Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Saturday 15 March 2014

Cranky Ladies in Australia

From Tehani Wessely

I sometimes feel as if I’m living multiple lives, as I have many roles to play. I’m a mum, a teacher librarian, a reader, a literary judge, a Doctor Who fan, a friend, and, at some times more than others, a publisher too. Right now, being a publisher is taking up lots of my life, as we’re on a steamroll month during March, crowdfunding for the Cranky Ladies of History anthology [http://www.pozible.com/crankyladies]. It’s Women’s History Month, and we’ve been receiving  attention on social media and in the mainstream news [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-07/women-raise-funds-for-cranky-ladies-of-history-anthology/5305846] as well, which is fantastic for the project! We’re lucky enough to have amazing authors connected with the anthology, such as Jane Yolen, Garth Nix, Carol Ann Martin (writing as Ann Martin), Lauren Beukes, Pat Cadigan and many more. Tasmanian writer and historian Dr Tansy Rayner Roberts [https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/599287.Tansy_Rayner_Roberts] is on board as my co-editor, and we’ve been having an absolute ball learning about some astonishing “cranky” ladies of history for the project. While the crowdfunding in March is an important thing for us, so too is our Cranky Ladies blog tour [http://fablecroft.com.au/about/publications/cranky-ladies-of-history/cranky-ladies-of-history-blog-tour], to which any fan of a cranky lady of history can contribute. And today, CBCA has kindly let me post about some brilliant Australian cranky ladies* who you may have heard of: our children’s book authors!

Australia has a rich heritage of fabulous female writers, and although some may not have been born here, and some may have gone elsewhere during their lives, they are all beloved in our literary history. And some of them led the most astonishing lives!

Perhaps it is appropriate to start with someone whose name will be well known to CBCA members. EVE POWNALL, born in Sydney in 1902 as Marjorie Evelyn Sheridan, started writing early, and worked for Fox Films and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Ltd before marrying Leslie Pownall at age 27. I particularly like this paragraph from Jan Roberts’ biography of Eve [http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pownall-marjorie-evelyn-eve-15495]:

Encouraged by Leslie, Eve became a meticulous researcher and prolific writer. The range of her publications was remarkable: risqué comics and short stories written during the war years, a ghost-written sex manual, books about pioneer women, histories of Australian exploration, settlement and development for adults and children, stories in the State Department of Education’s School Magazine, reviews and editorial works. Her first major work was a social history for children, The Australia Book (1952), which was illustrated by her friend Margaret Senior and was named by the Children’s Book Council as best book of the year.

Just imagine – risqué comics and a sex manual, in the first half of the 20th Century! Eve was very involved in the formation of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and was strongly interested in the role of women and children in remote areas, travelling to the outback and writing about this many times, including a book called Australian Pioneer Women, which is of particular interest to us at Cranky Ladies!

Another fascinating writer of history is CHARLOTTE BARTON, credited with being the author of Australia’s first published children’s book, A Mother's Offering to Her Children, in 1846. Barton was a feminist who worked as a governess for several years, choosing to emigrate from England for a position in Australia at 30 years of age. While she did commence employment, she soon left to marry James Atkinson shortly after, with whom she had four children, before he died in 1834, “leaving her to manage a large holding, run far-flung outstations, control convict labour in a district beset by bushranging gangs and care for her children.” [http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barton-charlotte-12787] Her remarriage in 1836 to George Bruce Barton opened a plethora of legal issues for Charlotte, leading to many years of trouble, especially after she eventually fled the family home due to the drunken and violent nature of her second husband.  

Throughout this, Charlotte educated her children, fostered their own artistic talents, and maintained a close-knit family unit. I like this final quote from Patricia Clarke’s biography [http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barton-charlotte-12787]: “Fiercely independent, though an abused wife and sole parent she succeeded in challenging the male-dominated legal system.” Her status as Australia’s first known children’s book author may be unknown by many, but was recently brought out of the shadows in Belinda Murrell’s novel The River Charm, which tells some of the story. [https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16087466-the-river-charm]

The recent film, Saving Mr Banks, might have perhaps gone a bit too far in portraying the crankiness of PL TRAVERS, but she certainly deserves a place on our list! Born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899, she who became P.L. Travers and author of one of the best known children’s stories of modern times came from Maryborough in Queensland. Although already writing from an early age, at 17 Travers took herself to Sydney to pursue a career on the stage. She experienced some success, but supplemented her income by working as a journalist. However, she decided that Australia was not the place for her, and moved to England in her late 20s, where while recuperating from a long illness, she wrote Mary Poppins, which was published in 1934. Most readers will know the journey of the book to the screen, where it still holds a special place in the hearts of successive generations.

She later wrote extensively on mysticism and the occult, as well as examining myth and fairy tales. Much of Travers’ reputation for crankiness stems from the process of the Mary Poppins film being produced, but regardless of how much truth there is in that, she was a formidable type who achieved exactly what she set out to.

HESBA FAY BRINSMEAD is relevant to CBCA and Tasmania, as she won the 1965 and 1972 Book of the Year award, and both lived and wrote about the state at various times. With a late start to education, and a somewhat dysfunctional family life, Brinsmead’s work explored many issues still relevant today, including the environment, indigenous areas and the need for their conservation, the effect of ecological damage, the plight of refugees and societies disaffected, and the human cost of resource development, as well as family issues. As with many female writers, Brinsmead found time to write around everyday life, husband and children, and did so splendidly.

Other cranky ladies you might like to look into include:

& MAY GIBBS, who spent her childhood exploring the bush on her family’s Western Australian property, then studied art in England for several years, before returning to Australia and working as an illustrator. Her iconic gumnut babies and anthropomorphised bush stories are still beloved (and sometimes imitated) today.

& RUTH PARK, who worked as a journalist for a time before becoming a freelance writer for radio and print, a bold move that took her a long way!

& First published at age 14 (there’s certainly a trend of these writers starting young!), MAVIS THORPE CLARK became a prolific author for children and later adults, and held the enviable position of never receiving a rejection for her work! The Min Min was the CBCA Book of the Year in 1967, but is just one of many novels she published.

& Perhaps one of Australia’s most classic children’s books, Seven Little Australians, was written by ETHEL TURNER, who started out publishing with her sister at school. She wrote and edited extensively while raising a family but during World War I, also organized ambulance and first aid courses, and campaigned for conscription. Refusing to sugar-coat the Australian lifestyle in her writing, Turner continued to shine a light on the diversity of Australian culture through her work.

* Important note: we define “cranky” as someone who bucked the trends of their time and took on cultural norms to challenge society's rules and ideas about how women should behave.

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