(North Sydney) (16:03): Today I rise to recognise a very special birthday: the 100th birthday of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. May Gibbs’s most iconic work was published in November 1918 and has never been out of print in the hundred years since. Generation after generation of Australian children have grown up on the wonders of one of the best-known and most iconic Australian children’s books our nation has ever produced. The launch of the Bush Babies books coincided with the early years of the Australian nation and celebrated a country that was just 17 years old at the time. Important works published in that period include Selected Poems of Henry Lawsonby Henry Lawson, Swinging the Lead and Moving On by Banjo Paterson, St Tom and the Dragon by Ethel Turner and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. These are texts that described and, more importantly, defined our new nation. They gave us a voice, an identity, and created a connection with our unique environment, and would serve as a strong foundation for the enduring and lasting love that so many of us have for this great land of ours. At the time, they represented a break from the past, when children would rely solely on British or European tales set in an environment far from their own experience.
I am proud that the lower North Shore of Sydney was to be May Gibbs’s home for much of her life. Born in Sydenham, Kent, in 1877, May immigrated to Australia with her family in 1881 at four years of age. The Gibbs family went out to the country, first farming in South Australia followed by two years at a Harvey cattle station. It was during these impressionable years that May observed the beauty of the Australian bush. May has been quoted as saying:
It’s hard to tell, hard to say. I don’t know if the bush babies found me or I found the little creatures.
Following the publication of Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, May followed on with epic stories such as Little Obelia, Nuttybub and Nittersing, Chucklebud and Wunkydoo, Scotty in Gumnut Land, Mr & Mrs Bear, Prince Dandelion, Gumnut Babies and Little Ragged Blossom. It wasn’t just May Gibbs’s mastery of prose that brought her genuine acclaim. It was also her unique genius as an illustrator and artist. Her artwork was inspired and brought her characters to life. So ingrained and embedded in our culture are they that many of them are instantly recognisable to millions of Australians. So many of us fell in love with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in their quest to see a human, marvelled at the adventures of Nuttybub, and trembled in fear for the sad, shy little blossom Narnywos, held captive by the Bad Banksia Men.
Neutral Bay is lucky to have Nutcote, the beautiful harbourside home of May Gibbs. When it faced the threat of redevelopment many years ago, such was the love for May Gibbs and her legacy that the community reaction ensured it was saved. The home is now a wonderful museum run by North Sydney Council. Here’s to May Gibbs and her fabulous creations! May she forever live in our hearts.