Do you mind if I take a moment to talk about Australians? I kind of have a need to talk about Australians (and their neighbors, New Zealanders). Just for a sec.
At the pool the other day I was pimping a book to my friend Marnie and her little girl. There we were, half-naked, bobbing in the water, and I'm throwing out book titles. I really need a life, or at least a second hobby.
Marnie was looking for readalouds and I had an absolute howler to recommend: "The main character is like Mary Poppins," I said, "but less, you know, weird. She shows up and she's like, 'I'm your new nanny. Where's the sugar? Never mind I'll find it myself. And hey if a evil ringmaster comes to the door asking for me, I'm not here.' Because," I continue, "she used to be the human cannonball in a circus but she is on the run from that. And she speaks fluent Korean."
The little girl was sold by the time I hit 'evil ringmaster' but Marnie had this like "Oooooh-kay..." look on her face. "The author's Australian," I added. "Gotcha," she said, her expression clearing. "What's the title?"
It's Nanny Piggins, of course. Nanny Piggins, anarchic hero, a character who defies almost every convention of children's literature. An adult with a vast store of anecdotes from her sordid past and a great deal of physical competence who disregards rules and common sense - she sounds more like the heroine of a Carl Hiaasen novel than someone you'll find in the children's section, right? No wonder it has taken kind of a while for her books to appear in the U.S.
Also, she is ALMOST LITERALLY the only talking animal character I can read without flinching.
There are NINE Nanny Piggins books. NINE. And all we've got here is a measly three. The third, Nanny Piggins and the Runaway Lion, is on library shelves right now. Go get it.
Bringing us t0 a discussion of Tashi. How many books starring the cutest li'l hero ever to wear a smart red jacket are for sale in his native land? LIKE SEVENTEEN. How many in the U.S.?
Oh. I stand corrected. You can get almost all of the Tashi books here now. Well, you couldn't for an age, it was very frustrating because they are brilliant. The Tashi stories are short, heavily illustrated, charming, and imaginative. They are great to read aloud and they are just the right length and reading level to give to new readers as a bridge between Beginning Readers and longer chapter books. Ezra LOVED them when he was seven.
Anyway, that's not what this post is about. Availability I mean. No, the reason I am writing about Australians (and New Zealanders) is because they're sort of disproportionately GOOD.
Look at this: YA authors from the Antipodes include Margo Lanagan, Maurice Gee, Melina Marchetta, and Marcus Zusak. MARGARET MOTHERF-ING MAHY. That's a lot of talent! Also a lot of M's.
But there are also ridiculously talented Oz/NZ authors without M's in their names: Karen Healey! Emily Rodda! Craig Silvey! Garth Nix! Catherine Jinks, and if that's not the most Aussie name you've ever heard I'm a shark biscuit.
Has this unusual concentration of high-quality writing come about because the books that make it to North America have gone through an additional filtration layer? Does only the very best of Down Under kidlit get U.S. distribution? That seems hard to believe. It's certainly not the filter that is usually applied to cultural imports - do we only get the finest in Japanese horror movies? the highest quality Korean pop music? the most refined Peruvian millinery fashion? NO. We get those dumb earflap hats and Psy.
So you have to sort of wonder, as I did when I finished reading Pink by Lili Wilkinson, an underappreciated high school novel in which the main character's confusion about her sexuality rode this lovely line between tormented and funny - what's in the water down there? How come Wilkinson's characters looked so much like the kids I know: down-to-earth, gossipy, obsessed with fairness and social stature? How come the plot made sense (teenage sense anyway) and moved forward so smoothly and with assurance? And why is that the case with ALL OF THESE BOOKS?
Then there's Red by Libby Gleeson (I'd go through the whole spectrum like this - Pink, Red, Orange, etc - if I could, but the publishing gods just don't give me gifts like that). Red's a short book. Unmemorable cover. From the outside, a shrug of a book. But inside - a catastrophic storm and a girl who has lost her memory and the vagrant-y boy who helps her... and I mean, I was blown away. I was as lost as the character was at first - the post-storm landscape was so alien and disorienting, I wasn't even sure we were in the real world or in the future or where. This book was brilliant! And it was just some short little novel with a terrible cover.
And how about this for unexpected pleasure - somebody sent me a frickin HORSE BOOK to review and it was excellent. Not kidding. A series entry about horse-mad kids in Australia, some drama about a horse dies and a friend moves away, and the main character gets over her grief by training a horse and meeting other horse-mad kids. Whatever, right? There's a contest of cowboy skills that she must win in order to get the money to buy the thing to save the farm to keep the animal from getting sold for dogfood et cetera handsome boy mean girl the end.
But it was terrific! The descriptions of the landscape: the river valley, the farm buildings, the paddocks, all understated but really rich. We smell the grass, the animals, the tackroom. The horses have as much personality as the people, and that's no insult.
All I could conclude, as I thoroughly enjoyed this dumb horse book, was that... IT'S AUSTRALIA. Maybe there's a narrative asperity common to these authors that I appreciate? A keen eye for character? Dialogue generally feels very natural - sarcasm and verbal elision, characters under-talking, if that makes sense. The opposite of that horrible labored dialogue in which everyone restates everything five times.
To me, when I group these folks together in a list, I see things. Look at this list of picture book and middle grade creators:
Andy Griffiths / Terry Denton
I see sly, unconventional humor (Toad Rage, Horrible Harriet) that doesn't hesitate to play the crass card (The Terrible Plop, everything Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton have ever touched), clear-eyed acknowledgement of real feelings (Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House, Harry & Hopper) with spare language and open space (Diary of a Wombat, The Silver Button). I see historical fiction that seeks to engage more than to educate (Once, Nanberry). I see an appreciation for anarchy and a celebration of imperfect people (Nanny Piggins, Hazel Green).
Above all, many of these books seem weirdly timeless to me. When I first read Tashi, I thought it was from the 1950's. Nanny Piggins has a distinct midcentury devil-may-care flavor. Jasper Jones is set several decades ago but could have been wrtten at any time since about 1972. Until I saw Garth Nix address a conference full of librarians in New York this year, I swear I figured he was as old as George R.R. Martin.
Why is that? Maybe it's a function of the sort of side-slipped mirror-image similarities between Australia/New Zealand and North America - we share size, language, and climate (largely), British cultural heritage and a melting-pot cultural present, but we are at opposite ends of the earth and so we don't share the little things, like slang and commercial jingles and the brands of breakfast cereal we eat.
They speak English, but then they come back from the grocery store with crumpets, a bag of Frazzles and a slab of stubbies, and you're like - are these people Muppets? What the hell is going on here? And maybe my mind resolves these minor alienisms by assuming a time displacement.
But it's not the past - it's Australia (and New Zealand). And they apparently teach their children how to write there. To illustrate, I'm going to let Hazel Green have the last word:
"Sometimes you really are terrible, Hazel."
"Good," thought Hazel Green. "Everyone should be terrible sometimes."