It’s always tricky to pinpoint the exact moment of inspiration. Most novels are a fiery constellation of sparks. In the case of ‘The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler,’ I do remember one particularly zinging moment. I was participating in a Book Rap online in October 2009, with the illustrator Emma Quay, on our books ‘Bear and Chook’ and ‘Bear and Chook by the Sea.’ We blogged for almost a month, answering all kinds of questions about the picture book making process. At the same time, the schools were also rapping with one another too, sharing their answers to questions about the nature of friendship, the ways that Bear and Chook were both the same but also different. Which is how I discovered the following meditation on the nature of courage.
We think Bear and Chook are very different. To begin with Chook is a bird and has a beak and wings whereas Bear is a mammal and has fur. Chook is small and Bear is big. Bear comes from the polar land and is wild, unlike Chook who is a domestic pet and comes from a farm. We also think that Chook is brave the whole time, not like Bear, who gives up towards the end.
From The Bear and Chook Party
Year 2 – Colyton Public School
Ah, the simplicity of that line! ‘We also think that Chook is brave the whole time, not like Bear, who gives up towards the end.’ That small, true sentence slayed me. Because how could I not have seen it? How could I not have grasped the bare truth that the bravest character is always the one that carries the most fear, for the longest time and keeps on going? I’d been blind to Chook’s radical bravery. I’d been beguiled by Bear’s audacity, energy and confidence. I’d been enticed into thinking that Bear’s resilient get-up-and-go, somehow qualified him as the more courageous of the two. It was a bunch of seven-year olds that ripped the blindfold from my eyes. They helped me to see these characters that I had written about not once, but twice, with fresh eyes.
I remain endlessly grateful to those fantastic kids. Their crisp wisdom stayed with me for years and years. It followed me right into the writing of Henry Hoobler and shaped what I did there, how I approached that story about a sensitive, somewhat anxious boy, learning what it means to be daring and brave, whilst on his summer holidays with his family and friends.
There were some other sparks for Henry Hoobler of course, notably my experience of camping with my husband and our three boys and an extended group of friends down the south coast, for close to a decade. I had never camped as a kid and so came late to the delights; our tent like a thin-skinned cocoon, sleeping bags, makeshift kitchens, rope clotheslines, tarps and tarp envy, communal eating, washing up outside while watching a sunset, the endless tea towel leg-flicking competitions. The natural world so deliciously close—stars, sunrises, sunsets, the rolling in of salt mists, not to mention the late-night entertaining snores from some of our closest neighbours.
I wrote tiny snatches in my writing journals all the time, not because I was planning to write a novel back then but more because I wanted to capture the textures. The relentless clock-like tide, the moon rising out of the sea like a big bald baby, the mournful cries of the birds out on the water at night, the tide rushing over the breakwater, the squeal of truck brakes from the distant highway. I wanted to capture the smells—rotting seaweed, baking bread from the local shops, burnt toast and bacon in the morning. I was on the lookout too, for those unexpected, tiny, electric moments of true meeting between people. Those bright, blasting moments of connection that come almost like annunciations, sometimes with friends and sometimes with strangers, in the weirdest of places—by the pool, in the laundry, on the bike path, by the barbecues.
It was a revelation how much our boys relished camping. How much they embraced living in community, roaming the campsite with more freedom than they had ever experienced before. There was the forming of new friendships and the reforming of old ones. There was the constant trying of new things, the ebb and flow of so much physical and emotional risk-taking. I noticed the way the quieter, more anxious kids began to embrace the things they feared; learning how to ride a bike, swim in the deep, conquer a rip-stick and surf in the sea. I pondered their courage and stored it up.
The final nudge for the story came from my youngest son, who went from devouring easy readers to gulping down Harry Potter in a single year. Although I was excited to see how much he loved reading, I was also aware that he was in a slippery in-between stage as a reader. That he was a confident enough reader to read the Harry Potter books right to the very end of the series but that much of the emotional content might be beyond his reach. I’d loved the work of Beverly Cleary as a kid, especially her capacity to write comic, true-to-life characters that spoke straight to the heart, with really delectable line-by-line writing. I began to wonder whether I could possibly write a story that might speak more directly to the life of my own seven-year old son. I began to wonder whether it might be possible to write a story that might celebrate the physicality, quirky humour, sensitivity, intuition and deep thoughtfulness of the many boys we had camped with over the years.
So out of all those floating sparks came the story of Henry Hoobler, who is worried about so many things: going away, camping, the dreaded possibility of bugs, spiders, snakes, stingers, blue-ringed octopi, tsunamis and sharks. Not to mention the very ordinary but seemingly insurmountable challenge of having to learn how to ride his new silver bike, without training wheels, in front of his family and friends. Out of all that pondering, emerged the character of Cassie, the young girl who lives on site in a caravan with her Pop and who carries her own losses with immense chutzpah, and who inspires Henry to discover his own particular kind of courage.
A book is always a collaborative process. I’m immensely grateful to my editors at Allen & Unwin, for all the ways they helped Henry to be a better book. I was elated when Judy Watson agreed to illustrate the cover and the internals. I’d loved her illustration work for years, the fluid grace of her lines and the delicacy of her characterization. It almost feels like you can smell the salt and hear the sea roaring at Yelonga, thanks to the very fine way Judy captures the small details—seals, seagulls, seashells, gelatos, tents, pelicans, the look on Henry’s face as he rides down the hill of death and Cassie’s retro crimson dragster. And then of course, the book had the benefit of the brilliant designer Debra Billson too, who caught the mood and movement of the story and translated that so superbly in her design.
Writing Henry was entirely pleasurable, from start to finish. I couldn’t wait to turn up for work each day, to see what Henry and his friends and family might get up to next. It was a lovely thing too, to be writing about summer, all the way through the cold, gloomy months of winter. I was sad to let the characters go in the end. It felt like a real wrench to say goodbye.
But I’m overjoyed now to see the book out in the world! I hope readers will come away with a deep affection for Henry and for his anxious dilemmas. I hope they will experience considerable admiration for the courage of Cassie. And that there will be shouts of laughter, delight, flashes of recognition, burning lumps in the throat and a sense of exhilaration. I’m hoping readers will return to their real worlds, with a fresh understanding of the immense power of small moments, eager for the treasures of unexpected friendship. I’m certainly crossing my fingers that a whole bunch of of kids will see themselves in Henry and that they will be comforted, consoled and inspired by all that he discovers during his grand, genius summer.
“This is a family tale set in happy family camping holiday that explores family relationships, friendships and overcoming the things in life that get in the way of joyful exuberance—like being afraid of riding a bike without trainer wheels. Lisa Shanahan has written a beautifully sensitive exploration of fear and perseverance to overcome the tough things in life. Young readers will recognize themselves and the portrayal of the family is overwhelmingly healthy…This is a book to recommend to readers aged 8 to 11—or a great book to share as a read-aloud text for aged 7+ because of its social and emotional discussion potential.” Carolyn Hull
“This is really well written book. It’s easy to read out loud—and I can’t recommend that enough—but it’s also great for early readers to read alone. It’s fast paced, with lots of dialogue, making it easy to follow the story and to get wrapped up in Henry’s life. If you a have proficient reader from about 8 years and up, they’ll enjoy reading it to themselves, but I think it would be a shame to have only that limited age engage with this book. It’s really a book for the whole family—marvellous for reading together on a car trip. All those fabulously insightful moments are part of a story that's high energy, funny and chock full of been-there-done-that moments. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some share the worrisome world of a young boy, and some are glimpses of a loving family’s life. It’s the sort of book that parents will hope their children read but won't have to push them into it—because it’s such a great story.” Kim Fulcher
“Shanahan has drawn Henry’s character beautifully; his reticence, prevarication, worries about things that may upset him and of course, trying out his new bike. His meeting with Cassie sees him lying about his new bike and her straightforwardness niggles at the lie he has told, but in the end her courage rubs off and with his older brother’s help he takes the plunge, making this the best holiday ever. This is a gently story about overcoming fears, about meeting new people, the random teasing that happens within family and friends that can cause anxiety, but above all, it is about family and having fun together, even with a teenager in the back seat. Shanahan is able to inhabit each character with a dose of reality, making each recognizable and endearing, prompting the reader to read to the end to see what happens to this particular group of people and in particular, Henry Hoobler.” Fran Knight
“What I loved about this endearing story is the author’s easy, flowing style, authentic characters and situations, all imbibed with a natural humour. This is a fun-filled, heart-warming tale exploring themes of anxiety, courage and friendship. It’s perfect for independent readers who enjoy a realistic adventure story—especially for any child who needs to conquer their fears and discover their inner Henry! A great read-aloud story for the whole family and highly recommended for ages 7 and up.” Athina Clarke, Children’s & YA Book Specialist
“Lisa Shanahan does a beautiful job of weaving together Henry’s fears, thoughts and experiences with the unfolding of a typically Australian family camping holiday.
Readers 8–12 will love Henry and his adventurous holiday sidekick Cassie. This would make a perfect read aloud and classroom discussion novel (year 3, 4, 5) and every Australian school library should have a copy. A great, relatable, touching story.” Katie Bingham Highly Recommended for Younger Readers
“The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler’ is a feel-good story about what is the meaning of bravery, friendship and family...With laughter, moments of poignancy, and lots of feel-good moments, ‘The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler’ is a treat.” Sally Murphy
Children’s Books Daily
“It is a joy and a privilege to read the writing of Lisa Shanahan and I always do a little happy dance whenever a new book by her lands on my desk. Whether writing picture book texts or young adult novels, Lisa Shanahan imbues warmth and gentle humour into her authentic stories and relatable characters…This is just the most lovely exploration of anxiety, catastrophising (I recognize this is Henry as I’m a catastrophiser myself!) and finding some inner pluck—with the help of family, friends and a bit of looking inwards.” Megan Daley
“Lisa Shanahan, the award-winning writer of ‘My Big Birkett,’ has created a touching novel that will appeal to readers aged 7–11 years. Henry’s family members and their camping holiday dynamics are so believable that it might feel as though you’re observing them all from a neighbouring tent! Their alternating feelings of frustration, sadness and support for Henry’s emotions are very realistic. I particularly liked the way Henry’s anxieties crept up on him, rather than being the central focus of every scene. The book covers themes of family relationships, friendships and anxieties. By the end of the story, armed with a new friend, a powerful bike and a firm sense of adventure, Henry adopts Cassie’s philosophy in life: ‘the best things always happen on the way to somewhere else.” Daniela Andrews
“‘The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler is best for mid primary-age readers—it’s rare to find a high quality Australian stand-alone novel for this age-group. It is set during a quintessential Australian beach camping holiday. Henry is ‘Mr Worst Case Scenario.’ He worries about the adventures and feats (particularly by bike) that most book characters would embrace. The author is perceptive and empathetic in how she addresses Henry’s concerns. The writing and characterisation is impeccable for the intended age group.” Joy Lawn