October 2015

The Nation Reviewed

The Ipswich treehouse story

By Ashley Hay
Children’s lit heroes Andy Griffiths, Terry Denton and Jill Griffiths step off the page and onto the stage

The first thing you see inside Ipswich Civic Centre’s auditorium is a set of magnificent burgundy curtains, not draped across a stage to obscure its magical other-world but hung behind the seating. Audiences have to navigate the curtains – as if sneaking backstage themselves – to reach the performance.

The StoryArts Festival Ipswich is Queensland’s biennial celebration of children’s literature, with events for teachers, librarians, emerging writers and illustrators, and the young readers themselves. One September evening the audience in the auditorium fell mostly into that last category. They were small, chatty, and beside themselves.

As they chose their seats and fidgeted, they noticed a man with light-coloured curly hair on the stage. Then the whisper spread. “It’s Terry – look, he’s drawing!”

The trio of figures in black texta on the man’s page were projected onto the screen behind him: a man with dark short hair, a woman holding a cat, and a man with white curly hair.

“Look!” someone shouted. “He’s drawing Barky!”

“We want Barky!”

The man drew a speech bubble near the dog and wrote “BARK”. The children hollered and cheered. They knew what was happening. They had entered the world of the characters Andy, Jill (and Silky the cat) and Terry, and a multi-storey treehouse, and adventures, and the most boring TV show ever: The Barky the Barking Dog Show.

As the owner-operator of a six-year-old, I find it hard to imagine anyone being unaware of this Australian publishing juggernaut. Since the first instalment, The 13-Storey Treehouse, in 2011, total regional sales of the Treehouse series have exceeded 2 million copies. The fourth instalment, The 52-Storey Treehouse, was named Book of the Year at the 2015 Australian Book Industry Awards – the first children’s book to be so honoured. The latest, the wonderful time-travelling rush of The 65-Storey Treehouse, sold more than 72,000 copies in its first four days and more than 400,000 in a month. Book signings have run to seven hours.

“There’s Andy!” A man with dark short hair snuck across the stage. There was no question who he was.

“And that must be Jill!” A red-haired woman followed him.

It wasn’t; it was a publicist. No one knew what Jill really looked like because Jill Griffiths hadn’t done Treehouse events – until this debut in Ipswich.

Author Andy Griffiths warmed up his already enthusiastic 500-strong crowd with a slapstick kick to the bum for illustrator Terry Denton, his collaborator of 20 years. As a child, Andy played in a cousin’s treehouse – “single-storey, nothing fancy” – and loved the sense of being “up off the ground, away from the adults”, and totally lost in a game. “I recognise that exact feeling when I’m with Terry,” he tells me ahead of this show.

“And now,” he said to the audience, “I need to introduce someone very important – my wife. You may know her as the girl who lives on the other side of the forest, fixing Andy and Terry’s animal problems …”

And there she was.

“Is that the real Jill?” whispered my son, who’s previously wondered why the actors in Treehouse stage adaptations weren’t the real Griffithses and Denton. This time, it was.

Jill met Andy when she was assigned to edit his first novel, Just Tricking!, in 1996, and she’s been his editor ever since. As Andy described one early encounter for his Ipswich fans – Jill offering him a cup of tea and him struggling to untangle a single bag from the impenetrable macramé of teabag strings in his pocket – Terry was illustrating the moment. He drew a smooch to the audience’s delightedly disgusted “Eee-yeeewww”, and icky romance was summarily squashed.

“I never really thought about the consequences,” Jill tells me later when we’re discussing how she’s become a very popular character in a very popular children’s series. “And that’s odd. I knew Andy put real people into his books – it’s easier for him to write about them, and then he just exaggerates and makes it up.”

And being onstage? “Well, an editor’s usually completely behind the scenes, so that’s odd too. The kids feel like they know you, and there’s such affection for the characters. They know the stories aren’t true, but they so want them to be – well, we all do that when we’re reading.”

In the alternate arboreal world, Jill is the problem-solver for the two hapless males – a reflection of “what I do as an editor”, she says.

“In the books,” says Andy, “Jill’s fixing their animal problems. But when Terry puts his underpants in the shark tank [in The 26-Storey Treehouse Jill jumps in to perform ‘open-shark surgery’ after the sharks get sick from eating them], that’s a metaphor for what she does in the literary sense. She says, ‘This is getting a bit too conceptual; can we get back to the middle?’”

“Andy and Terry say I’m more sensible than they are,” Jill adds, “and I don’t think I am. But then I see how silly they are.”

Jill also writes some of the books’ rhymes, including the impressively epic ‘The Ballad of the Ninja Snails’ in The 52-Storey Treehouse. Andy relates how he wanted this one to sound like Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “She came back with it fully formed – it was wonderful.”

The Ipswich show rolled on through discussions of seeing without eyes (if, say, you’d gone into the treehouse’s popular exploding-eyeball room) and Terry’s deadpan explanation of the first treehouse sketch (“I drew it in pencil; it was a 3B”). It was an exuberantly extemporised and illustrated riff, and then came the next performance: the book signing. Because that’s the thing about being not only the books’ authors but also, in a way, their characters: these three are themselves, and they’re not, and they’re also literary superstars. And most small (and not-so-small) readers are completely tongue-tied when they meet them.

The authors went to work again, drawing their fans into quick conversations – “You’re six? The perfect age to drop out of the sky into a shark tank!” – and initiating exchanges that the children were suddenly too shy to have.

“I used to love watching signings,” says Jill. “The kids came up with their parents and you’d think they were being taken to the dentist – these looks of reluctance and horror. Andy would draw them out and then they’d walk away from the table and their faces would light up.”

Now, in Ipswich, she was at the table herself – until well past the audience’s bedtime.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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