Posts tagged Sarah Johnson

Carmangling storyscrunching divvytrips

Our car broke down a couple of months ago.

Between Raglan (where I live) and Hamilton (which is the nearest city), there is a range of large hills. To get from Raglan to Hamilton (or the other way) you have to go up and over a pass in these hills. People in Raglan call this “going over the divvy”. (Divvy by the way, is short for deviation. I assume the Raglan deviation is called that because there used to be another, older road, and when they built the new one it followed a different path, so it was a deviation.)

Anyway, our car, which was rather old and very decrepit, made it all the way up to the tip top of the deviation, then died.

This was OK. Raglan is a small and very friendly place and lots of lovely people stopped to help. Our car was towed away to the scrap yard and we got a new one. The new car is just the same as our old one, except that it is even older, but rather less decrepit. This makes things a touch confusing, as it means our new car is actually our old new car, or our new old car, and our old car was our new old car, or our old new car. It’s a good thing it’s been scrapped!

But the best thing about our new old, old new car is that it has a CD player. So now when we’re making the long drive over the divvy and back, we can listen to stories, and this week we’ve been listening to Roald Dahl.

Now I love Roald Dahl’s stories, and the reason I love them is that they are so BIG. Everything about them is big. They have fabulous fantastical plots, tons of action, wacky language, amazing ideas and larger than life characters. It is as if he has taken a normal story (beginning, middle and end) and crammed as much as he can in. Then a bit more. And then an incy-wincy bit more. Then he’s sprinkled on a handful of fun and craziness, just to be sure, and he’s slammed the story shut.

So far, we’ve had The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Enormous Crocodile (with his cunning plans and clever tricks), Esio Trot, Danny the Champion of the World, and The BFG.

I have especially enjoyed The BFG, because somehow I have managed to get all this way through my life without ever having read or heard it. (If you haven’t read it yet either, BFG is short for Big Friendly Giant.) Also because it is very funny and full of huge (literally) characters. Not only is there the 24-foot high BFG, who catches and bottles dreams, then blows them into the bedrooms of children who need them, but there are nine other revolting people-eating giants (Fleshlumpeater; Bonecruncher; Manhugger; Childchewer; Meatdripper; Gizzardgulper; Maidmasher; Bloodbottler; Butcherboy). There is also Sophie, a little girl in her nightie who helps the BFG stop the people-eating giants, and the Queen of England.

Fantastic! My kids have been so inspired by the stories they have drawn some great pictures. Here’s a selection; perhaps you’ll add one of your own?

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Some wonderful Waikato authors and an equally wonderful bear

I promised I would tell you a bit more about some of the fabulous children’s writers who appeared at Word Café with me. But before I do that, I have to put right a terrible oversight…

I woke up in the middle of the night last night and realised I had forgotten to mention something, or rather someone very important in my last post. Can you guess who?

Winnie the Pooh of course! Now the Winnie the Pooh story’s not about poo at all, but Pooh Bear himself has got to be the all-time most famous poo of all, and terribly lovable and funny to boot, so I was sorry that I had forgotten him.

But now that I’ve remembered him, I might just reread his story, and his second story The House at Pooh Corner, and also some of his poems, my favourite of which goes:

Wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
Whatever I do, he wants to do,
“Where are you going today?” says Pooh:
“Well, that’s very odd ‘cos I was too.
Let’s go together,” says Pooh, says he.
“Let’s go together,” says Pooh.

Do you know it? It’s called ‘Us Two’ and it’s from A.A. Milne’s book Now We Are Six. A.A. Milne is the author of all of the Winnie the Pooh books, but the stories will always belong to Pooh.

Speaking of authors, I had the good luck at the Word café festival to present a workshop with a very talented author called Andre Ngapo who also lives in Raglan, like me. Andre won the Sunday Star Short Story Competition in 2008 for his story ‘Te Pou’. The story isn’t a children’s story as such, but it is about a child. After that, Learning Media contacted Andre and he has been writing stories for the School Journal ever since. Keep an eye out for him. He has a story out this month, and several more in the pipeline.


I also did a reading with another clever Raglan local, Margery Fern. Although she was reading her books, Margery is the illustrator, rather than the author. The author is her sister Jennifer Somervell who lives in Oxford in Canterbury (they’re the ladies in the picture: Margery is on the left). Together they produce a series of picture books, called Tales From the Farm about their amazing childhood growing up on a farm in the Hawkes Bay.


There’s a funny one about their father blowing up the cowshed with gelignite (a true story) and another about an old truck that they had in shed, which is now the only working truck of its kind in the world. Their next one, Josephine, is about an amorous pig (I hate to think) and then they have a book planned about an eel hunt. Now I happen to love eeling (I don’t kill them; I just haul them up on a piece of string to get a closer look at them), so I’m really looking forward to that.

The last children’s author who was there was Tui Allen. Tui doesn’t live in Raglan, but she lives in Te Pahu at the foot of Mount Pirongia, which is close by. Tui’s written lots of books for children, but her best known is probably Captain Clancy and the Flying Clothesline, about a city clothesline that escapes its city existence to live on a tropical island. Although Tui published it nearly 20 years ago, the story is still a favourite on National Radio’s story time.

For Word Café we asked all three of these wonderful storytellers what their advice was for aspiring writers and illustrators (that may be you). Here’s what they said:


Write from your experience, from what you know, where you’ve been — not necessarily physically — cover the emotional landscapes you’ve traversed. Write from the heart.


Practise, practise, practise! Team up with a writer, trial create a book together and just give it a go!


Find a great critique group. Either in the flesh or online. Make full use of it. Do your share of critiquing and develop trust within the group. Listen to them, especially their criticisms. The most important thing you want to hear is what’s wrong with your work – not what’s right with it.

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Book magic (and poo)

What a fantastic time I had at the Word Café Raglan writers and readers festival at the weekend. Books are so much fun! And so interesting. And so are the people who read and write them.

3 Image of Andre NgapoAround 35 people came along to the workshop that Andre Ngapo and I ran on getting started in writing for children. (Andre’s in the picture, doing his stuff on the day: I’ll tell you more about him in my next post.) That’s 35 avid writers and readers of children’s fiction all in one room. It was electric.

We had a wonderful discussion about what makes a great children’s book. It reminded me why I love them so much (and also of all the things I should be doing in my stories to make them even better). Everyone agreed that there needed to be:

  • lots of humour – kids (and the adults reading with them) love to laugh
  • a great story – that’s a beginning, a middle and an end, with lots of twists and turns in between
  • plenty of action – whizz, pow, bang, uh-oh, ah-ha, ahhhhhhh…that sort of thing
  • fabulous characters – no dull and boring please
  • not too many messages – the aim is to entertain
  • a pinch of amazing – that special something that makes a story zing.

Can you think of anymore?

Personally, I think there is one, and it’s a bit of a magic ingredient when it comes to stories. That something is poo.

In the 20-ish years that I have been writing stories, I have noticed that, along with humour, kids love poo. Look at all the books that have been written about it.

For starters, there’s Baa Baa Smart Sheep by talented New Zealand author and illustrator duo Mark and Rowan Sommerset, about a bored sheep that tricks his mates into eating, you guessed it, poo.

Then there’s the hilarious Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake (she’s not a new Zealand author, but her publisher Gecko Press is from here) about a little rabbit who will only say one thing: “Poo bum”. That is, until he gets eaten by a wolf, at which point he changes his tune to…read it and find out.

Then there’s Captain Underpants by Dave Pilky about all things to do with undies, wedgies and toilets (that’s got to count poo). And the all-time poo-topping favourite, The Little Mole who Knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth, about a mole that is poo-ed on (it lands on his head) and runs around trying to find the culprit (and encountering many and varied poos along the way). It even has a plop-up version!

That’s just off the top of my head (the list that is, not the poo). There’s no denying poo is popular.

So at the moment I am busy writing my own story about poo. I can’t give too much away, except to say that it’s a picture book and it’s about a dung beetle who spends his nights rolling endless little balls of poo (well dung, but it’s the same thing). Until one day he looks up and discovers…

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Festivals, workshops and bookish events


I am busy this week getting ready for Word Café, Raglan’s first ever writers’ and readers’ festival. It is happening this weekend (10 and 11 May) and there is going to be an amazing line-up of writers.


I have been helping to organise the event, and am also presenting a workshop and reading some of my stories. I’m really looking forward to it, but am also a bit nervous. Like a lot of writers, although I love words, I am more comfortable writing them, than speaking them!

Still, getting out and promoting yourself seems to be part of a writer’s job description these days. And I do find that going along to writing festivals, workshops, readings and other bookish events is really good for my own writing.

Hearing other writers talk is very inspirational and gives you a real creativity boost. I always find that my mind is humming with ideas for new stories and ways to improve my old ones after I’ve listened to someone else talking about their work.

There is an American writer, Julia Cameron, who writes books for artists and writers about how to access and boost your creativity. One of her ideas is that you have to pamper your inner-writer (the place where your ideas comes from), so that it remains happy and creative. You have to give it treats and take it for days out to fun places: like writer’s festivals.

I like this idea, especially as the treats can involve fancy stationery (which I love) and chocolate (no comment needed).

I also think it’s important to go along to writing workshops and events, if you can, so you can improve the craft side of your writing. Part of writing is inspiration, but a much larger part is craft (learning how to make and structure a story, the best words to use, how and when etc).

You can learn this, just like any other skill. One way is practice. The other is by seeking out and learning all there is to know, so that when you sit down to write your story, your writing toolbox is full.

This weekend, I am going to be working alongside and listening to some very inspirational children’s writers at Word Café; I’ll tell you a bit more about them next week. After that, the next writing event I’m going to is the Golden Yarns: Children’s Writers and Readers Hui 2013, which is happening down with you, in Christchurch, at the beginning of June. I can’t wait! I wonder when I’ll find time to write?

Talk soon. Sarah

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Lovely to be here

Hello and it’s lovely to be here. Well, not exactly here, as I am writing from my desk in Raglan, a little town half up the West Coast of the North Island, but still it feels as if I am down there in Christchurch with you.

I really am very pleased to be part of this wonderful book-fest blog, and especially pleased to be following hot on the heels of David Hill, who is a wonderful and very funny author, in my opinion. So, a double treat.

Unlike David, I am not an established children’s author, but just a beginning one. That’s exciting in itself, as (other than a brief time between the ages of 6 and 9 when I wanted to be a pony), being an author is the only thing that I have ever really wanted to be. So it is wonderful now to have written a couple of books and to be able to do proper author things, like take part in this blog.

I don’t always find it easy, at the moment, to find time to do author things, as I have four small children who are very, very messy, and very, very noisy. Now I know you’re thinking, “oh yeah, everyone says kids are messy and noisy”, but I’m telling you the truth; my kids are extremely, excessively, rampageous-ly messy and noisy.

I think this might be because they have quite a lot of Scottish blood in them, and they have seen too many of those movies where the highland warriors run around the hillsides, wearing kilts and brandishing swords and yelling “Arrrrrgggghhhh”, for extended periods of time. I think they may now be using these as a model for their own behaviour. But I am having difficulty proving it.

Anyway, this shortens my writing time a bit, as I spend quite a lot of the day running around the house with my hands over my ears, tripping over things and dodging sword thrusts.  But I have managed to do another writerly thing this week, and that is launch my new website.

I am very pleased with the website, as it is very beautiful, with lots of amazing pictures (taken by a friend of mine) of Raglan, the fabulous place I live. So why don’t you take a look: It also has some information about my books. And if you send me an email to let me know you’ve visited, I’ll post you one of the bookmarks I had printed to celebrate the launch.

Talk soon.


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Meet our May Star Author – Sarah Johnson

Our magnificent May Star Author is New Zealand author, Sarah Johnson.  Sarah is the author of Ella and Ob and the winner of the 2011 Joy Cowley Award, Wooden Arms.  Sarah has also written books and stories for grown-ups.  She loves stories and poems and books, anything to do with words.

Thanks for joining us Sarah!  We look forward to hearing all about your writing and your books.

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Fast Five with Sarah Johnson

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

Stories are one of my favourite things in the whole world (as are books), so it made sense to me that I would enjoy writing them, and I do. I have carried the stories I read as a child with me into adulthood, and as I got older I read stories that I considered so incredibly beautiful (or moving, or sometimes funny) they were like sunsets or landscapes or other natural wonders. That’s a pretty amazing impact to have, and I wanted to give it a try. Imagine being able to create something that had that effect on another person! I haven’t managed it yet, but I’m still trying.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Writing stories. Entering, and dwelling in, the fabulous zone they come from. Playing with the words (endlessly) until they make patterns and poems on the page.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

Oh, hard. For children, it’s probably Peter and the Pig by Simon Grant, because every single time I read it, I laugh. I wish I could write something that funny! For adults, anything by Patricia Grace, but then she writes wonderfully for children too.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

The colour and clarity of the light, the emptiness of the sky, the smell and the air of the bush. I lived in Scotland for a while and these were the things I missed. They were in my bones and they sung to me while I was away.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

How excited I feel every time I enter one. All that interest, all those stories, all that knowledge, sitting on a shelf waiting for me to find it. And knowing that I’m going to walk out the door with a book in my hand and a new possibility in my life. Libraries are portals. They should house them in a tardis.

Sarah Johnson is the author of Ella and Ob and the winner of the 2011 Joy Cowley Award, Wooden Arms.  Sarah has also written books and stories for grown-ups

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