Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books.

There’s a story on the Huffington Post today about a young girl, Ishema Kane, in Germany who wrote to the newspaper, outraged at their defence of racist language in children’s books—specifically, Pippi Longstocking. As letters of outrage go, it’s pretty fabulous. I especially love this bit: “I find it totally shit that this word would remain in children’s books if it were up to you.” You go girl! (She’s only 9.)

(I also note that the N word under scrutiny is apparently ‘Negro’, not the other N word, and am interested that this word appears in this instance to have caused as much distress and impulse to censor as the other, more commonly offensive N word. However, that’s a slightly tangential point to what I want to address here, but if anyone has any thoughts on that, please share.)

Now, this is not the first time this topic has raised its head in children’s literature circles, not by a long shot, but I posted the story on Facebook and it engendered  very interesting discussion that I thought I’d bring over here to the blog.

But before that, let’s have a bit of an overview, at least from my point of view, of how I’ve experienced this debate. I think it first raised its head for me back in the 90s when the Billabong books were reissued with the more, by contemporary standards, offensive language and attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people removed. Sanitised. Censored. Depending on your point of view. (And look! I wrote about this back in 2006!)

The child_lit community has debated this topic many, many times over the years, particularly as it relates to portrayals of Native Americans (the list being US-based and mostly made up of US children’s lit professionals and enthusiasts). The discussion has often been spear-headed by the women behind the Oyate site, which provides reviews and resources on books by and about Native Americans—and doesn’t pull any punches when it finds books and authors it finds objectionable. (See also Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature.)

These discussions on child_lit sometimes became very heated, especially when  heart-held favourites, and strongholds of the canon—such as The Little House on the Prairie—were cited as books that could, had and continued to cause great hurt to Native American children who come across, or worse, are forced to read the book in school (because if you come across it yourself, you can chuck it across the room. If you have to read it for school, not only do you have to read it, but its very place on the reading list gives its attitudes and language an imprimatur).

I don’t know that Debbie Reese and her colleagues were arguing that bonfires of the Little House and Little Tree books should be lit across the land, much as maybe they privately wished that to be the case, but they were (are) determined to continue talking about this issues, difficult as it is for all of those of us who held Laura and Pa and the Billabong gang so close to our hearts as we grew up, then and now.*

My idealised view has long been that if the books hold values that are so anathema to contemporary values, then the books should be allowed to quietly disappear into the archives. I’m not a fan of tampering with a writers’ work/words/intentions, especially when they are not around to contribute to the discussion/editing process, no matter what the Estate might have to say about it.

But of course, it’s not as simply as that. Books don’t just quietly go away. First of all, what’s to stop people, even children, coming across them in secondhand bookshops, or in libraries with a conservative culling policy, or on the shelves at Grandma’s house. Perhaps more potently, though, there’s the nostalgia value: parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and teachers who want to share beloved books from our own childhood with the kids in our lives and classrooms. Sometimes we’re shocked to find what lurks in those beloved pages, and maybe we think twice about passing them on, or maybe we excuse those transgressions away with the argument that those attitudes are from another time when people didn’t know better. (Except that they did.)

There’s also the cultural argument: many of these books have stood the test of time, and still are popular and have much to offer readers now. Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater—you can read 6 of the Narnia books, but not The Horse and His Boy. (Or, arguably, The Last Battle, especially if you want to add sexism into the mix, but I think it’s fair to say that people get more upset about racist attitudes in children’s books than archaic sexist attitudes. I’m not sure why that is and don’t have time to think about it right now, but I’m keen to come back to it at some point.)

So if we operate on the assumption that most of us are pretty much bottom-line against censorship, as in outright banning these books, and we accept that these books aren’t likely to just magically disappear on their own account, what are we left with?

We reissue them with changes to language and attitudes—mid-range censorship. Or we let them stand as they are, reader beware. Treat them as a learning opportunity. Do Not Whitewash the Past. But at what cost?

As I said, I posted the German story on Facebook, and the first response I got was from my friend Gayle Kennedy, a wonderful writer for adults and children, who is a a member of the Wongaiibon Clan of the Ngiyaampaa speaking Nation of South West NSW. Gayle’s not backward in coming forward in expressing her opinions on, well, anything, so when she just posted a quizzical ‘Hhmmmmm…’ in response to the post, I was curious to find out what she REALLY thought.

And it’s not what you might expect. With permission, I reprint Gayle’s expansion on that Hhmmm…

I don’t like people fucking with other people’s writing. Simple as that for me. I can’t bare what’s being done to the texts of yesteryear. How are you going to learn from the past (mistakes and all) if you keep sanitising it? Sanitising these book means that kids these days do not have the benefit of seeing how far society has come in terms of how we see other people and society in general. Why not point out to the kids that these words and terms were used all the time in that day and age and how society has grown and realises now the harm and hurt it caused and still causes. There are lessons to be learnt from confronting these texts head on and none of from running away from or excising them.

My friend Jan then raised the point that books give authority to these attitudes, and how that authority can reinforce racism a given child may already be being raised with.
And then Penelope noted this:
I think it is important to recall that a real child identified real harm. That is not a what if and should be considered. Language does harm, it is not just a relic of past bad practices if it is still defended and supported by teachers and others with influence over children. It must sometimes look to a child as if everyone else’s opinion is more important than her wellbeing or suffering.
And this, for me, is the crux of the problem. We adults can bang on all we like about teaching moments and historical context, but what use is that to the Native American child who reads, in her classroom, the words “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. How do we expect that 9 year old child of a German mother and Sengalese father to contextualise a word that she knows only too well we can not imagine how it makes her feel. The Aboriginal child who either doesn’t see himself at all, or sees himself compared to a dog.
What are we saying to those kids? Suck it up? That’s just not good enough. But nor is censorship a solution. I simply don’t have one—it’s an unsolvable dilemma. But while we’re talking about the rights of authors and cultural integrity, we must also acknowledge and honour the real harm experienced by real children. And so it is even more incumbent upon us—we, the gatekeepers—to find ways to make sure the balance is more than redressed by making sure that they are surrounded by books and words and images and stories and language that affirms their dignity and their right to be at the heart of cultural, social and artistic expression and experience, along with their white classmates.

*I’ve personally never actually read a Billabong book, and while I read the Little House books as a child, it was the TV show that won my heart. As the name of this blog attests, my best-beloved childhood book of this kind was Seven Little Australian Australians, which actually had a passage sympathetic to Aboriginal people removed after the first edition, not to be restored for 100 years.



Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013

Happy New Year!

If you’ve been reading Misrule over the years, you will know that I have frequently written about the imbalance in awards for women writers of young adult fiction in this country. I’ve not been alone in this concern—mostly focusing on the remarkable consistency with which the CBCA Older Readers Awards have recognised male writers, or books about boys and young men—and as we’ve seen in the wider literary community over the past couple of years, the problem hasn’t been confined to these awards, or to YA fiction.

In response to a well-documented imbalance of reviews and awards for women writers generally, a group of very remarkable women established the Stella Prize, which attracted enough funding for the awards for Australian women writers to go ahead this year. (I support the Stella Prize, of course, but am disappointed that poetry and children’s books are excluded. I’m told that young adult books are eligible but the guidelines specifically exclude “books written primarily for children”, which I suppose means picture books are out, although illustrated books are, technically at least, eligible.  I hope that if funding permits the expansion of the awards, these categories will be included.)

Concurrently with the movement to establish the Stella Prize came an initiative, led by writer Elizabeth Lhuede, to encourage more readership and discussion of Australian women writers, which became  the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Individuals were encouraged to pledge to read a set number of books by Australian women, to blog about and review them and to generally help create a culture of supporting and promoting books by women. You can read about how it all came, and how in just 12 months it’s developed into something still grass-rootsy but also a bit more coordinated, about at the website. Go on! Off you go! Go and read it! Don’t make me paraphrase!

Right. Good on you. Welcome back.

I’ll be honest—much as, again, I supported the concept of the AWWC, I didn’t see the need to sign up for the inaugural challenge last year, as a large percentage of my reading has always been made up of women writers. This year, though, I’m rather more formally involved as one of the contributing editors. Elizabeth contacted me to see if I would be interested in filling in the gap in their panel of contributors and be their children’s fiction editor.

I was interested. And so I am.

I’m generally known as a bit of a YA expert, for which, you know, thanks, but much as I love and read widely and talk about fiction for teenagers, at heart my deep and abiding passion is for children’s fiction. (For example, I’m currently serving my third consecutive term as a judge on the Ethel Turner Prize for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, which is for books for ‘young people’ [ie young adults/teens] and I’m really happy about that, but honestly, I’d love to do the Patricia Wrightson Prize [children’s books] one of these days. Years, now, I guess, as you have to have a hiatus after 3 years on the panel.)

Anyway, back on topic. I’ll be writing regular roundups of reviews of children’s books by Australian women writers for the AWWC website throughout 2013. I’ll be concentrating mostly on longer children’s fiction, but will make the odd reference to picture books as well. And I also need to link to other people’s reviews of children’s books by Australian children’s writers, so if that’s something you can help me out with, please send me links to such reviews as you write or come across them. You can use the comments section, or contact me on Facebook or Twitter, or on email. (firstname dot lastname at gmail dot com)

I think that’s all. Right now I’m running late on my first contribution—a round up of 2012, which is due up on the AWWC site today, so I’d better get hopping. Don’t forget though—please send me your reviews, or other people’s reviews you’ve come across, or (don’t be shy!) reviews of your own books. If you’re an Australian woman writer, that is. 😉  Thanks.


Garn the Blues

As you know, I’m a contributor to the current Kill Your Darlings YA Championship over at the Killings blog. It’s been interesting to me to see which books my fellow YA afficionados have chosen to write about—their favourite books of the last 30 years, and the ones they felt made a significant contribution to the Australia YA canon.

In retrospect, it’s kind of interesting to me that no-one—myself included—nominated Puberty Blues.

I’ve commented several times over the years that Melina Marchetta‘s Looking for Alibrandi was a publishing phenomenaon* in a country where we don’t have much in the way of publishing phenomena. I still think it’s true—mostly because of how universally loved Alibrandi is—but what may be less well remembered now is what a phenomenaon** Puberty Blues was back in the day.

The day was 1979. I was 15, living in Canberra at the time, barely been kissed, and not naive, exactly, but certainly inexperienced. I had friends who were sexually active, to use that awful phrase—had done since Year 8 (although to this day I don’t know if those friends in Year 8 were spinning me yarns or were actually doing all the things they claimed to be getting up to out of school)—but that world was a long way off for me. But that’s not to say I lived a sheltered life—because if nothing else, I was a reader, and I had the great good fortune of having parents who never censored anything I read.

I vividly recall reading and re-reading Go Ask Alice when I was in Year 7 and 8. Go Ask Alice is, of course, a book that comes up a lot in discussion of the history of “dirty realism” YA, but for me, it was more of a fantasy than Narnia or Wonderland. I can still remember scenes and phrases from Go Ask Alice. I read it avidly, greedily, trying to comprehend that people—kids—actually lived that way, experienced those things. (Of course, perhaps they didn’t—we know now that Go Ask Alice was fiction, written as a cautionary tale for teen readers at a time when there must have been huge anxiety around sex and drugs and massive social change.)

And I also remember reading what I guess now was sort of soft porn paperbacks, which I found in a house of a family from our church that I was babysitting for. And I don’t mention that they were a church family to make a point about hypocrisy—on the contrary, I think that experience helped me understand (although I wouldn’t have articulated that at the time) that ordinary, good people (which they most certainly were) liked dirty books and movies.

I mean, you just simply couldn’t be a kid in the 70s and not be aware of sex as part of mainstream entertainment. Alvin Purple was released when I was 9 years old, and I was certainly aware of it. Number 96 had started on TV even earlier—1972, when I was 8, and while I was certainly never allowed to watch it (my parents’ liberal ideals didn’t extend quite that far), I saw the ads and read about it in TV Times. And anyway, my friend Tianne was allowed to watch it and she used to hold court and tell those of us whose parents were less cool what had happened in the previous night’s episode.

Hell, even earlier than that, I vividly recall an episode of Days of Our Lives where Bill and Laura kissed, and she was only wearing a towel, and the camera scanned down her body as the towel fell and the scene ended on it collapsed around her bare, flexing feet.

So I wasn’t sheltered. I knew about sex, and I knew kids my age were having it, one way or another.

But I am not sure anything quite prepared me—or the rest of Australia—for Puberty Blues.

Australian readers will know that Puberty Blues was written by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, two young women (21 or so at the time of publication) who grew up in Sydney’s southern beach suburbs (known colloquially as The Shire) and who had already been writing and performing together for some years. I’m having trouble finding the actual chronology, but together Carey and Lette were known as The Salami Sisters—I just can’t remember if they came to public attention in that guise before or after the publication of Puberty Blues. They had a column in a Sunday paper and wrote frankly about sex and drugs and adolescent life in a way that I don’t believe anyone in this country ever had before.  At least, if they had, they hadn’t done so on such a mainstream platform as The Salami Sisters achieved.

I’ve never forgotten an appearance they made—in character, a skit, really— on a current affairs show, possibly hosted by Mike Willesee, talking about one of them coming home from a party with semen on her jeans, and telling her mother it was toothpaste. I can still remember  the sensation of my jaw dropping, and the kind of delighted shock I felt that they were actually saying what they were saying.

(And it is because of this memory that I can never bring myself to describe the publication of Puberty Blues as ‘seminal’…!)

Because really, nobody was talking about the things that Carey and Lette wrote and talked about. Certainly, no-one was talking about it that was living it. And because they’ve always been so frank about it, we know that Puberty Blues was as much actual social document as it was fiction.

I don’t actually recall reading Puberty Blues for the first time, but I know I read it very soon after it was published—no doubt thanks to the school library. But what I do remember was the recognition I felt when I did read it. Not because the details of my life bore much resemblance to Sue and Debbie’s, although the emblems were so recognisable (we had panel vans and Chiko rolls in the western suburbs too), but because there was some essential truth about being a teenage girl in the 1970s that they simply nailed.

Whoops. Pun not intended.

I lived well inland—those western surburbs and then, by the time the book came out, in Canberra—but we’d holidayed every year since I was about 4 at Macmasters Beach on the Central Coast, and I was not very far off falling desperately and hopelessly in love with a bad surfer boy, or ‘surfie’, as we called them, who I met when I was 16 and didn’t get over until I was in my 20s. (Or possibly ever.)

So the beachside setting wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but even if we hadn’t had our holiday house on the beach, there were plenty of girls in string bikinis lining the concrete shores of the public pools in Auburn and Parramatta and Deakin. (I actually can tell you that the first time I called another girl a ‘chick’ was at the Auburn-Lidcombe pool where only a couple of years earlier I’d had swimming lessons as a skinny pre-pubescent.)

And girls in ankle-length Indian skirts and Jesus sandles hanging out hoping to be noticed in shopping centres, and girls discussing what bra size was acceptable (32B was the minimum, I recall), and girls slathering baby oil on their legs and passing around the Cleo sealed section and aching, aching for a boy to notice them.

And I guess all those long-haired boys on the beaches and in the school canteen and sneaking ciggies down behind the oval were equally hoping some girl would notice them, but it seemed to us that they had all the power and we could only just wait, and wait, and wait for them to turn their eyes on us and say ‘hi”.

Puberty Blues captured all of this, even for those of us not yet sneaking Winnie Blues, or having sex, or even getting kissed. It was so real, so true, and yes, so Australian in language and sensibility in a way that Go Ask Alice didn’t come close (of course). It was almost like a relief that at last, even if it wasn’t exactly us, that our lives and places (the schoolyard, the canteen, the beach, the shops) were where we were, and there they were—in the book.

I remember also, just a few years later, deep in the throes of my first real love for that afore-mentioned Surfie, that I saw the movie of Puberty Blues with a bunch of girls I’d befriended at Macmasters—true beach girls, born and bred.

Macmasters Beach chicks, circa 1981. I’m the least naked one.

By then, in our late teens, it was the feminist message of the movie/book that spoke to us. We left the cinema at Gosford whooping with delight and promising each other that we would learn to surf, just like Sue and Debbie did at the end of the movie, riding high on the wave with the exhilarance of youth and freedom and being strong, powerful young women—kind of new knowledge for us, and thrilling, absurd but hopeful and determined not to be that girl on the towel, watching the waves and keeping the fast food hot.

(Or in my case, keeping the dead match that that the surfie boy flicked at my leg in one of those weird rituals of affection teenage boys do to teenage girls, after he’d lit his Winnie Blue.)

We never did learn to surf, but I loved that movie. (I even seem to remember the Surfie  thought it was pretty good, although maybe I’m imposing that as wishful thinking.) I bet I still would.

And I bet I love the TV series of Puberty Blues that, as I type these words, is just starting  on the TV right now.

I have been so excited about this, as soon as I heard about it, and who was making it, and the cast. Everything I’ve read has been really positive, and I’m not even sure why I’m so excited—I just really want to see these characters and stories again. I suppose it’s partly nostalgia, but it’s also because, no matter how much I may shy away from the actual ‘s(eminal)’ word, Puberty Blues was absolutely a ground-breaking, earth-shaking novel and it marks a really important moment in writing and publishing for (and, as it happens, by) young people in this country.

But professional interest aside? I loved that book. I love those girls. I KNEW those girls. And I’m glad they’re back. And I hope, once again, always and achingly, that they’re OK.

Such Spunks. Bet they will be.

*Edited thanks to the assiduous copy editing of Helen Razer. Thanks, H! **And thanks, JS!

Let the games begin!

No, no, no, not those games! The Kill Your Darlings Great Aussie YA Championship has begun!

I mentioned the Championship a few days ago, and now the list of 11 great YA books from the past 30 years has been announced. The posts will begin on Monday, and you can vote for your favourite of the contributor’s books (pick me! pick me!) plus they will also be running a people’s choice competition, where you can vote for whatever book you like.

As you will see from the list, I chose to write about Joanne Horniman‘s 1997 novel Loving Athena. I have been a fan of Joanne’s novels forever, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to revisit this gorgeous book. I’m not sure when my post will be up, but you can RSS feed the Killings blog, or subscribe to their mailing list for updates.

And while you’re at the blog, check out the recent post What does YA mean to you? A discussion about definition. And don’t forget to leave a comment and contribute to this question, and the whole Championship discussion!

Finding readers finding books

I met a young woman today—a girl, really, a young teenager—who I’ll call Jessica. I was at the Mount Druitt Hub for a work event—we had an author talk and book launch with Ambelin Kwaymullina, and her first young adult novel, The Tribe: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.*

In the room opposite, an exercise program for children was running, and the parents and carers of the kids were out in the foyer area discussing exercise and nutrition and so on with a health worker. Jessica was kind of mooching around, looking at the posters on the noticeboard but mostly looking to be at a bit of loose end (I discovered later her younger brother was in the exercise class) and so I struck up a bit of a conversation with her.

She was a quietly spoken girl, a bit diffident, not very confident, I would guess, and I found it hard to catch her voice. I asked her if she liked to read, as we had a book launch happening. “Is it the Wolf book?” she asked—she’d seen the posters. “It looks a bit scary,” she said when I confirmed it. It’s not so scary, I reassured her, although it has a lot of action and adventure. Do you like to read? She shook her head. “Not all that much.”

I very nearly left it there. I didn’t want to be the creepy book lady, pushing paperbacks on the unwilling, but something made me think, what the heck. I had a spare complimentary copy of Ambelin’s book, so I ducked in and got it, and took it out to Jessica. Would you like this? I asked her. I have a spare. And if you like, you can come and meet the author and she’ll sign it for you.

“Oh, but I haven’t read it yet,” Jessica said, stroking the cover, as if somehow an unread signed book would be a spoiled thing. That’s OK, I said. Ambelin will sign it for you anyway,and you can keep it and read it and you’ll have your own copy signed by the author.

To be honest, I’m not sure she completely got what I meant. But she came with me anyway, and I introduced her to Ambelin. “Are you the author?” Jessica asked, a tiny bit awestruck. Ambelin beamed—Yes, I am! and they chatted a little, and Ambelin signed the book.

Jessica went back out to the foyer and as we were still waiting for people to arrive for the launch, I was popping in and out of the room and the foyer. I was glad to see Jessica was reading the book. And then suddenly, she stood up, and took herself back into the room where Ambelin was, made her way over to her, held out the book and said,

“This is really good.”

It was like she just had to tell her. There was a quiet urgency about it—this is good, and I have just discovered this, and I have to tell someone. And on this day, just because of a confluence of events, Jessica just so happened to have the chance to tell the author.

I don’t have to tell you that I was thrilled. For people like me, who believe passionately in the truth that life is simply better with books (by which I mostly mean stories) there’s just nothing to compare with the feeling of having made that connection for someone. And I’m really pleased, and lucky, that my day job allows me this opportunity from time to time—to find readers finding books.

But I’m certainly not suggesting that I made a reader tonight, because despite her initial hesitance, Jessica was clearly not really a non-reader at all.

After the launch was over, I went out to introduce myself to her mum, so that she’d know where (and who) this book came from, and I met Jessica’s younger brother, who I’ll call Sam, who, it has to be said, was looking at the book with what can only be called booklust. (Oh, how he wanted that book! And he wasn’t shy like his sister!)

I spoke with their mum, and she said their dad was a big book person, and that she liked to read, and that they always had books for the kids. She was really pleased about me having given Jessica  copy of Ashala Wolf, and I gave her information about the day job, and how soon we’re going to be publishing kids’ book reviews on our website, &tc and so on—and I hope we hear from them.

But I know quite well that my pleasure in the encounter was more my own sense of connection and having done something concrete and practical in the way of putting that book in those hands—and that’s fine. We all need a little reminder of why we do what we do, and a little personal fillip to keep us on track. But nor do I want to overplay the encounter beyond my own personal pleasure from it, and the things I value that it reminded me of.

Because the more important point is that this is the work that teachers and librarians (and especially teacher-librarians), do every single day. It’s one of those remarkable and important things about the role of the teacher and the librarian that can’t be measured by budgets, NAPLAN results (whatever the pollies will tell you) or esoteric arguments about the future of the book. It requires people; people making connections, taking chances, having conversations. People saying, hey, have you read this? People—grown up people—saying to less grown up people, people in a position of trust using that trust to say, hey, I think you might enjoy this, if you’d be willing to give it a try.

People more or less bumping into one another in that random and sometimes astonishingly fortuitous (but perhaps also actually mostly rather prosaic) way that may happen between strangers (like me and Jessica) but which more often and more easily happens between people who have a reason to know one another—like teachers and librarians and kids.

So however it happened in this instance, I hope Jessica (and all the other Jessicas out there) is tucked up in bed and is halfway through Ashala Wolf by now (and that tomorrow Sam—and all the other Sams—will steal it from her and devour it), and that after that she’ll go to her school or local library, she’ll talk to her English teacher or her T-L, she’ll say, “I read this amazing book, and I wonder…” and she’ll find (and be helped to find) another book, and another…

and the next time someone asks her if she likes to read, she’ll nod and smile and say, quietly, confidently,

Yes, I do.


*The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a terrific book, by the way, and Ambelin is a new talent in Australian YA fiction to watch—of which, more later in another post, but in the meantime—thank you, Walker Books, for this evening!

Remembering Margaret Mahy

I am so heavy of heart to write this post.

We’ve lost so many people in the children’s book community this year—big names like Maurice Sendak, lesser known but well-loved folk like blogger and writer Peter Sieruta, both from the US. Here in Australia, recently, we lost dear Jean Chapman, a writer and champion of children’s books and reading (and the only person—so far!—to ever dedicate a book to me!), and illustrator Pamela Lofts.

And now, we’ve lost Margaret Mahy.

I’m often asked about my favourite children’s and young adult authors, and for years and years now, I’ve often answered by saying, well, when I grow up, I want to be Margaret Mahy.

You know I have other favourite children’s authors, most notably Diana Wynne Jones, and now we’ve lost both her and Margaret. And as I write this, I keep remembering all the connections between their work—Chants and Changeovers and so on.

I’m more than a little bit heart-broken.

Margaret was one of the first international authors I heard speak, and I’ve always remembered (as anyone who heard it can attest) the absolute thrill of hearing her perform her incredible poem (later published as a glorious picture book) Bubble Trouble. (I looked for a video of Margaret performing Bubble Trouble without success—perhaps someone else knows of such a thing out there on line?) Margaret’s rhyming picture book texts (see also Down the Back of the Chair) set the highest benchmark possible for that most difficult of arts—poetry for children. (Don’t believe me? Read your way through the awful doggerel that passes for rhyming texts for children that make up a good whack of any publisher’s slush pile.)

I have so many favourite Margaret Mahy picture books—Margaret was a friend to cats, and I adore The Three-Legged Cat, but also check out The Great White Man-Eating Shark and so many others. Her junior fiction is also as good as it gets—funny, smart, subversive and about as child-friendly as you could ask for. The Great Piratical Rumbustification and The Very Wicked Headmistress were staples of The School Magazine when I worked there back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they were also wonderful playgrounds for illustrators.

But for many readers, it is Margaret’s older children’s and young adult fiction that will live with us forever. The Changeover ranks high on the favourite books list of so many readers and writers, and I love it too (one of the great books about nascent teen sexuality ever written, no?), as I loved The Catalogue of the Universe, Memory and Underrunners, but my very favourite of all her novels is The Tricksters.

It’s quite a long time now since I’ve read The Tricksters, but so many of its moods and images continue to cast a long, welcome shadow over my reading (and writing) life. Harry’s secret novel. Those three creepy brothers. Family secrets. The mysterious Teddy Carnival. The sea… the sea…

We Australians have a habit of claiming New Zealanders as our own, and there has been many a time over the years that my colleagues around the world have assumed Margaret was an Australian. She wasn’t—she was essentially a New Zealander, but I think there’s a shared colonial, antipodean culture and world view that we share, and it goes some way to explaining why we hold Margaret and her books so dear. Or maybe we just recognise good writing, like anyone.

Because we’re clearly not alone in our love and reverence for Margaret. Already on child_lit and Twitter and Facebook, friends and colleagues around the world are expressing their great dismay and sorrow at the loss of this incomparable woman and writer.

And yes, I did know her. Not well, but I was so fortunate to have met her several times over the years, and to have published not one, but two interviews with her. She was warm and generous, circumspect and respectful. And funny.

The last correspondence I had with Margaret was after the June 2011 Christchurch earthquake, when I fielded many questions about her safety. She was grateful for the enquiries, and asked me to pass on the message that she was safe and well and staying with family.

And now she’s gone.  How we will miss, and remember her.


The Great YA Championship—Kill Your Darlings!

Why yes, I have been busy lately!

A few weeks ago, I received a very thrilling email from one of the editors at the terrific literary journal Kill Your Darlings. KYD’s online editor, Estelle Tang, contacted me to ask if I’d like to be part of a celebration of Australian YA fiction on KYD’s blog Killings. The inspiration for this came from the (most) recent resurgence of interest in Australian classics, spearheaded by Text Publishing‘s classics list. The good folk at KYD decided that it was time to look back at the great history of Australian young adult books, by asking YA enthusiasts to choose a great Australian YA book from the last 30 years to write about.

Well, ooh! How exciting! And I immediately knew my own shortlist of books I wanted to write about. I thought that this was an amazing opportunity to bring back into the light some wonderful novels, favourites of mine, that have been neglected or forgotten or were never properly acknowledged at the time of their publication. I sent my shortlist through, and waited to hear back which one they wanted me to write about. And I was really pleased that their first choice was my first choice.

It was all embargoed and a bit hush-hush until a few days ago, when the announcement was made on Killings, so now I can tell you all it’s happening! Well, will be, from July 30. And you can be part of it—because you can vote for the books we contributors write about, to come up with a top 3. And there are prizes, too, of—what else! YA book packages, donated by Penguin, Allen and Unwin and Hardie Grant Egmont.

My secret hope is that the Championship might even see some of the books—those, like the one I’ve written about—come back into print.  Or at the very least, encourage people to seek them out in libraries and second-hand bookstores. (Of course, some, perhaps many of them, will still be in print—mine isn’t, and I so wish it were, as my copy is looking decidedly well-loved!)

I am, by the way, permitted to reveal which book I wrote about, and if you’re my friend on Facebook (and if you aren’t why aren’t you?), then you may already know—we played 20 Questions the other night. But I’ve decided to maintain a little mystery for now, in the hope that you’ll add Killings to your reader and wait with bated breath for my offering!

But in the meantime, here are some clues:

Red insects. Muses and goddesses. Poetry. Pottery. First love. First loss. Family.

Let the celebrations begin.


Isobelle Carmody and the Great Ebook Debate

A few months ago, the lovely Isobelle Carmody wrote to me and asked me if I’d like to be part of a new online venture she was undertaking, to coincide with the e-publication of her wonderful 1997 novel Greylands. The purpose of the site—only intended to be live for a month—is to celebrate the launch of the ebook, but also to play host to a lively “edebate” on book formats and reading in this rapidly changing world.

Many of you will have already visited the site (which you can find here) and enjoyed the lively discussion that has developed over the dozen or so posts in The Great eBook Debate that have been published so far, in both the essays posted and the conversations in the comments threads. There’s a terrific range of contributors—writers, librarians, academics—and me! Mine’s coming up tomorrow (July 16), and I’m really honoured that it will appear on the day that the Greylands ebook is officially launched.

As you’ll see, the eBook debate posts range from the highly personal through the technical, across the business side of epublishing to the academic. What unites us all—whether we’re for the traditional paper book or all about the ereader(or somewhere in between) is a love for story and a passion for whatever it takes to make sure that as many people can access books and stories whatever the format.

The site has caught the eye of more than Isobelle’s considerable fan base, or even just those of us fascinated (and somewhat terrified!) about the changes in hand and ahead for publishing. I’m told that the the contents of the site will be archived (details to follow), which is great news and a reminder that online content like this need not be ephemeral.

So if you haven’t already, then check out the site and join in the conversation. I’ll look forward to the comments that my own post elicits tomorrow—although I expect it will be (rightly) overshadowed by the book launch! (Dying to know who the mystery launcher is to be? Me too! I’ve had a hint but only time will tell…)

So, whatever you or I might feel about ebooks (and you’ll have to wait until my post is up to know for sure!) I don’t think anyone could argue that the fact that a fine book such as Greylands is going to be available to new readers, and to existing fans to explore and enjoy all over again.  Congratulations, dear Isobelle! And hurrah for Greylands!

Me and Isobelle at the 2008 CBCA Conference in Melbourne.