The Wizardry of Oz

Australian novels for young readers aren’t too common here in the UK, but three which the Australian independent publisher Allen & Unwin has published over the last two years have made it to our shores, and deserve keen attention here. Allen & Unwin is the last remnant – but a healthy, revered and ambitious one – of George Allen and Unwin, the once prestigious British parent firm, noted for the quality of the writing it published, from Ruskin to Dahl and Tolkien. These three 2017/18 novels continue a great tradition.

Ursula Dubosarsky is a multiple award winner for her writing for young people, and her middle-grade novel The Blue Cat shows us just why. Set in wartime Sydney, it tells the story of Columba’s friendship with a boy who arrives at her school with refugees from war-torn Europe. Also arriving at that time (1942) is the threat of bombing and invasion by the Japanese, allies of Hitler’s Nazi regime, and dangerously close to Australian shores. Dubosarsky includes images from primary material interspersed with her narrative, and explanatory notes as an appendix, as well as more material and teaching notes on her website

Columba is a thoughtful, dreamy girl, but her best friend Hilda is outgoing and rather domineering. They take the new boy, known to them as Ellery, under their wing. He appears to speak no English, and reads books in a language they don’t recognise, printed in spiky black writing which baffles the girls. Like the mysterious blue cat which has adopted Columba’s next-door neighbours – but on its own aloof, slightly threatening terms – Ellery’s backstory is a mystery, one which haunts him, and increasingly it haunts Columba. As war becomes a reality in Sydney she begins to understand the horror he and his family have faced, a horror which endures throughout the book, but is simultaneously ameliorated and intensified by the final pages. This is a beautifully written, poetic, powerful book which immerses readers in the magical, fearful, half-understood world of a child growing up.

Two novels for older readers see teenage life through the eyes of adolescent boys, Tom in 1950, and Merrick in the 20teens.

My Lovely Frankie by Judith Clarke – yet another award-winning writer for a YA audience – is told as the recollection of a man in his eighties now, a priest who is haunted by the memory of Frankie, like him a teenage student more than half a century ago, at an Australian seminary. In those mid-twentieth-century days seminary life was hard and often cruel, cutting teenage boys off from the world before they knew what life was really about. Devout Roman Catholic families took pride in one or more of their sons entering the priesthood, but Tom is an only child, and his parents are concerned when he makes his decision to become a priest. Once at a seminary there was minimal contact with family and friends, and sixteen-year-old Tom has had no chance yet to know anything about love and life. When the unconventional student priest Frankie arrives, bearing a secret which has caused his deeply religious but violent father to abandon him to a lifetime of celibacy, Tom is irrevocably drawn to him. Tom has come from a loving, understanding family, but as he gradually learns Frankie’s story, he realises that there are many different kinds of love, none of which he has experienced in his own life. Although Frankie seems to be an independent, unconventional student priest, as Tom’s feelings for him move from hero-worship to love, he realises that his friend – his only true friend in that loveless, bullying and often violent seminary life – is at heart distraught, deeply conflicted, and desperate. When he vanishes without a trace, Tom searches for an answer, but is left for the rest of his life with an uncertainty over Frankie’s total disappearance, and this uncertainty still drives him as an old man, while ultimately offering him a journey towards resolution with his life.

Allen and Unwin provide teaching notes for this quiet, gentle, but searing exposition of 1950s seminary training, and the conflicted life which faced those whose sexuality was decreed immoral or illegal at the time. It is hard for young adults in the second decade of the twenty-first century to comprehend both the religious and social attitudes among which Clarke places her readers so gently but powerfully.

Merrick, on the other hand, the hero of Scot Gardner’s Changing Gear, comes from a world familiar to YA readers in 2018.

You may not be a teenage boy living in southern Australia, with acres of uninhabited land beyond your back door, but the uncertainty felt by many faced with the end of Year 13 (12 in Australia), and the choices to be made, is universal. Merrick’s parents split up years ago and each has a new family. Both are loving and supportive, but it was Merrick’s Grandad who really provided the ongoing love, support and friendship. When he dies very suddenly, Merrick’s world collapses around him, and without really knowing why he needs to, he takes off on his trusty postie bike during study leave to try to clear his head. Quite literally, Gardner’s novel is a Bildungsroman following Merrick’s physical travels while mentally trying to come to terms with life without Grandad’s irreverent, understanding, timeless wisdom.

A newer, but no less insightful author, Gardner himself spent a time travelling, and he, like Merrick, met a traveller – a swagman – whose outlook on life, ability to empathise with the land and its inhabitants, and independence, were the basis for the elderly traveller Victor. When first Merrick sees the old man he almost takes him for his Grandad, and throughout the novel Victor, despite (or because of?) his age, supports, challenges and, most importantly, understands how an eighteen-year-old boy thinks. As a boy Gardner wanted to be a vet, but paradoxically his love of animals prevented him pursuing this. This love comes over clearly in the relationship of both Victor and Merrick to Dog, a stray who has adopted Victor, a relationship akin to that between Victor and Merrick: no assumptions are made and all living things are respected for what and who they are.

At the end of his two weeks Merrick arrives home with a calmer, clearer idea of who he is, and what life is about. Of course he doesn’t know it all, but he has developed from an uncertain boy, afraid of the reality of growing up, a boy who objectifies women, who both craves and fears relationships, sex and responsibility. Instead he has developed into a young man who can better see people, young and old, male and female, for what they really are. This is a sad, funny, truthful, hugely insightful and entertaining novel, with no holds barred in telling teenage male life as it is. As a resource for teaching it has great possibilities, and once again teachers’ notes are provided.

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