FOR ELIZABETH HONEY, 1997 HAS BEEN the Year of Living Affirmatively. A 20-year veteran of illustrating children's books who came late to writing her own, she found it difficult to shuck the L-plate writer tag she'd tacked on herself.
Consecutive Honour Book commendations in the national Children's Book Council awards for Honey Sandwich and 45 & 47 Stella Street and everything that happened were pretty strong evidence she might be getting it right, as was the market response to her half-dozen titles. But there was still a niggling doubt at whether she really "belonged".
No more. This year has been a biggie, one "that couldn't really get much better". She continued her CBC Honour Book trend with Don't Pat the Wombat, then broke new ground when Not a Nibble picked up Picture Book of the Year.
As well, Stella Street is a finalist in the Premio Cento award, Italy's most important prize for children's literature. The winner is announced in December, but even if she misses the award, the recognition, she says, has been doubly important. "The shortlisting means I get 2 million lira, which I delight in writing up on the noticeboard at home - I'm finally a 'millionaire', twice over, even if that doesn't translate so well into dollars. More importantly, getting such an accolade in another country somehow adds a level of confirmation to what I am doing. It affirms the universality of our children's books - my stories are very Australian yet they don't see them overseas as limited by that."
(In December, Honey was announced as the winner of the Premio Cento for the 11-14 age group.) More good news came with Melbourne's RMIT decision to perform Stella Street as their summer children's performance piece. Last year's selection, Paul Jennings's Gizmo, sold 10,000 tickets; to be picked for presentation is a huge free-kick, and no little distinction for a self-described "near-novice".
And this week comes her latest release, What do you think, Feezal?, a book her publishers are more than routinely enthused by. As immortal cricket commentator Bill Lawry would say, "It's all happening".
WE'VE MET FOR BREAKFAST at trendy Balmoral Beach and the Melbourne-based Honey is enraptured by its "quintessential Sydneyness", the sandy beach, sharknets, encircling hills and blinding shimmer off the rippling water. (Her latest book is set here, a place "I love to holiday in" - "If cities were people," she writes, "Sydney would be an exuberant, friendly woman (of convict descent) who likes to dress up, eat well and hold lots of parties.") Yesterday she was in Canberra for a conference, tomorrow she has a school gig in Melbourne. We have only a short time between taxi rides, plane flights and photoshoots to connect. As we juggle tea, toast and timetables, she speaks with quick animation, but always with an astute controller in charge. In her purple T-shirt with honey ant logo, her page-boy haircut and electric enthusiasm, she's Lucy the Librarian meets Andrea the Artist, a beguiling combination of performer and pedagogue. It's easy to see why she is so popular in schools. Elementally shy but not overawed, she challenges and invigorates. "In some ways," she offers, "I think I am just beginning to feel my power - and now I really want to see how far I can fly."
The metaphoric becomes fact as she heads to Mascot. Later, after negotiating limited telephone clearance with her 11-year-old son Gig (he illustrated Don't Pat the Wombat and is "expecting an urgent call"), I get the lowdown on the edited Honey highlights.
The third of four children raised on a Gippsland farm, she was "a sickly child" who didn't start school until she was six. "The best thing about such relative isolation was the space and time it gave you to make things, both in the physical and imaginative senses." Seduced by art, she went to Swinburne Art School in Melbourne but became diverted from painting when in her first year they introduced the Film and Television School. "In a way, life really began when I went to Swinburne. It was like heaven, to be doing what I wanted in an atmosphere of great creativity and support. It was stimulating and energising, and taught me that what was imaginable was possible. We were the class of '68, and we're still firm friends after all those years."
At art school, she met and married graphic artist Andrew Clarke. Then followed the obligatory London experience, with side forays into Europe, before returning via hitch-hiking across America. Into between sporadic bursts of wanderlust ("many trips to Europe, especially France - they know how to live there, the food, the wine - the US and South America") came work in advertising agencies, newspaper illustration, designing stamps. Eventually, she discovered that the most personally rewarding work was illustrating children's book.
"It wasn't really lucrative, and I often wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed on the advertising route ... overall, though, I'm very pleased with the path I took. It is opening up into so many possibilities." She gave up commercial work when her daughter Bea was born in 1983, and five years later wrote her first book. Now she and Andrew work from home. Or at least she does when she's not "on the road" visiting schools. Which this year has been more than 60 days' worth.
"I see it as a parallel occupation," she says. "It keeps me in touch, provides some needed income, and frankly I enjoy it. And it's great for the ego at times, when you start to read a poem to a class and they take over and quote the whole thing back at you. In a way, it's like market research; there's always a residue of kids dying to talk after a session, and from that you get invaluable insights into your work, and some inkling of what their concerns are."
It's a symbiotic relationship. She cares about what concerns children, but in writing for them she can reveal her own concerns. "It's a wonderful outlet for expressing my passions and outrage at social injustices and neglects. I have to edit myself quite heavily at times to avoid didacticism - that's a real turn off to children. But I really care about environmentalism, for instance.
"I do need to weave these themes very subtly into my stories - my new book, for instance, talks about the busy-ness of modern life, its pressures and pressing priorities, but the kids care only about its plot. They recognise and react to character types, but they read on a very different level than, say, teachers. It's plot first, second and last with them - not flimsy unreality but something that lives for them."
All her books reflect an Australian childhood in some way, a mix, she admits, "of my own, of my children's and of others I have observed. You have to involve the readers in the story, and the best way to do that is to take the recognisable and stretch it.
"The texture of the book is also very important. I use lots of 'devices' - handwritten notes, photographs, crazy drawings, inset texts, different typefaces, irreverent jokes, etc - to say 'this is for you, this looks like fun'. Nothing is more off-putting to kids than slabs of tight grey type. By nature, they have fractured imaginations, and I guess my film and tv training has helped me to tune into that."
The books, in fact, are Honey Productions. For Feezal, she wrote and illustrated the text, designed and illustrated the cover, and designed the text. "I also roadtest all my manuscripts. Not so the work will become all things to all people but so that it rings true. I leave it with teacher friends to taste on their classes and with other straight-talking critics, including my daughter. Their comments always make me think, help clear up technical difficulties. I don't always take their advice but the process is invaluable."
After this year that was, what of the next? That script is still being written, but it includes six months' research in the US with Gig, with a possible side-trip to France where Bea will be exchange studenting. And a book, or two, naturally.
* What do you think, Feezal? is published by Allen & Unwin/Little Ark. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1997
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