Old Land - New Writers

A Mother’s Offering was published in 1841 and is believed to be the first children’s book published in Australia. It covers a variety of topics from geology and natural history to shipwrecks and the customs of the Australian Aborigines. Similar in style is Louisa Anne Meredith’s Tasmanian Friends and Foes published in 1880. It was written and illustrated in Tasmania but published in England and is one of the few nineteenth century Australian children’s books to have coloured illustrations.

Local Australian publishing, unlike its English counterpart, was not particularly dominated by the adventure story. It included books of history, geography, natural science, fables, Aboriginal legends, poetry and fantasy. Many of these books were for young children including Who Killed Cockatoo? by W.A. Cawthorne published in 1862. This is said to be the first picture book published in Australia.

Several notable Australian women authors during the 1890s introduced family stories. These reflected of the growing urbanization of Australian society as well as being an expression of the authors’ interest in family life. They also followed overseas trends in writing.

In a few of the boys’ adventure stories the family had symbolized warmth and security, contrasting sharply with the dangers of the bush, but overall it was a minor focus of interest. With Ethel Turner, however, every member of the family was part of her story and parental disapproval represented far more terror than the bush. Her Seven Little Australians published in 1894, was translated into many languages. Ethel Turner and another woman author, Mary Grant Bruce, whose books were published between 1910 and 1942, dominated the Australian scene for the first half of the 20th century.

Mrs Bruce’s Billabong series, starting with A Little Bush Maid, about life on a station in the Outback, highlighted and idealized the qualities of mateship and family solidarity, two symbols with which Australians have faced the changing times since early colonial days.

Towards the end of the 1950s, a new group of women authors, including Nan Chauncy, Patricia Wrightson and Eleanor Spence, portrayed family relationships within their adventure stories, which were set mainly in the bush. On the whole during this period, there were very few contemporary family stories set in the city and depicting the life which most children live in Australia.

Along with the family story and adventure, fantasy also became fashionable during the 1890s. The early fantasy resulted from the desire to people the Australian bush with magical creatures. "Australia! Hast thou no enchanted castles within thy vast domain?" was the question asked by Atha Westbury in Australian Fairy Tales in 1897. This echoed the regret that many late nineteenth century authors felt about the lack of fairy folk in Australia. In Home Sweet Home by ‘Arthur Ferres’, in 1896, Daisy Dimple exclaims - "How delightful it must be for those English and German children to live in Fairyland, and to see and speak with the king and queen, and take tea with the fairies themselves!". She achieves her desire to see Titania and Puck when she falls asleep and meets them among the rocks and caves of Port Jackson. Many of these books expressed a concern for nature and the needless killing of wild animals, the most enduring of these being Dot and the Kangaroo by Ethel Pedley published in 1899.

Early in the twentieth century the sisters, Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Annie Rentoul created a magic land where fairies and elves lived in gum trees and tiptoed through paddocks by moonlight. May Gibbs and her Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, 1918, continued this tradition with her gumnut babies, but at the same time she expressed her love of nature and her plea for its preservation.

In Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, 1918, the characters are masterpieces of invention and the humour is inimitable. This book is not as well known overseas as one would expect, perhaps because its humour relies so much on the Australian idiom.

During the second half of the twentieth century Australian authors turned again to adventure and realism. The Australian Aborigines who featured so prominently in the stories of the nineteenth century were absent from most of the fiction published during the first half of this century. Over the last twenty years contemporary Aboriginal writers have presented stories and tales of the Dreamtime. Daisy Utemorrah, for example, in Do not go Around the Edges, 1990, tells the story of her life on a mission station in Western Australia and at the same time presents many aspects of Aboriginal culture in poetry. Pat Torres’s outstanding illustrations combine to make this a striking blend of fact, imagination and spirit.

Patricia Wrightson, inspired by the Aboriginal legends, created a series of fantasies in which myth and reality meet. Commencing with The Nargun and the Stars in 1973, she has given her own interpretation of the mythical creatures inhabiting the rocks and rivers since the beginning of time. This feeling that the land has a presence and life of its own is an integral part of her early adventure stories, such as The Rocks of Honey, 1960, in which the main character says, "I think that the old land itself stirred and breathed and remembered a little."

The twentieth century-stories about the bush or the Outback display an understanding of bush life and a desire for people and nature to live in harmony. Many authors have expressed the same respect for wild life and native bush land which was present in the fantasies of the previous century. Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy, 1963, is one of the most moving pleas. His vivid descriptions of the South Australian Coorong and its wild life are skilfully interwoven with his story of a lonely boy and his friend, Mr Percival the pelican, who is killed by duck shooters.

The destructive effects which people can have on the countryside have been dramatically shown by Ivan Southall in Ash Road, 1965, and Colin Thiele in February Dragon, 1965, both about bushfires. In these twentieth century stories the humans rathre than the bush are the aggressors. Ash Road shows the effect of a thoughtless action on the lives of people as well as on the land itself.

The Crusoe-like existence which was frequently portrayed in the nineteenth century was revived by Ivan Southall in Hills End, 1962, and Lilith Norman in Climb a Lonely Hill in 1970. In their books they stated their faith in the ability of children to cope by themselves without help from adults. In both cases their island is the Outback.

Garry Crew in Angel’s Gate, 1993 sets a family story in a country town in which there are many brooding forces effecting the lives of the people. His mysterious and powerful novel can be read on many levels and contains a wide variety of themes. Nadia Wheatley in My Place,1987 traces the lives of children over two hundred years. In time the same place sees many changes in the environment and multicultural traditions.

Contemporary writers, such as Victor Kelleher, Robin Klein, John Marsden and Gillian Rubinstein among many others, have brought a maturity and insight to their work which equates with the best of world children’s literature. Similarly, picture book creators - Julie Vivas, Alison Lester, Bob Graham, Jeannie Baker, Steven Woolman, to name a few, - have all contributed to a contemporary golden age of Australian picture books.