Book People: Nikki Gemmell
Book People: Nikki Gemmell
I really am utterly stoked to have Nikki Gemmell here on the blog today – she is my favourite newspaper columnist, regularly bringing me to tears or feeling the need to shout her message from every social media platform I exist on. As an author of books, she write’s as N.J. Gemmell for children and as Nikki Gemmell for adults – and tis probably wise to stay with N.J. Gemmell for a little while kids! PudStar has rather fallen in love with her latest series of books, ‘Coco Banjo’. Every birthday party lately has required us to buy copies of ‘Coco Banjo’, and at Where the Wild Things Are bookshop a few weekends ago, she nearly died with excitement at finding a free little publisher booklet all about Coco. That little booklet saw me through two flat whites and breakfast with no interruptions – thank you Random House! These graphic novels style books are filled with heart and Coco is a fabulous character who is slightly left of centre, resilient and a creative problem solver, something we’re trying so hard to encourage in our library with our Makerspace Zone. Teaching notes for ‘Coco Banjo’ are available here.
You may already be familiar with Nikki’s ‘Caddy Kids’ series – which have been long-term favourites in our school library with middle/upper primary readers who love adventure, mystery and intrigue, and a large dose of the ridiculous – love them!
Thank you so much for joining us here today Nikki and sharing so much of yourself!
To add these books to your home, school or library collection click on covers or title links.
1. Tell us about your latest book.
Presenting my cheeky, glorious, strong, huge-hearted, kind and intensely loyal Miss Coco Banjo! She lives on a secret island and goes to Banksia Bay Public, a typical Aussie primary. Take a look at this Youtube clip:
The latest book in the series is Coco Banjo has been Unfriended. I’ve got four kids so have lots of experience of school gates, gorgeous teachers, scary teachers, playground politics, camps, tiger mums, discos, Naplan, bush tucker gardens, convict history, times table traumas, dads who park in the teachers’ carpark and those school gate mummies who eye off the hunky male teacher – oh, I’ve seen it all. And have rolled it all up in the Coco Banjo series. I’ve had the most enormous giggle writing and illustrating the books – I hope you will too, reading them.
2. How did you get started as a writer?
A (very clunky) poem about a circus was published in the “Keiraville Kookaburra,” the school magazine of my local primary. I was 8. Well, that was it – seeing my name in print. A few years later I was given a book voucher at Speech Day, and my shy, awkward coalminer father trooped me off to Coddington’s Bookshop in downtown Wollongong (we were not a house of books; I can’t even remember a bookshelf in it.) My dad asked the venerable lady behind the counter to choose a book for me that would last me my whole life. She took me by the hand and selected a leather-bound edition of “Jane Eyre” for me. I devoured it, and decided at that moment that a writer is what I really wanted to be. That book is beside my bedside still.
3. What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s a mad scramble from six ‘til nine am to get four little monkeys fed, scrubbed and out the door in one piece; faces clean and school lunches all in the bags that they should be (this does not always work.) Once they’re the they’re safely deposited at their three different schools (sigh) I dive onto my desk, and work and work and work, ignoring the accusing loom of the dishwasher and sink and washing machine – because if I didn’t, they’d eat up too much of my day (all the tedious domestic stuff is reserved for when the kids are around me.) In the blissful alone I just knuckle down and go for it. The crammed solitude stops abruptly at three pm, when I’m the children’s once again. Until bedtime, and not long afterwards I’m tumbling into bed too. Just can’t keep my eyes open.
3. Can you describe your workspace for us?
Never big enough. And I do not have a room of my own – a corner of my bedroom suffices. But it’s a delicious corner, with a Scandinavian desk so beautiful I want to kiss it. It has pictures and quotes bluetacked on the walls around it, mainly of the adult novel I’m working on now (historical fiction, a new direction for me.) But plucky little Coco has a habit of marching all over the desk, as do her pencils and pens and rubbers and sketchpads. She’s very addictive, and my kids are always coming up with new suggestions and plotlines; throwing in their two bob’s worth over my shoulder.
4. Any words of advice for young readers and writers?
Readers: Read when you’re bored, when you’re lonely, when you’re hurting, when you’re joyous and when you’re sad. Read before bed, and when you wake up in the morning if you’re loving a book so much. Read on a rainy Sunday and a quiet Friday night. Books fill up your life and make you new friends; give you ideas for your own stories and transport you to exciting new places. Don’t worry about reading things too “baby,” or “magaziney,” or “cartoony,” just read. Anything. It lifts the hearts of your parents and your teachers to see it. And guess what: there are books out there that are just as much fun as screens. I wrote Coco Banjo to lure some little monkeys in my life away from their horrendous screen addictions – and golly galoshes, it actually worked!
Writers: Get a journal. Write in it and draw in it. Story ideas. Title ideas. Descriptions of people. Conversation scraps. Funny words you like. Cool names. Anything and everything. My Year 9 English teacher handed out journals to her entire class and told us we had to write something – anything – every night. She wouldn’t read them, she’d just checked we were filling them up. That first journal began a tradition I’ve kept to this very day. All my writing mines my journals. I’m up to number 17 now, and they’d be the first thing I’d rescue in a fire (apart from kids, chap, dog and fish.)
5. Do you have a favourite book or character?
I love my Coco. She’s so plucky and brave and funny and huge hearted, and a little bit crazy as well. She embraces difference, welcomes it in others, and isn’t shy of it in herself. She doesn’t care about running with the pack, and always puts her mates first. She also has the courage to wear really “out there” clothes – oh, and she lives on a secret island. By herself. And plays with fairy penguins and dolphins. I dreamed of all that as a kid. Her unconventional lifestyle drives her very conventional school principal bananas. But despite this Coco absolutely adores her local primary, Banksia Bay Public. I wrote the books to take in a lot of lessons about Emotional Intelligence that primaries are big on now – things like resilience and tolerance and kindness and fairness and open-heartedness. Lessons we as adults sometimes need reminding about too
6. If you were not a creator of books for young people what would you be?
A writer of adult books, and a columnist for the Weekend Australian – hang on, I am already. It’s really tricky trying to fit all three strands of writing in my head but somehow I manage (there’s a lot of, er, parenting-slippage along the way). See author bio below 🙂
But I feel so lucky to be able to do all my bits and bobs of a creative profession around my children. They have no idea how madly I’m paddling away at work while they’re at school. And let me think, if I wasn’t writing, I’d love to run a school in the bush which administers lots of cuddles – whether Health and Safety allows this or not. I just adore kids.
7. What is your favourite food to eat and/or your favourite music to listen to whilst you are working on your books?
Food: Oh dear. This is not good. Chocolate. In all forms. It’s my guilty rocket fuel to keep me going. The children do not know.
Music: my daughter, Thea’s, playlist. She doesn’t know I turn to it when she’s not at home. It’s full of Tayor Swift and Sia and Katy Perry and 1D and 5SOS. It gets me dancing all by myself. Thank goodness noone sees me in this appalling state.
9. How much of yourself or people you know is in your books?
My kids give me a lot of material for the Coco Banjo series, but I’m careful not to put anyone in them exactly from real life – I don’t want to hurt anyone. Everything’s a mashup, or completely fictional. And my Thea says I’m not near as cool as Coco’s mum, Clem (sigh.)
10. If you could have one wish for the world what would it be?
That we could all laugh a lot more – a good old giggle is the most wonderful therapy. Oh, and that each and every one of us would plant a tree.
All of N.J. Gemmell’s books are below. Click on covers to purchase.