I was recently reminded just how lucky I am to have access to a good library. There was one of those old ladies who loves to chat in the queue at the post office the other day, and before she tottered off on her walking frame, she told our genial postmaster Eddie all about the parcels she was posting (at significant expense). They were books that she’d borrowed because there had been a fire in the library at her retirement home, and she did not know that our local library has a special service for housebound readers, with volunteers delivering and exchanging the books to their homes. Because this old lady was so slow on her pins, I was able to catch up with her after I’d posted my parcel and share what I knew about this valuable service. She was delighted, and by now I expect that the library has a new borrower.
But great as this service is, there is no substitute for actually being able to visit and browse around a library. I often make serendipitous discoveries on my visits, and Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things: A Treasury of Australian Children’s Literature was one of these. It really is a treasure.
You don’t need to have a professional interest in children’s literature as I do to appreciate this book. I’ll bet most Aussies who leaf through it will delight in the reminders of the books which we cherish from our childhood. It’s a survey of Australian children’s literature from the 19th to the 21st century, grouped in five chapters:
- Morality and the Family;
- Home and Land;
- Journeys (which includes the pervasive theme of The Lost Child); and
- Other Worlds.
Each chapter features full colour illustrations representing the best of our books for children, so the nostalgia factor is high. You really have to get hold of a copy for yourself to see just how gorgeous the illustrations are, especially the ones from the early days of colour printing.
John and Betty feature in Schooldays, and as well as Graeme Base’s gorgeous Animalia, (1986) and indigenous author/illustrator Elaine Russell’s A is for Aunty there are quaint alphabet books from long ago:
A for Australia/Which I am told/Is famous for Corn/For Wool and for Gold.
C is a Cockatoo/With a gay crest/He chatters and thinks he is/One of the best. (p.11)
You can read about the ‘social values and moral codes’ embedded in the School Paper and the Victorian Readers, edited by Charles Long between 1928 and 1940. Generations of us were raised on these readers which consisted of abridged versions of works of literary merit that also featured ‘sound morality’. I was enchanted by the Grade Four Reader when I arrived in Australia, and devoured it in a day, only to discover on my first day at school that this one book was the text for the entire year, supplemented only by the School Papers…
The Bottersnikes feature in the chapter on Morality and the Family. I am aghast to find that this series is now out of print because these tales of the sweet and lovable Gumbles outsmarting the nasty Bottersnikes every time was a great favourite for 8-9 year olds in its day. In this chapter there is also a profile of Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) who was the first woman to write about life in Tassie in My Home in Tasmania (1852). Like Ethel Pedley (who wrote Dot and the Kangaroo, which most children today encounter in video) she was a keen conservationist, and would be pleased to see how this theme continues to feature strongly in Australian children’s literature, by author/illustrators such as Jeannie Baker and Narelle Oliver.
Pamela Allen, of course, is queen of children’s literature on the theme of home and family, and her sweet little books win awards year after year. My favourite is Mr Archimedes’ Bath because it teaches science concepts as well as being gently funny, but the kids love the Grandpa and Thomas series best of all. Ruth Park gets a mention for The Muddle-Headed Wombat, and Margaret Wild too in an interesting section on ‘the fox fable’, as well as one of her ‘edgier’ titles, Woolvs in the Sittee.
There is so much in this lovely book to enchant and all our favourites are there including Mem Fox, Bob Graham, Libby Hathorn, Gregory Rogers, Tohby Riddle, Jenny Wagner, Leigh Hobbs, Anna Fienberg’s Tashi series, and Shaun Tan’s brilliantly quirky tales, as well as old favourites such as May Gibbs, and Ethel Turner. (There is a wonderful assortment of covers for Seven Little Australians, drawn from the collection at the State Library of Victoria, which apparently has the most comprehensive collection of Australian children’s literature in the country.)
I also liked the inclusion of several indigenous authors who are beginning to tell the stories of The Stolen Generations in ways that are suitable for children to understand. It bothers me that everybody knows the story of Anne Frank who hid from the Nazis in a cupboard in Holland, but not too many people know that fair-skinned Aboriginal children in Coober Pedy spent much of their childhood in a hole in the ground, so as to escape capture by authorities who wanted to remove them from their families under the misguided policies of the day.
I was also interested to learn that there were three different illustrated versions of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s Stradbroke Dreamtime, (which is now also out of print). Our school copy is the third edition illustrated by the celebrated artist Bronwyn Bancroft from the Djanbun People, and we have many of her books too, of which my favourite is Why I Love Australia: the children have written some beautiful poetry of their own after sharing this book.
Not all of the authors and illustrators were familiar to me, so it was interesting to discover Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Pixie O’Harris, the John Mystery series, Blue Peter, and Little Grey Colo the Koala. As a teacher-librarian what I found most useful was the way the author has used titles old and new to illustrate trends over the years, but the book also reinforced for me just how distinctive our Australian children’s literature is. It’s important for our children to see and hear stories about our animals, our places, our way of doing things, and even our slang – so we must make sure that we nurture our children’s authors and illustrators in the best, most practical way, that is, buying their books as birthday and Christmas and No Reason At All presents for the children we love.
It’s going to be hard to part with this book and take it back to my local library …
Author: Juliet O’Conor
Title: Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things: A Treasury of Australian Children’s Literature
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, 2009
Source: Kingston Library
Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.