Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Kim of Reading Matters

This week’s Monday musings brings you my fourth guest post, this time from Kim of Reading Matters. Like Guy, Kim started commenting on my blog in its infancy and I soon discovered that this blogger from England was actually an Australian. Naturally we developed a rapport. I have appreciated Kim’s support of my blog – through regular commenting  (particularly in my fledgling days) and through inviting me to be a Triple Choice Tuesday guest. She is one of England’s top litbloggers and this month is hosting an Australian literature month as I advised in last week’s Monday Musings.

I’m thrilled that Kim decided to write on children’s literature. Her guest post on children’s classics beautifully complements Louise’s recent post on current writers/illustrators.

Australian classic books from an Australian childhood

When you are an Australian expat who’s lived overseas for as long as I have (13 years and counting…) it’s easy to think you’ve never lived anywhere else. Then you have little “cultural blips” that rudely remind you that you grew up on the other side of the world.

For me, these “blips” usually occur when friends and colleagues start reminiscing about sweets (or should that be lollies?) from their childhood that are no longer available, or British TV shows they watched when they were growing up which were never screened in Australia. Once I had to sit in on a lengthy discussion about children’s literature where many of the references went completely over my head.

This got me thinking about my favourite books from childhood, all by Australian authors, which do not appear to have ever attracted an international audience. Here are three classics, none of which have been out of print in Australia, that mean a lot to me:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall

Dorothy Wall (1894-1942), a New Zealand-born Australian, originally illustrated books for other writers before creating her own series about a mischievous male koala called Blinky Bill. The first book — Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian— was published in 1933 and two others followed — Blinky Bill Grows Up (1934) and Blinky Bill and Nutsy (1937).

My aunt had three books in one beautifully bound volume. I still remember the distinctive red cover and the cheeky little picture of Blinky Bill, wearing bright orange trousers, toting a swag and billy can on a stick slung over his shoulder. It was always a real treat when I was allowed to take the book down from the shelf and look at the colour-plates inside. I remember turning the pages with awe and being very careful not to mark the book in any way.

Funnily enough I can’t really remember what the stories were about, but I remember the pictures with almost perfect clarity, they were so vivid and funny.

I’m delighted to say that you can read the text online at Project Gutenberg Australia

The muddle-headed wombat by Ruth Park, book cover

Wombat book cover (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

The Muddle-Headed Wombat by Ruth Park

Ruth Park (1917-2010), yet another New Zealand born author who called Australia home, also turned to Australian wildlife for inspiration.

Her main character was a wombat — a creature with which many non-Australians may not be familiar, think of a very cute furry pig with a cheeky face and short stumpy legs — whom was very muddle-headed.  He spoke in spoonerisms and misused similar sounding words — for instance “sensibubble” instead of “sensible” — which meant he often said very funny things without realizing it.

Wombat, as he was officially known, had two friends — a skinny grey cat called Tabby and a practical female mouse called Mouse — whom accompanied him on all kinds of adventures.

I can only recall vague details of particular stories — there were more than 16 in the series, all written between 1962 and 1971 to accompany an ABC radio show, which was cancelled by the time I was born. For instance, in one story Wombat bought a bicycle with shiny red wheels and in another he ate some chalk that made him sick.

But it was the quite hilarious illustrations that I remember most — along with the cute red jacket and floppy purple hat Wombat used to wear!

May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie

Cover for May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs

May Gibbs (1877-1969) was an English-born Australian writer and illustrator whose stories were inspired by Australian native flora.

She’s probably best known for her gumnut babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, who are cute little foster brothers that resemble eucalyptus nuts.

The pair go on an adventure in the Australian bush, but they have to take care not to run into the big bad Banksia men — horrible creatures modeled on banksia cones, which are a bit like hairy pinecones.

As a child I remember being physically scared of the Banksia men, but as ever in the world of children’s literature, good overcomes evil and they sink to the bottom of the sea!

The best part about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, which was first published in 1918, are the truly beautiful illustrations by the author. To this day these illustrations are used on all kinds of merchandise, but what I hadn’t realized until I started writing this piece is that all profits go to UNICEF, the Spastic Centre of NSW and the NSW Society for Crippled Children (now the Northcott Society), according to the wishes of May Gibbs’ bequest.

May Gibbs home Nutcote, on the shores of Sydney Harbour, is also open to the public.

I suspect that all three books, with their emphasis on Australia’s unique plants and animals, may be responsible, not only for my love of Australian literature, but my love and respect of the Australian bush, too.

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Kim of Reading Matters

  1. Thanks for inviting me to do this post, Sue, and for your kind words about my blog. It occurred to me after I’d written this and sent it off that there was another children’s book I loved, also by a female writer/illustrator — Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. Her stories focused on fairies and elves, and were beautifully illustrated. This wikipedia entry explains more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_Rentoul_Outhwaite

    • Oh yes, she’s lovely isn’t she Kim … And I have always loved her name. It rolls off the tongue just as a writer’s name should!

      Oh and no thanks needed … I was very pleased you agreed to do it!

  2. What a fabulous and informative post. Much to my shame, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of these classic books. Though they are all definitely on the TBR. The imagery of all of them is so iconic, particularly Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill of course. So interesting to note that the three female authors, were all born elsewhere, but became famous for writing classic Australian stories. There is a beautiful looking new biography on May Gibbs- More Than a Fairy Tale (which I haven’t read yet either)
    http://www.hardiegrant.com.au/books/books/book?isbn=9781742701509

  3. Both of these would have been on my list (and we even had both of those covers!). I probably would have also included The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay as well.

  4. Yay!! These three go straight to my heart, and fill me with joy 🙂 Thank you for the memories, Kim, and for reinforcing that literature transcends countries and generations easily and wonderfully!

    P.S. My favourite skirt is the one that makes me feel like I’m Little Ragged Blossom 🙂

  5. Gosh I remember Little Ragged Blossom! How wonderful those books were! When my eldest, now 22, was a tot his favourite cassettes (!!) were Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The little mite brought them all the way to Somalia! Great voices too, I used to do the housework listening to them.

    • I think the mark of great children’s lit (tv, movies) is when we parents enjoy them as well. I was almost sorry when my children grew out of certain books and programs. Sounds like you feel the same, Catherine.

  6. Oh I’m so glad that The Magic Pudding and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite were mentioned too. All of these are fabulous childhood favourites. Thank you for the trip down memory lane … I’ll be checking my bookshelves at home tonight to see which of these I still have – they were all there at one stage but I’m not sure whether I have them now or if mum still does.

  7. This Christmas I disoovered a great new Aussie kid’s book. “Wombat Divine” by Mem Fox, a great Aussie kid’s book that I hope will be on the classic kid’s lit list soon if not already.

  8. Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

    • Oh dear … you might like a lovely Aussie picture book, perfect for 4yo, called There’s a sea in my bedroom. It’s truly delightful. Oh, and welcome (I just found you in my spam folder!)

  9. I loved reading this, because it took me back to my own childhood, and my children’s. I used to listen to the MH Wombat on the Children’s Hour, and Digit Dick on the Great Barrier Reef by Leslie Rees, about the adventures of a little boy no bigger than your thumb, We lived in the outback, and the ‘wireless’ was our main medium of information and entertainment. We did possess a few books, which were well read and well loved. I still remember titles on my mother’s bookshelf above the mantel piece, including Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman, and Only the Stars are Neutral.

    Of children’s books we had few, so I read the whole of Dickens and other classic novelists. But I do remember a hardcover book with line drawings, called the Sunflower Fairies; and Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales.

    When my children were little, May Gibbs’s books, and Blinky Bill, were among their favourites. My grandchildren have been nurtured on them too. When my son was older, he loved the Ginger Meggs stories. I haven’t kept up with contemporary Australian children’s fiction, but I have seen some wonderful examples in my grandchildrens’ collections.

    • We never forget our childhood books do we, Christina? Such treasured memories. BTW Where did you grow up. I spent my childhood, until I was 14, in Queensland – Maryborough, Gympie, Brisbane (Sandgate) and then Mt Isa. When I was 14 we moved to Sydney. Those three years in Mt Isa when we drove around the outback – across to Townsville or down to Brisbane via Winton and Longreach – are my favourite childhood years.

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