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Friday 5 April 2024

Celebrating 50 years

The National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature revelled in a week of celebrations in March to mark a significant milestone in its history. This week, Dr Belle Alderman AM, Director of the Centre, provides a wonderful first-hand account that captures this unique and special occasion.

Dr Belle Alderman AM (Director)
Lucy Johnston (Acting Vice-Chancellor)
John Faulks (Acting Chair NCACL)
Bob Graham (Author/ Illustrator)
Christopher Cheng launches Emma Janssen's
Behind Secret, Sealed Doors with her daughters
who feature in the book
On the eve of our Centre’s celebration of 50 years’ existence, it was a steamy 32 degrees at 5pm. People approached the registration desk, received their name tag and a free book starring her two girls investigating 
Behind Secret, Sealed Doors. Around 100 people gathered in the leafy garden just outside our Centre’s open door. Across the garden Mizzuna CafĂ©’s open doors beckoned with sparkling wine, cold juices and delectable food. There was an air of anticipation as a collective of SCBWI creators gathered and penned their signature on their books created for young and old alike. Guests circled around these local creators and hunted down the authors and illustrators who travelled from interstate to our event—Bob Graham, Ann James AM, Leigh Hobbs, Elizabeth Honey, Christopher Cheng, and others. Everyone nestled among the trees, sat on benches and chatted at tables under umbrellas.

They wandered into the Centre, lounged on the sofa and chairs, marvelled over Bob Graham’s artwork for Jigsaw: A Puzzle in the Post. Hanging artworks adorning the walls reminded everyone of our favourite picture books. Some chatted away, some sat silently mesmerised by the 50 slides showcasing the Centre’s people and activities that scrolled by at five second intervals.

Suzanne Lazaroo, part of University of Canberra’s Media and Communications Team, wrote about the opening event, commenting that the Centre’s Acting Chair, Mr John Faulks, captured the spirit of the occasion – and NCACL –  in his address: “The thing that most distinguishes humans from machines is the imagination, and we are the tellers of things we imagine and things we observe … knowledge locked away is knowledge lost. NCACL works to make it accessible to all.”

While the opening event gave many people an opportunity to celebrate together, inspiring moments featured all week. On Monday, Bob Graham talked about his inspiration and story gestation for Jigsaw: A Puzzle in the Post. Listening intently, we heard about a moment in Bob’s family history. Then transfixed, we watched in wonder as Bob and his pastels brought to life a singular moment from this book. 

We listened intently to the exchange between passionate and knowledgeable panel members who shared their thoughts on Telling Tales: Inside Australian Children’s LiteratureWe heard years of collective knowledge and experience from author Christopher Cheng, author-illustrator Ann James, publishing director of Books for Children and Young Adults at Allen & Unwin, Eva Mills, and Sally Allen, teacher librarian at the Narrabundah and Lyons Early Childhood Schools in Canberra. They agreed and disagreed in a lively exchange based on years inside the Australian children’s book scene.

Many of us have an indelible, unforgettable childhood memory that includes a favourite book from our childhood. Three boys, all of whom loved Bob Graham’s Vanilla Ice Cream and two girls who adored Jigsaw: A Puzzle in the Post had their very own chat with Bob who signed their books and drew them a picture. 

The Centre was open all week giving all interested an opportunity to talk with volunteers in the Centre and to visit the Centre’s 58,000 Australian children’s books, its artworks and authors’ papers and manuscripts. View some of these highlights in previous blog post A Magical Visit to the NCACL.

Upstairs in the Mura Gadi Gallery from 19 February to 14 March, the Centre had an exhibit 22 framed digital artworks from Shaun Tan’s body of work.  This was an experience like none other. In addition to the artworks displayed around the room, there were three glass cabinets full of ephemera and preliminary artwork by Shaun Tan. A group of teachers from a Canberra school P-year 10 listened avidly as two Centre volunteer educators spoke about Shaun Tan’s work. During the days I wandered into the exhibit, I noticed silent and transfixed onlookers scrutinising each artwork. Many wrote comments in our exhibition Visitors’ Book that demonstrated the depth of emotion that Shaun Tan’s work invariably invokes. We have kept a record of these comments to remind us all just how important art is in our lives.

The week was full of intense and enthusiastic admiration for all aspects of Australian children’s literature. How fortunate we are to have an amazing Australian community of creators, publishers and a creative industry. People asked, ‘What about the Centre’s next 50 years?’ We have a dream to be a place like the Eric Carle Museum in Massachusetts, Seven Stories in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. Such a place ensures Australian stories for young people will not just capture the creative efforts but also inspire budding creators and support generations of creatives—these to be shared with people of all ages. The Centre, now valued at over $12.8 million, needs everyone’s support as we move into the future— emboldened and strengthened. We need to be financially supported and located where we can be available to one and all. Other countries around the world have such a place. Why not Australia?

Dr Belle Alderman AM

Emeritus Professor of Children’s Literature

Director, National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature Inc