Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things

Juliet O'Conor. Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things: a celebration of Australian illustrated children's books. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press/State Libraray of Victoria, 2009. ISBN 9780522856514.

Reviewer: David Beagley

Bottersnikes are the central characters (with Gumbles) of a series of books by Australian author SA Wakefield, published between 1967 and 1989. They are ugly, short-tempered, lazy, live in gagbage dumps, and gave their author direct opportunities to satirise attitudes to conservation, politics, publishing and society in general. Illustrated by Desmond Digby, Bottersnikes also appeared as Butterschnuckels in Germany and Buruty in Russia.

Their wonderfully evocative name is their prinicipal claim to fame in this beautifully produced exploration of the illustrated children's literature collection of the State Library of Victoria. Wakefield's Bottersnikes and Gumbles books were neither ground-breaking or seminal, but do reflect several key aspects of Australian children's book illustration that Juliet O'Conor highlights. They were fanciful anthropomorphic creatures, their home is the natural world of the Australian bush, but they interact in the patterns of the highly urbanised Euro-Australian society, and (like children's books everywhere) they carry obvious instructional messages for their young readers.

O'Conor is responsible for the SLV's 100,000 book children's collection and this book wears its provenance in that catalogue very clearly. While it is A history of Australian illustrated children's books, it is not THE history. It is a high quality production that maintains the standards of Melbourne University Press' Miegunyah imprint, and it is copiously illustrated in colour. It is arranged by themes, has a detailed and informative text, well supported by text notes, further reading bibliography and detailed index. But there are also a few surprising omissions and imbalances.

Unsurprisingly, and as noted for the Bottersnikes, fanciful bush creatures feature largely. From the fairies of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, through the gumnut babies of May Gibbs and Dorothy Wall's Blinky Bill, to Mem Fox/Julie Vivas' Possum Magic the landscape outside the cities provided immense scope for anthropomorphic characters and moral stories. O'Conor tracks their evolution from the land-taming and 'Euro-forming' of the early colonists, imposing traditional British and European forms in this alien place, through recognition of the uniqueness of the animals and plants (and occasionally the original inhabitants), to an awareness of how Euro-Australian society has changed the landscape (and rarely for the better!) and must survive in it.

Three of the five parts of this book deal with this concept; the others address 'Schooldays' and 'Morality and the Family'. O'Conor's text, while erudite and detailed, is more descriptive than analytical. There is little judgement of the many examples presented, in terms of the influence or standing of works or artists, or the representation of controversial aspects such as gender, racism, or environmental destruction. True to its library origins, it presents the resources, clearly and well, for others to discuss, argue and analyse.

Some omissions, however, are surprising. Hans Christian Andersen medallist Robert Ingpen, a Victorian local, is not mentioned at all, despite major holdings in the Library. Similarly with other influential artists like Terry Denton, Ann James (and her Books Illustrated work with Ann Haddon), or Craig Smith. The years up to the 1960s are well-covered, as is the last decade or so, but the recent past of the 1970s, 80s and into the 90s that saw such a burst of creative publishing only has cursory coverage. Again, this is a likely consequence of this book's origins in the specifc held collection of the State Library and, thus, its limitations. As noted before, Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things is A history of Australian illustrated children's books; it does not claim to be THE full history.

It does that very well. It rewards both simple browsing for serendipitous interest and consultation for formal research. As an introduction to the illustration and the publishing of Australian children's literature, it is impressive.


David Beagley

Volume 14, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, May/June, 2010

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