When it comes to children in literature, it's common, and comforting, to think of kids as being resilient. Immune to the pain of the adult world, able to bounce back from family chaos.
But Jack Ellis knows better. The musician, writer and professional family mediator has seen enough family complexity and trauma to confirm that kids see and understand way more than many people could ever imagine.
It's what makes writing about children so challenging and so rewarding - the chance to try and see the world through the unfiltered and in some ways uncorrupted lens of childhood.
"I think the process of sort of changing from a baby into an adult is almost like a process of pragmatic filtration," he says.
Children are amazed at the world around them - butterflies, trees, clouds, the feel of the grass. But, Ellis says, it's a sensory explosion that is dulled and dimmed as we grow older.
That sense of amazement, of even the most mundane things being new, is fertile both as a literary device, and a reminder that the world has a place that's still untouched.
"I think, actually, children have a kind of truer experience of the world than adults do," he says.
"And so that way, when you're writing from their perspective, there's actually a whole lot more richness available to you as an author than an adult has."
In his latest novel, Home and Other Hiding Places, Ellis has an eight-year-old boy as his protagonist.
Fin is a kid on an adventure, one alive with possibility, fizzing with danger, and clogged with the exquisite pain of boredom, loneliness, and the unavoidable knowledge of things the adults around him don't realise he can see.
In adult terms, of course, it's as prosaic and lumbered with the quotidian as most normal life is. Adult spats, neighbourhood disputes, mean kids at school. Kids who grew up long ago but still can't quite get by. A father who did the best he could long ago by leaving and never coming back
Fin normally lives with his mum, Lindy, on an isolated NSW property, but they're spending Christmas at Gran's house in Sydney. At least, Fin thinks at first it's a visit, until it dawns on him that the old house by the river could well be his new home.
Lindy, still in many ways the troubled teen who left home so long ago, has fragile mental health that can't withstand Gran's disapproval. There are long-held secrets and buried resentments, some involving the cantankerous neighbour.
Meanwhile, Gran's house companion, her step-mother Josie (her dead father's much younger second wife), sits shrewdly on the back patio, chain-smoking and looking out for Fin - a kind of ally who, like Fin, knows more than she lets on.
When Lindy begins unravelling, Fin knows he has to get out and make his own way home. And, in that way that kids sometimes have, he knows he's alone, and can't depend on anyone, not even his newfound friend Rory, staying with his Pop next door.
The result is heartbreaking. Kids may be the resilient and plucky little fighters we imagine them to be, but they are also vulnerable, and so in need of love.
Ellis says this was part of the kernel of the book, the one he began with when when he set out to write it.
"The idea was that adults are so preoccupied with the demons of their own childhood, and the disadvantages of their own childhood, that they inflict these onto the next generation without really realising it," he says.
"I wanted to try and create a picture that would allow you to see that. The reason that it had to be from the point of view of the kid is because although childhood is universal, and we all have one, kids can't tell these stories for themselves, and yet their experience is actually the most relevant perspective of what's going on in their family."
Working as a mediator for Relationships Australia for 10 years before setting up his own mediation practice, he has seen, over and over, how individual children get caught up within the system, one characterised by institutions, by boxes ticked and conversations had right over the head of the child in question, filled with "hackneyed rhetoric of the best interests of the child, and children first and all this kind of stuff".
He wanted, instead, to get inside the head of a young boy caught up in a complex family dynamic, and explore what love, disappointment, joy, discovery and adventure looked like from the side of childhood.
In other words, we see what Fin sees, but we, the readers, know more and see more than he ever can. It's a potent viewpoint for a novel, because it allows larger, darker concepts to seem both mundane and terrifying.
The novel is Ellis' second, and one he's been "chipping away" at for several years amid his practice, not in between consultations but on his days off, in the corner of an RSL, with a notebook and pen. He says writing in long-hand helps him order his thoughts and, in sharp contrast perhaps to the chaotic lives of the people he works with, he uses particular notebooks, only certain types of pens, and writes only a set number of words each day.
In this way, he has conjured, on the page, an astute and scared little boy, his messed-up mum and ornery gran, eccentric neighbour and profligate dad. It's a cast of characters that sharpen in focus, at least for us, with each page.
We know that Lindy is experiencing psychosis, and that Gran's home, so respectable on the outside, is hopelessly dysfunctional. It's a concept that Ellis has always found fascinating - what goes on behind the closed doors of nice-looking houses.
"It's this kind of ... emotional and physical poverty that often occurs within the walls of wealthy homes," he says.
"I remember going to this stately looking house, the outside was big and everyone passing by was very wealthy. But in the house - that I actually loosely based Gran's house on - I went upstairs, I was there for a barbecue not that long ago, and the upstairs toilet was smashed, and it had obviously been smashed for years.
"And then you looked around, everything was [from] Kmart, with foam mattresses on the floor, and it was kind of like even though they had this cell of wealth, they actually had no income. And they were living these really hand-to-mouth lives inside these almost aristocratic surroundings."
It's a striking juxtaposition that would mean something quite different to a child. Ellis regards Gran staring at her smashed in television while she eats her dinner with something like sympathy, but not prejudice.
Ellis has seen his fair share of the types of kids who come out of otherwise respectable or wealthy homes.
"They tended to be the ones that went completely off the richter on drugs and crime," he says.
But this is a novel about life lived before adulthood's stifling force descends. There are still plenty of discoveries and adventures to be had, like trying new sandwiches, catching crabs, and setting off in a rubber dinghy to get married in New Zealand - a crucial and fabulous plot point.
Fin has it tough, but he's good-hearted and uncorrupted. And we, the readers with our adult lenses that can no longer be removed, can't help rooting for him even when we know it's hopeless.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.