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Illustration of a dense thicket of plants and the animals among it.

Stories in the sun

Maria Savvidis
The Library holds vast collections on Australian children’s book publishing in the ‘golden age’ of the 1970s and 80s.

A boom in Australian children’s picture books kicked off in the late 1960s and lasted well into the 1990s.

As many, if not more, titles were published during this time as in the previous 130 years.

Beginning with the appointment of Joyce Saxby at Angus & Robertson in 1965, publishing houses in Australia were hiring dedicated children’s editors.

Authors and illustrators no longer had to rely on international book fairs and overseas companies for access to publishing deals, while courses on children’s literature began appearing at universities and teachers’ colleges.

Illustration of a ferry on the river, with the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.
Illustration from Jonah and the Manly Ferry, 1983, courtesy Peter Gouldthorpe

This was a time of rapid social change in Australia. The established order was being questioned, and awareness of causes such as conservation, multiculturalism and Aboriginal rights was gathering momentum. Children’s books were one way to bring these themes to a broad audience of young readers and their families.

Technology was also in flux. Printing had progressed from three-colour line drawings to full-colour reproductions of a glorious array of artworks. Australian publishers enjoyed relatively easy access to these advances through high-quality colour printing in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Children’s picture books were becoming recognisably ‘Australian’ in their themes and characters. The trend for popularising (and personifying) the country’s native animals saw the creation of such classics as Kerry Argent and Rod Trinca’s One Woolly Wombat (1982), Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’ Possum Magic (1983), and Sheena Knowles and Rod Clement’s Edward the Emu (1988).

Life in Australian cities and the outback provided familiar visual references for children growing up under southern skies. In Jonah and the Manly Ferry (1983), Peter Gouldthorpe’s crisp linocuts capture a day at the beach that begins with a ferry trip on a shimmering Sydney Harbour. Julie Vivas conveys the nostalgia of 1930s Bondi through her delicate watercolours in Libby Hathorn’s The Tram to Bondi Beach (1981). In David Cox’s Bossyboots (1985), young Abigail takes on Flash Fred the bushranger on her way home via mailcoach to Narrabri, while Phoebe impresses the rural town of Mumblegum with her music and dancing in Quentin Hole’s 1987 story.

Drawing of an open tram filled with passengers.
Illustration from The Tram to Bondi Beach, 1981, courtesy Julie Vivas

The Dreamtime inspired the popular books of Goobalathaldin Dick Roughsey and Percy Tresize — among them Turramulli the Giant Quinkin (1982) and The Magic Firesticks (1983). Tresize often illustrated the backgrounds and Roughsey the figures. The close friendship of these author/illustrators and their mutual concern for preserving the Indigenous culture and stories of North Queensland sustained a 25-year collaboration. The Library holds the original draft illustrations for Turramulli the Giant Quinkin and The Magic Firesticks.

A painting of two Aboriginal boys in a lake, surrounded by water birds.
Illustration from Turramulli the Giant Quinkin, 1982, courtesy HarperCollins Publishers Australia and Copyright Agency

Publishers also found success by reviving nineteenth-century bush ballads and connecting new generations with an Australian literary tradition. The 1970s saw works by Banjo Paterson published as picture books, beginning with Waltzing Matilda. With illustrations by artist and theatre designer Desmond Digby, this book won the Australian Book Council Children’s Picture Book of the Year Award in 1971. That same year Digby’s friend Patrick White (two years away from his Nobel Prize in Literature) gifted all 18 panels of original artwork for Waltzing Matilda to the Library.

A man crouches in the midst of tall grass.
Illustration from Waltzing Matilda, 1970, courtesy HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Picture books increasingly delved into the inner world of childhood. Judy Zavos’ Murgatroyd’s Garden (1986) explores the consequences of living with your choices — with an abundant green twist in Drahos Zak’s detailed illustrations. Bob Graham’s The Wild (1986) touches on themes of freedom, belonging and loss when a beloved family pet escapes beyond the garden fence. In Alison Lester’s Ruby (1987), the security and comfort of a favourite blanket emboldens the eponymous main character in a night-time rescue of some new friends.

Illustration of a dense thicket of plants and the animals among it.
Illustration from Murgatroyd’s Garden, 1986, courtesy Walker Books Australia

Many original illustrations, draft manuscripts and letters relating to children’s books of this era are held in the Library. The records of publisher Angus & Robertson and the Thyne Reid (Museum of Australian Childhood) Collection are among the largest. Rich collections of personal papers include those of educator and author Maurice Saxby and publishers Margaret Hamilton and Anne Bower Ingram.

Ingram was one of Australia’s first children’s book editors and publishers, joining publishing company William Collins in 1971. Over her long career, she launched and supported the careers of countless writers and illustrators, and championed Australian children’s literature overseas. Her archive includes hundreds of original children’s illustrations, posters, first edition titles and personal papers.

When she retired, Anne Bower Ingram was presented with Rod Clement’s original watercolour illustration for the cover of Edward The Emu (1988). Much of the artwork she gave to the Library appears this summer in a display of almost 50 reproduction illustrations from the golden age of Australian children’s books.

A drawing of an emu lying on the ground.
Illustration from Edward The Emu, 1988, courtesy HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Maria Savvidis
Curator, Research & Discovery

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Summer 2019–20.

See the display