I’ve briefly mentioned Robin Klein on this blog before, but today is her 81st birthday and so I feel she deserves a post of her own. She was the first author I ever wrote to (way back in 1986) and her friendliness and openness made me completely believe that a writing life was possible.
There’s very little about Robin on the internet. In 1997, she suffered an aneurysm and while her health recovered, it marked the end of her active career as one of Australia’s most prolific and popular writers for young people. No more interviews or podcasts, no cover reveals, no Twitter chats. I always think of her on 28 February, and think of her books and reread them.
Over an eleven-year period, we exchanged letters – forty of her responses to me are now housed in the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (formerly the Lu Rees Archives) in Canberra. When I donated my collection of letters from Robin (and other authors) I wrote an article for their journal, in which I said:
‘There were always new books to talk about and I feel very privileged to have witnessed the conception and publication of Came Back To Show You I Could Fly, All in the Blue Unclouded Weather and The Listmaker. Always Robin’s letters conveyed the hectic nature of her life – the births of her four grandchildren, three house moves, and the increasingly demanding nature of the publishing world. She never complained of being overburdened by my and other fans’ letters, although I knew she received vast swags of mail and invested huge amounts of time and money in replying to them. (Though at least she got a book out of it: in 1988, Allen & Unwin published Dear Robin, a picture book that included extracts from a decade’s worth of fan mail, including a few pieces of mine.)’
Inevitably, many of her 40+ books – from picture books to junior novels to fiction for teenagers – are out of print but some are, and very happily Text Publishing have just this week released a new ‘Classics’ edition of Came Back to Show You I Could Fly – one of Robin’s most important books about the friendship of a lonely young boy, Seymour, and Angie, a teenage girl who enchants him with stories of glamour and excitement but whose own life is ravaged by the effects of drug addiction. It was a world Robin knew first hand from events in her family. This beautifully written but uncompromising novel won the Australian Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award for 1990.
It’s a book that showed Robin’s typically mordant wit. Her characters don’t suffer fools gladly – take Erica Yurken in Hating Alison Ashley or Penny Pollard of diary fame, or nearly everyone in Seeing Things as proof of this – but they can bear the most wonderful grudges. Here’s Angie’s description of someone she used to know:
This freaky kid when I was in primary school. Heavens, I’d nearly forgotten all about old Morris Carpenter! You should have seen him, he was the most miserable gloomy kid in the whole world. I reckon when he was born the first thing he would have done was throw a punch at the nurse. Middle of summer, on days just like this, there he’d be all bundled up in a duffel coat, no kidding. And if you ever felt sorry for him and asked him to join in things, he’d just sort of glare at you and then he’d croak, “Why should I?”
We adore Angie, but we feel sorry for Morris Carpenter, imagining the cruelty he suffered at the hands of his schoolmates (although we know by this point in the book that not everything Angie says is true …). But we also know that if you read another Robin Klein story, someone just like him will be centre stage and he or she will get the better of those heckling classmates and we’ll cheer all the way. The underdog becomes top dog nearly every time.
Text Publishing are also reissuing Robin’s books about the Melling sisters, based on a rural childhood in Australia in the 1940s. Robin was drawing on her own youth in these funny, engaging stories of sibling rivalry and solidarity. There’s the summer book (All in the Blue Unclouded Weather), the autumn book (Dresses of Red and Gold) and the winter book (The Sky in Silver Lace). So sad to think we’ll never have the spring book to complete the quartet but I couldn’t be more thrilled that these reissues have happened. May there be more!
Robin Klein was my first favourite author. Who was yours?