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Monday musings on Australian literature: Alison Lester

October 5, 2020

Saturday, as I noted in my Six Degrees of Separation post, was National Bookshop or Love Your Bookshop Day in Australia (and in Great Britain too, it seems). For last year’s day, I wrote a post on author-owned/managed bookshops, most of which were located in places other than Australia. The exception was Australian children’s author and illustrator, Alison Lester, so I thought she deserved a little feature post today.

Alison Lester has appeared in my blog a few times, but the first was the most significant, because it was when she and Boori (Monty) Prior were named our first two Children’s Laureates. She was also mentioned briefly in my post referencing the 2018 National Bookshop Day, when Daughter Gums bought a Lester book for a baby shower she was attending! It’s time, then, to give her a little bit of a profile here, even though children’s literature is a sideline focus here.

As I wrote in my Children’s Laureate post, I first became aware of Lester through my own children. As I wrote then, she’s an author/illustrator best known for her picture books, though she has also illustrated chapter books for other writers and written a couple of young adult novels. The first book that she both wrote and illustrated herself was 1985’s Clive eats alligators.

Book cover

This means that Lester was just starting out when my children were young, so most of her children’s books have been published after my children left that stage of their reading lives. But, we did have some favourites, including Rosie sips spiders (1988), Imagine (1989) and Magic beach (1990). As our children grew we also enjoyed Robin Klein’s chapter book, Thingnapped, which was illustrated by Lester.

Lester, like all the best children’s book authors and illustrators has a lovely sense of fun while also conveying important values to children, such as respecting difference, a critical value at a time when rejecting other seems to be on the rise again. Indeed, as her website says, “her picture books mix imaginary worlds with everyday life, encouraging children to believe in themselves and celebrate the differences that make them special”.

Jonathan Shaw of Me fail? I fly has discussed Alison Lester’s books several times on his blog in his Ruby Reads series where he discusses the books he reads to his granddaughter. Lester’s books featured by Jonathan to date are:

  • Clive eats alligators (1985), which features seven children going about their daily lives, except that “Clive eats alligators”. You’ll have to read it to discover that that means! Jonathan says that the fun in this book lies in tracing any one of these children through the book to see “how their interests play out in the different contexts: the girl who loves horses, the bookish boy” and so on. Rosie sips spiders, which Daughter Gums loved, follows the same children in more adventures through life. Lester fans will get a giggle when, in this Rosie book, they read that “Clive jumps in Alligator Creek.”
  • Are we there yet? (2005), a picture book about – yes, you’ve guessed it – family car travel. Jonathan says that her images are “completely beguiling”. Maybe this is why it was the first book given to a child from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Reading Library.
  • Kissed by the moon (2013), about a baby, the night, and nature. Jonathan writes that “pragmatically speaking, I guess it’s a bedtime read, but Alison Lester knows how to put words together, and how to make images, that reach in and touch your heart”.
  • My dog Bigsy (2015), which is one of those books in which the feature character wanders around a farm, meeting other animals, like, for example, Pat Hutchins’ fabulous Rosie’s walk. I haven’t read this Lester yet, but Jonathan says that Lester does it well. I think I’ll be getting it for Grandson Gums.

Thanks Jonathan for posting on these books – for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge where we have appreciated these posts, and so I could use them here! Very thoughtful of you!

Lester has been shortlisted for, or won, Children’s Book or Picture Book of the Year awards several times over the years. She has also won the Dromkeen Medal for services to Australian literature, and was the first children’s writer to be awarded the valuable Melbourne Prize for Literature. She has been shortlisted for the international Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize. And, of course, she is an active promotor of Aussie children’s literature, including being that Children’s Laureate role and being an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Lester, born 1952, was a farm girl, and still rides a horse when she can. Adventure, that features in her stories, is in her DNA it seems (something I think I missed!) So, I wasn’t surprised to read that in 2005 she went to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow. You can read her Antarctic Diary on her website.

Alison Lester Gallery

Now to Lester’s bookshop. It is, I have to admit, not like the others. Located in the gorgeous Victorian town of Fish Creek, near where Lester was born, it is more a “gallery” than a bookshop, and is devoted solely to her work. We have been there, and it is a light, airy, welcoming place that sells her books, cards and other merchandise, and also prints of many of her illustrations. It also has lounges where you can sit and read her books.

So, a rare post for me, given its focus is children’s literature, but most of us here started our reading lives when we were very young, and if we’ve had children or grandchildren we’ve done our best to share that love down the generations.

I’d love to hear about your favourite children’s authors. Who did you love as a child and/or who have you loved reading to children in your life?

30 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2020 1:07 am

    Funny to hear Fish Creek described as gorgeous. I grew up not that far away and ‘Fishy’ as we called it was always dark and wet and the place you drove through to go to The Prom 🤣 But I note in recent years it’s really turned itself into a little artisan village with cafes, potteries, galleries etc.

    • October 6, 2020 1:13 am

      Haha kimbofo, we stopped here during our visit to the Prom. Don’t know what it was like before but now, as you say, it’s a lovely little artisan village. Good on them, eh. But as you can see from the pic it was a grey, inclement day!

  2. October 6, 2020 7:43 am

    Ah, ST – a topic close to my heart ! 🙂
    We were all raised on “The Way of the Whirlwind” by the Durack sisters, “The Magic Pudding” by Norman Lindsay, all of A.A. Milne’s Pooh books and poems and the two Alice books – from which I can (and do) quote reams .. They’re the ones I remember clearly; and if only I could lay hands on a copy of Mary and Elizabeth’s wonderful picture book I would have copies of all of them still ..

    • October 6, 2020 9:59 am

      There are three copies available at Grisly Wife Bookshop in Beechworth

      • October 6, 2020 12:39 pm

        Thanks Carmel … Grisly Wife popped out at me before I read the sentence, and I wondered what Rodney Hall had to do with all this! Then I read the sentence and it became clear!

        • October 6, 2020 1:57 pm

          Rodney is a great friend of John Thawley who runs Grisly Wife. The shop used to be in Ivanhoe in Melbourne. It’s a great resource. Check it out.

        • October 6, 2020 3:26 pm

          I will Carmel … thanks.

      • October 6, 2020 1:51 pm

        Interesting, don’t you think, Carmel ? – that this WA epic (as so correctly identified by our Blogger, the inimitable ST) is seen as so worthy of being re-distributed ? It is, of course, a classic, with its WONDERFUL illustrations ..

    • October 6, 2020 12:37 pm

      Oh, I guess that’s a Western Australian thing M-R. I don’t know The way of the whirlwind at all, but of course know the Duracks.

      AA Milne is an absolute favourite for me.

      • October 6, 2020 1:49 pm

        JP Durack was a co-founder of my father’s law firm in Perth, one generation earlier, with my paternal grandfather and a bloke named Dwyer who has remained mysteriously but obdurately unknown to any of we remaining Dunphys.

  3. October 6, 2020 8:04 am

    Alison Lester is one of my favourite Australian authors. Her rhymes and her love of ponies are delightful.

    • October 6, 2020 12:42 pm

      Thanks Brona. I have bought Nonie the Pony for Grandson Gums. Lovely rhyming title! She has great rhythms too.

  4. Meg permalink
    October 6, 2020 8:13 am

    Hi Sue, I can’t remember what I was raised on and can barely remember what I read to my own children in the 70s. Though I do remember reading to them The Magic Pudding, Gum Nut Babies, Pooh Bear and poetry by Banjo Paterson. For my grandchildren in early 2000s the Alister Lester books were read, but the favourite was We are Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. Also, as libraries become more children friendlier, there were more varied books to read. For my nephews who arrived later, an assortment of library books, items to touch and pop up books. Clifford the Big Red Dog was very popular, as each family had a big dog. The one I never wanted to read was Pepper Pig, but it was always the first one I had to read. And, of course the Roger Hargreaves Mr. Men books were popular for all..

    • October 6, 2020 12:50 pm

      I don’t remember a lot from my childhood either (except Enid Blyton), Meg, but I do remember AA Milne. Loved, loved, loved him.

      But, yes, Going on a bear hunt was an absolute favourite with my two, along with books like Hairy McLary, John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat, and some others.

      I haven’t been confronted with Peppa Pig, but I must say that with my kids I never wanted to read The magic faraway tree or Wishing chair books. So formulaic.

  5. October 6, 2020 10:33 am

    We are very lucky here in Australia to have such a wealth of talented authors and illustrators creating picture books that are ours. In the adult book industry, US and UK publications dominate, but not in the world of children’s picture books. Of course they have universal themes, but the illustrations are Australian, and animal characters are Australian animals.

    • October 6, 2020 12:51 pm

      Yes, good point Lisa. We do seem to have a wonderful children’s literature culture here.

  6. October 6, 2020 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the copious mention, Sue. I’m delighted to have my grandfatherly reading list be amplified in this way. Now I must do some more blogging about some of the seemingly endless stream of books that we meet this way.
    My partner and I visited friends in Fish Creek last year, and were completely won over by its artisan charms, even though it was a Sunday and most shops were shut!

    • October 6, 2020 12:53 pm

      Thanks Jonathan – I was pretty confident you wouldn’t mind given it’s a public blog and that, more, you’d probably be happy to have more people see your posts. They are a great resource for grandparents.

      Fish Creek wasn’t very open the day we were there either – can’t remember what day of the week it was but it was probably a Thursday – but it was so charming as you say.

      • October 6, 2020 12:55 pm

        Come to think of it, it probably was a weekday when we were there too. Sunday would be a busy day

        • October 6, 2020 3:24 pm

          Yes, actually, you are right. It probably would be, being the town it is and its location near Wilson’s Prom.

  7. October 6, 2020 5:45 pm

    My father was a Magic Pudding fan so every generation has a copy. Blinky Bill was probably my own favourite. One daughter insisted I read her the whole Water Babies which I found hard going but she enjoyed it. Books are the only presents I give, so I’ve bought a few over the years. The most memorable might have been Banjo Patterson’s Mulga Bill’s Bicycle which, with lots of illustrations, makes a surprisingly good children’s book. I have a new grandson now (I’ve already given him my copy of Ferdinand the Bull), so I’ll be on the lookout for classics for him.

    • October 7, 2020 8:52 am

      Oh, good for your father. I love that the tradition has been handed down Bill. I must say I didn’t like Water babies … I don’t think my daughter did either. Thanks for mentioning Mulga Bill’s bicycle…

      I bought a new copy of Ferdinand, the Bull for my grandson but am waiting till I can see him again so I can share it with him. I’ve also bought The little engine that could…

  8. Neil@kallaroo permalink
    October 6, 2020 9:40 pm

    Don’t forget “The Muddle-Headed Wombat”, not read, but listened to on the ABC Radio Children’s Hour.

    • October 7, 2020 8:42 am

      Oh yes, Neil, of course. Thanks for reminding us older Aussies.

    • October 7, 2020 8:54 am

      Good one Neil. Yes, all of the Argonauts. I still have both of the books written by children contributors (though above the age group for this post).

      • Neil@kallaroo permalink
        October 7, 2020 4:12 pm

        The family had both of these, but they have disappeared, doubtless before one of my parents’ many moves. I still have a book prize from “What book is that?”. One of these days I might read it.

        • October 7, 2020 10:28 pm

          Oh yes, Neil, multiple moves in my family saw things like many childhood books left behind, too.

      • October 7, 2020 10:26 pm

        Oh wow, do you Bill. I have a book about the Argonauts, but not those.

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