Thursday, February 26, 2009

Author Focus: Ivan Southall

1. Biography

I've chosen an Australian author for my latest 'Author Focus' who sadly is barely known to the younger readers of today. When I was growing up there were a small handful of very popular writers for children and chief amongst those in the 1950s and 1960s was Ivan Southall. It seemed that everything he wrote was successful and many of his books were groundbreaking as well as sometimes controversial. He was born in 1921 in Melbourne and died in 2008. He grew up in Surrey Hills and attended Box Hill Grammar School. He was the older son of Francis (Frank) Southall and his wife, formerly Rachel (Bessie) Voutier. His Dad was once a home missionary in Jeparit, but worked for an insurance company after failing to become a Presbyterian minister. In her obituary Stephany Steggall suggests:

Ivan and his younger brother, Gordon, enjoyed a happy childhood, much of it associated with the Methodist Church. If Southall were to claim any serious literary foundation, it had to be the influence of the King James Bible, absorbed during after-dinner readings or in church."

At the age of fourteen his father died and his life changed. This bright student was sent to work washing bottles and glassware. He later became a copy boy at the Melbourne Herald. He had an early ambition to become a journalist, but the Herald gave him an apprenticeship in process engraving. However, this gave him entree to journalism and writing and in his spare time he began to write fiction.

In 1945 Southall married Joy Blackburn and they lived on a property in the Dandenong Ranges. They had four children together and in 1962 Joy gave birth to their fourth child, Melissa who was diagnosed with Downes Syndrome. Raising a disabled child had a strong influence on the whole family and can be seen reflected in Southall’s writing in books such as Finn’s folly and Let the balloon go, both of which involve disabled protagonists and consider the impact of their disabilities on their families and their ability to cope and survive. In 1974 Ivan and Joy were separated and divorced in 1976. Southall married Susan Westerland Stanton in 1976.

2. His Books

Ivan Southall had completed four books before he was twenty, three of which were not published until after the Second World War. Southall was a pilot during World War II, the captain of a Sunderland flying boat based at Pembroke Dock in Wales. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for sinking a German U-boat in 1944. His wartime experiences obviously had an impact on his earliest post-war writings.

'Full Throttle for Fortune' (the original title, that was replaced with 'Meet Simon Black') was his most ambitious earlier work and was the genesis for the Simon Black series about a brave pilot, his mate Goggles Grant and his dog, Rex. Many men over the age of 50 will have wonderful memories of his Simon Black Books for boys published between 1950 and 1961. These very popular adventure books (published in Australia by Angus and Robertson) have fast action focussed on the larger than life central character Simon Black. They included 'Meet Simon Black' (1950), 'Simon Black in Peril' (1951), 'Simon Black in Space' (1952), 'Simon Black in Coastal Command' (1953), 'Simon Black in China' (1954), 'Simon Black and the Spaceman' (1955), 'Simon Black in the Antarctic' (1956), 'Simon Black Takes Over' (1959) and 'Simon Black at Sea' (1961).

Southall's book 'Hills End' (1962) widespread critical acclaim both in Australia and overseas and launched Southall's international reputation. The book is about a group of children facing a crisis without adult supervision. This is a theme that he repeated in many other titles (e.g. see 'Ash Road' below). In the ten years that followed Southall published some of his most successful and awarded children’s novels, including Ash road, To the wild sky, Finn’s folly, Chinaman’s Reef is ours, and The foxhole. In this period the idealistic hero of his Simon Black novels was replaced with much more complex and recognisable characters. In this period he also experimented with a number of different narrative techniques, using for the first time the interior monologues found in Let the balloon go, Bread and honey and Josh. At the same time he also received severe criticism for his challenging subject matters that were frequently 'on the edge' of acceptability for some parents and librarians.

3. A sample of three special books

a) Ash Road (1965)

I can recall reading As Road as a child at primary school and the excitement and fear that the strong narrative engendered. The story is about some children living on Ash Road who are confronted with the fear that many face in rural Australia, the bush fire. The pattern of the day was like that for most Australian fire disasters (including the recent fatal Victorian fires). Southall paints a literary picture of a bewildering and fearful day. The unnatural heat of early morning, the roaring northerly wind and the smell of smoke across thickly wooded hills. Next the panic of communities, the noise of sirens wailing and adults behaving (in the eyes of children who have not experienced this before) so strangely. Conversations overheard of large fires too far away to see. Finally, the realization that nearly all the adults had gone and that a small group of children, were cut off amid growing confusion and danger. The story tells of how they face the danger with only two old men to help them. Southall's grasp of language and his ability to use it to create fear, anxiety, joy and courage is on display in this wonderful book. While it is set in another age, today's children will still find this a gripping tale.

b) Josh (1971)

This is the story of a boy's four-day visit to his Aunt Clara the in Ryan Creek (a town founded by his great grandfather). He has difficulty relating to the other children in this remote rural community and discovers what it means to be an outsider with no awareness of what he needs to do to gain acceptance. He finds himself so different to these children who see the world in different ways and who set out to embarrass, humiliate and shame him. Any child, who doesn't quite fit the mould, will be able to relate to Southall's character. As always he creates in the book rich and believable characters that engage you and draw you into their lives. While he also creates authentic and interesting Australian settings (another strength of his work), it is the depth and complexity of his characters that separates Southall from many other lesser writers. His word craft is also masterly and is seen at its best in this book that achieved what no other Australian children's book has managed, the United Kingdom's highest award for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal (1971).

c) Let the Balloon Go (1968)

Ivan Southall's youngest daughter Melissa and her life coping with disability were central to 'Let the Balloon Go' (1968) and also 'Finns Folly' (1969). The main character in the Let the Balloon Go' has cerebral palsy and has overprotective parents, a twelve-year-old, left alone for the first time. He tries desperately to assert his independence and as a result does exactly what he has been forbidden to do. The book is one of Southall's most successful novels for younger readers and is just as relavant today.

The book was also made into a film in 1976 (click here) that was produced by Film Australia.

4. His Awards

As well as the Simon Black series Ivan Southall published twenty-eight children’s books, and a number of adult novels and numerous essays and short stories. His work for children has been translated into over twenty languages including German, Swedish, Japanese and Russian. His numerous awards included the Children’s Books of the Year Award for Ash road (1966), To the wild sky (1968), Bread and honey (1971) and Fly west (1976). He also won the Children’s Picture Book of the Year for Sly old wardrobe (1969) that was illustrated by Ted Greenwood. He is the only Australian children’s writer to receive the Carnegie Medal (for Josh), which was also an honour book for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1981. He also won the Emeritus Award of the Australia Council Literature Board in 1993 for his contribution to Australian literature. In 2003 he received the International Phoenix Award of the American Library Association (Children's Literature) for The Long Night Watch. He was also awarded the Dromkeen Medal in 2003 for his writing that spanned 50 years.

While much of Southall's work was written in different times and for readers with vastly different lived experiences than today's children his books are just as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them. Boys of today will also enjoy the insights that his work gives into the life of young boys (in particular) in the 1950s to 1980s, and a world with some differences from their own.

Related links

All my posts in the 'Author Focus' series (
click here)
All my posts on children's literature (click here)
Posts on 'Key themes' in children's books (click here)

Photo credit: Photo above of Ivan Southall by John Lamb


max said...

I always appreciate finding others who are concerned about helping children become readers.

That's because I grew up as a reluctant reader. And my father was the author of over 70 books. Now I write action-adventure and mystery books especially for tween boys. My blog, Books for boys, is # 4 on Google today.

Keep up your good work!

Max Elliot Anderson

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Max and Dayana. Trevor

Eva said...

I read and loved many of the Ivan Southall books as an adolescent in the early 70's and since then I had forgotten the book titles and the author's name. Somehow the stories have always have always stayed with me and I recently decided to try to search on the internet for these books so I can introduce them to my son who is 9-1/2. It is really great to find something again that you believed was lost to you. Unfortunately, it seems that all of his wonderful books are now out of print and not even available to check out at the NY public library. Well, at least I can get them used. I agree that his stories are timeless and perhaps even more relevant today than when they were written.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Eva, nice to hear from you and to find another person with wonderful memories of Southall. Yes, many are out of print but some are available on the web as new and second-hand books. Best wishes, Trevor