Writing, words and written work

Posts tagged ‘JB Rowley’

The most precious gift of all?

Pekanbaru Library on the island of Sumatra is one of the most impressive library buildings I have ever seen but the empty book shelves and the sight of out-dated books published in the 1970s and 80s saddened me.  When I visited the library on a trip to Indonesia a couple of years ago the head librarian, a tall man dressed in a uniform reminiscent of army fatigues, graciously met with me to discuss the library system in Indonesia. I had several picture books with me that I had brought over from Australia. When I showed him a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped. His look of astonished enchantment increased with each page. At the end of the book, he asked in an awed tone, “Where can I get such a book?”

The reaction of Indonesian teachers to Eric Carle’s masterpiece was similar. One teacher, who  immediately grasped the beauty of the book’s simplicity and its educational value, highlighted the lessons embedded in the story as she turned the pages: “Colours, numbers, days of the week, food, biology…” Millions of children have enjoyed the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar without even noticing that it was teaching them so many things. What a gift Eric Carle has given to generations of wide-eyed children.

Like many children in Indonesia I had little access to books as a kid growing up in the Australian bush. However, I was lucky enough to be given the gift of story by an aunt who sent books each Christmas, knowing that my parents could not afford such luxuries. Those beautifully bound books of literature classics gave me hours of reading pleasure, escape from my real world, a love of stories and probably extensive education that I was not aware of at the time.

That love of stories stayed with me and led me to oral storytelling and writing. I feel privileged to be able to use my skills to give the gift of story. Although I would not attempt to emulate Eric Carle’s magnificent picture book I hope that children reading my chapter book, Trapped in Gondwana, will benefit from the pleasure of reading a good story and escaping from their real world while being unaware of the lessons they are learning about the evolution of the earth, the environment, threatened species, personal growth and more.

I wonder if Trapped in Gondwana is the book that I boasted about to my mother when I was still a scrawny bush kid in the early 1960s.

“One day,” I said to her, “I’m going to write a best-selling book.”

My mother replied, “One day I might give you something to write about.”

It wasn’t until after her death almost forty years later that she gifted me her story by leaving papers, previously hidden, for her children to find, which revealed her secret. When I put together the pieces of the puzzle presented by the paperwork, I remembered the promise she had made to me. At the same time I recalled one of her favourite sayings: “You can say anything you like about me when I am dead.” That was how I knew she had given me permission to write her story and the licence to write it as I saw fit.  Her legacy to me was the gift of story. Perhaps it is her story Whisper My Secret and not Trapped in Gondwana about which I heralded great success with my grandiloquent boast. (Fingers crossed for both!)

Whatever the fate of my books in terms of sales, I do believe that the gift of story is one of the most precious gifts we can give, not only to children, but to each other. Apart from bestowing books whether print, electronic or audio, we can also give the gift of story in other ways. Sharing our stories, whether by telling and listening or by writing and reading, is a profound gift which binds families, communities, friends and nations through the creation of understanding, empathy and a sense of connection.

Until next time…JB 🙂

Whisper My Secret

Trapped in Gondwana

About Whisper My Secret

Why I Envy Librarians

Books for Indonesian kids

The Very Hungry Caterpillar


Why I envy librarians

A skinny little kid rummaging through rotting vegetables, broken furniture and rusty engine parts in search of books, that was me.

When I was growing up in Orbost, East Gippsland, in the 1950s my library was the local rubbish tip, now euphemistically, ridiculously called a ‘transfer station’. We lived several kilometres out of town, which is a long way for a large family with little money. It would have been financially impossible for my parents to buy books for us kids, or even for themselves. There were usually a few comic books floating around the house, perhaps given to my older brothers by school friends. It must have been through these comic books (and perhaps newspapers) that I learned to read at an early age.

There wasn’t a library in Orbost then. That precious institution, the local library, was not established until the 1960s or later and Orbost would have been too remote to have a library even then. My only other access to books was the annual book gifted at Christmas by my aunties in Albury, bless their cotton socks. (Update 18.1.2012. Apparently there was a library in Orbost then. The first library in Orbost was opened in 1885, in the Mechanics Institute Hall in Browning Street. However, I am not sure when it started to function as a free lending library.)

However, when I realised that books could be found at the local rubbish tip my home library grew. The tip was an easy bike ride from our place and my two older brothers went there regularly. They would sometimes, after ‘encouragement’ from my mother, allow me to go with them. Oh, boy, was I excited when I arrived at the rubbish tip. I could not believe the treasure trove of books that were there for me. Imagine people throwing away perfectly good books! I searched under whatever rubbish was there. If there was a book there I had to find it. I did not want to miss a single book. Sometimes my brothers grew tired of waiting for me and left me to it. They were smart enough not to go home without me; they simply explored other areas of the bush on their bikes and came back to fetch me later. When I did get back home I was so eager to explore the literary treasure I had found that I went straight to the hayshed, climbed up over the stacks of hay to my special hiding place, curled up like a wombat in a burrow and escaped into the world of print.

There were no librarians at my first ‘library’ and when I found out that there were people who ‘looked after books’ I was astounded. I couldn’t think of a better job. The concept of buildings where books ‘live’ was another eye opener for me. I wanted to live there with them and often imagined myself living in a library. Even now, when I walk into a library and see shelves and shelves of books I feel a sense of awe (even though I now realise living there might be impractical).

In general I find that librarians have a generosity of nature and a sense of calm that allows them to attend to my queries fully, with unhurried courtesy. I wonder if this quality springs from the deep knowledge brought by books or simply from ‘living’ with so many books.

The generosity of librarians (and many other Australians) was overwhelmingly demonstrated to me when book donations poured in for my Books for Indonesian Kids project which continues to grow. When those looking after our community libraries in Indonesia tell me how the Indonesian kids’ eyes widen in wonder when they see the donated books, I know exactly what those children are feeling. JB 🙂

Serious about writing

At long last I have decided to make a serious commitment to writing.

From an early age I have been encouraged by those wiser than me to write.  At Orbost North Primary School (Victoria, Australia) my teachers actively encouraged me. It is with great pride and humble gratitude that I recall they referred to me as ‘the one with the Enid Blyton touch’. Once, I even beat the English teacher’s son in a story writing contest!

When I moved up to Orbost High School (now Orbost Secondary College) the teachers there also encouraged me to write. At this stage I even enjoyed the exhilaration of having my short stories published in New Idea (a national Australian magazine).

Did I take the hint? Did I buckle down and develop the craft of writing? No! I have been fiddling around in life: having fun, making mistakes, earning money, not earning money, meeting wonderful people, meeting horrible people, doing wonderful things, doing stupid things, working, playing, loving, hating and everything else that came my way … except writing.

However, writing has always been close to my heart and nearby in some form or other. For instance, I have been an oral storyteller for over twenty years. In 2011 my work as an oral storyteller led me to become one of two winners of the ABC Hope 2011 award for my story The Flowerdale Tattoo, I was editor of the national storytelling magazine for many years. I attended writing workshops and courses. I published some articles and started to write several books. It wasn’t until 1995 when my mother died that I found a story that not only compelled me to start to write a book but also motivated me to take it to the finished and published stage. You see, my mother had a secret that only came to light after her death. I write about her tragic secret in  Whisper My Secret, which was published in 2007 and enjoyed much success although it was not destined to be a best seller. It is now out of print but may still be available through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and some book stores and it may resurface as an Ebook. In the last two years I have written short stories, poems, songs, and ditties; won a few prizes but nothing major apart from the Hope 2011 award.

I am a member of two writing groups. One is seasonal (we meet each season) and is a delicious mix of people; not that we eat each other, although we do eagerly devour each other’s work. The ambrosial quality of this group is created by our linked connections of friendship, storytelling and writing. The members of the seasonal group have been a source of inspiration and positive reinforcement (and fun) for me.

The other group is the newly formed Friday Group; a collection of emerging writers connected through our membership of Writers Victoria. This is a lively group of people with a variety of writing styles but committed to developing our own and each other’s writing.

At present I am working on a sequel to Whisper My Secret. This project was progressing quite well until it was interrupted by another story, a children’s story that had been lurking in my imagination for years. This children’s story has developed into a planned series of seven books. I have completed the first book: Trapped in Gondwana.

So, all in all, it looks I am pretty serious about my writing…finally! JB 🙂

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