August & Jones by Pip Harry
Pip Harry is the much-loved and awarded author of ground-breaking YA (Because of You, Head of the River and I’ll Tell You Mine) and middle-fiction (The Little Wave and Are You There, Buddha?). Her books are original, thought-provoking and beautifully crafted.
Her lovely new middle-fiction novel August and Jones (Hachette) is powerful, poignant and uplifting.
Pip Harry writes about August and Jones for PaperbarkWords:
In late 2019, I was time wasting on Facebook when a news story popped up in my feed. It was a ‘Two of Us’ feature in the Sydney Morning Herald. The relationship between 11-year-olds Mathilde Cross and Jarrah Podesta stopped me in my tracks.
Jarrah talked with honesty and humour about losing his sight to a rare childhood cancer, Retinoblastoma and his wish to see a penguin before he lost his sight. Mathilde wore a bright rainbow scarf so Jarrah could see him at school as his vision was failing, and shared sweet details about their love of card games, mystery and adventure. They were incredibly kind, supportive and special kids.
I thought their story would make a lovely children’s book about resilience, friendship and bravery, but I assumed someone else would write it. A year later, I was contracted to write a second middle grade novel for Hachette, to follow up Are You There, Buddha? It was a bit of a miserable time for me personally – smack bang in the middle of the pandemic and far from home living in Singapore. Everything had switched to Zoom, including accepting my CBCA award for The Little Wave. As expats, my family and I were not able to fly home easily to see our loved ones, and not able to leave the house much, except for essential reasons. I felt isolated and trapped and knew it was time to write another book and have that fictional world to escape to!
What about that ‘Two of Us’ story? I sat down at my laptop and read Jarrah and Mathilde’s story again. I decided not to delve too much more into their real-life stories or contact the families just yet, but to see if I could use a sprinkle of their magical bond to begin a new novel.
I started by writing the scene where Jones, an 11-year-old girl, is packing up her bedroom at the family farm, which has been sold due to a long drought. She is moving to the city and doesn’t want to go. The second scene switched to a boy’s voice – August – who is enduring playing a muddy, cold footy match and doesn’t want to be on the team.
From those two early chapters, I knew I had enough to sustain a novel, switching between their dual perspectives. My last two novels were written in verse and I wanted to see if I could still write in prose, so I adjusted the short, staccato sentences of verse to a more flowing narrative style. I knew that August and Jones would become best friends and support each other through a difficult year. For Jones, that meant her doctors finding a tumour in her eye that threatens her sight.
Immediately I knew that if I chose this storyline for her, I would have to embark on a significant amount of medical research on the diagnosis, treatment and outcomes of eye cancer in children. Taking a deep breath, I dived in, using some of my experience as a health journalist to track down studies, videos and case studies.
After initially finding it very difficult to lock in experts to speak to, and feeling a bit discouraged, I was put in touch with a wonderful paediatric oncologist, then a children’s cancer researcher. Stepping back from the medical detail, I reached out to Olivia Muscat, a sensitivity reader and a talented writer, who is blind. She agreed to read the manuscript, to ensure the portrayal of Jones was sensitive and accurate. Her comments were invaluable and gave me the confidence to keep going with the draft.
At this stage, it was time to send the work off to my team at Hachette, where it became clear that there were some technical issues that needed to be solved. I was reunited with my beloved copyeditor on The Little Wave and Because of You, Vanessa Pellatt, who helped me untangle a very wonky timeline. With her help, I moved the uplifting Kosciusko walk to the finale of the book (instead of where it was in the middle), and generally made all the events fall in a more ordered way.
It was also time to share the draft with Jarrah and Mathilde and their families, who were so supportive and enthusiastic about the project, and chuffed their friendship had loosely inspired a book.
I would love August & Jones to be read by primary and lower high school children who – after the uncertainty and cancellations of the past two years – need to make plans and go on adventures. I want them to turn the last page and feel inspired to make their own bucket list, climb mountains and run over bridges. To know that whatever life throws at them, anything is possible, with a best friend by their side.
My interviews with Pip at PaperbarkWords blog:
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