Thursday 12 May 2016

The Australia Book by Eve Pownall

Next week the CBCA will announce their shortlisted books for 2016 from amongst the 80-odd books currently selected as 'notables'.

In preparation, I thought I'd like to revisit some of the older winners to get a better sense of where we've come from and how things have changed - not only for the CBCA and the choices they've made but also the type of books being written by Australian writers.

The Australia Book was first published in 1952 by The House of John Sands. Recently, Black Dog Books republished this classic award winning book.

Eve Pownall was born in 1902 in Kings Cross. She was a writer, an advocate for Australian history and an early champion for children's literature. As such she was involved in the beginnings of the group that eventually became the Children's Book Council of Australia.

The Australia Book won the CBCA book of the year for 1952. Pownall's trademark social history style was evident throughout.

They used to say when I was young, 'geography is maps, history is chaps'. Its the chaps I go looking for, and the chaps' wives and the kids...what were the kids playing? How were their mothers coping out on the frontiers.... (Writing History: A Child With a Doll, 1977, source)

After her death in 1982, Pownall's family initiated an award in her honour.
The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books eventually became an annual award in 1993 to honour imaginative non-fiction work.

There is a lot of love for this book out there in blogger land. However, I don't remember The Australia Book from my childhood. Perhaps, it was already considered somewhat dated in the early 1970's?

Which would be a shame, because despite its dated attitude towards Indigenous peoples, The Australia Book is a very good example of how to make history fun, informative and easy to read.

And when I say dated, I don't mean racist. Pownall was far more generous and progressive than that. But her version of Australian history was very Euro-centric and reflected the thinking of the times.

Her language unintentionally supported the white version of history that believed that being white equalled right. That white represented civilisation and every other way of life was somehow less.

So even though, the first page of The Australia Book acknowledged the first peoples and respected their traditions, some subtle choices of words can offend our modern sensibilities. (As no doubt, future readers will feel uncomfortable with our current way of thinking on issues to do with, for instance, refugees.)

For example, Pownall wrote about some Aboriginal traditions like this -

From its plants they made their simple medicines.
The moon watched their feastings, their corroborees, their lean bodies painted queerly as they danced and sang.

And her version of first contact looked like this -

Aborigines stood on the cliffs, shook their spears and called "warra warra!" which means "go away!" But the white men took no notice. This time they had come to stay.
The explorer's found much land which was rich and fertile, but only the aborigines lived there

Pownall was very thorough in her selection of historic events - explorers, Cook, Arthur, convicts, rum, Macarthur, Bligh, squatters, penal colonies, early settlers and wool. The gold rush, advances in technology, cotton, sugar and the use of Kanaka's  - "Blackbirding was very like slavery..." (more white history revisionism that has yet to be addressed satisfactorily in our country to this day. But that's another story.) Our relationship with New Guinea, bushrangers, the various wars, early law making, Federation, the Great Depression and life up to 1952.

From other lands come immigrants for Australia. Some do not speak English. Some come from countries where life is very different from ours. In large camps, they are taught how Australians live so they quickly become new citizens.

Loose smut of oats - Margaret Senior
One of the successful techniques that Pownall used in writing this book, was her sense of history unfolding gradually and logically. She created an easy to read flow of information with causal links and useful details.

The lovely illustrations by Margaret Senior have added to the appeal of The Australia Book over the years.

Senior wrote and illustrated several children's book during this time before devoting herself to wildlife studies. The University of Newcastle now presents the Margaret Senior Wildlife Illustration Award annually.

Her illustrations for the book are warm, graceful and humanistic.

Pownall finished her book with some speculation about what our future lives might look like. She discussed the advances in aviation and left her young audience with this tantalising promise -

Perhaps YOU will fly in one that shoots through the air like a rocket.

And finally -

Every country is now close to every other country. When atomic power is used for everyday things, we will be closer still

I know my two almost grown booklets would be challenged by this notion. That the people alive in 1952 could possibly think that they were as modern and as connected and as technologically advanced as they now think they are would mess with their heads completely!

It is those elements in Pownall's book that make it still so worthwhile and relevant today. The differences between her now and then and our now and then would make for great classroom discussions.

The glaring (to us) omissions from her historical record would also make for an interesting discussion about how and why history is revised. Which could lead to a debate about what will future generations think about us.

How will the future view our living history?


  1. How did I miss this review last week? So pleased to find it on the AWW wrap up today. I bought a copy of this book a year or so ago because of the Eve Pownall award. Of course I haven't managed to read it yet- but one day I will. It sounds intriguing. Great post!

  2. I read this book as a child more than 70 years ago. I then purchased it for my children ( now adults) It my primary source for Australia history when I was in primary school. I am searching for a copy to give to my grandchildren so I can share it with them.

    1. Check with your local books seller. I'm not sure if it's still in print, but if it is, they will be able to order it in for you :-)


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.