23 Oct 2008

Literature for Little Australians

Image from the book Dot and the Kangaroo 1899

If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps; a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to 'Sandford and Merton'or similar standard juvenile works. Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.

In England, and America, and Africa, and Asia, the little folks maybe paragons of virtue, I know little about them.

But in Australia a model child is - I say it not without thankfulness - an unknown quantity.

It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy, of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together, and the children's spirits not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years' sorrowful history.

There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children.

Often the light grows dull and the bright colouring fades to neutral tints in the dust and heat of the day. But when it survives play-days and school-days, circumstances alone determine whether the electric sparkle shall go to play will-o'-the-wisp with the larrikin type, or warm the breasts of the spirited, single-hearted, loyal ones who alone can "advance Australia."

Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians,1894

As long ago as 1894 Ethel Turner knew that Australian children were different - different because the land they live in is different. Yet more than 100 years later, the only Australian book in the October 2008 Nielsen BookScan is Andy Griffith's Pencil of Doom!. American authors, Christopher Paoline and Stephenie Meyer, make up eight of the top ten.

What does that say about Australia's national identity in the minds of our kids? Late last week the media announced that school children will study more Australian Classic books in the new Australian National Curriculum. A good start, maybe, but I've yet to see any reference to Australian children's books.

Children's literature plays a significant role in our identity. The books we read and the friends we have met in them, become part of our family's collective imagination. We play pooh sticks at the local bridge, but Winnie the Pooh was English; we find things "curiouser and curiouser", but Alice was English. The Wizard, Dorothy, the Winged Monkeys and the Quadlings are part of our everyday play - and yet Kansas is in America. Not that there is anything wrong with these books. These English and American classics are truly world classics, and during our years of Ambleside Online we'll study a great many of them, but what of Australian classics?

It's even hard to find a list of what these Australian Children's Classics are. What are the books that define who we are as Australians - and what do they teach?

Charlotte Barton is the author of the first Australian children's book ever produced - A Mother's Offering to Her Children. The book takes the form of conversations between four children, Clara, Emma, Julius and Lucy, and their mother, on a large variety of subjects - Australian birds and animals, the customs of the Aborigines and other interesting and unusual topics.

Charlotte used her book as a means of teaching and guiding all of her children, and we too can learn the most extraordinary things about Australian feelings and opinions back in 1841 by reading this book:
Clara - Were they cannibals, Mamma?
Mrs. S - Yes, my dear. They ate the eyes and cheeks of the shipwrecked people. Thisthey do with the idea that it increases their desire for the blood of the white people. Clara - What dreadful sanguinary creatures. It makes one shudder even to hear of it!

Ethel Pedley's opinions of the Aborigines is far removed from Charlotte Barton's - in Dot and the Kangaroo published 60 years later in 1899, the kangaroo anthropomorphically says this:
"The Black Humans kill and devour us; but they, even, are not so terrible as the Whites, who delight in taking our lives, and torturing us just as an amusement. Every creature in the bush weeps that they should have come to take the beautiful bush away from us."

"If ever get home, I'll tell everyone of how you unhappy creatures live in fear, and suffer, and ask them not to kill you poor things any more," Dot vows in reply.

Ethel Pedley also displays a interest in environmentalism - well before today's Green Movement. The book's dedication reads:

To the
in the hope of enlisting their sympathies
for the many
beautiful, amiable, and frolicsome creatures
of their fair land,
whose extinction, through ruthless destruction,
is surely being accomplished.

May Gibb's Snugglepot and Cuddlepie published in 1918 also begins with a strong environmental message:

Humans, please be kind to all Bush Creatures and don't pull flowers up by the roots.
And in Scotty in Gumnut Land 1941:
To all Children who love and try to understand animals and Birds, and small Creatures. (May they learn to see the unfairness, and unloveliness, of caged wings.)
The images in Australian children's books may be stereotypes - but they define who we are as Australians, of our history, and how we got were we are today. Let us not remain part of Britain nor become part of America. We are Australian let us be proud of that and celebrate.
I am / We are Australian

We are one but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice
I am
You are
We are Australian

I came from the dream time
From the dusty red soil plains
I am the ancient heart
The keeper of the flame
I stood upon the rocky shore
I watched the tall ships come
For forty thousand years I'd been
The first Australian

I came upon the prison ship
Bowed down by iron chains
I cleared the land, endured the lash
And waited for the rains
I'm a settler, I'm a farmer's wife
In a dry and barren run
A convict then free man
I became Australian

I'm the daughter of a digger
Who sought the mother lode
The girl became a woman
On a long and dusty road
I'm a child of the depression
I saw the good times come
I'm a bushy
I'm a battler
I am Australian

I'm a teller of stories
I'm a singer of songs
I am Albert Namatjira
And I paint the ghostly gums
I'm Clancy on his horse
I'm Ned Kelly on the run
I'm the one who waltzed Matilda
I am Australian

I'm the hot wind from the desert
I'm the black soil of the plains
I'm the mountains and the valleys
I'm the drought and flooding rains
I am the rock, I am the sky
The rivers when they run
The spirit of the great land
I am Australian

1987 Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful article. (By the way, you've got Ethel Pedley noted as the author of Seven Little Australians at the end of the quote.)

  2. Argh Pam! I'm have to go back and fix it now!! Thanks for that...

  3. Hello Jeanne! I have just found your blog via Richelle's, and am so glad! I was born in Australia, lived there til I was 16 (my family moved abroad at this time). I have only been back once since, at 21-and am now 32!I miss the unique wildlife, climate and how it has evolved the people inhabiting it. I am hoping to home-school my 3 1/2 year old daughter and have so missed the Australian literature to share with her. I probably have one dog-eared edition of Blinky Bill from my childhood..and that's it! Thank you so much for these amazing works of literature mentioned-I have missed them. Iwill be following your blog avidly :o)


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