AUSTRALIAN publishers may have gotten off to a relatively late start in children's books, but the island nation's authors and illustrators are gaining stunning artistic ground. In the past two years especially, their work has displayed consistently inventive themes and wonderful humor.
One imaginative artist who is beginning to attract attention in her adopted homeland is Jeannie Baker, creator of the beautiful small book Where the Forest Meets the Sea (Greenwillow, New York, unpaged, $11.95, ages 3 to 8).
This simple, evocative story of a young boy's boat trip with his father to a rain forest, where ``cockatoos rise ... in a squawking cloud,'' is based on the author/illustrator's trips to the Daintree Rainforest in North Queensland, next door to the Great Barrier Reef. There she collected the natural materials she uses in the collage constructions that illustrate this lovely book.
Lizards, reef fish, snakes, and spiders stand out in textured bas-relief, while hard-to-spot crocodiles and Aboriginal children are concealed in swampy creeks and vine-entangled trees so real you want to reach out and touch them.
On the final, surprising page, Baker makes a determined plea for protecting the surviving wilderness from development.
Ask any children's librarian to name a popular Australian writer today, and one guaranteed response will be Patricia Wrightson. This highly regarded recipient of the 1986 Hans Christian Andersen Medal is known for fantasy novels that often feature benign and entertaining Aboriginal folk spirits and blow the horn on threats to the environment by ever encroaching civilization.
Wrightson has won Australia's Children's Book of the Year award four times so far, and two of her prizewinning titles have recently appeared in affordable paperback editions in the United States. The Nargun and the Stars (Viking Kestrel, New York, 184 pp., $3.95, ages 12 and up) pits an ancient stone creature against a young boy and a batch of mischievous forest spirits.
A Little Fear (Viking Penguin, New York, 111 pp., $3.95, ages 12 and up) is the story of an elderly woman who outwits the sly and tricky spirits that try to drive her away.
In her latest novel, Moon Dark (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Macmillan, New York, 169 pp., $13.95, ages 9 to 12), Wrightson gives readers a lively riverbank community whose human residents - a solitary fisherman and a well-meaning ranger - are easily upstaged by a wildlife cast of thousands.
When war breaks out between the bandicoots and bush rats and threatens to involve hordes of other local species, an ancient, mystical moon spirit is called upon to remove the flying foxes (bats), whose influx has thrown the ecology out of balance.
Wrightson once again succeeds in crafting some pretty unusual characters and chiseling out a felt corner of the Australian bush. She also manages to slip in an environmental statement or two. With its conversing kangaroos and midnight gatherings under the stars, ``Moon Dark'' is a book for intuitive, discerning readers.
Long before Crocodile Dundee blazed his way to wisecracking fame, adventure stories were an established Aussie tradition. Some of the most exciting in recent years have been the work of Colin Thiele, a longtime educator who has seen of his books made into movies.
His latest, Shadow Shark (Harper & Row, New York, 214 pp., $12.95, ages 10 and up), starts out as a harrowing hunt for a great white and ends up as an even faster-paced survival tale.
Twelve-year-old Joe and his cousin, Meg, are put to the test when an explosion aboard the family fishing boat injures Uncle Harry and maroons them all on an uninhabited island off the coast of southern Australia. Although Thiele's writing was more polished in ``Blue Fin'' (Harper & Row, 1974), the twists and turns of plot in this sea story and its abundant shark lore are sure to hold readers' attention.
Perhaps because picture books are still finding a niche in Australian publishing, the international splash they've been making is all the more remarkable. Artist Robert Ingpen, for example, won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustrating in 1986.
Ingpen's most recent work appears in The Great Bullocky Race, by Michael Page (Dodd, Mead, New York, 55 pp., $11.95, ages 8 and up), a rip-snortin' tale of the longest (fictional) race ever run down under by two bullock teams. Ingpen's flowing, sepia-tone watercolors easily transport readers to the outback of the late 1880s, a time when wagoneers carried most everything - from sacks of sugar to rolls of fencing wire, from one sheep-shearing station to another. The wealth of pictorial details is matched by Page's vibrant text.