Tuesday, March 1, 2011

From Hippos to Histories

Best known for There's a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, which was recently translated into Chinese, Hazel writes across media, for adults & children.
Sir Edward‘Weary’ Dunlop in the New Frontier Aussie Heroes series is her latest print & ebook.
An ambassador for literature and for literacy, Hazel is involved with the 2012 National Year of Reading. She holds webinars ,mentors and is on the Australian Society of Authors’ committee.

Hazel, you are well known for your children’s picture books, especially the well known and much loved classic There’s A Hippo On Our Roof Eating Cake.
Your latest book is a non-fiction book for primary school children entitled Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop.
How different is it to write a ‘history’ book for young children as opposed to a storybook?
The first challenge in writing a junior history is to find anecdotes (mini stories) and a viewpoint likely to interest a reader of that age.
The next challenge is what to leave out.

In writing about one person, you need to read widely about the challenges of their period of history, especially if you weren’t living then. Next you need to read all the detailed adult biographies available on them, and their contemporaries.

There is as much work in writing history for young readers as there is in writing for adults. The skill is in how to shape the facts of the setting and the person in a way which makes sense to a young reader who may not know much about that time or place or even that man (or woman).Or be unfamiliar with certain abbreviations like POW (prisoner of war).

I did have some research help on ‘Weary’ because he’s a man about whom there are many stories, by people who knew him personally and are still alive.

Each type of book has different challenges, whether history for children, adult non- fiction or writing fantasy- based picture books. And then there’s scripting too. It’s a bit like a smorgasbord of food. Sometimes you feel like savouries, other times your taste is for something sweet or spicy. I enjoy having a balanced diet of varied tastes of ideas in different formats.

The proportion of time spent on research is considerable for a history book, because the facts must be accurate. I’ve recently discovered the term ‘fact-checker’which is difficult to say, but vital to have.

Have you written any other books in this genre?
‘Antarctic Close up’ in the National Museum ‘Making Tracks’ series, about the telescope from Mawson’s Antarctic expedition was for a similar age group. That story is ‘faction’ as it has a little dramatic licence in including a10 year old boy in the polar ice. But it is based on the real John Collinson Close (hence the title) who was on Mawson’s expedition. It’s called ‘memorabilia’ when you write a story around an object. That book was commissioned by the Museum, as were others in the museum memorabilia series, and the real telescope can be viewed there.

My Writing A Non-Boring Family History book is used in workshops, when often adults are shaping stories for the children in their families as well.

Is it harder to write fact than fiction for children?
More research is required. But in some novels, which are works of fiction, getting the facts to make the settings believable, takes an equal time e.g. the outback setting with feral pigs and chopper flying in my Outback Feral YA novel. Or the Antarctic iceberg, expeditioner and wildlife facts of picture book ‘Antarctic Dad’. Facts provide you with a time or place framework, but you need to creatively craft a story within that. I enjoy the challenge of improvising against a factual setting. Some of my stories are ‘faction’ which use a factual setting but a made-up character. I do not call these a history.

Other times, I’ve scripted plays using facts, where the characters have names like FIRE or WATER or BORE and act accordingly.

Some factual writing is about how things work e.g. the writer has to understand that process, before they write it more simply for the child reader.

An example would be writing about some of Weary’s homemade surgical or medical equipment in the POW camps.

How did you get involved in writing Sir Edward 'Weary’ Dunlop?
By invitation from New Frontier I had already written Flight of the Bumblebee picture book linked with the classical music of Rimsky Korsakov.

The ‘Aussie Heroes’ concept, where the emphasis was on community contributions rather than only sport, interested me.

Did you know much about ‘Weary’ and what type of research was necessary?
I’d read Weary’s biography earlier, and knew of his medical connections plus I’d travelled in Asia where the POW camps had been. My husband was familiar with Weary’s rugby skills.
A researcher Gail Arkins offered her help, as her medical family had known Weary, plus she checked the military facts. Once I mentioned I was researching Weary, people who had worked with him, or whose family members he had operated on, told me stories.

Although I did some Internet research, I also read many books about Weary, and some about other camp doctors.

We visited the ‘Weary’ statues, and researched the symbolism of the steps representing those who worked on the railway and in the camps.

How do you define the word ‘Hero’ and why how important is it to inspire children with such role models?
A hero is one who inspires by example.

It is very important to distinguish between a ‘celeb’ famous only for being in the media and a person who has done something significant to help others.

A hero may solve a problem for a community, discover a cure or invent a gadget.
But a hero is not perfect and may have weaknesses.

We all need role models, to inspire us, to try beyond the day-to-day.

A footballer who plays skilfully, but misbehaves in public, is not a good role model.
Easy to read histories of inspiring Australians can provide facts about ‘real’ lives, not fictional super- heroes., although there is a place for fantasy too.

What was the most fascinating fact you discovered in the writing of the book?
Weary’s resourcefulness in ‘making-do’ possibly came from his farm childhood.
Risk-taking can pay off, if you are stoic about accepting the consequences when things go wrong.

I was also fascinated that so many people felt they ‘owned’ Weary via their stories.

What other Australian ‘heroes’ do you think we should be introducing our children to?
Let’s rename all the boring ‘Station and Railways’ streets, Australia-wide , with the researched names of ‘heroic’ locals who have solved problems.

Female scientists, pioneers like Granny Smith (Apples), inventors, business people who have found new ways of making things, explorers of the country or of the mind.

New Frontier Publishing’s series Aussie Heroes now has two titles available and a third on the way, Fred Hollows. How important is this series in terms of supporting the national history curriculum? What do you think of the curriculum as it stands at present?
Once students find out about ‘historic’ people and the challenges they faced, they get inspired. The problem is the lack of historic material in accessible formats for junior readers or viewers. The stories need to be dramatically told, not just in chronological order. The stories need to be in print and e-books as well as TV documentaries or multi-media.

Maybe using the Aussie Heroes series for modelling of students’ own research and writing/scripting of a local ‘hero’ could be a start. Write about local State Emergency Services workers, ambulance officers, political activists, artists in new media, interpreters, un-sung heroes who quietly do their jobs or volunteer?

Reading history is not just about dead people. It’s about WHY someone might have acted that way in those circumstances. That’s the mystery of history.

Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop
Written by Hazel Edwards
Illustrated (colour) by Pat Reynolds
Released: 1st March 2011
Age 9+


  1. Well done Hazel for writing about a wonderfully brave man. And well done New Frontier for bringing Australian history to life for Australian children. While it doesn't come under the heading of hero, I have long been concerned about how we have told the story of the First Fleet to children and have written a journey into the unknown story called Dorrington's Extraordinary Journey which is looking for a publisher.

  2. Thank you New Frontier for this wonderful new series. Today's children will love the story of Weary Dunlop. Not only is Weary a great role model, his great achievements stem from simple skills: problem solving and making do - something possible for us all.Three dimensional characters challenge us to live our lives to the full. Thank you Hazel for opening the door into Weary Dunlop's world. Can't wait for the others in the series.