The work of our favourite children’s illustrators stay with us indelibly. Everyone will have favourite illustrators, even if they don’t realise it. It might be May Gibbs with her adorable gum nuts (I was always afraid of the banksia men) or my personal favourite Alison Lester (I’m currently drinking tea out of a mug with illustrations from Magic Beach). These books and their illustrations will always be cornerstones of our childhood.
Children’s book illustrations have a long history in Australia, and this post is not going to go into immense detail. We have two excellent books on the subject and, when the library opens again, I highly recommend borrowing them if you’d like to know more.
I’m going to go through some of the history of the origins of Australian children’s illustration, and then I’ll have a look at some of my favourites.
I want to begin by saying that Australia already had a rich tradition and history of storytelling before the colonisation. Indigenous Australians were the original storytellers, well before children’s stories began to be written in books. I believe it is worth remembering that tradition as the bedrock on which Australian storytelling is based.
Western children’s illustrations depicting Australia began early, before Australia was colonised. The expeditions of early explorers such as Cook were made into stories for children. As Australia was ‘discovered’ by Europeans, children’s books began to be set here, usually written and illustrated by people who has never set foot in the country. This led to illustrations that bore little resemblance to any real Australian landscape. The first children’s book set entirely in Australia was Alfred Dudley published anonymously in London in 1830 and telling the story of a father and his highly intelligent son settling in Australia. There were 8 copperplate engravings; none of which greatly resemble Australia at all.
Adventure stories set in Australia were very popular in the UK by the mid to late 1800s. Like the early illustrations these tended to be overly romanticised and have very little to do with a real Australian landscape. You can see the Adventures of Ned Nimble in the image below.
Eventually, though, books illustrated by people who had actually been to Australia, or in fact lived in Australia began to emerge. Some of the early works include the Australian Christmas Story Book published in Melbourne in 1871 and the Australian Picture Pleasure Book published in Sydney in 1857. Both had actual Australian animals, looking vaguely like Australian animals. Interestingly, one of the first books for children published in Australia that really took off was Cole’s Funny Picture Book– the first edition of which was published in 1879. It was still in print 112 years later when I received a copy of a reprinted edition in 1991. You can see my copy and the PMI’s copy in the photo below. It wasn’t a narrative illustrated book, but more of a compendium pulling together scraps from all over the place.
We have just received a new book about EW Cole, so I’m going to write a post about him and his book arcade in the next couple of weeks.
As more books began to be written in Australia the ‘bush’ became an almost mythical place and was the setting for the majority of stories. Probably the best known from the late 1800s and early 1900s are the illustrations of Frank Mahoney in Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo in 1899, May Gibbs’ Gum Nut Babies in 1916 and Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill in 1933. You can see all three in the images below. They continue to have a longevity through to today, with TV series and in the case of May Gibbs a whole plethora of things, from mugs to tea towels.
Dot and the Kangaroo was actually published the year after Edith Pedley’s death, the story she created was one of an almost mythical Australian bush, Dot gets lost in the bush and finds the kangaroo which guides her home. It is reminiscent of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which had been published less than forty years before and left an indelible mark on western children’s literature. Frank Mahoney’s illustrations were realistic depictions of the Australian bush, without the European bent that many earlier books depicted.
You can find out more about Dot and the Kangaroo here
May Gibbs first wrote and illustrated stories about a little girl called Marmie amongst the chimney pots of London. During the war years in Sydney she produced bookmarks, calendars and pictures and created postcards featuring gum nut characters for Australian families and the Red Cross to send to Australian soldiers. But it was when she published Gum-Nut Babies and Gum Blossom Babies that her career really took off, and her illustrations remain some of the most recognisable today. You might have seen one of her Spanish Flu illustrations making the rounds recently on social media.
When she died in 1969, Gibbs left the copyright of all her works to the NSW Society for Crippled Children (which is now known as Northcott) and the Spastic Centre of NSW (now known as Cerebral Palsy Alliance). You can find out more about May Gibbs here
Blinky Bill wasn’t Dorothy Wall’s first book. She started out with Tommy Bear and the Zookies, which was published in 1920. Tommy is the beginnings of Blinky Bill, with some of his cheekiness and rapscallion nature. She went on to illustrate a collection of stories examining the origin and characteristics of some specific Australian plants and animals. She wrote and illustrated other books as well, including several fairy stories, but it was with Blinky Bill that she really made a connection. He first appeared as a side character in her illustrations for Brooke Nicholl’s Jacko the Broadcasting Kookaburra in 1933, but came out with his own adventures later in the same year. Subsequent stories followed over the years and Blinky became embedded in the Australian psyche. I think I can still sing most of the theme song of the 1990s television show. You can find out more about Dorothy Wall here
These books, and ones like them, began to feature Australian creatures and Australian landscapes with increasing accuracy (anthropomorphic animals and vegetation aside), and the foundation of Australian children’s book illustrations was formed.
This is a brief overview of the antecedents of children’s book illustrations in Australia. Now I want to have a look at a few of my favourites.
I’m starting with Mem Fox and Julie Vivas because their book Possum Magic, is probably the best selling Australian children’s book with more than 5 million copies sold. You can see my copy in the photo below.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Possum Magic tells the story of Grandma Poss and Hush, two possums. Grandma Poss has made Hush invisible to keep her safe, but Hush decides she wants to be visible again and together they travel all over Australia to find the foods that will break the magic spell. It’s a delightful tour through Australia with a plethora of Australian food, such as “they ate Anzac biscuits in Adelaide, mornay and Minties in Melbourne, steak and salad in Sydney and pumpkin scones in Brisbane.”
In the end it’s a Vegemite sandwich, a piece of pavlova and a lamington that does the trick. It was originally written as a university assignment about mice who travelled the world to make Hush visible, but Omnibus requested a rewrite with possums and and Australia. The result was illustrated by Julie Vivas and published in 1983 and the rest, as they say, is history.
You can find out more about Mem Fox here
Alison Lester has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1979. I’m including her in this discussion purely because she is my favourite Australian children’s book author and illustrator. I can still recite large parts of Magic Beach from memory. You can see my copy in the photo below
Alison has written and illustrated more than 40 books for children. Most are set in Australia, and often have a strong emphasis on landscape. Magic Beach was first published in 1990 and tells the story of a group of children and their imaginative explorations of a beach. The beach is actually real, and you can find it at Walkerville near Wilson’s Promontory in eastern Victoria. You can listen to an interview with Alison about the ‘magic beach’ below.
You can find out more about Alison here
Bob Graham is another Illustrator and author who has made an enduring mark on the Australian illustrated children’s book scene. He actually studied as an artist first, at the Julian Ashton School of Art, and then travelled to the UK, but he returned to Australia in 1969 and began writing and illustrating children’s books. He’s won the CBCA Picture Book of The Year Award an astounding six times and his book A Bus Called Heaven has been endorsed by Amnesty International. My favourite of his books is The Red Woollen Blanket.
It tells the story of a little girl called Julie and the red blanket she is given when she was born. As she gets older she takes the blanket everywhere; until it is little more than a scrap, which she loses at school and then discovers that she’s grown up so she no longer needs it. You can find out more about Bob Graham here.
So that brings me to the end of my exploration of Australian children’s illustrated books. I’d love to go into more detail about the many fabulous books you can buy now, and which have shaped the minds and imaginations of Australian children over the decades, but that would be a book rather than a blog post. I’d love to know what your favourites are, so leave a comment and we can hopefully highlight some more of our fabulous children’s authors and illustrators.
Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things: A celebration of Australian illustrated children’s books by Juliet O’Conor
A History of Australian Children’s Book Illustrations by Marcie Muir
The Red Blanket by Bob Graham 1987
Possum Magic by Mem Fox 1990
Magic Beach by Alison Lester 1990
The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs 1990
Cole’s Funny Picture Book No.4 1991
Cole’s Funny Picture Book No.1 72nd edition
The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall 1956
The photos are all mine except for the images from Alfred Dudley and Ned Nimble which come from A History of Australian Children’s Book Illustrations by Marcie Muir and the May Gibbs Spanish Flu image which comes from here