Have you ever found yourself looking back over your childhood and wishing there had been more violence in the books you had access to?
Are you a parent that is frustrated by the lack of sexuality in the bedtime stories you read your kids?
La Trobe University’s Bold Thinking series has the event for you.
‘Breaking taboos: What’s off limits in children’s literature?’ will probe the progressive idea that there should be no boundaries in books written for our young.
Featured on the panel is the celebrated children’s author Morris Gleitzman. “I’ve written many books for young people that some say explode and delve naughtily into taboo areas. Well,” he says in the video promoting the event, “what are taboos in children’s reading? Is it sex? Is it violence? Is it terrorism? Is it abortion? Gender fluidity? Or is it something a little subtler? Perhaps even a little more interesting?”
Gleitzman promises some “bold thinking” from himself and “a couple of brilliant conversation partners” and invites the public to “explore, interrogate and delve deeply into these fascinating questions around taboos and children’s reading.” As a ‘taboo’ is defined as something that is either ‘banned on grounds of morality or taste’ or ‘banned as constituting a risk’ Morris is certainly a bold choice of speaker given he has said in the past that “I like the idea of young readers using my stories as a sort of moral gym, where they can flex and develop their newly developed moral muscle.” He has also stated that “Kids aren’t political, but around 10 years old, they are beginning to develop the moral grounding that might later, in their teens, develop into their first real political perspectives.”
“At around 9 or 10 years of age, young people start to decide for themselves what’s moral or not, and that’s why I like writing for that age group so much.” (Photograph credit; Emily Drabble, The Guardian, 2015)Morris Gleitzman himself is certainly an intriguing figure, with a life at least as ‘fascinating’ as these questions around children’s taboos. Born in 1953 not long after the end of the war, his family emigrated from England in 1969. Prior to embarking on a career as a full time writer, Morris worked a wide variety of jobs such as a department store Santa Claus, fashion design assistant and sugar-mill employee, while also finding time to earn his degree in Professional Writing from the Canberra College of Advanced Education. He established himself as a writer of film and television screenplays, with writing credits for both ‘The Norman Gunston Show’ and ‘Doctors and Nurses’, as well as writing live stage material for the likes of Rolf Harris and Pamela Stephenson. But it was the first screenplay he ever wrote, ‘The Other Facts of Life’, that would eventually became his first novel and set him on the path of writing children’s books.
Through what he describes as a “lucky start to my career as an author”, a producer for the ABC-TV’s education department commissioned Morris to write a story for a new series of telemovies being developed for young people. While his script ‘The Other Facts of Life’ was being filmed, he received an offer to have it published as a book. Becoming an author had never crossed his mind, but it was while rewriting the screenplay as a book that he decided that he “wanted to write all my stories as books from then on.” As he would later tell Nic Brasch on writing podcast ‘The Garret’ – “I loved the total control of being able to put my story down and know that there was nothing between me and its eventual readers.”
While the script itself went on to win the 1985 AWGIE Award for Best Original Children’s Film script, it was his second book that really cemented his position as an author for young kids. About ‘Two Weeks With the Queen’ he says “Stories are rarely what they seem at first glance. A long time ago somebody invented metaphors, and our stories have been extra interesting ever since. Over the years I’ve had some inklings about ‘Two Weeks With the Queen’, some fleeting notions about its meaning for me.” At first glance the book is about a 12 year old boy named Colin, whose younger sibling is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Colin then sets out to get access to the Queen’s royal doctor, but along the way he also finds friendship with an adult gay male. When he learns that his new friend’s lover is dying of AIDS, they forge a bond and relationship that endures until the end of the story. The book went on to win the Family Award in 1990 and Morris’s position as an author unafraid of tackling the taboos of the day was cemented.
From then on, all his other books have either been shortlisted for or have won numerous children’s book prizes, and he has covered a wide range of topics in his books intended for children. In ‘Adults Only’, he writes of a lonely little boy trapped on an island who has strange dreams about playing ping-pong with his teddy bear. In ‘Pizza Cake’, we find a story about school teachers that are so revered and sought after in society that they are bought and sold for millions of dollars. In ‘Doubting Thomas’, a little boy’s nipples itch every time someone tells a lie around him. Morris had originally written the character with ears that got hot in the presence of lying, but after he was alerted to the fact that there was already a book with that exact theme, his editor suggested he change it. He was then presented with a list of other possible body-parts to use, with ‘penis’ as a first suggestion. Morris said “I didn’t want to repeat myself and become known as the penis author,” and refers to the word ‘penis’ as “one of the ones you can only include in a children’s book if you use words but not pictures.”
His most awarded book to date, ‘Bumface’, marketed to 9 – 12 year olds does exactly this. It’s not often that a book regularly named in Australian polls as a favourite child’s book uses the word ‘penis’ and ‘sex’ so amply within its first chapter alone. (‘Penis’ is in fact the 9th word to appear in the book.) It revolves around yet another little boy, Angus, who is 11, and his desperation to get his mother to stop sleeping around and falling pregnant to different men. We also have a sub-plot where Angus befriends a 12 year old girl about to get shipped off to India to marry a much older man. The book received numerous awards including the Bilby award, the COOL award and the YABBA award.
“I obviously have an awareness of gatekeepers because they are a very important part of how books get into children’s hands.” (Picture source:http://www.allmediascotland.com/media-releases/24144/glasgow-primary-school-kids-meet-australias-favourite-childrens-author/ )
Also of interest is his collection of stories about ‘tea’, co-written with another popular author, Paul Jennings, with six parts to the tale of two 12 year old friends. We have Amy, whose parents vanish the day of her birthday (with a subplot involving Amy’s awareness of her father’s affair with another woman) and Sprocket, who wakes up naked on a deserted mountain with amnesia. The six separate but connected stories are individually titled as ‘Nude’, ‘Brats’, ‘Stiff’, ‘Hunt’, ‘Grope’ and ‘Pluck’ and were published collectively as ‘Deadly’. Morris has offered a unique perspective on this particular release of his, saying that while tea appears many times in his books, the ‘tea’ in ‘Deadly’ is “a mysterious tea that has a mysterious effect on all who drink it. It makes them younger. A lot younger if they drink a lot of it” and that “’Deadly’ is clearly written by a tea-lover. Well, two tea-lovers actually. While I was writing the book with Paul Jennings, he introduced me to a friend of his who’s a tea-importer. And she gave me my first taste of a classic Chinese tea. And when I discovered how nice it is, I went to her shop and bought some other types of Chinese tea. And when I discovered how nice they are, I started going to Hong Kong and China to discover rare and delicious teas you can only get there. And to pay for the trips I started putting more and more personal stuff in my books in the hope they’d sell more. But you probably knew that from reading them.”
Another book, “Worm Story”, is about an intestinal worm called Wilton. In an interview with www.compulsivereader.com in 2005, Morris yet again offers his own unique take, this time on the subject of parasites. “Parasitism is absolutely essential to the survival of life on earth as we know it. We humans use the word parasite in an absolute pejorative sense–to call someone a parasite is not a compliment, but perhaps it should be because, to give one little example, one very common parasite, the bacteria, are absolutely essential to survival as we know it, and in fact if there was any species who would be justified in saying, ‘God made us in his image’, it would be the parasites.” When asked about negative responses from squeamish adults, he says that what “adults are forgetting is that not only do young people have a much more relaxed approach to bodily functions and products but there’s another important reason why the slime for example appeals to kids. Kids don’t have much power, and kids are often treated as, if not by their loving parents then by the institutions into which they are cast, as peripheral kind of also-rans. Kids don’t have the power to change their environments. Kids are underdogs. Most of us are loving parents so we forget that the average kid(s) is passing through the hands of a whole lot of other powerful adults and they are not the centre of the universe.”
With such a diverse portfolio of books for children under his belt, covering a myriad of subjects that could already be considered ‘taboo’ for young minds by some, one can only wonder what further taboos Morris Gleitzman sees left to smash. One thing is for sure, though – for the man the Independent once described in 2003 as “an endearingly gutsy writer who excels at reading his own stories, a cross between Rolf Harris and one of those cheerful young chaps in Neighbours”, there is no doubt that there must still be some frontiers he wishes to tackle in his future writing.
‘Breaking taboos: What’s off limits in children’s literature?’ promises to be at the very least an enlightening evening, and will be held on August 15, 6.30pm at the State Library of Victoria. A meet and greet with Morris prior to the event is also scheduled, and tickets are available here: