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BOOK LIST: Best Australian children's books chosen by Kate Constable

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When I asked Kate Constable, the author of the award-winning CROW COUNTRY,  to be a guest on my blog this week, I asked her if she'd write me a post about her favourite Australian children's books. She had a confession to make, however ...

Even though I was born in Australia, and I have been an avid reader all my life, it is a strange but true fact that when I was growing up, I didn't read Australian books.

Though I was born in Melbourne, I spent most of my childhood in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, in a tiny town called Mt Hagen. My father worked there as a charter pilot, flying light planes in and out of isolated mountain villages, carrying all kinds of passengers and cargo - everything from cattle to coffins, sacks of coffee beans to cans of fish.

Mt Hagen was a very small town in those days - now it's the third largest city in PNG - but for some reason it had an excellent public library, in a dark little building near the market. It seems so unlikely that such a well-stocked library could possibly exist that I've tried to research how this could have come about, but I haven't been able to find out, and the library doesn't seem to exist any more. My best guess is that it was the result of some philanthropic impulse or charitable exercise - send a library to the Highlands!

Whatever the case, I was the beneficiary. I read my way through shelves of wonderful children's authors: Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Ransome, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E. Nesbit, Leon Garfield, PL Travers, CS Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge and so many more. I've spent many rewarding years since, trying to recreate that library via second hand bookshops, with some success! (These are many of my favourite children's authors too!)

With no television, few shops or recreational facilities, there wasn't much to do in Mt Hagen except to read, and I read everywhere: at the table, under the blankets, sitting in trees. Like may children, I read my favourite books over and over again. Sometimes I borrowed the books just to put them under my pillow at night; I loved them so much and knew them so well that there was no need to open the covers.

I was especially drawn to books about magic, ghosts and time travel, memories and dreams. Some of my particular favourites were Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, CS Lewis's Narnia books, and A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. Many of the books I loved best were by English authors, and when my family travelled to the UK (so my father could visit his family for the first time since he was twenty), I felt an immediate and intense bond with the English countryside.

I instantly felt that I knew this landscape, deep in my bones: the damp green fields, the spreading trees and sheltering hedgerows, the stone cottages and bluebell-filled woods. This was home, this was where I belonged, and when we left a few weeks later, I cried for days.

Weirdly, I felt no such connection to the Australian landscape when we returned to Melbourne on leave, even though I'd been born and spent the first six years of my short life there. I wonder now whether, after reading all those English books, the landscape of England had seeped into my imagination as a place brimming with magical possibilities. 

In contrast, the few books I read by Australian authors all seemed to be sternly realistic, about girls with ponies in sun-scorched paddocks, or, terrifyingly, about children surviving bushfires or plane crashes alone. There didn't seem to be a space in the Australian landscape of those books for magic, or fantasy, or time travel; no ghosts, no history; nothing for me to hold onto.

How wrong I was!

Of course there were books, Australian books, that knew about magic; but for some reason, I never managed to find them. It was only as an adult that I discovered wonderful books by Australian authors that might have given me the same sense of wonderful, mysterious power that I'd gleaned from those English fantasy stories. One of  the reasons I wrote Crow Country was to try to add to that list, and help a new generation of readers to realise how much magic and power lies in our own landscape.

Here are three of my favourite Australian books for children and young adults from the era of my youth, books I wish I'd found:

1. Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park
How did I manage to miss this book? It was published in 1980, when I was 13, but for some reason it took me another thirty years to read it! The time travel element, so hard to get right, is handled expertly, and the scenes of early Sydney are wonderfully evocative. The love story is poignant and perfectly pitched. 

2. Pastures of the Blue Crane, by Hesba Brinsmead
Not a magical story as such, but the descriptions of northern New South Wales are so gorgeous that the writing thrums. The story of aloof Ryl's discovery of her inheritance and her gradual connection with her estranged grandfather is very moving. The book's handling of racial issues was radically progressive at the time, though it seems awkwardly dated now; but this is still a beautiful book. (I have not read this one, so its gone straight on to my ever-growing TBR shelf - thanks, Kate!)

3. The Rocks of Honey, by Patricia Wrightson
Wrightson's books were the books I needed to read, but somehow never found at the right time. Her sensitive handling of Aboriginal mythology was revolutionary at the time; although she was criticised more recently for appropriating cultural content, many Indigenous leaders applauded her work, and she introduced generations of children to Aboriginal magic. I could have chosen half a dozen Wrightson titles, but The Rocks of Honey was one of the first I read and it remains special to me, a simple but subtle tale of magic and misunderstanding.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy Belinda Murrell's list of Favourite Australian Children's Books 


BOOK LIST: Best Australian Young Adult novels chosen by Karen Foxlee

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Today please welcome Karen Foxlee, author of the haunting and utterly beautiful THE MIDNIGHT DRESS. I asked her to compile a list of her five favourite Australian Young Adult novels and you know what? I have some reading to do! I've only read two on this list, but they are two of my all-time favourite authors (Margo Lanagan & Marcus Zusak) so this proves Karen has excellent taste. 

I hope you find some new reading here too.

After compiling a little list of my five favourite Australian young adult novels I was very surprised to find what a mixed bag it was!  Some of the novels I read as a teenager, while others I came to later in life.  All of them can be read by adults.  They are novels that I enjoyed immensely, that moved me, that made me laugh and cry and that remain in my mind years after I read them.  In fact, thinking about some of them has made me want to dig them out again and reread!  My list of five is in no particular order. 

1. “The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay” by Rebecca Sparrow 
I can’t think of a more perfect premise for a contemporary YA novel.  What would happen if the cutest/coolest boy in school had to come and live at your house!  Rebecca Sparrow is such a clever writer and this novel is by turns sweet, sad, and hilariously funny. I was a teenager in the eighties so it all feels so wonderfully familiar.  And I love a main character who makes you feel.  Rachel made me laugh, cringe, worry and cheer.  

2. “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park
I was in grade nine when I read this novel and thinking about it, straight away, an image of Plymouth Street, Surrey Hills, appears before me.  It’s amazing how the mind works and the power of words a good thirty years on!! Ruth Park bought the slums of Sydney to life, riotously, colourfully, teaming with tenements and razor gangs and brothels.  She tells the story of the Darcy family in Surrey Hills, with two daughters Rosie and Dolour.  I can recall being completely mesmerised by their tale.  There is a thread that runs through the story about Mumma’s sorrow for a missing brother, Thady, who was taken from the streets when he was three which moved me so much.  And I can still remember my horror at the treatment of Johnny, an intellectually impaired neighbour.  I’m heading out to the library to find this one again!

3. “Tender Morsels” by Margo Lanagan
I have more than one Margo Lanagan novel that could make this list but I thought I better just go with my favourite, “Tender Morsels.”  Even the name excites me.  I think it is a wonderful thing to be so moved, upset, confused and compelled by a book.  The story of Liga and her two daughters Branza and Urdda is a powerful one, about past hurts and healing and re-entering the world, and packed solid with Lanagan’s amazingly earthy, raw magic, and wild bears! Oh don’t get me started on the bears.  After this novel was chosen as a Printz Honor book I remember reading lots of comments questioning how YA appropriate it was.  Gosh I hope my daughter reads books like this when she is a teenager! These kind of books make you feel like you’re alive.  

4. “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak  
How can you not love a book that starts: “Here is a small fact. You are going to die”.  I read Zusak’s book when it first came out and was hooked from that line.  I love his writing. It is completely audacious, when you think about it, a book narrated by death, but never once does it feel wrong. His writing is so natural, so fresh, and so completely unique.  It’s the tale of girl called Leisel and her acts of book thievery in Nazi Germany.  It stares the brutality of war and death down the barrel, unflinchingly, while somehow, so wonderfully, celebrating words and all the beauty in our brief lives. 

5.  "Thursday's Child" by Sonya Hartnett
This was my introduction to Sonya Hartnett and I came to her writing late.  She is a wonderful writer and her books always stay with me long after I put them down.  I love her dark complex stories and this coming of age story is particularly dark and strange.  Thursday’s Child is the story of a family, struggling to survive in 1930s Great Depression Australia, facing poverty and heartbreak.  It is the tale of Harper Flute but also her little brother, Tin, who is different to the rest and slowly turning wild.  He enters the earth beneath their ramshackle house, and begins to dig and burrow, leaving them behind.  Hartnett’s descriptions of Tin’s subterranean wanderings, the Australian landscape and the harshness of life in that era, made me feel uneasy and anxious but this is also a story, thankfully, of hope.  So different, I remember thinking.  So wonderfully different! 

Thank you, Karen!

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