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Photo credit: Virginia Murdoch
North Melbourne Books: Tippy and Jellybean live in the forest. One day they wake up and smell smoke. Tippy and Jellybean start climbing their tree, hoping to find safety. After the fire passes, they are rescued by a fireman and flown to safety. Tippy and Jellybean is based on a true story. How did you learn about these lucky koalas?
Sophie Cunningham: I was talking to the publisher of Albert Street Books, Susannah Chambers, about how sad I was given the number of animals that died during this summer’s bushfires and Susannah alerted me to an article in The Age, about Tippy and Jellybean. After that we spoke to people at the Melbourne zoo, and others who knew what was happening for Tippy and Jellybean so we could keep track of their story.
NMB: The plight of Australian animals during the recent bushfires upset many people who felt helpless at what was happening. Was your decision to write a book for children to help them understand what occurred?
SC: Yes, exactly. Historically speaking public concern has been focused on the affect of fires on humans but during the period of these recent fires my greatest concern was for the loss of wildlife. I was particularly worried about Koalas because I knew their numbers in the wild had been rapidly diminishing for years because of habitat loss. This has been a result of development, of drought, and now, of bushfire. I think it’s really important that we know how tough events like a fire are on our animals and our landscapes. (I’ve touched on these topics in my writing for adults as well.) You can’t shield children from these events. They pick up what is going on whether you want them to or not, so it’s important to give them the information that allows them to understand what is going on rather than just feel bad or strange about something they can’t articulate.
NMB: Anil Tortup's illustrations do an incredible job at depicting not only the beauty of Australia's creatures and bushland but also the horrific devastation caused by the fires. How important was it to strike a balance between showing how frightening it must have been as well as the effects of recovery and rejuvenation?
SC: The illustrations are amazing, aren’t they? So full of feeling and complex emotion, but so hopeful. Anil and I didn’t talk about these things with each other but I know we both thought alot about them, and each spoke to Susannah about these issues. I worked really hard to try and convey the severity of the situation for Tippy and Jellybean, without being scary, or sentimental. Animals are practical, they are survivors and they are brave. This is to be celebrated. Working on the book, and on Tippy and Jellybean’s story, gave me hope. I hope it does the same for its readers.
NMB: The urgent care given to the koalas and other animals during the bushfires was provided by the generous contributions of vets and nurses. Knowing that more fires in the future are inevitable what do you think we should be doing to ensure these people have adequate resources?
SC: I think we need to take the work of our vets and nurses as seriously as we take the work of our firefighters. We often focus on human lives and built infrastructure during fires but we have to start taking the life of our landscapes and its animals as seriously. If we don’t we will lose them. So I suppose the answer is about funding, but it’s also about mindset and the way we develop policies, and work with the land in a sustainable way. I don’t want to live in a world without koala or spotted quoll or lyrebirds or black cockatoo or frogs. I don’t want to live in a world without trees. Children don’t want that either.
NMB: Care and kindness are themes that run throughout the book. Whether it be Tippy's determination to protect Jellybean or Kami the Vet's crucial medical help. By purchasing a copy of Tippy and Jellybean, $1 from every copy sold will be donated to the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund. In what other ways do you think readers both young and old can continue to help?
SC: There are lots of things we can do. A good start is to contact organisations such as Wildlife Victoria, Wires, the Animal Rescue Collective and more local or animal specific organisation and ask them how to prepare for the next bushfire season. You can volunteer. You can do training. You can donate money. Consciousness raise. Practical things are important —like leaving water out for animals during hot weather, thinking about what native wildlife need and want when you are planning your garden, and educating ourselves about how to handle distressed animals should we find them. And in terms of the big picture, maybe people can consider the kind of training and education they want. Be a vet! Be a botanist! Be an environmentalist! Perhaps the most important thing is to remember this: we’re all — humans, animals and the land — in this together. We are all, ultimately part of the same ecosystem and community.
Tippy and Jellybean, by Sophie Cunningham. Illustrated by Anil Tortop. Published by Albert Street Books. $19.99