Ahead of her time, Christobel Mattingley was much-loved, well-respected and an example to us all. Publisher Erica Wagner reflects on her life, her groundbreaking work and the enormous contribution she made to children’s literature.
I remember the first time I met Christobel Mattingley. I was a young editor with Penguin Australia, nervously in Adelaide for a Writers Centre event – one of my first public speaking engagements.
I chatted with Christobel afterwards, being aware of her many books from my childhood, and also from my time working in a bookshop – The Angel with a Mouth-Organ, The Miracle Tree and Black Dog, in particular were always in great demand. Christobel was generous with her time, but I could see she was exhausted – having spent the last decade working with Aboriginal people on the epic, ground-breaking book Survival in Our Own Land: ‘Aboriginal’ Experiences in ‘South Australia’ Since 1836, first published in 1992. She felt deeply the weight and responsibility of ensuring that the stories of this terrible history that had been entrusted to her reached the wider Australian community. During our conversation I remember her telling me that she’d lost the desire to write; she didn’t feel she had another book in her.
This seemed tragic to me! Christobel was a born writer, who at a very young age had discovered the power of words – first published at the age of 10. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it would have been something encouraging – that I hoped she might rediscover the joy of writing, and that I would love to read anything she wrote in the future.
And to our collective benefit, Christobel did exactly that – going on to write many more books that were published by Penguin, including the bestselling Asmir books, such as the award-winning No Gun for Asmir. When I moved to Allen & Unwin I was proud to publish Chelonia Green, Champion of Turtles and the powerful moving story of her beloved husband David’s war experiences, Battle Order 204. Working with Christobel on Maralinga the Anangu Story, with the Yalata and Oak Valley communities and most recently Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story, winner of the 2017 NSW Premier’s History Award were life-changing experiences, taking the bookmaking team to Oak Valley and to triumphant launches at Tandanya Gallery in Adelaide. Through the process of working with Christobel over many years, through hard times and good times, I grew to love and admire her for her commitment to what is right, her fierce tenacity, her kindness and her generous giving nature.
Christobel was ahead of her time. While she was awarded many honours, including a Member of the Order of Australia for service to literature and social justice, and an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Tasmania I feel she was under-recognised in her lifetime. My hope is that her books and the vital things she had to say to us as Australians, about justice, the power of individuals to make a difference, and her efforts to create a kinder, fairer society, will continue to resonate through her extraordinary body of work for years to come.
Link to obituary: