May Gibbs' gum blossom babies may be close to 104 years old but the shy little creatures will always remain eternally childlike
This has never been more evident than in a rare painting, done in 1915 by Gibbs herself, which was donated to the National Centre for Australian Children's Literature, at the University of Canberra, on Thursday night.
Jane Brummitt, an Adelaide author and former teacher who has long held a fascination for the Gibb's legacy, stumbled across the painting in an Adelaide antique store in 2015.
"A friend had sent me a photograph of something he'd found, he knew I would be interested, but I was blown away when I realised what he'd found," Ms Brummitt said.
"I knew I had seen something like it before, it was a precursor, a draft if you like, of one of the paintings in her first booklets which were published in 1916."
Several little gum blossom babies are nestled among the gum leaves, as a cicada sits on a tree trunk. Their yellow blossoms and sparkling blue eyes have lost no luster, there is still a vibrancy to the artwork that belies its age.
"What you have to remember is that May was an artist before she was a writer," says Ms Brummitt, who co-wrote a book on Gibbs, May Gibbs: More than a fairy-tale in 2012.
"She was an award-winning botanical artist who studied art in London, and when she set her mind to writing the Gumnut Babies stories and later Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, it was always the drawings that came first.
"She wanted to tell stories about Australia, set in Australia, for Australian children and that is what is so charming about them."
Belle Alderman, the director of the national centre, said Gibbs holds a special place in children's literature for a number of reasons.
"May Gibbs understood the need for danger and excitement, appealing characters both goodies and baddies, while still providing the safety of friends and families," Ms Alderman said.
"Her stories had all these ingredients, plus those incredibly detailed, heart-stopping illustrations, that, once seen, are indelibly imprinted in our minds and hearts. No one ever forgets the big bad Banksia Men!"
Ms Brummitt's connection to Gibbs takes many forms. Her aunt Josephine was married to Gibbs' brother Ivan and she would hear many stories from her cousins about the woman who was well ahead of her time.
Gibbs was something of a force in her later life. An astute businesswoman she first registered the images of the gumnut babies in 1913 when they appeared on the cover of The Missing Button by Ethel Turner, the author of Seven Little Australians, despite there being no mention of them in the story. Gibbs bought property with her own earnings, building the beautiful Sydney harbourside home of Nutcote which remains intact and open to the public today. She was also one of Australia's leading cartoonists, her Bib and Bub strip ran from 1924 until 1967, just two years before her death at the age of 92.
The National Centre for Australian Children's Literature is open to the public.