Leanne Barrett: Does the Australian Bush have Fairies?

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Does the Australian Bush have Fairies?

As a child were you fed an extensive diet of fairies and magic in your bedtime stories?

Maybe it was the Fairy Godmother from Sleeping Beauty or Tinkerbell from the story of Peter Pan or was it the Australian version of fairies, the little gumnut babies featured in the stories by May Gibbs?   
For more than 100 years Australian children have been reading stories by May Gibbs. The love of her stories and illustrations has given many Australian children, and undoubtedly children all over the world, an image of the kind of fairies that you can find in the Australian bush, gumnut babies and blossoms.
In 1915 May Gibbs had a dream to create a book about the Australian bush. To fulfil this dream she wanted to write and illustrate the books herself. Some of the titles include;
  • 1916 Gum Blossom Babies
  • 1918 Sungglepot and Cuddlepie
  • 1942 The complete adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie
  • 1982 Boronia babies
  • 2007 The complete adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie including Little Ragged Blossom and Little Obelia

Or maybe you read books where the characters were not drawn by May Gibbs;
  • 1970 Snugglepot and Cuddlepie meet Mr Lizard
  • 1974 Snugglepot and Cuddlepie find Ragged Blossom
  • 1990 Ten little gumnuts
  • 1997 Cuddlepie goes to the dentist
  • 2016 Tales from the gum tree

Recently (May 11 2017) The National Centre for Australian Children's Literature (NCACL) hosted an event, Still Touching Hearts: An Evening with May Gibbs, to celebrate the passion, excitement and inspiration created by this revered Australian author and illustrator. 

At this event two donations were made to The National Centre for Australian Children's Literature. Jane Brummitt donated an original 1915 preparatory painting for an illustration in May Gibb's first Australian book, Gumnut Babies. The second donation was made by author and illustrator, Tania McCartney, who donated the May Gibbs quilt that she won in the 2016 NCACL fundraiser raffle.

Jane Brummitt is passionate about the promotion of all things May Gibbs and the preservation of Gibbs’ legacy. In 1987 Brummitt became involved with guaranteeing the preservation of May Gibbs home, Nutcote House, in Neutral Bay, Sydney, NSW.  Brummitt co-wrote a book with Robert Holden, May Gibbs: more than a fairy tale outlining the work of May Gibbs. All the royalties from this book are donated to The Nutcote Society and Cerebral Palsy Alliance. 

Brummitt has also donated ephemera to Nutcote House Museum; colouring books, aprons, letter openers and editions of books missing from their collection.    

As previously mentioned there are many books that helped readers fall in love with the characters from Gibbs' stories. The young Tania McCartney fell in love the book Snugglepot and Cuddlepie meet Mr Lizard redrawn by Noela Young and adapted by Carol OdellThis book, while not created by Gibbs, still gave McCartney a love for the creative work of May Gibbs. 

McCartney describes May Gibbs as her role model. 'May [Gibbs] has inspired me to work hard, do what you love, and daily take dreams in hand,' says Tania McCartney.

One of McCartney's dreams is to publish a picture book about May Gibbs or Mamie (her family's nickname). It would detail her;

  • early life of music and fairies
  • immigration to Australia from England
  • search for bush fairies
  • painting
  • Scottie dogs and
  • her as a creative woman  

This desire to represent May Gibbs, without breaching copyright, has led McCartney to explore other parts of Gibbs' life including her childhood and her adult life, without including the famous stories. 

This research has comprised of listening to an interview between May Gibbs and Hazel de Berg held in the National Library of Australia. In this recording Gibbs said, 'I used to lie down in the grass so that my eyes were on the same level amongst the grass stalks as the ants...And I loved drawing.' (p.22, Holden & Brummitt)

McCartney loves drawing too and has drawn a beautiful image of the young Mamie in the grass watching ants. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see this book published in 2018 for the centenary of the book Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

May Gibbs found the bush fairies that she had been searching for when she created the delightful characters of Snugglepot, Cuddlepie, Ragged Blossom and Little Obelia.

Belle Alderman AM (Director of NCACL), Jane Brummitt and Tania McCartney

Holden, R. and Brummitt, J. 2016 May Gibbs: more than a fairy tale, Hardie Grant Books Australia, Richmond. 

Gibbs, M. 1968, May Gibbs interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection [sound recording]. National Library of Australia, viewed 12 May 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-214559229/listen.

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