Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton spoke to ABC’s Dave May and Richard Mockler for Throwback, a new series that revisits the creators, authors and entertainers who shaped Australia’s childhood.
Having your masterwork banned might be some creatives’ idea of catastrophe.
For Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, it was a badge of honour.
“Kids loved it, adults were horrified by it,” Griffiths says of the notorious Bad Book, written by him and illustrated by Denton.
“Some booksellers refused to stock it in their shops, or it was kept in the back room on the top shelf and you had to ask for it — which delighted me, because the best books I read as a kid were the subversive ones.
“It reminded me of when I tried to buy my first Sex Pistols record in Melbourne, I had to do the same thing.”
Bringing anarchy back to childhood
Putting the punk in kids’ books has been Griffiths’ and Denton’s lifework. Two decades on from their wildly popular “Just” series, they say this mission is more urgent than ever, in an era of “cotton wool” childhoods.
“Childhoods have changed since we were kids,” says Griffiths. “We had a lot of freedom, adults weren’t watching us every moment of the day. A lot of anarchy, where playgrounds were full of things you could seriously hurt yourself on.
“Books are the last frontier of freedom and wilderness for kids, for imagining dangerous things, for imagining craziness and worst-case scenarios.”
The books are littered with worst-case scenarios that allow kids to vicariously dip their toe in dangerous waters. Jumping in a volcano. Running across six lanes of traffic. Lighting a cat’s tail on fire — perhaps their most controversial.
To Griffiths and Denton’s critics, these were invitations to break the rules. But the duo prefer to view them as “cautionary tales”.
“I mean, our kid who jumped in the volcano, he died. He burnt up,” says Griffiths.
“Our kid who ran across the road got hit by a truck.
“Some adults make the mistake that kids can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction. But once you realise they’re different, a book is an infinite playground of freedom.
“You are arming the child better for real life, where things don’t always go right.”
Taking jokes on the road
Their punk approach worked. The books are still delighting children, with a new book released in July, the 104-Storey Treehouse — an earlier book in the Treehouse series was the fastest-selling Australian book of all time.
The pair credit their success in part to testing material on schoolkids before including it in their books.
“We were both doing a lot of talking at schools and trying out ideas live, which is why our work changed a lot”, says Denton.
“Now when I write a piece, I think, would I be able to stand up in front of 500 kids and get a reaction from this?” says Griffiths. “That’s a harsh test.”
Sometimes the kids throw up their own ideas, like an exploding eyeball level of the Treehouse, or a “fairy crushing machine”, which came from a surprisingly gentle child. Sometimes they make it in, sometimes they don’t.
“We had a serious discussion afterwards and I said, ‘Do we really want an exploding eyeball level?'”, Griffiths recounts.
“Like, what’s in it for anyone to go in there? There’s no pleasure in having your eyeballs explode.”
‘Fighting to draw badly’
The gonzo-style road-testing fits their DIY ethos. Before Griffiths was, to quote his website, “Australia’s number one children’s author”, he was making little books with a photocopier and stapler to sell at markets for 20 cents, in a nod to the zine-culture of the ’90s underground.
Publishers wanted nothing to do with him until one suggested he pair up with esteemed illustrator Terry Denton.
Even then, the DIY ethos prevailed over Denton’s pedigree.
“My drawing style is … I’m not trying to draw well, I’m trying to draw quickly and make it look like I’m drawing quickly,” Denton explains.
“So, it seems very unskilful, but that’s one of the reasons kids really love it, because they think they can draw like that — it’s their territory.”
“Terry fights to draw very badly,” Griffiths jokes.
“You’ve taught me to overcome my professionalism, that’s been really cool,” Denton replies.
The result is that the books have a kind of manic energy, as if powered by adrenalin and red cordial.
“Each book takes a year to perfect and sometimes we’ve had criticisms saying, ‘It’s just two idiots writing this in half an hour'”, says Griffiths.
“And that’s perfect”.
Approval from the ‘adults’
The pair were amazed when the literary establishment took note of their wacky output.
As Griffiths explains: “One of the biggest surprises was when the [Treehouse books] won the Australian Book Industry Awards a number of times — which are awards given by adults, where children don’t get to vote.
“We had taken the position in the children’s industry of the silly uncle at the Christmas party.
“It was a shock to see the adult industry suddenly sit up and take notice.”
A ‘match made in heaven’
Griffiths couldn’t be more grateful to the publisher who suggested he meet Denton all those years ago.
“He has a tap of insanity, and out it all pours,” he says admiringly of Denton’s process.
Griffiths immediately realised he’d met his “brother in stupidity” — a “match made in heaven”. But it was hard to imagine the international success that would come from their mucking around, which Denton says is “beyond our wildest dreams”.
Over the decades, they’ve built global profiles as pranksters, the kind of larrikins that Australia is famous for.
“People often get confused when they meet me, they think ‘Oh, you seem quite normal and, um, educated and sensible'”, says Griffiths.
“‘We thought you’d be a sort of … armpit farting, burping … maniac.’
“And I say, well, not really. But that’s the voice that comes out when Terry and I get together.
“I think a lot of what goes on in books is the self that you don’t wear in public … gets a chance to play.”
Watch Throwback on News Channel or i-View to meet the creators, authors and entertainers who shaped Australia’s childhood pop culture.