I’ve always thought of the years between nine and twelve to be a kind of “golden age” of reading, and yet for at least the past decade, some of the loudest grumblings about contemporary Australian children’s publishing have been about the dearth of substantial, complex and challenging literature for this readership. Program notes for a panel at the recent Children’s Book Council of Australia Conference seems to confirm that something has changed dramatically in the way we now view books and reading for this age:
“Betwixt and Between” — A fleeting time is spent dipping into the delights of literature for “younger readers” and children quickly move onto “older” books. It is a special genre full of quirky fun. What motivates the writers for this special age group?
Since when was this time in one’s reading life “fleeting”? Do young readers really move almost immediately from Aussie Bites to Sonya Hartnett? And on the way, are these readers really only after “quirky fun”, a literary “bit on the side” before they get into the serious, “real” business of YA fiction? On the contrary, these readers do want books that will last longer than one afternoon, that will repay re-reading, and will do all those other things good fiction should — elucidate and entertain, transport and transform. But for whatever reasons, the bottom line is that in Australia, we’re not publishing very many of them any more.
Thank goodness for Elizabeth Honey. Honey’s novels have been characterised by complicated and sometimes audacious adventure plots and character ensembles which focus attention of the nature and importance of community and the family. They contain genuine, unforced humour in both action and language, and are leavened with serious ideas and reflections on the best and worst that people can be.
Remote Man is Honey’s most complex and in some ways, most serious book to date. It’s also enormously entertaining and at times very funny indeed. The adventure this time deals with five kids on four continents pursuing a wildlife smuggler. There’s our protagonist Ned, visiting Massachusetts from Melbourne with his mother, who is recovering from a serious bout of depression. Ned befriends Rocky, a local boy with whom he shares a passion for wild creatures. Back in the Northern Territory is Kate, Ned’s cousin, who email-alerts the boys to the activities of the smuggler. Via the internet, the three meet up with Cleverton in Jamaica and Yvette in France, and the five kids set to some international, electronic detective work to track down and stop the smuggler.
It sounds like The Famous Five meets Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, with all the attendant wild coincidences, and incredible acts of imagination, ingenuity and courage on the children’s behalf. But there’s a significant difference between Honey and other less accomplished practitioners of this genre. While the action may indeed be far-fetched, (although technically — in every sense — possible), within the world of Remote Man the characters and their adventures are fully expressed, entirely consistent, and absolutely convincing.
Remote Man also deals with serious matters with dignity and intelligence. Ned’s mother’s depression is not merely a plot device to get him to the NT and then the USA; it’s a reflection of the fact that many children have to deal with the painful realities of their parents’ adult lives. Ned gains maturity through supporting his mother through her illness, as well as through the evil he confronts in the brutal smuggler. Honey also provides readers with a satisfying resolution, without a platitudinous happy ending (shocking and confronting things happen both as a cause and a result of the adventure), and there’s a tantalising possibility of a follow-up adventure. Let’s hope we visit Cleverton next time!