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Allan (Stuart) Baillie (1943-) - Sidelights

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Two elements inspired Allan Baillie to write: displacement from his birthplace in Scotland to London and then at seven to Australia, and an accident that occurred when he and a friend engaged in a mock sword fight. "He lunged, I parried, and his foil hit me between the left eye and bridge of the nose. I remember falling and seeing blood on the grass," Baillie wrote in his Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS) entry. "After eleven months, the hospital decided they could not do anything more with me. Basically I was left with a limp, a very clumsy right hand, and a slow way with words. That shows up as a stammer as I fish for the word I want to use.… But something had happened to me since the accident. The most obvious part of that was an obsession with pushing out my personal envelope, the hell with anything else. I learned to drive my way, to swim, to write."

Baillie spent many years travelling the world as a journalist before he turned to writing young adult fiction. As a result, most of his novels center around actual world events—such as the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing, China, in 1989—and feature young characters who have fictional adventures related to those events. "The event, perhaps a disaster, will bring out special qualities in a character," Baillie told Agnes Nieuwenhuizen in Magpies. "All my books have that same element. Give 'em hell." Assessing his career in Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, Alf Mappin called Baillie "a significant and important writer for young adults," noting that he "gives his YA readers a sense of the values of humanity in today's world, wherein individuals must come to grips with a sense of themselves against the larger problems of survival in a sometimes difficult modern world."

After publishing one novel for adults, Baillie turned to children's literature in Adrift, a story about a boy, his little sister, and their cat. The three are pretending to be pirates, playing in a crate on the beach, when the tide comes in and carries them all out to sea. Baillie based the heroine of the book on his daughter. "Why not put Lynne, age five now, on the crate?" he wrote in SAAS. "She was giving me no end of trouble, including a demand that she be given a new name, Sally. So Sally is going to be stuck on a crate in the Pacific—with her arrogant and irksome black cat." The first version of this story was called The Pirate's Last Voyage, and it won the Kathleen Fidler Award in Scotland. At a publisher's suggestion, he examined his characters and increased the story's length. "On this rewrite I realised that I was writing as hard as I had done with the adult novels—harder," he remembered in SAAS. "Characterisation, atmosphere, theme, plot, tension, humour, emotion—they were all there." The rewrite was called Adrift.

Baillie got the idea for his award-winning 1985 book, Little Brother, while he was a freelance journalist in Cambodia. He based the main character, Vuthy, on a boy he met in a Thai refugee camp. In a profile of the author in Books for Keeps, Valerie Bierman noted that Baillie "toyed with the idea of writing an adult novel for years, then realised that perhaps the horrors of war could best be conveyed through the eyes of a child—to give a child's innocent view which often has a clarity and understanding lacking in adults." Baillie commented further in SAAS: "There were limitations in writing a novel about Cambodia for children, fences I could not climb, but these fences actually helped. With a children's story I couldn't tell the full horror. If I wrote about the obscenity of the plastic bag executions, the image would stay with the child at night. But if I stepped back a little, the truth and the tragedy would still be there. I would have only reduced the horror to a shadow. But the child reader would see enough."

" I could write Cambodia's story through a boy's eyes. This boy's eyes, Vuthy's eyes," Baillie realized. "Vuthy had been a slave-labourer on a Big Paddy as the Khmer Rouge whittled his family from him. He was actually marched into the forest to be executed, but gunfire distracted the soldiers and he was able to bolt. He wandered into an almost deserted Phnom Penh and loaded rice trucks for the North Vietnamese. Eventually, he hid in one of the trucks and reached Battambang. Using a little hidden gold, he moved on with a cyclo-pousse (a bike-powered rickshaw), then a buffalo cart, and entered a forest loaded with mines and armed men at war. Finally, he crossed the Thai border and became an orderly-interpreter at the comparative safety of the Khao-I-Dang camp hospital." The resulting story was called Little Brother.

In Little Brother, eleven-year-old Vithy (his name changed slightly from Vuthy) and his older brother, Mang, escape from a prison camp and a life of forced labor in the rice paddies and flee toward Thailand. The boys become separated along the way when Mang acts as a decoy to lure some Khmer Rouge troops away from his brother. "Dodging the Khmer Rouge, terrorized by the unfamiliar forest environment, and basically struggling for survival, Vithy perseveres in his arduous journey" to reach safety in Thailand and locate Mang, Karen Jameyson wrote in a review in Horn Book. In the end, Vithy is adopted by a kind Australian doctor and has a triumphant reunion with his brother. In her review in Books for Keeps, Valerie Bierman called Little Brother "a gem which deserves to become a classic, if only to demonstrate to children the futility and cruelty of war."

Baillie's 1990 book, Hero, chronicles the disastrous flood that hit the suburbs of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, in 1986. It follows the struggles of three very different children as they are forced to work together to survive the catastrophe. Wealthy and snobbish Pam, angry and rebellious Darcy, and serious-minded Barney take turns telling about the dangers they face during the flood, and the three narrators also reveal their personalities and the problems they face at home. In Horn Book, Karen Jameyson claimed that Baillie's descriptions are so vivid that "the penetrating wetness practically oozes through the pages," and his characterizations so skillful that "the climactic scene simply swells with poignancy." In a review for Growing Point, Margery Fisher called Hero Baillie's "most powerful tale so far."

"A Melbourne artist, Jane Tanner, suggested I have a go at writing the script for a picture book," Baillie wrote in SAAS. "I watched Lynne and Peter play at being monsters and remembered my days as Tarzan in Portarlington and before, when everything could be anything you wanted it to be. So Jane and I did Drac and the Gremlin, where I wrote about a 'terrible-tongued dragon' and Jane had to draw the dog the dragon really was. She growled that I was having all the fun."

A visit to China in 1989—during the time when hundreds of student protesters were massacred by government troops at Tiananmen Square in Beijing—compelled Baillie to write The China Coin. It tells the story of Leah Waters, a half-Chinese, half-Australian girl who travels to China with her mother following the death of her father. Bringing along half of a Chinese coin that had belonged to Leah's grandfather, the two embark on a search for information about their heritage. They encounter a number of interesting characters along the way, and they experience firsthand the extreme political tension in China at that time. "The entire experience turns out to be an amazing emotional hodgepodge in a country creaking and swaying under the weight of student demonstrations," Jameyson stated in Horn Book. Their quest finally leads them to Tiananmen Square at the time of the massacre. A reviewer in Reading Time called The China Coin "a gripping novel well up to the high standards of this much respected author."

Another story inspired by Baillie's Asian travels is Rebel, a picture book about life under the Burmese military dictatorship. Based on an actual event, the story begins with a general, his troops, and his tanks rolling into a small town, crushing everything that gets in their way, even the elementary school's playground. The general announces to the cowed townspeople that he is in charge now, but as he struts about, one boy, watching from a window in the school, throws his sandal at the general and knocks his hat off. The furious tyrant orders the students to come outside and line up, so that he can see which student is missing a shoe and punish him or her. But before they come outside all of the students and teachers take off their shoes, so that there is no way to know who the offender is. The townspeople laugh at this act of civil disobedience, and the general, out-smarted and no longer feared, is forced to admit defeat. "It's a bracing tale of courage in the face of tyranny," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "and Baillie makes the most of it." Booklist's Hazel Rochman also praised Rebel, writing that "the tension and surprise make this a great read-aloud."

After writing about Cambodian, Burmese, and Chinese characters, Baillie decided in 1995 to write about Aboriginal Australians in Songman. "I believed I should have a go at writing about our people," he explained to Nieuwenhuizen. "I was spurred on by hearing politicians and judges saying that there was no civilisation in Australia before Captain Cook. Not quite fair is it?" Songman "seems to be a culmination of my moving about and the books I have done," Baillie also remarked in SAAS. "I stumbled across a little known chapter of Australia's history, the trade between the Aborigines and the Macassans way before Captain Cook. A chapter as intriguing as the Vikings contacting the Indians in Newfoundland. I wanted to write about this period, including the Dutch empire in Indonesia, through the eyes of an Aborigine around 1720. To do that I had to get all the help possible.

"I went to the Yolgnu Aboriginal settlement Yirrkala in Arnhem Land and was taught a way of life for six weeks. Mind you, I was an oafish pupil, and there was a mutter about feeding me to the crocodiles. And then of course I had to go to Sulawesi to get the Macassan side of the story. Sailing ancient prahus, swimming in coral reefs—Oh, I do love to do research." The result was what Nieuwenhuizen called "a deeply felt, beautifully written testament to the civilisation, culture, and lifestyle that flourished in just one part of Australia before the white man came." Set in 1720, Songman tells the story of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in Australia, who traded and interacted with the people of neighboring Indonesia for hundreds of years before Australia was discovered by the rest of the world. Yukuwa, a sensitive and vulnerable young man, and Dawu, his unhappy adopted father, travel across the sea to the home of their Macassan trading partners. Dawu decides to stay and become a boat builder, while Yukuwa returns home and discovers his talents as a "songman," recording the experiences of his tribe.

Other books by Baillie are set in more prosaic, Australian settings, but they are no less adventurous. In titles such as Secrets of Walden Rising and Wreck, young adults are thrust into dangerous situations where they must use their wits to survive. In the first book, Brendan, a child much like Baillie—a British immigrant to Australia who finds himself isolated from his peers because he is "different"—realizes that a severe drought is causing an old, abandoned, and formerly submerged mining village to reemerge from the bottom of a reservoir. Brendan decides to go treasure-hunting there, but others—including some who are more ruthless than Brendan—have the same idea. The book's climactic "final scenes [are] as exciting as they come," Carolyn Phelan declared in Booklist. In Wreck, Baillie revisits his theme from Adrift. Reene and Ian are enjoying their day at the beach, without adults, until a storm comes. They barely survive the first wave of the storm, and emerge from the cave in which they hid to find a ship beached on the shore. They decide to explore the ship, unaware that the storm is not over. When the eye of the cyclone passes and the winds again begin to pummel the ship, it is pushed back out to sea, with Ian and Reene—and someone or something else—on board. Wreck focuses on two themes common in Baillie's works, "the ocean and the finding of personal strength," Sally Murphy noted in Aussie Reviews. Murphy went on to claim, "Baillie's novels are always filled with action and unexpected outcomes. Wreck is no exception."

Summing up Baillie's career as a young adult novelist, Bierman declared in Books for Keeps, "Here is a first-class writer with the power to stretch children's imaginations and make them think." Baillie told Jameyson in Horn Book that his purpose in writing is a simple one: "The centrepin of all my books is simply to get read, to construct a book like a trap in an attempt to grab the reader, shake him, and—just maybe—never let him go."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Baillie, Allan, essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, second edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 15, 1992, Hazel Rochman, review of Adrift, p. 1356; March 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Rebel, p. 1369; April 1, 1997, Carolyn Phelan, review of Secrets of Walden Rising, p. 1333.

Book Report, January-February, 1998, Kathleen Curdy Schwab, review of Secrets of Walden Rising, p. 30.

Books for Keeps, July, 1988, Valerie Bierman, "May We Recommend: Allan Baillie," p. 17.

Growing Point, July, 1990, Margery Fisher, "Motives for Action," pp. 5365-5370.

Horn Book, July-August, 1991, Karen Jameyson, review of Little Brother, Hero, The China Coin, and Drac and the Gremlin, pp. 493-495; March-April, 1992, pp. 201-202; September-October, 1992, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Adrift, p. 584.

Magpies, March, 1995, Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, "Know the Author: Allan Baillie," pp. 16-18, 30.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1991, review of Little Brother, p. 56; April 20, 1992, review of Bawshou Rescues the Sun: A Han Folktale, p. 56; May 4, 1992, review of Adrift, p. 57; January 24, 1994, review of Rebel, p. 54.

Reading Time, Volume 36, number 1, 1991, review of The China Coin, p. 28.

School Library Journal, August, 1989, p. 114; March, 1992, John Philbrook, review of Little Brother, p. 237; May, 1992, Phyllis G. Sidorsky, review of Adrift, p. 111; April, 1994, Lauralyn Persson, review of Rebel, p. 96; May, 1997, Wendy D. Caldiero, review of Secrets of Walden Rising, p. 128.

ONLINE

Allan Baillie Web site, http://www.allanbaillie.com.au/ (January 11, 2004).

Aussie Reviews, http://www.aussiereviews.com/ (January 11, 2004), Sally Murphy, review of Wreck.

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