Lian Tanner has worked as a teacher, a tourist bus driver, a juggler, an editor and a professional actor. She has been dynamited while scuba diving and arrested while busking. She once spent a week in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, hunting for a Japanese soldier left over from the Second World War. It took her a while to realise that all this was preparation for becoming a writer.
Lian’s books include the best-selling Keepers trilogy, the Hidden series, the Rogues trilogy, A Clue for Clara, Rita’s Revenge, and a picture book Ella and the Ocean (illustrated by Jonathan Bentley). Her books have been translated into eleven languages and won many awards, including two Aurealis Awards for Best Australian Children’s Fantasy, a NSW Premier’s Literary Award, a Tasmanian Literary Award, and a Sisters-in-Crime Davitt Award for Best Children’s Crime Novel.
Her latest novel is Spellhound: A dragons of Hallow book, a whimsical fantasy for 7-11 year olds. Spellhound will be followed in 2024 by a companion novel, Fledgewitch.
It was such an honor to interview Lian in preparation for #TasmanianLitMonth. She gave me an hour of her precious time, right when local, national and global promotion for Spellhound was ramping up.
I felt compelled to sit up straighter when talking with Lian. She spoke with passion and expertise about all things children’s literature so it was easy to see why Lian’s a hit on the speaking circuit in Australian schools. I didn’t want our time together to end!
Throughout #TasmanianLitMonth, I have asked all the creators the same questions. Two questions resonated strongly with Lian.
How has Tasmanian wilderness inspired you as a creator?
One of the things that wilderness does is provide you with mental and emotional space. When you’re in a city, the city is full of things that that cry out for our attention so there’s a kind of endless distraction. But it’s also kind of closing in on you a lot, even a small city like Hobart. It certainly makes me hold both my physical and emotional boundaries. Whereas when I’m in the bush, and particularly if it’s bush that has very little recent human interference, I can let go of that. I can expand, I can daydream. I can let my thoughts swim in ridiculously enormous circles. That is a really creative state of mind.
The other thing is that there is a tension between wildness and control in nearly all of my books. It’s really overt in the Keepers trilogy with the tight control in the city and then the wildness inside the museum. You can’t have the great heights without the great depths.
It’s also there in “Spellhound” because there’s a place called the Floating Forest where everything is very wild and magical. The country that lies below it is non magical and there’s kind of this contrast between a forest that is very manicured by humans.
Wilderness is necessary and an essential part of ourselves.
What makes Tasmanian literature unique?
We have always been so isolated in terms of the centres of culture and literature, from places like New York and London, Sydney and Melbourne, and that is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s obviously a disadvantage because you’re not there to promote your work as much. You’re not getting that degree of input that writers in those places are getting. But at the same time it’s an advantage because here you are cut off from a lot of that stuff and you’re driven inwards.
You’re driven to the landscape, you’ve driven to the ancient stories that infest Tasmania and manifest in the landscape.
I grew up in Launceston and my father’s family lived in Hobart, so we would drive up and down the Midlands Highway. That highway is so full of stories and my father knew all of them. Tasmania is bursting with stories. So when we were so isolated, we were driven back into that. And so I think a lot of originality came out of Tasmania and still does because of what is still a comparative isolation. We’re not in the thick of it and that can be a really good thing.
Now let’s get a taste of a few of Lian’s books and an insight into her writing process.
You can view, and buy, all of Lian’s books on her website: https://liantanner.com.au/
Ella and the Ocean, illustrated by Jonathan Bentley
This is one of my favorite books to share with my students in Beijing when I’m wanting them to understand the desert eco system and what it means to live in the outback. Jonathan’s illustrations in this book are different from many of his others, with more freedom of movement and rich, natural colors. The evocative drawings, paired with Lian’s beautiful lyrical prose make me both homesick and proud every time I read it aloud.
It’s no wonder the story has a string of awards to it’s name:
- Winner 2022 Tasmanian Literary Award for Children’s Books
- Winner 2020 NSW Premier’s Award for Children’s Literature
- Shortlisted 2020 Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year
- Longlisted 2020 CBCA Picture Book of the Year
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s
Released 05 Aug 2019
In a case of 6 degrees of separation, Lyndon Riggall, one of our #TasmanianLitMonth contributors, was the MC for the launch of “Ella and the Ocean.”
Lian’s respect and love for Jonathan’s work is palpable. During our interview, she shared her process for working with Jonathan on “Ella and the Ocean” and their upcoming book.
I sold the manuscript to Allen and Unwin and they said, we need to find an illustrator. Here’s a list of five illustrators who we think would work well with this text. And they said you won’t get the first one you choose because they’re all incredibly busy. So give them to us in order of how much you like them. So I went through these illustrators and the one that just blew me away was Jonathan. I love his work so much so I just went back to them and said #1 Jonathan Bentley #2 Jonathan Bentley #3 Jonathan Bentley.
The next collaboration between the pair is a story about what happens when the lights in the whole street go out. The main arc of the story is about a child who is afraid of the dark but it’s also a nod to COVID and “what happens when the community comes together when something big happens and how that can turn into a really positive thing.”
Lian is yet to see the full set of illustrations for the new picture book but she is certain they will be perfect, saying Jonathan “does magical work. There are some illustrators who just illustrate what’s there in the words. But there are some illustrators, like Jonathan, who absorb the whole into their own dreaming and then make it something new so that it it springs so far above what was there beforehand.”
Chapter Books for Middle and Older Readers
Lian’s most popular series is the Keepers trilogy, which includes “Museum of Thieves,” “City of Lies,” and “Path of Beasts.” The series follows the story of Goldie Roth, a trained thief and a skillful liar, who is supposed to be one of the keepers of the mysterious Museum of Dunt, along with her friend Toadspit. However, her parents are ill, and she will not leave them. When Toadspit’s sister Bonnie is stolen, Goldie is forced into action. The Keeper’s trilogy has been translated into 11 languages and is the winner of the Aurelias Children’s Fiction Award.
International editions are available at Biblio.
Lian’s determined fight to keep Australian books in Australian English, and to encourage and protect the domestic publishing industry was music to my ears. At every federal election, Australian authors like Lian fight any change to parallel import regulations.
At the moment, if I have a book that’s published in Australia and published in America, then the American edition can’t be imported within a certain period of years from the Australian publication, because so it gives the Australian publishers a decent run. Australian publishers publish Australian books [and they] publish them in Australian language.
Yet it’s an incredibly difficult line to walk. Fighting the good fight for Australian publishing is integral to a strong writing culture but sales from breaking into the market across the Pacific cannot be matched. Strong sales of the Keeper’s trilogy in the United States allowed Lian a freedom denied most Australian writers – a living wage. Lian is hoping her newest book, “Spellhound” will provide her once again with a break into the North American market.
Lian and I commiserated over the lack of World English in books published in North America and the desperate need for global stories, which was the impetus for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. When asked about what she thought the American market was looking for, Lian said, “they seem to only want books that are translatable to an American culture… my editor said, look, do you mind if we change mum to Mama because the Americans will accept Mama, but they won’t accept mum. It’s a very strange inward looking things that they do over there, I I suspect the ancient Romans were probably very similar: we don’t need to look outside our culture because we are it [culture].”
Lian then spoke about ‘high concept’ books that are beginning to make traction in the global market, and concedes that the US market is flooded with exceptional writers yet does “want big stuff that is different from what their own authors are writing – something that is going to blow you away in one sentence.”
OK North American readers, you want high concept?
In Lian’s own words: “An enormous magical dog, a child queen and a very small, very scared minch-wiggin who has inherited the unfortunate title of destroyer of Dragons and Protector of her People, all set out on a mission to find the dragon that has stolen the pups and the Queen’s parents. That’s high concept.”
I had to wait two weeks after my interview with Lian to get my hands on a digital copy of “Spellhound” and it was worth the wait. I was absolutely spellbound! Told with wit and a dash of naughtiness, the adventurous story would be the PERFECT class read aloud for Grade 2 and older. As I was reading it, I could picture the faces of my students absolutely enraptured. The surprise narrator keeps the reader on their toes, and I predict quite a high level of indignation when it breaks the fourth wall with large amounts of sass.
“Spellhound” is recommended for readers who love Cressida Cowell or Jordan Quinn but make sure you have a packet of green jelly babies on hand when you read it!
Visit the publisher’s website for a sneak preview of a chapter in “Spellhound”.
“Spellhound” is Dymock’s Book of the Month for April 2023, a huge honor and platform for sales. Congratulations, Lian!
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s
Released 04 Apr 2023
Need more Lian in your life?
Follow her on Twitter – @tanner_lian
Listen to Lian talk about Spellhound on the podcast, “Reading with a chance of tacos”.
I would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land, the Palawa people of Tasmania, and to their Elders, past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge their deep spiritual connection to the land and their ongoing contributions to the culture of this nation.
About Guest Curator, Bec Taylor
I’m Bec Taylor, the EY3 – Grade 2 cybrarian* at the International School of Beijing, China. I’m a global nomad with Australian roots and a Chinese family home – all my immediate family have lived and worked in Beijing as international school teachers for many, many years.
Overly enthusiastic about everything especially children’s literature, Australian Rules Football (go Doggies!) and food, glorious food, I am easily bribed with coffee and dark chocolate. I am a passionate advocate of social justice, female financial literacy, and finding ways to tread more lightly on the planet. Alongside the demands of a busy family and professional life, I enjoy cultivating community through volunteer work that focuses on healthy families.
I am the current Chair of the Chinese international schools reading promotion, the Panda Book Awards. Titles chosen for the shortlists of the Panda Book Awards meet selection criteria that focus on social justice, diversity and inclusion by up and coming authors and illustrators from across the world. There is an added spotlight on titles that feature Asian settings, characters or creators.
Twitter is my favourite professional development space so please come find me there: @becinthelibrary
The educational hills I will die on are:
- a child’s right to choose what they love to read,
- there is serious magic in reading aloud,
- and the belief that schools are happier, more equitable places with better academic outcomes when the properly funded school library is well staffed with qualified, collaborative and passionate professionals.
*a fancy name that formalises and acknowledges the incredible work teacher librarians do each day to find authentic ways to integrate and explore educational technology in order to capture, expand, and enhance student learning.