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My Unfortunate Past

A six-month-old infant – known only as Violet Brown – has been kidnapped and is being held captive in a grand old mansion on the outskirts of Manilla.

Well, not true. That’s the crux of Sydney children’s book author Maree Fenton-Smith latest kids’ book My Unfortunate Past which is described as a darkly funny and magical tale for anyone who has struggled to find their new home and place in the world. The chapter book is suitable for primary school students from Years 3 to 6.

But one may ask ‘Why would a Sydney writer of children’s books pluck out a small rural town like Manilla to be the base for her children’s mystery’.

Simple. Her father Michael Grady was born in Manilla and reared in the town’s Post Office Hotel, so Maree and her sister (Claire Grady who published My Unfortunate), have very fond memories of the town.

“My family ties go back to Manilla. Dad was born and raised there, and his cousin owned the property Durham Court. One of our trips back to Manilla many years ago included a family visit to Durham Court, so that’s probably where the idea of the mansion for the book really came from,” Maree said.

“And the book is filled with cats. As a child, dad had a cat called Misty which I think triggered the idea of so many cats in the book. He’dalways tell us kids the story of Misty having kittens, but they were taken from her and re-housed at Durham Court. Dad’s story goes that Misty found her way out to the property, collected all the kittens and one by one, took them back across the river to the hotel.”

My Unfortunate Past, Maree’s fourth children’s book, is a magical story about six-month-old Violet Brown being kidnapped and trapped in a sad but grand old house near Manilla. As she grows, Violet (described by Maree as being not a particularly honest character) has only one dream – to be re-united with her real family. But to do that, Violet must first solve the thrilling mystery of her past. Who is the strange black cat that visits? What is Arthur doing in his workshop? And to give her book broader appeal to the younger readers, Maree explores colonial Australia’s relationship with the environment and the themes of prejudice, friendship, magic, family, trust, loss and diversity.

Maree grew up in Wagga Wagga and always wanted to write. She also loved reading and admits her inspiration to crank up the keyboard and begin writing came from eldest daughter Zoe, now 19.

“Zoe loved to read a lot, and always reminded me of myself as a young child. My dream was to be a writer.”

Though, because of the style of book it is, Maree found My Unfortunate Past difficult to write, so put it aside. That was eight years ago, but then during the writing of Creature of Magic, she found her interest was sparked again so I slowly completed My Unfortunate Past. Input into that again came from her children – Milly (13) and Charlie (12) who both suggested the story ‘dragged on a bit too much’ (feedback echoed by husband Will), so Maree ‘took their advice and re-wrote some’.The cover depicts two platypuses, both of which were drawn by daughter, now 17-year-old Ella, and illustrations done by friend and artist Jamie Ferguson of Victoria.

Maree said she and her children visited Manilla a few years ago and ‘purchased a lovely old book from a dear little shop there’.

“I’d really love to visit Manilla again and talk to school children about the book. I’d like to think the children enjoyed reading it so much they’d be tempted to read it under the desk during class at school.” she joked.

My Unfortunate Past is published by Maree’s sister Claire Grady of Bottlebrush Books and available for $19.99, though Claire says that people of Manilla would be given a 20 per cent discount on its purchase through Bottlebrush website (add the code ManillaMUP at checkout to receive the discount). Or even pop into Manilla Newsagents who may just have a copy in stock.

By Vinnie Todd