Morris Gleitzman was born in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, in 1953, moved to London, and emigrated to Australia in 1969.
He studied journalism, and worked as a screenwriter for television comedy for ten years, becoming one of Australia's best-known television writers, also writing a number of feature films and screenplays.
His first book, The Other Facts of Life (1987), started out as a screenplay which he turned into a novel. It was followed by several other books for children, including Two Weeks with the Queen (1989); Misery Guts (1991); and Blabber Mouth (1993), all of which have been adapted for the stage by Mary Morris. His book Water Wings (1997) was also adapted and performed by Mary-Anne Fahey. Worry Warts (1992) and Second Childhood (1995) have had further adaptations and successful stage tours, and an adaptation of Boy Overboard (2002), the tale of an Afghan Child refugee's journey to Australia, was produced by the Australian Theatre for Young People in 2005. He is known for his tough subjects, presented in a humorous and offbeat style.
His Wicked! series of six books, written with Paul Jennings, are now collected as Totally Wicked! (1999).
His latest book is Soon (2015), a sequel to Once (2006), Then (2009), Now (2010) and After (2012). He has also published collections of his short stories including Tickled Onions (2010) and Pizza Cake (2011).
Morris Gleitzman is also a well-known columnist. He has written regularly for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Age, and for Young Telegraph.
Morris Gleitzman’s books are aimed primarily at readers in the 8 - 12 year age range and the majority of his protagonists are similarly pre-adolescent.
His books, most of which are set in Australia, address the very real concerns of children’s lives, yet always with immense humour and a succinct and ‘punchy’ narrative style, which reflects his experience in writing comedy scripts for television. Gleitzman’s child characters are usually loveable and well-intentioned, but get into all sorts of scrapes and mishaps - in this, the influence of Gleitzman’s own childhood favourite, Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, is clear.
Gleitzman tackles serious issues such as divorce, AIDS and death (including the impending death of a child in Two Weeks With the Queen (1989)), but his main focus is on the everyday needs of children and, most particularly, the way in which parents often fail to meet those needs. His use of humour avoids gritty realism, lessens the possibility of anxiety for child-readers and enables him to present certain issues subtly and (almost) lightly. Gleitzman’s work is often described as tragi-comic - when he depicts sadness and suffering, the humour often emerges from such sadness, and is therefore intertwined within it, rather than something which is merely added in to lighten the situation.
In Two Weeks With the Queen, Colin’s feelings of both sibling rivalry and love are intensified when his younger brother Luke becomes terminally ill with cancer. From Colin’s perspective, Luke is now the centre of attention, particularly when Colin is sent overseas to relatives in the UK, in his parents’ well-meaning but mistaken belief that it will be better for him to be out of the way. While in London, Colin is hit with the realisation that his brother’s life is going to end, and his sudden overwhelming compassion for Luke inspires him to engage in a hilarious quest which involves asking the Queen for help. Colin’s parents quickly realise their mistake and he returns to Australia. Luke’s death is still inevitable - Gleitzman does not patronise his readers with magic solutions - but the brothers’ love for each other provides a poignant ending, as they greet each other with tears of joy.
Colin’s parents are shown to be flawed but forgivable - they make mistakes, but they are well-intentioned and coping with a terrible situation. This is typical of many of Gleitzman’s novels - he writes honestly about adult shortcomings, and is firmly on the child’s side, but nonetheless shows sympathy towards struggling parents trying to do their best. This is also true of his trilogy about the Shipley family: Misery Guts (1991), Worry Warts (1992) and Puppy Fat (1995). In the first novel, Keith’s parents are experiencing the beginnings of marital breakdown and, like Colin’s parents, they believe they are protecting their son by keeping their problems hidden from him. Keith, however, is aware of the underlying tensions and, again like Colin, is shown to suffer more from his parents’ lack of honesty. Misery Guts ends with the family emigrating to Australia for a new start, but in Worry Warts it becomes clear that this will not prevent the inevitable separation. Nonetheless, Keith’s parents, though they are by no means infallible, are depicted fairly positively as they try to put their son’s needs first and reassure him that he will always be loved and cared for.
The parents in Water Wings (1997) and Bumface (1998), however, are more harshly criticised - these are parents who shirk their responsibilities and put their own needs first, and this is shown to be entirely different from well-meaning parents who experience stress and make mistakes. In Water Wings, Pearl is often left alone while her mother, whose red sports car bears the number plate ‘CAR 4 ME’, pursues her career and social life. The mother sees every situation entirely from her own perspective, and regards Pearl’s feelings and needs, not with empathy or concern, but as an irritation which threatens to get in the way of her own happiness. Pearl’s father, meanwhile, is entirely absent, and the little girl’s longing for a grandmother, though presented humorously, emphasises her parents’ complete failure to take care of her needs.
Similarly, Bumface depicts absentee fathers (the three children have a father each) and an actress mother who neglects her children. While Angus’ mother is part of an idealised television family, her own children are left to fend for themselves. Nonetheless, both Water Wings and Bumface, like all Gleitzman’s novels, depict the children’s dilemmas with humour and what has been described as ‘the sure-footed lightness of touch for which Gleitzman is celebrated’ (The Guardian, 28 March 2006). Pearl and Angus may suffer at the hands of their neglectful parents, but neither are victims: on the contrary they develop remarkable strength of character and self-reliance and, indeed, their sense of humour is an important factor in their psychological survival.
Similar qualities are displayed by the hero of Once (2006), though the novel is very different from the rest of Gleitzman’s work. The setting is Poland in 1942, where Felix has been hidden in a Catholic orphanage by his Jewish parents. Determined to find his family, Felix escapes. What follows is a disturbing but inspiring tale, as Felix finds himself facing the most brutal and horrifying realities of the Jewish Holocaust. Though Gleitzman is dealing with harrowing subject-matter, he presents Felix’s experiences with a gentle, sensitive humour, primarily through the depiction of his protagonist’s plucky resilience and ability to help others to laugh in the midst of suffering. The novel places a strong emphasis on poignant human relationships, and Philip Ardaugh in The Guardian describes Once as ‘ultimately life-affirming’ (The Guardian, 3 October 2006).
Once has an uncertain ending - Felix has escaped from the train which was no doubt leading to a terrible fate, but it is not clear what will happen to him next. Nonetheless, it is an uplifting ending as Felix determines to appreciate the positive experiences and inspiring people he has encountered during his short life. This is typical of Gleitzman’s endings - the novels usually finish on an upbeat, positive note, but it is never a naïve happy ending in which everything has smoothly resolved itself. The optimism comes not from altered situations, but from the way in which child characters have learned to cope and develop resilience. Felix chooses to count his blessings in the midst of terrible suffering, Colin cements his relationship with his dying brother and Keith learns to accept and love his newly-divorced parents. Nikki Gamble believes that Gleitzman shows his readers the importance of finding inner strength and self-approval, particularly for characters such as Angus and Pearl whose parents do not redeem themselves: ‘… both Angus and Pearl have consciously decided that a positive self-image is not dependent on their parents’ opinion of them and this may be the most empowering if subversive message for a child reader’ (Family Fictions, 2001).
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2007