I never met Agnes Nieuwenhuizen but I valued her work as a writer and critic, her life-changing dedication to children’s and young adult literature, her passion for the under-appreciated art of translation, and her sense of humour. Nieuwenhuizen, 78, died suddenly from an aortic dissection on September 14. She lived, with her husband John, a respected translator, in Woodend, Victoria. She is survived by two adult children, Max and Jackie, and six grandchildren, and by lots and lots of other kids who owe her a debt. She helped them discover books. Sadly, her eldest child, John, a publisher and former director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, died in 2006, from the same heart problem that has now claimed his mother.
I made contact with Agnes in 2010, when I was editor of The Australian Literary Review. She started writing reviews for me, occasionally on children’s and YA books but usually on adult literature. I still remember one of her first , because it is a perceptive, empathetic piece of writing and because both books and both authors remain important to me: Bereft by Chris Womersley and Traitor by Stephen Daisley.
So Agnes and I had a literary friendship, a wonderful turn of phrase I have borrowed from Julian Barnes, who uses it on this page to describe his relationship with Pierre Ryckmans.
I hope “Agnes and I” is grammatically correct. I’m going to remember Agnes here today by quoting from a few of her emails to me over the years. “Re your request for annoying grammatical errors,” she said after I wrote a column on the topic.
“My current pet hate is the misuse of me/I. BETWEEN YOU AND I ... HE PAID JOHN AND I WELL … etc etc. GRRR! Is this one battle we have lost, like the regular use of DISINTERESTED for UNINTERESTED? I’m frustrated by people saying: ‘But does it matter?’ Do you think it does? Am I a pedant? And couldn’t agree more about errant apostrophes.”
A pedant? No. Someone who cared about language (she was fluent in three)? Yes.
The saddest and yet finest email I received from Agnes was the last one, which arrived the day after she died. At first I was pleased to receive it, as I assumed it would contain the review she owed me, one I wanted to run this weekend. But while the email came from Agnes Niuewenhuizen it was written by her husband.
John told me that Agnes had died unexpectedly during the night. He added that, only hours earlier, “she told me the review of A Fuhrer for a Father was complete and she was going to cut 100 words out of it the following day before sending it to you”. He had attached the review, for me “to do with as you wish”. He said Agnes greatly valued being asked to write reviews for this newspaper. I return the feeling.
There is something noble about this brief email exchange, something I think perhaps is special to the generation of Australians now in their 70s and 80s. A courtesy, a civility, a thoughtfulness, and a sense of responsibility at a time when such a small responsibility could be allowed to slide. I have run Agnes’s final review here today, and I did not cut the extra 100 words. I regret they are the last ones I will have.
Agnes’s parents were Hungarian. She was born in Iran and the family emigrated to Australia in 1978. She worked as a high school teacher and it was in this role that she started working to lift national attention towards writing for children and young adults. In 1991 she established the Youth Literature Project at Writers Victoria. Eight years later this developed into the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria. Her books include the benchmark 2007 compilation Right Book, Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers.
In 1994 she received the Dromkeen Medal for her contribution to Australian children’s and YA literature. Previous and subsequent recipients include Maurice Saxby, Patricia Wrightson, Mem Fox, Colin Thiel, Graeme Base, Ivan Southall, Ruth Park, Shaun Tan and Andy Griffiths.
Agnes was a critic who liked to be invigorated by books from near and far. When I asked her late last year to review a memoir by Les Murray’s wife Valerie, she agreed, but added: “A friend observed that I seemed to be ‘the memoir queen’! Happy to review them but wouldn’t mind some variety if anything suitable appears.” I was tempted to send her another memoir. I think she would have appreciated the joke. But I didn’t. Agnes said she was keen to read Margaret Drabble’s then new novel, The Dark Flood Rises. “She is exactly the same age as me and I have loved her books that seem to document my life.”
Speaking of celebrated international novelists, Agnes said my “wonderful and gutsy” (thank you!) interview with Richard Ford this year took her back to her first book, No Kidding, a collection of interviews with a dozen Australian YA writers. “I well recall the few writers who were prepared to argue about almost every word and especially, as Ford was, about my interpretations. This was before we had a computer and I couldn’t type so my ever willing John retyped several handwritten versions. One writer actually cut and pasted what I thought was the final version!” She ended with that courtesy I have mentioned. While she admired how I argued a bit with Ford, her plan for the weekend was to go out and buy his book.
That sympathetic open-mindedness, that ability to see both sides of a story and to understand an author’s investment, was characteristic of her reviews. Submitting a review of a fiction-nonfiction collection by an Australian writer, she said: “I’ve possibly been a bit generous … He does whinge a lot. Clearly feels hard done by but I’d rather err this way given his obviously tough road.” At a time when one of the most coveted literary awards in Britain is the Hatchet Job of the Year, that oldfashioned magnanimity is to be cherished.
Agnes sometimes suggested a book I had not factored in. I always listened. A Horse Walks into a Bar, by Israeli writer David Grossman, is a recent example. “Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to review this,” she said. “To my shame I had never read Grossman, a grievous oversight I am about to rectify. It’s a special book and doing the review has encouraged me to do quite a bit of research. Something I always enjoy.” The thank you, again, should go to the reviewer, not the editor. Her review was so good I put it on the opening pages.
Agnes said the book, translated from Hebrew, also made her think about the need to draw attention to literary translation. She said this country had notable translators, “though they garner little attention and gain less and less work in Australia. It always puzzles me that for such a successful multicultural nation, with many sophisticated readers, we ignore this field.”
Agnes liked it when I mentioned, or wrote about, my son, who is now 12. She generously suggested books he might like. When we read Homer’s The Odyssey during a Classics Illustrated phase, she made contact. “In case your 11yo lad might be interested we have bought a truly gorgeous retelling, by the always wonderful Gillian Cross, of The Iliad for our 11yo grandson. A beautifully illustrated and generally lovely book.” Syd and I bought a copy, and we agreed.
A final tribute: Agnes sent in her reviews before or by deadline and at the agreed word count. For that alone she deserves a plaque on the Sydney Writers Walk at Circular Quay.
Agnes Nieuwenhuizen at the Centre for Youth Literature in 1999