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Drawing from eco-riches: Australia's environment in children's books
by Chris Cheng

Full-time writer Chris Cheng has taught in Australian schools and at Tarongo Zoo in Sydney, where he established Australia's first Zoomobile, taking animals to schools. In 1994, his book The Eyespy Book of Rainforest Animals was shortlisted for the Wilderness Society's Environment Award for Children's Literature. He is the author of several children's books that focus on the environment, such as: Alpine Regions, Rainforests and the picture-book One child. His latest book is a young adult novel called New Gold Mountain, whichexplores racially-based conflicts on the New South Wales goldfields, during the 1860s.

One Child, book cover

Where the Forest Meets the Sea, book cover

Belonging, book cover

My Place, book cover

Baby Bilby, book cover

Sand Swimmers, book cover

Antarctic Dad, book cover

Storm Boy, book cover

Snugglepot, book cover





























































I have long been fascinated by Australia and its rich and fascinating land. I started my career as a published writer with a book for Scholastic Australia called The Eyespy Book of Night Creatures (1990), followed a year later by The Eyespy Book of Endangered Animals (1991). In 1998, after a number of other books concerning the environment, I went on to publish One child (Era, 1998; Crocodile Books, 1999). One child, which is illustrated by Steven Woolman, is a book of minimal text about a child who, when confronted by environmental devastation, despairs that she can do nothing, and then comes to realise that she can make a difference—pondering what would happen if children around the world were to become empowered.

Australia is an island continent: the largest island and the smallest continent. There are endless amazing facts about this country and its land, but let me just say for now that our landscape includes coastal sand dunes; pristine rainforest; one of the most glorious, teeming-with-wildlife national parks in the world; and sometimes snow-covered alpine regions and deserts. In all of these environments there is unique plant and animal life that can be found nowhere else in the world.

We have no mandated national education curriculum about Australia's diverse ecosystem as of yet, but every state and territory includes some exploration of the Australian environment in its curriculum, which varies according to grade level.

Thankfully, we have trade and education publishers who put out children's books that explore all of Australia's wonderful natural environment in many genres, and a number of these titles are available internationally.

Here is a sample of some of the children's books concerning the natural world that are part of my personal collection:

Picture Books~

The wonder of the Australian environment, from the natural world to the human-made environment, has long been the inspiration for Australia's picture book creators. Some titles encourage readers to imagine the environment as it was, while others ponder a disrupted and disturbed, even destroyed, natural environment. In all cases, readers are encouraged to be the powerful force for change and enlightenment.

Jeannie Baker creates glorious picture books with her unique style of collage pictures. Where The Forest Meets The Sea (Walker Books, 1988 and Greenwillow Books) follows a boy and his father in a boat called the "Time Machine" while they explore a rain forest that is filled with native wildlife and where even barely visible dinosaurs are dwelling. The final spread envisages the forest as it could be... spoiled by the urban spread.

Another Baker title, 'Belonging' (Walker Books, 2004 and published in USA by Greenwillow Books as Home) is a wordless picture book, again filled with exquisite collages, this time investigating an urban environment where the local community is empowered to transform the concrete 'built' feel into a landscape filled with native plants and animal life, and where they finally 'belong'.

Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins' creation My Place (originally published by Collins Dove, 1997 now Pearson Education, 2000) has become the favoured text for investigating Australia, or more specifically Sydney (and very specifically a street near my home!), as it changes from our bicentenary of European Settlement in 1988 progressively back through to the First Fleet arrival in 1788. It is a powerful and evocative exploration of the changes to this street and place, flipping back through Australia's past and meeting boys and girls in the places where they lived.

A prolific creator inspired by the natural environment is Narelle Oliver. Her lavishly illustrated picture books Baby Bilby, Where do You Sleep? (Lothian, 2003) and Sand Swimmers (Lothian, 1999) explore the secret hiding places of some of Australia's desert creatures through cut-out holes and lively prose.

And since this is 'International Polar Year' what could be better than books on Antarctica? One of Australia's most prolific authors of many genres is Hazel Edwards. Her newest book, Antarctic Dad (Lothian, 2006), is an endearing story about how a boy and his dad, who is in far away, in Antarctica, keep in touch.


For a long time Australian children have read Australian published books featuring Australian kids in Australian environments, whether it be classics such as Ivan Southall's To The Wild Sky (Angus and Robertson, 1967), or Colin Thiele's classic title Storm Boy (first published in 1963, now available from New Holland Australia, 2002) about a boy, an aboriginal man banished by his tribe, and the boy's friend, an orphaned pelican which is eventually shot by hunters. In 1976 this book was also made into a movie. Thiele was a master storyteller with a passion for conservation and the environment.

A very long time ago, May Gibbs created the children's classic which generations of Australian children have read, or have had read to them. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (Angus and Robertson, 1918; now HarperCollins) is set in the Australian bush, complete with gumnut creatures and their animal friends.

Tim Winton's Lockie Leonard Scumbuster (Pan Macmillan 1993) is another riveting read about surfing, grommets, Australian legends and saving the local town from industrial pollution. 


Our education publishers excel in creating books that are targeted for the school market across all grades. These books include highly visual titles for young readers, whether they be introducing the various Australian environments, food chains, and ways to protect the natural world, such as Mangrove Shore and Rocky Reefs in the Macmillan Young Library series; our unique wildlife, for example, Wallabies, in the Australian Animals series; or titles that are more textual and that provide older students with scientific detail about things such as natural disasters with titles like Tsunamis and Droughts.

Themes such as Natural Disasters, protecting Australia's wildlife, Wonders of the Sea, Australian Animals, the Ecosystem, are all covered in great detail. In many cases the education publishers also provide curriculum links to national and/or state standards and web links to help schools maximize the potential of the books in helping kids learn about a particular theme.

Trade publishers also create wonderful non-fiction titles. The endearing qualities of Camels and the exploration of their arrival and impact in Australia's land, for instance, is ably demonstrated in Janeen Brian's acclaimed title, Hoosh! Camels in Australia (ABC Books 2005).

John Nicholson consistently creates award-winning non-fiction titles where he investigates the 'real'world. One of his latest being Animal Architects (Allen&Unwin, 2003), a look through words and pictures at the homes that animals create in their shells, nests and lodges. His titles are always exquisitely illustrated (he is an architect, graphic designer and illustrator) and filled with excellently researched facts.


I could include numerous more titles in this list, but these are some of my favourites. Whether seeing it with one's own eyes is an option or not, these wonderful books do a great job of revealing, exploring and explaining Australia's eco-richness to all.

Posted March 2007


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