The themes that children's books explore are almost endless but some common ones include: the challenges of growing up; the search for identity; love; human loyalty; death; environmental concern; the wrongs of war; courage; coping with difficulties; overcoming fears; friendship and so on.
I find that I regularly recall good books (both adult and children's fiction) when confronted with issues each day. For example, I was reminded of a children's book just last week when reading a newspaper article about the impending environmental disaster facing the Murray River basin, including its stunning delta region known as the Coorong. How sad it is, that the once great Murray River (Australia's Mississippi) is on the brink of destruction and with it the great Coorong as well. In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald (21.6.08) Martin Falanagan ("Cry me a river") speaks of the plight of the Murray River and the Coorong. The article reports that the 'freshwater' Coorong, once home to hundreds of thousands of birds, is now in places six times saltier than the sea.
I first learned about the Coorong in a book that Colin Thiele wrote in 1963 - "Storm Boy". This wonderful short novel for junior primary aged children introduced me to the wonder of the Coorong, the place where the great Murray River meets the sea in South Australia. It is an estuary that is 140km long and is/was a place of amazing biodiversity. Storm Boy is the name of the central character in the book. This 10-year old boy lives with his reclusive fisherman father in a tiny house near the sea in the Coorong. He meets an Aboriginal man, Fingerbone Bill, and befriends him. Together they learn many new things. The following extracts are typical of the simple descriptions that add richness to Thiele's work, and in the process teach readers about their world:
"Storm Boy lived between the Coorong and the sea. His home was the long, long snout of sandhill and scrub that curves away south-eastwards from the Murray Mouth. A wild strip it is, windswept and tussocky, with the flat shallow water of the South Australian Coorong on one side and the endless slam of the Southern Ocean on the other. They call it the ninety mile beach."
".....the whole stretch of the Coorong and the land around it had been turned into a sanctuary.....And so the water and the shores rippled and flapped with wings. In the early morning the tall birds stood up and clapped and cheered the rising sun. Everywhere there was the sound of bathing - a happy splashing and sousing and swishing. It sounded as if the water had been turned into a bathroom five miles long, with thousands of busy fellows gargling and gurgling and blowing bubbles together. Some were above the water, some were on it, and some were under it; a few were half on it and half under. Some were just diving into it and some just climbing out of it. Some who wanted to fly were starting to take off, running across the water with big flat feet, flapping their wings furiously and pedalling with all their might. Some were coming in to land, with their wings braking hard and their big webbed feet splayed out ready to ski over water as soon as they landed. Everywhere there were criss-crossing wakes of ripples and waves and splashes. Storm Boy felt the excitement and wonder of it........."
Colin Thiele (1920-2006) was one of Australia's greatest children's authors. He was born in Eudunda in South Australia. He was educated at several country schools including Kapunda High School before studying at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1941. He served during WWII in the Royal Australian Air Force and attained the rank of corporal. After the war he taught in high schools and teacher training colleges.
He wrote more than 100 books, which often described life in rural Australia, particularly the Coorong region of coastal South Australia. His stories have wonderful humour, adventure and a very strong sense of place. Several of his books have been made into films or television series, including Sun on the Stubble, The Fire in the Stone, Blue Fin, The Valley Between (CBC Book of the Year in 1982) and Storm Boy. While he wrote mainly for primary aged chidlren one of my favourite Thiele books is a picture book, Farmer Shultz's Ducks (1986) set in beautiful Hahndorf (SA). It was shortlisted for the CBC picture book award in 1987.
He received many literary awards including the prestigious Dromkeen Medal for which I served as a judge for a number of years (as Governor of the Dromkeen Museum), including the year when we awarded him the much-deserved prize. He also won the Children's Book Council Book of the Year award in 1982
In 1977 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (the highest civil honour in Australia) for his services to literature and education. He suffered from arthritis from the 1955 and eventually moved to the warmer climate of Dayboro in Queensland where he died in 2006.