Date : October 20, 2018
Ask any Australian child who their favourite author is and they’ll inevitably respond with an Australian author. But in today’s global landscape, is Australian children’s literature still relevant? We definitely think so!
Australian Children’s Literature is a relatively modern genre, and yet the diversity and amount of change wrought in its young history is surprising. From tales with a still distinctively British voice to Indigenous Australian narratives and stories with instantly recognisable Australian characters and landscapes, Australian children’s literature has gone through remarkable periods of change. It’s relevance in the lives of every day Australian children still holds just as true today as it did when May Gibbs and Norman Lindsay’s iconic characters were first released upon an unsuspecting public. Read on to find out more about the truly wonderful genre that is Australian children’s literature!
A short history of Australian children’s literature
Prior to the likes of authors like Ethel Turner, May Gibbs, Norman Lindsay, Jimmy Bancks and Dorothy Wall, non-indigenous children in the 19th century were only read stories written by European authors. Until the late 1880s, when Ethel Turner herself published ‘Seven Little Australians’, many Australians still considered themselves British. Culture to these Australians wasn’t something locally produced – instead, it was something that was imported from Europe. With the turn of the century and Australia’s federation, new stories from a new country began to emerge. It’s here that Australian children’s literature is born.
The Australian landscape, with its glorious gum and wattle trees, brilliantly coloured parrots, iconic animals like kangaroos, koalas and wombats, and the dichotomy of both the harshness of this landscape and the beauty it inspired, is a character in its own right in early Australian children’s literature. It’s this very landscape that inspired Ethel Turner and May Gibbs to create their wonderful characters – children who were allowed to run barefoot, climb trees, scamper across beaches and befriend bush animals in Turner’s ‘Seven Little Australians’, and cheeky bush fairies inspired by Gibb’s love of the Blue Mountains. These stories would come to form the backbone of Australian children’s literature in the decades that followed.
From the well of Turner and Gibbs, Australian classics like ‘Blinky Bill’, ‘Ginger Meggs’, and ‘The Magic Pudding’ burst onto the scene. The characters in these stories are cheeky, loveable, and rebellious – a definite move away from the previous Victorian standard. It’s something that has stood the test of time – just look at the characters Australian children love today. Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Pamela Allen, Jackie French, and Mem Fox are just a few of the Australian children’s authors who have consistently created and wowed audiences with loveable and iconic Australian characters since the 1980s. Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton are two of Australia’s most beloved children’s authors today, and their stories are packed with kids who fit this model. Australians always love a good laugh and our children are no different.
The 1970s saw an influx of Indigenous Australian stories into the Australian children’s literary landscape. Indigenous Australians have always had a rich history of oral storytelling, and the inclusion of Indigenous Australians into greater society also meant the inclusion of many of their beautiful stories. With stories detailing myths about the Rainbow Serpent, the creation of well-known landscapes, and other narratives from various Indigenous peoples around the country, the wealth and beauty of these stories is timeless. With authors such as Sally Morgan, Boori Monty Prior and Bronwyn Bancroft, Indigenous Australian children’s literature is in safe hands.
What makes Australian children’s literature such a driving force in Australian culture?
If you’re an Australian child, having access to characters you can relate to is obviously incredibly important. It allows for a child to be immersed in the story, to feel a sense of kinship, and to develop empathy with the characters and their trials and tribulations. The unique language used – words and phrases used every day like ‘rack off’, ‘togs’, ‘sticky beak’, ‘lollies’, ‘ute’ – all act to present Australian children with the familiar, while introducing new concepts, themes and ideas creatively. Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths, and Aaron Blabey are all modern Australian authors who are known for the use of iconic Australian slang and language within their quirky, funny stories. Telling stories set in uniquely Australian settings is also incredibly important for kids. Whether set in the Australian bush, with its gum trees and iconic animals, or at the tuckshop in a primary school, the beach, or any number of recognisable locations, Australian spaces act as a unifying aspect in literature. It doesn’t matter what background you’re from – every Australian child can recognise these spaces, can recall instantly what they look, feel and smell like. It’s something Australian children’s literature has always done successfully.
Australian children’s literature has also been incredibly effective at promoting diversity. As already mentioned, the late 1970s saw an eruption of Indigenous Australian stories onto the children’s literature scene, with Dick Goobalathadin Roughsey and Percey Trazars winning the children’s literature prize for their story, ‘The Quinkins’. Since then, Indigenous Australian stories have been a key voice in Australian children’s literature. Sally Morgan is a great example of an Indigenous Australian writer who has successfully written dozens of Indigenous stories for Australian children. The artwork in these stories is both instantly recognisable and brilliantly colourful, and the stories themselves give children of all backgrounds insight into a unique part of Australian culture and identity. It also gives children the opportunity to explore ideas and culture they might not be a part of themselves.
Authors like Anh Do provide stories familiar to many Australians – the idea of coming to this country from another shore, somewhere vastly different, and growing up ‘other’. His stories give a voice to children who experience their Australia in a uniquely different way. Mem Fox’s recent ‘I’m Australian Too’, about refugees and immigrants who move to Australia and adopt it as their home, also gives children who have never experienced these things a thoughtful and empathetic understanding of what it means to be Australian. Through stories, these ideals are promoted as just another part of Australian life.
Australian children’s literature is a glorious world of humour, landscape, and complex characters. From its humble origins at the beginning of the century to the intricate culture of Indigenous Australia, it is a multifaceted genre built upon the homes and dreams of a multicultural nation. It provides Australian children with a wonderful form of escapism, yes, but also sets down ideals and morals that even its adults can aspire to.
For more on Australian children’s literature and the wonderful stories of May Gibbs, be sure to visit our news page!
This Contribution is from Librarian Bec
Right now, Librarian Bec’s hard at work at your local library, sharing a passion for reading with little people and big. Bec writes about inspiring little readers and embracing lovely literature.