Reading for life–Ursula Dubosarsky, classical leanings and the children’s laureateship

The Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation promotes literacy for the young. As part of that program, it appoints a writer or illustrator as a Laureate, to lead the way in encouraging reading and writing. Last year, the novelist Morris Gleitzman was the laureate (2018-19). Before that, it was Leigh Hobbs (2016-17), before that it was Jackie French (2014-15), Boori Monty Pryor(2012-13), and Alison Lester (2012-13). This year, it’s Ursula Dubosarsky, who will hold the role in 2020-21.

Ursula Dubosarsky is of particular interest to us at Antipodean Odyssey, because she was a student and teacher of classical languages, and incorporates classical elements in many of her works. I’ve enjoyed teaching her novel The Golden Day to my students, and writing about it for the Our Mythical Hope conference. We’ve written it up, along with entries on Black Sails White Sails, The Blue Cat, and The Boy Who Could Fly, in the Our Mythical Childhood survey, as well.

The Golden Day, Black Sails White Sails, The Blue Cat

The Golden Day is a deeply intertextual work, intertwining Joan Lindsay’s seminal novel Picnic at Hanging Rock with classical myths of loss and death, all in a Sydney setting, and inspired by the art of Charles Blackman. In this story about the disappearance of a school teacher from a cave on the Sydney Harbour foreshore, images of schoolgirls, Leda and the Swan, the fall of Icarus and more, float through the story, which is profoundly reflective–about love, and loss, and inspirational teachers who may let you down, but who also teach you about life.

It’s possibly my favourite of Dubosarsky’s novels, but there are plenty other terrific reading experiences to be had. Black Sails White Sails is a story about the consequences of deception and misunderstanding. It draws on the myth of Theseus, who forgot to let his father, Aegeus, know he had returned alive from fighting the Minotaur. Instead of raising the white sail as an agreed upon signal, he carelessly left up the black sail. His father, grief-stricken, hurled himself into the sea that now bears his name (the Aegean). Memory, forgetfulness, carelessness, but also reflection, loyalty, friendships and family, are part of this curious book which takes an allusive and slanting approach to the myth that gives the book its title.

This slanting approach is a key aspect of Dubosarsky’s novels, many of which are serious and reflective. The Blue Cat has this quality as well–it’s a kind of psychological journey into the underworld, set in Sydney during World War II, and invoking the seriousness of Virgil’s Aeneid to reflect on ideas about exile and immigration. Aeneas, after all, was an immigrant himself, forced to flee Troy as it burned, carrying his elderly father on his back, and images of this epic are important in the novel’s reflections on transition and migration.

They’re lovely books–thoughtful and reflective, and I think for readers who are interested in a rich intertextual experience, they are very rewarding. Some of them have spent time in the school curriculum, as a result, and I’ve enjoyed teaching The Golden Day in my children’s literature classes. As a non-Australian, I enjoy reading Australian writers’ reflections on their own culture, and I find Dubosarsky’s layering of literary and historical elements into her depictions of Sydney illuminating.

Guineapigs … and other classical moments…

There’s a mischievous side to Dubosarsky’s work as well, though. She has a fondness for guinea pigs (and perhaps I am drawn to her work because as a child myself I had guinea pigs (Peter, Paul, Poppy, Orinoco and Wellington), and loved them very much. So when Cubby, the protagonist of The Golden Day has a guineapig called Agamemnon, I get the point. And just as Dubosarsky sneaks classical elements into her works, she also makes sure to include guinea pigs as well.

There are more classical moments–such as in The Boy Who Could Fly and other stories, a series of classroom plays about classical myths, originally published in the New South Wales School Journal. And her newest story for younger readers, is called Ask Hercules Quick, about a boy named Hercules who lives in an apartment building full of animals, and does odd jobs for them in order to raise money for a box of magic tricks. I have not yet read this, but the title is alluring, and I hope a guineapig appears in its pages.

At her commencement of her term, in a ceremony held in Canberra, Dubosarsky advocated for libraries and literacy, and for the joy of a life of reading.

“If children learn to love to read—not just to be able to read—then they will be readers their whole life long. A child becomes a lifelong reader not by chance, but by opportunity. That’s how you make a reader for life.” – @Ozlaureate Ursula Dubosarsky on #ReadForYourLife

As she spoke, she was wearing a lovely laurel wreath. I’m sure this felt particularly meaningful for a writer with a classical sensibility and knowledge: a symbol not only of victory and achievement, but a symbol of learning and literature and perhaps too of a life of reading.

Elizabeth Hale

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