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Errol Broome (1937-) - Sidelights

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In her books for young readers, Australian author Errol Broome tackles difficult themes with humor and grace. Often, her characters must deal with situations that resonate with many young people, such as the loss of a parent, a classroom trauma, or a dilemma that tests one's morals. Some of Broome's works are aimed at children in the early elementary grades, but most appeal to readers above the age of nine. Many are set in Western Australia, where Broome, the mother of three and a onetime journalist, spent her early life.

Broome once told Something about the Author (SATA): "People ask me if I was called after Errol Flynn. No. But my name, spelled as it is, helped to turn me into a writer. When I was born Errol Carew Moss, the doctor said, 'With a name like that, she should write a book.' I grew up hearing my mother tell this story—and I (nearly) always did as I was told.

Broome enjoyed writing as a child and won her first writing award at age nine. "I majored in English at the University of West Australia," she related, "and joined the West Australian as a cadet journalist. Journalism took away some of my imagination. On a newspaper, you get into trouble if you make things up! But it taught me to write clearly and never to use a long word when a short one would do.

Broome began writing for children while her children were young, and her first book was published in 1978. "When I'm not writing, I spend time in the garden," she explained, adding: "Before I began writing books, I combined these two loves in lifestyle articles set in our garden. I believe this stirred my imagination, and helped me step into the world of fiction writing. The garden and growing things form a background to many of my books, especially Dear Mr. Sprouts and Tangles, and so does the sea—Rockhopper and Splashback."

In Dear Mr. Sprouts Anke, newly arrived in Australia from Holland, lets a balloon go as part of a school project. Inside the balloon are mountain ash seeds and a note with her name and address. When a farm boy named Freddie finds it, the two children become pen pals. Dear Mr. Sprouts is told through their nine-year correspondence. Anke is a loner who also suffers from a stutter; Freddie struggles with issues particular to growing up on an isolated farm. Broome gives special weight to conservation issues, beginning with the symbolism of tree seeds sparking a friendship between two dissimilar people. Freddie knows that his family's land will need to be re-forested, and the planting of Anke's seeds becomes the first step in that direction. When Anke and Freddie finally meet after seven years, only then does he learn of her speech impediment and encourages her to seek therapy. Reviewers especially praised the author for creating well-rounded characters in Dear Mr. Sprouts, Horn Book reviewer Maeve Visser Knoth writing that Broome is successful "in giving each a distinctive voice and honest adolescent emotional swings and insecurities."

Tangles begins with a terrible incident: the death of Sophie's cat Ginger, who is hit by a car. Though Sophie initially does not want a replacement, she attends a church fair and spots a cute black kitten for sale. Having spent all her money, the girl is heartbroken about walking away from the cat, but then she finds a dropped wallet. The girl quickly realizes that the wallet belongs to her elderly neighbor, but she takes the money to buy Tangles, whose name is appropriate for the mixture of love and guilt she feels every time she looks at her new kitty. Finally Sophie confesses to her neighbor, but the discomfort she had been feeling also has a physical basis, and she is rushed off for an appendectomy. Stephen Matthews, writing in the Australian Book Review, called Tangles "a marvelously understated gem of a book," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor declared that "Sophie is a strong, endearing character who invites reader identification."

The theme of how one deals with permanent physical disability runs through Broome's novel Nightwatch. Georgia "Chippy" Chipman is blind, and music is her greatest love. When she learns that her family does not have the funds to send her to summer music camp because they plan to visit her grandparents' farm, she is disappointed. However, Chippy's sadness lightens through a new friendship with Areti, who has just moved to Chippy's neighborhod from Greece. While plans are made to allow Areti to come with the Chipman family to the farm, circumstances change at the last minute when Chippy's young cousin Monty decides to join the group and Areti must be left behind. While at the farm, one night the Chipmans hear crying and decide to investigate, whereupon Chippy discovers that her egotistical, self-assured cousin is actually afraid of the dark. Nightwatch includes guidelines at the end from the Royal Australian Institute for the Blind about helping blind people, and Broome won praise for portraying Chippy's day-to-day life in a sensitive and realistic manner. Writing in Magpies, John Murray called the novel "an engaging and optimistic story," and a heroine "whose need for love, friendship, responsibility, and respect . . . are the same as anybody's."

Also focusing on friendship, Fly with Me chronicles the friendship between an Australian boy and a Japanese youth. Ben meets Yoshito when he visits Australia with his family, and upon parting each holds the end of streamer that breaks apart when the ship sails off. Ben sends the pieces to Yoshito, who makes a kite from the paper and sends it to Ben, who then travels to Japan with it. A reviewer for Magpies found the story too fantastical, but appreciated Broome's portrayal of both learning from one another's culture.

Broome explores fantasy and history in several of her novels for young readers. In Quicksilver Luisa misses her father greatly and treasures the charm bracelet he sends her from Paris for her eleventh birthday. The piece of jewelry and its small tokens become almost magical links between far-apart people and places over the course of the narrative. Gracie and the Emperor draws readers back in time to 1815, as dethroned French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is spending his exile on the island of St. Helena, where he has been banished after his defeat at the battle of Waterloo. Gracie, a young island girl, befriends the emperor after she becomes employed by his household, and gradually the two become friends. Praising Broome's mix of fiction and history, AussieReviews.com contributor Sally Murphy described Gracie and the Emperor as a "special book" in which an interesting and likeable protagonist opens a window onto history.

Several of Broome's novels focus on relationships between children and pets. The Judas Donkey finds young Francesca wishing for a horse and being horribly disappointed when, instead, her grandfather brings her home a donkey. In What a Goat! Broome centers the action around Gerda, the beloved pet goat of Eliza's family. Gerda is now elderly and has become somewhat of a bother to the family because of the trouble she inadvertently causes. When Eliza's father loses his job, the family can no longer afford to keep the animal, and Eliza's parents hope to conceal the plan to euthanize Gerda from their daughter. When Eliza finds out the truth, she runs away with Gerda, but in the end a new home for the goat is found nearby. Margaret Philips, reviewing What a Goat! for Magpies, termed it "a pleasant story" and added that Broome's tale is one with which young readers might especially sympathize. Eliza thinks "at times that her parents are too hard—what child doesn't?," the critic added.

In Tough Luck—published in the United States as Drusilla and the Ugly Duck—ten-year-old Carrie thinks her pet problems are solved when, in place of a furry kitten, she falls in love with a yellow duckling she names Drusilla. Then the duckling quickly ages into a full-grown, sleak-feathered duck, and Carrie finds her pet equally lovable, though not quite so portable. A family vacation requiring that Drusilla stay behind in the care of neighbors soon presents problems as well as suspense, in a book that Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Deborah Stevenson praised as an "inviting and enjoyable early chapter book" possessing a "quirky charm." "Children who love pets will appreciate Carrie's devotion to Drusilla," added School Library Journal contributor Carolyn Janssen, while in Resource Links Carolyn Cutt dubbed Drusilla and the Ugly Duck a "delightful and very readable" book that "puts special emphasis on the value of family support."

The novel Magnus Maybe proved something of a change of pace for Broome because it follows the adventures of mice rather than human children. As the author noted, "People are not important in the story, . . . I want my readers to feel for the family of mice the way they'd feel for any human character." In Magnus Maybe a curious young white mouse escapes from his cage and moves in with a local house-mouse family. Magnus is first looked on with suspicion due to his color, but when the mouse family's home in a cupboard becomes threatened by treacherous mousetraps, he helps the other ex-house mice to find a new home in a nearby barn.

In Missing Mem, when trouble arises after a spunky little mouse named Mem decides to search for a new friend, Magnus again rises to the occasion and comes to the rescue. Broome's mouse saga caught the attention of a Reading Time contributor, who praised the author for her "well-drawn" characters and called Magnus Maybe "a credible and moving tale." In Booklist Kelly Milner Halls dubbed the book "a tender read-aloud choice," while Eva Mitnick described it in School Library Journal as "a charming animal fantasy" for younger children.

Of the future of her writing career, Broome once told SATA: "At a school recently, a boy asked me when I was going to write my last book. It was a good question. And I'm glad I don't know the answer!"

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Australian Book Review, June, 1993, pp. 59-60.

Booklist, June 1-15, 1993, p. 1808; March 15, 1994, p. 1347; January 1, 1996, p. 832; August, 2002, Kelly Milner Halls, review of Magnus Maybe, p. 1955.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 2003, Deborah Stevenson, review of Drusilla the Lucky Duck, p. 143; January, 2004, Deborah Stevenson, review of The Judas Donkey, p. 182.

Cranbourne Sun (Victoria, Australia), October 28, 1991.

Horn Book, July, 1993, pp. 464-465.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1994, p. 552.

Magpies, July, 1993, p. 33; July, 1995, pp. 23-24; July, 1996, p. 29; September, 1996, p. 29; March, 1997, p. 31; July, 1997, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, August 12, 2002, review of Magnus Maybe, p. 301; December 16, 2002, review of Missing Mem, p. 70.

Reading Time, November 1996, pp. 9-11; November, 1998, p. 20.

Resource Links, December, 2003, Carolyn Cutt, review of Drusilla the Lucky Duck, p. 11.

School Library Journal, April, 1988, p. 78; August, 2002, Eva Mitnick, review of Magnus Maybe, p. 147; March, 2004, Carolyn Janssen, review of Drusilla the Lucky Duck, p. 154.

ONLINE

AussieReviews.com, http://www.aussiereviews.com/ (February 20, 2005), Sally Murphy, review of Cry of the Karri and Gracie and the Emperor.

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