Alison Lester’s Magic Beach is one of those childhood books that was read so many times that now, when I revisit it, the words come back to me like an old favourite song. Not only am I filled with nostalgia over the familiarity of the words and pictures, but also that classic Aussie childhood experience of summer days spent at the beach.
My mum is a children’s book designer, and has worked with Alison for many years – Magic Beach was actually finished on our dining room table while I was crawling around underfoot. Now that I’m all grown up, I caught up with Alison to have a chat about her books, and that indescribable feeling of connectedness to nature that she so expertly captures.
Alison grew up in South Gippsland, and many of the places visited by the characters in her books are based on real places, particularly in that area of the state. For instance, Magic Beach is based on the beach at Walkerville.
‘It does have bits of different places – there’s no jetty at Walkerville,’ says Alison. ‘But mostly that’s Walkerville.’
I’ve since visited Walkerville Beach, and despite the lack of castles, princesses and smugglers, it does have a beautiful variety and seclusion to it that makes it special. As Alison puts it: ‘It has a bit of everything.’
‘Of all the books, Magic Beach is one of the least translated and I think it’s because the way we visit the beach in Australia is different to how others do it. We tend to go to the beach and really revel in the sand and the sea.’
Wilsons Prom – ‘that area where the mountains meet the sea’ – also features largely in Alison’s stories, and her psyche: ‘Often I’ll do something completely unrelated, and someone will mention how it reminds them of the Prom, even though I didn’t mean it to. It’s very subconscious.’
Her grandfather, father and uncle were some of the last to hold grazing rights for the Prom, and her family would visit every Sunday for a picnic.
Nature is an ever-present backdrop of Alison’s books (‘I would never do a book that’s set in the city’), and they all celebrate the connection between people, and their connection with the natural world.
‘The natural world is the best thing,’ says Alison, as our conversation turns to how her books – and children’s books in general – can help connect people to nature.
Alison talks about how encouraging kids to get out into nature and drawing what they see can really push them to notice the world around them, and by noticing things, they can come to appreciate it. She thinks that by showing her characters out in nature, she can help her readers feel more closely linked to the natural world.
‘You’ve got to get people familiar with it, because if they are unfamiliar with it they can find it quite scary, and so they don’t relate to it. If they feel they belong in it and it’s theirs, and that leads them to care and not chuck rubbish into it. It’s all those little things that make a difference at the end of the day.’
Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.
You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.
Banner image: ‘Droving on the beach’ from My Farm by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1992).