KIDS visiting a state library display celebrating the works of May Gibbs only got to read books “inspired” by the famed author’s iconic bush babies, and not one word or illustration of her own.
It was the last straw for Gibb’s grand-niece Julie Gibbs, who has waged a long battle against the imitations, saying they are swamping the market and destroying the originals’ integrity.
“So I called the museum on Monday and pointed out that they weren’t actually books by May Gibbs, and they were mortified and took them out of the exhibition,” Ms Gibbs said.
She says a follow-up email from the library was a good illustration of her point; it didn’t have any authentic Gibbs in its own collection to replace them, and she had to point staff towards private collectors with copies for sale when they couldn’t track any down in local bookstores.
“May Gibbs’ books are inspired by growing up in WA – the creatures, the trees and the plants,” Ms Gibbs said.
The author lived near Harvey in WA’s South West from the age of eight, riding her pony Brownie through the bush while painting and writing about what she saw. This period became important in the development of her famous bush stories, although before they shot her to stardom she had forged a reputation as a pioneering female political cartoonist.
Gibbs spent time back in England before settling in Sydney in 1913, the same year the Gumnut babies made their first public appearance. When she died in 1969, she bequeathed the copyright to two charities, which in latter years have renamed as the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Northcott Disability Services.
They outsource control of the copyright to brand licensing and merchandising agency Merchantwise, which has licensed HarperCollins to publish the “classic” Gibbs stories, and Scholastic to handle the “contemporary” stories inspired by her characters.
But Ms Gibbs said it’s the latter which are getting into kids’ hands, and while they carry the famous author’s name on the cover, it’s only inside where it’s revealed she didn’t write or illustrate them.
“It’s got worse; it was insidious and it’s now so blatant,” she said.
“At the least they should put that they are ‘inspired’ by May Gibbs’ characters on the front cover.”
Ms Gibbs stays in touch with some cousins in Tasmania, another in WA’s South West as well as her two sisters, and say they “have these conversations over and over again” about trying to protect the integrity of their relative’s work.
She says the latter stories “sanitised” Gibbs’ storylines, saying they lacked her greataunt’s “wicked humour” which led to generations of children being scared witless by the malevolent Banksia Man.
Merchantwise’s senior manager of licensing Rosalie May acknowledges there is a disparity, saying it was down to Scholastic being able to produce short, budget contemporary stories and market them through its extensive networks such as schools and libraries, while HarperCollins produced “beautiful” copies of the classics which pushed them into a higher price bracket and were pitched more at bookstores.
But that’s all about to change; HarperCollins’ license expired last year and a new one has been offered to Scholastic, which has plans to break the original five stories from the first Snugglepot and Cuddlepie book into smaller, more affordable editions, while other Gibbs stories which haven’t been published for years will also go back into print.
Ms May said that’s also why the state library exhibition, which was originally created by the Museum of NSW, didn’t have any classics, as HarperCollins removed the last of its stock after the license expired.
“We would have really loved to have had the classics in there, but it was a matter of unfortunate timing,” Ms May said.
She said the first of the new editions are expected to be out as soon as November.
“Hopefully the family and fans will be really happy about seeing some of the May Gibbs stories published for the first time in years.”
She said the newer versions did have an important place, as they introduced people to the characters who might not have gelled with Gibbs’ originals – a point her grand-niece also acknowledges.
“We have people who now know who May Gibbs is and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie because they read those books,” Ms May said.
The State Library of WA exhibition is part of the Awesome Arts festival for kids, which also features a ballet based on The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie being performed by WA Ballet at the Perth Cultural Centre (if you’ve got an early copy of the paper it’s at 11am until Friday October 2 and includes an after-show workshop).
That got rave reviews from Ms Gibbs: “The ballet was delightful. Authentic stories, lively music and dynamic dancers, and the costumes were fantastic,” she said.
by STEVE GRANT