Tag Archives: children’s literature

Philip Pullman’s Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (2017)

dust1.jpegThis is the first book in a promised trilogy, which is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy. If you haven’t read the earlier work I wouldn’t start with this one, there is something incomparably delicious in the way the world is revealed in Northern Lights (1995), and I remember how agonising the wait was for the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) after the cosmic cliffhanger ending of the second (The Subtle Knife).

La Belle Sauvage a big thick book, but a surprisingly quick read. Lyra, the main character of earlier/later trilogy, is a baby in grave danger. There are kind nuns and mean nuns, dangerous daemons and sweet daemons (Pullman’s daemons are one of the great inventions of twentieth century children’s literature), a deeply scary villain, a massive natural upheaval, a magical boat (the eponymous Belle Sauvage), and wonderfully engaging lead characters.

The second half of the book lost some of its charm for me as it turned into a kind of Odyssey-lite. But it might be more accurate to say that in the episodic second half, I became aware that I’m not part of the imagined audience. Given the amount of fruity language, and a sex scene that Malcolm, the young protagonist, sees but doesn’t understand, I’m thinking the book is meant primarily for people in their mid teens.

I was reluctant to embark on this trilogy because my To Be Read Pile is towering. But I’m very glad I did because I was in danger of forgetting what pleasure there could be in a good story. It’s a lot of pleasure.


PS on a tiny thing gave me perverse delight
On page 133 Malcolm is talking to his school friend Eric about spies, and suggests that the music reacher, ‘the shortest-tempered person Malcolm had ever known’, might be one:

Eric thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But she stands out too much. A real spy’d be less conspicuous. Blend in more.’

On the next page, still in the same conversation, Malcolm suggests that Eric pump his father for information about something.

‘Dunno. I could ask him. But I got to be suitable about it. Can’t just come out with a question.’
‘What do you mean, suitable?’
‘You know. Not obvious.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Malcolm. ‘Subtle’ was the word Eric wanted, probably. And he’d probably meant ‘conspicuous’ earlier.

Well, yes, he probably mean ‘conspicuous’ because that’s what he said. Clearly there’s been an unusual proofreading error. Malcolm’s unvoiced comment only makes sense if Eric used a malaprop earlier (‘A real spy’d be less contiguous,’ perhaps). Someone – I’m guessing a proofreader late in the process – corrected the wrong word and then had a moment’s inattention on the next page. Editorial workers all over the world think, ‘There but for the grace of god …’

Books read to small visitors

Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood, The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The present (Allen & Unwin 2014)
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood. Go to Sleep, Jessie! (Little Hare 2014)
Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (©1957; Random House)
Janet & Allan Ahlberg, Each Peach Pear Plum (©1978, Puffin)
Doctor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (©1960; Random House)

We have just had two small people visiting for a week (along with their mother, my niece). Although the little girls were mostly busy making things and being generally fascinating company, they did like being read to, which meant that we had a chance to discover some new books for very young reader–listeners, and to revisit some old ones.

1gsjLibby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood won two of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards this year (Freya won a third, but for older readers), and we were guided by the CBCA in our purchase of new books. Their books are warm, affectionate celebrations of the intelligence of their girl protagonists. In Go to Sleep, Jessie! the heroine shares a bedroom with a baby who refuses to go to sleep and instead keeps her awake by crying loudly. The parents’ well-meaning attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, and she solves it beautifully herself.

1tcsCleo is a bit older, and her problems are of a different order. ‘Everyone’ at a friend’s party has a necklace, but her parents say she can’t have one until her birthday, which is a very long time away.  In a second story she has to decide on a birthday present for her mother. The problems are real, and the solutions clever.

Both books harbour understated challenges to the parents who will read them aloud many times: what do you think about consumerism, envy, tattoos or ‘controlled crying’, among other things?

039480001XAfter dinner one night the two little girls put on a ‘show’ that consisted mainly of vigorous physical movement and silly faces, but included audience participation in which we adults had to take our socks off and wave them about, and later take turns reading from The Cat in the Hat. The book was apparently chosen at random, but it was wonderful to see the concentration grow on the young listeners’ faces as the story progressed. (Two thirty-somethings ostentatiously took to their smart phones during the reading. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.)

1eppp

An ‘I spy’ book whose images turn out to tell a story. Hearing my niece read it to her daughters in a way that beautifully captured its music, I remembered again that the joy of reading excellent children’s books aloud is as much for the adults as for the young ones. And that’s true of books like this, that depend on the art for their full meaning.

Dr_Seuss_Green_Eggs_and_HamAnother Dr Seuss book. This one was referred to a couple of times as our almost-two-year-old was being resolutely negative (‘Would you like it in a box? Would you like it with your socks?’). Theodor ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel makes it look easy, but to create books that beginning readers can manage that are also fun for the fiftieth – or should that be five hundredth? – time is the work of a genius.

There were other books – including a Snugglepot and Cuddlepie adaptation that leaves mercifully nameless both the revising writer and the simplifying artist. I tried to insinuate Where the Wild Things Are into the mix, but the little one, clearly recognising the book, rejected it as too scary.

aww-badge-2015Go to Sleep, Jessie! and The Cleo Stories,  are the thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I know they’re very slender, but it should count for something that I’ve read both of them at least four times in the last week.

Steven Herrick’s Caboolture

Steven Herrick, Caboolture (Five Islands Press 1990)

1cabooltureSteven Herrick has written a number of terrific verse novels for young readers, most recently Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain (UQP 2014). He’s kept busy performing from them in schools, he has won prizes for them, and more significantly he has attracted a keen readership. In a recent radio interview, asked about his beginnings as a writer, he acknowledged almost sheepishly that he used to perform ‘to lots of drunks in pubs’, that he started out writing about ‘inner-city life’.

It’s a neat bit of counterpoint: as the poet matured he progressed from grown-up venues to children’s and young people’s writing. I’ve enjoyed a number of his more mature works (that is, the verse novels for young readers), so it was only natural that, when a secondhand bookshop shelf offered me Caboolture, a book from his former incarnation, I snapped it up.

I enjoyed these poems, which mostly relate one way or another to masculinity: youthful escapades (not all of them legal) and relationships with women (not all of them Hallmark-worthy), father–son scenarios in which the speaker occupies both roles (in different poems), traveller’s tales, car lyricism. They range from swaggering fun to starkly elegiac, with an occasional foray into poet-identity (in one of several poems set in the US, the speaker has enough money for a book of Frank O’Hara poems or a pie – he can’t have both). They read well on the page, but cry out to be read aloud – or performed, the purpose for which they were originally written.

The only clue to the direction that Herrick’s work was going to take is in five poems featuring his infant son Joe. ‘Country Joe’, for example, takes us through the small hours:

Joe’s awake
it’s 2 am
I threaten Joe
with a song
he acts like he’s asleep
Joe’s awake
it’s 3 am

an so on. On that recent radio interview, when asked for something from his pub-reading days, he performed ‘To My Son, Joe’, a poem he said went down reasonably well in pubs, which begins:

for the first five years
you’ll be like your Dad
you’ll fall over a lot
always be on the bottle
& stay awake all night.

Here’s a YouTube of him performing it, in which he says it’s from his book Water Bombs, a book published five years after Caboolture, described on its cover as ‘a book of poems for teenagers’. I’d say the poem goes down pretty well in schools: a genuine crossover poem. Have a listen.

If you don’t know Steven Herrick’s work, I’d start with one of the verse novels rather than Caboolture. But if, like me, you love his later work, here’s something different.

Words of warning: If you’re younger than about 30 you may need help with some of the cultural references (as in ‘Brian Henderson Saw Us Make Love’, though the poem would still work if you didn’t know Brian Henderson was an iconic newsreader). If you’re from Goondiwindi you may object to having your town’s name consistently misspelled. If you’re from Caboolture, on the other hand, I imagine it will be good to see that someone knows how to say your town’s name right.

Stephen Whiteside’s Billy that Died with its Boots On

Stephen Whiteside, The Billy that Died with its Boots On and other Australian verse, illustrated by Lauren Merrick (Walker Books 2014)

coverDiane Bates, children’s writer and tireless children’s literature activist, recently set up the Australian Children’s Poetry web site. Its aim, she said,

is to, for the first time, give a national and international ‘face’ to Australian children’s poetry.

The website, which is well worth a look, may change things, but until now poetry written for children in Australia has struggled to have a public face. The School Magazine, published by the NSW Department of Education, has been a dependable outlet just short of 100 years, but its index fairly bristles with lovely poems that appeared there and then were seen no more (except in readers’ memories: in my time at the magazine we received regular phone calls from people trying to track down a poem they had read in the magazine 70 or so years earlier).

It’s always heartening, then, when a children’s publisher like Walker Books brings out a new book of poetry, especially one by a single author.* It would quickly become disheartening, of course, if the poetry wasn’t any good, but The Billy That Died with its Boots On delivers the goods.

The poet’s Introduction proclaims his life-long love of rhyme, and encourages readers to ‘find a brother or sister, or mother or father, or cousin, or aunt or uncle, or grandfather or grandmother, or simply a friend, and read a poem to them’. So be warned, if you give this to a young person as a gift, be prepared to sit still and be read to.

Not that you will suffer if that happens. The book is bursting with gleeful love of rhyme and bush-ballad rhythms. There’s nonsense, fantasy, word play, jokes (some laugh-aloud, some groan-worthy), historical narrative; the beach, the bush, the snow, the sports field; dogs and cats, cormorants and spotted quolls; dinosaurs and flying whales. It’s not hard to imagine a young reader becoming permanently addicted to rhyme if exposed to this book.

If I have a favourite poem, it’s probably ‘We Headed for the Beach Today’. I’d love to give you the whole poem, but it’s long and I don’t want to breach anyone’s copyright: suffice to say it lists all the things that could have gone wrong on a day at the beach but didn’t, mixing the all too common with the extremely unlikely, all in impeccably scanned, rhyming couplets, as for example:

No one grizzled. No one snarled. No one yelled or jeered.
We didn’t see a baby grab his daddy by the beard.
A change did not arrive to make the water dark and wild.
A shiny flying saucer did not steal a little child.

It’s perfect for learning off by heart and performing for your brother or sister, etc.

By way of full disclosure: Roughly half of these poems were first published in The School Magazine, many of them when I was editor. Stephen graciously mentions me in the acknowledgements, and also in his account of the book’s long gestation on the Australian Children’s Poetry site. I received a complimentary copy from Walker Books.
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* I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is the only such book Walker have published. Far from it. The last page advertises Guinea Pig Town and Note on the Door, both books by Lorraine Marwood, another fine poet who has graced the pages of The School Magazine.

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre

Maurice Sendak, Pierre (HarperCollins 1962)

20140309-072501.jpg I don’t generally blog about books I’ve re-read, but my blogging has been light-on recently as I’ve been reading mostly film scripts, which are exempt from my self-imposed task of writing about everything I read, so here’s a quick note on Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, which I re-read recently before wrapping it as a present.

Pierre: A cautionary tale in five chapters and a prologue was first published as a tiny book, cased with three others as The Nutshell Library. Our copies of those tiny books have long since disappeared after a huge amount of use and abuse. Besides Pierre, there are an alphabet book, Alligators All Around, a counting book, One Was Johnny, a book of the months, Chicken Soup with Rice. In case there’s anyone who doesn’t already know, Sendak was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and illustrators for children, and though these books are in some ways very modest, absolutely obedient to the rules of their genres, each of them is a masterpiece. I have read them all aloud many many times to small co-readers and still love hem.

But Pierre has a special place. I think I first heard of it when my older brother took his eleven year old son on his knee and said,

Good morning, darling boy,
You are my only joy.

And when his son said, shockingly, ‘I don’t care,’ they both laughed.

And that’s the set-up: Pierre’s refrain is ‘I don’t care!’ Because it’s billed as a cautionary tale, the punitive saying ‘Don’t care was made to care’ can’t be far from an adult reader’s mind, as in the cautionary tales of Hilaire Belloc. For those who have so far been spared the delicious horrors of Belloc, let me mention ‘Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion’. The title tells the whole story really – and then there’s this (punctuated as in the original):

His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ‘Well – it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!’
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

As a child I enjoyed Belloc’s tales of appalling retribution, confident that my own parents could never be that callous. And I enjoyed Roald Dahl’s even more gruesome variants when I read them to my children. But Sendak pushes the form beyond lip-smacking crime and punishment. Like Jim, Pierre is eaten by a lion as a direct consequence of his naughtiness. But whereas the father imagined by Catholic Belloc goes on to moralise, the Jewish Sendak’s parents, realising that their son is inside the lion, spring into action:

They rushed the lion into town.
The doctor shook him up and down
and when the lion gave a roar
Pierre fell out upon the floor.
He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head
and laughed because he wasn’t dead.

I may be idiotic, but that last couplet never fails to fill me with joy.

There’s a nice discussion of the whole Nutshell Library on the We Read It Like This blog, where there’s also an excellent reading.

Ramayana for children (and westerners) in English

Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Ramayana for Young Readers (translated by Swapna Dutta, The Book Mine, Hachette India 2013)

1rtl;dr: If you’re as ignorant of Indian culture as I am, this book will go a long way to filling gaps. You can buy an ebook from Hachette UK for less than $20 Australian.

The Ramayana, one of the two great epics of Hinduism, dates from well before the common era and its images and characters permeate Indian and related art. Most moderately literate westerners are at least vaguely aware of it, and have surely encountered art derived from it: monkeys battling demons in the Balinese Kecak dance; images or reliefs of Rama and Sita, possibly with a golden deer; paintings and statues of Hanuman the monkey god carrying a mountain; Javanese shadow puppets; chants of ‘Hare Rama’ in western city streets. But few of us have read even a fraction of its 24 thousand verses. This little book, just 165 small pages plus some child-friendly notes, is of course no substitute for reading the original Valmiki Ramayan, but it does tell pretty much the whole story, and enables us to put those fragments in context.

The Chheleder Ramayan, the Bengali book of which this is a translation, has its own distinctive history. Its author, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863–1915), was a famous Bengali polymath, friend of the even more famous Rabindranath Tagore and grandfather of filmmaker Satyajit Ray. He had a personal mission to make literary works available for young people, and retold not only the Ramayana but also the other great epic, the Mahabharata. He’s not the only one to have retold these works. Indeed, the translator Swapna Dutta lists several Ramayanas that she has read. But his retelling holds a special place as a project to make the story available to early 20th century Bengali-reading children. This translation makes his Ramayana available in English for the first time.

Like all epics, it contains an awful lot of fighting, so much so that at times it reads like the script for a computer game. In the great climactic battle between the monkey army and the demons, you can almost see the game move up a level, as the lower ranking warriors are all killed or worn out and the next rank come to the fore with increasingly powerful weapons, until at the end it is the two mighty figures of Rama and Ravana facing off with nuclear-level arsenals. I have no idea how this plays out in the original, or how gripping it would be for a young western reader with no prior knowledge of the characters or the different supernatural beings, but even though I was never in doubt who would prevail, I stayed engaged.

This Rama is not a god, but an extraordinary man. His great prowess as a warrior is overshadowed by his superhuman sweetness. The story is set in motion when one of his father’s wives, incited to jealousy by an Iago-like maid, tricks King Dashratha into denying Rama his birthright as heir to the throne and sending him into exile. While Rama’s mother, the people of the kingdom, and Rama’s brothers, including the brother who is to be king instead of him, urge him to resist this manifestly unjust treatment, he refuses and accepts his father’s decrees with extraordinary persistence. He is a model of kindness, forgiveness, trusting openness.

The story stands by itself, but it’s all the richer for the many echoes (or are they foreshadowings?) of episodes from other great tales like The Iliad, tales of Greek, Roman and Norse gods, or the biblical the story of David.

My copy came free from Hachette India, and Swapna Dutta is a friend of mine from my days as editor of a children’s magazine. Swapna and her publisher have given me a great gift. There’s a preview on Google Books, and you can buy an ebook or a hard copy from Hachette UK.

Cassandra Golds’s Pureheart

Cassandra Golds, Pureheart (Penguin Australia 2013)

1pureheartI won’t write a proper blog post on this book because I’ve had the great privilege of reading more than one draft on the way to its final form, and don’t know if I can tell what’s actually on the page! It’s another brilliant tale of tortured female adolescence by the writer who gave us Clair de Lune, The Museum of Mary Child, and The Three Loves of Persimmon.

Cassandra Golds appeared on Books and Arts Daily recently, and gave an interview that all fans of her books should listen to.

Klaus Hagerup, Markus + Diana

Klaus Hagerup, Markus + Diana (1997, English translation by Tara Chase, Front Street 2006)

1932425594Klaus Hagerup is evidently a well known playwright, screenwriter and writer for children and teenagers in Norway. This book, whose original title translates literally as Markus and Diana and Light from Sirius, was the first of a popular series featuring 13-year-old Markus Simonsen. I don’t remember who recommended it to me, but I’m grateful to them.

The evocation of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet in the English title isn’t completely arbitrary: Shakespeare’s play is mentioned, but it would be a bit of a stretch to call this a tale of star-crossed lovers, or even a love story.

Markus and his friend Sigmund are fringe-dwellers among their peers, Markus because he is timid and awkward and a bully-magnet, Sigmund because he is supremely confident of his own genius and all-round superiority. As readers, we get to be deeply embarrassed by our association with them but – I’m sure Henry James said something about this being the purpose of fiction – we don’t have to suffer the consequences that association would have in real life. Markus writes highly imaginative (that is to say, lying) letters to celebrities cajoling their autographs for his vast collection. The Diana of the title is a glamorous Hollywood soapie star – Markus writes to her pretending to be a millionaire and things get weird when she writes an unexpectedly personal letter in response.

It’s very funny, carried mainly by the dialogue and the series of hilariously implausible letters. Teachers preside obliviously over a scene of mob cruelty; early teenagers struggle to master the arts of adult behaviour, and mostly fail ingloriously; boys on the cusp of puberty are fascinated by a glimpse of nipple in a photograph or through thin cloth. A lot of the time you don’t know whether to laugh at the characters or suffer with them. Mostly I did both, and in the end when – improbably expectedly, and cleverly – things turn out for the best, I wanted to cheer.

By Swapna Dutta

Swapna Dutta and Geeta Vadhera, The Sun Fairies (National Book Trust, India 1994, 2001)
Swapna Dutta, Plays from India, illustrated by Baraan Ijlal (Rupa & Co 2003)
Swapna Dutta, Folk Tales of West Bengal , illustrated by Neeta Gangopadhya (Children’s Book Trust 2009)
Sucitrā Bhaṭṭācārya, The Arakiel Diamond, translated by Swapna Dutta and illustrated by Agantuk (Ponytale Books 2011)

My friend Swapna Dutta is a writer, translator and editor, mainly of children’s literature, who lives in Bangalore, in southern India. The School Magazine published some of her stories when I was editor, and she and I have kept in touch over the intervening years. Swapna mentioned in a recent email that she had translated a children’s book, The Arakiel Diamond, from Bengali into English, and asked if I’d like a copy. Of course I was interested, and a couple of days later it arrived in my letter box, with three other books. It’s been a treat and an education to read all four.

The Sun Fairies is a tiny picture book that plays around with science and fantasy. That is to say, it’s a fanciful account of the origin of clouds – some fairies who live in the sun build castles in the sky so it won’t be so bare and empty – that ends up being a decorative but accurate account of how the water cycle works: the cloud castles are made from water, air and dust, and when they get too heavy they fall to the earth as water. The fairies have discovered ‘a never-ending game’. The illustrations, by Geeta Vadhera, are fabulous. I see from the Internet that Ms Vadhera has gone on to international renown. This may be her only children’s book.

In some ways each of the other books is a work of translation. In Plays from India three episodes from Indian history are shaped into dramas suitable for performance by school students. In my ignorance I don’t know whether the stories would be familiar to most Indian students, so I can’t tell whether the history or the theatre is the main point. I was interested in both.

Folk Tales of West Bengal retells sixteen tales. Swapna has an article at papertigers from which I learned that what the Grimms were for Germany, and Moe & Asbjørnsen for Norway, the imposingly named Dakshinaranjan Mitra-Mazumdar was for what is now Bangladesh and West Bengal. At least some of the tales here were collected by him in the first decades of last century. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has entered the woods of Re-enchantment, there’s a lot in these stories that’s familiar to a reader brought up on European-origin fairy stories: kings and princesses, talking animals, metamorphoses, riddles, lost and found children, supernatural beings who reward the humble and punish the greedy. There’s also a lot that’s different: the heroine of the first story, for instance, is not a seventh child but a seventh wife. This blending of familiar and unfamiliar makes for a delightful read.

The Arakiel Diamond is the only book in my swag that is not Swapna’s original work. It’s a detective story for young readers, one of a series featuring a Bengali housewife and her niece. A wealthy man dies. His most precious possession, the eponymous diamond, has gone missing, and almost everyone in his household – and there are many – has had motive and opportunity to steal it. The plot has exactly the twists you’d expect, but the detectives’ relationship and the details of their domestic life are well captured, and I learned a lot about the Armenian community in Calcutta, in a way that reminds me of grown-up detective writers (Sarah Paretsky comes to mind) who take us to a new subculture in each novel.

The four books had me reflecting on multiculturalism in children’s literature. We used to make fun of the way US children’s publishers, apparently believing that their intended readers would shrink from anything not immediately recognisable as of the US, would re-edit books from elsewhere in the English-speaking world to remove unsightly exotica. They weren’t just wanting a world where British characters spend dollars and cents, or Australians walk on a pavement, weird as such a world might be. I remember hearing of a New Zealand novel whose publisher suggested the book’s Maori issues might be more accessible to US children if the setting was changed to California – that author held firm and the book still found readers, even got made into a movie.

I wish now to acknowledge that I’m a bit of a kettle to the US publishers’ pot. Though I enjoyed the slight cultural disorientation I felt as I read these books, I caught myself thinking young readers would be put off by it. To make the books accessible to Australian 11-year olds, the unexamined internal argument went, you’d have to do something about lakh and crorelunghi, salwar shameez and rakhi, not to mention the nitty-gritties of the game of chess or a casual use of thrice in conversation. On reflection, I think that argument profoundly misunderstands how young people read. The only thing that universally distinguishes young from adult readers is that the young ones are younger. One result of this is that they know they don’t know everything about the world, and mostly when they read there are words they don’t recognise but have to guess from the context. (I loved and understood pulverise and invulnerable in Superman comics long before I could define them.) So you might not know what a lunghi is, but the context tells you it’s an article of clothing, and there’s even an illustration to help. Likewise, lakh and crore are obviously big numbers, and that’s all you need to know. As I remember back to my own childhood reading, I think such things would have added spice to the book: if I was young now, I might even have fun googling them. As for nitty-gritties and thrice, I do think we can trust young readers to recognise when a word or a turn of phrase belongs to a different place. (Both my sons say zed in spite of seeing quite a lot of Sesame Street when young.)

A launch

Ursula Dubosarsky’s new book, The Golden Day, was launched yesterday with a suitable sense of occasion. I’d spent the morning as an extra in a rap video clip (about which I may blog some other time), but no one at the launch seemed to notice that my usually shiny forehead was sporting a light dusting of make-up.

We were at Nutcote Cottage, home of May Gibbs, a lovely site for a launch. The golden light of a fine Sydney autumn afternoon, tiny muffins, cupcakes and Lamington slices would have made the mood celebratory even without a subject. As you see from the pic a new Dubosarsky book draws quite a crowd: from the publishing world, family, writers (not just for children), artists and illustrators, colleagues, Marrickville dwellers, the wife of a former Federal Minister, former students of SCEGGS Darlinghurst and even some of the book’s target audience, that is to say, children.

The Nutcote lawn

Julie McCrossin presided. Drawing on her experience as radio interviewer and stand-up comedian, she put Ursula through her paces, quizzing her about her inspiration for the book. It’s set in a genteel girls church school in the inner eastern suburbs of Sydney, a school that evidently bears an uncanny resemblance to SCEGGS Darlinghurst, of which both Julie and Ursula are alumnae. Calling on contributions from other Old Girls, they evoked a startling picture of uniformed schoolgirls making their way from the bus stop to the school gates though filthy streets where junkies and prostitutes hung out. One member of the class of ’78 was coaxed by Julie into saying that she didn’t remember much out of the ordinary, apart from an occasional flasher and the naked woman who appeared in a doorway one morning asking her to get help.

‘There are myriad kinds of writers,’ Ursula said, responding to Julie’s pressing her for the meaning of some of the incidents in the book. ‘I’m the kind of writer who lets herself go to the dream.’ I quote this because it rings so very true of Ursula’s work, but also because just a few moments later Julie referred to the ‘ ‘myriad of influences’ she detected in the book (Picnic at Hanging Rock, classical myth, etc), thereby adding a little fuel to the fire of a conversation I’ve been having recently about usage: Ursula the classicist uses ‘myriad’ as I do; Julie the journalist agrees with my journalist friend. (Are you reading this, L–?)

Julie: Might I suggest that there's an underlying theme of sexual awakening? Ursula: Oh, that's what my book's about!