It’s the animal holding up one side of the Australian coat-of-arms. Europeans who encountered First Nations people speaking Guugu-Yimidhirr language in what is now northern Queensland over two hundred years ago heard them describe this strange animal as ‘ganjurru’.
The kangaroo is adorably quirky and seems purpose built for picture books about mother-child relationships.
My friend Amy of Montgomery County (MD) Public Libraries and I first met when I was on a year’s exchange at Fairfax County (VA) Public Library. My storytime companion then was a homemade puppet called Kangaroo Brown – the book that became my staple for her to perform also became Number 1 in this list.
1. Joey Runs Away by Jack Kent (Angus & Robertson)
Jack Kent’s mother kangaroo is a frazzled housekeeper and Joey leaves home. ‘Word soon got around that Joey’s mother had an empty room,’ and absurdity abounds as each animal – and an entire rabbit family – tries it out for size.
Joey finds temporary homes, the last one in a mailman’s pouch, which delivers him where he ought to be. A classic tale of wanting what you already have.
This started me wondering where the homegrown picture books with a kangaroo as the main character were, and I’ve been looking ever since. Here’s an selection of some I’ve found.
2. How the Kangaroos got their Tails by George Mung Mung Lirrmiyarri, illustrated by the children of Warmun community (Scholastic Australia)
Before kangaroos had tails, there were some with short arms, and some with long arms. Which one of them was better at finding sugarbag (honey from native bees)? The exuberant paintings are the responses of primary (elementary) school kids when their Elders shared this traditional story with them. The Kija people live in the East Kimberley of Western Australia and Pamela Lofts worked with them to produce this book.
3. Malu Kangaroo by Judith Morecroft, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft (Little Hare Books)
Bronwyn Bancroft is a distinguished Bundjalung artist of New South Wales who has illustrated many picture books. Author Morecroft has imagined Malu Kangaroo longing to be at one with the ocean, and demonstrating how to make a surfboard for the First People to enjoy it too. This book is a riot of colour and shapes made by water and land, and demonstrates the unbroken tradition of Indigenous storytelling on this continent over the past 60,000 years.
True story: Kangaroos can be seen on the beach and in the surf in Queensland https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQWWkmLG5Q8
4. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo by Victor Barnes, illustrated by Walter Stackpool (Golden Press)
This was an Australian television series produced in the 1960s and exported overseas. Skippy, found as a joey, was raised as an orphan but Dad the park ranger is adamant that she is not a pet and must live as a wild kangaroo. However she is devoted to Sonny who calls her by blowing on a gum leaf whenever he gets into scrapes. Think Lassie with a pouch.
5. Josephine Wants to Dance by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley (Angus & Robertson)
This award-winning Aussie duo are famous for the wonderfully deadpan Diary of a Wombat and its sequels. Josephine the kangaroo doesn’t let her huge feet and enormous tail get in the way of her urge to learn to dance. This story plays on the idea that doubters should never get in the way of a dream but the shoes might present a bit of a challenge. Bonus cameo by Wombat.
6. Karoo the Kangaroo by Kurt Wiese (E M Hale and Company)
German-born Wiese was working in the export trade in China in 1914, the outbreak of World War I, and was interned in prison camps in Australia for the duration. He spent his time sketching and painting and obviously observed kangaroos at close range – the exquisite lithographs in this book show their natural movements as individuals and in mobs. This book was first published in 1929, at the start of his long and successful career as an illustrator.
7. Just a Minute! by Anita Harper, illustrated by Susan Hellard (Puffin Books)
The author and illustrator are British but the family dynamics depicted in this book are universal. A child copes with the busyness of life at their own pace, which doesn’t always sync with that of others, but ‘once in a while, everyone is ready at the same time.’ That they are all kangaroos living in the suburbs is the opportunity for more humour – the small joey sitting reading Roo magazine while its father twirls the car keys on his tail is a delight.
8. El Canguro tiene Mamá? by Eric Carle (HarperCollins)
The master collage artist is at work in this delightful Spanish language edition of Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother Too? Although the title character appears only briefly, Carle has his macropod mama leaping across a parched Aussie landscape with her joey hanging on and enjoying the ride. If I hadn’t seen this edition, I’d never know that a joey is really a cría.
9. Hop, Little Kangaroo by Patricia Scarry, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky (Golden Books)
Charming pictures by Caldecott-winning artist Rojankovsky exactly capture the grey-brown of a kangaroo’s fur… more people should know his work.
Number 10 was read by Amy during our Zoom Kangaroo Storytime in 2020 and was enjoyed by over 100 families, and me.
10. Pouch! By David Ezra Stein (G. P. Putnam’s Sons)
When joeys begin to leave the pouch, their defence mechanism at the first sign of danger is to dive head first back into the pouch. Stein has captured both the faltering steps of independence, and first friendship, in this story which makes full comedic use of this ability.
Katy No Pocket might have made it to the list but honestly…how did her joey Freddy even gestate if she didn’t have one?
Margaret Robson Kett has been an early years specialist children’s librarian in Australia and the United States, and has written about books for The Horn Book, Australian Book Review and Bookbird.
She’s on Facebook and Instagram as @40_Years_of_Picturebooks