All the Little Tricky Things by Karys McEwen
“I don’t want to be ungrateful about being sent to a good school in the city. I know I’m lucky. It just adds to my weird tummy feelings about being an in-betweener. I won’t belong with the Merri kids anymore, but at the end of each day, I’ll leave my new classmates and come back here. It’s a big change and nobody asked me if I was ready.” (All the Little Tricky Things)
Karys McEwen’s debut middle-fiction novel is All the Little Tricky Things. Her very believable and endearing protagonist, twelve-year-old Bertie is worried about starting high school in the city away from her friends. It is published by Text Publishing.
Thank you for speaking to Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog, Karys.
It sounds as though you are very involved in the Children’s Book Council of Australia. What are your roles?
I am! And it’s such a wonderful organisation to be involved in. I joined the CBCA Victoria Branch committee in 2016 when I was starting out as a school librarian and looking to connect with likeminded people. I have now been the President of the Branch for the past three years. I also sit on the CBCA National Board as the Victorian Director, and from 2020-2021 I was one of the judges for the CBCA Book of the Year Awards in the Older Readers category. I am very grateful for the friendships I have made through CBCA and proud to contribute to the Australian children’s literature community in this way.
Where are you based and what is your other job?
Last year my partner and I moved to the leafy Dandenong Ranges, which is a very beautiful part of the world! So I am based there, and very fortunate to write overlooking the forest with all its lush fern glades. I currently work at Prahran High School as the librarian. It’s a relatively new school that opened in 2019, and I created the library from scratch, which was a bit of a dream job! I’ve been working in school libraries for nearly a decade now.
Your book origin story is quite unusual. Could you please share?
I was very fortunate to be contacted by an editor at Text Publishing who said to me: readers make the best writers…do you have a book in you? It turns out they were right, I did! I spent the next few months writing and was thrilled when they read and accepted my manuscript as soon as I submitted it. Text has always been my favourite publisher, so I couldn’t be happier that they championed my book before it even existed.
What is the significance of your title?
Finding the right title was quite difficult! My editor and I spent ages playing around with words and phrases to do with the coming-of-age experience and feeling ‘in-between’. In the end, I stumbled across the Sylvia Plath quote in the epigraph – “Doing all the little tricky things it takes to grow up, step by step, into an anxious and unsettling world.” For me, that perfectly summed up the Big Feelings my protagonist Bertie has about growing up and is a lovely nod towards the list that her best friend Claire creates to walk Bertie through the process of getting ready for high school.
What is distinctive about Bertie, the protagonist of All the Little Tricky Things and what are some of her concerns?
I think Bertie represents a lot of the kids I’ve worked with over the years. She’s very anxious at times, but also not completely falling apart; she is just working through things at her own pace. She’s quiet and mostly flies under the radar but she also has big dreams and feels like one gigantic contradiction. She is just trying to figure out who exactly she is, which seems really tricky. I think she has her own distinct voice, but her concerns and experiences are similar to a lot of people at that age.
What is your tip to writing Bertie’s authentic and appealing voice?
Hopefully being surrounded by young people on a daily basis for the past decade has helped! I certainly used my students as a sounding board as I was writing—asking them questions about their own experiences and fact-checking things to make sure I got them right! I love working with young people and find them endlessly interesting. I think Bertie is appealing because she is flawed and hopefully because she sounds her age, which can be challenging to get right when you’re an adult writing in a young person’s voice! Being a tween is such a messy and glorious time in your life, and I really wanted to capture that moment in my book.
Why/how are libraries important in her life?
Libraries are important to Bertie because they are filled with books that help her feel less alone. She also has a lovely relationship with her librarian, Ruth, who isn’t judgemental when she borrows the same books over and over, and is kind and genuinely interested in her life. I’m obviously biased due to my own love of libraries, so of course libraries were going to play a starring role in my own book!
Why do you have Bertie reading her horoscope?
This one is a bit of a cheeky dig at someone who made fun of me for reading my own horoscope while I was writing the book! Like Bertie, I don’t think you necessarily have to believe that horoscopes are real to get something out of them, especially if the words help you think about something in a different way, or make you stop and be more reflective. But there’s also nothing wrong with being a ‘believer’! Bertie’s horoscopes are spot on sometimes, and other times they just allow her to consider something she may not have thought about herself. Another thing is that Bertie has a phone, but isn’t on social media yet. I wanted to show that ‘in-between’ time of technology, when you are using a phone for the first time and starting to play around on new apps, but haven’t completely dived into the world of Instagram and Snapchat!
How is Bertie’s best friend, Claire, an unexpected foil?
Claire is different to Bertie in almost every way. I love that you can be close to people who aren’t anything like you, and I really embrace those friendships in my own life. But I also wanted to show how friendship can evolve over time, especially when you’re a teenager, and you’re maybe playing around with who you are and who you want to be. There’s nothing wrong with friends that come and go, or are close to you at certain points in your life, and less close (but still important) as time goes on. The differences between Bertie and Claire are one of the key reasons that cracks start to show in their relationship, but I hope that beyond the end of the book, they find a way to embrace each other’s differences and stay friends.
Please tell us something about The Summer List.
The Summer List guides the reader through the book, as each task is unveiled at the start of a chapter, and Bertie attempts to ‘tick it off’. The Summer List is written by Claire and includes some silly things and some serious things that she thinks will help Bertie feel more prepared for high school. Along the way, the list evolves in surprising ways, and Bertie is able to make it her own.
What makes your setting so real?
The fictional town of Merri is based on two places I have lived – the small town in country WA where I grew up (and where my family still reside) and the Dandenong Ranges where I currently live. Hopefully, the combining of these two towns that are very special to me has added some realism to the setting. It also fits perfectly with Bertie’s feelings of being ‘in-between’—she’s right in the middle of being a child and a teen, and also right in the middle of living in a small town, and heading off to the city for school.
Bertie’s friendship with Doris is a lovely inclusion. Why have you brought Doris into your tale?
I have always seen the value in intergenerational friendships, whether that be with the kid who is one year above you at school, or between two people from completely different generations. When I was a teenager, I met a lady called Mrs Gray at the hospital where my mum worked. Mrs Gray loved reading, and although we had a good 75 or so years separating us, we struck up a friendship and became penpals after I left to live in the city. We wrote to each other for years and I visited her whenever I was home, until she passed away. She always told me she loved to read happy books, so I hope she would have been proud of All the Little Tricky Things. I have really fond memories of Mrs Gray and she taught me a lot. And vice versa I think! During the lockdowns in Melbourne over the past two years, some of our students have written to elderly people in aged care homes, and I have seen similar intergenerational friendships blossom. It makes my heart sing! Doris acts as a source of wisdom to Bertie, and she also encourages her to be curious and brave.
You have some interesting minor characters that it would be good to hear more about, perhaps in a future book. Could you please select one and give a little more information about them?
Cooper (Claire’s little brother) has a relatively small role in All the Little Tricky Things, but I think it would be interesting to get inside his head. He’s right on the precipice of making good or bad decisions that could alter his path for the next few years, and he doesn’t really know it. He’s also got a complicated relationship with his family, and probably needs a bit of extra love to get through some of the little tricky things in his own life. I hope he finds something positive to focus on, like his swimming, and is able to develop good friendships with other kids who really care about him and treat him as an equal!
How have you incorporated humour into the story?
I think the humour comes with all the awkward parts of being a tween and growing up. Changing bodies (the joys of puberty!), changing friendships, changing relationships with your parents—these can all lead to cringe-worthy experiences whether we like it or not! I tried to write about the funnier side of these moments, like Bertie’s mum discovering she read a book all about the birds and the bees, and trying to talk to her about it!
What are you writing next?
I am writing something for a slightly older audience—the main character is a 14 year-old boy. It’s a similar story in terms of the coming-of-age experience, but it focuses on a loving but complicated sibling relationship and what it’s like to be a teenager who doesn’t neatly fit into any box.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
I have been reading some glorious middle grade fiction lately! I loved How to Spell Catastrophe by Fiona Wood, The Best Liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson, and Those Kids from Fawn Creek by Erin Entrada. I also really enjoyed the new young adult novel by Carly Nugent, Sugar, which my students have been obsessed with!
I very much enjoyed reading All the Little Tricky Things, Karys as, without doubt, young readers will also. Bertie is a lovely champion for quieter, more thoughtful kids, who are often overlooked but of whom there are many.
This is a very assured debut and I look forward to reading more from you. In the meantime, all the very best with this book.
All the Little Tricky Things at Text Publishing