Hartnett, Sonya 1968-
Hartnett, Sonya 1968-
Born March 23, 1968, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; daughter of Philip Joseph (a proofreader) and Virginia Mary (a nurse) Hartnett. Education: Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, B.A., 1988.
Home—Northcote, Victoria, Australia.
Writer. Member of board, St. Martin's Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Ena Noël Award, International Board on Books for Youth, 1996, for Wilful Blue; Shaeffer Pen Prize, Victoria Premier's Literary Awards, Miles Franklin Inaugural Kathleen Mitchell Award, Book of the Year honor book designation, Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA), and New South Wales State Literary Award shortlist, all 1996, all for Sleeping Dogs; CBCA Book of the Year shortlist, 1999, for All My Dangerous Friends, and 2000, for Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf; Aurealis Award for Best Young-Adult Novel, and Australian Publishers Association (APA) Award shortlist, both 2000, CBCA Book of the Year Award for Older Readers shortlist, and New South Wales State Literary Award shortlist, both 2001, and Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize shortlist, both 2002, all for Thursday's Child; Australian Children's Book of the Year for Older Readers, 2002, for Forest; Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia/South Pacific Region), Age Book of the Year designation, Miles Franklin Award shortlist, New South Wales State Literary Award shortlist, Victorian Premier's Literary Award shortlist, and Orange Prize for Fiction longlist, all 2003, and Dublin Literary Award nomination, 2004, all for Of a Boy; APA Book Design Award shortlist, 2004, for The Silver Donkey; Victorian Premier's Literary Award shortlist, Queensland Premier's Literary Award shortlist, Courier Mail Young Reader Book of the Year designation, CBC Young Reader Book of the Year designation, and Age Book of the Year shortlist, all 2005, all for Surrender.
NOVELS; FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
Trouble All the Way, Rigby (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), 1984.
Sparkle and Nightflower, Rigby (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), 1986.
The Glass House, Pan Macmillan (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1990
Wilful Blue, Viking (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1994.
Sleeping Dogs, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
The Devil Latch, Viking (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1996.
Black Foxes, Viking (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1996.
Princes, Viking (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1997, Viking (New York, NY), 1998.
All My Dangerous Friends, Viking (New York, NY), 1998.
Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, Viking (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1999, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.
Thursday's Child, Penguin (New York, NY), 2000.
Forest, Penguin (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 2001.
Of a Boy, Viking (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia), 2002, published as What the Birds See, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2003.
The Silver Donkey (for children), illustrated by Don Powers, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
Surrender, Viking (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia), 2005, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.
The Ghost's Child, Penguin (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia), 2007.
Also contributor to There Must Be Lions: Stories about Mental Illness, Ginninderra Press, 1998.
Author's work has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, and Swedish.
The novels of award-winning Australian writer Sonya Hartnett, although often classified for a young-adult readership, transcend the genre due to their psychological depth and sophistication. Called intense, and often devastating, her works, which include Sleeping Dogs, Surrender, What the Birds See, and Thursday's Child, explore human character and the differences in the way in which individuals perceive the world around them. Noting that the marketing of her novels has been a constant frustration, Hartnett explained to Bookseller contributor Benedicte Page that "I'm conscious that whatever book I'm working on will probably come out as a teenage novel, but I never pull any punches on account of that. I never make an idea less complicated. I think, ‘If this comes out for teenagers and they don't understand it, it's not my concern.’"
"I was the second eldest of six very boisterous, outgoing children," Hartnett once explained, "but was shy and fairly withdrawn myself. I think I started writing because, in a make-believe world, I was no longer so friendless—to the characters, at least, I was someone very important." Her own shyness would shape Hartnett's focus as a writer; as she explained to Margot Hillel in Reading Time, "I guess the major influence on me has been my own personality given that I am intrinsically shy, which has enabled me to look and listen a lot of the time and I learnt a lot from that. My characters are not based on people I know, but all the knowledge you have in your head comes into your writing."
Hartnett's novels are most influenced by what she calls her "strong romantic streak" and her "taste for the bizarre." "I'm always amazed and delighted," Hartnett once stated, "by the very strange, factual stories that pop up in newspapers—‘Girl lives in cupboard for sixteen years’—things like that. What goes on behind closed doors intrigues me. I like the idea that everyone has their own view of ‘reality’ and crave to know what this view is, and how it differs from mine." Hartnett is also very interested in her character's perceptions of time, and how each person relates to the other—"the very subtle aspects of our daily lives with others, the words that we emphasise, the glances from the corners of the eyes. If I hope to examine anything in the novels I write, it is how amazingly different we are from each other, that what is astonishing to one may be mundane to another, that there is an infinite number of ways to live a life. My own life seems incredibly mundane to me, and I love to write about lives lived at the other end of the spectrum—lives that, to the characters, must by necessity also seem mundane and ‘normal.’"
Indeed, the characters in Hartnett's Sleeping Dogs could be said to be living "at the other end of the spectrum." Taking place in a rundown trailer park in the dusty Australian outback, the story concerns the reclusive Willow family: Griffin Willow, an alcoholic, patriarchal bully; his unstable wife, Grace; and their five children, including sons Jordan and Oliver and twenty-three-year-old daughter Michelle. Living an isolated existence save for the few people who stop at their run-down camp-ground (no one ever comes for a second stay), Michelle and Jordan eventually develop an incestuous relationship as a way to survive. When a curious camper—a painter by the name of Bow Fox, who is attracted to Michelle—learns of this secret from youngest son Oliver, he decides to interfere in the family's delicate emotional balance by breaking through their walls of secrecy. "Reminiscent of William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams in its examination of a convoluted and incestuous family, the story moves with hideous inevitability to a devastating climax," noted Patty Campbell in Horn Book. Novelist Jonathan Harlen commented in a Magpies article that Sleeping Dogs is "so beautifully written that even hopelessness becomes a pleasure."
Wilful Blue is similar to Sleeping Dogs in its focus on despair and tragedy. Jesse McGee and Guy DeFoe are part of a group of young artists who have been commissioned by a wealthy patroness to create works of art for Sanquedeet, a newly formed Australian artist's retreat. While Jesse thrives in the austere, creative environment and socializes with the other artists, Guy emotionally withdraws and ultimately takes his own life, leaving his friend obsessed by his seemingly pointless actions. Praising Hartnett for her "fluid, lyrical prose and deft characterizations," School Library Journal contributor Alice Casey Smith added that young-adult readers of Wilful Blue will share, with Jesse, "the guilty helplessness of survivors of suicide."
Paralleling the tale of a pair of twins imprisoned by King Richard III in the Tower of London, Princes tells the story of Indigo and Ravel, identical twins dwelling together in a rat-infested mansion. After their parents mysteriously disappear, Ravel wonders if he should enter the outside world and look for a job. Indigo, tottering on the brink of insanity, finds the loss of his brother too much to consider, and so begins playing mind-games with his twin, games Ravel is equally skilled to play. As the story progresses, Ravel realizes the extent of his brother's madness, understanding that Indigo may have caused the disappearance of their parents, and begins to fear for his own safety. While several critics warned that the book contains horrific stories that might be unsuitable for younger adolescents, Kliatt reviewer Paula Rohrlick suggested that Princes "might appeal to fans of horror stories who can appreciate an unusual narrative." Noting that Hartnett's "cool bravado could attract a type of cult following," a Publishers Weekly critic found that the book's "cruelties escalate and finally explode in a climax that's a little too easily achieved but fitting nonetheless."
Again the author tackles serious themes in All My Dangerous Friends, a work about a group of young adults caught up in a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and shoplifting. Told from the viewpoint of two main characters, "Hartnett is able to maintain an intriguing and intertwined plot," according to Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy contributor Thomas McPherson. Some reviewers questioned whether the subjects dealt with in the book were suitable for a young adult audience. However, McPherson found that "the issues, although quite stark and brutal at times, are dealt with reflectively in a way that could be used as a model for our students." Writing in Magpies, critic Kerry Nealy came to a similar conclusion about Hartnett's characters in general, most of whom tend to be amoral, self-centered, shallow, and cruel. "They are often not meant to be liked, that is the point of their existence in her stories," wrote Nealy, suggesting that Hartnett does not create characters to emulate, but rather to show readers another side, however unpleasant, of human behavior.
Hartnett explores the complex relationship that develops when abnormalities intersect in her psychological thriller Surrender. A lonely, repressed boy who is haunted by his role in the death of a mentally disabled older brother years before, Anwell lives in a small town where little disrupts the dullness of his life. When he meets wild, uncivilized Finnegan, the limitations on his life are suddenly challenged and deeper impulses released. Recognizing their bond and uniting in their devotion to Gabriel's dog, Surrender, the boys evolve into mirror images, one "good" and one "bad," and gain a psychological wholeness by living vicariously through each other. Told in the boys' dual narratives, as one of the boys—now aged twenty—lies close to death, Surrender serves up what Francisca Goldsmith described in School Library Journal as a "stew of unhappiness, mischief, and outright criminality." Calling the novel "potent and disquieting," Booklist contributor Holly Koelling recommended Surrender for more mature teen readers "willing to experience some of humanity's bleaker aspects." A Kirkus Reviews writer maintained that Hartnett's "grim, beautifully written tale of adolescent yearnings gone awry" is enriched by the author's "delicate, measured, heartbreaking portrait" of a complex tale of "love, guilt, revenge and sorrow."
Life in rural areas is the focus of the novels Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and Thursday's Child, both of which feature families struggling to survive in the Australian countryside. In the first story, twenty-something Satchel O'Rye lives with his parents in a dying town, hoping that one day he will find employment. Emotionally tied to his mother and mentally ill father, Satchel looks for work locally, hoping to avoid the fate of his friend, Leroy, who had to move to the city to find employment. Torn between the need to establish an independent life and the draw of his roots in a rural, run-down town, Satchel stumbles upon a solution when he sights a strange wolf-like creature that might be a rare survivor of marsupial believed to be extinct: Should he capitalize on the creature by promoting the animal's existence, or leave the animal—as well as his backwater community—in peace? The young man's decision becomes more pressing when tragedy strikes. Describing Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf as "a serious but not a depressing novel," Magpies critic Lyn Linning praised Hartnett for creating characters "whom one can like and feel compassion for." Linning concluded of the novel that "Hartnett has indeed created a moving image of truth," while in School Library Journal Janet Hilbun described Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf "hauntingly beautiful" and "a complex, introspective novel with vivid characters."
Dubbed as a "unique and fascinating [reading] experience" by School Library Journal contributor Bruce Ann Shook, Thursday's Child follows the life of another young resident of the Australian countryside, this time during the Great Depression. Harper Flute tells her story as she grows from a child of six to a young woman of twenty-one, revealing all of the family hardships and poverty she endured along the way. Much of the book revolves around the actions of Harper's younger brother Tin, an intelligent, but overly sensitive boy who prefers to live under the family's small house in a series of tunnels he dug. As the years go by, Tin's asocial behavior intensifies, with the young child eventually living alone as a feral boy in the wilderness. Again, Hartnett was noted for her ability to not turn Thursday's Child into a heavy-hearted read. Remarked Magpies contributor Lyn Linning, "Harper's strength, endurance and way of looking at the world as she struggles to make meaning of her life ensure that Thursday's Child is neither pessimistic or depressing to read." Linning went on to call Thursday's Child a "significant extension" of the author's works, as well as "a valuable addition to Australian literature for both young people and adults of any age." Noting the author's use of humor, as well as her "clever choice of language," Kliatt reviewer Phyllis LaMontagne described Thursday's Child "a story about independence and the need that we all have to shape our own lives without interference from others."
In the opening scene of What the Birds See—published in Australia as Of a Boy—Hartnett describes the disappearance of three Australian children on their way to an ice cream shop. The book's focus then shifts to Adrian, an unhappy nine year old who lives with his grandmother because his mother is unfit and his father wants nothing to do with him. Adrian is an outcast in his school, desperately longing for friendship with other children. He thinks he may have found it when three mysterious children move into the house across the street. Adrian befriends the oldest girl, Nicole, who seems quite intrigued by the case of the missing children. Together, Adrian and Nicole begin to search for the children, but only disastrous consequences await them.
Reviewing What the Birds See, a Kirkus Reviews writer described the work as "bleakly haunting," a "novel [that] focuses its lens on a child struggling to survive in a family of emotional cripples." In Horn Book, Christine M. Heppermann maintained that "Hartnett excels at letting her characters' secret pain color everything they see and touch," and noted that her young protagonist "fairly oozes unhappiness." Gillian Engberg, reviewing What the Birds See for Booklist, called the story's ending "shocking, and the telling, unusually honest and haunting," while in School Library Journal Daniel L. Darigan concluded that "rarely is a sentence turned so well, a setting so remarkably established, and a plot so evenly polished as in this book."
Taking place in rural western France during World War I, Hartnett's award-winning illustrated novel The Silver Donkey features a framing narrative about two young sisters who discover a British lieutenant and deserter hiding in the forest outside their village. Suffering from temporary blindness and traumatized by the horrors of a recent battle, Lieutenant Shepherd repays the sisters' kindness in bringing him food; during each of their visits, he tells a story that begins with the silver donkey charm he carries in his pocket. One story follows the donkey that carried the virgin Mary to Bethlehem; another finds a donkey rescuing injured soldiers on the battlefront. As the war winds to a close, the girls gain help to plan the soldier's escape across the English Channel, and Hartnett's tale winds to a gentle ending. Reviewing the novel for Kliatt, Janis Flint-Ferguson praised The Silver Donkey as "a war story that shows the courage and goodwill of humanity," and in Horn Book Joanna Rudge Long described Hartnett's story as "provocative, timely, and elegantly honed." Praising Don Powers' pencil illustrations, a Kirkus Reviews writer concluded that "Hartnett's powerful imagery and her inimitable deftness with language" enrich a book that can be read as "an old-fashioned children's story," while a Publishers Weekly critic described it as both "delicately told and deeply resonant."
Hartnett, who shares her home with her dog and cat and works part time as a bookseller, finds that the life of a writer makes loneliness impossible. "My life feels cluttered with the characters I've created over the years—none of them really ever leave, probably because of their origins in my head," she once explained. She counts among her strongest influences authors like Robert Cormier, Robertson Davies, Feodor Dostoevsky, Anne Tyler, and Mervyn Peake, all of whom she describes as being "writers with a strong eye for detail, for the bizarre, for blackness, for the minute intricacies of human relationships and the human condition." These authors have inspired her "never to be afraid to write exactly as I choose, to never hesitate in saying and doing as I please. There is still a lot of timid literature being written for the young, and I refuse to be timid, especially in a world where television and movies may freely show material that an author, having written similar things, must defend again and again. I read Cormier's After the First Death in my teens and knew that was the sort of book I wanted to write: brave, fierce, realistic, unshrinking, shocking. If my books stay in the reader's mind as clearly as After the First Death has stayed in mine, I shall have achieved the best a writer can hope to achieve: to write words that live."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 35, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, October 15, 1994, p. 418; February 15, 1996, p. 1004; July, 2002, John Green, review of Thursday's Child, p. 1847; April 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of What the Birds See, p. 1462; March 1, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 1181; February 1, 2006, Holly Koelling, review of Surrender, p. 44; November 15, 2006, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Silver Donkey, p. 48.
Bookseller, October 25, 2002, Benedicte Page, "A Chronicler of Lost Children," p. 23.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1998, review of Princes, p. 281; May, 2002, review of Thursday's Child, p. 325; March, 2003, review of What the Birds See, p. 275; March, 2005, Deborah Stevenson, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 294; April, 2006, Deborah Stevenson, review of Surrender, p. 356.
Horn Book, March-April, 1996, Patty Campbell, "The Sand in the Oyster," pp. 240-243; July-August, 2002, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Thursday's Child, p. 460; May-June, 2003, Christine M. Heppermann, review of What the Birds See, p. 347; May-June, 2004, Tim Wynne-Jones, "Tigers and Poodles and Birds, Oh My!," p. 265; March-April, 2006, Caitlin J. Berry, review of Surrender, p. 188; September-October, 2006, Joanna Rudge Long, review of The Silver Donkey, p. 584.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, November, 2000, Thomas McPherson, review of All My Dangerous Friends, pp. 301-302.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2002, review of Thursday's Child, p. 89; February 1, 2003, review of What the Birds See, p. 230; January 1, 2005, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 52; March 1, 2006, review of Surrender, p. 230; October 1, 2006, review of The Silver Donkey, p. 1015.
Kliatt, May, 1998, Paula Rohrlick, review of Princes, p. 6; September, 2003, Phyllis LaMontagne, review of Thursday's Child, p. 17; September, 2006, Janis Flint-Ferguson, review of The Silver Donkey, p. 13.
Magpies, September, 1995, p. 34; May, 1997, Jonathan Harlen, "A Writer's Perspective," pp. 10-13; March 30, 1998, review of Princes, p. 83; September, 1998, Kerry Neary, review of All My Dangerous Friends, p. 38; May, 1999, Lyn Linning, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 36; September, 2000, Lyn Linning, review of Thursday's Child, p. 36.
Publishers Weekly, August 29, 1994, p. 80; September 4, 1995, p. 70; March 30, 1998, review of Princes, p. 83; June 3, 2002, Sonya Hartnett, review of Thursday's Child, p. 89; January 27, 2003, review of What the Birds See, p. 261; October 13, 2003, review of Thursday's Child, p. 82; January 10, 2005, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 57; March 6, 2006, review of Surrender, p. 76; November 13, 2006, review of The Silver Donkey, p. 58.
Reading Time, May, 1996, interview with Margot Hillel, pp. 3-5; February, 1997, p. 28.
School Library Journal, December, 1994, Alice Casey Smith, review of Wilful Blue, p. 130; November, 1995, p. 119; June, 1998, Molly S. Kinney, review of Princes, p. 146; May, 2002, Bruce Ann Shook, review of Thursday's Child, p. 153; May, 2003, Daniel L. Darigan, review of What the Birds See, p. 153; March, 2005, Janet Hilbun, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 212; March, 2006, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Surrender, p. 222; December, 2006, Jane G. Connor, review of The Silver Donkey, p. 144.
Times Educational Supplement, October 11, 2002, review of Thursday's Child, p. 13; January 3, 2003, Geraldine Brennan, review of What the Birds See, p. 23.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 25, 2003, review of What the Birds See, p. 5.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1996, review of Sleeping Dogs, p. 26; June, 2002, review of Thursday's Child, p. 118; June, 2003, review of What the Birds See, p. 130; June, 2005, Ed Goldberg, review of Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf, p. 130; April, 2006, Patrick Jones, review of Surrender, p. 46.
Age Online,http://www.theage.com.au/ (October 31, 2004), "Children, Adults, Anything."
Contemporary Writers Web site,http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (January 25, 2007), "Sonya Hartnett."
Penguin Books Australia Web site,http://www.penguin.com.au/ (January 25, 2007), "Sonya Hartnett."