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Friday 21 September 2012

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek: 'What am I? What am I?'

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek
Written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks
First edition: Longman Young Books, Melbourne, 1973
Our edition: Bradbury Press, 1977

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek by We read it like this

Click above to listen to the way we read The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek.

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek is a book I remember extremely fondly from my own childhood so I was pretty excited to find an ex library copy of it a few months ago, and even more pleased to see my son captivated by it from the word go. 'Again!, Again!, Again!'

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek is a stunningly illustrated, wonderfully philosophical tale about identity, prejudice, and, ultimately, the recognition of the self in and through others, featuring an existentialist bunyip.

The Story
'Late one night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud at the bottom of Berkeley's Creek.'

It turns out to be something 'very large and very muddy' desperate to find out what it is. 'What am I? What am I?' it keeps asking. 'What am I? What am I? What am I?'. A helpful platypus tells him he's a bunyip. And then the bunyip wants to know more. 'What do bunyips look like?' it asks anybody who happens to be passing by. 'Horrible, with webbed feet and horrible feathers', a wallaby tells him, and with horrible fur and horrible tails, adds an emu, and 'like nothing at all' concludes a busy scientist without looking up from his notebook, who then explains, 'looking right through him': 'Bunyips simply don't exist'.

'What a pity, what a pity' mutters the bunyip as he makes his way back to his waterhole, where he picks up his belongings and goes of in search for somewhere where no one can see him and he can be 'as handsome as he likes'. At last he finds somewhere, unpacks his bag and settles down for the evening.

'But late that night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud at the bottom of the billabong. 'What am I? What am I?' said a very large and very muddy creature sitting on the bank.

And the bunyip is delighted to tell it it's a bunyip and to show it what it looks like: 'You look just like me'.

The Illustrations
Ron Brooks' pictures for The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek combine beautiful hatching and cross-hatching with watercolour washes.

One of the most remarkable things about them, I think, is how they manage to create such a vivid and powerful sense of place. For years and years, far beyond my childhood, I remember identifying any mention of the Australian outback with Ron Brooks' scenery images in The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek. Of course the vocabulary -billabong, billy- helps too, but it was mainly a visual thing, I'm sure.

Check out these two illustrations (and all the rest) to get a sense of what I mean:

Before the story proper starts, Ron Brooks provides the setting.

Walking after the disconcerting news that bunyips don't exist. 

The portrayal of mood and feeling is also fantastic. The illustrations powerfully convey the bunyip's bewilderment at what he might be, his good-natured gratitude towards the platypus for revealing to him what he is, his excitement as he is about to be told what he looks like for the first time, the loneliness after discovering that in the eyes of others bunyips look horrible or, a lot worse, simply don't exist, then the comfort of having found a place where he can be as handsome as he likes, the pleasure of grooming himself and discovering himself at leisure in a mirror, and finally the excitement of finding a fellow bunyip, and finding himself in his friend and his friend in himself and the bliss at being able to share his bunyipness with another of his kind.

Pensive bunyip

Bunyip's eager to know

The melancholy of non-existence

The fascination and pleasure of self-discovery

The exhilaration of company and (self) recognition.

What's not to love about these illustrations? The colours (lovely yellows, ochres and muted greens, with touches of orange for sunsets and pink for the bunyip's face) are special too, adding to the sense of place I mentioned above. Plus I love the frames for the text.

Ok, here's one last one. This one goes next to the illustration above where the bunyip is lying on the couch begging for an answer from the non-believing scientist. I love the screens behind the scientist, the expression on the scientist's face, and the sad eyes of the bunyip, desperate for a bit of therapy of the soul.

Reading it aloud
The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek is one of those stories that naturally makes you lower your voice when you start reading it. There's a sense of mystery and then a sense of intimacy to it. It has a beautiful and satisfactory circularity, with our bunyip appearing at the start and his friend appearing at the end, with the same words introducing them both. 'Late one night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud...'.

The dialogue is immediately attractive to even very young kids. 'What am I? What am I? What am I?' sounds great to young ears, and is intriguing and slightly amusing for older kids. And the same goes for 'What a pity, what a pity'. The interactions with the different animals -the platypus, the wallaby and the emu- and with the man are also rather amusing and have a nice sing-song quality to them, and repetition, with all of the bunyip's questions repeating the animals' statements. 'They have webbed feet and feathers', said the wallaby. 'Fine, handsome feathers, said the bunyip hopefully. 'Horrible feathers', said the wallaby firmly.

I said at the start that I have fond memories of The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek from my own childhood, but the memories are more of reading it aloud myself than of it being read to me. I believe it actually belonged to my younger sister and I may remember reading it to her when I was six or seven and she was three or four.

The enjoyment and pleasure children get from reading to younger siblings (and younger siblings get from older ones reading to them) probably deserves a post of its own, but for now I will say that I'm quite persuaded that my experience of being read picture books and of then continuing to read them to my younger sister (well past what was considered to be an appropriate age for them) has a lot to do with why I never stopped reading picture books. And that's quite enough about me and my marvellous sister.

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek is great for cuddling up on the sofa and for a bedtime story too.

My son absolutely loves the 'What am I? What am I?' and the 'What a pity, what a pity' and will occasionally say them in all sorts of contexts while playing or while just chatting.

He also loves looking at the illustration where the bunyip is combing himself while looking at himself in the mirror. Might children identify with the bunyip's relationship with the mirror? With using a mirror as a means of self-awareness?

This is a superb story for reading aloud one-on-one or in groups, and engages audiences from the very first line and the very first images (who is that creature at the very top of this post? what's he thinking? what might his story be?).

Other things we like about The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek

As many of you know from my other blog Story Philosophy, I have a bit of a penchant for picture books with philosophical discussion potential. I normally try to avoid duplicating books in both my blogs, but in this case, I think I'm just going to have to write a philosophical discussion for kids about the bunyip. As it is, I've had to restrain myself from not getting too philosophical in this post.

So yes, we like it because it has plenty of potential for philosophical and general discussion.

My son (now 3.5 years old, around 3 when we bought this) always asks: Why doesn't the man look at the bunyip? Why?

My son's favourite part (and mine too) is the interaction with the scientist:

The bunyip waited for a long time, and then he said, very slowly and clearly,
'Can you please tell me what bunyips look like?'. 'Yes', said the man without looking up.
'Bunyips don't look like anything'. 'Like nothing? said the bunyip. 'Like nothing at all', said the man.
Are you sure?' said the bunyip. 'Quite sure' said the man, and looked right through him.
'Bunyips simply don't exist'.

I think 'What a pity' as a reaction to being told you don't exist is pretty good.

I like the way it is effectively a shift from objectification by others: 'what am I?' and what do I look like? (a view of the self by others) to subjectification through what one sees in the mirror and then identification with others: 'who am I?'.

Unfortunately it isn't that easy to get hold of. The only edition that seems to be in print is this Penguin Australia edition. It is also more or less easy to get hold of second hand, at a reasonably decent price.

Decent libraries in US and UK may also have a copy of it. Do check it out.

(c) of all the images, Ron Brooks, 1973
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie, 2012. By all means copy it and reproduce it if you want, but please be nice and cite your source (author and site). 


  1. Not a book I've heard of, but now I want to track down a copy!

    1. Thanks, Zoe. If you do manage to track down a copy, I'd be interested to know what you think!

  2. I remember checking this book out (with it's read-along tape) from the Dallas (Texas) Public Library when I was a kid (early 80s)

  3. Thank you for that great reading of my all time ever ever most favourite story, and the accompanying notes. I would be most interested to read your philosophical discussion for kids about the bunyip. This story moves me every time I read it.

  4. Glad you enjoyed it. When I get the time to complete the philosophical discussion prompted by the bunyip, I'll let you know. Thanks a lot for the comment!

  5. I loved this book too, and, as a children's librarian, read it at preschool storytime. I even made up a song to go with it, which I played on the autoharp. S. Chinn