 300+ every month). Ahmad also founded the LMA’s ‘Stand Tall, Speak Out!”, Australia’s largest youth spoken word program, as a way to get high school students to express the various issues facing them, from family to faith, gender to bullying, through poetry. His work has been published in both anthologies of the Bankstown Slam. When he is not writing, performing and socially advocating, Ahmad is a full-time student at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), currently completing his Masters of Podiatric Medicine and undergoing honours research focusing on preventive strategies of diabetes-related lower limb complications.

Inheritance Lisa Forrest

Lisa Forrest was once most famous for being an Olympic swimmer, and Captain of the Olympic swim team at just 16 years of age. These days, she’s known to thousands of young readers as the author of fantastic YA novels including Making the Most of It, djmAx and her exciting new novel Inheritance. Here, Lisa describes for us the process of creating the magic and mystery of the Cirkulatti…



I thought that the more experienced I became at storytelling, the easier it would get.

But in creating, Inheritance,  I needed more faith in the mystery and magic of storytelling than ever before.  Faith that if I turned up every day at my computer, the muse would turn up too. Faith that all those ideas, some barely a pinch, others a more solid dollop, would find a way to coalesce. Faith that one day, after what seemed like a few minutes immersed in my fictional world, I’d look at the clock and find hours had passed – which is ultimately what I seek when I write, a period of transcendence that is as satisfying as the final product.

With Inheritance all that was a LONG time coming!

One of the most common questions a writer is asked is: where do your ideas come from? For my earlier novels the question was easy to answer because the ideas that inspired the books were clear and came directly from my experiences. Making the Most of It was a coming-of-age story about a teenager who swims for Australia who doesn’t think she quite lives up to the expectations of her country and those close to her – and perhaps herself most of all. I wrote that book to discover if Nina Hallet had actually let anyone down at all – or it were all in her own mind.  In djmAx, having experienced the transformative benefits of throwing myself around on a dance floor for most of my life, I wondered if a love of music and dancing could bridge the generation gap – my characters Maxine Phillips and her grandfather Reg helped answer the question for me.  And with Boycott, my non-fiction account of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, I wondered if, rather than being an embarrassing blip in our Olympic movement, the Australian team that defied a determined government, a hostile media and an angry public, to go to the Games because it believed in an ideal, could find a more respectable place in our country’s history.


But after Boycott I had nothing – except a feeling that perhaps my writing days were done. Perhaps I’d exhausted my story ideas. Two of my three novels had come from one moment in my teenage years – the 1980 Olympics – and perhaps I should be grateful for that.  Which would have been fine – if I wasn’t a believer in the mystery of magic of storytelling. If I didn’t know, from experience, that even with the clarity of those earlier stories one idea leads to another until you’re in a place you never expected, with a character who’d charged into your story without invitation, and eventually those hours fly by and you haven’t even noticed.

Even accepting that I was never going to give writing away, I still needed an idea to start with. And then I interviewed John Flanagan on ABC Radio 702 one morning. I’d read his Ranger’s Apprentice series a couple of times to my son (and my husband since he’d listen in whenever he was around). To say we all loved the adventures of Will, Halt, Horace, Alice, the great Skandians, and the team of other characters, was a massive understatement.  Anyone who is a fan of the series knows that John’s son was the original inspiration – although he was well into his teens by the time John turned those early stories into the first book.  But I couldn’t help think during our interview that while Will might have ‘been’ his son, there was much about John that reminded me of Will’s mentor, Halt.

John Flanagan left me in the studio to present the rest of my radio show – but in every song, every promo, my mind went back to our chat. My son was too young to inspire a YA story – but my niece, a circus performer in Wollongong, had just turned thirteen. At the time she was a reluctant reader, a bit like John’s son. What if I wrote a story she might like to read? And what if I let the mystery-adventure stories that I loved as a teenager, about Trixie Belden and her team of super-sleuths, the Bob-Whites, be my guide.


And with that I was away. Just to see where it might lead me, I traced the etymology of the word circus; I discovered that our word circus came from the Latin word of the same name which had been Romanised from Greek word, kirkos, meaning circle or ring.  Maybe I’d read too many Percy Jackson books with my son, maybe I’ve visited Rome and spent too long sitting in front of the mighty Pantheon, but the moment I saw the word kirkos, I was back in the ancient world. Rome’s Circus Maximus was the first circus after all. So I started playing with the spelling of the two words, circus/kirkos and threw in a bit of Italian and began to imagine an ancient circus troupe called the Cirkulatti, always led by a woman – I was writing a story for girls after all – known as the Eminence, who it was said could whisper to the minds of her audience. I imagined her walking into the great ancient hippodromes, high on stilts as the acrobats, jugglers and clowns fanned out around her. I imagined that if this circus troupe was so popular then the leaders of these ancient civilisations would covet the Eminence and the Cirkulatti, want it on-side, if you like, so there was a tradition of rulers honouring the ascendance of each new eminence with a trinket, a piece of jewellery that eventually became known as the Curios of the Eminence.

The more I got into it the more I liked the idea of the circus harbouring these characters of very unusual ‘gifts.’ That’s pretty much what defines the circuses I’ve seen, and attracts us to them I think – that combination of beauty, grace and power, with a strong streak of individuality. I was also excited by the idea of playing with how that streak of independence works with responsibility to the ‘show’, to the ‘family’.


And there was no way I could write a story about a woman leader without exploring how that could happen. How does a woman realise her potential in a man’s world? We’ve seen how this country handled a woman in the top job over the last three years – pretty appallingly. I discovered that sixty-three countries have had women leaders – but only three have had repeated women leaders. Could I write a story about a circus troupe with a female leader, century-after-century, and sound plausible?

To try it out I thought, what if my circus girl in Wollongong somehow had one of these Curios, had found a vague reference to the Cirkulatti, and eventually found herself hunting through dusty old ancient history encyclopaedias for a clue. Just for fun I wrote the kind of entry she might find:

CIRKULATTI:  a person who claims to be descended from the Greek  performers who brought their skills to Roman Circuses around the 2nd Century BC and, as such, claim to be the true circus people of the world.  

While the circuses were better known for their chariot races, other acts were necessary to keep the enormous crowds entertained.  The jugglers, acrobats and clowns of the Cirkulatti became so popular that many believed their powers were supernatural; it was said they could control minds and bend others to their will. The Cirkulatti denied any ‘gifts’ beyond storytelling. But so favoured were they that Roman Emperors created trinkets and jewellery for each new Eminence—the position of highest power within the troupe, always a woman—and there are records of a ring, an ornately carved wrist cuff and necklace (Curios of the Eminence) passed to the first born girl of each Eminence through many generations.  

A split seems to have occurred between factions within the Cirkulatti during the brief reign of Nerva, when it was thought that an eminence had won the heart of the emperor.  Widely interpreted as a signal that the Cirkulatti intended to control the throne, the eminence was murdered and her supporters within the Cirkulatti fled Rome. Although not the Empire. Theodora, wife of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, was a circus performer before winning her husband’s heart. She was a popular and powerful force during her husband’s reign and questions were always raised about her connection to the Cirkulatti. 

Throughout the middle ages in Europe the Cirkulatti were forced underground; because of its rumoured links with the occult and black magic members were denounced and often persecuted.

The re-emergence of circuses in the 19th Century, and a flourishing of interest in the supernatural among the general public, reawakened interest in the ancient group.  Each new performer of unconventional abilities, either in Europe or the US where the new circuses flourished, gave rise to whispers of his or her lineage. Not surprisingly, each such performer denied the claim—who would want to bear the burden of phenomenal gifts; who would risk the persecution. But this only perpetuated the rumour and the Cirkulatti gained a reputation both feared and revered to this day.  Many believe that Lenin’s declaration that circuses were the ‘people’s entertainment’, and his establishment of many circus schools around the USSR, was merely an example of the State attempting to identify the Cirkulatti before they became a threat.

 The Curios of the Eminence have been highly sought after (the holy grail for collectors) by collectors over the years. They were believed to be owned by noted collector of Roman antiquities, Carl Lenter. But when his estate was donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 they were not part of the bequest.


After submitting the synopsis I met with my commissioning editor at a local cafe. She opened the manila folder she had with her revealing the encyclopaedia entry. I’d set it in the centre of the page and used an old-fashioned font so it looked like the real thing.

‘I didnt know about this,’ she said, eagerly tapping the page, ‘how did you discover it?’

I didn’t know how to react; was she joking with me. ‘I didn’t,’ I told her, ‘I made it up.’

Her cheeks flushed and shook her head, as if to say ‘of course, you did.’ Then we both laughed. It seemed I had tricked her – and I was thrilled. Maybe I was onto something with my Cirkulatti.

Inheritance Lisa Forrest



Lulu Bell covers

We’re very pleased to welcome Belinda Murrell to the WestWords website, and to hear all about her latest books. We know the Lulu Bell books are going to be a big hit with younger readers who love animal stories, while Belinda’s middle grade novel The River Charm will appeal to fans of historical fiction and adventure.


The first spark of a book

I’m sure every writer has moments that they look back upon, and realise that it was a moment when the first spark of a book was born. For my Lulu Bell series it was a conversation with my then seven year old niece Ella. I wanted to write a series for younger readers, aged six to nine years old and was mulling over some ideas. So I asked the expert – Ella, who is a keen reader and knows exactly what she likes (as her mum Kate Forsyth is also an author!).

‘What are your favourite books Ella?’  I think I was expecting an answer that included mermaids, fairies or tropical islands.

Without hesitation she replied – ‘Books about friends and animals.’

Of course she does. Just like I did as a child.

Which took me straight back to my own childhood. I had a childhood filled with books and animals.

When I was growing up my father was a veterinary surgeon. We lived in the vet hospital at Artarmon, and later we had a vet hospital at Parramatta.

So of course, I had the best childhood in the world! We had lots of interesting and unusual pets. Dad was always bringing home orphaned or injured animals for us to look after – everything from dogs, cats, lambs, calves and horses to snakes, possums and a baby wallaby who slept in a sack hung on the kitchen door.

We had so many adventures – whether it was travelling out to farms to help him deliver newborn calves, assisting in the operating theatre or rescuing injured wildlife.

So I decided to write a series of books about family and friends and lots of adventures with animals. It is about a girl, called Lulu Bell, growing up with her family living in a vet hospital.


About a girl called Lulu Bell

Lulu is the eldest child – she’s creative, warm and caring, sometimes a bit bossy and very practical – which is lucky as the rest of her family can be a bit zany. Her dad’s a vet so they live right behind Shelly Beach Vet Hospital. Lulu’s mum is an artist and very creative. Lulu has a sister called Rosie, who is dreamy and imaginative, and loves to wear angel wings and sparkly thongs, and a little brother Gus, who is cheeky and mischievous and always dresses up as a superhero called Bug Boy! And of course there are lots of animals – the two dogs Jessie and Asha, cats, a possum, a bunny and lots of other pets and wildlife.

group characters

It has been so much fun to write this series of books, and delightful to work with the very talented illustrator Serena Geddes. Serena has done the most amazing job of bringing Lulu and her family and friends to life!! We worked very closely during the illustration process, meeting up for cups of tea, sharing ideas and chatting on the phone. Serena borrowed family photos for inspiration, and then added her own special magic to create the characters.

Several incidents in the stories are based on true life. For example, I had a pony called Rosie who often broke into our kitchen hunting for snacks if anyone left the back door ajar. We also had a gorgeous cat who once had a litter of kittens in our washing machine on a pile of dirty washing. She was discovered just in time before they were all put through a wash cycle. Other stories are inspired by my own children and their antics.

There are six books in the series so far which will be released progressively between June 2013 and January 2014. The first two books are Lulu Bell and the Birthday Unicorn and Lulu Bell and the Fairy Penguin. Lulu Bell and Cubby Fort and Lulu Bell and Moon Dragon come out in August.


A fascinating family: The River Charm

As well as the Lulu Bell series, I also have a book for older children. My time slip book is called The River Charm and it is a very special story to me. River_Charm_front

The history of writing in my family goes back nearly 200 years. My great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson wrote the first children’s book published in Australia over 170 years ago. Her husband James and daughters were also writers. They were a fascinating family and when I started doing research on them – I discovered they had some amazing adventures.

The River Charm is the story of Charlotte Elizabeth Atkinson and her family.  Charlotte was the eldest daughter of the family, named after her mother. And just like her mother, she was a feisty, strong willed lass.  Charlotte Elizabeth grew up with a life of luxury on a grand estate called Oldbury in the Southern Highlands near Moss Vale. Her life was one filled with books, art, learning and love. Until one day tragedy struck, and her beloved father died. Her mother was left with four young children to raise and educate, and a huge estate with several sheep and cattle stations to run. Of course, a young widow, all alone was a tempting target. The convicts on the estate began to rebel. Bushrangers attacked the estate over and over again. Workers were murdered. Charlotte’s mother was captured and threatened with death.

In desperation, Charlotte’s mother took a hasty step. She married her overseer, George Barton. But the marriage was a disaster. Far from saving the family, George Barton turned out to be a violent, alcoholic madman. Finally Charlotte and her family had to flee, on horseback to a remote hut in the wilderness. They took with them just a few belongings, their pet koala Maugie and Charlotte’s mother’s writing desk. But their troubles were far from over. The executors of the estate decided that a mere woman was not capable of running her own affairs. They decided to sell all the cattle and sheep, and lease out the grand family home.

Worst of all they decided to take her children away from her and send them to boarding school. In those days, a woman did not have the legal right to be guardian of her own children. But Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman. With huge courage and determination she fought the entrenched sexism of the 19th century legal system for the right to manage her own affairs and keep her children.

Through all the terrible times, when she lost her home, her money and very nearly her family, Charlotte had a lucky talisman. It was a small brown pebble that she had picked up from the banks of the river that ran past her family estate in England, just before she left for Australia.  This little pebble reminded her where she came from and gave her the courage to fight for what she believed in. This little pebble, the river charm was passed down to Charlotte’s daughter Charlotte Elizabeth, and to her daughter Flora – and so on down the years. Until it was mounted on a gold charm bracelet with many other family mementoes. This bracelet was finally handed down to my mother Gilly, along with so many stories about the brave and strong Atkinson women.

The stories that my mother and grandmother told were so vivid that it seemed as though I knew all the Atkinsons personally – I felt I knew their personalities, their talents and weaknesses, their romances their griefs and their triumphs. And so I decided to write a fictional book inspired by their extraordinary lives…

Lulu Bell covers

Author biography

Binnyashakiss Belinda Murrell is an internationally published, bestselling children’s author. Her 16 books include The Sun Sword Trilogy, a fantasy-adventure series for boys and girls aged 8 to 12. Her time-slip books – The Locket of Dreams, The Ruby Talisman, The Forgotten Pearl, and The Ivory Rose – have been shortlisted for various awards, including KOALAs (2011 and 2012), CBCA Notable List and highly commended in the PM’s Literary Awards. Her new book, The River Charm, is based on the thrilling adventures of her ancestors. For younger readers (aged 6 to 9) Belinda has the Lulu Bell series, about friends, family, animals and adventures growing up in a vet hospital. Belinda’s website is here.


AGNSW workshop “Busting to be Found” where students made a bust using nothing but found objects such as toilet rolls, coffee cups and plastic bags.

The Bakehouse Studio (left) where I teach and make art, and my library of art books for children.
The Bakehouse Studio (left) where I teach and make art, and my library of art books for children.

Here at WestWords we’re great believers in the way different art forms—writing, illustration, visual arts and crafts, photography and performance—can all come together in the most creative of ways. Often our own workshop programs include storytelling through a whole range of art forms, and we’re very keen also on sustainability and encourage all of our presenters and workshop participants to use recycled materials wherever possible. So we were very excited when our friends at Walker Books told us about Found: The Art of Recycling, by Sydney-based artist and teacher Lisa Hölzl. Her guest blog post gives us a fascinating insight into her practise as an artist and teacher. 


I’ve always thought of myself as more of an artist and a teacher than a writer, and although I’ve had a lifelong obsession for books, I never expected to be writing one of my own.

From my earliest memories, my bedroom was lined with books. For me, books are like windows into other worlds. I just love them and love to collect them! Especially art books for children.  I suppose it was my interesting collection of art books that eventually lead me to writing one myself.

Watching my children find more enjoyment from playing with pebbles, paddlepop sticks and buttons than any manufactured toy or game, I began to experiment with how kids in my classes could make art from their own found treasures as an alternative to  expensive traditional art supplies.

My daughter Mimi planning an imaginary resort with pebbles from our garden, and her worry dolls made from paddlepop sticks, pen, tissue & tape.
My daughter Mimi (left) planning an imaginary resort with pebbles from our garden, and her worry dolls made from paddlepop sticks, pen, tissue & tape.

In one particular workshop I did using recycled materials, I found myself showing students a dozen different books with great historical examples of how artists have used recycled and found materials and objects. At the end of the class, I was reflecting on this to a parent who happened to work for Walker Books. I said to her, ‘if only I’d had just one book with all those great examples in it instead of 12 books’ and she said, ’well if you write it, we’ll publish it!’ It was an exciting idea so I immediately wrote a proposal and mocked up a sample page and the three year process of research and writing began.

Apart from the convenience of having just one book to teach from instead of many, I also wanted to reinforce what children are learning at school. That is, to care for the environment, to be mindful of the amount of waste they generate and to find clever ways to keep it out of the waste stream.

Fig 6_7_8
Found treasures including bottletops and feathers.

I’ve always been a hoarder of anything I think may one day have a use, but it wasn’t until the book FOUND was published, and I started doing many more promotional workshops in bookshops and schools, with many more students, that I really started to look at my own consumption and waste-producing habits. It became a daily challenge to see how few times I could throw something away and how many things I could salvage, wash and reuse.

AGNSW workshop “Busting to be Found” where students made a bust using nothing but found objects such as toilet rolls, coffee cups and plastic bags.
AGNSW workshop “Busting to be Found” where students made a bust using nothing but found objects such as toilet rolls, coffee cups, plastic bags, newspapers, bottletops, buttons, recycled glue and tape.

For example, I began to wash and keep milk bottles, lids, takeaway food containers, takeaway coffee cups, plastic spoons and forks etc. And instead of collecting everything and anything, I decided I needed to come up with artmaking projects based on these most frequently wasted materials.

"Skyscapers" from an Operation Art workshop (left) and a "City" from a Bakehouse Studio holiday workshop (right).
“Skyscapers” from an Operation Art workshop (left) and a “City” from a Bakehouse Studio holiday workshop.

This new habit of scavenging, had me rifling through people’s office waste paper bins looking for their coffee cups to rinse so I had enough for my next workshop. On one occasion I found someone’s lost wallet under a pile of rubbish. They were ecstatic.

Soon people were collecting stuff for me and dropping it to my home.

Lisa finds Found in one of her favourite bookshops – the art Gallery of NSW!
Lisa finds Found in one of her favourite bookshops – the art Gallery of NSW!

So writing Found has profoundly changed my life and the way I live in the world and especially the way I approach making art. For example, I can no longer throw a coffee cup or a plastic fork in the bin and I can no longer walk past a feather or a bottletop without picking it up.

I hope that my book FOUND will have the same effect on everyone who reads it, and that they will use the short project ideas to fire their creativity in ever-increasingly, recycled ways.




Boring and slightly tatty old library chairs at Erskine Park HS get a new lease of life with funky fabrics!



croggon_author book

In this post, guest author Alison Croggon describes the inspiration behind her novel for young adults, Black Spring, and ponders how—or whether—an author always knows who their audience is, and wonders, does it even matter? 


It happens every time I finish a book. It happened with Black Spring,  and with Simbala’s Book, a short speculative fiction that I completed in 2012.  At some point, somebody – the publishers, my agent – throws me The Question. “Is it YA (Young Adult)? Or is it Adult?”

Because I am the writer, I’m supposed to know. I stammer, because I actually don’t know. I am, I tell them, quite happy with whatever they think best. And usually somebody decides that the book will best be sold as YA.

Agents, publishers and booksellers will tell you that this kind of label is very important, because it helps readers find the kinds of books they like. Like all authors, I hope that lots of people will buy my book. I have no problem with my books being placed into particular categories – young adult, fantasy, and so on – especially if it means that the book can find the readers who appreciate it. But I just can’t make that call myself. The age of a reader is something I almost never consider when writing a book. I only think about what kind of thing it is when I reach the end, and even then, I’m never really sure. I only wrote the thing.

When I first began The Gift, way back in 1999, I quite consciously wrote the kind of book I thought a 17-year-old-me would have loved. If that meant YA, that was fine by me.  But that far away 17-year-old me read Dostoevsky and Kafka as well as Tolkien and Lord Dunsany and Edgar Allan Poe. I was hostile to any idea of age appropriate reading and regarded the suggested guidelines in the school library with scorn. I thought that I should be able to read anything I wanted to, whether it was considered “too old” or “too young”. (Perhaps I still think that.)

In the end my fiction most commonly gets described as “crossover”. The Pellinor quartet  seemed to have had to have at least as many adult readers as it does teens (and, I recently realised, it now has adult readers who first read the books when they were teens).

So Black Spring wasn’t written as a young adult book, although it is published as one. And that seems perfectly fine to me. The books that inspired it – Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Ismail Kadare’s Broken April – are considered adult fiction. I haven’t tried to infantalise any of the themes I stole from either of the books, although it does have magic. But in the end, it was simply the story I wanted to write at the time, for all sorts of interior reasons that now I only half remember.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a story. And like all stories, you send it out, a message in a bottle, in the hope that it will wash up on some far shore, at the feet of the unknown person for whom it is written. I have no image of the face of that person. I will probably never meet them. They might be eight years old, or eighty. But however mysterious they are, they’re the person I think of when I get asked The Question. And that’s why I can’t answer it.




We’re very pleased to welcome Renée Treml to the WestWords site. Renée‘s first picture book, One Very Tired Wombat,  is delightful, and we’re sure you will enjoy reading here how she created the gorgeous illustrations. 


One Very Tired Wombat did not start out as a book – it began as a series of illustrations after my first wombat-encounter at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane.  This was not a very notable encounter… wombat (not surprisingly) managed to sleep the day away while kids, cockatoos and kookaburras were chattering and screaming nearby.

[Note: he did manage to rustle himself out of his nap for a mid-day snack.]




At the time I do not remember being very impressed with this little barrel shaped creature – all it did was sleep.  However, the significance of its fantastic ability to just sleep struck a chord with me and a few weeks later I was inspired to create an illustration featuring this very tired wombat.

The series of illustrations quickly grew in number (wombat with one frogmouth to wombat with five black cockatoos…) and became the foundation for a counting picture book.

This was my very first wombat illustration ever.

When I started thinking of One Very Tired Wombat as a book, I kept saying, “I am an artist first and an author second.” I think my initial attempt at the story fully supported that statement.  The text was literally a series of image captions:

One very tired wombat

One very tired wombat with two curious curlews

One very tired wombat with three furtive frogmouths

… and so on.

(I am not even sure if it really qualified as writing.)

After reading loads of books to my newborn son, I realized that I did not enjoy reading concept books that were just lists.  I loved reading catchy rhymes and silly stories.  My favourite was One Hungry Monster by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe and illustrated by Lynn Munsigner.  It was clever and fun to read out loud – exactly how I wanted my story to be – so I forced the author in me to step forward and carry her own weight. (And quite surprisingly, she had a great time creating rhyming text.)


I decided to continue using scratchboard to create the book.  To some people, working with scratchboard is quite tedious. I would agree if we are talking about illustrating the rear end of a peacock (which I have done before, and for the record it was not fun).  For a small furry wombat with birds, it can be a relatively quick and easy process.

Here is a brief overview of how one of the illustrations was created.

Instead of using paper or canvas, I start with a surface called “clayboard.”  Clayboard is a rigid board that has been coated with a thin layer of soft white clay.  I transfer my drawing to the board and outline it with a pen.  With a brush, I paint black ink onto the clay surface, avoiding any areas that I want to keep white.



Once the ink is dry, I use a sharp craft knife to scratch through the ink and reveal the white below. I also use a fine brush and black pens to add additional details.

This stage involves a lot of back and forth with my brush and knife.  I paint a little, and then I scratch a little. While I am cringing at showing this ‘in progress’ image publically, I think it’s a great example of the distinctive ugly-intermediate-phase all my pieces go through as part of the process.



As I finish up the illustration, I use a pen to add little stray hairs and whiskers.  I also use my knife to scratch away any splattered ink spots or smudges.  (Unfortunately, I’m not a very tidy painter.)

To get the illustrations ready for One Very Tired Wombat, I scanned the finished artwork and deleted the white backgrounds using the computer.  With a set of digital paintbrush tools, I painted the shadow and background, and it was complete. 

…OK, so maybe some days the process was a little bit tedious, but in all fairness, it was not the scratchboard process, but the hundreds of birds I had to draw for the book.

Writing and illustrating my first picture book has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I initially thought my biggest challenge would be writing in rhyme, but quickly realized that following all the characters I created through a 32-page book was really intense.  Several times I chastised myself for not writing a book that was easier to illustrate.  (What was I thinking when I wrote 54 frolicking birds into one page spread?!)



frances watts_4 book covers

Welcome to the WestWords guest author posts, and to author Frances Watts! Frances has been involved in several WestWords projects, and we’re delighted to host this fascinating post about the inspirations she drew from history–and her dad–for her Sword Girl series of historical adventures. Enjoy Frances’s post as she takes us on a stroll back through history to mediaeval Europe.


I’ve always loved history—probably since my dad first introduced me to Asterix comics! I studied history at uni for a couple of years (Roman history, of course) but eventually dropped it. When it came time to choose a major, I had to go with my first love: literature. But what I always loved about history was the story: the personal kind of history that was about characters, like in Plutarch’s Lives: the fearless and the flawed, the brave and the bumbling. And, again, this probably comes back to my dad, who has the most amazing magpie mind for the quirky details of history, and for the quirky characters.

A few years ago, for example, we were driving through the countryside in Switzerland near where my father lives. As we entered a lovely lakeside town he began to describe the Battle of Morat, which was fought in 1476 when Charles the Bold, a young duke of Burgundy, decided to invade western Switzerland – egged on by Louis XI, the king of France, who was known as ‘the universal spider’ thanks to his plotting and scheming and intriguing. The Burgundians were trounced, and many of them were driven into the lake. To this day, the lake of Morat still turns red with the blood of the Burgundians. (Actually, a red algae is to blame, but let’s not let an algae stand in the way of a good legend!)

I was quite stunned by the realisation that history had happened right there, in this beautifully preserved medieval town. I like the idea of history as lived in real places by real people ‑ but the stories don’t come down to us as simple factual recounts. There’s an element of legend, of storytelling, too. (The scheming king… the blood-red lake… ) And, of course, history depends very much on who is doing the telling.

I’ve always been drawn to medieval history. I was born in Switzerland, in the medieval city of Lausanne, and I think this is why I love medieval art and architecture so much. Even though I have lived in Australia since I was three, I have made many trips back to Switzerland and feel a very strong sense of place and connection. Not long after our drive to Morat, I visited the Château de Chillon on the shores of Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva). Chillon is a medieval castle, one I’ve visited a dozen times or more, but on this particular visit, with the story of the Battle of Morat still fresh in my mind, I didn’t just look at the castle: I tried to picture what life was like there in its heyday.


I started by imagining what it would have been like for a girl living in the castle. It didn’t make for a scintillating image! If I’d been a noble girl, I’d have been undertaking dainty, feminine pastimes like needlework; if I’d worked in the castle I’d have lived a life of drudgery in the kitchen or the laundry. But what if I’d been a boy, a noble boy? Ah, well: in that case I’d be able to become a squire and train to be a knight: sword-fighting, horse-riding… that was more like it! But what if I was a girl who wanted to try a bit of sword-fighting and horse-riding?

And that’s pretty much how the Sword Girl series was born. Set in a medieval castle, the series follows the adventures of Tommy (short for Thomasina), a kitchen girl who becomes Flamant Castle’s Keeper of the Blades and longs to be a knight. And while I have done a lot of research (from castle architecture to siege warfare, the rules of jousting and the ingredients of banquets) to make the setting as realistic as possible, some fantastical elements have crept in (talking swords, a crocodiddle in the moat)—which is perfectly in keeping with medieval times, when there was a rather fluid relationship between fact and fiction.



One of the funniest details in the Sword Girl books, though, is not made up. I was reading a medieval medical text which gave a cure for mental confusion: you mix pigeon droppings with honey and smear it on the back of the neck of the confused soul. Well, this was gold! The result was a pigeon character who is always being hounded for his droppings by the castle’s physician, who wants to use them in his cures. (Much to the pigeon’s chagrin; he is a skilled carrier pigeon and finds it insulting to be asked for his droppings.) Now all the Sword Girl books have cures (though other than the original recipe, which I used in the first book in the series, The Secret of the Swords, they are all my own invention).

I’ve had so much fun writing these books, probably because they include so many of my favourite things: a love of history and a love of story, a lot of humour and a lot of heart…and a special nod to my dad.













james roy

 James Roy has been one of the Western Sydney authors we’ve worked with from the early days of WestWords. He also happens to be one of Australia’s best writers for children and young adults. Enjoy this post on the writing of his book for young adults,  City



Def: Brownian motion

(noun) – the erratic random movement of microscopic particles in a fluid, as a result of continuous bombardment from molecules of the surrounding medium.

Some years ago, when I was thinking about getting back into writing for young adults after a number of books for the middle-grade years, I began looking about for that great and elusive idea. A love story, perhaps, or a coming of age story. A story about a young person coming to terms with loss or faith or their own sexuality, maybe even something that would fit neatly into that great catch-all loved so much by the NSW Board of Studies – ‘belonging’. And here’s the thing: I would argue that pretty much all young adult novels are, to some extent, about belonging, so really I guess I was just looking for that great story.

I found it in Motocross Hero, a short story that I’d written previously for Penguin’s first Kids’ Night In collection. It was a completely true story taken from something I saw myself – the special-needs kid who, by pure good fortune, took a catch on the cricket field to dismiss the school’s alpha-male jock.

Town started from that idea, and the further idea that even the revolting Neilsen, storming off and having the mother of all tantrums, had a story of own his own to tell. And in his story, Neilsen might not be the cocky athlete the rest of us loved to hate, but some misunderstood kid who lost the ability to speak in complete sentences whenever his best friend’s girlfriend wandered by. And of course she had a story, too – a story that was also misunderstood by most – and so on. So from that initial idea, Town grew, and grew, and grew.

It was immediately clear to me upon its release that Town had struck a chord with readers. Kids wrote to me and told me how they loved the fact that characters could be so multi-faceted, even profoundly different depending on who was narrating their story. They got it, which is always good news to a writer. But most rewarding of all were the readers who emailed to ask if I’d been writing about their home town. ‘It’s all there,’ one said. ‘The arcade, the nursing home way out on a back road, even the way you described the layout of the school felt right.’

Of course I’d never been to their towns, but of course I had, too, because what that book was really about was how all small communities are more or less the same, populated by a motley crew of locals who are known to everyone, whilst also being truly known by no one.

Which brings me to my  book, City.












Cities are different from towns – we know this. They’re bigger, for a start. Much, much bigger, both geographically and in terms of population. By virtue of that, they generally cover a much more diverse range of characters. Of course many of those characters are connected, but it’s the way they’re connected that really caught my attention: it’s often in anonymous ways, such as through found objects, chance meetings or random acquaintances. It fascinates me that in small communities we think we know everything there is to know about pretty much everyone (even if we actually don’t) while those of us who live in cities will think nothing of driving for an hour across town to have coffee with a friend, yet we don’t know that name of the lady who’s lived across the hall from us for years.

If the story about taking the cricket catch by accident was the first seed-point for Town, this book started with a couple. One was Veronica, or Ronnie, from Town, who was the much-maligned ‘scarlet woman’ at the high school. It was Ronnie who found herself stranded up in a dark bush clearing with a bunch of drunk and sex-crazed guys, and had to do some rapid diplomacy to make a terrible situation a little less bad. Perhaps more than any other, The Clearing was the story that people most liked to talk about when we discussed the book. But as is usually the case with the short form, the character’s story continues on after the last full-stop.

‘You could write a whole novel about Ronnie,’ people would tell me, and I guess they’re right. But instead I asked myself what happened to her after the events on the previous book, and projected on from there. Thus Toyota of the Beast came into existence. From there it became a relatively simple matter (I say relatively) to ask questions about the people and places that I worked into Toyota. The cafe where Ronnie and her ex-boyfriend discuss her plans, her two housemates, the motorbike her ex has come down from the country to buy, and so on.

After that it was a largely organic process, interspersed with little tentacles that stretched out from each story. The boy whose mother is selling the motorbike works at a hand-carwash, and makes a point of emptying the vacuum bags at the end of each shift so he can sort through the jetsam collected from beneath the seats of dozens of cars. The signet ring he discovers in this way has been lost by the community nurse who is caring for the dying mother of another character, who buys drugs from the friend of the kid in The Driver, and so on. And so on.

Confession time: I don’t usually plan my books. Like many of my peers, I write in a very organic way. A couple of key ideas, a scene I want to write, a character who won’t leave me alone, a setting I simply must immerse myself in. But for this book I did have to plan, at least in part. I don’t own a whiteboard large enough for the job, but I do have a fairly large window in my study, and whiteboard markers work really well on glass. I’m not sure what the postman made of all the mirror-image diagrams that cluttered my window – all the connecting lines made it look remarkably like the circuit diagram for something incredibly impressive – but I found it useful, just for keeping track of which character knew which other one, and how, and what other factors or events or objects connected them.

The other door into the structure if the book was the Poet. I hate graffiti. Actually, that’s not true – in the right place I think urban art is astonishing. Berlin without the angry, cold-war imagery painted onto grimy walls would be much the poorer. Hosier Lanein Melbourne is ever-changing, and engages the passer-by in a wonderfully gritty way. No, the graffiti I loathe is the tags. They adorn almost every blank space along the urban rail corridors and beyond, but I don’t see much evidence for cleverness or dissent or thought – all I see is the same tired trademark to arrested development repeated over and over like some kind of remedial exercise.

But writers like to ask ‘What if…?’ and my question was this: ‘What if someone’s form of civil disobedience was to use a Sharpie to write small poems – haiku, in fact – in public places? On a bus seat, or a hospital window, or on a cafe table? Under a famous bridge, for instance, or on a bollard beside an iconic waterway?’ Thus the Poet became something of a thread that runs through the centre of the book, adding mystery but also a sense of uneasy connectedness to the cast of characters.

This brings me to the place in which this book is set. If I’ve done my job well, no one will be able to claim with any certainty that I wrote this book about their home town, because I was careful to make it anonymous. In this city is an iconic bridge (Sydney? Hobart? Brisbane?). The river in the book could be the Swan, the Torrens, the Parramatta, the Brisbane, the Derwent or the Yarra, even the Ross or the Hunter. The mountain behind the city, the casino by the river, the docks, the stadium, each of these was chosen to make the city both familiar and anonymous at once.

And of course that’s the point. There’s no moral at the end, since I don’t much like morals in books. But if there is a message, it’s this: we just don’t know. We don’t know what people know, we don’t know who people really are, and we don’t know what people care about. Even the most bizarre opinions are, to those who hold them, entirely valid, since who that person is, and the experiences that have formed them, and the connections they’ve made or failed to make, are really little more than random lines made on a window pane with a whiteboard marker, or Brownian vibrations in a beaker.















abela banner

Thanks to Deborah Abela for our second guest author blog post. Deborah has been part of WestWords from our earliest days, delivering creative writing workshops for us in places like Casula Powerhouse and as part of the St Marys Storymakers program. Deborah first made her mark on Australian children’s books with her Max Remy series. Since then she’s moved from spies to spooks, with wonderful ghost stories such as The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen and her  new Ghost Club series. Here, Deborah shares with us the spooky stories—both real and imaginary—that inspired her over the years. 


When Charles Dickens was a kid, his nanny, Mary Wellar, used to delight in telling him frightening stories from serialised publications known as Penny Dreadfuls. He both adored and deplored the gory, horrifying tales of terror, but couldn’t bring himself to tell her to stop. Of his nanny, he said, “…Her name was Mercy*, though she had none on me.

This began Dickens’ lifelong fascination for ghost stories, both as a reader and as a teller of paranormal tales, my favourite of his being, A Christmas Carol. The curmudgeonly and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is met with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, which, if he keeps carrying on in his miserable and scrooge-like ways, will mean a very sad and lonely life.


I loved this story as a kid. I pictured the bent and money-grubbing Scrooge and his hoarding of the things in life that will ultimately prove to be meaningless unless they were shared. I loved his emotional transformation into a human being, who like the Tin Man in Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, finally finds that he does have a heart.

Along with this story there was also Casper the Friendly Ghost, Scooby Doo and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. So many stories that dealt with the intoxicatingly delightful spectre of ghosts.

When I was young, I’d spend holidays with my very feisty and no-nonsense nanna. She lived in Warragamba, a town in NSW with its identical fibro houses built especially for the workers who constructed the famous dam. I used to sleep in a feather bed that was so tall, I had to use a suitcase to climb into it and it was from there that my nanna used to tell me ghost stories. They weren’t nearly as terrifying as those Mary Wellar told Charles Dickens but like Dickens, it fired in me a life-long love of ghost stories.

My nanna’s stories weren’t made up or from a magazine—they were real. My nanna could see ghosts, like many of the women in her family for generations, and she would tell me stories about them. She would tell me about cousins who had passed away that she could see down the street, long-dead sisters sipping tea and men fishing in boats late at night whose hair turned stark white at meeting ghosts in the middle of lakes in the early hours whilst fishing.

I’d wanted to write a story about a character who could see ghosts and, like my nanna, found it completely normal. It was years later during a trip to Brighton that I knew I had my location…



The story was going to be about a young girl whose family ran an amusement park on a seaside pier and on her twelfth birthday she sees something unusual that she can’t explain. But when she questions her uncles about this, they cuddle her and take her inside, not letting her finish her questions. After a few more curious incidents, her uncles tell her that their family has a one-hundred-year-old secret….and it has something to do with ghosts. The book became The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen.

But I still wasn’t done with ghosts. This year was the 200th birthday of Dickens and whilst searching about his past, I discovered he not only claimed to see ghosts like my nanna but he was the founding member of a club called Ghost Club. One hundred and fifty years later, the club still meets today to talk about and investigate ghostly happenings in the UK. This was the perfect inspiration for my next book, where I would create my own ghost club and two of the youngest members were their most successful ghost catchers. Like the real clubsters, they would go to haunted sites, try to track down the ghosts and convince them to stop their haunting ways. So in this way it would be more Scooby Doo than Ghostbusters and Ghost Club was born.

As much as I admired my nanna, I always thought if I ever saw a ghost I would go running scared. But I didn’t. I’ve only ever seen one ghost and it was late at night when I’d climbed onto another high bed that I had when I lived in an old warehouse. I’d climbed onto my knees and grabbed both curtains on either side of my bed and was about to pull them closed when I saw the face of my nanna through the window. She never said anything, simply stared straight at me. I didn’t run, I didn’t scream and I wasn’t the least bit scared. After a few minutes, she faded away. I calmly drew the curtains shut, felt as if Nanna was still looking out for me and had a deep and restful sleep. Which was probably one more peaceful sleep than Dickens had after Mary Wellar paid him a visit and began his love of ghost stories almost two hundred years ago.


*Mercy was probably a nickname for Dickens’ nanny Mary.




Author Nick Earls (left) and illustrator Terry Whidborne (right)

Thank you to Nick Earls for being the first author to write a guest post for the WestWords website. Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary is Nick’s first book for children (although he’s written many others for adults and teens) and is illustrated by Terry Whidborne. You can visit the Word Hunters site here. T


I can’t recall exactly what I pictured when I started talking to Terry Whidborne about Word Hunters. Bit by bit in my typical writing process, I start to see my central character’s world, its details and the people in it. By early last year I’d written fifteen books, twelve of them first-person novels. But I already knew Word Hunters shouldn’t be approached in quite the same way as anything I’d done before.

Usually my characters need to feel as real to me as three dimensional people before I start to write them, and I need to do the writing before I share them with anyone, but in this case they were barely half-dimensional when I brought Terry in. Word Hunters marks one of the rare moments in my twenty-year writing career when I’ve started with a Big Idea and then worked on finding the characters and details to fit.

The lead up to the Big Idea was that some words have fascinating histories – our whole language does too – and that there might be a way to create a story around those stories. The Big Idea itself was to invent twins who, in their school library, discover an old dictionary that sends them back into the past through each of the steps in the evolution of particular words. But they weren’t just there as witnesses – there needed to be bigger stakes than that. They had to do something to pin the words down at each stage to ensure the words continued to exist in the present.

Already that meant I needed several things from Terry:

• a visual idea of the twins
• a visual feel for the past
• a look for the dictionary itself and
• some way of physically pinning the words down

He started sketching, I kept digging. I sent him a photo of a book of my father’s that I thought had the right sort of look for the dictionary. You can see a sense of it in the end result, as well as the unique features that the Curious Dictionary needed.



You can also see how the twins. Lexi and Al, developed.

The look of the past developed too.

And how were Lexi and Al going to pin the words down? When we talked about pegs, I had something like tent pegs in mind. Maybe Terry has a much fancier approach to camping than I do. Here’s what he came up with.



We ramped up the adventure and the degree of detail. I’m not the first author to discover that history is a brilliant place for detail. Sometimes it threaded perfectly into the story, sometimes we decided to sneak it into the illustrations. Here’s one of Terry’s favourites. It’s Thomas Edison’s lab in the late 1870s. The gear has been moved to a museum in Michigan and Terry found a photo and used various elements to build his illustration on. Terry’s highlighted areas that he used in the illustration.



I’ve checked with Terry and it turns out Edison probably didn’t have electric eels in a jar (and it’s not something we advise you try at home).

Here’s one of my favourites.

It’s three substances used in an ancient lab, with the labels in (modernish) English, Ancient Egyptian and Old English. Only the wolframite is discussed in the book, but the others are real too, for anyone who wants to track down what the symbols mean.

That was a big part of the fun of Word Hunters – writing something that, I hope, is full of action and works as a series of adventure stories, but also slipping a whole lot of other things in there for people who might want to look for it. The stories of the words is a big part of that, but history offers plenty of other amazing details too.

I think we’ve written a book I would have loved when I was ten. I would have got right into the story, gone nuts over the details and fantasised about one day finding the dictionary and taking my own turn as a word hunter.


Author Nick Earls (left) and illustrator Terry Whidborne (right)

Thank you to Nick Earls for our first guest author post, and to Terry Whidborne for supplying the wonderful images.