Children’s books have always been a big part of my life – as a child (unsurprisingly) and as an adult. Literary studies at university enhanced my love for new and wonderful stories, whilst my appreciation for some of the classics was reignited. Australian children’s literature is a unique genre. With a wide range of illustrators and authors contributing to the industry, it is no wonder that kids these days have an even more amazing selection of stories to immerse themselves in. As I’m sure many would agree, I cannot overstate the importance of reading in encouraging a more diverse perspective of the world around you. When it comes to our understanding of the natural world, I believe it is no different. Featured below are five of what I view as some of Australia’s best children’s picture books that explore the natural world and its relevance to our lives – both as children and as adults. Everybody can learn something by returning to their roots and engaging with the youthful stories which are much more sophisticated than many might think.
Window – Jeannie Baker
A book without words, Jeannie Baker’s Window is nothing short of a masterpiece of children’s literature. The intense power of her collaged artwork is impossible to ignore and, in many ways, speaks volumes above what a book of words could. This particular story follows the life of a boy, born in a house in the Australian bush but privy to its development from a wooded haven to a bustling city. The message is clear – humans develop nature to suit their needs and change is of course inevitable – but each page is so full of life and detail that every reader will take something different away.
The Rabbits – John Marsden & Shaun Tan (ill.)
‘The land is bare and brown and the wind blows empty across the plains. Where is the rich, dark earth, brown and moist? Where is the smell of rain dripping from the gum trees?’
The first time I picked up this book I was far from childhood. A second year university subject on children’s literature introduced me to the unique and unsettling artwork of Shaun Tan and re-introduced me to John Marsden’s captivating writing. Although a children’s text, the message of this profound piece of Australian storytelling regards European colonisation and the environmental devastation that subsequently ensued. It is difficult to put this book down and not remember its power not to instruct, but rather encourage you, the reader, to better understand Australia’s history and the destruction of the environments that Indigenous Australians call home. This is an incredibly important story for both children and adults to read.
Magic Beach – Alison Lester
‘…we walk when it’s cloudy and grey, looking for driftwood, feathers and shells, washed up on the edge of the bay.’
Alison Lester taught me the true value of beach holidays with ‘our beach, our magic beach.’ Most adults my age, as well as our parents, fondly remember this picture book as a testament to time spent in the sun during the Australian summer, and why the outdoors was where we kids really wanted to be. For me, Lester’s illustrations represent the simple beauty of my home state, Victoria, and the understated value of frolicking in the waves and imagining whole worlds along the sands of the beach.
Fox – Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks (ill.)
‘After the rains, when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush; Fox with his haunted eyes and rich red coat. He flickers through the trees like a tongue of fire, and Magpie trembles.’
This is one unforgettable book. Ron Brooks’ haunting illustrations and Margaret Wild’s evocative story portray the relationship between the familiar and the other; the native and the non-native. In this case, it is the connection between Dog the dingo, Magpie, and the outsider Fox. Definitely one of the more unconventional endings to a picture book, it concludes with the separation of best friends Magpie and Dog, and Fox leaving Magpie in the desert, telling her that ‘Now you and Dog will know what it is like to be truly alone.’ Perhaps not for the very young, but a book that, in my opinion, represents the complex relationships between native and invasive species, and the brutal profundity of nature.
Tales from Outer Suburbia – Shaun Tan
‘The further we ventured, the more everything looked the same, as if each new street, park or shopping mall was simply another version of our own, made from the same giant assembly kit.’
The second Shaun Tan book to appear on this list (and why not?), Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of his stories written for a variety of age groups. Whilst not always explicitly exploring themes pertaining to nature, Tan’s illustrations very often contain elements of the animal, the outdoors, and the untameable. The title indeed says it all, alluding to this idea of suburbia as a typically Australian notion that the majority of our population has experienced firsthand. However, suburbia also involves an often underappreciated presence of native wildlife and natural surroundings that are inextricably linked to our lives and homes. Tan portrays this relationship between the human and non-human beautifully and strangely, revealing to every suburban reader something a little unusual about their home that they weren’t already aware of.