Category Archives: Children’s Fiction

The Bunyip of Haig Park

Kathleen McConnell, Jenny Yim (ill.). The Bunyip of Haig Park. Ginninderra Press, [c1997]. ISBN: 1876259000

Bunyips really do seem to have a tough gig. Alexander was one of only three remaining bunyips, driven from home by unrelenting pollution. After his disappearance from Canberra he must have moved to Black Mountain. The Bunyip of Haig Park tells us that a few bunyips still live there. One of them, a “big, mean bunyip” has driven a small bunyip out of his cave on the mountain, and now the small bunyip – we don’t know his name – is looking for something to eat. It seems that food is a pretty high priority for a bunyip.

We only know that our small bunyip is in Haig Park from the book’s title. All we learn from the text is that he decides to lurk under a bridge to eat passers by (I thought that was trolls? I guess there’s no reason why a bunyip can have the same modus operandi). From his place under the bridge the bunyip meets a cyclist, a businessman and a boy called Brendan.

That’s it really. It’s a quaint little story that I could easily reproduce in full here were it not for copyright laws. It is sweetly illustrated in pencil drawings by Yim, and I particularly like the bunyip’s prehensile and expressive antennae, or whatever they are. The Bunyip of Haig Park is a whimsical vignette of loneliness and belonging.

It also gives me a chance to ponder Haig Park, past and present. A heritage-listed park envisaged by Charles Weston to be a windbreak, protecting the new city on the Limestone Plains from the dusty northerly winds, with a design said to be unique in Australian parklands. Former gay beat. Evocative wedding venue. Junkie hangout. Crime scene. Anyone who thinks that Canberra doesn’t have the requisite city seedy side needs to visit Haig Park. And remind me why it’s important to have these no-go-at-night areas, because I’m still not entirely convinced by the argument that every good city must have one.

Haig Park is perhaps an example of how we make cities for ourselves. The Park was conceived for purely practical reasons, and laid out in rigid formal lines by Weston, with trees chosen perhaps to honour the dead of the recent war. Surely Weston never imagined it as a place where homosexual men would seek close human contact or perhaps just the frisson of danger. Where the disaffected would temporarily escape via  a needle whatever demons the ideal city had wrought for them. Where hoards of apparently otherwise sane people would run around pretending to shoot eachother.

Whatever your best laid plans for a place might be, people will bend it to their own purposes. A bit like the bunyip under the bridge, and a bit like those of us who have turned a capital city into a community.


Canberra Critics Circle Literature Award: Winner, 1997.

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The Monster That Ate Canberra

Michael Salmon. The Monster That Ate Canberra. Summit Press, 1974. ISBN: 959920927

Probably Australia’s most famous bunyip, Alexander, was born in Canberra. Well, not exactly. He was forced to leave his original home (we don’t quite know where that is) because

his favourite billabong was slowly filling up with rubbish from the smoggy city. Every Tuesday and Thursday huge trucks roared down to the water and dumped loads of empty beer cans, soft drink bottles, cigarette packets, old tyres and newspapers – all the rubbish that lies about in the streets and gutters of any big city.

Unable to clean up after the trucks any longer, Alexander leaves to find a better place to live. After wandering to the sugarcane and the palms, to the bottle trees and grass trees, and “to the mountain ranges of snow and ice”, Alexander finally stumbles upon his new home:

There, nestling between the mountains in the distance was the biggest billabong that he had seen in all his Bunyip years… At last he had found a perfect home….. LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN!!

After finally resting following his long journey, Alexander wakes the next day, bathes under the Captain Cook fountain, and realizes he is hungry. The National Library looks to Alexander like a giant birthday cake, and tastes “a bit sugary and sweet”. Parliament House, “a special super extra long hamburger”, doesn’t taste very good at all. But for desert there is apple pie Academy of Science and an ice cream cone Carillion.

But Canberrans don’t like having their national monuments eaten by bunyips, and the Prime Minister, on the advice of “a wise professor from the University”, orders the plug to be pulled on Scrivener Dam, so that the lake can be drained and the greedy bunyip can be caught.

The Monster that Ate Canberra gave rise to an enormously successful and long-running series of children’s books, a television show, and even a range of merchandise. Later images of Alexander are round and cheerful and pastel-coloured, but these early pictures in the first Alexander book (the copy I read was the second edition – the first was in 1972) show him thinner and sadder-eyed, picked out in red, while the Minister for Uncertain Things and the other people around him are charcoal black and grey.

Alexander is a much-loved bunyip, so much so that a wonderful sculpture of him was erected outside the Gungahlin library. I couldn’t help, though, feeling sad reading The Monster that Ate Canberra. Among the last of his race, he is driven from home by the actions of unthinking others. When he finds a place of sanctuary and tries to get by, he is misunderstood, his actions of mere survival considered criminal by the people he has come to live among. I can’t help but agree with our anonymous narrator at the end of the book: “I hope he has found a home and lots of things to eat”.



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The Day I Was History

Jackie French, Christina Booth (ill.). The Day I Was History. National Museum of Australia Press, 2007. ISBN: 9791876944551

You don’t really expect to cry reading kids’ books, do you? In my defence, it was late on a Friday night after a wine or three at the end of a long and stressfully-annoying week. And the kids’ book is about the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

I don’t want to overstate my experience of the day. I was scared and confused but, as it turns out, never really in danger, although it was hard to know at the time. The neighbours and I hosed our houses until the water pressure cut out. We listened to radios in the front yard, the car packed hurriedly and crazily with just enough room left for me and the dog.

In the end we didn’t have to flee, although I slept for a bit that night in my boots, the car keys and Dog’s lead beside the back door. For the next few days, with no gas or electricity, I pretty much just sat on the lounge and listened to 666 until the radio’s batteries ran out and I had to go out for more.

The thing that still makes me weepy about that time is not so much the fires themselves, but the extraordinary generosity and kindness that was demonstrated everywhere. Big things and small. The morning of January 19 the little supermarket near me at Rivett opened, with no electricity, to make sure people could get what they needed. The staff stood at the front door, took your request and went off with torches into the shop to get it for you, so that customers wouldn’t stumble around in the dark. Calls went out on the radio for generators needed at some location or other. Half an hour later they would have to announce “No more generators! We have enough!” Geoffrey Pryor’s 20 January cartoon, City Without a Soul, encapsulated those days, and I still can’t look at it without crying. The only place online I’ve been able to find a reproduction of it is in this curriculum kit from the National Museum of Australia. Look for cartoon 7D at the top of page 10.

The Day I Was History brings all of that back for me. This book is part of the National Museum’s “Making Tracks” series, which engages leading children’s authors like French to tell stories through objects in the Museum’s collection. What an interesting selection this one is. As the endpapers of The Day I Was History explain, the story draws on

a fire-damaged wheel and hub from the ACT Fire Brigade truck Bravo 3. The truck was destroyed in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, when the crew was forced to abandon it in the Canberra suburb of Duffy.

Not your traditional choice to tell a story about life in Canberra. French does wonderful work encapsulating that extraordinary, ordinary day. She traces the warning signs that many of us didn’t believe on that otherwise normal Saturday, the building anxiety of not knowing what was going on, or where loved ones might be, the rallying of the Canberra community, and the slow and lingering realisation of loss.

The Day I was History begins with Sam encountering the wheel on display at the Museum:

It was like I’d been knocked flat even though I was standing up. It was like the bushfires were back in my head, like they are in dreams sometimes. And this old lady, well, older than Mum anyway, came up and said, ‘Are you alright?’

There is a two-way conversation going on here. Not only does the Bravo 3 wheel hold a story, but it also draws from us our own stories. And that is one of the most important jobs of a museum, and also of a book. As Sam realises, “we’re all history, all the time. We just don’t know it.”



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The Gundaroo Pony

Libby Anderson, Ronald Revitt (ill.) The Gundaroo Pony. Australian National University Press 1979. ISBN 0708110088

A little detour outside the borders to Gundaroo, and outside adult fiction into children’s books. Antoinette has loaned me her not-yet-accessioned copy of The Gundaroo Pony, and how can I refuse?

I suspect Canberrans feel about some of our surrounding villages the way most Australians think about New Zealand musicians and sports people. When there is something to admire about them, we just call them our own. Canberra has been famously called a good sheep paddock spoiled, and often has much of the feeling of a big country town. Gundaroo is a small country town, with a population in the hundreds and an infeasibly high proportion of good eating establishments, so I for one am happy to adopt it as part of Canberra for my own selfish purposes.

In The Gundaroo Pony our small friend Dianne and her grey pony prepare with excitement for the historical picnic proposed by Mr Marconi to honour the town’s pioneers. In the process Dianne learns about her own connections with the town’s past.

Although written in the 1970’s, The Gundaroo Pony had me thinking how close our history sometimes is, when we go looking for the links. And, I guess, the obvious but still sometimes surprising notion of how young our settler history is, particularly in this region, only now celebrating 100 years of having an official name.

The 1979 version of Gundaroo depicted here has a breathless admiration for pioneering. Dianne and her mother give us something of a definition to work with:

‘Pioneers,’ Dianne said thoughtfully, ‘were the people who came out to Australia a hundred or more years ago.’

‘That’s right,’ Mother said, ‘they had a very hard and difficult life. They had first to discover and then develop this big island we call Australia.’

‘Pioneers must have been very tough and brave,’ Dianne said.

Been here less than 100 years, or more than 1 000? No pioneering from you, thanks very much. The Gundaroo Pony has a narrow naivety that may be a product of its time, or its childish focus, or more probably both. I don’t feel particularly qualified to review children’s books, although this one reminds me of the quaint, starchy, goody-two-shoes Milly Molly Mandy stories I loved as a kid. I wonder how many children’s authors would write like this today, (only?!) 34 years later?

If The Gundaroo Pony finds history in the recent past, it also made me marvel at how times have changed. What community event today would risk a public liability apocalypse by handing out packets of nuts as prizes for the kids? Which 2010s eight year old would beg to stay longer after looking for an hour at old photos at the “historical library”, where “the old and precious documents and photos about the town’s history were carefully stored… in glass cased cabinets”? And does anyone say ‘golly’ ever, anywhere, at any age, any more?



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Filed under Children's Fiction, Women Writers