Steve Tolbert

Steve Tolbert



(revised August, 2010)

I was baptised Steve Tolbert some 66 long years ago in Los Angeles, California. Apparently I cried a lot as a baby, and a few months later my parents split up. My father went to Alaska to live a semi-reclusive wilderness life. while my mother stayed to live the big city life in Southern California and in Seattle, Washington.

I migrated to Australia in 1969 and since then I've taught English, Social Science and Indonesian in high schools in Sydney, Derby (W.A.), Perth, and at various places in Tasmania. In June, 2002 I bought a Bernese Mountain Dog / Labrador cross pup and retired to feed it.

My other big interest continues to be Asia. For a long time I’ve hoped Australian students would feel inclined to learn more about the region. Hence, my stories have strong Asian themes and tend to deal with spiritualism, racism, culture clash and cultural adjustment.

Channeary by Steve Tolbert



My first book, CHANNEARY, was published by Addison, Wesley, Longman (now Pearson Publishing) in 1991. It was immediately short listed for the Multicultural Book Award and has sold more than 20,000 copies. High schools around Australia continue to use it as a set text, primarily for Grades 7-9 classes. It's the story of Channeary, a young Cambodian girl who is tragically forced to leave her home when the Khmer Rouge take over her village. 

Channeary flees to the Thai border where she arrives sick and starving.  At a Buddhist monastery she is nursed back to health, then has no option but to live and work for years in a refugee camp.  It's here she meets the Australian nurse who eventually brings her to Tasmania.  How she copes and doesn't cope, and the help she gives and receives from an old solitary South Coast fisherman serves as the basis for the remainder of the story. 


Settling South by Steve Tolbert


SETTLING SOUTH is loosely-based on a tragic incident that took place in a bush house close to Hobart's Mt Wellington some years ago.  The story was published by Addison,Wesley, Longman in 1995.  It's my only story set entirely in Australia.  But it still has strong Asian themes.  When Tim's mother dies of cancer at Lakes Entrance, Victoria, he has to go live with his reclusive, Vietnam War-traumatised father above Bright in the Snowy Mountains. 

There Tim finds that his father and a local policeman are still fighting the war, but now it's against each other.  Still under legal driving age, Tim nevertheless is taught how to operate a motorbike that is hidden away in a bush shed.  While that's going on, Tim witnesses how the conflict between his father and the policeman escalates until the eventual blow up occurs.  When their bush house comes under siege, Tim is forced to use the motorbike to flee south to Dover, Tasmania, while avoiding apprehension by the police.   


Eyeing Everest by Steve Tolbert


EYEING EVEREST is a semi-autobiographical story that was published by Addison,Wesley,Longman in 1996. Fifteen year old Meika lives with her mother in the northern suburbs of Hobart, but spends many of her weekends at her aunt's place in the Derwent Valley.  It's here Meika is told stories about her father, a man with a love for the wilderness who left Australia for Nepal after Meika's mother left him fourteen years earlier. 

When yet another affair ends for her, Meika's mum commits suicide and Meika is left with the task of trying to unravel her mum's last hours.  What she finds out sends her life into a tailspin.  She gets involved with Hobart street kids and soon is in trouble with the police.  It's Meika's aunt - her guardian now - who assists her again.  She arranges for Meika to travel to the Everest Track in Nepal to meet a father she has never seen before.  What transpires on the Everest Track, in the Himalayas, forms the bulk of the story. 


Stepping Back by Steve Tolbert



STEPPING BACK was published at the same time as EYEING EVEREST.  It's a romance set largely in a Red Cross Hospital south of Phnom Penh. In 1996 it was judged a Notable Book in the CBC Book Awards. 

Somaly is a sixteen year old part-Cambodian girl who has lived with her mother on the remote west coast of Tasmania since she was a toddler.  Somaly's mother was a nurse in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia when she gave birth to Somaly.  Shortly after that, Somaly's father was killed by a land mine and Somaly and her mum left the country for Tasmania. 

Juxtaposed with Somaly's life in Tasmania is the life of Keo, a traumatised Cambodian who lost an arm and his girlfriend in a Khmer Rouge ambush, and who now works as a hospital orderly on the Thai border.  About the time Keo is informed that he'll finally be allowed to return to Cambodia, Somaly's mother in Tasmania finds out she has MS.  If she's ever to return to the country she has ached over for years, she must do it soon.  So Keo from the Thai border, and Somaly and her mother from Tasmania step back into a war-ravaged country filled with stoical, quietly-spoken people who, despite the legacy of Khmer Rouge rule, genocide, an estimated one million buried mines and extreme poverty, are still to this day strongly imbued with Buddhist warmth, graciousness and compassion. 


Escape to Kalimantan by Steve Tolbert



ESCAPE TO KALIMANTAN was published by Addison,Wesley,Longman in 1998. As it contains a few sections of simple Indonesian, it would serve as a nice adjunct to the study of that language.  It tells the story of fifteen year old Jack, who has been taught by his father, Arnold, to respect life, to feel a strong compassion for it in all its rich and varied forms. But the horror of 28 April 1996 changes all that. Jack's sister is killed in the Port Arthur Massacre, and days later Jack's mother leaves for good. When his father's mental state begins to deteriorate, Jack realises he's got to do something to help his father get on with life again.

Wild places and wildlife are Arnold's passionate interests, so close contact with these, Jack believes, will provide his father with his best hope of recovery. He finds out about a place that has the richest animal and plant life in the world. It's called Kalimantan - wild Kalimantan. Like his poster filled room, the perfect place to escape to, Jack thinks. 

But reality is rarely captured accurately on picture posters. In today's world even the wild places and their inhabitants aren't safe from humanity bent on destruction, as Jack and his father unwittingly find out.

Tracking the Dalai Lama by Steve Tolbert


A month after Hyland House published this novel, Fuller's Book Shop in Hobart set up a display of TRACKING THE DALAI LAMA.  They signposted the display and wrote - 'For younger readers who think like older ones'. Perhaps they could have added 'and who have an interest in the Himalayas, Tibet, Tibetans, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese occupation.'

(An excerpt from Magpie Volume 16, No. 5, 2001) 'Desperately needing a change of scene as she struggles to escape the malaise brought on by a tragedy involving her best friend, Jess accompanies her father on a trip to Northern India and later to Tibet. In Dharamsala they meet the Dalai Lama and - incredibly - for a few very eventful weeks, their lives become closely entwined with his. In the scoop of a lifetime, Jess's journalist father is asked to cover the story of the Dalai Lama's secret return to Lhasa.'

For older students - grades 9-12 students.


Dreaming Australia by Steve Tolbert






DREAMING AUSTRALIA was published in January, 2005 by Ginninderra Press ( It tells the story of Soraya, a young girl from Masar e-Sharif, Northern Afghanistan. After her mother is killed in a missile attack, she is sent away with her brother and cousin to a people smuggler in Pakistan who will arrange for her to travel to Australia. But the journey through the mountains north of Kabul is dangerous, particularly after her two male escorts are commandeered by the Taliban to work as porters. Fortunately Soraya meets Muhammed, a rohani (or holy man), who guides her across the border to the city of Peshawar. There she meets her people smuggler who insists that Australians “will wave and shout their greetings and helpful officials will be at the dock to assist her.”

Upon arrival in Australia, Soraya is interned in the Woomera Detention Centre.

In the words of Tasmanian author and manuscript appraiser, Rosie Waitt, Dreaming Australia’s author “seamlessly integrates his research into the story. Set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Australia, the author convincingly evokes each place and succeeds in subtly illuminating the strong differences between spiritually and materially based cultures. Dreaming Australia is a dramatic, exciting and moving story of a young girl’s journey through terrible perils. Along the way she experiences huge losses and betrayals as well as unexpected, but heart warming friendships.

By bringing to life one person’s story, the author succeeds also in humanising issues that are constantly at risk of being dehumanised by politicians and the media. Currently there is great debate about Australia’s position in regard to the rights of refugees, and this story is one that will help young adults understand some of the issues of intolerance, as well as the ability to step across the differences between cultures, differences which often act as the basis for fear and misunderstanding.”


Surfing with Waylan and other stories

SURFING FOR WAYAN AND OTHER STORIES was published by Ginninderra Press in February 2006. It includes seven stories, six unique settings, many divergent themes and characters:

Seventeen-year old Jacob returns to Bali in Surfing for Wayan. Once terrified of surfboards, he’s there to surf wild for four people, including his brother killed in the 2002 Bali Bombing.

In Summits, Lhotse speaks by cell phone to her father who’s dying in a blizzard on Mount Everest. Three months later she walks up Nepal’s Everest Track to view that mountain and share her thoughts.

A young Afghan reflects on the event that spurred him into becoming a suicide bomber in Remembering Nurila.

In Tunneling Cu Chi a Tasmanian boy, a Vietnamese-Australian girl and an American war veteran meet on a tour of Vietnam’s infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. Each is there to resolve their Vietnam War issues.

In Another Door a friendship develops between a panic-struck girl going for her first driver’s license and an old widower who’s obliged to renew his license annually.

During the bombing of Baghdad a young Iraqi-Australian boy struggles to make sense of media headlines in the prize-winning Sandy Heads.

After his granddad dies in Fishing Manhattan, a boy learns that places change and it’s important to love what you have.

For readers aged 12 to 112.

(From Irene McGuire, Fullers Bookshop, Hobart)
Surfing for Wayan and other stories
is a fine, fine collection. What Steve Tolbert captures so well is the challenge of a person coming to terms with a world broader than they had imagined. His stories have a heart and soul - that is, in my mind, what sets them apart - and, at the same time, they entertain and beguile.


Packing Smack, Talking Wombats

Packing Smack, Talking Wombats (Ginninderra Press) was published in January 2007. The story is loosely based on recent cases of police corruption and gangland activities in Melbourne. Jackson is a seventeen/eighteen year old girl with future plans for attending university. Through her first boyfriend, Ben, she unwittingly becomes involved in a St Kilda heroin sale that goes wrong. In order to protect Ben, she flees with the heroin supply to the supposed sanctuary of Flinders Island. Here she meets John, an animal-fixated vet science student, and Pete, a recluse who has lost his family in tragic circumstances. When Jackson’s pursuers – in the form of bent, but entertaining Nick, and later, two employees of the corrupt Detective Inspector Michael Harris – arrive on Flinders Island, the entire island community is drawn into the sordid, violent world of gangland drug dealing. 

Thematically, city/country contrasts and traditional Aussie values, particularly in remote areas, are strong. The novel would be highly suitable in a study of remote places, or the study of values education using Values for Australian schooling (, or in the study of illicit drugs in Australia. A study guide that focuses on these three themes is available at the end of the website. But there’s more. When appraising the original manuscript, The Manuscript Appraisal Agency noted: 

The characters are well rounded and believable. Jackson and Pete are especially strong, but the many minor characters, like Nick, are excellent too…Wonderful imagery…The sense of place, especially for Flinders, is terrific. I could really see, hear and smell the island, although I have never been there…As points of view change in the novel, the language subtly does also…The story itself, about Jackson learning what she wants in a relationship and from life, and about Pete recovering from losing the loves of his life, is strong, real and convincing…The message of finding what is important in life – relationships, community and nature as compared to money, drugs and material possessions – is subtly delivered and will keep teen readers switched on.    

 From a review on Packing Smack, Talking Wombats in Viewpoint - on books for young adults - vol 15, no 3, spring 2007, pages 55, 56. After providing an extensive plot description, the novel's reviewer finishes off by saying,

"Steve Tolbert has intertwined two contrasting worlds and produced a riveting and engrossing novel. It evokes powerfully both the violence and police corruption of the drug scene in the Melbourne underworld as well as it does the natural beauty of Flinders Island and the integrity of the people who live there.
The writing is superb and has left me with a longing to visit Flinders Island while allowing me the illusion that I know so much about it already.

A Y/A novel that is O/A compatible.

O’Leary, JI Terrorist Hunter
O'Leary, JI Terrorist Hunter (Ginninderra Press) was published in August, 2010. The novel is set in Clifton Beach, Tasmania and Bali and Central Java.

Michael O’Leary’s life as a ‘weird and wacky’ word-fixated student changes after his mother is killed and his father badly injured in a Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist attack. In the company of his alter ego, Bounty Hunter Clint, Michael travels to Indonesia intent on confronting JI operatives. At each stage of his mission, the seventeen-year-old meets mysterious people. None occupy his mind – and quickly his dreams – more than Sugi, a Muslim girl who may or may not be working with the ‘enemy.’

From Associate Professor Pam Allen (University of Tasmania) during her launch of the novel:

“Michael O’Leary, the young protagonist of this novel, struggles with a mental illness that has defined his childhood and dictated his responses to events in his life. This is handled with extraordinary sensitivity and insight...

The novel is above all about loss and grief, but it never descends into sentimentality or mawkishness. For all the gravity of its subject matter, moments of deep despair are balanced by ‘laugh out loud’ moments of rollicking humour. So congratulations, Steve, on another meticulously researched and finely crafted work...”

For teachers wanting to use the above novels with high school classes, I have study units for CHANNEARY, SETTLING SOUTH and TRACKING THE DALAI LAMA that I'd be pleased to send out to anyone who might find them useful. Just e-mail me at -


Download the DREAMING AUSTRALIA unit [MSWord 117KB]

Download High school extension suggestions for the SURFING FOR WAYAN anthology [MSWord 43KB]

Download Extension ideas and references for PACKING SMACK, TALKING WOMBATS [MSWord 68KB]

Download study material for O’LEARY, JI TERRORIST HUNTER [MSWord 36KB]

View the unit developed by the Department of Education Tasmania for ESCAPE TO KALIMANTAN. The username and password to view this unit is sample

In 2012 Dr Michelle Dicinoski from the School of Cultural and Languages Studies in Education at Queensland University of Technology conducted interviews with a number of Y/A authors who have specialised in writing novels with Asian themes. You can access the interviews here:

Happy reading,

Steve Tolbert