Saturday, 21 September 2013

Blog Tour: Stephen Axelsen and The Nelly Gang

Buzz Words welcomes author and illustrator Stephen Axelsen to explain why history really is important and to talk about his new graphic novel series, The Adventures of Nelly Nolan. Plus there is the chance to win a signed copy of book one in the series, The Nelly Gang.

Take it away, Steve!

Mad Dan Morgan did not wear an Akubra (and how to stop Days of Yore becoming Days of Yawn)

While illustrating The Nelly Gang I became more and more interested in getting the hats right. Not just hats of course – costumes in general, and tents, wagons, bric-a-brac; anything and everything used in September 1860.

For the record, bushrangers of the mid 19th century wore hats like these:

Tough guys liked to wear straw hats with jaunty ribbons, apparently.

If we disrespect the hats of days of yore, we disrespect our ancestors, which is why this viking helmet should offend me since 12.5 % of my ancestors were Scandinavian. They did NOT have horns on their helmets (but I turn a blind eye to the horns in How to Train Your Dragon).

We who are currently alive need to respect our ancestors. They lived real, anxious, and short lives, often with the sole purpose of making the place less horrendous for their offspring – us.

I love history, possibly as a place in which to take refuge from the puzzling present, but also as a place to exercise the imagination:

  • What WAS it like not to have to bathe all the time, or floss ever?
  • Were constant toothaches a bother?
  • Did it get hot wearing three piece woollen suits to the beach in summer?

I take great pleasure in researching and drawing the past. This is why there is a paddle steamer episode in The Nelly Gang. I wrote this bit so that I could drive to Echuca and have a ride on one. Bliss. But first I made sure that there were paddle steamers working on the Murray River in 1860 (there were, just).

The importance of teaching history to children has been much discussed in all sorts of worthy places by intelligent educators. I won’t embarrass myself here by trying to add to this discourse. Let us all assume that we all know why a love of history needs to be bludgeoned into the children in our care, in a nice way; an entertaining and engaging way.

This is where I come in, I hope, with books like The Nelly Gang. It is not a historical document. It is full of improbable coincidences, plot holes I haven’t discovered yet (that’s your job, dear reader) and wild exaggerations BUT I got the hats right and the police uniforms and lots of other things. The hope is that children, once the concussion wears off, will enjoy a taste, a sampler, of life 150 years ago in Australia.

The Nelly Gang first appeared in The School Magazine as a ten-part cartoon series in 2009. I’m ashamed to say that the first time around I got the police uniform for 1860 wrong. I corrected this in the graphic novel version.

The graphic novel excels as a vehicle for teaching history to children with no interest in history. Here I will hand you over to Robin Brenner (writing in The Horn Book Magazine, March/April edition of 2006) about the value of graphic novels.

 “… the combination of less text, narrative support from images, and a feeling of reading outside the expected canon often relieves the tension of reading expectations for kids who are not natural readers, and lets them learn to be confident and engaged consumers of great stories ...
That being said, graphic novels are not only for reluctant readers  — they’re for everyone!”

Robin is speaking about the value of graphic novels in general, but we can easily expand this argument to encompass the teaching of history to children.

Happy reading, writing and drawing.

Steve Axelsen

For what Buzz Words thinks about The Nelly Gang read on for Anastasia's review. And for your chance to win a signed copy of The Nelly Gang and a poster send me an email at vicki {at} stanton {dot} id {dot} au answering this question: What do you think is the biggest moment in Australian history? 

Answers may be posted on this site (according to my discretion) and must be received by 5pm 2 October 2013. 

The Adventures of Nelly Nolan BK1: The Nelly Gang by Stephen Axelsen (Walker Books)
PB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9781921977916
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

It is Christmastown, Victoria, 1860; a time when everyone is greedy for gold. Posters nailed to trees advertise rewards for Captain Sunbeam and other lost things such as horn-rimmed glasses, a lost wife and a beloved rabbit. It is also the time when Nelly’s pa strikes it rich on the goldfields. They make plans to travel on the mail coach to Wodonga to do all the things they can now afford to do. Most importantly, to find Nelly’s mum.

Nelly is a child full of fun and adventure; fearless and daring, who knows every person on the dig by name, and whose best friends are Queenie the goat, the Chinese boy Jin, and Miro an Aboriginal boy.  But she is always late for school and gets punished by the crabby Miss Pinchnose.

With great wealth comes those who want to take it from you. The coach is robbed and although Nelly, Queenie and Jin get away, pa is taken by the thieves as hostage.  Nelly decides to swap the money for her pa. but things get complicated.

Amidst lots of fighting, escaping, mix-ups with bushrangers, and attempts at disguise, Nelly and her gang uncover the true identity of Captain Sunbeam, save pa and get the reward. Miro ends up with the most for his mob get their land back as the gold runs out and the diggers move on to better pickings.

This is a terrific Australian historical fiction story in cartoon form with illustrations created with pen and ink lines, using digital colouring.  Clever captions accompany the lively and vibrant characters across the page as they move from scene to scene with joy and enthusiasm through their exploits and victories.

This is the first book in a series about Nelly and her gang which will easily win over readers of the 6+ age group, and any others that love cartoon style stories of adventure and daring in an Australian setting.


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