If you turn past the ochre endpapers and open to the first page of Tom the Outback Mailman, you’ll see a cheery looking fellow floating in a tinny. It’s an unexpected but intriguing start to the story of a man who drove the longest mail route in the world.
Esmond Gerald Kruse (1914–2011), also known as Tom, hauled his Leyland truck from Marree to Birdsville on the fortnightly mail run from 1936 to 1963 – a round trip of 1,000 kilometres. Author Kristin Weidenbach met Kruse during the restoration of his truck in the 1990s. She published the biography Mailman of the Birdsville Track in 2003. Tom the Outback Mailman, winner of the 2013 Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, is a picture book adaptation of this earlier account.
The book’s text is presented in a range of fonts, with varying colours and sizes, sometimes curving across the page. This is particularly effective when the narrative describes Tom manoeuvring his truck around sandhills. The text curls in a circle, with the repeated word ‘faster’ printed in italicised, red capitals.
Weidenbach introduces language that may be unfamiliar to a contemporary, often urbanised, Australian audience. Children will learn the words ‘gibber’, ‘tucker’, ‘dogger’ and ‘buckboard’ as well as place names like Ooroowillanie and Dulkaninna. The picture of an old-fashioned wooden signpost helps readers get their bearings, as does a map on one of the two information pages that follow the story.
Six of Timothy Ide’s detailed illustrations are double-page spreads that make full use of the book’s 57cm x 24cm ‘canvas’. Children will enjoy spotting recurring motifs like the dressmaker’s dummy that is being delivered to one of the stations. And, although not mentioned in the text, the illustrations incorporate the region’s Indigenous and Afghani populations.
Hachette’s website provides curriculum-based teachers’ resources, developed by educator Robyn Sheahan-Bright. These resources are aimed at upper primary and early secondary school students although the book is equally suited to a younger audience.
Weidenbach dedicates her book to Kruse, ‘who carried the Australian Outback forever in his heart’. It is a fitting tribute to the man, the people he served, and a bygone era.
And what of that picture of Tom in the tinny? You’ll have to read the book to find out, but here’s a hint: Tom’s route crossed the Cooper Creek – the creek floods about once every twenty years.
Tessa Wooldridge is completing an MA (Writing) through the University of New England. Her writing appears in a range of Australian and international journals, and she compiles the @OzKidsYALit Twitter account.