Following the success of the Through My Eyes series—the first of which looked at conflict and the next, natural disasters around the world—this month sees the launch of a third series, focused on natural disasters closer to home. Series editor and originator, Lyn White, shares the background to Through My Eyes, while authors Julie Hunt and Terry Whitebeach describe the impact of bushfires on their communities & how that influenced Tyenna.

Lyn, you first started the Through My Eyes series in 2013, focusing on conflict zones. How has the series changed over the years?

Since the publication of Shahana, the first book in the Through My Eyes series, there have been another eleven books released. There are currently seven books in the conflict series and four in the second series: Natural Disaster Zones. Through My Eyes: Natural Disaster Zones won the 2019 EPAA Best Chapter Book in the Primary Category.

The increasing prevalence and scale of international natural disasters and the growing awareness of the role global warming is taking in such events motivated me to create the international disaster series.

I was keen to invite young readers to explore international disaster zones where children, like themselves, are yet again severely affected by powerful events that shape their lives.

Similarly, with the Australian series that will be released over the next two years, I felt it was time to shine some light on the disasters we experience here and to provide teachers with quality literature that informs, inspires and challenges as our country grapples with natural disasters and community recovery.

Although the settings and events are different in each series, the novels continue the strong brand of inspiring stories of courage, resilience and hope that give insight into environment, culture and identity through one child’s eyes. I strive to make the books as contemporary as possible so teachers can use the texts in class as catalysts for discussions of the key issues that challenge us all.

What inspired you to cover Australian disasters?

Children are often the most vulnerable as natural disasters impact their homes, their families and their futures.

Every year Australians experience the devastating effects of natural disasters caused by severe weather events. Such events are becoming a recurring feature of life in this vast and volatile continent affected by global warming.

I also wanted to address the anxiety some young people feel about the climate and their lack of agency and voice. I wanted our protagonists to show the way in terms of making a difference, no matter how small.

The four stories in this series focus on recent natural disasters in Australia: cyclones, drought, flood and fire.

How did you decide which natural disasters to cover in the new series?

It wasn’t difficult to choose the disasters to focus on in this new series, as Australians are all too familiar with either experiencing or witnessing bushfires, floods, drought and cyclones. I was particularly keen to represent as many states in Australia as I could with this series. We have settings and authors from Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland.

How did you choose which authors would write them?

As with all the books in the Through My Eyes collection, I chose authors who have a connection with the place and/event that is at the heart of the novel.

The authors of Tyenna, Julie Hunt and Terry Whitebeach, have both had first-hand experience of bushfire in their home state of Tasmania. Their personal insights, connections and disaster memories were invaluable in creating such an authentic, engaging story.

...I wanted our protagonists to show the way in terms of making a difference, no matter how small it may be...

What advice would you give to educators covering these titles in affected school communities?

As with all the Through My Eyes books, our teachers’ notes
contain a Cultural Safety note that advises teachers to be aware of their students’ relationship to the disasters represented in the novels.

It is important that teachers use their discretion and insight into their own school communities, to determine if—and when—these novels will be of benefit to their students.

I would encourage them to read the texts first themselves and
to also avail themselves of the amazing resources developed specifically for school students by the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (

Their Education for Young People is full of wonderful teaching resources and information, as well as examples of disaster resilience in action in Australian schools.

What do you hope the new series will achieve?

I hope it will help develop greater empathy and understanding about natural disasters and the way we must respect and look after our environment. The interdependence of people and place is a strong theme and one I hope young readers will embrace and be challenged by.

As young readers identify with the memorable and courageous characters I hope they will become more proactive in conserving and protecting our planet. I would also be thrilled if the novel encouraged young people who have survived disaster experiences to share their own stories and in so doing find healing and recovery.

Tyenna: Interview with Julie Hunt and Terry Whitebeach

How did you first get involved in this project?

JH: When Lyn White contacted us with an invitation to write for this new Australian series the Tasmanian fires of 2019 still burned in our minds. They had ended just six months before and the next fire season was starting.

We decided to set our story in the Central Highlands, near the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, so we could focus on the threat to the natural environment, the plants and animals, in particular the unique pencil pines, an ancient Gondwana species that has been growing in the alpine areas of Tasmania for millions of years.

Tyenna’s experience of the Tasmanian bushfires feels real and immediate. How much was based on your own experiences and how much on interviews?

TW: The 2019 bushfires did not impact directly on the rural community in which I live, but I have vivid memories of other bushfires, including the terrifying 1967 fires, when more than sixty people perished and thousands of hectares of bush were destroyed. I flew the length of the island a few weeks after the fires and witnessed kilometre after kilometre of charred forest. It’s a sight I will never forget.

Recently, a brush fire near us raged out of control, and we were given 15 minutes to evacuate. As we rushed about depositing things in the car, we realised our fire plan was inadequate. We needed to upgrade it. Urgently. That crisis was averted, but next time we might not be so lucky. That’s when we got really serious about bush fire preparation and prevention.

The book draws on our experiences and memories, but more particularly on those of Central Highlands community members who were willing to give us blow-by-blow descriptions of that terrible summer, and of emergency services personnel who provided us with much technical information.

JH: For me it was a mixture of both my own experience and those of others, the people who helped us by sharing their stories of what came to be known as the Great Pine Tier fire on the Central Plateau.

I live in the Huon Valley and one night in early January I witnessed a light show, caused by bands of dry lightning moving across the hills. The next day there were fires everywhere in the south west. Weeks later I found myself standing in the same spot, looking across the Huon River night after night, keeping watch. My shift was midnight to 3am and during that time I listened to updates on ABC radio. We had cars packed and ready to go. The fire glowed in the distance and seemed to be creeping down the slopes toward the water. Black leaves were falling around me but there were no live embers.

The days were very hot and we worked in the heat, clearing vegetation, fixing fire pumps, putting sprinklers on the roof, watching the weather, making plans and waiting, lots of waiting. Then a particularly bad day was forecast, high temperatures and strong winds. We went around the farm and said goodbye to everything we loved but the predicted weather didn’t happen, the fire didn’t jump the river and slowly everything returned to normal—the ‘new normal’ as people began calling it, a ‘normal’ in which climate change was suddenly real and immediate.

What most helped you in the aftermath of the fires?

JH: I think writing this book was helpful, not that I was actually in the path of the fire so I wasn’t traumatised in that way but we were all deeply shaken. For a few months it was as if ‘life-as-we- know-it’ was no longer the same. The conversations were all about next summer and when it would happen again.

...a ‘normal’ in which climate change was suddenly real and immediate...

Action also helped—planning ahead, thinking about vegetation and fire, finding out what trees and plants are fire retardant, and thinking of other ways in which we could lessen the risk. This included going to workshops on Indigenous fire management with Jason Smith, a local practitioner.

The cool burns with Jason were both a healing and inspiring experience. We began doing the same, clearing away wood and sticks first—anything that would burn hot—and trying to keep the fire low and gentle, burning one small area at a time, putting into practice what we’d learned. Jason recommended a book by his teacher, Victor Steffensen. It’s called Fire Country and is a wonderful read.

A session run by Tasmania Fire Service called ‘Bushfire Recovery and Preparedness’ was also helpful. One of the speakers was Dr Rob Gordon, a clinical psychologist specialising in disaster recovery. I took notes, both for the book and for myself.

TW: What often helps after a disaster is talking with other people who have been through the same event. Creating a narrative of what may have been experienced as a terrifying jumble of events at the time.

Collective action helps as well: part of coming to terms with the ‘new normal’ is joining with others in ‘picking up the pieces’ and beginning to build on what has been lost and what still remains. For example, what united the nearby Dunalley community after the fires in 2013 was people participating in rebuilding the local school and community hall. It strengthened community cohesion and enabled families to remain in the area.

What can you tell us about your collaboration process?

TW: Our research began with an initial trip to the Central Highlands, followed by interviews with emergency services personnel, rural fire brigades and Highlands community members. We also read a number of books about bushfires in Australia. We met frequently to discuss the synopsis and chapter outlines, but once Covid restrictions were in place we worked mainly through Zoom meetings, positing several scenarios and plot lines before settling for the one that satisfied both us and our editor.

...At this point every small change matters and we need big changes as well...

Once we began the writing, we’d each do a chapter and send that draft to the other for feedback. Then we’d discuss and rewrite. Sometimes several times, as we blended our different writing styles and points of view to create a convincing narrative.

Our characters quickly came alive to us and we’d discuss their thoughts and actions as if they were people we knew in the ‘real world’. But we decided to fictionalise the names of places where the main action occurred, for the sake of Highlanders’ privacy. To create a tight narrative structure, we collapsed the events of the fire into a much shorter time frame. As the rewrites continued, we did further research, and consulted relevant authorities to make sure the factual details we included were accurate. Julie made field trips to the pencil pine regeneration project, and to a native plant nursery near Deloraine.

What has been the main difference between writing Tyenna and your past works?

TW: I work mainly with factual material; writing history, biography, memoir, essays. My novels for young adults are realistic fiction with contemporary themes such as rural downturn, the refugee crisis and youth suicide, along with the age-old challenge of discovering and establishing an adult identity.

Writing for a younger age group was new for me—tuning in to my grandchildren’s world, and thinking about how this generation is dealing with the anxieties and challenges of extreme weather events and a global pandemic; what agency they have, how they make decisions and take action, and how resilience is developed.

I was also thinking of the key aspects that must endure—care and connections with family, community, other species and the land.

JH: I usually write imaginative fiction for kids—adventure fantasy set in invented worlds—and my stories often have a sort of old time or out-of-time feeling, so working on something realistic and set in the present day was a big change. I had to get my facts straight and this required a lot of research. I was fortunate in pairing up with Terry who writes excellent contemporary fiction and has a great ear for dialogue, particularly for the way young people speak.

What do you see as the most important action school communities can take to help prevent bushfires?

JH: Educating students on bushfire preparation is essential, as is learning to care for the land in appropriate ways but attending to climate change is the most important issue. We are facing a climate emergency and the best way to have agency when facing the challenges of the future is to take action in any way we can, to look at how we live, what we consume and how much we waste. At this point every small change matters and we need big changes as well.