Carole Wilkinson, Earth Matters and Matthew Flinders

Inside the CBCA Shortlist Matthew Flinders: Adventures on leaky ships

“It’s not too late. Together we can save our climate … The state of our planet matters. You can help make it a safe and healthy place for us.” (Earth Matters)

Carole Wilkinson is one of Australia’s most popular and enduring writers for young people. Her Dragonkeeper series is particularly well-known and highly acclaimed and she continues to surprise with the breadth of her interests and mastery of a range of genres.

Carole’s latest book is Earth Matters: Loving Our Planet, a timely factual text about the environment, energy, greenhouse gases and climate change. It is illustrated by Hilary Cresp and published as a hard cover picture book by Wild Dog Books.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Carole.

Before we look at your most recent books and Earth Matters, let’s talk about some of your backlist – which fill half one of my big bookshelves.

Your Dragonkeeper series is iconic. What do you think has been the source of its great appeal? Please tell us about the movie on the way.

If only I knew! Then I’d be able to write another series that would be as successful. I honestly don’t know.

I don’t get much news from the producers about the movie. It was slowed down by Covid last year. I don’t even know when it will be released.

Your Ramose series is also wonderful. How was Ramose the precursor to Dragonkeeper?

I noticed that school library shelves were groaning under the weight of non-fiction about ancient Egypt – books about tombs, mummies, pharaohs, pyramids. But at that time, there was very little fiction making use of all that fascinating stuff. I decided I would have a go, but when in the long history of ancient Egypt would I set my story? I trawled through a book on all the Pharaohs and came across Ramose, a prince who was the oldest son of a Pharaoh, but who didn’t become the next Pharaoh. There is only one record of him. So that left me a nice hole in history that I could fill with a fictional story. What happened to Prince Ramose?

Writing that series gave me the confidence to think about where and when I could set another historical story.

What was the last novel you wrote? Has there has been a bit of a gap between novels and are we likely to see another novel in the future or are you concentrating on shorter forms?

My last novel was Inheritance which is one of only two novels I have written that are set in Australia. It is set in present day, but involves time travel into the past. The protagonist becomes involved with the conflict between early settlers and the Aboriginal people who have lived on the land for tens of thousands of years.

I have started another novel, but got side-tracked by the short form non-fiction which is published by Wild Dog Books. Three so far.

You have written some superb non-fiction in The Drum series for the former Black Dog Books and elsewhere.

I have poured over most of these books.

When I visited Fromelles to see the WW1 war sites where my husband’s grandfather fought, I was already immersed in the facts and atmosphere from your book Fromelles: Australia’s Bloodiest Day.

I was so impressed how you used Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter as a primary source in your book.

Black Snake: the Daring of Ned Kelly is a great companion to the letter and an important work in its own right.

Could you please tell us something that stands out to you from some of your books I’ve mentioned above or your other non-fiction?

Being able to read the Jerilderie Letter was a gift. Ned’s own words. It was a window into the sort of man he was. He believed in the power of the written word, which was pretty extraordinary for a bushranger with limited education. And he enjoyed using words to get his message across. That made him a very interesting character for me to write about. Also, the three escapades that the Kelly Gang executed – Euroa, Jerilderie and Glenrowan – make the Kelly Gang’s exploits a perfect three act story.

Fromelles was much harder to write. I am firmly anti-war, so I didn’t want to write something that glorified war. But at the same time I didn’t want to denigrate the men who suffered and died in that awful battle. Again I went to the primary sources – the official history of Australia’s participation in World War I by Charles Bean, as well as letters written by the soldiers – to get that personal connection. Both of my Grandfathers and two great-uncles fought in the First World War and their experiences also added to my understanding of what it was like to be a soldier in those hellish situations. One of my great-uncles died in the war and my grandma had given me the letter the family received from his commanding officer informing them of his death. I used the wording of that letter in the book.

You also write non-fiction in picture book form! Could you tell us a little more about these works?

I have written Ten Pound Pom (illustrated by Liz Anelli) for Black Dog Books, which was an imprint of Walker Books, and then Putting Australia on the Map, Matthew Flinders: Adventures on Leaky Ships (illustrated by Prue Pittock) and Earth Matters: Loving Our Planet (illustrated by Hilary Cresp), all for Wild Dog Books. All of these books were ideas that I came up with. Putting Australia on the Map is illustrated with stunning historical maps. But the decision to make the other three beautiful full-colour picture books was the publisher’s decision. Maryann Ballantyne published all of them. She also suggested the talented illustrators for each book. All have very different styles, and they were all brilliant choices. It was such a pleasure to see my words come to life through the work of those illustrators.

In Earth Matters you explain much of the science around energy and climate so that it is easy to understand. The book is even more valuable because of the strategies to improve the situation that you outline.

What information was most difficult to explain?

The Greenhouse Effect. It is fundamental to understanding global warming and how humans contribute to it, but it is very complicated, and I had to simplify it to make it understandable to young readers.

Which strategy do you find most effective or enjoyable personally?

I have been a member of a climate action group (Yarra Climate Action Now) for more than ten years. We have, I believe had a positive effect on the local council with regard to their policies on climate change. It is good to be part of a group of lovely people who are focused on climate action. 

On a more domestic level, I’m very keen on (some might say obsessive!) drying washing without the use of a drier. Living in Melbourne it can be a challenge during winter, but it’s a challenge I accept! On weekends my office becomes a drying room!

How can children be leaders in advocating for care of our planet?

With the right support from parents and teachers, children can get a taste for advocating for different sustainability and climate issues in primary school. At a very young age they can become involved in providing good habitats around the school for birds and animals. Later, they could form a sustainability team or a student committee to lobby their school to adopt sustainable practices, such as not selling drinks in plastic bottles at the school canteen. These activities can lead to leadership roles later on. We’ve seen some confident and committed young leaders emerge from the School Strike 4 Climate Movement.  It’s never too early to start being a climate and sustainability activist as far as I’m concerned!

One of your other books with Wild Dog Books, Matthew Flinders: Adventures on leaky ships (illustrated by Prue Pittock) is a 2021 CBCA Notable book. How did you navigate the often-fraught issue of writing about a European explorer of Australia?

It has now been shortlisted for a CBCA Eve Pownall Award for non-fiction! Very exciting!

It was not easy to write about that issue. I had access to Flinders’ detailed account of his exploits. But getting an idea of the experience from the point-of-view of the Aboriginal people he encountered was much harder, especially since the main account of these encounters was Flinders’ own account.

He certainly wasn’t the worst of the explorers. For instance he ordered his men not to take revenge when an Aboriginal man wounded one of his ship’s crew and he befriended Bungaree. But he was still a white man with no real sense of Aboriginal culture, or Aboriginal people’s connection to the land.

Your books have won and been shortlisted for countless awards. No doubt they all mean a lot to you but could you tell us about one that came at just the right time or particularly resonated with you?

The first, I think. That was when Black Snake was a CBCA Honour book in 2003. Back then I was barely aware of the existence awards. Just getting a book published seemed like a big achievement. I remember I went to the Victorian branch of the CBCA’s awards event, attended by school groups. Most authors who win awards will go to the main national event and a publicist or publisher will go to the local event. I think the students and the Victorian CBCA members were pleased to have an actual author there at the event. And as it was my first award, I was very happy to be there to accept it.

In my study, your books share a shelf with your daughter Lili’s books – which I also admire and collect.

What is your secret to raising a daughter who is also an author, and what is one of your favourite books by Lili and why?

I guess I passed on some genes! When I was attempting to write my first novel (unpublished), I was 40. Lili and I had desks side by side. She decided she would write a novel too. She was nine. She wrote short stories and got a couple of pieces published in Voiceworks. Later when she went to uni she decided she couldn’t possibly follow in her mother’s footsteps! She spent some time producing theatre. Eventually she gave in to her urge to tell great stories. Thank goodness.

I think After the Lights Go Out is my favourite of Lili’s books.

Which books have you read recently and would like to recommend?

For young adults I would recommend Lili’s latest book The Erasure Initiative. For children, Lili’s middle grade book How To Make a Pet Monster: Hodgepodge.

For adults I have really enjoyed The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, both fascinating historical novels.

How can your readers contact you?

By email: mail@carolewilkinson.com.au

All the best with Earth Matters, your other books and the upcoming Dragonkeeper movie, Carole. I always look forward to your books.

Thanks. And thank you for the opportunity to feature in the PaperbarkWords Blog.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Earth Matters at Wild Dog Books

Matthew Flinders: Adventures on leaky ships and teacher notes at Wild Dog Books

Carole Wilkinson’s website

Teacher Notes I have written about Carole’s books still available online are:

Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter for Curriculum Corporation

My teacher notes about Ramose are online at Walker Books. An example is Ramose: Prince in Exile

Carole has written most of the teacher notes for the Dragonkeeper series herself. They are available online at Walker Books. I wrote a couple of the notes e.g. Garden of the Purple Dragon, Dragon Moon

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