The Convoluted Key

The Convoluted Key is the first book in my brand new middle grade series, Draconian Rules. I’ve had some lovely comments so far, including:

 “Skillful storytelling and world building. Sweet and funny.”

and

 “I LOVE the humor here and the voice–it reminds me of Rowling in the best way.”

The Convoluted Key is now available as an ebook through Kobo. It will be released in paperback on 8 June.

About The Convoluted Key

Debbie Torken and her brother Danny have heard rumours of the world where Magicians dwell. But when Danny is accidentally handed a Key that unlocks the realm of Magicas they are pitched into an adventure they never could have expected.

Tween witch Pippa Dracona prefers mathematics to magic, so the chance to attend a school in Physicas, the realm of science, was supposed to be a dream come true. But the Dame Ivy Newton School for Gifted and Unusual Students has too many archaic and nonsensical rules. Pippa is about to fail her favourite subject and lose her place in the course. When she makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to let the Torken children into the realm of magic, she might have made her worst choice yet … or, perhaps, her best.

If Pippa is to keep an important promise, she must find a way to get the Torkens home before the next witching hour begins. It’s time to enlist the help of some eccentric friends, solve a bizarre mystery involving unicorns and missing belongings, and gain some much-needed perspective. After all, there are two sides to every equation.

Weaving through The Convoluted Key are a number of feminist-friendly themes, such as a wide variety of female characters with different personalities and motivations, supportive female friendship, and thoughtful male characters who are respectful towards female characters.

How to Work From Home (With Distractions)

mother working from home with two children
Image credit: lyncconf.com

As a somewhat reclusive author who has been working from home for 15 years (eleven of those with children), I thought I’d share some of the processes I’ve honed over the years.

Firstly, realise that this is an extraordinary situation we all find ourselves in (and not in a good way). We are all going through a riot of emotions, from anger and grieving to enjoying quality time with the kids and perhaps unexpected new connections with family and strangers. Go easy on yourself, if you can.

Don’t try to multi-task?

Let’s face it, unless you’re someone able to afford a live-in nanny or your spouse is happy to spend several hours at a time keeping the children quietly entertained, you’re already multi-tasking – working AND watching/ feeding/ entertaining/ educating children AND tackling housework. So, in terms of work, try to keep your focus on one element at a time for as large a chunk of time as you can manage. Experiment with an entire day dedicated to blitzing the housework, followed by a few days of work, study, or family time with just the minor daily tasks to attend to.

Another option is to use housework as your exercise. Schedule a break in your desk-based work or study to move your body by vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, etc., but keep your mental focus on your work so you can go straight back into it.

Tackle the worst, biggest, or most annoying tasks early so your mind is not drawn to the pile of dirty dishes or the laundry that needs folding.

Concentrating with children around

author working with baby in wrap
Me, working with my youngest in a Moby wrap (back when I had blonde hair for a while). I edited a 120K word novel like this.

If you have a young baby, invest in a carrier that holds the baby close to your body. I recommend the Moby wrap or Ergo structured carrier. It is easier to settle a baby this way, and is proven to be better for you and your child’s long term mental health (in Australia it’s sometimes referred to as “kangaroo care”) (1), (2), (3), (4). And you can work sitting or standing or moving around.

If your work or study is essential or non-negotiable and you absolutely need a block of quiet time to concentrate, but you are a single parent with toddlers or older children – reach out for help from your online community. Presuming you’re not okay with your children sitting in front of a screen for hours, you could put a call out for someone you trust to engage with your child/ren over a voice call (or even a one-way video, or baby monitor or “nanny-cam”, where the adult can see what the child is doing but the child is not watching a screen). Have the child chat, sing, or read to their virtual babysitter so that the adult can keep tabs on the child, and text the parent if the child needs immediate attention. Ideally you would like to be in the same room as your child if they are really young or have special needs –try headphones with white noise or background music, or even invest in a noise-cancelling pair. If your child is older, shut yourself in another room or walk-in wardrobe, if you have one, or even the kitchen or bathroom.

Filming/recording/taking calls with children around

At this current time, your boss, clients, or audience may just have to understand that you’re working with your children around. If you are live, you could mention it at the start of the call/video so there are no surprises. Even the quietest child could drop something or click a pen lid at the wrong moment.

If your content is child-friendly, put your kids behind the camera, or let them watch you on another device – especially if you want to protect your child’s online privacy. They’re less likely to unexpectedly wander in front of the lens if you keep them in front of you. Who knows, you might have a budding young director on your hands. Teach them how to use the video-editing suite.

If you can’t film around the children, try filming inside a closet, or outside in your backyard. Perhaps set the kids up with an audiobook and headphones if necessary.

Pay yourself first

Determine what that means for you. Actual money-earning work? Or feeding your creativity and motivation? Also, think about the phrase “Paying Attention”, and try to imagine attention as currency. Do you really want to pay the Zuck first thing in the morning? How can you ensure that you are spending your first block of attention on something more valuable to you – your work, creativity, family, or productive leisure time?

My recommendation: don’t turn on Facebook or any other social media as your first thing you do. The exception is if you are creating content for social media – for example, you are a coach of some sort and doing a Live first thing in the morning feels like paying yourself (and your clients/audience) first.

Aim small

At least to begin with. Writing my first published book with a toddler around, my goal was a minimum of just 100 words per day – I was soon hitting an average of 300 words per day and I completed the first draft of that novel in about eight months.

Don’t think about it, just do it

Is your work broccoli or jam? Broccoli tasks are necessary, nutritious, or valuable – they bring in money or improve your brand or serve to get your project closer to completion, but they are not necessarily your favourite thing to do. Jam tasks are delicious and possibly addictive, but not easy to earn a solid income doing (i.e., “money for jam”).

Don’t avoid the broccoli parts, but be aware that the jam helps you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (when there’s no one waving the stick of you getting fired from your job if you don’t).

Tap into the motivation of altruistic problem-solving

Do you notice how easy you find it to tap out a lengthy response to someone on Facebook because you’re solving a problem for them? This article I’m writing right now is exactly that. I noticed post after post by people struggling to focus on working or studying at home amidst the distractions of children or other members of their household and I knew I could offer some suggestions. So rather than hammer out 2000 words in a comment, I’ve turned it into a blog post. Win-win.

What content can you offer your community right now? What solutions do people need that you can help with? Does one of your colleagues need a hand, in exchange for taking some of your least enjoyed workload off yours?

Permission to reinvent your schedule

Don’t have to get up at 6:30AM to get kids to school? Experiment with working at different times of the day – that 6:30 to 9AM block might be your perfect session. Or you might find a second wind at 9PM to midnight. You might even be able to manipulate your children’s internal clocks to your advantage (but obviously don’t try this if it has taken you years to settle them into a routine, or they are thriving on regularity). Need your kids to stay asleep longer? Let them go to bed later. Want a quiet house by 8PM? Wake them super-early and get them straight into a physical activity. Middle of the day your sweet spot? Wake them even earlier and introduce a siesta. Or make use of some limited screen time with head phones to keep them distracted and quiet for 40 minutes. Audio books are also good distractions. The Story Teller Partwork audio magazine series has been provided for free on YouTube by the publisher. This is a great compromise if audio-only doesn’t hold your child’s attention. The pages of the book are shown on screen, so your child could read along if they want, or look at the pictures, but there’s no animation.

Limit your own screen time

Especially late at night. Try to write longhand in a notebook and then type it up in the morning. Or dictate using a voice-to-text program (I haven’t tried this site yet, but have heard good things about Otter.ai). If you must use a device at night, turn the brightness right down, You can also change the background colour of your document to a softer orange, or even go for black background and white text. Remember to reset the colours before you send the file to anyone, though!

Add a filter that limits the blue light emissions at night time. Many devices now come with this feature built in, but  f.lux is an excellent piece of software that I’ve been using for many years.

Get out in the sunshine at midday. This is the optimum time for Vitamin D production – you don’t need to be out there very long; a few minutes is usually sufficient. Move into the shade and read or write or dictate. Or exercise outdoors.

Exercise as part of your routine

Don’t take short cuts, especially if you have stairs. Get one item you need at a time so you have to get up and move again. Fidget – it’s good for you. Walk around if you’re on a phone call. Put your laptop on the kitchen counter so you can stand and work for a while.

Assign yourself a problem to nut out while you tackle some housework. When you’re done with the chores, write down the ideas and solutions you came up with – or dictate as you go along.

Balance paying work, creative work, and house work, and recreation. When your head’s not in the right motivation space, you want to do more of one, even to the point of using housework as procrastination(!). Set a timer. One hour for each, except for the task that most needs to be done – this one gets at least 20 minutes, but don’t force yourself to sit there for an hour if your brain’s not playing ball.

Bossing yourself

It’s hard when we’ve been trained since early childhood NOT to self-direct, always waiting for instruction and correction from, first, teachers then supervisors and bosses. This was “useful” when many, many people needed to be trained to work on production lines and in factories, but these days it is archaic and counter-productive. You have to find out what motivates you.

Have a plan. Determine what point A is for you, and what point Z (the completed project) might look like. Then work out the milestones that will take you from A to Z. Try to take at least one step towards the next milestone each day.

List your reasons for what you’re doing. Earning money to put food on the table? Creating something worthwhile and beautiful? Learning something new? Just getting through the day? It can help to clarify these, even if they are very simple or very boring reasons.

To do lists might not be for everyone. If I try to create a to do list, I often get stuck trying to work out what the most important task is (i.e, what goes beside item number one). I prefer to use what I call a Thoughtscape rather than a structured, linear list. I randomly jot thoughts, ideas, plans, and things that need to be done, group related tasks by highlighting in the same colour or drawing the same shape around them, and then I look at it and decide which handful of items are most urgent and/or most desirable – and the best order to complete tasks in.

“Training” children to let you work

Start with something that doesn’t need your full attention – preferably only using your hands, so you’re still watching and responding to your child. When my eldest was a toddler, he would pull pens and books out of my hands if I tried to write longhand or read to myself, so I switched to knitting something easy and unimportant. He got used to seeing something in my hands, but knew that I was still paying attention to him – and eventually he got wrapped up in what he was doing and I was able to pick up a book again.

When I moved to trying to write a novel, I placed a toy “laptop” on the table beside me while I worked on mine. At one point I could get 30-40 minutes of writing done like that. As he got older, he ended up with his own device for about 20 minutes, but he was also no longer pulling pens out of my hand so I was able to work alternating between my computer and longhand.

***

Remember to stop and do something fun, if you can. If your child wants to play Snakes & Ladders in the middle of your work session, consider taking a break and make the most of it. Hopefully we’ll all get through this time with some new ideas, different ways of working, an understanding of what’s truly important, and a whole new lease on life. Stay safe and stay well. <3

Best YA and Children’s Books of 2019

Now is a great time to stock up on new books for the new school year. Here is my list of the best YA, middle grade, and early reader books published in 2019 (or late 2018).

My overall pick for Book of the Year 2019 is:

Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour

Picture books and early reader books:

1. Lubna and Pebble – Wendy Meddour
2. Counting on Katherine – Helaine Becker
3. Moonlight the Unicorn’s High Tea Hiccup (Miniwings Book 6) – Sally Sutton
4. Oi, Duck-Billed Platypus! (Oi Series) – Kes Gray
5. Oi, Puppies! (Oi Series) – Kes Gray
6. Yasmin in Charge – Saadia Faruqi
7. Tiggy and the Magic Paintbrush : A Hide and Seek Sleepover
8. Tiggy and the Magic Paintbrush : A Very Wobbly Tooth

Books for older readers:

9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, edition fully illustrated by Jim Kay – JK Rowling
10. Calling All WitchesLaurie Calkhoven (a celebration of the witches of JK Rowling’s wizarding world)
11. The Velvet Fox – Catherine Fisher (sequel to the Clockwork Crow)
12. Witch in Winter – Kaye Umansky (book 4 in the Elsie Pickles, Witch series)
13. Tom Gates : Spectacular School Trip (Really) – Liz Pichon
14. The Seven Keys (sequel to The Turnkey) – Allison Rushby

Biography & General Non-fiction:

15. The Extraordinary Life of Malala Yousafzai – Hiba Noor Khan
16. The Extraordinary Life of Michelle Obama – Dr Sheila Kanani
17. Eddie Woo’s Magical Maths – Eddie Woo
18. General Knowledge Genius – Peter Crisp
19. 6000 Awesome Facts – pub. Miles Kelly
20. Epic Encounters in the Animal Kingdom (Brave Adventures Vol. 2) – Coyote Peterson

The Case for Supervised Play in Early Childhood and Primary School – Essay

“Boys will be boys” is a catch-phrase tossed up by over-worked and under-resourced early childhood educators when concerned parents query playground etiquette. But when children as young as four years old are playing games that involve “shooting all the girls in the heart”, capturing and “killing” each other, and targeting any children who do not actively choose to play with this group, a radical reassessment is required. Continue reading “The Case for Supervised Play in Early Childhood and Primary School – Essay”

10 Reasons Ant-Man and the Wasp is a Fun, Feminist-Friendly Family Film – SPOILERS

SPOILER WARNING

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a Marvel Studios movie that was released in 2018. The movie stars Evangeline Lilly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hannah John-Kamen, Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne.

Here are ten refreshingly feminist details and plot points the writers of Ant-Man and the Wasp got right. Continue reading “10 Reasons Ant-Man and the Wasp is a Fun, Feminist-Friendly Family Film – SPOILERS”

Herman Parrish – Amelia Bedelia Chapter Book Series

The Amelia Bedelia chapter book series is a spin off written by Herman Parrish based on the character created by his aunt Peggy Parrish in the 1960s. While the original features Amelia Bedelia as an adult, Herman Parrish’s series places an approximately 10-year-old Amelia Bedelia in a current-day setting and explores school and small-town life in general through her eyes. Amelia Bedelia might not be one of the “cool” kids, but she always somehow manages to pull off the most spectacular wins when it counts. As the child who takes everything literally, hilarity ensues whenever she comes up against an idiom she hasn’t met before (and with a father who peppers his conversation with them, there is plenty of confusion to add to the laughs). Continue reading “Herman Parrish – Amelia Bedelia Chapter Book Series”

Denise Kirby – 88 Lime Street : The Way In

This review contains SPOILERS and is intended for parents.

The Way In is a great start to what will presumably continue as an 88 Lime Street series, although there is very little information on any follow up books. Beginning as a standard-fare haunted house story, the plot twists into more of a time-slip adventure with some big scares unsuitable for young or sensitive readers. It’s a bit Indiana(s)-Jones-for-teens with booby traps and hazards. Continue reading “Denise Kirby – 88 Lime Street : The Way In”

I Own All the Blue – Release Date Announced

I Own All the Blue

I Own All the Blue will be available as a paperback book from the 13th of June 2018.

This picture book for ages four to seven tells the story of a bowerbird who refuses to share the colour blue. Bowerbird’s greed and sense of entitlement has a domino effect as the other animals race to claim colours for themselves. Mixing the colours could lead to disaster as one animal stands to inherit it all… unless everyone learns to share.

I Own All the Blue is a Modern Fable

As a parent, I’ve noticed with surprise how vehement children are about enforcing certain conventions of our society, such as which colours and styles of clothing are allowed to be worn by boys and which are exclusively for girls.

I Own All the Blue is a tongue-in-cheek challenge to the idea that specific colours are exclusively for specific groups. It’s a book that promotes sharing, and I hope it will help to generate a little bit of thinking and questioning of some of the strange rules we enforce on each other for no real reason.

Preview the Entire Book

I know how frustrating it is to pick up a children’s book that looks promising only to find that the last page goes against your principles. Or trying to gauge the content from a brief Look Inside on Amazon. So I know and understand that you want to vet the entire book before you invest in it.

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Jessica Day George – Tuesdays at the Castle

This review contains SPOILERS and is intended for parents.

There have been a slew of sentient-building stories recently and Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George is easily one of the best of them (followed narrowly by 88 Lime Street and The Inn Between, which I’ll review soon).

Don’t be misled by the cute cover or even the fun-sounding concept of a castle that changes its rooms around once a week. Tuesdays at the Castle is excellent for older readers and features a truly awesome female protagonist. It’s ideal for anyone who thinks they’re growing out of “princess books”. Continue reading “Jessica Day George – Tuesdays at the Castle”

Elizabeth Pulford – Sanspell : Book 1 of The BloodTree Chronicles

This review contains SPOILERS and is intended for parents.

Sanspell, the first book in Elizabeth Pulford’s BloodTree Chronicles, is a strange piece of metafiction that has some familiar echoes in the race to fulfil a quest before the last leaves fall from the cursed and dying Bloodtree. This book takes itself seriously with none of the tongue-in-cheek self-mockery that usually takes the edge off stories of this type. Continue reading “Elizabeth Pulford – Sanspell : Book 1 of The BloodTree Chronicles”

Play Like a Girl Chapter Book Series

Jo Stanley’s Play Like a Girl Chapter Book Series (in collaboration with AFLW*) is my surprise find for the year. Each of the four books follows a different protagonist with a minor issue to overcome while playing (Australian Rules) footy for the Millsborough West Girls’ Under 12 Football Team (The Flyers). Sarah has just moved to a new area and a new school; Hanh is jealous of her best friend; Rainbow is the “weird” kid who doesn’t fit in at school; Lucy is shy and not just because she wears hearing aids. They are all coached by Shawna, a tough, sporty woman with a loud voice and spiky blue hair. The books are simple and the story problems are very brief and easy to resolve, but the characterisation is great with a broad range of different personalities and motivations. Finding out how these girls are going to cope and succeed is rather compelling. Continue reading “Play Like a Girl Chapter Book Series”

Stella by the Sea

Stella by the Sea by Ruth Starke is a simple and lovely story of friendship and community. After a vivid dream that seems to match exactly, schoolgirl Stella responds to an advertisement for a cubbyhouse for sale. The only problem is she has nowhere to put it – she lives in a penthouse apartment with no backyard. So, being the daughter of a real estate superstar, Stella considers her options and offers to rent the cubbyhouse instead. While her elderly landlord initially seems gruff, Stella soon discovers that Chester is a real old softy – a retired pastry chef who loves baking but doesn’t see the point in “baking for one”. And another perk of renting a patch of Chester’s backyard comes in the form of the neighbours’ pets – one by one Stella begins a dog-walking and cat-minding business. Soon she has befriended a number of people in the area and she connects them with the reticent Chester by throwing herself a cubbyhouse-warming party. Chester now has plenty of baking requests, and in return his neighbours take care of him: free hair cuts, lawn mowing, companionship. But progress and development, and growing old, threaten their idyllic little set up. Chester has some hard bargaining to do if he’s going to do right by his young tenant.

Nooks and Crannies

Nooks and Crannies is an adorable Edwardian murder mystery by Jessica Lawson. Tabitha Crum is one of the sweetest heroines you’ll come across – she’ll simultaneously capture your heart and break it as she tries so desperately to earn the love of her cruel and heartless parents. Luckily for Tabitha she discovers that she was adopted and now she has a chance to inherit a fortune – if she turns out to be the true heir of the Countess of Windermere. But first there are a few problems to overcome at the Countess’s manor house: five other children who could potentially be the true heir, the suspicious death of the one person who might have been able to identify the correct child, the matter of ghostly noises and weird happenings, and something else Tabitha can’t quite put her finger on. Continue reading “Nooks and Crannies”

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones

The fascinating thing about The Islands of Chaldea is not that it is Diana Wynne Jones’s last book but that she died with it unfinished and it was completed and published posthumously. DWJ’s younger sister Ursula has given fans an extraordinary gift by seamlessly integrating an ending to the unfinished manuscript. We will never know if it is the ending Diana would’ve written – because she left no clues, no notes, and an entire committee of family and friends brainstorming for hours could not figure out what she might have intended for the story. Nevertheless, Ursula’s ending is fitting and satisfying and a wonderful tribute to Diana’s memory and the power of sisterhood. Continue reading “The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones”

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

The Map to Everywhere is the first collaboration between husband and wife authors Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis and utilises the increasingly popular format of alternating chapters told by a boy-girl pair of main characters. They may have missed a golden opportunity here to make their characters two girls to fill in the dearth of female-friendship adventure stories for this age group. In addition, it is the male character’s point of view that opens the book, granting him the lead by default. Other than that quibble this book is a superbly-crafted adventure story with only a very few of the annoying clichés you might anticipate –

The first being that most of the chapters in the book don’t pass the Bechdel test for the simple reason that Marrill is the only female character for large swathes of the story. Even her cat is male. However, it is a story with a small cast: Fin, Marrill, Ardent the wizard, and Coll the ship’s captain. And the book certainly passes the Mako Mori test. Continue reading “The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis”