Sea Monkeys, Sunny Boys & Skylab: Writing the 1970s

Just the title of this post makes me all kinds of nostalgic. This is because I was a childCoverfinalmedRES in the 1970s, which is when my new book, Catch A Falling Star, is set.

1979, to be specific. May-July 1979 to be specific-er.

And exactly that specific because it’s set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, the uncontrolled loss of orbit and eventual crashing to earth of Skylab, one of the world’s first space stations.

I’m told that the 1970s is long enough ago for Catch A Falling Star to be considered historical fiction. Luckily for me, though, having direct experience of that period, I didn’t need to do the kind of research this genre normally calls for. I grew up then! I remember stuff like sea monkeys and Sunny Boys and yelling SunnyBoyout “Spunk!” and lying on the warm concrete at the pool all day because skin cancer hadn’t been invented yet. The only things I needed to research were Skylab facts and figures – the exact timeline, direct quotes from newspapers, that sort of thing.

That’s what I thought, in the beginning.


Excuse me while I beat my head gently against this wall.

While I was writing, doubts started creeping in. Like … Hang on a minute – did we say canteen or kiosk back then? Yeah but specifically at the drive-in. Which I never actually went to, on account of not having a car.

And hang on, now that I think about it – I’ve got Frankie, my 12-year-old protagonist, saying On account of, but we’d never have said that back then. And hang on hang on! Did we even say hang on? Or was it hold on? Hang on is American! Or is it? Americanisms weren’t as common, then. When did they start creeping in? seamonkeys

Once I had disappeared down this rabbit hole, there was no going back. I realised that a lot of the language I’d given Frankie was wrong, anachronistic.

I guess so. Same as always. Tell me about it. Come help.

Cue gnashing of teeth, and asking of Twitter. Cue re-writing.

I suppose so. The same as always. Derr, Freddie. Come and help.

These are small things aren’t they? And contemporary young readers aren’t going to know the difference. So why did I bother?

Because having realised it was wrong, I couldn’t not bother. I couldn’t not try and get it at least as right as possible. Because not only does language matter fundamentally, but also because having realised this was wrong made me wonder what else might be. What other errors had I made unthinkingly because I ‘knew’ this period so well, because I had lived it, overlooking the obvious fact that memories are slippery little suckers and that mine are unavoidably stamped by all the years between then and now?

And because getting this seemingly small thing as right as possible had ripple effects for the writing. Getting the language right dropped me more firmly into Frankie’s skin. Looking out at the world from her eyes, I remembered other things, other 1979 things and feelings that were long buried. The era and the setting and the book itself became more realistic and more authentic in other, broader ways. The characters of both Frankie and her little brother Newt came to life on the page much more vividly. And they are what forms the heart of the story.

Getting the language right helped me get the characters right helped me get the emotional core of the story right. And there is nothing more important than that.

It wasn’t just the language, either. Once I was down the rabbit hole, looking around, I Gilliganrealised I’d mis-remembered some other things. Things about crystal radios and Gilligan’s Island and what night of the week I used to listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on my radio-cassette player, my finger poised over the record button.

I did a lot of research, which then became a rabbit hole of its very own. I wanted to stuff everything into the story – Prince Charles’ visit to Esperance!; the International Year of the Child celebrations with their catchy Care for HypnocoinKids song (I still know all the words); sea monkeys and X-ray specs and Hypno-Coins, oh my! And surely there’s some way I can sneak the phrases Suffer in your jocks! and Ripper tune, Boris! in there somewhere, for no other reason than my abiding love for them.


Anyone who’s ever done research for a book will tell you this stage is part of the process. They’ll also tell you that a story needs to wear its research lightly, and thankfully, this was something I knew.

In the end, a lot of writing ends up on the cutting room floor. And that means a lot of research does too. It seeps into the fabric of the story, rather than sitting on the surface. In the end, there are no sea monkeys in this book. There are no Sunny Boys. But there’s a lot of Skylab. And also, I hope, a lot of heart. Which is something that doesn’t change across history. At least that’s what I’m counting on, that my 1979 kids will find a direct line to 2019 readers.

The next time I see a shooting star, I know exactly what to wish for.


Bonus pic of me in 1979, wearing my “Getafix” T-shirt. Mum drew a different character for each of us kids using Hobbytex pens. I wore the seams out of that shirt, and still have it to this day.





Speaking Youth to Power

Many moons ago when I was teaching at UWA, I heard a creative writing lecturer talk about how writers often find themselves ‘worrying at a particular knot’. Maybe they’re writing all kinds of different things, but somewhere in the midst of each of them, if you look deeply enough, or from the right angle, you’ll find some version of this one theme or concern.

The writer, of course, doesn’t always know this. Slightly fewer moons ago, when I was easing out of teaching at UWA, I had a student say to me, “It’s interesting how so many of your poems are sort of about containment.”

And I said Huh?

And she said, “You know … how you’re always talking about borders and margins, inside and outside, about edges and stuff like that.”

And I said, No I’m not … am I?

And then she showed me. And lo and behold, I was. And still am. At least in my poetry.

poetry2 Poetryimage1

There are similar knots in my work for young people, one of which I became aware of recently because it features in both The Penguins Are Coming! and DUCK! Continue reading

Two Birds, One Stone

… would be the name of my book launch, if I was having one. Which I’m not, even though Frané Lessac is standing by to dress up as anything I so choose.

Despite the allure of Frané in a duck costume or a penguin outfit, or possibly both in rapid succession like the quick-change artist she definitely is, I won’t be having an actual launch event this time, but two books will nonetheless be launched onto an unsuspecting picture-book-reading public.

One book about a duck. The other about penguins.

I told you a bit about the first one recently. I told you a bit about the second eight years ago, at which time I was also launching-but-not-launching my very first duck book. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun. Continue reading


Hello, it’s me. Yes indeed, I am alive. I just haven’t posted here in a long time because I’ve been writing. Which is a good thing.

The thing that I have been writing is a middle-grade novel, which is also a good thing. And hopefully a good book. It is approximately two years overdue, which is a less good thing, and also why I have not been posting here.

Because when your long-suffering publisher is patiently waiting for you to deliver a long-overdue book, it feels odd to be spending time rambling in a bloggy way. However, I am back to bloggy-rambling because my publisher is no longer suffering, at least not at my hands. This is for two reasons:

i) Long-overdue book is now done!

ii) In the process of working on long-overdue book, I got an idea for another book and that book is about to be published! Continue reading


So I know what you’re thinking …

Thank goodness the rhinoceros is launched. Thank goodness the tour is over. Thank goodness we don’t have to see any more ‘arty’ photos of the book by the beach, or in a boat, or framed weirdly by random sticks. Thank goodness we don’t have to humour any more of Meg’s crazed attempts to draw rhinoceroses in tutus/jumpers/both at once.

Maybe she’ll go back to her cave now and stop shouting LOOK! MY BOOK!

Yes, well. About that.

There’s a little more shouting to come, my friends. Because if September was rhinos, then October is:

this guy …





                and this guy …





Continue reading

A Rhinoceros By Any Other Gender…

As many of you know, I have a new picture book coming out very soon.OUASR_CVR_HR-RGB

Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros will officially hit bookstores on 1 September. I’ve blogged previously about the inspiration for the book, and a little about the process of writing it. During that process, many things changed. Some were big – like the title. Others were small – a shift in phrasing that made a line sing, an ellipsis that opened up the ending.

And there was one that was both – tiny but enormous.

Here’s the last line as it appeared in one of the roughs:


If you’ve read the book, you should be able to spot the difference. If you haven’t, then know this: across many, many drafts, and until quite late in the process, my small rhinoceros was male. And then at a certain point, I said huh?

Because my small rhinoceros was male for no good reason. For no reason at all except that I had unconsciously defaulted to that without a moment’s thought. Continue reading

Five Days Under the Big Sky

It was the best of festivals, it was the best of festivals.

Last week I spent five days as a guest of Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival, which takes place annually in Geraldton, an hour’s flight north of Perth.

I love flying to Gero, not only for the glorious vistas but also because I love watching the flight attendants try and somehow cram meal service into the approximately 35 minutes of level flight time.

I love Big Sky for other reasons, and they are many.

For years, fellow writers and illustrators have been enthusing about Big Sky. It’s the bestival of the festivals! they say. Because they are punsters like that. If you get invited, you absolutely have to go!

This year, I did, so I did. And now I get it. Continue reading