The Writers on Writers series, published by Black Inc, is a series of short essays in which acclaimed authors celebrate their favourite writers. Alice Pung, the writer of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter and Laurinda writes about John Marsden, the author of famed Young Adult novels including the Tomorrow, When the War Began series.
The first time it occurred to me that you were a real person was the morning my friend Angela came to school and said, ‘You’ll never believe what happened. We bumped into John Marsden.’
To us, you weren’t real, and if you were, you weren’t someone who’d be loitering in the western suburbs of Melbourne. But Angela meant it literally: her mum had bashed her car into yours somewhere down the Tullamarine Freeway, and you were so kind about it you even gave them some of your books.
We all knew of you, but not about you. We studied So Much to Tell You during the first term of Year 9 at Christ the King College. Our parents had sent us to the Catholic school in Braybrook to save us from temptation. Fortressed by a wall of carpet factories and sequestered next to a nunnery, we studied in an oasis of industry and restraint in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Victoria. In primary school, when one boy fractured another boy’s wrist, my best friend spent all lunchtime trying to convince the victim not to dob on her brother. Another of my ten-year-old friends saw the counsellor every week because her stepfather kept ‘mucking around’ with her. One recess, the boys from the technical college just over the fence from our school found a bird with a broken wing, brought it to the Preps and then snapped its neck in front of them. We called kids ‘bin scabs’ if at lunchtime they yanked food out of bins to eat, because we thought that was a normal quirk of childhood, a habit no different to picking actual scabs – disgusting, but not a sign of any larger tragedy, like not having enough food at home.
This is all a bit bleak, isn’t it? Maybe I should have started by hailing the heroic females in your novels, and how they gave me girl power. But that would be a lie because the characters in your novels I most identify with are not ‘heroic’, nor are they always female. I could mention your children’s picture book Millie, to soften things up a bit for the reader. But, John, even your children’s books piss people off! ‘Millie is an odious, conniving, lying child, who gets away with all her hideous behaviour,’ writes one reviewer. ‘Even when she’s caught in the act everyone just says “we all love Millie”? Oh please.’ Millie’s transgressions include brushing her dog’s teeth with her own toothbrush and resourcefully hiding everything under the bed when asked to tidy up. I guess the problem with your stories is that you don’t include the punishment at the end.
Your books appealed to us because they made our experiences central. Children and young adults often don’t have the words to describe what is going on inside them.
In high school a friend was reading The Dead of the Night, and our science teacher wryly remarked, as he looked at the back cover, ‘I presume this will be filled with violence and sex and the usual teenage preoccupations.’ Yes, it was, and yes, we were very preoccupied with them. We thought they were far more fascinating than the usual ‘adult themes’ that people around us were constantly discussing: overtime, tax and rent.
Your books appealed to us because they made our experiences central. Children and young adults often don’t have the words to describe what is going on inside them. Even when they do, their stories are translated and interpreted by adults in a way that bears scant resemblance to lived experience. But you kept it real, so real that even your first publisher, Walter McVitty, who took such a risk with So Much to Tell You, felt ambivalent about your later books:
To have turned so many children on to reading is a wonderful thing to have achieved, I think. And yet, if I was asked, would I like my little grandchildren to be exposed to those books, maybe I would say no. I just feel that the mind of a young person is such a malleable thing, I would want them to grow up in as uncorrupted a world as possible. I don’t feel as though I want to be rubbing my children’s noses in it.
I wonder what you are rubbing children’s noses in? Could it be Australia’s colonial history (The Rabbits), the effect of political corruption on families (Checkers), the loneliness of juvenile detention, or the terror of not having your abuse taken seriously (Letters from the Inside)? Maybe it’s the inordinate blind rage of being from a poor background who no real life prospects, and on top of that dealing with a disability (Dear Miffy), or the effects of wartime post-traumatic stress (the Tomorrow series)?
You once pointed out that childhood and adolescence are when a person has the most number of first experiences, and perhaps that’s what people mean when they say that the young are ‘impressionable’. But then you added, ‘If you’ve ever tried to persuade a three-year-old to eat spinach you’ll soon see how impressionable they are.’ And you mentioned that plenty of adults are impressionable – Hitler, Pol Pot and Jim Jones had no trouble finding disciples among the old and middle-aged.
Much of the time, I reckon stories about children are an ‘adults-only’ fantasy of childhood, revealing more about the writer and their projections than the truth of their subjects. In 1992, Susan Orlean wrote her famous profile for Esquire, ‘The American Male at Age Ten’, which now reads like an early ‘90s list of a ten-year-old boy’s consumer preferences – Morgan Freeman movies, Nintendo, Streetfighter II. It begins, ‘If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks…We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home.’
The piece was groundbreaking because it was the first time a famous international magazine had published a piece about the interests of an ‘ordinary’ kid that was written with the same focus of intensity and analysis as an interview with the president. But to me, reading it now, it really grates, especially when Orlean observes: ‘That ten-year-olds feel the weight of the world and consider it their mission to shoulder it came as a surprise to me.’ What world is she living in? Apparently a world where ‘Colin loves recycling. He loves it even more than, say, playing with little birds.’
Perhaps it’s those who are charmed by stories like Colin Duffy’s, seeing them as signs that our future is in ‘good’ hands, who have the most trouble with your books, John. Your fiercest critics are probably those who have the luxury of thinking that childhood should be free of anxiety, worry, sadness, illness, stress and grief – emotions that every child feels at some point or another. You once said about Letters from the Inside: ‘I was struck, as I have been many time since, by the fact that young readers react so differently to older readers, but older readers don’t seem to notice that.’
What you manage to capture in your writing is an authentic Australian child’s voice.
I remember enlightened school librarians recommending books by Robin Klein, Sonya Harnett, Melina Marchetta, Cynthia Voigt, Robert Cormier and Paul Zindel. Each of their words examined darkness, morality and death. This was beautiful and clear writing from literary artists who asked more questions than they answered. Later, young adult books devolved into ‘single-problem novels’ – divorce, drug abuse, assault, incest – and I grew tired of formulaic stories whose serious themes and tidy ‘lessons’ could not mask their uninspired prose and blunt commercial salaciousness.
What you manage to capture in your writing is an authentic Australian child’s voice. Your boys in Staying Alice in Year 5 and The Year My Life Broke are not adult projections of cuteness, but autonomous human beings:
My first day I sat next to a kid called Nirvana…he only spoke three words to me all morning. ‘Yeah’, ‘no’, ‘dunno’, that was it. At recess he nicked off to play cricket. I wanted to follow him but I also didn’t want to look desperate, so I ended up going in a different direction.
This might read as prosaic to an adult reader more accustomed to the endearing ways of precocious opinionators, yet this boy has agency, suffers awkwardness and indecision, and doesn’t have an arsenal of words with which to combat loneliness.
One of my primary-school friends, who was Colin Duffy’s age, bragged that his outworker parents paid him ten cents for every shirt collar he ironed. His plan was to iron a hundred shirt collars in a week, so that by Friday he would have ten dollars and buy the canteen’s supply of lollies. Here was a man with agency and purpose! On Dave’s glorious payday, kids waited at the school gate for him to turn up with his pockets full of coins. But when he arrived he just glowered and walked straight past them. Later, everyone realised that he was the only dry kid, because his practical Chinese-Cambodian mother had made him buy a ‘friggin’ umbrella’ with his week’s earnings!
When Orlean was interviewed in 2014 about Duffy, she said, ‘I really grew to adore this kid. He was just enchanting…utterly entrancing…I felt so charmed…caught up in this magical world.’ Bogan kids are never described as ‘utterly entrancing’; and bogan Asian kids don’t exist in literature except in tragic reports about garage-sewing, where they have horrible accidents getting their arms caught in sewing machines.
Maybe we like to infantilise children – in books and in life – because we believe they are filled with the ‘goodness’ we’ve inculcated in them, and god forbid this innocence should ever be tainted by experience. Rachel Cusk writes about the way children are characters in the family story we tell ourselves:
Until adolescence, parents by and large control the family story. The children are the subject of this story , sure enough, the generators of its interest or charm, but they remain, as it were, characters…A large part of parental authority is invested in the maintenance and upkeep of this story, its repetition, its continued iterations and adaptations.
But these subjects inevitably grow up to learn about the arbitrary nature of the world outside the Parental Kingdom. Rusalka, a teenager on Goodreads, reviewed Dear Miffy and came to this conclusion:[It made] me realise that my non-romantic way of experiencing the world was not because my experience was broken, but [that] kids fiction was. Adult life can not be romantic and beautiful. This book helped me deal with that. While it sounds horrible as a review, to me personally, from my heart, I could not give it a better one.
Our Year 9 teacher, Ms Bonnie Clarke, didn’t make us analyse So Much to Tell You for ‘themes’, but in her class we could discuss important things without talking about them directly. There was none of the pressure there would be in front of a school counsellor. She made each of us pick a character from your book and create a monologue in their voice. I typed a histrionic speech in the ‘voice’ of Marina’s mother onto sheets of tissue paper and fake-cried my way through the presentation. Carol did a smart-arse, true-to-character rendition of Sophie, saying of Marina’s half-scarred face: ‘She could do a one-woman show of Beauty and the Beast, just by turning the other cheek.’
So Much to Tell You might come with trigger warnings in some schools today, but back when I was fourteen it helped us understand the intricate clockwork of different families. We were cheery and resilient girls, but one friend always came to school bleary-eyed and often dozed at her desk because she’d spent too many late nights working in her parents’ garage. Another experienced a death in the family on her fifteenth birthday. A third would not live past her twenties.
Yet Year 9 was the last year I studied young adult fiction at school. The following year, I was at a new school, in a blazer for the first time, studying Henry James and Charles Dickens. I learned to appreciate the literary grandeur of these works, but never once did it occur to me that I could relate them to my own life. No one told me that was what literature was for. My intellectual life had become theoretical and complex, while my real life of looking after younger siblings and housework, speaking another language at home and existing in a different, frozen-in-time culture, working at my dad’s electrical appliance store, navigating the intensity of teen friendships – none of this other complexity had a place in our school curriculum. Never again did I feel so validated as a teenage girl as when I was fourteen. Never again would our storied be so central.
This is an extract from Writers on Writers published by Black Inc