Armed with more than half a century’s worth of knowledge, experience, the fermentation of ideas and approaches in literary history and criticism over that period, and her own formidable reputation as a scholar and teacher of Australian literature, Brenda Niall returns in her latest book to the territory of her earliest ones. In Seven Little Billabongs: The world of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce (1979), Niall broke new ground not just in writing a serious and scholarly full-length treatment of Australian children’s literature, but also in departing from the orthodox biographical tradition of focusing on a single figure.
As Niall recalls in her introduction, children’s literature was still being dismissed as ‘Kiddylit’ as late as 1987. Approaching it as a serious field of scholarly research had been a revolutionary idea in Australia in 1979; in this context, Niall’s name is now the first that anyone thinks of. Nor is the group biography a new thing for her, as demonstrated by her award-winning The Boyds: A family biography (2002), in which she revisited, from a new and wider angle, her early work on Martin Boyd.