Hathorn, Libby 1943-
HATHORN, Libby 1943-
Full name, Elizabeth Helen Hathorn; surname is pronounced "hay-thorn"; born September 26, 1943, in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia; married John Hathorn (a teacher, deceased 1998); children: Lisa, Keiran. Education: Attended Balmain Teachers' College (now University of Technology).
Agent— Fran Moore, Curtis Brown, Level 1/2 Boundary Street, Paddington 2021 Australia; fax: 612-93616161.
Teacher and librarian in schools in Sydney, Australia, 1965-81; worked as a deputy principal, 1977; consultant and senior education officer for government adult education programs, 1981-86; full-time writer, 1987—; writer in residence at the University of Technology, Sydney, 1990, Woollahra Library, 1992, and at Edith Cowan University, 1992. Consultant to the Dorothea Mackellar National Poetry Competition/Festival for children; speaker for student, teacher, and parent groups; Australia Day Amabassador, 1992—.
The Tram to Bondi Beach was highly commended by the Children's Book Council of Australia, 1982; Paolo's Secret was shortlisted for the Children's Book of the Year Award and for the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, both 1986; Honour Award, Children's Book Council of Australia, 1987, Kids Own Australian Literary Award (KOALA) shortlist, 1988, Young Australians Best Book Award (YABBA) shortlist, 1989 and 1990, all for All about Anna; Literature Board of the Australia Council fellowships, 1987 and 1988; Honour Award, Children's Book Council of Australia, 1988, for Looking out for Sampson; Children's Book of the Year Award shortlist, 1990, for The Extraordinary Magics of Emma McDade; Society of Women Writers honors, 1990, for the body of her work during 1987-89; Honour Book of the Year for older readers, Children's Book Council of Australia, 1990, American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults citation, 1991, Canberra's Own Outstanding List shortlist, all 1991, and award from Stichting Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlands Boek (Foundation for the Promotion of Dutch Books; Dutch translation), 1992, all for Thunderwith; Children's Book Council of Australia notable book ciations, 1991, for So Who Needs Lotto? and Jezza Says; New South Wales Children's Week Medal for literature, 1992; Kate Greenaway Award, United Kingdom, 1995, for Way Home; Australian Violence Prevention Certificate Award, 1995, for Feral Kid and Way Home; Parent's Choice Award and Society of Women Writers (New South Wales, Australia) award, both for Way Home; Society of Women Writers award, 1995, for Feral Kid and The Climb, 1997, for Rift, 2001, for Grandma's Shoes, and 2003, for The River; Notable Book citations from the Children's Book Council of Australia, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 2003; White Raven citation, Bologna Children's Book Fair, 2001, for The Gift; best adaptation citation, Australian Writers' Guild, 2001, for the libretto of Grandma's Shoes; Australian Interactive Media Industry Award for Best New Children's Product, for Weirdstop 2003; Prime Minister's Centenary Medal, 2003.
FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
(Under name Elizabeth Hathorn, with John Hathorn) Go Lightly: Creative Writing through Poetry, illustrated by Joan Saint, Boden (Sydney, Australia), 1974.
Stephen's Tree (storybook), illustrated by Sandra Laroche, Methuen, 1979.
Lachlan's Walk (picture book), illustrated by Sandra Laroche, Heinemann, 1980.
The Tram to Bondi Beach (picture book), illustrated by Julie Vivas, Collins, 1981, Kane/Miller (Brooklyn, NY), 1989.
Paolo's Secret (novella), illustrated by Lorraine Hannay, Heinemann, 1985.
All about Anna (novel), Heinemann, 1986.
Looking out for Sampson (storybook), Oxford University Press, 1987.
Freya's Fantastic Surprise (picture book), illustrated by Sharon Thompson, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1988.
Stuntumble Monday (picture book), illustrated by Melissa Web, Collins Dove, 1989.
The Garden of the World (picture book), illustrated by Tricia Oktober, Margaret Hamilton Books, 1989.
Thunderwith (novel), Heinemann, 1989, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1991.
Jezza Says (novel), illustrated by Donna Rawlins, Angus & Robertson, 1990.
So Who Needs Lotto? (novella), illustrated by Simon Knee-bone, Penguin, 1990.
Talks with My Skateboard (poetry), Australian Broadcasting Corp., 1991.
(Editor) The Blue Dress (stories), Heinemann, 1991.
Help for Young Writers (nonfiction), Nelson, 1991.
Good to Read (textbook), Nelson, 1991.
Who? (stories), Heinemann, 1992.
Love Me Tender (novel), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1992, reprinted as Juke-box Jive (novel), Hodder, 1996.
The Lenski Kids and Dracula (novella), Penguin, 1992.
Valley under the Rock (novel), Reed Heinemann, 1993.
Way Home (picture book), illustrated by Greg Rogers, Crown (New York), 1993.
There and Back (poetry), Macmillan/McGraw Hill (Santa Rosa, CA), 1993.
The Surprise Box, illustrated by Priscilla Cutter, SRA School Group (Santa Rosa, CA), 1994.
Feral Kid (novel), Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.
Looking for Felix, illustrated by Ned Culio, SRA School Group (Santa Rosa, CA), 1994.
Grandma's Shoes (picture book), illustrated by Elivia Savadier, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994, reissued, illustrated by Caroline Magerl, Hodder, 2000.
What a Star (novel), HarperCollins, 1994.
The Wonder Thing (picture book), illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe, Penguin, 1995.
The Climb (novel), Penguin, 1996.
Chrysalis (novel), Reed, 1997.
Rift (novel), Hodder Headline, 1998.
Sky Sash So Blue (picture book), illustrated by Benny Andrews, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Magical Ride, Hodder Headline (Australia), 1999.
(With Gary Crew) Dear Venny, Dear Saffron (novel), Lothian, 1999.
Ghostop Book 1: Double Sorrow (novel), Hodder Headline, 1999.
Ghostop Book 2: Twice the Ring of Fire (novel), Hodder Headline, 1999.
Ghostop Book 3: For Love to Conquer All (novel), Hodder Headline, 1999.
The Gift, illustrated by Greg Rogers, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
A Face in the Water, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy, Goodbooks, 2000.
The River (picture book), Curriculum Corporation, 2001.
Okra and Acacia: The Story of the Wattle Pattern Plate (picture book), illustrated by Brigitte Stoddart, Curriculum Corporation, 2001.
The Painter (novel), Hodder Headline, 2001.
Volcano Boy (verse novel), Lothian, 2002.
The Wishing Cupboard (picture book), illustrated by Libby Stanley, Lothian, 2002.
Over the Moon (picture book), illustrated Caroline Magerl, Lothian, 2003.
The Great Big Animal Ask (picture book), illustrated Anna Pignato, Lothian, 2004.
Author of the limited edition poetry anthology Heard Singing, Out of India Press, 1998. Also author of a libretto for a children's opera, composed by Grahame Koehne, based on Grandma's Shoes, that was first performed in 2000 at the Australian Opera and Theatre of Image, Sydney, Australia; author of libretto for Sky Sash So Blue, composed by Phillip Ratliff and first performed at Miles College, Alabama, 2004; writer and producer for interactive storytelling series Weirdstop 2003, Coolstop 2004, and Wonderstop 2005.
(With G. Bates) Half-Time: Perspectives on Mid-life, Fontana Collins, 1987.
Better Strangers (stories), Millennium Books, 1989.
Damascus, a Rooming House (libretto), performed by the Australian Opera at Performance Space, Sydney, 1990.
The Maroubra Cycle: A Journey around Childhood (performance poetry), University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, 1990.
(And director) The Blue Dress Suite (music theater piece), produced at Melbourne International Festival, Melbourne, Australia, 1991.
Author of the series On Course!: Today's English for Young Writers, Macmillan, and Help for Young Writers, Nelson.
Some of Hathorn's works have been translated into Greek, Italian, Dutch, German, French, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Portuguese, and Korean.
Thunderwith was produced as a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" television movie titled The Echo of Thunder; Songs with My Skateboard features Hathorn's poems set to music by Stephen Lalor. Grandma's Shoes and Sky Sash So Blue were produced as children's operas. Barking Gecko produced a play that Hathorn wrote based on Way Home with music by Stephen Lalor.
Work in Progress
Georgiana, a historic novel; a picture book.
Libby Hathorn is an Australian writer who produces poetry, picture books, drama, novels, short stories, and nonfiction for children, young adults, and adults. Best known in the United States for her critically acclaimed novel Thunderwith, Hathorn has created works ranging from serious stories of troubled youth to lighthearted, fast-paced comedies. She writes of powerful female characters in her novels for junior readers, such as the protagonists in All about Anna and The Extraordinary Magics of Emma McDade ; or of lonely, misunderstood teenagers in novels such as Feral Kid, Love Me Tender, and Valley under the Rock. As Maurice Saxby noted in St. James Guide to Children's Writers, "In her novels for teenagers especially, Hathorn exposes, with compassion, sensitivity, and poetry the universal and ongoing struggle of humanity to heal hurts, establish meaningful relationships, and to learn to accept one's self—and ultimately—those who have wronged us."
"I must have been very young indeed when I decided to become a writer," Hathorn once commented. "My grandmother always kept my stories in her best black handbag and read them out loud to long-suffering relatives and told me over and over that I'd be a writer when I grew up." Though Hathorn started her career as a teacher and librarian, she did eventually become a writer. "Libby Hathorn knows exactly how today's children think and feel," observed Maurice Saxby in The Proof of the Puddin': Australian Children's Literature, 1970-1990. "She has an uncanny ear for the speech nuances of the classroom, playground and home.… [She] is always able to penetrate the facade of her characters and with skill and subtlety reveal what they are really like inside."
Hathorn grew up near Sydney, Australia, and recalled that at that time her parents did not own a car. "In fact, not many people on the street where I lived in the early 1950s owned cars. We had no television, either. We amused ourselves with storytelling and reading out loud and lots of games." Hathorn often read and told stories to her sisters and brother; she was encouraged by her parents, who "loved books" and had bookcases crammed with them. "Books were pretty central in our lives," she stated. "My father in particular read to us at night when he could get home in time. He was a detective and had long shifts at night that often kept him late. When he read we didn't interrupt, in fact we'd never dream of it as his voice filled the room because it seemed so obviously important to him—the ebb and flow of the language. My mother—who was very proud of her Irish ancestry—told us lots of true stories about the history of our family and also about her own girlhood."
As a child, Hathorn read "adventure books set in the Australian bush, like Seven Little Australians, as well as classics like Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Little Women, and books by Emily and Charlotte Brontë," she once explained. She also read works by Australian authors "with considerable delight at finding Australian settings and people in print." Later, Hathorn would lend her own work an Australian flavor after noticing "the need for more books that told Australian kids about themselves."
Hathorn began writing her own stories and poems when she was still a girl. Though she was often shy and quiet, Hathorn once noted that she could keep company "entertained with strings of stories that I made up as I went along." Her family encouraged her, and Hathorn "loved being at center stage—so I couldn't have been altogether a shy little buttercup." At school, she enjoyed reading and creative writing, and was disappointed in later years when "we had to write essays and commentaries but never, never stories or poems. I was extremely bored in my final years at school." Hathorn has also acknowledged that her high school years weren't all bad: "After all, I was introduced to the works of William Shakespeare, and particularly in my later years the poetic nature of his work touched me deeply. And best of all we studied the Romantic poets and I fell in love with John Keats and Samuel Coleridge as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and William Wordsworth."
After graduating from high school, Hathorn worked in a laboratory and studied at night for a year before attending college full-time. Despite her parents' objections, she contemplated a career in journalism, hoping that she could learn "the art and craft of novel writing." "Anyway, my parents thought it important that I have a profession where I could earn a reasonable living—writers being notoriously underpaid," Hathorn remarked. "I was drawn to teaching; so after a year of broken specimen flasks and test tubes and discovering that my science courses did not enthrall me, I left the laboratory."
Hathorn attended Balmain Teachers' College (now the University of Technology, Sydney). "I must admit that I found the regulations of the place quite hard," she recalled. "Many of the lectures of those days seemed so dull to me that I wondered whether indeed I would last as a teacher for very long." Hathorn did enjoy her literature classes and was surprised to find that "when I came out of the rather dull years at college, I not only liked classroom teaching, but I also discovered that it was the most thrilling, absorbing, rewarding, and wonderful job anyone could have!"
After teaching for several years in Sydney, Hathorn applied for a position as a school librarian. "Although I was sorry to leave the intimacy of family that a classroom teacher has with her own class, the library was a new and exciting chapter for me," Hathorn once commented. "I had books, books, and more books to explore and the amazingly enjoyable job of bringing stories to every child in the school!" Her job as a librarian, the author added, "had a major influence on my decision to seriously try to publish my stories."
Hathorn's first book for children was Stephen's Tree, which was published in 1979. She followed this with two picture books: Lachlan's Walk and The Tram to Bondi Beach. In the genre of children's picture books, Hathorn discovered, as she explained, "such a scarcity of Australian material! I wanted to talk about our place, here and now, and have pictures that Australian children would instantly recognize. Stephen's Tree was a breakthrough in publishing. I had to fight with my publisher to have a gum tree on the cover. They wanted an ash or elm or oak so it would sell in England and Europe! Similarly, I was told The Tram to Bondi Beach should not mention Bondi. I won those fights and I must say The Tram to Bondi Beach has made its way onto the American market and American children didn't seem to have much trouble at all."
The Tram to Bondi Beach tells the story of Keiran, a nine-year-old boy who longs for a job selling newspapers to passengers on the trams that travel through Sydney. Keiran wants to be like Saxon, an older boy, who is an experienced newspaper seller. Reviewers commented on the nostalgic quality of the story, which is set in the 1930s. Marianne Pilla of the School Library Journal complimented its "smooth" narrative and "vivid" passages. Times Literary Supplement contributor Ann Martin called it "a simple but appealing tale," and Karen Jameyson wrote in Horn Book that the book "will undoubtedly hold readers' interest."
Hathorn followed The Tram to Bondi Beach with Paolo's Secret, All about Anna, and Looking out for Sampson. As Hathorn once noted, All about Anna, her first novel, "is based on a wild, naughty cousin I had who drove her mother's car down the road at ten years of age and did other wild deeds—a perfect subject to write about." The book details the comic adventures of Lizzie, Harriet, Christopher, and their energetic, imaginative cousin, Anna. Lizzie, the narrator, explains that "I like being with Anna because somehow things always seem fast and furious and funny when she's around—and well, she's just a very unusual person."
Like All about Anna, Looking out for Sampson touches on family themes. Bronwyn wishes that her younger brother, Sampson, were older so that she could have a friend instead of someone to babysit. And when Cheryl and her mother come to stay with Bronwyn's family, Bronwyn's situation worsens. A disagreeable girl, Cheryl hints that Bronwyn's parents must care more about Sampson, since they give the toddler so much attention. After Sampson is lost briefly at the beach, however, Cheryl and Bronwyn reconcile and Bronwyn's parents express their appreciation of her.
Around the time All about Anna was published in 1986, Hathorn decided to give up her job and become a full-time writer. "I wanted to be a full-time writer secretly all my life but when I began my working life as a teacher this dream seemed to recede," the author once explained. "And once I was married and with two children I felt I had to keep up my contribution to our lifestyle. My husband is also a teacher and I thought it would be unfair if he had to work every day while I was home writing. It was as if in the eyes of the world writing was not work! And I'm to blame for allowing myself to think like that too.
"I've changed my mind now and I wish I had had the courage to do so much sooner. While I loved teaching, after some years of it I was ready for change. I was already writing short stories but I was aching to tell longer stories, to produce a novel for older readers. This was very hard when I was working full-time and had young children—so the stories I chose to write at that time were for younger children and were either picture books or junior novels like All about Anna and Looking out for Sampson. "
Among Hathorn's other books for young readers is The Extraordinary Magics of Emma McDade. The story describes the adventures of the title character, whose superhuman powers include incredible strength, the ability to call thousands of birds by whistling, and control over the weather. Another of Hathorn's books geared towards beginning readers is Freya's Fantastic Surprise. In it Miriam tells the class at news time that her parents bought her a tent, a surprise that Freya attempts to top by making up fantastic stories that her classmates realize are false. Freya eventually has a real surprise to share, however, when her mother announces that Freya will soon have a new sister. Published in the United States as well as Australia, Freya's Fantastic Surprise was praised by critics. Louise L. Sherman noted in School Library Journal that "Freya's concern about impressing her classmates … is on target." In a Horn Book review, Elizabeth S. Watson called the book "a winner" and commented that "the text and pictures combine to produce a tale that proves truth is best."
Hathorn began writing her first novel for young adults, Thunderwith, after receiving an Australia Council grant in 1987. "At home writing for a year, I realized that this was to be my job for the rest of my life," Hathorn once remarked. "And since I have been able to give full-time attention to my writing it has certainly flowered in many new directions. I have begun writing longer novels for young adults and I have been able to take on more ambitious projects like libretti and music theatre pieces, which I enjoy tremendously."
Thunderwith, published in 1989, is the story of fourteen-year-old Lara, who begins living with the father she barely knows after her mother dies of cancer. Lara's new home is in the remote Wallingat Forest in New South Wales, Australia. Though Lara's relationship with her father develops smoothly, he is often away on business and Lara's stepmother is openly antagonistic towards her. Lonely and grief-stricken, Lara finds solace in her bond with a mysterious dog that appears during a storm. She names the dog Thunderwith and keeps his existence a secret; she only tells the aboriginal storyteller she has befriended at school. Eventually, Lara realizes that Thunderwith has filled the space that her mother's death created, enabling her to come to terms with her loss. Lara is also able to slowly win over her stepmother and to adjust to her new home and family life.
The setting of Thunderwith is one with which Hathorn is intimately acquainted. As a child, she had relatives who lived in the Australian bush, and she spent many holidays in the country. "This was to prove very important to me," Hathorn once stated. "The bush weaves its own magic and it's something you cannot experience from a book or television show in a suburban setting. My holidays, especially those on my grandmother's farm in the Blue Mountains, created in me an enduring love for the Australian bush. As a writer, however, up until a few years ago the settings I chose to write about were in the hub of the family and quite often in suburbia."
Hathorn came upon the idea for Thunderwith after her brother bought land in Wallingat Forest. "During the first holiday there a huge storm blew up at about midnight and such was the noise and intensity of it we all rose from our beds to watch it," Hathorn once said. "You can imagine how vulnerable you'd feel way out in the bush with thunder booming and lightning raging and trees whipping and bending … and in the midst of this fury suddenly I saw a dog. A huge dark dog dashed across the place where some hours earlier we'd had a campfire and eaten our evening meal under the stars—a lovely looking half-dingo creature.
"When I lay down again I had the image of the dog in my mind, against the landscape of the bush and storm. Again and again I saw the dog and a line of a poem seemed to fall into my head from the storm clouds above. 'With thunder you'll come—and with thunder you'll go.' What did it mean? What could it mean? By morning I had unraveled the mystery of the lines of poetry and I had a story about a girl called Lara whose mother dies in the first chapter and who comes to live on the farm in a forest with her dad and a new family."
The dog that Hathorn had seen became Thunderwith, "Lara's friend, her escape, and her link to her mother," as Hathorn explained. Lara's mother was modeled after Hathorn's friend Cheryl, who died of cancer before the book was finished. "I feel that Cheryl's spirit leaps and bounds all through it," the author once noted. "So you see for me there are many emotions through many experiences that weave themselves into my stories and into this story in particular—happiness in being together, the joy one feels in being surrounded by natural beauty, a dark sadness at loss, and the pain in hardships that must be endured. And the way people can change and grow even through dark and mystifyingly sad experiences. But you may be pleased to know that love and hope win out in Thunderwith. They have to—as I believe eventually they have to in life itself."
Thunderwith garnered praise as a sensitive and realistic young adult novel. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Hathorn deftly injects a sense of wonderment into this intense, very real story." According to Horn Book contributor Watson, Thunderwith possesses "a believable plot featuring a shattering climax and a satisfyingly realistic resolution." Robert Strang, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, commended Hathorn's "especially expert weaving of story and setting." Similarly, Magpies contributor Karen Jameyson noted that Hathorn's "control over her complex subject is admirable; her insight into character sure and true; her ear for dialogue keen." Jameyson added that the author's "nimble detour from the usual route will leave readers surprised, even breathless."
Hathorn has also published poems for children and a story collection for young adults. Her poetry book Talks with My Skateboard, is divided into several sections and includes poems about outdoor activities, school, family life, cats, and nature. The poem "Skateboard" is written from a child's perspective: "My sister has a skateboard / and you should see her go … She can jump and twirl / Do a twist and turn, / What I want to know / Is why I can't learn?" Who?, published in 1992, contains stories about ghosts, love and friendship, and mysteries, some of which are based on tales that Hathorn's mother told her. The collection includes "Who?," in which a pitiful ghost awakens a family from their beds; "An Act of Kindness," in which a family mysteriously loses their ability to remember the names of objects; and "Jethro Was My Friend," where a young girl attempts to save her beloved bird from rapidly rising floodwaters.
Hathorn published more novels, including the young adult book Love Me Tender and a comic work for junior readers, The Lenski Kids and Dracula. Hathorn once commented that "Love Me Tender was a story I circled for a few years. It drew on my girlhood experiences although it's about a boy called Alan. It's a gentle story set in the days of rock and roll." In the novel, Alan and his sister and brothers are abandoned by their mother and sent to live with various relatives. Alan is taken in by his bossy, unsmiling Aunt Jessie, and the story chronicles his "interior journey as hope fades that he will ever see his Mum and his family again," Hathorn explained. "Alan changes but more importantly he causes people around him—including his old aunt—to change too. Self-growth is a very important message for young people today—looking inside and finding that strength to go on." Love Me Tender is among Hathorn's favorite creations; the book "has a place in my heart," she once commented, because it captures the atmosphere of the author's girlhood in the 1950s. Reviewing the book, which was reprinted in 1996 as Jukebox Jive, School Librarian 's Mary Hoffman commented that "this could so easily have been just a collection of cliches [but] what raises it is Libby Hathorn's honesty about Alan's feelings for his mother and his aching realization that the family will never all live together again."
A common thread in several of Hathorn's works is the author's belief in love, hope, and the resiliency of the human spirit. "With all the faults in the world, the injustices, the suffering, and the sheer violence that I am forced to acknowledge though not accept, I still have a great sense of hope," Hathorn once noted. "Human beings never cease to surprise me with their unexpectedness, their kindness, their cheerfulness, their will to go on against the odds. That's inspiring. And I feel a sense of hope should be nurtured in young people, for they are the hope of the world. My stories may sometimes have sad endings but they are never without some hope for the future."
In several books Hathorn has combined her interest in young people with her concerns about the environment, poverty, and homelessness. "My picture book The Wonder Thing, written after a visit to a rainforest to 'sing' about the beauty of the place, is also a plea for the survival of the earth's riches—trees, forests, mountains, and rivers," the author once explained. "There are only four to five words per page and it is a prose poem; I try to make those words the most delicately beautiful and evocative that I can. Both her picture book, Way Home, and her novel, Feral Kid, take up the theme of the homelessness of young people. I feel strongly that we should never accept the fact of homeless children on our streets. A society that allows this sort of thing is not a responsible and caring society to my mind; I very much want people to look closely at stories like mine and begin asking questions about something that is becoming all too common a sight in all cities of the world."
An abandoned adolescent figures in the 1998 novel, Rift. Vaughan Jasper Roberts is stuck with his grandmother in an isolated coastal town when his parents take off. "At times ponderous and confusing, this is a complex novel in which Hathorn explores human fragility and courage, manipulation and madness and the comfort of habit and ritual," noted Jane Connolly in a Magpies review.
Hathorn also teamed up with writer Gary Crew to produce an epistolary novel between two teenagers in Dear Venny, Dear Saffron, and has experimented with online storytelling on her web site, adapting the novel Ghostop from that format. Despite the diversity of publications, Hathorn has not neglected her interest in picture books. Her 1998 Sky Sash So Blue tells the story of a young slave, Susannah, who is willing to give up her one bit of ornament—her scrap of sky-blue sash, to ensure that her sister has a lovely wedding dress. A writer for Children's Book Review Service called this book a "lovely story of hardship, perseverance and love," while reviewer Carol Ann Wilson pointed out in School Library Journal that Hathorn employed an article of clothing, as she did in Grandma's Shoes, "to symbolize the indomitable spirit of family." Wilson concluded that "Susannah's narrative makes human and accessible the poignant struggles of a people, a family, and one little girl." Hathorn collaborated with American composer Phillip Ratliff to adapt Sky Sash So Blue as a children's opera, which was produced at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2004 and 2005.
Hathorn acknowledged that though her writings often contain messages, "I don't ever want to write didactic books that berate people, young or old, with messages. I don't think you can really write a successful book by setting out with a 'do-good' or any other kind of message in mind. I can only write what moves me in some way to laugh or to cry or to wonder. I don't know what I'll be writing about a few years hence. There is a great sense of adventure in this—and a sense of mystery about what will find me."
As for advice to aspiring young writers, Hathorn has said: "The more you write the better you write. It's as simple and as difficult as that. To write well you must develop an ease with the pen and paper or the word processor or whatever—but most of all an ease with words. To do this you must be immersed in words; they should be your friends and your playthings as well as your tools. So, young writers, write a lot and love what you write so much that you work over it and shine it up to be the best you can possibly do—and then SHARE IT WITH SOMEONE."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Hathorn, Libby, Talks with My Skateboard, Australian Broadcasting Corp., 1991.
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 482-483.
Saxby, Maurice, The Proof of the Puddin': Australian Children's Literature, 1970-1990, Ashton Scholastic, 1993, pp. 219-221.
Australian Bookseller and Publisher, March, 1992, p. 26.
Booklist, February 15, 1998, p. 1019.
Books for Keeps, November, 1996, p. 10.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1991, Robert Strang, review of Thunderwith, p. 194; May, 1998, pp. 322-323.
Children's Book Review Service, August, 1998, review of Sky Sash So Blue, pp. 164-165.
Horn Book, March-April, 1989, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Freya's Fantastic Surprise, p. 199; July, 1989, Karen Jameyson, review of The Tram to Bondi Beach, p. 474; July, 1991, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Thunderwith, p. 462; July-August, 1998, p. 472.
Junior Bookshelf, October, 1990, p. 232.
Magpies, March, 1990, Karen Jameyson, review of Thunderwith, p. 4; March, 1993, p. 31; July, 1998, Jane Connolly, review of Rift, p. 38; November, 1999, p. 38; November, 1999, Annette Dale Meiklejohn, "Know the Author: Libby Hathorn," pp.10-13.
Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, review of Thunderwith, p. 65; August 1, 1994, p. 79; December 18, 1995, p.53; June 22, 1998, p. 91.
School Librarian, August, 1996, Mary Hoffman, review of Juke-box Jive, p. 105.
School Library Journal, July, 1989, Marianne Pilla, review of The Tram to Bondi Beach, p. 66; August, 1989, Louise L. Sherman, review of Freya's Fantastic Surprise, p. 120; May, 1991, p. 111; October, 1994, p. 123; March, 1996, p. 189; June, 1998, Carol Ann Wilson, review of Sky Sash So Blue, p. 108.
Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 1982, Ann Martin, "Encouraging the Excellent," p. 792.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1991.
Libby Hathorn Web site, http://www.libbyhathorn.com/ (January 26, 2005).*
Libby Hathorn contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA: I wish I could say I was born abroad, in far off Africa or deep in Papua New Guinea, and it was my exotic, isolated childhood that fed my imagination so that I was destined to be a writer. Or that I was raised on a remote, sprawling cattle station in the outback of Australia, where books and radio were my only friends. But no! Mine was a suburban childhood, busy with two sisters and a brother for company, spent in Sydney, Australia. And this is where I have spent most of my life, despite traveling widely as an adult, and is a place that has had its significance in all my writing life.
In fact, I was born in the city of Newcastle, some two hours north of Sydney, where my father had been posted for two years during the Second World War. However, most of my early childhood was in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, at Maroubra where we lived, a little too far from Maroubra Beach; and my adolescence was spent at Tamarama, a more picturesque suburb. Our house, in a tiny but verdant valley park, was a stone's throw from the small (and later to become highly fashionable), treacherous, and yet quite lovely city beach. We could look out the kitchen window and see the breakers of the Pacific Ocean crash onto the fine yellow sand of Tamarama Beach any time of day, and I remember going to sleep strangely calmed by the rhythm and roar of that surf. And we could take the walk along rugged cliffs to the much loved expanse of nearby Bondi Beach. One of my early books, The Tram to Bondi Beach, celebrates this beach, albeit as it was way back in the 1930s. Even now I don't like to be inland, to be too far from the edge that's been part and parcel of my whole life.
And yet how I longed for Europe and England during my adolescent years, a desire fed by the books and movies I'd seen, that perpetuated the idea that "real life" was elsewhere. I was to discover much later certain riches were to be discovered "in my own backyard," so to speak, when I began writing stories. In fact, I'd written poetry since my early childhood, completing a rhyming alphabet when I was in second grade—a first remembered "publication" because of the praise my grandmother, in particular, gave it. I'd read every book I could lay my hands on in our house, many of them with English backgrounds, and many way beyond my years, so that I felt I knew England, country and city, as if it were my place. But at the same time, I was listening to many a story by different members of our large, extended family, set firmly in an Aussie setting.
Despite a lack of romantic origins, my childhood was rich—filled with the busy-ness of being part of a largish family of four children and countless aunts and uncles, some of whom came and went. It wasn't without its trials of course—a small house, too many people, and certain tensions between family members at times, but it was a household that shared stories and poetry, and valued books, all the stuff of feeding the imagination. From our parents, who—especially my mother—quoted long tracts of poetry, to a father fond of recounting gritty tales of his country boyhood, to an uncle who was a fabulist, to a grandmother who read poetry aloud, our childhood was immersed and flavoured by story and poem. Another grandmother lived in the Blue Mountains, running tearooms there, and this was a marvelous contrast to city living. Megalong Valley was the setting for many of my early "rapturous" nature poems. To wake to the smell of the eucalypt with overtones of last night's open fire, to hear the raucous song of the kookaburra and other native birds, and to look out onto the green and more green and rugged, yellowy brown steep cliffs lit by morning sun … no wonder my sisters and I delighted in our holidays there.
It was a life to which books and story were intrinsic. Our father, a young detective at the time, told bedtime stories of his boyhood whenever he was home on time to do so, but also and, maybe even more importantly for me, he was fond of reading from our old grey-covered, much loved A Treasury of Verse. In those days kids went to bed early, with the ritual of being dosed with something called Fry's Emulsion which, we were told—though we didn't believe a word of it—"was good for your system," whatever that meant. The poetry did far more good than the ghastly tasting medicine. Who would not thrill to strange, entrancing, yet incomprehensible to a small child, words like Coleridge's?
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Or the opening lines of the famous Australian ballad by Henry Kendall,
By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling
My father's readings booked no interruption and we listened intently. We would shed a tear sometimes for the dog that drowned in The Ballad of the Drover, hugely enjoyed his more light-hearted reading of a poem such as The Jackdaw of Rheims, and we wondered at the mysterious story of Abou Ben Adhem. But we never spoke a word when he gave forth those heartfelt readings.
I think my love affair with words began right there, if it didn't with mother's recitation, word perfect, of "The Slip-rails and the Spur." And of course, her singing—the truly melancholy rendition of "Come to me My Melancholy Baby" or the more light-hearted "Little Mister Baggy Britches" when our baby brother was a bit fractious. I loved this quiet time in our house but best of all I loved to hear the poetry that seemed so natural to her or so important to my dad. Something was "lit up" so that the words seemed alive and singing and powerful or playful, like the surf of Maroubra Beach or Bondi that beat out a rhythm that dramatically pounded in my bones and in my blood. Even a disliked teacher, primly reading the famous Australian ballad by Banjo Patterson, "The Man From Snowy River" (later to become a movie), had its own inexorable charm. It all lay in the poetry itself! The power of words to evoke images, to make music and to make you feel so many emotions just by their saying, the way it did, was extraordinary to me. And still is. And the particular cadence and "truth" a good poem seems to hold in some magical way.
During my lifetime—as a child of the forties, an adolescent of the fifties and sixties—I was lucky to see Australian children's literature come into full flower. In fact, the seventies and eighties, as our publishing houses began publishing local voices, is a time described as the "Golden Age" of Australian children's literature by critic and revered elder in the field, Maurie Saxby. My library teacher at Maroubra Junction Girl's School in Sydney in the early 1950s would never have dreamed of such a thing, ever tidying those shelves of largely English adventure stories such as Enid Blyton's Famous Five. Classics like Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden rubbed spines with only a few Australian children's texts, among them such memorable names as Patricia Wrightson, Joan Phipson, and Nan Chauncy.
But it was really the well-worn "Billabong" series by Mary Grant Bruce and the equally well-worn work of Ethel Turner's series that I read over and over, attracted by serial narratives in an Australian setting. Television was something that had happened in America and had no bearing on our lives yet. So the characters of those books peopled our childhood. Reading was all-important and we could simply never have enough books. To this day I have several books on my bedside table and always travel "heavy," taking old friends that I might need near me and a clutch of new to some far-off city or country town that may not sport a bookshop.
But harking back, we lived in a small two bedroom house in Maroubra during my early childhood, a family of four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Suzanne and Stephen. Everything was done at the old oak kitchen table, from homework to ironing to shelling peas. It wasn't until my older sister Margi went to high school that my mother bought us our first desk, which was to be communally owned, of course, and which fitted miraculously in the verandah sleep-out my sister and I shared. To me, it was luxury to have a place set apart specially for writing, not to mention the added pleasure of a set of drawers in the desk to be filled just with the accoutrements of writing. I loved touching the packet of envelopes, the writing pads (loose sheets of paper were a rarity), the floral stationery set I had been lucky enough to get for Christmas, the HB pencils, and opening the special spotted black-and-white case that housed my precious Conway Stewart fountain pen and matching propelling pencil.
When we reached high school, each child was given a 'good' pen and pencil set, instructed that it had been expensive to purchase and was expected to last us through all our high school days. My father owned a treasured maroon and silver Parker pen and I don't remember ever seeing him with another writing implement. We never shared pens, as we understood it could damage the unique way the user had shaped the nib. But I remember practising his distinctive signature and wishing I could use his fine pen to replicate the downstroke. "Light on the upstroke and heavy on the downstroke," our teachers endlessly instructed us, endeavouring for each and every child to achieve a "copperplate" writing style.
We were all readers in that house, though I was the only writer. That is, the only child that crept away to write her own stories or poems, finding a private though darkish space behind the big tapestry lounge chair in the lounge room, in our busy and noisy household.
In infants school, we were supplied readers, each child with the same one. I'd wrestled in Grade 1 with the boredom of Fay and Don, walking down English-style streets in English-type clothes and living in smart English-type bungalows with never a gum tree in sight. However, my Grade 2 reader remains in mind as a pleasurable compilation of poems and stories, well-thumbed and well-loved. Dramatic stories about girls like Grace Darling, whose daring rescue of shipwrecked souls intrigued me, especially the idea that a girl could ride a horse into the surf and save people! And then the poems that were read aloud and "performed" in what was known as Verse Speaking—a lesson I found thrilling. Fragments of verse, and the particular intonation of my Grade 2 teacher Miss Hinder, have stayed with me a lifetime. "I shall lie in the reeds and hoooowl for your green glass beads, I love them so … give them me," and so on.
The readers were exhausted after a term and yet we were obliged to re-read around the class on a regular basis. And often the teacher requested we keep to the place, "finger on the word please" of the poor stumbling child selected to read aloud.
The introduction at home to Australian storybooks such as Blinky Bill and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the beloved Gumnutland host of characters was significant. Books that speak to children about the place they themselves know well, as Dorothy Wall and May Gibbs did for me as young child, must have a lasting impression, and a lifelong significance. Here among Peter Rabbit and friends, Pooh Bear and friends, and a host of Disney characters in far-flung settings, which were loved too, were stories of our own land, our bush, our city, our animals, and our flora, very much our place.
I distinctly remember the thrill of pleasure at May Gibbs' gentle and environmentally friendly Gumnutland stories, coupled with her charming Australian artwork of our own bottlebrush and gum trees and bush creatures. British books and British influence were still so strong in the 1950s, though things were slowly beginning to change in that regard, and the arts were reflecting this change, our burgeoning literature at the forefront in the naming (and thus the possessing) of things in our own landscape. This was a gradual process of relinquishing Britain and Europe as the centre of our world, and recognising our own country as an entity in itself, and Asian countries as our closest neighbours.
Having said that, much later in the 1990s it was still not easy to have children's books with an Asian theme published. I'd made plans to write a series I'd called Asiastory—six stories set in various Asian countries close to home—as a kind of interesting challenge. But it was to be more difficult than I'd imagined. The first one, a picture storybook set in Vietnam, The Wishing Cupboard, which was the first published story to go online in Australia, took six or seven years to find a publisher at Lothian. And it was only in 1999 that I had my book The River, which is set in China, launched in Shanghai through an educational publishing house, Curriculum Corporation. I've had four of the stories published to date, and am currently determinedly working on a Korean story.*
In high school, we were steeped in English literature—from John Donne to the Romantics, our Shakespeare texts studied thoroughly over a whole year, so thoroughly we could quote whole tracts of it. There was not much modern poetry taught at school so I had to find that elsewhere. It was years later I was to discover the charms of other cultures. Translations of Spanish Lorca and Pablo Neruda, American poets like William Carlos Williams, Monica Dickens, and Hugh Langston, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, to mention a few.
Teachers had an enormous impact on my life right through my schooling. The shy and beautiful Miss Miller in Grade 1 (who, incidentally, I remember to this day never returned the book on China that my German grandfather gave the family and I proudly took to school, a beautiful book with the unusual treat of coloured pictures). It was important to actually own books but they were a rare treat as gifts.The ample and warm Mrs. Tanner (Grade 3) who always delayed to chat and laugh when my handsome father called to pick us up from school (a really unusual event) and who relentlessly encouraged the use of "good words." A memorable lesson was writing the words "got" and "said" on a piece of paper, going into the school garden which the kids attended to in Nature study lessons, and burying the words. "You can think of a better one to use in your compositions, girls!"
Then there was the principal, the chaotic Miss Swain (Grade 6) who loved to see the whole school march from assembly—where we saluted the flag and swore allegiance to the King of England and later the Queen—to military style music like "Colonel Bogey's March." She was generally a good-natured teacher, despite having the dual role of running the whole school. But she made what she called 'a terrible mistake' that we kids all paid for.
Every week we had to write a tightly structured two-page composition: opening paragraph, two more paragraphs using adverbial or adjectival phrases that were listed on the blackboard, and a closing paragraph that "tied off" all ends neatly. One memorable day, when she obviously hadn't had time to prepare the "strait-jacket," we were told, "Today girls, you may write an adventure story!" It was music to our ears. She did not mention any length at all, let alone an adverbial phrase.
Forty-five twelve-year-old girls, well schooled on Enid Blyton and her Famous Five adventure books and Ethel Turner's heart-rending Seven Little Australians, went to town. It was a black afternoon when our work was handed back to the class with cold and disapproving comments for each and every one of us.
At least half of us, wild with freedom, had written six or eight or even ten pages of story! She told us she refused to read beyond page three of any of them, that they were generally poor, undisciplined and imitative—well, yes! But then followed a diatribe when poor, hapless, overweight, unpopular, super-bright classmate Judith Meakin was made to stand up and explain why her "disgusting" story had featured something as horrific as murder. And not just one, this vile child had included three murders on board a launch in Sydney Harbour. She laboured the girl's inappropriate subject matter in a rage of disapproval, so humiliating that I'd have been reduced to tears. But Judith stood there, clutching the desk red-faced and, I'm certain, not understanding what all the fuss was about.
It seems laughable in this day and age of violence and death depicted on film and TV, including the news of the day, that a child writing a murder story could be so castigated. But the 1950s were the days before television in Australia, and straightlaced was the way you would describe suburban Maroubra. In any case, there was censorship about what books were allowed into the country (for example, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover could be read only by university professors even in my adolescence) and the press of the day could not refer directly to things such as a pregnancy. Poor Judith had no doubt read a diet of cheap thrillers and, in reflecting them in her own way, took the full fury of our teacher's annoyance at the outpourings of frustrated writers. I remember thinking then that Judith had been daring and that there was surely a power in a story that could make an adult so mad!
Endorsements for budding writers must have been important. I was in Year 4 when I received my first award, a purplish certificate for my penned (this was a dip pen and ink-penned story) from a large department store, Farmer's, that for some mysterious reason encouraged young Sydney writers. I believe I still have that certificate. But it was not for certificates I wrote the poems and stories that seemed to come from some mysterious source, poured out into precious exercise books where every page was covered, paper being in short supply and thus prized.
In the incredible paper affluence of my adulthood it's almost unimaginable to think how paper and pencils and pens were prized possessions. It was a luxury to have a Woolworth's Jumbo-sized writing pad. Single sheets such as our fax and computer paper were simply not available. I knew more of British history at ten, twelve, fourteen years of age than I did of Australian history. Aboriginal history was for the most part shamefully ignored or, what little there was, often quite inaccurately presented. This was all to change dramatically when I reached college. But I must say I'm grateful to this day for that rich literary background afforded by our schools, which set up a continual love affair with writers of the stature of William Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, to mention but a few.
My sisters and I haunted libraries like the one in Maroubra with the unlikely and agreeable name of Quandong, where one paid, say, a shilling to borrow two books for a week. Later we traveled by bus a few suburbs away to the Randwick Public Library to take out our precious one book each. I was ten or eleven before Maroubra had a public library in the guise of the Mobile Library—a wondrous caravan of books that traveled some of the library-less suburbs of our area, hooking into the powerline to light up its intriguing interior and the eager knot of readers—and thus bring the demise of private libraries.
The brightness of some of those childhood memories may be somewhat enhanced by time, but images of us just being around books and readers are especially clear. Lying on the beds, long sunny afternoons totally immersed in Mary Grant Bruce's "Billabong" series, my big sister, head in a book, occasionally making a comment about the outback world and the characters we knew and loved. "I think I have a bit of crush on Wally," she might say.
"Well, I think I'm in love with Jim and I want to be Norah," I'd reflect.
"But they're brother and sister!" she'd tell me, usually having the last word.
I know as a big sister to Suzanne, three years my junior, I'd often read aloud to her. She always attests to my improving her reading comprehension, as I'd read some of our school-set novels (not my choice of fiction) such as Black Arrow or The Hill, and then each three pages or so I'd quiz her on what I'd read. "You really have to listen!" I'd threaten, "or I won't read to you anymore." Thus improving her concentration.
I love that idea of sharing other worlds and I believe that the act of reading allows us to share the dream. We can enter into another's thoughts and another's world as if it were our own.
It's strange how certain memories of a less happy kind remain imprinted. There was a procession of pets who had a great impact on the family. Though we longed to own a dog and my little sister Suzanne arrived home occasionally with a stray, we had cats and kittens! A series of cats were called variously Tiddles if male, or Skinny Minny if female. There was no commercially prepared petfood at the time, and the pets always ate the scraps from the family table and were generally more on the lean side compared to the cats I've owned since the advent of tinned petfood. With the birth of several batches of kittens, we ran out of willing recipients. Vets were not plentiful and the drowning of kittens was not unusual in our street, and was by far more merciful than dumping those hapless kittens in back lanes. But somehow neither of our parents could bring themselves to do the deed when we'd done our best but had clearly run out of prospective owners.
My mother's brother, Uncle Allen, was called to do the job. Not a particularly aggressive or bold man, he must nonetheless have had the requisite skills for kitten-drowning. It was done on the back step where all the children gathered and I remember watching with a certain amount of fear mixed with an awful curiosity. We knew it was inevitable the kittens must go or became strays, uncared for, but how could you actually kill something that was alive and soft and warm? The dark, the cluster of children, the metal bucket, the tiny squirming still blind soft little creatures, Uncle Allen grim but resolute. The hapless mother, Skinny Minny, being cuddled somewhere else, the thought of death in the air, the realization of utter powerlessness. That's a vivid memory for me.
Another stark memory was being locked in. This was a holiday with my older sister Margaret, on a farm on the Nepean River at the foot of the Blue Mountains, where boy cousins were good company for most of the time. It was a dairy farm and magical to us city girls. I didn't realize the grind of 200 cows having to be milked morning and night and the effort this must have cost my uncle and his older son. We loved to come here as the days were long and filled with fun. We learned boys' sports, bows and arrows, the wonder of an air rifle and the game of mice trapping in a recently ploughed field. Then there was riding a tractor to the Nepean River and discovering the wonder of the fact that potatoes didn't grow on bushes but were grown under the ground.
The milking sheds were fascinating and to be visited most afternoons. The cows were always docile, there was a certain exciting smell, milky in the shed and overlain with the cow manure in the yard, the sound of the milking machines sucking away at so many cows' teats—probably thirty cows milked at a time. There was the added wonder of the separation room, and then the cold room, where huge metal milk drums were stored, waiting for pickup. Bruce, my cousin, was a good-natured boy, a year or so older, but he seized the opportunity one afternoon as we two visited the cold room to experience the shiveriness once again, to heave closed the thick metal door and leave us not only shivering in the cold, but marooned in the terror of utter darkness.
Screams were to no avail it seemed, and the few minutes we were incarcerated there seared some memory of terror forever. When he gleefully opened the door and we emerged, I was changed. I was shaking and couldn't speak and remained so, despite the sun on my arms and that comforting ordinary odour of cow manure, for some time. Once again it was the notion of facing death and knowing you were powerless. And worse still, not brave. Not in the least brave. Ever since then, I have felt a kind of panic at the idea of being closed in, and like at least a sliver of light at night when asleep.*
My first year in high school I made a very special friend in Pat who had laughing eyes, a mop of black curly hair and an outrageous sense of humour. She also just happened to live not far around the corner from my house in Maroubra—a wonderful accident of fate. Some fifty years later we are still friends and still discussing some of the same issues about the arts, despite both having brought up our families separately. Ten years ago I tried to set down something of the preciousness of this relationship in my poem "Childhood Friend" from Maroubra Cycle. (Maroubra Cycle has been set to music by composer Stephen Lalor and was later performed under the direction of Paul Weingott at UTS as a musical, when I was writer in residence there).
You were farewelling me,
I saw you there
Standing by the gate
And heard your laughter
Down the midnight road
A poem is there in you
Talking, delaying, beside
The darkened paling fence
So reminiscent of our childhood.…
Where we plotted our bright futures.
Pat was "artistic" and dreamed of becoming a painter and our conversations over the adolescent years were always of the arts: debates, musings as we fledgling artists tested our own theories in painting and writing in a world not much interested in two Maroubra lasses and their dreams. Pat illustrated my first picture storybook Kyo, which was the story of a much-loved dog of my mother's. Kyo, who gained this name from the New South Wales country town Kyogle, was a wonderful black and white terrier my mother swore could smile—at her, of course. Kyo was picked up by the RSPCA when she wandered off one day from Tamarama Beach; we never saw her again. My mother was inconsolable and in fact never had another dog, so Pat and I wrote a story about Kyo's wandering with a very happy ending. She was found! It wasn't even published but I have the original artwork to this day among my treasures.
I attended Teachers' College after an unsuccessful stint as a laboratory assistant in the Medical School at the University of Sydney. Two lecturers at Balmain Teachers' College—as it was then called before becoming part of UTS (University of Technology)—greatly influenced my writing: Ray Cattell who moved to University of New South Wales as I arrived) and the principal, a tall forbidding looking gentleman, Mr. Green-halgh. It was the English lecturer at Balmain who introduced me to Ray Cattell after my poem won the College Poetry Prize. Ray in turn introduced me to the works of W. B. Yeats when I unwittingly cautioned him to "tread softly" on his criticisms of my own poetry. "Tread softly for you tread on my dreams" he quoted immediately and there began a love affair with works of Yeats. Visits to his home gave timely insight to my passionate but sometimes rambling first poetry, and he insisting I could make poetry my life's work. If only I didn't have to earn a living, I thought, though poetry I knew even then would remain central to my life and inform all my writing.
The other lecturer, the principal of the college, also stands out in my mind impressing me with his far too short series of lectures on philosophy and imploring us, the young students about to embark on our teaching lives, not to "walk through the fields with our gloves on" referring to a famous poem whose name eludes me. I remember buying Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy and a whole world opening up to me.
This was intensified by the advent of a soulful and totally engaging person in my life. It's true he was a man, several years older and much more sophisticated than I, but this seemed incredibly attractive to me in itself. With him I could discuss poetry and philosophy and many an evening we sat in the rose garden in Hyde Park; he was too poor to take me to dinner and I was but a poor college student. I listened to the wisdom of John C. It didn't occur to me that when we did go out to the movies or even to coffee that it was I who paid, and it was only years later that I understood why John became attracted to a woman closer to his age who had a smart apartment and a high-paying job. Still, I never regretted his flair for romance and his rather Oscar Wildish take on life.
My school friend Pat and I had discussed classical music but were introduced to the joys of ownership through a friend's dad who'd joined something called The World Record Club. Brahms' Hungarian Dances was the first 45 classical record that I ever purchased. Dad was mad about The Student Prince, as we all were, and I played it along with Beethoven symphonies. Later came admiration for Bach—I even purchased a small harmonium from a friend, Wendy's dad, who worked at the music shop Paling's, so I could learn to play Bach's Toccata and Fugue.
Saturday mornings, the three girls were expected to do the housework which consisted of vacuuming the house, scrubbing, polishing and—as custom had it in summertime—give the whole house a good spray of Mortein Plus, which had just come onto the market, with a bright red large pump flyspray. Our work was made lighter by the stereogram, a large polished wood affair with a lid that was raised to reveal the turntable, a side compartment for 33s and another for 78s and the smaller 45s. We'd put on the long playing 33s (LPs) of which our parents had such delights as Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, and Showboat. A favourite was an LP called The Merry Widow, considered classical music.
This didn't mean I wasn't in love with Elvis Presley or didn't dance to the new rock and roll and later favour the magical Beatles! My novel, Love Me Tender, reflects this time through the eyes of a young boy, Alan.
Round the corner at Pat's house, her mother had secured a real treasure of an LP, sent all the way from England, of Emlyn Williams reading Charles Dickens. Though I'd read A Tale of Two Cities I was delighted by excerpts from Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist read aloud to us as we gathered in the lounge room around the precious record player to listen before the advent of television in Australia of course.
The bookcase in the small lounge room of our house at Maroubra was cram-packed. My parents had sets of books alongside the novels, encyclopedias, and dictionary (Webster's), a huge tome. Sets of science and philosophy (The Living Thoughts Library: of Thoreau, Descarts, Spinoza, etc.) alongside Readers' Digest series books and World War II books. These I remember were large clothbound with firm spines: Soldiering On, Army, Navy, and Air Force accounts of the returned men, anxious to somehow tell something of their disquieting stories.
Arthur Mees' Book of Everlasting Things seems such a quaint idea in a world of computers with knowledge at your fingertips. But it was a much loved tome, a book of wonder, despite its rather smudgy black and white photographs of sights such as the pyramids, or the Amazon River.
An aunt of mine was housekeeper for a very well-off family in nearby Dover Heights and this was rather fortunate for us. The Rusten girls were readers, and we only imagined their life, as we never met them. But in a way I thought we had, for their names were often inscribed in the books that came our way. The Rustens gave our aunt the entire set of Billabong books by Mary Grant Bruce, doled out on birthdays and Christmases to eager recipients; twelve or fourteen of them that were published in Great Britain by Ward Lock. Some rather trashy love stories such as Broken Wings by F. J. Thwaites found their way onto our shelves, made all the more meaningful because of the fact that our mother admitted she had once or twice gone out with him when he was a young man.
Shy the Platypus by Lesley Reece was another treasure. I was to later meet Lesley at the Fremantle Children's Literary Centre in 1997, and to learn that as a young journalist he'd actually interviewed James Joyce in Paris.
My story The Day TV Came was published by the Museum of Contemporary Art when it opened to an exhibition celebrating the coming of television to Australia in the 1950s; though fictional, it tried to capture some of the wonder of film on tap in one's own house. Our television, like our record player, was a substantial piece of furniture—two wooden doors in a cabinet with fake gold handles, opening to reveal a screen below which giant knobs conveyed us to worlds beyond our world, albeit in black and white. When our family bought a television in 1959, we were transfixed by any and every program. Sunday nights were family occasions when we gathered for a TV dinner generally, toasted tomato and cheese on specially designed TV plates, either made in a waffle iron or in our Dad's new-fangled griller. Bought from a door-to-door salesman, the Spaceship, so named for its shape, could grill anything to a crisp, from sausages to sandwiches. One of the features of Sunday evening viewing was Disney World and eating toasted "samos" as our Dad called them, toasted to perfection on the Spaceship. Or during the week watching exciting American shows like 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, Maverick, I Love Lucy, or Father Knows Best. There were very few Australian shows. Homicide, the first cop show, comes to mind as well as a copycat Saturday afternoon Bandstand where you could watch people your own age rock and rolling—and even get a ticket to go out to Gore Hill and become part of the audience that was filmed! If you were brave enough.*
As a young woman I began writing poetry, hesitatingly at first given the models of such accomplishment I'd had. I was drawn to write about what I knew, events and landscapes and people and all the strange yet somehow "ordinary" miracles that Walt Whitman so cleverly describes in his poem of that name. Poetry writing was a major pastime but I began keeping notebooks, fragments of conversation, dreams, reflections. I remember a line of poetry I wrote when I was eighteen years old that said though I, too, longed for Europe, I wanted to know my own country and that henceforth I was "stepping out into Australian times."
In a lustful search for a diversity of texts after my school years and whilst at college, I began consciously exploring Australian literature, particularly poetry. The work of Judith Wright, David Campbell, John Shaw Neilsen, Chrisopher Brennan. I still keep a raggedy copy of that very first Penguin Anthology of Australian Verse that introduced to me to the wealth of Australian voices. Later at college I began to explore more contemporary voices, the likes of Les Murray, Gwen Harwood, Elizabeth Riddell, and Peter Porter. The wonderful old bookshop on Pitt Street in Sydney, Angus and Robertson's with its polished linoleum covered basement where poetry and plays resided, became a place of miraculous discoveries. As did the magical little Rowe Street with its first coffee shops and book shops and records imported from overseas for which you'd have to save to buy.
Translations by Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound of Chinese poetry, and that extreme jewel of verse, the Japanese haiku, were discovered in Rome Street. This largesse, along with the newly translated novels of European authors such as Gide and Mann, Camus, and a whole range of Russian novels from Tolstoy to Chekov Dostoyovsky. My head was hardly ever out of a book and it was a wonder I graduated from college at all. When I did I was to discover the real joys of teaching and must say that my first year at Bankstown Primary School was a year of wonders. Despite the rigours of the timetable imposed then (thirty minutes for this and twenty-five for that, and woe betide you if you didn't teach the said subject at the said hour) I found I could encourage poetry writing with my nine-year-olds—45 of them in a room designed to take up to fifty pupils! This was 1964 and classes were large.
I remember distinctly the exciting drives to Bank-stown Primary School (a long train and bus ride from my home at Tamarama Beach) with my new friend Wendy Stites. She was a young teacher at Bankstown Infants who was lucky enough to own a car, a VW Beetle, with whom I shared petrol money and long conversations. We talked of life and love at length being young women at the time, alongside the joys of art and poetry, and how we could influence the kids we taught. She was later to marry Australian filmmaker Peter Weir and devote all her creative passion to design and wardrobe for movies.
At this time I was going out with a young medical student, Ron Gray, of Polish parentage (his mother had promptly changed their name on arrival as a migrant to Australia) who shared this love of the arts and especially of poetry, and gave into my hands some treasure tomes from his own bookcase. I still have the poetical works of Rainer Maria Rilke he parted with somewhat reluctantly, because I'd told him the book was not to be had in any Sydney bookshop and I loved the work so much. Forbidden movies in Trade Union Hall (Quiet Flows the Don ) or "continental movies" as we called them, like Virgin Spring or La Dolce Vita at Savoy, Lido, or the Paris Theatre, where at interval there was the luxury of buying Italian coffee, were part and parcel of the discovery of "other times." Ron was an extraordinarily clever fellow academically, but I remember his frustration at not being able to paint or write poetry and sometime a flash of annoyance when I'd produce some writing about a place we'd visited together—the fir forest where we'd camped or the Blue Mountains where we'd taken long bracing walks. He was a loving person to me and I am glad to have had such a strong and tender relationship over three or four years of growing up time. But it was through him I realised that understanding and loving poetry or fiction was not enough, that there was another dimension that has nothing to do with the will, and that perhaps in some miraculous and inexplicable way, writing had chosen me!
I broke my medical student's heart when after four years and with our inevitable marriage in sight, I met John Hathorn, a teacher seven years my senior, dashing, romantic and persuasive. But there was grief for me too, in that break, as I felt Ron was part of my most formative years and intoxicated though I was with John's energy and excitement, there were moments of real longing to see Ron again.
My own writing in that time consisted of largely unpublished poetry. I remember the thrill of first acceptance in The Poetry Journal, then managed by poet Grace Perry, of my first poem. This coincided with meeting John, my husband to be, at the school I'd been transferred to, Bellevue Hill Primary School. In those first heady days of our relationship I expressed my desire to be a writer—and a published writer at that!—and explained that it was central to my life. After we were married in 1968, John Hathorn, being a practical soul, suggested that I begin my foray into publishing by writing textbooks. We worked together on the first little books for infants and then I decided I'd write up all the marvelous work the children were capable of in poetry, and Go Lightly, my first substantial book, was published. As I was not fully confident to "go it alone," John was actually listed as co-author. He had, after all, I reasoned, trialed all the poetry techniques written up in the book.
The birth of my children, daughter Lisa in 1970 and then Keiran in 1973, changed our lives once again. I could not think about writing, especially children's books, in the same way. Bringing up children enlivens your perceptions and memories of your own childhood, feeding the fires.
The seventies saw a new confidence in the arts that we all responded to. We'd left behind to some extent the "outback image" that had been promulgated through books and movies, and began to record our urban and indeed our multicultural experiences as wave after wave of migrants settled into the cities, impacting on the Australian way of life. It seemed to young artists un-burdened by the weight of a long European history that we were free to go in any direction. But Australian children were still largely invisible in the body of literature available to them and I think myself lucky to have been writing at the time that publishers acknowledged that "gap."
I had been a classroom teacher but moved into the role of librarian in the primary school where I worked now at Drummoyne, a significant move on my part. Librarianship suited my addiction to books and story and gave me an up-to-the-minute overview of what children were reading. I was very much aware that we needed books about our place, the city as well as the country. I read hundreds of books and was delighted by some Australian novels by Colin Thiele and Ivan Southall, some early Australian picture storybooks like Lydia Pender's Barnaby's Rocket, and the Aboriginal tales The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey.
Looking back, there were two particular writers I discovered in well-stacked shelves who I think deeply influenced my own writing. A series of readers by the English writer Leila Berg, which told hilarious stories of working class kids and their parents, opened my eyes to the way ordinary folk could be written about and also to the fact that ordinary folk were not really well represented in Australian children's literature. And then the work of the Dutch writer Meindert de Jong with his wonderful novel, Journey from Peppermint Street, and for younger readers Nobody Plays with a Cabbage. These were sensitive stories written in spare and beautiful prose and they truly inspired me. I also noticed at this time some very "cool" paperbacks books for struggling readers by a certain Paul Jennings were being very well borrowed from the library. Paul was to become a legend in his own lifetime with a series of hilarious novels some years later.*
It all happened at a party, whose I don't recall, but I was introduced to a young man who worked for an English publishing company, Methuen, who had an office in Sydney. And yes, he'd talk to the children's editor there about a book I was writing.
Stephen's Tree was my first picture storybook. It was set at my brother's then garden market in Waverley, a veritable rainforest of ferns and trees and Australian plants right in the heart of the suburbs. I was thrilled to have a work of fiction underway but I had to debate long and hard with Methuen about having a gum tree central to the story. They strongly advised a beech, ash or elm so the work would sell better in England! It was important for me to have the gum tree but it was equally important to be published.
My first children's book editor, the gentle but resolute Liz Fulton, must have argued well, for a gum tree it was! The book was launched at our local Waverley Library by Peter Weir, who'd already begun to make his name with his first movie, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and all Sandra Laroche's delicate depictions of gum trees and kids were exhibited. The book attracted much media attention not only because it was about an Australian tree but also because Stephen's Tree was a publishing experiment. The publisher, responsive to our multicultural society of largely Greek and Italian migrants, published Stephen's Tree in dual text versions, both Greek and Italian! This experiment was repeated with Lachlan's Walk. Though the books sold well in the English version, the dual language was not a great seller and sad to say, the idea of dual texts was canned!
This connection to Waverley Library for my first-ever book launch was auspicious. Sandra illustrated my next children's picture storybook Lachlan's Walk, set at Watson's Bay and based on a true story about my sister's son Lachlan wandering away from home towards a dangerous cliffside park. It too, was launched at Waverley Library by cartoonist Bruce Petty. And it was to be there at the library that I became aware of the outstanding work of illustrator Julie Vivas through enthusiastic children's librarian, Roniet Myerthal. Julie had an exhibition of her watercolours and after I'd seen her work, Roniet arranged a meeting where I invited Julie to illustrate my next book The Tram to Bondi Beach, to be set in the 1930s, the time of paperboys and trams in Sydney. Julie assured me that her art was not suitable for children's literature, but I thought differently and asked to show some of her work to my Methuen publishers, who immediately agreed with me that she would make a fine partner for the text. Julie had a tough time of it family-wise the year she undertook her superb illustrations for the story, her first picture book, for her husband was away in Spain and she had two small children to look after. We visited the Loftus, the Tram Museum south of Sydney, to get reference photographs because by that time, in 1980s, trams had disappeared from the Sydney streets. Here the children Ana and Kate, along with my children Lisa and Keiran, acted as models for paperboys and passengers. The Tram to Bondi Beach, launched by Maurie Saxby, was highly commended by the Children's Book Council of Australia, and Julie's new career was begun. The then NSW Film and Television group wanted to make a movie of Tram with its setting in the Depression in Bondi. I wrote the first filmscript filled with hope about the possibility of Julie's marvellous artwork and my story, but it was to be one of those many movie projects that only "almost" came off.
During this time in the seventies with two children and a teacher-librarian career, I was fortunate on the home front to have the help of a wonderful woman my mother's age who came to stay for three weeks and stayed instead over a period of twenty years. Without Paddy's help, her organisation of household matters, her sense of humour and her winning ways with little children, I could not have given such time to my own writing. She became a treasured family member at our house and though elderly now, is still interested to hear every scrap of information about our children, Lisa and Keiran.
Back in the eighties as my own children were growing older—though it's true I'm forever interested in picture storybooks—I began to write "chapter books," or what we called junior novels, for young readers. All about Anna, which recalled my Maroubra childhood and was where I consciously placed a girl as an adventurous main character, won honours in the CBA awards. This was followed by a fantasy, The Extraordinary Magics of Emma McDade, the first of my short novels to be translated into Korean, and was similarly short-listed for awards. Paolo's Secret in 1985 was written to portray the loneliness of some children in the school yard when limited by language. As a teacher-librarian in an inner city school I was very much aware of this situation for shy children who found the prospect of the playground daunting. But the novel that was to change my life in the late eighties, and indeed take me all the way to Hollywood, was written for young adult readers and was strongly inspired by the bushland setting of the central coast of NSW.
Thunderwith was written in 1988 on my brother's farm in the Wallingat Forest, which is north of Sydney. This is the story of the loss and alienation of a young girl Lara, as she has to come to terms not only with the death of a beloved mother, but with a dad she barely remembers and a hostile new mother. Its setting is uniquely Australian and when my agents Curtis Brown offered it for publication, in 1988, the $10,000 advance paid by the publisher Heinneman was then considered the largest ever given in Australia for a children's book.
Immediately there were offers for movie options from three Australian companies and it was finally optioned to Southern Star Xanadu. Sandra Levy (currently the head of the Australian Broadcasting Company) was the producer of Xanadu then, and I would have been more than happy to work with her as she had such a sensitivity to the story, but there was to be a lull in movie-making which meant it was difficult to get finances together. In the meantime, Thunderwith the novel travelled well into Europe, being bought in Holland and Denmark, Sweden and Great Britain, then was also published in the United States and was serialized in India. It went into reprint several times in its first year, picking up honours in the CBA awards, too. But it was the offer by Hallmark Hall of Fame in the United States in the late nineties to make a television movie, and to have me as the writer, that was the most exciting news for this story. Several meetings in Hollywood with producer Dick Welsh indicated that they wanted me to write a treatment for the movie placing Gladwyn, the mother, central to the story. This was because their demographic was largely adult females, they told me, and for family viewing. Armed with some how-to-write-movies guidebooks back home, I took off to Seal Rocks and the Wallingat and began the arduous task of writing a movie script to please my producers. Later, American writers were brought on to finish the script and though I was disappointed, I knew I'd reached a time when I simply couldn't make any more changes and still feel it was my story.
Simon Wincer, as director, had chosen Victoria, his home state, rather than NSW where the story is actually set. My husband John, who had become ill with leukemia, had been under heavy treatment and though in remission, had little energy at this time. He encouraged me to take our daughter Lisa and visit the set. It was amazing to go on the set at Mt. Beauty in Victoria to see a whole property changed, roads built, a farmhouse and outhouses constructed, palms planted to create a plantation, a dam built, to mention just a few of the wonders that happened. Judy Davis played a marvelous Gladwyn and was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in The Echo of Thunder, as it was called. Lauren Hewitt made a strong Lara and Emily Browning (later starring in Lemony Snicket ) made her film debut as an engaging young Opal. Thunderwith today is still one of my best-selling novels and is a set text in many schools across Australia.*
In the mid-nineties John had retired from school and we traveled widely, including living in a loft in Mulberry Street in New York, whilst I made better contact with my then agent Laura Blake at Curtis Brown. During that time I met Little Brown's Maria Modugno who had taken both Thunderwith and Grandma's Shoes, and later Simon & Schuster's Virginia Duncan who had taken Sky Sash So Blue. Virginia, moving to Greenwillow, was to hand over to Stephanie Owens Lurie but told me in a farewell letter that Sky Sash was the best children's story she'd ever worked on! Stephanie was incredibly enthused and put Benny Andrews' wonderful artwork for the cover of Sky Sash on their S & S catalogue. Whilst in New York I also visited the office of the legendary Margaret McElderry who told me how she'd enjoyed reading Thunderwith. It was a great visit, at the end of which came the American offers for the movie of Thunderwith.
Another book that had a huge impact was my picture storybook Way Home. It was inspired by the sight of a boy in the underground in London who was begging at the bottom of the giant escalators. He seemed incredibly young to be there alone. I boarded the train and began thinking of my own children safe and sound in a Midland farmhouse, and wrote a poem about a boy called Shane that was to become the basis of the text of Way Home. Mark McLeod, who was a publisher with Random House then, loved the text and magically brought the illustrator Greg Rogers and me together. We traversed the streets of Sydney taking photographs as source material and then Greg returned to Brisbane, where he worked over his amazing artwork that was to win the much-coveted Kate Greenaway Medal in the United Kingdom.
That it was an Australian artist illustrating and Australian text has always amazed and pleased me. It also won a Parents' Choice in America. Praise for the book in Britain and the United States, where it was also published, was high. Luminaries such as Jeremy Briggs and Anthony Browne had positive things to say about it, and after meeting Anthony at an Australian conference, he invited me to send a text I might think suitable for his work. The reviews for Way Home in Australia were not generally good, and it garnered no honours here in any award. But the book has remained in print ever since and is a set text in many schools. The theatre company Barking Gecko produced a play I'd written based on the book with music by a composer Stephen Lalor, whom I'd worked with over the years and who has set much of my children's poetry to music. It remains one of my favourites. At the same time, taken up with the reports I was reading on homeless kids around the world, and surprised at the number in Australia, I wrote Feral Kid. This is a young adult novel about an older boy who is homeless, and it was to be optioned by Hallmark Hall of Fame, as well.
On our travels, John and I lived in Holland for a few months in a wonderful apartment on the Prinsengracht found by my Dutch publishers at Ploegsma. There we met the delightful Nanny Brinkman, at this time still the head of the company, and her husband Paul, who gave us much of his time in showing us Holland. Nanny had taken my novels Thunderwith and Feral Kid and later The Climb. Their own house on the Kaisergracht, a huge former merchant's home, was a wonder to us with its ample beautifully furnished rooms and its rooftop garden with views of Amsterdam all around.
I was inspired at the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to write my novel The Painter, based on the imagined life of an adolescent would-be painter, Bernard, who meets Vincent in Arles and whose life is changed by this encounter. Every morning I'd get on the tram to the museum whilst John hunted antiques and, in the library there, undertake the delightful task of reading Vincent's letters, and then viewing letters that the offspring of his models had written and so on. John and I felt we could have stayed in Amsterdam forever. I had previously signed a six-book contract with publishers Hodder Headline in Australia, and my novels were in the hands of a wonderful children's publisher Belinda Bolliger. I still consult with Belinda on all my work and trust her judgment particularly when it comes to editing.
Picture storybook texts are the closest thing to poetry for me and I'll always want to write them. But it is a pretty amazing thing when they move from picture storybook to opera. Grandma's Shoes, which was published in Great Britain and the United States and has been published twice in Australia with two different artists (one of Belinda's choice), was to become the first children's opera performed in Australia in the new millennium. This is the story of a young girl's search for her grandmother, wearing her precious shoes, and deals with the loss of a beloved family member in a consoling way. There is even an air of triumph for the little girl as she pledges to take up her grandma's storytelling skills.
Not only did I approach Opera Australia with the story text and the idea for an opera, but through my editor at Oxford University Press, Rita Scharf, I had an auspicious meeting with Kim Carpenter, director of Theatre of Image. Kim loved the text and encouraged me to write the libretto. He introduced me to Graeme Koehne, an Adelaide composer whose work is known world-wide. We gained support from Opera Australia by way of musicians and singers, rehearsal spaces and advertising. Grandma's Shoes had a Kim Carpenter setting of a giant book out of which stepped all the characters, and his puppets and backdrop of animations made it a truly wonderful performance. It played to full houses and later I was thrilled to receive an award from the AWGIE (Australian Writers Guild) for this libretto. And later to receive a Prime Minister's Millennium Award for 2000.
Opera is expensive and difficult to mount so it was with some delight in 2003 that I received an invitation from Alabama to have my text for my picture storybook Sky Sash So Blue, published by Simon and Schuster in 1998 in the States, used as libretto. This picture story-book, embellished so lovingly by the artwork of Benny Andrews, is a celebration of freedom; it was inspired by reading Toni Morrison's powerful novel Beloved and is set in the same period of slavery in the deep south. The invitation was from a music lecturer at Miles, an all black college, in Birmingham, Alabama. Phillip Ratliffe had plans for a children's opera using the text already written in verse.
We undertook a long correspondence by e-mail and eventually Philip announced that not only had he almost completed the opera but that he'd secured the funds for its performance in November, 2004. The visit, which enabled me to see the rehearsals and the calibre of opera singers and chamber orchestra, was an exciting one, for it was my first experience of the south. But I must admit that on first hearing Philip's startling atonal music I wondered how young people—some as young as Grade 2—would respond. However, a group of teachers using Maxine Green's music, of the Lincoln Centre reputation, as an inspirational aesthetic education model had fully prepared their students.
So on the day of performance around 700 African-American students enjoyed the opera with its sparse set and accomplished singers and the use of a long, trailing sky sash of deep blue. In 2005, I had more correspondence from Phillip, to indicate Sky Sash will be performed again. This has been made possible by the Cultural Alliance and the Division of Humanities at Miles College, with in-kind donations from the Birmingham Museum of Art, UAB, Midfield Schools, and the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Miracles do happen!*
I have been fortunate over the years in invitations to speak in other countries and often am asked if this is the stuff of inspiration. If it's true that settings do have a huge impact, you never know whether you are going to be found by a story no matter how dramatic or how different the landscape. My initial visit to Papua New Guinea visit was to launch the first ever PNG Children's Book Fair in 1994. After a tour of some of the schools in Port Moresby, accompanied by an Australian journalist who lived there, I was taken to various island schools and touched by the enthusiasm with which a writer was greeted in schools that often lacked libraries and were even sometimes short of notepaper. On the volcanic island of Rabaul, viewing the terrifying outcome of the 1993 eruption and talking to the locals, I was inspired for my verse novel Volcano Boy, though it wasn't to be written until many years later. The following year in 1995, I was invited to run a writing course on the marvelous island of Madang in Papua, New Guinea, and had my first experience of snorkeling in a truly tropical place. I couldn't wait for my workshops to be over, to run helter skelter to my cabin, change into swimming gear, and spend hours, head in the water, in a world that was dramatically lovely, strange, and inspirational. At home, my son, who had undertaken a scuba diving course, had enthused about the underwater world being a great subject for a novel. And it was strange that after a cult leader in California had enticed a group of his followers, some of them quite young, to commit suicide together, and I'd seen a video of his "explanation" to them, that all these things came together in the novel Rift.
An author tour organized by the Australia Council in 1997 took revered Australian writer David Malouf and Gillian Mears and me to India for a marvelous three weeks. Visiting bookshops and universities, we had speaking engagements in New Delhi, Bangalore, Madras (now Chennai) and Bombay (now Mumbai). We were met by writers in each of these places and had two each of our own books launched there by Senator Alston, the then Minister for the Arts. The impact of India on the tourist has been attested to many times. Suffice to say we were enthralled by the diversity, delighted by our hosts, upset by the poverty that was so apparent, and yet charmed by the generosity of those we met. However, we were so programmed as to never get to see the Taj Mahal, something I'd always dreamt of visiting, and where I was sure a story would be lurking. One fortunate connection I'd made was with a printer at an ashram at Pondicherry famous for the quality of the paper it produced. To and fro communication indicated they'd do a limited edition of a book of my poems on specially chosen paper of a generous thickness, with petal impressed endpapers and a handmade binding in Hablik cloth.
Invited to speak at the prestigious IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference, which was to be held in New Delhi, India, I returned the next year in 1998, this time with my friend Pat and my two sisters Margaret and Suzanne, who had heard my enthusiastic descriptions of this exotic culture. This time, after IBBY, I determined to make the journey to Agra as well as one to the equally famed Lake Palace. India simply seduced us as we moved from place to place, dazzled by all we saw and especially the Taj Mahal which was all and more than I'd expected.
I'd met a charming publisher at IBBY and was invited to present my text set at the Taj Mahal to her small, brave children's publishing house, Tulika Books, just getting underway in Chennai. A Face in the Water is a timeslip story which takes a historic view of the building of the Taj and stars the daughter of the emperor Shah Jahan and two present-day Australian kids. It was illustrated by a young Indian artist Uma Krishnaswamy and published in India in 2000.
We visited Pondicherry and the ashram where Heard Singing was to be printed on hand-made paper. Australian paper-cutting artist Brigitte Stoddard's delicate work in Australian wildflowers graced this limited edition. Brigitte eventually illustrated my junior novel, Okra and Acacia: The Story of the Wattle Pattern Plate, based on the Chinese legend "The Story of the Willow Patter Plate," which was published by Hodder Headline. A wonderful hand-sewn hessian wrapped bundle of poetry books eventually arrived in Sydney from India and it gave me a great deal of pleasure to have seen the whole process and to know that I had been able to influence the look and feel of Heard Singing. Gifts were made of the book, some were sold and it remains a favourite book on my own shelves.
My husband John died in 1998 when leukemia he'd contracted in 1996 re-occurred. He had been fighting it for two years and his bravery in the face of a bone marrow transplant was amazing, though so difficult to witness, even though he remained positive in the face of all his trials. I've tried to write a book about our last overseas journey together in 1997 between his treatments, where we lived for a short time in a magical chateau in Normandy, John collecting antiques whilst I wrote a filmscript; but somehow that book is still unfinished.
There have been some big life changes in that time both at home and in my work. Both my children are with partners and in fact I'm a grandmother to a baby girl, Ruby Rose (inspiration for storybooks of course). My son Keiran working in Information Technology has inspired me to work on interactive stories. Our small company has released two CD-ROMs thus far. The first one, Weirdstop, which comprises stories of the weird variety for ten-to fourteen-year-olds, immediately won the Australian Interactive Media Industry Award for Best New Children's Product in 2003. Coolstop which links sport and literacy was launched by an Olympic medallist in late 2004, and we're currently working on a game and story for younger readers we've called Wonderstop,which is environmental in approach. A whole new world of writing and producing has opened up.
This does not mean that I'm not writing story books. My historic novel Georgiana is still underway, as is a new picture storybook; whilst last year saw the launch of children's picture storybook The Great Big Animal Ask by film producer Rebel Penfold Russell. I'm also working on a poetry Web site, which is a long overdue project with notes for parents and teachers as to how to "turn kids on to poetry!" You see, poetry has rewarded me in every possible way. Writer Shirley Hazzard has attested that poetry changes things. And there's no doubt in my mind that those early poetry sessions with our parents, the reading and the reciting, always having poetry books to hand that illuminated my world, and taking on poetry as a significant companion has been the greatest influence on my writing, and indeed on all of my life.