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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Two

Children's Literature



C
onstant danger and privation had infused into us a philosophy of toleration and unselfishness, enabling us to see the other man’s point of view as well as our own. We learned, too, how to find fullness and contentment in a life which had stripped us of all the distinctions, baubles and trappings of civilisation, and had brought us all to a common level. Necessity compelled us to support life in the most primitive fashion conceivable, and to share with one another, not only material things, but the sorrows that ache and the joys that transcend.
Frank Hurley

Shackleton’s Argonauts, Australian Children’s Book of the Year, 1948

  

“Do you know what I think? I don’t think the future belongs to men any more - not to Western men. They’ve f---ed it all up too much. It’s someone else’s turn to have a shot at it - women, other races, other cultures. People like her,” Brenton points at Cal. “That’s why I’d rather go with her than stay here.”

 

“What about your parents? They’ll be devastated.”

 

“They won’t! They’ll probably give a huge sigh of relief. They won’t have to worry about whether I’m normal or not any more."
Gillian Rubinstein

Beyond the Labyrinth, Australian Children’s Book of the Year (Older Readers), 1989

 

Frank Layton: An Australian Tale, by George Sargent, a children’s adventure of the “ripping yarns” genre, is a stirring book. Though published as far back as 1865, by Britain’s Religious Tract Society, it contains themes that make it a worthy precursor to much of the work that has flowed since from the pens, typewriters and personal computers of Australia’s talented legion of children’s book writers.

 

It is essentially about courage, both the physical and the moral kinds. It tells the story of Frank, a British farmer’s son, who decides to make a new life in Australia. Along the way he squarely faces up to numerous challenges, from the squalor of the Victorian goldfields and the moral depravity of Melbourne to floods, bushfires and bandits. At every step the reader is presented with lessons in how a person of virtue confronts adversity, and how, in the process, character is developed.

 

Sargent also gives readers lessons in race relations. Frank’s bride, Mercy, makes clear her opposition to the injustices done to the Aboriginal inhabitants of the young colony by the white settlers. And the book includes an Aboriginal stockman, Dick Brown, as well as an Afro-American gold prospector.

 

In her wonderful history of children’s literature, Australia Through the Looking-Glass, Brenda Niall noted that this American is “one of the most admirable men on the goldfields, and Dick Brown - unlike most Aborigines in fiction of this period - is intelligent and brave. He also speaks English correctly: Sargent resists working up comic effects through pidgin.”

 

Niall informed us that Sargent drew inspiration from an earlier Religious Tract Society book, Australia and Its Settlements. This earlier work (aimed at adults, not children) presented an incisive commentary on the appalling conditions in Australia, noting, for example, the environmental despoliation brought on by the settlers:

 

The scene along the [Yarra] river, once quiet and beautiful, while left to nature’s attendance, is now completely shorn of those attributes. The decaying carcass of an ox or horse is here and there upon the sward; and unsightly wooden slaughterhouses, with similar boiling-down establishments, surrounded with indescribable filth, are passed in succession as the city is approached.

 

Australia and Its Settlements was similarly scathing in its portrayal of the impact of white settlement on the Aborigines:

 

The Australian Aborigines had an unquestionable right of property in the soil, and had committed no offence to forfeit it to the foreign race which landed on their shores. Being without strength, however, to repel the intruders, they had their lands usurped, without an attempt to purchase by treaty, or any offer of reasonable compensation. Added to this, a class of persons was introduced among whom were many, both free and bond, who, regardless of law, and in a great measure exempt from its operation by the remoteness of their position, practised appalling cruelties upon a comparatively helpless people….To the present period, the introduction of the white race into Australia has been an almost unmitigated evil to the black population.

 

The compassionate Christian impulse, so prevalent throughout Frank Layton and in Australia and Its Settlements, was much evident in the children’s literature of that period in Britain, and such sentiments subsequently migrated to Australia.

 

Indeed, until a few decades ago Australian writers of children’s books would have seen it as one of their duties to teach readers lessons in character and in distinguishing right from wrong. Many of these writers were, presumably, not religious, but just as a bus driver is expected to take a certain responsibility for the physical safety of passengers, so writers of children’s literature were assumed to hold a mandate for the moral education of their readers. As I have noted already in my discussion of the Blinky Bill books, it went with the job.

 

For example, a couple of generations ago character-building books of the Little Train That Could variety were common among works for younger children. Today’s books for youngsters are aimed at the television generation. They are big and beautiful - infinitely more attractive than anything I could have expected as a child - with lively, witty, well-written stories. But they are not necessarily intended to teach a moral lesson.

 

There have also been some profound changes in literature for older children, notably the move into what can be called the social comment novel. Some of the trends can be delineated by observing the annual awards of the Children’s Book Council (CBC).

 

The CBC, established in 1945, is a mighty force in Australian children’s literature. Some schools and libraries automatically order all or many of the books on its annual awards short list. According to author Morris Gleitzman, writing in The Australian’s Review of Books: “So big is this one contest, so all-important the recognition, that for many authors it means the difference between full-time authorship and having to scribble stories on taxi dispatch pads at traffic lights.”

 

It is thanks in part to nurturing by the CBC that children’s literature is such a prominent force in Australian culture. Our youngsters may grow up watching “The Simpsons” and “Friends”, attending Stephen Spielberg movies, playing Tomb Raider on the PlayStation and idolising US basketball stars, but in one area of popular culture - their reading - they are most likely to opt for Australian authors. We have a rich body of children’s literature that is respected around the world.

 

 

The first CBC award, in 1946, went to Leslie Rees for The Story of Karrawingi the Emu, a straightforward work with lots of detail on the life cycle of emus. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s and into the 1960s the awards were dominated by uncomplicated books with titles like Australian Legendary Tales, Aircraft of Today and Tomorrow, All the Proud Tribesmen and Pastures of the Blue Crane.

 

But then came a change, with novels that spoke a message of environmental protection. Dorothy Wall had, sometimes awkwardly, injected pleas for conservation into her Blinky Bill stories. But now the message was an integral part of the book; it sometimes drove the story. So strong was the ecology message that Brenda Niall in Australia Through the Looking-Glass said such books were “later to turn to cliché”. There was a diminishing concern with moral education.

 

Then in the 1980s came a wave of books that concentrated on social problems. Increasingly, parents - and sometimes most other adults - were seen as unreliable; in some cases they were the enemy.

 

So Much to Tell You, CBC Book of the Year for older readers in 1988, was the first book from John Marsden, a former secondary-school teacher. It is the diary of a 14-year-old girl who has been traumatised by the break-up of her parents’ marriage and the abuse meted out to her by her father. She is lonely, confused and withdrawn, though the book shows her gradually opening up, and it ends on a note of hope as she seeks reconciliation with her father in a prison hospital.

 

The book has been a best-seller internationally, and John Marsden has gone on to write a string of other books, to become, by far, Australia’s most popular writer of teenage fiction. In the 12 months to March 1998, books he wrote occupied five of the places in the Top Ten Australian children’s book bestseller list compiled by the Australian Publishers Association.

 

In 1990, the CBC winner for older readers was Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, by Robin Klein. Its front cover featured a picture of a shyly smiling boy and a gorgeous, blonde Meg Ryan look-alike with a shoulder tattoo and a generous cleavage. It told the story of a boy and his friendship with a girl on drugs.

 

Prize-winners such as these heralded an even sharper wave of “realistic” kids’ books, in which the youngsters were usually helpless victims of a sick society. The trend was summed up by author and publisher Walter McVitty, with a certain degree of exaggeration: “It is almost unheard-of for a book about a family to win an award these days unless Dad is bashing up his de facto, the daughter is on drugs and the son is a homosexual with AIDS.”

 

In 1997 came three books of utter despair: Dear Miffy by John Marsden, Care Factor Zero by Margaret Clark and Shoovy Jed by Maureen Stewart. All three were bleak accounts of teenagers on the edge, and each ended with the main character committing, or attempting, suicide.

 

They created instant controversy in the world of kids’ literature. In 1997, The Australian Magazine featured a long article titled “Life Sucks, Timmy”, on the state of children’s literature. It contained a lot of criticism of the books. The article began:

 

Instead of romping home ravenous from an outdoor adventure to hot scones with lashings of cream and jam, a nineties version of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five would perhaps trudge back from the CES office to find Mum’s new boyfriend shooting up in the kitchen and the baby nursing bruises and a black eye.

 

But such books have many defenders, who will tell you that by a vivid depiction of the horrors of suicide, the writings actually discourage it; that they help lost kids realise that there are others in the same plight; that kids who might not otherwise read might read these books; that youngsters today are sophisticated and already know all about suicide and despair; that kids can read far worse in adults’ books; that teenagers with lives of privilege need books like these to show them how many others live in Australia today; that such books force the authorities to confront problems they might prefer to ignore; that kids nowadays get most of their values from television, not books; and so on.

 

There is substance in all these points, and I believe most teenagers are sufficiently resilient to handle the nihilistic despair of this kind of book.

 

But what about teenagers at the end of their tethers? As the books’ defenders point out, kids these days are worldly and sophisticated. They know a lot more about life than I did at that age. Yet they are still looking for guidance and direction from society. What do they think when they see some of Australia’s leading children’s book writers and publishers producing such books for them?

 

Suicide by young men is a serious problem in Australia. Telling them they are helpless victims of society is scarcely the way to help. Youngsters with problems need to read material that takes them out of their immediate lives and into a wider environment. They need books that help them make sense of the corrupted world that they see all around, and that give them a sense of purpose in life.

 

When I was 12, my primary-school teacher, noting my shyness, and my nervousness about taking on responsibilities, wrote in my year-end school report: “I could suggest that he express his concern for the affairs of the world by tackling specific small tasks, unimportant as they may seem, in his immediate environment.”

 

Unfortunately, these new “realistic” books of the past dozen years are contributing to the trend that I noted in my Preface: that society’s infrastructure is giving less support to the development of character. As educator Jill Ireland has pointed out, in an article in Education Monitor, many of the books teach that we live in a malevolent universe that must be fought with cunning, that the human race is largely corrupt, that institutions like family, government or church are not even remotely helpful, that relationships have only temporary value and that people are fundamentally solitary.

 

This is despite the immense power of books to do good, to build character, to help us make sense of our environment and to take us outside the confines of our world. American Psychologist journal has provided a major survey of research in this area, demonstrating “the central importance of stories in developing the moral life”.

 

In his famous work The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim stressed the importance of children’s literature containing strong role models. He said young people ask the question “Who do I want to be like?”, rather than, “Do I want to be good?”. Commented the three American authors of Books That Build Character: “It is not a question of whether your child will find someone to identify with, the only question is with whom.”

 

In the past, our writers tried to instil old-fashioned virtues like honesty and self-sacrifice in kids. They passed down values and ideals. As I have stressed already, they saw that as their job. Today, when you ask writers about their reasons for writing a particular book the answer is as likely as not to relate to the writer’s own needs, rather than the readers’.

 

Thus, John Marsden in 1997, asked on Melbourne radio station 3LO why he wrote Dear Miffy, said: “I guess mainly because I wanted to explore a particular culture, a particular sub-culture, in Australia, and also, I mean, the reason I write everything is so I can get some understanding for myself as much as anything.” (I should stress that in interview after interview John Marsden is outspoken in his concern for Australian youngsters, and in particular their spiritual development.)

 

 

We live in a fallen world, a world in which everyone is subject to temptation, a world in which we must struggle to develop character. Kids in particular need protection and guidance. That doesn’t mean shielding them from the real world; the Blinky Bill stories are full of episodes that show the harshness and brutality of life in the forest. There is far more death in those tales (admittedly of animals, not people, though the animals are the stars of the stories) than in modern books for young people.

 

But the dangers and harshness of life in the forest also serve as a context for adventure, for challenge and for a chance to develop character. That a declining number of our leading children’s writers and publishers believe that they have a duty to provide books with similar themes shows that our society’s structures no longer provide the support our young people need.

 

Frank Layton, the 19th-century story with which I introduced this chapter, concludes with the hero building a church. It was an expression of thanks to God for bringing him to Australia and for helping him through many trials. It was an action that served as an expression of hope. It may seem cloyingly sentimental or even faintly ridiculous to turn-of-the-millennium Australians, but it would have served as a source of inspiration and optimism to readers of the time. It showed them there was a transcendent world outside their immediate lives. Today’s young readers deserve books that inspire the same feelings of hope, not despair.


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