“Once upon a time, but not very long ago, deep in the Australian bush, there lived two possums. Their names were Hush and Grandma Poss. Grandma Poss made bush magic…”
In 1978 I was a mature-age student aged 31 and Chloë was 7. She was such an avid reader I couldn’t keep up with her desire for books so I decided to take a course in children’s literature to find out about as many books as possible that would interest her, particularly the books published since my own childhood.
In the first class I was horrified to discover that in an otherwise highly demanding and academic course, one of the assignments was to write a children’s book. A children’s book! I thought it too easy. Beneath me. How wrong I was. No wonder the lecturer had set the task—we all discovered how difficult it is to write for young children and our estimation of children’s authors rose sky high. It was a lesson well learnt.
For my assignment I wrote a four and half page story called Hush the Invisible Mouse. 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. My lecturer, Felicity Hughes, raved about it and urged me to try to have it published.
I was lecturing at a teachers’ college so I asked a colleague in the art department if he could recommend an illustrator. He suggested an ex-student of his: Julie Vivas. That was my lucky day. I learned later than one should never include art-work with one’s manuscript: the publisher finds the illustrator in 99.9% of cases. Julie did several glorious paintings which I sent with the story to nine different publishers over five years. Nine rejections. Very discouraging indeed. The tenth publisher: Omnibus Books in Adelaide, accepted it but asked me to cut the story by two thirds, re-write it more lyrically, make it even more Australian and change the mice to possums. (Australian possums are very soft and cute.) Julie re-did the illustrations. The book was published early in 1983.
Possum Magic became and remains the best known picture book in Australia and the best selling picture book ever in this country. It’s still in hardback, which makes it a publishing phenomenon. Well over one million copies were sold in its first ten years of publication—and most of those were in Australia, whose population, as we all know, is only 20 million. in mid-2009 its sales were over three and a half million.
Possum Magic has been set to orchestral music and performed three times by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, but not recorded. It has also been made into a highly successful musical which tours Australia every two years or so, so watch the Hot News Space. There have been Possum Magic height charts, birthday books, calendars, address books, book marks, balloons, a recipe book, and Grandma’s-brag book etc.
In 2006 an adorable board book for babies (a very short version, one word per page) hit the market; and in early 2007 a divine Possum Magic baby book was published by Omnibus Books.Possum Magic is available in many editions in Australia: a mini edition in hard back; a regular edition in soft and hard back, and a Big Book edition; and in two or three editions in the USA, also.
In 2004 there was a 21st birthday celebration limited edition (only 500 copies published), boxed beautifully, all signed by Julie Vivas and me, and with each one was a divine book on the history of Possum Magic which will never be published for the trade: the collectors’ edition & the history book are inseparable parts of the same event, as it were. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on where you’re coming from, the entire 500 were sold and are now collectors’ editions. If they have been written on by anyone other than Julie or me they will have lost much of their value so if you’re thinking of buying one—and can find one to buy—make sure it’s a ‘clean’ copy.
My favourite edition of Possum Magic, a small hardback with a different cover illustration, came out in 2008 to commemorate the 25th year of its publication. It’s adorable. I bought a lot myself and can hardly bear to give them away!
Anyway, where was I?…
I chose possums as the main characters for this book because we had possums on our roof and the babies were adorable. I didn’t include Canberra, the national capital, because it wasn’t a state capital. I chose the casino in Hobart because it was famous at the time for being new and for being the first legal casino in Australia. I chose pumpkin scones in Brisbane (for those of you reading this outside Australia, Brisbane is the capital of the state of Queensland) because at that time the wife of the premier of Queensland was Flo Bjelke-Petersen, nationally famous for her pumpkin scones—it was an in-joke for the parents who read the book to their children. The other foods were chosen for their alliterative qualities and because they were typically Australian. The recipes for ANZAC biscuits, lamingtons and pavlovas can be found below.
Now for the recipes:
1 cup of butter
1/2 cup of milk
1 and a half cups of sugar (8 oz)
3 cups of self-raising flour (12 oz)
Beat together the butter, sugar and eggs. Add milk, then add the flour and beat well. Bake in a large square cake tin for 45-50 mins at ‘cake temperature’ (gas 180C or 350F; electric 180-200C or 350-400F). When completely cold, cut into 3 inch squares, cover with icing (frosting) and dip in fine coconut. (In the USA grind or vitamise coarse coconut till it’s in smaller, finer pieces, if you can be bothered. Otherwise the coarse coconut will do although it won’t be truly authentic.)
Sift 1 kilo (2lbs) of icing sugar with 4 tablespoons of cocoa. Work in 250 grams (1/4 lb) of butter then slowly add half a cup of hot water to make it rather thin. Add half a teaspn. of vanilla. Place basin containing icing over a bowl of hot water to keep icing sort of runny. With a skewer, hold each piece of cake and ice it all over and then toss it in coconut spread on greaseproof paper. Labour intensive but worth it!
(These biscuits, ie.cookies, were originally made for soldiers in the Australian and New Zealand Allied Corps—ANZAC—in World War I)
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup plain flour (8 oz)
1 cup dessicated (shredded) coconut
3/4 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of baking soda
4oz or 125gms unsalted butter, cubed butter
1/4 cup golden syrup (NOT honey)
2 tablespoons boiling water
Mix dry ingredients, making a well in the centre. Dissolve baking soda in the boiling water. Warm the butter and the syrup in a small pan until the butter is runny, then add the soda & water. Pour this mixture into the dry ingredients and mix. If the mixture is too dry add a little more water. Roll out and cut biscuits roughly 3 inches round. Bake in oven for 20 minutes at 180 Centigrade (350 Fahrenheit.)
Pavlova (A meringue dessert)
Whites of four large eggs
Pinch of salt
500 grams (8 oz) castor sugar (very fine sugar)
1 teaspoon vinegar
Half teaspoon vanilla
1 level dessert spoon (in the USA one and a half dessert spns) cornflour
Beat whites of eggs with salt vigourously for six minutes gradually adding, as you beat, the castor sugar, vinegar and vanilla. Mixture should be stiff and able to stand in peaks. Then sift in the cornflour. Lightly wet the pavlova plate (round crockery baking plate, about 10-12 inches across) and spoon mixture on to it to make a circular mound. Gas oven: Bake for 10 mins at 200 Centigrade (400 Fahrenheit) then at Centigrade (Fahrenheit 200) for 60 mins. Electric oven: pre-heat to 200 Centigrade (400 Fahrenheit) then set at 100 Centigrade (250 Farenheit) and bake undisturbed for one and a half hours.
Long before the pavlova is in the oven make up one packet of red jelly (jello) and allow to set in fridge. When set, cut it roughly. When pavlova has baked and has cooled down completely spread top with jelly, then top that with fresh chopped strawberries or freshly cut peaches, or slices of banana and kiwi fruit. Top that with whipped cream. A dessert from heaven. (You can leave out the jelly if you wish but I always have jelly.)