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Humour in stories never goes out of fashion Sally Harris, author of Diary of a Penguin-napper

sally harris 210x300 Humour in stories never goes out of fashion   Sally Harris, author of Diary of a Penguin napper

Sally Harris's just-released Diary of a Penguin-napper owes its existence to an urban legendone that has stuck in Sally's mind for years.

Though she can't remember who first told her the tall tale about a boy stealing a penguin from a zoo using nothing but a backpack, it's an idea she was taken with from the very beginning.

'The more I thought about it, the more I could see the possibilities for a really funny story emerging.'

The humorous element of the idea was what drove Sally's passion for the topic. As a teacher, she's all too aware that when you're writing for a younger audience humour is a sure-fire way to connect with your readers.

'While I think there is a real trend towards superheroes, magic and the supernatural in stories for middle grade readers at the moment, I also believe that humour in stories never goes out of fashion. Children love to laugh and to be entertained. It is universal.'

So what makes Diary of a Penguin-napper so funny?

So much of the humour of the book comes from eleven-year-old protagonist Marty Finn's single-minded focus on impressing the girl of his dreamsand the lengths he'll go to in order to do so.

'Marty goes far beyond the lengths that a regular boy might go to,' says Sally, and not knowing any penguin-nappers myself, I'd have to agree.

But it's the mix of warmth and realism with the zaniness of the plot that Sally sees as the book's strength.

'As a reader you really want him to succeed. 'Hes from a single parent family and he has a sister who enjoys pointing out where he is wrong, which I think a lot of readers can relate to. He is very real and yet at the same time he can be a bit ridiculous or over-the-top, which adds humour to the story.'

Middle-grade fiction is often peppered with larger-than-life characters, and Sally has included quite a few that are bound to elicit some knowing nods.

'There's Fat and Skinny, the pair of bumbling police officers who are called to the scene of the crime. Turds, Martys unfortunately nicknamed best friend. 'Tom the Terrible, the school bully with a full beard, and, of course, Jessica, the girl of Martys dreams with her long swishing hair.'

Like Marty, she says, theyre all made real by drawing on her childhood memories and daily observations, and then tweaked just a bit to make them over-the-top and memorable.

penguin 300x196 Humour in stories never goes out of fashion   Sally Harris, author of Diary of a Penguin napper

Gratuitous photo of penguin, from FlickR commons

On testing her ideas

Although authors are taught to write with an audience in mind, surprisingly few actively test their ideas with their target audience.

Sally's teaching job, however, puts her in the perfect position to see whether her ideas resonate with young readers, and to make changes accordingly.

'When I was first toying with the idea of writing Diary of a Penguin-napper, I was teaching Year 4 at a girls school. I wrote the first chapter and took it in to school to read to my class. They were enamored by it and wanted to know what happened next. When the girls were laughing out loud at something that is probably more of a book for boys, I knew I was onto something really exciting.'

Sharing her work in the classroom also gives Sally the opportunity to read her work aloud, see her audience's reaction in real-time, and make adjustments accordingly.

'My students are quite happy to tell me if they dont like a certain bit or if they have any ideas to improve the story. If they are sitting there wriggling throughout the story, it usually means that it is boring them! Plus, their questions help me to fill in the gaps or might lead me to take things in a direction that I hadnt thought of before.'

On writing for an international audience

Although she's based in Australiamy hometown of Melbourne, in factSally is aware that she's writing for an audience of readers who may well be international. As a result, she's spent some time reflecting on the tone and feel of her book, and how she expects it will be received by a global audience.

'When I first wrote Diary of a Penguin-napper, I was living in Australia and the very first draft had a very Australian feel to it. When I was doing later edits, I was living in the UK and I decided that perhaps I should give the book a more international flavour.'

But after removing the Australian elements in order to achieve this, she felt that the book lacked a sense of place and local flavour. In a subsequent draft she worked to address the issue, adding in enough 'Australian-ness' to enrich the book and give it its Antipodean sense of humour, but not so much that it would alienate international readers.

When it came to the final copyedit, Sally decided to opt for US English, which she felt would encourage American and European readers, and would be unlikely to be questioned by Australian readers, who are used to reading a mix of US and British English.

'Perhaps Americans do have a reputation of being quite America-centric in their views of the world and the books they read, although Im really not sure how much of that is true anymore, with the internet making other cultures more accessible than ever.'

Sally's even hopeful that readers in the US might have heard about the penguin-napping urban legend, and that this might entice them to read the story.

On getting a book out there

As a self-published author, Sally has been keeping a careful eye on market trends. Middle grade fiction and children's books have traditionally been a difficult sell as they're not usually bought by their reading audience, but by adults, and so need to appeal to both adults and children.

Ebooks in particular have been a difficult market for this audience, as children have had fairly limited access to e-readers. This, however, is changing.

'The price of e-readers has really come down recently and this is making them more accessible to a wider audience. With this lower cost and with e-book readers having been around long enough now for people to be considering upgrades, Im hoping that more e-book readers will be making their way into the hands of children.'

Sally also hopes that being a teacher will give her an advantage when it comes to getting her book in front of readers.

'I have already organised a couple of school author visits and Im hoping to start doing some Skype sessions with classes internationally, too.'

She's also been using using social media to get in touch with school librarians and homeschooling families with suggestions of different ways they can use her book in their classrooms or learning environments.

So just how does a penguin get kidnapped from a zoo?

Sally's coy on the detailsyou'll have to read the book for a detailed description of penguin-nappingshe did do a good deal of research into the logistics of penguin-napping.

'I visited my local zoo here in Melbourne, as well as Taronga Zoo up in Sydney. I spoke with a zookeeper who works with penguins and did a lot of online research to gather facts about penguins and factors that might need to be considered if you were thinking about kidnapping one!'

And bizarrely enough, penguin-napping is something that people do indeed think about. Although the urban legend has been doing the rounds over the years, in 2005 an actual case of penguin-napping occurred on the Isle of Wight.

Although I'm sure that Sally doesn't condone copycat penguin thefts, if we see a sudden uptick in kids trying to make off with a penguin or two in the name of impressing their paramours, well, we can only assume that Sally's book has resonated with her readers.

About the book:

Diary of a Penguin Napper by Sally Harris 194x300 Humour in stories never goes out of fashion   Sally Harris, author of Diary of a Penguin napper

Three short weeks, two boys and one little penguin. What could possibly go wrong? When 11 (and a half) year old Marty is partnered up with Jessica on the overnight science trip, he thinks all of his dreams are about to come true. Its his big chance to impress the most beautiful girl in Year 7 (and probably the world) and he wouldnt miss it for anything. Only problem is: Marty cant afford to go on the overnight trip. Yet. Inspired by the urban myth that it is possible to steal a penguin from the zoo on a school visit, Diary of a Penguin-napper is a hilarious tale of growing up, bending the rules and how one big fuss can be caused by stealing just one little penguin.

Diary of a'Penguin-napper'currently is available from Amazon'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.

Follow Sallys blog tour:

As part of her blog tour, Sally has appeared on The Other Side of the Story'and will be over at Lose the Chalk'to share her ideas and a free download on how'Diary of a'Penguin-napper'could be used in the classroom. You can follow Sally on Twitter:'@franklybooks'or read more about her publishing adventures at'


  1. Weird things authors research #879: how to kidnap a penguin. Today I chat to Sally Harris about penguin-napping:

  2. It sure does sound like a fun read! If only my son is of the age for MG

    Congrats, Sally!