Remembering Black Saturday
As I sit here typing, a rivulet of sweat runs down my back, the curtains are drawn, and the fan blows the hot air around the room. All doors and windows are closed in a bid to block out the scorching Australian sun and fierce wind.
Today is reported to be the hottest day on record Victoria has seen in a century. Almost 10 years have passed since 2009’s Black Saturday bushfires, Australia’s worst natural disaster that tragically left a trail of destruction throughout Victoria. Bushfires are synonymous with the land and as such a part of our psyche, striking fear into our souls.
The courage that Ella Holcombe has shown in writing her powerful new picture book, The House on the Mountain and then to read it aloud for Story Box Library is an incredible achievement. You see, both Ella’s parents tragically died on that fateful day in 2009. Their Kinglake mud brick house, lovingly constructed over time, was completely ravaged by fire, changing Ella and her twin brothers’ lives forever.
Ella describes her book I the following way;
The story is told by a young girl, who is about 8 or 9 years old. It is the story of a family who lose their home in a bushfire, and their journey of recovery and rebuilding…
At its core, it is a simple story that tackles a terrifying event gracefully. Ella’s prose is lyrical and David Cox’s illustrations are stunning, leaving the reader with a sense of hope and admiration at the family’s ability to rebuild their lives.
We invited Ella to answer a few questions about her striking book.
Q. Children’s books are often used as a vehicle to explore some incredibly challenging topics. This important book is no exception. How difficult was the process for you?
Some parts came easily (such as the scenes where the kids are playing in the bush and on the trampoline) while others were much more difficult. The most challenging part (emotionally) was where the family stays the night in the community centre, and in the morning the Dad has to tell the Mum that the house has been destroyed by the fire.
Q. Was the decision to put in an afterword regarding the truth of your experience a deliberate one? If so, why?
Yes, this was a deliberate decision, and one which Elise (my AMAZING editor) supported. Personally, it was important that my real story was somehow included, and I also felt that it would have been somehow dishonest to omit it.
Q. You won The John Marsden Competition in 2005 for your poem ‘The Storm’ and you have had poetry published since. What role has writing played in your life particularly in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bush fires?
I actually stopped writing completely after the Black Saturday bushfires - this is really the first thing I’ve written since, 10 years later.
Q. The House on the Mountain is your first picture book and your lyrical writing is beautiful and atmospheric despite the subject. Was this a natural progression from poetry for you?
Yes, it was. My poetry has never been complicated or overly wordy, especially when I was writing more prose poetry in the years leading up to the bushfires. I like that with poetry you don’t have to explain or describe everything, you can leave things unsaid, and these little holes allow the reader to question and imagine. I feel like this book does this to some extent, too. And to be allowed to write quite sparsely, and then have stunning illustrations alongside your words - well, it’s the best of both worlds, really!
Q. Can you tell us a little about the decision to engage David Cox to illustrate your story?
My publisher, Allen & Unwin paired me with David, and I’m so thankful that they did… From the contact that I’ve had with David he seems like such a warm, compassionate and generous person. I think these qualities shine through in his illustrations, many of which were actually based on my own family photographs. They’re incredibly atmospheric - of the bush, of the fire, and of the family.
Q. It is an honour to have you read for Story Box Library. What made you decide to do this?
I loved being read to as a child. I love reading to my children. I feel like books and stories come alive when they’re read out loud, so it’s an honour to be asked to read for Story Box Library!
Q. What do you hope your readers will take away from TheHouse on the Mountain?
This is a big question! Maybe…hope? The joy of the everyday. The importance of family, and of our connection to ‘home’. The possibility/inevitability of loss in life, but at the same time the resilience that’s in all of us.
By Nicole Brownlee
Story Box Library Founder/Director