Thursday, December 2, 2010


Don't blame me for the title! That was the publisher's idea and they know their market well. Unfortunately it probably obscures the original nature of the poems and songs. I wanted to call it 'The Fish Wall' and that's still how I think of it, but I can see why they didn't love it.

The dynamic Rebecca Hermann and Nerida Fearnley at Bolinda Publishing asked me to do several audio projects for them: a collection of traditional nursery rhymes for younger and older listeners; a collection of traditional rhymes about size, shape, colour and so on; a collection of original mnemonic rhymes designed to help children learn multiplication; and a collection of my own original poems and rhymes that they would set to music.

They wanted to give these collections an Australian edge. That proved to be harder than I'd anticipated with the traditional rhymes, because although there are many examples in the 19th century of Australian parodies and imitations, such as 'Who Killed Cockatoo?' (you might remember this was the first picture book under Margaret Hamilton's own imprint) they are mostly too archaic in language and too 'clever' for young listeners. Changing tastes in poetry account for part of the problem, but many of those parodies were clearly intended for adults.

Hush-a-bye, baby on the treetop
Grasshoppers ate up the whole of our crop
When the drought breaks the rabbits will come
Hush-a-bye, baby, the outlook is glum.

That's the Australian adults' way of lulling themselves out of it. I did include it eventually, but mostly for the adults listening in the background. Similarly one for all the bank-bashers:

Baa, baa, black sheep,
have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bales full.
One for the master, who grows so lean and lank,
None for the mistress,
But two for the bank!

I'm hoping the sexism is as ironic as the rest of the rhyme.
Writing the multiplication rhymes was fun, but a challenge to try and avoid using the same rhyming words over and over.

1 x 3 is 3
I wish that I could ski.
2 x 3 is 6
Get on the T-bar, quick!

Okay, we're already in trouble. To create a narrative that makes sense as well as finding rhymes and keeping the scansion regular enough for the composer is not easy. English isn't a great rhyming language, and I wanted to avoid the whiff of the thesaurus or rhyming dictionary as much as possible. I think I managed it most of the time, but there are one or two moments where I wince a bit. You try it! It's a tough call.

When it came to the collection of original poems and rhymes, it's as if I had been waiting for someone to ask me. I wrote them over the summer, one every day and sometimes two. The romantic 'the story/poem/play/script wrote itself' line that writers love to trot out has done more damage than good for the way readers perceive the business of writing and the way they regard writers and I had hoped I would never say it about my own work. But these poems did come pretty naturally.

What was tricky was working with the team setting them to music. Peter Sullivan of 'IMT' and 'The Footy Show' fame, who with the Peter Sullivan Big Band has worked with so many Australian and international stars, is brilliant - creative, energetic, endlessly patient - and I feel lucky to have had the chance to work with him. But the difference between the needs of the contemporary poet and the composer when it comes to the rhythm of a song is quite marked. I found both the composer and the singer stressing prepositions and definite articles, simply because the underlying metre demanded it, whereas the poet reading them aloud would skate quickly over the top to get to the key words.

Putting this collection together was a great experience. We had a couple of moments where I had deliberately played round with the gendering of the piece. For example, there is a poem that runs through all the outrageous colours that people wear, and ends up asking if anyone cares whether boys wear pink. I based this on a mother I heard saying quite definitely that pink shirts were not for boys. (Still?) When Peter and his team put this to music, they had a woman singing it. That simply didn't work.

Similarly, I was interested to hear some macho teenage boys one day saying that they let their girlfriends put nail polish on one of their toenails. They were almost boasting, but the fact that it was only one toe told another part of the story. This was what I wrote:

I've put polish on one of my toes.
Two people know.
(It's a secret.)
It shines like a jewel
I found in the sand
and Mum says I can keep it.

When I heard the finished recording, this rhyme had been sung by a woman. And when I asked that it be redone by a man, some of the producers were worried that it would sound gay and that that would be a problem for their conservative market. Even though the cost of redoing this song and a few others was significant, and intimidated me into silence at first, I'm glad that I was worried enough to insist in the long run, and I'm grateful that Bolinda supported and trusted me. So what you will hear is a man singing these words. That was really the point.

Bolinda wanted these songs to be Australian and I was really pleased when a short poem came to me about the prime minister. Unfortunately, the first line, 'Mr Prime Minister', went hurtling into history with Kevin Rudd and it was too late to change it. The words still work, but you'll have to imagine them applied to David Cameron - or maybe Tony Abbott.

I loved working on this project and can't wait to do another collection of songs. Some of them are funny, some are thoughtful and even sad. Hope you have fun listening to them! Maybe I'll leave you with one of the quieter ones.

Drink warm milk with honey and nutmeg,
wash off the day in town,
clean your teeth, switch off the light
and turn the music down.

Count the stars on your pyjamas,
remember to cuddle your friends.
Leave your slippers where you'll find them,
when your journey ends.

Flick the lamp on again! Jump up and check,
lock every door in the place.
Make sure there's no one under your bed
and sleep with a smile on your face.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Maybe like me you've caught yourself mid-sentence, or sat back and reviewed some series of events that has turned out badly, and been alarmed to realise that you are morphing into some worst aspect of your mother or your father. I'm more than happy - privileged - to have inherited their best traits, but the older I get, the more I need to remind myself that I can choose to leave their other traits behind. Or can I?

The young characters Anna, Mark and Tracey in Jackie French's novel Hitler's Daughter ask themselves such questions. It's a story that starts and ends with questions: how do we know what constitutes history? What if Hitler had a daughter called Heidi (ironically named after Johanna Spyri's sugary heroine), who was differently abled and therefore had to be hidden? How do we know who is walking among us - what the future is for that person next to us at the bus stop? What shadows from the past gather round that person who eats breakfast with us every morning?

Mark keeps coming back to these questions and their moral implications: how do we recognise the right course of action? Is there one - or many?

Such questions have clearly disturbed and stayed with the Sydney company Monkey Baa, because they have revisited Hitler's Daughter, which they first adapted for the theatre in 2006. French and Monkey Baa is a natural collaboration: the company believes in so much of what this writer stands for. And the show has been brilliantly directed by one of the company's founders, Sandra (Sandie) Eldridge. It's an outstanding production, and I urge you to take any young people you know - your own children, friends, your class or group - to see it. Next stop for Monkey Baa and Hitler's Daughter is the United States, so your support will help them get there, too.

From the thunder in the dark that opens the action to the final questions Anna directs at the audience, Hitler's Daughter is gripping, funny, touching, deeply unsettling. The full house at Sydney's Seymour Centre last night was absolutely spellbound - and that's a major achievement in such a venue.

This isn't just a great night out: the themes Jackie French and Monkey Baa are exploring have never been more important.

Perhaps we've heard Edmund Burke's warning too often: that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. But for a generation - or a community - that adopts being cool as its default position, Hitler's Daughter is a powerful reminder that disengagement can have dreadful consequences.

Take any action you can to get along to the theatre and see it!

Monday, March 29, 2010


Two friends in one week? And no, I don't want to hear my (or your) grandmother's warning that bad news comes in threes.

Anne Ingram is another great and sad loss to those who love Australian children's books, and although her work has influenced generations of children here and around the world - children who are now parents and grandparents themselves - you won't hear much about her in the media. If some literary editors had to struggle with their superiors to get a picture or even a mention of Patricia Wrightson into their pages a few days ago, they've got practically no chance of a decent obituary for a book editor and publisher, however influential. Those are simply our community's values, folks.

Not that I want to hurry them up, but when one of our high profile cricketers or billionaire gamblers or - let's be generous and choose someone from another field in the arts - one of our Hollywood stars or shock jocks passes on, the headlines will say '___________ DEAD'. And everyone will know who we mean. Fill in the celebrity blank.

But someone whose talent was to understand for well over 40 years what children would enjoy reading and would learn from, someone who could spot from their first rough drafts the writers and illustrators with potential to become famous around the world, and someone who could steer countless collaborations through the production process and help run a publishing business? Unfortunately, their going is unlikely to be headline news, but the loss to the Australian publishing industry and to their family and friends is immense.

Anne Ingram was such a wise and energetic publisher. I'd use the cliche 'doyenne' and use her full name, Anne Bower Ingram, as she did formally, but they'd make her sound distant and posh, and despite the echo of a traditional Good Education in her vowels, she was too cheeky and too much fun for that!

When Brian Wildsmith's publishers took advantage of the new and less expensive four-colour printing technology in the UK 50 years ago and began to produce picture books with the kind of ebullient palette we take for granted today, they changed children's reading experiences forever. And it was Anne who saw the possibilities in this new technology for Australia. In 1974 she was the first to recognise that Australia had outstanding children's books it should sell to the world, so she formed a small delegation to the children's book fair in Bologna - the important annual marketplace where the rights to Australian children's books are now much sought after.

Anne launched and guided the careers of so many Australian writers and illustrators who are loved by readers all over the world: Pamela Allen, Ron Brooks, Bob Graham, Craig Smith, Deborah and Kilmeny Niland, Junko Morimoto, Lilith Norman, Nan Hunt, Rod Clement, Diana Kidd.

Patricia Wrightson changed the way non-Indigenous older readers saw Australia's first nations, but it's not often recognised that a series of startling picture books by Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise, beginning with The Giant Devil-Dingo in 1973 opened the eyes of early childhood readers and their adult carers to the power of Indigenous storytelling, which had previously been diminished by the dry transcription of colonial anthropologists and dull black-and-white illustrations. Anne published these groundbreaking books, which embodied reconciliation, because they were the work of an Indigenous and non-Indigenous team.

And her collaboration with the Japanese-Australian artist Junko Morimoto was Australian multiculturalism at its best. I love all Junko's books, but My Hiroshima is special. Listen to the stunned and thoughtful silence when you've finished reading that book to children.

It's hard to pick from so many favourites on Anne Ingram's list - I mean, which of Pamela Allen's or Bob Graham's wonderful books are you going to mention? Anne and I often laughed about Belinda, and of course Crusher is Coming. But I think I'll mention a Bob Graham book that's often overlooked: The Wild. Just in that title alone, he knows how children hook onto the mysterious sound of an archaic adult phrase ('the olden days' is another one) and off go their imaginations. Then there's Whistle up the Chimney by Nan Hunt and Craig Smith. Rod Clement's brilliant Counting on Frank. Lilith Norman's haunting classic A Dream of Seas. The list goes on.

An academic friend of mine said to me yesterday how sad it was that her education students knew so few books from the rich tradition of Australian stories. Keating was right in his Creative Nation speech in 1994. The new technologies, however mindblowing, have resulted in a new wave of cultural imperialism on an unprecedented scale. And one of the casualties has been our own Australian story tradition. These books are where we've come from. What we are is where we've been. But in our rush to be edgy, we're losing our grip on that identity. Thank goodness Sarah Foster, the publisher at Walker Books Australia, has been smart enough and passionate enough to bring back into print Australian classics that other publishers have let go. Get behind her, folks! It's a risk - and she needs people to buy them before the accountants tell her that not enough people are interested.

I hope someone writes a serious account of the huge contribution Anne Ingram has made to the lives of Australian children. I can only give you a few tumbling words in honour of a friend. In constant pain from a disability, Anne never let her body stop her mind from leaping ahead. As a writer, when her marriage broke up, she and her friend Peggy O'Donnell decided that they would write a book about finance for women. At the time, practical support for divorced women wasn't easy to get and although, among her many skills, Peggy had been a bookkeeper, Anne said the idea of financial management and investment didn't come naturally to them. 'We simply went to bank managers and advisers, asked question after question, and we didn't move until they'd given us the answers we needed.' And out of that need they went on to publish several bestselling books for adults and children on managing your money.

Other books of practical advice, or histories, anthologies, picture book texts, written in collaboration with Peggy or alone are in libraries and bookshops everywhere. But the sense of adventure and fun these friends shared extended far beyond writing and publishing into every area of their lives. They loved art, the theatre, boating, gardening, riotous colour in everything, but always with impeccable taste. Well - 'always'. They did have a child's delight in nicknacks and on a whim might buy a set of kitchen cutlery with pictures embedded in the handles, or placemats shaped like tropical fish or a rainbow coloured eraser to stick in a friend's pocket after a visit as they closed the door. So good taste did sometimes give way to fun.

They were intrepid travellers and went everywhere - always grateful for the way their families helped in many practical ways to make it easy. I hope Anne has written some of her stories down. My favourite was always about the cruise to Alaska, where they were to get off the ship and kayak up the sound, taking in the forests, the glaciers, the deep dark water at close range. The crew looked at these two older women and in a kind, if patronising, voice warned them that the paddle would be a challenge and that if it got too much for them, they only had to yell for assistance.

The following day, as the passengers prepared to disembark and kayak up another waterway, the cruise director asked Anne and Peggy to lead the expedition - they had handled the first day's exploring so brilliantly. You could feel the exhilaration in the room whenever they told stories like this.

Going to Peggy's funeral last year was very difficult for me, although imagining her hang-gliding at Stanwell Tops in her 70s did help. And Anne somehow gave a really wonderful farewell speech. But she looked so small up there behind the lectern. She had begun to think about new books and new adventures, but I can't help feeling that for once she had encountered a challenge that was going to be tough to beat: the absence of a friend who was such a source of inspiration, physical support, plain commonsense and fun.

Not to hear those voices jumping down the phone again, saying, 'Mark, when are we going to see you? How about lunch next Thursday, or breakfast if you've got meetings?' Not to have Anne draw me aside to the lounge and pore over the proofs of a new book, and ask for the latest publishing gossip, while Peggy did the cooking. Not to be welcomed at the front door by Peggy with an arm hooked through mine and always the considerate words, 'How much time have we got?' How much?

That's the hardest part of all.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


By the time I was in high school, my parents had given up on their conviction that watching television would send us blind and fry our brains, kind of like masturbating for an earlier generation, and each week I couldn't wait for the next episode in David Janssen's classic series 'The Fugitive'.

The idea that a respected doctor could suddenly lose his reputation, let alone his marriage and his life, all because he was wrongly suspected of being his wife's killer, suited my teen sense of injustice perfectly. If only Dr Kimble could track down that one-armed man who was the real killer, he could prove his innocence. So each week as he chased the guy across the United States, the cops chased him. And one of the reasons I was allowed to delay doing my homework to watch 'The Fugitive' was that my dad was completely hooked, too. Apparently at his age you no longer had to worry about your eyesight or your brain.

As I read the first page of Gabrielle Lord's fantastic new series Conspiracy 365, I wondered immediately whether she'd been hooked on 'The Fugitive' as well - although, given our respective ages, she'd probably have had to peer over the edge of the bassinet to catch it. 'My name is Callum Ormond. I am fifteen and I am a hunted fugitive...'

This series is a really bold undertaking for Scholastic Australia, because the success of a series is in the long run about the size of your marketing budget. And they've obviously invested heavily. There's a great website, with teasers, there are competitions with 365 prizes and a guest book with postings that show how enthusiastically teens are responding to it. Here's the concept: one story, 12 books in 12 months - 365 days - one a month. That's a big idea for the Australian market and lots of marketing. Think about it: since the world's most successful consumer products, such as Coke, still cost their producers squillions in advertising, we must be a fickle lot and overloaded with choices if we need to be reminded constantly to buy a few of our supposedly favourite things.

So here's a publisher trying to sell a book a month for a whole year to teens, who are already bombarded with competing entertainments. It's the kind of bold idea that takes imagination and guts. Yes, the publisher, Andrew Berkhut, is a friend of mine - but I've got no reason to suck up to him. I don't need a job and I'm not looking for an opportunity to tell him about a manuscript of mine that's waiting under my chair for a break in the conversation.

In the Quaker tradition, there are no big conventional funerals, but when you've gone, there's a quiet hour when someone stands up and gives a testament to your life - with the inspiring, and funny and sad little anecdotes that make you feel the dead friend is still in the room. And every time after one of these testaments is over, someone says to me, 'I didn't know that about her!'

Well, I'm getting in early. I don't care if this little accolade seems improper: while they're alive we should tell our friends when they've done the right thing. (We have no trouble telling them when they don't!) Conspiracy 365 is Andrew Berkhut's inspired idea, and how smart he was to entice Gabrielle Lord to write it.

It's a massive risk for her, too. How do you invent enough plot to keep teens with you every month for a year? In the first book, January, a man in a dressing gown is being pursued by paramedics and just as they catch him and inject him into silence, he tells Callum that his life is in danger. Callum's father didn't die from some freak illness; he was murdered, because he had discovered a powerful secret buried in his family history and known as the Ormond Singularity. The thugs who murdered him know that he passed information on to Callum before he died, so now this fifteen-year-old is in their sights too. He has to go into hiding for exactly a year - or die.

Gabrielle Lord really packs on the pace in this story. I love the way she uses enough familiar names and details to make you think you know which city the series is set in, but you can never quite pin it down. One minute it feels like Sydney, then Melbourne, Brisbane - it's totally disorienting. And Callum is pursued not only through the urban space - cyberspace figures bigtime. I'm up to the end of April and he's narrowly escaped death on the underground train tracks - Sydney readers will relate to that! - been rammed by thugs in a pursuit vehicle at 200 kays and he's woken up in a white room, in a straitjacket and there's an unfamiliar name on the chart at the foot of the bed. His identity has been stolen.

Lord doesn't preach, but the string of ethical and moral choices Callum has to make on the run - involving life-and-death consequences for his little sister - will engage readers from sub-teens to adults. And here's the bit parents and teachers will want to know: many crime thrillers for young readers are simply not credible, because there are underworld places that young characters have no access to, and because the graphic violence and obscene language of the genre frighten the writers into self-censorship. Gabrielle Lord and her editors succeed brilliantly in making the whole world Callum finds himself in feel thoroughly dirty, without indulging in the kind of storytelling that would keep these books out of the school library.

I think about twice so far I've winced a bit skeptically at a turn in the plot, but the pace doesn't let you dwell on such moments for long - and anyway, it's a story, okay? There's certainly enough of everyday life to keep you going. I remember feeling relieved when I was a bit older than Callum and someone first said to me, 'Just because you think they're getting at you, doesn't mean that they're not!'

Conspiracy 365 will reassure teens who need to hear that line just as I did. Watch this series go! Right around the world and into the publishing record books. I can't wait for the rest of it, but I'm not sure that I want to know how the story ends.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I hadn't met Judith Rossell when she agreed to do the pictures for my new book, Wrong Way, but as soon as I saw the way she had brought to life the independent little duck at the centre of the story, it was as if we'd been best friends for years. When he's up on his mother's back, lording it over Right Way and Your Way (who always do whatever she says) and doing the exact opposite of what is expected, I can see at once that Jude understands him - and humans like him - perfectly! I feel so lucky and honoured to have her pictures along with my words.

The origins of a story are quite scattered and complex. The title goes back to my delight the first time I saw one of those freeway signs when I was growing up: 'GO BACK: YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY'. Drivers going in the right direction couldn't read these words unless they were well past them and looked back. So I loved the idea that someone had imagined what it would feel like to be a driver and suddenly realise they had gone down the wrong ramp. And the traffic authority had produced a sign that would hardly ever be of any practical use. The idea made me smile. Little did I know that the first time I drove on the 'wrong' side of the road in the United States I would take the wrong ramp on one of those complicated flyovers and the panic would wipe the smile off my face quick smart, and show me just how practical those Australian signs were!

Then years later I was with my three-year-old daughter on a walk to see the summer palace in Denmark. The sky was cloudless and sunny, but the cold was searing and I hadn't taken gloves. (To an Australian unused to punishing winters, gloves seemed a bit of a wussy affectation.) So when the long walk proved beyond my daughter's little legs and she said they were bored and that she wanted to be carried, I had no choice but to take my hands out of the depths of my pockets and carry her. When we got back home, I had no feeling in my hands at all. Hot water, armpits, radiators - nothing would bring them back to life. And when they did revive in their own good time, the ache was unforgettable. 'But didn't you know that a clear sky means the day was going to be colder than ever?' My host couldn't believe that anyone could have been so stupid.

The third memory I have is of the old man who lived beyond our back fence when I was quite young myself. He sat at the table in big baggy khaki shorts and a navy blue singlet. He always ate his dessert first and after that he had the meat and vegetables. He liked dessert the best, he said, so why should he leave it till last? We ate our dinner in the conventional order at our house, but I remember thinking how exciting it was to find a man of his age being so deliberately 'naughty'.

So all these images were playing round in my head when I was thinking about my years as both a teacher and as the parent of young children. The students I tended to remember were the difficult ones who challenged me: the kids for whom school was rarely a good fit and who consequently did things their own way. And when I came to tell stories about my children growing up, they weren't stories about the countless wonderful times when they were delightful company. The stories were about the times when there were things I felt had to be done, but they had other plans. Mem Fox says that 'trouble' is the energy source for all stories really. And she's right - happy, comfortable times are wonderful to luxuriate in, but there's a sameness and an ease about them that makes them quite boring to write about.

So we tell stories about the difficult times, the unexpected situations, the characters who are rebels. They challenge the ways we see the world, and since we're mostly social beings, we try to see whether we can reconcile their ways with our own, so that we can live together. Of course, foolishly, we often try to change them and punish them for not fitting in. But as any parent or teacher knows, in the long run that strategy's bound to fail. We learn and learn to change at our own pace. And that's what Wrong Way is about.

Some adult readers won't like the allegorical names. Well, that's okay. I know families who give each other nicknames like these, and in any case, by introducing them on the first page, the story is offering chidren a playful code. It's just a game, with a few winks and nods, but I hope just enough truth to life to make it worthwhile.

My wonderful editor Ali Lavau/ Frances Watts, who is such a talented writer for young readers herself, wisely suggested I get rid of the original opening line: 'Everyone knows that a mother's life isn't easy.' (But that is partly what the book's about. No doubt it didn't need to be said.) And she suggested I include more refrains, since they would make the story more fun when it was read aloud. My publisher felt there were too many words on one spread and wanted me to drop the lines where Wrong Way scoffs down the fat snail he's been hoarding, and does a short bum dance for the benefit of the other ducklings beneath him. But I loved that scene and said I would really like it to stay. I don't think I've done much triumphal dancing myself in situations like that, but I know siblings will recognise it and I've certainly been on the receiving end of it - unless my telling this story about being an uncooperative author is a little bum dance of my own. Maybe it is.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


It's hard to believe the news of Patricia Wrightson's death. No doubt like all her friends, I thought she would live forever - with that sharp, searching intelligence, that gravelly voiced, old fashioned correctness of delivery, that passion for justice, that kindness and modesty.

Few Australian writers for young people have equalled and none have surpassed her achievements. Today, writers for young people sometimes begin their publishing careers when they are barely out of school themselves - and that's great. It might not earn you much money, but being a fulltime writer for children is no longer regarded as a virtual impossibility in Australia. This week, in fact, books by Australian children's writers and illustrators are being sought by publishers from all over the world at the annual children's book fair in Bologna, because they are energetic and varied, they tell compelling stories and they are brilliantly written.

Patricia Wrightson set out to provide something different from the mainly British books that were available to Australian children after World War 2. But it was such a risk at the time. The idea of children in Sweden, Slovenia, Korea, Brazil - not to mention those behemoths, the US and the UK - reading stories about young Australians was almost unheard of.

Both the United Nations and Australia's Children's Book Council were set up in 1945, the year the war ended, with an ideal (no doubt too simple, like all ideals) of creating a different future for humanity. If the Children's Book Council had an edge over the UN, it was in the hope that if you changed children's books, you could change children's minds; change children's minds and the adults they would become, and you might change the world - and never see the unspeakable horrors of world war again.

Like the Jindyworobak poets before her, Wrightson thought that it might be possible to reconcile Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian cultures and create a new kind of pan-Australian narrative, in which the human characters from both cultures were strongly aware of and influenced by the metaphysical world that Indigenous Australians had known for 60 000 years. It was a project in total alignment with the slogan for the first children's book week in 1946: 'United Through Books'. She was creating a new Australia of the imagination.

Her first novel, The Crooked Snake, was awarded Book of the Year in 1956 by the Children's Book Council. Wrightson was 35. Today that might be regarded as a late start for a writer, but even in this first book her writing shows the advantages of having waited: there's a maturity in her understanding of family life, children's relationships with one another and the natural environment. She went on to win Book of the Year a further three times and to win many other awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prestigious international award for children's literature. No other Australian writer has won it.

Although from that first book you can see Wrightson developing her career-long passion for the integration of Australian mythologies, it is in The Nargun and the Stars (Book of the Year 1974) and The Ice is Coming (Book of the Year 1978) that it is achieved with greatest success. Of course by this time Indigenous Australians were at last becoming a political force and their own voices in the arts were so strong and unique that Wrightson's project began to appear inappropriate. As women and gay and lesbian people in the 70s insisted on the right to speak for themselves, Indigenous Australians needed no one to speak for them. So the idea of a non-Indigenous woman writing about Indigenous subject matter to some readers began to feel like cultural appropriation, imperialist exploitation all over again.

Twenty-five years later, Clare Bradford would give a scathing account of Wrightson as not just politically incorrect but racist: a judgement that gave no concession to the writer's stated intentions or historical context. By then Wrightson herself had realised that her project should now be laid aside: there was no longer a need to remind non-Indigenous Australians about the richness of the land's first cultures, which so many of them had destroyed. Indigenous writers and artists had made her ideals irrelevant.

She continued to publish beautiful, poetic books such as Shadows of Time, which is a kind of coda to her major work, and to write short chapter books for much younger readers that returned to the politically safer ground of earlier novels such as I Own the Racecourse. Although her reputation intimidated reviewers and interviewers, Patricia Wrightson was a private and unassuming woman, who always spoke of her career as an apprenticeship. She answered the endless questions about her work thoughtfully, as if she were being asked for the first time, with the true humility of one who is always learning.

And now, she rides the wind of memory and enters the realm of pure story, like those wonderful, unforgettable spirits - those shadows of time - above the land she loved so much. Loved companion of so many readers, she has given us books for the journey together, some of them now out of print in hard copy and available only in the digital environment that was strange to her but not to her young readers. At the end of The Nargun and the Stars, the great spirit that moves across the landscape comes to rest, apparently defeated and silenced by the human forces of 'development'. But in the concluding line it utters the name of the young protagonist, and Patricia Wrightson says 'the name was only a whisper in the dark'. The old spirit lies there waiting - like the storyteller; like her book.

It's such a privilege to have had Patricia Wrightson's stories on our journey - even moreso for some of us, this wise and strong and gentle woman herself - and to be able to whisper along with her readers across the world, 'Dear friend, fare well.'

Thursday, August 20, 2009


In Wake in Fright, one of the images that promise freedom to the teacher who feels he is stranded so far away from everything he understands is that of the tumbling surf off Sydney's coast. And many Australians take coastal living so much for granted that they forget there are kids who have never swum at the beach and that pre-schoolers in remote areas might ask their teachers to bring them back a wave in a bottle as a souvenir of their Christmas holidays.

So Bear and Chook by the Sea arrives in the mail like a refreshing whump of a wave and will delight young and old readers alike with both anticipation and memories.

I was lucky enough to be one of Lisa Shanahan's publishers and she sent me the manuscript Bear and Chook a long time ago. It's a Laurel-and-Hardy story about a bear who is a big galumphing romantic - into everything, no boundaries - and a thin-beaked sidekick chook, who is more cautious and has to pick up the pieces, when reality brings the bear's adventures to a sudden halt every time.

I had started to work with wonderful Emma Quay and knew straightaway that she was the right illustrator. Fortunately, she did too and Bear and Chook was a huge success. Instant classic. Then Lisa sent me a second adventure for the pair. Meanwhile, both her career and Emma's had really taken off. Emma was doing books she had written herself and was working with Andrew Daddo; Lisa was working on picture books with Wayne Harris and on her fiction. But they had become close friends and of course wanted to repeat the happy experience of working together.

I left Hodder Headline to work for the ABC and to freelance - and six years later here is the book we all started out on, which they've done with the guidance of one of Australia's best publishers, Helen Chamberlin. Making picture books takes time and patience! And Lisa and Emma have done a terrific job.

Over that time they have both changed. The words and the pictures are more richly textured and I love the irony that this time Bear is not quite as resilient and wants to go home when he gets dumped in the surf.

Young readers will love to read aloud all the sounds the two friends make as they hike to the beach and back. And there are some lovely visual jokes in Emma's pictures - especially in the exhilarating scenes where we find out exactly what Bear has been carting around in his beach bag.

Like Emma, my father was born in England and although he loved Australia, in later life he suffered the ravages of the hot sun on his pale northern skin. So when I saw that at the beach Chook wears on his head a white handkerchief, knotted at each corner I laughed at the image. My father wore one every weekend as he poured concrete and dug the garden. What did thousands of workers like him think that it did for them? Bear's big straw sunhat might not be as macho, but there's nothing macho about skin cancer. Images like this in Emma's illustrations make me smile at our frailty.

I love this book!

Opening Bear and Chook by the Sea is like that first deep breath of salty air as you finally plonk your things down on the sand in summer, and it will be a hugely popular book this Christmas, so don't miss out.

Once more in the conclusion there's the hint of a further adventure. Emma likes to strike out in new directions with every book, though, so I'm not sure that she would want to go back to the same illustration style yet again. And it's always smart to exit on top and leave the audience wanting more.

But you never know...