Egg by Clare Atkins & Harrison Vial

Egg by Clare Atkins, illustrated by Harrison Vial

Spread from Egg by Clare Atkins, Harrison Vial (UQP)

Clare Atkins is an exceptional Australian author who writes across a range of platforms, including YA novels, scriptwriting and now a stunning picture book, Egg (University of Queensland Press).

Clare has a big heart and is able to embody her characters and their situations thoughtfully to create understanding and empathy in readers. I have learned a great deal through reading her books.

I have promoted her two YA novels over the years, most recently speaking about Between Us at conferences in Athens and Wellington and being part of judging panels that awarded it IBBY (Australia) Honour Book Winner for 2020 and shortlisted it for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

I reviewed Between Us and Nona & Me in the Weekend Australian (see reviews at the end of this post) and have written about Between Us at Paperbark Words (see links at the end of this post).


Egg by Clare Atkins, illustrated by Harrison Vial (UQP) is an outstanding picture book that can be read at multiple levels, from the very young to adults. It is a fable, a deep metaphor with an other-world, although highly engaging, feel that considers difference, racism and being alone, refugees, multiculturalism, separation, setting up a wall or divide, climate change, friendship, kindness and new life. It has a perfect, unexpected ending.

Clare Atkins writes about the background to her debut picture book Egg for Paperbark Words blog:

Spread from Egg by Clare Atkins, Harrison Vial (UQP)

Egg hatched in an unusual way. I was in Melbourne for the Children’s Book Council Awards in 2019. Before the ceremony, all the shortlisters were bundled into a crowded room. I barely knew anyone there. A beanie caught my eye, followed by a friendly smile. I introduced myself to the beanie-wearer, who turned out to be Matt Chun: an artist who’d been shortlisted for the CBCA Award for New Illustrator for a beautiful picture book about animals. We got talking and found we had similar interests. Initial enthusiasm quickly turned to ‘We should work on something together!’ 

A few weeks later Matt was visiting Sydney. I met him in a local park on my lunch break from my job at the ABC. I brought butcher’s paper and thick colourful markers. We sat on the grass in the sun and brainstormed themes we were both passionate about: migration, dislocation, racism, colonialism, difference, climate change, culture, history, authorship and many more. I scribbled them all down in big circles connected by arrows and loops. We had so much fun we met up the next day and did the same again. Then I bundled up the big sheets of paper and said, ‘Okay, leave it with me – I’ll come up with something and send it to you soon.’

My brain clicked into create mode. I wrote up the initial idea for Egg then read the first draft to my three kids. They understood the ideas and enjoyed the story; they’d been asking me to write something for younger readers for years, as they weren’t yet old enough to read my young adult novels. I emailed the draft to Matt with the disclaimer: ‘I’m not sure a group of eggs on a bare island are the most interesting thing for you to draw, but this is what I’m thinking!’ Matt was enthusiastic and encouraged me to keep working on the draft.    

I kept writing, expanding on the initial idea. I sent it to Clair Hume at UQP and she was wonderfully supportive. We sent notes and drafts back and forth, then UQP bought the book. I emailed Matt to tell him the good news. But by then he’d been travelling internationally and had more work than he could handle. He couldn’t take it on but wished me luck finding another illustrator. The hunt began.

Clair said if it had been a book about horses, for example, they knew plenty of illustrators who drew beautiful horses. But a group of eggs on an island? They weren’t sure who could best do that! She sent the manuscript to illustrators she’d worked with for samples. A range of options came back, including one by a new Adelaide-based illustrator called Harrison Vial. We instantly fell in love with his style and the way he captured the eggs’ personalities with colour, simplicity and warmth.

More emails; UQP’s Cathy Vallance had joined our little team. As the pictures came together, we adjusted the text. Some of the words were now redundant thanks to Harrison’s beautiful illustrations. We edited, adjusted and cut. I am thrilled with where we landed.

Spread from Egg by Clare Atkins, Harrison Vial (UQP)

I wanted Egg to be a book that could appeal to readers on multiple levels. Younger readers might giggle at the funny talking eggs and enjoy seeing Brave Egg and Strange Egg’s friendship develop and change. Older readers might pick up on the themes of migration, racism and discrimination, fear of the unknown, climate change and refugees. Parents or teachers could whiz through reading it to kids, doing funny egg voices, or take their time and discuss the ideas behind it.

And now our little book is out in the world! After three years of incubation, Egg has floated into your local bookstore and is waiting to be discovered…

Egg at UQP

Clare Atkins’ website

Harrison Vial’s instagram

Between Us by Clare Atkins and IBBY Australia at Paperbark Words blog

Between Us ‘Inside the CBCA Shortlist’ at Paperbark Words blog

My review of Nona & Me (and other YA) in the Weekend Australian

(NB I’ve reproduced these reviews in full because they are now generally inaccessible and may be of interest.)

Weekend Australian Newspaper
Young at art emerges as latest trend for teen readers
JANUARY 2, 2015

AUSTRALIAN literature about the arts such as Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake (the Ern Malley affair), Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (Sidney Nolan) and Emily Bitto’s The Strays, about contemporary art, is paralleled in recent young adult fiction, notably Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Golden Day, inspired by Charles Blackman’s art, Glenda Millard’s A Small Free Kiss in the Dark and Cath Crowley’s seminal Graffiti Moon. The arts, particularly the visual arts, continue to be celebrated in new novels for young adults.

The main characters in Nona and Me (Black Inc, 304pp, $19.99) and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, (Hardie Grant, 320pp, $18.95) are small-town girls who are gifted artists. The first book is by Darwin-based scriptwriter and debut novelist Clare Atkins and the second is by Melbourne editor Melissa Keil, who blazed on to the YA scene with Life in Outer Space last year.

In Nona and Me, 15-year-old Rosie lives at Yirrkala, a coastal Aboriginal community 20 minutes’ drive from the remote Northern Territory mining town where she goes to school. She seems at a loss to fill the space in her major artwork, a triptych about identity.

Her life is pulled between her Yolngu extended family, with its deep-rooted kinship but problematic alcoholism and commonplace death, and her Napaki, non-Aboriginal, school friends. There is tension between black and white. The Yolngu concept of yothu yindi … two sides of the one, isn’t working in this “us versus them” society.

When Rosie’s Yolngu “sister”, Nona, returns from Elcho Island where her mother has been drying out, Rosie betrays her, preferring the company of new city girl Selena and her 17-year-old brother Nick. Rosie’s crush on Nick becomes a relationship where she tries to resist his push for sex while sugar-coating his racist views.

Atkins has carefully set the major narrative in 2007 and 2008 to include John Howard’s Northern Territory intervention and Kevin Rudd’s apology. The novel’s backstory from 1995 to 2001 reveals a carefree childhood discovering Aboriginal culture and bush knowledge, speaking Yolngu Matha and revelling at Cathy Freeman’s triumph in the 2000 Olympics.

This powerful, beautifully contoured story of cross-cultural friendship explores what is “right”. Words are important: “They’re symbolic. But it’s what you do that counts. That’s what people will remember.” Reconciliation through relationship may be the way. “Sister” Nona is shown as an elemental but elusive silhouette. She has little space on the page. Rosie’s Yolngu name is Matjala, driftwood. She sees herself as broken flotsam but her name really means “strong”. She is eventually able to make sense of her experiences and define her identity and important relationships in her art.

Alba in The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl has an illustrator’s brain but thinks this makes telling her story more difficult. She lives at a bakery in a small town, in a sensory fog of cinnamon, vanilla, salted caramel, strawberry cupcakes and gingerbread.

It is the liminal time between finishing school and moving away to study, or staying home. Alba loves the Christmas holidays with her friends and its rituals of Christmas Eve breakfast-at-dinner and drinking a shot of Red Bull every time an actor takes off his shirt in the soap opera they watch. But her best friend, Grady, needs her to make a decision about the future.

He is delectable: considerate, beautiful looking with curly hair and broad shoulders, and as perfectly attuned to Alba’s thoughts and needs as a secret superhero.

Quiet Eden Valley is about to be shaken up by a rumour that the End of Days will happen on New Year’s Eve, with the valley the only “Ark” for survivors. This has attracted a deluge of hippies and misfits, including an annoying penny-farthing rider and a garden-gnome thief.

Then there’s Daniel, Alba and Grady’s close friend from primary school, who is now the muscled soap star. He also returns as “one of the pages ripped from my story, slotted back exactly where it’s supposed to be”.

Daniel and Grady’s ambivalence and the countdown to New Year ramp up the tension as Alba’s friends decide their future and people live each day as their last.

A brilliant feature of the novel is Keil’s use of comic-book images and structure to outline the story and characters. The “first frames can take you any place” and “memories are a hazy montage, coupled with some frozen, flash-panel highlights”. Some episodes would fill only “a couple of interlude frames; like that moment where a character has a sepia-tinted dream before crashing back into their real story”.

Alba masters all of this technical glitz but she can’t capture her alter ego Cinnamon Girl in her own true story. Alba draws Cinnamon Girl as one of Grady’s favourite noir movie heroines, but she seems like one herself in her Mad Men dress and larger-than-life persona.

Crime-noir, particularly Scandi-noir, has been flooding the print and visual media in recent years.As Red as Blood (Hot Key Books, 236pp, $16.95), from the translated Snow White trilogy by Finnish author Salla Simukka, is the first YA Scandi-noir I’ve read.

Lumikki Andersson is named after Snow White. She is living alone in the city of Tampere, dealing with past horrors. She has trained herself to recognise perfumes and pampers herself with combat classes, licorice and art galleries. Art is “the landscape of her soul … It spoke to her in a language that intermingled with music, forming pathways that lead to darkness or light”. Her own art is formed from red paint dropped on to layers of black.

Lumikki discovers blood-washed euros hanging in the school darkroom. This catapults her into a crime that other students have blundered on to when high after a party. Wearing a borrowed red cap, Lumikki is almost kidnapped. She then dresses as Snow White to infiltrate mysterious Polar Bear’s Wonderland party, a black fairytale for adults, where she discovers the Snow Queen in a glass coffin. Fairytales are darkened and distorted to meld Finland’s “sparkling frosted trees” and “shrieking of the cold” with red blood on white snow.

Blood and death are only too real in Allayne L. Webster’s depiction of war-torn Sarajevo in Paper Planes (Scholastic, 192pp, $16.99). Based on the true story of Bosnian Jarko Dobes, who fled to Australia as a refugee, the book’s main character is young Niko, who faces the deprivations of siege when the Serbs invade Bosnia. Water and electricity are lost, there are food shortages and looting, and bullets and bombs are aimed at civilians.

Niko’s Christian family remains faithful and supportive of his friend’s Muslim family. Webster, a South Australian writer, conveys this complex situation simply enough for younger teens and also offers insights into the futility of war.

The transformative power of the arts provides hope in the form of the famous Cellist of Sarajevo, who plays in defiance of war. Wildlife tentatively returning to the city is another portent of life and hope, particularly when Niko’s older brother sees a deer and presciently tells him that it was like “someone was trying to remind me there’s still beauty in the world”.

Joy Lawn is regular reviewer of YA fiction.

My review of Between Us (and other YA) in the Weekend Australian

Weekend Australian newspaper
Young adult fiction: classics set off modern alarms

MAY 12, 2018

The Australian young adult novels ­reviewed today span the contemporary realism, psychological thriller and speculative fiction genres. Some are inspired by classic literature.

Television scriptwriter Clare Atkins tackles significant social and political issues in her books. Her debut YA novel, Nona & Me, looked at cross-cultural friendship, struggling relationships and reconciliation during the period of the Northern Territory Emergency Response and Kevin Rudd’s national apology to the Stolen Generations.Her follow-up, Between Us (Black Inc, 304pp, $19.99) is set between a Darwin school and the notorious Wickham Point Detention Centre. It follows the experiences of Iranian asylum-seeker Anahita on mainland Australia after periods on Christmas Island and Nauru.

She seems equanimous but wears a headscarf to hide the patches of scalp where she has torn out her hair. Her tender yet brittle new friendship with Jono worries Jono’s father Kenny, who was a Vietnamese boatperson and is now an officer at the detention centre. The novel is told from the perspective of each character.

Jono has a history of being abandoned by women. Even his mother left him. At the beginning he reveals his observations and emotions through verse, but anger and depression stifle his voice. Despite her growing fluency in ­English, Ana’s words become more spare and poetic as her circumstances worsen.

Ana and Jono try to “hover in the corridor, a safe in-between place”. The title also suggests the spaces between people, particularly ­between the three main characters, where barriers of ignorance, fear and imprisonment shut down interaction and understanding. Acceptance and empathy could better fill these gaps.

Between Us is an insightful, thought-provoking and uncomfortable work that uses the powerful novel form to awaken readers to the plight of migrants, refugees and others at risk in detention.

Tin Heart (Penguin, 310pp, $19.99) is the ­second novel from Geelong author Shivaun Plozza. The protagonist Marlowe, named after Raymond Chandler’s detective, is nicknamed Ray by the attractive, arrogant butcher’s ­apprentice Leo. Marlowe is a shy and introverted 18-year-old vegan who feels like the “secondary character” but occasionally manages some smart comeback lines.

Her young brother, Pip, dresses in costumes and makes up dance routines; her best friend Zan labels herself “a gay Chinese-Australian” and her new friend Carmen ­describes a potential relationship between Marlowe and Leo as a “foodie version of Romeo and Juliet” and helps Marlowe prank him, a source of laugh-out-loud ­humour.

Even though Plozza writes with a light touch, she portrays many of her characters as trapped. Marlowe is the recipient of a new heart and is trying to contact the family of her donor. She’s not sure who she is now that her life doesn’t revolve around trying to stay alive, and she stalks Carmen, the sister of the boy whose heart she thinks she has been given.

She’s bullied at school and described as Frankenstein’s monster, “made out of dead people bits”. Carmen hides her grief, Leo seems shackled to his harsh father and Pip may have moulded his personality in response to his fear of losing Marlowe.

Allusions to The Wizard of Oz in the “tin heart” of the title, Marlowe being described as “heartless” and Leo’s name, are apt and poignant. The culminating scene is a triumph of wit and awkward pathos, forgiveness and love.

Ellie Marney uses another well-known story to enrich her novel White Night (Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $19.99). Bo is a popular figure in his regional community. He loves his family, friends and footy, and is beginning to realise he may prefer cooking to sport. The author crafts his character and relationships with authenticity and affection.

He is a non-stereotyped athlete who cares deeply, particularly as his secure home life seems threatened and he matures to become more curious about the world.

His eyes are opened, particularly to environmental issues such as the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, when home-schooled Rory joins his school in Year 11. She lives in “Garden of Eden”, an off-the-grid commune that seems robust and benign but may be operating outside the spirit and letter of the law.

Despite its apparent utopian garden setting and sting in the tail, this novel is not founded on the Biblical story of Genesis.

The white night of the title is multi­faceted. It refers to a fundraising light show festival ­organised by Bo’s friends to raise money for their local skate park, as well as being a code name for the sinister suicides and deaths at the infamous Peoples Temple Agricultural Temple in Guyana, better known as the Jonestown cult. It also alludes to the “white knight in shining armour” of traditional fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty.

Images of Princess Aurora (Rory) hidden ­behind an overgrown hedge and the heroic knight, Prince Beau (Bo), are skilfully planted into this new story and then subverted. The ­author knows how boys think and feel, what they want to read and how to make them work without losing narrative momentum. White Night is compulsive, gritty and illuminating.

Now to two tight and terrifying psychological thrillers from debut novelists. Margot McGovern’s Neverland (Penguin, 366pp, $19.99) transforms the dark nostalgia and ­arrested growth of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan into the island home of main character Kit Learmonth. Kit grew up on the island, which she calls Neverland, and is now part of an ­educational and medical institution for troubled youths that Doc, her psychiatrist uncle, established there after the death of her parents. It is home to ­“pirates, mermaids and Lost Ones”.

Kit self-harms and has tried to kill herself. She has been moulded into a storybook character, “stuck in someone else’s story” and can only describe her pain through the tales of Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Her Neverland is an illusion, “a fairytale in which certain key events occur off page”, to hide her childhood trauma but she doesn’t realise her stories contain male figures who hold women hostage.

Kit and Doc quote Homer to each other and when Kit and her friends sneak out to the lighthouse, they toast to the words of Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses.

A new boy, Rohan, is a romantic dubbed “Lord Byron”. His girlfriend has died and he now wants to indulge in make-believe and play with Kit.

The students are encouraged to sail and race against other schools, but when Rohan and Kit escape on to the water, the monsters of her nightmares encroach.

In Sarah Epstein’s Small Spaces (Walker Books, 384pp, $19.99), Tash, as a child, told the police she saw Mallory Fisher taken from the carnival by an “imaginary monster”.

Tash doesn’t trust her memory and fears small spaces, especially the one inside her head. Her psychiatrist told her that she invented Sparrow, her menacing imaginary friend who made her play games and locked her in a box, because she wanted attention when her baby brother was born.

Mallory, her older brother Morgan and their parents move back to the NSW mid-north coast, where the novel is set. Mallory is now 15, mute and home-schooled, and Morgan and Tash tentatively rekindle their friendship. ­Mallory’s seven-day disappearance, Morgan’s guilt at losing her and Tash’s shame at the red herrings she gave the police and not being the one who was taken still impinge on their lives.

Flashbacks told in Tash’s childish voice, along with newspaper articles and therapy transcripts written in a clinical tone, are juxtaposed with her struggle to be truthful and her longing to be trusted.

The ominous atmosphere is heightened by the cacophonous carnival setting of the past and the disquiet of its derelict skeleton in the present as well as by Tash’s Aunty Ally’s decaying house “with its crack-riddled stucco like the caked-on face paint of a leering clown”.

Despite Tash’s hard-won escape from her childhood fears and fabrications Sparrow may be back and: “Coming to get you. Ready or not.”

The world in James Bradley’s post-apocalyptic The Change trilogy is threatened by infection. The “Change” is affecting the landscape and vegetation, with sentient-like rippling grass, “glowtrees” that emit a cool light and trees like giant baobabs with fleshy trunks and swollen bud-like protuberances that may be animate.

Infected humans are quarantined or terminated and those who escape metamorphose. They retain their physical facade, but “up close their skin was in fact translucent, the lights moving within them like blood or some kind of fire”.

Even more disturbing, their eyes reveal their lost mind and spirit, and their new allegiance to the Change — an intelligent hive-like organism that may be a metaphor for our ever-watching and self-serving society.In Book One, The Silent Invasion, Callie tries to save her younger sister Gracie by running into the Zone. This episode ends with a cliffhanger that plays out at the beginning of Book Two, The Buried Ark (Pan Macmillan, 258pp, $14.99), which is set in Queensland.

Callie is chased but faces her pursuers to share her knowledge of the Change. She becomes part of a Science Corps reconnaissance mission where she connects with enterprising soldier Ben before reaching the Buried Ark.

The Ark is populated with horticultural and other workers who maintain a seed bank and genetic repository: security for the future of the survivors. Bradley writes assured descriptions of his altered world and builds the atmosphere of how the Change itself evolves with suspense. This trilogy is a fast-paced read that evokes the fecund plant life of The Day of the Triffids and the threat of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

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