Inspired by Asia, created in Australia and now read all over the world
Updated 17 September 2014, 9:41 AEST
Dina Indrasafitri and Jason Fang
Move over fairies and princes on white horses. Chinese dragons and Javanese tigers are now a big thing in Australian young adult books.
Author Deryn Mansell has launched her first book,Tiger Stone, a mystery tale for young adults. But there are no princesses in Victorian castles in this historical fiction. Instead it's about a quick-witted, multi-lingual Javanese girl living in a village where the fragrant scent of coconut oil wafts from kitchens and gecko calls can be heard all around.
It is an adventure story set within the borders of Indonesia, but before the country even got its current name.
The Tiger Stone universe intersects with the history of the Majapahit kingdom, which had its golden era in the 14th century, when it dominated South East Asia from its base in Java.
Deryn, who works for Australia's Asia Education Foundation, says she wrote Tiger Stone to encourage young Australians to become interested in Indonesia – a part of the world she feels they should be more familiar with.
“I have been visiting Indonesia for many years, and I studied Indonesian and used to teach it, and found Indonesian history really interesting,” she says.
“But I found it difficult to find stories that would engage my students to make them as interested in Indonesia as I was.”
In addition to what she knew about Indonesian history, Deryn read widely on the Majapahit era.
While information about the lives of royalty was easy to find, albeit often intermingled with legend and folk tales, it was insight into the lives of common people that was difficult to get hold of.
“There were times when I thought, ‘I am not brave enough to do this. I am not brave enough to put my name to something’,” she says.
“But then I thought, I would love it if there were lots of other people writing these sort of stories so that I can read them rather than having to write them.
“There’s just not so much out there for a Western audience to understand, because it is a really complicated time in history and it is a very different existence and lifestyle.
“So you kind of have to make some compromises to make it accessible, I think.”
Although her primary audience is readers outside Indonesia, Deryn says she also hopes Tiger Stone will encourage Indonesian writers to take up the challenge of writing young adult books about their own history.
Deryn is not the only writer with a Western background drawing on Asian history for inspiration. Carole Wilkinson, a British-born, now Australian-based writer, has authored six books in her Dragonkeeper series for young adults, proving the enduring interest of Australian audiences.
Set during China’s Han dynasty the series follows the adventures of a poor slave girl and a dragon.
“For some reason I always had a fascination towards China, starting with the lovely art and architecture,” Carole says. “It has always appealed to me right from childhood.
“And then I started to do some research about dragons for another projects and I discovered that in myths and legends the only country in the world that had good dragons was China.”
Like Deryn Mansell, Carole drew heavily on factual research. “I relied on pictures and artefacts to see what people had buried in tombs, because of the Chinese belief in the afterlife,” she says.
“It was hard work. There were a number of questions I couldn’t find answers to in the few books that were available. I eventually had to ask some experts in universities to help with a couple of things that I had not been able to find out about.”
Dragonkeeper has not been published in China, but the series has made its way to a number of countries, including Spain, Italy and France.
On one of her visits to China, Carole was invited to the Shanghai American School, where they used Dragonkeeper as a class text. “It was a fabulous experience,” she says.
A world of stories
Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books Australia, is the publisher of both Tiger Stone and the Dragonkeeper series. Co-founder Maryann Ballantyne says Australian kids "have long been short-changed by international publishing, [because] things have not been told from a southern hemisphere perspective."
“We have been very Euro-centric in our publishing.”
The Dragonkeeper series has sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the past ten years, and Maryann says Black Dog is keen to add more stories from other parts of the world to their list.
While they have so far published books set in Australia, China, New Zealand, India and Indonesia, there are still parts of the region they are yet to explore.
“I would love to do some Vietnamese stories. I love Vietnam and I am very interested in its history and culture,” Maryann says. “And we have such a large Vietnamese population in Australia.”
But in the end, she says it is really about a good story well told.
“We have our eyes turned towards the UK and more recently the US, but here we are part of Asia and this rich cultural storytelling that we haven’t really accessed enough.
Capturing a new generation
While the launch of Deryn Mansell’s book was still in swing, two young readers crept off to find a quiet spot to savour their new copies of Tiger Stone.
Jemima and Ophelia came to the launch with Ophelia’s mother, a friend of Deryn’s. But after hearing Deryn read a few paragraphs aloud they were intrigued to find out more.
“It seems very descriptive, and she’s included all the feelings of the main character and she made it sound really amazing to be in Java in the 14th century,” Jemima said.
Both girls, aged 11, say part of Tiger Stone's allure is that it falls within the mystery genre, which they love.
“I personally think it sounds amazing,” said Jemima.