Barney, Carrie & Sam in Black

One of the most startling aspects of creating a character is the prospect that maybe, if you’ve done your work properly, that character will outlive you. Which makes you wonder, do characters mourn their creators? It’s a kind of idle question to be pondering as the year turns over but New Year’s Day is a good time to be lounging around thinking idle thoughts and writing out lists and ideas about both past and future things. Having your characters outlive you definitely fits into distant future thoughts.

If characters really do outlive their authors, then 2012 was a sad year for hundreds of fictitious souls. Many wonderful writers died last year as was noted by Martin McKenzie Murray (no relation) in an article that appeared in The Age newpaper last week. When I first read the article I was surprised he didn’t mention the death of Ray Bradbury, the American science-fiction writer. Murray chose to focus on the passing of Gore Vidal, Bryce Courtenay and Maurice Sendak. It was great to see both a children’s author (Sendak) and an Australian (Courtenay) included in his notable list. But upon rereading the article, I felt really sad that Murray couldn’t squeeze in a mention of one of the many very fine female writers who we lost last year. There are three women in particular who died in 2012 that have had a huge impact on children’s and young adult fiction authors all around the world.

The American author Jean Craighead George died last year at the age of 92.  During her lifetime she wrote many award-winning children’s books but one of her characters was a particularly important imaginary companion of mine during my childhood. Sam Gribley, a teenage boy who runs away from his cramped New York City apartment to live alone in the Catskill Mountains, changed my life. Sam was the protagonist in Craighead George’s classic novel My Side of the Mountain (1959). Through reading about Sam, I became interested in the works of Thoreau and read Walden when I was too young to understand Thoreau’s message but the ideas that underpinned both books influenced me to sign up as a junior ranger in Canada in my late teens. I wasn’t quite as adventurous as Sam when I was eleven years old but not long after I read George’s novel my Grade Six class was taken to see the film version of the book. A week later, three of my classmates were taken off a suburban train by the police  while running away from home, emulating Sam Gribley. They were supposedly heading into the wilderness but they only got as far as the suburb of Broadmeadows on the edge of Melbourne. Through Sam Gribley, Jean Craighead George inspired a generation of children around the world to take an interest in both nature and adventure. I’m not sure she was so pleased that so many of them ran away from home.

Nina Bawden was a British author who died last year. Like the amazing fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones who passed away in 2011, Bawden was a child evacuee sent to Wales from London during WWII. Bawden’s novel Carrie’s War was inspired by her time as an evacuee. It’s a British classic and has twice been made into a TV series by the BBC. I’m not sure there’s a direct connection between me and Carrie apart from the fact I loved her story when I was a teenager. I did wind up living in a Welsh village when I grew up so perhaps Carrie really did get under my skin. When I p and was living in Wales in the 1990s, I read Bawden’s adult novels and particular loved her book Circles of Deceit. Sometimes authors lead you full circle.

I didn’t start reading the work of Margaret Mahy until I was an adult so her characterz Barney Palmer and his sister Tabitha from the very scary The Haunting were of more interest to me as a parent than a child. But Margaret Mahy’s books influenced many fantasy authors around the world including the very talented Australian author Penni Russon. Mahy’s body of work is impressive and the example she set of working solidly across a lifetime while also bringing up children on her own is inspiring. The struggle to balance writing and family is a particularly difficult challenge that women have to tackle differently to men. It’s one of the reasons that’s it’s important to honour the work of the generations of women who have made it possible for young women writers today to be able to write professionally. It’s worth celebrating that young female authors no longer have to hide the fact that they are women nor do they have to write under male pseudonyms as was the case in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s great for young authors of both genders to be able to look forward to not only creating a family of their own but also a family of unforgettable imaginary characters.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Every adult was once a child and the child inside them never disappears.”

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