Worse Things by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Sarah Davis

“We have no words for her today

 but we are here

 to show her she is not alone.”

(Worse Things)

A new verse from Sally Murphy is a special occasion.

Sally has written three great verse novels for children – Pearl Verses the World, Toppling and Roses are Blue – and has now followed these with another poignant verse novel, Worse Things (Walker Books Australia).

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Sally.

Thank you for having me, Joy.

Could you please introduce your three protagonists?

The three protagonists are all living in a fictional country town called Cowan. They don’t think they have much in common, but one thing that links them is sport. Blake loves footy (AFL football). He lives and breathes it, and loves being part of the team. But when he breaks his arm he realises it isn’t easy to be part of the team when you’re stuck on the sideline. Jolene is a star hockey player. She is good enough that her mum thinks she might play for Australia one day – but Jolene isn’t very keen. She isn’t really enjoying hockey any more because there are other things happening in her life. Amed is new to Australia and doesn’t speak English. The sport he loves is soccer, but he doesn’t have the words to ask if there is any soccer played in Cowan.

What are some of their similarities and differences?

They are similar in that they are all in the same class at school, and that they are interested in sport, even though it is different sports. They also don’t realise it, but they are all facing tough times in their lives and each is trying to figure out where they belong.  The problems they face are quite different and, at times, might not even seem that big, but when you have a problem, it can seem very significant.

How do they change?

Over the course of the book they become more aware of each other and even start to become friends. They also each become aware that other people have challenges in their lives. 

What is the significance of your title, Worse Things?

It comes from the common phrase that people use ‘there are worse things in life than…’  In the book, Jolene’s friend Jia says, ‘there are worse things in life than a grumpy mum.’ The title was ‘Worse Things for a Life’ in one of my drafts but I shortened it to Worse Things. Just as Jolene learns there are worse things than her mum being grumpy, I think the other characters also realise that everyone has hard stuff in their lives.

Why have you used verse novel form?

I really love verse novels for their ability to convey a lot of emotion and depth in relatively few words. They seem to cut to the chase. I fell in love with verse novels the first time I read one, and since then I read as many as I can find. I love reading them almost as much as I love writing them.

Why have you incorporated word definitions?

Amed is learning to speak English and at times is confused about what people say to him. I imagined him using a dictionary to try to understand. I wrote a couple of definition poems and, when I felt they worked, I added more.  I think they emphasise the themes and also break the story up a little.

Jolene shares a picture book “for grown-ups/for boys like me/for people who have no words/no voice” with Amed. Could you tell us about this scene?

I wanted to find a way for Jolene and Amed to get to know each other and decided perhaps the teacher would ask her to spend time talking with Amed.  Then I realised this would be hard, because she isn’t keen, and because they wouldn’t understand each other. So thought about her reading to him, and then I thought about picturebooks. In my mind the book they are reading here is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, though it isn’t named.

Sarah Davis has illustrated the book. What is your favourite illustration and why?

All of them!  I am a big fan of Sarah’s work and was so excited when she said she would illustrate Worse Things. But if I have to choose one image, it is the one for the definition of the Word ‘Belong’. The one puzzle piece being separate really picks up the idea of ‘fitting in’ in the poem.  I have another favourite which is right near the end of the book, so won’t share that one in case it gives too much away.

‘Belong’ illustrated by Sarah Davis (from Worse Things by Sally Murphy)

Could you tell us about some of your other books?

I have had over 50 books published – some for classroom use (I am also a teacher), some picture books, junior novels and more. One I am very proud of is Pearl Verses the World, which was my first verse novel, and is also about a character trying to figure out where they belong. In Pearl’s case, the illness of her grandmother is making her feel alone.  Before Worse Things, my most recent book was Bushfire, which is historical fiction set during the terrible bushfires of 2009.

What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?

Oooh. Good question. I have been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been spending extra time at home. I really loved two books by two of my closest writing friends. The Book of Chance by Sue Whiting, is very clever and moving, as the main character, Chance, really finds herself questioning her whole life story. And Haywire, by Claire Saxby, is set in the town of Hay during WW2 and tells the story of a German boy who is sent to an internment camp there. This is a very uncomfortable part of Australian history, but Claire tells the story in a really accessible way.

How can your readers contact you?

There is a contact form on my website at www.sallymurphy.com.au.

I also have a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/sallymurphybooks/ and can be messaged through that, or through my Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/sallymurphyauthor/

If they would prefer snail mail (I love getting letters) they can write care of Walker Books.

It is a special experience to connect with your characters in Worse Things, Sally. All the very best with this lovely book.

Thank you very much for having me, Joy. It is always a pleasure to chat about books and writing.

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