by Julia Robinson
This week we celebrate the birthday of Mem Fox (born 5 March 1946), Australian writer of children’s books. She is the author of such favourite picture books as Koala Lou, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, and Wombat Divine, but the book that made her a household name is her first book, Possum Magic, the runaway bestseller that has sold several million copies since it was published in 1983. It is the tale of possums Hush and Grandma Poss, who leave their bush home to find a cure for Hush’s magic invisibility.The illustrations by Julie Vivas are a significant part of the book’s attraction, but its astonishing success is due in large measure to the story’s strongly Australian theme. The 1980s were a time of increasing pride in Australian identity and culture. Possum Magic grew out of this surge of nationalist sentiment, as Mem Fox notes on her website:
In the years that I’d been reading to Chloë I’d been shocked and dismayed by the very few Australian books available for Australian children so I determined to write a very Australian book.
With this in mind the author opens the story in the Australian bush and fills it with familiar animals: wombats, kookaburras, dingoes, emus, koalas, kangaroos, and snakes. The quest for Hush’s cure takes the possums out of the bush to each State capital in turn, as they seek the food that will make her visible. The best-known passage in the book lists the food the possums eat in each city. (Incidentally the same passage is quoted in the Australian National Dictionary as evidence for the term Anzac biscuit.) Undoubtedly thousands of Australian parents and kids can recite this by heart:
They ate Anzac biscuits in Adelaide, mornay and Minties in Melbourne, steak and salad in Sydney and pumpkin scones in Brisbane.
The alliteration is catchy, but added to this the association of food and place has a hint of cultural stereotype and political reference that parents can enjoy. As a meal, steak and salad fits Sydney’s breezy, outdoor, prawn-on-the-barbie image; Anzac biscuits suit Adelaide’s sense of tradition; conservative Melbourne, often compared unfavourably with Sydney, is saddled with mornay (old-fashioned, slightly dull); and Brisbane is identified with pumpkin scones, famously popularised by Flo Bjelke-Petersen (later a Queensland senator), wife of the then Premier of Queensland: ‘an in-joke for parents’, says the author’s website.
It is in the other State capitals that Grandma Poss and Hush find the cure for Hush’s problem. The foods that make her visible again are quintessentially Australian: a vegemite sandwich in Darwin, a piece of pavlova in Perth, a lamington in Hobart. The inclusion of these iconic food items, along with the bush animals at the beginning of the story, and references to contemporary Australia—Hobart’s casino, Flo Bjelke-Petersen, and illustrations that include the Sydney Opera House and a classic highset Queenslander house—set Possum Magic firmly in a particular time and place. Its unapologetic Australianness helped to make it the biggest-selling picture book in the country, a record it still holds thirty years later. In further evidence of the book’s popularity, a musical based on it has been performed many times around the country in the last twenty years. The first draft of the Possum Magic manuscript is held by the National Library of Australia, and was on display in its Treasures Gallery last year.
Mem Fox was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993 in recognition of her service to children’s literature.