Published in 1918, The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie chronicle the adventures of two gumnut babies and their adventures in the Australian bush. The antagonists are The Big Bad Banksia Men who thwart the adventures of the gumnut babies. The two brothers set off on the adventures to see a human, something that they are curious about. On these adventures, they are joined by Mr. Lizard and Little Ragged Blossom, and have to battle not only The Big Bad Banksia Men, but also Mrs. Snake. Aimed at children, these stories can be read to younger children or read by confident readers. Each reading can reveal something new about these stories that might have been missed during other readings. This adds to the beauty and longevity of these stories.
May Gibbs was inspired by images of the Australian bush, and she used these in her illustrations: the eucalyptus trees, and the banksia, and wildlife to tell the story. Writing from her home, called Nutcote; she created a world that was Australian. It represented the danger and romanticism of the bush that bush poets were also writing about, and represented childhood curiosity in wanting to know what was beyond the confines of the world one might live in. Gibbs not only wrote Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the sequels that followed and that create a rounded story, but also illustrated it. May trained to be an artist, showing promise at a young age. It is her gorgeous illustrations of two wide-eyed gumnut babies that draw the eye and imagination to her stories.
In 1918, at the end of The First World War, Australia was still a new nation, still finding their way in a new post-war world. We still had strong ties to Britain in light of the colonial history, but were also forging our own unique identity separate from what had been transplanted here from the British Isles. At this stage, it was still very much a white Australian identity being forged. May Gibbs’ contribution of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie added to Australian feelings of the bush and needing a place to belong.
Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was also inspired by the natural beauty of The Blue Mountains, which informed much of the bush fairyland of the book. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is a bush fairy tale, a literary fairy tale one might say, with the feel of an oral tradition behind it. Many Australian stories have an oral feel to them, or at least, evoke the old oral traditions of Indigenous Australian culture or the yarn around the campfire of swagmen such as in Waltzing Matilda. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie has never been out of print since 1918 – a testament to its popularity and perhaps also, its ability to permeate our imaginations, and can allow anyone to see themselves as these characters – gumnut babies are said not to exist, but how do we know that each little gumnut is not secretly spawning a descendant of Snugglepot or Cuddlepie, snuggled amongst the gum leaves with koalas for company? Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is also a conservationist plea to the world. May Gibbs inscribed the following: “Humans, Please be kind to all bush creatures and don’t pull flowers up by the roots.” These words are as important today as they were ninety-eight years ago, if not more so.
Australian stories such as this represent an image of Australia, or an idealised image of Australia – what it is hoped to be, and reflects the dangers and the beauty of the bush. It is another quintessential Australian text written for a specific time and place but that still resonates today because of its conservation message, and also because it is first and foremost, a bush fairy story, a place to escape to and wonder about. May Gibbs and her gumnut baby stories hold an important place in Australian literature and the hearts of Australian children and adults. Her work is not didactic, and has probably been read and re-read by many generations of Australians as children and adults. Australian children may have had these stories read to them as children and will then pass them on to their own children. They are stories that will hopefully not die out and live to see more generations come to enjoy them, accompanied by the images of May Gibbs and untampered with as they have been for five generations.