It’s winter in Australia right now, which pretty much makes it the perfect time to read books set at the beach! If you have children in the mid to upper primary years, Belinda Murrell’s charming new series – Pippa’s Island – might be just the thing.
I was pleased to sample Book 1 – The Beach Shack Café – and to interview the author about the inspirations behind the stories. Her generous responses reveal how travel, parenting and interacting with the many avid readers of her work have all found their way into this exciting new series.
Pippa’s Island by Belinda Murrell
Book 1 – The Beach Shack Café
Penguin Random House Australia Children’s RRP: $14.99 AUD
In The Beach Shack Café, we meet Pippa, who has just moved to Australia from London. Her mum is following an enviable dream – opening a bookstore in a quaint, seachange location. She’s also distancing herself from a crumbling marriage, seeking refuge with her own parents in tropical Kira Island.
Pippa’s new home looks like paradise, but feels an awfully long way from the Oxford Street shopping and Hyde Park horse riding lessons she’s grown up with. Most importantly, she’s now the new kid at Kira Cove Primary School. How is she going to make new friends and find her feet in this strange new world?
Belinda Murrell is an accomplished children’s writer, whose previous works include historical tales, a fantasy trilogy and the popular Lulu Bell series for younger readers. Pippa’s Island is fresh and funny, whilst also tapping into perennially popular kids’ fiction themes, like friendship, family and fitting in.
If, like me, you grew up with Enid Blyton, you’ll recognise a few nods to her style. Kira Island instantly reminded me of The Famous Five’s Kirrin Island. And when Pippa finds herself a gaggle of new friends, they create a secret club (the Sassy Sisters), preparing to change the world – Secret Seven style. I was gratified to see Belinda confirm in my interview (below) that Blyton was indeed one of her inspirations! But other readers will find their own points of familiarity; whilst for new readers, books like this may become their favourite childhood reads!
The series is recommended for readers 8 and up. From the perspective of a mum-of-tweens, I’d particularly recommend it for girls in the 8-10 bracket, for whom friendship challenges seem paramount! The book makes a point of reclaiming the word ‘sassy’ – showing how it can be OK to be strong, outgoing or ambitious, but without hurting others in the process.
The ‘new kid’ fish-out-of-water scenario here is compounded by Pippa having changed countries, too, allowing Murrell to showcase some ideas around cultural difference and cross-cultural understanding; another valuable set of discussion points for young readers.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask the author a little more about what inspired her to create Pippa’s world.
An interview with author Belinda Murrell
Q: Books about the ‘new kid in school’ are popular in children’s fiction. What is it about this scenario that makes it so useful in stories for young readers?
From the point-of-view of creating a story, it is fascinating to take a character, then turn their everyday world upside down, and see how that particular character copes. Dealing with change is difficult for anyone, and starting at a new school is one of the biggest challenges that a child could face. I remember when I was young, my family moved and changing schools had a profound impact on me at that time – leaving my old friends behind, trying to make new ones, and working out the different school culture. For Pippa, her arrival at Kira Cove shakes things up in a small school, shifting the power balance and friendship allegiances. While Pippa initially hates the move and just wants to go back to her old life, she soon comes to realise that her new life while very different, also brings her great joy.
Q: Young people, perhaps especially girls, struggle with peer relationships in their tweens and teens. Did you set out to positively influence young readers when it comes to friendship issues?
Yes, definitely. My daughter Emily is now nineteen, and has a group of beautiful friends, some of whom she has known since the beginning of primary school. Most of these girls are strong, clever, determined, kind and joyful. Yet over the years I have also seen so many tween and teenage girls struggling with friendship issues, jealousy, bullying, and anxiety. I have had lovely letters from parents telling me that my older books, in my time-slip series, have been really valuable in helping their daughters to cope with various problems in their lives. Books can give a real insight into the emotions and problems of other people, which can help readers to look at their own lives in a different way. I wanted to encourage girls to realise that while problems always happen in life, with courage, resilience, optimism and lots of love from friends and family, there is usually a way to overcome them.
Q: The ‘club’ is another device we see often in kids’ books. Why do you think kids find ‘secret clubs’ so appealing?
Everyone loves the idea of belonging to a special group. It’s lovely to have friends, but a club with its own name, rules and mission, especially a secret club, makes this sense of belonging more special. As a child some of my favourite books included The Famous Five and The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, and I absolutely loved the idea of belonging to an exclusive group like this. I noticed from the girls I know, as well as readers who write to me, that many of them identify themselves as being members of a special friendship club. It was this that inspired me to create Pippa’s secret club of four fab girls, with a motto “Be Bold. Be Brave. And be full of happy spirit.”
Q: I really enjoyed the elements of ‘culture shock’ Pippa experiences in her new home, and the palpable feelings of missing London. What inspired you to make Pippa British? Did this offer you any particular benefits or devices for the narrative?
One of the experiences which inspired Pippa’s Island was that when my children were younger, we went off on a grand adventure, travelling for two years. We spent six months in Europe (including London) and eighteen months exploring Australia in a caravan, including visiting many gorgeous islands! So while we had the most incredible time, my kids also had the experience of leaving their home, their school and all their friends behind them, which was sometimes tough, and then experiencing many different cultures and places. While my kids were mostly home schooled for those two years, they did experience attending tiny country schools, a remote Aboriginal community, school-of-the-air on a vast outback sheep station as well as visiting a couple of schools in Germany. The whole trip was such an amazing adventure.
With Pippa, I wanted her to have a similar experience of moving somewhere completely different and very far away. London seemed a good choice because it is both geographically and culturally distant. My cousin lives in London, with her English husband and children, and comes to visit about once a year. I have loved seeing the delight and occasional shock of her kids discovering their Australian roots – the beach, the animals, the lifestyle and the climate. I also lived and worked in London during my twenties, so I was very familiar with the city.
I wanted my character Pippa to deal with huge change. Not just leaving her friends but leaving her dad too. Not just moving schools, but moving countries. This meant that everything was so different on Kira Island – the climate, the landscape, the sport, the people, the community and the lifestyle. It gave Pippa so much more she had to cope with, but also a greater opportunity to learn and to grow as she deals with the everyday difficulties and joys of real life.