Books in the Language of Children
Mem Fox has written global bestsellers for kids - and some that she's just as glad don't sell
WITH a rolling, avalanche laugh that sometimes buries the tail end of sentences like confetti on a parade, Mem Fox sits down and slips off her shoes. "Oh, I'm so relieved," she says, beaming and wiggling her Australian toes.Skip to next paragraph
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Within minutes she drops a bomb and confesses that seven of her 18 books are "very bad," and that authors who try to "teach" in their books "are spitting in the wind." (More on this later.)
This is the blunt, irrepressible Mem (short for Merrion) Fox, the author of two huge bestsellers for children in Australia and the United States. "Possum Magic," with illustrations by Julie Vivas, has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide since 1983, and "Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge," about a boy who helps an older woman rediscover her memory, has sold 150,000 copies. Another favorite is "Koala Lou," the story of a koala bear wanting mom to say, "Koala Lou, I DO love you."
Fox's new autobiography has a title bound to tickle a possum: "Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books Even the Pathetic Ones, and Other Incidents in the Life of a Children's Book Author" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).
The title is from one of hundreds of letters Fox receives from children everywhere. The book, aimed at adults, has a jaunty innocence with parts suitable for reading aloud to kids.
Born in Australia, Fox grew up in Africa, where her parents were missionaries. Later she was educated in England and attended drama school in London. Even though Fox grew bored with the on-stage recitation of the words of other authors, her drama training uncovered a truth. "Gradually," she says with laughter, "I realized that what I really wanted was to be known. Horridly shallow, isn't it?"
Fox says she loves to be in a classroom for the sake of connecting with kids. Her skills as a mother, wife, writer, educator, and forceful talker can transform a schoolroom or workshop from boring to compelling: She is as popular a seminar-giver as she is an author.
"You don't stand at the front of the room and give out information," she says. "You plan for hours the method by which you are going to creep around the back door and get them hooked into the subject at hand. How will they be unable to help themselves from getting involved?"
With equal parts candor, laughter, and bombs, an interview with Fox is a four-star involvement. Some excerpts:
You say that 7 of your 18 books were not so great?
Yes, and I'm not disappointed that they haven't sold well. I don't want them to sell, because I don't want anybody to know about them, because I am ashamed.
How did they become published?
Because I'm Mem Fox, which is a devastating state to reach that people will publish even your bad books because of your name. It's crazy because names don't really sell books.
Doesn't this reflect poorly on you as not being critical enough to say, "This shouldn't be published"?
Of course it does, and in fact there is a book that I started to write and was in negotiation, and I decided against it. I withdrew from the negotiation and said, "This book isn't ready." I am more critical and more frightened now of publishing a bad book. I now know what a good picture book is. I didn't know when I started, and now that I know, it is much more difficult to write. In fact, it is agony.
It's courageous of you to admit. Lots of authors wouldn't.
I want the grandchildren of my current readers to read my books. When they reach their 70s, I want them to say to their grandchildren, "The book that I loved as a child was 'Koala Lou,' and I'm going to see if it's in print so you can have it, because when I was your age I loved it." I really want them to last because I have an ego that is almost too big to get in this room! [Much laughter.]