January 21, 2013
Illustrated by Kathryn Brown
When I was teaching at Flinders University, a student named Paul von der Borch asked me for help in planning a tutorial on sexism in children’s literature. I suggested that he take seven picture books at random off my shelves and look at the gender of the main characters. Six of the seven books had a male main character, where actually a female character would have been just as appropriate. We become so accustomed to males being leaders and fighters and winners, and just plain interesting, that we forget females have the same qualities and potential for interest. In Koala Lou and Possum Magic there are no male characters, deliberately, yet children write to me all the time, still, in 2013, about when ‘he’ wins the gumtree climbing, or when ‘he’ gets visible again.
Anyway… back to Paul and his tutorial: he decided to have everyone in the group write a children’s story for seven minutes without stopping, and then read out what they had written. He was sure that nearly everyone would fall into the trap of making his or her main character male. On the day in question I looked at the group and trembled for Paul and his experiment. There were several feisty mature-aged women in the class and I feared his project would fail. So for his sake, when the time came to write I picked up my own pen and wrote and wrote. I decided, for Paul’s sake to write the most male story I could think of. Aha: giants!
‘Once upon a time there was a giant named Paul von der Borch. He was tall.’ And then I thought, well of course he was tall, you idiot: all giants are tall. So I wrote: ‘All giants are tall.’ And I continued in that vein: ‘He was fierce. All giants are fierce. He was messy. All giants are messy. He was dirty. All giants are dirty. He was scary. All giants are scary. But when his old dog died, he cried and cried. All giants cry, and so do I.’
When I read it to the group they said, ‘Mem! You’ve written a book!’ And I had. The fastest first draft in the world! Needless to day it was re-written several times: the giant changed to a pirate, for example, at the request of my editor who was in desperate need of a pirate book; and the adjectives were sharpened; but the framework and the basic idea remained. I dedicated to the book to Paul and two of the feisty women, Helen and Alexia, who later became friends of mine.
Children often ask me about the boy in the story who stowed away on the ship and provided his violin case as a coffin for the dead parrot. I know nothing about him! Kathyrn Brown’s illustrations provide an astonishing ‘second story’ about this child, which fascinates everyone who reads the book. I’m deeply grateful to her. I can’t imagine how woebegone she must have been when she received the sparse and simple text!
Tough Boris is one of my all time classics, a long-lasting bestseller.