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Jane Smith reveals where her character, Carly Mills, came from, her role in honouring our Australian pioneering women, and why their contributions of the past have been, and still are, so important to the future of younger generations. Jane has truly brought history to life – thank you!

‘Live life when you have it. Life is a splendid gift – there is nothing small about it.’

These were the words of Florence Nightingale, one of the many trailblazing women I’ve researched in preparing for my new children’s historical fiction series, ‘Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl’.

In the course of this research I’ve unearthed more fascinating stories about remarkable women than I could ever hope to write. It’s an inspiring thing to discover how so many women, through courage, determination and a sense of justice, have trampled over obstacles and restrictions and prejudices to make the world a better place. And how they’ve done it with creativity and humour.

‘Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl’ grew from my other children’s series, ‘Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy’, in which a modern boy travels to Australia’s colonial past and has adventures with bushrangers. In writing ‘Tommy Bell’, I discovered the joys of writing historical fiction. It combines the ready-made structure of the true story with the freedom of writing fiction. I enjoyed bringing historical characters to life with dialogue, humour and action.

Carly Mills appears as a minor character in the ‘Tommy Bell’ books. I didn’t have her series in mind when I wrote her character then, but I soon realised that a companion series featuring Carly would be fun. I liked Carly; she’s a no-nonsense, straight-talking girl. The idea of having her meet female innovators seemed a logical next step. The role of women in shaping our history is not as well documented as it should be, so through Carly Mills’ adventures with pioneering women, I wanted to show children – in a fun way – what extraordinary contributions these women made to our society.

Jane Smith under the Caroline Chisholm plaque

Carly is a contemporary girl from rural Queensland who, while visiting Sydney in the first book, A New World, finds an old shawl discarded by a museum. When she puts the shawl around her shoulders she’s transported to 1841, where she meets humanitarian Caroline Chisholm. Mrs Chisholm, you might recall, was known as ‘The Emigrant’s Friend’ for her role in helping vulnerable immigrants find safe work and accommodation in Australia. In A New World Caroline Chisholm, thinking Carly is a new immigrant, takes her to a disused government building for the night. Caroline is hoping to establish a ‘Female Immigrants’ Home’ in the shed – a place where she will house and train young women before matching them up with reputable employers. But first she must spend the night in the filthy, rat-infested shed to prove to the reluctant governor that it can be done. This is a true story – though Carly Mills’ presence in it is my own invention, of course.

That’s the joy of historical fiction: it gives us licence to pluck out the more exciting stories from history and bring them to life. Carly faces predatory employers on the Sydney wharves in A New World and the perils of both the operating table and the battle field in book two, Emergency! She also discovers more mundane terrors, like nineteenth-century dress (fervently agreeing with Dr Lilian Cooper, Queensland’s first female doctor, when she says that ‘Corsets, in my opinion, should not be worn’).

In this series, issues in Carly’s contemporary life have parallels in her excursions to the past. She makes friends and gains time-travelling companions and a dog (the school corgi, Ellie). Whether she’s in 1841 or 2020, there are bullies, prejudices and dangers, and there is friendship, kindness and courage. Some experiences are timeless.

Through her encounters with these extraordinary women, Carly and her friends learn and grow. I hope that some of these encounters will also serve as inspiration for children of today.

‘I never can imagine that Almighty God sent females into the world to be cooks and housemaids all their days,’ Caroline Chisholm once wrote. That is the sentiment that ‘Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl’ celebrates.

Or, put more succinctly by Miles Franklin, ‘Knitting is not enough.’


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