Q&A with Michael Wagner!!

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Hi Michael and welcome to Just So Stories!

  1. Let’s jump right in here and start with So Wrong! You mentioned that as reluctant readers as kids you and Wayne Bright, your illustrator, wanted to create a book that would entice children to read. Tell us about its inception and inspiration please.

So Wrong started with a bunch of scribbled ideas in my old journals. I’d noted down all sorts of weird and silly thoughts that weren’t quite convertible into books or even short stories. They were things like one-off cartoon ideas, satirical advertisements, parodies of picture books, etc. They couldn’t be turned into books, but I found them funny. As I wondered what to do with them, it occurred to me that they could be assembled into a book of random, misfit bits and pieces. And the one common thread through all of the ideas, it seemed to me, was their wrongness.

  1. So what did ‘switch’ you on to reading eventually?

When I was 19, would you believe, my girlfriend was (sorry this is going to sound so clichéd) a librarian. Like any good librarian, she suggested a novel to me (Monkey Grip), and to my surprise, I liked it. I didn’t realise books could be so modern and edgy and cool. That’s what started me reading as an adult and I’ve been fairly voracious ever since. The importance of librarians can’t be overstated – everyone should date one, at least once in their life.  J

{Well What can I say except to agree!!!}

  1. One of my favourite questions for authors (or illustrators!) is what does your work space look like? Do you have a stylishly elegant office or a quirky jumble-filled playspace or…? (photos are always delicious!)

Stylish? No. Elegant? OMG, that’s actually hilarious. Jumble-filled? We’re getting closer. Playspace? Yeah … yeah, that’s a nice way of putting it. I don’t have a mini putting green or one of those micro sandpits with a rake in it, but I do play there. It’s really just a boring office-like space – desk, computer, printer, bookshelves, inexpensive chair from Officeworks – but it’s a safe, cosy place for me to imaginatively play and to play loud music. One of my ideas of a dream job is one where you can work and listen to loud music at the same time. So I need big speakers.

Here’s a photo of the space with labels explaining a few things. Sorry it’s so uninspiring.

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  1. Your degree was in Media Studies – was it your intention to become a fabulously successful children’s writer then?

Not at all. After Media Studies, I worked as a radio broadcaster for the ABC for 10 years. I thought radio was my career. But I actually got bored with it and a few years after leaving the ABC, an old friend asked me if I’d like to try writing a couple of educational books of fiction for her new publishing company. I wrote the two books in a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon (they were only 500 and 800 words) –and they were both published. It all seemed so easy. If only I’d known that 16 years later I’d be writing a 1,000 word book and still be unhappy with it after 67 drafts.

  1. Can you tell us more about Billy Goat Books and its genesis?

Billy Goat Books is where I go when I want to create something for myself. It’s where I create a book without anticipating anyone’s reaction but my own. Sometimes you really need to write that way – with total freedom. And the two books I’ve created so far have sold well, so it’s working both creatively and financially. A rare combination. J

  1. What’s the downtime look like for you? What are the things that float your boat when you are not working?

I love sport and music and great TV and cinema (although I’ve lost faith in films a bit lately). And I also love to travel, so I need all the downtime I can get.

 

  1. What would you consider the highlight/s of your children’s writer career thus far?

The success of the Maxx Rumble books came early and really set me up as an author almost instantly. And I’m super proud of Pig Dude and So Wrong, because I made them myself (with the help of two incredible illustrators) and reading them provides two of the highlights of my school visits.

  1. This is a double whammy really – what’s coming up next for your kidlet fans and will there be a follow up to So Wrong?

So Wrong Two is already in development and it will continue to stumble all over that line of good taste. I’m not sure why, but humour seems most exciting when it’s right up against the ‘unacceptable’ edge, so that’s where we’re heading with the next book too. And there are two or maybe three picture books coming next year as well two, depending on current contract negotiations.

  1. Who are your personal favourites when it comes to authors – for adults and/or kids? And what are you reading at the moment?

For kids: Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths, Dav Pilkey, Anthony Horowitz, Dr Seuss.

For adults: Fredrik Backman, Dave Eggers, Ian McEwan, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare.

And what I’m reading right now are: Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel and The Naughtiest Girl in School by Enid Blyton.

  1. What would you like your epitaph to be?

He wasn’t so wrong after all.

 

Michael, thanks for giving up your time. So Wrong has been a huge hit with some very special boys I met at a Positive Learning Centre – it gave me great pleasure to be able to pass it on to them!

 

That’s so wonderful, Sue. I’m really thrilled to hear it. And thanks again for your wonderful review.

Peter in Peril: Courage and Hope in World War Two – Helen Bate

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peterinperil

Walker Books Australia

ISBN: 9781910959572
Imprint: OTTER-BARRY BOOKS
September 1, 2016
Australian RRP: $27.99

There is always a need for memoirs or biographical texts in a simpler format for younger students. There is also always a great demand, in my experience, for true stories of bravery especially during times of conflict. The enduring popularity of true stories around the Holocaust is evident. Not because the young readers enjoy the horrible or gruesome history but because they are continually inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. When these stories are told from a child’s POV they become even more powerful.

This graphic novel is based on the recollections of Peter, who was six at the time when Budapest fell to the Nazi regime. For Jewish families such as Peter’s this marked the beginning of a long, difficult and dangerous period of history.

The dangers and the stark reality of living in fear and hiding are minimised but there is no doubt that children will still grasp the enormity of the situation in which Peter and his family found themselves.  Throughout these dark times there were still moments for Peter to still just be a child and these make for real contrast to the grimness of his environment.

Thankfully Peter and his family survived and continued to make Hungary their home after the war, when there was still as much struggle, poverty and lack of food.

The last few pages of the book relate some background to Peter’s story along with a summary of the family’s situation. A photo of adult Peter, now living in Austria, with his children and grandchildren provides a fitting ending to this story of one little boy’s war.

Highly recommended for readers of around 10 upwards.

Are You Sitting Comfortably? – Leigh Hodgkinson

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ISBN: 9781408864821

Imprint: Bloomsbury Childrens

May 2016

RRP $25.99

Sometimes it’s difficult to find just the right cosy spot in which to read. The little guy in this book is having just that problem. With loads of onomatopoeia to describe his rejected places he continues to search for that just perfect space.

Hello there!
Are you sitting comfortably?
Are you sure?
Have you found the perfect snuggle-up-and-lose-yourself-in-a-book place?
Somewhere comfy, NOT itchy-fuzzy?
Somewhere quiet, NOT buzz-buzzy?
You have? Great!

Leigh’s illustrations are striking and funky with some bold use of colour.

This is a terrific rhythmic rhyming book which would be perfect for little ones especially as an introduction to perhaps the joys of reading now they are at ‘big school’. It will certainly become one of my first reads for Preps next year.  Because as we all know, the really best spot to read a book is the space where you can share the reading with someone special.

Highly recommended for readers from Prep upwards.

The Famishing Vanishing Mahoosive Mammoth – Hollie Hughes/Leigh Hodgkinson

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Allen & Unwin Australia

ISBN: 9781408862780

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Imprint: Bloomsbury Child

Pub Date: August 2016

RRP $14.99

This hilarious rhyming book is just pure good fun for little readers. The huge hairy mammoth has a ‘ridiculously large appetite’ and his great friend the Bug is beginning to despair of ever finding the snack that will finally satisfy him. Clever little Bug comes up with the perfect plan to solve the problem.

Vibrantly coloured illustrations with some wonderful use of different fonts and text placements make this a visual delight for a little human.

This is Hollie Hughes’ debut picture book and I foresee that we can look forward to more fun from this writer. Stay tuned for a review that features illustrator Leigh Hodgkinson in a book which she also wrote.

Highly recommended particularly as a read aloud for Preps upwards.

 

 

The Great Dragon Bake Off – Nicola O’Byrne

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Allen & Unwin Australia

ISBN: 9781408839560

Publisher :Bloomsbury

Imprint: Bloomsbury Child

Pub Date: August 2016

RRP $14.99

 

With the surfeit of cookery shows most children will have seen at least part of one if not actually The Great British Bake Off. And they may well also be familiar with Jamie Oliver.

Now they can meet Flamie Oliver who attends the Ferocious Dragon Academy. Flamie is invited to attend the academy because he is very FEROCIOUS and the academy is where all scary dragons go to hone their deadly skills. There is just one small problem. Flamie really doesn’t want to be ferocious nor practise deadly skills. His passion is pastry and all he really wants to do is cook.

In fact, he is so enthralled with perfecting his culinary art, that when finals arrive, he fails all his tests miserably. Miss Puffitup the Head is not at all pleased and sets Flamie an additional test to make up for his abysmal marks. He is to kidnap a princess and EAT her! Argghhhh!

Flamie has no problem with the kidnapping part but as for the eating – well, that’s clearly just not going to happen. For a start, he can’t even think what other ingredients would combine with princess flavour.

Together the kidnapped princess and Flamie arrive at a solution which has all the other dragons as well as Miss Puffitup dead impressed and Flamie has no need to fret about failing his Dastardly Dragon Skills Degree. He’s the new star pupil of Miss Puffitup’s Brillant Baking Academy!

This is a fun read for children as well as a great reminder that it’s ok to be different and that everyone has different talents and personalities.

Highly recommended for young readers from around 5 years up

Look and Learn Fun

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Look and Learn Fun

Allen & Unwin

Bloomsbury Activity Books

 

Christmas is coming and though these would not be a good fit for your library they would be perfect pressies for any little people in your life.

As educators we know that play and learning not only should go together but must especially in the early years.  These bright attractive activity books with over 350 stickers each have all the appeal to get little ones involved and enjoying each page.

colours

Colours

ISBN 9781409676282

$9.99

With pages dedicated to single colours as well as some that focus on the primary colours this is a great way for little ones to become expert on the colour names, have fun with drawing, colouring and tracing.  Along the way there are matching ‘same’ things, counting and practising writing as well.

Of course what is super about this is that ‘Colour’ is spelled the way we do in Australia and as an English book the script used is very similar to those used in our schools.

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Shapes

ISBN 9781409676299

$9.99

The shapes included are not only the basic plane shapes but also some such as star, oval, octagon and two pages which look at cones and cylinders which are of course 3d shapes with which children are very familiar for one reason or another.

Again there is plenty to keep little hands and minds busy with this one with lots of everyday items for reference to the shapes used as well as those a bit more unusual.

 

Both books conclude with a ‘certificate’ page to recognise the prowess of little learners.  The format of the ‘handle’ at the top of the book is pretty cute I have to admit.  There are four others in the series: ABC, 123, Phonics and Counting.  I think these are perfect for 3-5 years but of course would also be useful for children a little older who may be struggling with some of these concepts.

If you have some younger ones in your family or friends’ circles these would be very welcome gifts for sure.

Frankie the Blankie – Jennifer Sattler

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Bloomsbury

ISBN: 9781619636750

Imprint: Bloomsbury USA Childrens

RRP $16.99

This is a sweet little board book for those little ones who may be having trouble parting with a beloved snuggle. Doris is a very cute gorilla who is totally and permanently attached to her blankie, Frankie. They do everything together but when a jungle buddy suggests that blankies are only for babies, Doris thinks perhaps she should put Frankie away. Somehow, nothing is fun without Frankie so then she thinks that perhaps she can disguise Frankie so that she won’t be the object of derision. After a few attempts, particularly when Frankie is disguised as a hanky and a rather snuffly elephant wants to borrow him, Frankie becomes a puppet and he and Doris entertain all the other animals.

Little ones who are still clinging to special items will recognise themselves in this delightful story and Doris will no doubt become a special friend as she continues to protect Frankie and keep him with her.

Download some fun activities for little ones for this and other books from Bloomsbury.

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On the River – Roland Harvey

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Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781760112455

Imprint: A & U Children

 July 2016

RRP $24.99

 

“The book is about the Murray River, from top to bottom. The system is vitally important to graziers, food growers, communities for drinking and domestic use, for irrigation, for hydro power, for recreation and for the health of the environment wildlife and habitat. I thought there was a great opportunity to reveal the history and some of the secrets of the Murray. Most people cross the Murray, see little bits of it, fly over it, visit a few tourist spots but seldom see the system as a whole, or appreciate its complexity or the role it plays in our cultural environment, economy and lives.”

Roland Harvey (@ Allen & Unwin)

Not only is this a fabulous picture book with a wealth of discoveries to be made in each illustration as we are well used to with Roland’s books but it is a superb teaching resource. What better way to teach geography, ecology, historical and cultural importance than through a gift of a book such as this.

Beginning with the fantastic annotated maps on the endpapers readers can journey through the entire Murray River system learning about the many aspects that make this river such a significant part of our country.

They will also find out why the Murray was threatened and the steps that have been taken to restore it to its former health and beauty.

This is a must have for any school library as it will become an important resource for many units of work as well as providing great pleasure for any children who closely examine its delights.

With some very useful teaching notes and a fun activity sheet as added value, this has to be on your shelves.

Highly recommended for children aged around 8 and upwards and teachers as an amazing teaching resource.

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On the River Activity Sheet

Eve and Elly – Mike Dumbleton/Laura Wood

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Penguin Random House

ISBN 9780857988515

May 2016

Random House Australia Children’s

$16.99

I have always admired Mike Dumbleton’s ability to take a simple story line or idea and turn it into a gorgeous and relevant picture book for little ones.  This one is no exception.

If, as a parent, you have ever been in a similar position you will completely empathise but for little people who have had a loss of some special comfort in their life it is just so special.

Eve, like many little humans, has a special friend. Her toy elephant Elly goes everywhere with her. So of course, when her family goes on holidays Elly is also there enjoying the beach and the sea.

On the way home when Eve feels ill and the car stops for a break, Elly drops out of the car and is left behind inadvertently. Naturally Eve is just devastated but with loving parents to help her work through this dilemma is somewhat mollified. Dad being very simpatico orders a new ‘Elly’ online and when this new friend arrives has a very convincing story to explain why she is smaller – after all, all that running to follow the car! Imagine Eve’s surprise when the original Elly turns up, posted by some kind finder. I can just imagine Dad’s face as the plan backfires.

Two things come to mind which make this resonant with me especially. A long time ago my Jen went on camp (must have been school camp as Brownie/Guide camps I was there as the leader). I was left in charge of her pet mice. Mouse disappears – instant panic!! Race to pet shop to find identical mouse. Jen arrives home – “She looks smaller”………hmmm, maybe she missed you and fretted? Total bust two days later when the original mouse was found climbing the lounge room curtains!!!

Secondly, when Jen was in hospital critically ill at the start of last year, I bought a little plush cat for her to cuddle for comfort when we were gone. After we lost her, I told Small that Mummy asked her to look after Mr Squiggles and he is always in evidence – in fact, it took months before she didn’t have him under her arm 24/7. In a panic recently, as Mr Squiggles gets smaller and grubbier (despite a couple of baths) I have bought a replacement when I happened to see it but know there is no way in hell she would ever be fooled.

Sometimes, we underestimate the depth of attachment our little people have with these special toys or items and as adults it can be easy to brush over it with – ‘It will be alright’. Loss is loss – no matter how old you are.

I love that Eve’s Dad makes sure he tries everything to minimise his little girl’s pain – everyone needs a daddy just like that.

Laura Wood’s illustrations are simple but evocative – thank you both for such a super book for small humans.