Today I am introducing you to two very different Aussie writers for young people. Morris Gleitzman writes stories from family relationships to the adventures of a young Jewish lad during and after World War II. Andy Griffiths, who keeps winning awards from children, not judges, is simply funny. Very funny! And, different as they are, they did once produce a series together, Wicked.
Let’s start with Morris Gleitzman. He is the current Australian Children’s Laureate, a job that will keep him busy for two years.
Last year I took my students to hear him speak at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Even those who hadn’t read his books before bought copies immediately to get signed, if they had the money(I bought some copies for those who didn’t have the money). One young man started reading the next day and became a huge fan.
He is a prolific author, so I can only talk about a few of his books. Let’s start with Two Weeks With The Queen. That one was our Year 7 English text some years ago, so may have been the first of his books I read. The young Australian hero is sent to stay with family in England because his little brother is dying. He decides that the Queen must have the best doctor in the world and spends much of the novel trying to communicate with her so that the doctor can be sent to save his brother. Along the way, he meets two gay men, one of whom is dying of AIDS, and helps them spend the dying partner’s last days together, something the hospital has made difficult. The novel was gentle, sad and unexpectedly funny at times. It’s short and can almost be read in a single sitting, but powerful stuff.
Boy Overboard is about a refugee boy and his family who travel through enormous danger only to find themselves in one of those dreadful Australian detention centres our awful governments of the past several years have set up to “stop the boats.” The young man’s voice is so delightful you can’t help but empathise with him.
In the sequel, Girl Underground, a girl doing a school project involving writing to kids in the detention centre decides to help him escape. The novel is seen from her viewpoint, not his.
Morris Gleitzman has also written funny stories and historical fiction and novels about family issues, but is best known these days for the Once series. The young hero, Felix, is a Jewish boy fleeing the Nazis, fighting with the Resistance and, after the war, trying to help people who need it in what is left of Poland, including a young girl who is pregnant and an orphaned baby. He eventually gets to Australia and trains as a doctor. Oddly, the third novel in the series, right in the middle of Felix’s adventures, is set in modern Australia and seen from the viewpoint of Felix’s granddaughter Zelda, who is living with him while her parents are off overseas doing good with an aid agency. So you know he will be fine, before the next novel takes you back to the war years and teenage Felix’s time with the Resistance, where he learns his first medical skills. Felix has a heart of gold!
All I can say is that our kids love this series. I’ve had Year 7 students pounce on the latest book with cries of delight because they missed it in primary school. He has been on the Children’s Book Council of Australia shortlist several times.
Andy Griffiths will never be on the CBCA shortlist. He just doesn’t write the sort of books adult judges deem worthy of an award. He does, however, tend to win in the YABBA awards every year. The YABBAs are voted on by his readers. A number of his books have been turned into plays which are performed during the school holidays. One of these is Just Macbeth in which his regular characters from the Just series of books find themselves thrown back in time and becoming characters from the Scottish Play while practising some scenes for school. It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare for children. The most popular series at the moment is the Treehouse series, which started as The 13 Storey Treehouse and had, the last I heard, got up to 104 Storeys! They are illustrated by his regular illustrator and friend Terry Denton. The two of them perform together for their fans at the YABBA Award presentations every year, then sit down to sign. The queues are so long that when I went last year, long after the rest of us were enjoying lunch after doing our signings, they were still signing. I hope there was food left for them!
The series Schooling Around - Treasure Fever, Pencil Of Doom, Mascot Madness and Robot Riot - is centred around the adventures of a primary school class and their zany teacher. Mr Griffiths kindly gave me the whole set for my school when new covers were released, which was great as the old copies were always going missing.
Andy Griffiths is, in my opinion, the successor to Paul Jennings, of whom I will write later in this series. Like Paul Jennings, he has recognised that children like over-the-top stuff, fiction or non. The Just! stories rely on that. One that I have read with my classes many times, “Gorillagram”, has a boy dressing up as a gorilla to annoy his sister during her sixteenth birthday party at a posh restaurant. He gets stuck in the costume and is carried off to the zoo. His short story “The Day My Bum Went Psycho” ended up as a series of novels. (In the US “Bum” became “Butt” because the word bum has a different meaning there.) Dear me, what a huge fuss what made here when the first story was published! How very vulgar! And yet, it was just - intentionally - a silly story about a boy whose backside detaches itself and runs away into Melbourne’s CBD. In this universe, it’s not even unusual. There is an entire brigade of “bum catchers”.
Andy Griffiths is one of Australia’s best-loved children’s writers and has done very well overseas as well, even if he will never win a CBCA Award. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting hold of his books wherever you live, as they have been released in 30 countries. Do it - your kids will love you!
Buy his books and Morris Gleitzman’s, here.
Or just ask at your local good bookstore!
Monday: Stephen Herrick, author of gentle YA verse novels