Since being introduced to Terry Denton by a publisher back in 1997, the pair have published 24 children’s books together. It has been a productive and inspiring creative relationship. Just Tricking was their first collaboration in 1997 but overtime their collaborative working relationship has changed.
‘It used to be, particularly with the Just series, that I would do about 80% and Terry 20%. I’d write the words and then send it to Terry and he would draw all over my words and any empty space he could find’, said Griffiths.
‘But The Bad Book really began to change things and how we worked. The Bad Book, followed by The Cat on the Mat is Flat and the Cow Kapow, were much more about both of us creatively collaborating from the start. This continued with The Very Bad Book and The Body Parts Book when I discovered that Terry could draw quite medical drawings. But it wasn’t until, as part of the writing Just Doomed, that I asked if Terry could draw me a tree house. He drew the most elaborate and beautifully idiosyncratic tree house that it deserved its own book.’ This became The 13 Storey Tree House, published last year.
The Just series works on a number of different levels. The books are all short stories, or lists or diary entries that feature the same characters. There’s craziness and grossness and laugh out loud stupidity throughout and nothing ever gets too dark and emotional – other than the character Andy’s long running crush on Lisa Mackney.
‘Andy is a tragic romantic’, the real Andy Griffiths says. ‘And his unrequited love is based on my real crush on the real Lisa Mackney when we were at school’, he said. Confused yet?
‘When I wrote Just Tricking’, Andy says, ‘I never thought it would take off in the way it did, so I wrote the characters with all my old childhood friends names, the streets are the ones I used to live on. The teachers are named and based on my real teachers.’ Has he had any complaints from the now much older Lisa, Danny and the rest?
‘Well, once Just Tricking took off, I had a problem. Some people weren’t happy that their real names were used but others were fine about it and some I had embedded so deeply into the story that I couldn’t change them – like Danny and Lisa.’ Luckily, the real Lisa Mackney is quite happy to be featured in Griffiths’ books and they are good friends again. Danny Pickett has always remained a friend and is, according to Griffiths, ‘absolutely idiotic’ as Andy in the books describes him. ‘He is a great friend. Always up for anything. Always smiling.’
Some of the inspiration for the Just series comes from observing children and seeing how they interact with the world around them. ‘There’s a story about a trip to a museum in Just Doomed, Griffiths explains. ‘I happened to see these boys at a museum and they were really not paying attention to anything the guide was saying. They were just doing their own thing and enjoying themselves. They weren’t really learning anything but were having a good time and I thought, that’s what Danny and Andy would be doing at the museum.’
Museum Guide: Hi, I’m Chris your museum guide. If there is anything you want to know please ask me?
Student 1: Have you got a girlfriend?
Student 2: Do you like cheese?
Student 3: Were you embarrassed when you pooped in your nappy when you were a baby?
And for those fans of Griffith’s re-writing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Just Macbeth, there’s more Shakespeare in Just Doomed. This time, Griffiths does a re-working of Romeo and Juliet. Just Macbeth, Griffiths parody of Macbeth, was very successful both as a touring play for the Bell Shakespeare Company and as a book.
‘Five years ago, the Bell Shakespeare Company rang me and asked if I’d like to work on a re-working of Shakespeare as they were trying to get younger children into their shows’, he said. During the writing of the play and the book, Griffiths re-discovered Shakespeare as an entertainer.
‘When I hit Shakespeare in secondary school it was so foreign and I realised that [by re-writing Shakespeare] I could introduce kids to the world of Shakespeare’s stage craft, his words and the idea of performance’, he said. ‘Once I began looking I found all sorts of parallels with the Just world – unrequited love, friendships, parents’.
Romeo and Juliet features in diary form in Just Doomed and Griffiths has just finished writing the script adaptation for the Bell Shakespeare Company. ‘It was a lot of fun to do especially after struggling in vain for years with a re-writing of Hamlet. Hamlet was too non-linear and dark.’ The Andy Griffith’s version of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet and Danny, Lisa and Me, will be on stage by 2013. ‘Shakespeare really surprises you with how modern and funny he his,’ Griffiths said. For now though, kids (and adults) will have to get their fix of Shakespearean Griffiths in Just Doomed.
‘I remember growing up with really special books and that’s what I want to give kids. I want them to read my books and say ‘that was great’ and then run off to get a second one,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to teach them anything other than quite simply, reading. I want all kids to be able to read to a good level so they can live their lives as best they can,’ Griffiths said. He is an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) for this very reason.
‘Resources are so limited in remote Aboriginal communities. Often these kids are speaking four or five languages at home and they don’t meet English until they go to school. They don’t have books until school so their literacy is incredibly limited and limiting. If you can’t read you can’t understand documents that effect your life, or the labels on medicine bottles or have a choice about whether you stay in the community or not. The ILF is in on the ground floor working community by community. It is incredibly significant work,’ he said.
Out of his workshops with Aboriginal children has come the book The Naked Boy and the Crocodile. The thirteen stories included in the book tell tales of playing with friends, riding motorbikes, picking berries, hunting for emu eggs and wild pigs, terrifying turkeys and angry mamus. All proceeds from sales of the book go back to the ILF.
This feeds directly into one of Griffiths’ overriding philosophies – ‘words are to be played with and not to be feared’. I have to ask him whether he finds a perverse pleasure in having his Bumosaurus series reach the New York Times bestsellers lists and therefore having the word ‘butt’ (Americans don’t understand the word ‘bum’) published in that august newspaper.
‘Of course’, he says. ‘What was even better though was I went to the USA on a book tour with Zombie Butts from Uranus. It was hilarious, we’d be in some great big Barnes & Noble bookstore for an event and the announcement would come over the loudspeaker ‘if you are here for the Zombie Butts from Uranus event…’ and everyone in the store would just fall apart. It was great.’
With the publication of 13th Storey Treehouse last year, it felt as though Denton and Griffiths’ creative partnership had really taken a major creative leap forward.
‘That’s quite true,’ Griffiths says. ‘Once we had the tree house we began to play with ideas of who and what would live in it’, he said. ‘Kids are always writing to me asking about how Terry and I work together and so we thought it might be a fun idea to create an imaginary tree house where Andy and Terry draw and write together while cooking up experiments in the basement and avoiding the sharks in the swimming pool’, he said.
The 13 Storey Tree House contains all the elements of the Just books but with an overarching story. ‘Kids love a narrative and we wanted to capture that energy from the Just books as well,’ he said.
The 26 Storey Tree House is out in September and The 39 Storey Tree House is out next year. Dizzying heights of silliness will be reached but until then, we have Just Doomed, a laugh out loud and crazy passion-filled book for lovers and laughers all.
And Terry Denton here: http://www.terrydenton.com/
And the Indigenous Literacy Foundation here: http://www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au/