This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the world’s most beloved children’s books.
This weekend, as part of the anniversary celebrations, the Guardian published a ‘lost chapter’ of Charlie online, featuring the demise of two characters (who never made it to the final book) on a vanilla fudge mountain. In this version, Augustus Gloop is named Augustus Pottle, the Oompa Loompas are simply ‘workers’, and there are eight children who enter the factory with Charlie, rather than the final four.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of a much-loved classic. But is this contemporary trend for posthumously publishing material by classic authors necessarily a good thing? In recent years, we’ve seen the release of early novels by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote; critical responses have suggested that they were the work of evolving writers finding their voices. In other words, there were good reasons to leave them unpublished.
‘As a writer I can’t think of anything worse than an early draft being published,’ says Emily Gale, author of books for children (The Eliza Bloom Diaries) and young adults (Steal My Sunshine) and a bookseller at Readings. ‘It’s like lining up a chef’s previously burnt dinners or hearing a singer’s bum notes during rehearsal. On the other hand, it does usefully show that not even a celebrated author like Dahl got it right the first time, and that writing evolves over time and with input from different sources, which is something Dahl said when he was talking to children about how to write.’
Andrew Wilkins, chair of the Children’s Laureate Alliance and director of independent children’s publishing house WilkinsFarago, believes posthumous publications like this complement rather than reflect on a writer’s career; they stand apart from their accepted body of work, rather than joining (or muddying) it. ‘Rather like extras on DVDs, an adult audience likes this kind of material, and probably has the level of sophistication necessary to accept the unpolished early material for what it is − a curio and evidence of the author’s way of working. As long as it’s clear what the work is, I don’t see the harm.’
Publisher Penguin marked Charlie’s anniversary last month by publishing an adult version of the book, featuring a made-up little blonde girl outfitted in clouds of confectionery-pink, staring glassy-eyed from the vantage point of her mother’s lap.
‘This new image for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl’s writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life,’ said a publisher’s statement.
The adult readers the publisher hopes to intrigue have not, in general, embraced the cover. ‘That Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover is one of the biggest publishing mistakes ever. Hitler’s Diaries bad,’ said Patrick Ness. On Twitter, Joanne Harris said: ‘Seriously, Penguin Books. Why not just get Rolf Harris to design the next one?’
‘The designers went for the wrong sort of darkness,’ wrote Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker. ‘Dahl’s young characters always have agency; their magic powers or ingenious schemes − what their adult overlords consider misbehaviour − always save the day. The Modern Classics cover has not a whiff of this validation of childish imagination; instead, it seems to imply a deviant adult audience.’
Others have been annoyed by the very concept of repackaging Charlie for adult readers. Picture book author Giles Paley-Philips told The Bookseller that there is ‘a lot of ill feeling about it, I think because it’s such a treasured book and a book which isn’t really a ‘crossover book’. People want it to remain as a children’s book.’
Australian author Simmone Howell’s latest book, Girl Defective, won best YA cover at this year’s ABA Design Awards. She says the repackaging is ‘lame’, but that’s not the main issue for her. ‘I don’t know why adults are so scared to be seen reading books generally read by a younger audience,’ she says. ‘I think the repackaging for adults just widens the gap and reinforces the idea that children’s books are “less than” literature (and the implication there is that children are “less than” adults).’
Emily Gale agrees; she says that this attitude from publishers needs to change. ‘There are plenty of people who agree with the Martin Amis school of thought, that you’d only write − or, presumably, read − a children’s book as an adult if you’d lost the full use of your brain. The children’s jacket is often cheaper, so I wonder whose brain really needs checking.’
Thuy On, books editor of The Big Issue (and a huge Roald Dahl fan) says she still sees Charlie firmly as a ‘children’s book’, without the crossover appeal of a Harry Potter. ‘I don’t think many people will read it as adults – unless, like me − they are reliving it with a child who’s being introduced to it for the first time,’ she says. ‘So I think it’s unnecessary and a bit of a cynical marketing tool to package it with an adult cover.’
Yet the design has its defenders, too. Tony Ross, a former art director at District-based Mage Publishers who teaches a class on jacket design for the D.C. Public Library, told the Washington Post that the Modern Classics cover is ‘provocative to exactly the right degree’; he believes Dahl would have liked it.
Andrew Wilkins is in favour of the edition, too. ‘The repackaging just enables adults to more easily give themselves permission to buy the book for themselves; it doesn’t change the nature of the book, the primary market for which is still kids. In that respect, the creepy cover makes sense. It’s an adult cover, so adults will buy it. Not all kids’ books could handle this kind of makeover, but Dahl’s can, mainly due to his dark humour.’
Despite the fact that the girl is outfitted just as Quentin Blake drew Veruca Salt, the publisher has said that the image is not meant to represent any of the characters.
Wheeler Kids is the Wheeler Centre’s new event series especially for the small person in your life. We have four events this September school holidays: a comic workshop, Andy Griffiths, a book-making workshop with Alison Lester, and Philosophy Club: Being Good.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator; she has published both picture books and a YA dystopian series, The Tribe. In this engrossing essay, which doubles as a call to arms, she describes what it’s like to be an Indigenous writer, the importance of ‘laughter-stories’ even (or especially) about terrible things, and why writing for young people demands an ‘impossibly high’ standard.
She argues for the importance of diverse books for young people: so that all young people can access stories that are written by and about someone like them. ‘Be aware,’ she urges – we should all ask that bookshops and libraries, writers festivals and events, stock books and program writers that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors.
I come from generations of storytellers who told tales in words, painted them in art, and sung and danced them in rhythm with the seasons and the sun and the stars. The people were one with the stories and the stories one with the people, and every tale both embodied and sustained the whole. The Indigenous peoples of the globe have always understood the universe to be a continually enfolding and unfolding place where everything holds everything else. We had no fractured stories, until the colonisers arrived, bringing with them tales that divided people from people and people from the earth. Indigenous peoples learned to navigate these stories too; we had to if we wanted to survive. And today, I am merely one of the many millions of Indigenous people who walk in many worlds.
My perspective is shaped by the culture and Country of the Palyku people from whom I come; by individual and collective Indigenous experiences of colonisation; and by my family and my ancestors. But I speak only for myself. The many Aboriginal nations of Australia, and Indigenous peoples elsewhere, are diverse peoples with diverse perspectives. We share much in common, but we are also different individuals from different nations, and our cultures are and always have been pluralist in nature. As such, we do not hold a single, static view between us all.
The worlds in which I walk are sometimes disparate but not disconnected. Each one is shaped by stories, including the worlds of the things that have been and those of the things that are yet to be. As Cherokee author Thomas King writes: ‘Most of us think history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past.’ (1) And Indigenous people are well aware of the many ways in which stories of the past continue to shape our future. We deal daily with the ongoing and intergenerational consequences of colonialism; with the negative stereotypes; and with the mistaken assumptions about us upon which law and policy is so often based.
I often think of a tale told by Yuin elder Eileen Morgan in her memoir The Calling of the Spirits. She writes of a hidden valley of Aboriginal people who live naked as our ancestors did, and have a single set of clothes to be worn if ever one of them ventures out of the valley. It seems to me that Indigenous people send out our stories in much the same way. We clothe them in forms which non-Indigenous hearts and minds will recognise so that they might understand us. Except we use those forms differently, and Indigenous work is sometimes criticised for failing to comply with genre expectations or scholarly conventions that were never ours to begin with. We are aware also of the dangers of becoming too comfortable in Eurocentric forms and writing ourselves out of our own stories. In the words of Plains Cree Metis poet and author Dr Emma LaRocque, reflecting on the academic world:
I’ve walked these hallways
For a long time now
Hallways without windows
No way to feel the wind
No way to touch the earth
No way to see
I do my footnotes so well
Nobody knows where I come from (2)
Indigenous peoples are unlikely to ever use the written word in the same way as those to whom the English language belongs; we reinterpret and subvert to make someone else’s form communicate our substance. In the end, we are not writing. We are speaking, singing, laughing, crying. And we know it is desperately important to be heard. We know because we are ones who bear the cost of the silence that causes us to vanish from national consciousness and allows harmful distortions of our cultures and histories to pass unchallenged. Beyond that, this planet has always needed a diversity of voices to sustain its diversity of environments (and therefore life on earth). In the words of Arrente elder Margaret Kemarre Turner: ‘The Land must have people through whom it can talk.’ (3)
One commonality shared by many Indigenous peoples of the globe is our use of humour. We sometimes laugh at terrible things; it is an aspect of Indigenous storytelling that is often misconstrued. It does not in any way mean the terrible things were not terrible, or that we take them lightly. But our ancestors taught us that making light of them can make them a little easier to bear. Laughter is a gift; and anyone who has ever survived something terrible knows its value and its grace.
Laughter-stories are much needed now, along with all the other stories, and they are most especially needed by those to whom my books speak. Because I write novels for young adults and picture books for children. And of all the worlds in which I walk, it is the world of the young which is closest to my heart.
I am aware, of course, that there are those who believe that writing for children or teenagers is not as difficult or as worthy as writing for adults. It’s becoming a semi-regular event for someone to make the allegation that YA/children’s literature is not ‘real literature’. This does not bother me so much on my own behalf – in fact, if anyone ever did think my books were ‘real literature’ I’d just as soon they never said so, at least not where any child or teenager likely to read my books could hear them. It’s perilously close to saying my books are educational, and the only people who think that’s an attractive quality in a YA/children’s books are adults. But such allegations do bother me on behalf of the people I write for, because it implies that (a) the standard is lower and (b) the young won’t notice. I think the opposite is true. I think the standard is and should be impossibly high; children and teenagers deserve and demand more. And of course they notice when a story is not well told. Failing to perceive the blindingly obvious is an ability we only develop as we grow older.
The world of the young is a place that abounds with infinite possibilities and infinite terrors. Every horror that can be visited on the grown ups of this world exists too in the lives of the young, only they must cope with their realities with less experience and less resources. And the stories that shape and inspire and comfort the diverse children and teenagers of this world are not the stories they’ll read when they’re all grown up. It’s the stories that speak to who they are now. That is why it is so important to ensure not only that the young have access to stories, but that at least some of those stories are written by and about someone like them.
There is a campaign in the United States called ‘We need diverse books’; as part of it, people posted pictures of signs that finished the sentence ‘we need diverse books because…’ One of the images that has stayed with me is a sign sitting in front of Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian author Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. The sign reads: ‘We need diverse books because everyone’s story deserves to be told’.
I am often asked if there are any limits on what I would write for the young. I accept at least one limit, and it is this: I will never tell a story without hope. It is perhaps why I enjoy YA literature so much; I want to see good triumph over evil and it generally does in my genre, although not without hardship and sacrifice. Good triumphs because that is exactly what should happen in a world of infinite possibility (including the possibility of justice). And if some adults are inclined to think that narratives of unremitting bleakness are more realistic, then that is surely an indictment on the world we create for the young and not the one they would create for themselves, were they ever given the choice.
The first story I ever published and illustrated is a book called Crow and the Waterhole. That story came to me in a dream. I saw a crow who gazes down at her reflection in the waterhole below her tree. She believes she is seeing another crow, one far more wonderful than she is. So she goes out in the world to seek her destiny, but she keeps seeing other crows – in a river, a lake, and a puddle. Each new Crow is more wonderful than the last, and Crow despairs. Finally, a clever kookaburra explains that she is staring at her own image. So Crow flies back to her tree, and from that time on, whenever she meets someone seeking their destiny, she says to them: ‘Your destiny lies within you. All you have to do is learn how to see it.’
I believe the tale was a gift given to me by my ancestors. They knew I was at a stage in my life when I needed to hear that story. And it is still my dream, but no longer for myself. It is what I want for all the children and all the teenagers of this earth – to be able to find their own image in the world around them and recognise their own value. That value then multiples ten-thousandfold because those who have travelled through doubt and fear to be able to nurture themselves are also the ones who will be the most nurturing of others. The reverse is also true; we all understand that a lack of self-worth leads to destructive cycles of behavior. The effects of our actions are always exponential, which means we can be more powerful than we know.
I am going to assume that anyone who loves stories thinks that more stories (and more perspectives) are better than less. So to all the book lovers, I say this: be aware.
When you go into a bookstore or shop online, start paying attention to the faces on the covers and the names of authors. Are you seeing the complexity and diversity of the world looking back at you? This is important for adult readers, of course, but it is more important for the young. Where are the stories in which they are the heroes, the ones written by and about people like them? And if these books are not present, don’t let anyone tell you they don’t exist, at least, not without investigating that claim.
Certainly in Australia there is a wealth of Indigenous narratives across all genres, largely (but not exclusively) due to the amazing work of Aboriginal publishers – IAD Press, Aboriginal Studies Press, and Magabala Books. Many non-Indigenous publishing houses are also producing stories written and/or illustrated by Indigenous people (including Allen & Unwin, Little Hare Books, Random House, Penguin, Omnibus Books, Fremantle Press, Spinifex Press, University of Queensland Press, Giramondo Publishing, Walker Books and many others).
If you find a lack of stories, ask that bookstores and libraries stock the books that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors. Ask that writers’ festivals and events do too. And if there is a lack of monetary resources, make some noise about that as well. The likelihood is that the critically under-resourced schools and libraries will be those located in disadvantaged areas (in other words, the very places where the young need stories the most).
So let’s do what we can to help create the world the young would choose for themselves, the one where they are valued. And then watch as different cultures and perspectives interact in narrative space, affirming their understanding of themselves and gaining a better understanding of each other.
The world of the young is one of limitless possibilities – give them enough support, and they will expand the boundaries of all worlds into infinity.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and law academic. She comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She has published a number of picture books as well as a dystopian series – The Tribe – for young adults. Find out more about Ambelin at her website: www.ambelin-kwaymullina.com.au
(1) Thomas King, An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, p3
(2) Emma LaRocque, ‘Long Way From Home’ in Socialist Studies, Vol 9(1) Spring 2013 pp22 – 26 at 23
(3) Margaret Kemarre Turner, Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it means to be an Aboriginal person, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2010, p33
Andrew McDonald remembers an Australian children’s classic worth celebrating – Robin Klein’s fabulously funny, ‘perfectly formed’ comic novel of Australian primary school life, schoolyard class warfare and friendship: Hating Alison Ashley.
2014 is a year of significant milestones in the world of children’s literature. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turns 50 years old, as does New York City’s favourite sleuth Harriet the Spy. Just as significant, but somewhat overlooked, is the thirtieth anniversary of a classic Australian kids’ novel – Hating Alison Ashley.
Before I go on, please remove from your mind any memory of the legacy-threatening 2005 film adaptation that contained (‘starred’ is too kind a word) Delta Goodrem. No good will come from labouring over that wreck. Instead, let’s focus on the source text – the fabulous book by Australian author Robin Klein. It’s a triumph of wit and characterisation and is surely one of the most perfectly-formed and under-celebrated children’s novels this country has ever produced. And this month it turns 30. So let’s celebrate.
When it was first published in 1984, Hating Alison Ashley was immediately relatable for many young readers. The book takes in the quintessential elements of Australian primary school life with quirk and candour. Yard duty, sick bays, stricken first-year teachers, Hobbyahs, school camps and Clag – all of these are spotlit by the books’ narrator: not the eponymous Alison Ashley but the egotistical, hypochondriac Erica Yurken.
On many levels Hating Alison Ashley is a farce of character. Erica Yurken is rude, self-centred and intoxicatingly megalomaniacal. Her delusions of grandeur are completely at odds with her life at Barringa East Primary School – a school of such disrepute that Erica laments its sole mention in the local newspaper, which occurred when a classroom burned down prompting the headline ‘Arson Suspected at Barringa East Primary’. In Erica’s Barringa East we see shades of Porpoise Spit, the depression-inducing town from the classic Australian film Muriel’s Wedding.
To distance herself from the world around her, Erica dreams of a life of fame and stardom in the theatre and is dedicated to the belief that she is far superior to her family, her classmates and even the school principal. In Erica’s words: ‘Mr Nicholson, the Principal, was a workaholic. Which means that he threw himself into work like someone hurling themselves off a cliff.’ Matters of class, poverty and cultural cringe all get an airing. In one particularly memorable scene Erica despairs about having to bring her lunch to school in an empty, waxed cornflakes bag because they’d run out of lunch wraps at home.
But it’s Alison Ashley who draws most of Erica’s wrath. Alison is an upper-class goody two shoes whose mere presence at school threatens Erica’s comfortable superiority like never before. Erica sees Alison Ashley as her great adversary, but it’s a rivalry that only really exists in Erica’s imagination. Alison Ashley herself is a fairly bland and one-dimensional character (in contrast to Erica’s five or six complex dimensions). In response to Erica’s seething hatred, Alison Ashley is unfazed and kind of amused. The book might be told from Erica’s point of view, but if the reader sides with anyone, it’s Alison Ashley. Like her we can’t help but be entertained – entranced even – by the tall tales and white lies that spew from Erica Yurken’s mouth. If we took her word for everything we’d believe that she wears make-up, high heels and shiny fake-leather pants; is well-connected to professional theatre people; has a dead father who died in a plane crash (he heroically piloted the plane into the ocean to avoid hitting any houses); and has a mother who is a hotel manageress and whose boyfriend Lennie is actually just the family’s private security guard and definitely not her mother’s boyfriend.
After all of Erica’s lies and self-congratulatory talk she should be a wholly undesirable character. But she becomes so hopelessly lost in her own rhetoric that we can’t help but empathise, and even admire her (misplaced) ambitions. She’s the classic, unreliable narrator and we love her for it. Erica Yurken would have to be one of the most likeable unlikeable characters of children’s literature.
And while the book takes an overtly comic tone (I haven’t even mentioned Barry Hollis – the school bully and prankster whose amusing anti-establishment swagger means he has more in common with Erica than Alison Ashley does) it still has important things to say about friendship, envy and how to reconcile our ideas about ourselves with the realities of life. Thus: perfectly formed.
Thankfully, the novel hasn’t dated all that much (god knows what Erica Yurken would unleash on the world with a Twitter account) and anyway books like the Famous Five series and even Harriet the Spy clearly show their age and are still considered classics and important parts of their respective country’s literary consciousness.
Sadly, author Robin Klein suffered a ruptured aneurysm a few years ago and now lives in a nursing home. She is no longer capable of writing or speaking about her work. But this doesn’t mean that her novels, of which many are stand-out, should wither and disappear in time. It was fantastic to see Penguin release Hating Alison Ashley as part of their Australian Children’s Classics series last year. Reading it should be an occasion, a rite-of-passage, in every Australian child’s life.
So bring out your old copies and share them with your kids. Buy the pretty new Australian Children’s Classic edition and make a birthday present of it. And reread it yourself. Because a country full of people who have read Hating Alison Ashley would be a lucky country indeed.
Sally Rippin’s series for primary school age children, Billie B. Brown and Hey Jack!, are bestsellers – and playground favourites. So she’s well equipped to give advice on helping instil a love of reading in reluctant readers. Here are some of her tips – and her story on the genesis of Billie and Jack.
A few years ago, I was approached by a publisher to begin a new series for early readers. For inspiration I began by pulling out all my old Dr Seuss books. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story behind The Cat in the Hat, in 1954, a magazine published an article that suggested children were not learning to read because their books were boring. A publisher compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognise and asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) to write a book using only those words. Nine months later, using only 236 of these words, Geisel handed him the manuscript for The Cat in the Hat.
The next set of books I dusted off were my childhood copies of Richard Scarry. I studied these books to work out what had so appealed to me and decided it was Scarry’s unusual use of second person. Looking at these books as an adult I realised this was an incredibly simple yet effective way of connecting with my young reader.
The last series I pulled out were the Milly Molly Mandy books begun by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the 1920s. They contained no wizards or dragons, or even family tragedies to contend with, yet I still remember finding them utterly gripping. So, inspired by Seuss, Scarry and Lankester Brisley, I decided my stories would begin in second person, contain the language of a school reader and stick to the simplest day to day occurrences of a six to eight year old. Over the next few weeks I wrote a story using these limitations and tested it out on my son who is a reluctant reader. When he fidgeted or seemed to lose track of the story, I made notes in the columns to trim back or change the wording. Eventually I came up with the first book in the series: Billie B Brown, The Soccer Star.
The series grew from six books, to twelve, to twenty, with a spin-off series for boys called Hey Jack! Three years down the track, my publishers informed me that the Billie B Brown series had sold its millionth copy. Obviously, this is thrilling news, but what means even more to me is that these days I hear almost weekly from parents and teachers who credit them for enabling their child to discover a love of reading. Having a struggling reader myself, I couldn’t feel more honoured and privileged to have been a small part of something that will offer their child a lifetime of joy and respect and ease.
Sometimes I feel sad that my son will never know Charlotte or Mr Tumnus or Mowgli as intimately as I did at his age, but in the last few years he has developed a Manga collection to die for, it being the only thing he will read for pleasure. It’s hard to see your kid struggle, but with a little persistence and patience, like my son, most kids will get there in the end.
Over the years I have devoured everything I can find on helping kids learn to read, and spoken to many people in the same position as I am. Here is a short list of things I have gleaned from my research that have worked for us:
• Read to them every day – kids are never too old to be read to. This also becomes a precious time in the day where your child has your undivided attention for a moment, so that they will learn to associate books with warmth and joy.
• Make reading fun – once it starts feeling like a chore or you begin to resent your child’s slow progress, it’s no fun for anyone. Stop and try something else.
• Let them choose their own reading material – nothing wrong with car magazines or comics!
• Let them self-correct – as painful as it can be to listen to them make the same mistake a hundred times, they do need to work it out for themselves and will gradually learn to do this from the context.
• Talk to them about books – which ones did you read as a child? What are they reading? What are their friends reading? Go to author signings, bookstore events and libraries together. Make books a prominent part of your life.
• Download audio books − so that your reluctant reader can hear the books their friends are reading and join in their conversations. It’s also important they are given the opportunity to learn how stories work. This is difficult for them to understand when their only access to books might be school readers, which can be pedagogically sound, but often lacking in story, description and character development.
• Use reading opportunities; eg. reading recipes, instructions, road signs etc.
• Set a good example – let them see you reading.
This past Sunday was that most exciting of special, annual occasions – our Children’s Book Festival (in partnership with the State Library of Victoria) took over the State Library lawns, our Performance Space, Little Lonsdale Street and various venues and galleries inside the library.
From 10 ‘til 4, over 15,000 kids and their adults took part in an exciting, rich and imagination-stoking programme of events and activities with a focus on children’s literature.
And, once again, we were very happy to welcome an artist in residence for the day (you may recall that last year, Oslo Davis was on the job). 2014’s artist in residence was Nicki Greenberg, and today we’re pleased to share her illustrations from the day.
See any familiar faces? We thought so!
(Click on an image to enlarge it to full size.)
Emily Gale is the author of several pre-school books and the YA novel Girl Aloud, which has been published in the UK, Germany and the US. Her first book set in Australia was last year’s Steal My Sunshine. Her latest books are My Explosive Adventure: Eliza Boom’s Diary and My Fizz-Tastic Investigation: Eliza Boom’s Diary. Emily has worked as a children’s book editor and is a specialist children’s bookseller at Readings.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
When I was 19, and studying English Lit at the University of Sussex, I joined the student magazine editorial team. I was an extremely nervy editorial assistant and madly in love with the charismatic editor. Tragically, my love was unrequited, but on the upside he did publish a piece I wrote on feminism. It was a truly dreadful piece of writing but it was a start. The magazine won a Guardian award that year for best student magazine in the UK. My piece would have played no part in that decision but I like to think that my dotting of the i’s did. By the following year I was editor, but please note that no bunnies were boiled during the takeover.
What’s the best part of your job?
I have two jobs: children’s author and children’s book buyer. It’s the actual process of writing that I love most – simply the sitting-down-and-doing-it part. I find the being published part really nerve-wracking. Since working full-time at Readings I’ve had to fit writing around a 40-hour week, not including reading time, with two small(ish) children, which is a pretty good commitment test. When a book is going well I wake up at 5am and write for an hour before getting ready for work. I never thought I’d be that disciplined but those hours are precious and pure, when it’s just me and the story.
There are lots of things I love about being a book buyer. There’s another precious hour I have between 8 and 9, before the shop opens, when I dust and do window displays and make everything look pretty in the children’s section before the customers walk in. It’s the only kind of housework I enjoy. I love the reading, obviously – I’ve never read so much in my life. My colleagues are great fun and I love the atmosphere. On Christmas Eve the queues went right to the back of the shop, snaking through the children’s section, and that was very uplifting.
What’s the worst part of your job?
With the writing it’s the moment my author copies are delivered. I fly into a panic, which I try to internalize because it’s very dull, so my insides are pickled in angst. Bad reviews aren’t very enjoyable either. And then there’s the negative royalty statements. That’s probably enough worst parts to be going on with.
The worst part of being a book buyer is the returns process. It has to be done but I feel like I’ve failed every book I have to send back. Except for the crap ones.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
My writing career has been bumpy to say the least. It’s certainly no glamorous story. I found my first agent very quickly, off the back of some picture book manuscripts and three chapters of a children’s novel. A year later she hadn’t sold anything for me and I’d just delivered my first YA novel to her. I was feeling pretty chuffed with it and proud that I’d managed to finish it in time to have my first baby, whose arrival was imminent. Then a letter came: it was my agent telling me completely out-of-the-blue that she could no longer represent me. I nearly gave birth on the spot. I called my mum and cried down the phone. After a period of feeling very sorry for myself, those two essential words came to me: Fuck. You. Just over a year later I’d written another YA novel and signed with a new agent.
But the moment that I’ll never forget for the opposite reason is receiving an email from Jaclyn Moriarty telling me she’d enjoyed my first published YA novel, Girl, Aloud. That was magic because I admire her writing so much.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
It’s simple and came from a friend who isn’t a writer: just get on with it. Best delivered with an eye-roll and a pfft immediately after a writerly whinge. I’m sorry if it sounds too simple but I think of my friend saying that to me all the time and it works. He’s a grafter, he doesn’t make excuses, and ultimately that’s what is needed in this game: there’s a lot of raw talent around but it’s only the people who get on with it who are in the running.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
Well, there is a review of one of my books that says ‘this is the worst book in the whole world’, which I thought was quite some claim.
I’m always surprised when people say that I come across as confident or that I’m good at public-speaking because of all the sleepless nights and anxiety that happens behind closed doors.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I think anything else I did would be temporary; I’d flit from one thing to the next. Being a primary school teacher might come into it for a while, but I think I’m too greedy about alone-time and I’d be awful at dealing with parents. I could have been a lawyer, too, which always seems like a missed opportunity when I look at my bank statement. Am I allowed to have my own bookshop in this terrible working-without-words world? How about if I promise not to read any of the books? (At least until you’re not looking.) It might turn out to be a bit too much like Black Books.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I’ve never been to a writing class or taught one, so my opinion is pretty groundless I’m afraid. I hasten to add that I’d love to take writing classes, it’s just that you need time and money for that and I’ve been short of both. Authors I know who’ve taken courses have gone onto to produce novels that I adore, but I don’t know what they would have produced without that teaching.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
I’d have to refer back to what works for me: just get on with it. Lots of people talk about writing a book ‘when I have more time’, but you have to make the time and it’s bags of it you need to make because most writers’ first efforts are awful. Rewriting is the thing. Sending out your first attempt and then feeling flattened when you’re rejected is a common mistake. Feeling angry with the publishing world because doors aren’t opening fast enough is another. I don’t like the sense of entitlement I see with some writers. I think it’s really important, if you want to be published, to find out as much as you can about the industry you’re trying to become a part of, and I’ve met lots of people who believe they should be published who are very ignorant of the processes and some of the realities.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
The staff discount at Readings is one of the many good reasons to work there. But I buy books everywhere I go. I love bookshops and I’m terrible with (my own) money, so I’m not a likely candidate for seeking out online bargains.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
This feels like an odd choice even as I write it down but I’d pick the sea-witch Misskaella from Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I completely surrendered myself to that book and came out feeling deliciously bewildered. Dinner with Misskaella would be the same deal. I’d be terrified and wouldn’t be able to eat a thing but it’d be worth it. I’d grab a burger on the way home, with Eeyore.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I think career-wise it would be Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty. I was 26 and working as a children’s book editor. I’d never properly considered writing for young people, even though I was pretty sure that somewhere down the line I’d write novels (if only I could just get on with it), until the moment I finished that book. I just knew I wanted to write about teenagers, and bring up all that old stuff that was lurking deep down – all that good angsty material.
It’s all Jaclyn’s fault.
Emily Gale was recently credited by Mark Rubbo as being instrumental to the creation of the Readings Children’s Book Prize. The inaugural shortlist will be announced on Wednesday 2 April.
Judith Ridge reflects on the characters who nurtured her childhood love of reading – and passionately argues that we need to recognise, reward and nurture great children’s writing, as separate from great writing for young adults.
When I was eight years old, I fell in love with a book.
This in itself was not unusual, for me or perhaps for any eight-year-old like the one I was − precociously and insatiably bookish, could read before school, you know the type. I’d been in love with lots of books by then: Harry the Dirty Dog (especially when he Didn’t Like Roses), The Magic Faraway Tree and its cousin, The Wishing Chair. I hadn’t yet met the girls who were to become touchstones in my young reading life − Lucy Pevensie, Judy Woolcot and Harriet M. Welsch − but I was well on the way at eight, when I read a book about another girl, called Teddy Truelance, and fell in love.
The book was Longtime Passing by the Australian author Hesba Brinsmead. It’s little-remembered or read now, I expect, but in 1972 it won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year award, and my heart.
Longtime Passing is Hesba Brinsmead’s fictional memoir of her childhood, spent growing up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Brinsmead was born in 1922, and Longtime Passing describes The Truelance family living in their hand-built slab hut, their father making their living from cutting down the very timbers of the forest that sustained them; their mother, who ‘felt as though she and the children were the only inhabitants of a lost world,’ working to maintain standards, raise her children and then disappear at night into endless re-readings of Pride and Prejudice. And the children lived out their adventures in the bush of the Blue Mountains, a place I knew well, because I too had lived there as an even younger child than I was when I read the book.
It is, I think, very likely true that Longtime Passing was one of the first novels I ever read that had a distinctively and recognisably Australian setting; the first novel that described places I knew intimately, and that used language and portrayed human characters and experiences that were unmistakably Australian. (It may also well have been the first book I read that included Aboriginal Australia in its discussion of the Australian landscape and history; alas, it also recounts an almost certainly fictional account of the ritual sacrifice of a young Aboriginal woman. And so it may be just as well that the book is little remembered, and I am sorry that my childhood affection for the book is irrevocably tainted by this stain.)
Although I mention Teddy as one of the earliest in a long line of literary heroines who made their mark on me, it wasn’t that I fell in love with her so much as the world she inhabited − a world I recognised, but also yearned for. I felt the way the following year, when a television series brought the Woolcot family into my life, those Seven Little Australians, ‘none of (whom) were really good, for the excellent reason that Australian children never are’ (and whose home, Misrule, I would years later borrow to name my blog and social media profiles …) Turner is quite explicit about the nature of the Australian character and the effect of the country’s history and the ‘sunny brilliance of our atmosphere’ on its children, and I recall quite clearly the surprising pleasure of reading about my own country, my own child compatriots.
I developed the same fierce attachment to American and English books, and the characters within them, and a deep and almost painful desire to somehow enter into the world of those characters and books. Lucy Pevensie, already mentioned, is an obvious one − who wouldn’t want to go to Narnia with her? Especially when, like Lucy, you’re the youngest of four siblings, who sometimes felt so grown-up and beyond interest in the games of an eight-, nine-, or ten-year-old. But it wasn’t just Lucy. I so badly fell in love with Harriet the Spy that I played Town in the dirt in my backyard and made a spy route around the streets of Auburn − a suburb in western Sydney about as far removed as the upper east side of Manhattan as it is possible to imagine and still be in the urban, western world.
And what on earth did these books have in common? Sharp-eyed, street-wise, nascent mean girl Harriet M. Welsch bore little resemblance to gentle Lucy Pevensie, and probably neither of them could have stood to be around Judy Woolcot for long. I’m not a great believer in the idea that kids require ‘characters they can relate to’, as the old saw would have it, in order to find themselves lost deep within the pages of a book, although I also think it’s true that I saw − or wanted to see − something of myself in many of my childhood fictional heroes (including Harry the Dirty Dog − and I was a cat girl through and through). It was more than that. When I truly loved a book, it became a kind of yearning to enter fully into that world and somehow live in it. For me, I suspect, it was a wish to cram in as much experience as I possibly could, a kind of platonic pre-adolescent romance with the unattainable, which in my teenage years transformed into crushes on pop stars and boys I was too afraid to actually speak to.
There is something particularly intense, pure (and in many respects, deeply private) about the way a child enters into the world of a book that is completely different from the way a teenager, and certainly an adult, reads. I’m not trying to set up an oppositional position between kids and teenagers and their reading, because I know that teenage readers feel equally passionate about the books they fall in love with. But there’s a certain − I won’t say innocence − but an utter absorption into the world of a book for the dedicated child reader that I think few of us experience post-adolescence. (Francis Spufford, in The Child that Books Built, describes this experience of ‘reading catatonically’ as an airlock: ‘It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside. The silence that fell on noises of people and traffic and dogs allowed an inner door to open to the book’s… script of sound.’)
I’ve written at length in the past about my frustration with the way that YA fiction has attracted the vast bulk of media and critical attention over the past decade or so. I know I am not alone in groaning in frustration whenever I see yet another ‘Best books for teens’ list that is largely made up of the great classics of children’s literature, or when I hear people speak about children’s books as ‘young-young adult’ or any of the equally ugly and tortured descriptors to apparently give respectability to a category of literature that absolutely no-one need make apologies for. The great danger in subsuming children’s books into YA in both public discourse and in the literary pages and blogs, is already, I fear, having an impact on writing and publishing. Since the splitting of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards into Book of the Year: Younger Readers and Book of the Year: Older Readers some 20 years ago, we’ve seen a steady decline in the recognition in those awards, and of recognition in the publishing industry itself of great, substantial, literary fiction for older children (the 8-12 year old range, that golden age of reading). And where there are few awards (the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, for example, only has a prize for Young Adult fiction), and little recognition, there’s little incentive for writers to take on what most children’s authors and publishers agree is the hardest thing to write, and write well: the truly great children’s novel.
We have those writers in this country; people following in the footsteps of the likes of Patricia Wrightson and Ivan Southall, but unlike the bestselling YA authors and those writers of high-selling, popular, commercial children’s fiction, I wonder how many of them you can name?
So it’s not the teenagers I am worried about, nor even the kids for whom reading isn’t their first choice of leisure activity, or for whom reading is a struggle. The truth is, all those young readers are actually very well catered for, with a wider range and variety of books that we’ve ever seen in the history of publishing.
It’s the kind of child reader I was, the kid who wants to follow a Teddy Truelance into the bush, or a Harriet M. Welsch around the block, or a Lucy Pevensie through the back of the cupboard, that I worry about. These kids are great readers, and they need great books. Let’s make sure they’re there to give to them.
Judith Ridge has written about children’s and youth literature for journals such as Viewpoint and Magpies, Australian Book Review, Publishers Weekly (US), Australian Bookseller and Publisher, The Horn Book (US) and The Age. She has been a judge four times on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, is a Churchill Fellow and has an MA in children’s literature. Since 2007, she has been Project Officer on WestWords: the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project.
Join us for the Children’s Book Festival this Sunday 23 March, on the lawns (and in the building) of the State Library.
A YouTube musical comedy hit – and global digital bestseller – will hit the shelves as a children’s book in the US this Christmas.
Brothers Bard and Vegard Ylvisaker, who perform as Ylvis, shot to worldwide fame in September when the YouTube clip for their absurd song, What Does the Fox Say?, went viral. It has attracted more than 215 million hits on YouTube and sold one million copies in digital sales.
‘We thought that if we did a brilliant and really clever idea, it would seem pretentious and that we were trying to be pop stars, not comedians,’ Bard told the UK Telegraph. He says they intended to make a stupid song with high production values that bombed … but of course, it did the opposite.
Their kooky success has been compared to Psy, creator of Gangnam Style. (And, in an interesting bit of trivia, they’re the most successful Norwegian music artists since A-ha’s Take on Me in 1985.)
Simon & Schuster will publish an illustrated children’s book of the song in December; they’re printing 250,000 copies.
‘We actually started the process with the illustrator before we even uploaded the video to YouTube,’ Vegard told the Guardian. ‘As we were working with the song it just felt like it had the potential of becoming an interesting book as well, mostly because all of a sudden we found ourselves wondering what does the fox really say?’
There’s been a recent trend for children’s books to entertain literary parents … and maybe act as a bit of a status symbol. Many of those books (like Go the F _ _ k to Sleep) are really more for the parents' benefit than the kids'.
But the latest cab off the Literary Kids rank, My First Kafka, genuinely aims to draw kids into the strangeness of Kafka’s surreal universe.
Creator Matthue Roth explained how the book came about in an article for the Huffington Post. ‘One night I was reading a book by Franz Kafka, the odd and eerie storyteller who lived in Prague, whose stories are resplendent with the city’s own mystery and beauty and disturbing weirdness. My daughters asked me what I was reading, and if I could read it to them. I wasn’t going to. Then I did. Why not? I thought. What’s the worst that could happen? And before you knew it – night after night, they asked for Kafka.’
‘A boy who changes into a giant insect. Talking jaguars who debate the philosophical implications of hunting – and then go hunting anyway. A girl who runs away and becomes the leader of a group of monsters. That’s the Kafka my kids discovered.’
The book is illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason.
‘Kafka’s œuvre is, on the surface, no more frightening than Lewis Carroll’s, Roald Dahl’s, or Neil Gaiman’s; what happens in his universe is not all that different from what occurs in traditional fairy tales,’ commented the New Yorker. ‘Perhaps Kafka’s works can be best confronted by children, who have that empyrean way of digesting the surreal and decoding symbols, who are braver, in their innocent beliefs, than we can ever be.’
The Cozy Classics series includes a hilarious, word-to-a-page soft-toy Pride and Prejudice, as well as War and Peace, Les Miserables and more.
And the Little Miss/Little Master board books series features illustrations to the theme of adult favourites like Moby Dick, Dracula and Jane Eyre.
We share our favourite finds from the internet this week.
The scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice where Colin Firth, as Mr Darcy, emerges from a lake, his shirt dripping, has been voted by UK viewers as their favourite moment in a drama. A 12-foot fibreglass statue of Darcy is touring UK lakes in a stunt to promote a new television channel, Drama. It’s currently in Serpentine Lake (Hyde Park, London).
‘I suppose it is inevitable that Pride and Prejudice be best known for a scene that Austen never wrote,’ critic and Austen expert John Mullan told the Guardian. ‘This is an installation that celebrates the imagination of Andrew Davies rather than that of Jane Austen.’
We’ve hit the halfway mark for 2013 – and The Millions has published a comprehensive look at some of the most exciting literary releases of the second half of the year, as chosen by their editors and contributors. There are new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Attwood, Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, Julian Barnes and more.
Two Haitian photojournalists have been documenting a bizarre result of global capitalism: the phenomenon of poor, non-English-speaking Haitians wearing recycled American t-shirts bearing obnoxious or just plain incongruous slogans. An artists’s statement explains: ‘The worst T-shirts, those that would barely be sold in the cheap gift shops of Times Square, those with the dumbest slogans, reappear, thanks to a free-market miracle, in remote provinces of Haiti where nobody has taken the effort of translating such poetry into Creole.’
‘When donated clothing ends up dumped in developing nations — like all aid — it can have unforeseen negative effects on the local economy,’ writes Jezebel. ‘You can’t compete with free. The foreign “Pepe” [used clothes] has put thousands of Haitian tailors out of work. The solution to the guilt that comes with our over-reliance on cheap, unsustainable clothing isn’t to donate it once we tire of a garment, but to consume less and own less in the first place.’
Cycling is eco-friendly and promotes exercise – it’s an increasingly popular way of getting around. Two-wheeled devotees will be interested in The Atlantic’s inspirational round-up of ten brilliant pieces of bike infrastructure from around the world. From a river-floor bike tunnel in Rotterdam to Denmark’s bicycle superhighways and eye-catching pink bike parks (pictured below), these examples show how the right infrastructure can make cycling an easy option.
The New York Public Library is putting on an exhibition to celebrate children’s literature. It’s too far away to visit – but you can flick through some of the exhibits online. The New York Times is featuring a visual slideshow of some of the best exhibits, celebrating classics like A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
It’s been quite a week for Australian literary award shortlists (and a pair of longlists). We share them with you here – along with a reminder about the inaugural Stella Prize, with the winner announced next week.
If you’re looking for something to read next, here’s a selection that might whet your literary appetite,
The Commonwealth Book Prize shortlists were announced yesterday, with five Australian writers shortlisted.
The prize goes to the best first novel published in 2012, with one overall winner and a winner from each of five regions (Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific).
The Australian shortlisted authors are:
Floundering by Romy Ash (Text)
Mazin Grace by Dylan Coleman (UQP)
A Tiger in Eden by Chris Flynn (Text)
The Last Thread by Michael Sala (Affirm)
Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba (Penguin)
The shortlists for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards were announced this week, too. Here are a few of the shortlists. Visit their website for full details.
Award for Older Readers
The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant (Allen & Unwin)
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
The Shiny Guys by Doug MacLeod (Penguin)
Creepy & Maud by Dianne Touchell (Fremantle Press)
Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield (Text)
The Wrong Boy by Suzy Zail (Black Dog Books)
Award for Younger Readers
Pennies for Hitler by Jackie French (Angus & Robertson)
Other Brother by Simon French (Walker Books)
After by Morris Gleitzman (Viking)
Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett (Viking)
Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend by Steven Herrick (UQP)
The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk by Glenda Millard (Stephen Michael King)
Award for Picture Books
The Coat by Ron Brooks, illus by Julie Hunt (Allen & Unwin)
Tanglewood by Vivienne Goodman, illus by Margaret Wild (Omnibus)
Herman and Rosie (Gus Gordon (Viking)
Sophie Scott Goes South (Alison Lester (Viking)
Lightning Jack by Patricia Mullins, illus by Glenda Millard (Scholastic)
A Day to Remember by Mark Wilson, illus by Jackie French (Angus & Robertson)
The shortlists for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were announced today. Here are some of those shortlists.
Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and nominees for the People’s Choice Award
The Voyage by Murray Bail (Text)
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally (Vintage)
Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin)
Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse (Vintage)
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador)
Animal People by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction
Exile: The Lives and Hopes of Werner Pelz by Roger Averill (Transit Lounge)
Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson (Oxford University Press)
Dark Night: Walking with McCahon by Martin Emond (AUP)
The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage (Allen & Unwin)
Double Entry by Jane Gleeson-White (Allen & Unwin)
The Office: A Hard Working History by Gideon Haigh (Melbourne University Press)
Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby-Eckermann (Magabala Books)
First Light by Kate Fagan (Giramondo)
Open Sesame by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)
The Welfare of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence (Puncher & Wattman)
Ladylike by Kate Lilly (UWA Publishing)
Here, There and Elsewhere by Vivian Smith (Giramondo)
Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature
Three Summers by Judith Clarke (Allen & Unwin)
The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant (Allen & Unwin)
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan)
Into that Forest by Louis Nowra (Allen & Unwin)
Unforgotten by Tohby Riddle (Allen & Unwin)
Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The Ghost of Miss Annabel Spoon by Aaron Blabey (Viking)
Brotherband 1: The Outcasts by John Flanagan (Random House)
Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend by Steven Herrick (UQP)
A Bear and a Tree by Stephen Michael King (Viking)
The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk: Kingdom of Silk Series 6 by Glenda Millard, illus by Stephen Michael King (HarperCollins)
Dragonkeeper Book 4: Blood Brothers by Carole Wilkinson (Walker Books)
The Kibble and Dobbie Awards announced their long lists for the first time today.
The Kibble Literary Award recognises the work of an established Australian woman writer.
The Dobbie Literary Award recognises a first published work from an Australian woman writer.
Kibble Literary Award
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
The Beloved by Annah Faulkner (Pan Macmillan Australia)
The Engagement by Chloe Hooper (Penguin Group Australia)
My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson (Allen & Unwin)
Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe)
The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller (University of Queensland Press)
An Opening: Twelve love stories about art by Stephanie Radok (Wakefield Press)
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador)
Dobbie Literary Award
Floundering by Romy Ash (Text)
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Jessie Cole (HarperCollins Publishers)
The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
Toyo: A Memoir by Lily Chan (Black Inc.)
Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt (Margaret River Press)
Red Dirt Talking by Jacqueline Wright (Fremantle Press)
The Stella Prize winner will be announced next week, on Tuesday 16 April.
The shortlist is:
The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe)
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador)
We’ll be hosting a post-prize-announcement panel event on Thursday 18 April, at the Wheeler Centre. (With chair Aviva Tuffield, chair of judges Kerryn Goldsworthy, founding patron Ellen Koshland and the first-ever winner. Chaired by Sian Prior.)
Last Sunday, we held our annual Children’s Book Festival (in partnership with the State Library of Victoria). From 10am until 4pm, the State Library Lawns, our Performance Space, Little Lonsdale Street and various venues inside the library were overtaken by an extremely busy programme of events and activities.
More than 15,000 kids (and their adults) joined us for the day – a record turnout! We slept well that evening.
Amongst the throng, you may have noticed a gentleman quietly observing, his wrist whipping across the pages of his sketch pad. That man was, of course, Oslo Davis – our artist in residence for the day.
Today, we’re pleased to share with you Oslo’s illustrations from the Festival. Were you there? Is one of those people you?
(Click on the thumbnails to enlarge them.)
What were your favourite childhood reads? The books that formed and nurtured your childhood imagination?
In honour of the Children’s Book Festival this weekend, Wheeler Centre staff have shared their favourite books from childhood.
There are some you’ll recognise – Enid Blyton, Harry the Dirty Dog – and other more hidden gems that might send you on a journey of discovery, or make you reflect on your own forgotten favourites.
As picture books go, Harry the Dirty Dog is simply perfect. Harry is a scrap of a dog who hates baths (what kid wouldn’t identify with that?) When he buries his scrubbing brush and runs away for a day of messy adventures he goes from being a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots. He arrives home to find that his own family don’t recognise him, oh no! I can still recall my relief – every single time – at the moment when they finally realise that the black dog with white spots is in fact a very dirty Harry.
To be completely honest though, the one book I ‘read’ more than any other was the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book. Year-round. No birthday necessary. Just, you know, research. How I would pore over it, imagining the thrill of cutting into the swimming pool cake filled with green jelly or of blowing out the candles on the Sweet Shop. Every home should have a copy!
Predictably I had hundreds of favourite books as a child but I think my absolute favourite was Emerald Enjoyed the Moonlight. It was about a lonely old lady who watched so much television her eyes were all funny (it was written in the early sixties I think).
She was quite sad. Her only companion was her cat, Emerald, who one evening was so bored with the television he went out into the woods and disappeared. Mrs Brocklethwaite, the old lady, became very concerned and eventually went out into the woods to find him. It was dark and she was unfamiliar with the woods, so she got extremely battered and scraped and I remember specifically that her tights got torn (she couldn’t see properly, because of the TV-watching, remember) and she was just about to give up hope … when finally, she entered a clearing and found Emerald sitting very peacefully by the side of a lake, quietly watching the moonlight.
To be honest, I’m really not sure why I loved it so much. The illustrations were definitely very of their time which appealed to me (the moon was a big psychedelic light globe), but I think I also just responded really well to the emotion in the book – it showed me that books could be sad and moving and you could feel genuine empathy for the characters again and again every time you read it. And Emerald and Mrs Brocklethwaite were just so peaceful at the end of the story, by the light of the moon! But who knows, I was only about five.
Looking back on it now most of my favourite books as a kid involved some kind of subversive or deviant behaviour. Whether it be the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Naughty Amelia Jane – the handmade toy that didn’t quite fit in and had a pyromania habit – or Madeline, the naughty little upstart at boarding school who gets appendicitis, needs an operation and everyone ends up being her BFF. (I always wanted an operation when I was a growing up too).
A few that stand out for me that were read to death in my house are Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. In Amelia Bedelia, Amelia is a maid who takes her chore list a little too literally but is redeemed by her pie-making skills. To this day I’m convinced she was very cleverly avoiding her life of domestic servitude in favour of doing something she was passionate about. Harry the Dirty Dog is about a dog called Harry who hated bath time so much he buried his scrubbing brush, ran away and got very dirty. I just adore the illustrations in this book by Margaret Bloy Graham. All I want to do now is rush out and buy these again to read to all the little people in my life!
My parents were both English teachers, so our house was full of books. My favourite picture book as a kid was probably Susanna Gretz’s The Bears Who Stayed Indoors, about a 1970s sharehouse of mismatched bears who stay inside on a rainy day and make a cardboard rocket to travel to the moon, eat piles of pancakes, swim in the bathtub and have other similarly cosy adventures. I read it so often that it fell apart and Mum had to buy me another. She laminated the old pages and stuck them to the walls of my bedroom. I also adored The Tiger Who Came to Tea, about what happens when a tiger knocks on the door of a proper English household and politely asks for tea – then eats and drinks everything in the household (even draining the taps).
And I still love the first novel I ever read, Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s The Secret Garden, about contrary orphan Mary, bedridden grouch Colin, kindly boy-gardener Dicken and the garden they bring to life. It’s closely followed in my affections by Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, about an explorer who collects objects for museums on his travels – including three orphan babies, who grow up to be ballerina Posy, actress Pauline and tomboy Petrova. In his absence, the children are brought up by his housekeeper, and attend a theatre and dance school, where they supplement their meagre allowance by the money they earn from performing. I guess I’m drawn to orphan stories?
Growing up, I was obsessed with books from a really young age, but the books that I remember first capturing my imagination were any and all by Enid Blyton. When I was really young, with all the innocence of childhood, I called my first cat Bimbo, after Blyton’s Bimbo and Topsy, ensuring years of fun for the whole family every time the cat wandered away.
From there I discovered the folks of The Magic Faraway Tree. How I longed to go on adventures with Moon-Face and Silky, and the rest of the gang and and feast on tins of pop cakes and have crazy adventures in whatever land the tree was in! I climbed on to the Wishing Chair and flew wherever it took me, I solved mysteries with The Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and secretly rejoiced with the misbehaviour of the Naughtiest Girl.
Thankfully, books have never lost that power for me, I can still open the pages of a book and be instantly whisked away to a whole new world!
In early childhood, I was struck by two rather world-weary stories, Jenny Wagner’s John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Very different books, but both quietly powerful in their evocation of loneliness, friendship, the passage of time, and the give and take of love.
I also loved the two wordless picture books, Sunshine and Moonlight by Jan Ormerod, which depicted in gorgeous and often funny illustrations the first, and last, few hours of a typical day in family life. I liked to be spooked by the Berenstain’s Bears in the Night (‘Whoooo!’), and also Mary Rayner’s dark tale of ten piglets and their hairy-legged babysitter Mrs Wolf, in Mr & Mrs Pig’s Evening Out.
Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess in which Princess Elizabeth rescues the awful Prince Ronald from the dragon’s lair, was perfect fodder for the budding feminist, and Maurice Sendak’s weird and wonderful In the Night Kitchen never failed to capture my imagination (the nudity was of course quite a drawcard).
Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were on high rotation at bedtime. I have just read Wind in the Willows to my own small tribe, and am amazed that, despite the somewhat antiquated language and often lengthy descriptive passages (such a different pace to the books of today), it still packs a punch a century on. Nothing beats the world of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toadie as fuel for the imagination when roaming outdoors. Ah, to be a child again!
One of my favourite childhood books is The Soul Bird by Michal Snunit. I loved it it because it gave me a lesson about the nature of emotions. When I think about it, I can hear my mother reading it to me in her soft voice:
‘Deep down, inside our bodies, lives the soul. No one has ever seen it, but we all know it’s there. There is a 'soul bird’ who lives inside us all This special bird opens and closes the drawers of our soul, in which we keep all our feelings. There are drawers for our innermost secrets, but also places where we hide away our happiness, anger, joy, jealousy and sorrows. The soul bird has the keys to these drawers, and can open them when we ask. But sometimes the soul bird seems to disobey our wishes, and tolerance turns to fear, or calm turns to anger. Perhaps we don’t listen to our soul bird often enough. Indeed, some of us only hear it once in a lifetime. We should try, maybe late at night, or at another time of peace and quiet, to hear the voice of the soul bird, and listen to what it is telling us.'
There are so many wonderful books to choose from but one which stands out from my childhood is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (the original as opposed to the Disney version). I was a ‘bookworm’ from a young age and vividly remember my mother reading this in the evenings before bedtime with my brother and I snuggled up on either side of her in our pyjamas. We were enthralled by the adventures of Mowgli, the wolves who raised him along with their cubs, Bagheera the panther, Shere Khan the tiger, Baloo the Sloth bear, Hathi the elephant, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose, the cheeky tribe of monkeys and of course the python Kaa.
A book that stands out from my childhood is The Whales' Song by Dyan Sheldon, illustrated by Gary Blythe. My Mum bought it for my sister, because the little girl in it looked just like her at the time, but I fancied the book as mine. It is a beautiful story about a grandma passing on secrets about the ocean, mesmerising her granddaughter, Lily, with stories about whales singing. Lily listens for the whales, and watches the ocean, and is eventually rewarded. My favourite page when I was little was this one:
I wanted that shell so badly!!!
But as an adult my favourite is this one:
I have a slightly spiritual, besotted love for whales to this day.
The Children’s Book Festival takes over the State Library Lawns this Sunday 24 March, for a free day of bookish fun. There will be fire trucks, face-painting … and of course, your favourite kids' authors.
Full programme details available online.
For the chance to win fabulous bookish prizes, encourage your child to come dressed as their favourite character. The best of the day will take part in a costume parade onstage at 12.40pm.
We share some of our favourite links and articles found on the internet this week.
The US presidential campaign has taken another bizarre pop culture twist in the past week. First, there was Clint Eastwood and the chair. Now, Sesame Street’s Big Bird has reluctantly taken the stage. In the first presidential debate (which Obama thoroughly lost), Mitt Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS. ‘I love Big Bird,’ Romney said. ‘But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.’
The Obama campaign responded with a funny (though dubiously useful) ad that jumped on the Big Bird statement. ‘Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.’
‘You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,’ Romney told an Iowa crowd this week. And most media commentators (including The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) think he has a point. On his show last night, Stewart showed a clip of Will.i.am addressing a university crowd with Obama, grinning and playing the Sesame Street song. The Children’s Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, have asked the Obama campaign to remove the ad.
The Atlantic has a slideshow of images created by the internet to mark this pop cultural moment.
It was Banned Book Week recently in the US, and to commemorate the occasion, Lawrence Public Library commissioned a set of seven Banned Book trading cards, with artwork submitted by local artists and facts about why the books were banned, and how they affected the artists' lives. The titles chosen included Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species (banned in Tennesee from 1925 to 1967) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (banned in Soviet Russia for its political theories, banned in the US for its political theories, banned in the United Arab Emirates for imagery contradicting Islamic values).
As western culture becomes ever more food-obsessed, elevating chefs like Jamie Oliver and critics like Matt Preston to the status of artists or rock stars, a discomfort with our culinary worship is starting to creep in for many. Steven Poole’s new book, You Aren’t What You Eat is a clever and often funny skewering (pun intended) of the cult of foodism. A lengthy and fascinating extract in the Guardian will give you a taste.
It should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the “composition” of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker.
If you’ve ever ironically tweeted or complained about ‘first world problems’ (and how many of us haven’t?), this ingenious ad campaign will make you feel a little ashamed and a lot lucky. Created by relief organisation Water For Life, this one-minute video feature Haitians standing in front of their houses, in ruins or among pigs and chickens, reading ‘complaints’ like ‘I hate it when my neighbors block their wifi’ and ‘I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they give me pickles’. Moving and thought-provoking.
In a beautiful and inspiring essay, Maria Tumarkin considers the afterlife of books – how they touch readers' lives and what they can mean for the individuals who connect with them. Some of the books she looks at are Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Anthony Macris’s When Horse Became Saw and Maggie Mackellar’s When it Rains. She asks the question:
What books can sustain you, hold the pieces of you together, remind you of who you are and what matters to you, not ever lie to you no matter what?
Most people know that children’s author Dr Seuss used a pseudonym: his real name was Theodor Geisel. But did you know that his day job was in advertising?
In this week’s Friday High Five, we share five examples of Dr Seuss’s advertising work. If you took out the captions, it could easily be ripped from the pages of one of his iconic books.
All images via www.fastcocreate.com
We take a look at our five favourite links from around the internet this week.
Some believe we should tread cautiously with our children’s books, being careful not to startle young minds. Others, such as the late Maurice Sendak, believe that children are naturally drawn to dark tales, and we shouldn’t coddle them with pastel sweetness. The French are certainly in the second camp, if their recent literature is anything to go by.
The Guardian has recently published ten terrifying children’s picture books from France, with topics including My First Nightmare, The Rabbits' Revenge, The ABC of Anger, and a book in which death visits a little girl and kills her. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hide under the bed.
Ben Law’s moving and insightful essay on Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man and AIDS in Australia has had an overwhelming reader response over the past week (with good reason). Many have commented on how his piece has made them want to discover (or revisit) Holding the Man. Others have expressed a desire to find out more about the early days of the AIDS epidemic and how it affected the individuals caught up in it.
Last Sunday night, ABC2 aired a terrific documentary on AIDS in San Francisco in the early 1980s, during the days a diagnosis meant almost certain death. When We Were Here interviews five people who lived through that time, including a man who survived the deaths of two lovers and countless friends (and his own diagnosis) and a nurse who worked in the first AIDS ward. You can watch it on iView now.
Meanjin has just published a brilliant essay looking at Australia’s mining boom from the inside – and it’s fascinating, mind-boggling reading. Gillian Terzis channels Michael Lewis, as she travels to the Pilbara and visits the mining communities at the heart of the boom, where a three-bedroom house in the middle of nowhere rents for $1650 to $1900 a week, workers live in caravans in the driveways of houses with yachts in the front yard, the backpackers' accomodation is booked 12 months in advance, and a council street sweeper earns $91,000 plus per year.
Naturally, when you walk into Karratha McDonald’s and discover the cost of a single Big Mac is $9.65, you are forced to recalibrate your understanding of economic bubbles. The Big Mac index, invented by the Economist in 1986, is a light-hearted attempt to compare purchasing-power parity (what you can buy for your dollar) in different economies. My Victorian dollars did not take me very far out west.
Some authors I read and loved as a boy disappointed me as I aged. Bradbury never did. His horror stories remained as chilling, his dark fantasies as darkly fantastic, his science fiction (he never cared about the science, only about the people, which was why the stories worked so well) as much of an exploration of the sense of wonder, as they had when I was a child.
Bradbury himself has a piece in the current New Yorker, a science fiction special, in which he writes about his own childhood inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs:
I memorized all of ‘John Carter’ and ‘Tarzan,’ and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, ‘Take me home!’ I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.
Looking for some long weekend reading? Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It was the pick of 2010 for many reviewers; her latest short story, ‘The Proxy Marriage’, is available for free on the New Yorker’s website. Here’s a taste:
But Monty made a mistake. He sat Bridey down in his parents’ living room, two days after the dance, and told her that he’d wanted three things out of high school: to be captain of the tennis team, to get into Berkeley, and to have a serious girlfriend. The first two had already happened, and Bridey would be perfect for the third. She reported the conversation to William, laughing. ‘He was so earnest,’ she said. ‘About his goals.’
Thanks to all who joined us yesterday for our big day out for small people, the Children’s Book Festival.
A crowd of 13,000 little literati populated the State Library lawns and Little Lonsdale Street, where would-be illustrators bent it like Banksy, decorating the bitumen with colourful chalk art.
Mum and crime writer Angela Savage was one of many bloggers to write up her experiences of the day, though she said it was ‘impossible to do justice to it all’. One of her highlights was author Sally Rippin, creator of Billie B. Brown. ‘Given some of the inane, poorly written fiction targeted at young girls, Billie B Brown is a breath of fresh air: well written stories with a feisty heroine at the centre who might well be my daughter’s peer,’ she said.
Mandi at That Book You Like stopped off at the 1001 Nights tent and said, ‘It never wears off really does it? The little flutter of joy when watching your kids really enjoy a story.’ Emily Gale enjoyed Gabrielle Wang’s draw-a-dragon workshop, but reported that ‘the rockstar of the day was Andy Griffiths. The Wheeler Centre was absolutely packed for his first talk and there was some argy-bargy over the good seats.’
Meanwhile, My Book Corner was impressed by Boori Monty Pryor. ‘His ability to involve everyone in the audience, to really engage and involve the children with his captivating story telling was a perfect start to a Sunday morning. Two boys in particular were in absolute fits of contagious giggles and hanging off his every word – now that’s what you call a Children’s Laureate!!’
774 ABC Melbourne’s Libbi Gore was there, too, broadcasting the action live from 10am to midday.
Thanks to all for making it a big day out to remember – and we’ll see you again next year.
Co-presented by The Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria.
Working with Words is a series where we talk to writers about their work – and other bookish things. This time, we talk to Andy Griffiths, Australia’s most popular children’s writer.
Andy is best known for the comic pulling power of books like the Just series and The Day My Bum Went Psycho. But while his books are seriously funny, he’s just plain serious about the business of writing.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Well, if you want to go right back to the start it was in 1975, when I was 14 years old. Pursuit magazine, a Victorian education department publication which was distributed to schools across the state, published my short story, ‘Lost in Time’.
It was about being at a cricket game at the MCG with my dad and then, while attempting to buy three packets of potato chips and two cans of cola, suddenly finding myself transported 100 centuries into the future. It contained many of the same hallmarks of my work today … a first-person narrator (ie. me!) a believable everyday setting, a bizarre occurrence, some fun and games and then my desperate attempt to put things right again – but only making it worse in the process. It also contains my hopeless attempts at descriptive prose, which were no better then than they are today. My wife still laughs about my attempt to describe a complex time machine: ‘a room full of electronic controls, levers and switches – there was just about everything an electronics enthusiast could wish for’.
Nevertheless, I was paid ten dollars for my story. When they sent the payment, I initially thought it was a fine for an overdue library book called Lost in Time. Ironically, many years later when I submitted a story to Pursuit as an adult it was rejected. It took me a number of years after this to recover the pure storytelling voice I possessed as a 14-year-old.
What’s the best part of your job?
Having the time and freedom to follow my imaginative ideas and hunches and over many days, weeks and months watching them slowly coalesce into coherent characters, situations and stories – there’s nothing more exciting, satisfying or mysterious and I never get sick of this process.
I love nothing better than sitting down with a blank piece of paper and playing with words and ideas, challenging myself to come up with something new. The knowledge that you have to write something that you know is going to be read eagerly by many children – and the strong desire not to let them down – can really get the creative juices flowing.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Sitting down with a blank piece of paper and playing with words and ideas and NOT being able to come up with something new – especially when an urgent deadline is looming. Mostly I avoid deadline panics by being fairly organised well ahead of time (I usually know what I’m going to publish at least a year or two in advance), but there’s always surprises and last-minute schedule changes. I find my creativity works best when there’s plenty of time to revise, rethink and backtrack if necessary – I have to be relaxed so I can enter the playful state of mind I need to be in to create an entertaining story. My audience is too critical, and too savvy to go out with anything less than the best I’m capable of.
Of course, once a book is published I can always see ways I could have improved it … that’s the other worst part of the job!
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
There’s been a lot, but maybe the one that comes immediately to mind was the opening night performance of Just Macbeth! by the Bell Shakespeare company at the Melbourne Arts Centre in September 2008. My wife Jill and I worked on adapting Macbeth for young people for almost three years. We wanted to fully involve them in the action and immerse them in as much of the original language of Shakespeare’s original script as we could get away with. Oh yeah, and it had to be funny as well.
It was an insanely difficult project and we gave up on it many times. But Bell Shakespeare were persistent and we always ended up going back to it. By the time it got to opening night, we were pretty sure we had something that worked, but there was no way of knowing until it was performed for real in front of a full house. Fortunately it worked. I’ve never sweated so much in my life.
It was significant for many reasons, not the least being that children are capable of understanding a great deal if you don’t patronise or talk down to them.
What’s the best (or worst) advice about writing you’ve received?
I had a number of great and inspiring writing teachers, such as Carmel Bird. They all gave me useful pointers and lots of encouragement, but perhaps the most practical advice I received was from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She advocated vast amounts of writing practice.
Writing is a muscle, and like any muscle it gets stronger with use. In her book, Goldberg advocates doing a number of hours of timed writing practice each day. In these practice sessions, you set a countdown timer for a particular time and then write as fast as possible in order to evade the inner censor/critic that lurks in all of us.
By following this method you start discovering who you are as a writer and what subject matter and style really turns you on. It helped me to stop imitating other writers and find a voice that was all my own.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever read or heard about yourself?
At the height of the controversy over The Bad Book – a book of cautionary tales gone mad – a feature article in the Herald Sun accused me of coming up with the idea for the book with my accountant as a way of swindling children out of their hard-earned pocket-money. I had to laugh at that one. Despite the success stories, if there’s one field that you DON’T go into to make money, it’s children’s writing. If you have a sincere desire to tell stories and entertain children and you’re willing to do that whether anybody pays you or not, then maybe you have a chance.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I strongly suspect I’d still be the secondary English teacher that I was when I began writing funny stories to inspire my Year Seven English class to get excited about reading and writing. Either that, or a stand-up comedian. I employ a lot of stand-up comedy in my talks to children and I often think of my stories as extended stand-up monologues.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?
I think the principles of good writing can be taught – there are proven methods to improve a piece of writing. And I’ve had a lot of success at getting kids – and adults – to tell entertaining stories based on the events of their own lives.
The question of whether somebody is naturally suited to being a good storyteller, however, is a little more open I think. There are plenty of good writers who, for all their strengths, are not so great at telling story – and plenty of good storytellers who are pretty average writers. But in the end, I believe you get better at most things with a sincere desire to improve and the discipline to learn, study and practise.
In April 2013 I’m planning to publish a book called Once Upon a Slime: 50 Fun Ways to Write Stories … Fast! It will be a book of resources for school teachers, creative writing students and children to have fun with writing and storytelling.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to write books for children?
In a nutshell, I’d recommend that you write the sort of books that you loved to read as a child. And when you think you’ve done it read it out aloud to a small group and see if you have their complete attention. And if you don’t, be prepared to go back to the drawing board/writing desk for as many times as it takes. Did I mention persistence? Oh yeah … persistence!
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I’ll love bookshops and paper books until the day I die, but I must admit I’m enjoying e-books – especially for non-fiction. I prefer to buy them through Booki.sh, so that I’m still supporting an independent bookshop.
(NB: Of course, as the proud author of my first and recently published digital-only book, Andypedia: A Complete Guide to the Books, Stories and Characters of Andy Griffiths, I may be open to accusations of a conflict of interest on this subject. I stand accused.)
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The Catcher in the Rye. I never got over the surprise and delight of the idea of an unreliable narrator. And Holden Caulfield is one of the most funny, sad and complex of all unreliable narrators!
Andy Griffiths is one of the guests for our Children’s Book Festival, a big day out of free fun held on the lawns of the State Library of Victoria on Sunday 25 March. You can check out the full program here. Andy will be signing books at 1.40pm and 3.40pm.
Andy was one of the 12 guests for this year’s Wheeler Centre Gala, Stories to Believe In. You can watch his talk here. His next book, the much-awaited Just Doomed!, will be released in April.
Our article on the politics of pink and pastel Lego for girls provoked furious debate on our Twitter and Facebook accounts last week.
Writer, philosopher and dad Damon Young, one of those who spoke to the Wheeler Centre for last week’s article, shares his thoughts on why pink bricks and ponies may be dodgy, but can be subverted by savvy parents for imaginative free play.
I’ve been playing with Lego for over thirty years. First, as a kid, now as a dad. Over the decades, Lego’s become more ‘boyish’: less smiling minifigures in space-suits, and more snarling villains, stubbled heroes and licensed film tie-ins. More guns, tanks, missiles, fast cars and so on.
Girls can play with all of this, of course – my daughter does. But they often don’t, because they’re taught that girls like pink, flowers, horses, fairies, nail salons, cafe chats and so on. Play is gendered very quickly.
From what I can tell, Lego was once gender-neutral, then ‘boyed’ itself to get market share. If boys like cops and robbers and Star Wars starfighters, then Lego would have them. Bam. Sales skyrocket.
Many girls responded to this typically: it’s not for us.
Having gained a foothold with the boy-branded toys, Lego can now brand with girl toys: hyper-feminised minifigures who like to chat with girlfriends at the cafe before hitting the beauty salon, for example. Not an alien or grave-robbing archaeologist in sight.
Now, is this a problem? Yes, because more knee-jerk sex divisions are dodgy. They uphold traditional ideas about gender roles: girls talk and worry about beauty, while boys fight, die and save princesses. The problem is not necessarily the gender traits: as if one has more value than the other. The problem is that we grow up thinking that they’re ‘natural’; that our education, professional and domestic lives can be no other way. This is what so many toys do: they’re typically conservative, because they recognise and reinforce the easy market categories that already exist, such as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.
But this is not the end of the story. Together with the media, family life, schooling and employment, toys clearly help to shape our gender identities. But there is no evidence for a straightforward causal relationship between ‘X toy’ and ‘X personality’. Plenty of independent, smart, well-educated, strong women played with Barbie, My Little Pony or Cabbage Patch dolls – I’m married to one of them. She did not simply play out the Barbie fantasy: the dolls were taken from their Valley Girl fantasy-land and given new identities and plots. And regularly taken apart.
Lego is perfect for this. Much of the magic with Lego happens, not with the off-the-shelf play – although it’s clearly good for concentration and motor skills – but with the later free play. All the bits go back into the bags and boxes, and are transformed into new characters, vehicles, buildings. My son’s space police starships and fire stations became a library, a museum, a house, a cafe, and a hundred other things with wheels, walls and sometimes guns.
My hope is that the girl-branded Lego can be used in this way. With good encouragement from parents, girls need not be stuck with traditional feminine characters and scenes. If pink bricks or ponies are first step, they are not necessarily the end of the road.
Parents can provide primary colour bricks alongside the pinks and purples. They can prompt children to remake their cafe or salon, rather than keeping them pristine on the shelf.
If a family genuinely cares about gender equity, and provides a home life of robust respect and reflection, Lego play – regardless of its colour – will reflect this.
If you’re a fan of imaginative free play for kids, you’ll love our Children’s Book Festival, held in conjunction with the State Library of Victoria.
The festival includes workshops, activities, book signings, face painting, petting zoo and more. guests Guests will include Graeme Base, Leigh Hobbs, Hazel Edwards, Andy Griffiths and Sally Rippin.
The Children’s Book Festival is held on the State Library lawns (with plenty of indoor activities, too) from 10am to 4pm on Sunday 25 March, this weekend.
Lego Friends was launched last December, with curvy doll-like figures, given names and distinct personalities, pastel-coloured bricks (including lots of pink) and playsets that include the Butterfly Beauty Shop, Andrea’s Stage and Mia’s Puppy House.
The product – which borrows elements from Disney Princess – is a response to the fact that Lego has appealed mostly to boys in recent years, especially over the past decade, with the company adding superhero and Harry Potter themed sets to its line. Lego CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstrop said they’re aiming ‘to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children’.
Lego Friends has attracted outspoken enemies, with an active petition to ban it.
‘So, now we have boys’ Lego and girls’ Lego, instead of just Lego, a creative toy that all children could play with,’ says Monica Dux, Wheeler Centre regular and author of The Great Feminist Denial. ‘This development is symptomatic of the deepening gender divide in early childhood, a divide which is becoming ever more ubiquitous, and is being forced onto children at younger and younger ages. But where does this process end?’
‘Though there is educational value to playing with Lego, it’s just a toy company that needs to make money,’ said feminist website Jezebel. ‘Girls have already been conditioned to want pink and sparkly toys about ponies and princesses (though mercifully there’s no royal family in Heartlake City) and it isn’t the company’s job to change that … we’ve reached the point where girls see blocks in primary colours and think they’re not for them.’
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, also believes girls are put off Lego by social conditioning rather than any implicit need for pink and princesses. But she reluctantly endorses the Lego Friends range nonetheless. ‘If it takes colour-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains.’
Penni Russon, author of books for children and teenagers and mother of two girls, recalls playing with Lego as a child ‘in a way that could probably be perceived as gendered’; she made houses and cars, and especially liked the doors and windows that opened and the flowers. But she says that although she probably would have played with pink Lego if it was around, she won’t be buying the ‘silly insipid girl version’ for her children.
‘I think we have all been conditioned by nostalgia to see Lego as something beyond a product and a corporation. Talk about lifelong brand affiliation! Nostalgia (and totally brilliant marketing) drives us to see Lego as some kind of vital childhood experience that enhances intelligence and creativity. But do kids really get more from Lego than wooden blocks, art materials, electronics sets etc? Is it so vital that every child find a Lego set that suits them?’
Writer and philosopher Damon Young is, like so many of us, a product of that lifelong affiliation. He’s been playing with Lego for 30 years – first as a kid, now as a dad. ‘Over the decades, Lego’s become more ‘boyish’: less smiling mini-figures in space-suits, and more snarling villains, stubbled heroes and licensed film tie-ins. More guns, tanks, missiles, fast cars and so on,’ he says. ‘Girls can play with all of this, of course – my daughter does. But they often don’t, because they’re taught that girls like pink, flowers, horses, fairies, nail salons, café chats and so on. Play is gendered very quickly.’
He says the hyperfeminised Lego Friends is a problem; toys that reinforce traditional ideas about gender roles and make concepts like ‘girls talk and worry about beauty, while boys fight, die and save princesses’ make these stereotypes seem natural, rather than choices, among many available. ‘Toys clearly help to shape our gender identities.’
But he believes that girl-branded Lego, while ‘dodgy’, can still encourage free play that transcends the boundaries of its pastel boxes.
‘With good encouragement from parents, girls need not be stuck with traditional feminine characters and scenes. If pink bricks or ponies are first step, they are not necessarily the end of the road. Parents can provide primary colour bricks alongside the pinks and purples. They can prompt children to remake their café or salon, rather than keeping them pristine on the shelf. If a family genuinely cares about gender equity, and provides a home life of robust respect and reflection, Lego play – regardless of its colour – will reflect this.’
But Monica Dux remains sceptical. ‘If you think this initiative from Lego is benign, just look at the focus of their new gendered product. Girls get to play ‘cafe’ and hang out in Lego hair salons (!!!), while boys can do almost anything, from travelling through space to constructing cities, having adventures in a wide variety of worlds both historical and imaginary.’
‘If children do learn through play, which of these two lessons would you rather give your daughters?’
Tomorrow, March 8, is International Women’s Day. The Wheeler Centre will be marking the occasion with two free events.
At 12.45pm, The Stella Prize’s Christine Gordon will deliver this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox on the topic Feminism is Personal.
We share five of our favourite links to news, reviews or articles that we’ve discovered over the past week.
Fans of Game of Thrones, the series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels, shouldn’t miss eyeballing the medieval feast staged to celebrate the DVD release. But they might want to miss out on actually eating it. Complete with bloodied pigs’ heads, ‘eyeballs’ and ‘dragon’s eggs’ drizzled with liquid gold, it’s a feast for the eyes, but not one that will necessarily work up an appetite.
Rachel Cusk’s latest memoir, Aftermath, about her separation from her husband of ten years, includes lines like, ‘My husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children. No, I said … They’re my children … They belong to me.’ Cusk caused a scandal – and spawned the ‘mummy memoir’ genre – with her brutally self-analytical memoir of early motherhood, A Life’s Work, in 2001. She sharply divided critics, who either loved or hated her for laying bare the dark side of motherhood. The Guardian says of Aftermath (April): ‘She has again mined her life and told of her experience of being a woman, in a Read the extract and make up your own mind.
Stephen Colbert is making bookish news this week, after a gag during a two-part interview with Maurice Sendak (which he began by saying ‘I don’t like children or books or children’s books’) has turned into a book deal. After pitching an idea for a sequel, While the Wild Things Are: Still Wildin’ (starring Vin Diesel), Colbert joked he was writing a picture-book-in-verse, I Am a Pole (and So Can You!) and read a preview aloud. Sendak, who told Colbert that most children’s books are ‘very bad’, admitted, ‘The sad thing is, I like it.’ So did Grand Central Publishing, who has signed him up, with a publication date of 8 May 2012. ‘It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to write a children’s book,’ said Colbert. ‘I hope the minutes you and your loved ones spend reading it are as fulfilling as the minutes I spent writing it.’
Wondering what to read this year? Readings’ Martin Shaw has asked a handful of Australian writers to share the books they’re most looking forward to in 2012 for a series of posts for Kill Your Darlings. Nam Le is looking forward to new books from Chloe Hooper, Hilary Mantel and Richard Ford – and the second novel from Rachel Kushner. And there were multiple mentions of Texts in the City host Ruby Murray’s first novel, Running Dogs (Scribe, May) and Paddy O’Reilly’s Fine Colour of Rust (Harper Collins, March), which will be released simultaneously in Australia and the UK. Israeli comic short-story writer Etgar Keret, who will be appearing at the Wheeler Centre next month, also earned a nod for his new collection Suddenly a Knock at the Door, which got a rave review in last weekend’s Australian.
In the lead-up to this week’s Oscars, the Independent talked to five novelists about their books’ transitions from page to screen. Kaui Hurt Hemmings, author of The Descendants, said director Alexander Payne ‘met my whole family, and they all ended up being in the movie’. He said, ‘Almost every line of dialogue was right out of the book, every sequence, the music I’d mentioned, the clothes they wore, the places they went to.’ Lionel Shriver thinks Lynne Ramsay’s movie of We Need to Talk About Kevin is ‘rather wonderful’, though ‘the movie does lean towards Kevin being evil from birth, whereas that’s more up for grabs in the novel’. Fay Weldon, however, enjoyed the money for the rights to her book The Life and Loves of a She Devil, but says the movie (starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep) ‘missed the point entirely’. She’d still do it again, though.
Is it too soon? Just 11 years after it was first brought to screen, Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho is set to be remade. Variety reported last week that Lionsgate has a remake of the film in the early stages of development. The news prompted Ellis to tweet, “I have warned Lionsgate that I will not approve a new version of "American Psycho” unless it stars SCOTT DISICK or MILES FISHER.“ Watch the video of Bret Easton Ellis' 2010 appearance at the Wheeler Centre.
Meanwhile, not-so-young adults who enjoy reading young adult fiction – and there are a lot of us who do – may recognise themselves in a new film starring Charlize Theron. Written by Juno writer Diablo Cody, Young Adult tells the story of the author of young adult novels who goes to great lengths to seduce her high school boyfriend, who’s now married with a young child. Here’s a glowing review of the film by a writer of young adult novels.
What would Shakespeare’s plays have looked like had they been published as kids' books? Maybe something like this.
The Dolly Parton show is in town and so it’s a good occasion to pay tribute to the veteran country singer’s work to promote literacy among poor kids. Since 1996, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library USA has mailed every child under five in participating counties a book every month until their fifth birthday.
Should YouTube have a literature channel? It’s a question raised by the blog The Fiction Circus (brought to our attention by Media Bistro). Needless to say, we endorse the campaign wholeheartedly so that videos such as this one may find their true home. But then again, we would say that, what with our own YouTube channel and all.
One of our favourite collective nouns is ‘murmuration’, in reference to groups of starlings. Murmurations used to be a more common and more spectacular sight in Europe, but starling numbers have dropped some 70% since 1970. It refers to the sound made by the great clouds of starlings that flock together on late wintry afternoons in northern Europe. We found this YouTube video of murmurating starlings hypnotic for all kinds of reasons. It’s a promotional video for a book on economics, although you wouldn’t know it from the footage, which inspires in the narrator all kinds of grandiloquent philosophising. Do murmurations of starlings have something to teach us about the future of humanity? We’ll reserve our judgment on that, but enjoy the spectacle. (More murmuration.)
In 1984, American author Chris Van Allsburg published a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The highly unusual book consisted of a series of drawings with a title and a single line. The conceit that linked the drawings together – explained in a fictional editor’s note at the start of the book – is that each drawing was taken from a different book, created by a mysterious artist called Harris Burdick. The 14 drawings, effectively, were supposed to be samples by an illustrator who, in 1984, had left them at at the office of a children’s book editor called Peter Wenders, promising to return the following day with all 14 completed manuscripts. Harris Burdick, the story goes, never returned. The drawings are intended to be finely imagined prompts for readers to make up their own stories.
Now, 14 children’s authors, including Lemony Snicket, have taken Harris Burdick’s legacy to the next level. The authors – who include Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Kate DiCamillo, MT Anderson, Linda Sue Park, Gregory Maguire and Jon Sciezska – have created stories to match the illustrations. The new book is called The Chronicles of Harris Burdick – here’s a preview.
Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand. There are almost 800 million adults and children alive today who can’t read, and most of them live in the developing world. Closer to home, only 15% of indigenous children at year 7 level in remote communities can read at an acceptable standard.
With Indigenous Literacy Day being yesterday, and today being International Literacy Day, we cast our minds back to an inspiring appearance by John Wood, who was a guest at the Wheeler Centre earlier this year.
A hiking trip in the Himalayas in the 1990s exposed Wood to the high levels of illiteracy among Nepalese children. A Nepalese teacher explained the paradox in these terms: Nepal is a country that is too poor to pay for universal education, and yet as long as children remain uneducated Nepal will remain a poor country.
At the time, John Wood was Microsoft’s Australian marketing manager. He left the boardroom to found Room to Read with the motto, ‘World change starts with educated children.’ “Education,” Wood told the Wheeler Centre audience, “is the one issue that affects every other issue.”
Tomorrow night at the Wheeler Centre, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation is hosting the Art for Country auction to raise money for literacy resources for the communities that have provided the artworks to be auctioned.
Mark Mordue on why modern-day fatherhood is all about eating breakfast standing up.
It’s Father’s Day morning, the year 2011. No Glad Wrap in the house. Do you have any idea how that screws with dad’s main day of the year? Three kids, lunches to make and pack, no Glad Wrap! My day is in tatters, man. Ruination. It’s going be a big climb back after this kind of start, let me tell you.
The kids are up early. I notice on special sleep-in days like this they always wake up early. They’re excited. There are two different father’s day events at the two eldest kids schools. I’m a guest DJ at one. Which effectively means loading up my ipod with 70s rock, 80s post-punk pop and a few hip hop tunes and old country numbers, then I’m on my way to found my own groove nation.
Of course you try to be a crowd pleaser, but personal taste creeps in. At the last minute I get cold feet about the prospect of playing Nick Cave’s ‘No Pussy Blues’ at the school Fathers’ Day breakfast. What was amusing and irreverent last night when I put my ‘mixed tape’ (I’m so old) together now seems crude and likely to offend. Dear me – what to do?
I’ll swap it for Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel’s ‘Come Up and See Me, Make Me Smile’. I always remember one of my friends’ fathers accusing me of being a homosexual for liking that song when I was 12. I think it was because Harley wore mascara and a fur coat with no shirt on in the video clip, which seemed kinda cool to me at the time – not that I ever adopted the look for myself.
Anyway, back at Masterchef Central I use some disposable plastic containers – left over from takeaway Indian meals and rinsed clean – to pack the sandwiches in. Dads are genius improvisers like that. My partner is meanwhile trying to make sure the kids get dressed – and put their shoes on as well! Then we are finally out of our own private madhouse and on our way to a larger, school-organised one.
My DJ efforts prove to be somewhat frustrated as the hall stereo keeps getting turned off due to surges brought on by all the tea urns. So I stand beside the electrical mains switching the power on again every time it goes off. It strikes me this is not the safest way to celebrate Father’s Day, but damn it, I put David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ and Johnny Cash singing ‘Solitary Man’ on this mix, and whether the crowd wants it or not I am giving it to them. ‘Golden Years’ comes out a little like this: Golden ..ears, G..ears… Wah.” Long pause. “Wah.”
My partner has been co-opted to do the barbecue and has disappeared into a cloud of smoking bacon fat. I am amazed she can smile at all but she seems to be enjoying herself.
Somehow my youngest son has attached himself to my leg, and is weeping and crying because he wants a bottle of strawberry milk from the canteen, which is still officially closed. Which means he cannot have that strawberry milk. The tears and screaming suggest he has been through a savage beating or received news of a death in the family.
I have to drag him across the stage where I am DJing in front of audience of about 100 other highly distracted dads and their families. Most of them are busy dealing with their own kids or trying to have a conversation over my annoying music, but I still feel my crying-son-attached-to-my-leg-and-being dragged-along look lacks the right aura of parental harmony and love that I am seeking to project. He finally lets me go and I make a break for it as he lays resentfully in a tantrum-ish heap.
I decide to get a bacon and egg roll off my partner and a coffee as well. What the heck. It’s 8am and I’m just a modern guy, as Iggy Pop used to sing. Every now and then as I walk around with breakfast in my hand – and isn’t modern fatherhood the art of having breakfast standing up? – I catch another father’s eye, and get some weird amused smile or a hard-working, stunned nod of the head.
Up on the stage the kids all start reading poems for their dads that are very hard to hear, then the whole event declines into a rambling multiple-choice quiz that no one ever wins. My partner takes off with our two youngest children to the next port of call, the Father’s Day celebration at my daughter’s school down the road. My son goes to his class. I’m left with his football and my ipod throbbing to Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in an almost empty hall.
Outside the sky is grey as my hair, threatening rain that does not seem to come. I’m able to stop for a more solitary and calming coffee at a local café where what sounds like Johann Sebastian Bach is being piped through the stereo. It’s now 10am. And there is plenty of Father’s Day yet left to burn. I promise myself not to yell at the kids tonight when they bicker and harass me. All the time I sense the main game is tolerance, patience, listening, and more patience. It’s the lesson I keep having to re-learn every day.
I know the kids have surprises for me, cards they’ve made, presents they have picked up at the stalls being held at their respective schools. A key ring, a bottle opener, a bath flannel with a football team logo, maybe I will even score some red wine as well if I am lucky. I realize I can get some Glad Wrap at the shops on the way home, and feel a new mood of fatherly zen begin to descend over me. The static of the morning is still subsiding, and yet what I find I want – and need – all over again is my family around me once more. Though maybe not attached to my leg. Just to be safe, I’m thinking I’ll buy some strawberry milk as well anyway.
Mark Mordue is the 2010 Pascall Prize Australian Critic of the Year. He is currently working on a biography of Nick Cave.
You’ve heard Samuel L. Jackson read it. You’ve maybe even heard Werner Herzog read it. But have you heard Australia’s favourite storybook reader, Noni Hazlehurst, read the children’s book spoof sensation, Go the F-ck to Sleep?
Noni will be a guest at the ‘Unaccustomed as I am’ event next week at the Wheeler Centre.
A new book claims that television shows such as Sesame Street propagate radical left-wing ideology. Newspapers across the world – including this Telegraph report, taken up in The Age – have reported on the publication of Primetime Propaganda, by US conservative columnist Ben Shapiro. Shapiro interviewed leading producers of shows like Sesame Street, and concluded they are trying to “shape America in their own leftist image”. This is how the Independent summarised the book’s findings: “The TV series Friends undermined family values; Sesame Street taught ethnic minorities about civil disobedience; Happy Days had a subtle anti-Vietnam subtext; and the 1980s cop show MacGyver tried to persuade pistol-packing Americans that guns are bad”.
It’s not the first time Sesame Street or its host network, the Public Broadcasting Service, have come under political fire – and it tends to come from both sides of politics. Sesame Street has regularly been accused of promoting a gay agenda. However, it’s also been criticised for its depiction of women and Latinos as well as for being “too wholesome” – here’s a Time review from 1970. In that same year, in just its second season, it was banned in the southern US state of Mississippi. Conversely, in 1973, Sesame Street was denounced in the USSR as “the latest example of United States cultural imperialism”. Rock, meet hard place. As of 2009, the show had won 118 Emmy awards.
Happy International Children’s Day.
Melbourne author Alison Goodman’s fantasy children’s book Eona has debuted at number five on the New York Times best-seller list in its category. The children’s chapter book best-seller list lists best-selling books intended to be read by children aged between seven and ten. The name refers to the fact that most of these lavishlly-illustrated books are divided into short chapters. Alison Goodman has published books for children and young adults since 1998, when her debut novel Singing the Dogstar Blues was published. She has previously been a DJ O'Hearn Memorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Four Australian author-illustrators of children’s books will be touring China this month and next as part of an initiative to promote the local industry in the Middle Kingdom. The tour, billed as the ‘Swimming with Stories’ festival, will feature an exhibition of book illustration as well as workshops focusing on writing, illustration and other facets of narrative performance.
Thirty-one authors and illustrators will be featured, and four of them will visit the People’s Republic in person: Sally Rippin, Leigh Hobbs, Ann James and Alison Lester. Swimming with Stories begins at the Bookworm in Chengdu from May 18 to May 22, moves on to the Shanghai Children’s Museum from June 1 to June 5, and winds up at the Beijing Bookworm from June 6 to June 9.
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