Letters from Robin: a voyage around my author by Jon Appleton
“I do hope you continue to write when you have a spare moment – I look forward to hearing about your life in the UK. Take care and God bless – love Robin K.” (Robin Klein to Jon Appleton in Letters from Robin)
Many will know and remember the hugely popular Penny Pollard’s Diary and sequels (illustrated by Ann James), Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, People Might Hear You, Hating Alison Ashley, Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left, Boss of the Pool (illustrated Helen Panagopoulos), The Princess Who Hated It (picture book illustrated by Maire Smith, Aussie Nibble early reader illustrated by Stephen Michael King), The Listmaker, Thing and Thingnapped (illustrated by Alison Lester) and other books by Robin Klein, and wonder what happened to her.
At the beginning of my career as a young teacher in a boys’ primary school I, and my students, devoured every new Penny Pollard book. They were sure-fire successes.
I continued seeking out and promoting all the Robin Klein books I could find, as well as the best children’s and YA literature (particularly Australian books) for young readers published in the 1980s until I changed career in the early 90s to specialise in literature. Then my world changed because all these books were at my fingertips!
No doubt many in the Australian children’s and YA literature community already know Jon Appleton but I met him recently on Twitter, where he posts important reminders of past, and often almost forgotten, books for young readers. As well as the work of Robin Klein, he is keeping these books and their creators alive.
Letters from Robin is like a “who’s who” of Australian children’s book creators and promoters. It has plenty of publishing insider information and anecdotes, which makes fascinating reading.
Thanks for speaking with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Jon.
Thank you for asking me, Joy!
You began writing to Robin Klein as a boy. How did this influence your life and career?
My correspondence with Robin has been central to my life. Her insights into the writing and publishing process sparked my desire to pursue a career in publishing (which overtook my desire to be a writer). More than that, in her gentle, wryly funny way, she showed me what mattered most was to be true to myself and my personal ambitions and not let anything – or anyone – thwart me from achieving what I wanted to do. Robin had to be a battler to survive childhood and then succeed as a full-time writer; my trajectory hasn’t been nearly so challenging but still her counsel has been immeasurably helpful at every stage of my life. (I was 11 then and I’m 47 now…)
Where are you based and what are you doing now?
I’ve been based in London since 1996, apart from a year in Sydney in 2011. I worked in-house in children’s publishing for 20 years but left to go freelance in 2016. Now I work as a freelance editor and writing mentor and tutor, mostly in the grown-up market. Instead of commissioning new children’s books, I spend as much time as I can researching and recording the history of children’s books, in the UK and Australia, over the past 50 years. Letters from Robin emerged from that journey.
Why have you written Letters from Robin and how have you structured the book?
Letters from Robin felt like an urgent book to write as soon as I began rereading Robin’s backlist. I’ve always loved the idea of rereading a favourite author’s entire output, to see where themes overlap and are developed, to explore how one book leads to another or spot where an author changes tack and perhaps writes against what s/he has written before. The first Coronavirus lockdown gave me the time and space to do that. I thought Robin’s body of work deserved to be surveyed and explored, both to celebrate her achievement but to inspire newer writers, too, to see how a writing life is constructed and evolves.
What I didn’t anticipate was the immediacy with which I remembered reading the books the first time round. But no wonder, really – they meant so much to me that the imprint of discovering each new book – alongside receiving each new letter from Robin, with whom I corresponded for 13 years – was indelibly recorded in my mind and heart. So as I saw Robin’s career unfolding, I also saw my own biography unfurling. The two meshed and seemed indivisible.
Years earlier, the brilliant writer Nadia Wheatley, who has been a friend for as long as I’ve known Robin – so 36 years and counting – once suggested I record my experiences as a young fan and book reviewer in Australia in the 80s and 90s. I never thought I wanted to write that until I embarked on Letters from Robin. When Nadia generously offered to read the first draft of the book, she suggested a structure other than the one I’d originally constructed: to put the letters first, then the literary analysis. This was a sudden, brilliant suggestion. As soon as I heard it I could see the various scenes and chapters fall into a new sequence that made perfect sense.
What do you think sets Robin Klein apart as an author?
She was prolific, sometimes publishing five books a year, across a variety of formats for different age groups. Some would be recognised by the Children’s Book Council with shortlistings or honours or awards while also earning a place on the children’s choice halls of fame – that’s unusual. She was famous long before children’s authors became celebrities and her fame was achieved – as far as she possibly could – by staying at home and writing books that children loved and teachers and librarians admired and wanted to put in readers’ hands.
You mention Paul Jennings, who I interviewed at PaperbarkWords recently. What is your recollection of any of your encounters with Paul?
I remember borrowing Unreal! from our local library very shortly after it was published and loving it. I bought my own copy swiftly after. Once I realised you could write to your favourite authors and they’d reply, I wrote to Paul. (After Robin, my next
victims targets recipients were Colin Thiele, Nadia Wheatley and Paul Jennings.) His letters were long yet laconic and incredibly warm.
When he moved from Warrnambool in the late 80s he lived very near Robin, so when I went to stay with her in January 1990 one of the treats she arranged was afternoon tea with Paul and his then wife. I asked him to sign my copy of Unreal! and when he saw it was a first edition, he noted, ‘Oh. I don’t have one of those anymore.’ I knew I should have said, ‘Oh. I’ll swap mine for one of your reprints.’ But I didn’t. It was treasure and I was fiercely protective! I’ve still got it. I still feel guilty.
About ten years later, I met Paul in England at one of the Federation of Children’s Book Group conferences. He was a speaker and it was lovely to see him again, just as he’d always been. I’m still a huge fan today.
How have other Australian or international writers (including some from The School Magazine and your own Rippa Reading) impacted on your life and career?
In so many ways! Like Robin, they taught me about friendship and relationships and craft. Colin Thiele and Gillian Rubinstein were incredibly generous to me and my magazine, Rippa Reading (which I edited from 1986-95). But I remember many others, too, who really cared that I valued their work and came to each new book with excitement – Allan Baillie, Victor Kelleher, Anna Fienberg, Nadia Wheatley, Libby Gleeson, Caroline Macdonald, Eleanor Nilsson, Edel Wignell … New Zealander Margaret Mahy was a longtime correspondent and Jan Mark became a dear friend, especially once I moved to London. Supplementary to an earlier question, I should add that I spent a couple of years developing a website for Jan Mark, whose literary executor I became after her sudden death in 2006. I published a retrospective collection of her short stories called The One That Got Away. It was this work that led me to begin rereading Robin, because it was through Robin that I discovered Jan Mark.
Your book is dedicated to Cassandra Golds, author of exceptional middle-fiction such as The Museum of Mary Child, The Three Loves of Persimmon and Pureheart. Why have you dedicated your book to her?
Cassandra was there at the start of my journey in the book world. For any truly good children’s book she is the ideal reader – eager, patient, receptive, challenging, thoughtful. She is also much closer to me in age than the authors with whom I corresponded, and that engendered a special intimacy. I would call her my literary hero. There was nobody else to whom I could have dedicated this book.
What role has the wonderful Belle Alderman played in this book?
Belle is brilliant! In 2009, I asked if Belle would accept my collection of almost 20 years’ worth of letters from Australian children’s authors for the NCACL collection. (I had a terror of losing them …) She was so enthusiastic and appreciative – it was quite overwhelming. She has displayed the letters on several occasions and made them available to research students. When I realised I needed to reread Robin’s letters to me alongside her books, Belle sent me scans of them all. She also dug out research articles I requested. She has championed the book from the start and continues to do so. I’m very grateful to her.
I hadn’t heard of some of Robin’s books until reading Letters from Robin. The one I am most keen to source is your “all-time favourite”, Seeing Things, and perhaps also Laurie Loved Me Best. Please briefly tell us about these books.
If you want to read Robin at her most accomplished and also relish the themes that preoccupied her most as a writer, then Seeing Things is your go-to book. Miranda is an outsider, lost in a grieving, complex family. Her innate desire for grandeur and transcendence leads her to perform acts of ‘clairvoyance’ for vulnerable, needy people. When others try to take advantage of her ‘gift’ danger and menace quickly follow. I just love this novel so much.
Laurie Loved Me Best is a strange book – perhaps too subtle on a first reading to have the impact of Robin’s other books, but it rewards rereading. Two lonely girls, each the other’s only friend but not really compatible or sympathetic, form an attachment to a wayward teenage boy. It isn’t at all a love story, nor a book about forming trustworthy alliances; like most of Robin’s stories, actually about stepping away into your own little murky pool of light.
Why do you think Penny Pollard is so beloved?
I think we’d all like to be Penny – to be assertive and subversive and non-conformist, but to feel understood and protected by just the right people. Like Mrs Bettany. Why would you care about Jason Taylor if you have Edith Bettany in your life?
With which of Robin’s characters do you have the strongest affinity, and why?
Erica Yurken in Hating Alison Ashley, to my absolute chagrin. You’ll have to read Letters from Robin to understand why because I’m not going to torture myself again to elaborate here!
Could you sum up Robin’s personality in three words?
Modest. Mischievous. Nurturing.
Could you give an example of Robin’s humour and explain its genesis?
I could talk about schadenfreude, which is pretty much a staple of her writing – which I think simply comes from choosing laughter as a means of coping with any situation, however unfortunate, over falling apart and crying. But I think I’ll focus on Robin’s motto, ‘Refuse to be vanquished’ which is strident and confident and may seem ironic given that Robin seemed quite a shy person, genuinely resistant to causing offence. But she had a combative streak that must be rooted deep in her background because she so often wrote of knights and armaments and wars and battles. Conflict is essential for fiction, of course, but Robin took it to a new level.
In one of my favourite letters, from March 1988, Robin shared how her daughter Ros had taken her for a drive into the Hills as a birthday treat. Robin‘bought a Grecian statue/birdbath thing for the garden which I think is lovely and I’ve called her Andromeda. Ros, to be nasty, renamed her Narelle. I told her it could have been worse, I almost bought a boy on a dolphin. (Probably she would have called him Wayne.)’
The banter is affectionate but also prickly and defensive. That’s so Robin. Incidentally, this anecdote made its way into Came Back to Show You I Could Fly.
Why did she disappear from the children’s and YA literature scene so suddenly? Is there any chance she will write another book?
At the end of November 1999, apparently late at night while playing a computer game – she’d become obsessed! More battles of attrition! – Robin suffered an aneurysm. She made a complete physical recovery but her mental impairment has prevented her from writing. I think she knows who we were – her fans, her editors, her collaborators – but isn’t able to engage meaningfully. When I started writing Letters from Robin, I began sending her cards – just a few words on an alluring image of somewhere in England I’d been, for work or, pleasure, because she had an affinity with England which she visited once in 1985. I never expect replies. I’ll keep writing.
You quote Robin’s literary agent, Tim Curnow: “The 1970s, ‘80s and into the early ‘90s were rich, golden decades in Australian publishing.” How would you describe the time since then in publishing? Do you think it is as golden as the era Tim mentions, and why or why not?
In my book I’m pretty adamant that it takes distance to be able to assert such a claim. So I wouldn’t presume to comment on publishing now but I relish its energy, its desire to expand to new formats and draw in voices who have been excluded to date. I wonder which books will still be with us in 10, 15, 20 years time? I’m watching!
I am intrigued by your comment: “Robin’s popularity was matched by regular approval from the CBCA. The influence of their annual awards was far greater than it is today …” I haven’t worked as a consultant for indie bookstores for a while but my daughter has and is always aware of the massive increase in sales of CBCA shortlisted books. With the CBCA Shortlist about to be announced, what do you think is the influence of these awards in 2022?
Oh, I’ll be championing the 2022 shortlist as stridently as anyone. I think the CBCA’s promotion and celebration of children’s books is and always has been peerless. Nevertheless, the world changes. There were fewer categories in the CBCA awards in the 80s so fewer shortlisted books received more attention. This went hand in hand with the fact that there were more dedicated school librarians to buy them, but given these books were mostly in hardback (perhaps with an Ashton Scholastic paperback run-on), a judicious selection process was employed to buy them. It was kind of sewn-up.
If you didn’t make the shortlist, how would readers find you?
And if your first book didn’t make the shortlist, then would your second be published?
Some books were taken on in good faith, of course, but others were dependent on this kind of careful strategy.
There were fewer alternate literary prizes, too. And no social media.
All this makes the achievement of the Australian children’s books community doubly – triply! – impressive.
You mention that Robin’s books received regular reviews in the national press and specialist journals. I review children’s and YA for the Weekend Australian and keep pitching books to them and, although they are supporters of books for young people, they rarely have space for them. What suggestions do you have to extend the review space for children’s and YA in the Australian mainstream print or other media?
Sadly, it’s all about advertising, isn’t it? Children’s publishers aren’t given the budget to advertise in papers and magazines so there’s no incentive for literary editors to create a space for a discussion of our industry. For a number of years here in the UK, I co-ordinated and edited an annual advertorial supplement published in the Guardian newspaper. Publishers committed to advertising new releases but the bulk of the copy comprised reviews from indie booksellers of the new books they wanted to champion. Everyone loved it. Maybe it could happen again …
In Australia, we still have specialist journals like Magpies, we have social media platforms. And we’ll always have word of mouth. ‘Heard it in the playground …’
Where is the best place to buy Robin’s books?
Text Publishing have released editions of All in the Blue Unclouded Weather, Dresses of Red and Gold and The Sky in Silver Lace, as well as Came Back to Show You I Could Fly. Puffin have The Listmaker and Hating Alison Ashley in print, plus ebooks of certain other titles. I’d love to see more of Robin’s stories available. So often her stories were cross-generational, and I really think there could be a cross-over market, part nostalgia, part new readers, for her books. A family audience. If any publishers watching fancy some curation, I’m here …
How should readers contact you?
I’d love to hear from Robin’s fans – or any fans of Australian children’s books past and present – you can email me at: jon [at] lettersfromrobin.com
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d love to flag that the greatest delight and surprise, apart from old friends’ affirmations of the successes achieved in the children’s book world in those pre-social media days, has been hearing from strangers – other readers, my age or a little younger – for whom Robin’s books meant as much as they did to me. The reasons are manifold and unique and vary from book to book and person to person. I never want to stop hearing them. So please get in touch!
Thank you for writing Letters from Robin, Jon. As well as reminding us of the Robin Klein books we loved and should revisit and alerting us to her books we haven’t read, it is an excellent resource for students of Australian children’s literature in schools and universities and those interested in writing for young people or in the field generally.
For those with a history of reading Robin Klein’s books, it also places us back into the time when we first read her memorable books.
My review of Came Back to Show You I Could Fly in the Weekend Australian (behind the paywall)