Review: Story Time: Australian Children’s Literature, National Library of Australia (ACT)

The NLA presents a magical journey through the history of Australian children’s stories.
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Detail from Alison Lester, Our Journey: Are We There Yet? (Penguin 2012), one of 270 items in the Story Time exhibition at National Library of Australia.

Story Time: Australian Children’s Literature is the latest exhibition at the National Library of Australia (NLA) and it’s a celebration of Australian stories written and illustrated for children. A collaboration between NLA and the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature, the collection features 270 items – from May Gibbs and First Nation stories to contemporary favourites such as Shaun Tan and Andy Griffiths. Curated by Grace Blakeley-Carroll, the exhibition has been three years in the making and features books, illustrations, manuscripts and ephemera from 1840 to today.

It’s difficult to choose stand-outs from such a rich and extensive collecction. Pore over manuscripts such as Nadia Wheatley’s My Place or Mem Fox’s Possum Magic, with the famous post-it note detailing the books rejections. Other authors’ manuscipts on display include Morris Gleitzman, Jackie French, Patricia Wrightson, Emily Rodda and Ivan Southall. The creative process is showcased with doodles and sketches from books such as Sophie Goes South by Alison Lestor and The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Immerse yourself in a display of Australia’s first merchandised author May Gibbs’ books and ephemera.

Several works from First Nations authors and illustrators are on display, including The Legends of Moonie Jarl (1964) and Stradbroke Dreamtime by Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1972). An entire wall is dedicated to Dick Goobalathaldin Roughsey’s spectacular Rainbow Serpent (1975).

At the exhibition’s opening, Jennifer Rowe AC (better known to young readers as Emily Rodda, author of the Deltora Quest series), spoke about the evolution and importance of Australia’s children’s book industry.  She said ‘imagination, the willingness to step outside a square that we construct around ourselves as we grow up, is key to every human endeavour and can help us understand the past and consider the future , wrestle with the present, find ways and means and believe that anything is possible.’

The exhbition features text panels for children that encourage interaction with the artworks. As well, there is a dedicated ‘Playtime’ room where children can write stories, read from a collection of the books featured in the exhibition, watch videos of books being read and more. The group of four children I visited the exhibition with, aged seven to nine, were mesmerised by readings of Sorry Day, written by Coral Vass and illustrated by Dub Leffler (2019) and read by Trevor Jamieson and Kevin Rudd, and The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek, written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks (2015) and read by Nick Cave.

The exhibition has a companion book, Story Time Stars: Favourite Characters from Australian Picture Books (2019) by Stephanie Owen Reeder, which is available to buy in the NLA gift shop. Story Time Stars features stories and information about 60 characters featured in the exhibition, including favourites such as The Magic Pudding, Blinky Bill, the elusive Green Sheep and Pig the Pug.

The spotlight on Australian authors and illustrators allows for a narrative to emerge that celebrates the diversity of our voices and charts the exponential growth of the genre. As Rowe said, ‘our authors and artists don’t always talk about gum trees or koalas or the bush, only when such Australian icons are important to the story they have to tell. Sometimes their books aren’t set in Australia at all. But whether they’re producing high fantasy, or gritty realism or gentle tales or slapstick comedy or breathtaking images without words, their Australian-ness is intrinsic to their prose and their paintings. It’s in their values too because it’s in the air they breathe.’

Story Time is an exhibition worth returning to again, with or without kids, to savour and reminisce.  

4.5 stars out of 5

Story Time: Australian Children’s Literature
22 August 2019-9 February 2020
National Library of Australia ACT
Free admission

Rebecca Curtin
About the Author
Rebecca Curtin is a Canberra-based writer who has written for Shanghai Family, Lifeline Shanghai and Parents & Kids Shanghai.