“Not everything is black and white.”: Historian and author Jane Smith interviewed

The publishing world can be a harsh one, where even the most talented authors struggle to gain a foothold. One success story is Australian author, historian and librarian Jane Smith, who has carved out a niche for herself as a storyteller specialising in Australian history. Her series of children’s books about Australian bushrangers, with their colourful and cartoony covers, may be familiar to some readers. With the release of a new collection of her first four Tommy Bell books slated for release this month, Jane took the time to discuss her work with Aidan Phelan for A Guide to Australian Bushranging.


Thank you Jane for taking the time to have a chat. The first thing we perhaps should discuss is Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy. How would you best describe the series to readers who are new to it?

‘Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy’ is a historical fiction adventure series for children aged from about six to twelve. It features a contemporary boy who goes back in time to have adventures with real-life bushrangers. The books are light, easy reads, full of action, adventure and humour, with accurate historical background and facts thrown in.

What was your inspiration for devising the series?

I am fascinated by history and have always loved historical fiction. I wrote a nonfiction history series for children called ‘Australian Bushrangers’, which was published by Big Sky Publishing in 2014. It was actually the publisher who gave me the idea of a fictionalised version of the bushranger stories to follow on from this series. I thought it would be a great idea to feature a contemporary child who time-travels to the bushranging era, as it would allow children to see (through Tommy’s eyes) some of the great differences – and some of the similarities – between life in the nineteenth century and life today. As a school librarian, I was always looking for books that would get kids reading. I wanted to write books that would be engaging and full of action. The real-life bushranger stories just seemed to lend themselves to this format. 

You’ve clearly done the leg work to get the history right as much as you can, but we are essentially talking about true crime here. Was it hard to find a way to present it in a child-friendly way?

One thing I love about writing historical books is that the framework – the true history – is already there. And yes, I had already done the research for the nonfiction series, so the next step was working out how to weave in Tommy’s contemporary, fictional story. The true bushranger stories present real opportunities because they are so full of action. The challenge was in deciding how to present them and which stories to pick out. There were so many stories, and I wanted to write fairly short books, so I had to be selective in which episodes to include. I’m writing for young children, so I didn’t want to write too much that was bloodthirsty or would give them nightmares, and I didn’t want to glorify the bushrangers or their crimes. However, I saw this latter problem as an opportunity to explore moral dilemmas. For instance, Captain Thunderbolt was by all accounts a pretty personable fellow (if he wasn’t robbing you at gunpoint!). He could charm people. He wasn’t as violent as some of the other bushrangers, but he did commit some violent crimes. Human behaviour is complex, and I let Tommy see that. I have him being charmed by Captain Thunderbolt, while at the same time feeling troubled by his behaviour and wondering just how he should deal with it. I’ve written Tommy sometimes as a victim of a bushranger’s crime and sometimes as a witness. Sometimes he even gets caught up with the gang as an accomplice. At the same time, there are parallel problems going on in Tommy’s contemporary life. From book two onwards, for instance, he befriends Francis, a boy who frequently gets into trouble at school and often drags Tommy in with him. I hope that these comparisons will get children thinking about right and wrong, and noticing that not everything is black and white. So, to answer your question: yes, it was challenging!

Of all the bushrangers you have included in the series – people like Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, Captain Moonlite, Mary Ann Bugg, and Harry Readford – which was the one that most captured your imagination?

That’s a hard question! One thing I learned through my research is that they were all so different – different backgrounds, different motivations, different crimes, different outcomes. I found Captain Thunderbolt (Fred Ward) pretty fascinating, largely because there are so many legends surrounding him that obscure the truth. He was probably the most likeable of them all. I feel saddest about Ben Hall, whose adulthood started off in such a promising way. He had a wife and child and a good reputation as a stockman and horseman, and he had a share in a property – but then he met Frank Gardiner, and his wife left him, and his life spiralled out of control. One thing led to another, and he came to a very sad end. 

You’ve also used the information you accumulated in the creation of the series to produce a series of non-fiction books about the bushrangers that cross paths with Tommy, also aimed at a younger audience, as well as teaching notes; clearly you have a passion for teaching children about this part of history. What is it about the bushrangers that you feel can teach children valuable lessons?

I really enjoy history; I enjoy learning about how things were in the past and marvelling at the differences and similarities compared with life today. I think that knowing something of history is really important if you want to be a well-rounded human who can make informed decisions. When I was at school, however, I found history lessons boring. It seemed to me that history just meant memorising names and dates – and yet it’s so much more than that! I really just love the idea of bringing the stories of the past to life. The bushranging stories in particular have a lot going for them in this regard. We can use them to show kids what life was like in the gold rush era in an entertaining way. Stories about hardship and poverty and crime and justice can also facilitate great discussions about right and wrong and everything in between. As a librarian, I also care very deeply about information literacy – in other words, having the skills to distinguish fact from fiction. There are so many myths about bushrangers, and they provide excellent materials to show children how to analyse information critically. We can even use them to teach kids about primary and secondary information sources – what they are, and whether they are reliable. The conflicting stories of the bushrangers provide great case studies!

Are there plans to continue expanding the series?

I have drafted some more books in the series, so yes, I’m hoping more of them will come out before too long.

Jane Smith [Source]

In addition to the Tommy Bell series you have Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl, in which a girl can use a magical shawl to travel back in time to meet iconic women such as Caroline Chisholm, Nellie Melba and Lilian Cooper. How has that been received?

The series is very new, but it’s been well received so far. The books have had some great reviews and I’ve had some lovely feedback from readers. 

It’s fantastic to see the stories of notable women in history given a spotlight too, and it looks like you’re branching out to include women such as Florence Nightingale and Amelia Earhart in the series. What plans have you got for the future of the series?

You’re right: the book on Florence Nightingale is due out any day now, and the one on Amelia Earhart will come out later this year (that was a fun one to write – so much action!). I’ve also been preparing books about Marie Curie and Miles Franklin. There may be more – we’ll see! The options are endless. 

Of course, children aren’t your only audience. You have two books for mature readers, Ship of Death: Tragedy of the Emigrant, and Captain Starlight: the Strange but True Story of a Bushranger, Impostor and Murderer. Do you sometimes worry that you might be overachieving just a tad with such a fantastic catalogue already to your name?

Haha, never! I’m always looking out for the next story. 

Ship of Death, your book about the Emigrant’s ill-fated voyage to Queensland from Plymouth in 1850, has received some great praise. Can you give a little insight into how that project came to be?

I was on a family holiday at Stradbroke Island, when we visited the beautiful Dunwich Cemetery. I noticed twenty-six little white unnamed crosses in two rows. At one end of them stood two graves with inscriptions explaining that they were the final resting places of two doctors who died from typhus at the Dunwich quarantine station while attending the sick from the 1850 voyage of the Emigrant. At the other end was a plaque that listed the names of those who had died at sea or in quarantine. There were 48 dead in all – two doctors, a cook, a sailor, and 44 passengers. The plaque gave names, place of origin and, where known, date of death. It got me thinking: these were real people. Adventurous people, no doubt, with loved ones and interesting lives. There was so much more to them than these statistics, but the statistics were all we had left of them. It got me wondering about the stories of those people. And the people who had been left to mourn them: what had become of them? I decided to find out their stories and bring it all to life: the people, the voyage, the quarantine and the aftermath. I wanted to pay tribute to the doctors and the captain and all those involved in the tragic incident.

On top of all of this research and writing, you also do talks about the myriad topics you have written about. How has that been given the disruption over the virus?

Sadly, there have been cancellations! I was engaged to appear at my first festival in 2020, but of course that never happened. I’m pleased to say that things have been picking up lately though. Two festivals this year, and a handful of other talks are coming up. It’s ironic to think that promotion for my book about an infectious disease and a period of quarantine has been limited by an infectious disease and quarantine!

If all that wasn’t enough, you also offer editing and proofreading services for authors. Clearly you have a passion for helping other authors get off the ground too.

Yes. I realised early on that it’s writing the second and subsequent drafts of my books that I really enjoy. I love the polishing stages. I don’t mind whether it’s my own book or other people’s books! Most of the authors I’ve edited have been new to the publishing industry and don’t realise how much there is to learn about it. I can remember being in that situation myself, so I’m happy to help guide others through it. 

This month sees the new Tommy Bell box set, which puts the first four books in the series together. Was there a particular motivation behind collecting the books in a box set now?

It was my publisher’s idea. I think that when there are lots of books in a series, sometimes it can be overwhelming for a school librarian; they wonder how many to get or whether it’s worth getting a few if they can’t get them all. Budgets are always tight. I think that if a school library doesn’t have any of them yet, this four-volume box set will make a great starter pack. As for the timing: I think it’s just that it’s a good time to remind people that they’re out there, while the Carly Mills books are in the spotlight. By the way, this year’s Book Week theme is ‘Old worlds, new worlds, other worlds’ – so my books will support the theme perfectly!

I should point out that your writing has been receiving awards and nominations too. Shoot-out at the Rock was a Children’s Book Council of Australia ‘notable’ book in 2016, The Runaway was shortlisted for the Speech Pathology Australia ‘Book of the Year’ in 2019, and your book Captain Thunderbolt was shortlisted for an Australian Book Industry Award in 2015. How does it feel to have your work acknowledged with such nominations and awards?

It’s really gratifying. Not many authors make a living out of writing, and even award-winning books are not particularly lucrative. So I suspect that few authors are motivated by financial gain. What we do like, though, is to know that our books are of good quality and are being enjoyed by their target audience. I’m really stoked about the recognition that my books have received so far.

Jane Smith, historian and author extraordinaire, it looks like there are many things to look forward to, and we shall watch this space with interest. Thank you very much for your time.


If you would like to learn more about Jane Smith and her books you can go to her website, https://www.janesmithauthor.com/books.html

For teaching notes pertaining to her books you can head to https://www.janesmithauthor.com/teaching-notes.html

And if you would like to check out the Tommy Bell boxed set, you can head to https://www.simonandschuster.com.au/books/Tommy-Bell-Bushranger-Boy-Slipcase-Books-1-4/Jane-Smith/Tommy-Bell-Bushranger-Boy/9781922488206

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