Inside the CBCA Shortlist
I have read all of Karen Foxlee’s books as they’ve been published, beginning with her novels for adults and young adults, The Anatomy of Wings and the stunning The Midnight Dress, a tale of a teenage girl’s murder where tension simmers exquisitely. It is an alluring, mesmeric mystery with a finely wrought, menacing atmosphere. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian Review in 2013.
Then came her two gothic magical novels for children, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy and A Most Magical Girl, which was shortlisted for the CBCA in 2017. I wrote about it here.
Her first picture book, Horatio Squeaky, will be published in July and she is now writing a story set in a magical world with her eleven-year-old daughter.
It was a great pleasure to meet Karen in Sydney recently and hear her speak about her latest novel Lenny’s Book of Everything (Allen&Unwin), which is for older children, young adults and adults as well. It is shortlisted in the CBCA Older Readers category. Younger readers will also find value in it.
It has already won the children’s category of the Indies awards.
Lenny is a small birdlike character, in contrast to her younger brother Davey who’s born after the moon-landing and grows and grows. The plot at first seems like a fairy-tale but it is realism with snatches of everyday magic, for example, the children’s mother is made of worries and magic and her magic is leaking out.
The ongoing arrival of an encyclopaedia set brings adventure and freedom especially the section on “B” for beetles and birds.
The bird motifs and symbols, such as a giant Canada goose, which Davey hopes to ride, are beautifully integrated into the story.
The writing is powerful and poetic. It is an exceptional novel that lauds kindness and love.
Karen explained in Sydney that her character Kitty in A Most Magical Girl changed many times. In contrast, Lenny “was waiting for me”. Lenny was a “bubbling pot of emotions, longing for her absent father”. Karen wanted to write about someone different and about loving someone different. Some of the background emotion came from Karen’s own feelings for her obese mother and her love and shame for her. Karen also wore a back-brace for five years and so knew what it felt like to be different. After her mother’s death, these circumstances “bubbled into the boy who grew” – Davey. Karen also brought her own memories of her childhood encyclopedia set into the story.
I believe that Lenny’s Book of Everything is the book of our time, speaking to everyone.
Karen Foxlee’s website is https://karenfoxlee.com/
Using the book with students:
Bird Motifs Read the references to birds throughout the novel. Examples are the albatross, p32; Davey’s imaginary eagle, p64; and the Canada Goose, p323. Discuss the different roles of these birds. Students reinterpret one of these in words or images.
Imaginative Descriptions Read some of the imaginative descriptions such as the balloon ride at night, p65; the encyclopedia headquarters, p105; and the Sound of Music Spink cousins, p132. Students could select music to match one or more of these scenes.
Figurative Language Find examples of the figurative language such as “ponderous summer clouds sweeping their shadows over the sunbaking cars”, p3; “I was folding up all the dusty roads. Scrunching them up, a fistful of paper ribbons”, p180, and others. Identify these as metaphors, similes, personification and more.
“Last Times” Photorealism Lenny thinks that “Life is full of last times, so many of them you don’t even know they are happening. The last time you struggle to tie your shoelaces … The last time your mother reads you a bedtime story…” p245. Students discuss insignificant and significant last times, including the last time they did something and possibly, the last time they saw somebody.
Photorealism was a popular art form in 1970s America where this novel is set. Students use the technique of photorealism by photographing a simulation of “a last time” they have discussed, printing it and transferring it (using a projector, grid or transfer paper) onto a canvas. Then they paint the canvas to look like a photo.