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

Wednesday 15 February 2017

May Gibbs

Thank you Johanna for this delightful walk down memory lane beneath the gumtrees and their inhabitants.

It is less than 800m to walk my sons to their primary school, but at this time of year that walk becomes extra noisy as we wander underneath the majestic flowering eucalypts and the frenzied activity of bees in their colourful blooms.

The vibrant colours of deep red, orange, pink and apricot appeal to my love of colour, but there is another reason I love seeing these trees bloom: I know Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and their friends, the Gum Blossom Babies, live within. In Gibbs’ words from Gum-Nut Babies: “On all the big Gumtrees there are Gum-Nut Babies. Some people see them and some don’t; but they see everybody and everything”.

Passing gumnut babies down through generations
May Gibb’s stories about the cherubic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and their fellow Gum-Nut Babies were firm favourites of mine from an early age. My librarian grandmother had passed her love for the stories to her daughter, my mum, who then shared them with me. Years later, when I was an adult, the three of us visited Nutcote and spent a delightful afternoon browsing Gibbs’ home on the northern side of Sydney Harbour.

Gibbs’ stories about the gumnut foster brothers who wanted to see a human, Mr Lizard, Mrs Kookaburra, Little Ragged Blossom, Bush Babies, Little Obelia and Lilly Pilly filled my young mind with incredible tales abut the bush I was so familiar with as a child.

To this day I still find peace when I smell the eucalyptus scent, hear kookaburras and cicadas and feel the crunch of dry gum leaves underfoot as I walk through Cataract Gorge. Gibbs’ books, while full of fantastic stories, also feature her beautiful illustrations, which also fostered my love of the Australian bush.

A creator from the beginning
Gibbs was an established artist from an early age, saying she could “draw before I could walk”. She won many awards for her drawings and worked as an illustrator for The Western Mail before trying her creative hand at writing.

The iconic image of the gumnut babies peeking out from gum leaves first appearing in Gibbs’ illustration for Ethel Turner’s serial The Magic Button, which was published in the Sydney Mail. The Mail later commissioned Gibbs to create 25 more bush-themed covers. Bookmarks, calendars and postcards with these familiar eucalyptus darlings followed, and many were sent in care packages to soldiers fighting in World War I.

Inspired by the popularity of her illustrations, Gibbs wrote stories to fit her images and introduced the Australian public to the characters that are now firmly entrenched in our cultural tradition. And it is this folklore that I draw on when I talk to my boys about the cute baby-like creatures who inhabit the trees that line the streets in which we live.

Johanna Baker-Dowdell
Freelance journalist and author of the book Business & Baby on Board.

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