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Thursday, 19 September 2013

In praise of Ada Jackson...

Or as she was known in Perth society, Mrs. William Fawcett, after her marriage in late 1929 or early 1930 (the papers are a bit confused about this) to a Sydney managing director called William Fawcett.

By then, Ada Jackson had, unusually for her time, acquired a Bachelor of Science in zoology, and even more unusually, she had an M. Sc. for a thesis on worms of some sort.

She had a daughter within the first year of marriage, but where she had been prominent in the press, gadding about with her sister Nina (they lived in Forrest Street, Peppermint Grove, which says the family was well-off), after her marriage, she disappears from the social scene, a bit.

Then in the 1940s, she published two books, Seashore Swamp and Bush (1941), and Beetles Ahoy! (1948). The illustration you see here is from Beetles Ahoy! and scanned from the cover of my own copy. As you can see, it looks a bit old-fashioned now.  Don't be too unkind: I used to look like the boy (and some might say I now look like the old man).

Ada Jackson's two books were well received and praised, and Beetles Ahoy! was highly commended at the Children's Book Council of Australia  (CBCA) awards.

I received my copy of that book in about 1951, and I was immediately entranced. It was told as a story, where two children found that their next-door neighbour was an expert on wee beasties, or as we call them now, minibeasts.

My own book, on the left, was directly inspired by Ada Jackson's book, though I chose to write in a straightforward fashion. It goes in some detail, into the ways that ant lions live, and that was something I learned about from reading her book. The main difference was that I explained how to wrangle ant lions.

Australian Backyard Naturalist was, I had hoped, likely to be short-listed for the CBCA factual books category, but winning is always going to depend on the tastes of the  judges, and so I missed out, even though I had been the winner in the same category with a similar book that I thought had less to offer, two years earlier.

Still, I was over in Perth this week to share first prize in the W.A. Premier's Book Awards—and in Ada Jackson's own backyard, so to speak!  (By the by, my co-winner, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is a charming and totally worthy book, and a number of librarians that I know were annoyed that, while short-listed in the CBCA awards, it did not win its category.  I was pleased to keep company with it, and delighted to meet the author at a CBCA function in 2014.)

So I was delighted to have the chance, in my acceptance speech, to sing the praises of Ada Jackson, who died in 1996, without my ever having met her.  But if we never met , I have taken on her mantle, and with luck, I will help ensure that other generations gain, at second-hand, her inspiration. Styles change as technology makes new things possible, but underneath, there remains a golden thread of simple delight.

(I am now, in 2017, a "visiting scientist" in a local school, looking more than ever like the old man on the cover, and I am busy lighting fires under my 500 new grandchildren.)

Every book bar the first book owes something to what went before, and that first book had its roots in the oral tradition.  I dearly wanted to take my first serious adult history to Oz Worboys, my old history teacher, so I could place a copy in his hands and say "This is all your fault, you know!", but he had died five years before the book came out.  Now I know when Ada Fawcett died, I realise that I could have caught up with her.  I wish I had.

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