The Shop Around the Corner

You've Got Mail. The Shop Around The Corner

You've got mail. Shop Around The Corner.

Once upon a time, in a world when I was hooked on romantic comedies and I had an awkward teen haircut, my heart settled into the corner of a little bookshop in New York City.

Its facade was green, and its glow was golden.

The effervesce of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) made that little cosy bookshop for children all the more appealing.

I fantasised about that little nook. How good would it be to own / live in / work in a book shop like Kathleen Kelly’s? How good would it be to have a little cosy corner that attracted children like moths to a flame, and filled their little hearts with books?

That was back in 1998, when You’ve Got Mail was released. A few years later,  the real life bus I caught to university passed a little suburban shop called Books and Beans. I pressed my nose against the pane. Wait! There is was. The shop around the corner had found its way to my otherwise ordinary Brisbane suburb.

I was studying visual arts at the time, and to say I was disillusioned with making non-art out of styrofoam and other found non-arty-like materials was an understatement. My hopes of learning how to paint were flushed down the toilet along with the sentiment that anyone with creative talent can make a living in the arts. My lecturers wanted to drum into us that making a living from art was a thankless, and most likely impossible task.

Anyway, six weeks into the course,  I withdrew and applied at the bookstore. I got the job. As well as making cappuccinos and serving cupcakes, I was responsible for dressing like a fairy and reading books to kids.

It was kind of like a small heaven, with a Queensland climate.

I loved sitting and reading with the children, answering their impossible questions about where my wings were and why I was so big. Why wasn’t I invisible? I couldn’t say.

I read happy books, sad books, funny books. I even read scary books, if you count Julia Donaldson’s Room On A Broom. (I didn’t find the story about a witch helping animals scary, but a mother rang the shop the next morning to complain about me giving her child nightmares.)

I left Books and Beans a few months later, not because I didn’t love it to pieces, but because I was an itinerant, hapless 19 year old.

When you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, chances were, if it was between the years of 1998 and 2005, I would have told you I wanted to own a children’s book store. The Shop Around The Corner would have burned in my memory as I told you about my dream.

Bookshops will always have a special place in my heart. I hope they live forever.

What was your childhood dream? Do you have a favourite bookstore? 

For more tales from the sunshine house, book ideas and imaginative activities, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, which is full of sunny goodness.

Linking with Essentially Jess.

It’s ok to go there: Reading difficult stories to children

On Friday, a plane is shot down over the Ukraine and hundreds of people die. It is beyond tragic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, I play imaginary games with my girls, singing songs, reading and pretending to be Goldilocks.

We are oblivious to the tragedy. We are oblivious to most tragic events that happen. We play, we create, we imagine, and meanwhile terrible stuff happens elsewhere.

We have talked about it here before – how do you communicate difficult stuff to children? I feel that if it’s communicated delicately and sensitively, knowing about others’ suffering can in many ways benefit children.

I recently came across an article on HuffPost talking about this issue. The writer, B.J. Epstein states:

Literature does much more than teach basic facts or social rules. Children, like adults, have the right to see books that reflect the world around them, and the broader world, too. That means, yes, featuring different races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, classes, ages, and so on, and also exploring political, moral, physical, and emotional issues. Children need to see both themselves and other people in the books they read…Kids aren’t as delicate as adults like to think, and they aren’t ignorant of what’s happening around them. They don’t need to be protected from reality. They don’t only need books that teach them about manners and colours. Children have a right to see all sorts of topics represented in the books they read.

Some picture books are like doughnuts – sweet, and easy to digest. Others are like multigrain, sourdough bread. They are tasty, and their goodness and nutrition continues to release over time.

We have been reading a number of children’s books lately of the wholemeal variety that deal with difficult or complex material in subtle ways. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood My Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood (Little Hare) is a beautiful book I bought last week from our local bookseller.

On first read, you are aware of a feeling of isolation and uncertainty that the protagonist, Cartwheel experiences. You realise she discovers comfort through a sweet new friendship.

When you read again, though, you are drawn further into the metaphor of the blanket, and the true meaning of the book starts to unveil itself. The illustrations and the words weave a subtle, gentle and uplifting tale, of something difficult, but beautiful. Hasel and Rose Caroline Magerl Hasel and Rose, by Caroline Magerl (Penguin) is another subtle, and beautiful book that recently fell into my hands.

We had to read it two, or three times before I understood its meaning. And this isn’t a criticism. What it means is that it reveals itself over time. It doesn’t underestimate children’s intelligence – emotional or intellectual. It instead plays on their ability to understand difficult stuff.

When I asked Caroline directly about the complexity of the book, she replied:

I believe that growing the ability to deal with complex and difficult situations is of primary importance. Having raised a girl of my own has shown me how vital that is. However it must be presented in a kind and thoughtful manner. Hasel and Rose is an emotionally honest account, showing that trouble does occur in family life. Hopefully it also provides an understanding that there is hope for the future additionally for those suffering, that they are not alone. I hope that in the reading of a book, channels for understanding and honest discussion can be opened. For me this is a better path than the alternative.

A little like My Two BlanketsHasel and Rose is about displacement. A girl, Rose, has moved somewhere new and is struggling to find her place. She discovers Hasel, a worn and unusual toy, and Hasel gives her the courage she needs to make a new friend, Em.

It’s possibly tempting when thinking about writing for children that children are simple creatures and like coloured dots, big shapes and funny rhymes. Children like all those things, but so much more.

My own daughter, Elfie, asks about difficult issues most days.

The day after the Creative Business Women’s High Tea, she asked me what all the money in my tin was for. I said it was to help the girls in Kenya.

‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Some have been treated very badly, and we need to help keep them safe.’ She thought about it, asked questions, and wanted to write a letter to the girls, which we did. (She also thought it would be a good idea to send the ‘baddies’ something nice too so they would feel less bad, and would be less mean to the girls.)

At the CBCA conference earlier this year, Little Hare publisher Margrete Lamond spoke of the benefits of reading subtle and complex books to children.

She talked about the mirror neurons that light up in our brain when we hear about another person’s emotion. The mirror neurons replicate the emotional response the other person experiences, causing us to feel exactly as the other person feels. Physiologically, the only difference in neural activity between ourselves and the other is that we don’t act on the emotion.

Every time the brain pathways light up, we are learning, and each experience of learning helps us develop socially. The effectiveness of our interpersonal relationships, science is now saying, is as fundamental to our survival as food and sex.

When we read a subtle and nuanced story, Margrete said in her talk, our brain pathways also become more subtle and nuanced. We become better equipped at understanding other people’s emotions, and experiences. We develop our interpersonal competencies.

Reading, then, becomes a survival enhancing activity.

In that quiet moment of the evening, when your child sits in your lap, they are absorbing the story you hold in your hands. I think it’s ok to occasionally let them absorb something more subtle, complex and nuanced. Something a bit more wholemeal and a bit less doughnut.

What are your thoughts about this? Do you have books that have unveiled themselves to you over time? 

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.

Linking with Essentially Jess & Weekend Rewind

Once Upon A Timeless Tale

It’s no secret that our bookshelves are heavily laden with children’s books. The shelves sag from their weight. Yet despite the variety of quality, modern, interesting and quirky books in our collection, it is repeatedly the fairy tales that are selected by small hands.

It intrigues me. Why? Some are so gruesome. So dark. Most are set in bygone eras, that are surely not relatable for our kids.

And yet they go back for more.

I’ve thought long and hard about their attraction, and about their endurance through time.

Is it their rhythmic nature? Three bowls of soup, three chairs, three beds etc.

Or their moralistic, purposeful nature? Don’t talk to wolves etc.

Is it their goriness, and darkness kids are so sheltered from in early years, yet are so clearly drawn to?

Is it their magic, other-worldliness? From what I know of early childhood, children are drawn to magic. Their little imaginations take hold of an impossible idea, like a talking wolf or a fairy godmother, and let themselves soar.

You may have heard that Richard Dawkins recently questioned whether it was possibly ‘harmful’ to read fairy tales to children.

‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway,’ he said.

Dawkins’ comments were followed by a wave of hysteria and outcry. But fairy tales inspire imagination and wonder, the rebuttal sang.

Dawkins himself later commented that he was misrepresented. Like many of the rest of us, he too feels fairy tales are important.

‘I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales,’ said Dawkins. ‘My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.’

Clearly, the magic and wonder of these tales is significant.

But I feel that although fairy tales play with supernatural concepts, have archetypal characters and are set in other worlds, they are deeply human, and it is this that makes them so attractive.

At the heart of most fairy tales is a moral, yes, but there’s also a subtle and complex character flaw or problem that needs to be resolved.

Think of naive, trusting Red Riding Hood, the fiercely jealous step mother of Snow White, or the calculating, canny yet well-intentioned mother-in-law-to-be of the Princess and the Pea. And how relatable in fact is the ugly little duckling, who exists on the fringes of his social world, an outcast because of his looks?

I think as well as craving magic, children are drawn like magnets to the complexity and the humanness of these stories. Remember too that the tales were initially orated from one person to another, passed down through generations, until they were captured in writing. These are human traits that ascend advances in technology, and other cultural developments.

Margrete Lamond, publisher at Little Hare, realised there was a distinct gap in the market between high-end luxury-gift collections of folk and fairy tales, and the cheap Disney-inspired versions that were not true to the originals.

This year, Little Hare released the Once Upon A Timeless Tale series to address this. Margrete  describes the series as a ‘classic, collectible set of fairy tales with high production values, beautiful illustrations and a sense of traditional oral storytelling in the style of writing.’

Once Upon A Timeless Tale The stories are depicted by some of the industry’s best known illustrators, like Anna Walker, Anna Pignataro and Cécile Becq. 

Detail from Puss In Boots, Cécile Becq

Detail from Puss In Boots, Cécile Becq

Margrete herself retells the fairy tales. She tried to source the very early versions, and translated from original languages to find the most authentic voice.

From all the versions of fairy tales we have in our collection, these are by far and away my favourite.

Detail from The Ugly Duckling, Jonathan Bentley

Detail from The Ugly Duckling, Jonathan Bentley

They resolve some of the inexplicable threads other versions leave hanging. For example, Goldilocks has a clear motive when entering the house of the bears.

She was wandering through the forest when she chanced upon a house. She politely knocked, but there was no answer and when she pushed, the door opened, so she went in. Goldilocks wondered why the door was left unlocked, and why three bowls of porridge were left standing on the table, but because she loved the smell of porridge, she was drawn in, and curiosity tempted her to taste from each bowl.

Detail from Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Pignataro

Detail from Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Pignataro

I also love their playfulness.

‘That should teach you’ said the grandmother, ‘not to talk to wolves.’
‘It should teach the wolf,’ said Red Riding Hood, ‘not to talk to little girls.’
And once they had agreed on this, everyone lived happily ever after.’

I also like that Puss In Boots is a smart and sassy lady cat with fine red boots.

I guess the clue to the endurance of fairy tales is in the title of this series – they are timeless. No matter what goes on in our busy, ever-changing world, the fairy story still rings true, in a magical sort of way.

The books can be purchased here.

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.



We’ve been back over a week now from our little holiday down south, combined with a trip to Canberra for the Children’s Book Council of Australia conference. I’ve been struggling to find the time, energy or the words to put the whole experience together.

It was so GREAT. Yet so exhausting. Of course, the ‘holiday’ landed smack bang in the middle of an enormous contract I am doing for work, so either side, I have been hammering out 5,000-8,000 words a day to stay on top of it all. It’s possible, but everything else falls by the wayside. Including my mood. And the housework. Thank goodness for House Husband, seriously.

The conference itself was so fabulous. I walked into the reception soiree of my first ever conference, nervous as hell. No matter how confident or social you appear, it’s basic human nature to feel terrified walking into a room of people you’ve never met.

Anyway, I got talking to a librarian from Noosa right away, and within minutes was approached by the wonderful Natasha from Hardie Grant, who was so so great to connect with in person. Then I met the rest of the Hardie Grant team, and my publisher Margrete Lamond from Little Hare. I felt pretty special being connected with these people, and being able to talk about my book for real. Maybe I can stop pinching myself now.

The conference inspired me, and opened my mind to the children’s book industry. One of my favourite panels was “Visual Treasures” where three picture book collaborations talked about the process of making a picture book.

The lovely Freya Blackwood and Libby Gleeson nutted out the process of creating Amy & Louis and other books together, including Banjo & Ruby Red  (Little Hare), which has been shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year Awards 2014 for Early Childhood. It made me aware how intricate and delicate the process of creating a picture book really is. It can take years, and so much thought, passion, and trust.

Banjo & Ruby Red

Detail from Banjo & Ruby Red

Sometimes, there’s little conversation between the author and the illustrator. In fact, a good working relationship thrives on trust and respect. Libby told us that once the story is written, she hands it over to the illustrator, and waits for the outcome. As she tells her creative writing students:

Let the other person who is the visual artist do what they do, and wait to be amazed.

Listening to Freya and the other illustrators, Julie Vivas and Stephen Michael King, I realised what an event it is illustrating a story book. It may not come naturally, and the story itself may provide little direction. It is up to the artist to take the story in a whole new direction, breathe new life into it, and make it soar.

All books are a struggle for me.

said Kate Greenaway Medal winner, Freya Blackwood.

Even for her.

One of the other highlights of the conference (apart from the visit to Jackie French’s property of course), was hearing the publishers talk about publishing literary treasures.

I want to talk about this more in another post, on another day, but basically, they discussed the importance of publishing good books for children – and not just any old thing.

In an era when more books for children are published than ever before, Erica Wagner, from Allen & Unwin said:

…publishing will survive and thrive only if we publish what children are interested in. But we also need to interest parents as we need parents to keep reading to children.

With the words of the publishers, of the illustrators and authors, including Andy Griffiths and Jackie French ringing in my heart, I felt so passionate about the importance of making and reading good books for children.

I was a little puppy-dog hopelessly savouring every morsel of information and insight. I am so new – not even yet part of this story – but it was hellishly exciting to dip my toe into the magical world of children’s literature.

After the conference we had a brief holiday, so I could spend a couple of down days with the family. It was perfect, and as relaxing as travelling around the countryside with two small people can be.

My feet haven’t touched the ground since we’ve been back. I’ve been working madly, and my littlest has been sick and sad, so that’s not been fun at all. Writing this, collecting my thoughts about the whole thing, I reckon I’ve almost landed. Just give me the weekend.

How’s your week been?

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.

Visiting Jackie French

I wasn’t your usual teenager. While my peers were reading Dolly and the more adventurous, Cosmopolitan, I was reading The Australian Women’s Weekly. I loved learning about grown-up lives, and imagining the life I would have one day, when I transcended the gloomy adolescent years.

One of the most memorable stories I read was about a woman who moved to a property outside of Canberra in her early twenties, built her own house and developed a natural reserve that not only protected local wildlife, but grew an abundance of fruit and vegetables.

That was inspirational enough, but as I read on, I learned that this woman started sending away stories, and soon became a professional writer. She wrote children’s books, books for young adults, non-fiction historical books, gardening books, gardening columns and more. My teenage self imagined how this woman managed to fit everything in. How can you be a mother, gardening expert, an author, a farmer and nature conservationist?

Last week, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall together when I met Jackie French in real life.

Jackie French is literally a household name. I challenge any of you to think of an Australian who doesn’t know who she is. If you garden, you’ll know her. If you like wombats, you’ll know her. If you have children, you’ll certainly know her, or at least would have been read her books when you were a child.

Jackie is the 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Laureate. This means for two years, Jackie will tour nationally and internationally promoting and advocating children’s literature in schools and libraries. She’s the perfect choice, because Jackie is the best-selling author of over 140 books including Diary of A Wombat and Hitler’s Daughter. She is warm and passionate, and is an incredible speaker. Her address at this years Children’s Book Council of Australia National Conference made me laugh and literally moved me to tears.

Her career is impressive, but her personal story and lifestyle is truly inspirational.

Jackie bought a property in Araluen, south of Braidwood, NSW in her early 20s. She had studied agriculture in Brisbane, and headed south looking for property. She had a immediate affinity with Araluen, which was incredible because unaware to Jackie at the time, both sides of her family over a number of generations came from this tiny (yet impressive) valley.

JackieFrench_araluenvalley The property was overgrown with blackberry bush, and with a machete and few other tools, Jackie and her then husband began clearing to make room for a shed, which doubled as a dwelling. Jackie had a son, at which time her marriage ended. Child on back, Jackie continued to develop the land, removing weeds and introduced pests, and planting fruit trees.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Jackie French Jackie was a single mother with a property. She had no money to speak of, and a car to register. A friend suggested she send away her writing. Within three weeks, she had a book contract for what was described by the editor at HarperCollins as the messiest, worst spelt manuscript they’d ever received. She also secured a weekly column with the Canberra Times and in a farmer’s magazine.

Jackie French Last Monday, Jackie welcomed a bunch of CBCA conference delegates to her property. She showed us many of the hundreds of fruit species she grows. She talked about permaculture, and how specific plants had been planted for birds, so other fruit would be left for humans.

Jackie French She introduced us to Noam Chomsky, the herald of the garden, who observes the conversations and interactions of the local wildlife.

Noam Chompsky

Jackie French

JackieFrench07 She talked about her wombats, and other inspirations for her books.



JackieFrench10 She showed us the wombat hole under her house, and told us about the resident wombats who regularly visit. Occasionally, they wander into the house and make themselves comfortable.




JackieFrench14 She invited us to pick fruit from the trees. (These tamarillos were incredible.)




tree dahlias

tree dahlias

JackieFrench19 As she talked, Jackie’s knowledge of and respect for the land grew apparent. Her property is self-sufficient, yes, but it also encourages and invites wildlife to flourish. She has vast knowledge of the property’s indigenous history. She knows and respects the stories of the land. She knows its secrets.



JackieFrench22 Behind almost all great women is a supportive and loving partner. We met Bryan, Jackie’s husband. Bryan is an engineer, who built this waterwheel, which pumps water and makes energy for the property. Between the waterwheel and the impressive solar-power heating system, the house is 100% carbon neutral. Jackie bought one of the first solar panels sold in Australia, and has expanded her collection over the years.


JackieFrench25 We wandered around her garden and her property, grateful for the opportunity to see this beautiful, peaceful and rich life. Every delegate I spoke to shone with admiration for Jackie and everything she had done here. We felt privileged.

Jackie’s warmth and generosity was exemplified by the lunch she made for the thirty or more guests.


JackieFrench29 As we were walking back to the mini bus, Tom, our driver remarked that the visit had been “life-changing”. I thought about what he said, and Jackie’s own words rung in my mind.

Don’t ask children what they want to do when they grow up. Ask children how they would like to live their life. That’s the important question.

Although I don’t know how I could possibly fit more into my already busy life, I would like to live my life exactly like Jackie. She inspired me when I was thirteen, but I completely fell in love with her when I met her in person, and visited her home. I know who I’ll be nominating for Australian of the Year.

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.

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