A Life in Children’s Books

A Life in Children’s Books

When I was young, in the 80s and 90s, I had the amazing gift of corresponding with many of Australia’s finest writers for children: Robin Klein, Paul Jennings, Gillian Rubinstein, Colin Thiele, Nadia Wheatley – and others. I posted letters as a young fan; they posted letters back as engaged, committed chroniclers of childhood experience, angst and joy; reassurers of continuity. They validated my own experience as nobody else could. They shaped and guided my adolescence.

I worked hard to share these insights with other young people; I wrote and published a journal called Rippa Reading and spoke on TV, radio and at conferences on children’s books. I was wholeheartedly welcomed in the industry.

Then I got old. Well, older. At 21, I moved from Sydney to London to embark on a career in publishing, which I’ve loved and which sustains me still. But I always hankered after my childhood Australian reading self. He was lost to me, I felt … and I felt that for twenty years. Then, in the first coronavirus lockdown, I had the time to reread the books I’d loved. I reread a much loved, dearly missed friend Jan Mark, and remembered her favourite writer was Robin Klein. Who had been my favourite writer.

One by one, I reread Robin’s books and everything changed.

When each new Robin Klein book arrived, I’d greeted it with the passion of a fan but also the smug insight of knowing its development. That moment, for example, in Came Back to Show You I Could Fly where Angie and Seymour traverse the hot suburban streets and Angie remembers the house she once lived in, as part of an affluent nuclear family, before her life was compromised by drug addiction. She describes a statue in the garden, a roman scene of a woman with a lyre. Something missed and regretted, part of another life. Well, Robin had described encountering Andromeda – who her sarky daughter described as Narelle – in a letter a year before publication.

Inspired by my beloved authors, I’d always wanted to write, but now I suddenly, violently, had a subject. I wrote a book about the nourishing guidance the dual facilities of the books and the letters provided me.

I needed to corroborate these memories so thank goodness I’d donated my archive of letters from authors to the NCACL in 2009 – before I knew I needed them, but when I had a hunch that they needed to be preserved in case they were lost on yet another flat move, from Sydney to London (and back again) and then across London multiple times.

Like switching on a tap, releasing pure clear water in a drought, my hero Belle Alderman sent me scans of my letters from Robin. It really was like that – if you think back to 2020, nobody could go anywhere or see anybody. But suddenly I had it all, more than 30 letters over 13 years. My childhood and young adulthood.

It was the greatest gift and Letters From Robin wouldn’t have been possible without it. The book has opened so many doors for me, so many opportunities to revisit beloved books and reconnect with friends and colleagues. The NCACL has become a home away from home for me – I spent two days there last November, immersed and engaged in research on a new project. I can’t tell you how exciting that was.

But I can encourage you to subscribe to the newsletter and donate to the fund to build a bespoke centre for the collection which is, frankly, the story of our lives. Let’s ensure it always is!

Long resident in London (where he is literary executor to the estate of Jan Mark), Jon Appleton grew up in Australia and reviewed widely on radio, TV and in print in 80s and 90s. His book, Letters from Robin: a Voyage Around My Author charts his experiences in the children’s book world of that time and his friendships with authors, especially Robin Klein. He manages the websites janmark.net and lettersfromrobin.com, and contributes to Magpies.



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