I grew up on stories of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the gumnut babies who went on the most fabulous adventures. When you’re a kid you don’t tend to think much about the writer of the book, or how it came to be published. You’re too interested in shoving your fists in your mouth, terrified that Cuddlepie will get mistaken for a grub and might certainly get eaten up by a short-sighted old bird.
As an adult reader I’m absolutely fascinated by May Gibbs’ own life story. Born in 1877 in England, she emigrated to Australia at 4 years of age with her parents. She spent her early years growing up surrounded by the Australian bush while her parents tried their hand at farming.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about May Gibbs that really surprised me.
1. May Gibbs was a writer AND an artist
Actually, she was more of an artist than a writer. The words came later. By the age of 15 she was a very talented botanical illustrator, winning her first major art prize at the Perth Wild Flower Show.
She returned to London more than once to pursue her art career and study at the Cope and Nichol Art School, Chelsea Polytechnic Institute and Mr Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists.
The gumnut babies made their first appearance in 1913 when May Gibbs was commissioned to illustrate Ethel Turner’s serial, The Magic Button.
She went on to produce gumnut baby merchandise and became known for her gumnut bookmarks, postcards and calendars well before any stories were published.
2. Her early stories were rejected by publishers
In the early 1900s – around 1905 – she wrote Mimie and Wog: their adventures in Australia and sent, under a pseudonym, to publishers in England. It was roundly rejected and never published.
3. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was published to celebrate the end of WWI
May Gibbs didn’t give up on writing stories. After establishing herself as an artists, from 1914-1918 she published a series of well-received booklets about the bush babies.
In 1918, when the world was celebrating peace and the ANZAC legend had just been born, May Gibbs gathered her bush babies together, added a bunch of new stories, and published the wildly successful picture book The Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.
It was an instant hit – a book of Australian fairytales for the children of a nation with a new identity.
4. May Gibbs was an early feminist
She denied the label but May Gibbs was an early feminist. In words that still find their way out of not-a-feminist feminists in 2017, she explained:
I never thought of myself other than as an individual and I was never anti-man.
She has since been described by others as:
Australia’s first resident professional woman cartoonist and caricaturist and the first Australian woman known to have drawn local political cartoons.
Many of her political cartoons were commissioned by the Western Mail in Perth, the owner of which was married to prominent women’s rights activist Agnes Robertson.
5. Charities benefit from the continued success of May Gibbs’ books
May Gibbs died in 1969. Upon her death she bequeathed the copyright of all her works jointly to The NSW Society for Crippled Children (now known as Northcott) and the Spastic Centre of NSW (now known as Cerebral Palsy Alliance).
The royalties from her books continue to support disabled children and adults, more than 50 years on.
May Gibbs’ Snugglepot & Cuddlepie and Gumnut Babies series are stories we grew up on. To celebrate 100 years since these stories were published, the May Gibbs Foundation has released four NEW stories, inspired by May Gibbs!
To WIN a pack of all 4 books to read to your kids or grandkids, simply share your memories with me and tell me in the form below: What do you love about May Gibbs’ stories?
Disclosure: I received a pack of 4 books (pictured above) from the May Gibbs Foundation for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own.