The Thing About Oliver by Deborah Kelly

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

“This new life doesn’t really feel like it fits.”

The Thing About Oliver by Deborah Kelly (Wombat Books) is shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia in the Book of the Year: Younger Readers category.

The Thing About Oliver is an appealing, although heart-wrenching, story for children told through the voice of twelve-year-old Tilly. It seems as though her life and needs are always in second place to the urgent demands of her eight-year-old brother, Oliver, who has autism.

Congratulations on your CBCA shortlisting, Deborah, and thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords.

Thank you very much for having me!

Where are you based and what is your background in children’s books?

Deborah Kelly (photo by Sarah Foote)

I was born in New Zealand but currently live in Newcastle, NSW.

I’ve always been a keeper of journals and a writer of poetry, particularly during the four years I spent living and travelling overseas. But it wasn’t until I had children of my own that I decided to try to write some stories for them.

So far I have published 14 books for children as well as some short stories and poems in various magazines and anthologies. Three of my titles are CBCA notable books. In 2017 my picture book Me and You (Penguin 2016) won Speech Pathology Australia’s Book of the Year (3-5 year olds). This year The Thing about Oliver (Wombat Books 2019) was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year (younger readers) award and also for Speech Pathology Australia’s Book of the Year (older readers).

In addition to writing for children I am a Role Model for Books in Homes Australia, work at a bookshop and review children’s books for Reading Time magazine. I also enjoy visiting schools libraries, festivals and other book related events to share my books and talk about writing.

Tilly, your narrator, is long-suffering and has fascinating interests, talents and dreams. Could you please introduce her to us?

Twelve year old Tilly dreams of becoming a marine scientist. She is passionate about the Great Barrier Reef and keeps a journal of drawings and interesting facts about marine life. This, along with a tank of twelve neon tetras (one for every year of Tilly’s age) is her most precious possession. But Tilly lives in a drought stricken town with her mother and her younger brother Oliver who is autistic. Oliver’s many therapies chew up much of the family’s time and money – so there is none leftover for the swimming lessons in the city that Tilly so desperately wants in order to help her realise her dream of becoming a marine scientist. But Tilly is smart, strong, empathetic and incredibly resourceful. She practises her bubble blowing in the sink so that when the time comes that Mum can afford lessons, she won’t need many at all. She is wise beyond her years – doing far more than most children her age in order to support her struggling mother. And despite not always liking her brother who has endless violent tantrums and can’t even look her in the eye, her love for him is boundless, unconditional and is ultimately what saves the family from disaster.

Why is her family moving to Townsville in Queensland?

When Mum loses her job and the landlord puts the rent up, Mum decides to leave their small rural town and move the family to the coast where job prospects are better and her sister Janine owns a house. I chose Townsville because of its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. The tropical environment made a nice contrast to the drought stricken town Tilly is used to. I lived in Townsville for several years while I was studying marine biology at James Cook University. Being so familiar with the climate, flora and fauna of the tropics enabled me to create strong imagery for the story’s setting.

You have used water and glass beautifully as symbols and otherwise in the story. Could you explain some of what you have done here?

Through water and glass I explore the relationship between the observer and the observed. Tilly is on the outside looking into her fish tank, a world she desperately wants to be part of but feels as though it is out of her reach. At the same time she feels observed – trapped in her own little bubble, a difficult situation that others outside of her family have no understanding of yet look on and judge, for example neighbours, strangers on the street.

Glass is both strong but also fragile. I explore these concepts of strength and fragility in my characters too. For example Oliver is physically strong for his size, yet so helpless in many other ways. Mum is physically and mentally strong for the most part but even she has her breaking point. And of course there is the metaphor of the term ‘glass child’ referring to the  feeling siblings often have of being looked straight through as though they are somehow less important than the child with special needs. But with their role comes maturity and responsibility far beyond their years, imbuing them with strength rarely seen in their peers.

I use water as a source of life, hope and comfort to both Tilly and Oliver. I contrast the drought ravaged landscape of their past with the lush tropical environment they find themselves in – fertile with new possibilities. But as things progress the water they all love so much becomes a very real threat to life itself.

How have you been able to write with authority about autism?

I have the privilege of knowing several children on the autism spectrum and their families. There is a lot of support out there for kids on the spectrum now, which is fantastic. But often the siblings of these children are overlooked. They are sometimes called glass children, because it can feel to them as though their overstretched parents look right through them. They have to grow up quickly, are often expected to take on far more responsibility than other kids their age and can feel guilty about their own problems and worries which seem to pale in comparison to those of their sibling. They can also struggle with feelings of resentment and guilt towards their parents and the sibling with special needs.

In The Thing about Oliver I have tried to portray life with an autistic sibling as truthfully and accurately as possible, to give kids like Tilly a voice.  But the book is really about Tilly learning to embrace change, something all kids can relate to whether they have an autistic sibling or not.

What would you like readers to understand about children with autism?

Like everyone else, people with autism are unique so it is hard to make generalisations about them.

Autism is generally treated as a disability but it can actually be a superpower. Take Oliver for instance, with his exceptional hearing. Some children on the spectrum have special interests that they hone all their attention and energy into and quickly become experts on that topic. Others have an exceptional memory or talents when it comes to mathematics, music or art.

I want readers to know that everyone has something to offer the world and its really about finding out what kind of support or help they need in order to realise that potential.

I want readers to see how difficult life can be for a family with a child on the spectrum. But I also want them to see what an incredible difference love, patience and a willingness to learn can make and how vital it is that families to receive the right kind of support. They say it takes a community to raise a child, and this is even truer for children like Oliver as Tilly and her Mum discover when they move to Townsville.

Tilly’s Aunt Janine is very understanding and advises, “Always think positive, Tilly, and things will work out just fine.” How have you incorporated positive thinking and hope into the story?

I believe that while children’s stories should not shy away from difficult or confronting topics, they must always offer hope. So it was always my intention that Oliver would be found, and that Tilly should be instrumental in this. The many challenges that the family faced had to help forge stronger bonds between them. While the ending isn’t exactly a ‘happily ever after’, there is a glimpse of a brighter future ahead for all of the family members. In a sense, The Thing about Oliver begins with an ending and ends with a new beginning. There are many challenges but also plenty of love, humour and above all hope along the way.

What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Reader award this year had on you or this book?

It was such an honour to be shortlisted alongside authors and illustrators whose work I admire. The reviews, emails and feedback I have received since Oliver was shortlisted have given me enormous encouragement to keep writing. It is very affirming to know that my writing is helping others in some way.

I hope that this shortlisting will put The Thing about Oliver on the radar of teachers, librarians and parents and into the hands of children who need it. I hope it will give children like Tilly a voice, and that it will help to increase awareness and understanding of the difficulties faced by families with a child on the autism spectrum.

Could you tell us about some of your other books?

As well as my middle grade novel The Thing about Oliver, I have written several picture books and a junior fiction series as well as poetry and material for the educational market.  Ruby Wishfingers (Wombat Books) is a five book junior fiction series about a young girl who discovers that due to her magical heritage, she can wish for whatever she wants. My latest picture book is a conservation based story about Dugongs, Australia’s most unique and endangered marine mammals. Dugong Magic was published by Hachette earlier this year.

(I reviewed Dugong Magic for Magpies Magazine and found it wonderful.)

What are you writing or working on now?

I always have several projects on the go, at various stages of development. I am currently working on another middle grade novel with themes of friendship and family relationships.

What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?

I’m enjoying some middle grade verse novels at the moment. They are an art form in themselves and take a great deal of skill to write. Two I enjoyed recently are Worse Things by Sally Murphy and The Little Wave by Pip Harry. Each chapter is told in verse (not necessarily rhyming) and works as a poem on its own as well as being a part of a longer narrative. These stories are also generally told from the perspective of more than one character which is a great way for kids to learn to look at situations from different perspectives and develop empathy for others.

How can your readers contact you?

Readers are welcome to get in touch via the contact form on my website or by messaging my Facebook page deborahkellyauthor. I always reply!

The Thing About Oliver is very well pitched for children. Its blend of realistic characters, strong narrative pull and exploration of family relationships makes it an engaging addition to the CBCA shortlist.

Thank you for your responses, Deborah, and all the best with this The Thing About Oliver and your future books.

Thanks for having me!

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