Australian children’s books

To complete Book Week we have a short recount of some of the classic children’s literature that been created – some of it well before federation in 1901. Titles such as The Magic Pudding , Seven Little Australians and and the Gum Nut Babies will be instantly familiar to most while Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy is still studied today as a text in some schools.

Australia has a strong tradition of children’s books. A growing number of writers and illustrators are adding to the rich reserve of high quality stories that accompany babies, toddlers, children and teenagers through their growing years. Reading adventures can also be shared with friends, sisters, brothers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and librarians.

Australian children’s literature rests on the enthusiasm and talents of many individuals, including a great many more Australian writers, illustrators and books than can be listed in this article. A selected few are mentioned as a starting point to this rich and vibrant subject.

Once upon a time

Original Draft of Seven Little Australians State Library, NSW
Original Draft of Seven Little Australians
State Library, NSW

The earliest books published for children were mostly instructive tales – stories to teach children how to behave. Australia’s earliest known children’s book, A Mother’s Offering to her Children by Charlotte Barton (1841), fitted this category.

By the late 19th century, Australian writers began to focus on stories showing real life experiences and everyday adventures, such as settling in Australia and family life. Ethel Turner is a well-known writer of that time – her highly successful book, Seven Little Australians , was published in 1894.

Writing into the 20th century

Some children’s books created early in the 20th century are now thought of as Australian classics.

Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding and May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie were both first published in 1918 and are still available in bookshops today.

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
The Gumnut Babies by May Gibbs

These were followed by a growth in fantasy through fairy stories such as the finely illustrated books of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Annie Rentoul while Mary Grant Bruce published her popular Billabong series between 1910 and 1942.

Writers from other genres have also ventured into children’s literature, for example well-known poet A B (Banjo) Paterson with The Animals Noah Forgot (1933). Paterson’s verse Waltzing Matilda, illustrated by Desmond Digby, won the 1971 Children’s Book Council Picture Book of The Year Award. Antarctic and World War II photographer Frank Hurley won the 1948 Children’s Book Council Book of The Year for Shackleton’s Argonauts.

Australian children’s books gathered force and inspiration through the work of later 20th century writers such as Nan Chauncy and Ivan Southall. Publisher Walter McVitty describes the ‘special hold the land itself has had on Australian writers and illustrators’ and highlights the work of Hesba Brinsmead, Mavis Thorpe Clark, Mary Elwyn Patchett and Colin Thiele.

Changes in technology and society brought changes to children’s literature in the 1960s, with stories beginning to tackle serious and sometimes controversial issues. Teenage fiction gained popularity, and Australian writers including Ruth ParkEleanor SpenceSimon FrenchVictor KelleherGillian Rubinstein and Frank Willmott have created books for this age group.

Books from the Children's room in our museum
Early children’s books from the Children’s room in our museum. Note the ‘interesting’ titles.


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