In December last year, Australia celebrated the 100th Anniversary of May Gibbs’ Gumnut Babies. Gibbs was considered an early environmentalist and ever since the publication of her now iconic stories, nature has been a recurring theme in the literary aesthetic of Australian children’s books.
These days, there is a silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) majority who believe that the younger generations no longer immerse themselves in the world of bookshops. Although not completely untrue, it seems a very different story when you work in one – children push past parents to pull books off shelves, curling up on the floor to discover another world in the pages of a book. This is quietly reassuring to someone like myself who learned so much about nature and the outdoors through my Jacqui French, Alison Lester and Jeannie Baker books, and who now works in the book trade – in spite of those moments when forlorn adults drag their kids kicking and screaming out of the store.
I believe many young Australians are lucky to have access to such a vibrant literary community that produces writing for all ages and types. In particular, Love Oz YA has developed into a national movement promoting the Australian young adult genre, and there is still a huge variety of children’s picture books being published here, written by Australian authors – a fact that should be especially celebrated in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature.
Author Marc Martin knows Melbourne well, and his vibrantly illustrated children’s books manage to capture both the dreamy and everyday of the natural world, as well as its overwhelming potential to evoke curiosity and excitement in even the youngest iPhone users and TV watchers.
Primarily an artist, Marc’s work ranges from private commissions to webpage design to the incredible forest mural that covers one wall of the newly opened Readings Kids in Carlton. In particular, though, his books present the opportunity for both children and adults to take a piece of his art home with them, to be shared and enjoyed over and over again on blustery Melbourne afternoons, or outside enjoying the natural environment that Marc so beautifully depicts in his work.
His most recent publication, Lots, portrays the immense diversity of life on Earth through detailed illustrations of a variety of locations, whilst some of his previous works – A Forest and A River – depict the beauty and vulnerability of natural places, conveying a sense of admiration and protection of the environment from which we can learn so much.
I was recently able to interview Marc about the inspiration behind his books and the importance of bringing nature into stories and the everyday, so that we can better appreciate it.
Was there something in particular that inspired you to create your picture book A River?
The idea for A River came from a desire to tell a story about connectedness to land and environment. It’s also about the power of imagination and encouraging an awareness of the world outside of your own locality.
As a Melbourne local, do you think our own Yarra River can provide the same adventure that the child in your story experiences?
Sure. The Yarra is a great place to explore and connect with nature, especially for people who live in the city. If you hire a rowboat at the Fairfield boathouse and go up stream a few hundred metres, you quickly get a sense that you’re no longer in the city. Being on the water and having that connection to the river can be transportive, it’s an experience that forces you to slow down and take stock of your surroundings, and a good antidote to our usual fast-paced, urban lives.
In your book A Forest, I noticed similar themes to the story of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. Are there any artists, authors or works of fiction that have particularly inspired your own work?
My influences always change. Right now I’m probably more interested in painting and contemporary art than anything else – David Hockney, Peter Doig, Fred Williams and Adrian Ghenie are a few painters I like. In terms of picture books, Jennie Baker’s Where the Forest Meets the Sea was very influential growing up - I just loved her use of collage and the lushness of the illustrations. Studying graphic design also gave me an appreciation for modernist art and design, so Ray and Charles Eames, Bruno Munari, Saul Bass and Charley Harper are some of my favourite designers.
In what ways do you think art has the power to teach and encourage a deeper appreciation of the natural world?
Everyone interprets the world in different ways, but art has the power to unify and give pause for reflection. In that way, art can encourage discussion about various issues (whether that be politics, society, culture or the natural world) and thus help us understand the complexities of the world that little bit better.
Your new book Lots explores the diversity of life on Earth. Was it intentional for you to include information about local wildlife in each place, or is this just an incidental aspect of the diversity of every location?
I think that just happened by circumstance. Some places like Antarctica or the Galapagos have more of a wildlife focus because there’s either less humans or a greater diversity of wildlife, whilst some pages focus more on people and cultural practices, like Paris or Cairo, because those places tend to be more human-centric.
Is there a reason why so much of your work focuses on wildlife and natural landscapes? Why do you think it is important to highlight the relationships between cities, people and the natural environment?
Most people live in urban areas where there’s no connection to land or environment - we often detach ourselves from nature, we ‘go bush’ or explore ‘the wilderness’ as if it’s something that’s apart from the world we live in. I think it’s important to remind people that we’re part of the natural world, that we’re part of an interdependent ecosystem of living things.
Can you recall a particular experience in nature that inspired you in your work?
Maybe not one particular experience. I’d say taking a year off in my mid-twenties and travelling around allowed me to see some pretty amazing places. Some of my favourites were Angkor Wat in Cambodia - I loved the giant trees reclaiming the ruins - and the jungles of Borneo, the grassy plains of Mongolia, and vast valleys in Ladakh.
Finally, is there a particular green space in Melbourne or Victoria that you especially enjoy visiting?
The Bellbird Picnic Area in Yarra Bend Park is a great place to see flying foxes as they take off each night. It’s easy to get to on a weeknight after work, and watching (and hearing) the entire bat colony slowly wake up and take flight on the banks of the Yarra at twilight feels pretty special.
You can find more information on Marc Martin’s books and artwork on his website.
Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.
You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.
Banner image courtesy of Marc Martin.