A Visit from the North

A Visit from the North
Professor Gregory Bryan, University of Manitoba

I am a professor of children’s literature in Canada. For the first part of this year, a study leave afforded me the opportunity to return home to Australia. I spent countless hours in libraries and at universities, working with special collections in South Australia, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory. In Canberra, one of my chosen destinations was the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature. Dr Belle Alderman and her associates were incredibly kind and helpful in arranging for me to have workspace and access to materials among the papers of Graeme Base, Mem Fox, Gary Crew, and Jackie French. All have made significant contributions to the field of literature for children. All have made an impact in North America. While some aspects of their work reflect Australia’s unique wonders, each addresses universal issues and arouses interest beyond the confines of the Great Southern Land.

I am particularly interested in the stories behind the stories, as it were. As such, my research is usually biographical. I find that when I know more about creators, I better understand and appreciate their work. For me, there is value in reading the personal and professional correspondence of authors and illustrators—one gains insights into how they think, what they consider significant, and the types of things that inspire or motivate them. Early versions of manuscripts and preliminary sketches of illustrations provide fascinating insights into the process of creation—one can compare final, published works against the preliminary materials to see the changes that took place and how stories and artwork evolved and improved with careful attention to detail.

Among the Graeme Base correspondence there is a “good news,” “no news,” “bad news” letter from a publisher in 1987. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Base got to the bad news part—missing artwork that nobody could locate! But two weeks later appeared a follow-up letter to where Base was staying in a hotel in Kenya. “Delighted to advise Bologna paintings found at Rome Airport,” the publisher sighed.

The Mem Fox material contains a booklet entitled “Possum’s Questions.” In an explanatory note, Fox wrote of feeling bad about refusing invitations to talk with children in schools. Her teaching and studies took up too much of her time to “gad about from school to school.” In the booklet she provided answers to many of the questions she was commonly asked about such things as the source of story ideas, working with illustrators, and creating names for characters.

The Gary Crew material contains a tiny notebook, perhaps about 6cm x 5cm. Crew scribbled ideas there, including a quote by Oscar Wilde: “It is what we fear that happens to us.”

Jackie French’s papers include a letter written after seeing the illustrations for Diary of a Wombat. “They are simply stunning,” French wrote. I agree. Bruce Whatley is a favourite illustrator and the artwork for French’s wombat books is tremendous.

Letters to authors, answers to questions, scribbled quotes in tiny notebooks, an author’s enthusiastic endorsement of an illustrator’s work—for the biographer, it is these types of details that add depth and character to the story of a life. They are the fuel that ignites a biography.

If only the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature was not so very far from Canada, Dr Alderman and her colleagues would tire of the sight of me. Distance will prevent me from being a regular visitor, but it is wonderful to know the centre is there, collecting and preserving material for future visits.

See aslo:
NCACL resources about creators available online
Base, Graeme | artwork | books finding aid
Crew, Gary | books | finding aid
Visual Literacy: Can Picture Books Be Suitable for Older Readers?
 Blog by Gary Crew
Fox, Mem |  books |  finding aid
French, Jackie | books | finding aid (2009) finding aid 2013

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.


There are currently no comments, be the first to leave one