The Poppy books are set during the Victorian gold rush. This period in Australian history has always been of particular interest to me because my great-grandfather came to Australia from China during that time.
Being of a minority group myself, and having read about the Aboriginal population and its dramatic decline when European squatters settled the land, I wanted to make Poppy’s father Chinese and her mother Aboriginal.
I was well aware of the possible problems, for example the cultural and social aspects of Aboriginal culture, but Poppy is brought up on an Aboriginal Mission and does not know anything about her own heritage, neither Chinese nor Aboriginal. The matron of the mission, Mother Hangtree, forbids the children to speak any language but English and they grow up only knowing the English ways.
I contacted FATSIL (The Federation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Languages and Culture Corporation) and The Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne, and they put me in touch with Koorie elder, Uncle John Sandy Atkinson.
Uncle Sandy is a well-known and respected Elder of the Koorie community and also an actively involved member of the Bangerang community. Because my story is set along the Murray River, land of the Bangerang people, he was the perfect person to be introduced to.
I met with Uncle Sandy over the course of five months while I was planning the books. He was so very generous with his time, and the person who gave Poppy and Gus their Aboriginal names of Kalinya and Moyhu.
With each book, I also worked closely with Maxine Briggs, the Koorie liaison officer at the State Library of Victoria. Maxine read through each manuscript providing invaluable insights into Aboriginal culture as well as advising me when I was touching on sensitive issues. I could not have written the Poppy books without Uncle Sandy and Maxine’s help, and I cannot thank them enough.
The country along the Murray River was where my great-grandfather lived and worked. He came to Australia from China in 1853 when he was eighteen years old, and later in his life was contracted to clear land for the pastoralists from Echuca all the way to Wahgunyah. He then settled in Wahgunyah where he arranged, when he was over fifty years of age, to find a bride in China.
A great deal of my own family history goes into my books. More often than not, real stories are far more exciting and stranger than ones that are imagined. I have always been interested in my great grandfather’s journey and his marriage to his arranged bride, my great-grandmother. So I included these two real life characters in the third book in the series, Poppy and the Thief.
Poppy was a wonderful character to work with, and once I had met Yullarah, the cover girl for the Poppy series, it was easy for me to imagine her. Poppy is strong and brave from the start, a girl who the other orphans at Bird Creek Mission look up to. But she longs to find a home, wherever that may be, and this is Poppy’s journey.