A stitch in mine

It’s November. I’m not counting the days until Christmas, but I am counting the days until I get to experience something far less common and more painful: An operation. Yay!

(This is a long entry, with a sprinkling of swear words. Feel free to skip to the bottom where there’s a link to donate money.)

On 30 November (moved from 7 November) I’ll be getting the 9-cm gap in my stomach muscles stitched back together. It’s 100% normal for stomach muscles to separate during pregnancy, and to gradually close over the six months post-pregnancy (one of several excellent reasons to never ever ask a lady if she’s pregnant, especially if she has young children). Most women wind up with a permanent stomach gap of a centimetre or so. If the gap doesn’t close on its own, no amount of exercise or weight loss will fix it.

Similar injuries caused by sport or accidents are covered under the public health system in Australia. Pregnancy injury is not. The excellent Waleed Aly once did a segment on the inherent sexism in not assisting women like me. Louisette turns six in January and TJ is three and a half, so I’ve had the unwieldy annoyance and pain of a pregnancy-style belly for more than six years, and have been trying to get the necessary surgery for three years.

Here’s the awkward bit: Because re-attaching stomach muscles involves dealing with skin, it’s plastic surgery. It also makes women look less pregnant. I imagine this is why male politicians refuse to fund it. Women could take advantage of the system just to restore their exhausted parasite-hosting bodies to their previous appearance! Women who’ve had an improbably large object rip its way out of their most sensitive organs might have one aspect of their horrifically violating journey to motherhood erased! Women might have one less complaint that needs to have, “But of course I wouldn’t change a thing! I’m just so thrilled to have a child!” tacked onto the end.

I’m one of the lucky ones, psychologically. Both of my pregnancy experiences were awful awful awful, but they’re over now. My births went pretty well. I noticed and suffered from various problems the medical industry could have done a lot better, and I hope that makes me a useful advocate for other pregnant people in future.

But.

Becoming a mother gave me a long list of permanent chronic conditions that ultimately made me unable to care for my own children (and also cost me my job in childcare, which I loved). This year I’ve gotten to the point where I can mind both kids solo for about three hours fairly consistently, or one for a full day. My kids are pretty great—healthy, happy, and fundamentally decent human beings. But I’m disabled now, because of having them, and that—well, it just sucks.

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(Pause for cuteness.)

It’s very clear that not everything that’s wrong with me can be fixed. I realised that a long time ago, and the writer and advocate in me is glad, because I know that I can now write some types of disabled characters really well. My pain is fodder for better stories—the kind that can give hope to people who need it, and a bit of empathy to everyone else.

I still have hope that one day I won’t feel afraid of my children any more. Right now it hurts to stand, to make a sandwich, to pick them up, to buckle them into the car, to walk with them to the shops (or to the front door of the school), to get down on the floor and play with them, and so on. Sometimes I don’t care, and I pretend nothing hurts. Other days it feels like my kids are torturing me on purpose. Most days I plan carefully: How much strength do I have? Is today a good day or a bad day? How can I make the kid/s feel loved without risking long-term injury to myself? What corners can I cut without hating myself or neglecting the kids? How do I manage my stupid body so it lasts until bed time today?

I’ve had a few wins along the way. With TJ I had daily migraines (mostly “silent” migraines that are mainly aura with not much pain) for the whole pregnancy, and then they just… didn’t stop. I now take a medication that has 90% solved the migraine issue (although I haven’t yet recovered from the brain damage that resulted from two years of daily migraines). I had a minor operation a few years ago that improved some other stuff, and I have a third major problem that can also be treated with pills. (The second and third conditions in this list are a bit too personal for a blog.)

 

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(Pause for cuteness.)

Here are some things that will definitely/probably be improved by my stomach surgery:

-vertebrae and disc spinal injuries (the pain will be eased after the surgery because there won’t be a giant stomach pulling my spine out of alignment) causing significant pain and disability.

-prolapsed uterus (hopefully all my misplaced organs will slot neatly back into place)

-abdominal diastasis (that’s what the surgery is actually for)

-umbilical hernia (which will definitely be fixed by the surgery)

-pain-related depression and anxiety (which will be improved by surgery)

I’m also looking forward to seatbelts working properly again. At the moment, they slide up my stomach and cut into my neck (literally; I have a lovely connection of skin tags on each side of my neck; half from driving and half from being the passenger).

And I might just be able to wear pants again, which would be awfully convenient. And swimmers. Technically I can and do wear swimmers, but my stomach is so disproportionate that they’re really uncomfortable.

Lotsa nausea will be reduced or eliminated, which will be nice.

And I’ll be able to cut my own toenails without swallowing vomit (due to pressing down on an unprotected stomach in order to reach my feet). That’ll be nice too.

It will be awesome to be able to wear dresses again. It took me far too long to realise that dresses always exaggerate a big stomach, because they’re designed to show the nice straight lines of a body (which pregnant bodies don’t have).

Anyone who’s been pregnant knows the pain of picking things up from the floor. I’m really looking forward to that being less of a big deal.

And of course, I won’t look nearly as pregnant! I’m not expecting a bikini body—in fact I imagine I’ll still look a little bit pregnant—but it’ll be soooo much better than my current reality. When I’m faced with large social events I often have quite bad panic attacks beforehand due to knowing most of the people there will assume I’m pregnant. Did I mention I already had a social anxiety disorder?

Here’s a real story from literally less than a week ago:

Nice Lady, sympathetically: Oh, how are you doing?

Me, immediately realising what she’s getting at: I’m fine thanks.

Nice Lady: It’s such hard going when you’re so far along!

Me, thinking both, “Well this is an especially bad one” and “She’s old and I’ll probably never see her again. Let’s not correct her”: Thank you.

Nice Lady: So when are you due?

Me, thinking, “Fuck. Oh well here goes”: I’m not actually pregnant.

[Cue classic conversation in which I try to make someone feel better for making me feel like absolute shit.]

I once had a man I didn’t know approach me at a funeral and ask me my due date while rubbing my stomach.

Aaand I once went into a physio appointment at the hospital where I’d recently given birth, and seen that exact same physio a week earlier for a pre-birth appointment, and had the physio look at me and say, “Weren’t you going to be induced last Friday?”

Yes. In fact I was induced last Friday. The baby was out.

In her defence, this is what I looked like that day (and ever since):

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If you want to be respected by a medical professional, be very careful not to tick any of the following boxes:

  1. Being female. Statistically, reports of female pain (and various other issues) are underestimated by medical professionals across the board.
  2. Being overweight. Were you in the healthy weight range before you began to suffer from [insert medical condition here]? It doesn’t matter. If you are fat, your medical condition is your fault, or at least made worse by you.
  3. Being mentally ill. Why should anyone listen to a crazy person? If you talk rationally, your mental illness isn’t serious and you’re probably just looking for attention. If you talk irrationally, you’re an irrational person and anything you say is suspect. (Fun Fact: Although “Violent offender was mentally ill” is a common theme in both fiction and real-life news reporting, mentally ill individuals are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. Because who listens to the mentally ill? Not doctors or police or reporters or writer, apparently!)
  4. Being pregnant, post-partum, or a mother. Women’s uteruses and hormones have been the ultimate go-to cause of all physical illnesses and pain since Ancient Greece. Not only can a doctor comfortably diagnose any disease as “women’s problems” (and therefore natural), but any women who continues to complain is violating the well-known fact that motherhood is a BEAUTIFUL and NATURAL thing, and all that pain and illness and childbirth and breastfeeding/bleeding and 17% lower wages and sexual harassment is because we’re just SPECIAL and PRECIOUS and PRIVILEGED to be the bearer of little health-destroying bundles of JOY. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was told that my pain levels were a normal part of pregnancy. Actually, I’d injured my spine and dislocated my hip, both of which still cause me pain today. Thanks, medical science!

For the record? There’s probably no high greater than the high of having a baby. I’ve been there, and it’s awesome. A lot of doctors are aware of their biases and are working on making things better. And let’s be clear: I have two kids, so all the shit I waded through evidently didn’t put me off motherhood. There are lots of precious and beautiful aspects to motherhood, but they tend to come at a high cost (higher than any man ever has to pay for fatherhood). Higher than usual, in my case—not just because nature is an asshole (although she is) but because our society as a whole still has quite a ways to go before women, especially sick women (or women of colour, which I am not) are treated with the respect they deserve.

Ultimately I was forced to go the private route for this surgery, which costs around $15,000. Super fun when I don’t have a normal job any more!

You can donate here, if you like.

Parenting Review

This blog post came up in my facebook feed today, and I vaguely remembered it so I went back and had a read. It was written three years ago, when TJ was a tiny baby. It starts out, “I like to think about what I’m doing as a parent, and of course talk about it, because that helps me to understand what matters to me and what I can just let slide.”

That certainly hasn’t changed!

The kids are still pretty decent human beings, so THAT’s good. They barely ever eat a decent quantity of vegies, but at least they don’t eat much junk. They’re almost always well behaved, which makes Chris and I look good (them being functional members of society is a pleasant side effect, too).

The dummy drama is long over. It was difficult for a couple of weeks, then fine. It’s definitely worth reminding myself how much dummies are not an issue any more. Three years ago, that was on my mind every waking hour.

Babysitting-wise I’m now able to get through a full day with both kids, which is a huge achievement. It’s not an easy thing to get through a full day, though. (The Christmas holidays loom ahead, and they won’t be easy.) I haven’t been well enough to go back to work at all (other than writing), and I cope a LOT better if I’m looking after one kid at a time (Louisette is at school and TJ in daycare Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday so I get plenty of one-on-one time with each of them). So do the kids, not surprisingly. The get on really, really well—we have been extremely lucky in the mix of personalities—but no child plays well with another child every waking minute.

(My writing, of course, has taken off spectacularly in the last three years.)

Drool is no longer as issue. Easy peasy. The kids sometimes have food on their faces, but we don’t need a sheet under the table any more. Yay!

The kids watch SO MUCH TV. As I said before, I’m sure I’ll set TV limits sometime before the kids leave home. TV is free babysitting, which is hugely helpful. If everything else was perfect, then I’d probably focus on TV stuff. And if I had more significant issues, nothing on this list would make me blink an eye. Except maybe….

Toilet training suuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. That’s definitely the biggest parental stress right now. Presumably one day it’ll be like the dummy thing, “Oh yeah, I remember that sucked at the time, but it’s such a long time ago now.”

I have to choose to believe that. It’s been three years of misery toilet-wise and we’re seeing various experts nowadays.

The house is messy. I don’t have the energy to make the kids tidy up every day, especially at night when we’re all tired. But there are some things the kids usually do quite well, like putting their shoes in the right place. Usually they’re fairly obedient.

Louisette definitely has ADD. She’s keeping up academically due to being naturally intelligent, but I’ve stopped doing homework with her because it’s just too hard. Since ADD probably has an impact on toilet training, we’ll most likely try medication before the end of this year. It will be VERY interesting to see how that helps her cope with other life things, like emotional overload and reading.

Looking back, I wrote that previous blog entry at a really hard time. I hope that in three more years I’ll look back at this year—a year of miserable toilet training and lots of bad health for me—and say, “Those problems were such a big deal, but they’re in the past now.”

My kids are fundamentally healthy and happy, and that’s any parent really wants.

 

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What I earned this year

Full-time writers in Australia have an average income of around $12,000 (I know, yikes). In Canberra, which has a lot of good public service jobs, the average income is around $52,000.

I just did my taxes, and worked out that I earned just under $20,000 last financial year while working full-time. 100% of that came from writing (the vast majority from interactive fiction). So depending on one’s perspective, that’s either really impressively awesome, or shockingly awful.

If I was healthy and single and childless, I could probably survive on $20,000 a year. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve lived on the edge before. (I once spent $5/week on food for several months—but that was certainly not sustainable, even for a young and healthy person during friendly weather.) On the other hand, if I’d been babysitting for the same number of hours I spent writing, I’d have earned at least twice as much.

So, again, whether it’s awesomely good or awesomely bad is a matter of perspective.

It should be noted that I’m not healthy, or single, or childless. I keep a complicated house running fairly smoothly, and I look after two little people (and, in some respects, Chris—he is my carer in many ways, and I am his in some ways too). I am overwhelmingly not a healthy person, and some days I barely function at all.

So. $20,000. It’s both a huge and a tiny amount, and it’s $20,000 more than I earned for most of my writing career. Plus I can say “writing career” without sarcastic quotes these days.

It’s in my nature to always push myself for more. I’m sure that if I earned $100,000 last financial year I’d be looking for ways to earn more, or work less, or something. A lot of creative people look at others and think, “Wow. If my career was where theirs is, I’d be so satisfied!” I definitely remember specifically aiming for the impossible amount of $20,000/year at some point—a point at which $20,000 was as laughable as $100,000 is now.

I also have a book published—two, in fact, and at least four more on the way. I’m so famous that people seek me out at conferences, waiting for my latest book. I get fan mail quite often. I get people—quite a few people—saying “This is the best story I’ve ever read”. I even get actual reputable game companies emailing me to offer me work (I have two REALLY COOL projects on the go at the moment that I can’t talk about). My income doesn’t even cover our mortgage (or the medical expenses of this year), but why should it? I’m the closest thing to a stay at home parent our household has, so I’m doing a bunch of important and often difficult work before I earn a cent.

Have I convinced you that I’m not just messing around with this writing thing (after more than twenty years of devoting myself to the craft)? More importantly, have I convinced myself? Maybe a little bit. Certainly it’s time to pause and celebrate how far I’ve come, and to shift some of my pile of insecurities into the “irrational” pile.

So, yay. Much yay. And I suspect this financial year will be even better!

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Artist’s impression of a life of leisure.

Gift Guide for Ages 3-6ish

I loooove buying presents for my kids. As in, I’ll cheerfully buy presents in June (like budget experts tell you to), and then continue buying presents for the entire rest of the year (which budget experts do not recommend). Having said that, we don’t do stocking presents in our house, and likely never will. I hate the idea of a pile of low-quality gifts. And I assure you that my kids have plenty of full-blown present-opening frenzies made up entirely of quality gifts (generally around $20 each, although often there’s one gift that is much more expensive).

We also have three Christmases every year: One for my side of the family (usually mid-December, since my Mum runs church services on Christmas Day), one for Chris’ side of the family (usually Christmas Day), and our own private small & special Christmas Eve. We light candles and open 1 or 2 gifts each (usually 1, but of course the kids want to give their gifts to each other and I try not to refuse generous impulses).

You may have heard of the Four-Gift Rule. There’s a few variations, but the idea is that parents can restrict themselves to four gifts. For example:

  1. Something you want
  2. Something you need
  3. Something to wear
  4. Something to read

 

Or:

  1. Something to play with
  2. Something to wear
  3. Something to read
  4. Something to share

 

I disagree with “something to wear” because clothes are only exciting if you only ever get one new outfit a year. Since there is more than one season in a year, my kids often get new clothes. (You’ll be shocked at the knowledge that I love buying them clothes and I’m certainly not going to only buy them clothes in December. That reminds me… Louisette definitely needs a new pirate outfit…)

But enough prologue. Here’s some awesome loot:

  1. Water. Always a winner, in virtually any form. I like a water table because then I can choose to believe that the kids won’t need their swimmers (until proven otherwise). We’ve had a water table before (which was also fun for collecting ice in winter) but after a couple of years outside it was so brittle it fell to bits. Which means I got to buy another one! A BETTER one!

This particular model was $40 from Woolies. But pretty much any one will do. The kids will love seeing the enormous box under (…next to…) the tree, too. The orange handles on the side turn wheels that make the water flow around the circle. How cool is that!

 

2. Books! It ain’t Christmas without books (for myself, Chris, and the kids). There are a million fantastic books for kids, so it’s well worth having a bit of a google, both for the stuff your kid likes, and for lists saying the best books—then you can click through for a better look at the ones that appeal. And of course this is a great time to go and support your local bookshop, too!

I noticed around this time last year that Louisette has a bent toward engineering, so I bought her books that were specifically geared (heh) to encourage girls to picture themselves in STEM careers (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths). Googling “STEM” in combination with “Books” and any other relevant words (age 5, girls, etc) will get you a lot of suggestions.

This particular book emphasises that things don’t work perfectly the first time. It also rhymes.

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This is also the book that inspired Louisette’s House-Car-Plane project, which won her an award.

The same authors have two other books. One is ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and the other is IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. They’re all in the same school, I believe.

ROSIE REVERE and ADA TWIST also have follow-up “project” books. Louisette is going to looooove hers!

For TJ, his grand obsession is puzzles (more on that later). For his books, I googled and then clicked on this list. Easy! Out of those, I chose:

 

A sleep time book (parents can fantasise that it makes bedtime easier), a singing book, and a book about kindness. As you may have guessed, TJ loves vehicles. Also dinosaurs and superheroes.

3. Pets

I dream of one day producing a suspiciously mobile box with air-holes in the lid and a puppy inside. One day. Not sure if it’s plausible. We’d need to have real grass in our backyard first, for one thing.

In the meantime, we recently bought some fish. They’re actually a terrible Christmas gift because the set up and cycling takes about a week (if it doesn’t, you’re likely to have mass extinction—ask me how I know), and it’s such a busy time that it’s hard to get good advice from your pet shop when you need it most. But it could work for a birthday, keeping in mind pets are a huge deal (and fish don’t cuddle, so it’s noticeable that Louisette quite likes the fish but TJ doesn’t care much).

Cats are awesome, of course. In my opinion, they’re easier than fish. You need to think about where they’ll poo (kitty litter? Your yard? The neighbour’s organic vegie patch?) and how much you care about native birds (something like 80% of cats kill at least one native bird and don’t tell their owners).

Pets are always super expensive and higher maintenance than expected. Mice and birds tend to stink. A five-year old can potentially do a small amount of pet-related jobs, but will never be reliable. You’re also taking a risk of experiencing death (although that’s technically an advantage, because it helps kids to understand death a bit better when they lose a human they really love).

4. Building kits.

We have loads of duplo and about five sets’ worth of wooden train set (which has a near-infinite number of possible permutations). But I wanted something a bit older for Louisette (and I fear the dreaded Underfoot Lego—Louisette has some lego, but she has to bring it out and put it away in one session at a time). Then I stumbled across this amazing thing:

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That’s right. It’s a building toy designed for six-year old girls THAT HAS A MOTOR. It’s made by a company called Roominate. This set has three permutations (helicopter, submarine and plane), and it also fits with their various other sets (which, disappointingly, do not seem to have a motor—although you can buy it separately).

I’m buying another set from the same range for Louisette’s birthday, so she can combine sets in unique ways. When I tried it out for myself, the motor was great but the pieces were a little hard to put together. Still, I like the curves and colours.

And it’s under $30. I really like that it has a person (particularly a girl, particularly a non-Caucasian girl—she is Hawaiian) and a rabbit. Not just because it encourages imaginative play, but because engineers SHOULD be thinking about what their machines are actually FOR. Are they big enough for people? Are they comfortable? Are they safe? Can she see out the window while she’s flying? Etc.

I also bought this Melissa & Doug building set for $40 on ebay:

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I look forward to seeing Louisette do weird and wonderful stuff with it. (Following instructions to build a specific shape is also a fantastic skill set that’s well worth developing.)

It’s a little silly to buy two different building sets for one Christmas, but here we are.

5. Speaking of personal obsessions… TJ and puzzles. He does puzzles every day, over and over again. He is very good at puzzles. Although he’s three (and a half), he is well above average when it comes to puzzles.

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Given that he’s just discovered (and begun obsessing over) WHERE’S WALLY? this was the obvious choice. It has 35 pieces, which is challenging but possible for TJ—and then he can amuse himself finding every single one of the items in the border. It’s $25 here.

That particular website gives free postage for non-bulky orders over $100 (I found them because they sell Roominate stuff). This was not a difficult task (although I have several very kind relatives who I tend to source gifts for, that they pay for and then give to my kids—I get to “buy” more presents, and my relatives save a bunch of time and brain effort).

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This is a simpler puzzle (also a floor puzzle, which is great for younger kids). It’s $27 and out of stock (apparently I bought the last one) here (same online store as the above). The genius thing about this is that TJ will learn his continents and several animals while doing this puzzle (over and over again). There are LOADS of puzzles that educate kids about various things (letters, numbers, maps, animals, even spelling).

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This is a 30-piece puzzle that is trickier than it looks. There are holes in the back that TJ will LOVE using to poke out the pieces (also solving a classic issue with new puzzles—pieces that don’t come out!) Every piece is a slightly different shape so it’s hopefully developing a slightly different part of TJ’s brain. It’s $14 here.

6. Trains. Wooden trains are seriously awesome (except for the crawling around on the ground part—we’re WAY past tables here). Pretty much all wooden sets will fit together in lots of different ways. Other than a $30 set that popped up at Aldi this year, they are super expensive. This tunnel is cool (the dinosaur on the top is a separate piece, which will be handy for attacking the trains below), but that one thing cost $20 (here), which is pretty standard.

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7. Active stuff. Any list of four gifts should include “Something Physical”. Some things are super expensive, like a trampoline or bike. Some not so much. This is very much billed as a Summer toy (it floats) but I thought it was a great toy for cold or rainy days when the kids need to do something silly and active… and inside. Even the rings are inflatable.

It’s $35 here. (I bought it when it was on sale.)

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8. Bath letters. Cheap, awesome, and educational. I guarantee Louisette will use these to teach TJ more of his letters. He can already count up to 12 and recognise ten or so numbers and letters—because he worships Louisette, and she loves teaching (which of course also helps her own knowledge). When wet, they stick to tiles. How fun is that!?!

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These were $4 on ebay, and I bet they’re a favourite on Christmas morning.

9. Tradition.

We have a special Christmas tradition in my family. Each year, I buy a small conifer to be our live Christmas tree. I take a picture with it and the children, so that as they grow they can compare their size to that harbinger of Christmas Day.

And every year, it dies. Before Christmas even comes.

I’m really not that good with… keeping things alive.

This year I found this. With postage, it was about $40 from ebay, which is quite a lot—but we can use it every year. There are loads of fun chocolate advent calendars out there, and loads of beautiful reusable ones (often with little drawers to put 24 small gifts in). I don’t want to make over-eating or buying-24-crappy-junk-gifts part of our tradition, so I was excited to find this. Each bauble has a different design, and is magnetised. Then there’s a star for Christmas Day. I think the kids will love it (so long as no one tells them about the chocolate variety), and I’m almost certain I can’t kill it. Although wooden toys DO burn really well…

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10. Something that definitely isn’t useful.

At the steampunk fair, flush with the knowledge that my pirate trilogy would soon be published, I saw someone with a half-goggle. Genius! And only a few bucks to get my own steampunk pirate patch on ebay.

So I guess this is more a present for me than for the kids. I can live with that. In my defence, Louisette specifically asked me for goggles after the fair.

11. Tech

A good friend of ours bought Louisette this talking (and programmable) toy dog for her first birthday. Since then we bought the other one for TJ (“from” Louisette). They’re called Scout and Violet.

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You can choose your child’s name from a list when you program it, and the dog will say things like, “I love you… Louise” (since “Louisette” is not common enough to be on the list). You can also choose volume, and switch it off at any time by squeezing the “off” foot. One of the paws plays “Bedtime music” which is a very useful feature.

These dogs have been a consistent favourite toy for a long time (although if it wasn’t for her computer Louisette would be over hers, I think).

Which brings us to… computers. For children.

I thought the entire concept of computers for children was madness—until I saw a four-year old drawing with her finger on an ipad screen. There was no mess, no stains on clothes, no eating crayons, no sharpening pencils, and no dropping fifty-seven textas on the floor and then wandering away. It blew my mind. Since then I’ve seen a bunch of fantastic, innovative games that make the world better. In my opinion, computer skills are vital, and it’s worthwhile to get kids started early. Plus, of course, when you need the kid to be quiet and still in a public place, a computer + earplugs is magic.

I did a bunch of research and then bought Louisette a LeapPad 3. That was back in 2014, so I think there are new models since then (and I imagine that the Leappad 3 will become obsolete at some point).

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It comes in either green or purply-pink (and so do the gel frames, as pictured). It costs somewhere between $100 and $200, plus $25ish for the gel frame (which protects it from breaking when it’s dropped).

The good: It’s designed for age 3 and up, so a lot of it is set out with pictures that make navigation easy for non-readers. (Louisette was often frustrated and not too fond of it for the first six months after she got it on her 3rd birthday; TJ took to it immediately when he received his on his own 3rd birthday.)

It has camera and video, which kids LOVE. (Caveat: Images can’t be taken off the computer, so it’s impossible to save or share them.)

It has a white-listed internet (which can be switched off and on via the parental settings), meaning that everything the kids can access (and there’s a lot) has been watched and approved in advance.

It has really excellent, educational games, that are tailored to the main user’s age and skill level. (But they usually cost around $20 each.) We’ve only bought a few games (and a book that “reads” to the kid as they touch the words) in almost three years. Plus, each new game (and switching the internet on) is a fantastic gift on its own.

When you have two LeapPads, the kids can actually message each other (using pre-written messages—so bullying is impossible—and a bunch of animated emoticons). It is hilarious to see my two kids with their heads together, screaming in laughter as they say, “I sent you a message!” “I got it!”

It has a lot of branded stuff—Disney and so on—which the kids adore.

The bad: It has an inbuilt game that is literally poker (spinning pictures which reward the user when they match, and can then be spent on features)

It also has an entire section that just advertises LeapPad games, and can’t be removed.

It doesn’t connect to other devices in any way (except, of course, LeapPad devices—it even has games featuring Scout and Violet).


 

Bonus points

Are you buying a gift for a child who’s not your own? You’d ideally check with the parents if you buy something on this list (I’m NOT aiming this at anyone specific, by the way! Please don’t think my kids dislike anything they’ve ever been given):

*Alive (including plants. Parents are very, very tired and even a plant can be too much to care for. The kid is definitely not going to look after it properly.)

*Larger than your head (or the kid’s head, if yours is unusually large). Kids have a lot of toys, and their parents probably don’t have enough places to put them all.

*Involving work for the parents eg craft or science projects.

*Messy, such as paint or play-dough (yes, play-dough is messy).

*Noisy or annoying (electric toys or certain high-pitched TV shows).

*Junk food. (And check for food intolerances if you’re bringing food that kids are likely to eat—food intolerances are on the rise, and some are deadly. Parents are not making this up for attention, I assure you. Peanuts in particular can kill, even if the allergic kid never directly touches the food item.)

If you buy soft toys, you’ll get a great reaction on the day—but by the age of 3 every child has at least twenty soft toys, and probably more like fifty. However, certain toys will be VERY beloved (especially those linked to a TV character the child already adores). So think carefully and talk to the parents. Kids are amazingly specific about their brands, even for intellectual properties they have never watched (such as Star Wars or Superheroes).

However!

Toys that get used up, such as textas (there are washable ones), coloured paper, colouring books, etc are good for homes that really don’t have much space.

When someone has a set of something—duplo, lego, building sets, train sets—you can buy a new set or part that goes with it. That’s brilliant for both kids and parents.

Pretty much everyone loves books (although probably not enormously long ones, which leads to trouble at bed time).

Kids and parents will both most likely adore you for taking the kids for some kind of outing.  Zoos, Questacon (if you’re in Canberra), and those trampoline places are all fun for everyone. Or you can simply take them to a playground they haven’t been to before (or even that they have). They will love you forever.

Also fantastic as gifts that don’t take up space—removable wall stickers. (If your friend lives in a rental, definitely query first; they may not be as removable as one hopes.) There are some gorgeous quirky designs here (I met the artist yesterday, so I’m a little excited).

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You do NOT need to spend a bundle on kids!

So here’s my Four-Gift Rule:

  1. Something to read.
  2. Something creative.
  3. Something educational.
  4. Something physical (fitness and/or coordination)
  5. Something silly.
  6. Something that interacts with an existing toy (lego is almost always a safe bet; duplo for younger kids).

Okay, that’s six. That’s what relatives are for. Or siblings. Or, if all else fails, an inability to accurately count to four. Or you can combine them in various ways.

It’s also vitally important (and easy) to get kids involved in the fun of giving gifts to others. My kids LOVE discussing, buying, wrapping, and giving presents to all their relatives, especially each other. They also love Christmas Shoeboxes and TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop (both of which are specifically Christian, which may or may not work for you), which are a nice tangible way of giving to others and being aware of the rest of the world.

(99% of charities benefit from cash more than physical gifts. Physical gifts are mainly useful for kids to get into the habit of giving, rather than for the charity itself. I really like TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop because it IS a cash gift, that the charity interprets in practical ways.)

PS This site did a very comprehensive review of nerf guns. Enjoy!

Like Mother, Like Daughter

One of the gifts my parents gave me was the belief that writing is not a job, but a hobby. I didn’t write full-time until I was unable to do any other work (and I’m still not making minimum wage, even though I’m well above the average Australian full-time writer’s income of $12,000/year)

I am giving Louisette the same gift, assuring her that her stories are excellent and at the same time teaching her that if she’s a writer she’ll be something else as well.

It happens that she really is a good storyteller, with an epic imagination. At one stage she had had about thirty imaginary friends, puppies, horses, and relatives (including imaginary parents), as well as a range of vehicles to bring them all along with us.

She also has a great mind for science and engineering, which I loudly and unconditionally encourage. Last Christmas we bought her ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, which she loves, and which led to her winning a school prize for a House-Car-Plane device this year.

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This year one of her gifts is this building kit, which includes its own motor! How cool is that, for $25ish!

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But I digress.

Today, for the first time, she pointed out a plot hole in a TV show (specifically, “Why doesn’t the yellow dog go with the blue dog to make the fence? They’re both builders.”) That warmed my writerly heart.

But then I read her the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, bracing myself for my harshest review ever. Not only did she like the story and immediately care about the outcome (phew!) but she understood and extrapolated the universe of the story.

Rahana is a fairly low-tech world (although their ships are more advanced than the rest of their tech due to the fact that the world is made up of thousands of islands), and in the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE an isolated and defenceless island wakes in terror at the news that a pirate ship is approaching.

I asked Louisette what she was worried about in the story. She said she was worried about the pirates coming, because Dance and her family, “don’t have swords or shields or anything”.

Here’s the thing: I never mentioned any kind of weapon in the story. She figured out the technology level because of her knowledge of history and/or the conventions of fantasy fiction!

I’m misty-eyed just thinking about it.

THEN she blew my mind a second time by suggesting, “Maybe they’ll invent electricity and that will help them fight the pirates.”

She’s five years old, and she’s a master of military tactics. That’s my girl.

 

 

Shiver Me Timbers!

I said I had big news. This is it.

My middle grade (age 9-14ish) trilogy, all about fantastical pirates and monsters, has just been officially accepted for publication by Odyssey Books.

The first book is called THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, and will be launched in February 2018 (in time for Goulburn ComiCon).

It’s set in a fantasy world called “Rahana” which I invented seventeen years ago. It’s like Narnia, with pirates.

I wrote the first draft of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE in a New Zealand backpacker in Christchurch when I was twenty-two. I know exactly how old I was because I had just scraped into the upper age bracket for the Young Endeavour Sail Training Vessel (doing writerly research for STORMHUNTER).

I’m thirty-five now, but this is a pic of me at twenty-two on board the Young Endeavour, with New Zealand in the background. The character of Captain Sol in the story was inspired by the tales told by one of the navy staff on the boat (taken and altered with her permission).

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Oh, how I love research!

So it turns out Louisette’s pirate outfit last weekend was extremely appropriate.

People who’ve known me a long, LONG time will know that STORMHUNTER, the first book in my young adult magical pirate trilogy (also Rahana), was accepted for publication a while ago, but that particular publisher isn’t running any more. The story is here and here.

This is the closest I get to non-fictional piracy these days:

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Arrrr!

I really haven’t changed all that much after all.

I’ll start reading THE MONSTER APPRENTICE aloud to Louisette this evening. (Finally, a book of my own I can read to her!) Five year-olds are a tough crowd, so I expect I’ll be doing some more editing based on her reactions.

If you can’t wait until February, I have a definitely-not-suitable-for-children pirate game called SCARLET SAILS already on sale (and the beginning is free) here. Or you can search for “Scarlet Sails Hosted Games” on your favourite app store.

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Whatever & Ever Amen

My “Big Idea” post is now live on John Scalzi’s blog. I talked about Australia, and what it means to me to set my steampunk tales in my own beautiful, deadly, complicated country.

At Conflux, and then again today at the Goulburn Waterworks Steampunk & Victoriana Fair, I was talking to a lot of people about Australia, and what it means to be Australian (both good and bad). I like my “Big Idea” article more and more. It articulates things that have been hard to figure out in my own head.

Today was a glorious day; my third year as a stallholder at the top-notch Goulburn Waterworks Steampunk & Victoriana Fair. Every year is better than the one before, and the organisers and volunteers are truly excellent (smart, capable, efficient, cheerful, and exceptionally well-dressed).

I sold a large pile of books to various people, which is guaranteed to make me happy—but the most encouraging part was how many people had bought my book last year and come back for more. I knew going in that people would come and tell me if they didn’t like it… and not a single person did. It was all hugs and puppies (literally; there was some excellent dog cosplay this year—with live dogs).

One of the great things about this particular fair is that it really is for all ages. It’s a gorgeous picnic-by-the-river setting, the steam engine itself is fascinating (the kids came home begging for more info on how steam engines work, so we’ve been watching YouTube educational videos), and there’s face-painting, food, and a playground. Plus of course dress-ups. Apparently dress-ups are not just for grown-ups.

Seriously, the outfits at the Goulburn Fair are to die for. This lady is Angelina Tran:

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This year, like last year, Tara Moss herself came to wander about, talk to her many delirious fans, let people take photos of her every one-and-a-half steps, and to also enjoy the fair. Here are my hasty from-behind-my-stall-as-she-walked-past photos of her in her clockwork dress:

Last year I spoke to her for about three seconds and was so startled by her utter warmth it actually threw me. This year I knew what I was in for and so I… well, talked to her a little. She is a smart and fascinating woman (as well as being a model and rather excellent author). She is also someone who devotes a lot of her time to helping others. Not only is she a world-famous author, she’s one I happen to like to read (I avoid her crime but read her fantasy, since my own inclinations bend that way).

Gallery Serpentine was there this year and is also likely to return next year (if only because I’ll be calling them with my measurements in advance of the fair—they are the best quality corset makers in NSW, in my opinion).

Plus loads of music, dance, the crew of the Airship Sirius, a petting zoo, a teacup ride, and lots more that I missed because people kept buying my book!

The Waterworks engine is the one featured in my first book trailer (and it’ll appear in the third, too).

PS I have some big news which I’ll share soon. People on my mailing list will find out today. If you want to be on the mailing list, email fellissimo@hotmail.com with the subject line “MAILING LIST”.