There was very little public fanfare when much-admired children's author, educator and conservationist Colin Thiele died on September 4, 2006, aged 85. The news of his death was swallowed up in the media frenzy over the dramatic death that day of exuberant wildlife wrangler Steve Irwin. However, Thiele's legacy definitely deserves recognition.
Despite suffering from crippling arthritis for much of his life and working full-time as an educator, Thiele wrote more than 60 books for children and 30 books for adults. His books have been made into films and television miniseries, and he even has a South Australian highway named after him. Thiele also won numerous literary awards, and he produced one of the classics of Australian children's literature, the much-loved Storm Boy.
First published in 1963, Storm Boy gained a new following when it was released in a picture book version in 1974, with atmospheric illustrations by Robert Ingpen, and then as an AFI award-winning film in 1976. The book has never been out of print. Thiele's daughter, Janne Minge, puts its success down to its "emotional appeal, beautiful language, unique sense of place and strong environmental message".
Storm Boy tells the story of a young boy living in the Coorong, a wetland area in South Australia described as the "lungs of the River Murray". Storm Boy's mother has died, and he and his father, Hideaway Tom, live in a rough shack beside the sea. The father nurses his sorrow, while his son leads a carefree, albeit solitary existence in the Coorong's stunning landscape of windswept sand dunes and deserted beaches.
Storm Boy's only friend is the enigmatic Fingerbone Bill, a local Aboriginal man who teaches the boy about the land on which he walks. But then Storm Boy befriends and raises three orphaned pelican chicks, whose mother has been shot by hunters. When they are fully grown, Tom forces his son to release the friendly but voracious birds into the nearby wildlife sanctuary. However, much to Storm Boy's delight, his favourite pelican, Mr Percival, returns.
In a dramatic twist, the clever Mr Percival helps Tom, Storm Boy and Bill to save the crew of a tugboat when their ship is wrecked in a storm. However, Storm Boy's life is then complicated by the authorities, who want him to attend school, and later by hunters, who think that killing protected wildlife is a sport. Grief and loss are shown to be a part of life in this moving story, which ultimately is about resilience and hope.
In 2013, the Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company combined to present a stage version of Thiele's story. Tom Holloway's production is about to be performed at the Canberra Theatre Centre. In it, director John Sheedy uses a combination of live actors and stunning life-sized puppets to bring Colin Thiele's evocative piece to life.
Designed by Michael Scott Mitchell to capture "the essence of pelican", the puppets are made from plywood, sinamay – a material used in hat-making – and hand-made silk feathers. The pelicans, operated by puppeteers on stage, have a wing span of more than 2.5 metres. The birds fly, catch sticks, and sometimes provide light relief in a story that has a number of deeply moving moments.
Actor Julian Garner, who plays Storm Boy's father, Hideaway Tom, describes how he quickly got used to "the conceit of the puppeteers not being hidden". According to him, they are so good at their job that "I readily accept I'm on stage with living, breathing animals from the Coorong".
As a father, Garner is well aware of the story's dual appeal to children and adults. "Like those old Grimm fairytales," he says, "it's useful for children to know the world entails loss and heartbreak as well as hope, comfort and love." Garner brings this understanding to his portrayal of Storm Boy's often gruff but ultimately loving father.
Storm Boy is Thiele's best-known children's book and, according to Janne Minge, also the one he was most proud of, along with Jodie's Journey, Blue Fin and . He also created a series of books, beginning with Sun on the Stubble, set in the Barossa Valley, a wine-growing area in South Australia, in which he included many of the idiosyncratic and interesting characters from the German families with whom he grew up.
To coincide with the theatre production of Storm Boy, Thiele's life and work will be celebrated with two other events. The Colin Thiele Festival is being organised by the Lu Rees Archives of Australian Children's Literature, which is housed at the University of Canberra and run mainly by a small contingent of dedicated volunteers. The festival includes a month-long exhibition at Civic Library and a talk by experts in the field entitled Colin Thiele His Work and Legacy.
Aimed at providing deeper insights into Thiele's work, the exhibition features items from the archives' collections and material on loan from his family. Exhibition curator Margaret Bromley has selected for display numerous editions of Thiele's books from the 258 books in the archives' Colin Thiele research collection, including translations of Storm Boy in Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French and Russian.
Insights into the publishing process are provided by correspondence between Thiele and the publisher of 14 of his books, Walter McVitty. Original artwork from some of his picture books will be on show, and activities especially designed for children are also a part of this exhibition.
Along with books, correspondence, photographs, papers and posters, other highlights of the exhibition include a plank from the boat used in the Storm Boy movie and a quilt made by South Australian schoolchildren, in which each square features an image from their favourite Colin Thiele book.
Colin Thiele was more than a children's author. He was a husband, a father, a poet, an educator, an administrator, an environmentalist and a Fulbright Scholar. He also served in the RAAF during World War II. To recognise his wider achievements, the archives has gathered together three experts to provide "unique insights" into Colin Thiele "as a person and a writer".
They include Thiele's daughter and family spokesperson, Janne Minge; publisher Walter McVitty, whose extensive papers are held by the Lu Rees Archives; and Canberra researcher on the life and work of Colin Thiele, Margaret Carmody. John Sheedy, the director of the Storm Boy theatre production, will also be attending this event.
The three events that comprise the Colin Thiele Festival provide a rare opportunity to celebrate the life of one of the doyens of Australian children's literature, and to introduce his work to a new generation of Australian children.
Storm Boy is on at the Playhouse at the Canberra Theatre Centre from June 3 to June 6. Tickets are available at canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700
The Colin Thiele Exhibition is on from June 2 to June 28 at Civic Library in Civic Square. More information is available at canberra.edu/lurees/news-events
Colin Thiele: His Work and Legacy is on from 5pm to 7.30 pm on June 2 at the Ann Harding Conference Centre at the University of Canberra. Bookings at email@example.com
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