"I could almost draw before I could walk" May Gibbs recalled when her thoughts travelled back to her childhood.
There was much to remember. Her earliest recollections were of England, where she was born in Sydenham during the cold January of 1877. Then, when she was four, came the exciting voyage to join Papa who had gone ahead to South Australia. Her baby brother Ivan, forever to be called "The Wreck of the Hesperus" (the ship they sailed in from England), was born shortly before the storm-delayed ship reached Adelaide.
May had three brothers and when the family moved to The Harvey in Western Australia, the children enjoyed remarkably carefree growing years. After daily lessons with Mother came the joys of riding the pony, Brownie, swimming in waterholes, fishing and frog hunting, turning Kurrajong seeds into boats and, best of all, borrowing the big laundry tub to sail on the river. The children helped make the daily bread, sampled the preserves and eagerly listened to readings of Alice in Wonderland and other books. May drew and she painted, but she wanted to be an actress, not an artist. However, by her twelfth year one of her drawings was published in a Perth newspaper.
By then the family lived close to that city and the little girl with thick reddish-brown hair and bright brown eyes already had imaginatively observed the Western Australian bush. The Banksias on The Harvey district were destined to be immortalised by May. "I was out walking, over in Western Australia, with my cousins," she said. "We came to a grove of Banksia trees and sitting on almost every branch were these ugly little, wicked little men that I discovered and that's how the Banksia Men were thought of."
The creation of the gumnut babies was less defined for May. "It's hard to tell, hard to say, I don't know if the bush babies found me or I found the little creatures," she recalled. "Perhaps it was memories of West Australia's flowers and trips to Blackheath."
Whatever triggered their inspiration was probably after the seven years she spent studying formal art in London, just as her parents had done years before. Twice May made the long sea voyage to England and during her last stay she illustrated her first books - historical dramas. British publishers were not enthusiastic about the Australian environment of her own stories, so she wrote About Usbased on the imaginary chimney-pot people of London and this was later published in the UK and the USA, but not Australia.
It wasn't until 1913 when she returned to live in Neutral Bay, Sydney that the gumnut babies first appeared, unobtrusively peeping over the edge of a gumnut on the cover of Ethel Turner's book, The Missing Button.Careless glances could easily overlook their debut.
During the years of World War I May received recognition for her indigenous, cheerful postcards and bookmarks, calendars, school magazine illustrations and her series of five booklets featuring gumnut babies and flower children. However, her mind searched for a story book. "I thought of the name Snugglepot for a book on bush babies," she remembered, ''but I could not get another name. I wanted two, and one night, lying in bed quietly, I thought Snugglepot. . .Cuddlepie!" The adventures of the two half-brothers were published during the Armistice celebrations of 1918. The book, which has remained in print, was dedicated to "The Two Dearest Children in the World, Lefty and Bill." Few people realised that they were May's beloved parents, Cecilia and Herbert.
Shortly afterwards May Gibbs married James Ossoli Kelly. Work continued, including weekly comic strips, Bib and Bub and Tiggy Touchwood.There were more books but she found time to learn to drive a car nicknamed Dodgem with Scottish terriers yapping on the back seat or riding in wicker baskets on the running board during camping trips. Eventually, in 1925, "Let's build her a house," said Bib to Bub. It was Nutcote with cheerful yellow walls and blue shuttered windows, and a cherished garden where generations of Scotties dug holes but inspired May, especially after the death of James in 1939.
May lived on, still working during her eighties. The nation honoured her with an MBE and a small literary pension. Best of all, generations of children have loved her books and immediately recognised "ugly little, wicked little men" lurking amongst the Banksia leaves.
All quotes are from a taped interview with May Gibbs produced by Hazel de Berg for the National Library of Australia, Canberra