The National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature Celebrates 50 Years

“We are the tellers of things we imagine and things we observe … knowledge locked away is knowledge lost. NCACL works to make it accessible to all.”

The Honourable Mr John Faulks Deputy Chair & Acting Chair NCACL

Since its inception in 1974 (originally as the Lu Rees Archives), the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL) has embraced the visionary goal ‘to be the home to Australia’s childhood stories,’ ensuring that Australia’s literary past, present and future are preserved.

Attending the NCACL’s 50th birthday celebration, I was moved by how this vision had manifested. For someone who cherishes children’s books as I do, wandering its collections felt like coming home, embodying the warmth, nostalgia and sense of belonging these stories have always provided.

The Birth of a Vision: The Early Days of NCACL

The genesis of this altruistic ambition traces back to 1974, when Lucy Frances (“Lu”) Rees AM MBE, a prominent Australian bookseller, book collector, and advocate for children’s literature, was serving as President of the ACT branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA). She proposed an innovative idea: for each state and territory branch of the CBCA to consolidate their resources and start a national collection.

By 1980, she had donated her personal collection of books and her compiled archival files on Australian authors and illustrators to the Canberra College of Advanced Education Library. This nucleus collection of over 1,500 books has since expanded to more than 57,000 Australian children’s books and tens of thousands of other items donated by Australian children’s book authors, illustrators, publishers, collectors and other enthusiasts in the field of children’s literature and storytelling.

Today NCACL holds archives of creative output by internationally renowned and celebrated Australian authors and artists such as May Gibbs, Elizabeth Honey, Alison Lester, Bob Graham, Libby Hathorn, Shawn Tan and Leigh Hobbs. Prominent illustrators Ann James, Freya Blackwood, and numerous others are pledging their work to NCACL. Over the years NCACL has absorbed several privately curated collections like the comprehensive John Barrow Framed Artwork Collection donated in 2016 by Ann James, who together with partner Ann Haddon had a very long and successful career in advocating, promoting and celebrating children’s books through their own ‘Books Illustrated’ agency.

Illuminating the Creative Process: The Heart of NCACL’s Mission

Under the leadership of its current visionary Director, the Emeritus Professor of Children’s Literature Dr Belle Alderman AM, NCACL has settled at its current home base at the University of Canberra and continues its growth trajectory with the entire collection recently valued at over A$12 million.

UC NCACL (Subtitled)

A published book represents just the visible tip of an iceberg, hinting at the vast collaborative efforts below the surface involving authors, illustrators, publishers, and book designers. Central to NCACL’s mission is the illumination of this creative process, documenting the journey of bringing Australia’s cherished children’s books from concept to reality. Through its extensive collections including research files on authors and illustrators, select publishers’ archives, manuscripts, original artworks and correspondence, NCACL pulls back the curtain on the book publishing process. Hear Dr Belle Alderman talk about some inspirational examples and appreciate her motivation to share them with the world.

Public archives of publishing files are scarce in Australia, with only five known collections nationwide. Notably, NCACL houses two significant children’s publishers’ archives: Walter McVitty Books and Omnibus. These archives offer invaluable insights into the cultural context of their times, presenting unique viewpoints from publishers, authors, and illustrators on how manuscripts and artistic visions come to fruition.

NCACL’s 50th Birthday: Celebrating Creativity and Community

Having corresponded via email with Dr Belle Alderman, I was privileged to be invited to NCACL’s 50th Birthday celebrations in Canberra and to meet this delightfully passionate tour de force in person finally. Her life-long enthusiasm for sharing stories and tireless advocacy for the value of storytelling is inspiring. Not surprisingly, she leads a whole team of equally enthusiastic volunteers generously giving their time to the organisation – from research academics in the field of children’s literature to specialists in artwork conservation, collection management and practising authors and illustrators of children’s books.

The 50th-anniversary celebration was quite the gathering, attended by a notable group of creative talents. The guest book alone was a highlight, filled with illustrated birthday wishes from luminaries like Leigh Hobbs, Bob Graham, Ann James, Christopher Cheng, Elizabeth Honey and Emma Quay. It’s not often you come across such a rich display of literary and artistic talent on one page. And don’t you just love Ann James’ dirty dinosaur mud cake crafted, literally, from mud? Priceless!

The National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature Celebrates 50 Years Book and Illustrations Museums News national centre australian childrens literature 76

Leigh Hobbs, the legend himself, didn’t just sign the guest book, he brought along his whole family (you know, Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, and Mr Chicken) to join in! And if that wasn’t enough, he has gifted his storyboards for ‘Fiona the Pig’ to NCACL. I must confess that this was the first time I set eyes on Fiona and it was love at first sight!

The National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature Celebrates 50 Years Book and Illustrations Museums News national centre australian childrens literature 75
The National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature Celebrates 50 Years Book and Illustrations Museums News national centre australian childrens literature 35

The celebrations were also marked by memorable events, starting with a seminar by Bob Graham, an author-illustrator celebrated for his multiple CBCA awards who shared insights into his creative process. This was followed by the ‘Telling Tales: Inside Australian Children’s Literature’ panel featuring Christopher Cheng, known for his impactful children’s books, Ann James, a prolific illustrator and advocate for picture book creators, Eva Mills, Publishing Director of Books for Children and Young Adults at Allen & Unwin and Sally Allen, an educator with extensive experience in bringing literature into classrooms.

The opening party started with speeches, acknowledgements and awards in the ‘The Hub’ courtyard outside NCACL offices. As part of the celebrations, award-winning author and NCACL Ambassador Christopher Cheng launched ‘Behind Secret, Sealed Doors’ by Emma Janssen, featuring her daughters’ magical exploration of NCACL. Independent bookstore The Book Cow and SCBWI members had stalls offering numerous books from local talent to purchase and get signed. Then, as the evening unfolded, we all drifted over to the Mizzuna cafe, drinks in hand, nibbling on snacks, and just soaking up the great company before heading off to the big dinner celebration.

Exploring the Heart of NCACL: A Personal Journey

For NCACL’s 50th anniversary, they welcomed anyone interested in exploring beyond their front room display. My partner and I didn’t need to be asked twice. The shelves of its front office contain a tiny fraction of NCACL’s collection as we were about to find out.

We had the fortune of taking a personal tour of the Centre’s storerooms and facilities led by Dr Belle Alderman. And if having passionate Belle personally showing us around was not enough, our companions on this adventure were none other but Ann James and Ann Haddon, former owners of ‘Books Illustrated’ whose life-long passion and achievements in the field of children’s book publishing and promotion are second to none.

Despite retiring and closing their ‘Books Illustrated’ venture they remain active supporters and advocates of the importance of sharing stories through children’s books and art. Most recently they have donated to NCACL their collection of Shaun Tan prints and curated an exhibition of these as part of NCACL’s 50th celebrations (see below). Ann James has also pledged all her illustrations and other artistic output to NCACL. It was such a joy to spend an afternoon with these legends in the field of Australian children’s books.

Strolling through the labyrinth of storage rooms on the university’s campus, I felt deeply privileged to soak in the rich stories and insights shared by these three remarkable ladies. I was fascinated to learn about the humble beginnings of the collection, starting in a space no larger than a modest office. As the collection expanded, they gradually took over other areas of the campus. They’d keep an eye out and whenever they spotted an area lying empty for a while, they’d casually ask the university, “Hey, can we have that?”. How could they possibly say no to Belle?

Here is an example of ‘pulling back the curtain’ on the process, as referred to above. In this instance, it’s a display of Alison Lester’s ‘Sophie Scott Goes South’ book, complete with its edited and annotated manuscript, preliminary sketches, and working drawings.

Stepping Into Other Worlds: The Shaun Tan Exhibition ‘Never be late for a parade’

Thought-provoking, skilful, quirky, captivating, inspiring, immersive, otherworldly, whimsical, surreal. This exhibition of 22 digital prints and preliminary works for Shaun Tan’s major works feels like you’ve stepped into another dimension. Curated by Ann Haddon and Ann James and on display at the Mura Gadi Gallery in the Library Building above the NCACL office, it showcases Shaun Tan’s artistry and presents a diverse array of illustrations from his most acclaimed picture books such as ‘The Arrival’, ‘The Red Tree’, ‘The Lost Thing’, ‘Rules of Summer’, ‘The Singing Bones’, ‘Cicada’ and ‘Tales from the Inner City’.

The Next Chapter: Shaping NCACL’s Tomorrow

Until now, the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL) has thrived on the dedication of its volunteers, but as NCACL celebrates fifty years, there’s a collective dream for something bigger. Dr Belle Alderman envisions transforming NCACL beyond its foundational mission of collection and preservation, aiming to create a vibrant hub where Australia’s childhood stories are not just stored but lived and loved.

She looks to international beacons like Seven Stories in the UK and the Eric Carle Museum in the US as benchmarks for what NCACL could be for Australia. I’d also point to the Burg Wissem Picture Books Museum in Germany and the Forest of Muse with Karuizawa Picture Book Museum in Japan as shining examples to emulate. Achieving this grand vision requires a permanent space and governmental support. Here’s hoping that it’s just a matter of time before this dream receives the backing it needs to flourish.

You can join in supporting NCACL’s quest for a permanent home here.

I wish Belle and her team at NCACL continued success and growth as they forge ahead on this remarkable quest. May their future be as vibrant and inspiring as the stories they safeguard. 

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