written by Sherryl Clark (author)
- Outline of the story
Zack has always lived on the farm and attended the small primary school down the road, along with his younger sister, Amy. He helps Dad, rides his bike and hangs out with his mate.
Slowly, as the drought worsens, things start to change. Production from their cows goes down, they owe more and more money to the bank, the grass in the paddocks disappears. Neighbours are forced to sell up and leave the land, but Zack’s family try to hold on. Dad wants to pass the farm on to Zack one day, the way families usually do.
Zack’s grandmother lives in town now and is always telling Dad how to manage things. Then the local school closes for lack of pupils and Zack has to go to the big school in town.
Still, it doesn’t rain. Things are desperate. Mum and Dad go to ask the bank for more time to pay, but the bank says no, and finally they are forced to sell up.
Zack fears the move into town. There are so many things about the farm he will miss, but at the end, he tries to find some hope.
- What are the issues?
The main issue in the book is the drought, and the way it has affected (and continues to affect) Australian farmers. Government assistance has not helped many families on smaller farms. It’s common for either the husband or wife to have to find work in nearby towns to survive. There have been many cases of farmers shooting or culling stock in order to simply keep going when there is no food for them.
Other resources on this include Two Summers, a picture book by John Heffernan, illus. Freya Blackwood (http://www.spudplus.com/two-summers.htm ) and Bellyflop by Morris Gleitzman which is set against the backdrop of a drought. A more academic text is Drought: The Red Marauder by Michael McKernan (Allen & Unwin).
- Writer’s Notes
Where did the idea come from? As the drought grew worse in 2002-2003, I was traveling regularly up to Maryborough in Central Victoria. I couldn’t help but notice as the paddocks turned from beige to brown to a dead grey. The grass not only died, in many places it was down to bare earth. I come from New Zealand originally, the land of green grass, and I was greatly affected by the drought and the constant news reports of farmers losing their farms and having to kill stock. I wanted to write a story that would show kids what it was like, to give a real sense of the devastation, and I thought fiction could do that better than a news report. I think fiction can make issues personal and “real” by using characters whom the readers care about.
Why is this a verse novel? Originally, I started just writing poems about my own life on a farm when I was a kid. Although I’d written lots of poems for adults, it had never occurred to me to write children’s poems before (probably because I assumed they had to be rhyming poems, which I don’t write very often). Then I worked with two children’s poets in the USA, and the farm poems started coming.
It was only after I’d written about ten that I realized they were beginning to form a story, and the character of Zack emerged.
Farm Kid was never going to be a prose novel. By writing poems, I was able to focus on description, action and emotion much more clearly, and also allow the reader to enter the story more through the imagery. To me, this verse novel is closer to a graphic novel than anything, because it’s a series of word pictures that tells what happens.
The ending does hold some hope. How did you arrive at this ending? Originally, the ending was totally sad. The family loses the farm, which to them means losing everything. But my publisher said that it was too depressing. And the story is about family, and sticking together, and coming through bad times. When I thought about Zack, I felt he would try and work out some of the good aspects of being in town, but I hope the reader will still feel the vast loss of the farm as something more than just losing a piece of land.
Why don’t the poems rhyme? Rhyming poetry is really hard to do well. There is a tendency with rhymes to let them trap you into using weaker words, and also it’s easy to fall into a boring rhythm that doesn’t add anything to the poem. Without rhyme, I’m free to use all the other poetic devices such as line breaks, imagery, white space and strong endings to create better poems.
- Themes and questions
The main theme in the book is the drought and its effects on farmers in Australia. With environmental issues such as global warming now in the media so much, there is plenty of room for discussion with students. Where will our water come from in the future? Is it fair that farms growing crops such as rice take so much of our water? Are our irrigation schemes efficient or equitable?
The second theme is family. Throughout the story, Zack helps his dad on the farm as much as he can, and the family stays close (even against complaining Grandma!). The two kids are always told what is going on, even when the news is bad. This is an important theme for me, as I think children who are lied to or not told what is happening often imagine that things are far worse than they are. Families who support each other suffer less trauma and get through bad times more successfully.
Possible questions for your students:
a) How aware are you of the drought? Have you ever been on a farm? Have you been into the countryside? What different kinds of farms are there?
b) Do you try to save water at home? How? Where does your water come from?
c) Where does your family come from? Do you have any family heirlooms? Do you have any family stories? Who is the oldest person in your extended family? The youngest?
d) Have you read poems before? Do you know how to read a poem? Have you written any poems yourself? Have you read a verse novel before? What do you think of the idea that a verse novel is made up of tiny chapters? Can you think of other ways to describe it?
- Writing Activities
There are a number of poetry writing exercises on my website, including some for beginners – www.poetry4kids.net – and here are a few more.
a) Write a poem about your neighbourhood – start by listing ten things that you see in your street. Make each thing into a word picture, e.g. one item might be ‘crooked footpaths – tree roots have pushed the concrete up’. To turn this into a word picture you could write ‘the concrete slabs pile up like crooked dominoes’. Put your images together in small stanzas.
b) Write a poem about someone in your family or a friend. Use active words to describe them – similes, metaphors and imagery, e.g. Dad’s hair is a broom that catches spider webs.
c) Open the dictionary at random and, with your eyes closed, point to a word. Write it down. Do this three times more, then write a poem that uses all four words.
- About the author
I spent the first seventeen years of my life on a dairy farm in New Zealand. We had cows to milk, but no sheep or horses. I had two older sisters and one older brother – all of us could drive the tractor by the time we were twelve, so we often helped out with the hay, and sometimes with milking cows. I went to a small country school, with around 60 students and two teachers, but when I started high school, I had to travel into town by bus. Our farm had a creek running through it, and when it flooded, we didn’t have to go to school (we couldn’t!) but we often went swimming in the flood. Mum had lots of chooks, and we had three farm dogs. You can see that many of the things in the poems are from my life! However, we never had a drought like the one in Australia.
In 2005, Farm Kid won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (Patricia Wrightson Prize) for Children’s Books.
This was a great experience, and helped to bring the book to the notice of more readers and reviewers. It got excellent reviews in Magpies and Reading Time, and also was given a CBC Notable Book Award.
- Further relevant titles
I have since written and published a second verse novel, Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!), also a Penguin book. In terms of family themes, my novels Boots And All and Up a Tree are recommended. Up a Tree is also set in the country.