10 classic Australian children’s books

25 Jan 2018

To celebrate the centenary of The Magic Pudding we reflect on the best picture books written in Australia over the past 100 years. From gumnut babies to confused wombats to magic beaches, these classic books capture the Australian way of life.

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The Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918)
Written and illustrated by May Gibbs

May Gibbs’ iconic classic about two miniature babies who live in gumnuts was one of the first books to portray Australian bush life and characters. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie long to see a human and set off on an adventure through the bush, meeting friends and foes (including the evil Banksia Men) along the way.

Gibbs was inspired for her bush fairy tale by the natural beauty of the Blue Mountains, beginning her book with an environmental message: ‘Humans please be kind to all bush creatures and don’t pull flowers up by the roots’.

So beloved are Snugglepot and Cuddlepie that they have featured on postcards, bookmarks, calendars and postage stamps, as well as being adapted into a musical, stage show and even a 1988 ballet (composed by Victorian Opera’s own Richard Mills).

The Magic Pudding (1918) 
Written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay

The legend goes that Norman Lindsay wrote The Magic Pudding to win an argument with a friend that children would rather read about food than fairies. Set in the Australian bush it’s the tale of three friends – koala Bunyip Bluegum, sailor Bill Barnacle and penguin Sam Sawnoff – who must save their ill-tempered, never-ending pudding from some determined Pudding Thieves. It encapsulates the Aussie notion of mateship with archetypal bushman characters and a good-natured mockery of authority.

In line with the food theme, the book is divided into ‘slices’ rather than chapters. Filled with rhymes and short songs, it proved perfect fodder for an operatic adaptation by Victorian Opera in 2013, which returns in 2018 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the book. Albert the Pudding and his friends are also immortalised in a sculpture by Louis Laumen in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.

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The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill (1939)
Written and illustrated by Dorothy Wall

When it comes to great Australian characters it’s hard to go past mischievous Blinky Bill with his sling shot and red dungarees. An Aussie larrikin with little respect for the law, Blinky Bill has many adventures with his bush friends Splodge the kangaroo, Flap the platypus and his mentor Mr Wombat (or Wombo as Blinky prefers to call him).

Never out of print in Australia, The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill includes the book that began it all Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian (1933), plus Blinky Bill Grows Up (1934) and Blinky Bill and Nutsy (1937).

Based on stories Dorothy Wall told her son, Blinky Bill also carries a conservationist moral imagined in a time when over a million koalas were hunted for their fur. Blinky Bill was the hero of both a 1990s TV series and animated film, as well as his own postage stamp in 1985. He returned to the big screen in CGI in 2015.

The Muddle-Headed Wombat (1962)
Written by Ruth Park, illustrated by Noela Young

The Muddle-Headed Wombat started life as an ABC radio show in the 1950s, becoming a series of books in the 1960s. The protagonist is a not-so-bright wombat who is prone to spoonerisms and always getting into trouble. His loyal friends – helpful, sensible Mouse and vain, bossy Tabby Cat – accompany him on his befuddled adventures.

The Wombat’s jumbling of words and upside-down view of the world creates many laugh-out-loud moments for young readers. Despite squabbles along the way, the book teaches that through the loyalty and tolerance they can conquer any situation together.

The Muddle-Headed Wombat continued his adventures with a series of sequels which put him in new environments and situations from school to the holidays, from the treetops to the snow.

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The Rainbow Serpent (1975)
Written and illustrated by Dick Roughsey

Generations of Australian schoolchildren learnt about the Aboriginal Dreamtime through The Rainbow Serpent. This Aboriginal story of creation, passed down through oral histories, tells of the Rainbow Serpent (Goorialla) who comes from beneath the earth to create mountains and gorges, rivers and creeks as he makes his way across the land.

Dick Roughsey (Goobalathaldin) was a member of Lardil Indigenous people from Mornington Island, Queensland and a leading Aboriginal artist. In The Rainbow Serpent he combines a European painting style with patterns and motifs from the ancient art traditions of his people. His illustrations depict Indigenous life, magical Dreamtime creatures and outback landscapes, capturing the colours of the Australian land.

Winner of the Australian Picture Book of the Year in 1976.

Possum Magic (1983)
Written by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas

The Magic Pudding is not the only book to combine food and distinctly Australian characters. In this much-loved picture book about two possums, Grandma Poss uses bush magic to make Hush invisible and protect her from the dangers of the Australian bush. When Hush wants to be seen again and Grandma Poss can’t remember how to reverse the spell, they take a culinary journey to the capital cities to eat Australian food, including Vegemite sandwiches, pavlova and lamingtons.

A very Australian book, Possum Magic continues to be a best-seller despite being grounded in a distinct time and place. Emerging from a period of increased nationalism, Fox throws in references to 1980s Australia including Flo Bjelke-Petersen’s famous pumpkin scones and the opening of Australia’s first casino in Hobart. The iconic illustrations featured on $1 and $2 collector coins released by the Royal Australian Mint in August 2017.

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Wombat Stew (1984)
Written by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Pamela Lofts

When a cunning dingo captures a wombat to turn him into ‘gooey, brewy, yummy, chewy, wombat stew’, his native animal friends come to the rescue. A platypus, emu, blue-tongue lizard and koala all provide suggestions on how the dingo can improved his stew by adding items from the bush including mud, feathers, flies, slugs, bugs and gumnuts. A perfect example of how too many cooks spoil the stew!

Children delight in the gross-out nature of this ‘bush tucker’ tale and chanting along to ‘wombat stew’ rhyme. The realistic yet cartoon-like illustrations beautifully bring to life the jocular animals of the Australian bush. Not only are the bush animal friends smart enough to trick the dingo, they also helped promote road safety in New South Wales, featuring in a campaign for children. Wombat Stew spawned an actual cookbook for children with easy-to-make recipes (without the additions of slugs or bugs).

Animalia (1986)
Written and illustrated by Graeme Base

By the mid-1980s half of all children’s books published in Australia were picture books and Animalia is perhaps the most exquisite example of them all. An alphabet and puzzle book filled with alliteration, intricately detailed illustrations and hidden features. Each page belongs to a letter of the alphabet from ‘An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding an Angry Alligator’ to ‘Zany Zebras Zigzagging in Zinc Zeppelins’.

Children have been known to pore over the book for hours, searching the illustrations for animals and objects of each letter and a picture of Graeme Base as child.

It took Graeme Base over three years to create Animalia and it has since sold over three million copies worldwide.

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Magic Beach (1990)
Written and illustrated by Alison Lester

After many Australian bush tales, it is only fitting that the beach should make an appearance. Magic Beach, inspired by Alison Lester’s childhood trips to Walkerville in south-eastern Victoria, captures the moments of discovery at the beach, celebrating children’s imaginations.

Shifting between realism and fantasy, an ordinary beach activity turns into something magical on the very next page. Splashing in the waves becomes riding on wild, white horses and building sandcastles transforms into defending castles from encroaching dragons. Awarded Australian Children’s Laureate in 2012-13, Lester is one of Australia’s most-loved children’s writers. Any one of her evocative picture books could have made this list, including My Farm, Imagine or Are We There Yet?

Diary of a Wombat (2002)
Written by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley

Fair to surmise by now that wombats are a very popular character in Australian children’s literature beloved for their cuddliness and laziness. However, Mothball the Wombat is not a slow or muddle-headed wombat. She has a busy week when humans move in on her territory disrupting her usual routine of sleeping, scratching and eating grass.

Much of the humour comes from the illustrations and the tongue-in-cheek observations of humans from the point of view of a wombat. Mothball develops an addiction to carrots and believes her humans need to be better trained when in reality she is the destructive one digging up the garden, turning over bins and fighting with doormats. A modern classic and international best-seller, Diary of a Wombat has attained cult status.

The Magic Pudding - The Opera was performed as part of Victorian Opera's Season 2018 and 2013.