August 5, 2018
Strangely, in the southern hemisphere …
Brrr. Early August 2018. It’s so cold I keep gloves beside my car keys so I don’t forget them when I leave the house. But this week I received an email from the US that ended with: ‘Enjoy the rest of the summer.’ Er… excuse me? The southern hemisphere (where I live, in Adelaide, South Australia) has summer at Christmas and winter in June, July and August. A confused taxi driver in America said to me once, ‘So when do y’all have Christmas?’ Well, because the vast majority of Christians believe the birth of Jesus was around December 25th, we have Christmas then, like everyone else, except here we might be in the middle of a heatwave on the day, and my crazy family wants a proper Christmas dinner anyway. So that’s fixed: climates are different around this planet, north and south, but all our climates are getting more weird and more scary every day. To pretend that the weirdness and extremes of weather aren’t caused by climate change seems a sure way to short-change the lives of our grandchildren.
My deepest sympathies to those poor souls who lost their houses in the dreadful Californian fires and to those across the northern hemisphere whose lives and gardens, parks and farms have been blighted by drought and heat waves in this northern summer. Drought is also causing heartbreak in the eastern states of Australia. It feels apocalyptic—a message to us all to wake up.
Goodness knows where all that came from! There’s a writers’ maxim that says: why would I write if I knew what I were going to say? I’m surprised again and again by what comes out of my brain when I have every intention of writing something completely different. I guess important things filter to the top and demand attention first.
I know it’s late notice, but I’ll be speaking at/to the South Australian chapter of the Children’s Book Council of Australia at the Hackney Hotel, Hackney Road, Hackney, on Friday night: August 10th, 6pm for 6:30pm. The theme for Children’s Book Week this year is Find Your Treasures, which is the theme of my talk. My treasures are my illustrators and editors, without whom not a soul would know who I am.
What I meant to write about when I sat down—and this is important too—going backwards in chronology, was the school I visited last week. I wasn’t even invited. I invited myself, if you can credit that from a woman whose usual cry is that she’s too old and tired to visit schools. I know. Surprising. It happened like this…
A group of children at Blair Athol North Primary School read I’m Australian Too and posted it on YouTube: <https://youtu.be/3t-LvOQUYro> Their inspiring teacher, Phil Cullen, sent me the link. Their obviously multicultural voices brought a sob to my throat. The Afghan child who said the word: Afghanistan, spoke the word correctly, leaving out the ‘g’ sound: Afhanistan. The idea of these children from many different countries, some of whom had suffered ghastly experiences, reading my book about them, in Australia, their new home, brought me undone. I badly wanted to meet them. So last week I met the entire school and read stories of course, and watched videos of their reading of I’m Australian Too, and also my other ‘we-are-all-the-same’ book: Whoever You Are. I was sitting with a group of Year Sevens and snuffling quietly, trying not to break down completely. ‘Are you OK?’ asked the girl next to me. ‘Not really,’ I said. She asked if I wanted a tissue and I said yes, please, and she found me one .
I was profoundly moved to be in a gym seated in front of a sea of children who seemed to have walked right off the pages of those two books. Who wouldn’t have wanted to weep in the same circumstances? Who wouldn’t have wanted to weep at the realisation that they had given voice to voiceless? Here are the children who read the book. The school had generously bought a copy for each of them. Incredible. Note the rabbit ears on the girl on the left! Hah. School kids are the same kind of cheeky all over the world.
I’m still coming down from that experience. What privilege it is to be part of these dear children’s lives.
In the same week I received a card from a child at another school who’d been teased about the brown-ness of his skin, in which he said: ‘Thank you so much for helping me and others to understand I’m Australian too!’
I’m Australian Too will be published in the USA in the northern hemisphere fall by Beach Lane, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Its American title is: I’m an Immigrant Too. The words inside are the same. My beloved American editor, Allyn Johnston, was very keen to publish the book in the current climate in her country, where immigrant children and their parents have been separated from each other in hideous circumstances so well-known I don’t need to explain them here. I’ll post a picture of the cover when this edition hits American bookstores in October.
In Australia in the same month, October, the Green Sheep duo: Judy Horacek and I have another book out. Exciting. I still pinch myself about having been a writer for 35 continuous years. Anyway, this new book has the same characters who appear in Goodnight, Sleep Tight!, but it’s not a sequel as such. It stands on its own. More about that, closer to its publication, but in the meantime the title is: Bonnie and Ben Rhyme Again. Judy has surpassed herself with the illustrations. I love this book, and to be honest, I don’t love all the books I’ve written.
As you know, I’m not on FaceBook; nor am I on Instagram or Twitter, or any other social media site. I value my privacy. And I wouldn’t want to bore my readers with every tedious detail of my existence. I also understand that social media is making people miserable because we all airbrush our lives to make them look good to others, which causes envy in the people who read about us, and depression because our own lives don’t seem to match up. Anyone who says their life is free from woe is, to be frank, a rank liar. I choose not to write about my low moments, but I do want you to remember that I have them, like anyone else. It isn’t all brightness and lightness, although anyone who’s a hands-on grandmother and has a loving family has brightness and lightness in their lives, no matter what happens. That I will admit.
Growing old has its ups and downs, so that I will admit also: the early morning limp due to a damaged Achilles heel, and so on, is an alarming nuisance in a fitness freak. The wearing out of this and that seems endless. Darn. But enough of that. Let’s get cheerful again.
In early July I was surprised to experience a highlight of 2018. I thought it might be ho hum, but no. You know how I keep threatening to retire? I mean it. I’ve slowed down, markedly. Well, I was invited, as I said last time, to give a major presentation and workshop at the annual national convention of AATE/ALEA, a combined conference of high school English teachers and primary school teachers of literacy. I told myself it would be my swan-song, my last such talk to the organisation that I had been involved in for a thousand years. I had tried to wriggle out of it. I was honest about my age, my lack of school contact, my ignorance of today’s curriculum and so on. But when I discovered the theme of the conference was The English Language, my hesitation vanished. If I know nothing else, I know about the English language: how to learn it; how to use it; and how to learn to love it and be uplifted by it. I had worked for weeks on my paper, with good effect, it appears. My theme? We can’t write good prose if we haven’t internalised good poetry: every lovely prose sentence has its own poetic rhythm. The warmth of the response to my presentation made me so happy I knew at once that my retirement would have to be put on hold once again. I still had something to offer! I was still able to teach! I was over the moon. The following day I ran a workshop on choral speaking (poetry) and we were all so lightheaded by the end, thanks to the rhythm of the words and the thrill of our performances, that I was dizzy—made almost drunk by the English language. Heaven! I’ll be back…
I have another adult novel to rave about: Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a riveting, alarming, fictional story, but based heavily on Trent’s own childhood, exquisitely written by a writer who writes without showing off, yet makes the English language sing on every page. Don’t miss it. I met Trent last week at an event on his book tour. I loved the book so much I’d bought three copies soon after it was published in June, so I could lend it to my friends, but I hadn’t brought a copy with me for signing. I know how painful signings can be. However, I raved about the book and introduced myself. He leapt up and sort of yelped: ‘Mem FOX?’ He has children who grew up on my books, so he took a selfie in great excitement. I was too dozy, too much in awe to do the same. It was hysterical. I always forget that adult authors might have had children who read (or had once read) Mem Fox books, illustrated always by brilliant people. The same happened when I met, in awe, my much-admired Sarah Krasnostein at Writers Week in Adelaide in March. She had written The Trauma Cleaner, another of my absolute faves this year—and she was pleased we had met, for the same reason. She could recite Where is the Green Sheep?
Finally, a wintry photo of orchids. They were given to me by a school years ago and I have tended them with loving care. Their resilience in this weather is admirable. So brave! The rest of the garden is horrible at this time of the year: dead, dead and even more dead.
Next time I write, Children’s Book Week will have come and gone. There will be news of one kind or another.
Until then, keep warm in the southern hemisphere, and cool up there in the north.
All the very best!