30 Years of Hating Alison Ashley

Andrew McDonald remembers an Australian children’s classic worth celebrating – Robin Klein’s fabulously funny, ‘perfectly formed’ comic novel of Australian primary school life, schoolyard class warfare and friendship: Hating Alison Ashley.

2014 is a year of significant milestones in the world of children’s literature. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turns 50 years old, as does New York City’s favourite sleuth Harriet the Spy. Just as significant, but somewhat overlooked, is the thirtieth anniversary of a classic Australian kids’ novel – Hating Alison Ashley.

Before I go on, please remove from your mind any memory of the legacy-threatening 2005 film adaptation that contained (‘starred’ is too kind a word) Delta Goodrem. No good will come from labouring over that wreck. Instead, let’s focus on the source text – the fabulous book by Australian author Robin Klein. It’s a triumph of wit and characterisation and is surely one of the most perfectly-formed and under-celebrated children’s novels this country has ever produced. And this month it turns 30. So let’s celebrate.

When it was first published in 1984, Hating Alison Ashley was immediately relatable for many young readers. The book takes in the quintessential elements of Australian primary school life with quirk and candour. Yard duty, sick bays, stricken first-year teachers, Hobbyahs, school camps and Clag – all of these are spotlit by the books’ narrator: not the eponymous Alison Ashley but the egotistical, hypochondriac Erica Yurken.

On many levels Hating Alison Ashley is a farce of character. Erica Yurken is rude, self-centred and intoxicatingly megalomaniacal. Her delusions of grandeur are completely at odds with her life at Barringa East Primary School – a school of such disrepute that Erica laments its sole mention in the local newspaper, which occurred when a classroom burned down prompting the headline ‘Arson Suspected at Barringa East Primary’. In Erica’s Barringa East we see shades of Porpoise Spit, the depression-inducing town from the classic Australian film Muriel’s Wedding.

To distance herself from the world around her, Erica dreams of a life of fame and stardom in the theatre and is dedicated to the belief that she is far superior to her family, her classmates and even the school principal. In Erica’s words: ‘Mr Nicholson, the Principal, was a workaholic. Which means that he threw himself into work like someone hurling themselves off a cliff.’ Matters of class, poverty and cultural cringe all get an airing. In one particularly memorable scene Erica despairs about having to bring her lunch to school in an empty, waxed cornflakes bag because they’d run out of lunch wraps at home.

But it’s Alison Ashley who draws most of Erica’s wrath. Alison is an upper-class goody two shoes whose mere presence at school threatens Erica’s comfortable superiority like never before. Erica sees Alison Ashley as her great adversary, but it’s a rivalry that only really exists in Erica’s imagination. Alison Ashley herself is a fairly bland and one-dimensional character (in contrast to Erica’s five or six complex dimensions). In response to Erica’s seething hatred, Alison Ashley is unfazed and kind of amused. The book might be told from Erica’s point of view, but if the reader sides with anyone, it’s Alison Ashley. Like her we can’t help but be entertained – entranced even – by the tall tales and white lies that spew from Erica Yurken’s mouth. If we took her word for everything we’d believe that she wears make-up, high heels and shiny fake-leather pants; is well-connected to professional theatre people; has a dead father who died in a plane crash (he heroically piloted the plane into the ocean to avoid hitting any houses); and has a mother who is a hotel manageress and whose boyfriend Lennie is actually just the family’s private security guard and definitely not her mother’s boyfriend.

After all of Erica’s lies and self-congratulatory talk she should be a wholly undesirable character. But she becomes so hopelessly lost in her own rhetoric that we can’t help but empathise, and even admire her (misplaced) ambitions. She’s the classic, unreliable narrator and we love her for it. Erica Yurken would have to be one of the most likeable unlikeable characters of children’s literature.

And while the book takes an overtly comic tone (I haven’t even mentioned Barry Hollis – the school bully and prankster whose amusing anti-establishment swagger means he has more in common with Erica than Alison Ashley does) it still has important things to say about friendship, envy and how to reconcile our ideas about ourselves with the realities of life. Thus: perfectly formed.

Thankfully, the novel hasn’t dated all that much (god knows what Erica Yurken would unleash on the world with a Twitter account) and anyway books like the Famous Five series and even Harriet the Spy clearly show their age and are still considered classics and important parts of their respective country’s literary consciousness.

Sadly, author Robin Klein suffered a ruptured aneurysm a few years ago and now lives in a nursing home. She is no longer capable of writing or speaking about her work. But this doesn’t mean that her novels, of which many are stand-out, should wither and disappear in time. It was fantastic to see Penguin release Hating Alison Ashley as part of their Australian Children’s Classics series last year. Reading it should be an occasion, a rite-of-passage, in every Australian child’s life.

So bring out your old copies and share them with your kids. Buy the pretty new Australian Children’s Classic edition and make a birthday present of it. And reread it yourself. Because a country full of people who have read Hating Alison Ashley would be a lucky country indeed.

Portrait of Andrew McDonald

Andrew McDonald is an author of books for children and young adults.

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