State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 60 Spring 1997


A Place To Live: Urban Images In Australian Picture Books

The concept of ‘place', and of turning place into ‘my place', is one that has been of continuing concern to Australian writers. Until relatively recently, the place that was predominantly seen as the site of identity and authenticity in Australia was ‘the bush', ‘the outback’ — the non-urban — and this was reflected in literature as in other aspects of life. That this did not reflect the reality of our population distribution has often been recognised. As Falkiner in her introduction to The Writers’ Landscape: Settlement, points out:
The greatest and most frequently remarked upon paradox in Australian life has always been that the predominant cultural image is of a nation of bush dwellers, while Australia is and has always been a highly urbanised society … While this paradox has been exhaustively examined since critical analysis of Australian literature began, it is only recently that the gap has begun to close and Australian writers have come to recognise themselves in their literature as predominantly urban dwellers. (Falkiner 1992: 7)
Although Falkiner is referring to literature written for adults, a similar trend can be seen in children's literature. In fiction, there has been a growing trend towards urban settings — especially in young adult novels — and while authors may adopt a variety of attitudes towards this setting it seems that urban life has become fully accepted by children's fiction writers as a valid part of Australian children's experiences. Picture books have also shared in this trend, and this paper will examine two aspects of the representations of urban life: Australia as suburbia, and Australia as city. The visual and verbal texts of picture books can be powerful contributions to the creation of images of place - what shapes has ‘Australia’ taken on for young readers through this particular genre? What is shown? What is omitted?

Australia as suburbia

Suburbia in Australia has been seen not just as a place but as an ideology. Rowse traced three distinct stages in the development of this ideology:
In the first period suburbia is portrayed as the antithesis of the fine place that a particular writer hopes Australia will be. In the second, the memory of this antithesis persists in an ironical acceptance of Australia's unquestionably suburban fate. In the third, the suburban home is reborn as a crucible of a more humane civilisation. (Rowse 1978: 5)
A later stage — rejection — may have been added:
Feminists, environmentalists and expenditure review committees have agreed that low-density suburbs are too expensive, constrain choice, harm the social life of women and children, fly in the face of the demographical trend towards smaller households and are not environmentally sustainable. (Orchard 1990: 61)
As a literary construct, suburbia as portrayed in adult fiction shows evidence of all the above stages (although until the eighties satire and ridicule were probably the most prevalent), and the constructs continue to become more varied and more complex.
Australian picture books, however, have shown, and continue to show, an overwhelmingly positive and accepting view of suburbia — a place of family life (mostly nuclear); of positive neighbour and community interaction; of unpretentious houses in safe streets; of backyards, pets and friends. It is also mainly middle-class and Anglo-celtic.
Bob Graham's picture books most closely approximate Rowse's ‘suburban home as a crucible of a more humane civilization’. Over the last decade Graham has received two Picture Book of the Year awards, one Honour title, and two shortlisted titles among his numerous publications. The Children's Book Council Judges Report for 1991 praised him as a ‘Past master at the portrayal of warm, family relationships shown with a clear sighted fondness’, and reviewers have frequently noted the warmth and humour of his books. In fact, Graham's version of suburbia has struck a deep chord of approval in adults which seems to go beyond an appreciation of his skill, creativity and imagination. Perhaps this approval is so deep because his books present the reader with a positive, even idealised, view of family life.
Graham's families are casual, informal, affectionate. Their setting is an equally casual and unpretentious house, garden and backyard, with at least one pet. Shops are within safe, easy walking distance; friends visit; grandparents are in regular contact; and a sense of neighbourhood is strongly present. Parents are supportive and affectionate, and children seem to have freedom to play, grow and explore. This is life as many Australians would like it to be for their children, and these books tap into the shared cultural assumptions of much of middle Australia. Graham has said that ‘caring’ is the most important idea in his books:
Somewhere for me, usually in a family environment, in amongst all this bedlam, there is an atmosphere that somebody is caring for you … I'd like that sort of feeling to be underneath it all. So that a child can pick up on that and feel that sort of atmosphere. (Graham 1993: 62)
Until Spirit of Hope (1993) Graham seemed to be suggesting that this sort of nurturing family life could only be expressed in a suburban setting. The inner suburbs and city proper had been represented as a place to be avoided, or to be passed through as quickly as possible. Pearl's Place (1983) most clearly shows Graham's distrust of inner city life. (Plate 5) Arthur, in his highrise flat, cannot participate in what Graham sees as a ‘normal’ childhood: having pets, playing exuberantly, making a mess, moving freely around your neighbourhood. The opening illustration of the pale, cold, grey block of flats with two tiny figures on a balcony, and a murky haze over the car-lined street, emphasises the isolation and un-naturalness of the situation. This is further extended when Arthur and his friend Anna go to play in the park outside the flats. Parks, in Graham's books, are usually green open places with people, birds, dogs; this cold, grey space has no greenery — there is one pollarded, contorted, bare tree, a ‘no dogs’ sign, an empty bench. The park is dingy and shadowed, and ‘The building blocked the sunlight early in the afternoon.’
When Arthur and his mother meet Pearl and Jessica, colour and vitality enter their life. Pearl's small cottage is filled with sunlight and greenery, a world close to nature with plants, birds and animals — a world where children can play, grow and be nurtured. This contrast is reinforced in the closing pages as Arthur and his mother move back into ‘the shadow of their building’ and the greyness dramatically bisects Arthur's body. Then the two tiny figures, dwarfed and anonymous, enter the door at the bottom of the grey tower. This is no way, the images tell us repeatedly, for families to live. Consciously or unconsciously, Graham shows us a world where suburbia, with its family home, its nurturing personal space of backyard and garden and friendly shared public spaces of street and park, is the proper place for children and their families.
Although Graham is the most obvious apologist for suburban life, there seem to be few Australian picture book authors and illustrators who disagree with his view. In many ways it is an idealised, perhaps nostalgic view and one that — with a few exceptions — does not reflect the social changes of the last few decades such as the variety of ethnic backgrounds, the impact of feminism, and issues such as class and poverty. It is also very much the stereotype of the life that has been said to be ‘best’ for children — two affectionate parents, friends and pets to play with, and a back yard to play in. Again, the cultural assumption of middle Australia. Particularly noticeable in these suburban picture books is the representation of the backyard. Fiske, Hodge and Turner, in their analysis of changes in Australian homes and gardens (Fiske 1987: Chapter 2) over the last three decades suggest how these changes might throw light on the way Australians have constructed both the idea of family and of Australianness.
The ‘backyard’ of the 1950's contrasted with the outdoor living area of today in a whole set of features. Unlike the pergola-ed, well-shaded, and partially paved object of today, the backyard had few concessions to ‘outdoor living’. It may have had one shady tree, perhaps bearing a homemade swing or the marks of frequent climbing. This tree, often as not, would stand in splendid isolation in the grassy patch in the middle of the yard which was called a lawn only when it had to be mowed… If there was a garden in the backyard it was usually constituted by choice from among three main elements: the flowering bushes around the back entry or the outside toilet, the bordering bushes or shrubs along the paling fence perimeter, and the vegetable plot… On a good day the back yard could be neat and tidy but never pretty or inviting. The general impression it created was rural rather than urban. (Fiske 1987: 47)
Graham's families have just such backyards, and similar ones can be seen in many picture books of the eighties and nineties. The fact that so many show not the outdoor living space of today's suburbia but the ‘old backyard’ reinforces the idea that what we see is often a nostalgic view of childhood, place and identity. Fiske further suggests that the backyard was in direct opposition to the more ordered front garden with its picket fence or low wall, and its flower beds ‘controlled, bordered, European.’ I can think of only one picture book that sees the backyard as being as controlled and ordered as the front garden — Brave With Ben (Mattingley 1982). This book utilises a scornful treatment of suburbia and is the only book I found to present such a view without some softening of affectionate irony. The boy's house, garden and backyard are shown as highly manicured, controlled, tidy — a travesty of the ‘old backyard'.
The front was neat with close mown lawn where Peter played cricket with his friends. The back was tidy with pruned fruit trees, and straight concrete paths where Peter rode his bike, up and down to the clothes-hoist, to the barbecue, along the edges of the vegetable plot.
Here, suburbia and its icons are seen as cutting people (especially children) off from the ‘real’ Australia, controlling and standardising them to a tidy conformity. Suburbia is not the site of Australian identity for this writer; the real Australia is in the bush or at least in its close approximation in Granny's large, overgrown country garden with its trees, birds and animals. When Peter visits Granny he at first finds this natural world threatening and alien; he has to be taught to know it and see it as his heritage and true identity.
In all other instances, however, suburban gardens when seen in relation to children are places for exploration and play with room for cubby houses, secret places and imagination. Even the more ‘eighties’ garden in Drac and the Gremlin (Baillie 1988)
with its paving and tubs of plants, has a tyre swing and a makeshift cubbyhouse. The content of play in these backyards is creative, imaginative and usually gregarious (as opposed to Mattingley's presentation in Brave with Ben). And no child stays inside watching the telly when there is a backyard to play in. Again, perhaps this is an idealised and unconsciously didactic notion of today's childhood.
Picture book suburbia, apart from small easily resolved disagreements, is also largely a place without conflict; this is a reflection just as much perhaps of the homogeneity of race, class and attitudes as it is of what is regarded as ‘suitable’ content for picture books. The (mythical) ideal of suburbia as a place of friendly, happy families within a friendly homogeneous neighbourhood is the image that has been most constantly presented.

Life in the city and inner suburbs

There are, however, other ways of living in Australia. Images of the city proper with its shops, businesses and parks, and the lives of those who occupy the inner suburbs, have also found their way, though belatedly, into picture books. In contrast to the overall homogenous world of suburbia these books display a much greater diversity of lifestyles, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds and situations. They are also more likely to show a specificity of place through the use of real places and place names, while the suburban books tend to take place within a homogeneous locality, which ignores both the differences between suburbs and the complexities within them.
There have only been a few books which focus on the events and places of the city centre, me central business district. This area tends to be perceived as an adult domain, a place where adults work and conduct business, where the recreations offered are adult-centred.
Carbothello the Dragon (Dickins 1989) explores some of the essential contradictions of the central city: oppressive dullness of work opposed to vitality of the streets; loneliness versus community; cityscape as depressive but also as welcoming. There is also an underlying city/country opposition. Dickins's engaging fantasy is grounded in a detailed, slightly surrealistic Melbourne: Flinders Street station, trams, the Yarra, the Botanical Gardens, China Town. The soullessness of city work is epitomised by Carbothello's job in the Lodgement of Things Office with its canteen where workers sit in isolation one to a table under a sign ‘Shhh! Others Are Eating’. He dreams of getting away from all this to the country, to ‘Somewhere clean and sunny. Where was Kooweerup or Yackandandah?’ He longs for the smell of ‘wattle and clean country air'. The contrast between the dull, crowded streets, the lonely boring dirty work and the idealised country landscape echo many Australian writers, but most directly there is an unmistakable echo of Paterson's
Clancy of the Overflow. Carbothello quits work and finds that, without the cashbook and the journal, life in the city takes on a very different view. He visits the Museum, the Art Gallery, the Botanic Gardens where ‘The smell of wattle and eucalyptus was delicious.’ He sees the individuals who have avoided becoming part of the crowd — joggers, benchsitters, cyclists. Evening is no longer characterised as a sullen rush hour — far from it:
The neon lights came to life and danced upon the water. The bells of the Cathedral chimed. Friends met under the station clocks … How exciting the city was!
But this is an adult fantasy of an adult world — Carbothello is not presented as a child figure. It is an image of the city that is found in tourist brochures — a positive, stimulating friendly place, a holiday place. In this light-hearted fantasy Dickins does not have to explore the question of what will happen to Carbothello tomorrow, or whether his vision of the sunlit streets extended can be incorporated into everyday life.
A very positive view of noise, bustle and crowds is shown in Victoria's Market (McNab 1992), a realistic story touched with fantasy set in Melbourne's Victoria Market. The market visit is represented as a regular and enjoyable part of the life of Victoria and her father. On this visit they lose each other and, as they search, the reader is taken on a tour of the market stalls. The vitality of the illustrations mirrors the exuberance of the text. The stall-holders and shoppers come from varied ethnic and age groups, and this variety is shown as an integral and positive part of the place. This commercial side of the city is presented as exciting, welcoming, accessible.
Cultural and other activities related to the city centre such as galleries, museums, concerts and restaurants are rarely represented in Australian picture books as part of children's experience. Winch's One Saturday (1989) has a child visiting a museum, and Denton shows the delights of formal eating out in At the Cafe Splendid (1987). Perhaps Australian children are expected to be closer to nature than culture, more interested in outdoor play than in cultural pursuits. In Our Excursion (Walker 1994) when Ms Mobbs takes Class 2M ‘on an excursion to see the park, a building site, an old tram and the Art Gallery’, their physical exuberance soon leads to the temporary loss of their teacher. Blithely carrying on with their itinerary the class visits the Art Gallery (basically in search of ‘nice toilets’) but doesn't get any further than the entrance. (Plate 7)
Within or close to the Central Business District of most Australian cities are the city parks which offer — as do the streets — crowds, movement, variety, but also allow space for privacy and quietness. The parks offer recreation space for city shoppers and workers and also tend to attract the eccentric, the marginalised, the
outsider. Unlike their smaller suburban counterparts with their swings and play equipment, the city parks are not really places for children. They belong to the primary inhabitants of the city: the adults who work there by day; those who live on its fringes; and those who are drawn to it as a space which meets their various needs.
In her Prologue to Millicent (1988) Jeannie Baker tells of her particular interest in ‘interesting people’, whose dress or behaviour singles them out from the dominant culture. Baker's illustrations place her as the artist within her own composition. We see her entering Sydney's Hyde Park and men at work drawing one of the interesting people — the man with the jewelled Chinese fan who always bows, waves, and turns around three times — while Millicent's story plays itself out. The collage technique gives a particular sense of reality to the scenes: people eating, jogging, kissing, reading, sunbathing, talking, sleeping. Against this background Millicent moves, apparently silent and alone, looking at no one, although occasionally people look at her. Elderly, female, alone and (possibly) poor, Millicent appears, like many elderly-women in urban society, to have been deprived of both function and status. Baker shows us, however, that in her own mind Millicent has a full and happy life; her emotions and imagination were actively engaged in her relationships — with the pigeons, her named friends and dependants. Hyde Park offers Millicent a world of companionship through these birds. It also offers her spaces of her own; we see her sitting on a bench in an enclosed corner, surrounded by trees and shrubs in quiet privacy. She has found a space in the city where marginalisation can be, to some extent, softened.
While the city proper is shown in Australian picture books as having little to offer children, family life is experienced in a variety of forms on its fringes, in the inner city suburbs. Like their suburban counterparts these books present a particular underlying view of childhood and family, even though the life-styles are more varied. A theme in a number of the books is children at play. Outdoor play is presented as an integral part of childhood, but whereas suburban children, living on their quarter acre blocks, have no problem finding a place to play, inner suburban children, as shown in picture books, are faced with more complex concepts of play and play space. Is there a place to play at all?
Two books from the seventies present very different approaches to this question. Young's Keep Out (1975) presents an urban environment which by its very nature is hostile to children.
The houses in the middle of the big city jostled one another down the narrow streets. There was no room for things like playgrounds or parks. The children who lived there sometimes felt that there was no room for them either, especially in holiday time.
The children's attempts to play in the street are met with continual rebuffs from the adults, and no adult plays with the children or intervenes in any positive manner. It is a book hard to place in time — details such as types of car suggest the seventies, but there is a slightly old-fashioned air about the illustrations (pinafores, aprons) and the text with its consistently gender stereotyped play. In the dump, which is the illegal play space, the girls play house and the boys ‘rushed about wrecking whatever they could’. The problem of where to play is solved by a community decision to turn the dump into an Adventure Playground with space for adults as well. Young implies that the inner suburbs can make space for children and play, but it is not a naturally encouraging environment.
Lilith's What Children Do was published in the same year as Keep Out but is far more obviously a product of the ideologies of the seventies. Deliberately counter-sexist, the three children have non-gender-specific names, are dressed alike in casual clothes and play equally. The black and white photographic illustrations show a Fitzroy streetscape with small terrace houses built directly onto footpaths and with small concrete backyards. But this setting is not necessarily, or intrinsically, an inimical place for children. Urban restrictions on play are noted realistically: ‘It is a holiday today so there are not many cars about. It is a good day to play ball in front of the house.’ The pavement and street provides some of the function of the suburban backyard, although it is communal rather than private, and adult use (traffic) has first priority. These children are happy without parks or playgrounds, but they are quite young, with adults who are prepared to play with them and to provide the occasional trip further afield.
Young children, in the private space created by the family, may be content with this, but Young's book seems closer to actuality as expressed by children in a Sydney study. Hamel and Burns (1985) in a survey of three hundred and thirty-one children, aged nine to eleven years old, found that children in the two most industrialised suburbs
criticised the street life available to them as dirty, dangerous and unsuitable for play. Rather than appreciating their ‘lively city sidewalks’, they complained about the unfriendly behaviour of local adults, and considered parks to be the best feature of their environment. (106-107)
A place to play is even more of a problem in Basil, the Loneliest Boy on the Block (Timlock 1990). Even more strongly than Graham's Pearl's Place, this book reflects the Australian uneasiness about apartment life for children, and it is also one of the few books to imply that the urban world is actually dangerous for children. (A later and more confrontational representation, Hathorn and Roger's Way Home, is discussed below) Basil ‘couldn't go outside because it was not safe on his own’. No reason is
given for this in the text, nor is any danger shown in the illustrations. On the contrary, the bright and cheerful illustrations show clean prosperous streets, and little traffic. There is no grime, no industry, no dark corners. But the children in this block of flats have no contact with each other, nor do we see them being taken ‘safely’ outside the building by adults. There is an implication in the text that the outside world is threatening for children, and that the inside private world of the family is isolating and lonely (even though the illustrations show people involved in a variety of pleasant activities in their own apartments). Basil solves the problem by putting up a notice in the foyer to bring the children together and finds that ‘Twelve kids can swap toys, go to the park, have a party.’ Community, in this urban style of living is presented as something that can only be achieved through much effort and through formal channels; it cannot evolve through informal contacts as in suburbs with their safe streets and parks.
Another threatening, dangerous image of urban life is explored through fantasy in Felix and Alexander (Denton 1985). Here, darkness and isolation transform a residential street of terrace houses into a place of fear. The illustrations personify this threat, showing houses looming over the small figure of Alexander, shaking their hands at him and showing gaping mouths of sharp teeth. The environment itself, the very basis of the urban, here becomes threatening. The buildings become more fearsomely alive until Alexander is caught ‘in the grip of a fearsome monster’ and almost devoured. He is saved only when the light of the torch carried by Felix restores the streetscape to reality and normality.
When the single family home with an affectionate supportive family is the setting, sociability in the inner urban areas can appear to be just as safe and certainly more varied than in the suburbs. The environment in Bridgit Was Bored (Moorhead and Hilary 1992) may not at first appear to be conducive to children's happiness. ‘Bridgit lived in a tall and narrow house that looked out on a tall and narrow square’, and she says of it ‘The houses are grey, the cars are dirty, the leaves are falling off the trees, there's nothing to do and there's no one to play with.’ However, this square with its small park is more enclosed than most suburban streets. It is a territory where Bridgit is known and can move with safety and confidence within sight of her home. Bridgit overcomes her momentary boredom by socialising with the square's inhabitants — adults, teenagers, children, of different nationalities and occupations. The illustrations are warm and the details warm and friendly; this is definitely a good place to live. Even elderly Mrs Simpson who used to live in the country has no regrets. She has her window boxes and ‘can go to the cafes, go shopping for delectable chocolates and go to the zoo whenever I choose.’
The variety of inhabitants is mirrored by the variety of housing styles in the square shown in the detailed border on each double spread. This variety contrasts
with the homogeneity of housing in most picture books with suburban settings. The overall atmosphere in this book is one of activity, variety, interaction, community. This is urban living at its best combining a safe place to play with a stimulating variety of friendly people. No suburban setting shows such variety of community; the idea of homogenous suburbia seems too strong.


Picture books with inner city settings have included more representations of the poor, the socially outcast, the marginalised than those with suburban settings. Baker's Millicent, discussed above, is one such. In Oh! Kipper (McLean 1991), another socially isolated woman also relies on non-human company. Sonja is marginalised for a number of reasons:
Other people thought Sonja was rather odd. She wore the same clothes all year round, she was always muttering to herself or stopping to draw pictures on scrappy bits of paper.
Added to this, she conies from ‘a far away place', implying that the ‘muttering’ is in a language other than English. The local children, unable to accept such an array of differences, see her as a slightly threatening figure of fun and tease her with chants of ‘bag lady'. Like Millicent, Sonja finds affection and friendship outside the human world with her dog, Kipper. The inner urban streetscapes of the setting are bare and hard, with factories and highrise buildings against the skyline. There is a park, but Sonja cannot find peace and refuge here; the aggression towards her as the outsider is an active one on several fronts with the children's tormenting chants mirrored in the aggression of the ‘street dogs’ towards Kipper. Without Kipper's company the city is a place of loneliness and isolation for Sonja. This is emphasised in the night scene, when she searches for the dog against a background of bare trees and unfeeling statues, lit by the cold light of a street lamp. The mutual joy of their reunion returns light and warmth to the setting as they play in the sunset on the deserted beach — a setting which allows them a time and place for unobstructed enjoyment, away from the isolating hostility of the mainstream.
Sonja, although socially isolated, had a home of her own. The problems of the homeless have only recently been shown in picture books. The issue itself is not new in Australia, and of course exists in suburban as well as inner urban areas, but so far only inner urban settings have been shown.
In Space Travellers (Wild 1992), a park on the fringe of the city centre is the temporary home and gathering place for a small group of homeless people, among them Zac and his mother Mandy. (Plate 6) Rather than emphasise the marginalisation, text and illustrations work together to present these people positively, both as
individuals and as symbols — the courage of the young mother; the closeness and supportive sharing of the group; the innocence and naivety of the elderly woman Dorothy and the child Zac. The text subtly works to alert the reader to the reality and seriousness of the situation, yet maintains a distance from this reality through Zac and Dorothy. This is shown in the attitudes towards the rocket play-structure which has been Mandy and Zac's sleeping place.
‘We're lucky we sleep in a rocket’, says Zac, and Mandy tries to smile. She's all scrunched up and her neck aches and the nights are getting colder.
When they leave and ‘give’ the rocket to Dorothy her joy is as childlike as Zac's:
‘Mine', said Dorothy. ‘Mine!’ and the sun is in her smile and a million billion stars in her eyes.
Stereotypes of the homeless as shiftless, dirty and derelict have no place in this book. These people care for each other, sharing whatever food they have; they have established their own support network in the local shops (‘Simon has some frankfurts the butcher gave him … Dorothy has a flask of tea from the hairdresser on the corner.'), and Mandy and Zac use the facilities at the station for washing. The reader is not told why any of the group are living in the park. It is clear that Mandy is not doing so from choice and does not wish to remain marginalised, but it is implied that for Dorothy (who is clearly a ‘bag lady’ in a way that Sonja from Oh! Kipper is not) this may be a preferred way of life. Colours and use of perspective emphasise the isolation of the group. The small, softly green park with its friendly play equipment appears welcoming — a defined and enclosing home territory. Surrounding the park is the anonymous, stylised city; its clear, formal lines unthreatening but uncaring, with the aerial perspective emphasising the expanse of this mainstream world.
When Mandy and Zac move into the city proper to join Mandy's friends, the warm green light of the park gives way to the grey-brown shadows of a narrow, littered street. In the shadows are their friends welcoming them to a new space, a small confined space but one which offers opportunities for rejoining the mainstream — shelter, schooling, maybe a job for Mandy, ‘perhaps even a TV’ (the ultimate mainstreaming). But there is an implied sense of loss also, the loss of an ‘outer, outer space’ which accepts marginalisation and can find in it room to explore and imagine.
Gregory Rogers, the illustrator of Space Travellers, said the book explored ‘a tough topic in a gentle way’ (Rogers 1996: 202). With Way Home (Hathorn 1994), also illustrated by Rogers, quite another view of homelessness is shown. Here we see Shane, a young boy who, unlike Zac, is without parental support and affection. His world is one of danger and potential violence, and his passage through the night is often a headlong run to avoid confrontations. The book's design is dramatic with
white text against a solid black background, divided from the illustrations by a jagged white line. Rogers’ illustrations emphasise the danger of Shane's surroundings with the looming darkness of these inner city streets and lanes intensified by use of light — harsh light from street lamps and car headlights; cold light from towering office blocks; enticingly brilliant light from shop windows; warm light from the occasional dwelling. The light grows less as the story progresses, and Shane moves closer towards his makeshift home base with the kitten he has rescued. (Plate 9) Rogers’ original intention was to continue this movement towards darkness and to illustrate the final words of the text, ‘Here we are. We're home', with a bare, black page. The change back to a warm light was at his publishers’ suggestion and one that Rogers feels was an overall better solution.
Can an illustrator make the story of a young street kid acceptable to an audience that probably hasn't and may never have any experience of homeless-ness — an audience that can afford to buy the book? I had to consider that if I softened the visual impact it could misrepresent the intentions of both author and illustrator. But if I was totally uncompromising I could risk alienating and outraging the audience, therefore destroying any hope of communication and empathy for them. (Rogers 1996: 204)
Many (adult) readers were indeed outraged by Way Home, and criticised the book for treating the subject too realistically. Others criticised it just as fervently for not being realistic enough!
Perhaps it is easier for readers to accept books which utilise fantasy when dealing with confrontational social issues. Although, even then, the wish for a ‘happy ending’, or at least for closure, may limit positive critical response, as with Bob Graham's Spirit of Hope (1993), which also looks at homelessness and its effects. The setting here is far removed from the green people-friendly suburbs of Graham's earlier works. This is a bleak, grey industrial dockside area, and its highways and factories with their smoking chimneys dwarf all human activity. But industrialisation of the landscape has not brought alienation and isolation. This is a community where the Fairweather family live and work among friends, and the caring and affectionate family life that Graham sees as vital survives intact with the basic ingredients of home as haven — parents, children, pets. In this unlikely setting the tight from their home shines out into the darkness, fuelled by affection and imagination. (Plate 8) But when the ‘men', the nameless representatives of authority, tell the Fairweathers that their cottage is to be demolished to make way for another factory, the notion of home as a safe place is destroyed, and even the pictures on the walls reflect the impact. Where can a family go in this society when threatened with homelessness? ‘All they found were warehouses, factories, goods yards and one small caravan out
near the railway.’ What options do ordinary people have in a world where their needs are ignored? Graham chooses to reflect on the situation through a use of fantasy which allows a solution to be reached through innocence, hope and imagination. The youngest child's toy house on wheels (in fact, an ark) gives Mum the idea of moving their home to a safe place, with the help of their many friends from the factory. The house is put on a raft of drums, christened Spirit of Hope and moved from the land's edge into the sea, where it lies dwarfed by the big ships, tenuously connected to the land only by an anchor. There is an ambivalence about this ending; can this really be a permanent setting for family life, or has the ark yet to find a suitable resting place? ‘The house seemed to be pulling gently at its moorings, wanting to slip away with the tide.’ Will the family have to move to stay in ‘fair weather’, or can the family unit survive anywhere as long as it remains intact and maintains a spirit of hope? In some ways, Graham's book is a tribute to the resilience of ordinary people in a place which is no longer theirs.
Picture books with urban settings seem to show some of the problems and pressures as well as the pleasures of living in the city. Through their images and the stories they tell, authors and illustrators are continuing to contribute to the ideas of what makes ‘Australia’ and the ‘Australian way of life'.
Perhaps the most productive question that we can now pose is how do we wish to construct the place in which we live. (Willis 1993: 191)


  • Baillie, Alan (1988). Drac and the Gremlin, illustrated by Jane Tanner. Ringwood: Viking Kestrel.

  • Baker, Jeannie (1980). Millicent. Gosford: Ashton Scholastic.

  • Burnley, Ian and Forrest, James (eds.) (1985). Living in Cities: Urbanism and Society in Metropolitan Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

  • Denton, Terry (1985). Felix and Alexander. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

  • Denton, Terry (1987). At the Cafe Splendid. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

  • Dickins, Barry (1989). Carbothello, the Dragon. Melbourne: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Falkiner, Suzanne (1992). The Writer's Landscape: Settlement. Sydney: Simon and Schuster.

  • Fiske, John, et al. (1987). Myths of Oz. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

  • Gunew, Sneja (1986). ‘Constructing Australian Subjects: Critics, Writers, Multicultural Writers', in: Quartermain (1986), pp.51-62.

  • Graham, Bob (1983). Pearl's Place. Melbourne: Lothian.

  • Graham, Bob (1993). Spirit of Hope. Melbourne: Lothian.

  • Graham, Bob. ‘Interview', Australian Book Review, no. 154, September 1993, pp.59-60.

  • Hamel, Ross and Ailsa Burns (1985). ‘Through a Child's Eyes: Quality of Neighbourhood and Quality of Life', in: Burnley and Forrest (1985), pp.103-115.

  • Hathorn, Libby (1994). Way Home, illustrated by Gregory Rogers. Sydney: Random House.

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  • Lilith, Robyn(1975). What Children Do, photographs by Tony Figallo. Melbourne: Wren.

  • McLean, Janet (1991). Oh, Kipper! illustrated by Andrew McLean. Sydney: Alien and Unwin.

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  • Rogers, Gregory (1996). ‘Bleak, Brash and Beyond Innocence’, in Claiming a Place: Children's Book Council of Australia Third National Conference, Port Melbourne: Thorpe.

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  • Timlock, Jason (1990). Basil, the Loneliest Boy on the Block, illustrated by Brett Colquhuon. Melbourne: Viking.

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