On my blog, I want to talk about some of my favourite Aussie kids fiction – starting off here with Robin Klein, who I read and endlessly reread in primary school, high school and beyond (the children’s literature section of my uni library had a great selection). It wasn’t until I started to work at a bookstore in uni and grasped the concept of ‘out of print’ that I began collecting every Robin Klein book I could find at secondhand bookstores and charity shops, rather than assuming they’d forever be available to me at libraries. Robin Klein’s characters feel like a classic snapshot of a particular 80s, 90s and suburban Australia – and I always found the emotional journeys of her characters really honest. Penny Pollard, the first Robin Klein character I encountered, was a fierce and tough young girl whose determination to own all the horses/never wear a dress/beat up her nemesis Jason Taylor felt irreverent and often touching as she finds friends in unexpected places (but never Jason Taylor). The first book, Penny Pollard’s Diary, sees her reluctantly visit a retirement home as part of a school excursion, run off when she is supposed to be performing songs from The Sound of Music, and run into Edith Bettany, an equally prickly retirement home rebel who becomes a good friend. The books are almost a precursor to Diary of A Wimpy Kid/ Timmy Failure types of contemporary intermediate fiction as they combine blocks of text in letters, diary entries, articles etc with pictures (lots of horses) and cartoons.
Penny’s adventures in later books involve being sent to stay with a stuffy aunt when her brother is born, teaching her geeky friend Alistair to stand up to bullies, travelling to Europe, attempting matchmaking, and being forced to act as flowergirl in a wedding. I loved reading about her projects, like trying to get the local stables to employ her, pitching (constantly rejected) articles for the local newspaper, and hammering several horseshoes into her ceiling to make it look like a horse had walked across it (she took a good chunk of paint and plaster out of the ceiling and her father was not thrilled). She wasn’t waiting for anyone’s permission to take on her many and varied projects, and never got really discouraged even after setbacks – this made her a fantastic role model to me, even though she had her faults (she was pretty rude sometimes and wasn’t too fussed on personal hygiene). I’m the first to admit they are a bit (a lot) dated with very old school slang and prices, but nothing that kids can’t figure out on their own.
They would be fun reads for most kids around 8-12. I didn’t share many of Penny’s interests like the outdoors and horses and I still LOVED these books. I’m so happy the first one has recently been reprinted by Hachette (I may have squeaked when I saw it in an order form and startled the lovely rep I was meeting with) although I do prefer the original A4 format, rather than the current smaller one (I understand why they’d change it though, the old formats would look pretty out of place alongside contemporary titles.)
To wrap things up I need to say that if you see Penny Pollard’s Guide to Modern Manners in the A4 format pretty please let me know asap so I can add it to my collection. She writes an advice column for her schoolmates and answers questions such as “What should I do if I open two identical duck-handled umbrellas at my birthday party?”* – some of her advice stuck with me throughout my life! It’s one that has eluded me on my search and I’d love to find it again.
* The answer is to be super grateful for both, say “How handy – I can keep one at home, and one in the family car!”