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BOOK LIST: Best Australian children's books chosen by Kate Constable

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When I asked Kate Constable, the author of the award-winning CROW COUNTRY,  to be a guest on my blog this week, I asked her if she'd write me a post about her favourite Australian children's books. She had a confession to make, however ...





Even though I was born in Australia, and I have been an avid reader all my life, it is a strange but true fact that when I was growing up, I didn't read Australian books.

Though I was born in Melbourne, I spent most of my childhood in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, in a tiny town called Mt Hagen. My father worked there as a charter pilot, flying light planes in and out of isolated mountain villages, carrying all kinds of passengers and cargo - everything from cattle to coffins, sacks of coffee beans to cans of fish.

Mt Hagen was a very small town in those days - now it's the third largest city in PNG - but for some reason it had an excellent public library, in a dark little building near the market. It seems so unlikely that such a well-stocked library could possibly exist that I've tried to research how this could have come about, but I haven't been able to find out, and the library doesn't seem to exist any more. My best guess is that it was the result of some philanthropic impulse or charitable exercise - send a library to the Highlands!

Whatever the case, I was the beneficiary. I read my way through shelves of wonderful children's authors: Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Ransome, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E. Nesbit, Leon Garfield, PL Travers, CS Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge and so many more. I've spent many rewarding years since, trying to recreate that library via second hand bookshops, with some success! (These are many of my favourite children's authors too!)

With no television, few shops or recreational facilities, there wasn't much to do in Mt Hagen except to read, and I read everywhere: at the table, under the blankets, sitting in trees. Like may children, I read my favourite books over and over again. Sometimes I borrowed the books just to put them under my pillow at night; I loved them so much and knew them so well that there was no need to open the covers.

I was especially drawn to books about magic, ghosts and time travel, memories and dreams. Some of my particular favourites were Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, CS Lewis's Narnia books, and A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. Many of the books I loved best were by English authors, and when my family travelled to the UK (so my father could visit his family for the first time since he was twenty), I felt an immediate and intense bond with the English countryside.

I instantly felt that I knew this landscape, deep in my bones: the damp green fields, the spreading trees and sheltering hedgerows, the stone cottages and bluebell-filled woods. This was home, this was where I belonged, and when we left a few weeks later, I cried for days.

Weirdly, I felt no such connection to the Australian landscape when we returned to Melbourne on leave, even though I'd been born and spent the first six years of my short life there. I wonder now whether, after reading all those English books, the landscape of England had seeped into my imagination as a place brimming with magical possibilities. 

In contrast, the few books I read by Australian authors all seemed to be sternly realistic, about girls with ponies in sun-scorched paddocks, or, terrifyingly, about children surviving bushfires or plane crashes alone. There didn't seem to be a space in the Australian landscape of those books for magic, or fantasy, or time travel; no ghosts, no history; nothing for me to hold onto.

How wrong I was!

Of course there were books, Australian books, that knew about magic; but for some reason, I never managed to find them. It was only as an adult that I discovered wonderful books by Australian authors that might have given me the same sense of wonderful, mysterious power that I'd gleaned from those English fantasy stories. One of  the reasons I wrote Crow Country was to try to add to that list, and help a new generation of readers to realise how much magic and power lies in our own landscape.

Here are three of my favourite Australian books for children and young adults from the era of my youth, books I wish I'd found:


1. Playing Beatie Bow, by Ruth Park
How did I manage to miss this book? It was published in 1980, when I was 13, but for some reason it took me another thirty years to read it! The time travel element, so hard to get right, is handled expertly, and the scenes of early Sydney are wonderfully evocative. The love story is poignant and perfectly pitched. 


2. Pastures of the Blue Crane, by Hesba Brinsmead
Not a magical story as such, but the descriptions of northern New South Wales are so gorgeous that the writing thrums. The story of aloof Ryl's discovery of her inheritance and her gradual connection with her estranged grandfather is very moving. The book's handling of racial issues was radically progressive at the time, though it seems awkwardly dated now; but this is still a beautiful book. (I have not read this one, so its gone straight on to my ever-growing TBR shelf - thanks, Kate!)


3. The Rocks of Honey, by Patricia Wrightson
Wrightson's books were the books I needed to read, but somehow never found at the right time. Her sensitive handling of Aboriginal mythology was revolutionary at the time; although she was criticised more recently for appropriating cultural content, many Indigenous leaders applauded her work, and she introduced generations of children to Aboriginal magic. I could have chosen half a dozen Wrightson titles, but The Rocks of Honey was one of the first I read and it remains special to me, a simple but subtle tale of magic and misunderstanding.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy Belinda Murrell's list of Favourite Australian Children's Books 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


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