The Dog on the Tuckerbox Picture Book

Last week’s blog post was about Queenie One Elephant’s Story, so I thought I might write some future blogs giving the background and the behind the scenes stories about my picture books.

The Dog on the Tuckerbox, the picture book, came about because of a small tourist booklet I’d bought years ago when, as a family, we stopped by the statue of The Dog on the Tuckerbox, 5 miles from Gundagai. As a child, a had an earlier copy of the same booklet and I remember clearly, stopping about halfway on our trips between Melbourne and Sydney to toss some coins into moat for the Gundagai Hospital. Originally released in hard cover, the book is now available in paperback and was named a Notable Book in the 2009 Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. Classroom Ideas Sheets can be found at the Walker Books Australia website ://www.walkerbooks.com.au/statics/dyn/1351560733316/The-Dog-on-the-Tuckerbox-Classroom-Ideas.pdf

So here’s my speech for the launch of The Dog on the Tuckerbox, which was held at the Gundagai Library on August 1, 2008, my gosh, almost 10 years ago. I remember busloads of children arriving from neighbouring schools to help celebrate ‘their’ statue and the book.

LAUNCH SPEECH FOR THE DOG ON THE TUCKERBOX

I would like to thank you all for coming along today to join me in celebrating the launch of the picture book ‘The Dog on the Tuckerbox’, illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe and published by Black Dog Books.

It’s a little strange for me, not having my friends and relatives around to share this occasion, but I hope you agree that there was clearly only one town where the launch of such a book could take place – and that’s here in Gundagai.

As a child I remember very clearly travelling on family holidays between Melbourne and Sydney, often with a 12 foot long caravan which was ably pulled by a green and cream FC Holden.

I remember the joy at arriving at the statue of The Dog on the Tuckerbox, because it not only meant a break in the trip, but we always enjoyed a picnic lunch and bought a big bag of apples.

Keeping up the family tradition, years later I did the same thing with my own children. In fact I found a photo just the other day of my daughter and son aged 4 and 2 at the time. My angelic 4 year old daughter sitting smiling at the camera, while the 2 year old terror was attempting to throw himself headfirst into the wishing well.

It was on one of those visits that I bought this small booklet. At that time, I hadn’t even starting writing children’s books. But I held onto this book and at almost my first mention of it, Maryann Ballantyne, Publishing Director at Black Dog Books agreed there needed to be a picture book about this beloved icon.

Research

In June 2006 I came to Gundagai – combining a family holiday and research, and crept about the Gundagai Cemetery at dusk with two complaining teenagers and one complaining husband. I visited the Library, the Museum and the Gabriel Photo Gallery and spoke to many locals about the legend.

I also returned here in November last year to take photographs of the landscape for the illustrator and to once again capture the feel of this unique Australian town.

The Dog

From my research I found that it is likely that the dog around that time would have had some amount of heeler, and possibly dingo in it’s make up.

As so many of you here today will know, the Australian Cattle Dog or Heeler is absolutely loyal and obedient to its master, and is something of a one-person dog. It is diligent, courageous, tenacious and loyal. It is a remarkable watch dog and has incredible stamina.

I spent time sitting and talking to every dog I know, and many I didn’t know. (It is interesting to note that in Australia Kelpies didn’t emerge as a breed – from the Scottish Collie – until the 1860’s so well after the incident of the dog on the tuckerbox.)

Then right at this time, by chance, my daughter was house-sitting and dog-sitting, and it was in this house that I very briefly came to know Kate to whom I dedicated this book. I believe this was the point at which I came to know The Dog and bonded truly with her character. In Kate I found my emotional connection which is so vital in a book like this.

Because the story is so male dominant, I had already been playing with the idea of having a female dog, and further research led me to believe that there is every possibility that ‘the dog’ could well have been female.

Poetry

I also needed to know what this area was like back then.

I needed to ‘feel’ it – to know what the bush was like and how it felt to camp out under the stars with only your dog and bullocks to keep you company.

I needed a sense of place.

To do this I turned to the masters of Australian poetry ~ Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson and other poets who had penned words on pioneers, bullocks, wagons, drays and bullockies ~ Edward Dyson, Frank Hudson, Veronica Mason and Judith Wright.

Pioneers

To gain more affinity with the pioneers and what it was like in that era, I visited Gulf Station, an 1850’s homestead in the Yarra Valley. Here I gained more of a sense of place for homestead life back in the days when Bill and Lady would have called to deliver goods or stay the night.

I also read through the diaries of pioneers of those times, many of these easily accessible on the internet.

I wanted Bill’s relationship with Lady to be the main focus. For this reason I did not give Bill a horse and apart from the two occasions when Bill gives Diamond and Nobby direct orders, I did not want there to be much verbal interaction between Bill and the bullocks, apart from getting the message across that Bill was a man who respected his working animals and therefore treated them kindly.

Bullockies and Bullocks

It is a fairly common belief that bullockies were rough and ready types who swore and abused their bullocks and were hard drinkers. It’s important to note that while this no doubt was the case with many, it certainly wasn’t with all.

I created Bill’s character as a Scott, who came to Australia as a young man around the 1830’s. He’s an Aussie through and through, although he still retains some of his strong Perthshire accent. He was a strong man, physically and mentally.

He could turn his hand to anything and treated Lady and his bullocks with the utmost fairness and respect. Times were tough and you had to be tough to survive, but Bill had ‘a heart of gold.’

I contacted Rodney Hutton, the Secretary of the Bullockies League in Australia. He was incredibly generous in assisting me with all information concerning bullocks, bullockies, wagons, and drays, and especially how Lady would have travelled when she was injured. As there are very few bullock teams now in Australia, Rod was very interested in helping with the book.

Sense of Place

Although I live close to Melbourne, I am lucky to live in a rural suburb where walking along unmade bush tracks, amongst the wattles and gums and watching the sun filter through the trees, is simply a walk out the back door and up the road a bit.

I walked my tracks of Warrandyte many times at first getting the feel of what I wanted to write and later, getting ideas and then reading my words out loud or listening to them on a tape recorder.

It was along these tracks I imagined the wooden wheels of Bill’s wagon rumbling along and the pad of Lady’s footprints. It’s also where I gained more inspiration for the feeling of the bush and listened to the sounds of the birds.

I smelt the gums and dust and felt the warm sun on my back. I walked in all the seasons, but I had to race out immediately when it rained so I could appreciate it while it lasted.

I used to squint my eyes half closed to block out a modern letterbox or any other tangible thing that lifted me away from the 1850’s.

A passing car of course was an infuriating intrusion.

The Writing

Although this book did not take such a lengthy amount of time to write (as Queenie did), I worked on ‘Dog’ in a more concentrated way, not writing any other stories at all while I was researching and writing it.

However, it was not without its agony, ecstasy and inevitable rewrite.

I do believe that the pain was worth it and what is published today, is a more finely tuned, better crafted and flowing story with an economy of all the important and right words.

Conclusion

These were incredibly challenging times in Australia and we would not be living as we do today, if these brave people did not venture forward into a wild and unknown interior. Lady and dogs like her were loyal companions, best mates – no different than our dogs are today.

On 20 March 2008 ‘The Dog on the Tuckerbox’ went to print.

There are always last minute changes, alterations, second, third and fourth thoughts

and then the waiting to hold it in your hands is quite terrifying.

But the wait was worth it, and yes, I cried.

No matter how many times you see a book ‘on a computer screen’ there is nothing that can equal actually holding it, feeling the paper, even smelling it and of course looking at the final product.

Publisher and Illustrator

It has been an absolute pleasure to once again work with Black Dog Books, especially Publisher, Maryann Ballantyne and Illustrator, Peter Gouldthorpe who once again has brought my words to life.

2008 Photo, courtesy of David Murphy

Memorabilia given to me by Chris Bell, from her family’s collection

Paul Collins and Meredith Costain’s Molly doing a spot of reading. (Sadly Molly is now longer with us.)

The above photo was taken in Gundagai in June last year.

 

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