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Museum Victoria has always had a publishing arm – its first director Charles Frederick McCoy set one up in the 1880s and it's been publishing monographs, essays, field guides and exhibition catalogues ever since. These days, it publishes five to six books per year, usually non-fiction or highly illustrated tomes covering natural history, Australian history and indigenous cultures . However, unlike a lot of its cultural contemporaries, Museum Victoria also caters to a younger market.
The publishing arm of Museum Victoria is on the verge of releasing the third kids’ book in its catalogue, Chooks in Dinner Suits by Diane Jackson Hill, illustrated by Craig Smith. It’s a cracking yarn about a persistent local and his dogs saving a penguin colony on a little rocky outcrop just off Warnnambool called Middle Island. The story also happens to be true.
Middle Island was once home to a much bigger colony of Little Penguins (formerly known as Fairy Penguins), but the numbers dwindled radically in just a couple of years, dropping from 600 in 1999 to just four in 2005, decimated by dogs, foxes and people trampling on burrows.
A local free-range egg farmer, called Swampy Marsh, had been arguing with authorities about the issue for donkeys years. He knew that his Mareema dogs, a special breed of guardian dogs from Italy originally bred for protecting sheep from wolves, were up to the task of protecting the Little Penguins. Swampy’s rationale was that penguins were just “chooks in dinner suits” afterall. Sadly, Swampy was ignored until the penguins were very nearly gone. It was only when the situation became dire that he was taken up on his offer.
Subsequently, Swampy's trained dogs staved off predators and the island was closed to the public. Gradually, the numbers started to improve. These days, Middle Island is a sanctuary for a healthy and growing population of 130 Little Penguins. It’s a big win for conservation and common sense.
Former primary school teacher Hill, who has a keen interest in marine conservation, became aware of the story and so inspired by Swampy’s brass approached Museum Victoria's Publishing Manager Melanie Raymond with the tale. Raymond was equally inspired, commissioning Hill to turn it into a kids’ book, complete with illustrations by Craig Smith. "It's a cliche, but some stories do give you a tingle in the spine, and this was one of them," says Raymond.
Museum Victoria is at pains to make sure that its children’s books aren’t heavy handed, but they also have to be bang on factually, as well as a great read. "I'm really choosy about which ones we do – it needs to be of a particular quality and a book that says something to children, teaches them something, but not in an overly didactic way," says Raymond. "I'm not looking to occupy that niche, that's done well elsewhere. The science has to stand up too, so, for instance, I sent this book off to the ornithologists to check that it was all right."
Of course, part of what makes the story is Swampy. "He's a character," Raymond says. "I was chatting to him on the phone one day and he told me that his technique for dealing with the bureaucracy was to hurl eggs at them."
Chooks in Dinner Suits: a tale of big dogs and little penguins, by Diane Jackson Hill, illustrated by Craig Smith. RRP $19.95. Published by Museum Victoria Paperback, colour illustrations, 32pp. Available at the gift shop at Melbourne Museum.