Diary of a Penguin-napper by Sally Harris

Sally Harris from Melbourne recently launched this bright, engaging fun book for children called Diary of a Penguin-napper. The book is for children in the 8 to 12 age range so we were pleased to receive a copy of Sally’s book in the post.

What was striking about Sally’s book is that it’s so attractive that the kids pounced on it as soon as it was out of the wrapper and were attracted by the cover, the title and the catchphrase ‘3 weeks ...2 boys …1 little penguin …What could possibly go wrong?
What is also unusual is that all my children in that age range (Evan, just turned 12, Ronan 10 and Erica 8) were interested in reading the book. One is penguin mad anyway which is a plus and the others were captivated by the story. Here is what they had to say:

Erica (8):  It was a fascinating book, exciting and adventurous. I liked the part where they stole the penguin from the zoo.  How much trouble can one little penguin cause? Answer: a lot.

Ronan (10): I like it because my favourite animals are penguins. I think the book is really good because it’s funny and adventurous. I like the policeman best.

Evan (12): I really liked the way the book was told as a first person account by Marty. When I picked up the book I couldn’t put it down and read it straight through to the end. It was a really well written book and I would definitely recommend it.

Fine praise indeed. What struck me was the fantastic cover, the compelling first chapter and the little details of having a little penguin at the bottom of every page. Lovely!

I asked Sally a bit about herself and the book…

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

Well, to begin with, I grew up in rural Australia in a large town on the Murray River called Mildura. It was a fantastic place to grow up because we had so much freedom, plenty of animals around and yet there wasn’t so much to do that we didn’t have to use our imaginations!

I can’t remember a time that I couldn’t read or write.  Mum made sure that there was always an endless supply of books and paper around the house and we were always at the local library.  I still have the first ‘proper’ book I wrote – I say proper because it was good enough to be covered with plastic to protect it!  I’m sure there were others, but my ‘Food Giggles’ joke book is now a treasured possession.

I went to boarding school for most of my high school years and had some fantastic teachers who really challenged me. I went on to complete a Bachelor of Education in Melbourne.  Since graduating, I’ve spent at least part of every year teaching in schools both in Melbourne and in the UK.

In 2008, I moved to the UK to complete a Masters degree in Education, majoring in Children’s Literature, which was absolutely inspiring. I learned so much about books for children during that one-year course and I’d go back to do it again if I could, just to learn even more.  And perhaps most importantly, I came away with the crazy idea that maybe I could write them myself!

And now, only last week in fact, I have just released my first book, Diary of a Penguin-napper.

What gave you the idea for Diary of a Penguin-napper?

It’s funny, now that I think about it, that I can’t pin point the exact moment that I first heard the urban myth about the boy stealing the penguin.  I think someone might have told me during my time at Cambridge in 2008/09, because I pondered the idea and made notes for about a year before actually putting pen to paper in 2010.  What I do know is that once I’d heard of the idea, I kept hearing about it from lots of different people!  And they all had a slightly different take on it.

It kind of got to a point where I felt like the universe was trying to tell me something, I’d heard about the myth that often, that I wondered how I had existed for 25 years without hearing about it earlier.

I also find the newspaper to be a great source of story ideas.  The ‘penguin-napping’ story has made the paper a few times over the past year or two. I usually find great inspiration in the short 4-5 sentence articles that fill the sides or bottoms of pages.  I find they are often on really unusual topics and you are only given a snippet of information to get you started.  Then, it is up to you as a writer to fill in the gaps!

Why do you enjoy writing for children?

I think I enjoy writing for children because I never stopped reading children’s books myself.  There was never really a complete transition into adult books – I’d read Maeve Binchy one day, Enid Blyton the next and a favourite pony book the next.  I love the adventure that you get with older children’s fiction – when children could go camping, hiking or horse riding for days on end and nobody would worry about them.

I also like the challenge of writing for children.  People always think it is easier because the books are shorter or the plots can be less complex, but let me tell you, they are a tough crowd! If children don’t like something, they’ll tell you.  If there are any loose ends, they’ll point them out.  If they aren’t engaged, they’ll put the book down without a second thought.

What do you think makes Diary of a Penguin-napper stand out?

Well, apart from the bright yellow cover, I think there are two things that really make it stand out in the sea of middle grade fiction out there.

The first is that it is based on a story that a lot of people have heard of already – that of a boy stealing a penguin from a zoo on a school trip. When people ask me what my book is about and I tell them, their reaction is often that they’ve heard about that and didn’t it really happen?

The second thing that I think makes Diary of a Penguin-napper really exciting is that it is funny.  As a teacher and librarian, I know how much children (and their parents) love books that make them laugh.  There are a lot of funny male writers – Roald Dahl, David Walliams, Andy Griffiths, to name but a few – but not nearly as many well known females.

What do you plan in the future?

I love being a teacher and working with children, so I’m definitely going to keep doing that. It is great to have a captive audience to test out story ideas on and to have some time in school holidays to get cracking with writing. I’m hoping to have a new title ready for next year and I’ve got a couple of ideas simmering away.  I just need to refine my corny jokes!

The cover is outstanding, tell us about that.

I absolutely love the cover design for this book!  I think it both captures the spirit of the story, plus it both fits well with the middle grade fiction genre and yet stands out because of the bold use of yellow.

When I decided to go ahead and print the book myself, I really wanted to produce a professional looking product and part of that was having an experienced cover designer create the cover.  Andrew Brown of Design for Writers had designed a number of covers for other books that I had read or come across, so I got in touch with him. He was absolutely fantastic to work with – very patient and very receptive to feedback.  I can’t recommend him enough!

Where can we get the book?

Diary of a Penguin-napper currently is available from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Penguin-napper-Sally-Harris/dp/0987416308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352707832&sr=8-1&keywords=diary+of+a+penguin-napper) as a paperback and for Kindle.  It is also flying off the shelves (or should that be waddling?) in a range of e-book formats from Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/251817).

As part of her blog tour, Sally appeared on That Book You Like (http://www.thatbookyoulike.com.au/) yesterday and will be talking about using research to bring your writing to life on Lost in Lit (http://lost-in-lit.blogspot.com.au/) tomorrow.  Be sure to join her to enter the draw to win a free copy of Diary of a Penguin-napper!

Be sure to join her to enter the draw to win a free copy of Diary of a Penguin-napper!

You can enter the draw and find out more about Sally and her new book on her blog where she’s written some very engaging articles on writing research and motivation.


That was the start of it, the vigils. Every night at the foot of the Gilt Spears a group of people congregated in a housing estate to look up at the stars. Housewives with working away husbands, fractious toddlers hanging upside down in their grim grip, wailing at the night. Comic book men with costume fetishes, conspiracy theorists with tales of Area 51, young pensioners with an eye for travel, Agatha Burns’ mother, Sandra and Karen (a hairdresser and a florist) and my father, congregating like they did the day of the total eclipse of the sun.

Nothing had ever surprised me more than when my father phoned me. In fact it was more surprising than what he rang to say. Over the years he had maintained an attitude of studied ignorance to my existence even as he indexed his Star Wars magazines. When my mother drew his attention to me, he often seemed taken aback as if he had no idea where I’d come from. And maybe that should have been a clue.

He was breathless – but that was normal by then. Roy spoke urgently into the phone. He said he had seen the lights. He said, ‘we are not alone’.  He said that he had heard music first, five notes on a scale and that he had made his way out to the back garden. Years before his first port of call would have been his telescope in the attic but his mobility was now poor. The world was travelling away from him; his feet could no longer find the floor, he constantly misheard, his near vision was almost gone. He had no trouble seeing the stars however, the further away the better. He drank champagne the night they announced the Glise 581g – the star closest in make up to ours, the Golidlocks planet that was just right for life.

He was even more bubbly there on the phone, he mentioned the music again, then the lights, three lights ‘dancing’ he said, ‘dancing’ It was a word I’d never heard him use, it was something I’d never seen him do although my mother was the kind of woman who should have been whisked about the floor. But he was changed that day, his voice was honey bright, he went on, telling me. I watched the lights fall through the sky. They stopped and hovered over my head. Then they flicked and dipped like the tail of a fish. Then they disappeared, ‘behind the Gilt Spears,’ he said, referring to the hills nearby.

‘Why me?’ I said

‘Come again?’

‘Why me?’

‘I thought you might like to know.’

Then he admitted he couldn’t get Barry, that he’d left a message on his mobile. I think he’d forgotten that Barry was no longer talking to him.

Of course he didn’t expect me to come, especially after the accident, it wasn’t so easy for me to get round. I visited him the next evening after sundown. He helped me take the wheelchair from the car. People were congregating on the green. They were organised. Mrs Burns had made sandwiches and the two young women made hot chocolate for everyone.

That first night we saw nothing but there was a sense of optimism. I watched my father’s face contain an alien happiness. He told jokes, he became considerate, draping a blanket over my legs to save me from the cold. After a couple of hours I went back into my father’s house with him and he talked and talked, a great river of information, all the vital statistics that were necessary for understanding what might be about to happen.

But then in the onslaught he paused, he asked me a question and he listened. I heard myself talking, and I saw him taking notice and I became real.

Night after night for seven days I returned for the vigil. I never believed, but look what had been accomplished – every night talking with my father, repairing the old mottled cloth. On the sixth night, he took my hand and shed tears when talking about my accident. He’d never referred to it before. ‘No one was on the look out for you.’ He said.

The next night we looked up at the sky over towards the Gilt Spears. Again the residents standing with their mouths open and their breaths baited. ‘Do you think there is anything out there?’ said the lady called Karen. ‘Might be, Sandra replied, biting into a marshmallow. Some of the group had given up, they were in front of their televisions watching repeats of Family Ties.

There was a sudden lull, like the bottom fell out of something. I looked up in the sky and I heard the music, the music that I seem to come from a long time ago from among the forest of chair legs as I sat underneath, the girl forgotten. I heard music but I saw nothing, nothing at all.

The people were oohing and swooning, shouting about the lights. ‘Dancing,’ called my father, pointing. When I looked there was nothing there but I heard above my head his perpetual humming, five notes from Close Encounters, this humming I had heard my lifetime through.

‘Three lights!’ he yelled, ‘Look, Look.’ But I couldn’t see anything. Maybe I wasn’t the daughter for him. My father clasped my hand, his tears illuminated in the street lamps.

‘Do you see it?’ he said.

‘Yes!’ I shouted. ‘Yes, isn’t it wonderful!’

He kissed my cheek. ‘Gertie,’ he said, his shoulders heaving. ‘It’s real isn’t it?’

‘Yes!’ I said. He lent down. I placed my lips against the damp wool of his coat. My fingers were crossed.