Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History

Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History

Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History











Amazing Australian Women: Twelve Women Who Shaped History

Pamela Freeman

Sophie Beer

Lothian Children’s, 2018

32pp., hbk., RRP $A26.99


What do these women have in common  -Mary Reibey, Tarenore, Mary Lee, Nellie Melba, Edith Cowan, Tilly Aston, Rose Quong, Elizabeth Kenny, Annette Kellerman, Lores Bonney, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and Ruby Payne-Scott?

Some of the more familiar names may provide a clue, but all of them are Australian women who have made a significant contribution to the national or international stage and all feature in this new book written by Pamela Freeman, known for her passion for keeping women’s stories alive. With at least one representative from each state or territory, except the ACT, these women are “the warriors who paved the way for the artists, business owners, scientists, singers, politicians, actors, sports champions, adventurers, activists and innovators of Australia today.” 

Designed for younger readers who are just learning about those who have gone before, each has a brief biography written in easily accessible language that outlines their reason for being in the book and a full-page portrait.  Links to further information for each one are provided in a user-friendly way on the final pages so that those who wish to explore further can, while those in the ACT might like to investigate which of the women from that territory have made a difference and should have been included. 

There is a growing body of work that not only introduces our students to the women who have shaped this country but also challenges our girls to consider what their story will be. This is no exception and the author admits that choosing just 12 was difficult. But it is refreshing to see some new names amongst those dozen. Teachers’ resources are available

Athena: The Story of a Goddess

Athena: The Story of a Goddess

Athena: The Story of a Goddess











Athena: The Story of a Goddess

Imogen Greenberg

Isabel Greenberg

Bloomsbury, 2018

64pp., hbk., RRP $A27.00


Greece’s Mount Olympus is the home of the gods and goddesses, including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and Aphrodite.  It was also the home of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and War and in this new picture book readers are introduced to her. From her extraordinary birth – sprung from the head of her father, in the midst of a thunderous headache – to her refusal to take no for an answer, she inspired powerful gods, goddesses and humans and determined the terrifying fate of those who dared to cross her path. 

Illustrated in graphic novel style, similar to that of The Story of Tutankhamun, it is more suited to independent readers who can manage the small cursive font. The stories associated with the Greek gods and goddesses, their amazing feats and their legacy continued in modern literature references have proven popular with the Year 3+ crowd over the years, and once they know about them they are hooked.  Perhaps this is the book that will spark a run on your 292.2 section! 

Teaching notes are available.

In the Mouth of the Wolf

In the Mouth of the Wolf

In the Mouth of the Wolf









In the Mouth of the Wolf

Michael Morpurgo


Egmont, 2018

160pp., hbk, RRP $29.99


In the village of Le Pouget, in the Languedoc region of south west France, Francis Cammaerts is resting after the celebrations for his 90th birthday come to a close.  As dusk turns to dark and the church bell strikes midnight, he thinks of those who have been a part of his journey to this ripe old age – those who raised him, supported him and had so much to do with the man he became.  And from those reminiscences comes a story of determination, danger, courage and heroism that would have gone untold if not for Morpurgo’s pen and Barroux’s brush.

One of two sons born during the Great War, Francis grows up to be a teacher while his brother Pieter is a burgeoning actor,  But when World War II breaks out, the brothers take very different paths. Frances believes war is futile and barbaric, that people should not descend to the level of the fascists and that only education and pacifism are the “way forward for humanity”. Pieter, however, believes that pacifism will not stop Hitler, that the cruelty of fascism had to be confronted and so he becomes a Sergeant Navigator in the RAF.  While he eventually goes to join a bomber squadron in Cornwall, Francis goes to Lincolnshire to work on a farm having justified his beliefs to a tribunal.  

But when Pieter is killed returning from an air raid over France and a bomb dropped by a German plane kills the family on the next farm including including baby Bessie, Francis begins to rethink his decision, particularly as he now has a wife and the birth of his own child is imminent.  He talks to Harry, his mentor from his teaching days – a conversation that changes his life forever as it leads him into the silent world of the secret agent working with the Resistance in France…

As with Flamingo BoyMorpurgo shines a light on the real story of war and its impact on ordinary people by taking an unusual perspective and telling the story through that.  This is not a tale of derring-do embellished with action scenes and special effects -although it could be that in the hands of another – but a quiet tale of remembrance and reflection, of the impact of the legacy of others on a particular life, when that life itself has left its own legacy.  Morpurgo has said, ” This book may read like fiction. But it is not. That is because it does not need to be.” It is the story of his own uncles.

Generously illustrated using family photographs which are included at the back of the book as well as biographical details of those who had such a profound impact within the story, Morpurgo has produced a story that not only tells yet another untold story of the war but one which has shaped his life too.  

One for independent readers  wanting something different, compelling and utterly readable. 

High Five to the Boys: A Celebration of Ace Australian Men

High Five to the Boys: A Celebration of Ace Australian Men

High Five to the Boys: A Celebration of Ace Australian Men











High Five to the Boys: A Celebration of Ace Australian Men

Random House Australia, 2018

2018., hbk., RRP $A29.99


Despite Australia’s relatively short history, there have been some amazing men emerge from the ranks who have contributed so much to this nation and the world.  In this fabulous companion volume to Shout Out to the Girls, young readers  can not only learn the stories of familiar names like Adam Goodes, Andy Griffiths, Jonathan Thurston and Hamish and Andy but they can also discover less familiar people like Vincent Lingiari, Weary Dunlop and Mei Quong Tart.  Even Australia’s current Local Hero Eddie Woo is featured, making this a celebration of contemporary Australians as much as it acknowledges the accomplishments of those who have gone before.

As in Shout Out to the Girls. it is not just the story of the “poster boy” that is told, but also an acknowledgement to all the others in a similar field who have contributed and continue to do so, but just not with such a high profile.  For example, Hugh Jackman is featured but there is a high five to the “chameleon performers who entertain us and show us others’ lives and worlds.”  There is an atmosphere of inclusivity that recognises that there are many Hugh Jackmans, Mick Fannings and Troye Sivans but not each can have a place unless the book were to be E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S.  Within those credits the biographer has picked out an essential element of character that goes beyond the personal prowess in sport, acting, music or whatever so that it speaks to a wider audience.  For example, while Mick Fanning is  highlighted, it’s not for his surfing achievements but as an example of “the resilient guys who achieve awesome physical feats and get back on their boards after being knocked off”.  Jonathan Thurston exemplifies “the men who wear their colours with pride and use their renown to change the world for the better.”

Whoever they are and whatever their story, each has a clear one-page bio and a portrait by one of Australia’s leading illustrators, themselves all men whose work should be celebrated, making this a book that will attract the young reader out of interest rather than just being a resource for “Investigate the life of a famous Australian”. It has its place as a kickstart for that sort of inquiry as young researchers are led to learn more about their chosen hero, but more importantly it will affirm and inspire. While there may be many who aspire to be the next YouTube sensation like Troye Sivan, perhaps there will be another Jordan Nguyen who has developed a mind-controlled wheelchair or David McAllister who was born to dance and didn’t let gender stereotyping stand in his way.

This is an exuberant, uplifting book that needs to be in every library collection and promoted so our boys can find new role models, new directions and even new dreams.

As with Shout Out to the Girls, all royalties are donated to The Smith Family.




Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey

Into the White - Scott's Antarctic Odyssey

Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey











Into the White – Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey

Joanna Grochowicz

A&U Children’s, 2017

288pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99


In the early 1930s, living in the southernmost port in New Zealand, a young girl watched through her bedroom window at ships departing from the wharf heading south for Antarctica.  They fired her imagination and inspired her to learn all she could about this unknown continent and her personal hero, Robert Falcon Scott, vowing that one day she would follow in his footsteps.  This she did in 1968, becoming the first female journalist to go South and while she didn’t get to the South Pole like her hero, she did get to visit his memorial.

Dorothy Braxton - Scott's Memorial Cross, Observation Hill, Antarctica, 1968

Dorothy Braxton – Scott’s Memorial Cross, Observation Hill, Antarctica, 1968

Her love of the Antarctic was passed on to me, her daughter, and by the age of 10 I had already read The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott’s final expedition. One of my earliest writing memories was deciding to write my interpretation of that expedition, and an enlightened teacher allowing me to skip all the other lessons for the day as he realised I was gripped, on a mission and interruption would have been disastrous.  He even lent me his fountain pen so I didn’t have to keep dipping a nib into the inkwell and blotching my missive.  While that essay has disappeared somewhere in the last 57 years, I still remember the comment he wrote – “This is the best essay on this topic I’ve read from a child of your age, ever!”  Although my passion for the ice in general waned as other interests took over, my mum’s remained and the stories of Scott were common conversation in our household for many years.

So to see a new book emerge focusing on the events of 1910-1913 that would bring the story to a new generation, the great grandchildren of my mum, was exciting and I knew I had to read and review it, so other children could learn about real-life derring-do just over a century ago and Miss 7 and Miss 12 could have a better understanding of what had shaped them, the legacy that has been left and be inspired to create and chase their own dreams.

Told in present-tense narrative that makes the reader feel part of the adventure, rather than an observer of facts or the consumer of a diary, it follows the journey of the Terra Nova from Dunedin’s Port Chalmers through the wild Southern Ocean and then the expedition to one of the last unconquered destinations that lured men like Robert Falcon Scott and his crew as they battled not only the extraordinarily difficult conditions with just ponies, dogs and wooden sleds but also time as they strove to be the first, knowing that Norwegian Roald Amundsen was on a similar mission coming from the other side of the Ross Ice Shelf.

The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red), 1911–1912.

The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red), 1911–1912.

Even though the outcome is known before reading starts -“If you’re into happy endings, you’d better look elsewhere. This story does not end well” – nevertheless the reader hopes against hope that history will be rewritten and that this band of men who so willingly followed another into the deepest of unknown territories, who never gave up on themselves or each other, would pull off a miracle like the recent rescues from that cave in Thailand.

A finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards 2018  this is one for those who like their superheroes to have been alive and real; who like to delve into a time gone by when the world was very different and who like real-life adventure.  But my copy is for two little girls who know and loved their own superhero, one who had a dream and followed it and inspired them to follow theirs. 















Gabbie Stroud

Allen & Unwin, 2018

352pp., pbk., RRP $A29.99


Even though I requested this book for review I didn’t know if I could read it let alone review it, because even now, 12 years into “retirement”, I am still heavily invested in the world of education, constantly leaping to the defence of my colleagues whenever I hear disparaging comments or “helpful” suggestions.

Not a week goes by without someone who has never stood in front of a class of 30 expectant children uses their power of position to say that Australian education is failing; that teachers need to be held accountable; that this or that should be in the curriculum (although nothing is ever taken out); that teachers are underworked, overpaid and have too many holidays.  They seem to believe that while every child has an innate desire to “reach their potential” that potential or success is defined by academic ability encapsulated in a meaningless score on a one-size-fits-all test administered on a particular day when who knows what else might be going on in the child’s life at the time. 

For my own sanity and peace of mind, these days I use the OFF button whenever I hear this sort of stuff so to request a book that has the subtitle “One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching” seemed stupid.  Did I really want to read about a teacher going through all that remains so familiar  to me (I went back and did another year in a school in 2015) and which is still the life of 90% of my friends?  

Even the cover was confronting- once upon a time teachers were symbolised with a ripe, red apple, wholesome and nutritious, but the one on the cover is just a core.  Is that all we are worth now? Or does it represent all that is left of a teacher after they’ve been in the system, chewed up and spat out with only their essential core of themselves remaining, and that very much exposed?  There are also quotes (and three pages of commentary) about the value and the integrity of the book from people that anyone in education will recognise but none from anyone whose opinion of teachers was changed by reading it.  With such illustrious company already spruiking its value, what could I, as just one of tens of thousands of Gabbie Strouds, without a fancy title or a string of letters after my name add to what had already been said? All I have is 46 years  of experience in schools, a mixture of successes, failures and mistakes, and a deep and abiding passion for children who deserve more than they get at home and school. They are the ones who will be making the decisions about my life in my old age and I want them to be the best they can be!

And so I started – and I couldn’t put it down.  Here was my teaching experience, and that of almost every other teacher, laid out in front of me reminding me of what I did and why I did it.  Every one of us remembers the bright eyed, bushy-tailed, eager graduate who finally bid farewell to Uni knowing that all those worst-case scenarios we’d been told about would never happen in our classroom. Every one of us recalls that first day in front of our first class and watching four years of university learning fly out the window. Every one of us has a Grayson, a Ryan, an Ed, a Warren, a Billie for whom life at school was better than being at home, whose role models there set them up for failure in a society that demanded manners, proper language, and a range of acceptable strategies for dealing with frustration and who learned that what they had learned only got them into strife but who didn’t learn any other ways. Every one of us has had a principal who is too scared to rock the boat, who is driven by the numbers of bums on seats and the public perceptions of the school.   Every one of us has had colleagues who support us, hold our hands, offer chocolate and empathy when it is needed in a way that no one else can because they’ve been there themselves, and those who would rather compete than collaborate.  Every one of us knows the drawn-out staff meetings, the endless professional learning about the-new-best-thing-to-revolutionise-education when we know it’s a case of everything-old-is-new-again, the hours devoted to writing individualised reports that will only get a cursory glance or an angry please-explain phone call. Every one of us has known the partner who doesn’t get that this is a 24/7/365 commitment and the consequent juggling of the needs of family and the needs of kids who see us more than our own do.  Every one of us knows the times we’ve had to miss a family event because of planning and preparation and the endless paperwork that soaks up the hours that are not 9-3.  (I’ve always said that 9-3 is performance time; the other 18 hours are preparing for the performance.)  And the lucky ones among us have taught at Belmora and made lifelong friendships just as we have all experienced Paradise.

Every one of us has walked in the author’s shoes, even if it was to a different destination.

When Gabbie’s brother Phil committed suicide an astute teacher who knew she was hurting but was probably invisible as the rest of her Catholic family wrestled with his death and it implications, told Gabbie that she was a writer and she needed to “write her way through this.”  And just as she did then, so she has done now – working her way through a tale so familiar to those “on the inside” from the child who knew she wanted to teach to one who was outstanding but for whom the cost became too much and the price to pay unbearable.  In a narrative that makes you laugh and cry as you remember, empathise and sympathise, even those who have not been teachers get such a clear insight into the life, struggles and emotions that make up what it is to stand up in front of 30 expectant little people each day, putting yourself aside so that you can help them be the best they can be. 

Will this book change Australia’s public perception of teachers? No – because those who should read it, won’t.  Will it stop the politicians and power-brokers constantly meddling in what teachers should teach? No – because they are too bound up in their own “success” that is dependent on being seen to be fixing things (even when they aren’t broken) and teachers are such easy targets that anything that humanises them is off-limits. So, apart from coming to terms with her own situation, what will Gabbie achieve from this?  I believe it will be something more important – because teachers will read it, recognise themselves,  remember that inner drive that compelled them to teach, review what they do, realise that people are more important than paperwork,  renew their passion and revitalise themselves so they get back to the core of teaching – relationships! 

And that can only be good for the kids in our care.  

When I review children’s books I look for those in which children can see themselves and understand that they, their issues and problems are not unique – they are shared by many others and so they can gain comfort from not being alone, from not being the ‘freak’ they often perceive themselves to be. Teacher is such a mirror.  With many students starting this new term with an unfamiliar face in front of them because yet another teacher has moved on this is a book that needs to be shared widely and discussed in staff meetings.  With long-term tenure in politics so fragile, it is unlikely we are going to extract the meddling fingers of the politicians from our profession – fiddling with education and blaming teachers is a crowd-pleaser – so we need to sit down with our colleagues, have the courage to speak openly, share the issues impacting us and work out strategies that can support each of us now and into the future.  We need to create a collaborative culture that allows for the sharing of problems knowing that there will be support and understanding, not condemnation and a feeling of failure as reality meets ideality, particularly for those less-experienced. Each child belongs to all of us.   “No man is an island…”

Reviewers get to keep the books they review, but instead of this one sitting on my shelf, I’m sending it off to a colleague with instructions for her to pass it on and for it to be passed on and on and on until it falls apart from being read by teachers who are feeling swamped by the system and need a reminder of the personal rather than the public, of the individual rather than the crowd, and the  people they have touched rather than the paperwork which has piled up, of the fact that they are the nurturers of the future rather than the fiction that they are the failures of society. As deputy principal I know she will use it as a catalyst for reflection and discussion in her school and knowing her principal, they will work together to make it a force for improvement.

The author’s final words are, “I don’t believe I left teaching. Teaching left me”.  For Gabbie, the only outcome for her was to leave what she loved so she could become the whole apple again. After devoting over two-thirds of my life to the profession, my words are, “I don’t believe I left teaching.  Teaching left me…proud, privileged, exhilarated, satisfied, fulfilled, with a profound knowledge of how people tick so I can bring out the best in them yet a little saddened that not every teacher can be so positive and not every child can be taught by those who have inspired, guided and mentored me.” For I have been privileged to work with the crème de la crème for most of those 45 years, relationships I still treasure and draw on. 

Teacher gives each of us an opportunity to read, review and reflect on our own stories and write the next chapters so that when that time comes we can say, “Teaching left me…” 

Bill Baillie – The Life and Adventures of a Pet Bilby

Bill Baillie

Bill Baillie











Bill Baillie – The Life and Adventures of a Pet Bilby

Ellis Rowan

NLA Publishing, 2018

104pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


In the harsh, hot Western Australian desert, several hundred miles inland from Perth lies the town of Goongarrie, where, at the turn of last century, Tabitha, a painter, came to paint the wonders of the landscape and its inhabitants.  Despite its remoteness there were people there and each day they brought her “curious plants and queer beasts” to examine and paint.  

Among those “queer beasts” was a little creature – naked, five inches (12.5 cm) long at most, long legs with a strange eyelet mouth that had been attached to a teat in its mother’s pouch before she was killed in the sharp teeth of a deadly trap. Looking like he had given up and decided to die, it felt the warm, comforting hands of Tabitha around him and in that moment both were determined that he would live.  Bill Baillie’s life and adventures with this itinerant painter had begun!

And what a life it was – becoming famous and known as ‘Master Bill Baillie of Goongarrie” he travelled everywhere with Tabitha for the rest of his life, his energy unbounded, his curiosity unsated,  especially at night time which was his day, and his love for her unequalled. Getting into precarious situations, dodging a host of bilby enemies who wanted to eat him and travelling on trains and boats and wagons from Perth to Melbourne, Bill Baillie was Tabitha’s constant companion until his inevitable, sad death in her arms just two years later. 

“Tabitha’ is actually Ellis Rowan herself who was determined “to find and paint every wildflower on the continent”, and she initially wrote this story in 1908 at a time when having a native creature for a pet was considered a curiosity rather than a concern.  Using remarkable skill that keeps the reader intrigued and wanting to know more about these almost mythical creatures, Stephanie Owen Reeder has abridged the original using more accessible vocabulary and shorter chapters while omitting none of the drama of this curious relationship.  Rowan’s descriptions of the environment as viewed through the eyes of a painter are exquisite and the reader is transported to that vast lonely landscape with its brilliant colours and on-the-surface desolation brought to life.  Many of the original illustrations by Rowan and Hans Praetorius have been left in while others from the NLA’s collection of bilby paintings have also been included.

As is usual with NLA publications, the story is complemented by  several pages of further information, all based on the library’s relevant collections including the Rowan collection itself.  

Bilbies are an endearing but endangered species brought to our attention as the Australian symbol of Easter to raise awareness of the damage done to the environment by the introduced wild rabbits so the release of the charming story is fitting, with Easter on the horizon.



Gladys Goes to War

Gladys Goes to War

Gladys Goes to War










Gladys Goes to War

Glyn Harper

Jenny Cooper

Picture Puffin, 2016

32pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99


Auckland, New Zealand in the very early 20th century when girls were still supposed to be seen and not heard, despite having had voting rights since 1893 – still very much an English colonial mentality where they busied themselves with music, needlework and other “feminine” tasks.  However, unlike her sisters, Gladys was not good at such things, preferring instead to spend her time under the bonnet of her brothers’ cars and those of their friends.  

“No one will want to marry a mechanic” her mother told her, echoing the feelings and the culture of the times.  But her mother was wrong and in 1912 she met and married William Henning who taught her to drive and then set up a car sales business in Auckland. Being competent and comfortable in this “men’s world” meant that it was no surprise that when her husband and brothers enlisted when World War I broke out that Gladys wanted to go too.  But her efforts were met with the typical chauvinistic response of the times …”If you want to help the war effort, you should stay at home and knit socks and balaclavas.”

But they had underestimated Gladys’s determination and in 1916 with the assistance of the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood she was reunited with her husband in Egypt becoming an ambulance driver, and when he was sent to France she went to England.  But again male-dominated bureaucracy determined her place was in the hospital scrubbing floors not driving ambulances.  Until one evening, there was a shortage of drivers…

This is the story of just one of the many women who played an active part in World War I as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and so much more, rather than being the stereotype wife/mother/ sister/ daughter who ‘kept the home fires burning’.  Despite their important contribution throughout history, so many women have been written out of it and when a request through a local network for a book for younger readers about World War I from a female perspective there was a paucity of replies.  Yet there are so many stories that could be told from both New Zealand and Australia.

Gladys was a pioneer in so many fields – in 1927, having survived both the war and Spanish flu, she and her friend Stella Christie became the first women to transverse Australia east to west and north to south in a car – and so bringing her wartime service to light is just the beginning of the stories that could be told about this remarkable woman.  But as well as her personal chronicle, this could be a springboard for having students investigate and retell the stories of other women whose contributions have been overshadowed by those of their male counterparts.  Searching the Australian War Memorial’s site for “women in war” is a good starting point.

But even if Gladys’s story is just shared as a standalone, it is a sound representation of #nevertheless,shepersisted 


Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women

Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women

Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women











Shout Out to the Girls: A Celebration of Awesome Australian Women

Random House Australia, 2018

210pp., hbk., RRP  $A29.99


In recent reviews such as Barney and the Secret of the French Spies,  Women in Science and Three Cheers for Women I have challenged readers to consider a woman whose story, they believe, needs telling.  The problem is that when it comes to uncovering these stories few have been revealed and so it is those of the “usual suspects” that are told and retold.  

But now, this new publication from Random House Australia opens a whole new range of women whose lives and work need to be given “a public expression of thanks”.  Although we find people like Cathy Freeman, Germaine Greer and Mary Mackillop featured, there are dozens of new names like Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Rachel Perkins, and Felicity Wishart whose names might only be known to those in that particular field of endeavour. There are also those of more recent heroes like Sia, Carrie Bickmore and Turia Pitt making this an exploration of significant women in our girls’ lives, not just women in history with whom they may feel no connection. 

All in all over 50 women have a brief one-page biography accompanied by an illustration from a range of illustrators. However, the book also acknowledges all those who have made a contribution to the field, not just the “poster person” for it.  For example, while Magda Szubanski is celebrated for “helping us laugh and speaking the truth”, there is a shout out “Brava for the women who make their own roles on stage, on screen and in life”; Rosie Batty for “her compassion and bravery” but also to “the courageous and strong women who speak out for the vulnerable”; and Mum Shirl for “unwavering dedication and generosity” as well as thanks to all “the advocates and activists who give so much of themselves to help others in need”. There is a feeling of inclusivity that we are drawn into as though someone, somewhere is acknowledging that which we do as we go about our daily lives.

There is even a shout-out to the reader for picking up the book wanting to learn about awesome Australian women while the very last entry is a shout-out to the Smith Family to whom all royalties will be donated so they can continue helping Australian kids get the most from their education.

From the front cover depicting a range of Australian native flowers because like Australian women, its flowers “aren’t wilting violets; they are strong and tough, and have evolved to endure extreme environments” this is an intriguing book in its design and content that must be in every library’s collection if we are to continue to reveal and tell the stories of our women and how they have contributed so much to the life that we enjoy today, holding up mirrors, staring through windows, marching through doors and breaking down barriers.  

Again I ask, “Whose story will you tell?”

Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus










Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

Stephanie Owen Reeder

NLA Publishing

136pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


What better way to share Australia Day than a look back to a significant part of our past when travelling circuses were a major source of entertainment, particularly in rural areas, and that of the Wirth Brothers was one of the most well known.  

Focusing on May Wirth, who as a seven-year-old growing up in poverty in Bundaberg in 1901, was given away to Marizles  Martin an equestrienne and a sister of the Wirth brothers. With big dreams and a desire to become the greatest bareback rider in the world, she transformed her ability for acrobatics into being able to perform them on horseback, even able to perform a Charleston as her horse moved around the ring!  Determined, resilient and tenacious she worked hard for perfection eventually performing for King George V and Queen Mary.  The Queen of the Circus was performing for the Kings and Queen of England.  Her dreams had come true!

Laced with photos and posters from the collection of the National Library of Australia, this new addition to the author’s Heritage Heroes series follows Miss May’s journey and introduces the reader to characters and times gone by which were so important to the shaping of this nation.  At a time when most young women were not encouraged to be more than a decorative appendage to men, May was a role model for an alternative lifestyle and she was a champion of women’s rights and suffrage and in 1964 she was one of just three Australians to ever be inducted into the American Circus Hall of Fame.

In 2016 Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony  won the CBCA Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, and my prediction is that Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus will be amongst the awards this year.  But whether it is or not, this is an inspirational read that celebrates an Australian of the past, a heroine unknown to many in an entertainment unfamiliar to many in this age of screens, that adds yet another layer to this country’s history. 

For those wanting more…Wirth’s Circus Home Movies , Wirth’s Circus Archive, May Wirth  and of course, the collection at the National Library of Australia detailed in the acknowledgements.