Review of ‘Elsewhere Girls’
Title: ‘Elsewhere Girls’
Author: Emily Gale & Nova Weetman
Publisher: Text Publishing
Age Range: from 10+, upper primary, lower secondary.
Themes: friendship, family, courage, pressure, sport, elite sport, academics, timeslip, history, feminism, women, women in history, equality.
Teachers’ Notes: Publisher Website
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Emily Gale and Nova Weetman are some of Australia’s most celebrated middle grade authors and they have combined their considerable talent in creating ‘Elsewhere Girls’– writing alternating chapters from the perspectives of the two main characters and time slipping between past and present Australia. In the hands of these two accomplished writers and friends, the co-authorship has worked beautifully, each character has a distinct voice and style and the structure is seamless and feels effortless (I am sure it wasn’t!).
Cat has recently started at a new school on a sports scholarship, and she’s feeling the pressure of early morning training sessions and the need for total commitment. Fanny loves to swim and she lives for racing, but family chores and low expectations for girls make it very hard for her to fit in even the occasional training session.
Cat and Fanny have never met. They both live in the same Sydney suburb, but in different worlds, or at least different times- Cat in current-day Sydney, and Fanny in 1908. But one day, time slips and they swap places.
As each girl lives the other’s life, with all the challenges and confusion it presents, she comes to appreciate and understand herself and the role of swimming in her own life.
by Emily Gale & Nova Weetman
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‘Elsewhere Girls’ is one of those books that is, quite simply, a joy to read. It is perfectly paced, taking it’s time to explore each character and their hopes, dreams and disappointments while remaining utterly engaging.
I recently asked Emily Gale about the story behind ‘Elsewhere Girls’ and she has written me the guest post below about young people choosing their own adventures in life.
Thank you Emily Gale for this guest post for Children’s Books Daily
‘Choosing Our Own Adventures’ by Emily Gale
Parents can be at their most evangelical when it comes to their children acquiring a skill that they themselves lack. My mum was like that with swimming. In kindergarten I understood that I had to learn to swim because Mum couldn’t. It was presented pretty starkly: if you’re ever drowning, I won’t be able to do anything about it. Mum thrives on drama and is never one to shield us from her deepest fears. So there was I, aged four in 1970s London, ready for a milestone: learning how to save myself.
Though I’d absorbed the magnitude of this after-school activity, one wee thing got in the way. Literally: every single time I got into the pool I had the urge to pee. I was no slouch but could I remember to go before swimming lessons? No, I couldn’t. To complicate matters, I was polite and shy. So polite that I would not do it discretely in the pool; so shy that rather than asking if I could get out, I clung to the side of the ladder, tucked myself neatly into the corner so as not to be in anyone’s way, and refused to speak or budge!
It went on for weeks. I remember the frustration of it. I wanted to swim. It looked like fun. Mum was watching anxiously from a glassed viewing area up high and I swear I could hear her thoughts: only you can save yourself!
Although I remember that part, I have no recall of the day it changed. Mum does. One lesson, instead of hiding in my usual spot, when no one was looking I simply . . . let go. Of the ladder, I mean! I swam underwater for a whole width and popped up at the other end, to the instructor’s surprise. I imagine Mum banging on that glass, cheering me on.
I became the fastest in my class after that inauspicious start, and I’m sure I enjoyed that. Equally fond are the memories of being ravenous after a lesson and grateful that Mum’s strict diet of brown bread and interesting stir-frys (it was the era of white people in England ‘discovering’ woks) was undone by the pool cafe: every Monday afternoon I got a delicious, medal-shaped, Wagon Wheel.
I was invited to join a squad the winter after I turned thirteen and this is where my competitive swimming career ends. My dad gently broke it to me that it was too much of a commitment. He and Mum were worried I’d be too exhausted. Translation: we will be too exhausted, we already are too exhausted, we’ve just had our fourth baby and work long hours, the squad demands early mornings as well as afternoons and to top it all it’s another freezing cold British winter.
Honestly, it was a relief. I’d fulfilled the requirement of being able to save myself; now, I was acquitted. Although I’m a sucker for being good at stuff, squad simply wasn’t my passion.
I gave up a few things at that age, including the clarinet and God. But both of those involved a fight. Having swimming removed so effortlessly left me free to get on with the important business of reading Flowers in the Attic, crimping my hair and singing into a hairbrush. At thirteen my ambitions were to become Jo March and have Patrick Swayze fall in love with me. Where was the squad for that?
Nevertheless, I’ve always felt like a swimmer. I see a pool, I want to get in. It’s my comfort-zone. The same is true for my friend and co-writer Nova Weetman. Over the past few years, swimming has been a form of therapy for both of us. It’s also the theme of our children’s book, published earlier this year by Text. ‘Elsewhere Girls’ is a time-swap story about a modern girl from Sydney, Cat, who is on a swimming scholarship, and a girl born in the late 1800s who in real life went on to become Australia’s first female Olympic gold medal swimmer: Fanny Durack. The adventure begins when Cat and Fan swap lives.
We were drawn to Fanny Durack when we discovered her background. Her parents were Irish immigrants and she grew up in cramped conditions above her dad’s rowdy pub in Surry Hills, with eight siblings. She was a girl with a knack for performance, and not just in the water—she won competitions as a tween for comedic dancing.
The Durack sisters, four of them, were all involved in the lively swimming carnival scene in Sydney but mostly on an admin level. Meanwhile middle-child Fanny fought her way to Olympic pre-selection. At that point, a tight-fisted Olympic committee, the feminist politics of the day and a lack of private funds posed a serious threat to her ambition. The battle to send her to Stockholm famously played out in the press. Luckily, the public was on Fanny’s side. As the Olympics opened—109 years ago—she had beaten the odds, travelled all that way by boat, accompanied by one of her sisters, and was preparing to swim for her country.
Fanny Durack’s story is empowering for any child from a low socio-economic background who has a dream, or anyone who has to fight for the right to forge their own path. Unlike Fanny’s friend and rival Mina Wylie, whose diving champ father built Wylie’s Baths in Coogee and trained her from a young age, Fanny had to make her own way.
We also wanted to tell the story of those who will never compete in the Olympics or make it past squad, but commit to a lifetime of swimming and all the benefits that holds without ever needing to contemplate a gold medal. For some, like Nova and I, a Wagon Wheel is enough.
Choosing our own adventures is at the core of why Nova and I love writing stories for the age group that bridges upper primary school and lower high school. When it comes to those years, how do young people know what to give up, and when, and what to stick to, and why? How do parents know when to push, and when to sit back? It’s an act of faith for everyone. Alongside our theme of fighting for what you desire, which is Fanny Durack’s story, we suggest that it takes as much strength of character to change your mind and redirect your passion, especially when you know that parents often see ‘giving up’ as wholly negative.
In ‘Elsewhere Girls’ we write about one girl who is not sure what she wants and another girl who is. Both of them fear letting others down or ruining their futures: Cat because with so many choices she’s hesitant to commit to a life of competitive swimming, and Fanny because her choices are already so limited. By living each other’s lives, they learn how to square their decisions. What begins with something that is wanted for them turns into what they want for themselves.
It can be a tough time for parents, this particular age of independence. When you’ve put so much into directing your child it can come as a blow when, aged thirteen or so, their notions are different. Sometimes the ‘giving up’ seems to come in a torrent (swimming and clarinet and God, oh my). But in our experience, often the shedding of these extra activities makes way for a different burning desire. One that comes from the heart of the child.
By the same authors:
‘The Other side of summer’
by Emily Gale
Buy from Apple Books
‘The Edge of Thirteen’
by Nova Weetman
by Nova Weetman
Buy from Apple Books
‘The Secrets We Share’
by Nova Weetman
Buy from Apple Books