Between 1905 and 1913, May Gibbs received illustrating assignments from various publishers and newspapers in London and Perth, including Western Australia's leading newspaper, the Western Mail. At the same time, she also began to write and illustrate her own stories for children, however had little success in attracting publishers with her own work initially.
In 1909 Gibbs completed 18 ink drawings which she bound together to form Nursery Rhymes from the Bush. Featuring comical rhymes and illustrations, the book was an Antipodean re-telling of classic nursery rhymes. She could not, however, interest British publishers in the work at the time. Another early unpublished work John Dory – his story, set in an underwater fantasy world, was offered to publishers without success. In these early works she experimented with giving animals human characteristics. She later re-worked the main character of John Dory into Little Obelia and further adventures of Ragged Blossom (1921).
Gibbs supported herself to live in Sydney through various commissions from publishers, designing covers for magazines such as the Sydney Mail and commercial work. During the First World War, she designed a series of popular postcards and bookmarks for soldiers overseas.
Mimie and Wog
"Hoppy called out 'Open your eyes', and there they were in a wonderful strange country - very wild with lovely flowers and such a blue sky."
- Mimie & Wog [unpublished] by May Gibbs, 1910. MLMSS 2049/8/19
May Gibbs' unpublished manuscript Mimie and Wog: their adventures in Australia was written under the pseudonym Silvia Hood in 1910. The story follows a little girl, her dog, a flying kangaroo called ‘Hoppy’, and their adventures in the Australian bush where they encounter all manner of native animals, a roaring bushfire and Aboriginal people. The Australian setting however, was rejected by English publishers as lacking audience appeal.
Undeterred, Gibbs reprised the characters of Mimie and Wog, removing them from the Australian bush and depositing them in Edwardian London in a fantasy world inhabited by chimney pot people, scraggy cats and fog-bound streets. By transferring them to an English setting, May successfully attracted the attention of publishers both in London and New York.
Re-titled About Us and published in London in 1912, May Gibbs' first published book remains largely unknown to Australian readers more familiar with her trademark gumnut babies.