IN JUNE 1997 I learned of HarperCollins' intention to release new editions of May Gibbs' stories about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, re-written by Anna Fienberg and re-illustrated by Vicky Kitanov. The text had been simplified and the language changed - ostensibly to appeal to younger readers. I felt that this practice just allowed children with poor language skills to get away without being challenged by new words and may well have been part of a greater plan to make the books appealing to the American market, rather than banking on their unique appeal.
May Gibbs' integrity and her (and possibly our) unique Australian identity had been compromised by an American publisher with trendy politically-correct ideals and who possibly had a hidden agenda.
Naturally, I was irate.
Second, the books had been printed and I had been looking at an advance copy. So - they could already be out in the shops, with the publishers hoping nobody would notice they weren't May Gibbs' books! Marketing by stealth! Well, I'd blow the cover off that neat little trick.
Neither on the front cover nor on the back cover was any mention made of Ms. Fienberg or Ms. Kitanov. All the very bright cover said was "May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie". I don't know much about law, but this sounded like deceptive trading to me - selling a book purporting to be by May Gibbs, but really by Fienberg/Kitanov. No wonder HarperCollins were being quiet about these new editions - they didn't want anyone to notice until after they'd taken the books home, taken in by the new colourful illustrations!
This was getting more insidious by the minute, and I had no idea whether the books were already out in the shops yet.
Third, permission for this travesty had obviously been given by the copyright holders, The Spastic Centre of NSW and Nortcott Pty. Ltd., not content to graciously accept the gift of May's donation to them of the copyright to her characters but clearly intent on strip-mining the fruit of her creativity! What did this disgrace say about the lack of protection we have in this country for works of national cultural significance? We can have a National Trust which prevents even the owner of a property from altering a classified building - but there's nothing to stop artistic abuse on a scale such as this.
We - the Australian cartooning profession - had to make a noise about this. Not to mention standing up for someone who couldn't defend herself... May Gibbs died in 1969. I had a moral obligation to do something. luckily, Lindsay Foyle (then President of the ABWAC) was as disgusted as I at the actions of the publishers and the copyright holders.
Thus began our campaign.
I have to say that I have never created such a stir in my life, and I loved every single bloody minute of it...
Bondingpot and Relatingpie
By Brook Turner, Stay in Touch, Sydney Morning Herald, 16/06/97
CARTOONISTS AND illustrators are up in arms over a redrawn and rEwritten version of May Gibbs's Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, which is about to hit Sydney bookshops. The Secretary of the Australian Black & White Artists' Club, Steve Panozzo, yesterday denounced the books, published by HarperCollins, as a "money-grabbing exercise with no respect for Australia's literary and cartooning history". He said the reworking was "an effort to sanitise Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the same way Enid Blyton's Noddy was sanitised a few years ago".
Panozzo claims the new version eschews typical Gibbs exclamations such as "good root" - meaning "good news" - to avoid offence. "It hasn't offended any one in 80 years," he said. "I'm amazed, it's like cleaning up the Sistine Chapel because someone is offended by a rogue nipple."
Panozzo thinks the Gibbs characters are different from other Australian icons such as Ginger Meggs andBlinky Bill which have been updated or reinvented for different media. "The use made of an artist's work is a moral question," he said.
"They've just gone back and rewritten the old stories and tidied them up. It's only May Gibbs's name on the cover, so it is trading on her reputation." Defending the new stories, HarperCollins publisher Angelo Loukakis points out they have been produced with the support of the May Gibbs estate. "These kind of creative reworkings of things is very common," Loukakis said. "Over the years we have used May Gibbs imagery in various forms, such as calenders and diaries. It keeps the spirit alive, and the spirit of May Gibbs is worth revisiting."
Trouble in Gumnut Land
by Lindsay Foyle and Michelle Gunn, The Australian, 16/06/97
SNUGGLEPOT AND Cuddlepie, the characters who have enchanted millions of Australian children, are being rewritten and redrawn for a new generation of readers.
But trouble is brewing in Gumnut Land. To purists, the changes are a terrible crime - one they liken to the Banksia men running off with the author's manuscripts and having their wicked way with them.
In an effort to update the May Gibbs classics for today's young readers, Angus & Robertson will publish a new series under the title The World of May Gibbs. A promotional flyer sent to bookstores heralds the books as "a new beginning for May's work, making it accessible for today's children in a gift format".
The redrawn illustrations in the new edition are in colour, as opposed to the mostly black and white sketches in the Gibbs version, and the story has been shortened with characters and incidents left out.
While the first line remains the same, the changes creep in from the second sentence:
"They were foster-brothers ... When Cuddlepie was very small - that is, when he had only been out of the bud a few hours" becomes "They were gumnut babies, almost brothers ... When Cuddlepie was just a few hours old ...". After hearing of humans from a wise old Kookaburra - a description which is omitted in the new edition - the two Gumnut babies decide to see the humans. Gibbs originally wrote: "One very hot night, when the cicadas were singing so loudly that Snugglepot couldn't hear his father snoring, he and Cuddlepie crept out of bed and out of the house." The new version simply states: "One very hot night, two Gumnuts crept out of bed and into the big, dark world."
Although the works have been produced with the approval of the May Gibbs estate, the decision to reproduce the stories in such an altered form is reigniting debates about the ethics of tampering with the works of dead authors and the need to maintain the artistic integrity of writing of national importance.
When Gibbs died, she left her estate to the Spastic Centre and the Northcott Society who employ an agent, Curtis Brown Australia, to look after the legacy. The agent's responsibility is to maximise the return to the charities so that they get the benefit that Gibbs intended. But the purists claim the new editions are morally wrong and not the sort of thing Gibbs would have agreed to.
However, those involved in the publishing of the new books defend themselves by claiming Gibbs once gave permission for David Harris to adapt her stories and Noela Young to re-draw her characters. It was said to have happened shortly before she died in 1969 but nothing was published until 1974.
While debate about the rights and wrongs of the new series is likely to be vigorous, the real battle will be conducted in the nation's book shops.
Those who are happy to buy the new little books, at $12.95 each, will be able to do so but the full collection of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories are available in one big book for $24.95.
The first of the new titles will be published this month with two more titles due in August and a further two in November.
Storm in a Gumnut
by Elizabeth Fortescue, The Daily Telegraph, 21/06/97
May Gibbs' tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie have not been out of print since Gibbs created the books 80 years ago. But HarperCollins has found itself living a public relations nightmare over its new editions based on the Australian classics. ELIZABETH FORTESCUE reports
IF THERE was every any doubt that the work of May Gibbs should occupy an inviolable niche in Australia's cultural heritage, it has now been erased. Cries of literary and artistic "vandalism" went up this week, when it was revealed that a new edition of Gibbs' 1918 book, Tales Of Snugglepot And Cuddlepie, was to be released with re-drawn illustrations and altered text. HarperCollins will release new editions of other Gibbs' books, with similar treatment later in the year.
In the first of the new books&emdash;Snugglepot And Cuddlepie&emdash;Gibbs' original drawings have been re-done by artist Vicky Kitanov, and the stories have been substantially shortened and retold by children's author Anna Fienberg. The Australian Black And White Artists' Club branded the publication a "money grabbing exercise with no respect for Australia's literary and cartooning heritage".
"They have left out huge chunks," said Steve Panozzo, Secretary of the Club. Nor is the May Gibbs Society too thrilled.
"We are disturbed by imitation, and disturbed to think the copyright holders are so geared to marketing rather than to promoting an understanding of her work," society secretary Jean Hart said. She added that artists, aghast over the new editions, had contacted her. One of them, Sydney artist Martin Sharp, said it was "completely wrong" to re-do Gibbs' original work.
"It's like re-writing Henry Lawson," Sharp said. "It's sort of like an Elvis impersonator: they are doing roughly the same thing, but it's not the same thing at all." Obviously feeling the pressure of a sustained denunciation, publishers HarperCollins went to ground. Media calls were referred to Tim Curnow, managing director of literary agents Curtis Brown, who act for the beneficiaries of May Gibbs' estate and handle the licensing of all rights in her work on the beneficiaries' behalf. Curnow issued a press release suggesting interviews with the author, Anna Fienberg and children's literature authority Robert Holden, who curated an exhibition of Gibbs' work in 1992.
Holden said it was one thing to regard a book as a classic, but quite another to "embalm" it. "It's not sacred text," he said. "Within certain, pretty well-defined guide lines, it has to be re-presented and re interpreted for a new generation. It doesn't mean they have open slather on it." He praised the illustrations and said there was nothing wrong with changing outdated expressions. "I feel that the [new] books cherish the humour, the pathos, the strong conservation message and the sense of wonder in that great world of adventure&emdash;the Australian bush," Holden said.
Anna Fienberg had initial misgivings about the brief from HarperCollins. But the more she read of the May Gibbs stories, the more she realised it would be hard for children of four to six years old to maintain their attention. "I had never been really mad about May Gibbs," Fienberg said. "People say 'isn't she terrific?', but because it's so dense and meandering, many people have never really read it or finished it."
By picking the eyes out of Gibbs' plots, it was possible to expand the age range for the original tales. "Good root", by which May Gibbs had meant "good news", was the only expression cut, Fienberg said. She said the vocabulary of the current generation of children was probably more impoverished than any other. But the new books were not an attempt to cater to this. Rather, the books were aimed at the younger reader in the hope they would go on to delight in the original books.
"They wanted to revive interest in May Gibbs, and this was a way said . Jill McGilvray, vice-president of the Children's Book Council of NSW, said children are not well-served by any assumption they can only manage a book that is simply-presented in bright, bold colours.
But children's book author and Daily Telegraph cartoonist Warren Brown said the new editions had made the original books more appealing. "There have been far worse inj ustices thrust on Australian children's book icons," Brown said, specifically mentioning Dorothy Wall's Blinky Bill. "The Gumnut babies aren't Americanised. They haven't put them in G-strings and baseball caps." The original Gibbs books had tremendous nostalgia, "but for visual appeal they were fairly hard yakka for a kids' book", Brown said.
The beneficiaries which share equally in the proceeds from the copyright on Gibbs' work are the Spastic Centre and the Northcott Society, formerly the Society for Crippled Children. Tim Curnow, speaking for the charities, said one reason for publishing the new editions was the difficulty with raising charitable funds in the current political and economic climate.
"Since her death in 1969, her work has been used and interpreted in numerous books stationery items and merchandise," Curnow said. "The guiding principle for the licensing of her copyright in all areas has been to fulfil her wishes with regard to benefiting disabled children in such a way that the integrity of her work is protected."
But not everyone feels the charities' financial needs are sufficient reason to alter Gibbs' original work. "I don't have sympathy for the charities, because they have benefited by her generosity and they should respect the integrity of the artist who has left them the estate," said Black and White Artists' Club president Lindsay Foyle. "Where's the moral justification in destroying the memory of someone who was generous towards you?"
Curnow says the original stories will continue to be published because they are major classics, despite the fact sales have fallen away over the past 20 years. But, he believes, no one will buy them if they are allowed to drift into the realms of "the antique". What would May Gibbs, who died in 1969, think about it all?
Steve Panozzo, who is worried the new books will become the "new definitive editions", quoted a line from Gibbs herself: "I had one very decided feeling about doing things, that you must never copy a single line from anyone else, and I hated anyone to copy my work."
May's Magic "Vandalised"
by Sue Hicks, The Mosman Daily, 26/06/97
CARTOONISTS REPRESENTED by the Australian Black and White Artists' Club have slammed a publishcr's decision to reissue May Gibbs' chil dren's books with new words and new colour pictures. Club secretary Steve Panozzo of Crows Nest branded the move by north shore publishers HarperCollins as "sheer vandalism". It was a ''money-making exercise with no respect for Australia's literary and cartooning heritage".
"You don't rewrite Shakespeare. You don't repaint the Sistine Chapel. You can't tamper with the magic of May Gibbs," Mr Panozzo said. May Gibbs, creator of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the Gum-Nut Babies and more, is believed to be Australia's first female cartoonist. She was an environmentalist and chose characters from the Australian bush rather than writing about English fairies at the bottom of the garden. Her first work appeared in The Social Kodak, a small magazine devoted to the women's movement and published in Perth in 1902. She signed herself as Bloh. In England in 1909 she drew cartoons for the suffragette newspaper The Common Cause and in 1913 drew a cartoon for The Western Mail in Western Australia before moving to Sydney, where Angus and Robertson commissioned her to iilustrate books. May Gibbs was awarded an MBE in 1955 and died in 1969. Her Neutral Bay home, Nutcote, is now a museum and education centre.
HarperCollins this month published a series called The World of May Gibbs, a retelling of her classic stories to make them accessible to a new generation of children. They are written and drawn by award-winning Balgowlah children's writer Anna Fienberg, whose book Ariel Zed won the Victorian Premier's Award for Children's Fiction. Her book The Magnificent Nose and Other Stories won the children's book of the year award for a junior novel and Tashi was short-listed for the Children's Book of the Year award last year. Ms Fienberg has also worked as editor of School Magazine.
Literary agents Curtis Brown, acting for copyright holders The Spastic Centre of NSW and the Northcott Society who raise income from the work, have defended the rewrites. Spokesman Tim Curnow said it served the interest of neither May Gibbs nor her beneficiaries that her work "remains in the realms of the classic and the antique". He said the text had been reworked solely to fit the storyline to a specific format suitable for the age group.
"The new drawings are in colour to appeal to a generation of children whose demands have increased with more sophisticated book production," Mr Cumow said. ''It has been simplified, not sanitised." He said it would be wrong to simply colour May's own work for a modern market. And the copyright holders believed May Gibbs would have approved as the integrity of her original work "remains undiminished".
The Black and White Artists disagree: "The whole exercise is an effort to sanitise Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the same way Enid Blyton's Noddy was a few years ago,'' Mr Panozzo said. "The American thought police are attempting to destroy Australian cultural identity, not to mention icons like Snugglepot and Cuddlepie . . .
"May Gibbs was a pioneer for female cartoonists, especially since she was successful. This sort of vandalism cannot go unchallenged."
Passion over May Gibbs retelling unprecedented
Letter by Anna Fienberg, The Australian, 26/06/97
I WAS quite astounded at the uproar over the retelling of May Gibbs's work Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. When I was offered the job to retell the stories I sat down to read the original book from beginning to end -something many of us have never done, despite the classic fame of her work. To my delight I found the language remarkably robust and original, the plots gutsy and dynamic and the unique bush world thoroughly enthralling. While the original continues to sell, I felt enthusiastic about encouraging the popularity of May Gibbs.
Small children of four to six would find the Gumnuts irresistible, I thought, but how would they deal with the intricacies of plot and density of detail? My years of editing School Magazine and writing children's picture books and novels gave me some idea of what appeals to children of this generation. In my "retelling" - to make them more accessible - the bulk of the stories are pure May Gibbs: her language, her plots, her expressions, by Gum! These new books will serve to expand the age of interest to the very young child and hopefully lead those young children, later on, and with affection, to the original May Gibbs. The original is still there, mind you - it is not banned or unavailable! - and it reprints every year.
The uproar amazes me for many reasons, not least because there have been diaries, picture books, all kinds of merchandising carried out "in the style of May Gibbs" for many years. This is not a new or unusual presentation. But I am also surprised because never in my life have I seen such passionate discussion about an item of children's literature in the newspaper, on television or on radio. Although children's books comprise about 35 per cent of book sales in this country, children's books are lucky to get a column or two a year - usually when the short-list for the Children's Book of the Year is announced.
In fact, the only time the media seems interested in children's books is when a political issue of interest to adults is involved such as censorship, sexuality/abuse and so on. This new presentation of May Gibbs, instead, was conceived to appeal directly to children. And, scrag and rag me, the illustrations are in colour, too! Perhaps we should let them, the readers, make up their own minds.
North Balgowlah, NSW
What next? The'retelling'of Henry Lawson?
Letter by Lindsay Foyle, The Australian, 27/06/97
ANNA FIENBERG is right when she says "small children of four to six would find the Gumnuts irresistible" (Passion Over May Gibbs Retelling Unprecedented, Letters, 26/6). They have been for more than 70 years. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie were first published in 1916. Fienberg claims to be an expert on what children can cope with. And she claims Snugglepot and Cuddlepie are beyond children of the 1990s. Strange thing that. Their parents and grandparents had no such problems and Gibbs's books have never been out of print.
But Fienberg has missed the point. It's not how children deal with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie that is the issue. It's how grown ups deal with the Gumnuts that is the question. Sticking drawings done in the style of May Gibbs on to mugs is one thing. That's new work and there just might be some defence for doing it. But to rewrite someone else's work long after they are dead is another thing.
One year before Gibbs died, she said: "I had one very decided feeling about doing things. That you must never copy a single line from anyone else and I hated anyone to copy my work." If anyone respected May Gibbs and her work then they should respect her wishes. If the publishers were so keen to make some more money out of Gibbs's books they could have reprinted the original books just as they were printed early this century. The books would have been collector's items. Interest in Gibbs's stories would have been rekindled and Anna Fienberg could have used her expertise in children's literature to publish some new stories written in the style of Gibbs.
But, no, the publishers had Fienberg rework old work. So what's next? The retelling of Henry Lawson's work or the reworking of William Shakespeare? They are both dead and should be fair game. Maybe the last word should be given to Gibbs. When talking about her work, she said: "I was most anxious that nothing should be altered."
The Australian Black and White Artists' Club, Sydney
Literary treasures need protection
Letter by Steve Panozzo, The Australian, 30/06/97
WITH RESPECT to Anna Fienberg's remarkable achievements as a children's author, I find her alteration of the work of May Gibbs indefensible (26/6). Fienberg asserts that these rewrites of May Gibbs' stories are designed to appeal directly to children. One can only wonder, then, to whom Gibbs' original stories were meant to appeal.
That perhaps children of the 1990s need to be talked down to by simplified and sanitised texts is a presumptuous position to take. Surely a text that provokes questions and encourages a child to learn new words and phrases is more beneficial than one that panders to an impoverished vocabulary? Surely "interpreting" books for younger readers is a job for parents, not book publishers?
In Britain, the failure of the politically-correct Noddy books to catch on (and the subsequent successful reintroduction of the original Enid Blyton-written stories) should have set a precedent for publishers. The May Gibbs stories are works of national cultural significance. They are as important to the fabric of Australian cultural development and social history as the works of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Norman Lindsay. For someone to retell their stories for them would be considered blasphemous, yet, it seems, quite probable, given what HaperCollins have been able to do.
Legislation needs to be formulated to protect culturally significant works of deceased authors and artists from the machinations of even the copyright holders, who, it seems, will not even act in the best interests of their benefactors. May Gibbs made it clear, in the year before her death, that "you must never copy a single line from anyone else and I hated... anyone to copy my work". Cultural vandalism is no way to respect a literary icon.
Crows Nest, NSW