Stephanie Nettell introduces Robin Klein
Robin Klein believes fiercely in three things: tolerance, laughter and children. You don’t need to hear her talking in her amazingly fast, self-deprecating Strine to know this, for the message is clear from her nine books that have appeared over here. In all of them, the world is seen to be a cheerier place when everyone, old or young, is free to be his or her harmlessly quirky self, and in all of them she reveals an uncanny empathy with children.
‘My kids say it’s a case of arrested development, but I happen to like things that children like. I like to stare and listen – I never read on public transport! I was hopeless as a teacher because I never kept order: they’d come and put an arm round my shoulder and we’d end up with a chat session. It’s quite possible to have an involved philosophical discussion with even a small child – adults forget that it’s a privilege to be with children. I’m really sorry mine are now grown up’ – she has four, the youngest 17.
She is a marvellously gutsy writer who relishes the drama of everyday life. For her youngest readers, it’s no holds barred as her central characters fight off their pompous, snobbish, egotistical, boringly conventional enemies with joyously unorthodox tactics. Thing, a loving little dinosaur with a self-protective ability to freeze into other shapes, is totally content to live with Emily and her taxi-driver mum, watching TV in the flat while they’re both out, and even the youngest reader can somehow see that it is his and Emily’s innocent integrity that wins round the no-pets landlady and defeats the loathsomely spoilt Stephanie Strobe.
Junk Castle is a paean to the triumph of the imagination over stultifying gentility, to the revitalising of dead urban scenes, to the rejuvenation of the spirit. Is that a pile of old rubbish on the Beatrice Binker Reserve (a tiny triangle of cropped grass in a jungle of concrete), or a glitteringly exciting castle? This is a favourite theme of Klein’s, a sort of personal war on tidy suburbia – perhaps because ‘I used to live in a ghastly middle-class suburb that I absolutely loathed. Now I live miles from anywhere out in the bush, in a tolerant, dotty area.’
She aims not to obliterate the enemy but to liberate them, to show that appearances aren’t everything. So the tough-talking Erica, who escapes from her own uncertainty into brazen fantasies, learns to her humbled surprise that nauseatingly perfect Alison Ashley turns out to have her own Briefs as well as valuable talents.
Erica is in the Penny Pollard mould. We watched Penny finding out about life in, first, her Diary (as she touchingly discovers that old people are not all tedious wrinklies but individuals with fascinating memories and passions), then her Letters (which reveal that babies may not be as boring as she thought, and, in postscripts, a grudging but growing interest in a certain Alistair who can’t help his name); and soon we’ll share her experiences as a monstrously reluctant bridesmaid, to be followed by a visit to England. There will, I hope, be no stopping our Penny. She’s a sturdy, delightful character, with a message for girls in particular that ‘you don’t always need Daddy or big brother to solve your problems – she can solve her own problems, though she’s not tough all the way through. All the little boys in Australia are in love with her, and write to her as if she exists.’ Deluded, no doubt, by Ann James’s magically recreated photographic effects for illustrations.
It’s an irony of the can’t-win situation of a writer that while it’s been hard work importing Penny into Britain, and even harder into the States, because of her Australian background and slang, my own reviewer on the Guardian complained at the lack of good strong Aussie details! In fact, children aren’t as fussed by either as editors imagine, as long as the characters and plot bowl along.
Penny and Erica are classic Klein, writing in the voice of an engagingly anti-social tomboy who nevertheless conceals an intelligent and affectionate soul. A sort of wise-cracking, female William. I can think of no contemporary writer who does it better: Klein herself wishes she could write like Jan Mark, and one can respect this, for the affinity is clear, but in her ability to speak directly in the child’s persona, with no apparent sophistication, and still allow a young reader to see the joke or the pathos from the outside – in this she can stand alone with pride.
Her one novel for over-11s so far is People Might Hear You, a powerful story of a girl imprisoned, quite literally, in a sinister household obsessed by religious fanaticism, told with a controlled simplicity that heightens both the emotion and the suspense: it was a strong contender for the 1984 Guardian Award. She is struggling now to complete another serious work for Puffin, one she feels must be written, on drug addiction (a criminal offence in Australia), both inspired and hampered by the agony of seeing her own beautiful and gifted 22-year-old daughter’s harrowing fight with heroin. ‘I could have come to terms with it more if I’d had a child with leukaemia,’ she says, and for one fleeting moment even Robin Klein is not laughing.
Giraffe in Pepperell Street
Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 22731 1, £5.95
Oxford University Press, 0 19 554330 0, £3.95; 0 19 554549 4, £1.95 pbk
OUP, 0 19 554574 5, £3.95
OUP, 0 19 271487 2, £3.50
Penny Pollard’s Diary
OUP, 0 19 554415 3, £4.95
Penny Pollard’s Letters
OUP, 0 19 554575 3, £4.95
Ratbags and Rascals: Funny Stories
OUP, 0 19 279810 3, £4.95
Hating Alison Ashley
Puffin, 0 14 03.1672 8, £1.75
People Might Hear You
Puffin. 0 14 03.1594 2, £1.75