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I'm an Australian author writing for children. This blog is an outlet for other forms of writing ... actually it's for when I've got something worthwhile to share (in my opinion, anyway!)
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1. Blogging for the 2012 SCBWI Aust/NZ Conference

How much fun is this? I have an official job blogging - not just for fun like I normally do, but a blog for a purpose - of the upcoming conference of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Australia/New Zealand region.

The conference runs from the 29th June to the 2nd July at the Hughenden Boutique Hotel, in Woollara, Sydney, but the SCBWI Conference blog is already in action.

Check out the conference blog for up-to-date information about the conference, and to read interesting articles from guest author and illustrator bloggers - like Susanne Gervay, Claire Saxby, Lesley Vamos, Scott Chambers and Hazel Edwards.

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2. Charlie and the Red Hot Chilli Pepper - Chapters 2 and 3

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3. IPSWICH FESTIVAL OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE blog - coming soon!

My name is Sheryl Gwyther. I'm an Australian children's author and I'm thrilled to be the host of the official blog of the Ipswich Festival of Children's Literature in Australia. 

3-14 September, 2011

WRITTEN ON SITE EVERY DAY!

My co-hosts are Paige Turner and Tatty Rat. They'll be popping in to give their impressions of the doings at the Festival's 10 days of fun, books, and some fabulous Aussie authors and illustrators.

Paige Turner

Tatty Rat
Click here for my website and kids' blog...


(c) Illustrations remain the sole property of Lynn Priestley, Australia. 2011

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4. I'm Not Scared ... book review

I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura)

by Niccolo Ammaniti

translated by Jonathan Hunt


If you want to be a good writer you need to read great stories. That’s one of the universal truths. It’s also an excellent excuse as to why you’re not tacking that tottering pile of ironing.


One doesn’t need any excuses to read Niccolo Ammaniti’s brilliant novel I’m Not Scared.

The book is set in a tiny farming community in rural Italy in the 1970s. While the adults shelter indoors during a heatwave, six children venture out on their bikes into the scorched, deserted countryside.


When 9 year-old Michele Amitrano is dared to enter the darkness of a dilapidated and uninhabited farmhouse he discovers a secret that is so terrible, he dares tell no one. His journey towards the final confronting insights about injustice, betrayal and the loss of friendship will leave the reader breathless.


Ammaniti skilfully captures a child’s voice and viewpoint with devastating precision. His gripping narrative and descriptions of the landscape are uncluttered and utterly truthful, capturing the reader from the very first sentence. Nothing from the story has been lost either with Jonathan Hunt’s flawless translation in English.


I'm Not Scared won the 2001 Viareggio-Repaci Prize for Fiction and has been sold in 20 languages.


It's also been made into a movie that did it justice. It scored 91% on the Rotten Tomatoes.com score. Check it out.

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5. AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY OF AUTHORS MENTORSHIP 2009-10

This year as one of the ASA Mentorship program's recipients I have a fantastic opportunity to work on my current work-in-progress, McAlpine & Macbeth.....

'The ASA has announced the twenty successful applicants for its mentorship program in 2009-10. The mentorship program is funded through a grant from the Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency Limited. The program’s judges, Delia Falconer, Kate Forsyth, Libby Gleeson, Martin Langford, Craig Smith and ASA executive director Dr Jeremy Fisher were impressed with the overall quality as well as the quantity of the entries.

Speaking on behalf the judges, Dr Fisher said: “With such an expert selection panel, it should be an easy process to select the best entries, but it was arduous because so much of what was offered was so good. In the end, though, this meant all the pieces fell together and we found we had selected an eclectic and refreshing mix.”

Selected from 268 entries, the 20 successful applicants will have the opportunity to work closely with a mentor of their choice for 30 hours over up to 12 months. At the completion of the mentorship, a number of participants will be invited to read their work, appear ‘in conversation with’ or participate in panel discussions at state and/or regional writers’ festivals.'

This novel has been a six years project for me. Like another of my stories, Mountain, it has a special place in my creative energy. The complete manuscript is 57,000 words.

I began working with my mentor, Australian author, illustrator and creative writing teacher, Sally Rippin in August this year.

Some of the things I had to sort out include rushing through action scenes without drawing out the suspense; or sometimes a character's distinctive voice dropped out.

The major flaw was ignoring my initial instincts that this was a junior fiction story - I'd changed it to Young Adult, and it wasn't working. Sally pointed that out to me and the mist of confusion lifted.

This major re-write pulled together some plot inconsistencies. I also used the opportunity to use the FIND 'button' to delete masses of 'saugage-words' (i.e. those clutter words that fill out the skin of writing ... like somehow, got, then, felt, seemed, somewhat etc)

The next task will be to recognise 'CLUNKS' and the 'ZINGS' - where words weigh down the story or where they ... well, zing! And that's the best part of editing. It won't be long before this story is ready for submission.

The ASA provided thirty hours of work with my experienced mentor - an amazing, valuable experience for me as a writer and for the novel. Thank you to that little band of excellent manuscript judges at the Australian Society of Authors. :)

A writing friend of mine, Kathleen Noud was awarded an ASA mentorship last year. If you'd like to read her article on the experience, click on this link to her blog.

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6. Watch out for 'frenzied authors'!

When Professor Allan Fels appeared on a panel at the Open Forum on PIs at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Saturday night and said, ‘Authors are being whipped up into frenzy by their publishers,’ I knew then this man (who is among the group calling for the abolition of Restrictions on PIs) has no real understanding of the issues at all. He appears to view it only from the perspective of a free-marketeer. I wonder if he’ll take notice of what an author says.

An open letter to Professor Allan Fels:

Dear Allan Fels,

Your main claim to fame was your work with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission where you won approval as ‘Australia’s best-known cartel buster and the scourge of price-fixing business and anti-competitive behaviour’. So, being the reasonable person I am, I understand your reasoning behind this apparent enthusiasm for Parallel Imports. But that doesn’t mean you are correct.

You also stated recently that: ‘The claim about dumping (of imports) is just fanciful. The vast majority of Australian books are for the Australian market - they're not sold overseas. And if you were just saying there's going to be a substitution of American for UK cultural influences, so what?’

If you had only taken your argument a step further you'd have to admit that if Australian publishers end up cutting back on future publishing programs because of imported books, they’ll restrict their intake of new untried authors and their support of developing authors, and future Australian books, plus retrench Australian workers. Surely not something even you would condone in your relentless seeking of an open-market in everything.

As to your last sentence above? I’ll leave that for others to judge.

There’s another aspect I can’t get my brain around, Professor Fels - you're also a patron of Creativity Australia, a not-for-profit organization partnering with business, education, health, community and charity groups, government and philanthropists.

Their creed states:
"There has never been a more important time to develop those human attributes which set us apart from machines. We are entering a Creative/Conceptual Age and we require targeted creative programs and leadership engaging with the right side of the brain. By encouraging greater innovation and creativity, Creativity Australia will provide a new and exciting path to personal wellbeing, acceptance, social inclusion and happier and more productive members of our great Australian community."

The organisation quotes from the work of Lotte Darsø - researcher, consultant, lecturer and author. Her main areas of interest are creativity and innovation as well as Arts-in-Business. “A profound change is taking place in the organisations that are seriously concerned about the future of business and society as they are realising that ‘rational man’ is giving way to 'artful human'.

Maybe someone should remind you that creating stories is linked to being ‘artful humans’ too. Ah, well, one should never give up hope.

But back to the ‘frenzied authors’ comment – let me assure you, Mr Fels, we are not being pushed by publishers to take our stand against Parallel Imports. We believe in, and are delighted by the quality books being produced in this country. We are immensely proud of what we can offer readers of every nation not just our own. We are authors who don’t give up on what we believe in.

Yours sincerely
Sheryl Gwyther
Writer of children’s books - www.sherylgwyther.net
Founding member of the SAVING AUSSIE BOOKS campaign

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7. CROW - a poem a book a gathering a murder


Humans have an almost universal opinion about crows - noisy, ugly, pesty, dirty, creepy - and the list goes on in many languages. But there are many who recognise the status of a crow ... whether from the grandeur of a winged mystical being or the depths of an efficient garbage disposal unit.
This little gathering is a tribute to a bird who might be at the bottom of the popularity list, but is one we can't do without.

CROW

Glossy black, green & purple sheen,
piercing pale eyes see all.
Pariah of city, suburb and street.
Scavenger of schoolyard waste,
your only threat walks upright
as shang-hai, rock & bullet you taste.

Intelligent, clever & bold, old crow,
you alone know how to eat toad
and live.

(c) Sheryl Gwyther

Family CORVIDAE
Genus Corvus
CROW
RAVEN
JACKDAW
ROOK
CROW

Symbol of contention, discord and strife
SAYINGS
As the crow flies. European origin
I have a crow to pick with you. Old English
Jim Crow. American
To eat crow. 1812-1814 Anglo-American war
Crow-eaters. South Australians
Crow’s nest. Sailing term

CORVINE HUMOUR
Q. At Christmas, who brings presents to all good little crow boys and girls? Santa Caws
Q. Where do crows congregate to have a cold one? The Crow Bar
Q. What do crows like to drink in the morning? Caw-fee!
Q. What sort of crow sticks to a wall when it hits it? A vel-crow

MYTHOLOGY
Crows and ravens appear in mythology, from Ancient Greece and Rome to theNative American, African, Hindu and Aboriginal Dreamtime legends. In the cave paintings of Lascaux, birds are drawn that looks very much like crows. An Inuit myth tells of how the Raven invented light by throwing chips of mica in the air.
Noah sent out crows to find dry land, but they didn’t return. Shakespeare mentions them in half of his plays. Crows are mentioned in the Koran.

AUSTRALIAN CROWS
Little crow Corvus bennetti
Torresian crow Corvus orru
Colombo crow Corvus splendens
Australian raven Corvus coronoides
Forest raven Corvus tasmanicus
Little raven Corvus mellori

A gathering of crows is called a MURDER

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8. Sometimes 'chain-mail thingies' are worthwhile passing on...


And this is one: The Brillante Weblog Premio-2008 Award. Sally Murphy, from Aussiereview.com has very kindly nominated my blogspot. In the spirit of the 'award' I'm sharing a list of some of my fellow children's writers blogs worthwhile checking out.

My nominations are:

toastfortea is the blog of Carole Poustie, a writer from Melbourne. She shares her experiences of writing, life in general and her interviews of famous authors. Well-written and insightful.

Fiona Trembath's blog 1plus1equals11
Fiona is a Victorian writer with a great writing style. She writes of life in a family of eleven, plus one dog.

Sally Murphy's blogspot is always worth dropping into - interesting articles on writing for children (presently Robyn Opie's articles feature); interviews with authors; and useful writing advice from Sally herself. She's the author of a fabulous Australian children's books reviewing site.

Rules for recipients of the Brillante Weblog Premio are as follows:
1. The award may be displayed on a winner's blog.
2. Add a link to the person you received the award from.
3. Nominate up to seven other blogs.
4. Add their links to your blog.
5. Add a message to each person that you have passed the award on in the comments section of their blog.

Yes, it is a sort of chain thing - and if I've nominated you and you don't want to participate, that's fine. But it's an excellent way of sharing some of your favourite blogs and of letting those bloggers know that you like what they're doing.

I'll be adding more nominations soon.

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9. All good things must come to an end...











All good things must come to an end, and so it is with this May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust fellowship here in the studio at Norwood, Adelaide.
It's been a productive, stimulating, confronting time for my work - and a fantastic experience.

The farewell lunch on Friday was excellent. Great food, interesting people to meet, a lovely old hotel from the late 1800s (?), and my talk going down well. With the topic matter I have it's not surprising ... dinosaurs and fossil digs; but mainly a forgotten mining tragedy in far north Queensland with its human stories.

But now I'm a past Fellow! And wishing good writing to those who come after me in this little studio at Norwood. Many thanks to the committee and members of the MGCLT and the wonderful work they do to support Australian children's writers.
Caption: The Farewell Dinner...showing some fossils.

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10. One of the advantages of a notebook...

One of the advantages of a notebook (as opposed to a notebook computer) is its portability!

For the first time ever I’m enjoying sitting in or outside coffee shops drinking lattes and writing. And people-watching too, of course and eavesdropping, naturally!

Everyone sits drinking coffee most of the day … it’s especially enjoyable on The Parade in Norwood, a unique (for a Brisbanite) blend of cosmopolitan and country town feel.

Adelaide is about to burst into Spring – bare trees have a faint haze of green and there’s a flurry of bird activity … many types of parrots, wattle birds, doves and even small honey eaters (unusual in cities, but not here in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs with their eucalyptus lined streets).

The city has a unique relationship with another bird – the humble native duck. Several times I’ve watched as Adelaidians stop traffic, even on busy 4 lane roads, to allow a mother duck and her multiple babies to cross.

Even a very friendly Adelaide transport bus driver who stopped to pick me up in his ‘Special’ marked bus (he wasn’t supposed to pick up passengers) pulled off the road on our way to the city so I could watch another ‘traffic-cop duty for duck family’ ritual. The motorist who’d halted the traffic then got back in his car and everyone drove off. I wonder how many cities that'd happen in?

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11. Six days left of the May Gibbs Trust Residency...

Six days left of the May Gibbs Trust residency, and what a month it’s been! This experience has to be every writers' dream … four weeks to spend writing, exploring one's environment, soaking up the atmosphere of a new city, meeting other writers and those who love the world of children’s writing.

For those of you who are interested in the writing side of the residency (the reason I was allocated this privilege), I have worked extensively on that first draft of Ngarrabullgan, a Young Adult novel. It’s given me some curry, too! But it was only because I'm away from my comfort zone of home I’ve been forced to focus on where the hell this story is going.

It’s a BIG story too … an adventure/historical/love story combining a family’s terrible secret from the past, a devastating mining disaster in far north Queensland in 1921, and my own links to an amazing mountain called Ngarrabullgan.

But after a very insightful edit of the draft and critique from a writing buddy, Dee from Melbourne (thanks, heaps, my friend!) and a ‘kick in the proverbial’ the other day from Mark Svendsen (yes, Dad!!), I know how to work through the different eras and POVs and not be scared off. Also must thank several other writing buddies and 'critters' in kwdunder - you rule, girls!

Have also had the chance to complete the final edit of Decibelle and re-polished the final version of McAlpine & Macbeth.

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12. Dinosaur poo always steals...

Dinosaur poo always steals the show and so it was again today.

I did three author sessions with the Year Six/Sevens students from two schools at two different local libraries in east Adelaide. Many thanks to Heidi Gill from Youth Services at St Peter's Library and Nan Halliday from the May Gibbs Trust for organising these for me, too.

Exhausting, but lots of fun. The kids were great … with many questions about fossil digs, Australian dinosaurs, on becoming a published author and of course with utter fascination in coprolite … a.k.a dinosaur poo, or in our case today, not dinosaur poo but a piece of 50,000,000 year old fossilised sea-turtle poo from Madagascar I gave them to pass around. You should’ve seen the reaction when I told them what it was. Hilarious!

It’s always nerve-racking psyching oneself to give these author talks or running writing workshops, and always a relief when they’re finished, but oh boy, aren’t they fun!

Caption: Heidi Gill and me with some of the students in the fabulous children's section of the St Peter's Council Library.

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13. I'm not washing my hands...

I’m not washing my hands for a week! Why? Today, I held a valuable copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And, inside the cover written by a scratchy nib in a flowing hand is Lewis Carroll’s own handwriting. He dedicates this copy to Frances Haughton (my memory could be faulty here).

The first edition of 2,000 copies was printed in 1865, but illustrator, John Tenniel objected about the print quality and they were withdrawn. These rejected copies were presented to children’s hospitals and institutions – only 23 copies of the ‘1865 Alice’ are known to have survived. Would’ve been worth collecting … one sold in the 1990s at auction for US$1.5 million.

A new edition, released in December of the same year, but carrying an 1866 date, was quickly printed. The edition I held today was probably this edition.

I forgot to write down these details when Valerie Sitters (from the South Australian State Library Children’s Literature Research Collection) showed me this little treasure … mainly because my head was filled with all the other amazing books amongst the rolling shelves in Storage.

Amongst the many unique, interesting, intriguing books I saw today, there was a first edition of Peter Rabbit where one picture shows Mrs. McGregor (?) cooking Peter Rabbit’s dad in a pie. In the next printing it was left out … because of the sensitivities of young readers? Or because the publishers thought Beatrix Potter wasn’t as good at painting people as she was animals?

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14. Imagine a room of about 150 ...

Imagine a room of about 150 people all with the same purpose … to celebrate the world of children’s books, to enjoy an excellent meal prepared and served by Adelaide Institute of TAFE’s hospitality staff and to enjoy the company of like minds.

This was the first Children’s Book Council Awards dinner I’ve been to so I’m glad it was in Adelaide. At my table were the committee and support group for the SA May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust … Jo, Mary, Nan, Barbara, Ian, Ben, Elizabeth, Andrew and Margaret … many thanks all for welcoming me into your happy band.

Janeen Brian was seated next to me (she’s the author of Hoosh! Camels in Australia plus many, many other titles) – she had me laughing from the minute we met. And she’s a mosaic artist, too! The lovely and warm Elizabeth Hutchins (who very kindly was my taxi), and Ruth Starke … (also went to Ruth’s book launch today … a great-looking adventure comic/graphic story book … Captain Congo and the Crocodile King). All in all an excellent night!

Congratulations to the winners of the 2008 C.B.C. Book Awards.

Yes, we can all live in hope, can’t we? Just joking … I’ve only had one glass of wine! I’d be happy to just have a publisher take a shine to Decibelle and release a FAIR DINKUM Australian fairy/sprite (a.k.a ‘tintookie’) on to the Australian market!!

PS Happy Birthday to Ross today! Happy Birthday to me tomorrow!

Photo caption: Janeen Brian, Ruth Starke, Sheryl, Ian Wilson, Nan Halliday at the South Australian Children's Book Council Awards dinner.

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15. You can imagine the back-stabbing and ...

You can imagine the back-stabbing and insults flying in 1839 when Colonel Light, the chief surveyor of Adelaide was attempting to lay out the structure of his future city. There’s an entry from William Light's journal set into his monument on the prominent Montefiore Hill above the Adelaide Cricket Ground:

‘The reasons that led me to fix Adelaide where it is I do not expect to be generally understood or calmly judged of at present. My enemies, however by disputing their validity in every particular, have done me the service of fixing the whole of the responsibility upon me. I am perfectly willing to bear it; and I leave it to prosperity, and not to them, to decide whether I am entitled to praise or to blame.’

Prosperity and Gregory's street directory users have certainly come to praise him and his well-ordered, surveyor’s mind.

If you’re interested in architecture, Adelaide is the place to come. Especially on North Terrace where just about every building echoes with our colonial past.

Then there’s the tiny (by Brisbane’s ‘Queenslanders’ standard) cottages in suburbs like Norwood, with their stone walls, chimney stacks, tiny front gardens with spring bulbs already sprouting and backyard trellised grape-vines.

And on the paved streets, tall gums and deciduous trees with their knobbly, bare beauty and occasional little secret … a nesting lorikeet.

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16. Happiness is a ...


Happiness is a new pair of Ugg boots, especially in Adelaide in winter.

Jo (Chair of the May Gibbs Trust down here) took me to the City Markets yesterday. What a place! I reckon you could buy anything you wanted there, even the kitchen sink.

But I was on a mission. I’d bought my first ever pair of boots in Adelaide over 25 years ago, so now was the time for another pair.

You can buy Uggs in Brisbane too, but nothing like the quality of those original ones. But maybe my memory had exaggerated their perfection? Maybe time and a tight economy had affected the manufacture of these Australian icons?

But there in the back of the Asian goods/Sheepskin shop where Jo buys hers, were the perfect Australian made Ugg boots. And for the equally amazing price of $50.

We also had coffee at Lucia’s (the original and the best … and the place to be seen!) But when the aroma of the Gnocchi Bolognaise from the table next to us wafted across, we decided it wasn’t morning tea time at all, it was lunch. Delicious!

The committee I’ve met from the May Gibbs Literature Trust have been so supportive, friendly and welcoming, I feel at home in this place already. Thank you Jo, Nan, Mary and Ian Wilson.

I’m into this draft of Ngarrabullgan at last (I think … still have some problems with trying to jump between eras and characters). I’m interspersing it for light relief with the final editing of Decibelle.

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17. What is it with us writers?...

What is it with us writers? We procrastinate; we listen to that little devil critic sitting on our shoulder who whispers in our ear, ‘This story is too difficult to follow. I’m lost already!’, instead of flicking her off one’s shoulder with a ‘Go jump!’ Yes, even optimists like me get caught up in the charade as well.

So, after much fiddling and farting around I’ve finally started working again on my ms! Not in my notebook computer, but back to my usual non-fail method of scribbling in pencil in a beautiful leather-bound journal with smooth lined pages. And believe me it’s as messy and scratchy as a chook’s cage. From here I’ll enter it into the computer and see what happens as I go.

Still don’t know if the story will keep hanging together … how does one write about 300 million years of history in one novel? Just kidding – I’m not covering all those years, just the critical life and times of a very special mountain in far north Queensland, and an inquisitive 17 year old girl called Chancey O’Farrell.

It rained so heavily today the creek running through the back street tripled in size. By this arvo it was fine again so I walked to the end of the main street in Norwood and found Vari’s Continental Foods (Generi Alimentari Italiani) … mmm, yes Italian food. Tonight’s treat (for pulling my finger out!) is fresh Pumpkin and Walnut Ravioli plus homemade tomato and basil sauce.

PS The picture is the opening bud of a Californian Poppy.

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18. Down in the southern city of Adelaide...


Down in the southern city of Adelaide it's all systems go! No, not with writing yet on the second day of my May Gibbs residency, but walking and walking and more walking. Mainly to find my 'place in space' as I call it. Where ever I've stayed for a length of time, whether it's the outback or the paved streets of foreign cities, I need to find the ‘lay of the land’ and the only way to do it is to walk.

Adelaide is a lovely city in winter. They have the best coffee, whatever coffee shop you might wander into, everyone seems to sell bowls of soup, bottles of excellent local white wine are cheap, most of the trees have lost their leaves showing their beautiful structural forms, and there’re gorgeous colonial buildings everywhere, even in suburbs like Norwood where the May Gibbs Studio is.

The studio is also called ‘the burrow’ and that’s how it feels like to walk in here … comfortable, quiet, well laid out and furnished. A perfect place to write.

And that’s what I’ll start doing soon. After tomorrow though … a friend is taking me to the Adelaide Farmers’ Markets where you can buy home grown fruits, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, perfect breads and pastries, organic stuff and lots of other tasty foods. Mmmm, this is the city of good food too, I suspect. Lucky I’ll be doing lots of walking!

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19. My mother can sew up a storm ...

My mother can sew up a storm on her trusty Singer machine. Add a box of Butterick's paper patterns with their strange hieroglyphics, cloth and tape measure and that's all she needs to create. And create she did when we lived in a country town where you couldn't find a decent clothes shop (let alone a cheap one) to keep up with four growing girls.

All manner of material was used. I felt and smelt and rolled their names around my tongue - satin, organza, cotton, chenille and chiffon, seersucker, lurex, tartan and taffeta, lawn, flannelette, gingham and gauze.

Not only were dresses, shorts and shirts of every size coming from her home factory, there were fancy dress costumes for school, dolls' clothes and ballet class tutus. There was even a fancy dress Bo-Beep costume sewn in crepe paper. Not a good idea in the humid north - my sister's legs stained yellow for days.

I learned an enduring lesson in those early years - you could make anything you wanted if you put your mind to it.

trapped in midnight blue

She cuts, pins, adjusts, trims,
we stand in turn on the kitchen stool,
sisters-in-revolt while she,
pins in mouth, hisses
‘Keep still for heaven’s sake’.

Intricate papery patterns float
like sheets of dried brown skin, tattooed
with mysterious codes – bodice, nape, hemstitch, baste,
as skilled hands conjure garments from
cheap cotton, muslin, seersucker, crepe.

One year, I stand high above the kitchen floor, swirling,
enchanted, trapped in Midnight blue,
tiny red silk rosebuds sprouting,
full-skirted, organza party dress.

Delight cuts to despair.
This dress is not for me, but
destined for my cousin,
who’s clever, bossy, and sure
in an adult-speak world.
I’m just a mannequin to fit, cut and pin.

Pins take revenge.
I whinge and squirm.
The kitchen, now a battlefield
of female wills.
How I hate that dress.

Intriguing shapes spread under the tinsel branch.
Bright package torn open reveals
Midnight blue with red silk rosebuds
and a card
With love from Mum.

© SC Gwyther

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20. I saw a man die...

I saw a man die in the year before Expo began. That was before the south bank of the Brisbane River was developed for the first major event to hit our 'country town' city and change its character forever.

Everyone is gearing up this week for the 20th anniversary of Expo 88 with the usual hoop-la carry on, but all I remember is the day I left work and took my lunch down to the river's edge. There were only grassy banks and stunted trees on the south bank then - a great place to sit under a tree and escape an air-conditioned office for an hour.

The man stumbled down towards me, clutching an open bottle in a paper bag, his grey hair wild, his clothes dishevelled, his face blank of expression. I looked around for an escape route. No-one else was in the park, but for some reason I didn't move - probably thinking that'd be a cowardly thing to do, he was only a harmless, old drunk.

I nodded a greeting; he stood for a moment and looked me in the eye. Then he wandered down to the river bank and stared at the water before dropping the bottle on the grass. He unbuttoned his shirt, undid his trousers and staggered as he tried to take them off as well; unsuccessfully, because he fell heavily. After a moment or two he sat up, took off his shoes and socks and removed the pants from around his ankles. It was only when the man pushed himself to his feet and headed for the edge, I realised his intention.

What is it about us humans? The brain registers imminent disaster, the heart speeds up, but the body is frozen. I couldn't even call out a warning.

No-one swims in the Brisbane River - not even by choice, at least not in that reach of its serpentine length. Wide, tidal, home for bull sharks, and silent, its strong pull evident by eddies swirling along the surface.

I watched him climb over the rocks and lower himself into the water. It would've been cold, but he kept going. In seconds the man was caught. He tried to turn back, but it was too late and as he bobbed along in the in the current, only his head showed above the water. I ran along the bank, trying to keep him in sight. But the river was faster than me.

Then he was gone.

Later, a laid-back cop from the Gabba police station took my witness statement. He was used to derros going for swims and regretting their decisions. But I persisted with my questions. Who was the man? Why did he do it? The cop finally relented, or maybe it was to get this young female witness out of his office before she turned into a blubbering mess.

They'd retrieved his clothes and found 55 cents in coins in his pocket, a passport, Peter .......... from Copenhagen; and a Commonwealth Bank passbook with the total of $12.54. That was all they knew about him.

I went back to work and got into trouble for being late. I didn't say anything. It didn't seem right to blame it on Peter from Copenhagen.

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21. Going home...

This past week I went back to where I was born. Back to the cane fields of far north Queensland to a small town called Innisfail. Well, I used to think it was big, and it probably was to a child's eyes.

The cane fields are still wide and green even though much of them have been taken over by housing developments. We found the house my uncle build for my parents at Goondi Bend, and the old derelict school with its roof fallen in (probably as a result of last year's cyclone Larry). The playground's covered in elephant grass and lantana.

But the main reason I went north was to go back to Mt Mulligan (see photo below), a small former mining town three hours west of Cairns, to research my novel. It was the 'back to Mulligan' weekend, an annual event for those who used to live in this now ghost town. Only the mine's chimney and the old former hospital are standing, and it's now the home for the property owners, Owen, Roma and Georgia Rankine.

There's also the graveyard where 75 miners were laid to rest in 1921 after the State Mine exploded. A quarter of the town's population were killed that spring morning, one of the worst industrial accidents this country has seen, and this too is part of the town's heritage drawing back the Mulliganites and their offspring every Labor Day weekend.

My uncle was the last stationmaster before the rail line was pulled up in the late fifties and I holidayed there. I was only a young child, but the mountain was how I remembered it - maybe even more spectacular - a great curving monolith rising out of the rolling hills of the Hodgkinson plateau. Its name is Ngarrabullgan.

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22. There’s a book that keeps disappearing...

There’s a book that keeps disappearing from its spot on the A-J shelves of our local high school library. A small novel that’s been smuggled through security at the library exit and been replaced at least three times. So why this particular book? Is it the beautifully designed cover in tones of blue, white, black and fawn shafts of light and movement? Or maybe the Celtic lure of its title, or the intriguing blurb on the back cover? Or is it the magic of the story itself?

Skellig (1998) is British author, David Almond’s first story for children. It's written in first person viewpoint of a young boy, Michael who is unhappy when his family moves to a ramshackle house in a new neighbourhood. His parents are distracted because his new baby sister is gravely ill and this adds to his feelings of isolation and loneliness. But then he meets the unusual Mina, home-schooled and a loner, a girl who quotes William Blake and knows everything there is to know about birds. Their lives change forever when Michael wanders into the derelict shed in his back yard and discovers under the rubbish, a crumpled, shrivelled creature that could be human or beast or both:

'I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders. I shone the torch on his white face and his black suit.'

Michael confides in Mina and they move the strange creature into a safe place. As the barely alive part-human/bird/angel responds to Michael’s gentle care both he and Mina are drawn into the wonder that is Skellig.

This novel has won many awards, both UK and international, and has also been made into a play. David Almond said once that he wanted ‘to write for a readership whose minds are still fluid and flexible, readers who are able to easily mix reality and imagination’. But you don’t need to be a child to be captivated by the story of Skellig. His skill as a writer is evident in this thought-provoking, haunting tale of friendship, love, life and death – a book to own and treasure.

In my opinion, this is why Skellig keeps disappearing from the shelf in The Gap High School library … no, I'm not the culprit!

Skellig by David Almond
Other books by Almond include Kit’s Wilderness, Heaven Eyes, Secret Heart, The Fire Eaters, Counting Stars, and Kate, the Cat and the Moon, Clay.

© SC Gwyther

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23. Mr Winter's Pride and Joy

Schools of tropical Discus fish glowed like perpendicular, precious coins in the aquarium’s fluorescent light. The Kissing Gouramis flirted with each other amongst the waterweeds, their golden scales shimmering as all around them flicked schools of Blue Lightning Tetras.

Maisie Winter gazed at her husband's pride and joy. How could she ever compete with such beauty and rarity? Not only did she have to contend with his tropical fish obsession, she was the one who cleaned fish poo from the filters, and wiped down the kitchen bench every time her husband autopsied aquarium casualties to investigate their cause of death. No matter how hard she scrubbed that surface it never lost the dead fish smell.

Then, there was his new friend at the tropical fish club. Maisie had met her once at a bar-b-que at the woman’s home ... long hair, exquisite figure, and the owner of a 10-metre long, tropical fish aquarium designed to re-create an underwater scene from the Reef.

Twenty-six years married and now he’s tempted by a twenty-six year old blonde … how could she ever keep him against such odds?

Maisie Winter decided to take an interest in her husband's passion. Without a thought about their price tag, she purchased six of the most brilliantly coloured African Tiger fish, took them home and slipped them into the aquarium. Then she began to prepare her husband a three-course dinner.

When he came home from work she met him at the door. ‘I’ve got a surprise for you, Fred. Have you ever thought of getting African Lion Fish?’

He stepped back from her kiss with his usual distain. ‘There’s no such thing as an African Lion Fish, only African Tiger fish. And I’d never collect them – they’re carnivorous.’

‘Oh,’ said Maisie and her mouth began to mirror his prized pair of Kissing Gouramis.

(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2008



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24. He remembers the day his mother shot ...

He remembers the day his mother shot a cat. He’s four years old and the images imprint like small photographs. Not in black and white, but in colours that burn even now in his brain, filling cracks in his vision when he least expects it.

He’s sitting on the back steps of a Queenslander in a sugar-cane town in the north. Dark red paint peels off the side of the railing beside his head, and blowflies head-butt the glass inserts of the shut door. His mother sits on a step two below him. On her lap is the gun.

A large mosquito settles on her back. He watches, but resists the urge to smack it, because she sits so still.

The large tabby sneaks through the fence from next door, and weaves its way through the long grass to the chook run. It belongs to his father’s cousin, Joyce from next door. He half expects to hear her on the other side of the tangle of choko vine – fingers clicking and puss-puss-pussing as she calls it home. She refuses to neuter her cats so Tosser’s territory ranges far. The cat is small-eyed, with ginger ribbed fur, muscled shoulders and thick paws, and unlike the menagerie of neighbourhood animals that usually come to his outstretched hand, this is the only animal that hates him.

With an imperceptible, silent movement of her body, his mother raises the gun. She aims. Then shoots it dead through the head. Did the cat screech as it flips over in the air and drops into the long grass? He’d never know because of the booming in his ears.

Pretty good aim his mother had in those days.

It’s the same gun his father snatches from his hands the time he and his little sister are caught playing with it in the garden shed. He remembers the tick-ticking of the tin roof contracting in the morning heat, and the anger in his father’s voice.

The gun was gone now, destroyed in the fire that killed his sister.

Jess had always burned candles in her bedroom … those ubiquitous, New Age smelly versions of induced happiness she used in an attempt to cover the smell of her far more potent inhalations.

No one else was at home that morning. She’d been in her bedroom, with its contoured mapped plywood ceiling … unpainted so she could lie in bed and imagine the lay of the land. He liked to think of her lying in that bed, dark ripples of hair spread over her pillow, lost in her drugged world, and probably sucking a lollipop, its stick waving in the air with the movement of her tongue.

Maybe she didn’t hear the tall, slender candle topple from its spike. Nor sense that first leap of flame as it fled up the wall to the plywood landscapes.

They all blamed themselves for not being at home that morning … to smell the first acrid warning, to save the photo albums, to rescue the budgie, and Jess.

He wonders why no one in the family speaks about the facts uncovered in the charred skeleton of their home … about the remains of a forgotten gun lying next to Jess’s body.

The Gun - a short story by Sheryl Gwyther 2008


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25. Going French ...

Sally Parker hummed to herself as she added an exact measure of yellow wine to the pan and refilled her glass. Now all it needed was a handful of finely ground parsley and a dash of ground pepper.

She adjusted the corset restricting her breast so she could take a deeper breath and fluffed out the tiny, French maid skirt she wore. She’d still have time to slip into her stilettos – the shiny red ones this time. And slide on her Luscious Pomegranate lipstick – before her husband got home.

Would it work tonight? The Nursey-Nursey Night hadn’t and the Naughty Schoolgirl Night was a total flop. Going French was her last option ... she was running out of costumes.

The dish hadn’t been difficult ... she’d even found the ingredients in the fridge. The recipe she’d found on the internet. Les Cuisses de Grenouilles au Vin. Even its name as she rolled it around her mouth with a French accent sounded delicious, and exciting. Peter was in for a treat in more ways than one. Maybe this would even take his mind off his work.

Sally sighed. Not likely, but then again, not everyone was lucky enough to be married to an award-winning scientist on the verge of discovering ... something or other. If only he was more aware of life going on around him.

She sprinkled the parsley over the creamy white sauce in the pan and breathed its subtle aroma. Maybe she should taste it. Just one little piece of the delicate white meat. She lifted a portion, put it in her mouth and swallowed. Mmmm, so tender she didn’t even need to chew.

The back door opened and her husband strode into the kitchen, his coat reeking of formaldehyde.

Sally wrinkled her pert nose as she kissed his lips. ‘You are hungry, mon cheri?’ Who could resist a bit of French?

Peter turned to the fridge and opened it. ‘Sorry, I have to get back to work. I’d left something in here ... a packet wrapped in red tape.’

‘Qui, such pretty colours for frogs.’

‘How did you know that?’

She pointed to the pan on the stove. ‘Les Cuisses de Grenouilles au Vin. I sautéed their thighs in yellow wine like the recipe said.’

‘Holy crap! They were Poison Arrow Frogs.’ He sighed in relief. ‘Thank God we didn’t eat it.’

© S C Gwyther 2008

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