As a volunteer at a koala habitat program, author Jesse Blackadder is passionate about their survival. After witnessing firsthand the impact of ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald on local koalas, Jesse decided to write a book that highlights the importance of our native animals survival, and shows kids what caring for wildlife, such as koalas, really involves.
In her new book, Dexter: The Courageous Koala (Harper Collins $14.99), Jesse tells the story of a girl and her aunt who rescue a baby koala and his mother after a storm hits. According to Byron Coast Koala Habitat Study there are only around 240 koalas in the coastal strip between Billinudgel and Broken Head and they are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, fire, dog attack, disease and road mortalities. There is a real risk that the population is not sustainable, and will die out.
“Understanding the plight of the koalas also prompted me to write this book and join Tweed Byron Koala Connections program, which is planting thousands of habitat and food trees for koalas across the two shires,” said Jesse. “Thanks to the program we now have a small forest of 400 trees – and many of the properties around us have joined it too.”
I asked Jesse to share her journey as an artist and her thoughts on the power of story to engage children in conservation.
My love of animals started young. One of my earliest memories was finding a fallen bird egg on the low brick wall outside our house. I must have been four, and I entreated Mum to help me put it somewhere that the parent birds could find it. Discovering the empty shell the next morning, I was full of joy. I knew the bird and hatched and flown away to freedom, and nothing Mum said to try and gently explain would budge me from that idea.
I didn’t know much about conservation when I was 10 years old, but I knew I couldn’t bear to see animals suffer. Documentaries about creatures burnt in forest fires left me in tears. National Geographic features showing brumby culls prompted me to throw heavy items and slam doors. And injured creatures – no matter how humble – produced an irresistible urge to rescue and heal. I’m sure my parents rolled their eyes many times when I turned up at home with the latest bedraggled pigeon from Circular Quay, or baby bird from the pavement, or puppy from school. Into my twenties I was still rescuing dumped kittens from the back lanes behind my student households.
I wasn’t discerning though. One animal or bird was the same as another to me. Growing up reading pony books, the James Herriot vet series, and the Famous Five didn’t teach me much about Australian native animals, or the challenges they faced.
What I did know was this – that stories were a powerful way of learning about the things I loved. To this day I remember ailments suffered by the farm animals in early twentieth century Yorkshire, and even some of the remedies, thanks to Mr Herriot. Those delicious stories called out to me over the decades and lodged themselves in my heart and mind.
I’d already been a writer for many years when a trip to Antarctica prompted me to consider writing for children. When I sat down to create my first junior novel – inspired by a fibreglass seeing eye collection dog that has lived in Antarctica since 1991 – I went straight back to being ten years old. It’s sometimes called ‘The Golden Age of Reading’ – that time when books shape who you are and how you see the world.
My aim was to write tales of Australian animals (not always native) that introduced young readers – usually between eight and twelve years old – to complex issues and contemporary environmental dilemmas in human/animal interactions.
Surprise, surprise, I wasn’t the first author wanting to do so. There is a great literary tradition of animal stories that introduce young readers to broader ideas about life. Horse books such as “Black Beauty” (which uses a horse’s point of view to show how horses experience human cruelty and love), “My Friend Flicka” (which follows a boy’s journey to maturity through falling in love with a wild filly), and the Silver Brumby Series (which explores animal freedom and wildness in an Australian context), have encouraged generations of readers to understand the worlds of horses – wild and domestic – and act with kindness and respect towards them.
I set out hoping to do the same. The first novel was narrated by “Stay”, that fibreglass collection dog – a seemingly inanimate character with a rich inner life, who gave kids a different perspective on Antarctic life. The second novel was about a horse-mad girl and a wild brumby. My most recent novel, “Dexter The Courageous Koala”, is about a young girl who wants a puppy. What she ends up with instead is a scary adventure, and the chance to love a wild creature and let him go back to the wild.
I wrote all three novels by blending fact, fiction, and animal points of view. I aimed to show readers what life might be like inside the head of a wild brumby, or a frightened koala, or indeed a fibreglass dog caught in an ice crevasse – while having young human characters who drive the action and provide a point of familiarity for the reader.
The result – I hope – is that kids who read the books are swept up in the story. That’s the whole point of reading a book, after all. Learning and influence come second, and hopefully they’re so subtle as to be invisible. I want young readers to remember Dexter and Ashley and their special relationship rather than statistics on threatened koala populations. I want them to mull over Rachel’s mixed feelings about depriving a wild brumby of his freedom, knowing that his kind is damaging a fragile environment. With any luck the story will have touched them enough that they have absorbed the background without even realising it.
The books we read in the ‘Golden Age’ will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Writing them is a chance to touch young readers deeply, with stories that matter, and help them understand the beautiful and complicated natural world and its creatures. Writing them is an absolute delight.
You can learn more about Jesse and her best-selling children’s series at: www.jesseblackadder.com