On the trail of Jessie Traill

It’s a little nerve-wracking talking with students that are studying one of your books.

I’ve been lucky that so many schools have picked up my novels as set texts. The feedback is always fascinating and listening to students discuss which characters they like most and which they like least is oddly thrilling. But I’m always aware that having to pick apart a book for English assignments risks taking away some of the pleasure of reading a novel.

Last week I spoke at two of Haileybury College’s campuses where the Year 8 girls are studying my novel ‘The Year it All Ended‘. The book seems to stand up to the challenge of being studied, perhaps because of the many layers of research that went into its creation, though I’m always aware that the studets didn’t choose it. I’ve talked to thousands of Year 8-10 students about researching that book; my travels

in South Australia, France, Belgium and Germany and there’s never enough time to cover everything.  For the first time last week, I discussed the inspiration that Jessie Traill provided in the writing of ‘The Year it All Ended’.Now I’m sorry I haven’t talked or written about her before now. Conjuring her to an audience brought her back to me, bright and vivid.

Jessie Traill was a prolific and talented 20th Century Melbourne artist.She was a contemporary and friend of my grandmother and my father took me to visit her studio in Berwick in the 1960s, not long before Jessie died. We sat on a picnic rug laid down on the long, overgrown yellow grass in her wild garden and ate stale, sugary biscuits. I remember being in awe of Jessie’s fierceness, her beautiful art and her eccentric attitude to small children. I never forgot her.

Jessie Constance Alicia Traill (1881-1967), by unknown photographer, c1920

Jessie was one of several independent women painters that influenced the creation of the character ‘Big’ in my novel ‘The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie‘. She was never adequately recognised in her lifetime, though the National Gallery of Australia honoured her recently with a retrospective of her beautiful prints, some of which you can see here:  Stars in the River

 

The State Library of Victoria holds a collection of Jessie Traill’s papers, photos and postcards and I drew on them when writing ‘The Year it All Ended’.

Jessie served as a VAD in WW1 and her descriptions of being in Rouen in Northern France in 1918 helped me imagine what it would have been like for my character Tiney to see those landscapes. The SLV have made a video using Jessie’s writings and images as part of their ‘Writing the War’ exhibition that illustrates the power of Jessie’s gift for capturing the world around her in both words and illustration. Watch it here: Writing the War

A Road in Flanders by Jessie Traill

Jessie Traill lived a big life. She was generous, adventurous and creative. Although I knew her only fleetingly, her story is deeply threaded into mine, her life has fed into my novels, her influence has stretched across generations. Students often ask me where do I get ideas for stories and I try to explain that each and everyone of us is surrounded by inspiring characters.  Jessie Traill is only one of a legion of women who spent their lives loving, caring and making things of great beauty but whose stories haven’t been told often enough.

 

The Big Impact of Little Things

Last month, I presented a list of my top Australian non-fiction at the Victorian CBCA’s Clayton’s night, in the lead up to the announcement of the CBCA shortlist. One of my top picks wasn’t submitted for the CBCA awards but it’s an important little book about a big topic that matters deeply to me and to most Australian children – insects!

The Little Things that Run the City by Kate Cranney, Sarah Bekessy & Luis Mata is the sort of book that would have changed my understanding of the world, if I’d read it as a child. One of the most important things this exceptional book does for young Australian readers is it gives them the gift of the language of their landscape. Australian children are inundated with information about European, Asian and American wildlife. It’s good to know about the wider world but it’s crucial that information books help children connect to and interpret their immediate surroundings.

Kids are fascinated by creepy crawlies but most information books for children about bugs are not published in Australia and don’t include common Australian insects. When I went to live in Europe, I always wondered why their cicadas were so quiet compared to ours. It was only when recently reading The Little Things that Run the City that I discovered that our Green Grocer Cicada is one of the world’s loudest insects.

Kate Cranney’s detailed illustration of an orange caterpillar parasite wasp.

Kate Cranney’s illustrations are magical and the bite size pieces of information accompanying both illustrations and photos introduce readers to thirty different insects found in Melbourne gardens.

I love the specificity of The Little Things that Run the City. Every Melbourne child should have a copy of this book available to them and that’s actually possible as it’s a free, downloadable pdf at the City of Melbourne’s website. Click the image of the book’s cover to get a copy. Though it’s great to be able to access this fascinating project so easily, the actual hardcover book is such a pleasure to hold, I highly recommend getting a physical copy.  The book was produced  as an outreach educational resource for the City of Melbourne as part of the Interdiscplinary Conservation Science Research Group at RMIT University. So it’s not widely available in bookshops but it can be purchased at the shops in the Melbourne Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Once again, I’m very honoured to be a nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. So many of my favourite children’s authors are featured on the list that I feel thrilled and very humbled to see my name in the company of writers that I have long admired.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never completely disappears.”

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