The mid-90’s and early 2000’s was a great time to be a child in Australia. Not that I’m biased or anything but our Children’s Fiction was the envy of the world. Years later I had friends in Britain telling me how Britain imported our TV shows at the time and that they, half the world away, were watching the same shows I was. I’d never been more proud to be Australian.
This was a time when Paul Jennings was still in print and on the screen. If you weren’t reading Unreal or Uncanny, you could watch Round The Twist on telly. Quirky, original short stories were his hallmark, and some were even quite insightful. More than anything else, they got us kids interested in stories and in reading. I can’t tell you how many times I read his books as a child—they were just so much fun. I think that’s part of what makes good writers later in life—I’m not joking with you here—starting kids young, getting them reading and enjoying it.
Another Aussie in such a vein was the notorious Andy Griffiths. If it wasn’t Bumageddon: The Final Pongflict, it was Just Annoying! or Just Stupid!. You may laugh at the titles but these books carried the wit of a man who hadn’t quite grown up and knew what young boys would enjoy reading. I’d go so far as to say he’s the Australian Roald Dahl—plenty of stories were about going to school and the problems a young Aussie lad can have with his teachers and classmates. Andy Griffiths gave a generation of school boys an voice for their experiences—no Bart or Tom Brown required.
When you were ready for something a bit deeper but still insanely quirky and lots of fun, it was time for Morris Gleitzman. Fun fact: Cane Toads are an introduced species to Australia and an ineradicable threat to native wildlife, so naturally Gleitzman decides to write a book series from their perspective. Only in Australia would you get a book like Toad Heaven, where this hated pest would seek out a nature reserve so they could live in peace. He gives you these books from weird perspectives to get you thinking, from a young age, about other people’s lives and points of view and that there’s often more than one side to a story.
But perhaps the best Aussie writer of that time was the renowned Jackie French. French wrote about so many different things but for me I remember her most for her Historical Fiction novels. That’s right, Historical Fiction. She gave me my first taste of exploring the past through fiction in books like Hitler’s Daughter and Macbeth and Son. Moreover, to an age group who were still too young to know what Feminism was, she had strong female protagonists in a time when men still dominated fiction. I’ll never forget They Came on Viking Ships, at once both one of the most immersive experiences of Viking life and also some of the toughest, most memorable women in Children’s Fiction. French has helped shape my writing perhaps more than any other children’s author, and I’m proud to say so.
So is it a fair claim to say us Aussies had the best Children’s Fiction in the mid-90’s and early 2000’s? I think so and now you know why. Whether you agree or not is up to you. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to write as well from a child’s perspective without the example of these authors, and I treasure them for that as much as the countless hours of fun they brought to my childhood.