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Author Andy Griffiths is often approached by young adults who tell him: “You were my childhood.” A generation of kids grew up reading the Melbourne-based author, from the Just and Bad books to the Treehouse series. Griffiths is responsible for helping millions of reluctant readers worldwide find joy on the page.
Part of the attraction is his irreverent subject matter, from pranks and bum jokes to oddball characters: the books are filled with madcap antics and absurd propositions that make kids laugh out loud. Equally important are Terry Denton’s brilliant visuals, which we’ll come to later.
Andy Griffiths and wife Jill.Credit: Simon Schluter
A less-known but significant player in creating the books is Griffiths’ wife, Jill, who is also his editor – and a much-loved character in the Treehouse series. At her suggestion, we’re dining at For Change Cafe, a social enterprise that trains vulnerable people in hospitality. Located at the former Middle Park stop along the light rail, it serves only plant-based foods.
As we check out the menu, Jill recalls why she became a vegetarian as a child: a grade 6 excursion to an abattoir. She opts for the reimagined sausage roll, Andy the big breakfast, while I choose the crispy Sichuan tofu. Our coffees and a kombucha are served with a warm welcome, typical of the venue’s service.
A massive eucalypt nearby is a reminder of why we’ve gathered: the final instalment of the Treehouse series, which was published this year. The series began in 2013 with The 13-Storey Treehouse, and there were 13 subsequent books, published in 35 countries, and about 13 million copies sold worldwide.
The books are being adapted for the screen by one of the big Hollywood studios, an idea often mooted. The timing now seems fortuitous, with the written series complete. “We’ve seen the current [script], which is really a brilliant lateral take on it that I could never have done myself,” Andy says. “This scriptwriter obviously understands the whole thing at a very granular level.”
Andy and Jill Griffiths are partners in work and life.Credit: Simon Schluter
An encyclopedic guide to the 150 Treehouse characters, from Mr Big Nose and the Spy Cows to Superfinger, was published recently. “I wish we’d had it at the start,” Andy jokes.
While a book-by-book proposition, the series had its genesis in “a week’s madness with Terry”, during which they’d gone away to brainstorm and came up with the idea of a treehouse. “But it came out fused with two other books, one being What Body Part is That? and the other was our Killer Koalas from Outer Space,” Andy says. “So I brought this big mess home to Jill, and then we sat down for a week and we wrote it out in prose. That was the version where it gets destroyed by killer koalas in the second chapter.”
Jill laughs. “Then, after we read it back, we thought it seems a shame to destroy that treehouse.”
Thankfully, they did not. That very productive time away generated ideas that would appear in many of the future books.
Andy and Terry were brought together by a visionary publisher early on. Each brings different things to the table. Andy says Terry loved “the fact I was giving him an opportunity to let his anarchic side out”.
“He recognised that in the words, and then I saw in his pictures that same spirit and the ability to amplify the anarchic by writing with me,” Andy says.
“Neither the Treehouse or the Just! series would have been possible without Terry’s enormous contribution of over 1000 pictures per book and sheer collaborative genius.”
The reimagined sausage roll at For Change Cafe.Credit: Simon Schluter
Having seen kids in the school library surreptitiously flick through the pages of books before choosing one, Andy asked Terry to draw something in the margins. Partially inspired by Mad magazine, which did a similar thing, it made kids laugh, and they engaged quickly and easily.
Jill and Andy met when she was assigned to edit Just Tricking! in 1996, but she soon became his girlfriend – and creative collaborator. They have two adult daughters.
He credits her with being a big part of his success, and she is grateful he brought out her creative side. “He really likes being edited, whereas a lot of writers don’t and get quite defensive,” Jill says. “And I also find it really hard sometimes to be completely honest with people, and you want to sort of soften it a bit, whereas because he was so open to it, and then once we knew each other really, it was easy to just say, ‘No, just get rid of all that, you don’t need all that.’ You could be as harsh as you wanted and it never bothers him. He doesn’t ever argue with me.”
Andy agrees. “If it’s not working for you, it’s not working, and I’ve got to fix it. I want you to see my brilliance,” he says with a grin. “And if you can’t see it, then it’s obviously my fault, not yours.”
The big breakfast at For Change Cafe.Credit: Simon Schluter
A fan of parameters, Jill does not like the blank page. “I can’t just create something out of nothing,” she says. For Andy, that’s where the joy lies: “The endless possibilities of the blank page, that gets me excited, figuring out stuff to fill that blank page.
“I think if you’re a writer, it’s a drive or a need. Maybe it’s a lack – I need attention, I need to do this thing to get your reaction.”
A new book series is well under way, this time created with an up-and-coming illustrator, and will be released in the second half of next year. Despite my pressing, the couple are sworn to secrecy on the detail.
Early in his career as a secondary school English teacher, Andy had a lightbulb moment about writing. “When I met all the kids who didn’t have a relationship with reading, I really wanted to give them what I felt … the type of book that would evoke that magic and mystery and feeling of excitement. I wanted to capture the way that Enid Blyton books made me feel, for a new generation.”
Receipt for lunch.
At the time, he was watching and loving the ground-breaking British sitcom, The Young Ones, “so [it was] Enid Blyton and The Young Ones for my own amusement as much as anyone else’s”.
The joys of reading are manifold and, for him, literacy is almost a happy byproduct: engaging kids is the key. As the pandemic underlined, reading provides an escape from troubled times. “You don’t need to be having a hard life to still find great sustenance and very good friends in books. The characters are as real to us as real friendships,” he says.
Jill, a keen walker and puzzle fan who can spend hours doodling, is a voracious reader. For Andy, it’s always about the music. He loves to run and read but says music is his passion. “It’s always offbeat alternative – and a wide variety of styles, from really noisy stuff to beautifully ambient. As long as it’s not commercial, I get excited. And that fires the writing; I’m endlessly 16 years old discovering the new Sex Pistols,” he says.
“That whole punk revolution really broke things open for me. And I find you can still have it, there’s still so much great music to discover and to be inside.”
He has recently written a rare story for adults, part of an anthology released last month called Into Your Arms: Nick Cave’s Songs Reimagined, edited by Kirsten Krauth. Alongside writers such as Toni Jordan, Christos Tsiolkas and Cate Kennedy, he writes a piece inspired by the legendary Aussie rocker.
Griffiths (right) and illustrator Terry Denton.
The Birthday Party in 1982 at the Astor Theatre is the best gig he has seen – and a life-changing experience. The Go-Betweens and Ed Kuepper and the Laughing Clowns were also on the bill, but for him, it was all about Cave and his crew.
“That was just something else, it was transforming into a whole other level. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s kind of, in my own modest way, what I’m trying to do with the books, is take you somewhere else. The best compliment we get every now and again is when the kids say: ‘Your books aren’t like normal books. I’m reading this, but that’s just a normal book, it’s not one of your books.’
“Music still informs everything I do, and it’s my artistic yardstick, as well as key books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Magic Faraway Tree.”
Cave and Neil Young are on high rotation as artists he continually returns to, as is David Bowie. Andy shows me his hand, featuring a tattoo of black stars, a tribute to the English shapeshifter who “right until the last day of his life, he was creating a masterpiece”.
“I look at their generational ability to continue to evolve, that’s always been important to me. Each book is evolving what you can do and what you can achieve – and we’ll continue that in the new series, in a slightly different way.”
Who’s Who and What’s Where in the Treehouse is out now. Into Your Arms: Nick Cave’s Songs Reimagined is out now.
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