Robert Ingpen was an inspired choice of illustrator for this delightful book, Tea and Sugar Christmas by Jane Jolly. Awarded the Hans Christian Anderson in 1986 for his lasting contribution as a children’s book illustrator, Ingpen has transformed a simple Christmas story about outback life into a work of art that teachers will love to share with their students at any time of the year.
Teachers in metropolitan areas know that it’s not easy to convey a sense of the outback to urban children. But the cunning design of this book does it well. Each page of text is accompanied by a B&W drawing of the characters in the story, but it opens out to reveal a double page colour spread of the landscape and of the train which brought goods and services to the remote Aussie outback until as recently as 1996. And so we see little Kathleen holding an empty tin of tea on the first page, which then opens out to the muted colours of the small settlement where she lives, the town bisected by the all-important railway line.
As the illustration shows, if the family ran short they went without. There was no shop, and no other source of goods and services than the ‘Tea and Sugar’ train. It ran along the Nullarbor Plain between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie just once a week, its vans stocked with household goods, groceries, fruit, vegetables and meat. People could do their banking, use medical and welfare services and catch up with news from elsewhere. And once a year, there was a special Christmas train…
The text and the illustrations work well together to convey the sense of anticipation. Kathleen – shown through the pictures to be the child of a mixed-race marriage – is an active, independent child. Barefooted, she climbs the hill-face at the back of the house and sits on a rocky outcrop staring into the distance across the vast plain. When it arrives she is ecstatic:
Katherine slid down the hill and ran through the drowsy town. She burst inside.
‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’ she shouted.
Dad looked up and his eyes danced a jog.
‘Now, what might be coming, girlio?’
‘You know, Dad. Come on. Let’s go.’
‘At last, more tea and sugar,’ said Mum, from the end of a paper chain.
Kathleen grabbed the wheelbarrow and started running with it. Her feet pounded the hot track, searing like scones on a griddle. She could hear the screeching of the train as it pulled into the siding. As she ran, others emerged from their tin castles, cheering and calling out across the shimmering landscape.
The portrait of Kathleen when it’s her turn to see Father Christmas is stunning. Just beautiful.
At the back of the book there are photos accompanied by historical information about the train, including the migrant men who worked on it after World War II, and the way that the people dressed up to meet it because it was the highlight of their week. The endpapers are used to show a map of the route.
As a window onto a vanished lifestyle, Tea and Sugar Christmas is brilliant.
Author: Jane Jolly
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen
Title: Tea and Sugar Christmas
Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2014
Source: review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing