Curiosity, dead chooks, science and the S.T.E.M. push

girl scientistAhhh, Science! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I became a scientist at the age of four when curiosity reared its head. It was the day my mother killed a chook.

My father reckoned its head was still attached by invisible threads. Mum, who was in the process of de-feathering the chook, snorted – so I knew Dad was ‘pulling my leg’. Years later, I discovered for myself the science behind this disconcerting, horrifying feathered spectacle. And now, there’s an almost evangelistic push to promote S.T.E.M. – SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENGINEERING MATHS in schools (sometimes to the detriment of the Arts, History et al.

Recently I, along with engineer and author, Andrew King,Senior Lecturer and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at QUT, Professor Michael Milford, Teacher-Librarian and long-time advocate for children’s literature, Megan Daley spoke on a Book Links Queensland panel about S.T.E.M. But MAINLY, pushing the fact that we need children’s authors to provide worthwhile fiction to benefit young readers, to encourage their interest in these areas. I lead the charge for SCIENCE. Here is my talk……

Bringing science into children’s literature

I’m not a university trained scientist, but I did become a scientist at the age of four when curiosity reared its head. It was the day my mother killed a chook. Headless and spraying blood, the animal wobbled and jumped about before flopping on the grass. I was transfixed.

My father reckoned its head was still attached by invisible threads. Mum, who was in the process of de-feathering the chook, snorted – so I knew Dad was being silly. Years later, I discovered for myself the science behind this disconcerting, horrifying feathered spectacle.

An ever-increasing curiosity about the natural world of my hometown in tropical north Queensland also led to my digging up the remains of a dead rooster buried in our back yard. And to poking a stick at a toad to make the white poison bubble from its skin. To wonder why salt grains became a salty, mushy liquid in our humid northern summers. It was also the time I began my first rock and feather collections. This natural curiosity was the origin of my lifelong fascination about science. At age 7, science also taught me a devastating lesson. Tying a string leash around a pet kitten’s neck is not wise – and if that string is shorter than the height of a fence, tragedy will strike.

Queensland Museum fossil lab - that's me covered in dust while working on a dinosaur hip bone.

Queensland Museum fossil lab – that’s me covered in dust while working on a dinosaur hip bone.

At 12, on a school excursion to Porcupine Gorge outside Hughenden, I found a large fossilised shell in the gorge wall. Questions filled my head. Why were shells in the dry outback when the sea was hundreds of kilometres away? Curiosity took hold again. I learned about the shallow inland ocean that covered most of Queensland millions of years ago – the great Eromanga Sea – alive with huge marine reptiles … overhead soared pterodactyl. And roaming the edges of billabongs and lakes, a multitude of Australian dinosaurs. 

It was inevitable that my first novel, Secrets of Eromanga would delve into the world of these intriguing creatures. And that I would work as a volunteer on the Elliot Dinosaur fossil dig while I wrote my work-in-progress. No other writers have had the opportunity to pester the country’s top paleontologists with endless questions … every day … for two weeks. And because they knew it was a book for kids, they went out of their way to help.

Then I married a scientist, an earthquake physicist who was part of a team designing, making, installing and monitoring Strain Meters deep in the San Andreas Fault in California (this video shows the best ever explanation why Earthquakes happen with such devastation, and why scientists continue researching early detection of them).

And now our son is a young scientist computer modelling the melting ice beneath the Totten Glacier in Antarctic. You can see why science is still an integral part of my life. And why I often write short stories with a scientific bent … and entertaining, of course!  21. Parkfield

So … what are some ingredients for linking science and literature?

I’ll use my chapter book, Ali Berber & the Forty Grains of Salt as an example of how to expose children to science in the form of a folk tale, in an entertaining way. 

Rule 1 … never be didactic! Information should never be dumped! Kids should never be treated like sausage skins to be pumped with meaty facts. Therefore, no child thinks they are learning about Physical Science when they read Ali Berber’s adventures – that comes by osmosis and carefully chosen words.

Rule 2 – the story must entertain – that’s an essential. When kids enjoy what they read, they learn – not just information about their world and others, but also what it’s like to be human, and powerful and vulnerable.

Rule 3 – I want readers to connect with my main character. In this book, it’s young Ali Berber and his side-kick, a clever camel called Sufi. Readers need to like Ali Berber, to feel for this young merchant as he faces a huge PROBLEM … solving the mystery of the disappearing salt grains before the King of Alhambra cuts off his head.

A most important aspect in writing Ali Berber & the Forty Grains of Salt was to explain the science behind PROPERTIES OF MATTER … in this case, Matter is Salt. How does salt change its look and feel? Why can it revert back to what it was?

I think this story is a successful combination of Science and Literature. And it’s fun to read. STEM talk1 resized

So, yes, I do think we as authors and lovers of children’s fiction must jump on the S.T.E.M. wagon too – not just to open children’s eyes, and brains, and imaginations about the world we live in, but for science to become an integral part of their lives.

Every human should have access to understanding science … it’s all around us, it’s part of who we are

And never more so than in our millennia. We face the prospect of a world threatened by global warming, but all children and their children after them will face far worse unless ordinary people force politicians to reduce carbon emissions now.

Millions of dollars are being invested in Australian schools to promote S.T.E.M. to teachers, young children and young adults. Much of it is coming from the Mining and Energy Council, and one of the biggest players now, Military-Industrial organisations. They are active in most states including Queensland.

These companies seek their future work-forces, both for the hard-hat, coal face end, and for those who secure ways to increase production. From researching methods to suck gas from the earth with, or without poisoning waterholes; to building drones that drop bombs at the touch of a computer screen, to developing a ray-gun that directs an invisible 100,000-watt beam of energy at humans, burning their skin until they retreat. These companies require more young people trained in science, and they will spend millions to do it. (The 5th biggest military contractor in the world, Raytheon‘s connections in Australian schools. Military connections to schools  ) A sobering thought.

But I will leave you with a more positive thought… we know great stories have the ability to make children think and feel. And question the status quo.

To counter-balance the power of other forces, we must produce more great stories about respecting the fragility of our unique continent, the need to enact laws that diminish the threat to our surrounding oceans, estuarine eco-systems and the Great Barrier Reef. 

To treasure that amazing continent to our south, the Antarctic – a frozen, wondrous land that, unfortunately hides beneath its pristine surface, an unimaginable wealth of minerals. 

We have the opportunity, the passion and hopefully, the commitment to reach out to young Australian children through stories about the wonder of science, and the responsibility for their future custody of this planet.

Great stories, cleverly laced with scientific understanding not didactic waffle.
Great stories to make them feel and think, and question.
Great stories – for the sake of their future on this planet.

Tennis balls, FORTRESS AUSTRALIA and Hope


Australian flag behind the wire at Villawood Detention Centre.

A week ago, my husband joined a small group of refugee advocates outside No-man’s Land and the barbed-wire fences at the Pinkenba Immigration Detention Transit Centre in Brisbane. They were trying to throw tennis balls over the fences – unsuccessfully.

Ross, being a resourceful physics man took his tennis racquet from the car and lobbed dozens of yellow balls over those high fences. Refugee children chased them, giving them to their parents who waved from behind the fence.

Written on each ball was the message … WE CARE! DON’T LOSE HOPE!

But last night, in the Australian Senate, the most fascist, inhumane politician we’ve ever had the misfortune to endure, MP Scott Morrison, forced through a law that not only takes away any chance of hope for these lost souls on the high-seas who seek a safe haven, he used refugee children as ransom.

“No other minister, not the prime minister, not the foreign minister, not the attorney-general, has the same unchecked control over the lives of other people,” writes Ben Doherty in The Guardian.
With the passage of the new law, the minister can push any asylum seeker boat back into the sea and leave it there. He can detain people without charge, or deport them to any country he chooses even if it is known they’ll be tortured there. Morrison’s decisions cannot be challenged.”

Morrison, with his LNP government has torn up our commitment and bond to the UN’s Refugees Convention, a treaty Australia helped write and willingly signed up to more than fifty years ago. All references to our UN commitment have been removed from Australian law via this new bill that passed through the Senate.

I do not believe the majority of Australians would support these moves. To do so incites the very worst in us, a frightening apparition of what we could become. A fascist nation with no heart.

I work in a field that writes for our nation’s young, and we care very much about children. We visit schools, we talk to kids, we write about their dreams and hopes. I cannot imagine even one of Australia’s children’s book creators not standing united in horror and dismay at the direction our country takes under this regime.

I urge every single one of you, my friends, to look away from your computers, from your story making, from your pens and paints, and to stand united with one voice.

Speak out before it’s too late. Join the voices of those who abhor this evil attitude engulfing our Parliament and our democratic Australia.

Use your powerful word skills for a powerful purpose.

Do it now … the pen (and the voice) is mightier than the sword!

Scott Morrison’s email.

Or ring your local LNP politician

Should authors work for free?

I know schools are being stretched tight with funding and they must prioritise where the money goes. But, an increasing number of my author and illustrator colleagues are being asked to appear for free at schools who say they can’t afford to pay. Surely, one must ask,  isn’t the opportunity for students’ to connect with the world of books and writing  important too?

Recently, two children’s authors were asked if they’d visit a school to speak to students as a ‘marketing exercise’ for the author rather than a paid engagement.

Marketing exercise? Sounds good. Authors and illustrators have to market themselves nowadays – publishers don’t have the money to do it, except for their best-selling authors (who, you would think, hardly need advertising and marketing).

But, unfortunately, ‘marketing’ your name/book to a small school community or even to a large community does not mean kids will run home to their parents saying, ‘Can I please buy anonymous author’s book, Such and Such, Dad? Please, I want this book more than a Big Rooster dinner tonight, and Mum, it’s even cheaper than Big Rooster’.

Marketing one’s name is a slow, steady process of many, many hours of writing or illustrating, occasionally winning awards even, coming up with books that kids and librarians will love (and parents too) and being paid to visit schools because the librarians love your books and think you’re good value. And word of mouth sells books. Ask the marketing department in any publishing house.

A most enjoyable gig. Doing the Dinosaur stomp with Aleesah Darlison and kids

We rely on school visits and most of us love them with a passion – it’s a chance to connect with our fabulous audience and to engage with wonderful, enthusiastic librarians and teachers.

 But, like other professionals, our writing is our business and like other businesses, we are paid for our professional service.

Here’s what other authors and illustrators say on the issue…

“When I’ve done visits for a small fee on the proviso that I can sell books, the most I’ve sold is probably 5 or 6. With a profit of maybe $5 – $8 per book, it hardly works out profitable, when you consider the time it takes to prepare for the visit and all.

And of course if you can’t sell books after the visit, and rely on the kids going home to ask Mum or Dad to go to the shops and buy the book…… well, add up the royalties for MAYBE one or two sales and you get a grand sum of $1 – $2 dollars!!! Bet not many teachers would put in a days work for that!”

“No, please don’t do it for free. Even being able to sell your books doesn’t make up for it in principle. I’m sure they allocate money for other things, but some just have this idea you should be grateful to be asked! I used to feel guilty until I discovered that my local state primary school paid $700 for a man and his two sheep dogs to come and give a demonstration on the oval!!”

“Try to negotiate at least half payment as long as you can sell books
yourself would be my best advice.”

“It’s an interesting issue. I’ve had a particular teacher from a local
school hassling me for a while to do an author visit for nothing. In
the end I got fed up and said that teachers don’t teach for nothing so
why should authors?” 

“Lately, two writer’s festivals have asked me to be involved; both for
nothing. This irks me even more when festivals can pay some authors
and not others.”

“I had a request that was similar. In the end I didn’t do it as they ‘had no budget’ for me and it would have meant me taking the morning off work so I would have been losing money to do it. I did do one for free a few years ago for a small school through my local library (who have been amazing to me – hosted all my launches) but arranged to be able to sell and sign books on the day. Think I sold two books!

I know the teachers mean well thinking it’s a ‘marketing opportunity’ for us, but it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. My policy now is that I only do ‘freebies’ for my kids’ school and my local library. I send a quote for all others.”

And lastly, I asked Sophie Masson, award-winning author and an experienced school presenter about the issue – here are her words of wisdom.

“I think that the authors have made the right move in refusing the offer. Schools must not think they can get an author for nothing–after all no teacher would consent to give an hour’s free teaching, would they! I know many schools cry poor (and indeed many are) but there are many grants available for even impoverished schools to pay for authors: the ASA’s info page about their partnership program with the NSW Government, Authors in Priority Schools offers just such an opportunity (Ed: not available in other states). The local branch of the CBC may also help, and librarians’ association also can provide grants. For standard talks and workshops, I’d never do them for nothing, not even locally. 

As an aside, though,  when you’re dealing with local schools, particularly primary, where you do feel a sense of connection to the community, there are also creative ways you can get involved as an author, without charging yet also without doing yourself out of income.

For instance, I ran a competition at one of our local primary schools recently (the one my boys went to) which was centred around one of my books, the Boggle Hunters–the kids had to draw a boggle, and the three best creations got a prize (which I donated–a copy of the book and an extra thing.) There was a special event at the school then for the presentation. It was a big success, the kids loved it, so did their teachers.

I didn’t feel put upon but really enjoyed it,  the local media were intrigued and did a good story on it (which they wouldn’t have done if it had just been a talk) and the book got heaps of publicity. Plus it set no bad precedent about getting work out of me for nothing!”

Thank you, Sophie, and all the other concerned children’s books’ creators.

Here’s the link to the Australian Society of Authors‘ suggested Rates and Conditions for published writers and illustrators. The ASA states: These rates take into account the time and effort members devote to researching and writing and/or illustrating books and making public appearances in connection with promoting them. While members occasionally might allow their work to be used for less, we encourage them to regard ASA rates as an industry standard and, if possible, to negotiate fees higher than the minimum.

Have you had a similar experience recently? Do you have some advice on the issue? If you’d like to remain anonymous, do so.  Would love to read your comments.

My fellow Australians….especially those who abhor arty types like me

I’m a children’s author. My job is to tell stories to Australian children and beyond our shores. Stories that will stir them, make them laugh, take them into another world, stories that will make them think. 

I don’t expect to win a literary prize any day soon, (although it would be very nice to) but I don’t begrudge those who do. It helps their careers in an industry where Australian authors earn 6-10% of a book’s price.

We children’s writers run school workshops to survive, but schools’ funding for arts exposure has diminished. A vicious circle forms. More outside work means less time and energy for authors to write, which equals less publications, lower earnings.

 Government literary grants and awards for writers and artists are as valid to Australia’s development as a nation as sports funding or farm aid to those battlers on the land. That’s why we in the arts community, plus those Australians who believe in what we do, are so angry and dismayed at the new Queensland government’s action, under Premier Campbell Newman, to slash the State’s Literary Awards.

Many of us believe it’s the start of a pogrom against the arts in our beloved country.

When Winston Churchill was asked why didn’t he cut arts funding when money was needed in those darkest days of Britain’s battle against Nazi Germany, this great tactical leader replied, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’ 

Do you support funding the arts? Do you think it’s an essential part of our society?

Thank you to Fiona MacKenzie for the use of the Flickr image.


Fight to save the NSW School Magazine

If you went to school in New South Wales during the last 95 years, you will be familiar with THE SCHOOL MAGAZINE. It is the world’s oldest literary magazine for children and is published without fuss by a small, dedicated and skilled staff who are part of the NSW Department of Education and Training.

The NSW School Magazine

There are four separate titles for a total of 160,000 readers across Australia each month, for 10 issues a year. Children, teachers, librarians, parents, authors/illustrators enjoy the range of stories, poems, plays, articles, comic series and activities into the 36 full-colour pages of each of the 40 magazines each year. Subscriptions are as strong for 2011 as ever.

The School Magazine now faces the threat of cutbacks. Because the Magazine’s publishing unit is being merged with another within the New South Wales Education Department, all staff of both units will cease at the end of January 2011. Positions in the new unit many be offered to some permanent staff, but not to most of the staff.

This means the quality of the School Magazine will suffer. If quality and quantity suffer, so will subscriptions. Eventually, this fine resource of writing for children in New South Wales’s schools – and, of course, for the many children in other Australian states who subscribe – will disappear.

The School Magazine publication with its wonderful resource of storytelling is the envy of the other states, because no other State Education Department offers it. (I can vouch for this, coming from Queensland!)


Write to the NSW Minister: Please use the attached SAMPLE LETTER TO NSW Education Minister . It’s a PDF so you will need to save as text and add your NAME and ADDRESS before you email it. Or you can write your own using this one to help.

Email it to the NSW Education Minister, Hon. Verity Firth MP:
Or post to her address. NOTE: written letters are more effective. Share


Ever heard of the SLAQ/IASL? No? Neither had I before getting involved in the Australian school librarians’ push to get better conditions in school libraries, and then the Government inquiry into the issue.

Breakfasting with Australian children's authors and illustrators.

Last week, Brisbane was the lucky Australian city to host the School Library Association of Queensland Biennial Conference and the 39th International Association of School Librarianship Annual Conference – the 14th International Forum on Research in School Librarianship. Teacher Librarians from across the globe filled the Brisbane convention & Exhibition Centre at South Bank. Their theme: Diversity Challenge Resilience

Sixteen lucky Australian authors or illustrators (mostly from Queensland) were fortunate to be guests at their Authors’ Breakfast.

We included Belinda Jeffrey, Christine Bongers, Clare McFadden, David Cox, David McRobbie, Hazel Edwards, James Moloney, John Danalis, Kierin Meehan, Michael Bauer, Narelle Oliver, Peter Carnavas, Richard Newsome, Wendy Orr, Rebecca Johnson and me.

Sheryl with Pat Carmichael

We each got to give a run down of what we do and show an artifact to do with one of our stories. I took along my cast of dinosaur footprints from the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede at Winton, plus a piece of 50 million-year-old coprolite, fossilised turtle poo. Many fascinating things to see – highlight for me was author, John Danalis’s possum fur cloak presented to him by the  Wamba Wamba elders.

It was also fabulous to meet and talk with so many enthusiastic TLs – without their commitment to literacy and literature, many children would not have the chance to read the books we write. And there would be many, many authors finding it even harder to make a living without the chance to get paid visits to school libraries and classrooms.

Wendy Orr with Janelle, librarian, central coast Qld

The battle to save school libraries continues with a new Government installed. The Inquiry had been launched by Julia Gillard last year – and playing a central role was Rob Oakeshott, a member of the Inquiry committee. Let’s hope he will continue to bat for TLs and school libraries in his role as an Independent in Parliament.

If you would like to know more about the Government Inquiry into the parlous state of School Libraries in Australia and also Teacher Librarian jobs, here’s the link to The Hub – a support blog.

And why wouldn’t you want to know? After all, without Teacher-Librarians and school libraries, authors and illustrators would not sell as many books, would we?

‘Them’s French breeds’ … the perils of standardized testing

Here is a delicious story about the stupidity and the perils of testing children’s knowledge using standardized testing – take note, Julia Gillard.

Marion Brady, American author and educational commentator…. Last Sunday I picked up a book by Gervase Phinn to read on the plane coming back from Gatwick. It was written by a school inspector for Yorkshire, and wasn’t particularly good, but it had a passage in it that I thought had much to say about the idiocy of standardized testing. He’s visiting a small school in the Yorkshire Dales. (I think that was where James Herriot lived and worked), and is checking reading ability.

A Masham or a Swaledale?

from The Other Side of the Dale by Gervase Phinn:

…In the infants [class], I chose a bright picture book about a brave old ram who went off into the deep, snow-packed valley to look for a lost lamb.

Graham, a six-year-old, began reading the story with great gusto. ‘Ronald was an old, grey ram who lived in a wide, green valley near a big, big farm.

‘At this point, he promptly stopped reading and stared intently at the picture of the ram. It had a great smiling mouth, short horns, a fat body and shining eyes like black marbles.

“What breed is that?” Graham asked.

‘Breed?’ I repeated.

‘Aye,’ said the child. ‘What breed is he?’

‘I don’t know,’ I answered in a rather pathetic tone of voice.

‘Don’t you know your sheep, then?’

‘No, I don’t,’ I replied.

‘Miss,’ shouted the child, could Tony come over here a minute? I want to know what breed of sheep this is.’

We were joined by Tony, another stocky little six-year-old with red cheeks and a runny nose. ‘Let’s have a look at t’picture then,’ he said.

I turned the book to face him. The large white sheep with black patches and a mouth full of shining teeth smiled from the page.

‘Is it a Masham or a Swaledale?’ he asked me.

“I don’t know, I answered in the same pathetic tone of voice.

Another child joined the discusssion. ‘It looks like a blue-faced Leicester to me. What do you reckon?’

‘I have no idea,’ I replied.

‘Don’t you know your sheep, then?’ I was asked again, and once more replied that I did not. By this time a small crowd of interested onlookers
had joined me in the reading corner.

‘They’re not Leicesters,’ ventured Tony, ‘because there’s a low gate in t’picture.’ There were grunts and nods of agreement from the other children.

Before I could ask about the significance of the low gate, Graham explained. ‘Leicesters are a long-legged breed. They can get over low

‘Is it a Texel?” ventured a plump girl, peering at the picture. Then she glanced at the ignoramous holding the book. ‘That’s a Dutch breed.’

‘Texels have white faces, not black,’ Graham commented.

Very soon the whole class was concentrating on the breed of the picture-book sheep.

A girl from another class was called in.

‘I reckon they’re Bleu de Main or Rouge de ”Ouest,’ she suggested. Then she turned to the dunce holding the book and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Them’s French breeds.’


*(photo of the Swaledale by Sally Anne Thompson)