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Artist Profile: Libby Hathorn

Photo: Libby Hathorn

Artist Profile: Libby Hathorn

Written by: 
Fiona Gruber

When Libby Hathorn ‘s first picture story book came out in 1979, the publisher cavilled at the species of tree being depicted in the tale. Why a Eucalyptus? they queried. An Ash or Oak would have greater international appeal. Hathorn stuck to her guns and her gums and Stephen’s Tree was a success. Two years later she had a similar problem with her story The Tram to Bondi Beach. Did she have to name the beach, her publisher wondered. Wouldn’t that alienate children from outside Australia?

No-one asks questions like that anymore, says Hathorn, at least of her. The Tram to Bondi Beach is in its 40th edition and as the author of more than 80 works for children, picture books, tales for older children and young adults and several volumes of poetry, she says the cultural cringe has thankfully diminished a lot over time.

“That time was the beginning of a real growth in Australian stories, including Aboriginal stories” she says of the 1980s.

Her picture books, she explains, are equal collaborations; it’s usually the publisher who pairs writer and illustrator and the journey of discovery is part of the fun.

“The illustrators bring their own integrity and imagination,” she explains.

With artist Sadami Konchi, she travelled in Japan, following in the footsteps of the 17th century Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō.

We Children and the Narrow Road to the Deep North was published this year, one of three titles for 2021 and illustrates the trust needed in any successful collaboration, she says.

 “You might see things visually when writing, but you have to be able to let go and trust the creativity of the artist. “It’s their talent too and you can’t impose your vision,” she says.

Her own stories are at essence about two things, she explains, a love of nature and the rights of children. “Families in all their complexities” fascinate her and as her own children grew, the age of her protagonists aged alongside with them. As they entered adulthood, they’d joke that she was now ready to write the great Australian novel.

Instead, she has continued to concentrate on her career in children’s literature, winning many awards including several from the Children’s Book Council of Australia, the Alice Award for services to children’s literature in 2017 and the Asher Award in 2018 for A Soldier, a Dog and a Boy.

This is set in World War I on the battlefield of the Somme and Hathorn often tackles difficult subjects.

When she wrote Grandma’s Shoes about a little girl who discovers she has the ability to follow her dead grandmother, Hathorn realised it translated into many different cultures.

“When I took it to Papua New Guinea they asked, ‘How did you know about our spirit world?’” she says. “And I replied, ‘It’s our spirit world too.’”

Grandma’s Shoes was adapted for opera in 2000 and Hathorn won an award for the libretto. Another of her story books, Sky Sash So Blue, about an enslaved girl in America’s Deep South, has also been adapted for opera and her most successful novel, Thunderwith, a work for young adults, was made into a film The Echo of Thunder starring Judy Davis.

Does she have any favourites? I ask.

“Which one am I closest to?” she responds. “It’s usually the one I’m working on right now”.

To see the wonderful animated book : What Rosie hears

View the link: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_0jWseb8mI&list=PLNpfXCakJlDpb4BCYguEZC...

Fiona Gruber is an arts journalist in print and audio. She writes for many publications including the Guardian, The Australian and the Times Literary Supplement and her work appears frequently on ABC Radio National.