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Terry Lane, "The Australian Way", December 1995
With Paul Jennings, writer of books for children, it's best to start with the statistics. This man is not just a writer — he's a one-man industry: 20 books; 25 television scripts; sales of three million books in Australia and New Zealand, never mind the other English-speaking countries, and he's just as widely read in Japan, Holland, Spain, Korea, Germany and Italy. He has also received 32 awards, mainly from his readers and has been awarded the Order of Australia for services to children's literature.
Paul employs two secretaries to handle the correspondence from his readers — up to 5000 letters a year, all of which he reads and all of which he answers with at least some personal touch. Penguin, his publishers, reckon that he might be Australia's single most successful author. Certainly his name is known in any household with young children who have learned to read on Unreal!, Unbelievable!, Uncanny!, Unmentionable! or, just out for Christmas, Uncovered! There are more books with the prefix 'Un' in their titles, but that will do to give the idea of a flavour of the collection. Paul Jennings lives with his second wife and family in a gracious old house in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne. Built at the turn of the century as a weekend retreat by wealthy Melburnians, the house is surrounded by nearly a hectare of garden. Rosellas flash through the trees and feed at the seed bowl by the window. At the top of the garden, up steep steps that he ascends and descends several times a day, he has his office — another house that he has refitted in a way that would suit a small business. As writers go, Paul Jennings is big business. The man himself is a 52-year-old former teacher and lecturer; short, slight and shy, but at the same time confident of the place that he occupies in the admiration of his young readers. He knows what they want. He has his thousands of letters to prove it. But still the adult critics can hurt. A savage review can stop him writing for days, so he asks his publishers never to send them on to him. He would rather not know what jaundiced adults think of his books. They can't damage his popularity. Jennings wrote his first collection of children's stories over a decade ago. (He started writing at a time when he was recovering from a marriage break-up.) He was lecturing in special education in the Victorian regional city of Warrnambool when he joinede wall up there," he says. don't think that's a bad defence."
Making readers cry, he says, is easy. Making them laugh — that's the hard thing.
"I know that if someone said to me: 'I'll give you a million dollars to go off tonight and write a story, by the morning, that will make people laugh', I couldn't do it. But if they said: 'Write a story tonight that will make people cry', I could do it.
"Humour is greatly undervalued. Not by the children, but by the people who assess children's books. Humour is very hard to write and only certain people can do it and they are usually people who have big personal fights with themselves and suffer from depression, like Spike Milligan or Tony Hancock." Is Paul Jennings, the man who makes children laugh out loud, a depressive?
"Not pathologically. But I do get depressed. I don't know why. Perhaps it's chemical. I used to write a little note to myself, addressed: 'Open this when you're suffering from depression. And inside I wrote to myself: 'Paul, your wife loves you. Your children love you. You've got a lovely home. You've got a great job. Children are writing to you. The world is great. Wake up to yourself. Do not be depressed!'
"But when depression grabs you that note is nonsense, because you have a different view of the world — a false reality. Then, when it's over, you think: You fool."
He never writes when he's depressed. He waits, because he doesn't want to put his depression on the children. "I think children want to be delivered from the state that they are in. Childhood is quite frightening. So when you write a story for them that is about bullies who get you or embarrassment you suffer — all those terrible things that happen to children — and then they become the hero and you deliver them and give them power, that is a really wonderful thing for them. They want the hero and heroine to be themselves, their own age, not like Biggles or Bulldog Drummond. "When I write for children, I want to tell them that life's okay. Life's fun. Life's good. There are lots of wonderful things that can happen. Life is a big adventure, not a bleak, horrible thing. I would never write a book that said it was." But what about the first story in his new book, Uncovered!? It is about two brothers, one of whom is dying of an unnamed disease and the other is autistic. The dying boy wants to see a snowman, not easy in most parts of Australia. His brother mummifies himself in toilet paper and pretends to be a snowman. It has its funny moments, but the end is sad. "I knew you were going to ask me about that. But the minimum is hope. The autistic boy made his brother's dream come true. I hope that at the end of that story the reader wouldn't think the world was a bleak and horrible place." Jennings tried two endings; one where the boy lives and one in which he dies. The publishers preferred the sad ending. "But the other stories are funny, aren't they?" Yes. Particularly the one about the boy with precocious pubic hair. These books are for nine-to-14-year-olds. What can he write about sex for that age group? "I'm writing for pre-pubescent children, so I just want to treat sex as a nice, funny, interesting part of life. I don't teach them anything about it apart from the fact that there's nothing to worry about. A bit of fun maybe. right into that culture and understand it and be part of it and write as one of them.
"I do know what it's like to be a child. It's an aberration if you can do that. I don't think of it as a gift, it's just that for some reason I am emotionally arrested in some period in childhood. I might have the intellect of an adult, but I have the emotional responses of a child." Paul Jennings certainly knows what makes children laugh, and they are sometimes the things that his adult judges find, surprisingly, childish. But his readers write: "My teacher was reading your story out loud in the library and she stopped at the rude bits and we all booed..."
- Terry Lane is a Melbourne-based writer and broadcaster.