The first book written for Australian children can be traced back to A Mother’s Offering For Her Children (1841) by Charlotte Barton. She wrote the book to entertain her children, but also to earn money to take care of them after running from her ex-husband, their stepfather, in an effort to keep them safe from his rages. This story is recounted in The River Charm by Belinda Murrell, one of her descendants, who writes historical time slip novels for children, including The Locket of Dreams, The Ruby Talisman, The Sapphire Star, The Forgotten Pearl, The Ivory Rose and the latest, The Lost Sapphire. Up until the publication of Charlotte Barton’s book, Australian children had read the same stories as children in Britain, and still did up until the end of the Second World War. The end of this war heralded a call for children’s stories in Australia, and the formation of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and speciality bookstores.
Following A Mother’s Offering to Her Children in 1894, Ethel Turner published Seven Little Australians, and several retellings of Aboriginal or Indigenous myths and legends. The authors of these retellings credit the sources they heard them from, and perhaps were not as endorsed back then. Today, there are still books using Indigenous myths and retellings that have been written by non-Indigenous authors with the cooperation and endorsement of the communities the original stories come from.
Norman Lindsay published The Magic Pudding in 1918 – creating an idyllic bush fantasy of three friends on a journey with an irate, talking pudding that refills itself whenever it is eaten, and is constantly annoyed when it doesn’t get eaten. The same year saw the publication of May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and in 1933 Dorothy Wall created Blinky Bill. These stories all had one thing in common: finding ways for belonging in this strange, new landscape – the Australian bush, still something that people were fascinated by and feared even in the first few decades after Federation. Australian literature of all kinds, sought to find an Australian identity that had become entwined with the mystery and magic of the bush landscape.
Post-World War Two, the landscape of children’s literature in Australia changed. The rise in stories tackling serious and sometimes controversial issues started to take place around 1960. However, the next key milestone came in 1970 with the advent of the picture book, and an illustrated version of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda. Picture books have enormous range in the Australian context: ballads, Australiana, personal stories, Dreaming stories, the outback, historical time and place, the sea, wildlife, conservation, urban lift, grandparents and the elderly, friendship, the world of children and the power of imagination. A key work is Possum Magic by Mem Fox, first published in 1983.
Fiction for older children by authors such as Jackie French, Kate Forsyth, sister to Belinda Murrell, and Isobelle Carmody have presented older children and teens with their own books to read and explore and form their own identity.
Indigenous stories for children have mostly been excluded from the above examples. In 1967, a wave of new books for children that started to include Indigenous children exploded into being, and has sparked the recent creation of a publisher focusing on Indigenous stories, Magabala Books. Many books for children written by Indigenous authors have given readers an insight into Indigenous cultures that may not have been available in previously published literature that sometimes has out-dated views, yet written in a specific time and place. The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey was part of this new wave of Indigenous children’s books in the 1970s. Indigenous publishers such as IAD – Press aim to promote Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander authors and stories and protect language and culture. This helps to promote literacy in Indigenous communities as well, and encourages children to learn to read and write. The growth of Indigenous books written and illustrated by Indigenous communities not only allows them to contribute to the literary and cultural landscape of Australia, but to share their stories with each other and other children, fostering a sense of understanding through literature.
The mid-1990s and waves of immigration changed the Eurocentric and Anglo-Celtic Australia. Diverse authors began to tell stories. Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta tells the story of the daughter of Italian immigrants, and how she finds her place in Australia, straddling the worlds of the Italian culture and Australian culture that she has grown up with. This sparked a growth in seeing multiculturalism from the minority culture as well as the dominant culture.
Australian children’s literature has possibly seen a faster growth in diverse voices than fiction for adults. Larger bookstores are more likely to carry a wider, more diverse range of titles. Yet children’s literature in Australia by Australian authors – whether they are white, or Indigenous or from the multitude of other nationalities that make up Australia – must compete with the influx of literature from America and Britain. There is a place for all, because literature from other people (and other places) helps humans understand each other. Literature from where people live helps them form a national identity. The diverse world of Australian literature has been doing this for generations and will continue to do this.