Don’t read Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner to them. I knew I was in trouble as the baby waddled off into the bush and Judy raced after him. All I could remember from reading the book as a child myself was that Judy meets a tragic end and that a tree was involved. I’d forgotten that an act of self-sacrifice was also involved – Judy saves the baby from the falling tree but not herself, and this made it even harder to keep reading the book aloud to my girls without my voice cracking and tears falling. Suffice to say, I read those pages very slowly, relying on lots of pauses and deep inhalations.
And I am only joking about not reading Seven Little Australians to your children. Please do read it. The impression of reading the book when I was about twelve years old, and the deep sadness I felt at its conclusion has stayed with me as an adult and I remember it over and above many, many long-forgotten childhood reads.
Who might enjoy this book?
I bought a battered paperback copy from the Save the Children book-sale a few months ago and put it on the kids’ bookshelf, thinking that, in a few years, one of them might pick it up and read it. But my six and a half year old is now quite entranced with having long books read to her, a chapter every night. The book is a bit too advanced for her reading level, but she, and even her four and a half year old sister, have sat enthralled every night for a month as we worked our way through Seven Little Australians. I think the book could easily appeal to children all the way into their early teens.
When I began reading the first chapter, I thought that my daughter might not choose the book again the following night. The language is obviously somewhat old-fashioned – the book was published in 1894 after all. But as Ethel Turner writes, she addresses the reader – she is telling the story to them. The book begins, ‘Before you fairly start this story I should like to give you just a word of warning.’ And she then proceeds to tell the reader that the tale she is about to unfold is one of very naughty children and that it is something about the Australian landscape – ‘the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere‘ – that contributes to their naughtiness.
Why the kids liked the book
There are a few things about this introduction that I think children find so appealing. The first is the idea that they are going to read about naughty children. What will these naughty children do? Just how naughty will they be? And what will happen to them when their naughtiness is discovered? I could well imagine that these thoughts were running through my daughters’ minds as we read.
The second idea that is appealing is that the Australian sunshine somehow makes these children naughtier than they might otherwise be. Anyone who has ever watched a couple of kids run around outside, unfettered by admonishments from adults to behave, will know just how easy it is for fun and sun to lead directly to a bit of naughtiness.
And the third reason the introduction grabs the attention of the reader is Turner’s way of addressing it to them. It reminded both me and my children of the Billie B Brown series by Sally Rippin – Rippin often invites the reader to guess at just what her heroine mught be up to. I had thought, without really thinking too deeply about it, that Rippin’s device was a contemporary one, but reading Turner’s book again reminded me of the long tradition of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who did address the reader directly. And it also reminded me, as a writer, what an effective device it can be.
What else is the book about?
From there, the story traces all the mischief of the children – from Bunty laming his father’s horse with a cricket ball, to Judy depositing the baby at her father’s barracks so she can enjoy an afternoon of fun at the fair, to the children continually interrupting a dinner party in the hopes of taking plates of roast chicken up to the nursery, rather than bread and butter. It’s all good, innocent fun and daring – apart from Bunty and the horse – but the consequence of it is that Judy is sent off to boarding school, a place she promptly runs away from, setting in train the tragic events at the end of the book.
Reading the book is also a bit like a history lesson – we journey to an outback station and learn about shearing and cattle drafting and also the relations of the outback settlers with the Aboriginal people – all subjects that we haven’t much encountered in picture books thus far but all subjects that my kids wanted to know more about.
My daughters didn’t cry at the end – they left that job to me – but I was asked quite a few questions about death and dying over the next few days, followed by a reenactment in the playroom of a baby doll being saved by one of my daughters from the certain death of being crushed by a soft fold-out kids’ sofa.
So, if you have children aged around 6 or 7 and want to enjoy a piece of classic Australian literature with them, then I thoroughly recommend Seven Little Australians to you. Just remember to have a box of tissues on the couch beside you!