Monday musings on Australian literature: Canberra’s children’s picture book creators

Who would have thought that my little capital city of Canberra would have such a rich children’s picture book community, but over recent years I’ve been discovering just how much is going on here. So much so that I thought it might be a worthwhile topic for Brona’s AusReadingMonth.

There’s no way I can be comprehensive, so I’m going to briefly introduce ten children’s picture book creators to give a flavour. How to do this though, given picture books comprise both words and pictures, usually created by different people. We rarely know which came first, but mostly, I believe, it’s the story. So, my list here focuses on Canberra’s authors, but I will reference illustrators they have worked with. The books mentioned range from those for toddlers to primary school-aged children.

I draw heavily on Marion, the newly rebadged ACT Writers Centre, for background info on the authors.

Emma Allen

Allen was a trained early childhood speech pathologist before turning to literature. Her book The terrible suitcase, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, won the 2013 CBCA Book of the Year: Early Childhood award. It has been translated into several languages, including Japanese and Korean. Since then she has written several picture books, with her last, The great book-swapping machine, illustrated, cartoon-style, by Melbourne-based Lisa Coutts.

Nicole Godwin

Godwin is “an award-winning author with a passion for the environment, animal rights and social justice”. Her two books, Jelly-Boy and Swoop, have different illustrators. Jelly-Boy, a cautionary tale about plastic featuring a jellyfish who falls in love with a plastic bag, was illustrated by Sydney-based Christopher Nielsen. In 2020, it won the Conservation Awareness for Children Category in the Whitley Awards. Swoop was illustrated by Canberra illustrator Susannah Crispe. It speaks closely to Canberrans who, every year, brace for swooping magpie season, that is, spring! Like some other picture books I’ve read, it includes information at the end, here on magpies, which adults can share with children.

Godwin has also collaborated with Wiradjuri man Duncan Smith on We are Australians, with illustrator Jandamarra Cadd, a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warung descendent.

Irma Gold

Gold is no stranger to this blog, as I’ve reviewed a wide range of her works including two of her three children’s picture books, Megumi and the bear (my review), Where the heart Is (my review) and Seree’s story. The illustrators are, respectively, New Zealand-based Craig Phillips, Susannah Crispe (again) and Sydney-born Wayne Harris. She is “passionate about childhood literacy” and is an Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge.

Tania McCartney

Tania McCartney and Christina Booth, The Gum Family finds home

McCartney is described as “a book creator” because she has covered the whole gamut of creation from writing and illustrating to editing and design. She has won many awards, and her books have “reached the hands of children in more than 20 countries”. She is also Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, and founded Kids’ Book Review and The Happy Book podcast. She has created too many books for me to list, but I did review her The Gum Family finds home, which was illustrated by Tasmanian-based Christina Booth. She is also the author/illustrator of the Plume travel series and I Heart the World.

Amelia McInerney

McInerney is a “humorous picture book author”. Her books have won various awards Her titles include The book chook, My bird, Bertie, and the internationally published Bad crab, illustrated respectively by Connah Brecon, Shane McG and Philip Bunting. Her fourth book, Who fed Zed?, is about food allergy and intolerance and is illustrated by Queensland-based graphic designer and animator, Adam Nickel.

Stephanie Owen Reeder

Reeder is the award-winning author of over 20 books for children, “ranging from picture books to historical novels”. She writes, illustrates, edits and reviews books. She received the Laurie Coping Award for Distinguished Service to Children’s Literature in the ACT in 2019 and is also an Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. Again, she has written too many for me to list them all, but two of her latest books, Australia’s wild, weird, wonderful weather and Ghostie were illustrated, respectively by Tania McCartney and New Zealander Mel Armstrong.

Barbie Robinson

Robinson is an “arts journalist, photographer, writer, designer, arts marketing/events manager” who has published two children’s picture books, Grandma’s knicker tree and Charles the gallery dog, both published by For Pity Sake Publishing and illustrated by the now Shoalhaven-based Ian Robertson. Robinson and husband Richard Scherer run the not-for-profit website and internet radio station Living Arts Canberra.

Krys Saclier

Saclier “believes children’s literature has the power to shape the future” and among other things is the creator of the Kids Only podcast. She has published three picture books, Vote 4 me (2020) and Camp Canberra, both illustrated by Cathy Wilcox who is also an award-winning political cartoonist, and Super Nova, illustrated by Rebecca Timmis. Vote 4 me explains preferential voting to children. Love it.

Samantha Tidy

Tidy is an award-winning author of adult, young adult and children’s fiction. Her picture books include The blue polar bear and The flying dream, with her most recent being Our bush capital, illustrated by Canberran Juliett Dudley. Marion’s website says it “offers a beautifully illustrated narration of a child’s funfilled life in Canberra”. Tidy has a new book coming out in 2023, Cloudspotting, illustrated by the clearly busy Susannah Crispe!

Shelly Unwin

Unwin is the author of the age-focused You’re… series, the non-fiction picture book Blast Off!, and There’s a baddie running through this book, illustrated, respectively, by Katherine Battersby, Ben Wood, and Vivienne To. Some of Unwin’s books are being published in the USA. Her latest book, Hello Baby, published in 2021 and geared to the very young, was illustrated by Victorian-based Jedda Robaard.

These ten authors – all women, interestingly – are just some of those working in the children’s literature field in Canberra. Their illustrators – which include some men – are more widely located, but they include Canberra-based ones like Susannah Crispe, Juliet Dudley and Cathy Wilcox. The subject-matter is wonderfully diverse – from books dealing with children’s lives (like You’re one and Hello baby) and life in Canberra (like Our bush capital) through informative books (like Blast off!) to issues-based ones (like Jelly-boy addressing environmental concerns). There’s something for everyone. I already have a few of them, and I’ll be buying more.

In conversation with Craig Silvey

I understand that literary conversation events in Canberra go best when the subject is political. I guess it’s the nature of the beast – that is, of living in the national capital. But for me, it’s the fiction writers that I want to see, and we do get some interspersed amongst the run of historians and journalists that we get. Even so, it’s been three years since I attended an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, due partly to the pandemic which halted the program for a while and partly because I have a pretty full dance card. However, Mondays are often free, so Mr Gums and decided to check out Craig Silvey. I’ve only read his best-selling Jasper Jones (my review) but that’s because you can’t read everything. I would like have read Honeybee. Tonight’s focus, though, was his latest novel, Runt.

The conversation was conducted by local author Irma Gold, who is no stranger to this blog. She’s always good in the interviewer’s chair, being both warm in manner and astute about writing – and so it proved again tonight.

The conversation

After MC Colin Steele did the usual introductions, Irma took over and introduced Silvey and the book we were there to hear about. Runt is, she said, a middle-grade children’t book. It features a solitary girl, Annie, with a penchant for fixing things, and the dog, Runt that she befriends. Irma found Runt a heart-warming book, which was lovely to read to her 11-year-old son. She believes it is destined to become a children’s classic. It would, both she and Colin Steele said, make an excellent Christmas gift. What a shame our grandson is only 4.

Irma Gold and Craig Silvey, 2022, ANU

After some light-hearted banter with Craig about a Fremantle biscuit artist – who knew? – Irma got down to business. Noting that Runt represents a new audience for Craig – that middle-grade age – she asked what his favourite book/s had been as a child. Craig replied that he’d been a voracious reader as a child. (Show me an author who wasn’t!) He loved a range of books, including those traditional classics like Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books, but then he made some points that were specific to him. For example, he liked books that made him feel things, and named a short story by Paul Jennings titled “Busker”. It was the first story, he said, that made him cry. Another favourite was Goodnight Mr Tom, which elicited sounds of agreement from the audience, and which, he later realised, might have partly inspired Honeybee.

He also liked books that made him laugh, and he mentioned Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings again, and the James Herriot vet series.

After this, there was some discussion of Runt, which is set in the perfectly named country town of Ups and Downs. There are Annie and Runt of course, and some villains, including the farmer, Earl, who is also a collector. One of the things he collects is water! Earl is buying up farms to get the water, and wants Annie’s family’s farm. The plot revolves around Annie’s plans to save the farm. There was more chat about the story and the characters, which include the wonderfully named 13-year-old Fergus Fink, and then we moved onto setting and themes.

Irma noted that Craig had grown up on an orchard in a small country town, and asked whether this had inspired Runt. Craig responded that the novel was an “affectionate love letter to country life“. He loves country people – their use of understatement, and their dry humour – and the country makes for great fiction settings because it is “exposed to the whims of elemental forces”.

This led to a discussion about the relevance of climate change to the book. Craig observed that water policy and climate change are putting people under pressure, and that villain Earl’s avarice is boundless. There are subtle messages in the book, including the fact that people are more important than hoarding/collecting things!

Irma commented that Runt is very different to Honeybee, but it does encompass diversity. Craig responded that he writes about Australians in Australia, and that we are a diverse country. Irma then said that the book had a contemporary setting but a very classic feel. Craig replied that he wanted classical elements underpinning his text but that, for example, a 13-year-old boy’s aspiration now would be to be a YouTube star. Of course!

From here Irma turned to screenplays, because each of Craig’s books have or are being adapted to film, with Craig also writing the screenplays. There was discussion about the screenplay writing process, and how Craig, “wrote them sort of together”. Film development for Runt is already underway, with production possibly starting next year.

Craig had some interesting things to say about writing screenplays versus novels. There are rigidities to screenwriting that you don’t have in novel writing, he said. The screenplay format can be too restrictive to let your creativity fly, so he enjoys novel writing, but, conversely, writing screenplays reins him in as a novelist, which has benefits.

Irma’s next question concerned publishing and the fact that Craig has been published for 20 years now. How has publishing changed? Interesting question, responded Craig. For him, the biggest change is in the post-publishing aspect. Back in 2004 when his first novel, Rhubarb, was published, we were not as “connected” so you had no idea what was happening with your book. Now, with social media, you get immediate recognition and can see what is happening. Reviewing is democratised and it is “a really beautiful thing”, he said. (As a blogger, I appreciated this.)

Publishing, itself, though is still painful. You take this tender part of yourself and you expose it to the world. So, while his success means that he no longer has to do the “shitty jobs” he had to do when he was 19 and writing Rhubarb, in terms of writing, he still faces the blank page with the same uncertainty. This is essential, though, to being a writer: you need to “straddle the pain and struggle” but you need also to balance it with hope and pride. Such a mentally healthy attitude.

On whether he was always going to be a writer, Craig talked about meeting his first writer, Glyn Parry, at school, when he was 14. He realised, suddenly that writers were human beings and it could be a vocation. He wrote to Parry, and got some great advice: “Don’t become a writer, be a writer”. Craig didn’t go to university. Instead, he did menial jobs and read and read – and “forensically examined novels.”

After a delightful little interlude discussing his career as an electric ukelele player in a band called the Nancy Sykes (inspired by Dickens, of course). During the band’s short life, they apparently played Shaun Tan’s bride down the aisle! A little later in the interview there was another fun interlude, this time about his being a finalist in Cleo’s Bachelor of the Year contest and being described as “the thinking woman’s buttered crumpet”. It was an entertaining story, but I’m not going to spoil it just in case you get to a launch and hear it yourself. Instead, back to the writerly life.

Irma asked Craig whether he enjoyed book tours, and the response was immediate. He loves it and is deeply grateful to anyone who comes out to hear him. Novelists lead bifurcated lives. They tease stories out of themselves, then release them to the audience at which point they become each reader’s to appreciate and define. He said most authors, like himself, feel profoundly empty when they finish a book, but engaging with readers fills him back up again.


These sessions are always well-run, resulting, always, in time for a Q&A. There were some excellent questions. Canberra didn’t let Irma down!

On getting the voice of a teenager, and whether he sees hope in younger people: Craig said that he has gravitated to teenage protagonists (though Annie is I think pre-teen), because everything is amplified at that age. The bubble your parents keep you in is pierced and you start to recognise the truth of things. It’s a time of profound change, when you start to define who you are, where you’re going. He likes to pair his protagonist with something opposite that can provide the catalyst for change. As for hope, he said that Runt‘s protagonist Annie’s hope is infectious. She inspires change, kindness, generosity, hope.

On diversity and the challenge of writing characters outside his own experience: (This would have been my question if I hadn’t been taking notes and had to get up and go to a microphone!) Craig responded that the further his character is from his own experience, the more responsible he feels. His practice is to connect with the appropriate community, as he did with the trans community for Honeybee. I loved Craig’s response to this question. He had three rules of thumb for writing ethically: do no harm; your purpose must have merit; and execute properly. Ethical writing is something we must discuss, he said. Responding to a follow-up question on Honeybee, he said that while the trans character doesn’t announce herself at the beginning, it was clear to all audiences that she was trans. His writing was informed by the trans community. The risks trans people take in disclosing themselves means that his character would not have announced their trans nature immediately. His character Sam is slow to trust, which is true.

On film adaptations and how he feels about giving over control: Craig said that he has screenwriter all his novels which partly answers the question! However, filmmaking, he continued, is a vastly collaborative process which is the opposite of writing a novel. He said that seeing Jasper Jones brought the screen was one of the most extraordinary moments of his life. It’s a communal artistic pursuit, and the result can be something larger than you are capable of conceiving on your own.

Irma closed by reiterating that Runt was a “really beautiful book” and that Craig had been compared to Roald Dahl. That is an accolade worth having. Having not read the book, I can’t say whether I agree or not, but I can say that Craig came across as a genuinely positive yet thoughtful and serious-minded person, and that Irma did a great job of bringing it all out. Thoroughly enjoyable – and there should have been more people there!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
10 October 2022
Podcast available at SoundCloud

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Australian girl’s annual

Some time ago I posted on an old School friend annual that I found during my decluttering. Today, I bring you a much older annual for girls, The Australian girl’s annual. It came not from my childhood, but from my aunt’s house when I was working on her estate, and it is undated. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain the series was published annually from 1910, when editions were apparently dated, until around 1935, when they weren’t. 1935 is the last time I found it mentioned in Trove’s newspaper index.

Trove’s cataloging records for it are incomplete. As far as I can tell, it was first called The Australian girl’s annual. It was then published as The Australasian girl’s annual (and perhaps The Australiasian girl’s annual), before returning to its original name. It was originally published by Cassell in London and Melbourne, but one Trove record notes that volumes from [1929]* on have the imprint “[Sydney] : Gordon & Gotch (A’sia) Ltd. for the Amalgamated Press Ltd.” My edition says “Published in Australasia by Gordon & Gotch (Australasia) Ltd.” but it also credits “The Amalgamated Press Limited Fleetway House, London, E.C.4”

So, I have two challenges. First, what is the date of mine? From Trove’s records, and from the contemporary-story illustrations, I’m guessing it comes from the 1929 to 1935 period. Second, who did it belong to? My aunt was born in 1930, when my grandmother was 37, making the book not really age-suitable for either – given it was geared, says The Australasian (21 December 1912), to “those who have passed childhood”. However, my aunt had a big sister who was born in 1918. Perhaps the book was hers?

I was intrigued when I picked it up, because here’s this book called The Australian girl’s annual, but it was clearly generated from England. In my search of the Internet, I found reference to some research published in 2014. It was done by Kristine Moruzi, and her paper is titled “The British Empire and Australian Girls’ Annuals”. The abstract says:

This article explores two series of girls’ annuals: the Empire Annual for Australian Girls (1909–30), published by the Religious Tract Society, and the Australian Girl’s Annual (1910–3?), published by Cassell. Although both series were seemingly targeted at Australian girls, they were published in Britain before being given a new title and sent to the colonies. This article examines the implications of these British models of girlhood for their explicitly colonial girl readers. The British publishers of these annuals addressed an apparently homogenous readership comprised of girls from white settler colonies and Britain without attempting to customize the contents of their books for different audiences. In both fiction and illustrations, the annuals simultaneously employed and produced a British model of girlhood that was attractive to Australian girl readers.

“Before being given a new title and sent to the colonies”? This suggests that the very same content was published for English girls under a different title. Certainly, the volume I have contains 26 stories with not one written by an Australian, though one author, Violet M Methley (b. 1882 in Kent), might have had some Australian connection. She is listed in AustLit, because, as a blogger writes, “she may have spent time in Australia, as many of her books are set on that continent”. Then again, as this blogger’s blog is “Tellers of Weird Tales”, Methley may just have had a vivid imagination! She has two stories in this volume, one being “Mademoiselle Miss: a story of the French Revolution”. (As little aside, this story is illustrated by H.M. Brock whose brother was C.E. Brock, famous for his Jane Austen illustrations.) Her other story is “Celia: A thrilling story”, which is set in the Hebrides.

Anyhow, the 26 stories are written pretty much 50:50 by male and female writers. None are known to me, but many were prolific writers in their day. Pleasingly, the illustrators are identified along with the authors in the table of contents. Most of the stories are fiction, and they include traditional “girls’ stories” like school stories, but there are also historical and adventure stories, and non-fiction, such as editor H. Darkin Williams’ travel piece, “On top of the world: Sun and ice at mid-summer on the heights of Switzerland” and naturalist Mortimer Batten’s “The adventure land of wild nature: And how YOU can become a Member of a Famous Camp Circle”. Batten’s heart is in the right place but how relevant were his “stories about hedgehogs, and stoats, and hares, and wildcats, and eagles, and deer …” to his Australian readers?

Of course, my next step was to see if the annual was written about in Australian newspapers, and it was, most often in end-of-year lists as a gift suggestion. Here are some of the mentions:

For softer tastes quieter themes are chosen; but the stories by Mrs. G. Vaizey, Katherine Newlin, Bessie Marchant, Doris Pocock, and others, are well written, and have nothing of the vapidity which was once thought a proper characteristic of fiction intended for girls [my emph]. – The Australasian (21 December 1912.

a very attractive and beautifully printed volume, with illustrations in colour and in black and white. It contains many short stories by writers popular with girls, and one complete book-length story, ‘The Girl from Nowhere,’ by Nancy M. Hayes. An excellent present for a girl. – Sunday Times, 13 December 1925.

… It has four color-plates, a profusion of other pictures, and as for the stories and reading matter, generally—well, a very high standard is reached. – The World’s News, 19 December 1925.

The “Australian Girl’s Annual” is another publication that puts the girls quite level with the boys in diversity of reading matter and illustration. It has all those features which girls like, and a lot of others that boys will turn to—on the quiet, of course [my emph]. It is really a very fine compilation of first-class serial and short stories. – The World’s News, 18 December 1926.

fills that very much-needed requirement of the girl-child who has passed the ‘toys’ standard, and is yet too young to be interested in the sentimentality of the average best seller in the fiction field, or carried beyond her age by the classics. – Sunday Times, 15 December 1929.

But what did the girls themselves think? Well, thanks to the letters section in some newspapers’ Children’s Pages, we do know something:

Dear Uncle Jeff … I have been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Australian Girl’s Annual.’ It is just the thing. – The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 10 October 1913.

Dear Aunt Mary … I had a book called “The Australian Girl’s Annual” given to me for my birthday. There are some nice stories in it. – Western Mail, 22 September 1916.

Dear Aunt Georgina … We got book prizes, and the name of my book is ‘”The Australian Girls’ Annual.” It has nice stories in it. – Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette 25 January 1930.

You can see how these Children’s Pages worked. Some of the correspondents even signed off “your niece”! These writers aren’t exactly effusive about the annual, but these were spontaneous comments in letters to a newspaper, so may not mean much.

Meanwhile, I would love to read what Moruzi found.

* Square brackets donate the lack of date on the volume.

Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe, Where the heart is (#BookReview)

I don’t normally review children’s books, particularly children’s picture books, but I do make exceptions, one being Irma Gold. I have multiple reasons for this. Irma Gold is local; she is one of the Ambassadors for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge; she writes across multiple forms (including, novels, short stories and children’s books, in all of which I’ve reviewed her); and, if you click my tag for her, you will get a sense of just how active she is as a writer, editor and supporter of literary culture, particularly in the ACT. Hence this exception!

But, there is another reason too, which is that Where the heart is not only a delightful book but it slots very nicely into her growing oeuvre. Before I discuss that, though, I’ll describe this, which is her most recent book. Gold explains on its opening page that it was inspired by the true story of Dindim, a Magellanic penguin which, in 2011, was washed up on an island village outside Rio de Janeiro. The bird had been caught up in an oil spill. The fisherman who found him, Joao, cleaned and cared for him until Dindim returned to the wild. However, ever since then, Dindim has returned, annually, to Joao to spend several months of the year with him. There are questions about where he goes, but in Gold’s story it is Patagonia. Patagonia is one of the theories, because it is a major breeding ground for these penguins.

This sort of detail, however, is not critical to the story. It is fiction after all. What is critical to the story is that it tells of the potentially disastrous impact of oil spills on animals. It also tells of the importance of wild animals being free. This is what Joao believed. He brought the penguin back to health and set him free. It’s just that the penguin had other ideas. It also tells of the friendship that can develop between humans and wild animals.

What makes this a gorgeous book is the way Gold tells the story. It’s simply told but the language is not condescending, and it naturally incorporates local culture. Joao and the penguin mend nets, eat sardine sandwiches, and go shopping together, with this “shopping” being at a village market stall. It’s also warm-hearted. It encourages us to think about kindness, tenderness and loyalty, making it a feel-good read. Yet, there is also a narrative arc that encompasses a variety of emotions, including a sense of fear and drama as Dindim journeys back.

Not far from Joao’s beach, the sky swelled and lightning jagged. Dindim rode waves and wondered if he would make it. He was exhausted.

A little bit of drama makes it fun to read aloud to littlies, which I look forward to doing when lockdowns end and I’m able to see our little grandson again!

However, this is a picture book, so for it to succeed the illustrations have to be good as well. Fortunately, they are. I think this is illustrator Susannah Crispe’s first book, though she has another coming out this year. I’m not surprised she has, because she has done a beautiful job with this one. The colours are bright and inviting, but are conveyed with a warmth and softness that support the story. This is nowhere more obvious than in the two facing pages that contain only penguins. The expected intense black-and-white of the penguins is there, yet muted, and the white space surrounding Dindim visually conveys the text’s description of the “ache” in Dindim’s heart. Crispe also incorporates lovely little details from nature in her illustrations, like hummingbirds, butterflies, turtles and albatrosses. These all support the story by adding to its sense of place, but they also create interest when reading to littlies. “Can you find the turtle”, etc!

What I’m saying, in other words, is that this picture book is just the right package.

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

And there I’ll leave it to return to my opening comment on Gold’s oeuvre, because I am seeing a pattern. The obvious one – from her previous picture book Megumi and the bear (my review) and The breaking (my review) – is her interest in wild animals, and in the relationship between humans and animals. Closely related to this is an interest in conservation, animal rights and the environment. And then – yes, there’s more – overlaying all of this is the importance of friendship, between humans, and between animals and humans. There’s a quiet joy in this, which is something Gold said, in a recent conversation, that she wanted to convey. I believe she has, and look forward to what comes next.

Challenge logo

Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe (illus.)
Where the heart is
Chatswood: EK Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781925820874

Monday musings on Australian literature: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Yes, you read right. This week’s Monday Musings on Australian Literature focuses on an award established by the Swedish government, but it is an international award. Established in 2002 to honour the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren (as you’ll have guessed), the prize is five million SEK, making it, says Wikipedia, the richest award in children’s literature and one of the richest literary prizes in the world.

The award, continues Wikipedia, “annually recognises one or more living people and extant institutions” for “their career contributions”, in the case of people, and for their long-term sustainable work, in the case of institutions. The winners should be “authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and promoters of reading” and their work should be “of the highest quality, and in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren.” The award’s aim “is to increase interest in children’s and young people’s literature, and to promote children’s rights to culture on a global level”.

Alert readers here will have seen it mentioned here before, most recently in my post on Alison Lester, because she has been nominated for the award. However, she’s not the only Australian to have been so listed, and in fact, Australians have won it.

Aussie winners

The first winner, in 2003, was Maurice Sendak, but in its short history, Australians have won twice: Sonya Hartnett in 2008 (whose adult novel Golden boys I’ve reviewed) and Shaun Tan in 2011 (whose little book Eric, from Tales of outer suburbia, I’ve reviewed.)

The Chinese paper, People’s Daily Online, reported Hartnett’s win, quoting the award jury as saying:

Sonya Hartnett is one of the major forces for renewal in modern young adult fiction …


With psychological depth and a concealed yet palpable anger, she depicts the circumstances of young people without avoiding the darker sides of life. She does so with linguistic virtuosity and a brilliant narrative technique; her works are a source of strength. 

Shaun Tan, Eric cover

Reporting Tan’s win, Claire Armitstead of The Guardian wrote that

Larry Lempert, the chair of the jury, described Tan as “a masterly visual storyteller” whose minutely detailed pictorial narratives touched everyone, regardless of age. “His pictorial worlds constitute a separate universe where nothing is self-evident and anything is possible,” the citation says.

The Guardian article describes the prize as focusing on work with “a profound respect for democratic values and human rights”. That certainly describes Shaun Tan’s work, and ethos, as I know them.

Announcing the British contingent for the 2020 award, The Guardian quoted the jury’s citation for British past-winner Philip Pullman (whose His Dark Materials series Daughter Gums loved) for writing that

stands firmly on the side of young people, ruthlessly questioning authority and proclaiming humanism and the power of love whilst maintaining an optimistic belief in the child even in the darkest of situations

I rest my case – I think!

Some Aussie candidates

As far as I understand it, candidates are nominated by organisations around the world, but the winners are chosen by, quotes Wikipedia, “a jury with broad expertise in international children’s and young adult literature, reading promotion and children’s rights. The 12 members include authors, literary critics and scholars, illustrators and librarians. One member represents Astrid Lindgren’s family.”

Book cover

I’ve already said that Alison Lester has been shortlisted (or, announced as a “candidate” as they call it), but given our strong children’s literature culture here, many Australians have been shortlisted over the years, too many, in fact for me to discuss in detail.

Children’s/young adult author John Marsden was nominated in 2008. I enjoyed reading his books when my children were young, and was impressed by the fearlessness with which he tackled some difficult issues, including domestic violence in his 1987 novel, So much to tell you.

Some authors have been listed multiple times. For example, Jeannie Baker, Ursula Dubosarsky, Susanne Gervay and Margo Lanagan were candidates for the 2020 Award, and are again for 2021. The specialty Indigenous Australian publisher Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation are also in this 2020 and 2021 group.

I know and have read works from some of these writers and organisations, but not all. However, it’s clear how and why Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation would meet the prize’s interest in “democratic values and human rights”.

I could go on finding more Aussies to tell you about, but I think you get the gist. This is an impressive, and significant award in both value and what it is trying to achieve (or so it seems to me).

Are you familiar with it?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Alison Lester

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?

Nhulunbuy Primary School, I saw we saw (#BookReview)

Book coverA week or so ago, I wrote a post to commemorate this year’s Indigenous Literacy Day. In that post I noted that the book I saw we saw was going to be launched at the Sydney Opera House that day. It was written and illustrated by students from Nhulunbuy Primary School, up on the Gove Peninsula, and a number of them were going to read and perform from the original Yolŋu Matha language version, Nha Nhunu Nhanjal?, at the launch. I ordered my own copy of the book that day.

The books – the original Yolŋu Matha version, launched at this year’s Garma Festival, and the English version – were published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which describes itself as a “national book industry charity”. Their aim is to “reduce the disadvantage experienced by children in remote indigenous communities in Australia, by lifting literacy levels and instilling a lifelong love of reading”. These two books came out of their Community Literacy Project, and were produced through a series of workshops with illustrator Ann Haddon and teacher-librarian Ann James, with local Yolŋu elders helping develop the story.

So, the English-version book. It begins with a brief introduction telling us that the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land represent one of the largest indigenous groups in Australia. Their main language is Yolŋu Matha, which, it explains, has twelve sub-languages, each with its own name. It also tells us that, for most Yolngu children, English is their second (or even third or fourth) language. I saw we saw, the English language version of their book, is, by definition, written in English, but it uses words from the Dhaŋa sublanguage to name the actual “things” seen. This is a lovely, effective way of introducing indigenous language to non-indigenous people (as recommended at the Identity session of the Canberra Writers Festival). However, this approach also creates a bit of a challenge for the reader – what is being seen, and how do you pronounce it?

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Beach, north-east Arnhem Land

Well, there is quite a bit of help for us in this. First, the text and illustrations provide a lot of clues. “I see a waṯu grab a stick from a man” is accompanied by quite a busy drawing with birds, fish, turtle, jellyfish, and a person fishing, but there is also a picture of a dog with a stick in its mouth. So, waṯu is dog! Sometimes, however, it’s not so easy to get it exactly right, either because of the busy-ness of the picture or the (delightful) naiveté of the children’s drawings. You can usually guess, but can be uncertain, nonetheless. In these cases, the illustration on the last page of the story, which shows most of the creatures with their English names, provides most of the answers. Finally, there is also the online Yolŋu dictionary which, in fact, I used to obtain the necessary diacritics since, funnily enough, they are not available on my Apple keyboard!

That’s the “what is being seen” problem solved, but what about the pronunciation issue? How would you pronounce ŋurula (seagull)? Or mirinyiŋu (whale)? This one is easily solved. At the front of the book is a QR code. You hold your tablet or smart phone camera over that to be taken to a website where you can hear the story read by child-speakers of the language. The whole story only takes 3 minutes or so. Of course, being able to then say the words yourself will take some practice.

The story itself is simple, traditional picture-book style. The pages alternate between “I saw …” and “We saw …”, with each “I saw – We saw” pair forming a rhyming couplet:

I saw a maranydjalk leaping high
We saw a ŋurula soaring in the sky

It’s a delightful book. The rhymes are comfortable, not forced; the illustrations are appealing, particularly to young people; and story introduces readers to the rich natural environment of Arnhem Land region. It also conveys the pride the young authors and illustrators have in their country. It would be a wonderful book to use in primary school classrooms. It’s certainly one I look forward to reading to Grandson Gums when he’s a little older (and I’ve practised my Yolŋu Matha).

You can purchase this book directly from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, for $24.99.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeNhulunbuy Primary School students, with Ann James and Ann Haddon
I saw we saw
Broadway: Indigenous Literacy Foundation, 2019
ISBN: 9780648155492


Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s first Children’s Laureates

Australian Children's Laureate logo

Logo Courtesy: Australian Children's Laureate

It has been so busy here at Monday Musings that I am late with this announcement … but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making! On December 6th, 2011, the idea of an Australian Children’s Laureate was inaugurated with the appointment of not one, but two, children’s authors to the role. They are

Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor

and they will be our laureates for two years, 2012-2013. I understand that the idea of a Children’s Laureate was instigated in the United Kingdom in 1999. In 2008, the Library of Congress inaugurated a similar role, but called theirs National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. What’s in a name, eh? The main point is that these initiatives promote reading among children. The Australian program is organised by the Australian Children’s Literature Alliance and on their Laureate website they describe the laureate’s role as follows:

The Children’s Laureate will be an Australian author and/or illustrator of children’s and/or youth literature who is making a significant contribution to the children’s literature canon of this country. The Laureate will be appointed on a biennial basis and will promote the transformational power of reading, creativity and story in the lives of young Australians, while acting as a national and international ambassador for Australian children’s literature.

So, a little about Australia’s inaugural laureates …

Alison Lester (b. 1952)

I became aware of writer-illustrator Lester through my own children when, like most parents who are readers, I sought out good books to read aloud to them. Lester is an author/illustrator best known for her picture books, though she has also written a couple of young adult novels. My favourites were two of her picture books, Imagine (1988) and Rosie sips spiders (1989), and the “chapter” book (as new readers like to call them) Thingnapped, written by Robin Klein and illustrated by Lester. She 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.)

Boori Monty Pryor (b. 1950)

I did not know of Boori Monty Pryor – writer, artist, performer, storyteller – when my children were growing up. In fact, I only heard of him a couple of years ago when a friend lent me his memoir Maybe tomorrow which I reviewed in the early days of this blog. I came across him again last year when he was on the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards panel I attended. He impressed me – in both “meetings” – with his strength, his humour, and his ability and willingness to overcome his anger at the way his people have been treated. He’s an indigenous Australian, and he’s committed to forging good relationships among all Australians while at the same time shoring up traditional culture and values among indigenous people. No easy task, but his appointment to the laureate role is testament to his achievements.

To conclude, I must note that our inaugural laureates are a woman and an indigenous Australian. I’m sure there are many worthy white male contenders out there, but I believe that Lester and Pryor were not token appointments. They are worthy recipients who have proven track records in the quality and significance of their contributions to encouraging reading, story-telling and self-expression among Australian children.

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

The muddle-headed wombat by Ruth Park, book cover

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!

The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs

May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie

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.

Monday musings on Australian Literature: Guest post from Louise of A Strong Belief in Wicker

This week’s Monday Musings is my second Guest Post in the series. It comes from the lovely Louise of A Strong Belief in Wicker. I first “met” Louise through an online bookgroup and we quickly discovered that we lived within a few hours’ drive of each other. Consequently, we have also “actually” met several times (always, to date, through her visiting my city. I must reverse the direction one day.) Louise is a warm and generous soul. She picked up (funny that!) on my love of Jane Austen, and so over the years I have been the lucky recipient of Jane Austen related gifts and of links to things Austen, the most recent being to a review of a children’s book about Mr Darcy, the duck! I value her friendship … and so was thrilled when she was thrilled to be asked to write a guest post. Her blog is wide ranging, but has a focus on children’s literature, and so that is what she has brought us today:

Five Australian Children’s Literature Authors/Illustrators

I was so incredibly excited to have Whispering Gums ask me to write a Guest Post that I immediately had No Ideas! After all Aussie kids lit is so vast! There is such a broad range of picture books, books for young readers, and YA, that it’s hard to know where to start. Of course there are some internationally known superstars writing books for young Aussies and kids around the world. But you don’t really need my help to find your way to Mem Fox, Sonya Hartnett, Shaun Tan or Markus Zusak. Not that their work isn’t worth highlighting. Of course it is.  It’s just that they are justifiably already very famous. In Australia, and around the world.

So I thought I would highlight some authors and illustrators who I’ve read and loved recently – and who deserve to be much more well-known.

Freya Blackwood

A local favourite for me as Freya lives in my town in NSW. I’ve been aware of her work for several years now and love her soft, warm illustrative style. She has an artistic heritage – a few years ago our local art gallery had a wonderful exhibition on her artist grandfather, Harold Greenhill’s work. Freya initially worked in film production and worked on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, and then started off illustrating classic Australian works such as Waltzing Matilda and The Man from Snowy River. She has since worked with many of the biggest names in children’s picture books – Australians such as Libby Gleeson and Margaret Wild, and international authors like Roddy Doyle. In 2010 she won the incredibly prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal. The book she illustrated with Roddy Doyle, Her Mother’s Face, is just perfect, so incredibly moving, I think it is one of my favourite picture books ever. The story of a young girl whose mother died when she was 3. Her father is immobile within his grief and the girl wonders if she has forgotten her mother’s face. Cover blurbs are rarely correct, but I think this book is indeed “a balm to the heart, and a feather in the knickers.” Freya’s current book is the equally fabulous Look, A Book written by Libby Gleeson.

Gary Crew

Is a prolific, highly regarded, critically acclaimed Australian author who doesn’t get nearly enough mainstream recognition. He has written picture books (mainly for older children due to their content and themes) and YA books. I’ve only read his picture books so far, but there are so many gems to be found. He has written two books that were illustrated by Shaun Tan – these are extraordinary. Memorial about a tree planted to mark the end of World War I, and The Viewer, a rather grim view of world history, masterfully illustrated by Tan. Gary Crew has written a brilliant series of books dealing with endangered or extinct animals such as I Saw Nothing: The Extinction of the Thylacine and I Did Nothing: The Extinction of the Paradise Parrot. His books for older readers are apparently even darker still, and some horror titles, which isn’t really my genre of choice, but I would still trust Gary Crew to take me there. Gary lives and works in Queensland, and is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Next year he will be a State Ambassador for the National Year of Reading.

Jackie French Waltz for Matilda

Bookcover for A waltz for Matilda (Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia)

Jackie French

She really is quite a big name. Her subject range is vast. Picture books about wombats and royal underwear. Nonfiction books about keeping chooks in your back yard. And a rapidly increasing range of amazing children’s fiction. She really is extraordinarily prolific. She has written more than 140 books, there really has to be something for everybody. I devoured her most recent book Nanberry a month or two ago. An incredible book that brings the first years of white settlement in Sydney to vivid life. It’s a cracking read, and a fascinating glimpse into our past. My son’s teacher has been reading his Year 5 class her Waltz for Matilda as part of their Australian history studies this year. It has taken the better part of the school year, but has held the children’s interest throughout. Jackie French lives and works in the Araluen Valley in Southern NSW.

John Heffernan

I came across John Heffernan’s extraordinary first book Spud accidentally a few years ago. And I’m so thankful that I did. It’s a remarkable, compelling page turner that I picked up after midnight one night on a whim, and couldn’t put down until it was finished, sometime after 1.30 am.  A tremendously powerful story of a blue heeler called Spud. Spud starts out her life in the city when blue heelers are fashionable pets, but she chewed too much and blue heelers fell out of fashion and she was sent to an animal shelter where a kindly old farmer buys her. Spud’s life changes when she travels into the country to go the farm and become a working dog. There are some graphic acts of both human and canine violence in this book, making it suitable for older, sturdier kids. Just thinking about the book makes me want to reread it, and this time get to read the whole series. John Heffernan is an author and farmer, working and writing in Northern NSW. He has written 24 books from picture books to YA. His picture book My Dog is a powerful, sad and very moving book for the older child dealing with ethnic cleansing.

Martine Murray

I have no idea how Martine Murray escaped my gaze until this year – but she did. Until I came upon The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley. I love books written in a quirky first person voice, and Cedar B. Hartley gives us that in spades. Cedar’s is a wonderful, observant funny tale of a young girl growing up in Melbourne and doing some circus tricks. There is a great followup book too – The Slightly Bruised Glory of Cedar B. Hartley. Interestingly, I read that Martine Murray feels another of her books, How to Make a Bird, to be her best. I haven’t read that one yet. There is always something more to look forward to. Martine Murray is an author and illustrator who lives in Melbourne.