Review Blog

Aug 08 2011

Susanne Gervay's JACKS and Books Make LIFE OK

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Susanne Gervay is our guest blogger this week. Susanne has just won the 2011 Australian Family Therapists' Award for Children's Literature for her book Always Jack. She has also received the Order of Australia for her service to children's literature and to professional organisations. Here is her article: When my daughter plays her trumpet, my heart smiles at the beat. When my son sings making us all block our ears, I laugh. He sounds like a frog, but he doesn't care. I bring popcorn and drinks. The karaoke session is loud, funny. There are good times, but also difficult times. Life is filled with challenges - illness; family breakup; parental expectations; natural disasters, war, economic pressures, aging grandparents and the fabric that is our lives. Young people are part of family, community, journey, but they don't have the experience or voice to navigate it especially when it gets rocky. Story is a special guide. Through emotional engagement with characters and events in story, young people can find friendship, understanding, pathways to choices that give them a voice. I'm a mother, daughter of post war refugees, teacher, specialist in child growth and development. Reading books and writing have always been my way to escape, dream, right the wrongs of the world. I never imagined I'd be a published author, but am privileged that I am. In my books I tackle whatever slips into my life and heart - school bullying, daughter-father relationships, refugees finding home, cancer, burns. I write stories with characters that travel with readers if they want the company and friendship. I write with emotion and humour, bitter-sweet at times, warm and funny at other times. The issues are deep. The writing is slight-of- hand as readers are drawn into story until the characters and journey become theirs. I seek to write multi-layered stories that offer different journeys for children, teens, adults. They have multiple reach into trade, schools, counselling and special areas such as Burn Outreach and anti-school bullying programmes. All my books are endorsed by significant organisations. I am proud that they are endorsed by The Children's Hospital Westmead, The Cancer Council, The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, Life Education Australia, Room to Read and many others. My writing is deeply personal as I share experiences with my readers, hoping that my books travel with them as friends. JACK books welcome you inside Reading age:- 9 -12 years old, parents and teachers and community. My son was bullied at school. I couldn't believe that I didn't know and wasn't there for him. The father of Jack's friend rang me to say that Jack was in trouble. I confronted my son. It was painful as he broke down, as I broke down. He didn't want to go back to school again. My son was afraid at school and I didn't know. I felt such a failure. Bullying is so insidious. It started with nothing. A joke that got out of control. There are all sorts of triggers that start bullying - when a kid comes back to school after being sick and new social groups have formed; jealousy, insecurity, fun, fear. There are all sorts of reasons that begin the process of bullying. It's about power and victimisation destroying the bullied, the bully and community. My Jack is a 'normal' boy. He makes jokes, argues with his sister, kicks a ball, tries to get out of homework, loves to take photographs and make things. Yet he was bullied. It started with a joke. That's all. A joke. Jack tried everything to win against bullying, but he couldn't do it alone. He won against bullying with the help of his family, Nanna, friends who came back, teacher, school and himself. 'When I asked my son if I could write I Am Jack, he said yes, for all those kids out there. I Am Jack is more than about the bullied. The bully, supporters of the bully, teacher, school, parents can find answers in I Am Jack and work towards a safer world. I Am Jack has become a much loved, rite-of-passage anti-school bullying novel in Australia, adapted into a play by the award winning theatre company Monkey Baa, and currently being adapted with the other JACKS into a feature film. Super Jack Super Jack is a companion book to I Am Jack. It can be read as the second book in the trilogy or as a stand alone, like all the JACKS. The wonderful characters in I Am Jack return with a few more entering Jack's life. These characters are inspired by my family and people in our lives. Nanna is a real person and when she coughs too hard her teeth fall out. She loves to buy bargains is a bit hard of hearing and loves her grandchildren. Rob is the step-da. Like Nanna, he's inspired by his real step-dad who loves making those dishes sparkle and is a surfer and is quirky like all of us. Rob's son Leo is jealous that Jack lives with his Dad. There're lots of emotions, jokes, dramas as families blend, Nanna's aging causes issues and tensions mount. 'The John Marsdens of the writing scene are very good at top-level abuse and the Paul Jennings are excellent in sheer fun but Susanne Gervay is rare in her ability to place common problems for children within the spectrum of normal family life. The result is that she makes it OK for the children to talk about them.' The Weekend Age, Review Section Always Jack As a writer, I write with a light touch, humour, bitter-sweet emotions, the every day elements of life of a boy's life. Jack inspired by my son, is an everyman, part of his family, school, community and like all kids, he's aware of unfolding challenges in his life - divorce, aging Nanna, sibling rivalry, friendships, cancer, his mate whose family is from Vietnam. Always Jack came out of personal experience as a multiple breast cancer survivor. It was hard to explain to my children who were 6 and 9 the first time. I wanted to reach them and all kids so that it's safe to talk about cancer. Kids are part of the family and the journey. Life is complex and Always Jack is about more than cancer. The very special story of Christopher and his family who were refugees from Vietnam are integral to Always Jack. The story came from my experience speaking at the World Burn Congress in New York. I heard Kim Phuc (the girl running naked from napalm in the 1972 Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Nick Ut) giving a moving account of growing up with burns, political pressures, family dislocation and her search for meaning. The Vietnamese experience is part of Australian experience, as it our Anzac tradition. They became entwined in Jack's story. The Sun Herald Review by Aleesah Darlinson beautifully summarises Always Jack and the drivers in why I wrote it:- Tackling the touch issues with a light touch in I Am Jack, Jack battled bullies at his school and won. In Super Jack, Jack faced the trails of a newly blended family. Now, in Always Jack, our hero faces a challenge bigger than he's ever faced before. Nanna is older and wobblier than ever. Jack is experiencing strange emotions whenever he sees his best friend Anna. Then there's mum and Rob's impending wedding, which seems to be taking over the world. But these entire woes pale into insignificance when mum delivers the news that she has breast cancer. As usual, Jack sums it up incredibly succinctly: 'I look up at him. It's hard to speak. 'But it's cancer Rob.' I can't live without mum. None of us can love without mum.' But while mum's illness makes Jack re-evaluate aspects of his life, it doesn't dominate the narrative. This is the skill in Gervay's storytelling: to encapsulate the realism of a young boy's life, yet still deal with big issues such as Cancer. Death. Divorce, grandparents, sibling rivalry, friendships, refugees and the Vietnam War. How does Gervay deal with so many issues in one relatively short children's book? The answer is that she treads lightly. Jack is Gervay's vehicle for spreading words of wisdom but at no time does she preach. Eternally, Jack and his story remain wholly believable. Readers will not only empathise with Jack but love his sensitive introspection and his wisecracks designed to alternately entertain and annoy his family. At its heart, Always Jack is a powerful tool for providing comfort to children of cancer sufferers and for educating the uninitiated. More than that, it's a true Australian story that could happen to any of us. And as a multiple breast cancer sufferer and survivor herself, no one understands better than Gervay what it's like to battle - and overcome - the disease. Part survival manual, part therapy, part autobiography, part fiction, Always Jack succeeds in distilling a complex medical conditions for young readers to digest. 'Mum is in her white sack when she waves us over. 'I've organised that you kids can have a quick look into the radiation treatment room.' It is super quick but it's interesting. Reminds me of a laboratory. There's a major X-ray machine like a big metal right angle hanging over a metal bed.' As Gervay says, she wrote Always Jack, 'for families who go through cancer to share the journey; and to invite other kids and community to join in.' The illustrations sprinkled through the book, by Sydney Morning Herald cartoonist Cathy Wilcox, are as delightful and entertaining' as Jack himself. Beautiful, sad, funny - Always Jack will make you laugh and make you cry. Guaranteed. Carrying the NSW Cancer Council's stamp of approval, Jack's story will stay with readers always. I am Jack, the play MonkeyBaa Theatre for Young People adapted I Am Jack into a funny, brilliant one man show. Watching this play had me laughing, crying, caring. It was moving and wonderful. This is JACK's 3rd season being performed. It did an Outback tour which reached indigenous kids. Loved that. It will be performed at the Ipswich Literature Festival 6-9th September and was the feature at the Somerset Celebration of Literature festival, Queensland. 2011 Performance Details:- Downstairs Theatre Seymour Centre Sydney October 26th - November 4th 10.30 am and 12.30 am shows Cost $16 (teachers free) Bookings: 02 9351 7938/ Other Books Picture Book Ships in the Field to be published 1st February 2012 Ford St Publishers - reaching into the refugee experience. YA Novels That's Why I Wrote This Song by Susanne Gervay with music, lyrics and vocals by Tory Gervay The Cave Butterflies Susanne Gervay's Contacts:-

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