For much of my childhood my parents worked as missionaries in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, making me a “third culture kid” like many students of international schools. We didn’t have TV, so reading and playing were pretty much our only forms of entertainment. My father was studying a children’s literature unit as part of his Masters degree, and one day a box of kids’ books arrived from Australia. I was pretty excited when I opened it for him and found dozens of classic children’s books lined up. To me that cardboard box was like a treasure chest, and I pilfered the lot, making them my own private library (from which my father was allowed to borrow, obviously).
To be honest, without those books, I very much doubt that I’d have become a writer at all, much less a writer for children and young adults. What follows are five of the highlights from that box.
Josh – Ivan Southall
Josh is the only Australian book to have won the Carnegie Medal, in 1973. Despite its words looking like prose on the page, I believe that this book's narrow stream-of-consciousness viewpoint and unorthodox sentence structure make it the first Australian verse novel, a form which is nowadays often tried but rarely perfected. But more than that, to a slightly awkward missionary kid like me, this story of belonging and expectation sang to me like nothing else I’ve ever known.
The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban
This book is a whole bunch of things: a children’s fable, a study of philosophy, a rollicking good yarn, an examination of belonging and family, and a sure-fire tear-jerker. I first read it at twelve, and I’ve re-read it every couple of years since, and each and every time another layer is peeled back. In my opinion it is one of the finest books ever written, period.
Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl
Tim Burton made the wrong movie. Charlie just went on a factory tour; Danny was a hero – it’s right there in the title. I also like this one better than a lot of Dahl’s books (even though they’re all great) because it’s the most believable. I love magic and absurdity, but this sticks to (fairly) believable, and it’s that realness that I love.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
Okay, so it’s two books, but still… Living and playing in Fiji, my friend Shannon and I treated these books less like stories and more like character sketches. We would read by night, and play by day, mostly as the characters in our books, or by using the scenarios from those stories as inspiration. Hot, humid tropical days exploring deep, cool rivers on bamboo rafts meant we were basically Tom and Huck, although we never worked out who was who. As a result of all this, we learnt that characters are important, and that stories are open-ended. And endless. And miraculous. I also want to give an honourable mention to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
However you feel about the incredibly obvious Christian stuff, nothing changes the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia were superb, accessible works of fantasy. In my opinion, this series is superior to everything Tolkien ever wrote in almost every department. (Please, no angry letters – it’s merely an opinion.) But I’m sure I’m not the first or last kid to check the back of the wardrobe for a doorway into Narnia. The power of Narnia is its ability to immerse the reader in a world of pure adventure. Literarily anything seems possible. And as anyone will tell you, taking a reader safely into another world, even for an afternoon, is what most writers live to do. And now I do, thanks in part to that wonderful, marvellous, magical cardboard box.
Please visit Australian author Mr. James Roy's home page and learn about the contemporary new worlds he is creating for our readership or peruse his books available outside of Australia or in the UK by selecting the covers below.