- “Openly Searching, Inventive and Welcoming”: Oceania and Children’s Literature
This issue of Bookbird focuses on the children’s literature of Oceania. Anthropologist and cultural critic Epeli Hau‘ofa writes of the region in We Are the Ocean: “Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous.” An Oceanic identity, he goes on to suggest, should “transcend all forms of insularity, to become one that is openly searching, inventive and welcoming.” 1 Such indeed are the features of the children’s literature from Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands that are discussed in this issue of Bookbird. The picture book Sione’s Talo by Lino Nalisi offers one example of such transcendence and hospitality to multiple influences and audiences: based on the Russian story about the giant turnip that takes a village to pull it out of the ground, this version gives the story Pasifika references, and is published in Auckland in four different languages—English, Samoan, Niuean, and Maori.2 A searching and inventive approach to cultural sources can equally, if differently, be found in Australian YA fantasy—with their radical revisionings of classical mythology and fairy tale motifs and from all over the world, as Sophie Masson and Elizabeth Hale examine in their essay for this volume.
Margaret Mahy has written often of the particular difficulty she found writing children’s fantasy in New Zealand, when her own childhood reading was of literature from the Northern Hemisphere, in particular Britain. Again and again, in essays and interviews, she has returned to this subject of the “imaginative displacement” that results:
When I was a child, which was a long time ago, the stories I read and had read to me were almost exclusively English; Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Kenneth Graham and so on… It was not until I was in my teens and trying, self-consciously, to write a “New Zealand” story that I realized that I had suffered a sort of imaginative displacement. Any writing I did that dealt and described the things I knew best—the landscape in which I had grown up and the idiom I heard every day seemed somehow unnatural to me.3
Many other writers from New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific Islands have talked of a similar sense of imaginative displacement, in which their imaginations have been shaped by texts from another hemisphere. Patricia Grace, for instance, likewise read “English classics and English poetry” [End Page 4] at school and was taught to write “using words and phrases that we had come across in books, but had never heard spoken.”4
Mahy and Grace began writing children’s books with local content in the 1980s, Mahy having already published several picture books internationally since the 1980s. Their influence on later children’s writers has been profound, with Karen Healey, for instance, declaring her “own struggle with imaginative displacement” enriched by the fact that, “born in the 80s, I was in a much better position than Mahy,” coming after “Margaret Mahy, Patricia Grace, Gaelyn Gordon, Witi Ihimaera, Maurice Gee and many others…wrote New Zealand/Aotearoa. And, growing up, I was able to read it.”5 And yet, while Mahy was reading Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, and other English writers, as were most children of her generation, it was not as if there had been no local writing produced for children of this hemisphere.
In Australia, stories with a determinedly local setting have been produced since as early as 1841, when A Mother’s Offering to Her Children by Charlotte Barton was published, which opens with the child Emma remarking, “How very extraordinary those tremendous noises were, Mamma, which we heard at the Coolandal Mountain.” More enduring has been the classic Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner, first published in 1894, about a family of Australian children, distinguished from those “paragons of virtue” that might be found in English, American, African, or Asian stories: “Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.” (Of course it is equally conventional to distinguish the hero or heroine of an English children’s story from the paragons of virtue...