Celebrating Mal Peet

Mal PeetMal Peet was a delight to read and meet. I can’t describe him as a YA author because he would loathe that description, refusing to see his writing pigeonholed into age categories. But clearly both young adults and adults appreciated his novels, and children his picture books.

He has left a legacy of memorable books (published by Walker Books) and is an author I collect, beginning with Keeper (2003), which won the Branford Boase Award in the UK and was shortlisted for the Deutscher Jungendliteraturpreis in Germany. Although I recall him saying that he never played the role of keeper/goalie in football, Mal created a vivid picture set against the backdrop of an imaginary South American jungle.Keeper

Tamar (2005) is one of his two books set around war and spying. It won the Carnegie medal and, like most of his novels, is for mature readers.

The Penalty (2006) and Exposure (2008) re-introduce journalist Paul Faustino, first met in Keeper. Exposure is a bold re-interpretation of Othello. It won the prestigious Guardian Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Inky Awards. This trilogy of sports novels achieves the distinction of having literary merit and also being interesting.

Life an Exploded DiagramLife: An Exploded Diagram (2011) is the partly biographical story of Clem who grew up in the 1960s in Norfolk, England. He outgrows his home, his parents and his place. He also outgrows his social status by falling for rich landowner’s daughter, Frankie.

At the same time that Clem is growing up, the Cold War, a time where the two superpowers, the USSR representing the Communist Eastern bloc and the USA, representing the Capitalist West, are playing a game of cat and mouse for high stakes – the safety or decimation of the world.

There are a number of explosions – actual and anticipated – while President John F Kennedy tries to stop his war chiefs from retaliating against the Russians and destroying Cuba.

When I first spoke about Life: An Exploded Diagram amongst other books, senior English teachers burned with curiosity. That was the book they wanted to talk about afterwards. I was incredibly fortunate to later chair Mal at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the brilliant Ursula Dubosarsky. We explored rites of passage in the 1960s through Mal’s Exploded Diagram and Ursula’s The Golden Day. Mal described Ursula’s writing style as ‘elliptical economy’ and his own writing as ‘verbose’ but ‘generous’ may be a better description. He was a raconteur, sitting forward in delight at the questions and I treasure one email to me, which begins, I do so like using the phrase ‘Hello, Joy’. The opportunities are none too common.

Cloud Tea MonkeysMy favourite of Mal’s other books is Cloud Tea Monkeys, co-written with his wife, Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard and shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. It’s a poignant tale about a young girl who has to take her ill mother’s place working in the tea plantations.

Mal Peet was an ebullient, intellectually active and curious man. He wrote with a broad sweep, across WWII and the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Football World Cup – but still with intimacy by telling personal stories. He was an inimitable writer.

 

The Golden Age where children are gold

Golden AgeIn lists of best recent books Joan London’s The Golden Age (Vintage/Random House Australia) has featured as stand-out Australian fiction, alongside Ceridwen Dovey’s  (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin) Only the Animals. I had already read Only the Animals and just had to read The Golden Age to see what the fuss is about.

http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/holidays-the-chance-to-read-short-fiction-poetry-ya/2014/12

Joan London has written a reflective narrative set mainly in 1954 about children who are recovering from polio in a Perth convalescent home. The sprawling house where they are cared for, the Golden Age, with its verandah, corridors and wards for Boys and Girls, is as powerful a building as Tim Winton’s house in Cloudstreet.Cloudstreet

The children almost seem to be on an educational holiday camp, with diverse company, activities and good food and care. Those who stayed for Christmas ‘seemed much happier than those who returned at bedtime, exhausted, silent, distant and alone’. The Golden Age becomes a microcosmic utopia or refuge – for a time – outside the children’s own often-difficult lives, an irony considering their precarious, damaged health and mobility.

The children tell their ‘onset’ and other stories: Elsa collapsed riding her bike home after tennis, Ann Lee needs to recover and walk after her failure to water the thirsting brumbies. Thirteen-year-old Frank Gold comes from a musical family, writes poetry and loves Elsa. His Hungarian migrant experience parallels that of some refugees whose arrival in Australia is almost as fraught as their past. Frank’s first Australian Christmas is spent in a polio hospital. And, like returned servicemen, the children often feel displaced when they go home.

Hanging GardenChild protagonists are powerful yet often unnoticed in literary fiction. They shine in Patrick White’s The Hanging Garden, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and much of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (note the ‘gold’ in the title). The Golden Age continues this trend and it is also part of a cache of recent important novels about children which feature gold as a symbol and in their titles. These include Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys

https://twitter.com/joylawn1/status/521161281097592834 and Ursula Dubosarsky’s poignant YA novel, The Golden Day. Gold is clearly a powerful motif in literature and is intrinsically linked with children. Children are gold.Golden Day

Joan London’s other novels are Gilgamesh, which won the Age Book of the Year for Fiction in 2002 and was long-listed for both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Orange Prize and The Good Parents, which won the 2009 Christina Stead Prize for fiction. Her two awarded short story collections, Sister Ships and Letters to Constantine have been published in one volume, The New Dark Age.

New Dark Age