Celebrating Classic Australian Picture Books


The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter based in Melbourne.

Last weekend, I hosted a baby shower for a friend whose little boy is due sometime in April. She and her husband are South African migrants, and I have joked for months that they like Australians so much that they have made one to come and live with them.

The baby, who will be an Australian citizen from birth, will start his cultural education early: Among the gifts, which included a platypus-patterned onesie and an electric nail trimmer, were three children’s books that are classics of an Australian childhood. (He will have to make his own way to “Bluey.”)

To be sure, Australian children read many of the same picture books that are treasured elsewhere in the world, like Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” or “Guess How Much I Love You” by Sam McBratney.

But there are many homegrown titles, often with an Australian theme and setting, that continue to be adored by generations of Australian children — including many who are the first Australians in their family.

Some of these books feature the country’s distinctive wildlife: In “Possum Magic,” by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas, a young possum named Hush is suddenly struck by bush magic — and rendered invisible. “Koala Lou,” also by Ms. Fox, tells the story of a young koala wrestling with the arrival of a new sibling. And in “Edward the Emu,” by Sheena Knowles, an emu who has tired of the zoo tries on life as a seal, a lion and a snake.

Wombats also make appearances in a plethora of titles, including “Wombat Stew,” by Marcia K. Vaughan, in which no wombats are hurt, as well as “Diary of a Wombat,” by Jackie French. (It is, as you’d expect, a day-by-day telling of life as a wombat.)

Others recount Aboriginal stories, sometimes with illustrations inspired by Indigenous Australian art. “The Rainbow Serpent,” by Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise, tells a dreamtime story of a powerful snake that emerges from beneath the ground, creating ridges of earth, mountains and gorges across Australia.

“The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek,” a 1973 work by Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks, is many young Australians’ introduction to the swamp-dwelling creature from Aboriginal folklore. (The bunyip is immortalized as a statue outside the state library in Melbourne.)

And many popular works are simply snapshots of an idyllic Australian childhood. One friend recalled spending hours poring over “Magic Beach,” by Alison Lester, and repeatedly pointing out two little girls by the seaside who she thought particularly resembled her and her sister.

You don’t need to be Australian, or even in Australia, to love these books. Better yet: If you’re overseas and would like to test them out before shipping them elsewhere in the world, YouTube has an array of dramatic readings to try before you buy. This rendition of “Where Is the Green Sheep?” by Mem Fox has particularly fun sound effects.

I’d love to hear about other examples of Australian children’s books that you love or that make particularly good gifts. Get in touch at NYTAustralia@nytimes.com.

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