School Library reviewer and Remarkables School Teacher Librarian Angela Thompson chats with author James Russell about Children of the Rush, which is a finalist for the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award at the 2023 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The winners will be revealed on Thursday 10 August.
Angela: What inspired you to write 'Children of the Rush'?
James: I’ve been fascinated with New Zealand’s gold rush history ever since I learned of it. There are only a few NZ children’s books about it, and I wanted to add to those to play my part in keeping that history alive, and making it exciting and relevant to kids today.
If you had to describe the story in five words, what would they be?
Brave kids beat the odds. With gold. Oh wait. That’s seven words. Now it’s fifteen. Sorry. Seventeen.
Did you enjoy the process of writing historical fiction? Why?
It’s our history, so we can relate to it. We can easily travel to where it took place, and put our hands into the soil that miners put theirs into in 1861. It’s a powerful thing, knowing your country’s history. It’s a small chapter of New Zealand’s past, but it’s intense, and fascinating.
Did anything surprise you during your research for this novel or during the writing process?
That some men starved to death on their claims (the piece of land assigned to them, that only they were allowed to dig) because they had hit paydirt (very rich ground) and couldn’t bring themselves to leave it. That’s the madness of ‘gold fever’.
During your research for Children of the Rush, was there anything specific that made you want to write about the themes for the novel, for example, Chinese Settlers, the Central Otago Gold Rush or the racism that characters experience in the story?
Racism is something that we call out a lot now, but that conversation is extremely recent. Māori were treated very poorly back then, as were the Chinese miners – who had been invited here by our government! In reality the Chinese miners arrived in New Zealand in 1865 – so I’ve taken some liberties in that timing – but their presence wasn’t welcome by the miners, probably because they were so amazing at finding gold in land that had already been worked over by the European miners.
What kind of reader feedback have you had for 'Children of the Rush' and what do Dragon Defenders fans think of this change of genre?
Very positive! People have loved Children of the Rush, and obviously the judges of the Storylines Notable Book Awards and the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults did too! It’s always a bit nerve wracking to change to a new series, but I’m pleased to say my Defenders fans are on board!
You are in the process of writing the sequel to Children of the Rush, was this always the plan or was it a decision you made as the plot developed?
I made that decision before I published book one. Nearing the end of it, I realised that there was more story to tell. I’m planning a third, and then – who knows?
What parts of the writing process energise you? Are there any parts you dislike or struggle with?
Sometimes I run out of inspiration or ideas. But I whistle for Lucy (my dog) and we go for a gallop on Mt Mangere (I live right at its base) and usually come back with an idea!
What book inspired you as a child?
Danny the Champion of the World was my favourite. I loved the relationship between Danny and his father, and the pure bold adventure of it.
If you could rewrite any novel, what would it be?
None, I’m afraid. I’m happy with my own, and wouldn’t dare touch anyone else's!
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Read. And then read some more. There are so many distractions (YouTube, social media, streaming TV etc) these days. In my day we had two terrible TV channels and that’s it. Books or sports were my favourite things. So, if you can, resist the temptation of that other stuff, because nothing rewards your imagination quite like a book does.
Our school loves that your titles are dyslexic friendly and the 'Dragon Defenders' titles have the app to entice readers. Do you feel ideas like these are important aspects of stories for children, and are there any plans for an app for further titles in the future?
No more plans for an app at the moment – although it’s something I might do again in future. However the dyslexic friendly font is here to stay with my books. I don’t understand why every publisher in the world doesn’t do it. It’s the definition of a ‘no-brainer’!
About the interviewer
Angela Thompson is the Library Lead Teacher and a full-time Teacher, currently teaching Year 6&7 at Remarkables Primary in Queenstown. She loves to read - obviously, spending time with her family, and being dragged on long walks by their completely hyperactive labrador. She is completely addicted to anything and everything Disney - so is always planning her next Disneyland trip!
About the author
James Russell is a much-acclaimed children's book author from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. You can learn more about his work on his Writer's File.