CBCA Shortlisted author Barry Jonsberg on writing and keeping young readers happy

Barry Jonsberg is a former lecturer and high-school teacher and author of books for young adults and kids. He has published 11 books for children and young people and his recent book, My Life As An Alphabet, has been shortlisted for several major awards, including the 2014 Children's Book Council Awards Book of the Year for Younger Readers.

Barry moved to Australia from the UK in 1999 and wrote his first novel in 2001. In 2004 his first book was published, The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull. That book was his first CBCA shortlisted novel – it made the list in 2005 list in the Older Readers category. Since then he has published 10 more books for young adults and younger readers including It's Not all About YOU, Calma (which won the 2006 South Australian Festival Award for Children's Literature), Dreamrider (shortlisted for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Awards) and Being Here.

Barry's latest book, Pandora Jones: Admission, will be published by Allen & Unwin in May 2014.

1. Can you tell us about My Life As An Alphabet?
My Life As An Alphabet is the story of Candice Phee, a rather strange girl who is given an assignment by her English teacher. She has to write a paragraph about herself for each letter of the alphabet, but decides that can't possibly work. Instead she writes a chapter for each about the problems in her life – her dysfunctional family, her friend Douglas Benson From Another Dimension and her religiously-confused pet goldfish (Earth-Pig Fish). Candice has many problems in her life but she cheerfully sets herself the task of solving them all.

2. What inspired the story of My Life As An Alphabet?
I was teaching a group of Year 10 students and the syllabus called for an autobiography recount. My wife, Nita (also an English teacher), gave me an assignment that had worked really well for her. Because I have an aversion to re-inventing the wheel (and because I can be a little lazy) I gave it out. The results were brilliant. One student called her assignment My Life As An Alphabet (so I stole that as well – her reward was being a character in the book; Miss Bamford, Candice's English teacher). I liked that title and thought it would make a good book. I had the idea, I had the structure. I just needed a character. And that's when Candice popped up in my head…

My Life As an Alphabet

3. What appeals to you about writing for younger readers? Have you ever been tempted to write for adults?
I have spent my entire professional life (a teacher for 35 years and counting) surrounded by young people. It was almost inevitable that I would look upon young adults and children as my primary audience. I also believe that young people are the most challenging of readers – I will always finish a book I've started, even if I don't think it's much good. Young people don't do that. YOLO (you only live once) applies to reading as well as life.

Actually, I have written a book for adults – a comedy thriller set in Darwin and called The City of the Second Chance. Know anyone who would want to publish it?

4. You write from both girls' and boys' points of view, and your books are often comic but tinged with drama and tragedy. Where or who do you get your ideas from?
I really like writing comedy. Again, as a teacher I find humour to be an effective way of engaging students and I suppose that translates into my writing style. As far as ideas are concerned, there are just too many of them. Too many ideas, not enough time! All of my novels came from a simple initial idea – what if a student threw a football at a teacher's head? What if it's possible for your dreams to affect the real world? What if an imaginary friend became real? Sometimes these ideas or images go nowhere, but sometimes they develop into a story that I have to write. I never have any notion of where these stories will lead. I write them to find out.

5. Can you describe your daily writing routine for us?
And routine is an important word. I am sometimes asked to provide pearls of ‘wisdom' about writing and I do it in one simple sentence – turn up to the office. I have friends who want to write a book, but they keep putting it off (until death?). A book is completed one word at a time. I aim for a minimum of two thousand words a day and won't stop until I get there. I have a study and I shut the door on the outside world, so I can focus on the world in my head. I also often put on headphones and play a cd on loop – normally the same cd until I have finished a book. This means I listen to the same tracks hundreds and hundreds of time. Do I get bored with it? No, because I don't pay it any attention. It's simply another way of blocking things out.

Reading is also an important element. I read every day. How can you write if you don't read?


6. Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?
Oh yes. Always. My new book, Pandora Jones: Admission is now hitting the bookshops. It is the first in a trilogy (Pandora Jones: Deception comes out in October and Pandora Jones: Reckoning comes out in May 2015). It is a dystopian thriller. What if a young girl woke up in a strange place called The School and was told the old world had died? What if she thinks that what she remembers might not be the full story and The School has secrets it is desperate to hide? This trilogy is different from my normal stuff, but I had so much fun writing it.

7. Do you have any advice for budding YA authors?
Turn up to the office. Have I already mentioned that?

Read a lot and write a lot. Take chances with your stories. Be different. Always finish what you started. The more you write, the easier it becomes, like most things in life. Don't show your work to anyone until you have finished it. Read through carefully and RE-WRITE. Then re-write some more. Only show what you have written to someone you trust and only when you have done all the re-writing you can. Demand honesty. If there are criticisms, take them on board only if you agree (and you probably will). Re-write.

Have fun. Sometimes (often) it will be hard but if you love what you are doing then there's a good chance others will.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions Barry!
It's been my pleasure.

You can by My Life As An Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg at all good bookstores or on online from Booktopia. Pandora Jones: Admission will be available from 1 May 2014.

Would you like to write for young adults and kids? Check out our Writing Books for Children and Young Adults course with Judith Ridge. Courses are available in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth or online.

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