The Thwarted Reader

My daughter is passionate about books.

She devoured the whole of Harry Potter before the end of Grade 2; she knows the Chanters of Tremaris novels off by heart. After finishing Little Women, she eagerly hunted down Good Wives and Little Men and consumed them too. Her favourite book, by a long stretch, is Around the World in 80 Days; the elaborate language and the complications of the plot delight and absorb her. As a voracious reader, as a writer, as a proud mum, I'm thrilled by her evident love and need for literature.

But - and it's a huge but - Alice can't read.

She's in Grade 3 now and probably reading at a Grade 1 level. Deciphering the simplest sentences is a frustrating battle. We're almost certain that she has dyslexia (which after all means nothing more than 'difficulty with reading and writing'). All these books that she consumes, she has experienced either through audio-books or by me reading to her. The gap between what she wants to read, and what she is able to read, is so enormous that it might be never be bridged.

We've tried it all. She's had eye tests and ear tests and coloured glasses. She's had expensive assessments which told us what we already knew - that she has trouble decoding written symbols into words. She's had tutoring, which she hated, and we tried an at-home reading program which crumbled after a few weeks. She had a year of wonderful literacy support at school, but that program is only funded up to the end of Grade 2. Fortunately this year she's had a fantastic classroom teacher, who understands how to motivate her, and plays to her strengths.

Because Alice does have strengths. She is articulate and creative. She's confident and fluent in giving oral presentations; she's inventive and original. She is well aware of her difficulties with literacy and is convinced she's stupid. At the end of Grade 1 she was so frustrated and miserable that she was almost suicidally depressed, slumped on the kitchen floor, asking, "What's the point of me? What's the point of being alive?'

Thankfully she is no longer in despair, but sometimes I am. I fear for her future, I panic that she's never going to get it, that she'll be crippled by this disability for the rest of her life. Sometimes I think she'll be okay, that she's bright enough and creative enough to find her own path; sometimes I think one day it will all click and she'll be fine; sometimes I comfort myself by observing that she is, slowly, making progress.

But it breaks my heart to witness my child - a naturally solitary, imaginative child, who craves stories, who feasts on language, a born reader by temperament - shut out from the wondrous garden of books by the cold iron bars of this mysterious inability. She loves books so much. I hope and pray with all my heart that one day, she can have all the books she yearns for.


Father's Sons and Mummy's Boys

Disclaimer: this post contains gross, unscientific generalisations

Watching a little of the Ben Cousins documentary last night (and I'm not going to comment on it further), I was struck by the strong relationship that evidently exists between Ben and his almost equally famous footballer father, Brian. At one point Brian described himself along the lines that he was "Ben's best friend, his mentor, his role model, his mate," and expressed the hope that Ben seeing the suffering that he was causing him, Brian, would be enough to jolt him out of his destructive behaviour.

I found this particularly interesting because I'd already been thinking about the differences between men who have a strong relationship with their fathers (whether loving or competitive, or both) and men who are more strongly attached to their mothers. Michael has often observed that he, and all his friends, are Mummy's boys - often youngest sons - who are closer to their mothers than their fathers. Traditionally, this has been true of most, if not all, of my male friends. I'm not sure that I even know any men who are close to their fathers.

Are there two types of men in the world? Russel Howcroft, the blokey, aggressive panellist on The Gruen Transfer, spoke in a recent weekend paper about the importance of his relationship with his late father; he says he thinks of him every day. Hm, I thought, he's a Dad's boy; I wonder if Todd Sampson (his "sensitive," more progressive fellow panellist) is a Mummy's boy? And lo and behold, in last week's Sunday Age, there was Todd talking about how his childhood was dominated by his strong, eccentric mother.

Sportsmen often seem to be father's sons. Many of the men I worked with in the music industry were also this type (if it is a type!) - aggressively masculine, competitive, trying to prove something. The mummy's boys, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable in the company of women, less comfortable with conflict, and yes, some of them are gay.

So what do you think? Go on, shoot me down - please!


Colonial Days

As a teenager, I had a brief obsession with the British Raj. It was probably sparked by the screening of The Jewel In The Crown,  a lavish British mini-series (well, it was lavish for the 80s!) set in India in the last days of colonialism, and based on the Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott, which I duly devoured, along with the poignant Staying On. It seemed to me to be a romantic, tragic, exotic period of history, tinged with melancholy yearning.

Once I arrived at university I was quickly disabused of the notion that there was anything romantic about colonial oppression. But it wasn't easy to abandon my fascination with the Raj and its casualties on both sides of the colonial fence.

What didn't occur to me until recently (well, yesterday, if you must know) was that my fascination with the Indian Raj was almost certainly related to my own experience as a member of a colonising power: the Australians in Papua New Guinea.

Most Australians aren't conscious that Australia was ever a colonial power. We don't think of ourselves as imperialists. And yet for seventy years, generations of administrators, bureaucrats and patrol officers ruled the Territory. Most were conscientious, most were paternalistic, some were brutal. Many loved this beautiful, exotic, secretive country more dearly than their own. Expatriate society in New Guinea was its own doomed little world, just like the British Raj, and when Independence came to PNG, there were many Australians set drift, lost between two cultures and unable to fit comfortably into either.

This is the world of Independence, my current work in progress. It's a hard novel to write because I feel so ambivalent about the undeniable costs of exercising colonial power, and the smaller, personal cost to those individuals caught in the machinery when it grinds to a halt, as it inevitably must. All those stories deserve to be told.


Meat Free

Evie was dictating a book to me yesterday. It's called A Dog's Life: Huskies, and is part of a projected series about the lives of animals (all to be eventually published by Allen & Unwin, or she hopes... *)

"Chapter 3, How A Husky Stays Healthy.
Us huskies have to stay healthy by eating, running, jumping and drinking. A husky normally gets cold, but to stay warm we huddle up to each other. It keeps me very warm. An Eskimo sometimes comes and feeds us doggy biscuits. Sometimes Eskimos give us Milo to keep us warm."

At this point I stopped and said, "You know what Huskies really eat, don't you?"
She clapped her hand over my mouth. "I know, I know, but don't say it!"

A couple of months ago, Evie became a vegetarian. "It's not fair to eat animals. They should be able to die when they want to, not be killed for us to eat them." It's hard to argue with her logic, and since Michael and I have both had vegetarian phases (Michael's lasted well over a decade), we don't feel that we can.

It's made life quite difficult though, because, like her father, she is a vegetarian who doesn't really like vegetables. Michael survived on beans and pulses, but Evie isn't a big fan of them either. At the moment I'm trying to load her up with eggs and cheese and smuggling vegies into her when I can. And she has been known to weaken for home-made chicken schnitzel strips.

I have to admire the strength of her convictions. She reminds us several times a day that "I'm a vegetarian!!" She's also decided, rather regretfully, that she can't in all conscience become a fashion designer either, in case she has to work with fur (though I assured her that it probably wouldn't be necessary.) She really does love animals, and not just the little plastic ones she collects. Interestingly, a few of her prep classmates have taken a similar stand.

I don't think I had any ideological convictions when I was six (except maybe about the inherent worth of lollies). Surely these thoughtful, caring little people are a hopeful sign for the future.

*You can break it to her, Onions!


Was This The Election We Had To Have?

A new day, and I'm feeling much more cheerful about our political situation. Now I've heard two of the independents speak, and they were surprisingly impressive. They seem to be sincere, thoughtful, smart, and genuine in their desire to do what's right, not for themselves - not even narrowly, for their own electorates - but what's best for the nation.

Is it possible that all politicians are like this? That if only the spin doctors and the party apparatchiks and the sensation-seeking journos would get out of the way, our MPs might actually make a decent fist of running the country?

Maybe what's happened is the best thing that could have happened. Maybe it will make the major parties look long and hard at the reasons why we couldn't, and didn't want to, choose between them. Maybe we will see a rebuilding of our political process. Perhaps we'll see the emergence of a political system that is more responsive, more authentic, less cynical.

That's what I'm hoping for this morning, anyway.


A Bad Night For Rangas

Last night in the car, we were talking about seat-belt laws or something and Evie piped up, 'But there isn't any government now!'

Anarchy! Bring it on!

I'm not sure how I feel this morning.

It's thrilling (and surely significant) that the Greens have earned their biggest ever share of the votes, and stand to have a real voice in deciding policy, no matter which side ends up forming a government.

But it's bitterly disappointing that both the major parties conducted such negative, shallow campaigns when there are so many issues of real substance and urgency facing us (climate change, anyone? Indigenous issues? Didn't hear a peep). No wonder informal votes were at an all-time high: a pox on both your houses, seemed to be the prevailing feeling. "Liberal or Laboral?" to quote Evie again.

And to cap it all off, the Western Bulldogs were hopeless on Saturday night, and Cooney's done his hamstring.

What a great weekend!


* * * STOP PRESS * * *

International Beard Appreciation Day has been cancelled. At least, postponed till next year.

I can hear your groans of disappointment from here. Never mind, we will all get a chance to put on fake beards in 2011.
Starting in the Wrong Place

They say that you ought to start with character. Know your protagonist; know how they eat breakfast, know their hopes and fears; then make bad things happen to them. Make their worst nightmares come true.

Excellent advice. Except that I've realised that I never work like that. I've always found those "get to know your character" exercises artificial and mystifying. I feel as if I'm inventing stuff for the sake of it. Those characters, assembled from desires and needs and physical quirks, feel as if they're put together like robots, and like robots, they never really come alive. (This is just me, I hasten to say, I'm sure this approach does work for lots of writers.)

I've realised that where I start, almost invariably, is with a place.

I wrote pages of notes about Tremaris before I knew anything about Calwyn or Darrow or Samis or Halasaa. Calwyn and Darrow appeared in my head as figures in the scenery. I saw the Art Deco architecture of Eloise's abandoned house in Cicada Summer, long before I knew anything about Eloise's history. And Crow Country grew out of a determination to write a fantasy set in the Australian landscape; I had at least three separate plots and sets of characters before the story settled in its current form.

And now I'm wrestling with the New Guinea book. All I've known for certain about it for the past year or so is where it's set - in the Highlands of PNG, in the last days before Independence, in the weird cocooned expatriate society that existed in the 1970s.

I've had three characters dancing around each other, but I couldn't bring them into focus. Their personalities, their hopes and fears, were all blurry to me, I couldn't quite make them gel in relation to each other, their conversations and interactions didn't quite work. Was my girl protag too angry? Was my older male protag too breezy, my younger one too shy? I swapped their personalities, reinvented them, threw them away, changed their genders and their names (names matter!), resurrected them in altered form.

And now, at last, I think I can see Julie and Simon and Andy clearly. I can hear their voices. I'm digging out scenes I wrote six months ago and thinking, that's not too bad. If I tweak this piece of dialogue... if I change the voice a little... I can still use this stuff.

And who makes these rules, anyway?


Beards For Babies

For those of you who are not aware, Ben Hudson, the magnificent ruckman of the Western Bulldogs, is the official Guardian of The People's Beard, and what a beard it is.

To celebrate beardiness and raise beard awareness, Saturday 28th August has been declared International Ben Hudson's Beard Appreciation Day, aka Beards For Babies.*

That's right, you too can come along to the Western Bulldogs v Essendon game on Saturday night, buy a beard (and wear it!) and raise money to support the sterling work of Tweddle, an early parenting centre located in Footscray, right near the Whitten Oval, who assist parents with young children who need support.

Hoorah for Beards! Hoorah for Bulldogs! Hoorah for babies!

(And hoorah for the very very clever First Dog on the Moon, whose brainchild this event is.)

* Let's hope the Bulldogs are all over the flu by then. Imagine having the flu, then being asked to go out and play four quarters of grinding football, like they did last Sunday. In the pouring rain. In Adelaide. Jeez, those boys are tough! And they won!!


Why I Love Getting Emails From People Who Have Read My Books

This one came last week:
Dear Kate,
I was wondering if you would talk to Mattel and ask them to make barbie dolls from The Chanters of Tremaris Trilogy like: Calwyn, Darrow, Tonno, Xanni, Samis, Mica, Trout, Marna, Tamen, Ursca, Halassa, Heben and the twins, Keela, Gilly, and the other children from the palace of cobwebs. If you do and they agree than could you have them make different versions of the dolls from the different books. And could you also have them make different outfits for them when they changed their outfits within the book. And one more thing you should help design the dolls so they don't mess up. I'm sorry if I sound bossy. Thank you.

Bless. Seriously, how much fun would that be??