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.

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.]

It seems to be a gentle ego.

I just want it to continue unsullied, unchipped. [Laughter.]

Could the kids in central Los Angeles identify with a book like "Possum Magic," even though it is Australian?

Even though it is quintessentially Australian, it has a universal theme, because it is a quest. I've read it to inner-city kids in L.A., a whole day in a school there with black kids hanging on every word. I've read it to African kids even more culturally different from inner-city black kids, because they don't have the kind of capitalistic wealth surrounding them on TV. Africans can relate to the book, because I think they know who they are, and kids like different cultures. For a while American [publis hers] wanted me to change the books to make them more accessible, and I was very angry about that because I am chauvinistically Australian and I thought, "C'mon guys, we've been swallowing your culture for years...."

Do you write to teach a lesson or to tell a good story?

To tell a good story. You don't sit down and write something that will teach a lesson. That's appalling to do in a book. Some writers seem unable to help themselves from teaching kids something all the time. They should get off kids' backs and let them read for enjoyment. I don't believe the transfer [of values] happens anyway.

There's a wonderful book, "Let the Celebrations Begin," about the Holocaust. But you can't tell me that kids reading the book are not going to be violently anti-Jewish if the people living around them are. I don't believe that children read the book and then go off and say, "I'll never be horrible to a Jewish person again." There is no way in the world that a book is going to make a difference if the life around kids is a culture of intolerance.

Are you arguing against the power of books?

The power of books gives us many experiences; we are taken to different places and times. Books inform us of other cultures, other people, even sexes. But the culture we live in creates the values; there's nothing a peer group cannot do to work against the books we read.

What about the power of TV over children?

TV is winning. Unless people turn off TV, it has to win. Good TV is wonderful, and children's books done on TV always increase the sales of books. But there is so much garbage on TV, so much mindlessness. It's a losing battle; we have to accommodate TV, improve it because kids are going to watch it.

Any advice for parents and educators in the US about loving children?

It seems to me that one of the things that damages children in this country is the work ethic, because it is stronger than the paternal-maternal ethic. People seem to have children as an appendage, a pet, a piece of art. But they go to work at 8 and come home at 6:30 while someone else raises their child all day because of the work ethic. What the boss thinks of you, how early you get in, how late you leave - all this is very important in America. But what happens when you stop working? Who are you? What

is life about? How can you bond with your children if you never see them?

And Australians do better?

I think we do, because we are lazier; we do not admire hard work. But you are talking to somebody who works a 16-hour day, so just count me out of this! I have two jobs, but nobody thinks I'm clever - "Why do you continue to work so hard, Mem, when you could live off your writing?" For me, the core of my life is the inter-relationship between me and the people whose well-being I care about. I am enormously grateful for what I have and the people who love me.

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