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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Visiting with Susanne Gervay, Australian Author of Jack Books, Butterflies and More

Only recently have I under stood why I am driven to write and advocate for young people and families for young people and adults. It’s deeply embedded in the struggles of my family’s wartime, human rights violations and the refugee experience. My parents carrying my little brother, left all they knew to escape across ‘no-man’s land’ minefields in the dead of night for freedom. My mother’s Hungarian world was no longer the same. Gone were the operas, balls, visiting the health spa on Lake Balaton; her father’s world at the university as a Professor of Engineering; a household with servants and afternoon teas on Margarita Island on the Danube. My father’s world was taken too. His farm taken. His white horse disappeared. His way of life gone.

The Austrian refugee camp was crowded, difficult, but it was from here that Australia selected them to go as bonded migrants on a battered WW11 warship. They had hoped to be selected by the US. Like other refugees they worked long hours – my father in the car factory; my mother in the clothing factory . Life in Sydney began in one room with the family sleeping on mattresses on the floor. But there was hope and a belief in the future.

My parents who have passed away now, would be profoundly moved that, I am an Australia Day Ambassador and have been recently been awarded an Order of Australia.

An interview with ABC radio (similar to BBC) Conversations with Richard Fidler -

As a multiple cancer survivor, single parent of two children, teacher, I felt compelled to write children’s and young adult books which would travel with young people and families. My books are endorsed by anti-school bullying organizations, The Cancer Council, The Children’s Hospital (Westmead Sydney), Room to Read and many associations.

Tell us about the genre of your work.

I write real-life fiction that has won awards across the board, including children’s books, young adult novels, picture books, short stories for anthologies ranging from children to adult, adult short stories.

Why did you choose this genre?

It’s instinctive and something I’ve been writing since a little girl, not for publication but because it’s natural. I write from an emotional core about life with all its funny and sad parts. The driving force is that whatever the challenge, there’s hope and light.

What are some of your books, stories that have been published?

Butterflies is a young adult novel recently published in the USA by Kane Miller

Butterflies (Australian version), published HarperCollins Australia

JACK books: - I Am Jack. Super Jack, Always Jack published by HarperCollins Australia

That’s Why I Wrote This Song, a young adult title with music and lyrics by Tory Gervay published HarperCollins Australia

The Cave published HarperCollins Australia

Ships in the Field published Ford Street Publishing Australia

 and others

What ages do you direct your books?

From 5 to 21 years

Can you tell us more about your books and where we may find them?

All my books are available through online bookstores. ‘Butterflies’ published in the USA is available through bookstores. All my titles published in Australia are available in bookstores in Australia and Pacific regions.

Butterflies by Susanne Gervay

Publisher: Kane/Miller Book Publishers (2011)

ISBN: 9781610670432

‘Heart wrenching and beautiful are the two words that immediately came to mind as I read "Butterflies." The true terror and depth of Katherine's burns and recovery are deftly shown through the movement of the text between flashbacks and the present. Gervay paints a picture of Katherine as she grows and changes allowing the reader to believe in her as a real person. Unlike other teen angst books, Katherine does not dwell in her angst, but moves beyond it and chooses to leave the misery and find joy in her daily life. Gervay has done an excellent job of examining a topic not often seen in books for young adults- burn survivors who are not victims, but victors. Gervay allows Katherine to win at the end- not because she suddenly becomes amazingly beautiful, but because she always was beautiful and knew that within herself. Kudos to Gervay for painting the reader a picture of a self-reliant teen girl who does not depend on a boy to make herself feel valuable. Highly recommended for libraries- school, public and personal- who want to add to their girl power collections.’

Reviewed by Kim Thompson, M. Ed, MLIS

Kenton County Public Library

Grades: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Use: Recreation; Reference Aids: Appendix; Genres: Coming of Age, Family, Realistic; Literary Merit: Very Good; Characterization: Very Good; Recommendation: Recommended;Level: High School; Comments:

JACK Titles: I Am Jack, Super Jack and Always Jack

I Am Jack HarperCollins Australia IBSN 0 207 19905 1

Super Jack HarperCollins Australia IBSN 978 0 207 19918 9

Always Jack HarperCollins Australia IBSN 978 0 7322 9020 7

Tackling the touch issues with a light touch

Always Jack

Susanne Gervay: illustrator Cathy Wilcox

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 empathize 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 organized 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.

Reviewed by Aleesah Darlinson

Sun Herald Book Section

That’s Why I Wrote This Song

By Susanne Gervay with lyrics and music by Tory Gervay

Published HarperCollins Australia

ISBN 13: 978 0 207 20086

The new young adult novel by bestselling author Susanne Gervay is no ordinary book. It’s a multi-media experience, complete with music (soundtrack available at and film clip (as seen on ABC TV's Rage and online on

A tremendously passionate writer, Gervay has won many fans by simply speaking about her work at festivals and literary events. Her novels show the same ardor, as Gervay writes from the heart and often, about subjects with which she has had personal experience.

This latest novel was inspired by the author’s daughter, Tory Gervay, and is a collaborative effort between the pair (Tory wrote the music and lyrics featured in the book.) The story is about a teenage girl, Pip, who uses music to help her express and understand her emotions, her relationships and identity.

Writing and performing songs, such as the no-holds-barred Psycho Dad, is how Pip and her friends assert their autonomy. Each girl struggles under the weight of parental pressure, particularly from dominant and in some instances violent, father figures. The girls’ diverse but equally affecting relationships with their parents, gives the story balanced doses of hope, sentimentality, anger and heartbreak.

This book has fantastic energy to it, partly because of its multimedia components but also because of Gervay’s descriptions of rock concerts and Pip’s musical performances, which encompass all the senses so evocatively.

Angie Schiavonne

Feature in Spectrum Sydney Morning Herald

Trailer – That’s Why I Wrote This Song – track Pscho Dad

Trailer – That’s Why I Wrote This Song – track I Wanna Be Found

The Cave

HarperCollins Australia

IBSN 0 207 19814 4

‘The Cave is a gritty story of courage and hope for those in the passage between youth and adulthood. Both compassionate and confronting, Susanne Gervay takes us on a journey, eight days’ camping with the hero Knox and his mates including Fat George, Bennie and Jones, and the evil Watts.

This journey was eight days of descending into fear, exhaustion, ravines and rivers, each in their own way carving out a sense of self-knowing and mateship; eight days of reverie where past and present ghosts comfort and perplex. Ultimately, in the cave, Knox comes to a sense of responsibility and authenticity that is more powerful than the mystery of the Rave Party or Watts metal tip leather boots.

As a psychologist, I recognize the private maelstrom engulfing many young adults, in-transit between powerlessness and independence. As an educationalist, I appreciate the groups’ ambivalence towards their two guides, Seaton and Sarah, and towards a society that alienates and fragments. As a reader, Susanne Gervay compels us, like the river that is part of her story, towards the rancid murky Cave, the final place of initiation.

This is an epic story beautifully written with clear spare prose and the ability to go right to the heart of young males in modern society.’

Carole Kayrooz PhD, MAPS, Vice Pro Chancellor, University of Canberra

Ships in the Field (Picture book)

by Susanne Gervay & Anna Pignataro

Publisher: Ford Street Publishing

ISBN: 9781921665233

Ships in the Field is an illustrative narrative giving a voice to children and families impacted by war and disaster, establishing a new home.

Ships in the Field is a book that will never date. It’s a story that will be every bit as relevant fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago. A must-have for every classroom.’ Quote from Review below marked ***.

Do your books have a teaching objective? If so, what is it?

All my books have teaching notes and although available as trade books, the secondary school market is important and keeps my titles in backlist for a very long time.

That’s Why I Wrote This Song’ where my daughter Tory Gervay wrote the music and lyrics that are integral to the text, is a leader in multi-platform story. While each aspect stands along – the book, songs, lyrics, youtube film clip, film script, back story – all inter connect. A reader can jump into any of these mediums to engage in the journeys of the characters.

I Am Jack’ is a rite-of-passage middle grade novel studied in many anti-school bullying programs. Adapted into an acclaimed play adapted by Monkey Baa Theatre, it has just completed its third season to full houses in Australian theatre. Endorsed by the major Australian anti –school bullying organizations, it is a major teaching text.

Always Jack’ carries the rarely given Cancer Council’s yellow daffodil who has endorsed it:- ‘Always Jack makes it safe for children. Families and communities to talk about cancer.’ The Cancer Council.

Butterflies’ is recognized as outstanding youth literature on disability (IBBY) endorsed by the major Children’s Hospital in Sydney and widely studied in schools as well as in outreach burn unit programs.

How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?

The characters comes from life, the people I know, observe, the travels as an author from speaking in Kiribati a 3rd world Island Nation in the Pacific Ocean to speaking in New York at the World Burn Congress on ‘Butterflies’.

The places are from my observations. For example in my young adult novel ‘That’s Why I Wrote This Song’ I was inspired by the music of youth, the bands and the music scene. In ‘The Cave’ I was inspired by The Blue Mountains which is the canvas of the novel.

When I write, I live my books, experience it and the places and characters come from there.

Is there a unique character or a recurring character if you have more than one published or to be published book?

All my characters I believe are unique, yet they connect with us. We know them, love them. They are our friends and family. When the reader has finished reading my books, I hope that the characters continue beyond the page in their lives.

Jack from my Jack books is greatly loved in Australia. He is an everyman – part of us, someone we know, our best mate, a brother, son – us.

Katherine in ‘Butterflies’ is magnificent. She’s just a girl, but as she faces her challenges, the fighter in her confronts us with the fighter we can be.

The older/father male characters are inspired by my father. In ‘The Cave’ the grandfather who is an air force veteran brings wisdom, family commitment and core values to the page. Sam Knox the main protagonist in ‘The Cave’ is deeply influenced by his grandfather. An insight he gains:-

Grandpa said that;-

‘War is not brave, but men can be brave in war and in life.’

I remember when I wrote that line, both the character Sam Knox and I were growing.

What is your favorite thing about your book/s?

When I write, I laugh and cry with my characters as they face challenges and discover who they are. I seek the heart of human relationships and when I get there, it is a deeply felt satisfaction.

Is your book illustrated? If so, would you tell us by whom, and if you worked with an illustrator, can you discuss that experience?

My first picture book ‘Ships in the Field’ is illustrated by award winning illustrator Anna Pignataro has just been published in Australia. ‘Ships in the Field’ seeks to give a voice to the children and families of refugees as they find home in new countries. It is deeply personal as the stories are of my father slurping chicken soup every night; my mother sewing in the factory; memories of war and hopes for the future. When Anna Pignataro read the manuscript she said it was her story as the child of Italian immigrants. Together we created the universal experience of finding home.

It was emotional and complex as the words and images gave form to the personal and the universal. The pleasure and privilege of working with Anna, as she wove her own narrative into the artwork deepening and visually enriching my story was extraordinary. It became our story.

Ships in the Field’ is being embraced here as an immigrant nation. I love this review

***Reviewer: Jenny Mounfield

With issues of immigration featuring heavily in news headlines over the past year, the release of this title couldn’t be more timely. Ships in the Field concerns one family’s experience of migration as seen through the eyes of a child. Forced from their homeland by war, the unnamed child and her parents embrace a new life in Australia. Once a farmer, Papa now works in a factory, while Ma, a teacher, takes in sewing. Despite the horror of the past and the unknown future ahead, this family is a joyful one—though something is still missing for our child narrator.

In these two heart-felt sentences, Gervay captures the child’s perspective beautifully:

“Papa grew up in a village in the old country, before it was broken.

Ma grew up in a city in the old country, before it was broken.”

By using deceptively subtle wording and misdirection, Gervay expertly conveys the war that still haunts this family as a powerful presence underpinning their outwardly happy lives. But so, too, the hope felt, particularly by the narrator, is just as potent, creating a satisfying emotional contrast that culminates on a high note when the child’s heart’s desire is realized on the final page.

The title of this book is significant for it highlights what is perhaps the most obvious point of difference between us: language and the way in which we use it.

“ ‘Look at the ships in the field,’ Papa says.

Brownie and I giggle. ‘Papa, you mean sheep.’

‘Yes, the ships.’ Papa wiggles his moustache.”

Pignataro’s watercolour illustrations reflect Gervay’s humour. Smiles abound on almost every page, and the child-like style, simplistic and colourful, adds a sense of levity to what, in a different artist’s hands, could have been a much darker story.

This is a book that needs to be read more than once. Many of the layers weren’t immediately evident on my first read-through. The shadow of war haunting the family is only mentioned in two lines of dialogue between the child and her toy, Brownie, yet its positioning after scenes of family frivolity is stark. This added to Ma’s crying behind closed doors and the narrator’s fear of night delivers an impact that more graphic depiction could not. It is obvious that author and illustrator have worked hard to get the balance between darkness and light just right. While at first glance this is a deceptively simple story, it soon becomes apparent this balancing act was no easy feat. Hope is very much the prominent theme, but it is only visible because of the darkness behind it. Too much darkness and the light would be snuffed out.

Ships in the Field is a book that will never date. It’s a story that will be every bit as relevant fifty years from now as it was fifty years ago. A must-have for every classroom.

How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?

The realistic genre is an emotional one, where you expose your emotions and really yourself. It’s risky, but if you’re on this pathway, then you have to jump in. Young readers know a liar and I want to write the truth so that in the rocky road between childhood to adulthood, there are characters who will travel with readers.

Are there any problems in getting children’s’ books published?

I have been a writer for a long time, and the start of the journey is very hard. I was crushed many times as my work was rejected, ignored or torn apart. However it is about belief in your work, persistence, development of craft, writing what you feel and writing because it is part of you.

There are so many writers who seek publication, so it is a crowded supply market and limited opportunities to become published. Today I am an established author in Australia and can call any of the publishers and have my work considered. I even get commissions. For example I have been asked to write a 4th JACK book by HarperCollins Australia.

However I still get rejections. My title may not suit that publishing house, their marketing agenda. They may have cut backs or there’s another title similar in theme to yours. There are many reasons for publishers to refuse your work.

It is very difficult to get into the US market. It was rejected so many times. However ‘Butterflies’ has finally been published there and received a starred review from the School Library Journal.

My US literary agent is submitting my other books to US publishers but it is still very difficult to get a commitment.

Why and when did you begin writing?

I have always written like many authors. I never expected to be a published author. However when my beloved father passed away and my marriage broke up, I started to seriously write for comfort, understanding and out of anger, confusion, pain and ultimately hope. I wrote for young people because my children also faced the emotional challenges I did and I wanted to give them my hand to navigate the way. My books I hope do that.

What is your writing schedule?

My writing schedule is insane as the life of a writer is chaotic with writing tours, festivals, community events, writing time, interviews … the myriad of aspects to an author’s life.

I struggle to get time to write creatively.

What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?

I have had accepted my second picture book – title still under discussion. My publisher doesn’t like my titles. Like all my books it is close to my heart. It is about giving a voice to sibling relationships with one of the siblings facing illness. Like all my books it’s about validation of family and hope.

It has been endorsed by VARIETY which is our film industry charity that supports young people facing major illness. I am proud of that.

I am also co-script writer on a feature film – I AM JACK – which combines my 3 JACK books. I have made Jack older in this film – a teenager – so that I can escalate the bullying, love and intensity of the film. I’m hoping it’ll be in pre production late this year.

I have been commissioned to write a JACK 4 which will be set in Vietnam, so need to visit Vietnam and also get down to some serious writing.

What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and get published?

Join a writing organization like SCBWI, get involved with the writing world as that is where you will find guidance, advice, craft and the ways to publication. You’ll also make friends who understand the ups and downs of writing and that makes it a great journey.

Establish a critique groups where you can read and work on your stories. However it is essential that you have an open mind and are able to accept criticism. Accept what is useful and discard what isn’t. However be grateful that someone is interested enough to consider and comment on your writing.

Join Facebook children’s writing communities and enter into conversation with what is happening.

Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?

Having the interest and talent for writing is only the beginning. Learn, write, critique, write, edit, write. Accept every comment as a gift, not an attack, so that it becomes a building block for your work. And have fun with it.

What do you do when you are not writing?

I live near the harbor beaches and the surf beaches. So I swim most days if when the weather permits, enjoy walking along the cliffs. Sydney is a beautiful city.

When I have time I love movies, theatre, musical theatre and of course, a good book to read at night.

I love my writing community and enjoy events, as well as family and friends.

Anything else you would like to add?

Writing has enabled me to work towards the promotion of literacy, education and social justice.

I am a patron for Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People; Role Model Ambassador for Books in Homes – books for indigenous and disadvantaged children; Author Ambassador for Room to Read – educating kids in developing countries; Chair of the Board of the NSW Writers Centre –; Co-head of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Australia and New Zealand –; Chair of the Children’s Writers & Illustrators Network at The Hughenden –; Director of the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Festival at NSW Writers Centre –; NSW Selection Committee of the May Gibbs Trust Fellowship - ; Advocate for Cancer Council –; Ambassador for 2012 National Year of Reading

What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?

I don’t know what ‘made it’ really feels like. However I loved the adaptation of ‘I AM JACK’ into theatre and its performance to 1000s of young people and adults. I have had heart warming, funny and beautiful moments. I’d like to share this email after a performance of ‘I Am Jack’:-

Name: Rita Perri

Teacher Bankstown Public School

Comments: Hello Susanne,

I just wanted to let you know that my class (5P from Bankstown Public School) had the wonderful experience of attending a performance of "I am Jack" at the Seymour Centre. I'd like to share a few snippets of their written responses with you.

“I really felt sorry for Jack when he was being bullied. I thought the actor Tim was really good at switching voices like from Rob to Nanna. Even though it wasn’t my first time in a theatre, I just loved the play!” (Akila)

“Susanne Gervay, you’re play was amazing, but it was heartbreaking as well. When the target light struck Jack in the face, it felt like electricity was flowing through my body. I think the most humiliating part was when they spat on Jack in the shower” (Samir)

“It was a magnificent show. I was so happy when we got there. When we walked inside, the dark lights made me feel like we were in the movies. It was exciting because I have never been to see a play before.” (Adam)

“When Jack was being constantly attacked, I felt like I was in a very dark place where no one takes care of you. I hope I never feel like Jack did.” (Justin)

“I loved the play and I’m sure everyone else did too! It was emotionally heart stopping when it got to the point where Jack couldn’t take it any more. And what’s sad is that it’s all true. I’m so glad that in the end, Jack overcame his bullying” (Roney)

“The most upsetting scene was when the brainless bully George Hamill began spitting on Jack in the shower after sport. If I was Jack I would feel humiliated!” (Arash)

“Jack keeps getting harassed by that malevolent George Hamill. I hate him so much! He should really be ashamed of himself!” (Mohamad O.)

“Oh my gosh! I went to the Seymour Centre to watch “I am Jack” It was soooo electrifying. My favourite part was when he finally got help from his mum and the principal. I despised the part when he was getting spat on. I hate bullies, especially when they are bullying me or my friends. When it was finished, we got to ask the actor questions. I thought he was great at changing into different characters!” (Maisam)

“This was my first time seeing a real play in a theatre. I believe that was the best first play anyone could go to. I really enjoyed it.” (Aditi)

Thank you again for inspiring my children!

Rita Perri


Learn more about Susanne on these websites:

The Hughenden:

Note from Sylvia: You can visit my other blog at: features a preview to my new book released in 2012, Traveling a Rocky Road with Love, Faith and Guts.


Susanne Gervay said...

Being an author is one of the great privileges of life - thankyou for this interview

Anonymous said...

I question myself every day. That's what I still find motivating about this. I don't have the answers, I don't pretend that I do just because I won the match. Just keep fighting and maybe something good happens. See the link below for more info.


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Susanne Gervay said...

Leslie - really glad you enjoy my blog. Just thought I'd share that the adaptation of I AM JACK the play is touring USA theatres. I'm flying into Las Vegas on 27th Jan as it's doing 10 shows there which is exciting.

It's about spreading story that engages audiences to create a NO bullying culture

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