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The unlikely lad

Geraldine Brennan talks to Paul Jennings about his semi-autobiographical novel which examines the immigrant experience

Australian author Paul Jennings is best known for collections of funny, feel-good stories in well-paced short sentences, which seem tailor-made for grabbing the undivided attention of boys in Year 4. However, alongside the slapstick and the macabre references to taxidermy and body parts, his tales work on a deeper level. He is willing to confront insecurity, messy emotions, dysfunctional families and bereavement in a way younger readers can absorb.

How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare, his first full-length children's novel published this month, is pitched slightly older at 11 to 12-year-old readers but maintains the same balance. It's strongly autobiographical: Hedley Hopkins is, like the author, the son of "pound;10 Poms": postwar English migrants to Australia.

The zany subplot involving a skull, an open grave, a nest of bull ants and a fridge-freezer is vintage Paul Jennings (or Just William, one of his childhood influences) and there is a lingering fart joke. However, the glimpses of the inadequate sex education on offer in the early 1950s are painful as well as funny.

"I hope boys will read this before they hit puberty," says Paul. "Parents tell me they find their sons don't want to hear them talking about this stuff, but the boys are more receptive if the discussion can be about Hedley and his worries." It's also a story about attitudes to difference and the postscript, with references to recent waves of refugees in Australia and to Aboriginal history, shows the author's intentions that it will be food for thought. Paul supports a campaign to free refugees from detention centres, shutting himself in a cage as part of one protest in his home town in south-west Victoria.

He was six when he arrived in Australia and the years he spent trying to fit in and lose his English accent, reflected in the book, make him good at tuning into contemporary children's vulnerable spots. "In some ways it was an adventure: we came on an ocean liner with a swimming pool and went to live in Adelaide, which at that time seemed like the Wild West. But having to leave your home is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to anyone. I had to leave my grandmother, my cat and my friends behind. Even when you're older, the feelings are the same.

"The Australian government wanted us and there were jobs and homes for us, so our experience was comfortable and Hedley's problems seem minor compared to today's refugees who have suffered and struggled to get here. I'm pleased my Australian audiences have made that connection and that the Australian government has recently agreed to release families with children from detention centres."

In the book, Hedley wants to be William Brown, but hasn't yet found his Outlaws. Acceptance comes where he least expects it, among a group of children with learning difficulties who allow for more exploration of difference. Meanwhile, Hedley's parents conduct their lives as if still in England, and perceive the other new Australians in their street (Greek, Italian and Czech) as "foreigners".

"My parents had resolved not to go back to England - they always said they had come to Australia for their children," says Paul. "But they stayed English until the day they died."

His first career was as a child speech pathologist, and it was lecturing on learning disabilities and his son's distaste for "remedial" reading texts that prompted the first batch of stories, Unreal!, published in Australia in 1985. His collections became TV series and travelled far: within a decade most UK primary teachers had several dog-eared collections from the Unseries (Unbearable!, Unbelievable!, Uncanny!, and so on: Unseen! won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award in 1999). With his fellow Australians Morris Gleitzman (his collaborator on another series, Wicked!), Moya Simon and Andy Griffiths, he put popular fiction for the middle primary years on the map. Now there's a Paul Jennings book for his fans to keep through secondary school.

* How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare by Paul Jennings is published by Puffin, Pounds 4.99

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